The three NJPW Destruction shows could prove to be some ironic foreshadowing, considering the chances being taken with the main event booking.
With not two, but three NJPW Destruction events on the slate, the drawing matches have been split into thirds this year. Even bolder, of the five bouts that can reasonably be considered the drawing matches across the three shows, Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi are collectively involved in only one (a semi main for Okada in Hiroshima), with Tanahashi no higher than 3rd from the top on any of the three shows, while buried in six man tags.
Meanwhile, while Okada and Tanahashi are slumming it up in meaningless mid card tags, the likes of BUSHI and YOSHI-HASHI are being counted on to hold up their end of main events, Bobby Fish and Bad Luck Fale are working key semis, and new yet to be tested main eventers Kenny Omega and Michael Elgin are being counted on to deliver. Think about where all of those guys were slotted on the Dome show. If I had told you on January 4th, the day news broke that AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura were leaving the company, that wacky junior Kenny Omega and fun mid carder Michael Elgin (let alone total non entities YOSHI-HASHI and BUSHI) would be main eventing major shows by September, with Okada and Tanahashi nowhere in sight, you would have thought Okada and Tanahashi were following AJ & Nak out the door, and NJPW was about to enter NOAH/AJPW glorified indie territory. New Japan has to be given credit for working hard and taking chances to get all of these new faces ready for prime time in relatively short order, but we won’t know until later next week if it’s working.
The first test was NJPW Destruction in Tokyo, with popular IWGP Junior champion KUSHIDA on top, and NEVER champ Katsuyori Shibata underneath. Neither were given proven draws as opponents (although you could argue Los Ingobernables de Japon member BUSHI was a draw by association), so they were largely on their own to sink or swim. This was a key show from multiple perspectives for KUSHIDA, not only because he was in the main event, but also because it’s much easier to justify giving up on juniors should they flop.
David Finlay & Henare vs Roppongi Vice
Finlay & Henare got more offense here than you would think before Beretta had enough and hit the Dudebuster on Henare. Henare continues to look like a perfectly competent wrestler, doing nothing to either stand out or to look in over his head. He sells very well, which is par for the course for young lions, and he seems to be getting more and more comfortable each time I see him. He has totally leapfrogged the other half dozen or so native young lions in the pecking order, working nearly every show, including being booked on all three of the NJPW Destruction events. **
As for Young David, he’s got new gear, he’s got a new finisher (a cutter variation he calls “Prima Nocta”), and according to one official NJPW Twitter account, he’s officially no longer a young lion.
ヤングライオン卒業のフィンレーは豹柄で登場！@THEdavidfinlay is not young lion anymore!https://t.co/SuIH7hg0ne#njpw #njdest pic.twitter.com/KK4X3wrlcg
— njpwworld (@njpwworld) September 17, 2016
Yuji Nagata & Manabu Nakanishi vs Yoshitatsu & Captain New Japan
Forget the two star special with the predictable finish (Nagata hitting the backdrop hold on The Captain), we’re here for the drama. Following yet another loss in Korakuen last week, Yoshitatsu finally had enough and cut a scathing promo on The Cap’n, browbeating him for the constant losing, and being a 21st century man, asking the fans to decide the fate of the team through a Twitter vote. Fans voted overwhelmingly for Captain to get the boot. Captain lost again here, and I was rubbing my hands in anticipation of the next Yoshitatsu meltdown…which never happened, because the Hunter Club simply walked off after the loss.
What a ripoff. Docking a quarter star. *3/4
Togi Makabe, Tomoaki Honma, Tiger Mask vs Satoshi Kojima, Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Jushin Thunder Liger
This had a mildly surprising finish, as Honma pinned Liger following a Kokeshi. On paper Tiger Mask figured to drop the fall, which made me think an angle may have been coming, especially since the post match staredown lingered a bit longer than usual, but nothing came of it. Everybody worked really hard. ***
Hirooki Goto, Tomohiro Ishii, Gedo vs Tama Tonga, Tanga Loa, Chase Owens
Chase Owens managed to survive the quiet NJPW/NWA divorce, and keeps getting booked. He’s like a kid who prevents a potentially messy custody battle by bravely declaring he wants to live with mom. Unfortunately, he was teaming with his totally lame new step brothers, G.O.D., who I genuinely believe are the least over pushed act I’ve ever seen. These guys get nothing, and I mean NOTHING from any crowd, in any city. The fans are so completely apathetic to these dudes that they don’t even get angry go away heat.
The good news is that G.O.D.’s performances have been somewhat better lately, with Tama Tonga rediscovering his swagger post G1, and Tanga Loa (who took the pin here following an Ishii brainbuster) blending in fine in the last couple of matches I’ve seen. The CHAOS team was very good here, with more teases of a long term Ishii/Goto pairing, and to everyone’s collective credit, by the end of the match the fans were into the action. I’d have no beef whatsoever with an Ishii/Goto World Tag League win and Tokyo Dome IWGP tag challenge of The Briscoes to kick off a three match early 2017 series. **1/2
Juice Robinson vs Kyle O’Reilly
This match FUCKING RULED, as O’Reilly continues to kill it in New Japan as a singles wrestler, and Juice continues to put together his sneaky good year. With genuine “go out of your way to see” stuff vs Kenny Omega, Go Shiozaki, Katsuhiko Nakajima, and now O’Reilly, and good matches against David Finlay, EVIL and others, you could make a reasonable argument that Juice is having a better year and has had more good singles matches than many acclaimed and/or pushed wrestlers, including Jay Lethal, Sasha Banks, Adam Cole, Minoru Suzuki, Dean Ambrose, Timothy Thatcher, Brock Lesnar, Cody “R”, La Manny Cien Andrade Almas Sombra…
O’Reilly worked this like a no nonsense bully, and Juice was excellent in showing fire and not backing down. Juice is an elite bump & sell guy, which worked perfectly for the type of match this was, and Kyle was tremendous in pulling submissions out of nowhere to cut off and thwart Juice’s fiery comebacks.
My favorite spot of the match may have been Kyle locking in a long head & arm choke. This was essentially a rest spot, but unlike a typical lazy, uninspired rest hold (which is one of my major pet peeves when done in modern wrestling), he used a contemporary submission hold that held the attention of the fans. In the age of MMA, there is no excuse for slapping on a reverse chin lock or nerve hold to catch a breather when there is a wealth dangerous looking grappling submissions to choose from that like you are genuinely trying to hurt your opponent.
O’Reilly’s victory here potentially serves as a warm up to a NEVER title challenge. More on that later. ***1/2
Kazuchika Okada, YOSHI-HASHI, Will Ospreay vs Kenny Omega, Bad Luck Fale, Yujiro Takahashi
Fale paired up with Okada, and mostly beat the living shit out of him (including a Bad Luck Fall tease on the floor), but the highlight matchup was Ospreay/Omega. The chemistry was fantastic between the two. They had a match earlier this year in PWG that I haven’t seen, but that people tell me was bonkers, so now I’m salivating for a New Japan singles bout. This was high energy and the crowd was into everything. YOSHI-HASHI put away Yujiro, as he heads into the biggest match of his life in Hiroshima in a few days when he challenges Omega for the Wrestle Kingdom title shot. ***
Hiroshi Tanahashi, Michael Elgin, Ryusuke Taguchi vs Tetsuya Naito, SANADA, EVIL
This was another good LIJ trios match, which have been a staple on New Japan shows this year. After the initial babyface shine, there was a long heat segment on Elgin. Tanahashi didn’t do much aside from running through his usual spots on a hot tag, and the finish was SANADA using the dragon sleeper on Taguchi. Good, but you’ve seen this before and if pressed for time you probably don’t need to see it again. Highlight was the post match attack on Elgin by Naito, who left him laying and put heat on the upcoming Intercontinental title match that headlines Kobe next week. ***
NEVER Openweight Title
Katsuyori Shibata (c) vs Bobby Fish
This was violence and sweat and testosterone and head drops and blood, and I loved every second of it.
They worked Shibata’s “neck injury” into the match, with Fish dropping Shibata directly on his head roughly two thousand or so times using all sorts of backdrops, suplexes, and throws. This had the crowd gasping, especially when Fish followed up a nasty German suplex with a dragon sleeper on a limp Shibata, which had me wondering if NJPW pulling Shibata from the house shows was nothing more than another example of “the new work is the old work”, as a way to get over the idea that Fish had a good chance to beat a weakened man. Shibata hit the PK but was too weak to follow up. He set up a second, but Fish ducked and rolled into a Fish Hook. Shibata crawled to the ropes to survive. Back on their feet, Shibata landed the same nasty headbutt he landed on Katsuhiko Nakajima at the G1 Finals, producing a sickening thud and busting open his forehead.
The ensuing choke, with Fish dead behind the eyes and Shibata with a stream of blood running down his demented face, produced a beautiful, ugly, magnificent visual, before Shibata hit an academic PK for the win. A great match, but one that some will not enjoy if they don’t like wrestlers taking crazy risks with their bodies. ****
PK!!! #NJDest pic.twitter.com/FkxLd1Pisn
— Jocay (@Jocay19) September 17, 2016
Kyle O’Reilly went nose to nose with Shibata and made a challenge, perhaps not only to win the NEVER title, but to also avenge the potential death of his tag team partner, because Fish was left for dead here.
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title
KUSHIDA (c) vs BUSHI
I was surprised BUSHI won the title. I saw him as a relatively weak challenger, someone who is a thorn in the side of KUSHIDA but never a top line serious threat. But here we are, with BUSHI holding up a title and closing a major show with confetti falling around him. *Insert a hacky “2016 is so crazy!” meme here*
The match was very good, but hurt by the presence of the new LIJ member once again lurking around ringside. His presence has become a distraction for me (and judging by Twitter I’m not alone) because when he’s around I spend the entire match waiting for him to unmask instead of paying attention to the bout. Things broke into a riot when Red Shoes took a ref bump and BUSHI misted KUSHIDA, with Naito running (walking) in, and Elgin making the save. Naito and Elgin brawled to the back (but not before Elgin cold cocked the masked man), Red Shoes recovered, and we were back on track. In a great spot, BUSHI tried to mist a second time, but KUSHIDA countered with his patented “I’m tired of your shit” closed fist to the jaw, which is this instance created a cool visual by ejecting the mist from BUSHI’s mug. It took some lengthy interference, a couple of distracted ref spots, and two MX’s for BUSHI to win. KUSHIDA was clearly wronged, but even with all of the noise, the victory didn’t feel as cheap as you would think. The shenanigans never felt overdone. It felt like a good match surrounded by a fun riot. ***1/2
Top paraphrase the recently departed Dennis Green, “NJPW Destruction in Tokyo are who we thought they were!”. That’s an awkward quote, but the point here is that everything on the show landed pretty much where you would figured it would on paper. The stuff that looked good was, the stuff that looked awesome was, and the stuff that looked skippable was indeed inconsequential.
From a business perspective, the show drew 2803, down a negligible amount from the 2983 the company drew for a New Japan Cup show earlier this year. This was not a major win for KUSHIDA, but I see this as a solid showing considering the fact that Okada and Tanahashi were 4th and 3rd from the top respectively. Having Shibata as the semi main helped, but Fish is no more of a proven drawing opponent than BUSHI (and even less so as BUSHI is at least part of LIJ). What this shows is that they can confidently run a mid sized building with KUSHIDA, and perhaps even other juniors on top (at minimum in Tokyo in the case of KUSHIDA, and maybe with BUSHI everywhere thanks to the popularity of LIJ) while saving bigger matches for bigger buildings without things falling apart. This was a bold gamble, and while they didn’t cash out big, they can’t be disappointed with the result either.
Now on to Hiroshima, where the gambling continues.