Life sucks sometimes. I had that same sentence starting this very article you are reading back at the end of February. The circumstances are insanely different though. In that opening paragraph, I was describing how “busy” my life was at the moment with work travel and extracurricular activities for my kids. Little did I know how quickly a person can be reduced to near isolation based on a pandemic.
Moments like these are where one relishes the comforts that help give them security in this cosmic disarray of life. Some of these comforts are universal such as comfort food. The aroma of a pot roast or freshly baked apple pie can place me back into a simpler time where the most important thing in my life was which of my wrestling buddies was going to tag with me to take on my friends after school. Some of these comforts are more personalized. Living in my hometown and the culture we are ingrained in where I don’t have to be a full-fledged closeted wrestling fan anymore, I do get a lot of side conversations of the “do you remember” variety when previously out at social functions. However, I can’t think of a single other individual that I interact face to face with besides me that when life gets too tough, I start scrambling for the protection of professional wrestling watching.
Over the years, this comfort wrestling has taken on many genres. In childhood, it started as the Rock N’ Wrestling era of Hulkamania and then weaved itself into a place where only big boys could play. As I got older, this progressed to include the Four Pillars and then watching Daniel Bryan kick someone’s head fucking in. As you can see from this timeline, I grew old over the years, but my refuge in watching professional wrestling did not die out. Admittedly, I kept reaching back into these nostalgia buckets to find glimmers of comfort when needed.
Change was something I am adverse to and while I was aware and receptive to a degree of the enormous impact NJPW was cratering into the wrestling scene in 2012, I was reluctant to proclaim it as movement and weary of it being a flash in the pan. I was stubborn to accept Hiroshi Tanahashi as a great wrestler and too often relied upon his drawing record in the dark days of NJPW as evidence instead of my own eyeballs. Over time as business and overall notoriety in the West continued to improve the traction of NJPW, it became impossible to deny it as a fading fad. Even though I may still lean contrarian on some NJPW 2010’s talking points, its tough to deny that it has produced more great matches than any other promotion easily throughout the last decade.
Over the past two months, I have watched a ton of wrestling. None of it has been from 2020 though. After the initial shock and depression had waned a bit, I sat down to watch the WrestleMania shows and was in such a haze over them that I declared empty arena wrestling not for me right then and there. This creates a dilemma for someone that was limiting themselves at the onset with 2020 wrestling consumption. My goal of 100 matches may be reduced to 50. Who knows at this point, but I was needing tried and true comfort wrestling promotion to kickstart me back into watching 2020 footage.
As a result of that and the general sense of what NJPW is comprised of, it has slid into the role of being my comfort wrestling. That is alarming to write as at any other point in history, NJPW was really fighting for viewing spots when I was really ingrained in my wrestling watching and had a ton of free time. It is commendable to everyone associated with the promotion, that a radical change has occurred that has made a promotion that was seen as “meh” throughout most of my fandom is now reflected as a safe harbor if I want to at least see some matches that will be of strong in-ring quality.
The New Beginning shows particularly created a nice sense of comfort in that they featured a blend of familiar pairings in ZSJ vs Ospreay and Hiromu vs Ryu Lee and first time or near first-time matchups with Shingo vs Goto, Moxley vs Suzuki and KENTA vs Naito. This variety from slugfests, grappling, brawling and big characters, high flying and dangerous escalation and big-time main event wrestling read like a smorgasbord of comfort food ranging from pot roast to chicken pot pie to lasagna. All great on their own but when mixed together, it creates a satisfying kitchen that puts a premium on not burning out its customer. Not every match may land for me (let’s admit that sometimes mom/dad under seasons the food), but the main objective is just to transform me into an efficient headspace in a realm of escapism.
Match #5: Hirooki Goto vs Shingo Takagi (New Japan Pro Wrestling, New Beginning in Sapporo Night 1, 02/01/2020)
Few matches scream meat and potatoes comfort wrestling than Shingo vs Goto. I had a preconception of how this match would play out in my mind, and these two men executed that vision to perfection. This match won’t have the lasting memory at the end of the year or the emotional impact to be a MOTYC, but it did provide a vessel to have a satisfying main event on a 3rd from the top New Beginning show. Goto conquered his story arc of avenging Shibata by defeating KENTA and Shingo should be able to take the NEVER title and have unique and interesting matchups that could sweep across a variety of wrestling styles. Overall, a perfect match to ease me in the mood of watching wrestling. I didn’t have to split the atom to think of the overall storyline but the match never insulted my intelligence and became “dumb” either. ****
Match #6: Zack Sabre Jr. vs Will Ospreay, (New Japan Pro Wrestling, New Beginning in Sapporo Night 2, 02/02/2020)
Whether you love or hate the guy, two plus months without the never-ending Will Ospreay discourse has been refreshing. This matchup is extremely familiar but has historically been one of my favorite rivalries that contain Ospreay. This match had a lot of good to great in it, but also some pretty substantial flaws as well. I remembered the hype being strong for it when the match occurred but was still taken aback to read Dave Meltzer and Larry Csonka’s review and see they rated the match at ****3/4. I thought the early cat and mouse was extremely intriguing as Ospreay was going to have the speed and flash advantage and Sabre was the technical wizard that wanted to grind the match down. Sabre catching Ospreay’s flurries with either a roll up or attempt at a submission helped convey this duality. Before the match begins, Sabre asks Ospreay how his neck is doing as well. The neck saga of Will Ospreay is a perfect mixture of legitimate concern from his fans as well as workrate and storytelling genius as it allows the speed of Ospreay to maintain itself in a comeback whereas a limb being worked over creates more logic gaps. Sabre stuck mostly to this neck gameplan in the early portions of the match and the match peaked for me overall around 18 minutes in when Ospreay goes for the Os Cutter only to be locked into a tight choke. If the match would have ended there, I would have called it a great match that didn’t overstay it’s welcome. Unfortunately for me, the match did extend 7-8 minutes past this point.
Ospreay at points works over Zack’s leg but this didn’t matter in the grand scheme of the match as a whole. Ospreay shouldn’t have been trying to slow Zack down and Ospreay was also utilizing more deadlfting power moves that would require functional legs. The leg work felt like a shoe-horned control segment that was unneeded and just bloated the match. The ending stretch had some dramatic nearfalls but I honestly didn’t think the crowd reaction was spectacular. Beyond that view, I was unimpressed with the way the finish was produced. The story of Zack using the neck-based submissions worked because of past history. His quick rollups and pretzel submissions culminating in the pass out victory do show that he was technically superior still but also didn’t show that homed in on strategic focus that really sets the technical masters of the craft a part. It is probably unfair to compare Sabre to Fujiwara and 1986 NJPW in general, but I watched the 1/10/86 Yoshiaki Fujiwara vs Akira Maeda match preceding this one and was struck by how creative Fujiwara was throughout the match being the cat waiting on the more flashy canary to make a mistake. Zack just emptied his holster and eventually was able to trap Ospreay. Throw in a few fighting spirit exchanges that made me groan and this match was ambitious and almost there as a realized match but ultimately fell short in execution in the final execution for me to call it great. ***3/4
Match #7: Ryu Lee vs Hiromu Takahashi, (New Japan Pro Wrestling, New Beginning in Osaka, 02/09/2020)
Speaking of long-standing rivalries, we have Takahashi vs Lee which only has Okada vs Tanahashi as a clear cut superior feud of the past eight years. The prevailing thought when going back to a well with a match that has a ton of iterations is if the two competitors can manage to keep things fresh. That seems especially dubious given how stretched the athletic and strong style boundaries were stretched in previous Lee vs Takahashi matches. Some pairings are classic though and while this wasn’t the strongest match these two have had with each other, it was a worth addition to the canon overall. The three plus minute chop exchange was engaging and perhaps ridiculous but the violence was kept up with each strike keeping my attention throughout. Match opens up from there and it is an impressive variety of dazzling moves and sequences with some restraint. Lee’s tope with Hiromu seated on the announce table is one of the best in wrestling history between the speed and violence that it displays. It is graceful and brutal all in once. Hiromu taking the blunt of that blow and then coming back with the sunset flip powerbomb to the outside showed his dominance and growth overall since his injury.
Hiromu is on top for most of the next few minutes before we get the next enormous spot culminating in Lee’s double stomp to the outside with Hiromu being trapped in the ropes. Again, Lee is unable to follow that up as Hiromu hits a belly to belly throw sending Lee to the floor from the apron. Back inside, we head towards the finale with a German suplex exchange which was my least favorite aspect of the match so far and showed too much parity compared to what the storyline of the match had dictated so far. Lee ends up gaining the advantage in the end but is quickly belly to belly suplexed into the turnbuckle this time. Lee is able to get his closes nearfall with the Sunset Driver and goes for the Phoenix Press but like most other aspects of the match, Hiromu has come back from his near career-ending injury stronger than ever recovering from the running knee and hitting two Time Bomb’s to extinguish his rival. Overall, this is a strong match that shows more restraint and has a stronger story in the overall lineage of the feud than one might expect coming in. ****1/4
Match #8: Jon Moxley vs Minoru Suzuki, (New Japan Pro Wrestling, New Beginning in Osaka, 02/09/2020)
It is amusing that we are now in this cinematic blip of wrestling history and we have match like this that occurred right at the onset of it. Most of the traditional rules of wrestling were upheld here of no camera cuts, overtly META storytelling or different locales besides an arena. However, there is unmistakably a cinematic quality to this match overall. More than likely it is due to the outstanding facials that both Suzuki and Moxley both exhibited. Suzuki in particular looks part bewildered, and part delighted at the fight he is in with Moxley. That is personified in the table spot that represents the turning point of the match overall. Suzuki gets powerbombed through the table and laughs hilariously at what has happened. He then maniacal slams a piece of table repeatedly over his head. Moxley in the ring returns the favor by slamming another piece of table across his head. The whole thing is like watching Die Hard and hearing John MoxClaine yell “sorry Hans” from ringside. One final flurry from Suzuki falls short and Mox stands triumphantly as I can’t fail to wipe the smile off my face. The key to comedic elements in wrestling is being extremely serious about presenting the comedic elements as not serious. This presented that concept wonderfully and is a match that will be remembered for years to come. ****1/2
Match #9: Tetsuya Naito vs KENTA, (New Japan Pro Wrestling, New Beginning in Osaka, 02/09/2020)
Whenever you conquer the mountain, there is inherently a what now stage that is an after effect. Naito had finally won the big one in the Tokyo Dome against Okada and it got ruined by KENTA. On one hand, this was brilliant booking. Instead of a placeholder feud until the next big event occurred, Gedo set up a credible challenger right away. On the other hand, KENTA is such a great heel that I almost wanted him to supplant Naito right as his title reign started going. I wish in hindsight this match would have been for the IC title with KENTA reigning supreme. I understand that Naito has an emotional connection to many Japanese and non-Japanese NJPW viewers, but there is and continues to be an emotional disconnect for me personally. As a result, throughout this contest, I thought KENTA was the superior worker. It was only in the fleeting final seconds of this 30 minutes plus affair with blood streaming down Naito’s face, that I found sympathy for Naito and wanted him to overcome the odds and adversity he had faced throughout the contest.
The adversity faced in the form of Bullet Club was a big detriment to my enjoyment as well. Red Shoes asserting himself as strong and kicking out all of Bullet Club felt hollow since as I had predicted, it was for naught with a later ref bump and run in from Switchblade. The opening moments of this match were slow as molasses. I can appreciate good table setting and even have fondness for notorious stallers like Larry Zbyszko but this match stretched out those concepts to the extreme. It was only when KENTA went on the attack outside and stomped on a doll of Naito, that the match picked up even though it was 25% through its run time. As a result, we had an uneven match not too unsimilar to Ospreay vs Sabre in my overall feelings. KENTA gave a great performance and continues to be a performer I want to seek out and is liberated back in NJPW. As far as Naito and being the ace of the company overall, the jury is still out for me. ***1/2