The show opened with Hunter Hearst Nagata introducing Noriyuki Oka and Katsuya Kitamura for their three minute exhibition match, which was a pleasant surprise since there was no previous indication that this would air.
Kitamura is already 30 years old, which makes him downright ancient for a guy who isn’t even having real matches yet, but has obvious raw charisma and some star potential if it turns out he can work. He’s a jacked up former freestyle and Greco-Roman champion who has been suspended from shoot competition in the past for reasons that become very clear when you look at his physique. He looks like someone that WWE would have signed and rushed to the main roster during the Mason Ryan era.
Oka is the guy everybody has their eye on. Already a hoss at 24, he’s been signed with New Japan parent company Bushiroad for several years and has been representing them in amateur competition. Nagata has taken great interest in him and has taken him directly under his wing. Insiders fully expect him to become a star relatively quickly and he’s been talked about as a potential future ace. He’s bald, he’s ugly, and he gives off a no nonsense ass kicker aura that might play very well in contrast to Kazuchika Okada someday. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Both men wrestled in amateur singlets, sans headgear, with Triple Yuji as the ref. They shot takedowns on each other, delivered dueling gut wrench suplexes, and did just enough to break sweat before the bell rang. A draw. This was interesting to watch, and in its simplicity it was actually better than a bunch of matches I watched earlier this week. The fans were very much into this.
If some of the names below are unfamiliar to you, I previewed the show here and broke down every wrestler on the card.
Shuhei Taniguchi vs Takumi Honjo
“Honjo! Honjo!” chants right at the start from the
Full Sail Shinjuku FACE faithful. Honjo is a big boy with lots of baby fat, and already has a taped up knee before he’s even had a single official match, so I like to imagine that’s due to some quality stretching from a sinister Yuji Helmsley in the dojo. MAYBACH Shuhei (no mask, and it appears the gimmick is, in fact, now totally dead) controlled the lion with side headlocks, as Honjo screamed in pain. And I mean SCREAMED. Honjo tried to fight back with forearms, but Taniguchi shrugged them off. Honjo finally took down Taniguchi with a shoulder block, and the crowd erupted. That was it for Honjo’s offense, as he tapped rather quickly to a deep crab hold moments later. He looked tentative and awkward at times (especially rope running), but it was his first ever match so I’m a cretin for even bringing that up. I hate even trying to rate this. It was a perfectly fine squash debut. *3/4
It was very clear by this point of the show that the fans knew the deal and were going to be fully behind the lions all night. Regardless of what happens in the future with Yohei Komatsu and Sho Tanaka, if nothing else, their legacy may be that they reconditioned the audience on how to treat young lions.
Hitoshi Kumano vs Hirai Kawato
The 18-year old Kawato, with a whopping five matches under his belt, was the third most experienced man to hit the ring to this point. NOAH’s Kumano, who is no stranger to facing NJPW young lions, was in a foul mood and attempted to bully young Kawato. Kawato was having none of it, and fought back valiantly, and actually controlled a good portion of the match. Kawato even slapped on a crab hold at one point and the fans got behind as if that could possibly be the finish. Kumano won it with a fisherman’s buster. Spirited effort from Kawato, and the best he’s looked out of the three or four times that I’ve seen him. **
Ryusuke Taguchi vs Kaito Kiyomiya
Taguchi was a late replacement for the flu ridden Teruaki Kanemitsu, which led to some card reshuffling. Kiyomiya was originally set to team with NOAH partner/rival Kumano to face Kanemitsu & Kawato. They ended up splitting that match into two singles bouts, because there was no way Taguchi was going to lose a tag match to two NOAH young boys, even if Kawato ate the fall, and there was no way Kawato was going to win a match this early into his career, even if Taguchi scored the fall. Kiyomiya is the least experienced wrestler on the NOAH roster. He worked hard here, as did Taguchi, with Taguchi predictably winning the bout but giving Kiyomiya more than you would think. **1/4
Taiji Ishimori vs David Finlay
On paper, this was the best matchup of the show. Ishimori offered Finlay a handshake, but some wise guy in the crowd screamed “No, no, no!”. Finlay listened to the advice and refused the Ishimori peace offer, so Ishimori pointed out the guy and gave him the business. That was fun. Ishimori controlled early and his big spot was a dive to the outside. Finlay locked in his stretch muffler finish during his comeback, but Ishimori made the ropes. Moments later he tried a belly to back suplex, but Ishimori kicked out. Ishimori used a big uranage to set up the 450, and that was it for young David. Good match, but as I feared they didn’t get a ton of time to work with working firmly in the midcard. It could have been so much more. ***
Jay White vs Yoshinari Ogawa
The age difference here was a larger number (26) than the age of roughly half the dudes on this show. They did some grappling to start, with the crafty Ogawa being one step ahead at all times. As things settled in, Ogawa worked the leg. White’s comeback were continually cut off by Ogawa kicking out the leg, and when White finally got things going, he missed a double stomp off of the top and collapsed on the bad leg. Ogawa pounced, locked on the figure four, and White tapped instantly. Ogawa held on after the bell for good measure. This was excellent for the time it was given and the best match on the show to this point. Ogawa’s craftiness was fun to watch. Easy rec if you are pressed for time. ***1/4
They announced Lion’s Gate Project2 for May 19 during intermission
Manabu Nakanishi vs Quiet Storm
Yes, this is real life. I’m not sure how this match fits into the theme of a young wrestler showcase, but here we are. I was stunned at how good this was. Nakanishi has looked completely washed up all year, but somehow this delivered as well as it could as a powerhouse vs powerhouse slugfest. There was plenty of grunting and clubbering to be had before Nakanishi won it with the standing backbreaker, and for anyone who tells you that Quiet Storm stinks, just remind them that he dragged Manabu Nakanishi to a three star singles match in 2016. ***
Hiroyoshi Tenzan & Satoshi Kojima vs Captain NOAH & Genba Hirayanagi
Four veterans having fun out there, with the crowd in the palms of their hands. I was all set to complain that shows like this don’t need matches like this one, but this was harmless fun so I had to delete my entire grumpy paragraph and start over. Genba avoided one Cozy Lariat and countered by grabbing Satoshi’s balls, but Kojima took his head off with a second attempt seconds later to pick up the win. The crowd was hot for this. Requisite “please push Kojima” line goes here. ***
Juice Robinson vs Katsuhiko Nakajima
Nakajima was all taped up from his epic battle against Minoru Suzuki the day before, and really came off like a star on his entrance. NOAH just might be on to something with his push. Robinson went right after the taped up arm and that became he story of the match. This was only Robinson’s third singles match in New Japan, so shows like this where he can not only work a singles bout, but a featured singles bout high up the card with a decent amount of time against a world class opponent, are great for a guy like him who rarely gets a chance. Robinson controlled the entire bout, which was interesting to watch because we already know he’s excellent in an enhancement role (see the Kevin Owen’s NXT debut) and can sell very well, but this was a rare chance to see him work from the top. He never ran out of ideas, finding creative ways to attack Nakajima’s injured wing, and not surprisingly he bounced around very nicely for Nakajima’s throws and kicks. The finish was a formality, but before Nakajima put Juice away with the brainbuster, they worked a very compelling match that had me all wrapped up in what they were doing. I had noted in my preview of the show that Juice had a chance to have the best match of his career in this spot, and unless there is some hidden indie gem out there that I am not aware of, he did exactly that. Very good match. ***1/2
Yuji Nagata vs Mitsuhiro Kitamiya
Kitamiya getting the main even slot is a good sign, even if NOAH isn’t doing much of anything with him right now. From the TenKoji tag onward, the crowd was super into everything, not just rallying behind the young guys. This had the best Nagata seated armbar setup ever, with Nagata catching and reversing a Kitamiya spear into the hold. Kitamiya survived a standard backdrop driver, but fell moments later to a backdrop hold. Kitamiya showed heart in defeat and looked good, with Nagata taking most of the match as expected. Nagata, who I suspect has a heavy hand in putting together these shows, cut a postmatch promo. Good match, but I preferred the semi. ***1/4
Final Thoughts: The inaugural Lion’s Gate delivered. A fun show that showcased varying levels of talent, from debut match (and even pre debut match) all the way to 30 year veteran, with every bout hitting very close to its reasonable expectations. Debuts are always interesting to watch (Honjo), and the Oka exhibition match may ultimately wind up being the most historically significant match of the show if he meets his enormous potential. Maybe we’ll see his proper, official debut in May. As for the more established talent, Juice Robinson was a big winner here with his best match to date, and the ageless Yoshinari Ogawa was my favorite performer on the show. Well worth a watch.