New Japan Pro Wrestling
Road to Wrestling Dontaku – Night 1
April 10, 2021
Yokohama Budokan
Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan

Watch: NJPW World

New Japan humbly offered a Night 1 Road To show on Saturday, April 10, and the net gain of fucks given was in the negative. Who had fucks to give to this exhausting company this week when indie wrestlers were engaging in involuntary protein spills due to inhumane Florida weather and inhumane corporations were miserably lunging towards incomprehensible fads, selling NFT’s of Undertaker-signed Gadsden flags? Who has time to spend on a bunch of dopes fighting over sophisticated sticks, hunks of metal, and the psychological fear of darkness?

But New Japan has one trick up their sleeve: the beloved elimination tag match. And in this case, two! And yet, once again, one has to question their execution of the details; there was no reason for two of these matches on this card. The LIJ-Empire main event here makes sense: two factions with limited history are well served by initiating their full unit tour marriage with a rousing elimination match.

The semi-main event, though, could have been saved. It was replete with CHAOS vs. Bullet Club match-ups that are bereft of novelty. A triad of matches from this unit squabble are scheduled for April 19, a full week earlier in the tour than the LIJ vs. Empire contests. Considering that the April 19 show is preceded by a thoroughly underwhelming April 18 show, with both at Korakuen Hall, of course… why not run the CHAOS-BC elimination tag as the lead-in to the singles matches, itself a lead-in to the NEVER Six-man Tag Title defense on April 20?

For a company that has discarded tradition so brazenly, some things are maintained, as much as we’d like to toss them in the Tiber. The most glaring retention is their scheduling patterns. Favorably, we can deem them as constructed routine. Pragmatically, we can call them a mind-numbing exercise is repetitive monotony.

On this stretch, which will last twelve shows over sixteen days, we will see a Dangerous Tekkers vs. G.O.D.-centric six-man tag ten times, with the exact same configuration every time. Not even a cosmetic rotation between Young Lions… that, of course, is what separates the R3K vs. Desperado/Kanemaru six-man tags, which we will also see ten bloody times.

Of course, not everything is rote. New Japan spread out quite a bit on this tour, which will have a mid-tour peak as CHAOS and BULLET CLUB battle of the NEVER Openweight Six-man titles. That title now has fully established its purpose: to provide some desperately needed variety to the drably robust armature of a Road To Tour. Of course, that ten-man tag configuration seen on today’s show is booked on five out of the six shows leading up to the 4/19-4/20 double shot based around those titles. Oy.

Unfortunately, this card did not inspire much. The attendance was 719, roughly half of what they pulled last fall in the same building for the G1 Climax. For much of the show, it seemed like there simply were enough people for reactions to reach critical mass, and so a lot of things fell unfortunately flat.

Yota Tsuji def. Gabriel Kidd

It’s been over two months since these two last faced each other, and a month since either of them have had any kind of singles match. It’s only the seventh singles match of 2021 for both. Last year, Kidd and Tsuji had seven singles matches on their record by mid-February. Perhaps this is for the best; the onslaught of Young Lion matches in 2020 was another trademark of the monotony.

The excessive familiarity between the Pandemic Three might also be a microcosm of current New Japan, especially its star-crossed nature. That was made evident when, in an attempt to break the monotony and introduce the new Young Lion that was a manifestation of dumb jock wrestling, Uemura twisted 15 seconds into the initial scramble and snapped the kid’s goddamn arm.

This is a company stuck, unable to relieve the stuck-ness, and, as explicated above, fueled by an intentionality that foments stuckness. Charles Thomson isn’t booking this, is he? If I said the new belt was art, would you have to judge it on those terms?

Unfortunately, the broader analytical stuff is all that can be said about this match, because this was a Troy & Abed special: a lot of kick-punching. It was cleaner and less sloppy than about 85% of Takeover Night 2, if that is worth anything, but nothing notable emerged. That 2020 saturation of Young Lion matches was fun in real-time, but the consequence is overfamiliarity that will take a long time to dissipate: even with these guys wrestling each other so infrequently, their tendencies are so deeply seared into our brain that, well… the result is instantly activated exhaustion.

The story of this one was that Tsuji’s power was too much for Kidd. Kidd held the advantage in speed and mobility, so I suppose this is some sort of advocacy for one-dimensionality. I think the Bald Junior Memphis Infatuated Booking Trio could take their own lesson to heart right now: simplify, simplify. The power emphasis was perhaps a bit more effective here because Tsuji appears to be tightening up his typically soft trunk. That might not actually be a welcome development; considering the other two Young Lions are both increasingly taut, Tsuji presented a different body type. We are very much at point where the value is in simple variation, for it’s own sake. ***

Suzuki-gun (Minoru Suzuki, Yoshinobu Kanemaru, and El Desperado) def. Yuya Uemura, SHO, and YOH

This gave us a better opportunity to hear R3K’s new music, and I am utterly baffled. Not at the theme itself; the incongruousness and incompatibility of that song, in any wrestling context, was established immediately, upon first exhibition. The resultant antipathy towards the theme was therefore expected. What’s baffling is the discourse and the frame of references. I have seen all sorts of descriptions of what people think the song sounds like, or what interstitual nonsense it is reminiscent of… It’s fucking jazz, people. That’s all. Jazztronik. Mouse on the Keys. Fox Capture Plan. Take your pick and spin.

I return to the notion that current the Bald Junior Bookers have cultivated a situation wherein variety alone justifies itself. I can partially apply that sentiment to this theme. I appreciate the daringness in relaunching the Gravure Boys with this sound. But I also hope this is all an elaborate conceptual process to break these fuckers up quickly.

It’s impossible not to consider two options: either this perplexing reunion is intentionally uninspiring in order to provoke a feeling of disjointedness and underlying frustration, or the reformed R3K are the most striking example of Pandemic New Japan’s fervent loyalty to the status quo. They will ride whatever wave they are on around the world, for as many revolutions as it takes until things are ok again.

To that point: YOH’s new look is atrocious. He looks like the kind of dude that is very eager to strike up a conversation with you about krav maga. He looks like the kind of guy that would wear a gi to a supermarket. Because he just did not have time to change, and that includes leaving the belt on in full display configuration.

YOH’s wrestling hasn’t shown much change yet, either. He has an underwhelming new finisher, and the way he approached this match was same old YOH.

Suzuki-gun focused on YOH’s leg, as they did at Sakura Genesis, and will almost certainly be the case going forward for the next month. In the next 11 shows, spread out over 15 days, this match will run ten more times, with only R3K’s partners in rotation. This is where the Road To system does strain credulity if you even try to make sense of them in totality. YOH’s leg is going to be worked over an unfathomably amount over this condensed period of time. And expertly, as well; one of the things that Desperado did to shore up his persona and ringwork was a maniacal devotion to the legwork. Conceivably, after two straight weeks of having his leg massacred, YOH should be incapable of leaving his cosmopolitan apartment, let alone defend a world championship.

Unfortunately for the Junior tag teams, Minoru Suzuki is still the dominant presence of nearly every situation in which he is involved, and the reason why one should watch this match. KENTA, the most charismatic wrestler on the planet, had to read a goddamn newspaper in the ring to draw attention away from him. Suzuki’s demented off-camera cachinnations steal the notice of this match, and smartly the match culminated with his spectacular interactions with Uemura. Equally enthralling: Suzuki’s obsession with defeating Uemura by submission, first by diligently returning to a kneebar multiple times, and then locking in a viciously high angle half-crab that forced Uemura to concede. Suzuki-Uemura is sneakily one of the most captivating things in the company. ***1/4

Suzuki-gun (DOUKI, Zack Sabre, Jr, and Taichi) def. BULLET CLUB (Jado, Tanga Loa, and Tama Tonga)

Jado came out wearing maroon yoga pants. 32 years this biz.

He also seems to have lost what he appeared to have reclaimed on the last tour. He certainly flexed enough to assert that notion of physical competance, a meathead version of a magician’s mental subterfuge. But then he took a dropkick to the knee in a brutally muddle way, like I was expecting an hourglass to start spinning around on the screen. The DDT subsequent to that dropkick was equally unfortunate.

To his credit, he’s managed to refine his onscreen role, and one has to wonder how badly the system has eroded where the most charismatic wrestlers in the promotion are a coterie of 5.5-foot BULLET CLUB juniors ranging from 37 to 52.

DOUKI’s heat period in this match was a full 6.5 minutes; the match was just slightly under 12. The highlight was when Tanga Loa, fully aware of the critical nature of his in-match banter, provided this gem: “Guess who’s knocking?! It’s big boy!” I guess Garrett Kidney isn’t the only one out there excited for Chris Harris’ return to Impact.

There is hope for the Tanga-ZSJ match based on their interactions here, which were intriguingly conflicted but not inharmonious. Loa’s thick, jacked power striking produces deep, thudding sounds, which should be resounding on Zack’s hollow vegan frame. Zack’s frenetic nonsense has little effect on Loa, but accumulates and provides opportunities for Zack to break through with his slinky mobility.

The match ended with a triple submission spot. The crowd was flat as fuck, just noticeably inaudible. Say what you will about the value of deciphering clap crowds, but sometimes you must analyze something for what it is and defer thoughts about circumstances. Sure, there were only 700 people here, but this was such a bizarrely silent response to such an elaborate, typically failsafe finish. **1/2

BULLET CLUB (Gedo, Taiji Ishimori, Yujiro Takahashi, KENTA, and EVIL) def. YOSHI-HASHI, Tomohiro Ishii, Hirooki Goto, Toru Yano, and Hiroshi Tanahashi

38, 45, 41, 42, 44.

52, 38, 40, 40, 34.

That is the listed ages of the two teams in conflict here.

A lot of these guys moved like athletes in their 40’s, too. It certainly made YOSHI-HASHI look more nimble than he would if he was up against, for instance, The United Empire boys. And this isn’t necessarily in support of a revelatory perspective on New Japan personnel that no one cares about. There were plenty of guys in their 30’s on this card as well (even if they are mainly in their late 30’s). It’s just that the concentration of middle-aged dudes in this match left me checking the playback speed multiple times.

In my reviews of a couple of Road to New Beginning shows, I asserted that New Japan style elimination matches are inviolable, a reliable and failsafe panacea. Then, I had to retract and amend that statement in my review of Night 2 of the Road to Castle Attack because such a large part of BULLET CLUB, including EVIL, is a corrosive, indefensible blight. For that, EVIL finds himself in the perdition of a Yano KOPW program. There’s not much to say about their interactions in this match except that it was heavily reliant on baneful black hood work and they had zero fluidity.

While that program is incredibly stupid, the good kind of stupid is imbued in the other main rivalry in this faction feud: YOSHI-HASHI and KENTA fighting over custody of a fancy stick. Maybe that hilarious reaction KENTA had when Shingo told him he had the kanji for “dog” in his name was more telling than it seemed. The stupider the program, the brighter KENTA shines.

No one in the world can touch him. Even in this match, his mannerisms and movements were spectacular. He escalates stupidity but retains an otherworldly sense for when to actively build a match, with a transcendent deftness for amplifying the crucial elements of a match-up.  He exacerbated the intense stupidity of this YOSHI-HASHI balderdash by mockingly replicating the most tortured Royal Rumble spots of recent years by landing on the bo staff, thereby avoiding elimination because his feet were a full 1.5 inches above the mat. This was stunningly dumb, and great. The follow-up? A fun sequence between himself and YSH that resulted in a crystal clear, clean elimination. There’s always a purpose, dammit.

So yeah, why care about this idiotic story? There’s only one reason, and it refutes all the derision in a single thrust: KENTA MOTHERFUCKING KOBAYASHI. If he’s involved, it rules.

There was a lot of fun stuff in here, though you had to persevere through the traditional opening 10-12 minutes where no one is eliminated. Tanahashi, assuming the role of Okada as leader of CHAOS, tried to contribute to the back drumming spot. Tanahashi, sublimely awkward outside of anything he is controlling, just sort of did normal clubs to the back. He tried, though.

These elimination matches are also replete with unintentional comedy, especially if you find wrestling procedure amusing. For instance, at the outset of the match the entire BULLET CLUB ran in so they could attempt to eliminate Yano. The CHAOS guys just sheepishly, impotently watched, then sort of ambled over as the action diminished, because they are all fucking old. Equally hilarious was when Gedo tried to apply the cloverleaf on Tanahashi, but it looked like the Texas Cloverleaf version of his chairshots.

They did a nice bit of elimination match storytelling with Tanahashi. Tanahashi skinned the cat once, which led to a successful elimination. The second time he tried, Dick Togo pulled him down. All I could think of was the story Johnny Curtis told Colt Cabana about how the crew arbitrarily had an in-ring dance party to close an old FCW show, so he came from the back in a thong and arbitrarily skinned the cat. Why? Because B. Brian Blair had told the wrestlers all that one can’t be considered a good worker unless you can do so.

Much of this match was aimless, devoid of pace or intensity, with several little moments of disconnect in moves and sequences, so I had to daydream about fucking podcasts to keep myself engaged. That said, YOSHI-HASHI seemed to engage the crowd through that period, so perhaps when I dubbed him the King of Korakuen, I was mistaken. YOSHI-HASHI has expanded his demesne and is now the King of Kanto.

As they did with Tanahashi, they did a structured story with Ishimori where repetition proved to be a ruinous miscalculation. He gained yet another pinfall over Goto by using ropes for leverage. It’s shaping up to be an excellent match, with these surprise Junior over Heavyweight pinfalls. Ishimori tried the same technique on YOSHI-HASHI, and this was his fatal mistake as he was slightly out of reach of the ropes that time. He threw a mini-tantrum because of this, and was subsequently eliminated. Ishimori may be enacting a knock-off KENTA routine, but it’s still really fun. Ishimori’s overenthusiastic little brother contributions to KENTA’s bo staff gimmick are exceptional.

Despite such a large chunk of this match being barely watchable, once the eliminations started happening things predictably assuaged. The highlight was Yujiro and Ishii battling on the apron, with the NOAH boys and CHAOS boys exaggeratingly cheering them on from the floor, then holding them up when both delivered seemingly definitive blows to knock each other off.

I’m not sure if this match works better if you just skip the first ten minutes, or if enduring the first ten minutes makes the latter half that much sweeter. ***1/2

Los Ingobernable de Japon (BUSHI, SANADA, Tetsuya Naito, and Shingo Takagi) DEF The Empire (Great-O-Khan, Jeff Cobb, Aaron Henare, and Will Ospreay)

Two things were apparent from The United Empire’s entrance. First: as with LIJ, the members of this unit need to have separate entrances. The contradiction between O-Khan’s fitful motion gimmick and Ospreay’s theme music is jarring. Ospreay’s theme can go in the bin a thousand times over before Roppongi 3K’s nu-jazz nonsense, certainly, but even beyond that it is just bizarre. It is undermines the fragile, tenuous line that O-Khan’s character work spasmodically dances around.

Second, a suspension of any double title situations. This is the extent of the recent double champions’ presentation of holdings: Naito dragged the fucking things on the ground, as his scumbag satirist character would; EVIL just presented a pale facsimile of whatever Naito did; Ibushi engaged in a sustained three-month Buster Keaton homage, fumbling over both belts like an overzealous infomercial extra demonstrating the tragic inconveniences of life; Will Ospreay comes out with one of the belts around his neck like Bubba Ray Dudley or John Cena (the one tasteful thing for which those two share enthusiasm, but not the only thing!). Enough is enough.

***Editor’s note***: El Desperado is deliberately absent from this, as he was the one person to pull off multiple titles well. In fact, in such a legitimately cool that he handled three belts better than the above mentioned could handle two. By the way, this was an arena-like show, so there were scant shots of merch, but during Despy’s entrance I spotted three towels and a shirt. Another Kanto mensch, for sure.

Elimination matches work best on two polarities: as the penultimate step towards a culminating match with well-established conflicts, or at the nascent stages of such quarrels to provoke the initial momentum. The latter was on display here. Because the LIJ vs. United Empire dynamic is still fresh, this is an excellent way to kick off the tour and farm for interactions. If anything, New Japan is doing an effective job at acknowledging the myriad confrontations and dealings resultant from a contracted roster and building something out of all this raw material (El Desperado and Hiromu being the most striking example).

For those idiotic enough to follow this tour in its entirety, the novel dynamics of this nightly scrum between units should be a motivating factor to push on, possibly the only one. After months of punching down, and I mean down, Naito finally gets to punch up. One thing to look out for in this match, and to keep an eye on in upcoming ones: Naito and Ospreay had zero interaction. Naito is obviously married to O-Khan on this tour, but these multi-mans almost necessitate cross-pollination, especially in an elimination match. Not here. That’s certainly interesting, and gives me deep pause to sulk as an Ibushi fan.

This match was brimming with little things done well that made this a more exquisite elimination match in contrast to the droll embellishment of the previous match. Often in these matches, there’s a lot of watching, like above when CHAOS watched BULLET CLUB assault Yano en masse. That facet was not absent in this match, but more guys were also taking runs at each other in this one. When SANADA did his through-the-ropes-springboard-dropkick thing, Ospreay happened to be about ten feet away on the floor. Ospreay took a late charge at SANADA as SANADA’s started the springboard, missing by a mile but it was a nice touch. A reminder of the athletic focus on victory within that faction.

Another minor thing that was really cool: at one point Shingo attempted a double clothesline on Ospreay and Cobb. Ospreay, naturally, bounced back with enough force to penetrate the Earth’s mantle. Cobb, however, stayed up. And why wouldn’t he? He’s a walking mailbox taking the weak side of a double clothesline from an outnumbered opponent twenty minutes into a match!

This was Henare’s first time working with the whole crew, and he fit like a glove. At one point, Cobb tossed BUSHI to the outside and Henare joined Cobb in stomping the bejesus out of the masked doofus. This moment stood out to me because it just seemed… right. It was the correct configuration. Henare looks like a vicious bastard in this group, and he seemed augustly rejuvenated.

The story of this one was that The Empire were too rabidly powerful for LIJ as a whole, especially with how adroitly the Empire pool their resources. They are already reminiscent of Suzuki-gun’s elegant exploitation of mismatches. However, Shingo is operating at such a transcendent level and was able to overcome Cobb and Ospreay at the end. Keep in mind, Cobb and Ospreay came across very proficient. They did not waste time or give Shingo space. Like many things with the Empire, they have inverted some wrestling tropes in favor of appearing, you know, competent. Cobb paused for breath momentarily and Shingo capitalized on that and triumphed using his idiosyncratic combination of speed, power, and Gattsu de Gattsun Gattsun da!!

And, of course, Shingo lost Ospreay on the ending. It probably was meant to be a Death Valley Driver onto the apron to eliminate Will, but Shingo lost control of him, twist, and dumped Ospreay right on his damn coccyx to the floor. That certainly will appeal to some. ***3/4


If you are a fan of New Japan’s version of elimination tag matches, or wrestling with an unnerving dichotomy between fervent athleticism and preposterous buffoonery, you will not be disappointed in this show. Probably because that means you are Gedo himself.

Considering how many times these matches are being run back over the two-week, twelve-date span of this tour, you can approach this show in one of two ways. You can watch this one show and pretty much take the rest of the tour off, save for the April 19 singles matches and April 20 main event. Or, you can skip this show and pick any random show to watch until April 28. Those shows are bereft of the elimination matches, so I’d suggest watching this one.