New Japan Pro Wrestling
NJPW Wrestling Dontaku
Convention Center – Fukuoka, Japan
May 3, 2016

Watch NJPW Wrestling Dontaku 2016:

Bad Luck Fale & Yujiro Takahashi def. Juice Robinson & Captain New Japan

Bad Luck Fale excels at two things. One is gatekeeper feuds with big babyface stars, and delivering in those matches when those guys carry things by bouncing all over the place while allowing him to stiff the shit out of them. The other is squashing prelim dudes in short matches. This trend of Fale thoroughly dominating the likes of Juice Robinson and Captain New Japan in short order is a good one. It allows him to retain his monster aura, and it hides his weaknesses. Long back and forth mid card matches would expose him and accomplish the complete opposite. Captain New Japan took yet another fall while teaming with Juice, who is very clearly ahead of him in the pecking order these days. *1/2

Kazushi Sakuraba & Gedo & Will Ospreay & YOSHI-HASHI def. Ryusuke Taguchi & Tiger Mask & Jay White & David Finlay

Will Ospreay, with the world in his hands as the hottest unsigned act in wrestling, made the right decision in signing with New Japan. He’s 22 years old, so even five more years (which is an eternity in wrestling) of building buzz and gaining a rep still only puts him at 27, right on the precipice of his wrestling prime. He also stands to make more money on a full time NJPW deal (supplemented by European and North American independent dates between tours) than he would by locking himself into a ~$45,000 per year WWE developmental deal of which I have no idea was even on the table, but of which he surely could have secured had he wanted to at this point. WWE will always be there. Chasing a deal now when your value is lowest makes little sense, because if he retains the same career path (especially in New Japan, which WWE clearly has eyes on and is apt to pluck talent) he will have far more leverage to cut a much better deal a few years from now (see: AJ Styles). Also, he’s 22 years old. It isn’t just about building value. Travel the world. Make friends. Enjoy creative freedom. When you tire of the half day flights and the bruises start taking a little longer to heal, that’s when you start to think about reeling in the crazy bumps, settling down, and setting an anchor to one place.

As expected, this built to the Ospreay tag, and as expected, he pinned Finlay. Too short to be anything of consequence, and half of it was Sakuraba & Tiger Mask boring everybody with dry stalemate grappling. **1/2

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships
Matt Sydal & Ricochet def. Roppongi Vice (Beretta & Rocky Romero) (c)

So there is this girl I know. She’s super cool, we hang out a lot, and we have a great time. Sometimes she’ll sleep over and we’ll spend the entire weekend together. We’ll sit around, order pizza, watch Netflix, do a whole lot of nothing, and we never really get bored or tired of each other. She’s super cute, we have things in common, and we have the same sense of humor. She used to frustrate me greatly, because she seems like the perfect person for me, but she’s real flaky. She’ll disappear for a month. She’ll randomly stop answering texts. She turns cold when things get a little too close. Eventually, I gave up on taking her seriously. Don’t get me wrong, we’re friends, things are cool, and I still love hanging out with her, but understanding who she is, and more importantly accepting it, was the key to no longer wasting energy stressing and enabling myself to have good times with her. She is what she is, our relationship is what it is, and it is never going to change.

People spend a lot of time moaning about the state of the IWGP junior tag titles. They moan about how they change hands too frequently, the lack of native Japanese teams, how the matches are all largely  the same, and the lack of storylines. You can do that if you want, or you can understand and accept what these matches are, and stop waiting for them to be something they aren’t. You can anxiously check your phone every ten minutes for a text that is never coming, or you can settle in and enjoy next months ***1/4 star title change for what it is. The choice is yours. ***1/4

NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championships
the ELITE (Kenny Omega & Young Bucks) def. Hiroshi Tanahashi & Michael Elgin & Yoshitatsu (c)

This was more of a backdrop to set up Tanahashi challenging Omega for the Intercontinental title, in what will presumably be a ladder match, since a ladder has figured prominently in the last couple of six man bouts between the two. Omega accepted.

I like putting the titles back on The Elite. These three goofs running around with a bunch of belts enhances their pompous asshole gimmick, so the more titles the better. The quickie change served it’s purpose of giving depth to Omega’s feuds with both Elgin and Tanahashi, and also as the climactic peak of the feel good return of Yoshitatsu from his career threatening broken neck. As for Yoshitatsu’s Bullet Club Hunter Hearst Helmsley gimmick, as my Euro pals like to say, that can go straight into the bin. The Japanese either don’t understand it or don’t find it amusing, because they never react. The Bullet Club, in tatters as its own members fracture off and attempt to do their own things, barely has a pulse these days. Yoshitatsu looks like an absolute geek, and the next stop is teaming with Captain New Japan, who oddly also wears gear that says “Bullet Club Hunter”. You’re hunting an endangered species, guys. Move on. ***

IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championships
Guerrillas of Destiny (Tama Tonga & Tanga Loa) (c) def. G.B.H. (Togi Makabe & Tomoaki Honma)

I had so much trouble getting into this. Maybe it was the crowd, which still doesn’t know what to make of G.O.D. and clearly didn’t want them to win here, and not in the good kind of way. It would be easy to blame G.O.D. and say they aren’t very good, even with the fair disclaimer of only a handful of matches together, but maybe it isn’t entirely on them and it’s that these teams simply don’t mesh together. I know GBH can go, because they’ve got a history, including recent history of a good World Tag League tour and getting arguably the two best matches of the entire Guns ‘n Gallows New Japan run out of Anderson & Gallows. Look, I’ve buried Loa enough over the last couple of months, and I don’t want to pile on. He is clearly in over his head and playing catch up. Tonga continues to make me and others who screamed for his push look foolish as he continues to disappoint. I’m a patient man and I will give more benefit of doubt. With a second straight win, perhaps they’re done with GBH (for now). If G.O.D. looks better against the next challengers, maybe we can chalk these matches up to chemistry. I’m skeptical, but willing to wait and see. The bigger problem though, is that aside from the weak matches, the act simply isn’t over. **

NEVER Openweight Championship
Yuji Nagata def. Katsuyori Shibata (c)

I’m not sure how I feel about the title change here. On one hand, Shibata talked a lot of shit and picked this fight with old guys, so the natural story is for the punk to get his comeuppance against the top dad. But on the other hand, we’ve seen this story play out very well the opposite way, most recently in Dragon Gate with Shingo, who beat up and disrespected the likes of Gamma, Don Fujii, and Masaaki Mochizuki before also taking out the guy who is not only Dragon Gate’s top dad but also their all time icon, CIMA.

CIMA’s attempt to stop the punk resulted in a super emotional and memorable match, with one of the most emotional sequences in years (CIMA’s attempt to take down Shingo by stacking the signature moves of all of his fallen pals), but Shingo prevailing was the right call for the long term story. One time I was talking to a friend of mine who also happens to be a booker, and I said something about ultimately giving the fans what they want. He turned to me and said, “Not always.” And he’s right.

The match itself was well paced and the intensity matched the story. The crowd was hot for Nagata, and I have no complaints about the work itself, but the ending was abrupt and I feel like it hurt the reaction for the win because some fans were expecting a kickout. Shibata doing his usual immediate sprint to the back was done in shame this time around, as opposed to his usual arrogant strut as he leaves another beaten body in his wake. Is this a learning moment for Shibata? A temporary humbling? Is he simply moving on? I’m going to wait and see where this ultimately goes before I decide whether giving the fans what they wanted was a good call. ***1/2

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship
KUSHIDA (c) def. Jushin Thunder Liger

I loved this. Liger worked over KUSHIDA’s left leg, and KUSHIDA sold it extremely well with little touches like limping back into the ring at 19.99999 to avoid count out, stumbling over and collapsing on a leap frog, and using his right leg to kick instead of his left. I cringed watching him jump off the turnbuckle (one time) and (gasp!) break into a mini sprint at one point, not because it took anything away from his performance or the story, but because I had visions of selling fetishists immediately burying the guy for minor selling transgressions that took nothing away from the match or the story being told. There was no point in this match where I felt KUSHIDA’s leg wasn’t bothering him, so while this wasn’t Chris Masters on Superstars against Drew McIntyre, it didn’t have to be in order to be very good and to tell the story. There are times when bad selling is a red herring, a low hanging fruit to pick when you are dead set on ripping a performer you aren’t fond of. Bad selling is a lot like holding in a football game, if you’re looking for it, you’re probably going to find it. I used to catch myself doing this. My theory on selling has evolved: I don’t look for poor selling, but it’s a problem it finds me. Approaching matches in this manner has greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the fake graps. If the story isn’t hurt by it, it doesn’t matter. I like great selling way more than I dislike mediocre selling.

KUSHIDA has done very well for himself working his matches around the setting up the Hoverboard Lock, and I loved the added emphasis that the locking his knuckls was needed in order to really wrench in the hold and force Liger to tap. My one minor gripe was that the brainbuster on the floor would have been better served later in the bout, when it could have been bought as the finish. KUSHIDA’s great selling in that spot was essentially wasted because no one was buying a count out that early in the match. ****

EVIL def. Hirooki Goto

Within the first 30 seconds of this match, EVIL wrapped a chair around Goto’s dome and then smashed it with another chair. It certainly started things off with a bang, but that was the big spot and it sort of took away from what was really a pretty intense bout that blew away the match they had last year at Power Struggle. EVIL’s clean as a sheet win via EVIL (STO) continues the hard luck Goto story, which nobody really believes ended by simply joining CHAOS. It also serves a clear message that EVIL is a legitimate mid card player, and not just a Naito lackey in a goofy costume. ***1/4

Kazuchika Okada def. SANADA

A very good, but not great match.

Sometimes you get the sense that a match is laying the groundwork for matches somewhere down the line, and that’s precisely what I felt watching this. Aside from some brilliant and beautiful finisher countering by both men (including a great Dragon Sleeper counter into a tombstone by Okada that ultimately spelled doom for SANADA), this did not have the usual frenetic and wild closing stretch of a signature Okada bout. This was very much unlike Okada’s recent matches with people like Tanahashi and Fale, where the opponent is familiar and the action reflects it. This had a clear story of two men feeling each other out, one the fallen ace who was screwed out of his title, the other the man who could have been ace in another place and time, but was the victim of the state of his places of employment more so than his own efforts. Two very similar men in look, style, and ability, apt that the one who is bitter and jaded cost the other the prize that took four years to definitively wrest from his career rival. These men will have many more encounters, and I’m sure most of those will be on far bigger stages with much bigger stakes than this one. You can book that.

Here’s something that needs to go. At one point Okada was trapped in the Dragon Sleeper. They did the old “hand drops twice and then the babyface powers up on the third hand drop” routine. Unless it’s some cartoonish Hulk Hogan match on Saturday Night’s Main Event, that spot needs to go away forever. I hate it. Cornball bullshit. ***1/2

IWGP Heavyweight Championship
Tetsuya Naito (c) def. Tomohiro Ishii

Ishii is the perfect opponent for a spot like this, where a new champion needs a credible yet beatable challenger to get his reign rolling, who can give him a great match, while also losing absolutely nothing in defeat. And despite knowing he had no chance to win, and even with all doubt removed by watching this spoiled, Ishii is such a great pro wrestler that he managed to suck me right into this match, just like he sucks me into all of his matches.

Ishii has an intangible quality about him where he compels you to pull for him, and is probably the most complete pro wrestler working today. His offense is nasty and believable. His selling is top notch, maybe the best in the business, whether staggering after a big blow, absorbing a giant bump, going limp for a finish, or going glassy eyed and drooling when his stubborn heart is finally stomped dead. He gives off a vibe of being a hard to kill, but not impossible to beat, eliciting the right kind of emotion for the modern era where the superhero archetype isn’t necessarily what the people want. He’s a real guy, the everyman, who will never give up. He’s like John Cena without the primary colors or the pandering, the quiet neighbor who you never knew was a volunteer fireman until he pulls you out of your burning house, dutifully goes back in to look for your parakeet, and won’t stop looking until he digs through every pile of ash. He will fight to the death, but you know he can lose (and so does he), and that’s the hook. You’re happy for him when he wins, and you’re gutted for him when he loses. He’s a great worker but an even better character.

The last thing I expected this to have was drama, and shame on me. Ishii is Ishii. But then you had the added dynamic of Okada and Gedo cheering him on, thwarting EVIL and BUSHI’s attempts to save Naito as Ishii attempted to tear the champion’s leg from his torso. How could you not think about an Ishii/Okada IWGP title match while watching this? All the while Tanahashi is creeping on commentary, looking like he’d like another crack at that strap. Ishii worked and worked and worked Naito’s surgically repaired right leg, and wrestled perhaps his most complete match yet. Ishii and Naito always have great matches, but this one was different. This was an Ishii with a plan, an Ishii who went after Naito’s leg like he wanted to rip it off and take it home as a trophy along with the title. “Ishii Smash”, after all, didn’t work at New Japan Cup.

Naito didn’t get the help he thought he needed, because Okada took care of that. The Pluma Blanca wasn’t enough (is it ever?), but the Destino was. The crowd, somehow sucked in just like I was, was quickly and suddenly silenced.

It would be fitting if this Wrestling Dontaku clash was the one and only IWGP Heavyweight Title match in Ishii’s career. He came to work, he showed HEART, he showed FIGHT, and he came up short. He has never been the chosen one. He wasn’t destined to win. He couldn’t win. We knew better. But he got us anyway. He always does. ****1/4