New Japan Pro Wrestling
Castle Attack – Night 2
February 28, 2021
If you are going to lay New Japan Pro Wrestling to rest, make sure you are using an industrial-grade compactor when filling in that grave. Ten minutes of compaction for every foot of fill, and don’t shirk on the corners, buddy. Because unless that ground is damn near solidified, they’ll be out before you know it. And that is what happened on Night 2 of Castle Attack. New Japan, for the first time since Wrestle Kingdom, presented a card that looked radiant on paper, and the show delivered on expectations. This should have been foreseeable, and yet conditions obfuscated even the sharpest vision.
Certainly, the abysmal appraisal of the previous night’s efforts depreciated the confidence in this show, but that loss of trust was well in motion by then. This has been a long and tedious process. An exhausting stretch of shows from Korakuen Hall over the last six weeks, all of them broadcast, enervated the global audience either directly (for those that foolishly watched them) or by diffusion when hearing the dispassionate responses from those people that watched.
Injuries vitiated the anticipation for this show, as well. Hiromu Takahashi’s pectoral injury extinguished a fervently built IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship semi-main event, within a week of the show. The inclusion of BUSHI and El Desperado assuaged that loss, but the absence of the division’s clear superstar unquestionably damaged the overall appeal, especially in combination with the knee injury to his stable leader, Tetsuya Naito.
Naito’s knee injury brought a halt to the momentum of his program with Kota Ibushi, though that might be a generous appraisal; the program never really gained momentum at all. In many ways, Naito’s sudden injury was an appropriate physical complement to a conceptually baffling, incomprehensible build. On paper, this was another championship match-up in a venerable continuum of contests between two generational talents and rivals. Is that not enough conflict to propel a narrative?
No, not with the double-anchor at play. We ended up with a tortured, tiresome, extended debate between the two, based around some kind of disagreement over wrestling championship dualism. We wanted Naito vs. Ibushi and instead, they gave us Descartes vs. Spinoza? Just drop each other on your fucking heads! Is that too simplistic?
[Historical note: Descartes died when Spinoza was 17; scholars can only speculate if they would have had head-drop matches or more deliberate, grapple-heavy ones]
So many layers of illogic collapsed upon itself as this story proceeded:
- Naito challenged solely for the Intercontinental title
- Ibushi vainly tried to explicate his abstruse details for title unification in response, without a himbo translator
- Naito declared that he will retire the Intercontinental title in the summer
- Naito clarified that he will not retire the Intercontinental title in the summer
- Naito stated that while he will not retire the Intercontinental title in the summer, he believes the Intercontinental title shouldn’t exist
- Naito mocked Ibushi’s worked knee injury by faking a knee injury whilst having a shoot knee injury
- Ibushi randomly threw out some nebulous balderdash about the Olympics
- Naito finally presented his full thesis publicly…in a NJPW1972 interview
- Ibushi finally presented his full vision of unification publicly… in a hostage-looking video on World.
Keep in mind, Kota Ibushi is, alongside El Desperado, my favorite wrestler. This is the benevolent interpretation of this farce. It was profundity through forbearance, withholding details to string us along. It was like the Bald Junior Booking Triumvirate (as Neil mentioned in his review of Night 1) decided to outsource the writing of this angle, called the series composition team from Serial Experiments Lain, forced them Clockwork Orange-style to watch John from Cincinnati and said, “That! Capture that! Make these two guys like that!”
And yet, once again, things worked out elegantly. Of course, when one show looks like a putrid runoff basin and the other looks Dominion-level, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that New Japan resurrected themselves three times faster than Jesus. The domestic audience knew it, too. Night 1 of Castle Attack drew 1,846 and Night 2 drew 3,218. That second number is in line with the 3000+ New Japan drew in the two shows they ran at Osaka-jo Hall in 2020 (3,318 and 3,898), shows which were not under a State of Emergency as this one was. Indisputably, this was a successful show by that measure.
And for many, this was exactly the show they desired, and needed, from a measure of substance and standard. For a few, it was even more than that. Though I strive for as much aloof critical objectivity as formalized criticism can allow, my two favorite wrestlers walked out of this event with pretty much every significant title in the company. I’m so euphoric I ended up writing three reviews worth of material in my first draft. Wrestling is fucking great.
Even if you have not aligned yourself with those two, Castle Attack Night 2 supplied an abundance of exquisite wrestling, devoid of nonsense and imbued with the sort of compelling action you expect, preferably every night.
The Empire (Jeff Cobb and Will Ospreay) def. Tencozy (Satoshi Kojima, and Hiroyoshi Tenzan)
The one vice the Empire has is attacking before the bell, along with all the other stuff (their stentorian volume, their CPAC hand signal, Will’s “Commonwealth Kingpin” nickname which makes him look and sound like some kind of colonial Viceroy of the Subcontinent, etc.). The most egregious being their ageism, which presents itself as stealing their elderly rival’s idiosyncrasies, then using those idiosyncrasies to badger and humiliate them. A little bit of adding injury-insult to insult-injury. And thus, Mongolian chops were plentiful in this contest. Every participant threw them liberally, including Tenzan, who was purportedly prohibited from using them just one month ago.
.@TENZAN323 "Mongolian Chop!!!!!!"
— njpwworld (@njpwworld) February 28, 2021
This has to be prefaced with the fact that the audience at Osaka-jo Hall clap-popped vigorously for Tenzan’s amoral exasperation and subsequent chop dispensing.
The most obvious question: is this legal? This was an officially recognized New Japan Pro Wrestling match stipulation. Did no one adjudicate the details of this agreement? Was this a code of honor thing? Tenzan brazenly Mongolian chopped his way through the Empire in this match and not only did the crowd love it, but it sparked legitimate momentum leading into the home stretch. Really, they should’ve done some sort of reinstatement angle. At least put Charlton in front of a green screen and exploit it on the 900 hotline for a few weeks.
This match was as agreeable as it looked on paper. The Empire has inventive tandem offense, particularly any variant of Jeff Cobb tossing Will Ospreay around into one of Ospreay’s signature moves.. Tenzan and Kojima still have it as a team, and they deserved a win. Though Tenzan running across the ring must look, from the perspective of the recipient in the corner, like someone crossing an event horizon, relatively stuck in time. ***1/2
CHAOS (Tomohiro Ishii, Toru Yano, and Kazuchika Okada) def. BULLET CLUB (Jay White, Chase Owens, and EVIL)
Put Roddy Strong in a chair and swivel him around, because:
WHO GIVES A FUCK?!
When CHAOS left the ring, you could see that the sign on one of the ringposts for MICARD. Put the letter “D” between the “I” and the “C” and you have a perfect description of The Money Clip, to which Chase Owens incredulously tapped out for the finish. ***
IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship
Guerillas of Destiny (Tanga Loa, Tama Tonga) (C) def. CHAOS (YOSHI-HASHI and Hirooki Goto)
The participants in this one were challenged with the task of looking at the singles matches from Night 1, and the multi-mans over the last fortnight, and making the applicable adjustments so that this title match fared better.
YOSHI-HASHI’s solution: come down to the ring looking more like fodder Naruto filler arc ninja than ever. Ah, I see by the headband around your neck that you are from the Village Hidden in the Unseasoned Broth.
Tanga Loa’s solution: YELL MORE STUFF. Like the worst Under Armour commercial imaginable. Here is my:
Top 5 Tanga Loa Snarl-Screamed Aphorisms
- YOU’RE A DISAPPOINTMENT YOSHI! YOU ASKED FOR THIS!
- I BRING OUT THE FIGHTING SPIRIT BECAUSE YOU SUCK!
- WHERE’S THAT FIGHTING SPIRIT?! I DON’T THINK I FELT THAT YET!
- OH YEAH! THAT’S FIGHTING SPIRIT! I LIKE THIS! I LIKE THIS!!!!
- I LEARNED FROM LAST NIGHT! YOU AIN’T GONNA BE NO TRICKY DICKY ON ME, BITCH!
It’s sort of a Head of the Overflow Table routine. Not Head of the Kid’s Table; that implies some sort of potency at a junior level. No, the table for the adults that either do not matter enough, are invited out of obligation alone, or are too flaky and unreliable to make it in time. The Overflow Table. Just eat and keep your hands above the table at all times. And don’t get tricky dicky before dessert or you’re out of here, bitch.
I thought the singles matches on Night 1 were fine, but they confirmed an unfortunate precept that became apparent over the tour: the more people in a match, the better these pairings orient and coordinate. In six-mans, YOSHI-HASHI x Tanga Loa bursts with fiery zeal, and Goto x Tama provides spatial heterogeneity, their frenetic misdirection sequences supplying a match with a jolt of intensity. The singles matches, though, included far too many intervals that are either aimless or dead. Just vacant, languid space.
This match should have been the happy medium between these two scenarios. It wasn’t, but was still effective for two reasons: they tightened up the connective portions of the match, and the crowd was thoroughly invested throughout.
— njpwworld (@njpwworld) February 28, 2021
Tanga’s peremptory, hyper-masculine self-narration, despite delving into the preposterous in this match, is typically a welcome manifestation of his significantly improved ringwork. Loa’s strikes have a crispness to them which produced some key moments in this match. There were three heat segments, and YOSHI-HASHI’s selling during his two was phenomenal, including another remarkable dead weight sell-job.
The ending was quick, coming during a tornado segment of the match which had the crowd noticeably engaged. That itself is worth a successful verdict. ***1/2
NEVER Openweight Championship
Hiroshi Tanahashi (C) def. Great-O-Khan
I wholeheartedly disagree with my Road To Warrior tag partner Neil David on the merit of the question mark cloth Great-O-Khan wears over his face. It rules. Everything about Great-O-Khan rules. Considering the merch in the crowd, I am going to start doing some warm-up exercises for an imminent victory lap. Maybe some grapevines and lunges. It must be something quick, because I might have to take that lap at any moment.
Though, to be fair, Great-O-Khan’s pants tonight looked like if Vince McMahon had put Sabu on the Lex Express. Theoretically, in an infinite universe/multiverse this has happened somewhere.
O-Khan carried himself like a honest-to-God main event talent here, and it wasn’t merely through Tanahashi’s genius. The charisma and self-assuredness of this jock otaku is off the charts. His arsenal of moves is strategically constructed for a decade’s worth of future headliners. The drops, the stretches, the reverse drops, the throws, the idiosyncratic striking techniques… each facet is significant. The only component left is for Khan to piece together a consistently stirring arrangement of those aspects without succumbing to toneless formula. Also worth mention: his selling of the knee work was tremendous.
.@Great_O_Khan "Spinning Neckbreaker"
— njpwworld (@njpwworld) February 28, 2021
Of course, Tanahashi was exceptional. He sold O-Khan’s offense like death and supplied what O-Khan still lacks, which is the inherent capacity for sensing the precise moments to change speeds in a match. Tanahashi evokes specific reactions from an audience at will, and the crowd was clap-electric for pretty much everything after the Texas Cloverleaf. The spot where Tanahashi hit two sling blades in succession, with O-Khan rising in stumbling bravado after each one and then hitting Tanahashi with a devastating lariat as the Ace attempted a third… that was the moment of the night until Naito and Ibushi remembered their fondness for dropping each other on their heads. It was perfectly timed and placed within the match.
Tanahashi pulled off the arduous and delicate mission of winning in a way that wasn’t necessarily a fluke, but certainly gave the impression that the stronger competitor was momentarily caught. O-Khan comes out of this looking even more substantive, and Tanahashi remains nonpareil. ****1/4
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship
El Desperado def. El Phantasmo and BUSHI
There is always a Despy bear, somewhere. In this case, the first one I could find on-camera appears at 41:27, during the entrance of Hirooki Goto and YOSHI-HASHI.
This one displayed the main detriment of a three-way match: reliance on one-on-one segments. That’s pretty much the only drawback. Even so, it wasn’t heavy reliance; there was an admirable amount of action containing all three men, especially in the beginning stages. Until the mask spot, a full seven minutes into the match, things moved at a refreshingly brisk pace with little rest for any of the competitors. There was functional, lively chemistry between all three. Most importantly, the work involving all three at once was imaginative without coming across contrived, usually a trademark detriment of the three-way match.
The mask spot utterly shocked the crowd into a hushed murmur. El Phantasmo ripping the mask off and then wearing it to the ring is absolutely on-brand for a rabble-rouser of his caliber (the question: was he El Desperado or Alex Shelley as El Desperado?). The issue: this happened roughly one-third of the way through the match, leaving the next third of the match as an ELP-BUSHI singles match. This is another lamentable trope of three-way matches: the incapacitated competitor leaving for a large portion of the match.
The work in Despy’s absence was commendable, though accented at points by unmitigated silence. Smartly, BUSHI and ELP sapiently placed exciting spots at strategic points to recover crowd engagement. For the first portion of Despy’s absence the crowd was legitimately stunned, at times appearing mute. Some flashy BUSHI offense regained the crowd’s attention, but after a couple of minutes, the crowd lost some interest, possibly awaiting El Desperado’s imminent return. That was where ELP took over, running through his effortlessly graceful progression (top rope upside-down grundle press included), which concluded with the resplendent Thunder Kiss ’86. It was on that high note that Despy made his exultant return. Impeccable, logical structure.
Once Despy returned, the intensity and audience engagement intensified. Although it did feature one of the more odious three-way match tropes, Despy’s disappearance and return worked beautifully because it was more corporeal than the standard injury/stretcher nonsense. The crowd saw the mask ripped open. They had a visual frame of reference and an emotional resonance to it because of the Best of the Super Juniors final. Thus, ELP drew instant and perceptible gasps as the desecration commenced. The crowd groaned when he kicked the mask in the air. That’s how invested in Desperado they are. This is something people care about; this is symbolism that bolsters the symbolized.
The remainder of the match was heavily reliant on methodical interplay between all three, punctuated with scintillating catena between Desperado vs. Phantasmo. BUSHI was taken out a few times, but recovered fairly quickly, and adroitly; his interjections were consummately precise and a catalyst for the substantive developments in the latter stages of the match.
The apex was a brilliant and clever bit of work that allowed each of the losing competitors to maintain dignity. BUSHI staggered ELP and went for the MX, only to be obliterated by ELP’s Sudden Death. The momentum of the loaded boot, however, left BUSHI close to the ropes. But ELP went to retrieve him with too much enthusiasm and accidentally pushed BUSHI out of the ring. Thus, BUSHI avoided the pinfall and ELP conserved the right to proclaim that he had the match won but for an atypical error.
And let’s be clear about another thing, here: ELP supporters, you can take your victory lap without even warming up. I myself was a detractor of ELP’s egregiously demonstrative meta-heel persona… until the loaded boot. That traditionalist element seems to be the missing piece that provided a more tangible, agreeable uniformity to the act. Unlike his other elaborate athletic blather, this one was results-based; it causes damage and produces victories. And by watching all these goddamn Road To shows, I arrived at an inclination that was confirmed here: ELP’s getting over. The domestic fans are buying into this blustery hogwash. I couldn’t be sure of it until this match. Now I am.
— njpwworld (@njpwworld) February 28, 2021
ELP turned the momentum of the match, post-Despy-return, by waylaying El Desperado with three kicks with the loaded boot. The first kick to the foot, the second to the stomach, then a spin kick to the face (importantly, not the Sudden Death). Each time, the crowd audibly gasped. On those simple kicks. Gasps are the Tokyo Dome pops of the clap-crowd era and each one is a victory lap for this quantum realm Canadian and his brethren. The boot is over. He is over. It may not be critically pleasing, but it’s getting the right kind of heat. At least, for those in person.
On a night where every match concluded without laborious process, occurring at the peak of action and audience receptiveness, this one was the best. After ELP failed to ensnare BUSHI for the victory, El Desperado unloaded his climactic arsenal, first a Loco Mono and then two Pinche Loco’s. The second one was prefaced by a smooth-as-fuck roll-through out of the first. Sometimes, adding a second finisher transcends the superfluous and adds a level of decisiveness that elevates the match, the participants, the atmosphere, the circumstances, and the recognition.
This was assuredly one of those times.
— Ciaràn (@CiaranRH) February 28, 2021
For years, El Desperado was reliable, in the worst connotations that word can take in a wrestling context. He was the low-ranking junior on a mid-card heel unit, a unit that had two main purposes, both involuntarily selfless:
- To heat up the babyface units
- Ameliorate the heel ones, transmorphing them into tweeners simply by contrast.
This does not leave much for someone in El Desperado’s position to do besides eating pinfalls. Even Despy’s heel turn into the unit did not provide momentum. Shortly afterwards, merely one year into his return from excursion, he was sent off for a two-year detainment in post-KENTA NOAH. He returned to NJPW proper in 2017, three years into his run with his stature regressed.
And yet, this is the point where the progression manifested. Over the next two years, developments in El Desperado’s backstage comments, online persona, and innately charming ringwork were exhibited in conspicuous opulence, resulting in two crucial benefits for the resurgent junior division.
The first was a stabilization of the tag team championships, holding the titles for nearly a year with Yoshinobu Kanemaru after the departure of the teams responsible for the blistering rotation of title swaps. The second, a vitally significant benefit for the division and the company at large, was a rivalry of mesmerizing intricacy with Hiromu Takahashi. Unfortunately, both participants in this psychopath’s shounen ai rom-com saw their 2019’s essentially wiped out by extended injuries.
Circumstances isolated El Desperado in 2015, but they have favored him to the point of divine providence since 2020. Because of the pandemic’s travel restrictions, the roster was depleted. Despy thus found his way into the New Japan Cup and the KOPW tournament, and a focal point of the Best of the Super Juniors. He delivered sublime work throughout.
Injuries left propitious vacancies for El Desperado to inhabit. It has been a domino effect in that regard:
- YOH’s 2020 injury left the Junior Tag titles vacated, requiring a round-robin mini-tournament to crown new champions.
- El Desperado and Yoshinobu Kanemaru won that tournament, regaining the titles to which they had granted balance.
- In the process of this tournament, the Suzuki-gun team had developed conflict with the LIJ team of Hiromu Takahashi and BUSHI, resulting in subsequent matches for the titles.
- The dormant Hiromu-Desperado rivalry was revitalized over the course of their battles for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship.
- This rivalry reached crescendo at the 2020 Best of the Super Juniors finals, with the famous mask removal spot that launched Despy into a previously inconceivable stratum.
And now, El Desperado has capitalized on another opportunity. Hiromu’s wretched injury provided just enough space for Despy to maneuver, and he’s done so to the very top. He joins Minoru Tanaka, Koji Kanemoto, Jado, Prince Devitt, and KUSHIDA as the only wrestlers to achieve the status of Junior Double Champion. Not even Hiromu has accomplished this feat.
It is irrelevant, impertinent, and completely futile to ponder whether Desperado would have reached this summit without beneficial conditions. The entire world right now is a tragic condition. El Desperado did nothing more than earnestly and assiduously persist. He filled the gaps caused by unanticipated exigencies merely by sustaining the enchanting and beguiling qualities that he had been refining for years. He filled the gaps because he already should have been there.
El Desperado has developed quite a bit in recent years. He has developed a stockpile of finishers. He has developed an exquisite ability to devote a match to legwork without sacrificing appeal. He has developed a variety of impactful moves to add flavor to his matches. He has developed his backstage promos to the point where I was enticed to survey them over an entire year.
He has developed himself, the amalgamated composite of conflicting realities and sincerely authentic personalities that is El Desperado, into a championship-caliber junior heavyweight.
The process finally resolved. And the match in which it did was an excellent representation of Desperado himself, replete with inventiveness, gleefully destructive trolling, amiable cruelty, unassumingly smooth mat-work, barbarous stretches of hostility, restrained ambition, preserved credibility, and, ultimately, the right decisions at the right time.
Don’t agree that he’s earned this? Watch the post-match again, and take a good goddamn look at Desperado’s back the whole time. Actually, you can do this at any point in the match/ On the lower quadrant on Despy’s right-hand side, you’ll see a 4-5 inch scar. That’s from when Hiromu drilled him into the exposed turnbuckle with a running Death Valley Driver during the Best of the Super Junior Finals at Budokan.
Make sure to remember it, though. Something will be covering it up for a while. ****1/2
— Ciaràn (@CiaranRH) February 28, 2021
IWGP Intercontinental Heavyweight Championship
Kota Ibushi (C) def. Tetsuya Naito
I have exactly four notes for this match:
- These fucking bumps
- Couldn’t even take notes this match was so incredible
These two are fascinating, simple as that. This program was artic for so many reasons, most of them listed above in the introduction. In fact, Kazuchika Okada probably said it best in his Night 1 backstage comments:
And now those two are bickering about what should be done with both belts. Who cares about two belts? It’s simple. The strongest guy holds the top belt. It’s dead simple. But they’ve got it twisted. I don’t think that’s true pro wrestling. In my opinion, the strongest should be going for the top title. This situation has the fans confused. The strongest should be the champion. With everything going on in the world, why should we have to deal with this, too?
Scoff if you want, but he is right.
Furthermore, their Wrestle Kingdom match wasn’t memorable enough to foment blistering expectancy for this one, either. They clearly approached that match with the belief that they could accomplish a world-class wrestling match devoid of the head-drops and audaciousness that characterized their legendary 2018-2019 series. Thus, their Wrestle Kingdom match did not instigate the safety zealots, but they might have overcorrected. The match lacked a spirit, a vigor and verve that was the true foundation of their previous battles.
The conceit here? “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.” Or, rather… What if we just dropped each other on our fucking heads again?
And so, a second rope Esperanza from Naito that Ibushi took right on the goddamn crown of his head. A high-angle Valencia square on the base of Ibushi’s spine. Another Swan Dive German suplex where Ibushi nearly drove Naito neck-first through the canvas. A lariat counter to Naito’s short-arm elbow sequence that Naito decided to flip through, landing right on his fucking brain stem.
.@s_d_naito "Avalanche Esperanza"
— njpwworld (@njpwworld) February 28, 2021
— njpwworld (@njpwworld) February 28, 2021
But never forget, these frightening moments are never the basis of their matches, nor the secret to their effectiveness. They are accents on a brilliantly executed match. From the measured, calculated grappling at the start, to Naito’s relentless knee-work (with some wonderful selling from Ibushi), to the insanely paced and cyclonic second half. The match time was 27:50, an eye-blink compared to recent New Japan main event, but it seemed even swifter than that. So little was wasted in this match; there were few innocuous sequences or meaningless exchanges or pointless resting. It was outlandish, yet still economical.
They simply engaged for 28 straight minutes. It was spectacular and, for many, almost imperative after two months of grueling house shows and discouraging events. As long as they have these two, New Japan can be cavalier as accolades and linear eyeballs are drawn elsewhere. ****3/4
CASTLE ATTACK Night 2 Feb.28 2021 Backstage comments!
— njpwworld (@njpwworld) March 1, 2021
In the post-match, Desperado came out for the Junior Heavyweight challenge at the Anniversary show. I pretty much blacked out at this point, but this should be deliriously fun. There is seven years of history between these two, literally to the day El Desperado was canonically born. Despy, gleefully brazen as ever, replicated Hiromu from one year ago and challenged for the double heavyweight titles.
With only four days until the Anniversary show, and that show taking place on a Thursday under State of Emergency conditions, there’s several major factors working against this show’s success. And yet, considering their popularity and the momentum carrying over from this show and the New Japan Cup announcement, these two might have a chance. I’m going to go out on a limb, as someone who has been studying State of Emergency attendances: at least 2500, as many as 3000.
With several pleasantly surprising finishes that indicate some compelling directions moving forward, Castle Attack Night 2 suggests that the doldrums of New Japan might be softening. Night 2 was orders of magnitude better on paper than Night 1, and it delivered. The final three matches are required viewing, and indicate the past, present, and future. Great-O-Khan and ELP, with bright futures in their divisions, were magnificent in defeat. Hiroshi Tanahashi was transcendent, adjuring the past into the present. And El Desperado, Tetsuya Naito, and Kota Ibushi, still in their primes as they proceed through their late-thirties, confirm that New Japan’s present is luminous, even under these restricted conditions and baneful booking decisions. So many things are aligned for a post-pandemic boom.