Live from Tokyo’s Differ Ariake on the day before Wrestle Kingdom 10, New Japan Pro Wrestling presents the Grand Puroresu Festival — part press conference/media day, part showcase for a few debuting Young Lions.
Yohei Komatsu vs Hirai Kawato
Kawato is 18. EIGHTEEN. He’s thin, gangly, and very clearly has plenty of room to grow into his awkward frame, but for some perspective, at 18 (EIGHTEEN!), he has almost a full decade to go before he’s even the same age Komatsu, who has yet to even leave for excursion, so time is very, very much on his side.
Watching Komatsu no sell strikes and eat up Kawato in the same manner that veterans have been no selling his strikes and eating him up for the better part of three years was surreal. Our Yohei has become a man, and he very much looked the part physically standing next to the teenaged (18!!) Kawato. Komatsu toyed with Kawato early, holding him on the mat with simple headlocks and head scissors while the fans chuckled at Kawato’s weak attempts to squirm away. As Komatsu wrenched in with a camel clutch, fans got behind the young(er) lion, chanting “KO-WA-DO! KO-WA-DO!”, in the same vein that they’ve gotten behind “KO-MAT-SU!” over the years. This was Komatsu in the role of the bully veteran, in a bittersweet role reversal reminder that one of the two young lions that we grew up with in the New Japan World era, with the ability to watch their growth at literally every step, was soon coming to an end.
Kawato hit a gorgeous dropkick that got so much height that he nearly got too high and came close to going over Komatsu’s head. He fired at Komatsu’s chest, but his offense is just too weak. He tapped almost instantaneously to the crab hold, which was another reminder that its been a long while since we’ve seen lions at this stage, so weak, with so little fight.
This was as wide of a disparity as you will ever see in a young lions match. Komatsu is an older lion at 27, with a fully developed frame, an already a great worker who has no business still donning the black tights at this point. Kawato is an 18-year old (almost literal) kid, under developed, working his very first pro wrestling match. Komatsu gave him almost nothing, and quickly exited the ring after his victory like a mini Katsuyori Shibata. Komatsu is ready. Now it’s time to follow the journey of Kawado. **
Sho Tanaka vs Teruaki Kanemitsu
I’m all melodrama’d out after the Komatsu/Kawado bout, but while the same theme was in play, this match was different enough to where it didn’t feel the same. This featured some nifty and dangerously close to 50/50 mat wrestling to start, before Tanaka took control and battered Kanemitsu with some stiff, and I mean STIFF, forearms to the chest. Like Komatsu, Tanaka seemed to relish the chance to finally do some no selling, treating Kanemitsu’s blows like they couldn’t break eggs. Kanemitsu’s hope spot, like Kawado’s, was a dropkick, but his wasn’t nearly as impressive. Tanaka locked in the crab hold, folded the Kanemitsu in half, and that was that. All I could think about after watching Tanaka beat this shit out of this guy, was the possibility of seeing David Finlay stretching both of these geeks in dark matches in 2016. **
Jay White, Tiger Mask, Jushin Thunder Liger vs David Finlay, Mascara Dorada, Ryusuke Taguchi
The new young lion fun was over, but this was a nifty little trios match, and hopefully this is the kind of action we’ll get in the NEVER Openweight trios matches. Everyone got plenty of time to shine, and with the steady single cam (which has grown on me this year as my preferred way to watch shows on New Japan World) one thing that jumped out at me was how hard David Finlay works the apron when he’s not tagged into the match, slapping the turnbuckle, encouraging partners, and keeping the fans engaged. The match predictably broke down, with juniors flying all over the place, isolating Dorada with White, which meant the end for White. Worth a watch if you came to see the new guys but didn’t plan on checking out the uppercard. ***
Juice Robinson & TenKoji vs Captain New Japan, Yuji Nagata, Manabu Nakanishi
If I had told you on January 3 2015 that C.J. Parker would main event the first New Japan show of 2016, you would have laughed me out of the room, but not before having his catchy NXT theme stuck in your head. We’ve been critical of Juice around these parts, but I say with no sarcasm whatsoever that he was without the question the best worker in this particular match, flying around, bumping like a madman, and very much working circles around guys who in some cases are more than 20 years his senior. Kojima, a relative whipper snapper in this one, looked good as well, and continued his string of scoring falls (leading me to believe he’s winning the Rambo at Wrestle Kingdom), putting away CNJ with the Cozy Lariat. Here’s hoping the MOST STRONGEST ARM wins the Rambo, then wins the IWGP Heavyweight title at New Beginning. ALL IN on that. **3/4