Wrestling is like a marriage. Whatever cosmic choices presided over me to have an interest at pro wrestling at age three, that bond has resided for over thirty years now as other interests have come and gone. I am linked for life to the hobby. Rekindling that fire that initially flamed takes work though. Being in a marriage for over a decade now, it is easy for me to look at my spouse and see that we are much different people from when we first got together as teenagers. The success or failure comes in a readiness to adapt and accept the changes or not. That is the crossroads I presently face with modern wrestling. For years, I was one of the young guys that had mentors perusing the message boards I frequented and recommending a plethora of matches that couldn’t match my modest college budget. Now, the entire videotaped history of wrestling is generally just a few clicks away and those tastemakers have mostly burned out.
Behind them has come a new breed of pundits that I interact with and respect, but I fail to see the same connection with most of the wrestlers and matches that this crop of fans do. I have listened to nuanced arguments from Case Lowe about the Young Bucks and Shingo Takagi and how they are all-time greats and while I can’t really pinpoint a great counterargument to what Case is saying, something just doesn’t feel “right.”
Matches have always been my bread and butter more than analyzing the wrestlers themselves and I have always prided myself on trying to consume as much wrestling as possible. My thought process was that at least if I have seen it and people know I watch a lot of it, they have to respect what I have to say on it. Joe Lanza on a recent VOW flagship turned that perspective on its head for me when he talked about the consumption challenges that the 2020 wrestling landscape poises. It is simply impossible to keep up with it all.
Therefore, for the year 2020, I am trying something radical. I am going to watch only 100 matches from this year. That will provide some hard choices and selective bias, but it is a restraint I am willing to work with. One of the biggest struggles I have encountered lately is when I read reviews where the reviewer states they don’t have much to say on a match and then give it ****. For this project, the worst offense on a match is that I have nothing to say. I am hopeful to vet the matches beforehand that I will at least have something of substance to write about the match that occurs even if it may be contrarian from the majority or my own previous thought process. Will this rekindle my love and ignite my passion for modern wrestling?
Only time will tell.
Hiromu Takahashi vs Will Ospreay (Wrestle Kingdom 14, New Japan Pro Wrestling, January 4, 2020)
This journey had to start with Will Ospreay. More than any other wrestler (Kento Miyahara being second), I feel a greater disconnect from Ospreay than his most vocal supporters. He wasn’t in consideration of being my 2019 WOTY which he should cruise to on the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Most Outstanding award. It’s not that I dislike Ospreay and all of his matches, it’s just that I don’t know if his brand of wrestling is something that I can emotionally connect to and that is the crux of this project overall for me as to whether that will be a constant.
Takahashi shows off his lucha excursion lineage with a beautiful robe. Ospreay binge-watched Game of Thrones or some shit over the holiday and has a white tiger head on his jacket. Therein lies the problem critics of Ospreay have with him at points. It is undeniable that his athleticism is unprecedented. Just look at the Sasuke Special sequence in this match. The way he was able to perform that fluidly when the Sasuke Special alone was an athletic marvel in the wrestling world twenty-five years ago is spectacular. Beyond that, this match exemplified other tools that Ospreay carries that will propel him to be a main eventer in the heavyweight division for years to go barring something catastrophic occurring. The issue lies when the distinction is made in a match from stuff looking cool/epic and when it actually makes storyline sense. Do those have to be mutually exclusive? Can you just turn your brain off and enjoy the ride of the match? Likewise, does critiquing all minutia of a performer you hope to root against create a huge double standard on what is logical in wrestling?
Ospreay frustratingly has shown instances where he rises above the above dilemma for even his toughest critics. The hyped Ricochet BOSJ match from 2016 features the GIF flippy-do sequence that made Jim Cornette split his wig but beyond that was a sound psychological match with state of the art action. The KUSHIDA Invasion Attack 2016 and Taguchi BOSJ Final 2016 matches carry on this lineage. The Shingo Takagi BOSJ final will almost assuredly finish #1 on the VOW 2019 MOTY poll and even though I am lower than most on that match (****), I can’t deny there are significant portions of the match that are outstanding.
So where did this match fall on the pendulum of good or bad for someone who is mostly neutral? A lot of the tropes and crutches that could and have derailed Ospreay matches for me in the past were alleviated in this match with Hiromu. A singular moment was the kickout of the OsCutter. Ospreay’s facial expressions and the over-emoting is my strongest critique and one that doesn’t seem to have any stakes overall. Giving a top-notch performance every match out is admirable, but I do not want someone shrieking bloody murder and grabbing their hair after a nearfall with the same emphasis whether the match is the BOSJ finals or a random Korakuen on the Destruction tour. Ospreay’s reaction after Hiromu kicks out of the OsCutter was splendid. He mouths what the fuck in a genuine manner and conveys being surprised and shocked without over-emoting to a degree that reaches phoniness. Even though the finish was mostly secured in this match by Ospreay taking so much of the early going, this more subtle and humane emotion of one of his finishers being kicked out of brought much more investment for myself into the finishing sequence.
I was also appreciative of the space that was given between many of the nearfalls in the waning moments of the match. Stuff was able to breathe a bit and that raised the stakes. Again, I thought both men sold fatigue and anguish well given that the next interaction would result in more bomb-throwing and reversals. This is a high degree of difficulty in executing well as fainting death one second and reversing German suplexes and springboards subsequently is a tough ask for many psychologically in a match. The weight of the kickouts and nearfalls were emphasized. The Stormbreaker was protected on Ospreay’s end and the Hidden Blade non-cover was a nice bit of continuity throughout the match of Ospreay being a bit overconfident. Hiromu’s finish blow felt violent and appropriate and in a match that was going to breathe creative athleticism pushed to human limits, it was a fitting finish.
Ospreay has dominated my analysis so far but this was a great comeback for Hiromu. Given his reckless nature, longevity isn’t guaranteed for decades to come but he has consistently shown he can deliver a crackerjack match on the biggest stages when given the chance. Hiromu’s charisma translates well to multiple audiences and it is easy to envision a scenario where in the next 6-7 years, Hiromu is main eventing a Wrestle Kingdom event. During this match, he sold his neck well and put in his typical mad man performance while also showing some restraint and thought process emphasizing the stakes of the match overall. Hiromu and Ospreay both seem “above” the junior title at this stage, but I do look forward to one more signature Hiromu reign before he rises up the ranks.
There are some contrarian moments that I would challenge the ***** contingent with what happened in this match. Ospreay whiffs on the leaping missile dropkick. The reversal after the Hidden Blade, which has been presented as death for over a year, came a little easy and again the match structure dictated that Hiromu was going to win given the long period of control Ospreay had in the early going. These are mostly minor points that put dings in the armor but overall didn’t affect either the overarching storytelling or my personal enjoyment of the match. Overall, this was a great junior match with strong heat in front of a Tokyo Dome crowd. That would have seemed impossible in the mid-’90s even when Liger and company were delivering very good to great matches on the earliest January 4 shows. This won’t make my top 10 at year-end given my reservations with the style overall, but as far as executing towards an intended audience, this match delivered on what felt like insurmountable hype coming in. ****1/4