New Japan Pro Wrestling

Summer Struggle in Sapporo – Night 1

July 10th, 2021

Makomanai Sekisui Heim Ice Arena

Sapporo, Japan


Watch: Japanese/English


New Japan Pro Wrestling might have built up some good will with the Kizuna Road Tour, thanks to a central thematic anchor of dual Young Lion gauntlets and another successful NEVER Openweight Six-man Tag Team Championships defense, this time against the Third Generation dads.


If you have 45 minutes to spare, you can real my coverage of the Young Lion gauntlets here:

A Fortnight’s Glimpse into the Future: Yuya Uemura and Yota Tsuji’s Kizuna Road Gauntlets


New Japan will need every fiber of that goodwill, because the next two months are going to be a tortuous journey. As I noted in my review of New Beginning 1, New Japan’s pandemic era scheduling strategy has been unfortunate. It assured that an outbreak, such as the one that shut the company down for May, was a fait accompli. It’s also fomented discontent in the West and domestic fatigue, if the Korakuen numbers are any indication (and we sure as fuck have plenty of data in that regard).

And yet, even by their standards, the Summer Struggle schedule is audacious and baffling. Consider:

  • This tour starts with a two-day event, The Summer Struggle in Sapporo.
  • Four Summer Struggle house shows follow Sapporo.
  • Then the two-day Summer Struggle in Osaka event on 22-23 July.
  • Then Summer Struggle in Nagoya event on 24 July.
  • Then Wrestle Grand Slam at the Tokyo Dome on 25 July.
  • Take note, Summer Struggle in Osaka, Summer Struggle in Nagoya, and Wrestle Grand Slam are on consecutive nights.
  • By the way, Olympic competition begins in earnest on 24 July.
  • Wrestle Grand Slam might conflict with the Men’s Epee and Women’s Foil semi-finals, BY THE WAY. Sorry, Kota… I’ve written literally thousands of words of love for you this year alone, but head-to-head I choose Inna Deriglazova and her imperious, relentless dominance.
  • Wrestle Grand Slam is not the denouement of Summer Struggle. Summer Struggle continues for SIXTEEN more dates.
  • The post-WGS Summer Struggle stretch concludes with a six-date stretch at Korakuen Hall, naturally. It begins with a SEVEN DATE STRETCH AT KORAKUEN. Not consecutively, thankfully.

New Japan are alchemists here, turning goodwill into exasperation by means of desperation. And if you are hung up on equivalent exchange, well… there’s a lot of desperation in this exchange. Oh, and if God asks you a question with a demented smile, just give up your alchemy and see if your pretty blonde mechanic is into you. Also remember, while many people are depending on you during the Agricultural Festival, they care more about your health, so take a br… sorry, wrong manga.

The scheduling density is not even the troublesome pandemic-era strategy on display in this show. This one exhibited here began well before the pandemic, but was exacerbated and amplified by the pandemic: the single match card with exhaustively lengthy main event.

It all makes logical sense: if you have a show with one true drawing match, that match should have a length that would give the audience the illusion of getting their money’s worth. If the audience invested in that one match, that match should reflect that investment. And, in theory, the relationship between length in wrestling and the illusion of substance is something like the proportional relationship between mass and gravity: the longer the match, the more dramatically satisfying it is, at least for the live crowd.

Of course, there’s one catch: THIS IS ALL PLANNED. The card is planned, and, to a degree, so is the match times. The beauty of wrestling: you can plan out both together. New Japan’s strategy of multi-show events, and resultant cards where upwards of 80-90% are inessential (note: not inconsequential, but certainly not crucial), were tolerable when crowds were at their peak.

This crowd sucked. For large swaths of time in the main event, they were silent. Even for those of us that have been able to compartmentalize the clap crowds, to treat them as simply an inalterable trait, this crowd was jarring at times in their stillness.

The venue, which they have not run since 2011, didn’t help. The place had these weird lighting fixtures attached to the ceiling. They looked like gears, or bearings, circular with dots of lights. It was some sort of industrial nightmare, like a stage in Sonic Spinball (the best Sonic game, naturally) come to life. Unfortunately, this show didn’t have the guy from Dreams Come True sound tracking it; what we had was an acoustic graveyard, where the large chunk of crowd noise (when the crowd managed to make some sort of clamour) ascend and dissipate. If I wanted that experience, I’d book them up Route 1.

Two of my five favourite wrestlers in the world were in this main event, and I had to intently focus to enjoy parts of the match, which was superb, but to be equanimous I must acknowledge that the particularly corrosive combination of quiescent crowd and arduous length might have left some unimpressed.

I’m unimpressed by this unimpressed state, and I despise you for it, but I acknowledge it. I’m not sure what New Japan would think of it, but they should be shocked when the recipe they use yields expected results.

Wherever I Lie Is Your Fall: New Japan Undercard in Translation


  • Master Wato DEF Yuya Uemura (**3/4)
  • Bullet Club (EVIL and Dick Togo) DEF. CHAOS (Tomohiro Ishii and YOH) (***)
  • Hiroshi Tanahashi, Ryusuke Taguchi, and Rocky Romero DEF. El Phantasmo, Yujiro Takahashi, and KENTA (***)
  • The United Empire (Great-O-Khan and Jeff Cobb) DEF. CHAOS (Kazuchika Okada and SHO) (***1/4)
  • Los Ingobernables de Japon (Shingo Takagi, BUSHI, Tetsuya Naito, and SANADA) DEF. Suzuki-gun (DOUKI, Yoshinobu Kanemaru, Zack Sabre Jr, and Taichi) (***1/2)

What To Look For

Unexpectedly, A Seventh Match in Yuya Uemura’s Gauntlet

  • Somehow, Kota Ibushi’s vaccination was scheduled in the period were this show fell into the side effects range. I understand fully; my first shot absolutely annihilated me and both shots left my arm nearly immobile. But… the timing here? The fuck?
  • I was looking forward to seeing God team up with his lamentable son, whom he has extensively trained. They’ve actually teamed up 29 times since Wato’s return, but it’s been diffused in a way that doesn’t make it overtly obvious that they are, indeed, connected. They’ve teamed three times as an regular tag team: once in February, once in May, and once in June, all losses.

  • It’s been one calendar year since Wato returned. A look back at his initial persona and look reveal pretty significant tweaks, and he looks significantly better now. I hope one day we learn whether he was meant for kids, initially; if so, why change? If he was never meant for kids, then what the fuck was that look, for real?
  • By facing Uemura, who has still sports such a spartan moveset, once can see just how cool Wato’s repertoire is. If he can keep ironing out the wrinkles, and working towards finding a useful structure to stack those moves within, he’ll end up one of the top workers in the company. It might be time to pre-emptively jump on that train.

A Clean EVIL Win

  • EVIL tried to push the referee aside to hit a low blow on YOH. YOH avoided the attempt. Dick Togo tried to choke YOH with the garotte; Ishii thwarted the attempt. That was the entire extent of EVIL DICK escapades in this match, which had a 100% clean finish. I feel like this is newsworthy. I don’t know if that means you should watch this match, but it feels newsworthy.

KENTA Learning English Is The Greatest Thing to Ever Happen for Wrestling

  • New Japan KENTA is a gift, the most exceptionally amusing wrestler that has ever existed. The six-man tag against Tanahashi and the Coaches did not, in any multiverse, need to exceed 15 minutes. But KENTA is captivating the whole time.

  • Just KENTA walking to the ring, stone-faced, is hilarious, because KENTA has been nonpareil in setting up punchlines that seemingly anything can appear to be a set-up. The funniest thing all year wasn’t KENTA cutting a promo as YOSHI-HASHI’s bo staff, hiding underneath the camera like a fuckface Frank Oz, it was the set-up: KENTA storming past the camera with a curt “Nothing today!” followed by a pause so pregnant I’m sure it was uploaded to some niche websites.
  • KENTA appears subtle in comparison to Taguchi, of course. At one point, KENTA gave Taguchi a sharp kick in the coccyx, which Taguchi sold by literally launching himself over the guardrail. With a running start. KENTA repeated this on the other side to close the loop.

  • It looks like we’re getting KENTA vs. Tanahashi again, which resulted in the best promo of 2020, and the proof that KENTA is the best promo alive. There’s a ton of mind-blowing promo guys in the world, it’s just that KENTA is otherworldly.

France v. Japan: Rivals in Michelin Stars and Niche Sports

  • After the break, things get dicey because Stage 14 of the Tour de France began, with the depart reel timed out exactly with the beginning of the LIJ-SZG match. It was a light mountain stage, won by Bauke Molleme, a Dutchman from Groningen, the greatest city in the world. English speakers unfamiliar with Dutch will not be able to pronounce any of those words.

Cobb and Okada

  • Maybe Cobb can use Okada like a marionette and force the Rainmaker to look like he gives a fuck. Looking back at my G1 ratings, I had the Cobb-Okada match as Cobb’s 6th best match and Okada’s 7th. The dynamics of both guys are different, significantly so for Cobb. This would be a stunningly great 3rd-from-the-top match at the Dome… but with the schedule as cited above, who knows? This could also end up carrying one of the Osaka shows with zero support, though that would leave both The Empire and Kazuchika fucking Okada three days out from the Dome with nothing scheduled.
  • To reiterate: What the fuck is this company thinking, and why hasn’t Gedo taken a torch to Korakuen?

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship

El Desperado (c) DEF. Taiji Ishimori

Even though they circled each other at times back in Suzuki-gun’s NOAH years, El Desperado and Taiji Ishimori’s first singles match was at the Best of the Super Juniors in December 2020. In fact, of the 68 times they’ve been in the ring against one another, a full 49 times were in NOAH.

The BOSJ match was, in legitimate sincerity and legitimate vanity purposes, my #7 match of 2020, which got it to #187 overall in the VOW Match of the Year poll. The match was a very economic 18 minutes, with both men settling in to a technical, deliberate arm vs. leg match. Early on, Desperado teased clocking Ishimori with Ishimori’s IWGP Junior Heavyweight championship. This played into the finish, which was the picture-perfect conclusion to a match between two lovable heel imbeciles.

It was a masterful sequence wherein Ishimori worked himself into several layers of work, where he made increasingly intelligent decisions, which somehow multiplied into a very stupid final outcome for him.

So the ref, the unfathomably stupid Marty Asami, got bumped when Despy countered a Bloody Cross attempt by pushing Ishimori into the corner, sandwiching Asami. Desperado kicked out Ishimori’s leg and seized the chance to grab the title belt once again. Ishimori, a self-aware heel, saw it coming and dropped Despy with a flying knee. He then went for the Bloody Cross again.

BUT, being a self-aware heel, he knew that the one to hit a finisher with an unconscious ref somehow always loses, so he abandoned the attempt. He also knew that whoever checks on the ref usually loses as well, so he left Asami to suffer in the corner and, gleefully, decided instead to clock Despy with the belt. But he made a huge error: he turned his back to Asami. He forgot that this is where the ref, invariably, awakens and thwarts the heel.

When Ishimori went to brain Desperado, Asami grabbed the belt, which allowed Despy to turn low blow Ishimori, hit the Loco Mono (which he still, for some reason, was intent on hiding from the referee at this point), and nailed the Pinche Loco for the win. Desperado does not take satisfaction in the win, stating in his exceptional pre-match interview:

I got lucky and found a way to score a pinfall… Ishimori got ahead of himself and slipped up. I caught him with his guard down. He tried something and failed. I only capitalized on that.

As if that isn’t the entire basis of his character! Ishimori’s stupidity at the end is acceptable, because, in the end, Taiji Ishimori is a lovable babyface playing heel. It’s adorable. And, to be clear, El Desperado is doing the same thing. It highlights just how similar these two are:

  • Naturally likeable wrestlers
  • Caught up in excessively villainous, almost lampshading heel factions
  • Not really able to move up to the heavyweights, but have had recent success against older heavyweights (Ishimori against Goto, Despy against… well, we’ll count the Kojima match, even if it did spark an unfortunate nickname for him)
  • Born in the same year (the impeccable year of 1983, that gave us XTC’s Mummer, Echo and the Bunnymen’s Songs to Learn and Sing, Cocteau Twins’ Head over Heels, Aztec Camera’s High Land, Hard Rain, and Husker Du’s Metal Circus EP)
  • Have multiple finishers
  • Have both submission and move finishers
  • Hitting their stride in their late-30’s
  • Stepped up hugely and raised their stock considerably during the pandemic
  • Self-deprecating

The self-deprecation was in full force in those VTR interviews. Here’s Ishimori on Despy:

Throughout my pro wrestling career, there have been two men that I’ve been especially envious of. One is Kota Ibushi. The other is El Desperado. When you watch him fight, you see that everything is with intent. He knows exactly who he is. He’s got everything that I’m lacking

A title should be chased and hunted for. That’s how it ought to be. A champion shouldn’t stand unopposed. That’s how it felt when I held that belt. Nobody made a move for it. And I knew that was all on me. Now guys are lining up to face El Desperado.

And Despy on Ishimori:

I consider Ishimori to be the total package when it comes to what a junior should be. In that sense, for this division, he’s absolutely perfect.

Does he have any shortcoming? I bet he’s even lucky when opening loot boxes.

I’m only superior to him on the mic at this point. But in every other aspect hes proven time and time again, that he stands above me. He’s reached a degree of perfection in his game. Especially in his physical prowess.

He wants to be a double chamoion, which I let slip through my hands. Even though he’s superior to me, I’m the one he’s chasing. How poetic is that? I get to confront a man who is head and shoulders above me.

Even though I don’t have a leg to stand on, I get to rely on the strength of this title. I can be confident once I surpass Ishimori. I can hold the title above him as proof of that. I have to keep this title close or else I’d have nothing to offer him. That’s the value of Ishimori, himself.

In the BOSJ match, Ishimori was the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion and El Desperado was one half of the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champions. The roles have now switched.

Oddly, there were few callbacks to the previous match in this one. The main connection between the two was the limbwork, which was extended in this one, but took the same format: Ishimori gains the upper hand and spends a long period wearing down Desperado’s arm. Despy weasels his way to halting Ishimori’s momentum, and then spends a nearly equal amount of time clinically working over Ishimori’s leg. Both sold their damage exquisitely.

Ishimori was inventive in the manner that he goes over Despy’s arm, which Desperado was… well, he’s just a bastard about it. At one point, he had Ishimori down on the outside and simple walked over Ishimori’s knee. The crucial element: Despy pretends it was an accident. He just happened to be walking and Ishimori’s knee just happened to be on that critical 5-7 foot path.

What was missing here was the explosiveness of the first match. Despy was clinical in his approach here, and if you’ve never seen the first match, you wouldn’t think twice of how impressive it all was. But if you watch them back-to-back, in either order, the rabidity of Desperado’s limb work in the first match is considerably higher, and more captivating.

What was in full display in this match: the remarkable smoothness these guys exhibit in their transitions and reversal sequences. The chemistry these guys have is off the charts. Even when there are minor stumbles, like when Ishimori tried to set up his tombstone double knee facebreaker thing, it still works. The guys never lose each other. In the case of that move, Ishimori held onto Desperado, exerted more effort to lift him into position, and nailed the move.

That is indicative of how well these two flow together. For one, Ishimori’s Bone Lock and Desperado’s Numero Dos stretch muffler somehow fit together like puzzle pieces, with a seemingly infinite number of ways these two can go back and forth between the two. Although that aspect was more on display in the BOSJ match, they more than made up for it by having Ishimori…

Actually, let’s slow down and break this reversal down. So Despy had Ishimori reeling and determined that he could end things with the Pinche Loco. As he raises Ishimori up from that Pedigree position, Ishimori leans into the momentum, turns himself in mid-air to his left, and holds Desperado’s arm as he falls, making it a mid-air modified La Mistica, and flawlessly applying the Bone Lock as both hit the mat. Holy fucking Moses, what a reversal.

And here’s the thing: I was astounded by crispness of the reversal, but I wasn’t astounded by the reversal itself. It’s just what these guys do against each other.

There were escapades, though. Neither led to anything, which in a vacuum could be considerably detrimental. Thankfully, with a hot crowd these spots exponentially raised the heat of the match. Unfortunately, this crowd was essentially a vacuum, so that didn’t happen. They barely responded to either spot, and the ones that did had their volume totally nullified by the acoustics of this building.

The spots themselves were pretty good, though. You could imagine how much fun they would seem if conditions were normal.

At one point, the ref was bumped (and Unno did take an awkward bump, but Despy also was too reticent. He might have been trying to make it seem like he was trying to hold up, but that just made Unno look very foolish when he had to bump for some incidental contact). Ishimori and Despy both hit low blows on each other. Again, this didn’t play into the finish, but highlighted the similarities between the two. They just can’t help trying to cheat against each other.

Later on, ELP pulled the ref out on a submission, which seems weird but Despy did have Ishimori locked in that Numero Dos variant where he ties up the arms as well (after a smooth as fuck roll through away from the ropes). This is the move that Hiromu submitted to in the Best of the Super Juniors in November. I couldn’t understand, but I could at least hear that Hiromu was talking much more during this, so I presume he was referring to the excruciating nature of this hold. I checked the English commentary and they sold the notion that Ishimori was going to have to tap, but missed the chance to reference the Hiromu connection.

Also of note, Desperado tried to lock in this final version of Numero Dos in the Best of the Super Juniors match several times, but Ishimori squirmed out each time.

So ELP hit Despy in the stomach with the loaded boot. This was well done. Naturally, one would assume that ELP should have hit the Sudden Death, which would have ended the match. BUT, Despy blocked that, leaving the midsection wide open. And, to be fair, ELP was setting up the Sudden Death. But this didn’t play into the finish, however, because YoshinobuKanemaru came down to make the save.

There’s so much to unpack there.

Yoshinobu Kanemaru.

In 2021.

Made a babyface save.

For reference, here is Kanemaru and Taichi spending 30 whole goddamn minutes mocking the entire roster, at one point wondering where Tomuyuki Oka went and laughing about how he might have quit.

I’ve written a lot of words during the pandemic about this company. A detestable number just in 2021, let alone stretching back into 2020. Very rarely have I abandoned my critical dispassion when it comes to crowd reactions in the clap-crowd environment. It’s just healthier to analyze what is there and simply note what could be as soberly as possible. This is one instance where I am beside myself contemplating the pop that Yoshinobu Kanemaru would have received for making a babyface save.

Funny enough, Desperado hinted at this in the aforementioned pre-match interview:

Currently, the guys who motivate and push me are… Ishimori, Phantasmo, and my partner, Kanemaru-san. That’s pretty much it.

In the BOSJ match, the returning device was the belt, as described above. In this case, it was the exposed turnbuckles. As awkward as Unno’s ref bump was, it was a Asami-level bump because it was into the exposed buckles. Ishimori’s entire control period was based around the damage he did to Despy’s arm with the exposed buckles.

And, just like with the title belt in the BOSJ match, Ishimori’s downfall came because he couldn’t resist using the tempting device one more time. He tried to run Despy into them, but was reversed at the last second and ate them hard. Eagle-eyed viewers will cringe any time exposed buckles play into an El Desperado match; the long scar on Despy’s back is the result of Hiromu’s corner DVD to exposed buckles during their famous BOSJ Final back in December.

As he did with Ishimori’s partner to win the belt, Desperado hit a Pinche Loco, rolled through, and hit another one to score the fall.

The match was definitely bloated in comparison to the very compact and tight BOSJ match. This match was 40% longer! But the closing stretch and the intricate nature of their seemingly effortless reversals and sequences, combined with the higher stakes of a title match main event slot, allowed this match to essentially equal the other one. These are indeed two of the best in the world, two very cerebral wrestlers that understand restraint and have an adroitness in knowing when to let loose. ****1/4

Afterwards, a video played wherein Robbie Eagles challenged the winner of this match. Desperado and Eagles had a fun leg v. leg match in the BOSJ last year. I expect this one to be equally nice, and hopefully in a card position that allows them to have a more concentrated effort and keep things sensibly timed. Desperado requested the match take place at the Tokyo Dome.

Final Thoughts

2021 New Japan delivers what is expected, for better and worse. This was expected to be a one-match show. It was. It was expected to have an excellent main event: it was. The only thing that should be given consideration is the main event, but one should approach it fully aware that it is a long match with extended stretches of limb work and an often-silent crowd.

The limbwork, to note, doesn’t play into the finish but it also isn’t blown off and both guys do try to end things with their submission finishers several times. So those extended periods might be worth your time.

There’s no helping the crowd, though. An thus, the most evergreen statement for New Japan’s 2021.