AUGUST 31, 2019



Watch: NJPW World

Six thousand wrestling fans from across the UK and beyond made their way to a forgotten corner of London to greet the biggest professional wrestling stars on the planet.  They would have been happy with a ‘Road To’ style mix of tags, but were given four title matches and significant story lines. The stage is set for a potential show of the year candidate!

Roppongi 3K (Rocky Romero, SHO & YOH) defeat Ren Narita, Ryusuke Taguchi & Shota Umino

Roppongi 3K feel underused recently, which isn’t a criticism but a testament to the immense quality of the New Japan junior division.  

Taguchi, on the other hand, has finally found his ideal place on the card.  I laugh at the number 69 as much as the next wrestling critic who thinks a bit too highly of himself: I don’t.  Leading Young Lions, however, is perfect for him.

Indeed, the most interesting combatants here are the Young Lions themselves.  The curriculum they follow seems to have had an overhaul, with story and character being more prominent than ever.  The London crowd have certainly hooked onto this, with chants of ‘shooter’ echoing through the arena for Shota Umino.  He certainly deserves the extra adulation, as he spent the match hitting the ropes with a determined vigour.

Everything else here was standard, quality work.  A company with such a high working standard is going to throw out these solid, exciting openers just to be lost in the abundance of wrestling on tape. **¾

Juice Robinson & Kota Ibushi defeat BULLET CLUB (Hikuleo & Yujiro Takahashi)

Takahashi is a wrestling black hole.  He’s easily the weakest wrestler on a roster that contains some broken old men and Bad Luck Fale.  His gimmick is as antiquated as it is disgusting, and he walks like a man full of cheap Mexican food.  Not only is he the worst major league wrestler in the world, every British pound he was paid for this performance should have been donated to some sort of women’s shelter as recompense for his vile attitude.

Anyway, Ibushi is a star.  That’s hardly a breathtaking statement, but the personification of pro wrestling himself enters this undercard tag like a God.  The purity of his wrestling spirit connects him to the audience in a rare and unique way. His song, punctuated by deafening chants, herald a star and leave us with a hope that it’s finally his time.

Ibushi, as wonderful at selling as he is at every other aspect of pro-wrestling, makes Hikuleo look like a star too.  Hikuleo has moved from a newborn giraffe, gangling around looking for his mother, into a dangerous wrestler. His huge limbs fly with momentum and purpose.  He’s not there yet, but if New Japan can’t polish him then nobody can. ***

CHAOS (Robbie Eagles & Will Ospreay) defeat BULLET CLUB (El Phantasmo & Taiji Ishimori)

ELP, Super-J Cup winner and British Cruiserweight Champion, has had quite a year.  His feud with David Starr, despite some booking inconsistencies, elevated him in Britain; now he is going worldwide.  With the ridiculous-in-2019 tape delay, I cannot comment on his run in the Super-J Cup, but I wonder if this stage is just a bit too big for ELP.  I like him a lot, but he feels like a small room wrestler. It’s early days, but the time for a killer performance is quickly approaching.

Eagles wrestled this match like a man with something to prove.  The dive he took at the start was executed with such speed and intent that his back bounced across the ramp like a stone over skipping on a lake.  The new Chaos junior team made a clear statement of intent, with some excellent double team maneuvers that, while unpolished, will bring a sizzle to Junior Tag League.

This is a very clear-cut match, with Eagles taking a beat down before the hot tag to Ospreay.  The double stomp onto Eagles’ balls was a glorious dickhead-heel moment and Ospreay’s familiar bounce was pure blue-eye fire. A lot of this is functional, but entertaining, and it leads to the challenge for the Junior Tag belts.  A speedy exchange between ELP and Ospreay was the amuse-bouche for the inevitable Junior Championship challenge, and it certainly whet my appetite.

It’s also nice to be reminded that Ishimori exists, like a teenage album found in the loft that you thought was fine about five years ago.

The Birds of Prey have arrived, with a double Spanish Fly from the top rope. ***1/4

Los Ingobernables de Japon (SANADA & Tetsuya Naito) defeat BULLET CLUB (Chase Owens & Jay White) (w/Gedo)

Tetsuya Naito is a the most fascinating character of the decade.  Going from the rejected babyface to the maligned heel before becoming the beloved antihero is one of the most breathtaking stories ever told in wrestling.  It feels like a turning point in his career – with questions flying back and forth about his route into one of the Dome main events – and the pieces seem to be moving towards putting the white belt on Jay White. All of this makes it easy to forget just how much story Naito can tell with a movement, a look or a smile.  Whether it’s gold, glory or something more personal, we can trust Naito to deliver something special on the big stage.

But, this isn’t the big stage.  There are a lot of people in the audience, but Naito is far down the card and wrestling in a tag.  This match is a functional bridge to start a White/Naito program.

White, like Naito, can tell a whole story with a facial expression.  The effort it takes to ignore Naito’s protracted undressing shows just how competent Jay White’s story telling ability has become.

As far as work goes, if you close your eyes you can probably block out this match in your head.  There’s a Paradise Lock, a Dragon Sleeper, and even a hot tag or two. Nothing special on paper, but elevated when performed by genuine stars.

The post match angle gives the crowd a heated beatdown for White and the much-desired Destino.  If Naito needs to lose the Intercontinental belt, Jay White seems like an excellent choice. ***

IWGP Tag Team Championship: Guerrillas Of Destiny (Tama Tonga & Tanga Loa) (w/Jado) (c) defeat Aussie Open (Kyle Fletcher & Mark Davis)

Aussie Open have become a staple of the British wrestling scene since the WWE decided it shouldn’t exist.  They’re workhorses, easily transitioning from the silly Tuesday Night Graps to the perceived seriousness of an IWGP title shot.

The problem with this match was, bizarrely, its greatest strength.  New Japan have hardly prioritised the tag team division. GOD are a perfectly competent team in the ring and their charisma is palpable.  However, neither Tanga or Tama could handle a singles push. The last time Tama Tonga was in a G1, for example, he didn’t even bother to buy proper pants.  That said, this neglect has given a team like Aussie Open the opportunity to wrestle on the biggest stage of the year. If any team in Britain deserves it, it’s them.  They might not leap out from a promotional picture, but anyone who watches them wrestle will be enamoured by the husky Davis and the firebrand Fletcher.

Dueling chants elevate the Copper Box, and the stage is set for a match which could steal the show.  The young Fletcher takes a beating from the nefarious Bullet Club team, perfectly balancing heated comebacks and crumbling collapses from brutal power moves.

One of the underrated aspects of GOD is the fact that they are always on.  The man on the apron cackles, laughs and mocks along with their partner’s offence, creating a more complete match.

One thing that cannot be ignored is the Davis hot tag.  He’s quickly building a reputation as one of the best in the business.  The way he runs through clotheslines like a hot knife through butter is a simple yet stunning wrinkle that hints at pro-wrestling intelligence.

As in many Aussie Open matches, their control periods descend into a series of spotty double team moves.  Everything they do is fresh and cool, but always seems to lack the meaning that many of their contemporaries can conjure.

Whether this was a one hit wonder or a passage into Tag League remains to be seen.  Ironically, there’s something very British about the Australian team. They’re like pieces from two different jigsaws that fit together in a very unconventional way.  I don’t know if this will translate to Japan, but I hope we get to find out. ***1/4

NEVER Openweight Championship: KENTA defeats Tomohiro Ishii (c)

As I watched KENTA struggle to climb the bottom rope at the end of this match, I wondered how complicit I was in the concussion that he suffered.  I’ve always been a strong advocate of wrestlers being able to express themselves however they see fit, and I always have the option to watch something else, but this match made me pause.

Perhaps the immense gravity of Shibata, linked as he is to KENTA’s story, made the injury more emotional.  The more we crave brutality, the more we endanger the wrestlers we love. It certainly made engaging in kayfabe more difficult.  The audience are an often underrated element of kayfabe – we have to suspend our disbelief like in every other art form – and worrying about CTE and brain damage adds a significant hurdle for all but the hardest of heart.

Every individual will find a different answer to this problem.  As uncomfortable as it made me, however, it seems naive to think this is unavoidable in professional wrestling.  It’s a price we all pay.

As expected, this match is littered with horrendous strikes and thrilling forearm exchanges.  Ishii retains his magical aura of resilience and heart, and juxtaposing this with KENTA’s mocking of Shibata with the dropkick brings a wondrous heat that almost manages to surpass the quagmire of the injury.  KENTA’s danced around the prone Ishii, targeting his barrel chest and back with slapping strikes between sneers at the audience.

This match never quite got the downhill momentum I expected, but there will always remain the Pavlovian response to Ishii refusing to admit that a strike hurts.  Physical pain is nothing to him; it’s the disrespect that cuts to his core. A collapsed brainbuster sits uncomfortably next to a fantastic seated exchange leaving a match that is almost impossible to rate.

Unfortunately, this match distances itself from the wonderful, simple story of a man avenging perceived disrespect.  The modern Bullet Club is plagued by the dreaded interference and the inevitable GOD invasion flickers between an eye roll and relief that a concussed man won’t keep getting hit.

Let’s hope that a healthy KENTA has to settle this once and for all. ***1/2

RevPro Undisputed British Heavyweight Championship: Hiroshi Tanahashi defeats Zack Sabre Jr. (c)

Two great wrestlers can always have a great match.  Seven great matches, however, is a completely different mountain to climb.  Zack Sabre Jr. defending the British title in the capital is a nice story, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the feeling that this series of matches needs the benefit of time to freshen it up.

ZSJ wrestled at his arrogant best.  There’s a smirk on his face as he dances with Tanahashi in the opening gambit, and the chants of ‘Go Ace’ from his countrymen encouraged more brutality.  A sly air guitar reveals ZSJ’s hidden asset: the mind game.

Whenever the action locks up, writhing and silently screaming bodies add a sizzle that is often missing from technical wrestling.  Looking away for a second could mean missing an instant reversal that puts ZSJ back on top and has Tanahashi’s limbs scratching for the ropes.

As you would expect, the match starts to fall apart for Zack when he takes the One in a Hundred Year Ace off the mat.  Screaming for a Sabre Driver, it was an inevitability that the Dragon Screw would bring it to a grinding halt. It’s the Dragon Screw that keeps Tana alive, allowing him to swiftly whip his way out of limb wrenching submissions and find holes in the intelligent offense of Zack Sabre Jr.

A High Fly Flow brings Tanahashi the win, and suddenly this British trade unionist doesn’t have to worry about rampant Conservatism in this country anymore.  Our champion is Tanahashi, and he will lead a new era of love, peace and tranquility. Long live Tanahashi! ****

IWGP Heavyweight Championship: Kazuchika Okada (c) defeats Minoru Suzuki

Life is often a journey of insult and humiliation.  We go to work and allow others to dictate our time and efforts.  People cut us off in queues and we remain silent, preferring to accept the sleight and get on with our lives.  Secretly, however, we feed fantasies of havoc. What if I told that annoying boss to fuck off? What if I refused to be humiliated, passed over and ignored?

I’d be Minoru Suzuki.

Leaving Minoru Suzuki at the bench during the G1 was a clear insult.  He can take a thousand forearms to the face, but this sleight has left him wounded and looking for revenge.  The scream of “Kaze Ni Nare” as he centres himself in the ring drips with meaning. It’s a declaration that insults will not be ignored.

Of course, the man he has to surpass is lightning.  Okada’s golden aura dances around the arena, and this suddenly becomes a battle of glorious light against embittered, scarred darkness.

Early submission attempts are a game to Suzuki.  He allows Okada to grab a hold, smirks and reverses it in a brutal armbar.  He stalks around the ring with a chair, risking disqualification to make Okada’s heartbeat dance with fear.

This soon descends into the bare brutality of a strike exchange.  Suzuki isn’t interested in showmanship, but in collecting the debt from his G1 insult.  Knees hit Okada’s chest before heels smash his skull. Lazy covers indicate that respect is worth far more than any gold belt.

Okada, however, is the best wrestler in the world.  He is, statistically, the greatest IWGP champion of all time.  That fact is clearly at the forefront of his mind as he lingers on a Rainmaker pose with an arrogant smirk smeared on his face.  He meets the devastating forearms inflicted upon him with the youthful exuberance that got him to the top of the tree. Okada won’t allow Suzuki to take his petty revenge easily, and he pays the price with a forearm to the back of the neck that was so violent it made my neck tingle.

There’s a bittersweet irony to the fact that Suzuki works better in the violent G1 sprints, and there’s a bit of repetition towards the business end.  However, this long match flies by on a constant groove of skin-on-skin strikes. The blue eye, matinee idol survived, but the office will think twice before insulting Suzuki again. ****½

Closing Thoughts

This show is proof that a fantastic crowd can elevate in-ring work to a different level.  The aggressive expansion of NJPW reaching British shores was gladly received by fans from all over the country, and it will certainly be a night I will remember for the rest of my life.  The booking was obvious, the outcomes were almost universally certain, but star power speaks for itself.