Just as some were ready to declare the hot run of New Japan over and done with on the heels of a few shaky shows, some questionable booking, and a half full Yokohama Arena last month, Dominion, a card featuring two of the three biggest stars (plus the IWGP champion) in tag matches, and a super risky main event, sold out Osaka.

I think a few things are clear. As we suspected would happen, the fans have not taken to AJ Styles, who they are unfamiliar with, as champion. It doesn’t help that the way he won the title got the wrong kind of heat. The Styles/Okada rematch was put in a position to draw in a big building and failed. Styles may get over eventually, but he isn’t over at the level he needs to be yet.

Concerning Osaka selling out, I think it’s pretty clear that Shinsuke Nakamura is more than just a “1c” to the 1a & 1b of Hiroshi Tanahashi & Kazuchika Okada, because Bad Luck Fale has no track record on top and Nakamura vs Fale is hardly a match that screams business. But to me, you can not discount the impact of Ricochet vs Kota Ibushi, which was the most highly anticipated junior match in many years. Aside from being a dream match, Ricochet was coming off of a classic Best of the Super Juniors finals win over KUSHIDA, and Osaka is a very strong Dragon Gate town (Ricochet’s home promotion). I’m not discounting Nakamura’s star power, but I think the junior title match had just as big (if not more) of an impact on drawing the sold out house.

G1 Climax blocks were announced at Intermission. The big surprises were the inclusions of Kota Ibushi & Hiroyoshi Tenzan.

Ibushi, who I wasn’t sure would participate since he skipped Super Juniors based on exhaustion, ended up in the super loaded A Block, where he will face Hiroshi Tanahashi, Katsuyori Shibata, Shinsuke Nakamura (which will be a rematch of their great match last year), & Tomohiro Ishii, among others.

Tenzan has clearly lost a step, and had trouble keeping the pace in last year’s tournament. He also didn’t even make it all the way through, breaking a rib with three matches left. Honestly i’m pretty shocked he was entered this year, when they easily could have used somebody like Tomoaki Honma or Tama Tonga in his place, or even a ROH (Adam Cole?) or NWA (Rob Conway?) representative.

Speaking of ROH, Michael Bennett (with Maria), Kyle O’Reilly, Bobby Fish (who NOAH has stopped using lately), & Cole will work the final night of G1. Jeff Jarrett also did a short pretape vignette announcing that New Japan has apparently joined the force, as Global Force Wrestling has agreed to a partnership of some sort with NJPW.

1. IWGP Jr. Tag Team Title: Matt Jackson & Nick Jackson (c) vs. KUSHIDA & Alex Shelley – The Bucks have been the best tag team in the world so far this year, and KUSHIDA was coming off of a career performance in the Best of the Super Juniors finals, so I was expecting a good match here, provided they got a decent chunk of time. Well, they got the time, and the match more than delivered, which is pretty much a given these days when the Bucks are involved. The Bucks to me are a perfect example of what happens when talented people have a chance to work everywhere and experience a variety of styles, and why I think the WWE Performance Center model is overrated in some ways and will eventually lead to a bland roster that lacks diversity. Their hybrid mix of PWG spot-a-thon style, mixed with Dragon Gate creativity & speed, combined with North American style showmanship, adds up to the total state of the art tag team package. The Splitters were every bit as good here, as these two teams tore down the house. The Splitters controlled early with quick in and out tags, and then the Bucks took over by working over Shelley’s injured shoulder. From there the sprint was on. All four guys were on their game, crisp, and where they were supposed to be at all times. Watching teams come up with creative escapes/counters to More Bang For Your Buck has become a lot of fun. For the finish, KUSHIDA tapped Nick with his Hoverboard lock, a submission that he got over during Super Juniors, which is basically a kimur. KUSHIDA is primed for a big, big push, probably sooner than later. ****1/2

2. Tetsuya Naito vs. Tama Tonga – From co-headlining Tokyo Dome challenging for the IWGP Heavyweight Title on the heels of winning G1, to working a seemingly meaningless prelim against the lowest ranked Bullet Club member. It’s been quite the tumble down the card for Naito, and it only took six months. On the flip side, his work this year has been great, particularly putting over Ishii & Fale (especially the Fale carry job). This, however, fell flat. A nothing match, basic paint by numbers stuff with the heel controlling most of the way, and Naito making the comeback at the end and winning with his finisher (Stardust Press). It was short, too. But that was to be expected with the time the opener received. It didn’t help that Naito mimicked Tonga’s slithering entrance, slipped off the ropes, and was promptly booed. That came off super cringy, and sucked a lot of the heat out of the match before it even started. *1/2

3. Yuji Nagata & Tomoaki Honma vs. Hirooki Goto & Katsuyori Shibata – If you like strong style strike exchanges, this was your kind of match. Incredible intensity from all four men, with Honma really shining in taking a beating from both Shibata & Goto. Nagata popped the crowd early by beating Shibata into the ground with elbows in the corner. Later they brawled into the crowd, leaving Goto & Honma alone in the ring. Honma made a fighting spirit comeback, before Goto killed him for good with a new variation of his neckbreaker drop over the knee. By that point, Nagata & Shibata had brawled into the concourse area like an old Monday Nitro brawl. This was super intense and a lot of fun. ****1/4

4. NWA World Tag Team Title: Hiroyoshi Tenzan & Satoshi Kojima (c) vs. Lance Archer & Davey Boy Smith Jr. – I was pretty surprised when TenKoji retained in Yokohama, so I was fully expecting a title switch here. And I was wrong again. This was another example of everybody working really, really hard. I think the combination of this show not coming at the end of a long tour, plus the motivation from the super hot crowd had something to do with it. Archer was great here, busting out the rare moonsault, and doing all of his trademark power spots.

Tenzan looked better than usual, and Kojima just refuses to age. Kojima is a guy who I think is underrated historically. Kojima sold most of the way, and sold like a champ, but hit DBS with his big lariat out of nowhere for the surprise finish. Another great match. ****

5. IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Title: Kota Ibushi (c) vs. Ricochet – This match had no chance to meet my expectations unless it was close to five stars and a match of the year contender. Had they gone five more minutes, they may have cleared the bar. What they did manage to do, was have a tremendous match, and still manage to leave me wanting more. I really hope they meet up again down the line, either here, or even in Dragon Gate or DDT. How about this for an outside the box idea…Ricochet wins the title in a Dragon Gate ring, and then Ibushi wins it back in DDT? Masaaki Mochizuki accompanied Ricochet to the ring. First of many crazy spots was Ibushi trying a springboard hurricanrana on Ricochet who was standing on the top turnbuckle, but Ricochet landing on his feet.

Crowd went apeshit for that. Ibushi escaped the Benadryller a couple of times, and Ricochet rolled out of the way of a Phoenix Splash, so a subplot was that they had the finishers well scouted. Ibushi had to bust out the seldom used Phoenix Plex, which looks like it’s going to kill somebody every time he uses it, to put Ricochet away.

The closing stretch was truly fantastic, and they did tons of spectacular stuff, but it felt like it ended too soon. Ricochet tried to give Ibushi his BotSJ trophy in the post match, but Ibushi handed it back and they hugged it out. I WANT MORE. ****1/4


6. Special Tag Match: Toru Yano & Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Minoru Suzuki & Takashi Iizuka – This felt like it was a million years long, just the Suzuki/Yano feud. This was boring. Same match every month, just with Iizuka on the opposite side now. I can’t ever enjoy anything about this anymore, because it’s the same spots over & over. Its tedious and redundant. Adding Sakuraba adds nothing because he’s not interesting or good. Lots of cheating. Suzuki beat Yano with the Gotch piledriver, then gave Saku one for good measure. Seen one, seen ’em all. Yawn. 1/2*

7. Special Tag Match: Kazuchika Okada & Tomohiro Ishii vs. AJ Styles & Yujiro Takahashi – It seemed like Styles was over more than his previous appearances, so that was a good sign (although it’s tough to tell in Osaka where the people are hot for everything). Most of this was Yujiro & Ishii, but Styles in particular looked real good when he was in.

This was a night off for Okada, who hit his big dropkick and then basically disappeared. Yuiro pinned Ishii with his new Olympic Slam type throw, which sets up the NEVER Title match between the two. Earlier in the match, he nearly killed Ishii when he came up about a foot short on a buckle bomb, which was a little scary. This was fine but never hit the next gear. **3/4

8. IWGP Tag Team Title: Karl Anderson & Doc Gallows (c) vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi & Togi Makabe – This was a weird match. It felt like the world’s longest squash. GnG KO’d both men on the outside early, and they did the teased 20 count deal with Tanahashi barely making it back in at 19. From there, Tanahashi sold forever, leading to a not so hot tag to Makabe. The closing stretch was a little absurd, with the faces surviving everything except the apocalypse. Magic Killer on Tanahashi, Makabe makes the save (right in front of Gallows who could have easily stopped him). GnG dispatches Makabe, Anderson hits a Gun Stun on Tanahashi, and Tanahashi kicks out. Hmm. Tanahashi sets up the High Fly Flow, but Anderson blocks with the knees and grabs a quick inside cradle, and Tanahashi survives that too. Later, Makabe takes his turn kicking out of a Gun Stun. This after Tanahashi gets hit with a second one of his own after saving Makabe from a Magic Killer. It felt like the faces got hit with 19 Magic Killers & Gun Stuns. It took a Gun Stun followed by a Magic Killer to put away Makabe for good, after Makabe was decked with a chair attempting his King Kong Knee Drop, which was set up by Tanahashi finally landing a HFF on Anderson. This whole match was finisher overkill. Hard to rate because they all worked hard, I just hated the structure. Three stars, all for the workrate. ***

9. IWGP Intercontinental Title: Shinsuke Nakamura (c) vs. Bad Luck Fale – This was a good match, and not nearly the carry job of Naito/Fale. Nakamura countered on Grenade attempt with a knee to the head, and kicked out of another. Fale survived a Boma Ye. Nakamura also kicked after a top rope splash, which almost never happened because Fale kept losing is balance. He should probably never try that again.

Fale looks like he has gained considerable weight, and he wasn’t moving very well. He never really moved all that well to begin with. Fale won with the Bad Luck Fall, and Nak did the stretcher job. The finish shocked the crowd. This was much better spacing of finishers than the tag title match, and the Bad Luck Fall has been established as instant death. Okada, Tanahashi, and now Nakamura are now without titles and lacking momentum. We’ll see if G1 changes that. If Bullet Club runs through G1, it may do serious damage to the top draws (if it hasn’t happened already). I get the feeling Nakamura is winning G1, which is what I thought would happen going back a year. I think Okada will eventually win the title back from Styles, setting up Okada vs. Nak at Wrestle Kingdom. ***3/4

This show was on a Best Show of the Year contender pace after the first half, but the second half wasn’t nearly as good. The always hot Osaka crowd certainly helped a few of the matches, and probably hurt the Naito/Tonga bout after they turned on Naito and stopped caring. As I alluded to in the main event review, the booking is at a tipping point right now, and they are in serious danger of inadvertently burying the three primary draws (not to mention Naito, who at this point is utterly directionless). On the flip side, it looks like they’ve successfully built one new star with Ishii, and possibly a second with Fale. The jury is still out on Styles, who did get his best reactions yet on this show. The reaction to Fale’s win was a little scary, resembling the stunned silence of Styles win over Okada. You get the sense that these Bullet Club wins over the top stars are getting the wrong kind of heat.

The next big challenge is filling up a dome for the G1 Finals, which will see the top two from each block of eleven advance, and a full card of other important bouts, including the ROH stars, underneath on what will have to be a loaded show. I don’t think the G1 on its own is enough to fill a dome.

Block A

  • Hiroshi Tanahashi
  • Satoshi Kojima
  • Yuji Nagata
  • Kota Ibushi
  • Katsuyori Shibata
  • Shinsuke Nakamura
  • Tomohiro Ishii
  • Shelton Benjamin
  • Davey Boy Smith Jr
  • Doc Gallows
  • Bad Luck Fale

Block B

  • Togi Makabe
  • Hirooki Goto
  • Hiroyoshi Tenzan
  • Tetsuya Naito
  • Kazuchika Okada
  • Toru Yano
  • Minoru Suzuki
  • Lance Archer
  • AJ Styles
  • Yujiro Takahashi
  • Karl Anderson

Special thanks as always to @SenorLARIATO for the gifs!