New Japan Pro Wrestling
Sakura Genesis 2017
April 9, 2017
Ryōgoku Kokugikan
Tokyo, Japan

Watch: NJPW World

10,231.

After Kazuchika Okada vs Naomichi Marufuji drew the largest non-G1 paid number to Sumo Hall since 2000 at October’s King of Pro Wrestling, Okada followed that up by topping any Sumo Hall number (G1 show or otherwise) in at least seven years (but probably longer) against Katsuyori Shibata, in what was a long awaited IWGP title challenge for the latter, his first since 2004 and his only since his 2012 return to the company.

The number continues Okada’s hot streak at the gate, and solidifies Shibata as a new main event player. The fans were firmly behind Shibata, with the packed crowd hot for him all the way, and combined with the gate, shows that New Japan’s patient elevation of Shibata worked out just fine for all parties involved.

Okada is peaking right now as a draw, making all of those calls to move the top title to Tetsuya Naito seem very foolish and short sighted in hindsight. Naito is doing just fine selling out his main events as Intercontinental champion, and New Japan is doing their best business in the Takaaki Kidani/Kazuchika Okada era yet. The story of the bend-but-don’t-break Okada being seemingly unbeatable has been a business winner, and they now have three legitimate matches lined up for both King of Pro Wrestling and Wrestle Kingdom 12 in Naito, the looming Kenny Omega rematch, and now Shibata.

Next up for Okada is Bad Luck Fale, who attacked him from behind while he was celebrating his victory. That match figures to headline Wrestling Dontaku, or possibly one of the Long Beach, California shows.

Manabu Nakanishi, Jushin Thunder Liger, David Finlay def. Tomoyuki Oka, Hirai Kawato, Katsuya Kitamura

Much like Sho Tanaka, Yohei Komatsu, David Finaly, and Jay White before him, Hirai Kawato has become one of the highlights of any New Japan show he’s on, and has made it impossible to skip the opener. While those other four recent vintage young lions grabbed our attention by delivering great matches that often ended up being the third or fourth best match on a given show, Kawato, barely a year into his career, has developed into the ultimate underdog as a feisty kid (he just turned 20) who bites off more than he can chew, never backs down, and picks post match fights with the bewildered veterans who just got done making easy work of him. A frequent house show spot involves Kawato teaming with his pal Liger. Just as Liger is ready to deliver a potential match ending brainbuster, Kawato will beg to be tagged in. Liger hesitates, but obliges. Kawato comes into the ring like a house of fire…only to get decimated and eat the pin, and then being held back by Papa Liger in the post match like a yappie chihuahua surviving a fight with a charitable rottweiler and foolishly trying to pick a second.

Oka is the handpicked project of Takaaki Kidani and Yuji Nagata, a star amateur fighter who will get every chance to be a top line player. The stripped down young lion look ages him by at least ten years (he’s still only 25 but looks like a Japanese Fedor Emelianenko), but he’s starting to show the potential that insiders have whispered about for years.

Kitamura is an over tanned steroid monster workout warrior who was busted for PED use and banned from legitimate wrestling competition. He looks like someone who would be given a four month house show run against Hulk Hogan in 1986.  He’s already 31, so that alone might make his ceiling lower than Oka’s, but with a totally unique look to almost anyone else in Japan not names Zeus or Bodyguard (and really he’s even bigger than those guys), if he can work at even an acceptable level, they would be foolish not to push him hard at some point.

Finlay pinned Kitamura with a cutter. The lions looked good. This is a naturally charismatic group that the fans love to get behind. **3/4

Yujiro Takahashi, Tama Tonga, Tanga Loa, Chase Owens def. Yuji Nagata, Togi Makabe, Tiger Mask, Tiger Mask W

There is something bizarre, yet charming, about Kota Ibushi working prelims under a mask. I dig the idea of Tiger Mask W teaming with his pal Tiger Mask IV, and in a company that featured more creative tag team booking, they’d be a team you could headline a Korakuen Hall show with chasing the IWGP tag titles.

Togi Makabe not only lost his tag partner to a terrible neck injury, but also lost booking direction. GBH would almost certainly be in the position TenKoji is in right now if Tomoaki Honma were healthy. It’ll be interesting to see what they do with Makabe moving forward, as he does have some value as a single, but was deliberately moved (down) to tags after his NEVER run a couple of years ago.

This had good energy, and to me a somewhat surprising finish with pin eater Chase Owens available on the heel side to lose to Tiger Mask W. Tiger Mask IV took the fall instead. It was good to see Owens back. He’s steadily improved with every tour, particularly with his confidence. Compare his anxious performances against BUSHI and Jushin Thunder Liger in 2014 to his New Japan work now. The difference is enormous. **3/4

YOSHI-HASHI, Rocky Romero, Beretta def. Minoru Suzuki, El Depserado, TAKA Michinoku

YOSHI-HASHI pinned TAKA in a short, inoffensive, energetic match with a hot crowd. The pattern lately has been Suzuki on the losing side of tags, and then destroying everyone in sight with chairs to get his heat back. Suzuki is the perfect guy to have around on a roster that you can keep simmering in the mid card for a big title match once or twice per year. **1/2

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Titles – Taichi & Yoshinobu Kanemaru (c) def. Jado & Gedo

Taichi has a superstar entrance, but if I have to sit through one more match where he uses that stupid hammer behind the referees back I think I’m going to delegate his match reviews to Case Lowe as part of his VOW young boy duties. Two things are certain on any NJPW show: Taichi using the hammer, and LIJ in an eight man tag against Tanahashi & friends. ENOUGH ALREADY.

This broke down quickly and never settled into a traditional match. Desperado interfered but was run off by RPG Vice. Jado hit the same draping DDT that legit injured Honma on Kanemaru (which wasn’t lost on the fans), and scored a visual tap with the Crossface of Jado, but Miho Abe hopped on the apron to distract the ref. Taichi broke up the hold, and moments later Kanemaru hit Deep Impact for the win. Better match than it reads, even if the Taichi act is tiresome, because Kanemaru worked most of the way and the interference stuff was over with the crowd. RPG Vice went nose to nose with SZG and it looks like they’ll be receiving the next title shot. **3/4

Kenny Omega & Bad Luck Fale def. Toru Yano & Tomohiro Ishii

This reminded me of an old 80’s or 90’s WWF PPV blow off match, because these teams had been paired off on the entire tour (in six man tags), and repeated a lot of the same spots here, but just like those old WWF PPV blow offs, this had an added gear that the house shows lacked. The focus was on Omega and Ishii, with Kenny getting revenge for his first round New Japan Cup loss by putting away Ishii with the One Winged Angel. Omega & Ishii have great chemistry, and they need to be in the same G1 block. ***1/4

Hiroshi Tanahashi, Ryusuke Taguchi, Ricochet, Juice Robinson def. Tetsuya Naito, EVIL, SANADA, BUSHI

These LIJ vs Tana & pals tags always deliver, but the constant repeat pairings have become tiresome. With no disrespect to Michael Elgin, Ricochet stepping in for Big Mike on this tour has given these matchups a slightly different feel, and Ricochet had a ridiculous sequence in this match that had me flying off of my couch. Ricochet is working injured (and pulled out of a few U.K. bookings as a result), but you’d never know it by watching him as he looks as crisp and amazing as ever. A hot crowd also brought things up a notch, as did the big show working shoes.

The big story here was Juice Robinson’s stunning, emotional pin fall victory over Naito, which shocked the crowd in all the right ways and sets up a Juice IWGP Intercontinental title challenge. Juice’s reaction to the win and the babyface dogpile celebration made this come off like a huge moment. Naito hardly ever takes falls or shows ass, so the camera focusing on a beaten and embarrassed Naito being carried to the back helped put this over as a huge, huge win for Juice. Fantastic stuff. ****





IWGP Tag Team Titles – War Machine def. Hiroyoshi Tenzan & Satoshi Kojima (c)

War Machine didn’t win the World Tag League, but they were the big winners coming out of the tournament. They were the most impressive bell to bell team in the field, got over with the fans, earned their way to regular bookings and title shots on major shows, and now, they’re the new IWGP tag team champions.

This heated up when Tenzan and Hanson took each other out on the floor, leaving Rowe isolated with Kojima. Both men sold after Kojima fighting spirit no sold a Rowe flying knee and hit a big lariat. That spot was perfectly timed and popped the crowd big, setting up the hot finishing sequence. Rowe used a sit out powerbomb, and Hanson recovered before Tenzan, leading to the match ending Fallout. TenKoji asked for a rematch and War Machine obliged, as the teams shook hands and War Machine bowed. The Rowe/Kojima stuff was awesome and the closing stretch delivered. Good match. ***1/2

NEVER Openweight Title – Hirooki Goto (c) def. Zack Sabre Jr

This was Deja Vu of the ZSJ/Shibata match from the 4th Anniversary show. I was so enthralled by this and totally into Zack’s dazzling arm work, so when Goto hit the Ushigoroshi to finally turn the tide I was preparing for a killer closing stretch…and then Suzuki-gun ran in. Gaaaaaahhhh whyyyy.

Goto fought them off, and definitively put away Zack away moments later with his array of skull crushing GTR’s that help make up the nastiest looking offensive arsenal in all of wrestling. Had Zack won, the run in would have totally ruined the match for me. Goto surviving it still drops it a notch, and mirroring Zack vs Shibata, robbed us of what could have been a truly epic match. The run in did serve a purpose, as it led to a pull apart to set up the Goto/Suzuki feud, but they could have gotten to that place with a simple walk out challenge or post match beat down without hurting the match with yet another tired SZG run in. This was a very good match, but it should have been, and was on its way to being great. ****

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title – Hiromu Takahashi (c) def. KUSHIDA

ONE MINUTE AND FIFTY SIX SECONDS

KUSHIDA attacked immediately with an off the top turnbuckle senton during Hiromu’s entrance. A few moments later, Hiromu used his over the top rope sunset flip to the floor on KUSHIDA, and it looked like we were on our way to another brutal sprint like Wrestle Kingdom. Instead, the move appeared to KO KUSHIDA, and Hiromu followed up with all of his signature big moves, including the Timebomb, to win in the most decisive fashion possible. One of the best sub two minute matches you’ll ever see.

Hiromu has the rocket pack, and if you didn’t already believe that they are pushing him to the moon, his third consecutive title defense semi main event and a squash win over the man who elevated the junior title last year should now have you totally clued in. This company sees Hiromu Takahashi as a star, and he’s getting as strong of a push as we’ve seen in many, many years. Kazuchika Okada in 2012 wasn’t even presented as this dominant with his out-of-nowhere mega push. Next up for Takahashi is Ricochet, and that match should be utter madness. NR

IWGP Heavyweight Title – Kazuchika Okada (c) def. Katsuyori Shibata

“Shibata! Shibata!” chants rained down before the bell, setting the tone for a hot atmosphere. This crowd was great all night, from the opener to main event, and were firmly behind Shibata, who with this performance and in helping produce a Sumo Hal sellout has now clearly been elevated to being a top line star and draw. The loss means nothing. This is only the beginning for Shibata as a main line player, and very likely the starting point for a fresh and potentially classic Shibata vs Okada rivalry. With that said, I’m not sure how they could possibly improve on this particular match. Of course, I said that about several Okada/Tanahashi matches and was proven wrong each time.

I happened to recently watch/rewatch Shibata’s Big Mouth Loud run, and with having seen every big New Japan match he’s ever had, I’d have to call this his best bell to bell performance ever, or at minimum his most complete. He out wrestled Okada on the mat early. His strikes were nasty. He fed off the crowd and fired up at the right times. He put his body on the line. He sold for Okada in ways that others have not, collapsing forward with glassy eyes on the third Rainmaker, after the brilliant no sell/no bump first attempt (and subsequent headbutt and trademark blood trickle that will wind up being the definitive moment of the match), which made the match feel very different from other Okada singles bouts. Even the match ending Rainmaker was more of a thud, rather than the usual explosive thwack, getting over the idea that this man still had something in him that others did not after absorbing the move so many times. Shibata has had plenty of nasty, brutal, exciting 12:00-18:00 battles over the years with people like Hirooki Goto, Tomohiro Ishii, and Tomoaki Honma, but going nearly 40:00 minutes with a performance this complete for the IWGP title in the biggest match of his life, and one that ultimately completed his long awaited elevation, has to rank as his best.

Okada continued his run of incredible performances, dating back to his title win over Naito last June. The match variety is what stands out. The brutal G1 beating at the hands of Marufuji and subsequent rematch at King of Pro Wrestling. The Ishii G1 match that many rated five stars. The frantic draw against Tanahashi. The all time epic at Wrestle Kingdom vs Omega. The brutal leg match against Suzuki. The fun exhibition turned nasty with Tiger Mask W. And now the fist fight against Shibata, a hard fought war where he was forced to fight, outwrestled and smacked in the mouth, chest kicked in, but standing tall, fighting back (even if fighting a little dirty, like grinding on to the Deep In Debt after his opponent reached the ropes, to a chorus of boos) and going toe to toe, but always coming up a little short at the end of the exchanges. This was important. He didn’t beat Shibata at his own game, just like he didn’t out grapple Suzuki or out kick Marufuji or out fly Tiger Mask W. He simply persevered and overcame, like he always does. Okada often draws passive aggressive comparisons to Roman Reigns, but he’s closer to John Cena. And that formula is working at the gate. Okada vs Marufuji drew the largest non-G1 Sumo Hall crowd since 2000, the Omega match showed growth over the 2016 Wrestle Kingdom, the Suzuki bout sold out New Beginning, and now this Shibata match is the biggest legit number New Japan has done in Sumo Hall, G1 show or otherwise, since at least 2010 (11,000 reported for G1 Final), but probably a few years longer than that.

With this insane run of outstanding, varied main events, and the safe assumption of a quality G1, if Okada puts together one or two more excellent title matches it’ll be extremely difficult to put together a better Wrestler of the Year case. There will be contenders by years end who will have done less in twelve months than Okada has done in four.

But this match wasn’t about the winner, it was about Shibata, who on this night became best example of the advantages that the sometimes maddeningly frustrating New Japan slow burn booking gives you. They could have elevated him three or four years ago and quickly burned through his story when business dictated they didn’t need to. With Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles out of the way, Tanahashi stepping aside, and Ibushi doing whatever the fuck it is Ibushi is doing, the time was right for elevations. For the Naito rebuild. For Omega’s eventual and inevitable move to heavyweight. And now, for long awaited elevation of the prodigal son who returned some five years ago. The fans were ready, the fans were behind him, and now that they’ve had a taste, they’ll be hungry for his chase.

It took a while to get here, but it was well worth the wait. *****

Final Thoughts

A great show with some fun surprises. The story of the night was continued elevations. Juice Robinson’s pinfall over Naito couldn’t have come off any better as he continues his rise as a solid mid card player. Hiromu Takahashi’s third straight big show semi main event title defense and shocking squash victory was a firm statement of what the company thinks of his ceiling. Katsuyori Shibata was one half of the most successful New Japan Sumo Hall main event in roughly a decade, and had 10,000 people with five years of pent up energy behind him. G1 should be absolute madness, with Naito, Omega, and now Shibata realistically jockeying for position to challenge the seemingly unbeatable Okada on January 4, 2018.