New Japan Pro Wrestling
January 30th, 2021
Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium (Dolphins Arena)

Watch: NJPW World

Meet our previewers: 

Neil David (@chubby_cthulhu): Neil has spent the lonely, quiet depths of the third UK lockdown painting Space Marines and thinking about New Beginning.  He doesn’t regret a single second of it.  The Road To shows have been a breeze, and there are plenty of lovely nuggets to chew on.

John Carroll (@toshanshuinla): Boy how about that there stock market huh folks? John briefly had 99 stocks of a struggling movie theater chain for some reason! They didn’t get in on that hot Gamestop action though. You can follow their podcast @wrestleomakase and of course check out the Wrestling Omakase Patreon, where your $5 gets you nonstop bonus podcast action.

Kazuchika Okada & Toru Yano vs. EVIL & Yujiro Takahashi

Neil:  Not everyone can be featured all the time, and despite being one of the best wrestlers of his generation, even Okada has to be given some breathing room.  While I understand his next big programme will be but a moment away, and the rest is as good for the fans as it is for him,  his refusal to be anything other than silly with EVIL has made this the least captivating build of the whole tour.  I don’t see any reason to be excited about this one, other than as a possible setup to something else.  We’ve got Yano and Yujiro here to bring the cringe, so I’m hoping for a cloud of amnesia to open as the final bell rings.  Prediction: Shenanigans in favour of CHAOS

John: I’ll disagree with my colleague a bit here because I’ve actually kind of enjoyed the weird, slow-moving Okada/EVIL feud. It’s certainly nothing that I’m going to think of at the end of the year when it comes time to make my award picks for Best Feud or anything, but on a tour where the top feuds have mostly left me cold, it stands out as an effective little piece of business. Okada wants to wrestle EVIL in a singles match again because EVIL beat him in the New Japan Cup finals last year, and EVIL with a perpetual shit-eating grin on his face keeps telling him no, really just to be an asshole. Simple can be good sometimes, and I like that they’re just gonna keep making us wait likely all the way until Castle Attack at the end of February before finally doing the match. Anyway, I think Yano gets pinned here, maybe with an assist from Chase Owens if he’s completed his quarantine in time (to restart their issue over the KOPW2021). Prediction: EVIL & Yujiro Takahashi

Kota Ibushi, Tomoaki Honma, SHO & Master Wato vs. Los Ingobernables de Japon (Tetsuya Naito, SANADA, Hiromu Takahashi & BUSHI)

Neil: Honma is broken.  I know that phrase is often used to dismiss, but here I use it with genuine concern.  His work with Naito on this tour has been functional, but there’s always a protective pulled punch or a foot out of place.  With Ibushi building to his match with SANADA and Hirumo whetting our appetite for his battle with SHO, there’s only Wato and BUSHI to dampen what should be a fun watch.  Wato has been almost functional on this tour, despite the handicap of graduating from the Young Lion division to essentially becoming a Young Lion+.  If nothing else, we can enjoy his wondrous, out of control offense that is as much a mystery to him as it is to us.   

This could go either way, but if there’s one certainty it’s that Ibushi will stare at SANADA for a while.  Then, undoubtedly, SANADA will stare back.  Ibushi will nod, respectfully yet warily.  Then, SANADA will attempt to move his face to mirror the same emotion. What a build…  Prediction: Kota Ibushi, Tomoaki Honma, SHO & Master Wato

John: I like Kota Ibushi. I like SANADA. I have not at all liked the build to their double title match in Hiroshima so far. It just hasn’t clicked with me at all. Both guys have a similar sort of vibe, and these two undeniably beautiful and also pretty vacant-looking men staring at each other just has this weird “the abyss that stares into itself” vibe that doesn’t exactly make me count down the days until their wrestling match. It really drives home the fact that they both work better as the straight man to play the foil against someone else- here you just have two straight men (uh, maybe). 

It doesn’t help either that all of the top feuds on this tour are babyface vs. babyface respect stuff; to be quite honest, when I saw that the three big feuds were all going to be Hontai vs. LIJ (this one plus SHO-Hiromu and Tanahashi-Shingo) I kind of assumed we were going to go back to LIJ’s roots as heels and see them get more vicious, but that really hasn’t happened much. Shingo has sort of teased it a little against Tanahashi, but if anything it’s Tana who comes off like a bit of a dick when he says stuff like “the NEVER is not my goal”. Then why are you challenging for it then buddy?! Meanwhile, SHO and Hiromu are just strictly doing a mutual admiration society deal just like Ibushi and SANADA are for the most part too, which just doesn’t make for a thrilling build on a long tour like this. Oh well. 

Naito-Honma on the other hand has been surprisingly fun and one of my highlights of the tour, with Naito embracing his inner dickhead and being just completely dismissive of poor Honma at every turn. Unfortunately as Neil said Honma can barely move (and clearly trying to push himself during the tour took a toll on him, as he somehow looked even more immobile than usual in their last tag on Monday which shouldn’t even really be possible) and the live crowds clearly don’t see him at a level worthy of a Naito feud, so we’re still not talking FEUD OF THE YEAR stuff here. But I’ve enjoyed it for what it is- as far as post-Tokyo Dome loss Naito time waste feuds go, it’s still miles better than that horrible YOSHI-HASHI feud in 2018. Anyway, I think LIJ gets the win here, probably by pinning Honma again but maybe Wato eats something instead, who knows. Prediction: Los Ingobernables de Japon

Loser Must Stop Using the Mongolian Chop
Hiroyoshi Tenzan vs. Great-O-Khan

Neil:  This build has been an absolute joy to follow.  The simplicity of the story is so refreshing.  The EMPIRE want to prove themselves, and they’ve done it by disrespecting the senior members of the roster in the most violent way.  O-Khan has been brilliant.  He’s establishing himself as a volatile, violent man.  His work has been infested with hypocrisy, simultaneously assaulting his opponent and displaying incredulity when they do it in return. I followed O-Khan on excursion, and I maintained that he needed to get rid of the Grandma-pissed-on-sherry napkin dancing.  When he did that on this tour and just stalked around the ring like a Stella-infused chav, it all clicked.

The worry here is Tenzan.  The Road To match that was an attempt to build him felt flat, as he blew up halfway through and spent a lot of the match heaving his shoulders.  I just hope O-Khan batters him into oblivion, and struts out of Nagoya screaming his arrogant head off.  Prediction: Great-O-Khan 

John: I’m glad Neil is just refusing to call them the “UNITED EMPIRE” and I’m going to follow his lead. Seriously, what a horrible name. I get that they had to change it from just EMPIRE for trademark reasons, but it rolls off the tongue about as well as that horrible “Slick Billy with the Big Willy” t-shirt. Just cringeworthy stuff.

But now that I’ve gotten that little bit of negativity out of the way- holy FUCK has this feud ruled. I mean, EMPIRE vs. Tencozy has almost single-handedly carried this otherwise sleepy tour for me. Tenzan may have mobility problems and all that (although next to Honma he looks like a spring chicken), but man can this guy get fired up and pissed off when he wants to still! This is the original founding leader of GREAT BASH HEEL and more importantly one of Masahiro Chono’s first partners in Team Wolf (which went on to become nWo Japan and then later Team 2000), so he’s no stranger to being nasty. But we really haven’t seen that side of Tenzan in well over a decade at this point, so it was really nice to see him get to bring the fire and rage after O-Khan put him out of action back at New Year Dash. Watching him even push aside his own partner Kojima and beat up the Young Lions back at the Ota Ward Gym show this past Saturday just felt like a real throwback moment for him, and I loved every second of it.

O-Khan of course is O-Khan, and if you haven’t figured out that this guy is great yet I just continue to question what you’re even watching. He does the little things so well already for a guy who doesn’t really have that much experience- witness the awesome bump he took for the Kojicutter in the aforementioned Ota Ward tag (in the same match where Ospreay took a very silly bump for the same move, it should be noted!) if you want to see just one example. Watching him get pissed off right back after the Tenzan chair assault and storm out at Korakuen Hall was so much fun- no time for the zombie dance when you’re angry I guess! This match isn’t going to be some kind of classic or anything, especially with Tenzan’s limitations, but I am absolutely excited as hell to watch these two Mongolian chop each other into oblivion. O-Khan is obviously winning this (unless they do some weird DQ finish where he basically willingly gives up the chop, of his own volition), which is probably a sign that Tenzan’s retirement is looming this year. And man, was it nice to get him one last big feud like this before he rides into the sunset. Just flat-out great booking here. Prediction: Great-O-Khan

No Disqualification
Satoshi Kojima vs. Will Ospreay

Neil:  There is no reason to think this won’t be superb.  There are very few things more captivating than a pissed off Kojima, and Ospreay can have a good match with a potato.  The fact that this is no DQ would normally put me off, but they have built the violent hatred so well that it makes perfect sense.  Will Ospreay isn’t very bright, and I have no doubt he will do something brilliantly silly.

This feud is yet more evidence that Will is great at telling stories.  As every year goes by, he refines his work.  He doesn’t just get faster, or start doing more moves.  He becomes smarter, leaning into stories and character.  He has subtly flipped the switch from cocky babyface to cocky heel incredibly well, with subtle changes of cadence and volume.  It feels more believable, especially when juxtaposed against the BULLET CLUB’s “I’m a baddie now” nonsense.

Bea Priestley is a wrestler I have seen live many, many times and I still couldn’t tell you what her work is like.  The less she is involved here the better.  Prediction: Will Ospreay

John: The other half of the feud here should of course produce the better match, even though it definitely feels like more of the build has been focused on Tenzan and O-Khan. But Satoshi Kojima simply has far more left in the tank at this point in his career than his partner does, and the No DQ stip gives them plenty of opportunity to get creative. I would agree with Neil that the naturally obnoxious Ospreay has had very little problem adjusting to life as a heel (even if he does still come off very corny at times, it’s probably better to be a corny heel than a corny babyface), and he’s clearly someone who will feature heavily into NJPW’s main event scene for much of the year, with an IWGP Heavyweight title reign very possible. As far as short little recovery feuds to get over the big loss at Wrestle Kingdom go, it’s tough to execute it any better than they have for both Ospreay & O-Khan here. Prediction: Will Ospreay

NEVER Openweight Title
Shingo Takagi © vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi

Neil:  Some matches don’t need a build.  As soon as this was announced, I was ready.  I loved Ace Tanahashi, but I think I love modern divorced dad Tanahashi even more.  He might have the eternally sore knee, but he’ll curl his hair, get in his open-top sports car and drive to any arena to remind us how ethereal his talent is.  I love that Shingo has leaned into this, using the provenance of Tanahashi’s work to truly test his own standing in New Japan.  Shingo wants to bring as much prestige to the title as possible, and if that isn’t a perfect reason to wrestle I don’t know what is. 

In the final Road To tag match, they were at the epicentre of a great time-limit draw that was much better than it had any right to be.  Tanahashi was as intangibly perfect as ever, his warm confidence colliding with Shingo’s determined stoicism.  

There isn’t a hot take here.  It’s two of the greatest wrestlers ever having a main event match.  It’ll be great.  Prediction: Shingo Takagi

John: I see what my colleague is saying when he says that “some matches don’t need a build”, but I still can’t help but find the build here very disappointing! There were so many different ways that they could have gone with the build to this match, and I’ll give you just one example: Hiroshi Tanahashi has never challenged for the NEVER Openweight Title in his entire career. Not once! That should have been a major part of this build- either Tanahashi should have explained why he now wanted to challenge for the NEVER belt, or he should have been flat out dismissive of the title and not even wanted to challenge for it at all, with Shingo Takagi having to essentially work to convince him that it was worthy of his time. Combine this with his character arc of late and you could have had a really interesting build, either with the idea of Tanahashi willingly lowering himself (“okay, I guess the NEVER level is where I’m at now so let’s go Shingo” and Shingo gets offended) or Shingo basically forcing him into the title match (“don’t think you’re too good for the NEVER anymore, Tanahashi!”).

Instead of doing……any of that, Tanahashi just awkwardly said after New Year Dash that he had a title in mind, Shingo seemed cool with it, and then Tanahashi compounded the weirdness by flat out stating that “the NEVER is not my goal” in a backstage promo. Well then why are you challenging for it buddy? And why doesn’t Shingo seem to care that you’re basically shitting on his belt, teasing that you’re going to try to use it as a stepping stone to challenge Kota Ibushi for the titles that you think actually matter? It’s just a bizarre mess of a feud that has never really made sense or gotten heated beyond Shingo maybe taunting him in the matches a few times (and to be honest I thought he was going to be a WAY bigger dickhead here since he’s usually very good at it when he plays that role). Neither guy has really seemed into the feud at all, but Tanahashi in particular has practically sleepwalked through it at times. Maybe he just sees the NEVER belt as a step down in real life and that’s seeping through his work throughout the tour, but at this point with the IC connected to the heavyweight and the US title still gone with no timetable for its return, this is the #2 singles belt in the company! Or at least the #2 that Tanahashi can challenge for, if you believe that “they’re trying to make the junior title the new #2 belt” theory. So maybe get over it Tanahashi! You’re in a main event with Shingo Takagi on the same tour that Okada and Naito are doing endless tags with EVIL and fucking Tomoaki Honma, and they both somehow still seemed more into those feuds than you seemed into much of this tour!

Anyway. With all of that said, yeah, I’d be surprised if this match still didn’t rock. It’s still Shingo Takagi and Hiroshi Tanahashi, I get it. But man did they miss an opportunity by having this build be so bad and just so…..nothing. I’ll continue my apparent theme in this preview of picking a different winner than my colleague (in 3 out of 5 matches!) and say Tanahashi is getting this dumb belt whether he likes it or not. And maybe- maybe– it leads to a champion vs. champion match at Castle Attack (though with probably only Ibushi’s belts on the line). Prediction: Hiroshi Tanahashi