NJPW 45th Anniversary
March 6, 2017
Ota City General Gymnasium
Tokyo, Japan

Watch: New Japan World

Manabu Nakanishi def Tomoyuki Oka

This was a pre-show match, and made for a freaky visual because it looked like a 25-year old Nakanishi hopped out of a time machine to fight himself.

Nakanishi laid a beating on Oka here, but also gave him way more than he had to, including taking Oka’s impressive overhead belly-to-belly suplex. Oka even escaped an initial Argentine backbreaker attempt and made a brief comeback before finally succumbing to the hold. The best Oka bout to date, and well worth a watch. ***

Hirooki Goto, YOSHI-HASHI, Gedo, Jado def. Minoru Suzuki, Davey Boy Smith Jr, El Desperado, TAKA Michinoku

Jado wore a Tomoaki Honma wristband, and TAKA was sporting yellow wrist tape.

It was obvious from the moment the bell rang that the working shoes were on, as opposed to the New Japan Road show where everyone looked bored and uninterested aside from the main event. A hot, high energy opener, with YOSHI-HASHI scoring yet another fall, tapping out TAKA with the butterfly lock. YOSHI-HASHI has scored a lot of falls this year in tag matches where he’s paired with dudes slotted above him. That’s not an accident, and continues his sustained mid card push that began in 2016.

Also notable, with Lance Archer recovering from back surgery, Davey Boy Smith Jr no longer wears KES gear. With Archer expected to miss a significant amount of time, a singles push (perhaps at the NEVER or IC level) for Smith in the interim would be a good, fresh idea. ***

Kenny Omega, Bad Luck Fale, Yujiro Takahashi, Tama Tonga, Tanga Loa def Yuji Nagata, Togi Makabe, David Finlay, Tiger Mask, Jushin Thunder Liger

A ten man tag full of leftovers who have no booking direction at the moment. Well worked, but not quite at the same level as the 8-man that proceeded it. Like New Japan Road, Omega was in full on fringy rainbow goof off mode. With the dual personality thing, he’s established a brilliant way to save his body when working meaningless undercard filler. Fale scored the fall, via the grenade on Finlay. **3/4

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Titles
Taichi & Yoshinobu Kanemaru def. Roppongi Vice (c)

I was rooting hard for Roppongi Vice, the most interesting junior tag champs in ages, to retain, but the absolute worst case scenario of Taichi ending up with the belts came to pass. The match was total chaos, worked Texas Tornado style, but the Taichi tropes and SZG interference were minimal and the match over delivered, with a strong Kanemaru Deep Impact finish (I love that move) on Rocky Romero. RPG Vice always work hard and are on a great run this year.

Gedo & Jado broke up a post match attack, and appear to be the first challengers. If this were El Desperado & Kanemaru as (presumably) originally planned, I’d have way less of a problem with the title switch, but since I expect Suzuki-gun to retain against World Class Tag Team, it’s impossible to be excited about Taichi working meaningful matches over the next couple of months. I know WCTT never faced SZG in NOAH during their GHC junior title run last year, but this still reeks of a NOAH redux feud for some reason. ***1/4

RPW British Heavyweight Title
Zack Sabre Jr def. Katsuyori Shibata (c)

Man, I loved the work here and this was turning into a truly great match…but then the shenanigans happened.

They started things off with some nifty grappling and chain wrestling. The first big transition was Shibata going for his corner dropkick a little too early, with Zack rising to his feet and following him into the opposite corner with a European uppercut. Zack spent the majority of the match working Shibata’s arm, and deftly avoiding chokes with slick reversals, many of which were converted into bridging pin attempts. This was a compelling cat and mouse game, developing nicely until Minoru Suzuki ran to the ring and hopped up on the apron. Shibata kicked him off, but amid the chaos Davey Boy Smith Jr was able to lay him out to set up a Suzuki Gotch piledriver. Zack quietly watched it all unfold, but took the cheap pin with a shit eating grin on his face, winning the title and joining SZG in the process.

The angle ruined what was simmering into a boil of a great match, and I’m uneasy about ZSJ being a SZG member. I’m not sure he fits the gimmick, and he’s too good of a wrestler to have his matches dragged down by angles. I’ll give it a chance, but this was all very discouraging and puts a wet blanket on Sabre Jr coming to NJPW. ***1/4

IWGP Tag Team Titles
TenKoji def. Toru Yano & Tomohiro Ishii (c)

TenKoji replaced Makabe & Honma. The crowd was hot for TenKoji from the start, and came unglued when Kojima did the Kokeshi. Kojima put away Yano with the lariat while Tenzan held Ishii in the Anaconda Vice. With Honma front and center on people’s minds, it was the right move to do the title switch.

If GBH were originally earmarked to take the titles here, TenKoji are perfect surrogates to step into their spot, as it likely won’t disrupt other booking plans with Kojima & Tenzan working nothing but undercard tags these days. ***1/2

Tetsuya Naito, EVIL, SANADA, BUSHI def. Hiroshi Tanahashi, Michael Elgin, Juice Robinson, KUSHIDA

The usual LIJ multi man tag against the New Japan Army, which i’m tiring of very quickly. These are always well worked and heated, but I feel like I’ve seen this match dozens of times, whether against some combination of the opponents here, or CHAOS. Once again, as he’s done on every show since Wrestle Kingdom, EVIL attacked Tanahashi in the post match. Tanahashi might be dead before that match ever takes place. ***1/2

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title
Hiromu Takahashi (c) def. Ryusuke Taguchi

The build for this match was pretty great, establishing Taguchi was just the right kind of crazy to match the insanity of Hiromu, and getting over the idea that Hiromu was deathly afraid of the ankle lock.

The match was worked precisely to the build, with Taguchi looking for an ankle lock to end things immediately (just as he attempted in all of their tag bouts), and repeatedly working toward the hold the entire match. Taguchi worked this 100% straight and with a clear sense of determination (at one point battering a cocky Hiromu with a series of vicious strikes), getting over that the title was important to him. An important takeaway was that Hiromu survived a long ankle lock spot before coming back to win in clean, definitive fashion (even if the finish was a tad abrupt), clearly establishing that he’s a level above Taguchi and firmly putting him in the rear view.

I loved that Taguchi forced Hiromu to work a different style of bout. I’ll never tire of Hiromu’s wild matches against Dragon Lee, and the KUSHIDA match at Wrestle Kingdom was in that same vein. This, however, was Hiromu out of his comfort zone, doing something different, at a much slower pace with a very different kind of psychology, and he delivered just fine.

KUSHIDA stepped out to make the next challenge. I’m not going to complain about a second Hiromu/KUSHIDA match, and while I am thrilled that KUSHIDA and Hiromu have helped elevate the junior title to semi main event (and even main event) status over the last year, I do want to point out a few problems I still have with the juniors in general.

The big issue is that we never see non-title singles matches outside of tournaments. With one of the deepest and most talented junior divisions of all time, it’s time to feature these guys outside of title matches. KUSHIDA could have worked a singles match on this show (or New Japan Road, or one of the other 19 Korakuen Hall shows over the last two weeks) against BUSHI or Desperado or Will Ospreay or [insert any junior here] to “earn” the next title match. Matches like that would feature these talented juniors in meaningful bouts, add some juice to undercards, and send challengers into title matches with some momentum, as opposed to getting a title match by simply walking down a ramp.

Speaking of Will Ospreay, we are now one year into his two year NJPW contract, and aside from winning the Best of the Super Juniors, the company has done virtually nothing meaningful with him. This is one of the biggest and hottest stars on the planet, you have him under contract, and he mostly wastes away in multi man tag matches. What is happening here?!

I’m not demanding an Ospreay mega push, or even a title run. Just give the man something meaningful to do. If you don’t want him in the title mix yet (or at all), put him in a tag team and have him chase the tag titles (or even the NEVER trios titles). Use him as Okada’s pin eater so he can work main events (I enjoyed Gedo in the match, but how cool would an Okada & Ospreay vs Tiger Mask W & Tiger Mask main event have been at New Japan Road?). Use him as a gatekeeper, with his BOSJ cache, to put over future title challengers, as described above in relation to KUSHIDA entering the Hiromu match cold. Just do something with him.

The Shibata/Ospreay match was a great example of what I’m talking about. That match served a purpose, with Ospreay involved in something meaningful. It introduced the RPW title to Japanese fans, it gave Shibata a strong win in a good match, and it set up the Sabre Jr/Shibata bout. The issue here is not that Ospreay hardly ever wins (although it wouldn’t be the worst idea to push one of the most talented and charismatic wrestlers on the planet, but let’s walk before we run), it’s that he’s hardly ever even featured. It’s a gross misuse of a valuable asset, a pattern not immune to this company when it comes to talented juniors (Mascara Dorada), but in this case, a burgeoning young break out talent who is a genuine worldwide star. It’s irresponsible, inexcusable, wasteful booking. ****

Kazuchika Okada def. Tiger Mask W

Tiger Mask cornered Tiger Mask W. I love that!

This was great. It started off very exhibition-y, following the theme of Okada’s whimsical challenge of Ibushi  Tiger Mask W at New Beginning, with both guys running through their array of signature spots. This was all well worked and fun, very much babyface vs babyface, with the fans getting into the various Tiger Driver and Tombstone reversals and having a good time…and then Okada snapped.

A stiff forearm (causing the crowd to gasp) triggered Okada who promptly stomped W’s face into the mat, reminiscent to what Nakamura did to the same man three Wrestle Kingdom’s ago. Like that match, Tiger Mask W Ibushi defiantly rose to his feet and stood up to his CHAOS bully. This was an obvious callback, and from here the match kicked into a different gear, transitioning into something nasty and vicious, while at the same time not falling back on the easy out of upping the pace.

Ibushi shoved Red Shoes out of the way and PUNCHED OKADA SQUARE IN THE FACE, which stunned the crowd, and followed up on the now grounded Okada with a couple of more closed fists to the jaw. By New Japan simply not allowing closed fist strikes, the impact of a simple punch is amplified when someone snaps and uses one. He kicked the woozy Okada in the head, viciously stomped his arm into the mat, and nearly won with the Last Ride. Not the Tiger Suplex. Not the Tiger Driver. This was Ibushi ignoring the mask and channeling Wrestle Kingdom 9.

Next came a brilliantly executed top turnbuckle sequence. Okada blocked a hurricanrana and set up a top rope tombstone (that only a nut like Ibushi would take), but Ibushi flipped out of it, climbed back up, and hit an amazing top rope Tiger Driver variation for a near fall. He lifted Okada to his feet, and Okada hit a desperation Rainmaker. Too weak to cover, he held the wrist (callback #2). He hit the second Rainmaker, followed by the pose and a primal scream. He went for a completely unnecessary third Rainmaker, his fuck you Rainmaker that he uses to make emphatic statements (callback #3), but Ibushi ducked. HOLY SHIT, was Okada’s rage going to cost him? He caught a flailing Ibushi with a German that folded him in half, hit the Rainmaker, and that was that.

Okada held out his hand as the half dead Tiger Mask Ibushi tried to grasp it, but he didn’t have the strength to stand. Okada didn’t help him up or put in any extra effort to complete the handshake, as Ibushi symbolically collapsed at his feet and was left for dead.

This match turned nasty and never looked back. Something tells me the real Ibushi, a pure Ibushi, will be coming for Okada at some point down the line. ****1/2

Final Thoughts

Two great matches that would have been three if not for the angle at the end of the RevPro title bout. A well worked show up and down the card, but the semi and main were the standouts, as Taguchi dragged Hiromu out of his comfort zone, and Okada delivered another masterpiece in pro wrestling storytelling.