There are many ways to promote a wrestling show. Usually, it’s the star. Sometimes, it’s the gimmick. Rarely, however, is it the venue. For a non-WWE company to plant a flag in what has traditionally been promoted as their home promotion is a fantastic symbol of what professional wrestling has become over the last few years. That being said, it doesn’t mean much if the match quality doesn’t deliver…
New Japan & Ring of Honor
April 6, 2019
Madison Square Garden
New York, New York
A cavalcade of stars from New Japan and people from ROH start the evening and it tells an interesting story of juxtapositions. The deafening receptions that greeted Ishii, Suzuki and Muta were in stark contrast to the silence that awaited quite literally all of the ROH talent. It makes the idea of the partnership seem a little laughable. Could New Japan not have done this on their own?
Aside from the thunderous reception for the likes of Liger, there was very little of consequence here. A nice spot with Taguchi directing the entire ring in the ‘Forever’ elbow spot was a high point, but this was mainly men cuddling ropes like a toddler on their father’s leg. The final stand off of Muta and Liger against The Kingdom highlighted just how pathetic the Kingdom really are.
Kenny King, the honourable man who requested to enter first, was actually hiding under the ring in a twist that could come straight out of a low-tier M Night Shyamalan movie. This was what it was. **3/4
NEVER Openweight Championship
ROH Television Championship
Jeff Cobb def. Will Ospreay
There’s a syndrome that has infected certain circles in professional wrestling: the boyhood dream. Wrestlers and companies are affected by a misty eyed humility that is forced and unnatural. The confidence that should come with performing on the highest stage is often replaced with a deep, saccharine appreciation for the gift they have been given. Quite frankly, I’m sick of it. I want to see the best in the world compete, not chancers who are there because they are a nice guy.
Ospreay is immune to this syndrome. He launches himself into the ring with the same energy that emanates from him in every arena. He’s the greatest high flyer in the world and wowing a huge crowd is his drug. He’s ready for the biggest stages and it’s impossible not to be taken along in his slipstream of enthusiasm.
There’s a certain sloppiness to this match, like both men are driving overtuned cars that are willing to spin on every corner. While not every spot lands – a few catches were missed and Ospreay overshot a few things – it did give a sense of danger and, like taking the last piece of cake from the family fridge, it’s the danger that increases the excitement.
The story here was Ospreay’s continued rise as a heavyweight. He wants to add more strikes to his game and stand toe-to-toe with a behemoth like Cobb. This wasn’t a smart move, but Ospreay has never been the smartest wrestler in the world. There are glorious spots where Ospreay has to raise the level of violence between each strike, desperately trying to find the dazing effect he needs.
Ultimately, Cobb won the power game that Ospreay so desperately wanted to play, leaving the story open for a reflective and considered return. Ospreay can put on all the weight he wants, but he needs to wrestle smarter if he is to keep his spot as champion. Lovely story. ***3/4
Rush def. Dalton Castle
The pageantry that ushered Dalton Castle to the ring, complete with peacock feathers and semi naked Boys, certainly fits the grandiose occasion. Using Boys as a step to the ring was such a glorious slice of camp theatre that it almost made the audience forget that Dalton is, unfortunately, broken. There’s something sad and captivating about a wrestler that still has so much to offer and so many stories to tell restricted by that mythical bump card.
Rush is the opposite, a livewire of petulance determined to vanquish the former world champion. It doesn’t take him long. He flies through the air, slamming his heels into the face of his ethereal opponent. The match has barely begun and the victorious Rush is having his hand raised by the referee, panting like the school bully as the red mist fades away.
Dalton Castle moves from the Golden Era god into the maniacal pharaoh, exercising his own demons through violence against his subjects. In a few minutes, ROH may have given the new viewer a storyline hook. Very smart. **1/2
Women of Honor Championship
Kelly Klein def. Mayu Iwatani
The commentary team can’t believe how far the women’s championship has come and judging by the aggressively average matches that have defined it, I’m inclined to agree.
Klein sends her retinue back to the locker room and this match is presented as a true decider in the series. It starts with an air of serious competition which befits the situation.
Unfortunately, there’s a clunkiness to Klein that doesn’t really suit this story. The cogs in her brain are almost audible as she thinks her way through every spot. Every hold feels like it’s slipping away from her and even strikes take careful consideration that slows the proceedings.
Luckily, Iwatani works marvellously from underneath and she scratches her way back from domination with superb chokeholds and a suicidal dive to the outside. Whenever Klein fights back, the sludge through molasses continues.
Klein wins and we can all forget about this match, but I’m sure we’ll be reminded of the angle afterwards. The crowd were not impressed with the Angelina Love, Velvet Sky and Mandy Leon angle and I can hardly blame them. It was lots of staring and not a lot else. **3/4
Bully Ray Open Challenge
Flip Gordon, Juice Robinson & Mark Haskins vs. Bully Ray, Silas Young & Shane Taylor
The nerdcore rapper Mega Ran appeared to an apathetic crowd, consistently reminding them that they weren’t watching what they paid for with constant bellows of “scream if you love wrestling.” Bully Ray interrupts, looking like a dad trying to watch darts while the kids scream in the garden. This soon descends into a pathetic sequence of supermarket-spat level strikes before Flip, to nobody’s surprise but everyone’s relief, answers the open challenge.
Flip is as dynamic as ever, a wild flash of limbs and flips that sends Bully flying under the ring for kendo sticks and tables. Obviously Silas Young and Shane Taylor have to get involved and this quickly descends into wrestling ‘story time.’ Juice Robinson and Mark Haskins, a tag team so unlikely it almost works, decide to make this a three on three match with a crate of weapons. This doesn’t flow at all, with competitors waiting to be hit with kendo sticks when it should have been a steady flow of violence. It was a blueprint of spots rather than the street fight we were promised. Once the wrestling started, the engine started to rev but it was too little too late and it felt a little like the gimmicked pallet Taylor had to gently place in the corner. A little transparent.
If surprise entrants turning the lights off, the video game hardcore toolbox of inexplicable kendo sticks and Silas Young excite you then this is a dream match. Gentleman’s ***
IWGP Junior Championship
Dragon Lee def. Bandido & Taiji Ishimori
It’s easy for me to be critical of wrestling. I always seem to find myself drilling down on minutiae and spending far too long mulling over small instances and minor movements.
This match was exactly what I needed to drag me out of that snobby, faux artistic slumber. It was a whirlwind of exciting actions, drawing me closer and closer to the edge of my seat as the competitors made the screen a blur of colour and movement. It was visceral in a very sensory way, infecting all who watched it with heart stopping adrenaline.
Whether it was Dragon Lee leaping over the ropes to deliver a hurricanrana, Ishimori dancing through the ropes or Bandido delivering a top rope backflip powerslam to both of his opponents, this was the match for the twelve year old that fell in love with the spectacle that pro-wrestling does so well.
This was far from a simple spot-fest, however. It was littered with innovation and deft storytelling. The way the three competitors bounced and stared during the Japanese recital of the rules was the salivatory smell the audience needed to be carried away in their cavalcade of running destroyers and hurricanranas. Monumental wrestling. ****1/2
IWGP Tag Team Championships
ROH Tag Team Championships
Guerillas of Destiny def. The Briscoes, EVIL & SANADA and Villain Enterprises (King & PCO)
A four way for two championships seems like a convoluted way of getting more people on the card and immediately removes any feeling of seriousness from a championship match. The solemnity is replaced by a variety of testosterone fueled teams getting a share of the spotlight.
PCO feels like a runaway train of a story – everything that was excited about him seems to have drifted into the ether like a errant spark from a car battery. However, he is most certainly well loved by the MSG audience and the vaudeville electric chair routine was a well judged addition, even if it wasn’t for me.
The action was fluid, with each team taking their turn in the spotlight to run through some signature spots. PCO finally hits his senton to the apron, delivers a moonsault and takes a sickening bump over the ropes to the floor. There’s a sadism to PCO that makes me excited and bloodthirsty, but immediately ashamed.
GOD take the pin and all of the gold. This was fun!
After the match was an infamous Enzo and Cass run in that was hidden from the stream in an effort to maintain the worked shoot feel. The idea of an invading force of former WWE star is an intriguing one, but they’ve chosen the wrong team here. ***1/2
Undisputed British Heavyweight Championship
Zack Sabre Jr. def. Hiroshi Tanahashi
Sometimes, it feels like Tanahashi is from a different planet. He’s a gift from some higher power that’s beyond any kind of critical comprehension. Whether it’s the colour, the hair or the dedication to those who love his craft, it’s impossible to say but he exudes a pro wrestling purity that is almost impossible to articulate. Of course, it could all be part of an elaborate game plan – to beat him means sowing discord amongst his army of loyal apostles – but if it is it won’t counteract the swagger of ZSJ. A shove of the face before the introductions makes that crystal clear.
Early mat work pushes Tanahashi to his limit, making it obvious that he won’t beat ZSJ at a style that has defined and differentiated him to an existential degree.
Unfortunately, the hectic opening gambit takes a dive into a slow, clumsy middle. ZSJ still wrenches every limb he can find, but often lacks the flow that has been vital to his signature offense. Reversing a triangle hold into a cloverleaf is impressive, if not particularly exciting.
A war of attrition ensures, with Tanahashi’s pro wrestling style of sentons and dragon screws competing against the counters and submission holds from ZSJ. There is solid work here, and two of the best wrestlers in the world are not going to drop a stinker, but there seems little impetus for Tanahashi to bring his best. A good match, but one that feels appropriate to its place on the card. I expected better. ***3/4
IWGP Intercontinental Championship
Kota Ibushi def. Tetsuya Naito
Ibushi is pro wrestling. He’s a savant who left behind his family fortune and scoffed at massive contracts from the biggest companies in the world to pursue a love for the craft of professional wrestling. In promo videos, his glassy eyed expression betrays a feeling of loss and confusion that only disappears when he is inside a wrestling ring. It is impossible to ignore the warmth and spirit he launches into the crowd and cameras with even the smallest movement.
Naito has told one of the greatest stories of recent times. He’s a true renegade that has given voice to a generation of fans who feel unhappy with constantly being overlooked by people who seem beyond our reach.
This had every chance to not only be the match of the night, but one of the greatest matches of all time.
One of the most magical things that these two wrestlers share is that sickening smile. With every hard chop or threat of a big move, both men would grin as if to dare their opponent to raise the game. There’s a constant threat throughout the match that the violence will reach inexplicable levels. Each competitor adds an extra sprinkle to their bumping, taking huge drops straight on the neck that are more sickening than any chair shot.
The violence can come from anywhere; look away and you might miss a horrendous hurricanrana to the outside or any number of big bombs.
A spit to the face brings Ibushi’s horrendous red mist, but aside from a Destino out of nowhere, this match doesn’t seem to enter the third act with any kind of dedication. It feels rushed in parts, and missed a lot of the indescribable insanity that we have come to expect from Ibushi.
This was never bad, but in many ways was a victim of expectations. ****
ROH World Championship Ladder Match
Matt Taven def. Marty Scurll & Jay Lethal
Matt Taven is not a real person. He’s a caricature, trying desperately to convince us that we should care about anything he’s saying. The way he arrogantly sneers “Madison Square Taven” with his hand in the air reeks of Thursday day promo class at developmental. Juxtapose this with Marty Scurll’s proclamation of “if not Madison Square Garden, then where else?”, with it’s infusion of genuine emotion and calm reality and it’s easy to see why Matt Taven is such an indistinct wrestler. He’s not awful by any stretch, but should he be in such a high profile match?
However, sometimes you have to accept that certain things aren’t aimed at you. I can tell you my opinions on any match I see, but there’s always going to be a certain barrier between me and certain matches that it seems futile.
ROH fans have come to expect the big ladder match. It would almost have been inappropriate not to have one on this show. There were brutal chair shots, huge elbow drops through tables and secret XXL ladders under the ring just waiting for the right moment in the action.
If you expect the Ladder Wars matches of the past, you’re going to be disappointed but the talent in this match is vastly different. The live audience loved it and, like me, I suspect you already know where you stand on this. Matt Taven wins. **
IWGP Heavyweight Championship
Kazuchika Okada def. Jay White
Okada needs Jay White. It might be an unpopular opinion in certain circles, especially after a disastrous re-debut and a divisive G1, but it feels like Okada needed a idealistic nemesis. He’s vanquished the shining star of Tanahashi and tested his mettle against the wrestling savant of Kenny Omega. What he needs now is someone who he is ideologically opposed to, a story that can hold the water of a myriad of emotions.
The crowd was far from split – Okada had them in the palm of his hands as they jeered at the nefarious White’s mindgames and made their opinions on the traitorous Gedo clear. The story was obvious and the crowd were molten. The only thing that needed to follow was the work.
Long White control periods were competent yet a little dull. The crowd were generous with their appreciation of the star power dancing in front of them, but it felt like a stunted match as I waited for it to hit that electric gear New Japan main events are famous for. They were rapturous for a leap into the crowd and every hint of Rainmaker, but it felt they were left salivating for a little too long. White’s collapse from a Rainmaker attempt seemed to personify this wait.
Okada and White, however, are effortlessly good. With a spinning Rainmaker and a superb backslide into finisher attempt sequence, I was back on board with the superb display of what pro wrestling can be.
The closing stretch was an excellent, subtle tribute to the difficulties Okada has faced. He has been outsmarted by the nefarious incarnation of the Bullet Club for so long and the three thunderous Rainmakers were exclamation points on the start of a new era for Okada. It was important that Jay White tried, and failed, to reverse the final Rainmaker and was promptly put in his place.
An excellent match, marred by the quagmire of the first half. ****1/4
This was very much two shows; the split between the two companies just feels two vast at this point. While very little was bad on the show, the low points were firmly on the ROH side.
This was an incredibly easy watch, and was fun from start to finish. I’m not convinced that there was a match of the year candidate here, but there was certainly an alarming demonstration of just how far non-WWE wrestling has bounced back. This feels like a significant moment on the journey to less monopolization in wrestling and it was historical for that alone.