New Japan Pro Wrestling
Fighting Spirit Unleashed 2019
September 30, 2018
Long Beach, California
Watch: NJPW World
NJPW’s return to the United States for Fighting Spirit Unleashed 2018 will be a show remembered by a few key takeaways.
First off, the show itself was one of NJPW’s best United States offerings with a series of good-to-great matches and very little filler. The entire roster appeared to be working at full effort throughout the night and though there was no Match of the Year contenders, Fighting Spirit Unleashed should be considered one of the top-to-bottom best shows of the year.
Now we have to touch on the negatives. The attendance for Fighting Spirit Unleashed was an announced 3,007. That’s down 31% from the 4,372 Strong Style Evolved received at the very same venue in March. The 3,007 is also the lowest mark for a United States NJPW show since Night 2 of the G1 Special in USA. That’s not an entirely fair comparison point, though, as the G1 Special shows were run in a much smaller venue.
No matter how you slice it, the 3,007 is a huge negative. There is a multitude of reasons for the low number. Some have blamed the less than stellar card, one that wasn’t fully announced until a few days prior while others would look at the over saturation of NJPW talent in America this year. The card is undoubtedly partially to blame for the low attendance. This card, like others before it, was designed for consumption by “American audiences”. The assumption is that your casual fans will be attracted to seeing familiar faces in big spots, thus the only matches announced prior to the conclusion of NJPW’s Destruction tour was Cody vs. Juice Robinson, Marty Scurll vs. Will Ospreay and The Young Bucks vs. Guerillas of Destiny. That strategy did not pay off. I’ve long held the opinion that American fans don’t want an Americanized NJPW. They want NJPW. If they are going to fly across the country or drive from out of town to go to these specials, they need to be just that: special. There needs to be a feeling that you’re seeing something you wouldn’t see anywhere else. While these are no doubt large matches in the scale of American independent wrestling, they don’t feel unique enough to drive somebody to travel in for the show.
Likewise, there’s been an overabundance of NJPW talent in America this year. Between frequent tours with ROH, multiple NJPW-promoted events in America and ALL IN, most devoted fans have seen their fair share of talents. The novelty of just seeing Kazuchika Okada has worn off. American fans want to see Okada in a big spot. American fans don’t just want to see Kota Ibushi, they want to see him in a major spot on the show. American fans want to feel there are consequences and purpose to these shows and that has to extend beyond the IWGP United States Championship.
Lastly, moving to new locations throughout the country would be wise. It’s obvious why California, particularly Long Beach, has been a frequent spot for the Japanese-based company but that market has seen these shows in abundance over the last two years. It’s time to branch out to the east coast or midwest.
Fighting Spirit Unleashed was a very good wrestling show but the big picture takeaway is one that should be a wakeup call to NJPW. Either make your wrestlers special in America again but not over saturating the market, or ensure that your specials in America are just that: special. Give American fans consequences, purpose and meaning.
Taguchi Japan (Jushin Thunder Liger, Ryusuke Taguchi and ACH) def. Roppongi 3K (Rocky Romero, SHO & YOH)
The perfect kickoff to the show as the crowd exploded for Liger and got to see one of the best high flyers in wrestling (ACH) dazzle. While everyone played a small part in making this match great, this was the ACH show as he stood head and shoulders above everyone in this match. ***3/4
The Addiction (Christopher Daniels and Frankie Kazarian) def. Bullet Club Elite (Hangman Page and Chase Owens)
I tend to think I have my finger on the pulse of pro wrestling. Running the site, scouring the internet constantly for pro wrestling news, opinions and more, being active on Twitter, all these things should presumably make me aware of the happenings in the pro wrestling world. Somewhere along the line, I missed So Cal Uncensored (SCU) getting as over as they have. At ALL IN, I was floored by the reaction SCU got but merely chalked it up to a molten hot crowd ready to party.
I was fooled away as the crowd loudly chanted SCU as stable members Daniels and Kazarian entered the ring. While, sure, being in Southern California certainly helped SCU. This was much more than a “let’s cheer for guys from our town” reaction. SCU is fucking over.
The match was yet another surprisingly great match from the two teams. I’ve talked at length about the improvement Page has made to his game in the last year and it showed here as he was right there with Daniels as the standout wrestler during the match. Daniels and Kazarian are as professional as they come and Owens is arguably one of the most underrated workers in the world today.
Owens, of course, took the fall but this was very good for the limited amount of time it received. ***1/2
Jeff Cobb, Chris Sabin and Flip Gordon def. CHAOS (Hirooki Goto, Beretta and Chuckie T.)
Broken record time: this over-delivered in a big way. While I liked it less than the prior two matches, I found myself really enjoying the back and forth. Like the opener, there was a clear “star” in the match and that was Cobb who tossed everyone around as he’s want to do. This delighted commentator Jim Ross to no end.
A quick aside about the commentary. G1 Special in San Francisco featured a disastrous commentary performance from both Josh Barnett and Ross, tonight was light years better. Kevin Kelly replaced Barnett in the color role while Ross maintained play-by-play duties. This allowed Ross to do what he does best (call the action) while Kelly, who has ingrained himself in all things NJPW, was able to chime in with storyline significance. When Ross stumbled on a move name, Kelly was there to pick up the pieces. When Ross wasn’t quite sure the backstory, Kelly filled him in. This made for a great experience and as the show progressed Ross actually improved.
This is a far cry from G1 Special in San Francisco and prior American NJPW shows where Ross’ general distaste for the style of modern NJPW was amplified by Barnett’s clear disdain for it as well. Instead of allowing Ross to get on a soapbox, Kelly always directed traffic back to the match or the wrestlers. The lack of enabling from Kelly actually helped Ross have one of his best performances in years. Thumbs up across the board for the inclusion of Kelly. Let’s make it permanent for these shows.
Again, this match was solid with each wrestler getting a few moments to shine with the lone exception of Cobb who seemed to have more directive to go out and impress. ***1/4
Suzuki-gun (Zack Sabre Jr., Lance Archer and Davey Boy Smith Jr.) def. Los Ingobernables de Japon (Tetsuya Naito, SANADA and EVIL)
Suzuki-gun vs. LIJ.
This was fine but ultimately ended up being my least favorite match of the night. It was fine but I can’t even pretend to be interested in what these two unit do against one another… but I’ll try.
The work was solid, Sabre looked great, Naito got a huge reaction, KES did some power moves…okay, I can’t fake it anymore. I’m sorry. **
CHAOS (Jay White and Gedo) def. Taguchi Japan (Hiroshi Tanahashi and KUSHIDA)
Off the charts heat for Jay White and Gedo throughout this match. Whether you loved White’s G1 output or not (I was solidly in the not category, for the record), it worked. Fans across the world can’t stand the guy but it appears–for now, at least—to be positive heat. Gedo received plenty of scorn himself for turning on Okada at Destruction in Kobe. It really says something when White and Gedo elicited much of the reaction for this match… a match featuring a man on a path towards another potential IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title run and a man with a Wrestle Kingdom main event briefcase.
White is a star, there’s no getting around it. He’ll be in his second straight Wrestle Kingdom semi-main event this year and is progressing better than most of us thought he would on January 5th of this year, fresh off the heels of his tremendously disappointing match at Wrestle Kingdom. The Gedo turn was masterful and has reinvigorated the CHAOS stable and brought turmoil into the mix. I’m excited to see what comes next.
The match itself was very well worked and featured two of the very best going today in Tanahashi and KUSHIDA. Gedo and White were more focused on generating heat and the overall match quality probably suffered as a result. I’m okay with that though. It’s why star ratings can sometimes be a fallacy. The match won’t rate as well as prior matches but it was arguably my favorite match of the night due to the sheer amount of tremendous heel work by White and Gedo and the valiant babyface work of Tanahashi and KUSHIDA. ***
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship Tournament Semifinal
Marty Scurll def. Will Ospreay
Death. Taxes. Scurll defeats Ospreay. Young Will was able to break the curse earlier this year but it’s back. Scurll put away Ospreay somewhat definitively after a very fun back and forth match between the two. These guys have faced each other roughly 175 times (give or take a few here and there) but find new and innovative ways to make each of their matches unique. From the opening bell, they were at each other’s throats. Scurll, thankfully, kept the comedy to a minimum during this match and instead focused on inflicting pain Ospreay’s way, focusing on Will’s neck throughout.
Ospreay appeared at times to get over the hump but continually got cut off as Scurll methodically worked his neck over. In the end, Scurll won solidly, putting away Ospreay and moving onto the finals of the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship tournament where he’ll face KUSHIDA.
The loss puts Ospreay at a crossroads in his NJPW career. Most of us anticipate Ospreay going to heavyweight soon and this loss may be the impetus for that very move. ****
IWGP Tag Team Championship
Guerrillas of Destiny (Tama Tonga and Tanga Loa) (with Haku) def. The Young Bucks (Matt Jackson and Nick Jackson) (c)
Keeping with the theme of this show, GOD vs. The Young Bucks over-delivered in a huge way. The Bucks are consistently one of the best tag teams in pro wrestling and have been for the better part of the last decade. GOD, not so much. On this night, not only did the Bucks perform up to their usual standards but GOD perhaps set a new standard for themselves. It’d be easy to say this was a Young Bucks carry job but it wasn’t, GOD was right there with them the entire night, in particular, Tama Tonga who shined throughout.
This performance is what makes so many of us so disappointed in Tonga’s inconsistent output. He IS capable of being very good but has issues consistently doing so. Not on this night. The finish was a bit of surprise with GOD once again getting the tag titles—their fourth reign as championships—but the match delivered big and continued the storyline of BULLET CLUB fracturing and fragmentation. ****
IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship
Cody def. Juice Robinson (c)
Another surprising title change as Cody, the current NWA Worlds Heavyweight Champion, added more gold to his mantel defeating Robinson and ending his 85-day reign as champion. I enjoyed the match as it was worked in a classic pro wrestling style with Robinson the fiery babyface and Cody (with his wife Brandi) the dastardly heels attempting to use any and all tactics to retain their titles. The issue though, is I don’t know what Cody is. At ALL IN, we watched him cry in the ring after winning the title his father once held. Even in NJPW canon, Cody is… “good” now. Yet at the beginning of this match, he faked throwing his shirt to the crowd and instead handed it to Brandi. He used heel tactics throughout the match even having his wife fake an injury to get the upper hand. I’m all for shades of gray in pro wrestling characters and the strict heel/face dynamic isn’t always necessary but Cody’s confusing flip-flopping between good guy and bad guy is confusing and difficult to follow.
The disappointment in this match and the reason I can’t rate it higher is because Cody’s constant heel tactics (which we’re done well and effective) didn’t lead to Juice getting the triumphant win but rather Cody winning fairly definitively after rolling through a Robinson superplex. You spent most of the match waiting for Juice to fire up and get on the offensive, but it never quite hit that gear. Ultimately, the match felt incomplete. Good effort by both guys and they were well on their way to a very good match but failed to connect all of the dots. ***1/2
Golden☆Lovers (Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi) def. CHAOS (Kazuchika Okada and Tomohiro Ishii)
An exceptional main event that perfectly capped off Fighting Spirit Unleashed. While there wasn’t a ton of consequence or purpose for this match—even if its was tangentially BULLET CLUB vs. CHAOS—it didn’t matter. Omega and Okada faced off to a huge pop as people know that despite Okada’s broken character path, it’s still Okada and he’ll be back in the title picture soon. Ishii and Ibushi don’t directly have a feud but given the magic the two made during this year’s G1 Climax, the crowd couldn’t wait to see what they did when they were in the ring together.
So, no, there wasn’t much that mattered to the big picture of NJPW but when the match was over, after the multiple “This is Awesome” chants dissipated, we had our undisputed match of the night.
The action never stopped with an insane, almost impossible to comprehend pace as these guys absolutely beat on one another from the opening bell until the Golden Trigger that ultimately gave Omega and Ibushi the win. Larry Csonka of 411Mania put it perfectly when he said “no wasted motion, no bullshit.” This was four great workers having a dream match main event on a super show. While I’d of course rather see more matches and shows of consequence in America, I’ll never complain about getting great main events like this.
The result was up in the air until the final moments which made each and every near fall (which were kept to a sensible minimum) matter so much. This was spectacular and one of the better tag matches you’ll see all year. Seek it out if you haven’t already. ****½
After the match as Omega was signing off, Cody entered the ring and challenged Omega and Ibushi to a triple-threat match at the upcoming NJPW King of Pro Wrestling show. This is the first IWGP Heavyweight Championship Triple Threat match since 2005 when Brock Lesnar defeated Kazuyuki Fujita and Masahiro Chono. It didn’t go well and we haven’t seen one since.
I’m not in love with the match and will get into more details on a separate column and on this week’s VOW Flagship podcast.
Fighting Spirit Unleashed was a superb top-to-bottom show highlighted by a handful of stellar tag matches and Ospreay vs. Scurll. We can’t ignore the poor business or disappointing attendance this show did and that will be ultimately be black mark on the experience.