New Japan Pro Wrestling is back this week with a show unlike many others this season. With Shinsuke Nakamura, Hiroshi Tanahashi, A.J. Styles, or Kazuchika Okada nowhere to be found, it’s the under card that gets a moment to shine and a Junior legend that gets the star treatment this week. The show sees The Time Splitters vs. Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly, Ryusuke Taguchi against Taichi, and Jushin Liger vs Chase Owens for the NWA Junior Title. The last time we saw such a focus on the Junior division was during the Best Of The Super Junior, so it is a change of pace for sure, but would this show have the star power to make it a must watch for the week? Could three matches featuring a cornucopia of talented junior heavyweights provide the usual juice that the mega-stars bring to the table?
Right out of the gate, the show opens with The Time Splitters (KUSHIDA and Alex Shelley) defending the IWGP Junior Tag Championship against ReDRagon (Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly). In the beginning, O’Reilly and KUSHIDA worked a heavy ground game so Mauro Ranallo and Josh Barnett went to their MMA-bag-of-tricks to focus on training methods, dojos, and learning styles of both guys. The pace was deliberate and in the opening moments Ranallo matched that toned-down pace in an almost disappointing fashion. It felt like it took a while for both Ranallo and Barnett to find their groove with this match and, in fact, it never really fully clicked.
A perfect example was a memorable spot in the match where ReDRagon had Shelley in a prone position on the mat. Bobby Fish climbed the ropes, gave the thumb-slicing motion across his neck, and looked to deliver a big move from the top turnbuckle. As we all know, Alex slowly rolls his body out of harms way. They tried again. Shelley rolls away. A third try, as both O’Reilly and Fish climb the ropes for a double-headbutt on Shelley, but Alex easily dodges the move. It is a silly, funny spot that was perfect for a Ranallo call (hell, it was perfect for a Barnett wise crack) but Mauro hand-waved the spot and never gave it a second look. We got nothing. A coal on Christmas moment, for sure.
That is not to say all was bad on this clipped match. Both Barnett and Ranallo had their moments – Mauro being a good company guy and chucking in a plug for the New Japan World Network and Josh once again laying the verbal boots on the Young Bucks – but overall the opening segment felt like something was missing. I somehow remember the match being a bit better than what was shown on AXS-TV, but maybe it was the editing or the less-than -spectacular announcing… but the opening segment just felt flat.
Speaking of flat, up next is the IWGP Junior Title match with Ryusuke Taguchi defending the strap against Taichi. A little over a year ago, VOW’s Bryan Rose gave it a three star grade, and upon second watch I would have it just make that mark. Lots of “Oh my and Garfunkel” references, Mauro Ranallo’s rapid-fire wrestler name dropping made a solid return (Toshiaki Kawada, The Dudley Boys, and Genichiro Tenryu all getting the love) and more than enough “butt-forward” offense from Taguchi. The highlight of this match was the Gotch Style Piledriver that Taichi delivered on Taguchi and Ranallo made sure he gave us a “Mamma Mia!” to add a little spice to the mix. Again, it was nothing terrible…it was just flat.
After the match, Kenny Omega made his Bullet Club debut and this was about as awkward as you’d expect with an angle that took place over a year ago. Ranallo and Barnett had to pretend that they either had no access to the internet or that the show was in fact “live”…even though all the graphics for the show clearly point out that this show was taped a year ago. Technically, you could make this same argument for every title switch shown on AXS-TV, but this Kenny Omega thing was was a tough one to get past and overlook.
We come back from the break, and Jushin Liger is in studio giving his thoughts on Chase Owens, the NWA, and his time in the ring coming to a close.
“When I think of NWA wrestlers from our generation I think of Harley Race, The Funks, Ric Flair…those were great champions. There is Giant Baba too. These champions fought in defensive matches repeatedly around the world. They are truly the ‘King of Kings’. That is my impression. (Owens) surely was a wrestler from NWA world. His wrestling is thorough and his style seems simple at first but he knows the efficient way to use his killer moves. When I saw his Package Piledriver, I was truly amazed. I really think that move is dangerous. He ( Bruce Tharpe ) assigned me to fight him but as long as I’m fighting him, I have to win the belt.”
“Considering my age and other things, the New Japan Pro Wrestling ring isn’t that easy to keep letting me fight. Of course, I’m stronger at heart than any other wrestler but I refuse to have opponents taking it easy on me. I want my opponent to bring everything they have but someday soon I won’t be able to fight. That’s reality. Some of my fans and people around me are asking, ‘Is this your last year?’ … No, this is the final chapter and conclusion for me as Liger. I’ll give it my all for how many ever years until I burn out. It is not my last match, so please let me fight a little while longer.”
The match itself was good — nothing great — but then again you aren’t watching this ( or any other current Liger match) to toss snowflakes. Liger is a solid hand and a true veteran who knows how to hide his weaknesses ( insert your wig jokes here ), make the most of what is given to him, and has the luxury of still wanting to perform at a high level while at the same time given the respect that a living legend deserves. It is a nice combination – equal parts nostalgia, respect, and appreciation each time Liger gets a little moment in the spotlight. There won’t be many left aside from a final tour, but in this last segment of the show, you could hear Ranallo and Barnett both give it their best try. It was two guys behind the microphone paying respect, giving thanks, and honoring a true legend. It was genuine and never over-the-top, but Ranallo and Barnett made sure they made clear how much Liger meant to them as wrestlers, as broadcasters and as fans of professional wrestling. What made this even more special is that they weaved all of this in while calling a wrestling match. Good, good stuff here.
After Liger captures the NWA Junior title, he addresses his fans in the ring.
“To my fans here at the venue, I won the belt! The last chapter of Jushin Thunder Liger has only begun and will keep on going. So cheer for me as you did and much, much more!”
Shortly after this in-ring plea, Liger met with the media in his post match presser.
“From now on, I might have to fight in NOAH and maybe even around the world as long as I have this belt. I’ll keep winning back to back. Tenryu said, ‘Don’t quit pro wrestling until you are satisfied. Making a comeback is the most embarrassing thing to do.’ He told me to keep wrestling until I am satisfied. I won’t ever forget those words. I am 80 percent satisfied now. I’ll be satisfied with a little more. What little is left is for my final chapter as Jushin Thunder Liger so I’ll continue on rampaging.”
Back in studio, Liger gives his final thoughts on Chase Owens and his future in professional wrestling.
“I tend to do well when the match is in Osaka. The first time I won the IWGP Jr. belt was in Osaka. The Liger call from the audiences gave me strength. It was as if they were looking out for me. I won that belt with my fans in Osaka. That is not an overstatement.”
“I’ve been to many places but the Jr. wrestlers lately are amazing. I mean that. KUSHIDA and Alex Shelley’s tag match or the Triple Threat matches…I can’t keep up with their moves because it is too intense. I can’t see how they move…or that match between Kenny Omega Ryusuke Taguchi. I can fight a match only I (or my generation) can fight. A fight between someone who has an idea of how they want to fight. That is what we ( wrestlers of my generation) have.”
Final Thoughts: Although I loved the nostalgia, respect, and appreciation given to Jushin Liger in the last half of the broadcast, this NJPW on AXS TV will fall comfortably at the bottom of the pile when it comes to “much watch” shows. If you are a looking for a feel-good pro wrestling moment, then go right ahead and fast-forward to the Liger stuff, but otherwise there are plenty of other wrestling options this weekend that might be a better option.