New Japan Pro Wrestling
Summer Struggle in Jingu
August 29, 2020
Meiji Jingu Stadium
Tokyo, Japan

Watch: NJPW World

As excited as I was for New Japan to come back from its COVID hiatus, I never quite shook the feeling that the gray cloud of the pandemic hung a little more heavily over New Japan than most other promotions. The crowdless New Japan Cup felt dry, Dominion and Sengoku Lord cards felt heavily compromised and the company’s experiments to compensate for silenced crowds have had mixed results. That said, from the moment this show was announced it felt special to me. The outdoor setting allowing for a larger audience in a fresh environment, and a quality card that cut the fat of the traditional opening six and eight man tags. It feels good to have those big show feelings again. Kevin Kelly and Chris Charlton are able to provide English commentary live for the first time since the hiatus, and while the native comms have done an excellent job filling space in lieu of lively crowds, I’m happy to have them back. 

Yoshinobu Kanemaru def. Master Wato

Kanemaru comes out by his lonesome, partner Despy backstage preparing for his big four-way match. When the bell rings, he’s on the offense with a pace reminiscent of a time when he was less dependent on his Suzuki-gun stablemates, or mouthfuls of whiskey. Wato, with Tenzan at ringside sporting his crappy new t-shirt, is typically exciting to watch in his comeback, employing flurries of kicks and a crisp tope to the outside. Things go off the rails a little following a (mostly unnecessary) ref bump, the two fumbling over a headscissors and Wato’s overhead facebuster variation. They bounce from both fairly well, and the latter is followed by Kanemaru surprising Wato with a roll-up for the clean victory. This match for the most part was a fun dash of an opener, and Kanemaru earning an untainted win was a welcome surprise – even if it was only over this nerdy blue dude. ***

King of Pro-Wrestling Tournament Final
Toru Yano def. Kazuchika Okada, El Desperado & SANADA 

From the start, it seems like these four are going to be having fun with this one. Yano’s frightened by his entrance pyro, and Okada’s entrance, the ace of the company walking out for their first outdoor show in twenty-one years, is interrupted by Desperado and SANADA impatience in stomping out the Sublime Master Thief. The bulk of the action is handled by Okada and SANADA, a nod to their prior rivalry and likely an acknowledgment that to the viewer, they’re the only two that could conceivably win. Desperado only pops up in brief flashes, but might be my favorite contributor to the match. If his presence here, following a strong challenge for the NEVER title, signifies a greater role for Despy going forward than, ahem, mid-level junior, I embrace it. He gets caught in Okada’s Cobra Clutch, but is freed shortly after when Yano sneaks a low blow and rolls Okada up for the surprise victory. 

I wonder if I actually haven’t woken up, and this is all a bad dream. How else could I possibly be awake and on my couch at 4:30 AM, on three hours of sleep, watching Toru Yano win the four-way final of a tournament for a gimmick match title, and having to type things about it? Just a bad dream, that’s all. I did laugh when he sprayed that shitty trophy with disinfectant. **¼ 

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NEVER Openweight Title Match
Minoru Suzuki def. Shingo Takagi (c)

Like I have so many times before, I turn to Shingo Takagi to rescue me, to make things right. Once he eats a few stiff closed fists from Minoru Suzuki up against the guardrail, I’m back at ease, professional wrestling is good, I’m going to be alright.

At fifty-two years old, while it’s shocking how little his physical abilities have diminished, what’s most impressive to me about Suzuki is a charisma and presence that can convince you a fearsome man like Shingo Takagi has bitten off more than he can chew. The two have the grisly striking exchanges you’d expect from a NEVER Openweight Title match, but are just as compelling running off the ropes, each ever-so-narrowly evading or reversing the other’s meanest stuff. Suzuki never fails to keep pace with his younger foe, twisted grin across his face, but each time he seems primed to go for the kill Shingo is able to locate a Death Valley Driver, or his Made in Japan. 

I could see folks (somehow) getting worn down on the NEVER-style of match that guys like Shingo and Ishii churn out and having guys like me repeatedly fawn over them. Even I sometimes wish I could provide a take hotter than “the NEVER match kicked ass again.” Still, detractors and forearm fetishists alike would have to acknowledge Suzuki’s ability to provide a sense of peril few others can to a match like this one; Charlton at one point refers to him as “the ultimate horror movie villain”. Minoru signals to the sky before putting Shingo down with the Gotch Piledriver. I’d hoped Shingo’s reign could continue, maybe bring a little more gravity to the NEVER Openweight title, but if it had to end this was one hell of a way to wrap it up. ****¼ 

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title Match
Taiji Ishimori def. Hiromu Takahashi (c)

When this match—a rematch of the classic that took place in the 2018 Best of the Super Jrs. final—was announced, it felt to me like a thrown together bout to get Hiromu on the card. But where do I get that perception that Ishimori’s stock has dropped? Is it a disappointing run in last year’s BOSJ, hampered by injury? Is it that the role of juniors in the company greatly diminishes when the title isn’t involved? How quickly I’d forgotten things like a strong ‘19 title run, ending with two incredible clashes against Dragon Lee, or his series with El Phantasmo against Birds of Prey, or even a strong showing against Kazuchika Okada in this year’s New Japan Cup. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been sleeping on this match, or on the Bone Soldier. 

Ishimori is a ball of fire from the opening bell, an immediate affirmation that he can turn up the burners when the moment calls for it. He stalks Hiromu around the ring relentlessly, following him to the floor with a gorgeous triangle moonsault. When Takahashi finds a window to attempt an apron sunset bomb, Ishimori evades danger with a breathtaking backflip to the floor. Shortly after, Charlton remarks that there isn’t a bead of sweat to be found on Ishimori, despite a lunatic’s pace and a temperature outdoors hovering around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. 

When Hiromu is able to find his own offense, things remain heated. Takahashi has to eat and endure poisonranas and Cipher UTAKIs en route to landing his own Dynamite Plunger and Victory Royal. They trade German Suplexes at angles steep enough to make the viewer recoil, but nothing seems to put Ishimori on his heels and keep him there, not even the Time Bomb, the very move that put him down in their heralded Super Juniors final. Takahashi tries to finish with the Time Bomb Two, but Taiji escapes and scores with a reverse Bloody Cross, following with the (newly named) Bone Lock. Here, if you’re like me, you might begin to realize that Ishimori’s been attacking Hiromu’s neck the entire bout, or that he’s been working toward this hold the whole time, but now Hiromu doesn’t seem to be escaping. The very possibility of Ishimori pulling off the upset might occur to you just before Hiromu taps out and relinquishes his title. Go out of your way. ****¼ 

IWGP Tag Team Title Match
Dangerous Tekkers (Zack Sabre Jr. & Taichi) (c) def. Golden Aces (Kota Ibushi & Hiroshi Tanahashi) 

There’s something perfectly pure and wonderful about Hiroshi Tanahashi walking out to the ring in a baseball stadium, even if the audience is compromised in both size and sound by a global health event. While the Dangerous Tekkers team enters, Tana is waving and smiling at ringside children and all I can think is how you really don’t get many Hiroshi Tanahashi’s in this life. I suppose that’s why the kneepad says “1/100”. 

The story here is that Tanahashi is aging, and the step he’s lost seems to put him firmly behind partner Ibushi – the same Kota Ibushi who’s long considered him a god. The match begins with Kota firmly insisting Tanahashi start the match on the apron, and it’s no coincidence that once Tana does tag in, it’s only moments before he eats a gnarly Dangerous Backdrop from Taichi. 

After taking a great deal of punishment inside and outside the ring (including an intense invasion of Milano AT’s space brought on by Taichi) Tana is able to escape the Black Emperor’s onslaught and make the hot tag to Ibushi, who cleans house handily. Back on even footing, Ibushi and Taichi trade increasingly bitter kicks to one another’s chests, and eventually, the back of one another’s heads. When Tanahashi and ZSJ take center stage, the Ace of the Universe turns back the clock, Dragon Screwing Sabre senseless while the Jingu crowd responds as actively as they can under the guidelines. 

The Golden Aces take control, and exhibit everything I love most about them. Their interactions are exaggerated, their tandem offense gaudy, they recall the superpowered babyface of yore. It’s all especially poignant when juxtaposed against the all-too-human anguish on Tanahashi’s face once Kota’s left him alone with ZSJ. Kelly and Charlton astutely take note when Zack locks in the very hold that felled Tana in Madison Square Garden last year. Kota makes the rescue, but can only save his mentor so many times. Sabre Jr. escapes a High Fly Flow attempt and the Tekkers finish Tanahashi with a lightning-quick Zack Mephisto. Kota kneels in the ring trying to mask his disappointment, while the champs roll around on the floor celebrating. Sabre finds the nearest camera and says, “This isn’t baseball, this is cricket!” This show rules. **** 

IWGP Heavyweight & IWGP Intercontential Championships
Tetsuya Naito def. EVIL (c)

Night has fallen over Jingu Stadium and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a little hyped up when the lights dimmed for EVIL and Dick Togo’s entrance. This feud and his reign have been a little uneven, but this entrance feels big, and for a moment EVIL feels every bit the double champ, and a formidable one too. 

Once the two are both in the ring, my concerns about this match kick back in. Togo shoves Naito before the bell to set up a belt attack from EVIL, and the fake crowd noise, to this point very subtle, seems to be cranked way up. As noted by anyone else who’s written about New Japan this week, it sounds like shit, and makes the match feel like it’s taking place inside an NES cartridge. 

EVIL’s offense is slow and deliberate, Naito is his usual cavalcade of flashy, semi-aerial signature maneuvers. The center of the venn diagram is visible disdain for one another. We’ve seen what it looks like when Tetsuya Naito looks like in the midst of a heated feud – trading spit with a smile against Jay White at Destruction last year, joyfully trading quips with KENTA at New Beginning – this doesn’t look like that. Naito’s most memorable offense here isn’t his top rope huracanrana, or his swinging reverse DDT. It’s when he stands over a prone EVIL, stone-faced, kicking him in the head repeatedly while muttering, “c’mon.” The closest manifestation we get of that tranquilo grin is his willingness to go out of his way to put a tasseled boot in the face of Dick Togo at ringside. 

For EVIL’s part, he plays the part of the confident asshole well. His swagger never diminishes. Still, little else really tells me he’s ready for this role, for this moment. His control periods drag, which at first seems intentional, but it never pays off the way it did with Hiromu. The ref bumps begin, with EVIL grabbing and dragging Red Shoes around to allow interjections from Togo. When he finally eschews all tact and outright tackles the referee, Chris Charlton practically speaks for the viewer: “What the hell was that?” Dick Togo enters the ring, the Tecmo Bowl crowd gets louder. Who wanted this? 

I get it. I’m an LIJ fan. Tetsuya Naito is my favorite wrestler in the company and has been for years. It’s cool to see SANADA and BUSHI give Bullet Club their comeuppance, even if they do it to a mix of intermittent clapping and digital noise. I don’t think interference in matches is inherently bad, I defend loads of wishy-washy Bullet Club finishes, the execution just isn’t there. This began so promising and became a mess. How many times can I watch Red Shoes squeeze his arm and fall down before I start to groan? 

The final result is great. Knowing Naito’s history with the stadium, his posing under exploding fireworks is a perfect closing image. In all likelihood, I’ll remember that more than the match itself. I just wish that wasn’t the case. *** 

Final Thoughts

Despite being let down by the main event, this show was largely a joy to watch. The first two matches are quick and painless, and they’re followed by three consecutive must-see bouts. I walked away from this show excited for the coming G1 and with the restored feeling that New Japan is a can’t-miss promotion, the way I felt before COVID came along. That’s gotta be considered a success.