New Japan Pro Wrestling
WRESTLE GRAND SLAM in MetLife Dome – Night 1
September 4, 2021
Meet our Reviewers:
J Michael: I already chose sleep over watching this live. Now I find an even worse dilemma: watch the final 50km of Stage 20 of the Vuelta, or get this review done on time. I mean, did you see Primo Roglic grab this race by the fucking throat in Stage 17 on Wednesday to take back the Red Jersey? If I write about that, will it be removed by editorial decision? If I appeal to the degenerate gambling addictions of 97% of Voices of Wrestling staff, would that counter-balance the irrelevance?
Actually, I’m excited for this show. If you’re interested in retweets about Despy, animals,Japanese indie pop, fencing (the sport [that American male foilists BOMB in at the Olympics to a bunch of Russian kids]), operatic mezzo-sopranos, and manga about sons of profligate Popes, by all means look @ryugu_jo.
Jeff Andrews: Jeff had to run before he could finish the review, seeing as he is a young and fashionable youth. So I, J. Michael, who is spending his Saturday on the couch watching the Paralymic marathon with my wife, will offer a bio for him.
Jeff Andrews recently graduated from… a college… somewhere. He majored in… a program he successfully completed. He makes people very cross with the things he writes, when he writes. He has a twitter… I don’t remember the handle. I dunno. Jeff and I are both reviewing Night 2 so he can fill you in tomorrow.
Stardom Showcase Match
Queen’s Quest (Momo Watanabe & Saya Kamitani) def. Lady C & Maika
J Michael: I don’t think it’s fair to critique something from a place of ignorance, and I am filled to the brim with ignorance here. Joshi is a massive blind spot. I watch TJPW, simply as part of the Wrestle Universe coterie. I have enough willpower to follow three, maybe four wrestling things. Things like Dragon Gate and Stardom, on their own in the streaming world, fall outside the margins. It took me an entire week to finish Peter Pan. I’m to distracted by nonsense like manga about scuba divers to watch more than 35 minutes of anything at a time. I made it through the double-episode premiere of the new season of What We Do in the Shadows because I knew my wife would not tolerate my usual nonsense.
Of course, Stardom’s reputation is such that one can get a general sense of the promotion simply by following wrestling in general. I don’t want Stardom, but even I am aware of Momo Watanabe’s phenomenal work, or Utami Hayashishita’s remarkable ascendency. Stardom is a place with good work, a little predatory and every decade or so someone’s face gets literally rearranged.
Everything was clean and sharp. Lady C was tall, sold very well, and was tall. Kamitani’s athleticism provided well timed bursts of spectacle, and ended the match. Maika’s power impressed me, especially on a tremendous lariat near the end, although I am baffled by the little pouch on her hip. What does she store in there? Does she need a protein pack for a mid-match boost? One of those little flashlights with 150000 lumens, in case the Seibu Dome short circuits?
Watanabe does everything impeccably. Her sequence with Lady C was the one I found the most compelling, not just for the size difference but the way they complemented each other. Lady C’s selling was really great, and amplified Watanabe’s aggression and technique. Without having even seen the “true” opener, I already wish that this one had replaced it. ***1/2
Jeff: I don’t have quite as much to say about this match as J but I agree with most points. Watanabe is next level great and I was genuinely surprised at how well this match came together as an opener. I don’t watch much Joshi, but when I do it hits and perhaps I need to correct that in the future. ***3/4
Tiger Mask and Robbie Eagles def. Los Ingobernable de Japon (BUSHI and Hiromu Takahashi)
J Michael: The concept of wrestler’s carrying on the tradition of a masked character seems antediluvian in Japan. This Tiger Mask has been Tiger Mask for two generations, without viable replacement. Should we really allow this tradition to be extinguished? There’s only one solution to this:
Put Ryohei Oiwa under a mask and replace BUSHI.
BUSHI, being someone who fucking sucks, would benefit, too, in some way. I’m not sure how, but he absolutely would. Take a base BUSHI mask, put it on one of those hot Young Lion’s that just debuted, and let whatever-BUSHI’s-real-name-is flourish in a different persona. Or go sell chicken and scoff at foreigners. I’m sure he’ll fucking suck at both. I wish him the best.
Someone unfortunately reminded Robbie Eagles that Fullmetal Alchemist exists, written by the greatest mangaka of this generation. So now he looks like Scar, when we all know he’d fit in much better in Arakawa’s Silver Spoon. I am still in the process of forgiving Robbie Eagles for dethroning Despy, though I should be happy about that, as it suggests that Despy-Hiromu is a match New Japan actually values.
This was a perfectly acceptable opener, one you could see at Korakuen Hall 4-5 times per week on World. Considering the participants, it’s not surprising that the pacing fluctuated. Eagles, who looked the best out of the four here, certainly had the jets at full output for much of the match. Tiger Mask moved well, but was mostly there to take the heat segment. BUSHI, who often moves through matches like a Japanese Junior Randy Orton, was more brisk here. Obviously there are concerns for anyone coming back from COVID, even one that was a supposedly mild case like his, but BUSHI looked crisp throughout here. Oddly, the one thing that looked a bit stifled was his tope, and usually BUSHI’s tucked-chin tope is the best in the company.
The highlight of the match was the period where Hiromu thieved Eagles’ headband and wore it for a few minutes. Fear not, Hiromu only stole the Robbie’s head headband. Robbie neck headband, the one that makes it look like he just got picked up from Pampered Pooch Doggy Day Spa, was secured throughout the entire match. ***
Jeff: Also in the camp that BUSHI sucks for whatever that’s worth, and I am hereby seconding his glorious idea that we simply give his mask to someone else and allow him to become a poultry seller. My co-writers weeb takes are not my own and I will not endorse them, FMA is mid and he should feel bad for saying what he has said.
Robbie Eagles is really good, I’ve been on the Eagles train since he and Ospreay had their first match over in kangaroo land and I believe he represents that junior title as well as anyone over the last several years. This is building to some fairly obvious future possibilities than plant seeds of hope for the junior division after COVID. Taking time to establish Eagles as a title worthy junior is fantastic booking even if he is almost certainly a transitional champion.
Exchanges between Eagles and Hiromu are great, the interjections of Bushi and Tiger Mask in between are a bit of a let down comparatively. Overall evens out to being a solid match. ***
SHO DEF. YOH
J Michael: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.
Bullet Club EVIL and Tetsuya Endo fucked, and the baby got concussed on delivery: the origin myth of heel SHO.
SHO’s facial expressions, already the least subtle in New Japan, are like EVIL and Endo’s passion baby was told upon delivery that its purpose in life is to do a never-ending impersonation of a smirking Jack Sparrow, with Marty Feldman’s eyes. And let’s not forget his remixed entrance music, which reveals that when Endo carried Heel SHO in womb, he was playing his NES constantly while listening to nothing but Knife Party and deadma5. These things matter.
I’m currently working on an article for the site on R3K; I’ve decided to wait on writing it to see how this all plays out. Thus, I came into this legitimately open-minded and ready for anything, and this just stopped me dead in my tracks. You all can stay on Team SHO, Team YOH will be quite alright with our boy’s strip mall MMA gear and Bad Plus-esque neo-jazz entrance music.
Of course, right as I typed that, YOH came out to his old entrance song, a lame Guitar Vader knock-off, highlighted by the Def Leppard one-armed-drum-solo opening. Someone please tell the Bald Junior Booking Triumvirate to stop sabotaging this beautiful, cosmopolitan man.
SHO and YOH looked more in sync with their gear in this match than they ever were in 3.5 years as a tag team, which might be the most R3K thing they’ve ever done.
This one, thankfully, began with a lot of fire, as YOH stormed into the ring and the two had a brief flourish of savagery. The key: at one point YOH hit a drop toehold-low dropkick combo. Instead of covering, he continued to attack SHO, raining down strikes from the mount. Of course, then the match slowed down considerably so that SHO could work the arm.
And that is the ultimate issue with R3K, in a neat package: totally expected competence. You expect this match to eventually settle down, and they did it well, but there’s nothing special or preternatural. They lack dynamic tension. Even within their context, the crowds were dead for the Junior Tag League matches.
AND YET, when YOH came back, and he did twice in succession, the crowds came alive. I’ve been watching this company when no one else will, and I can pretty confidently ascertain that if this match was under normal crowd conditions, it would have been pretty hot. If crowds go straight into the loud, sustained clapping this crowd did for this match, they probably would have been pretty clamorous through the even segments.
When YOH came back from injury, he actually looked pretty good. Then he was derailed when COVID finally caught up with this company. He’s been jejune and underwhelming ever since. He looked great here. They both did. What’s weird is that this seemed like a big blow-off match, replete with all the beats that match entails, including a forearm exchange that echoed through the cavernous, attendance-capped dome. But this feud is three weeks old.
The ref bump did halt the momentum of the match, but as a bit of storytelling to a presumably larger saga, it was fine. SHO and YOH both accomplished what they needed: to present SHO as some sort of devoid menace and YOH as sympathetic. ****
In the post-match, a tank of ice-cold water was dumped onto SHO’s potential as he not only was absorbed into Bullet Club, but specifically EVIL’s dopey subfaction.
Jeff: It’s hard for me to watch this and not think that they went the wrong direction with it. SHO and YOH both have potential as upper-midcard junior guys, I have always been in the camp that SHO is a better power junior and works a more clean match for my tastes but if someone were to tell me they preferred the more flashy offense offered by YOH I wouldn’t shake a stick at them.
This sets the scene for a match that was worked exactly as it needed to be worked. In spite of the reservations many western fans have about them, R3K is a beloved tag team that had an odd connection to the crowd even if it was almost certainly because both members of the team are very pretty. SHO comes out of the tunnel ripped per the usual and YOH comes out fiery, there’s a bit of fire in both of them from the get go and YOH even subverts my expectations by avoiding a premature pinfall to continue with some ground and pound offense. As I watch the match, I feel like YOH has been cast perfectly but perhaps the company is missing the boat with SHO. Sure, he can work as a limb-focused heel with reasonable submission work and the occasional power move, but I’m not sure that’s what I wanted for him when he came back.
As a match, this was fine. Both guys worked their asses off and were almost too competent for their own good, this was absolutely a match that could’ve benefitted from a bit more grit and grime but that isn’t what you expect from these two and it shouldn’t be what you expect from them. I’d say this is an easy ***¾ and a contender for match of the night to this point.
The post match sees Evil come out and recruit SHO into Bullet Club and I’ll be honest, I pretty much tuned out from here. Muddying another young and promising in ring performer with Dick Togo and Evil sounds like something out of my nightmares. If Bullet Club is for life, if this is what I have to look forward to, then may I be blessed with the sweet release of death.
Provisional KOPW2021 Title No DQ I Quit Match
Toru Yano def. Chase Owens ©
J Michael: I just wrote around 350 words about this match. I now realize it was all for nothing, as there is no fucking chance anyone watches this match on demand once they see the 28:03 match length.
Because you haven’t been watching, and thus aren’t even reading this, you probably missed the build-up to this match, which has actually been fairly persuasive. Basically, Chase Owens has abandoned some of his goofiness and demanded that Yano stop treating KOPW as a joke, and to cease the comedy wrestling bollocks. In particular, he requested that GBH Yano emerge.
Yano obliged, not only coming out as old Yano but attacking Owens in the aisleway and avoiding all of his established comedy spots.. Of course, considering that Owens is about as subtle as most Japanese comedy, Owen’s call for austerity was quickly revealed to be nonsense, as he went to the powder in the eyes spot right away.
From there, it was a fairly straightforward hardcore match. Some things were ok, like when Owens tied Yano to a ringpost by threading the strap through the buckles, followed by several cane shots. That was ok. Chase Owen’s knees are still spectacular (or his thigh slaps are, and I mean that sincerely). Yano is still remarkably charismatic when he eschews fatuousness. The echo of some of those weapon shots, rippling through the air of the capacious building, was jarring in a good way.
Some things, like when Owens went to clap two trash can lids against Yano’s ears, and really just clapped them roughly 7-8 inches behind Yano’s head, faltered at every level: conceptual, tangible, visually, etc. When Yano threatened to cut Chase’s hair… well, I’m not going to be mean but… uh… that’s much less of a threat than it would have been 3-4 years ago.
Since its exception, every KOPW match has been roughly 45% longer than necessary. That tradition was broken. This one was 75% longer than any sane person would book. Even so, if you’re like Jeff and avoided this wholesale, this match assuredly exceeds your expectations. Of course, your expectations might be so low that even that level of overachievement isn’t anywhere near enough for you to watch.
So I cannot advise you to watch this, but it was a perfectly acceptable, audaciously long contest in which Yano regained his provisional title by literally attempting to murder Chase. Because I have developed an immunity to this company’s excessive length virus, I enjoyed it. ***¼
Jeff: Everyone responsible for this match is a war criminal and I am taking the ethical stance of abstaining from it’s viewing.
Jeff Cobb def. Kazuchika Okada
J Michael: I mentioned Randy Orton before. Randy Orton’s entire career has been built upon the foundation of taking a laborious amount of time between every goddamn move he does (no matter the move), old wrestlers relentlessly insisting to us that Orton is the archetype worker because of it, and Fed-loons comprehensively eating it up.
I think of that here because Jeff Cobb takes time after a lot of things he does as well, but it’s pretty great. How is it different? Because after Jeff Cobb does something, he deserves to take his goddamn time. The feats of raw strength he exhibits are so spectacular, so extraordinary, it makes sense that everyone needs a moment to take it in afterwards.
One thing that ruled in this match: the way both guys sold the effect of administering their moves. When Cobb caught Okada on Okada’s over-the-guardrail crossbody spot, and turned it into a suplex on the floor, Cobb made it crystal clear how much that spot hurt him as well. He slowly got himself back over the guardrail, and collapsed over it before eventually pulling himself back into the ring, grimacing the whole time. When Okada soon nailed Cobb with a missile dropkick, instead of pouncing he grabbed his neck and sold the impact for a few seconds. It’s not that these guys do this rarely; they do this often enough, actually. But when things are working, those little things get noticed.
The match worked well, oscillating between deliberate sequences and sequences of legitimately high impact. It was shrewdly structured. Instead of building to a peak, as they have in past past, their final sequence percolated, a tense and calculated battle for position on the top, which flipped a few times before Cobb finally nailed a gorgeous Tour of the Islands. He followed that up with his ripcord Tour of Islands to put Okada down.
It was the right call. This rivalry has benefitted both guys. ****
Jeff Andrews: I will admit that I am typically the low man on both of these individuals, but this match was nothing short of spectacular.
I probably need to get the visual of Jeff Cobb being blown up and uninteresting in his first G1 out of my head, because since he signed with NJPW he has been nothing short of spectacular. His offense is crisp and brutal, every throw and movement has an explosiveness and athleticism to it that screams legitimacy. In another time, Cobb would’ve fit right in with the Steiners and Nortons of the world flying into various Japanese promotions to throw someone to the rafters and pin them for a lump sum of money, yet unlike many who fit that archetype he finds himself more than capable of working the modern fast paced style of NJPW main events.
One thing Cobb did better than most big men in this match was sell, the way he emphasizes every movement and sells the impact of every move he gives or takes is stunning. Okada to his credit keeps a similar pace and is clearly the driver and guide of the match. It seems that at this point in his career, Okada has become a better wrestler even if his matches lack the spectacle they possessed earlier in his career. As one of the greats, as the direct successor to the greatest ace of our age, it makes me quite happy to see Okada having this career arc.
The end of the match was spectacular, a tense fight for position that was finally won by Jeff Cobb who put Okada away with a pair of brutal Tour of the Island slams. This match was a great watch. ****1/4
IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship
Hiroshi Tanahashi (C) vs. Kota Ibushi
J Michael: The pandemic might have sterilized most of the emotional resonance people had with this promotion, but I felt the butterflies when my favorite wrestler returned from a two month absence.
These are two of the most reliable wrestlers alive, and although it’s almost offensive to have a match between these two with such miniscule motivation, and completely negligible stakes and context… its still Ibushi v. Tanahashi. It’s still Ibushi’s return from fucking pneumonia. Ibushi was in tears during the introductions, drops visibly falling from his face as he bowed his head in deference to his idol and his mentor. At that point, we were at 8.5 stars and no match was needed. Just call Ollie Copp, fire up TNM7, plug this match into your circuit, and get Wato to press the space bar every time the page is filled.
Ok, one thing before I analyze the match. I debated whether to even address this, but here’s a tip, a little bit of technical advice for broadcasters: when one of the greatest of all time, a legend of their generation, returns from a serious medical condition, even if it was a brief hiatus, and they are brought to tears, flowing tears, by the weight of the moment as they are introduced…
And if you, bringing context to the proceedings, find yourself right in the geometric middle of a title history run-off as that legendary figure openly weeps in the ring… you might feel compelled to finish that title history rundown, to avoid the mental disconnect of breaking up the luxurious lineage of the IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship.
Please, though, upon sight of one of the most spectacular performers in wrestling history shedding tears, engulfed in sincerity over his comeback to competition, amidst your title compendium… please SHUT THE FUCK UP AND ACKNOWLEDGE WHAT IS HAPPENING IN FRONT OF YOU.
This godawful, dreadful, disgraceful, destructive, demeaning, preposterous, nonsense business, this exhibition, offers us a seemingly perpetual convection cycle of drivel and misery. Every so often a moment of authenticity, of genuine emotion, emerges. Those moments are indeed rare; by their very nature they are inherently unpredictable. It may take a second to comprehend the situation, but when it happens SHUT THE FUCK UP AND ACKNOWLEDGE WHAT IS HAPPENING IN FRONT OF YOU.
Now, certainly it must be acknowledged that New Japan’s tech is pitiful, and these remote live English broadcasts have been hampered by that. Charlton might have been watching on a delay. A long delay, I guess. Maybe he was looking down at his notes. There’s any number of reasons to explain how this happened. That doesn’t really explain why, after Kevin Kelly noted Ibushi’s emotional release, Charlton referred to this moment of genuine expression with the same level of emotion as he did when listing the entire five-year chronicle of a sub-tertiary title.
I like Chris, and I feel bad taking such a run at him (since much of this might be chalked up to me being an Ibushi fan caught in the moment). The job is preposterously arduous and complicated. Who knows, maybe I would have done the same thing. But this is exactly what people are talking about when they drag him. He works hard and does a ton of stuff, things that have made the product accessible to a lot of people, but he might as well have been wearing a flat-cap and had a Russian accent right there.
Ibushi, for all his talk about being unable to train at full strength, looked in typically phenomenal shape, and full of beans for the entire match. His strike had snap and ferocity. His grappling was crisp and smooth. He hit an exquisite top rope golden triangle moonsault.
As Jeff noted, Tanahashi remains a mind-boggling existence. At around the 12-minute mark, the two have a brutal strike exchange. There was nothing idiosyncratic about it beyond the barbarity of the force of their forearms, but god damn they laid into each other there, and it was an extended sequence, at that. That Tanahashi is still willing to engage in these things at his age and tenure is incredible.
The defining trait of Tanahashi-Ibushi matches, partIcularly since the G1 Final in 2018, has been the otherworldly willpower of Tanahashi standing in defiance to Ibushi’s athletic superiority. The closing sequence here stands as a testament to the chemistry both share with each other and the adroitness they both exhibit.
As in the Okada-Cobb match, there was a prolonged struggle, this time in the Kamigoye position. Tanahashi absolutely refused to capitulate to this move yet again. He powered his way into crossing Ibushi’s arms several times, until he finally countered with a slingblade. Of course, Ibushi took it straight on his fucking neck, as he had every slingblade prior.
And then, it ended. Tanahashi simple hit a High Fly Flow and pinned the Golden Star. Once again, Tanahashi found himself in a propitious situation, akin to that fall of 2018 when he beat Okada, another person who by all rights Tanahashi should never defeat again.
The sincerely emotional, extremely verbose moment between the two on the mat after the match was captivating. Ibushi sold like he was totally spent, unlike we have seen him after a match, like his insides were in tortuous pandemonium; pneumonia is a pretty great built-in excuse. I was pleased to find that the English commentators let it play out; on the Japanese feed, Shingo talked through the entire thing, which might have been poignant or might have been pointless babble. I’m grateful to not understand. I think The Super J-Cast’s Ibushi Scholar Nicole was spot on to speculate whether this is a sign that Ibushi’s illness might have been a bit hairier than let on. It’s pneumonia. Nobody fucked with it, even someone that looks like an action figure.
Maybe they’ve rewired my brain, so that an 18-minute main event seems weird. But it was also really great. A lesser of their series, but a worthy Night 1 main event. ****1/4
Jeff: As a Tanahashi stan I must inform everyone present that this match is a banger and you should go out of your way to watch it. Somehow, someway, in the midst of this fairly mediocre product Tanahashi is languishing away at what could be a compelling wrestler of the year case before G1 rolls around. Making this match a brutal sprint at just under 18 minutes was excellent booking, and Tanahashi still finds a way at the age of 44 to make every match he has feel larger than life.
It seems poignant that in his weakest moments Tanahashi is always there to bring the best out of Ibushi. I know a lot of people really enjoy his series of matches with Naito and others but for my money the best pairing in wrestling for the last 3 years has been Tanahashi and Ibushi. I don’t know what it is about them but it feels like they have a unique understanding of what makes the other one special, and Tanahashi brings a unique fire to these matches that only he can offer. Ibushi to his credit looks impeccable coming off of whatever medical ailments he was dealing with, and it’s clear to me from the way he’s reacting that his illness was perhaps a bit more than was let on.
The finishing stretch is an insane one, a series of ferocious forearms that gave way to a brutal series of slingblades punctuated by a beautiful High Fly Flow. The two had a wonderful moment at the end of the match, and it felt like something that you could only see between these two. Tanahashi to his credit, is my wrestler of the year.
We are not worthy of this man, I’m going ****½ and I think I’m underselling it.
J Michael: Pandemic Era New Japan has almost always delivered what is on paper. The shows that sent discourse into panic have always been the ones that looked lackluster on paper. The ones that provoked notions of a resurrection were the ones that already looked awesome.
On paper this one looked very good. It ended up being very good. Positions may vary on SHO and YOH, but the semi-main and main were excellent matches, not match of the year contenders, but perfectly befitting their position in a two-night sequence.
The show is a bit bloated, especially compared to recent Korakuen’s which barely crack two hours, but this one is comfortably worth watching.
Jeff Andrews: New Japan is an incredibly interesting product right now, and there are just as many good reasons as there are bad. Thankfully, after taking a brief break from the product I can honestly say that their big shows still hold up to their lofty billing, and that the card tonight looks just as good as this one did. Here’s to hoping the main event can come close to Tanahashi Ibushi, just doesn’t seem possible from where I sit.