New Japan Pro Wrestling
48th Anniversary Show
March 4, 2021
Watch: NJPW WORLD
If you had told me in the closing stretch of 2020 that one of the matches I’d be most intrigued by NJPW wise in 2021 is El Desperado vs. Kota Ibushi I’d probably not take you seriously. I’d been an idiot for doubting such a claim. We arrived at NJPW’s 48th Anniversary Show and I am all on board, all in, and was all hyped for this main event. We also had two opening round matches of the New Japan Cup, a tournament that is overflowing with wrestlers of all levels of talent.
With spring approaching, hopefully, things in New Japan can start to warm up. There’s no doubt a cold chill has penetrated NJPW and many found NJPW’s fields barren as of late.
There were signs of a thaw at Castle Attack Night 2, but Castle Attack Night 1 the previous evening showcased that there were still issues, concerns, problems looming and looming large. With a huge shadow of doubt trying to overcast over a light that has burned brightly for a long time in wrestling, can shows like the anniversary show make return believers out of newly born skeptics that NJPW no longer has that magic touch? One night and one night alone can not repair crumbling bridges, but that first hammer to nail must happen, and NJPW needs to start realizing they need to get their house in order if they want people who use to visit it on a daily basis to continue to do so once more.
This fangirl holds hope, I always cling to hope, but I’m also easier to please, easier to keep grips on, and easier to win over. I’m not everyone. I went into this show hoping the undercard could be solid, the first two tournament matches were entertaining, and the main event gave us everything and then some to deliver a classic title match. Did we get Despy FOUR BELTS? Going in I didn’t count on it but El Desperado had my support. Never did I think I’d be rooting against Ibushi so soon, but with unification looming (a bad idea nearly universally rejected) any hope that this could be changed or at least potentially stalled I cling on. With coffee and my traditional show watching snacks of cheese and Triscuits in hand I was ready.
Master Wato, Gabriel Kidd, Tomoaki Honma & Hirooki Goto def. DOUKI, Zack Sabre Jr, Minoru Suzuki & Taichi
I was hyped for this match if for no other reason it just felt good to have the NJPW anniversary event actually happening, unlike last year due to COVID. At this point, I don’t feel pity for any team that doesn’t prepare themselves for the Suzuki-gun pre-match attack. Early goings of this match Gabriel Kidd was fired the fuck up and it was a lot of fun until Suzuki and Zack introduced him to their mutual friend pain. Gabriel Kidd is so fucking good whether it’s showing fire or trying to survive a Suzuki-gun onslaught. We then got a preview of Taichi vs. Goto a matchup of an undersung hero who’ll never get his due versus dastardly pants removing villain earning respect and deserving of his due. They interacted well and make me look forward to their match-up in the tournament. This match ended up being quite the sprint with two Suzuki-gun control periods on Gabriel and Goto before going to the ending. While I shouldn’t be surprised it didn’t go long, the GTR putting away Douki still came faster than I was expecting. This match did a good job of having me interested in Gabriel Kidd/Zack Sabre Jr and Taichi/Goto. I would say it failed to get me in any way interested in Honma/Suzuki even though they slap it out afterward. Honma is trying his heart out though so maybe the Honma of old could show up. I’d love for it to happen. A good opener that did mostly what it needed to do. ***
Taiji Ishimori, Jay White, Chase Owens, KENTA & EVIL def. Ryusuke Taguchi, Toa Henare, David Finlay, Juice Robinson & Hiroshi Tanahashi
Juice’s hair is a choice, not one I’d make but you do you Juice! Jay White—my pick to win the New Japan Cup—will have a first-round match with Henare that could catch us off guard with a high-quality bout. In this match, we had a Juice Robinson/KENTA tease and I think that could be a fun match with Juice’s personality clashing against KENTA’s demeanor and attitude. The match also featured a good taste of Finlay vs. Chase and while I’m not interested in that match too much, they did a good job. EVIL puts down Taguchi to end another fun multi-man match that succeeded in giving us good previews and good action. Another solid ***
SHO, Tomohiro Ishii & Kazcuhika Okada def. BUSHI, SANADA & Shingo Takagai
Of the three undercard multi-man matches this is the one I was most looking forward to. Why? We got freaking Shingo vs. Okada interactions coming up. I think not only will it be the match of the opening round, but it might just be the best match of the entire tournament. My heart wants Shingo to win and make it to the finals, but my mind says Okada will win because I can never bet against Okada in these situations until the L materializes. Ishii vs. SANADA is also previewed in this match, I feel either man could win their match. I think that could be a strong affair, the kind of match for SANADA to get some people back into the positive feels about him as a wrestler kind of match.
SANADA can run hot and cold but I think if he can heat up and stay warm as long as he’s in the tournament. The Shingo/Okada interactions were a good taste without being a full meal that has me ready for their next match. Okada is tapped on his back and I’ll be surprised if that isn’t highlighted/doesn’t come into play during the tournament. This will shock you all but BUSHI takes the fall in a fun match that succeeded in giving us a taste of two potentially really good to great first-round matches. ***
At this point, NJPW announced some big arena shows coming for the remainder of the year. May 15 they’ll run Yokohama Stadium for Wrestle Grand Slam and, in the shock of all shocks, May 29 they’ll be running the Tokyo Dome.
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New Japan Cup
Jeff Cobb def. Satoshi Kojima
We now get down to business in this show.
When I saw this match announced for the NJ Cup, “this will rule” immediately entered my mindset. Kojima may now be a dad, but he’s a NJPW dad who still goes to work every day because he clearly enjoys it and it’s what he knows best. Got to earn that bread in order to afford . . .bread. (Bread Club 4 life). Jeff Cobb has always had the parts to build a skill set and now he has. This is the kind of opening round match-up I can sink my teeth into. The aging veteran wanting one more shot at glory versus the younger wrestler with an appetite for more than he currently has and ready to move up in the ranks at the expense of those who came before him.
This match was what it needed to be. A solidly well-worked opening round match (and the first match of the tournament) that sets a good tone for everyone else. Kojima is Kojima and brings the good stuff and worked hard this match, but it’s Cobb I must spotlight. If we get this Cobb throughout how long he’s in the tournament, he’s going to have a great showing. He looked fantastic both in his offense and when he was on defense taking abuse from Kojima. Cobb is so much better in NJPW these days. He comfortably fits in and belongs. Can’t undersell Kojima’s effort short though. This was not the Cobb show, Kojima made sure to make Cobb looked good being a rag doll when needed to be, and even having a moment where Cobb is a complete bastard and ‘steals’ Kojima’s machine gun chops in the corner. What a dick. Kojima can still go, and go he went in this match as his offense looked great and tight and he was clearly putting in the effort needed to make this first-round match really good.
Kojima the dad getting a small but fun run in this tournament could’ve been an adequate and entertaining story. The feel-good kind of moments where the aging wrestler clutches to the spotlight once more reminding everyone who he is and what he’s about. Jeff Cobb has no time for feel-good stories though and defeats Kojima with an impactful and impressive-looking Tour Of The Islands.
If the New Japan Cup was an album this was the needed opening track to get you hooked instantly, and now you hope the rest of the tunes coming up will consistently be as good if not better. I have a feeling they will be. ***1/2
New Japan Cup
Great-O-Khan def. Tetsuya Naito
I’m getting tired of people shitting on Great-O-Khan.
Is he the complete package? No, absolutely not.
Does he clearly have the tools to improve upon his work in progress status? Absolutely.
I may not be as high and hyped about him as many, but he’s doing quite well and he looked good to great in his matches with Hiroshi Tanahashi (and no it wasn’t just because Tanahashi worked a miracle job). I’ve seen comparisons to the Miz as in “mediocre wrestler people love to defend.” I promise you this, Miz has been mediocre for over a decade-plus (along with throwing out the occasional better than the average promo that gets over-hyped). Great-O-Khan will not be the same wrestler years, maybe even months, from now that he is now. Like it or not, NJPW sees something in him. He’ll continue to tweak, continue to improve, and when the victory laps are taken you can sit in the bleachers and watch.
That mini-rant out of the way—it felt good—time for the match review proper.
Naito mocking O-Khan’s stances and pose with O-Khan just laughing it off was a great touch though. If you want to argue O-Khan doesn’t have much of a varied move set, you might be very well correct. With that said it’s not about the number of moves, it’s how you use the ones you know and when, and that he for the most part has figured out. O-Khan meant business this match taking a chair to Naito’s always damaged knees to this match. Hitting him with it and dropping him knee first on it. Puts Naito instantly in a vulnerable position and gives O-Khan the dominance he should be having in these situations. There was a feeling of desperation in some of Naito’s offenses. After mocking and O-Khan it’s as if he realized he was in there with someone who was legit and needed to be taken seriously. That could just be me, but that’s how certain things Naito did felt.
When O-Khan hit certain slams or blocked certain moves it came off effortlessly. An “Are you kidding thinking you can compete against me?” vibe works with his character. I won’t over-hype Khan. He’s not THERE yet, but he’s on the path. Working with the Tanahashis and Naitos of the world so early on will keep him on that path. Naito going for the proper Destino over and over again only for O-Khan denying him time and time again added to Naito’s desperation. He knew the longer this went O-Khan could pull it off. O-Khan catches Naito in a leg lock in the middle of the ring in a moment where I thought maybe Naito would tap with how long O-Khan had him in it. I can only imagine the reaction. Naito clawing, spinning, pleading, grabbing the ref AND THEN THE REF STOPS THE MATCH FOR NAITO’S SAFETY! I did not expect a ref’s stoppage to end this match. Absolute great call. Gives O-Khan the win but saves Naito a pin or submission that can be worked toward in rematches. Good stuff. Those who still don’t see anything in O-Khan, by all means, continue your short-sighted observing of wrestling. ****
IWGP Heavyweight & Intercontinental Championships
Kota Ibushi (C) def. El Desperado
El Desperado main eventing Budokan in a title match, you love to fucking see it. If you don’t, I really don’t think we can be friends. Is Ibushi winning this? Yeah. Am I going to root my fangirl heart out for El Desperado to being DESPY FOUR BELTS? You bet your ass. Why? Because it’s fun. Rooting for the impossible and having your heartbreak is part of the wrestling experience, and I’m here for it this match. We got a black and gold El Desperado appearance-wise and it was great! Going into this match my hype was pretty high and I hope my expectations would be met. I so craved for that to happen.
Early on in this match, El Desperado kept throwing what forearms and strikes he had at Ibushi and Ibushi kept demanding more, demanding better, getting cocky and taunting El Desperado and it ruled. You could even see small moments of hesitation in El Desperado as nothing seemed to phase Ibushi until he found an answer, going after Ibushi’s legs. Ibushi’s smirks and mannerisms came off as “You don’t belong in this match with me” while El Desperado was all ready to make it known to Ibushi that not only does he belong, but he can rise above. It’s amazing the journey of El Desperado. Sure, some of it is circumstance but wrestling is filled with right time/right place scenarios, and the stars aligned and brought us here, the biggest match of El Desperado’s career and he performs as such. Not just in his wrestling but in his attitude, his evil little laugh, his mannerisms. Desperado was amped up and Ibushi in the midst of fans turning on him due to booking decisions leaned into it at times with his attitude and portrayal.
Ibushi’s strikes always sound impactful, in this match, there was an added arrogance to them. An added, “I’m better than you” vibe which made me root for El Desperado harder. Ibushi is great, fantastic, wonderful but I wanted him to be shut down. Commentary (English) did a great job explaining the nuances and strategies during the match enhancing things for us watching at home. Match went on and everytime they announce the time I caught off guard as it never felt like the time they announced. Things just kept moving. Desperado’s confidence continue to grow throughout the match. It was no longer a matter of I’ll show you I can do this, it was an attitude of I WILL DO THIS. As Charlton put it “I AM NOT THE MAN WHO FACED YOU SEVEN YEARS AGO”. My heart filled up more and more preparing itself to break. Ibushi’s strikes started to get harder in this match (at least seemed that way) if that’s even possible. As both men collapse to the mat after a double strike and the crowd clapped them along I knew I was hooked completely and unconditionally.
There was still more match to go. The inevitably ending felt near, the time for Desperado to fall on the sword was coming. A cradle near fall took my breath away as I fell for it, followed by Number Dos being applied and I began to lean forward. Rationally I knew it wouldn’t happen, fangirl wise I didn’t care, I clapped along hoping El Desperado would pull it off but Ibushi fought it off and hit a Kamigoye for a near fall. Holy shit, but you knew the knee bad was now coming down. The end wasn’t near, the end was here. My heart broke but the pieces that remained belong to El Desperado. What a fucking match. Worthly of the Anniversary event, worthy of Budokan, worthy of both titles that would soon become one. It does a disservice to say El Desperado arrived, he was already there. He was just now announcing his presence to those who still haven’t figured that out. Ibushi is Ibushi and was great in this match. His attitude and mannerisms were perfect given the match and situation, it added and enhance a lot. No mistake, El Desperado was the story, El Desperado was the journey. He didn’t arrive at his destination, My broken heart pieces itself back together watching Ibushi check on El Desperado at the end, giving respect. rekindling a bond, I am reminded I love pro-fucking wrestling. It’s the absolute best. Beautiful. Just beautiful. ****3/4
With an main event like that how cannot I recommend this show? Even without the main event this was a good show. The New Japan Cup matches satisfied me and gave us a good start to the tournament. We have a long way to go both in the tournament wise and New Japan finding it focus wise, but a step is a step, and I felt they hit the right notes, I felt the talent stepped up, and we had the main event which will stay with me for a long time. Beautiful.