When fans fantasy book the NEVER Openweight title all willy nilly, they ought not forget that while the title is no higher than third in the NJPW pecking order, it is more than your typical meaningless third rung Western style C-title, but something counted on to draw in mid sized venues two to three times per year. The person who holds the title and who they face on these shows matters, and the Kizuna Road show from Iwate, wedged between the Best of the Super Juniors and G1 Climax tours, was one of those instances, and the second time this year that Katsuyori Shibata was put in a position to draw as NEVER champion.
Shibata is (finally) being elevated, with the NEVER title being built around him, and his stamp of approval Nagata feud being the first steps. In hindsight, New Japan was wise to stall his push all of these years, keeping him just warm enough so fans wouldn’t lose faith, but also preserving key match-ups (Okada, who he hasn’t crossed paths with in years) and his elusive first IWGP Heavyweight Title challenge. New Japan simply didn’t need to push Shibata when they were loaded with drawing stars, and wisely kept him laying in the weeds, waiting for the right time, and that time is now. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s finally an official member of the roster, and that his unstated but obvious glass ceiling punishment for abandoning the company during its darkest days if firmly in the rear view.
Shibata’s NEVER defense against Satoshi Kojima, which kick started his feud with New Japan’s third generation, drew 4,000 fans to a Road to Invasion Attack house show stop in Aichi on 3/19. This is where the NEVER title becomes an important drawing piece, as it allows New Japan to run a larger than usual building once or twice per year without burning a big IWGP Heavyweight or IWGP Intercontinental match. The 4,000 number crushed a Road to Invasion Attack show almost exactly one year earlier to the day in the same building that drew 2,200 with a run of the mill tag bout on top. This shows the added drawing power of a NEVER title defense. For further comparison, a 2015 G1 stop in Aichi drew 6,500 on 8/2 (Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Toru Yano), and Shibata himself helped draw 5,500 to the building in December during the World Tag League (Naito/EVIL vs Goto/Shibata), both being bigger shows on more important tours.
As far as Iwate goes, New Japan last ran the building this past August during the G1, and drew 2.396 fans (Naito vs Kota Ibushi). Kizuna Road drew 2,129, holding up much better vs the G1 than Shibata’s Kojima defense did in Aichi. Shibata’s early returns as a second tier draw are right in line with Togi Makabe, who was central to the NEVER title last year and is considered a second level draw. The difference, is Makabe’s days at the top are long behind him, and his NEVER matches were not part of a longer term elevation. Shibata’s 2016 NEVER run is a prelude to what the company hopes will be bigger and better things. The early returns have not been spectacular, but he’s certainly holding his own.
Chase Owens def. David Finlay
I’ve always thought of Chase Owens as a good worker and have always defended him when New Japan fans questioned his spot on the roster. He looked nervous in his first couple of NJPW appearances, and even after he settled in, he was still missing the confidence and swagger that he routinely shows on the U.S. indie scene. It has taken a bit of time, but Owens has finally put it all together. His work, which was never really an issue anyway, has been very solid (especially so in this years Best of the Super Juniors, where he put in very good performances as an eleventh hour emergency replacement called upon literally days before the tour started, which surely earned him brownie points with the office), but it’s his personality where he has shown noticeable growth. The bland, nervous NWA representative has been replaced by a confident, shit talking Bullet Club member, with Owens exuding more charisma than ever and finally showing New Japan fans the total package that has made him a regional standout in the old Smoky Mountain territory.
Finlay was a good dance partner here (when is he not?), and this was a tidy, entertaining opener, albeit a slight notch below what the Jay White vs Finlay encounters had been bringing to the table lately. Worth a watch unless pressed for time. ***
Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Ryusuke Taguchi, Jushin Thunder Liger, Tiger Mask def. Tomohiro Ishii, Kazushi Sakuraba, Rocky Romero, Beretta
Hiroyoshi Tenzan was snubbed from the G1 this year, and he’s clearly not happy about it, scoring angry falls in tag matches and cutting scathing promos at every opportunity. After putting away Beretta with a moonsault, we got another Tenzan mic drop here, as he insisted that he would find a way into this years field, no matter what he had to do to do so. This all seemed to be setting up a fun little story where an angry Tenzan kills people on G1 undercards, proving how stupid the New Japan office is for snubbing him, but what happened about an hour later was something very different. ***1/4
Hangman Page & Yujiro Takahashi def. Captain New Japan & Yoshitatsu
I had a massive problem with the layout of this match. If the new Bullet Club team are the next challengers for the IWGP Heavyweight tag titles, then why are they working a 50/50 struggle with a prelim team that is slotted about a half notch higher than the young lions? It looks even worse when you consider that Bad Luck Fale routinely squashes these guys, so from a logic standpoint, it makes you wonder why Fale isn’t the one somehow getting the title shot. Intellectually we know why, because Fale is part of the G1 field and the tag title match takes place on the final night, so they can’t give away that Fale (SPOILER ALERT) won’t be making the finals, but that doesn’t change the fact that Page & Yujiro hardly looked strong in what should have been a decisive squash over two total jabrones. Am I over thinking all of this? Probably, especially since Page did his hangman routine in the post match and ultimately the heels came away looking dominant, but try to picture the Four Horsemen being prepped for a big NWA tag title match by struggling to beat Italian Stallion & Les Thornton, and that’s basically what we had here. The only way something like this works is if you are setting up the heels as fraudulent challengers, but that’s not a story New Japan typically tells and is clearly not the idea here. **1/2
Yuji Nagata & Manabu Nakanishi def. Togi Makabe & Juice Robinson
I don’t know how anyone could come away from watching this match and the previous bout not wanting to see Nagata & Nakanishi challenge the Briscoes instead of what we’re actually getting. Nagata jacking the NEVER title from Shibata while teaching the cocky fuck about respect is the strong style lesson Shibata needed to kick off his real New Japan elevation, and NJPW is actually doing some things with Tenzan and Satoshi Kojima for the first time in years, but the far more surprising career resurgence has been from the forgotten dad, Nakanishi.
I don’t believe Izzac, who co-hosts the Puro in the Rough podcast, is exaggerating in either direction with that Tweet. Nakanishi was beyond awful last year, easily the worst wrestler on the roster if you don’t count one and done Amber Gallows or Maria Kanellis, looking so washed up that he was far worse than perennial fan whipping boys like Yujiro, but out of respect many people were too polite to say it. Look, nobody is going to confuse 2016 Nakanishi with Diasuke Sekimoto, but he’s working hard, putting in fun performances, flying around like a junior (he came off the top rope THREE TIMES here, including a super slick looking flying cross body), and is no longer actively dragging matches down to his level. At the age of 49, he’s a sneaky and legitimate candidate for Most Improved. And what is with the uncanny chemistry between Nakanishi and Juice Robinson? I noted this oddity a few tours ago, but who would have ever though that these two men would be so perfect together? Wrestling is very, very weird sometimes. This match was a real surprise, don’t skip it. ***1/2
NEVER Openweight Six Man Tag Team Titles – Satoshi Kojima, Ricochet, Matt Sydal def. The Elite (Kenny Omega & The Young Bucks) (c)
The best match of the night, and a shade below MOTY level. The pacing here was unreal, with non stop action from bell to bell. This was like watching a red hot Dragon Gate match where everything clicks, with Kojima cast as Don Fujii. The Kojima/Ricochet/Sydal team has a charming chemistry about them, which is a nice surprise that New Japan has accidentally stumbled into, since Kojima is the surrogate for Michael Elgin who was moved up and out of this spot when he himself became a surrogate for the injured Hiroshi Tanahashi against Kenny Omega. Kojima’s double lariat to set up the match winning double Shooting Star Press from his junior pals was a great moment, and there is something really cool about seeing Kojima holding up New Japan gold once again with a giant smile on his face. The NEVER trios scene has been a fun series of wacky teams in wacky matches that has accomplished the goal of spicing up mid level shows like this one. ****1/4
Now let’s talk about the post match. Kojima called out his tag partner and best bud Tenzan. Kojima explained to his pal that if this was going to be his final chance at a G1, then he would gladly step aside and give up his spot to allow him to take it, under the condition that “you better win it!”. Tenzan accepted, people cheered, and we had ourselves a touching display of Kojima going full BFF for his former rival and longtime best dude, reminiscent of Rocky Balboa & Apollo Creed. Hopefully this doesn’t end with Bad Luck Fale murdering Tenzan in the ring, but you get the idea.
I have no problem with giving Tenzan a G1 retirement tour, and this was a clever and creative way to build to it, but on a personal level THIS STINKS. Kojima is my favorite New Japan wrestler, and one of my favorite wrestlers of all time. I was looking forward to every single one of his G1 matches, particularly against Okada, Tanahashi, Ishii, and Goto. I’d also like to remind the reader that Kojima is actually older than Tenzan, and doesn’t exactly have a ton of G1’s left in his tank, either. Look, I get it. This is a nice little piece of storytelling, and Tenzan will surely have some memorable moments and throwback performances. It was a nice moment when Kojima stepped aside. But this gutted me.
Elimination Match – CHAOS (Kazuchika Okada, Hirooki Goto, YOSHI-HASHI, Will Ospreay) def. Los Ingobernables de Japon (Tetsuya Naito, SANADA, EVIL, BUSHI)
A good match, but I preferred the two tag bouts between these sides from the 6/27 Korakuen show. The recent pattern in these elimination matches has been to eliminate the big stars early and let the junior members of the units shine, and that’s what we got here, as Okada and Naito eliminated each other early and took the night off. Goto was next to go, eliminated by EVIL, as they continue to go tit for tat in their ongoing feud. YOSHI-HASHI eliminated EVIL, and then SANADA took out YOSHI-HASHI, gaining a measure of revenge after YOSHI-HASHI had taken two straight falls over him in tag bouts. This set the stage for Young Will to make the two on one comeback, standing tall as the sole survivor as he joins Hulk Hogan, Ultimate Warrior, and Tito Santana on the face side of the ultimate survivor match, in a joke I will never not use in these reviews. Several small things were accomplished here. The Goto/EVIL and SANADA/Y-H feuds were kept balanced, and Young Will was given a big win after eating the fall in the Korakuen main event last week. Still, this was a bit underwhelming considering how hot this feud is and how good recent elimination matches have been. ***1/2
NEVER Openweight Title – Katsuyoru Shibata (c) def. Tomoaki Honma
This was a well worked and perfectly fine match, good even, but it left me a little empty. It was a bit of a forced issue to get here, as a wild Honma appeared like an ROKO out of nowhere to issue a backstage challenge, later to be learned that Honma was apparently jealous of Shibata’s recent success and NEVER title victories. They’ve had better matches before, which was a little disappointing being that this was a main event title match, but perhaps a pushed Honma does not have the same charm as lovable loser Honma, something I warned could happen if and when he finally started winning matches. This may be an over-analyzation of Honma, as this was the kind of match that may have worked better in Korakuen Hall, or perhaps it was an off night and could have simply been a better match. There is also the issue of expectations, as when two wrestlers of this caliber lock it up one safely assumes 4-stars plus. The match is well worth a watch, a solid title defense to help solidify Shibata’s second turn, just don’t expect a MOTY caliber affair. ***3/4