Hey everyone and welcome back to The Lion’s Vault.

It has been awhile since I sat down to write about some classic New Japan Pro-Wrestling, but what better time to get back into the swing of things than when NJPW has just started to run their first live shows in almost four months…oh wait, that is some pretty poor timing on my part. Hmmm…well, I guess there is nothing I can do about it now…so umm, yeah…

Anyways, awkward welcome back aside, I am really happy to be back and to kick off a series of reviews for all of the NEVER Openweight Title matches available through NJPW World. While not the prestigious title in New Japan, I think the NEVER Openweight Title offers a fun and unique perspective into New Japan’s 2010s, and that as we work our way through the catalog we will see wrestlers being moved up and down the card, the birth and rekindling of rivalries, and numerous hard-hitting battles.

But before we get to our first NEVER Openweight championship match, we should first look back at the role of the NEVER concept in Japan.

NEVER (naturally standing for New Blood, Evolution, Valiantly, Eternal, and Radical), was originally a series of New Japan offshoot shows that was meant to highlight younger NJPW talent and was supplemented with workers from other Japanese promotions. Between 2010-2012 New Japan ran thirteen NEVER branded shows, and highlighted wrestlers like Tetsuya Naito, Yujiro Takahashi, Tomohiro Ishii, Ryusuke Taguchi, and the recently signed KUSHIDA. During that initial phase of NEVER shows no wrestler received a bigger spotlight than the current IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental champion Tetsuya Naito, and so it came as no surprise that when NJPW announced the two-day tournament that would crown the first NEVER Openweight champion that Naito was in the front-and-center of the marketing. Most notably this included the tournament press conference where Naito was the only wrestler present. While discussing the tournament Naito made it clear that he viewed himself as the star of NEVER, and interestingly enough from 2020 eyes, discussed his desire to become a double champion in NJPW by holding both the NEVER and IWGP Heavyweight titles at the same time.

Unfortunately though, at the same time that Naito was predicting his future success in the NEVER tournament, he was also working with a severe knee injury that he suffered during that summer’s G1 Climax. The injury ended up being too much to continue to work through, and a few weeks prior to the tournament Naito underwent surgery. Naito was written out for the foreseeable future when his former No Limit tag partner Yujiro Takahashi destroyed his knee at that year’s King of Pro Wrestling. While Naito was no longer able to compete, he wasn’t forgotten either, and in pre-tournament interviews future Ingobernables stablemates BUSHI and Hiromu Takahashi spoke of their admiration for their injured friend.

And with that, the table was finally set, for the sixteen man tournament that was scheduled to take place on November 15 and November 19 at the SHIBUYU-AX, a concert hall that New Japan set-up for a standing-only crowd in an attempt to give the shows a unique atmosphere. At this time the only match from the tournament that is currently available on NJPW World is the finals…which conveniently enough leads us to our first-ever NEVER Openweight Championship match.

Karl Anderson v. Masato Tanaka
November 19, 2012
NEVER Openweight Championship Tournament ~ Night Two (Main Event)
Tokyo, Japan – SHIBUYU-AX

Watch: https://njpwworld.com/p/s_archive_252_1_01

While the NEVER brand was originally conceived as a way to highlight young New Japan talent, the championship tournament ended up being contested between 32-year-old “Machine Gun” Karl Anderson and 39-year-old (and part-time NJPW worker) Masato Tanaka. In the Fall of 2012, Anderson was in an interesting place in his New Japan career, as prior to 2011 he was largely a tag-team specialist, best known for his IWGP Tag Team Championship reign with Giant Bernard. The team known as Bad Intentions held the belts for a record-shattering 564 days, during which they also set the record for most successful title defenses with ten. Shortly after losing the belts in January 2012, Bernard left New Japan to return to the WWE as Lord Tensai, and Anderson received his first major New Japan singles push.

The highwater point for this initial push was a surprise run to the finals of the G1 tournament, which included a huge upset of Hiroshi Tanahashi to secure the Block A victory. After upsetting Tana, Anderson went on to lose his next three high profile singles matches (the G1 finals loss to Kazuchika Okada, a rematch to Okada at King of Pro Wrestling, and an Intercontinental Title match to Shinsuke Nakamura). Yet despite the three straight setbacks, it was obvious that Anderson’s star was rising in New Japan, and so it wasn’t too much of a surprise when he defeated Yujiro Takahashi, Shiori Asahi, and Kengo Mashimo on his way to the finals.

While Anderson was enjoying a star-making singles push, Masato Tanaka was already an established veteran wrestler in ZERO1 and had been wrestling extensively in New Japan for a number of years. In 2011 Tanaka became just the second-ever IWGP Intercontinental champion (dethroning MVP), before eventually losing the belt to Hirooki Goto in February 2012. Now looking to claim his second championship in New Japan, Tanaka defeated KUSHIDA, Taishi Takizawa, and Tomohiro Ishii before facing off against Anderson.

As the action starts both men already look visibly tired from their previous two matches earlier in the evening. An opening forearm exchange sends both men to the floor for some relatively mundane brawling, as well as the setting up of a table by Tanaka. As the action returns to the ring Tanaka is able to stay a step ahead for the most part, while the crowd watches on in relative silence for most of it. Finally, Anderson turns the tide with a big spinebuster, which leads us back to Chekhov’s table. After a brief struggle, Anderson takes a page from his former partner’s playbook and plants Tanaka through the table with the Bernard Driver (which slices up Tanaka’s arm pretty badly).

At this point, Anderson is firmly in control, but when he goes for the Gun Stun Tanaka is able to escape and land a flurry of forearm shots. Moments later Tanaka catches him with Sliding D for the pinfall victory and we have our very first NEVER Openweight champion. For the most part, the match was trending at average at best and was a little disappointing for the talent involved, but a fun finishing sequence with a couple of cool spots helped nudge the match up to. I assume this is a match that would benefit from watching the whole show, and consequently seeing the larger journey for both men. And while the match offered little memorable action outside of Anderson’s Bernard Driver through the table, the important thing is that we have our first champion who will serve as our main protagonist for the opening act of our story. **3/4

Masato Tanaka © vs. Shelton Benjamin (1st Defense)
January 4, 2013
Wrestle Kingdom 7 ~ Evolution (Match four of eleven)
Tokyo – Tokyo Dome

Watch: https://njpwworld.com/p/s_series_00203_1_4

So remember all the way back to one match review ago when we mentioned that Tanaka won the IWGP Intercontinental Title from MVP? Well, coincidentally enough that victory is what set the wheels in motion for Tanaka’s first NEVER defense. Back in December 2011, MVP received a rematch for the IC title, this time losing after Tanaka’s Complete Players teammate Yujiro Takahashi interfered in the match. During a post-match segment, MVP was seen on his phone asking an unnamed person to come to Japan to be his back-up at Wrestle Kingdom VI. On January 4th that mystery man was revealed to be none other than Shelton Benjamin, and together they were able to defeat the Complete Players in a tag match. The two teams clashed again during night one of the 2012 World Tag League, and then later again in a big multi-man on the final night of the tour. During the latter match Benjamin and Tanaka ended up brawling to the back and now here we are one month later, and one year after Benjamin’s NJPW debut.

As we get underway the match begins hot as Shelton hits some of his flashy offense including dumping Tanaka on his head with a German suplex and a big dive to the outside, both of which get good reactions from a crowd that was quiet during a lot of the night. After a short Tanaka control period both take turns landing big shots. To be honest, Benjamin looks maybe just half a step slow on a couple of the exchanges, but he lands a nice blockbuster neckbreaker for a nearfall at the five-minute call. With the momentum against Tanka, Yujiro interferes from the outside, first distracting Shelton and then nailing him with Tanaka’s kendo stick. A couple of moments later Yujiro looks like he is going to interfere again as he climbs to the top turnbuckle, only to be met by Shelton who catches him with his pop-up belly-to-belly superplex. Then in the a great spot, as Shelton starts getting up from the suplex Tanaka perfectly times a Sliding D which gains him the pinfall victory. At under seven minutes and early on the card, this match kind of felt like filler more than anything else…which isn’t great for the perception of a new title. That said, it was entertaining enough, both men looked good, and we got an interesting finish. On a different note, one has to feel for Benjamin here. One year ago he came to NJPW to be MVP’s back-up against Tanaka, but in a match where he would have really benefited from the favor being returned MVP was nowhere to be found. It really is no wonder that he ended up joining Suzuki-Gun shortly after this. ***

Masato Tanaka © vs. Tomohiro Ishii (2nd Defense) 
February 3, 2013
Road to the New Beginning (Main Event)
Tokyo, Japan – Korakuen Hall

Watch: https://njpwworld.com/p/s_archive_251_1_01

Now this is a good spotlight opportunity for the NEVER title as Tanaka takes on CHAOS stablemate Tomohiro Ishii in the main event of a Korakuen show. Ishii previously lost to Tanaka in the NEVER tournament semifinals, but decided to challenge him for the title after winning a torneo cibernetico match during the Fantastica Mania tour. Ishii was just starting to be elevated further up the card at this time, so this match marked a major opportunity for him.

We immediately begin with both men just laying into each other, and already this match feels more like what the representative “NEVER” match would become more than any of the other matches we’ve watched so far. As the two men continue to lay it is worth noting that Naito is part of the announce team for this match, and I do not think it would be much of a stretch of the imagination to assume that he is there to put over the NEVER championship and to express his desire to get involved in the title scene once he is back from injury. As the action continues Tanaka seems to have the edge when it comes to strike exchanges, while Ishii is relying more on landing bigger shots to gain the advantage.

Fairly early in the match, Ishii starts to bleed hardway from his head (not a surprise with how these two are working), and by this point, the crowd is firmly behind the Stone Pitbull. Ishii’s selling is absolutely world-class here, and I still find it amazing that he is able to so effectively work a hard-hitting badass, yet perpetual underdog role so well. Hell, we need to give some credit to Tanaka here as well, as while not in the same class as Ishii, his selling really helps get across the grueling nature of this contest. Soon enough Tanaka brings out a table (third time in three matches) and splashes Ishii through it moments later. Back in the ring and Ishii slowly starts taking more of the match, with Tanaka looking more and more desperate in trying to break up his momentum. All this leads to an extended, hard-hitting, finishing sequence that involves multiple one counts, finishers, and giant lariats. In a fantastic final sequence, Ishii catches Tanaka with an enziguri, only for Tanaka to respond with a Sliding D before Ishii could get off the mat. Then as Ishii struggles to get his bearings back Tanaka lands a second Sliding D to finally put the Stone Pitbull away. Post-match the two share a hug, and Ishii straps up Tanaka as both competitors soak up well-deserved cheers from the crowd.

Phew, now that was a truly great match. It is amazing how much of a blueprint this would end up serving for so many future NEVER matches, but what really made this one special was Ishii’s selling and connection with the crowd. Compared to some of the other matches in this review, this one really benefited from receiving main event time in front of an appreciative crowd. By giving this match that extra time it really helped elevate both the title, and Ishii’s standing within New Japan, and as a result, it came as no surprise when he ended up being one of the crowd favorites during his first G1 tournament later that summer. Definitely our first must-watch NEVER title match. ****¼ 

Masato Tanaka © vs. Tomoaki Honma (3rd Defense)
May 3, 2013
Wrestling Dontaku 2013 (match five of ten)
Fukuoka – Fukuoka International Center

Watch: https://njpwworld.com/p/s_series_00207_1_4

Our final match today pits another hard-hitting underdog character taking a shot at the title in Tomoaki Honma. Honma had just returned to New Japan after a year-long absence a couple of months back when he saved Togi Makabe from a post-match beatdown from Masato Tanaka and Yujiro Takahashi. A few weeks later the two teams faced off at Invasion Attack, where a kendo stick shot helped Tanaka claim a pinfall victory over Honma. Now one month later Honma is given an opportunity for revenge and the NEVER championship.

Similar to the last match, we begin with both men laying into each other, this time in the form of an extended chop battle. As the match continues, it becomes evident that they are working pretty much the same match structure as the Ishii/Tanaka bout from February, but while being given a little less than half the time. What this means in practice is that while there are entertaining moments, the match just doesn’t have time to breathe or build in between those moments. As expected with a Tanaka match a table gets involved, we have plenty of strike exchanges, and the babyface gets a couple of nearfalls down the stretch. In the end, though Tanaka bounces back surprisingly quickly from the Kokeshi Otoshi and a top rope Kokeshi, and puts Honma away with a Sliding D. While the action here was fun at times, I feel that it lacked a cohesion that was present in the other matches, including the Benjamin/Tanaka match that had even less time. And while Honma was a really fun wrestler at this time, the gulf between him and Ishii was fairly obvious from an in-ring perspective, which combined with what we already discussed just made this feeling like a lesser version of Ishii/Tanaka. Let’s go with **½ and call it a day.

And so our first chapter of Return to NEVERland ends with Tanaka reigning supreme and Ishii putting in the star-making performance. It has been pretty fun checking out these first four NEVER title matches, and things should pick up even more when we start our second chapter, where a returning hero will go to battle with the Complete Players.