Much has been written and discussed when it comes to A.J. Styles’ first six months in New Japan Pro Wrestling. After making his Bullet Club debut, Styles, in his first singles match, defeated Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP Title at the 2014 version of Wrestling Dontaku. It was a risk for the company to hitch its wagon to a guy who was a relative unknown to the Japanese fan base but as we arrive at this year’s Invasion Attack, I think it is safe to say that Gedo’s gamble has paid off. Tonight’s show on AXS-TV takes you back to the beginning of Styles first run as champion when those questions were still left to be unanswered.
The show opens with a clipped match for the IWGP Junior Tag Team Championship – the defunct Forever Hooligans and The Young Bucks. It was hard to tell a story with this match as the edits were very random…so Mauro Ranallo dipped into his wrestling name-dropping bag-of-tricks to try to tie together the loose ends. The Rock-n-Roll Express, The Midnight Express, The Hardy’s and even Gentleman Chris Adams all got a shout-out tonight. Josh Barnett? Well he seemed not too impressed with the Wrestling Observer’s Tag Team of Year in 2014.
“While The Young Bucks are wrestling, who is going to do their 11th grade math assignments?”
“Oh, that’s Matt, huh? I am just going to call him Jackson no matter what. It doesn’t matter which one is in there.”
It was as if you were watching SportsCenter highlights and any build during this match was washed away with the edits. A three star junior tag match edited down to 4 minutes? It is almost impossible to make anything out of it.
After a commercial break we come back with another clipped title match from the 2014 Wrestling Dontaku show. This time it is Kota Ibushi defending his IWGP Junior Title against the dry-as-toast Ryusuke Taguchi. Ranallo jumps right in with the history of the Junior belt with Liger, The Cobra and even HEAT getting a pop from Ranallo. What else could he do in a match originally given three stars edited down to less than five minutes? It is a real tough spot to be in and the call is what it is. Lots of history, lots of Prince Devitt talk, lots of NJPW dojo talk, but nothing to write home about when it comes to this edited match.
So, after two sets of junior highlights, we are taken to a studio where Kazuchika Okada discusses the challenge by AJ Styles. Clips of Styles attacking Okada and hitting the Styles Clash a month earlier are shown as Okada shares his thoughts on the match.
“A.J. came out of nowhere and he abruptly performed the Styles Clash on me. I felt like the IWGP belt was becoming targeted all over the world by wrestlers from all over the world. I thought he used to be a great wrestler but to be honest, he wasn’t that great in the U.S. I think he was in decline.
“I’ve taken the Styles Clash from Tanahashi before but A.J. was on a different level. There’s probably a difference in the way he uses his weight. It was totally different. I was caught off guard when the title match was set. When I was in the States, I thought AJ Styles was done. I was confident about what I had achieved after coming back to Japan. so I was unaware of him.”
The match itself, when it was originally reviewed, was looked at as an above average match but was damaged by Bullet Club interference and a totally dead crowd. The Fukuoka audience did not give a shit about A.J. and let it be known with their almost complete silence during entrances, during the match, and at the finish. Hindsight is always 20/20 but at the time, the discussion here and elsewhere was that New Japan was playing with fire.
“After several years of flat out brilliant booking, Gedo & Jado are playing a dangerous game. The undercard is one thing, but i’m not sure North American style fuck finishes are going to fly when it comes to IWGP title matches. It’s definitely not what this reviewer wants. With that said, if it works for business, that’s all that matters. But I have my doubts that the Japanese fan base will be too excited by this. It’s a gamble. But did they need to gamble at this point?”
I bring this up because upon watching this match for the first time since the original show, the match really doesn’t hold up and that shines through on the AXS-TV broadcast. Ranallo’s usual energy and juice is a notch below what were are used to hearing. Josh Barnett adds little. The match is good (not great) and the outside interference is what it is. The crowd is sitting, cross armed, and does little to help. The only time Ranallo finds that extra level is when he pleads for the referee to send the Bullet Club to the back. Then, for whatever reason, Josh Barnett figures he needs to save the day and add a little “Barnett Spice” as only he can. Upon explaining why Styles has a new aggressive streak in him Barnett explains his theories.
“You know what I blame it on? I blame it on violent rap music. I think that is what has done it to A.J. Violent rap music – that hip-hop that the kids like so much these days.”
Someone queue the “car crash” sound effect. I don’t know what to say.
Add an angry Gedo interview where he vows revenge and a pretty terrible post match Bullet Club interview and this show sits below most of the other AXS-TV broadcasts.
Okada, helps put the pieces of the puzzle together, back in the studio.
“I don’t want to blame it on the fact that there wasn’t a preliminary match, but I’d like to face A.J. Styles again. Surely, I don’t want to stay a loser. He was the A.J. that I looked up to back in the day. The crowd reacted quietly at first but soon after the crowd was overwhelmed by A.J.’s presence. I was champion for a year and it sure feels weird to lose the title. I entered each match wearing a belt. It was a part of my costume. All of a sudden it was gone and I felt restless.”
Final Thoughts: Overall, I think this show was one of the few that you could skip. Sadly, the English commentary couldn’t warrant a repeat viewing if you already watched the match and the usual fantastic translated interviews didn’t give any real bonuses that you may have had in the past shows. The one takeaway from this show is this : New Japan rolled the dice on A.J. Styles and the risky move has paid off. The value of The Bullet Club can be debated but New Japan took a chance, booked outside the box, and went with the gamble. This show is the first piece of that risky move and that risk pays off this weekend at Invasion Attack.