The big story coming into New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Invasion Attack was the announced sellout a full week in advance of the show. We knew that every ticket was sold, but what we didn’t know was whether this was a true 11,500 Sumo Hall full capacity sellout, or the 9100 setup that sold out in October for King of Pro Wrestling (Hiroshi Tanahashi vs AJ Styles). Turns out it was neither, as New Japan announced a “sold out” crowd of 9500 for a show where two of the top three stars of the company were not put in money drawing positions on the card, which meant that the main event of Kota Ibushi challenging AJ Styles for the IWGP title had a ton of pressure to deliver as a draw. I was very vocal in predicting a “sellout” (which has now taken on different meanings in this building, which we’ll dig into in a few moments), based on the idea that Ibushi arguably has a better drawing history in the building than any of the New Japan “Big Three”, plus the fact that Styles is as hot as he’s been ever right now in New Japan and at worst is a solid complimentary piece, if not flat out a legit draw at this point himself (it should be noted that the two biggest non-G1 Sumo Hall gates in this modern era of New Japan have now both featured Styles in the main event).
Make no mistake, with a great drawing history in DDT and now a clear superstar push in New Japan Kota Ibushi is already a legitimate superstar in Japanese wrestling, and he may be on the cusp of being the top draw in the country. He might be already, as it’s entirely possible that the only thing preventing him from matching Tanahashi, Shinsuke Nakamura, and Kazuchika Okada when it comes to drawing big dome crowds is the lack of opportunity to do so. What this show has told us is that New Japan is no longer dealing with a “Big Three”. They’re dealing with a “Big Five”. Credit should be given for successfully elevating both Ibushi and Styles, but especially so for Styles, who came into the company as a complete non entity to the Japanese fans.
Let’s address he “sellout”. Sumo Hall holds 11,500 fans. In October, New Japan put 9100 tickets up for sale, sold every single one of them, and turned people away at the door the day of the show. For Invasion Attack, they sold 9500 tickets and announced a sellout a week in advance. Why are they intentionally running the building 2,000 short of capacity? Did they not expect the shows to do as well as they did? I don’t buy that at all. This is the same company that boldly (and stupidly) ran Yokohama Arena with an (at the time) untested AJ Styles on top. That show flopped, the one and only major flop of the Takaaki Kidani era. This is the same company that boldly ran Seibu Dome for the G1 Finals, a move that was universally considered out kicking their coverage. This is the same company that will boldly run three straight nights of Sumo Hall in August for G1. This is not a company that has shown themselves to be conservative in any way, routinely pushing the envelope in terms of testing their popularity, and occasionally falling on their face. I just can’t see limiting the capacity of Sumo Hall out of some sort of fear of not filling it, especially when we’re talking only 2,000 or so seats, many of which very likely would have sold anyway based on advance sellouts and turning away fans. Bad weather was discussed as a possible reason in October, but the fact they limited the tickets again tosses that idea out the window. I’ve heard fan comfort as a possibility, since what they appear to be doing is limiting the box seats that are usually a four ticket package as two tickets each. But how many promoters in history would intentionally limit the number of seats they can sell in consideration of the fans being more comfortable? I’m not buying it.
Regardless of the reasoning, it’s time they open up the full seating. It’s pretty clear to me that they could have drawn close to or well over 10,000 for the last two shows, and in my opinion this show would have sold out the full 11,500 had it been given the chance. The 9500 was the biggest “regular” (non G1/special event) attendance in the building in many years, building on the 9100 they drew in October. Last year’s Invasion Attack, with a strong Tanahashi/Nakamura main event, drew 8500. Things continue to steadily build, and now they have five legitimate stars to work with.
This was the first major show aired live on New Japan World since Wrestle Kingdom, but for the first time there were massive issues with the stream. During the second match, New Japan sent out a warning for viewers to not hit refresh, or they would lose the feed. Viewers who logged on and never tried to refresh at any point apparently were able to watch the show in full. Many others could not log in to begin with, and if you happened to pause or refresh at any point, you would lose the stream and would be unable to get it back up. New Japan issued an apology on New Japan World after the show, and based on the messy translation it appears the issue was caused by an attempt to block unauthorized access to the show. These companies are basically chasing their own tails when it comes to trying to curtail piracy, but that’s a topic for another day.
1. Jushin Thunder Liger, Manabu Nakanishi, Ryusuke Taguchi, Sho Tanaka & Tiger Mask vs. Time Splitters (Alex Shelley & KUSHIDA), Captain New Japan, Yohei Komatsu & Yuji Nagata – I missed a lot of this due to the NJW issues. From what I saw, it really picked up when the young lions and Time Splitters took over. Everything was sharp & crisp, with good timing and action all around. Shelley pinned Tanaka following the Automatic Midnight, which he’s been using to beat people an awful lot lately (this would become clear as to why a little later). What I saw was in the *** range, but I don’t feel like I saw enough of the match to rate it. NR
2. BULLET CLUB (Tama Tonga & Yujiro Takahashi) & Cody Hall vs. TenKoji (Hiroyoshi Tenzan & Satoshi Kojima) & Tomoaki Honma – Two things jumped out at me while watching this. First, Tama Tonga was the most dynamic worker in this match on this night. He’s so, so underrated, and it’s all due to lack of opportunity. And secondly, Cody Hall has looked much better lately, after looking severely out of place on his first tour or two. He’s still easily the worst worker on the roster (I would really, really love to bury Fale here, but I can’t pull the trigger), but that’s to be expected when you consider his starting point and how great the rest of the roster is. Hall really shined in the closing stretch, nailing big boots and tornado lariats all over the place, before predictably taking the fall following a Honma top rope Kokeshi. **3/4
3. IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Title – The Young Bucks (Matt Jackson & Nick Jackson) (c) vs. Roppongi Vice (Beretta & Rocky Romero) – Everything about this ruled. Roppongi Vice comes off roughly a million times fresher than the ultra stale Forever Hooligans act, and Beretta in particular put in his best New Japan performance to date here. Early in the match, the Bucks teased the old Honky Tonk Man gimmick of hand waving the match and leaving with the belts, but it was a trap, as they double superkicked RV as they chased after them. Clever & fun spot, but pretty clear neither team understands the New Japan rules, because RV would have won the titles via CO, giving them no real incentive to attempt to chase the champs back into the ring. This was worked at a noticeably more deliberate pace than the usual junior tag matches, which gave it a completely fresh feel. For the finish, Beretta did a blind tag as the Bucks set up the More Bang For Your Buck on Romero, who got his knees up on the moonsault. Baretta then hit a cradle belly-to-back sit out piledriver to pin Nick and win the titles. Great action. ****
4. IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title – Kenny Omega (c) vs. Mascara Dorada – This delivered big. Omega has (thankfully) toned down the Cleaner act, and Dorada worked this like a man possessed, with all of the usual fantastic dives and flying that he’s known for. Both guys took a bunch of insane bumps, including Omega getting folded in half over the guard rail on a great suicide dive by Dorada. Dorada hit his rope walk moonsault, but instead of going for the pin, he got up an taunted Omega with the BC crotch chop. This ended up costing him the match, as Omega recovered and hit the One Winged Angel to retain the title clean. Both men killed it here, and Dorada even saved the one sloppy spot with a backslide that was so seamless that it would have hidden the botch had they not gone right back to the same original spot moments later. Omega called out Shelley in the post match, so the next title challenge is set. This explains why Shelley has been scoring pins all over the place lately. This was the best match of Omega’s “Cleaner” run, and the best non Fantasticamania New Japan match for Dorada. ****
5. IWGP Tag Team Title – BULLET CLUB (Doc Gallows & Karl Anderson) (c) vs. Matt Taven & Michael Bennett – Look, I have no problem with a little bit of wacky comedy in junior matches or in the prelims, and I have no problem with somebody like Captain New Japan being hypnotized by Maria’s ass, but those shenanigans felt severely out of place in an IWGP Tag Team title match. The finish, with Anderson being completely mystified by Maria’s apron gyrations leading to a Kingdom spike piledriver, just didn’t work for me in this kind of match and in this kind of setting. The work was solid enough, as The Kingdom always have their working shoes on in New Japan, but this was the kind of finish that would have been better suited for one of the ROH shows this spring as opposed to a major show in Sumo Hall. The crowd didn’t like it either, as the finish got over like the proverbial fart in a church, until the pop for the upset at the three count. Maybe this just wasn’t my bag, but it all just felt really silly and out of place in a big New Japan match. A sub plot to keep an eye on is that Gallows was not happy at all with Anderson being smitten with Maria, and they teased friction. In fact, Gallows spent nearly the entire match trying to beat up Maria (how progressive of him) while Anderson was doing the “I’ve never see an attractive woman” routine. Gallows was reading Anderson the riot act all the way to the back in the post match. The entire thing made Anderson come off like a complete idiot, which is counter to the way he’s always been presented. The more I write about this match, the more I dislike it. **
6. CHAOS (Shinsuke Nakamura, Tomohiro Ishii & YOSHI-HASHI) vs. Hirooki Goto, Tetsuya Naito & Togi Makabe – This was typical New Japan multi-man tag team booking, with rivals being paired off with each other on opposing sides. You had NEVER champion Ishii opposite of former champ Makabe, who never lost his title in the ring. You had Intercontinental champion Nakamura opposite of Goto, who based on interactions between the two during this tour, appear to be headed towards a title match against each other. Then you had Naito opposite of…YOSHI-HASHI? Naito, who I opined on our latest podcast is now firmly established in gatekeeper territory, often finds himself without a program these days, and I suppose you needed YOSHI-HASHI around to eat the pin. Instead, in a very welcomed surprise, it was Nakamura who took the fall, who after whiffing on a Boma Ye attempt on Goto took a Ushikoroshi followed by a Shouten leading to the clean as a sheet loss. This officially sets up what should be a tremendous IC title match(es?) between the two. Ishii & Makabe also did a post match pull apart. ***1/4
7. Hiroshi Tanahashi & Katsuyori Shibata vs. Kazushi Sakuraba & Toru Yano – I was bored by this. The finish was somewhat surprising, with Sakuraba tapping Shibata with a kimura. This will likely lead to a series of grappling contests or MMA style bouts between the two, which I suppose keeps Shibata occupied for a while, but is nothing i’m interested in seeing. Tanahashi, as he is often apt to do in tag matches with his banged up body, left a lot on the table here, especially since the match was built around Sakuraba & Shibata. This match is 100% skippable unless you’re a big Sakuraba fan. **
8. Bad Luck Fale vs. Kazuchika Okada – In theory, the Okada/Fale story is a good one. The cocky former champion, who was so sure of himself heading into his title match in the Tokyo Dome that the shock of the loss broke him both physically & emotionally, running into the worst possible roadblock post Wrestle Kingdom in the monster Bad Luck Fale. Physically & emotionally broken, the big monster has been a difficult obstacle to overcome. On paper, this works. The problem, is Fale just isn’t very good, so instead of fans getting behind Okada’s redemption and uphill fight, many were just wishing Okada would hurry up and move on to more interesting in ring opponents. I pick on Fale a lot, but I have to be fair. I loved the way he carried himself here. He’s put on a ton of weight (very likely at the direction of the office), which has done him no favors in the mobility department, but on the flip side he is finally starting to come across as a true monster. He carried himself and projected a monster aura better here than he ever has previously, with the five o’clock shadow, mean mugging, and some decent methodical big man offense (highlighted by a good looking top rope splash that looked like it could have broken all of Okada’s ribs, and produced a genuine believable near fall that fans bought all the way). Okada showed a different kind of fire than usual here, determined instead of cocky, a man focused on finally overcoming the beast. Fans may not have been thrilled with this story, and I was certainly one of the critics, but this match worked, and in hindsight I think the feud served its purpose and peaked at just the right time. ***1/4
9. IWGP Heavyweight Title – AJ Styles (c) vs. Kota Ibushi – Everything about this was great. The match itself reaffirms that AJ Styles is perhaps behind only Brock Lesnar these days in terms of consistent delivery of great matches every single time he steps into a ring. Styles has found a formula that is can’t miss, working towards the calf slicer with the ever present danger of the Styles Clash always looming. Ibushi constantly finding himself in position to get caught with the Clash (from all conceivable angles, foreshadowing the incredible finish), and then desperately kicking & fighting his way out every time was way too much fun. The Styles Clash, like so many of the other finishes in New Japan (Rainmaker, Bad Luck Fall instantly come to mind) is so well protected that the teases are always super dramatic. Ibushi teasing the finish from his DDT title win over HARASHIMA was a nice little touch, as were the instances where each man had the other well scouted (Styles thwarting the first ringpost moonsault attempt, Ibushi countering the calf slicer with an inside cradle, Styles blocking the top rope rana and nearly hitting the Styles Clash, etc). The finish was brilliant and set a million different possible directions in motion. Kenny Omega, with non New Japan history clearly (and rightfully) not being ignored, distracting Ibushi just long enough for Styles to recover and CATCH THE PHOENIX SPLASH IN MID AIR INTO A STYLES CLASH was one of the most amazing finishes (on multiple levels, both from a pure physical/aesthetic aspect and from a story perspective) that I’ve ever seen. Every single thing about this ruled. The look on Ibushi’s face as he disregarded Omega before attempting the move. Omega’s picture perfect facials & mannerisms both during the distraction and after the match, indicating that he was very torn about his actions (or was he?). The New Japan official handing Omega the trophy while Styles and the rest of the BC celebrated, and Omega just staring at it with a look on his face like “this could be me” was a very subtle touch, but did not go unnoticed. And then to top it all off, a raging Kazuchika Okada does a run in and murders everybody in sight, killing Styles with a Rainmaker, and putting everybody on notice that he’s back in the title picture. All of this had me popping out of my chair and howling in my den. This is why we watch this stuff. Great action, great storytelling, great attention to small details and callbacks to history, two great angles, and countless possibilities moving forward for all parties involved. Fucking. Awesome. ****1/4 for the match, A MILLION STARS for everything else.