New Japan Pro Wrestling
Road to New Beginning Night One
January 17, 2021
We’re off on the road to the New Beginning, with a stop in Nagoya before ending our journey with two nights in Hiroshima. We’ve got quite a few stellar matches to look forward to. There’s a cavalcade of interesting looking singles matches, such as Kojima vs Ospreay, Shingo vs Tanahashi and Hiromu vs SHO. The pieces have been placed on the board, but we’ve a few shows to go before we know their final positions.
UNITED EMPIRE (Will Ospreay and Great-O-Khan) def Yota Tsuji and Satoshi Kojima
I’ve written extensively about Great-O-Khan. Nominally, it is my job to follow RevPro, the promotion where the promising Oka was warded to hone his craft and learn to become a character. It’s heartening to see that he has learned from many of the mistakes he was making in the British promotion (which is indeed the whole point of going in the first place). In RevPro, he seemed to put out a sequence of aggressively average matches as he struggled to find sense in the napkin-shrouded stumbling. It took a pairing with the fantastic Gideon Grey to get him over in RevPro, which perhaps gave him the space he needed to find his menacing aura.
Man is not truly one, but truly two. That being said, Will Ospreay is about one and a half. I like the idea of a heel run, but really Ospreay’s talent is so stellar it’s great matches with cool moves that are forever the draw. He’s really laying into the gimmick here, however. The sneer that can’t stop creeping over his face is a great reminder of the attack on Tenzan at New Year Dash.
Yota Tsuji and Kojima are a brilliant, broad-chested combo. The puffed-up chest of Tsuji with Kojima silently fuming in the background added a wrinkle of excitement to this match.
The brutality of the opening gambit started an excellent new paragraph in the feud. There was a lovely moment where Tsuji held out his hand only to be ignored by Kojima as he continued his violent, emotional beatdown.
O-Khan picked Tsuji up and slammed him down over and over, as if to punctuate his superiority over the Young Lion. I thought of all the Rev Pro matches I watched where it didn’t quite click, yet the image of him standing on Kojima’s head and screaming made more sense than anything I saw him do on excursion.
It would have been easy to dismiss this match, but it was impossible not to get carried along with the impassioned screams of the slighted Kojima. It’s always interesting to see Will bring his power game. I can’t wait to see him try this tactic in the singles match.
As an aside, I’m not overly impressed by the colonial undertones of Ospreay’s presentation at the minute. I’m not losing sleep over it, and I certainly don’t think Ospreay has ever been troubled by subtlety of meaning, but a reduction in mentions of Empire and Commonwealth would give my eyebrows a rest. ***1/2
BULLET CLUB (Jado, Gedo, El Phantasmo and Taiji Ishimori) def. Suzuki-gun (DOUKI, Yoshinobu Kanemaru, El Desperado and Minoru Suzuki)
At the center of the feud between the IWGP Junior Tag Champions and their Bullet Club challengers, is a loaded boot. In many ways, the loaded boot is a metaphor for how the Bullet Club have been presented.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with it. Like many other wrestling tropes, it’s a tool to be used in the appropriate place. I’m just not sure New Japan is the appropriate place. Maybe I’m forcing my values and preferences onto a product, rather than enjoying the presentation they have chosen, but lifting an angle from an eighties territory show and plopping it into a 2021 New Japan show feels jarring.
I think that’s the problem with the Bullet Club as a whole, and the reason why many are becoming tired of the stable. Their interferences and ref bumps are inherently linked to the kind of wrestling I despise, and will always cause the Pavlovian eye roll. I want to ‘skip intro’ on their horrendous dull foreplay and get to the ref bump to see the part of the match that actually matters.
This opened as chaotically as you would expect, with a wild melee of bodies to both build excitement and hide the fact that some of these men can’t really wrestle anymore. With the ring cleared and Gedo in the corner alone, the ‘pack of wolves’ style of Suzuki-Gun is in full effect and it’s excellent. There’s always a body in the background, battling deep behind enemy lines and serves to remind me why they are my favorite faction in New Japan.
The loaded boot of shame was constantly referenced, but without the lawful good foil, Bullet Club’s shenanigans and attempts at rulebreaking were neutralized. You can’t kid a kidder.
El Desperado’s fantastic match with Hiromu during the Best of the Super Juniors was proof that he probably deserves a little more than what they’re building towards here, and hopefully, he can drop the junior tag titles and move on to something more interesting. I can’t put my finger on why, but he wrestled with a confidence that suggests he’s on the verge of a real push. ***
CHAOS (Tomohiro Ishii, Hirooki Goto and Kazuchika Okada) def BULLET CLUB (EVIL, Yujiro Takahashi and Dick Togo)
If the divorced dad of Jado could have a day out with his adult sons, why couldn’t YOSHI-HASHI have a spot here?
I’ve tried really hard to have an opinion about EVIL. It’s sad that he’s gone from a wrestler I sought out to a member of the worst incarnation of the Bullet Club, but it just is what it is. He gave them something to do during the first lockdown and now we’re stuck with it for a while.
I have to question the decision to take powders early on when there’s no noise from the crowd. It seems asking the crowd to silently stew rather than actively express displeasure is counterproductive. Jay White managed to do it in the G1 by talking nonsense, but this match started with a stall rather than a build.
While it was an uneventful match, Ishii and Dick Togo gave a refreshing amuse bouche of violence. The point from Ishii to Togo’s face and then down to the ring was a brilliant foreshadowing of a bit of good old rough and tumble. Silly Okada had also come out to play, and that’s always entertaining in the context of shows like this.
A few moments of fire from Okada and Ishii combined with some great nefarious power work from Togo and Evil were interesting enough, but ultimately the quality and effort displayed was appropriate for building a mid-card tag match on the big show. Gentleman’s ***
Los Ingobernables De Japon (Tetsuya Naito, Shingo Takagi and SANADA) def Tomoaki Honma, Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kota Ibushi
For a long time, I was convinced it was going to be SANADA who betrayed LiJ. I convinced myself how clever I was by noticing things like SANADA being the last to raise his fist, and clever juxtapositions of color when they stood together. But, when it comes to predicting Gedo’s booking I am normally wrong and taking another loss won’t damage my ego.
I almost wish SANADA had betrayed his friends and left the stable because it might have given him the impetus to do something interesting in the ring for once. He’s a direct contrast to the enigma of Naito. Naito slowly meanders his way around like he wishes it was still the nineties and the “my dad took my iPod off me” gimmick still held some meaning. I almost never get excited about Naito matches, but as soon as that bell rings he hooks me in a whirlwind of excitement that is impossible to escape from.
SANADA is the exact opposite of that. I’m always interested in what he’s doing, because I feel like he’s always on the cusp of becoming a big star. He’s often felt like he’s been spinning his wheels, but only because the big push is coming later. However, for the last few years, he has been given multiple opportunities and he’s not really made any effort to have the matches that would have put him on the level of either of his teammates here. I love how New Japan booking leans on the rematch, or even the series of matches. Like great action films, they leave space for sequels. They put the same people back in a seat to feel that excitement all over again. The match they’re building towards, a rerun of the G1 final, is yet another in a long line of SANADA matches I don’t want to see again.
Shingo taking on Tanahashi, however, is a match I absolutely want to see. They start this off with a great, grunting test of strength and, even though they don’t do much of note in this match, the fact that two great wrestlers are facing off and building up to a big show battle is enough to retain interest. Kevin Kelly suggested that Shingo wanted to face Tanahashi to elevate the NEVER title, and that’s plenty for me.
The NEVER title was certainly the focus here, and there were hints of a really great match to come. Shingo went for a cocky Dragon Screw, but was outsmarted by The Ace. Unfortunately, the pairing of Ibushi and SANADA couldn’t generate the same excitement. Their exchange was a run-through of wrestling moves that were perpetually haunted by SANADA’s low ceiling.
Honma really struggled here. A few botches killed momentum and it seemed like Naito was being particularly gentle with him. More importantly, it seemed like he wasn’t able to take bumps safely. Honma’s role should be outside the ring, as it feels negligent to put him in matches.
This felt like a match that was serving a purpose and, outside of Shingo/Tanahashi, it didn’t have much to say. **1/2
SHO and Master Wato vs Hiromu Takahashi and BUSHI
SHO was wading the swamps of the junior tag division for so long it was easy to forget just how talented he is. He has the rare kind of star aura that’s impossible to teach, and his work is incredibly powerful. Over the last few months, he has become more expressive and is really grabbing the opportunity he’s been presented with.
I really wish that BUSHI would meet a devil at a crossroads and make some kind of a deal. He has everything a wrestler needs but the ability to wrestle well (at least not by the standard of those around him).
As with Shingo and Tanahashi, the image of two wrestlers is often enough to have me salivating for a match, and to see Hiromu and SHO facing off again made me realize how much I wanted to see them battle for a title in a big spot.
Obviously, we had to sit through Master Wato first, with his flailing limbs desperately trying to grab something credible.
Luckily, we could let the children of Wato and BUSHI play, while the adults set the table for the excitement to come at New Beginning. An amazing sunset powerbomb followed by a sneering boot to the back of the head emphasized just how dominant Hiromu is, and made the mountain SHO has to climb all the more exciting. When Hiromu and Wato battled, it was a series of horrendous chops from the champion with each serving as a message for the challenger. Each chop rang with a promise of violence to come at New Beginning. SHO and Hiromu were beat-for-beat equals, trading the advantage back and forth constantly and at high speed. They seemed to give a lot away here, but I left the match with an absolute confidence that they have saved something even better for the final destination.
The crescendo of the match was functional, yet entertaining. Wato got the sneaky pin about five minutes after it should have ended. ***
Obviously, nothing on this show was essential and nobody expected it to be. That being said, the vast majority of the show was solid and the opening match is well worth ten minutes of anyone’s time. Maybe put it on mute and play some Brian Eno over in the background for a brilliantly oxymoronic experience.