New Japan Pro Wrestling
NJPW Invasion Attack 2016
An announced sellout of 9,078 fans watched Tetsuya Naito finally capture the IWGP Heavyweight title, with some help from a shocking new member of Los Ingobernables de Japon – Seiya Sanada.
Bad Luck Fale & Yujiro Takahashi def. Ryusuke Taguchi & Juice Robinson
Yujiro attacked Taguchi before the bell, and after surviving an early Grenade, a very game (and rapidly improving) Juice was put away quickly via the Bad Luck Fall. This was essentially a squash, as a grumpy Fale looked to be in no mood to fool around. Which is fine, because Fale should be squashing prelim guys, not working 50/50 with them. **
Yuji Nagata & Satoshi Kojima & Jushin Thunder Liger def. Toru Yano & YOSHI-HASHI & Kazushi Sakuraba
Team Dad worked very hard here. In fact, the New Japan Dads (which also includes Hiroyoshi Tenzan and Manabu Nakanishi, although Nakanishi moves around like granddad these days) have worked super hard all year, perhaps motivated by all of the roster turnover and jockeying for better slots than taking turns trading NWA titles with the Rob Conway’s and Chase Owens’ of the world. Another short bout, with Nagata putting YOSHI-HASHI away with a backdrop hold. Good hard pace, hard hitting, and totally inoffensive. **1/2
Hirooki Goto & Tomohiro Ishii def. BUSHI & EVIL
I loved every second of this. This was the kind of fact paced, hard hitting action that I want and expect on my New Japan shows. Goto was getting booed out of the building early on, but quickly turned the crowd by being awesome. Goto was so so great here, beating the living shit out of everything that moved, and working with the heel edge he picked up post New Year’s. Watanabe is finally settling into his EVIL role, and hung with Goto every step of the way. After Goto and Ishii basically committed murder on poor overmatched BUSHI to win the match (Ushigoroshi/sliding lariat combo that looked straight up nasty), Goto and EVIL had a violent pull apart that appears to be setting up what will no doubt be a hard nosed singles program. EVIL is only going to get better working with the likes of Ishii and Goto, the exact types of workers he should be modeling himself after. He’s smaller than those guys, but it’s gradually getting to the point where it doesn’t matter. ***
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship
Roppongi Vice def. Matt Sydal & Ricochet (c)
This delivered the incredible action that you would expect from these two teams, and the crowd was hot for it, further shattering the myth that Japanese fans don’t care and won’t react to gaijin vs gaijin bouts. The first significant moment of the bout may have flown under the radar if you don’t keep up with New Japan on a day to day basis. Sydal kicked out of Trent’s Dudebuster, the same move that put away Ricochet a few minutes later, and the move that Trent has used to win a million matches with on this tour. With Sydal sticking around and Ricochet presumably leaving, Sydal surviving a finish that Ricochet could not was a subtle, important detail of the match. The Ricochet/Romero closing stretch put this over the top from very good to great, and once again reinforced my desire to see a Romero singles run that will probably never happen. Excellent match, clean, fast paced work, and some great action. Very good chance that this is it for Ricochet’s New Japan run. ****
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship
KUSHIDA (c) def. Will Ospreay
I saw Ospreay have three Match of the Year level singles matches live in Dallas over WrestleMania weekend, and this bout was better than two of them (Marty Scurll, Ricochet) and right on par with the third (Zack Sabre Jr). Most impressive of all, is that all four matches were different from one another. The Scurll match was the continuation of their year long story, with the heel PROGRESS champion continually cutting off the comebacks of the babyface challenger. The Ricochet match was an all out spotfest designed to give the live crowd exactly what they wanted out of a dream main event. The ZSJ match was an dazzling display of counters and one-upmanship. This bout featured focused selling of a body part, as KUSHIDA viciously, and I mean VICIOUSLY went after Ospreay’s arm to set up the eventual match winning Hoverboard Lock. Focused limb selling was hardly considered one of Ospreay’s strengths coming into this bout, and in fact, his overall selling has easily been his most frequently heard critique. One match will not (and should not) change that, but this was the best overall Ospreay performance I’ve seen to date. In one particularly incredible sequence, Ospreay collapsed under his own weight when attempting a handspring, which hammered home the arm damage. A few moments later, Ospreay adjusted and completed the move without using his arms. Perhaps you didn’t hear me. He did a HANDSPRING using NO HANDS. Even though I’ve heard people say this several times already this week, and will no doubt hear it again after his next incredible match, this was a star making performance in every way. Will Ospreay is 22-years old, and is on the cusp of being the best wrestler in the world. ****1/2
Jushin Thunder Liger stepped up from the commentary table as your next junior title challenger, and that’ll be an awesome match.
NEVER Openweight 6-Man Championship
Hiroshi Tanahashi & Michael Elgin & Yoshitatsu def. the ELITE (c)
Absolute madness. DDT meets PWG. This was basically a tornado tag, totally out of control with bodies flying all over the place and liberal use of garbage cans, aresol spray bottles, and rolling carts. The match long tease was Omega attempting to Styles Clash Yoshitatsu, which along with the faces winning the titles, would have been the only other acceptable finish for the match had it went down. Elgin gave Nick Jackson an assisted powerbomb off the top rope to win the titles for the good guys, in what was a feel good moment for Tatsu, working his first match since bowing out one match into the World Tag League in November 2014 after suffering a broken neck on a botched Styles Clash at Power Struggle a week prior. It would’ve been nice if Tatsu had scored the fall, but Elgin ended up challenging Omega for the IC title in the post match scrum, so things ended up falling into place. As I type this, we still don’t know the status of Cody Hall, who appeared to injure his neck catching a Matt Jackson flip dive off of a balcony. Hopefully he’s OK, as the sick irony of another serious neck injury occurring during Tatsu’s return match is lost on no one. ***1/4
Update: Matt Jackson later Tweeted that Cody Hall is indeed hospitalized, and banged up, but doing fine. Great news! -JL
— Jocay (@Jocay19) April 10, 2016
NEVER Openweight Championship
Katsuyori Shibata (c) def Hiroyoshi Tenzan
What hurt this to some extent was a lack of drama, because a blind man can see that this Shibata vs The Dads story is going to end with Shibata facing Yuji Nagata, pounded home by Nagata not so subtly being heavily featured in the hype video for Tenzan’s turn at the title. This wasn’t quite as good as the Shibata/Kojima match from earlier on the tour, but it was hard hitting (duh), and as most savvy New Japan fans expected, Tenzan was able to bring it in the big spot. Shibata winning abruptly with a PK worked, because this three match arc peaks with the Nagata bout anyway, so Shibata came out of this looking real strong after the hard back and forth battle against Kojima last month. Shibata bowed to the fallen Tenzan, drawing some claps moments before kicking an unsuspecting Nagata’s head off. What a dick! ***3/4
IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship
G.O.D. def. G.B.H. (c)
We have new champions, and they did not get off to a great start.
I had serious doubts that Tonga Roa/Tanga Roa/Tanga Loa/Camacho/Donny Marlow/Micah/whatever the hell his name is (nobody seems to know for sure) could hang at the New Japan level, and this match did nothing to change my mind. It’s not that the former Camacho was bad here, but he totally came off as “just a guy”, and that simply isn’t going to cut it working semi main events for a company like New Japan where the working standard is a cut above Performance Center assembly line JAG’s. This match was dull as dirt, featured the near impossible accomplishment of a totally non compelling Honma heat segment, and was a clear step backwards from the good work GBH had done in the slow rehab of the heavyweight tag titles. The former Micah simply isn’t ready for this kind of spot, and would have been better served from a development standpoint to take the Juice Robinson slow climb up the ladder. I’m not letting Tama Tonga off the hook, either. I was one of the loudest voices screaming “Push Tama Tonga”, but he doesn’t have a single match in 2016 that I can point to which justifies that demand. It’s way too early to give up on him, but he may be one of those guys who is best suited to take big bumps and put over other people. Where has his charisma and fire gone? **
IWGP Heavyweight Championship
Tetsuya Naito def. Kazuchika Okada (c)
In a year when New Japan Pro Wrestling lost three legitimate top draws and has seen a slight (but not quite yet alarming) drop in rank and file house show attendance, this match sold out Sumo Hall, and did so in advance. Los Ingobernables de Japon is red hot, Tetsuya Naito is for real, and Sumo Hall turned heel and was firmly behind the challenger.
When Shinsuke Nakamura, AJ Styles, and Kota Ibushi left New Japan earlier this year and others were predicting a quick demise of the company, I stressed the idea to anyone who would listen that there was plenty of depth to choose from to replace all three of those men. New Japan had been super deep for years, something that was oddly ignored and/or underestimated by pundits, with plenty of potential stars laying in the weeds waiting for a chance, but even so, the first few months of 2016 would be critical in terms of who they ultimately chose and in how they handled elevating them.
Kenny Omega’s push has been picture perfect, pinning Nakamura, destroying Styles and booting him from the Bullet Club (and the company), dethroning the Hiroshi Tanahashi for the IC title, forming The Elite with the Young Bucks, becoming a double champion, and getting over huge with fans in the process. He passed his first small business test by selling out the smaller of the two New Beginning shows in February with the match against Tanahashi, and with an established track record of drawing on top for DDT (including multiple Sumo Hall sellouts), he appears to be on his way to effectively replacing Styles. You couldn’t ask for a stronger push, and it looks like it’s working.
Gedo finally pulled the trigger on Katsuyori Shibata, who now officially wears the lions’s mark (which may have been the biggest barrier standing in the way of his push, with trust being a key issue since he bolted the company once before to be the short lived ace of the short live Big Mouth Loud), and while the push has been strong, time will tell if he will be able to fill the two to three times per year, fifth on the depth chart headline spot that Ibushi previously occupied.
Nakamura was always going to be the hardest to replace, as he was arguably the top draw in the company (realistically number two, but absolutely no lower than third), even if he wasn’t always treated as such. Naito had a jump start on sliding into Nak’s role with a gimmick change and heel turn in 2015 before the defections. By the time Nakamura split for WWE, Naito already had tons of momentum, a growing stable, and emerging fan support. LIdJ has realistically already surpassed the splintering and slowly dying Bullet Club as the top heel unit in the company, with Naito’s merchandise sales routinely ranking as top seller helping to solidify that point.
Naito, who draws motivation for his anti establishment eh, it’s whatever gimmick from being legitimately passed over by the likes of Okada and Styles, has completely reinvented himself not only as a performer, but also as a star, finally reaching his long touted potential not just by beating Okada his first IWGP title, but more importantly firmly establishing himself as a legitimate drawing card, after being written off by many, including me, when his last major push fizzled so badly that he had to be embarrassingly removed from a Wrestle Kingdom main event. The Nakamura slot, by far the biggest and most critical to fill of the three voids, appears to now be occupied, and Naito’s momentum is still building.
Many were hyper focused on the top of the card losses, but by dipping into the depth to fill those roles, and the loss of other mid card role players like Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows, it’s the lack of depth and replenishing the bench that has suddenly become an issue. A second wave of top level roster losses would be crippling, and this seems like a good time to remind everyone that Okada has yet to sign the five year mega extension he has on the table. The jury is still out on the elevations of EVIL, Tama Tonga, Michael Elgin, and others. Free agents like Ricochet and Will Ospreay were never going to be long term solutions, as their not so distant futures clearly reside in Florida. This is where scooping up a native free agent like Seiya Sanada, who debuted in this match as the newest member of LIdJ, is such an important move. He has the look that the company seeks, and the working ability to keep up with the top stars. Perhaps most importantly, he’s an import from outside of the system. This shows a rare and radical departure from tradition, and a sense of urgency in a new landscape that saw the old rules completely change in January. Once considered a top prospect, Sanada was never going to grow enough to make a difference in a death bed lost cause like All Japan or a glorified indie like Wrestle-1. His attempt to catch on in North America didn’t work out, but I’m sure he’s well aware of the most efficient path back, and it’s not working Big Japan mid cards. Sanada’s New Japan deal has loads of upside for both sides, and in hindsight was an absolute no brainer for all parties involved. Being part of a hot act like LIdJ right from the jump is gravy. He’ll be in the top mix with Okada right off the bat, with the obvious long term possibility of turning on and feuding with Naito. He’s an instant player.
The match itself was a super compelling 30-minute ride, with zero filler. Even Naito’s pluma blanca spot, which he has failed to get over at all because he never wins matches with it, was sold so beautifully by Okada that the hold almost resulted in real drama for once, even for the hardest of the hardcore fans who knew better. Sumo Hall was lit the entire way, absolutely electric, not so much booing Okada as they were cheering Naito. Naito embraced his support in the post match, with the curiously wary eyes of Sanada on him, before tossing the IWGP belt over his shoulder like a piece of trash. That was symbolic, and like his character, reality was intertwined with work. “Oh sure, you love me now. ”
This was not the most well worked or most dramatic or most classic IWGP title match of recent vintage, but it was the most compelling. And with a wider lens, it may end up being the most important.
Even with the dud of a semi main event, Invasion Attack 2016 was an incredible show with great variety, and a show that ultimately may prove to be the symbolic start of a new(ish) era.