New Japan Pro Wrestling
The New Beginning In Sapporo
February 5, 2017
Hokkaido Prefectural Sports Center, Sapporo, Japan

Watch: New Japan World

With Wrestle Kingdom serving as the bow to the previous year and Fantastica Mania being a (mostly) out of cannon tour, New Beginning generally serves as the start of the New Japan season. This is the tour for fresh directions, and this year saw the official return of Minoru Suzuki and Suzuki-gun, with The New Beginning In Sapporo taking place one month to the day after SZG’s surprise invasion of NJPW at the New Year Dash Korakuen Hall show.

The show drew 5,545 fans, squeezing in 12 more bodies than the Super No Vacancy G1 tour kickoff last July in the same building (Kazuchika Okada vs Naomichi Marufuji main event). In addition to having the cache of being the opening night of the G1, that show also featured a Hiroshi Tanahashi semi main (vs SANADA), so the 5,545 number is another feather in the cap of Okada, matching (technically topping) the July show with very little support underneath. New Japan chose to stack the 2/11 New Beginning In Osaka show, which sold out many weeks ago, so the strategy of running two major buildings for the two New Beginning shows for the first time since 2014 and doing so with unbalanced cards that put a ton of faith in Okada seems to have worked. Okada has not only emerged as the Ace in storyline, but also when it comes to being counted on to carry the business end of shows on his own.

Minoru Suzuki deserves credit, too. The build for the Okada/Suzuki match was strong, with a hot invasion angle and a heated attack at the press conference that wound up playing heavily into the match itself. The surprise SZG invasion and subsequent multiple title challenges on the ensuing major show was an identical redux of the 2015 SZG invasion of Pro Wrestling NOAH, right down to the angle kicking off at a January Korakuen Hall show and Suzuki receiving an immediate title match. On the surface, it took real guts to repeat an angle that eventually sunk NOAH to new depths, and then headline with Suzuki with no strong drawing matches underneath. But what most people forget, is the SZG invasion of NOAH did good business early on, drawing massive heat (including fan riots in some buildings) and strong attendance for Suzuki’s early title bouts (a reported 6,300 for Suzuki’s March title win over Marufuji in Tokyo at Ariake). That pattern repeated here, as Suzuki’s IWGP Heavyweight title challenge drew what essentially amounts as a sellout.

Where the similarities cease, is that this time Suzuki lost.

El Desperado & Yoshinobu Kanemaru def. KUSHIDA & Hirai Kawato

A simple story, with an over exuberant Kawato demanding to start the match, and subsequently getting his ass kicked until a KUSHIDA hot tag. This was the best Kawato performance yet. He sold and sold and sold, and it isn’t as easy as people think to do a compelling job as a babyface in peril. We’ve seen Kawato grow from his awkward debut to a spunky little underdog, and while he hasn’t shown the same prodigy like abilities as the previous young lion class of Sho Tanaka, Yohei Komatsu, and Jay White, the comparison is a little unfair because Kawato is still a baby at 19-years old. It’s fun to watch him develop, and there is a palpable underdog charm about him beyond just being a young boy.

I speculated in my preview of the show that this could be a match that sets up Desperado & Kanemaru as the next junior tag title challengers, and that’s exactly how it played out later in the show. This was a real solid opener, well worth a watch if you were planning on skipping. ***

Yuji Nagata, Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Satoshi Kojima def. Yoshitatsu, Henare, Tomoyuki Oka

Oka replaced the injured David Finlay (shoulder) here, and once again found himself tapping out to Nagata Lock II. I find it suspicious that Nagata keeps beating Oka this way. I wouldn’t be shocked if he hands that hold down to his protege.

Oka is getting more and more brave with his throws, and delivered a couple nice ones here. He looks pretty good, but I’m tempted to fire off some hot takes, because after all of the hype he isn’t popping off the screen like Big Japan’s Takuya Nomura or DDT’s Kazusada Higuchi or Dragon Gate’s Ben-K. But then I remember that this was only his SIXTH professional wrestling match ever. If you look really deep, beyond his shaved head that exposes his receding hairline and makes him look 15 years older than he actually is, you can see the hoss potential and what they like about him. There’s no need to start breaking him down. **1/4

Gedo, Jado, Will Ospreay def. Katsuyori Shibata, Jushin Thunder Liger, Tiger Mask

This was a huge step down from the hot eight man tag from Korakuen on 1/27 that featured Ospreay and Shibata on opposite sides. Watch that match for your Will vs Shibata hype needs, and skip this one. **

YOSHI-HASHI def. Takashi Iizuka

Not a good match at all, but it served its purpose of giving YOSHI-HASHI a singles win on a major show. YOSHI-HASHI worked hard (he always does), but you are going to get what you get with Iizuka, which is mediocre brawling, hidden weapons, and an Iron Glove spot. I still enjoy Iizuka’s ridiculous entrance, being led on a leash by Desperado. With Shinpei Nogami nowhere to be found, Iizuka took a long look at the announcer’s table but didn’t bother attacking anybody. *3/4

Hiroshi Tanahashi, Ryusuke Taguchi, Manabu Nakanishi, Michael Elgin, Dragon Lee def. Tetsuya Naito, EVIL, SANADA, BUSHI, Hiromu Takahashi

Notable here is Michael Elgin entering last and receiving top billing for the babyface side.

Also notable was Dragon Lee’s hot New Japan World overdub jam COME GET IT, which immediately enters pantheon status of New Japan World dub themes.

Top Three New Japan World Overdub Jams

  1. Jushin Thunder Liger “Strongest Soldier”
  2. Dragon Lee “Come Get It”
  3. reDRagon “Waiting 4”

I wasn’t a fan of the early ass attack shtick from the faces, but this heated up down the stretch and turned into a hot little match to take the show into the intermission. Worth pointing out that Lee pinned BUSHI, not Hiromu. Hiromu is ultra protected right now, and doesn’t even do jobs to set up title challenges. ***3/4

IWGP Junior Tag Team Titles
Roppongi Vice (c) def. Taichi & TAKA Michinoku 

This was a great effort by RPG Vice, and in particular Beretta, mired by tired Taichi antics and overdone SZG spots. El Desperado & Yoshinobu Kanemaru made the next challenge, and that pairing will likely produce a much better match. **

NEVER Openweight Title
Hirooki Goto (c) def. Juice Robinson 

This was a perfectly structured example of a young veteran getting his first singles title shot, with Robinson blitzing Goto at the bell before spending the rest of the bout fighting from underneath. It was a perfect pairing of styles, with Robinson’s elite bumping and selling to compliment Goto’s big bomb offense.

Goto seemingly invents new offensive maneuvers every match, this time draping Robinson over the middle rope for a GTR variation that I’d never seen. My favorite spot in the match was Robinson attempting a straight right and Goto blocking the fist with a headbutt, which was something else I had never seen before. Robinson did a great job getting over the idea that he was fighting to the death in the most important match of his life (and this genuinely was the biggest match of his career) against an opponent that he wasn’t quite ready for, capped off with a well timed fighting spirit spot where he went toe to toe with one of the toughest brawlers in the company before finally falling.

Robinson caught people’s attention at Wrestle Kingdom, but he had an excellent, low key 2016 against a wide variety of opponents like Go Shiozaki, Kenny Omega, Kyle O’Reilly, EVIL, and Katsuhiko Nakajima. He was ready to deliver in a high profile match like this one, and he did. ****

IWGP Tag Team Titles
Toru Yano & Tomohiro Ishii (c) def. Togi Makabe & Tomoaki Honma and Killer Elite Squad

The first of two identical three way bouts this week over delivered, just as the three way tag title match at Wrestle Kingdom over delivered. Maybe we should stop being so cynical about these three way tag matches, at least in terms of potential match quality, even if the booking of these bouts annoys us.

CHAOS survived the first leg of the double shot, in what was an energetic, fast paced, and hard hitting match. Killer Elite Squad were the standouts, with their interactions against GBH being the highlight. Archer in particular looked great, with his usual power offense, and a cool springboard high cross body that a guy his size really shouldn’t be able to pull off. Ishii and Honma tend to get lost in matches like this, but on the flip side Makabe moving into more of a tag role has been the best thing for his career. After the requisite Yano shenanigans, this really settled into a very good, super fun match. Yano pinned Makabe, which could be a tip off that KES is winning in Osaka. ***3/4

IWGP Heavyweight Title
Kazuchika Okada (c) def. Minoru Suzuki

Suzuki attacked Okada in Aichi, injuring his knee, so Suzuki working over, brutalizing, and decimating Okada’s leg became the focal point of the bout in one of the most focused and deliberate limb work matches you will ever see.

I thought this was one of the best jobs of selling a body part possible by Okada, and this was peak evil, maniacal, insane, torture dealing psychopath Suzuki, but the match wasn’t without a few of flaws.

  • Okada’s Rainmaker pose and Suzuki’s subsequent reversal of the first Rainmaker attempt came way too early in the match, at a point where nobody could possibly buy it as the potential finish, so everyone knew Okada’s Rainmaker was going to be blocked or reversed.
  • The looooong kneebar tease was too long, bordering on absurd.
  • The Suzuki-gun run in was thwarted quickly, but came at the worst time possible, just as the match was developing into something special. From a story perspective of establishing that Suzuki’s shortcuts weren’t going to work and that Okada and CHAOS were having none of it, it made sense to do it. But from a nerd match rating perspective I can’t say that it didn’t hurt the overall quality of a bout that was on the verge of greatness. Not a match killer by any means, not even all that bothersome, but unless the circumstances are uniquely special run-ins instantly (and perhaps unfairly) cap a match at a certain level for me.

Aside from those gripes, this had the build, structure, work, intensity, and drama of an all time great match, and it really was great, but those minor flaws prevented it from breaking through to an all time level.

Let’s talk about Okada. Unless you took issue with him throwing his dropkick (I did not) or overcoming what might have been the longest stretch of leg work you’ll probably ever see (again, I did not, as I saw this as a personal growth moment for Okada, similar to the Tenryu match, even if one of the kneebar spots was a tad long bordering on egregious), I’m not sure you could find much flaw in his performance. He screamed, he winced, he collapsed under his own weight, he delivered offense that was weakened by not being at full strength, and he was unable to follow up on his moves because his leg was mush. He did everything humanly possible to get across the idea that his leg was in terrible shape. Aside from the ill timed initial Rainmaker attempt that subsequently lacked any drama, all of the hope spots were well executed and nicely done. When Okada fired up in the closing stretch of the match, so did I. Those who say Okada doesn’t emote or convey his emotions are watching a different wrestler than I am, and certainly didn’t watch this match with any level of attention.

Suzuki was nasty. The constant counters and reversals that led to kneebars had me convinced he was going to win. The story of Okada being cut off and reversed at every single turn created a totally different kind of drama from the usual IWGP title match. This had a frenetic closing stretch, but this wasn’t about a string of near falls or finisher counters. This was about Okada overcoming a methodical, vicious, deliberate attack on his body by a man who conveys pure evil and comes across as legitimately diabolical in ways that make other serious heels come off as cartoonish in comparison. There is no one quite like Minoru Suzuki.

As Okada was limping away from the ring, following a curious call out of Tiger Mask W of all people, I thought about his recent string of matches. The two matches against Naomichi Marufuji, the draw with Hiroshi Tanahashi, the war against Tomohiro Ishii, the epic spectacle at Wrestle Kingdom where the opponent got all of the acclaim and Okada never seemed to get his proper due, and now overcoming the utter destruction of a sociopath. These bouts featured a variety of structure to reach the same common theme. Even when telling the same story of the young ace having to overcome the stronger tougher savvier faster angrier veteran, all took drastically different paths to get there. Soon, Okada will be the senior, and it won’t be his determination or his guts that tell the tale, but his toughness and savvy and speed and anger that he learned from the opponents he overcame. Kazuchika Okada is a great pro wrestler, and it’s going to be a lot of fun watching his continued evolution as he enters his 30’s and takes us through the prime of his career as the battle tested veteran ace. You’re watching an all time great smack dab in the middle of his career, we are in the midst of the evolution of an ace. Settle in and enjoy it.  ****1/2