For the second straight year, the New Japan “Best of the Super Juniors” was hit with the injury bug, throwing a major wrenches in the booking.
In 2013, Ryusuke Taguchi won his block but suffered a hip injury in his final bout, removing him from the semifinals against Alex Shelley, and eliminating a likely finals meeting with former tag team partner and newly-minted heel Prince Devitt. With Taguchi out, New Japan almost lucked into a compelling battle of the Time Splitters, but an 8-point log jam between five wrestlers that included KUSHIDA ended up with the tie breaker falling into TAKA Michinoku’s favor.
This year, a Time Splitters battle was potentially booked for some point on the final night, but like Taguchi the year before, Block B winner Alex Shelley was injured in his final bout. And also like the year before, a member of the low-ranked Suzuki-gun junior team ended up winning the tie-breaker, with Taichi’s head to head win over Nick Jackson sending him into the next round to face KUSHIDA.
Block A was an even bigger mess, with Alex Kozlov dislocating his shoulder five minutes into his first bout vs Ricochet. This led to the dreaded forfeit victories for every other participant in the block, and very likely the massive rebooking of nearly every other remaining match to get back to the desired semi final result. The end result of this mess was KUSHIDA vs Taichi, and Taguchi vs Ricochet as the semi final match ups. Three of those men were likely planned to be there all along. Normally, Taichi would be an eye roll educing accidental semi finalist because, well, normally Taichi is an eye roll educing participant in the tournament, period. But this year you could argue Taichi had been the most interesting wrestler in the field, with an altered gimmick and a new, serious edge.
Taichi was nearly pulled from the tournament before it even started, due to a tabloid controversy that broke two weeks ago in which he was shown in provocative photos with a woman who was not his wife. In the west, this would barely register a blip beyond the curiosity of hardcore fans, but the culture in Japan is much different. New Japan announced that he would participate in the tournament, but likely face discipline later. The situation seems to have lit a fire under the normally lazy and complacent Taichi, who has long been mired in a pattern of completely uninspiring opening bout performances, particularly since injuring his leg in a car accident last year. He’s been very aggressive in this tournament, with a noticeable increase in workrate, and a new addition to his gimmick where he brings a microphone stand to the ring and sings his entrance theme. He (sort of) addressed the personal issue in a promo following his night one match, stating that “I will always be me.”
So what to do about the injuries? There is really nothing that you can do. This is not a situation similar to the G1, where you have large men working a physical style and beating each other into legit submission. The average BotSJ match goes about 9 minutes. The longest match of the tournament went 16. Most of the bouts are fast paced sprints, with far fewer dangerous dives and such than you would think. I chalk it up to bad luck. One change I would consider is replacing injured wrestlers who get hurt early on in the tournament. Kozlov, for example, was injured in the first match. He could have been replaced by Yohei Komatsu or Sho Tanaka, or even a last minute outsider, which avoids the automatic forfeits, gives the paying fans a full card, and allows the bookers the ability to book an upset or two to help preserve the original booking plans without scrambling to change other finishes.
1. Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Satoshi Kojima, BUSHI & Kenny Omega vs. Mascara Don, Jushin Thunder Liger, Tiger Mask & Mascara Dorada – Mascara Don is Manabu Nakanishi’s masked gimmick that he breaks out for lucha and junior based shows. For some reason Mascara Don, the least mobile man in a match that included Tenzan, worked most of this for his side with Liger and Tiger Mask basically taking the night off, and Dorada coming in for the final stretch. That final stretch was real good, but unfortunately it was the only time Dorada or Omega, the two most exciting wrestlers in the match, ever tagged in. Dorada did some great flying, including a beautiful corkscrew plancha.
Omega picked up the win for his team with the Croyt’s Wrath (electric chair) on Dorada. The two takeaways from this are that Kenny Omega (who was arguably the standout performer of the tour) needs to work New Japan more often, and we need to see a long Omega vs Dorada singles bout, and I don’t care if it happens in NJPW, CMLL, DDT, or somebody’s backyard. **1/2
2. Kota Ibushi & El Desperado vs. Rocky Romero & Gedo – Ibushi, citing exhaustion from working nearly full time schedules with both New Japan & DDT, took the tour off, which is highly unusual for the junior champion. Romero teamed with CHAOS mate Gedo, due to the Kozlov injury. Big upset here as Romero pinned Desperado, who spent nearly the entire match selling, with a tombstone. Ibushi only tagged in once, and went on his usual big flurry. Ibushi didn’t seemed pleased that Desperado dropped the fall. **1/2
3. Yuji Nagata & Captain New Japan vs. Hirooki Goto & Katsuyori Shibata – This ended up being one hell of a match, with CNJ scoring a bunch of convincing near falls, and the seeds planted for a Shibata/Nagata singles bout (which could be fantastic). After dropping a decision in their pseudo number one contender bout against Hiroshi Tanahashi & Togi Makabe, Goto & Shibata needed a win to get back in the title mix, and this served that purpose. But even though the match was way better than expected and very exciting, for booking purposes it probably should have been more of a squash. ***
4. Best of the Super Jr. – Semi Final: KUSHIDA vs. Taichi – Taichi used a chair to ambush KUSHIDA just as he emerged from the curtain, as he’s done several times to others in the tournament. Then the riot was on. TAKA snuck out to help distract the ref, as Taichi killed KUSHIDA some more with the chair. Alex Shelley ran in to help, but ended up getting choked with the busted up chair for his trouble. Then Taichi used a HAMMER to attack both Splitters. This was all while the ref was unconscious, and it was great. As the match settled in, TAKA distracted the ref again and Taichi used the old Eddie Guerrero spot, subbing a chair with his mic stand, and almost stole a DQ. Then while KUSHIDA pleaded with the ref, Taichi nearly stole the win with a Gedo clutch. Good heat for all of this. Shelley was doing a lot on the outside with TAKA for a guy who was hurt. KUSHIDA overcame the heel antics and eventually won it with a kimura. This was a lot of fun. ***
5. Best of the Super Jr. – Semi Final: Ryusuke Taguchi vs. Ricochet – Ricochet won out of nowhere with the Benadryller in about five minutes. I liked the “shock” aspect of the quick win here, and I liked that they went with the outsider in the finals instead of Taguchi, who has seemingly been going deep in these BotSJ’s since forever. Not much of a match, but bonus points for the flash win, which is a nice finish when done sparingly and at the right time. **1/4
6. Toru Yano & Jado vs. Minoru Suzuki & Takashi Iizuka – This was the first encounter between former long time tag partners Yano & Iizuka after the Iizuka betrayal at Yokohama. If Suzuki vs Yano must continue, at least the Iizuka turn added a fresh element. Even with Iizuka on a new side, this was much of the same as we’ve seen for months from this crew. Yano sold forever, including getting hung over the ropes. He tagged out to Jado, who wasn’t able to do much against Suzuki. TAKA distracted the ref, and Iizuka hit Yano with the iron fingers. Suzuki choked out Jado, hit the Gotch piledriver, and that was that. Nothing match. Kazushi Sakuraba ran in to save CHAOS from a post match beating, and they seem to be moving towards Suzuki vs Sak. Meh. *3/4
7. Hiroshi Tanahashi, Tetsuya Naito & Tomoaki Honma vs. Karl Anderson, Doc Gallows & Tama Tonga – Due to computer issues, I only caught the closing stretch, which looked fine. Honma hit his top rope headbutt on Tonga, followed by a Tanahashi High Fly Flow for the win. I’ll have to go back and watch the entire thing in order to rate it. NR
8. Shinsuke Nakamura, Kazuchika Okada, Tomohiro Ishii & YOSHI-HASHI vs. Bad Luck Fale, Yujiro Takahashi, Matt Jackson & Nick Jackson – This took forever to get going, and felt like it had about four peaks. Way, way too long, especially for a show like this where the focus was the juniors. With that said, the work was solid, and the (never ending) closing stretch was very good. But watching this, I couldn’t help wish they would just get it over with so we could get to the Super Junior final. Fale used the Bad Luck Fall on YOSHI-HASHI for the finish, in a match where everybody had a chance to shine because it felt like an hour. ***
9 Best of the Super Jr. – Final: KUSHIDA vs, Ricochet – Right before they kicked it into second gear for the finish, I was thinking about how this was a perfectly good match, but nothing special. But then it turned into one of the more memorable BotSJ finals in recent memory. Crisp work from start to finish, great athleticism, and tremendous pacing. Easily the best performance of KUSHIDA’s career, and another fine match to add to Ricochet’s tremendous 2014 resume, as he creeps up to being perhaps Tomohiro Ishii’s top challenger for Wrestler of the Year (or Most Outstanding in Observer vernacular). Top spots included KUSHIDA doing a somersault tope off of the ring post to the outside, an KUSHIDA surviving a top rope Benadryller and 630 splash.
Later, KUSHIDA reversed a Benadryller attempt into a kimura, and Ricochet had to fight like hell to make the ropes. As they went through some of these sequences, and the crowd was going bonkers, it occurred to me that KUSHIDA should probably lose. He was in the midst of an epic performance anyway, and is at a point in the formative stages of his singles push that a hard fought close loss probably does more for him than a hotshot win would, because now the story is that he’s a player, and he can come back next year or the year after and win this thing with more impact. Plus a Ricochet/Ibushi match is exactly what the somewhat dry New Japan junior scene could use right now. And that’s what they’ll get, as Ricochet hit the Benadryller for the win. A masterful performance by both men, who had the crowd in their palms down the stretch. Great match. ****1/2
This show, which looked mediocre at best on paper, far exceeded expectations and ended up being a lot of fun from start to finish. Several new singles matches were either created or had seeds planted, and the main event continued the slow elevation of perhaps the next big junior star, while showcasing perhaps the current top junior in the world. Kota Ibushi skipping the tournament ended up being a blessing in disguise, as he wasn’t forced to take needless losses, and the Ibushi/Ricochet match will now be fresh and contested between two men with plenty of momentum. Perhaps leaving the champion out of these types of tournaments would be a good plan moving forward, as the champion losing the tournament to set up a challenger trope has been over done to death anyway.
Special thanks to SenorLARIATO for the gifs.