It didn’t take much or many changes for the complexion of NJPW to alter as we hurtle toward 2015. Kenny Omega signs. Katsuyori Shibata signs full-time. Kota Ibushi extends his deal and goes heavyweight. Jushin Liger indicates the winding down phase of his career. And new alliances are formalised to help Seikigun (New Japan Army) fight back against the menace of the three major factions: CHAOS, Suzuki-gun and Bullet Club.
OK, sure, some people are carping that the main event of the January Dome Show will be the seventh meeting of Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada, two guys who only know how to put on the finest matches with each other so I’m sure this one will be terrible. Writing this blog and engaging with people’s opinions, it makes you realise that people will always find a way to complain about wrestling, even when it’s as good as New Japan 2014. So who is worse: the complainer or the person who complains about the complainer? It’s the complainer of course.
Gedo, Toru Yano and YOSHI-HASHI (CHAOS) vs. Minoru Suzuki, TAKA Michinoku and Takashi Iizuka (Suzuki-gun): For better or worse this reminded me of one of the openers of Big Japan or Zero1 where the Brahmen Shu and Kei roam free causing havoc with the crowd, cheating wildly and generally having fun tugging at the believable edges of wrestling. It’s fun to watch and doesn’t require much back story.
However, as we probably all know, the Yano/Suzuki backstory is probably the longest continuing active feud in pro-wrestling. We lost track of the score months ago but it doesn’t matter. Crowd love it and it gets the energy in the room. Suzuki chokes Gedo out for the win, and then applies a kimura to a ring boy after the bell. What a man. **1/2
Suzuki spoke (grumpily) in the post-match:
You’ve used “armlock” as your finishing move today which is also the same move Sakuraba uses as his signature. Were you trying to send him a message? Sakuraba Lock my ass! Even a monkey can execute that move. Try breaking my arm with your so called ‘Sakuraba Lock’. Here, try it. Try it! Where the hell did he go? Come out. I mean it! Why are you always hiding behind someone’s back? Don’t even try to play hard to get when you’re so weak. Hey, Sakuraba, I’ll get all serious on you if you don’t if you keep running away from me. You should be honored and flattered for me to actually play with you. Come out, come out. I’m taking you out.
Bad Luck Fale, Karl Anderson, Yujiro Takahashi, Doc Gallows and Tama Tonga (Bullet Club) vs. Togi Makabe, Tomoaki Honma, Kota Ibushi, Tetsuya Naito and Captain New Japan: A pro tip I would offer the babyface group here is this: pretend Captain New Japan is injured and can’t make the ring and offer to fight four-on-five. They’d probably stand a much better chance without the jumpsuited loon taking his millionth straight pinfall.
It also kind of seems like the heat is going out of Bullet Club. At a UK event I attended recently I witnessed approximately 30 Bullet Club shirts, but perhaps reacting to the oversaturation, the lukewarm Jarrett response and the in-house apathy toward more cheating foreigners, the guys in charge are dialing back on their push. The titles they quickly accrued have slipped away one by one, leaving only Anderson and Gallows holding any hardware.
I don’t think it’s as much to do with them being foreign or cheats but more to do with feeling that as a faction it’s not all there in the ring, aside from Styles and the Bucks. Fale is green. Gallows lumbers. Anderson is mercurial. Yujiro is frustrating. And Tonga never gets to show what he’s about.
Here they show a bit more steam around the mechanical cheating routine but the place really comes unglued when any of their babyface opponents, who are (Captain aside) thrilling and lively workers of distinct types, take the upper hand after a spell of Bullet Club control. Makabe thrashes Fale around with lariats, Naito goes head-to-head with former tag partner Yujiro and Ibushi puts Tonga to the sword with a Last Ride and a Phoenix Splash. A good crowd some amped performances pushed the match beyond the basic tag match that the card suggested at the outset. ***1/4
Super Junior Tag Tournament – First Round BUSHI and Mascara Dorada vs. reDRagon (Kyle O’Reilly and Bobby Fish): The Ring of Honor boys put down a solid marker at the G1 Finals in their close-but-no-cigar performance for the Jr. Heavy Tag Titles and it’s a total pleasure to welcome them back for the tour leading to Power Struggle where they’ll face an array of Young Lions, Bullet Clubbers and CHAOS members woven between the fixtures for this short tournament.
Today they will take on a real Mexican and a fake Mexican, the latter (BUSHI) bedecked in Halloween ring-attire. Dorada and BUSHI are creative and restless types and prove to be a great foil for their Can-Am opponents; where reDRagon opt for directness, BUSHIrada opt for curved lines, darts out of left-field and subtle variants of things you’ve seen before.
If, like me, you’re not terribly hot on Ring of Honor itself then don’t do yourself a disservice by counting out O’Reilly and Fish. Fish is a veteran of Japan (working several years for NOAH) and the States whilst O’Reilly has more of an up-and-comer vibe around him despite actually having worked for nearly a decade. They take the win with Chasing the Dragon and advance to the next round, though BUSHIrada deserve equal plaudits for making the win seem important. ***1/4
Super Junior Tag Tournament – First Round – Fuego and Ryusuke Taguchi vs. El Desperado and Taichi (Suzuki-gun): Taguchi downed Desperado at the recent King of Pro Wrestling supercard only to get attacked by Suzuki-gun co-conspirator Taichi, working over the Jr. Heavyweight Champion’s ankle and leg (in a cruel twist on Taguchi finding a new way to win with an ankle hold). This plays into the story here, with Taguchi selling the leg wildly; he attempts to leap the ropes to perform a move from the apron, but sells the impact of the landing and gets attacked whilst tending to his pain.
Fuego is back for a third tour of 2014. I missed the Fantasticamania stuff and wasn’t mega-impressed with his last run out during Kizuna Road. Here he looks good, as inventive and technically solid as any of the excursion guys. His job here, which he performs well, is to occasionally act as the spanner in the works of the cheating ways of Suzuki-gun, who even have bannerman TAKA at ringside for extra dastardly tricks.
The tricks play into the finish as Desperado distracts the ref, allowing TAKA to help Taichi set up an Avalanche Black Mephisto, aided on the way down by a belt shot. Fuego is helpless to break up the ending and the heels advance and score a valuable brinkmanship point in the singles division too. ***
Super Junior Tag Tournament – First Round – The Young Bucks (Matt Jackson and Nick Jackson) (Bullet Club) vs. Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger’ and Tiger Mask:
Tiger Mask recently flew to the UK for a show and was stiffed for cash and never appeared on the show itself alongside fellow NJPW guys such as Liger, Tanahashi and AJ Styles. I don’t know exactly what happened but I am choosing to read this experience as why he is working up a decent match here rather than, as I occasionally perceive, being an easy passenger riding a beloved gimmick.
The story of the match revolves around Tiger trying to do too much, the Bucks overwhelming him, Liger intruding and then one Buck or both superkicks Liger into oblivion. It’s a comic touch without being a comic match, returning to the scene of a farce. In a short but really well-worked and lightly intense bout, the Bucks come up with the goods in the mid-match, eventually picking off Tiger Mask with the More Bang For Your Buck endgame. ***1/4
Super Junior Tag Tournament – First Round – Time Splitters (KUSHIDA and Alex Shelley) vs. Forever Hooligans (Rocky Romero and Alex Koslov) (CHAOS)
Winners to face reDRagon in the final quarter-final as two teams with extensive recent history face off. Time Splitters, as their Jr. Heavy titles attest, usually get the better of the fake revolutionaries, but the Hooligans continue to inch closer. Time Splitters are born champions, beloved characters and fine individual wrestlers. They’re always a pleasure to see.
I remain on the fence about the Hooligans’ act. They have a couple of serious spots and a couple of great finishes, but often the seem more adept at the DDT-style sports entertainment rather than the thrilling style used by the Bucks and the Splitters. Both Romero and Koslov have outstanding skills and could export their thing successfully anywhere, but sometimes in title matches and tournaments, it strikes me as a bit silly to keep going to your comic ‘break-up and reconciliation’ routine for yuks.
They do it here, and even threaten to do it again later in the match, but outside of that it’s a quality encounter. Koslov has mastered the art of the late pin-break, adding slivers of drama to a match already stacking them high. In the longest match of the four tournament bouts, the Hooligans go over their longstanding rivals with a Contract Killer and presumably putting them back in the title race regardless of whether they win the tournament or not. ***3/4
Hiroshi Tanahashi, Katusyori Shibata and Hirooki Goto vs. Kazuchika Okada, Shinsuke Nakamura and Tomohiro Ishii (CHAOS): Star power. Each man gets an individual entrance in approximate ascending popularity order; Goto, Ishii, Shibata, Nakamura, Okada and finally Tanahashi, playing his invisible axe for all the world to see, his IWGP Heavyweight Championship around his finely-chiselled waist. This match feels ridiculously huge for what is essentially a house show main event.
Shibata and Nakamura, set to face for the latter’s Intercontinental Championship at Power Struggle, work the opening phase, opting for neat catch reversals and subtle grappling before attempting to clean each other out with big boots. Nakamura tags out and Okada comes in to a huge pop. Shibata tags Tanahashi in and the room goes nuts. It’s just that kind of occasion.
Tanahashi and Okada quickly regain their old chemistry and remind a few people who need reminding that their pairing is gold, knowing the mind of the other, as much Matrix as pro-wrestling. Finally, Goto and Ishii (bandaged all over, practically) are tagged in and the electrcity stays in the room and you start to realise that here’s the third upcoming title match. Masterstroke.
The two stocky battlers crash and bash around the ring and the match opens up into a cool series of enjoyable spots and reversals and momentum swings that makes everyone look like a complete star. CHAOS employ more teamwork, with Okada and Nakamura literally using Ishii as a battering ram, but the resilience of the nominal babyfaces (everyone here is loved, let’s face it) results in an even contest for the 20 minute duration.
The close involves Goto and Ishii walloping each other anew, with Goto finishing off the NEVER champ with a Shouten Kai, appearing to seal a head-to-head somewhere down the line. You could draw comparisons with this match and some of the great tags and six man matches of 90s All Japan. Whilst there was no real prize at stake, the match seem to indicate a direction shift in the company. ****
Excellent Korakuen show. Tournament semi finals of Forever Hooligans vs. reDRagon and El Desperado/Taichi vs. Young Bucks will take place next week. Shibata and Tanahashi will continue to tag all the while. What a strange world we live in.