February 1, 2021

Watch: NJPW World (JPN)

Watch: NJPW World (ENG)

After an early match of the year contender in Nagoya, the third and final leg of the elongated, under-emergency New Beginning Tour begins in Korakuen Hall, where a full 60% of the tour has taken place thus far. In fact, the entire tour will end up being 60% Korakuen, with nine out of fifteen shows taking place there. The next tour, in support of Castle Attack, kicks off right away on February 14 in… Korakuen Hall. For four straight nights.

The attendance here was interesting. They drew 557, which is the highest in this building since night 1 and broke the trend of Mondays being death days (previous Mondays on this tour at Korakuen: 396 and 416). The 557 is an encouraging number, but there are still several shows in this venue to go until the end of the month. Also, the State of Emergency has been extended until March 7. Thus, the earliest we can get receive some consequential, comparative numbers of its effect will be the middle of the New Japan Cup tour.

This set of shows sees some traditional booking and quite a bit of monotony. The traditional booking is the most attractive, and almost certainly results in this bump in attendance: the pre-New Beginning elimination tag matches that headline this show and the February 2 show. This is the fourth year in a row they’ve peppered these elimination tags into Road to New Beginning shows at Korakuen, taken to it’s excessive zenith in 2017, with a show which concluded with three straight elimination tags.

The monotony? Match #2 on this card, the Hontai vs. LIJ showdown that encompasses all of the major singles matches left on the New Beginning in Hiroshima shows, moves to match #3 on February 2nd. The competitors are the exact same. The final two shows are anchored by tag matches branching off of these 8-man tags. One has to wonder if the 30-minute draw might have been better served on this leg to heat up the most vital matches of the tour.

This card was  serviceable and accomplished its function: to reacquaint the audience with the upcoming Heavyweight Tag Team Championship match, a rematch from Wrestle Kingdom. The tag team champions, Guerrillas of Destiny, have not seen a New Japan ring since New Year Dash!! on January 6. Bereft of their rivals, neither has Dangerous Tekkers. There are two simple reasons why this match was able to heat up so quickly: eliminations tag fucking rule, and these guys rule even more. The rest of the card, which lasted less than 100 minutes total with a ten-minute intermission, didn’t need to do much more than exist. It didn’t do much more than that.

Yota Tsuji def. Gabriel Kidd

 On a very important side note, the first Despy bear I spotted was at 7:50. Kidd and Tsuji were feeling each other out and Kidd circled around. The camera cut toward the East Side of Korakuen, and right by Tsuji’s knee you could see a woman holding a Despy bear in the background. It’s off-focus but I could confirm on later shots of wrestler’s either entering or departing on that side that it is indeed a Despy bear that she is holding. It’s fine, I know that I will die alone.

Here’s something we’ve been missing from New Japan cards: an honest-to-God Young Lion singles match. The last time Tsuji and Kidd faced each other in a singles match was November 16, 2020, 78 days after a year filled to the brim with this confrontation, both in the ring and in the backstage comments. That November 16th showdown was actually Tsuji’s last single match against anyone until this night.  Kidd had the one-off with Nagata at New Year Dash!! Otherwise, they’ve been in tags and watched Uemura’s brilliant Best of the Super Juniors campaign.

This one was restrained but rancorous. Gabriel Kidd said something extremely indecorous before the bell rang, and cursed Tsuji later in the match before a chop. I don’t know, everybody, but to me a Young Lion should be a bit more family-friendly. Go ahead, call me the language police. Why, because I am trying to rigidly control what other people say? Is that your definition of “language police?” Well then… that’s quite illuminating, thank you. Doesn’t matter, no barracks language in the dojo. Not from the Young Lions, at least.

It seemed like the beginning stages was set up so that Kidd focused on the upper body and Tsuji concentrated on the lower body. The work was fine and they clearly wanted to settle in after a hiatus from each other. Tsuji hit a spear and goddamn if he doesn’t have an absolutely gorgeous one, just a full extension that covers a lot of ground.

There was also a nice spot where Tsuji hit a running powerslam, with a slight delay and slower count, which was beneficial in this case. I couldn’t help but think how many counts ECW’s John Finegan would have registered in the time Kenta Sato delivered his 2.5. In a normal count, probably 7 or 8. If someone was just tossed into a massive open flame and Finegan was pouring ice water on them to stave off thermal epidermal burning: at least 12, possibly as high as 15. ***

BUSHI, Hiromu Takahashi, Tetsuya Naito & SANADA def. Master Wato, SHO, Tomoaki Honma & Kota Ibushi

Let’s just get the most important facet of this match, this tour, this company, and the entire 2021 wrestling landscape out of the way right now: Kota Ibushi being an officious doofus and continually interrupting SHO and Hiromu’s special conferences, making dumb faces and gleefully aggravating Hiromu with performative obtuseness. It appears that Ibushi has chosen to inhabit his initial deity space as a Meddlesome God trope. Ibushi is just vexing enough that the victim notices and feels the annoyance, but it’s not intrusive enough to be abuse, per se. He doesn’t flagrantly fuck up people’s lives; Hiromu would probably find that preferable, actually. Ibushi is just irritating, Hiromu can’t do anything about it but poetically lament the situation, and SHO is literally hiding his face in his hair to keep the camera from catching him corpsing the instant Ibushi arrives. Take a screenshot of SHO from any point in these backstage comments and his smoldering look belies the assault on his cheek flesh his teeth are perpetrating to avoid a full breakdown.

That is, to say: this match was not very captivating. Coming off the time limit draw that half of these competitors engaged in on January 25, this was a pedestrian exercise, once again highlighted by BUSHI and Master Wato. Their sequences were, I swear, crisp and energizing, replete with back-and-forth reversals, block, sharp striking.

During the introduction of the Hontai team, everyone faced off with their New Beginning dance partners, except Naito, who literally walked away when Honma was introduced. This was a prelude to more squeamish interactions. At one point, LIJ went through the running splash to the corner gauntlet that I legitimately thought might have ended Honma’s career on Night 1. I was convinced of this because Honma looked so out of it during Naito’s subsequent offense that night. A similar result was achieved here, though less extreme: Naito went for an inverted atomic drop, and Honma just sort of buckled on the landing. Naito then executed that dreadful rolling jackknife pin, the one looks like sewage but managed to achieve a 25 count the other night. Honma kicked out this time. Much better was LIJ’s version of the CHAOS air drum beatdown, which is just them stomping the bejesus out of someone.

The Hiroshima main event pairings delivered fine sequences between very charismatic wrestlers, and YES I am including SANADA in that description, just in case the myopia is still too strong to recognize it out there. That said, these match-ups are running out of tricks. As stated in the introduction, maybe they should have planned the time limit draw for this leg. Or, maybe, have the elimination tag here instead of on the 23rd where it served zero purpose. Tanahashi and Shingo were going to have a Wrestle Kingdom level match no matter how hot or cold the match was going in. This is a bit of scheduling malfeasance, me thinks.

SHO and Hiromu talked to each other as much as they can in the aftermath, the ring being one place Ibushi cannot interrupt them. Ibushi, for his part, was caught up in another acutely courteous and urbane summit with SANADA, once again showered with appreciative, friendly head nodding. It took a while to raise the hands of the victors because Ibushi spent so much time just fucking around in the ring, while Naito, for his part, was fucking around on the outside. The 57 Club may have been produced with different shells, but the filling inside is the same flavor. ***1/4

CHAOS (Tomohiro Ishii, Hirooki Goto, and Kazuchika Okada) def. BULLET CLUB (Dick Togo, Yujiro Takahashi, and EVIL)

Apparently, in a four match card, the intermission is after match #3? I deduced that the elimination match must make up some of the time, which was… kinda true? Overlooking the January 25 show that ended up several minutes longer than the other shows on the tour, the broadcast Road to New Beginning Korakuen’s have all ended up with around 57-59 minutes of ring time. Todays ended up being 56 minutes, 06 seconds.

This was humdrum. There’s more to break down about the entrances and introductions than the actual match. For instance, EVIL has begun to do a little character work on Kevin Kelly, throwing up the Too Sweet during is entrance, allowing Kevin the opportunity to decline, which allows EVIL an early chance to display his assuredly well-practiced smug grin. The verdict: EVIL’s stuff still comes off like an attempt to replicate whatever Naito pioneers. Naito speaks leson 1 Duolingo Spanish to Kelly, EVIL starts interacting with him as well. Of course, it could very well be true that I missed something and EVIL starting engaging in Kevin Kelly horseplay first. Naito’s are better, regardless, even if EVIL looks better doing them. EVIL’s hot.

Kazuchika Okada continues to come to the ring in his glowy robe and generally spasm across the venue. He stops only to climb the ropes on his introduction, try to get the crowd to clap with him, arbitrarily decides double-time the claps, goes instantly off-rhythm, and has to get corrected by the crowd who thankfully understood what he was going for and accomplished the double-time clapping before he did. The verdict: Kaz Okada is such a fucking goof. Why is he such a goof? I like that he’s a goof, of course, but… why? His backstage comment after the New Beginning in Nagoya were punctuated with this lightly swaying dance and staccato delivery, and… this is the greatest wrestler of this generation. Imagine if Mike Trout was Roger McDowell. That’s Kazu-kun.

Toru Yano’s introduction, with references to his sash, sponsors, something about Korakuen, more sponsors, his delicious cookbook or DVD or whatever that was, the chair with his line and scan, the KOPW t-shirt, the KOPW towel, the KOPW champion distinction for 2020, the KOPW trophy itself, and his other sash… took roughly 53 seconds. Otis entered the 2021 Royal Rumble and was eliminated in the time it took Abe to run through all of Toru Yano’s indicators. I’m reminded of the that Chip Day and Trevor Lee match where the ring announcer went through about 3.5 minutes of Chip Day monikers and nicknames, both the self-given and those bestowed. Trevor Lee Darryl Dawkins’d Day in response by having the ring announcer spend the same amount of time listing all the titles Lee has won in his career. The fun part? Both lists were fake! This whole thing is fake! The verdict: Toru Yano rules and we should cherish him.

The crowd actually got into this quite a bit. Alas, CHAOS may collectively be genius at these six-mans, but this one was probably the least engaging of the tour. The main purpose was to provide Jay White the opportunity to pounce upon a victorious Tomohiro Ishii after the match. White was substituted into the elimination tag on the 2nd in response to this, and it will be very interesting to see if Jay’s return pops some numbers. The evidence suggests to me that people are willing to dance around the State of Emergency if they feel like the booked card is worth it. It will be quite revealing If Jay White pops a Night 10 of a Road To show. ***1/4

BULLET CLUB (El Phantasmo, Taiji Ishimori, Tama Tonga, Tanga Loa, and Jado) def. Suzuki-gun (Taichi, Zack Sabre Jr., El Desperado, Yoshinobu Kanemaru, and DOUKI)

A media mogul of sorts has offered to the world this axiom, one that won’t escape your brain matter once is seeps in: Royal Rumbles are like pizza; even when a Rumble is average it’s still worth it. I’d like to add on to that and say that New Japan elimination tags in Korakuen Hall are like pizza that is never bad.

Do yourself a favor and don’t watch this Suzuki-gun vs. CHAOS elimination tag from February 4th, 2020. In my research for an essay on El Desperado’s 2020 backstage comments in the 2020 NJPW Year in Review e-book, I rediscovered this wonderful match and the crowd intensity it was imbued with that we simply cannot replicate in the current environment.

This match was well-structured and back-ended. The first 2/3rds was punctuated by a very long DOUKI heat segment and some effusive Bullet Club heelwork. That set the table for a tremendous final 1/3rd. These matches rule because once the eliminations start happened, the crowd, even COVID crowds, perk up significantly, and they do not relent until the final bell. It never fails.

The ELP Bullet Club, and to be clear, this coterie is very much the ELP Bullet Club in that they inherit and project his character’s personality traits (even if G.O.D. also project their own idiosyncrasies), seem more palatable in this context. Perhaps some find them even more insufferable, but I absolutely find them more agreeable here, even if paradoxically they are exponentially more abrasive in this Suzuki-gun double-tag program.

The reason is that perhaps they must be even more demonstratively frustrating, because the context demands it. This is not to say that they wouldn’t be this way against, for instance, a Tanahashi-led Hontai team defined by pureness. But against Suzuki-gun, who have slowly evolved into a lovable scamp unit whilst maintaining and thriving as full-blown cheating heels, it works. It’s quite simple: because Suzuki-gun fight fire with fire, thus the satisfaction level is amplified and commensurate with how annoying Bullet Club act. The comeuppance against a Hontai unit would simply be a Bullet Club loss, felled by their own depravity But in this heel-heel match-up, the satisfaction is derived from a caustic, reprehensible bastard like Taichi standing firm against a deluge of wicked, frivolous stupidity and returning fire with eyerakes, eye-pokes, lowblows… the works. It’s fun because of the devilish delight one feel’s when you know that all the frustration cached during a match is going to be gloriously released as the heel gets a taste of their own medicine.

Of course, there’s another response, equally valid: the viewer is aware of this dynamic, but still finds the prat heels to be so annoying they simply can’t enjoy anything involving them, including the retribution against them. There also needs to be some level of buy-in to the likeable heels. But at a general level this is the sort of thing that can evoke a deep emotional resonance, and one you can only do infrequently, maybe once or twice a decade at best. The process of building two units to meet these functions takes time, but, as seen here, the payoff is exquisite.

The connective tissue of this program is Izuka’s iron fingers, thieved by Tama Tonga, who mockingly pretends to be entranced by them. They only allow him to communicate in Japanese, in the ring or backstage, to the amusement of the fans in attendance. Taichi now inhabits the role of an aggrieved miscreant obsessed with toppling the usurper. Much like Tencozy in the United Empire feud, the heels are not impotent. The difference here is that instead of wild bedla, SZG vs. Bullet Club is a bit more traditional. The heelier heels continue to prevail.

That said, this match was a lot of fun. New Japan is very clever booking these elimination tags, which they also like doing for the Dontaku tour, right after the Royal Rumble is usually held. This allows them a bit of smirking fun, as they can execute eliminations that are less convoluted in comparison (except the times, you know, when they are significantly more convoluted). It also is a clever, sneaky bit of comparative booking because these matches are specifically based upon full unit rivalries, whereas chunks of every Rumble is divorced from that.

ELP had two spots which lampshaded the sort of Rumble nonsense that was fun in 2011, and is still fun in 2021 but very played out. ELP’s elimination was hilarious, as he landed with his back on the floor but his feet on the apron. This very spot played out hours before in the Women’s Rumble, but here Red Shoes simply handwaved ELP’s objections from this awkward position. NJPW apparently follows the simplest parts of the equally convoluted NFL rules for downed contact: your back hits, you’re out. You can’t start doing crunches on the floor and expect to be let back in.

When Kanemaru and Ishimori were both teetering on the apron, and Kanemaru implored El Desperado to sacrifice him to take out Ishimori, ELP caught his teammate on his shoulders. We’ve seen this spot in the Rumble as well, to varying degrees of success. In this case, when ELP merrily placed Ishimori back on the apron. Despy simply slapped him off.

Everyone in this match rules, and G.O.D. are excellent when playing off of Dangerous Tekkers. Kanemaru and ELP are wonderful as sleepy-faced adversaries, and Ishimori and El Desperado have such magnificent chemistry that their BOSJ match was #7 in my Match of the Year list. Despy and Ishimori brawled on the outside after a distraction elimination by Tama Tonga (something I feel that Despy should be smarter than), and brawled to the back.

This one ended when the Iron Fingers from Tama knocked Taichi unconscious, spoiling his bullying of Jado, who graciously accepted the pinfall. Great stuff. ***3/4


Night 9 of the Road to New Beginning was a one-match show, with everything below the main event perfunctory at best. That said, it was a four-match card with roughly 57 minutes on in-ring action. If you literally have an hour to spare, you can breeze through this show. I would recommend saving yourself a half-hour and just watching the elimination tag, though.