New Japan Pro Wrestling
Castle Attack Night 1
February 27, 2021
Osaka-Jo Hall
Osaka, Japan

Watch: njpwworld.com

The most talented wrestlers in the world are nothing without good booking. It doesn’t matter how athletic or charismatic they are, their talent needs scaffolding with a logical narrative. This was demonstrated perfectly this week with the news that Paul Wight joined AEW. The Big Show has been mismanaged and underutilized for so long, that it was too easy to forget about this raw talent. He is a monstrous human being, complemented by a malleable charisma. If you saw him in an airport you would never forget him, but through mismanagement and bad booking, I had convinced myself he was bad.

New Japan is starting to go down this road, albeit to a much lesser degree. With one or two notable exceptions, every single person on their books is an outstanding professional wrestler. How many people do they employ are not capable of having a four-star match?

With such a talented roster backed with the provenance of a decade of critical success, I shouldn’t be dreading watching their shows. A show being headlined by Kazuchika Okada and EVIL should not be a ticket to wrestling purgatory.

For the first time in a long time, I am worried about New Japan. They’ve weathered talent losses with incredible skill, but they have mishandled COVID-era wrestling from a creative point of view. By all means, establish the mid-card EVIL as a champion to give him more credibility later, especially while the world is essentially on pause. Unfortunately, they have littered almost every significant storyline with the worst distractions and ref bumps and are starting to neutralize that credibility. It doesn’t matter that EVIL was the double champion because the booking forced his matches to be bad.

Nearly every other company seems to be moving pieces to position a rocket ship out of lockdown. All Japan has turned Jake Lee to give them a story for the crowds. AEW is experimenting with their YouTube output to continue their star-making machine once the audience returns. Even WWE looks like they’re trying to do some significant title changes at WrestleMania (admittedly, badly, like always).

New Japan has riddled their roster with bad presentation, crippled their stellar workers with terrible booking and insulted their audience. BULLET CLUB is just another example of wink-wink-nudge-nudge shenanigan wrestling that belongs in a dive bar miles away from where I am.

During the first lockdown, Hiroshi Tanahashi promised that one day there would be a triumphant return, with the ace leading the singing on his air guitar. Instead, we’re getting a trio of balding midgets slowing pissing away the glory of their past.

United Empire (Will Ospreay, Jeff Cobb & Great-O-Khan) def. Satoshi Kojima, Hiroyoshi Tenzan & Hiroshi Tanahashi

If the current booking is stagnant, it just serves to illustrate how quickly Cobb and O-Khan are moving. Cobb, in particular, was always a nice wrestler. While his displays of strength were impressive, replacing the awkward smile with the stern frown has taken him to the next level. In a company mired with great workers wrestling bad matches, O-Khan and Cobb are working at their peak. There are still issues with O-Khan – he’d be better off without the napkin and the 90s happy house era tweaking – but if a wrestler can stand in a ring with his hands behind his back and still promote a match then they’re special.

Tanahashi, as always, is exempt from my criticism. Like his hair, he is perfect. Ok, so he criticized the NEVER belt during the build to his title match, but he’s so ethereal that he got away with it. Only Tana could half-ass a build and then have a match of the year contender. He genuinely believes that the NEVER belt is good now simply because he has it, and I’m a Tanahashi mark.

Tana was superb here. O-Khan is an overgrown baby, prone to fits of violent rage. Tanahashi understood this, beating him down and unleashing a few silent riffs on his air guitar that must have deafened the Dominator.

The United Empire wrestled like bullies. They manipulated and fooled their opponents excellently, which climaxed with Ospreay goading Tenzan into delivering a Mongolian chop. O-Khan planted the seeds for this earlier by delivering a few of his own and then mocking the man he stole it from. Very few wrestlers can emote insulted honor like Tenzan, and it was a wonderful moment.

There were a few rare botches from Ospreay, but they didn’t ruin what was a very fun opener. ***1/2

Tanga Loa def. YOSHI-HASHI

YOSHI-HASHI could feel the distance around him. He’s walked to a New Japan ring a hundred times, but the partners that normally accompany were ghosts on the backseat, appearing in the rear-view mirror.

The loneliness was exasperated by the expectations. He was technically the veteran, so he had to school the younger wrestler. Unfortunately, he’s not Yuji Nagata. His attempts at stretching Tango Loa were awkward and clumsy. I willed YOSHI-HASHI to hurt the bigger man, to show why he had been in the top promotion in Japan for so long, but he just couldn’t do it.

This should have been a brilliant undercard story, but unfortunately, it wasn’t. YOSHI-HASHI came to the ring, and when his music faded and the sirens that signify GOD’s entrance started to blare, he looked at the ring entrance. His eyes flitted between confidence and fear so quickly it became a mess of emotions. I felt them all with him. The camera shot changed, and we saw a blurred figure dressed in black. Were we seeing YOSHI-HASHI’s ultimate test?

No. It was fucking Jado with a kendo stick.

This should have been good. It should have been Tanga Loa smirking, cognizant of the embarrassment he was causing. Unfortunately, he turned the dial up to 11, screaming “don’t you die on me” like he was in a mid-afternoon matinee. This ended with the unbreakable, all-destroying distraction. Never mind the apron, that is truly the hardest part of the ring.

YOSHI-HASHI could have told a brilliant story, but they didn’t let him. **1/2

Hirooki Goto def. Tama Tonga

Do you ever have one of those waking dreams where you are drowning in your own thoughts? You’re so engrossed in a figment of your imagination that it becomes real. You don’t just imagine, but you see and feel. Then, something happens. A noise punches out of the real world and scares the fantasy away.

Goto was red hot at the start of this, and it was good. Then, the crack of Jado’s fucking kendo stick brought me back into the real world.

Of course, the work was good. The closing stretch was superb. But it was all infested by the stench of BULLET CLUB. We’re always a hair away from a distraction and it nullifies positives.

A decent enough match, ruined by the curse of BULLET CLUB. **1/2

KOPW 2021 Trophy
Toru Yano def Chase Owens

I cannot adequately express how little I wanted to watch this match but it surprised me. Perhaps it speaks to my earlier point of expectations. A Toru Yano gimmick match brings nothing with it. There is no precedent for this to be interesting so, when Yano bumped like a mad-man against the steel railings, I ended up paying attention.

It was too long, the gimmick made absolutely no sense until Chris Charlton explained that the winner is the person who removes the LAST pad and it involved the one weapon I hate more than the kendo stick – tape.

That being said, have no expectations and never be disappointed. This was fine. **1/2

Jay White def. Tomohiro Ishii

Jay White returning as a heel could have been a revelation. His brilliant promo after Wrestle Kingdom was dripping with a desire for redemption. It was that awful look in the mirror that happens to us all at some point in our lives. We stare, and see someone we don’t like.

Jay White going on a spiritual journey, staring deep into his soul and micro-analyzing every decision only to realize that he wasn’t vicious enough would have been incredible. A violent, deranged White obsessed with proving how great he is, constantly chasing the approval that will never be sufficient is a story that writes itself into excellence.

The problem is, they’ve not really told that story. They’ve got halfway there.

White still jumps straight out of the ring at the bell, he still relies on Gedo and he still wrestles the same way he always did. He might sprinkle in a little more hatred – particularly the suplexes into the corner and guard rail – but it’s more of a vague promise than a commitment.

Jay White is the kid who should be top of the class, but he’s getting a B+.

In a vacuum, this match was good. Ishii no-sold punches and begged for more. There were horrendous neck bumps that kept my eyes glued to the screen. The counter-exchange that led to the finish, each man desperate to deliver their big power move, was superb.

Unfortunately, there were distractions and ref bumps too. There was a moment where Ishii outsmarted the distraction and blocked the low blow. I know I was supposed to feel happy about this, but instead, I was annoyed that it happened in the first place.

The work was good. The story was bad. Mileage will vary with this one. ***1/2

Kazuchika Okada def. EVIL

Have you ever been choked the fuck out?

I certainly haven’t. I paint Warhammer and play the synthesizer in my spare time, but if I was the masculine man who ripped his shirt off and had scraps, the threat of having the literal breath of life being squeezed out of me would be a constant fear.

What would I do if someone was choking me the fuck out?

Well, I’d cry. But, again, if I were the masculine man with a ripped shirt, I would fight back. I would scratch and claw my way to freedom and the sweet victory of battle.

Why then, doesn’t the uber-masculine EVIL sell the Money Clip like he’s being choked the fuck out?

The Money Clip is a rest hold that I’m being told is a finisher, and that is the perfect metaphor for this show.

I’m being told that this feud is exciting. I know that the great Tombstone Piledriver that was just on the cusp of a botch should have been exhilarating. I know that I should have felt the wonderful, violent endorphin release of a picture-perfect Rainmaker. None of this matters, because each wonderful moment is neutralized by a half-hearted distraction or interference.

This match continued the theme of lazy interference from a bald man. Okada spiking Dick Togo was meaningless because I didn’t want to see Okada get his revenge. I wanted Dick Togo to go away.

The story was there, but it was suggested rather than told. The moments where EVIL battered Okada again and again, desperate to prove his worth were brilliant. The moments of Okada outsmarting the heel who thought he was a genius laid a path of crumbs to a brilliant story. The problem was, they didn’t ever really follow it.

I felt that the fourth wall had been broken. I couldn’t get excited about the stellar corner dropkick because a run in or distraction was always around the corner. The distractions don’t distract the wrestlers from a victory, but the audience from the match.

The work was good, and the closing stretch was great, but it’s not enough to overcome the plague of BULLET CLUB. ***1/4

Final Thoughts

I’ve never taken a bump, so take this with a pinch of salt, but I thought one of the most basic booking tenets was that every match should have a different finish. The same needs to apply to interference. If I can understand that, why doesn’t the greatest booker of a generation?

I understand that this has been magnified by having the Bullet Club so prominent on one show, but the terrible story booking mess of the double championship is a rant for another day.

For the first time in a long time, New Japan is not my favorite promotion anymore. Visually and physically it’s stuck on repeat and needs a shake-up. I hope BULLET CLUB t-shirt sales are worth it.