New Japan Pro Wrestling
WRESTLE GRAND SLAM in MetLife Dome – Night 2
September 5, 2021
MetLife Dome
Saitama, Japan

Watch: NJPW World (Japanese)/NJPW World (English)

Ennui continues to pervade New Japan discourse. Especially explanatory ennui, the kind of boredom that, somehow, doesn’t preclude a description of the intricacies of the boredom itself. This very website/podcast network/Francesco Akira Fan Club is saturated in this self-aware ennui.

Pretty much the entire wrestling world has their eyes elsewhere on the weekend of Wrestle Grand Slam. There are some odd ones out, though. Some poor wretches have found themselves way too out of the loop right now on certain wrestling promotions, like those run by the Khan that isn’t an extraterrestrial spy sent by an antagonistic alien race to study humans and their ways, means, philosophies, and contrived entertainments. .

Of course, those people are doing very critical things. Here’s a non-comprehensive list of things one might do on Wednesday nights:

  • Watching Grand Tour bike racing, while superciliously hand waving the European Windy Track Nascar nonsense they talk about on your wrestling gossip site‘s Slack all the time (to be fair, it’s not exactly clear which sport has more motors).
  • Reading manga about radiologists, scuba divers, art majors navigating art school, mathematical chefs, socially inept Wild West Sheriffs, and 14th-century mercenaries.
  • Catching up on any Kaz Higuchi matches one might have missed in the last 18 months
  • Trying to hit a piece of tape the size of a quarter with a thin strip of steel from 6 different angles.
  • Listening to the new Tokyo Jihen album 45 times
  • Spending 3x longer making dinner than the recipe from (not VOW sponsored dinner prep box company) said it would.
  • Debating, endlessly, whether or not to drop Blake Snell.

Please check up on the review that Jeff Andrews and I did for Night 1. While you’re at it, go ahead and check out my exhaustive review of Yuya Uemura and Yota Tsuji’s gauntlets, ahead of their excursions that have recently begun. Hey, maybe by the time they’re back the West will have decided that Japanese wrestling is worthy of them again.

The reason this open plays like a bio blurb is because it was, and a pre-written one, at that. But then Jeff was so appalled by this show that he bailed on this review, which comes to the surprise of literally no one in the VOW offices, except for the surprise that I even got Jeff to review a show at all. Jeff’s absence is unfortunate, because we ended up having entirely different perspectives on this one.

Stardom Showcase Match
Della del Mondo (Syuri and Giulia) def. Queen’s Quest (Momo Watanabe & Saya Kamitani)

When it comes to their collective level of education, wrestling fans have a historically putrid reputation, but I’d be willing to bet that every single wrestling fan aces anything related to the food webs. It’s seared into our brain by mere observation of the godawful, predatorily inhumane wrestling business. In this case, one day someone in Orlando absent-mindedly reminded HHH, the Most Not-Demoted Person in the Universe, that women are still wrestling in Japan. HHH gleefully took from Stardom, and consequently Stardom takes from the rest. Big fish eat the little one.

As I stated yesterday, Stardom is on a streaming island, and as such I’m more familiar with TJPW. With tragic predictability, that is the extent of my joshi knowledge. But Stardom’s reputation is impossible to evade if you are foolish enough to follow online wrestling discourse. Momo Watanabe is a phenomenal wrestler, that much is inescapable, as I noted in yesterday’s review.

Another well-known fact: Giulia is a compelling figure. Amongst others, she certainly stands out for her uniquely striking look and presence. You can’t doubt her commitment, either, losing her hair to Tam Nakano back in March. She certainly seems like a star, and the sense that her ascension might be something of a fait accompli to those that follow. That’s the scope of what I can answer about Giulia. Why her and her partner Syuri, together the Stardom tag team champions, dress like background dancers of an early TLC video, that I cannot answer. What about your friends, indeed.

Compared to yesterday’s bout, this one was more like a true opener, a barnburner that never once stopped to breathe or allow a second’s composure. The pace was significantly more fleet-footed, although I did also notice a bit more hesitancy at points when the wrestlers got within distance. Nothing drastic, just a little apprehension as the moved into . There was more contrivance, especially on the DDM side, with their posed submissions and double-team moves, but that also made this feel more like a tag match than yesterday.

What it lacked compared to yesterday was a bit of impactful striking, though the exchange between Syuri and Kamitani near the end was tremendous. In some ways, I liked yesterday’s opener more as a match, but the athleticism, frenetic pace, and variety of things they did in this match made it a better opener. ***3/4

UE (Great O-Khan and Jeff Cobb) def. CHAOS (Tomohiro Ishii and Kazuchika Okada)

Right off the bat, I hate the idea of Okada coming out on Night 2 for a tag match after having lost on Night 1. I know this is how New Japan works on these multi-night deals. No feud ever ends, things fade off at excruciatingly glacial speeds instead of suddenly ending… all that. But some people just have to be above that. At the very least, Okada needs to be above that on massive stadium shows. More than anyone, actually. Do you need an inconsequential opener? Fine, throw Wato out there with a bunch of dads. That’s your opener.

But hey, at least Okada had four layers of tape criss-crossed over the base of his neck. This story endures…

Cobb and Okada’s forearm exchange near the beginning once again highlighted an aspect of the Seibu Dome that is actually kinda cool under these pandemic conditions: the reverberating echo throughout the dome when someone hits a strike, bumps to the mat, or even just raises their voice. Without pesky, sound absorbing devices like, you know… fans, people, a substantial gathering of humanity… those sound waves were free to travel unhindered around the spacious building.

The crowd itself was clap-responsive to this one to a surprising degree, suggesting that their silence during transitional sequences is by choice. They are, actually, just watching. It’s completely self-evident why these specific crowd conditions would prohibit someone from enjoying these shows, or even preclude from watching altogether. What I struggle with is the notion that discerning and scrutinizing clap crowds is some sort of hopeless enterprise. These crowds aren’t complicated, nor are they abstruse. They clap in response to things that engage them. It’s louder when they are more engaged. The silences are interpretive, but can be deliberated in relation to the clapping. It’s not convoluted and a very much a valid form of analysis in 2021.

To paraphrase Wittgenstein, criticism is descriptive, not prescriptive. You know, except when it’s pretty much entirely prescriptive.

The match was fine. Cobb and O-Khan rule as a tag team, and each combination within this foursome is exciting to watch, the most proficient, reliably great wrestling in the world. But you could also see it, now and in the seemingly never ending continuation of the current state of things, roughly 17 to 18 times a month at Korakuen Hall.

Either way, it was a well worked match, the caliber you would expect these four to just casually deliver. The ending was abrupt, and great because of the abruptness. After some dancing around and reversals, O-Khan simply caught Ishii in his finisher and that was it. ***1/4

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship
Suzuki-gun (El Desperado  and Yoshinobu Kanemaru def. Bullet Club (Taiji Ishimori and El Phantasmo) (C)

Personality-wise, these two teams are, as of September 2021, essentially the same. Taiji Ishimori and ELP are, quite simply, no longer heels. Since ELP’s latest return, their presentation has been decidedly more jocular. Not necessarily humbler, but demonstratively more endearing.

Of course, this is mainly from the ELP side ( Ishimori is too likable to ever truly be a heel). His doltish mannerisms are now more frivolous than repellent. His backstage promos, in particular, have been considerably more self-effacing and palatable. His whole persona is built around that wrestler voice, the voice that signals to everyone listening that he is indeed a professional wrestler, engaged in scripted exploits, and the volume and enunciation are your queue as an audience to start give a little more of those fucks you are holding on to. But recently, his promos have been a tad more natural, bit more eclectic. He also takes those handstand head bumps at least 2-3 times a match now.

What can you say, the guy has established a goddamn loaded boot in 2021. You see his merch in the crowds. He makes the New Japan audience laugh. When those fans decide that they like you… well, you end up where Suzuki-gun currently stand.

That was my big take, that ELP and Ishimori are full-fledged tweeners. And now it has been obliterated by SHO joining EVIL’s Bullet Club Kink Caucus. Now there’s a true heel junior in the group. Ishimori and ELP are scamps in comparison. They just lost the Junior Tag League because they lost track of the legal man in the match. In fucking New Japan Pro Wrestling. It’s pretty clear we’re going to have a heel Bullet Club, one that uses pallid, laboriously long, smirking stares as their defining personality trait. To counter, we will also have a tweener Bullet Club. One that, while also annoying with ref bumps and interference, at least show a kind of comic vulnerability. Jerks, but earnest ones. Endearing ones. KENTA. Jay. Ishimori and ELP.

Case in Point: ELP was the one being worked on for a long stretch in the beginning! And it was great! He was awesome at selling his leg, and Despy and Kanemaru are remarkable in breaking down an opponent, seamlessly switching back and forth with a seemingly infinite amount of methods and tactics for completely annihilating a limb. Of course, since these are two heel-leaning tweener teams, once Bullet Club got the advantage, they did the exact same thing to Despy, just more… ironic? For what its worth, ELP sold his leg during his performative heelwork spot sequence.

NJPW’s roster is skeletal, and many have put the company into mental storage because of that monotony, but the competence level of this roster is immense. Sure, we’ve seen this exact match several times recently, but if you are able to partition some of the unfortunate contextual detriments enveloping this promotion, these matches really are a lot of fun.

And that’s what this was: an expertly structured, impeccably worked tag team match between two exceptional tag teams, each comprised of extraordinarily talented wrestlers. At no point did it falter, at no point did it loiter.

If there’s one thing I could nitpick, it was the moment where ELP couldn’t execute the Sudden Death because his left leg was too worn down. The spot itself is fantastic, a clever payoff to ELP destroying people with that loaded boot. The problem was… what triggered the leg damage to return? Was it the top rope splash? I can buy that it was a delayed reaction to that. Getting up can tweak things. It might have been a bit better with a more explicit reference to the earlier legwork, though.

For the record, I counted four Despy shirts and seven Despy towels over the course of the night. It’s hard to spot them in these bigger arenas. El Desperado is my favorite wrestler, but I’m not sure I would have switched the belts here. Of course, I’m sure ELP wants to go home every once in a while. Can’t really fault the booking for following the availability of these guys. ***3/4

IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship
Dangerous Tekkers (Taichi and Zack Sabre Jr.) (c) def. CHAOS (Hirooki Goto and YOSHI-HASHI) and Los Ingobernables de Japon (Tetsuya Naito and SANADA)

I’m still not sure why this match ended up with three teams. Frankly, neither challenging team has a legitimate case. I suppose it’s some amalgamation of two things: the company not having enough faith in Tekkers or CHAOS to hold a stadium crowd in a straight tag match, and the company having nothing on the table for Naito and SANADA, where it would be malfeasance to leave either one of them off a stadium show. As most anticipated, this was an agreeable affair that gained nothing from the three-team format.

There was a lot of silliness in this one. At one point, LIJ and CHAOS gave Taichi a taste of his own medicine when all four choked him simultaneously. This was followed by Naito attempting to engage the CHAOS boys in an LIJ-style fistbump, which was violently declined, to the crowd’s dismay. Even the pre-match saw Naito attempt to duet with Taichi, to which Taichi obliged and put his arm around Naito’s shoulder. Naito was, indeed, very silly throughout this one.

Of course, anything involving a CHAOS team will be replete with vigorous, frenetic scramble segments, and anything involving an LIJ team will be replete with fluid, inventive teamwork. That was the case here, in abundance. Thankfully, they went with the three-team format where the teams have to tag in, which provided the opportunity for a clever ending, with Taichi tagging in when SANADA went for a moonsault from Tekkers corner.

That cleverness was somewhat nullified by the SANADA Stupidity Special: SANADA rendering an opponent literally fucking comatose, the ref not instantly calling for the bell once they feel the opponent’s lifeless arm, and SANADA just giving up the fucking hold for a moonsault that he successfully achieves maybe 50-60% of the time. And so, SANADA put YOSHI-HASHI to sleep, bleating imbecile Marty Asami checked YOSHI-HASHI’s completely limp hand and made no signal to stop the match, and SANADA relinquished the hold, which allowed Taichi to tap his foot for the tag. Immaculately done, but undergirded by deflating levels of stupidity and incompetence.

Either way, Tekkers retained, as they should have, and the match was in constant motion throughout with assiduous work all around.. ***3/4

G1 Climax 31 Announcement

1982 A Block (in order of announcement)

  • Kota Ibushi (5th G1 in a row, 7th overall)
  • Tetsuya Naito (12/12)
  • Shingo Takagi (3/3)
  • Zack Sabre Jr. (5/5)
  • Toru Yano (15/16)
  • Tomohiro Ishii (9/9)
  • Yujiro Takahashi (2/8)
  • KENTA (3/3)
  • Tanga Loa (1st G1)
  • Great-O-Khan (1st G1)

B Block (in order of announcement)

  • SANADA (6/6)
  • Taichi (3/3)
  • YOSHI-HASHI (2/5)
  • Hirooki Goto (14/14)
  • Jeff Cobb (3/3)
  • EVIL (6/6)
  • Tama Tonga (4th overall)
  • Chase Owens (1st G1)
  • Kazuchika Okada (10/10)
  • Hiroshi Tanahashi (20/20)

That line-up is going to underwhelm many, and I can see the bellyaching with pristine clarity before I even check the discourse. No big surprises, no fly-ins, stale roster, etc. It’s pretty much the barebones roster they have in Japan right now. I’m sure many have already decided to scale back their viewing of this year’s G1, or skip it altogether. I’ve been just stunned by wrestling fandom’s inability to adapt and adjust to circumstances during this last year, though I should have anticipated this when some chose The Elite over New Japan in the pre-pandemic times.

The A-block is, as last year, a galvanizing line-up. Possibly the most stacked block since 2018’s B-Block. The weakest link is Yukiro, who had a perfectly acceptable G1 last year. The #9 is Tanga Loa, who has shined this year as a remarkably improved wrestler in this company. Of course, you have an insane idea of putting the Shouwa 57 Group together, but in truth, A-Block is a tetrarchy at the top with Shingo, Naito, Ibushi, and Ishii. When Ishii averages over 4 stars a match this year, can Dave please make the executive decision to enshrine him? Stop leaving decisions like this in the hands of the draw-over-everything bean counters.

B-block will be better than you’d expect, though I don’t even want to hear any B-block truthers this year. Yes, YOSHI-HASHI, Taichi, and SANADA will perform admirably and get nowhere near enough credit. Goto will pull out 3 or 4 bangers, 3-4 adequate performances, and 2-3 hopelessly baffling bombs. Cobb-Tanahashi-Okada will have spectacular matches amongst their triad.

The Bullet Club, unfortunately, are going to tank the fuck out of this one. I don’t even remember what Tama Tonga was like in a G1 without that element; that’s how urgent his last G1 was. Or how intolerable his 2021 has been, inundated with gimmick nonsense, which of course is well beyond his control (even if the matches were humdrum aside from the gimmicks). Chase has been getting preemptively denounced for weeks, though I would suggest he’s perfectly capable of producing ten solid matches, akin to Yujiro last year.  I expect each of the three Bullet Club members in this block to have 2-3 good to great matches.The rest depends on how much story is going to infiltrate their slate.

The best news was that the theme is done by JAM Project, who rule.

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship
Robbie Eagles (C) def. Hiromu Takahashi

When I see Robbie Eagles kick, I’m reminded of an old Far Side strip, where a guy running a jackhammer school tells his students to let their bellies hang over the hammer and to “let the fat do the work.” Because construction workers are overweight, or something. I dunno, it was funny when I was a kid.

When I see Eagles kick, I imagine a wrestling school dojo with a bunch of people kicking each other, with the instructor going, “Good, good. Yes… let the kickpad do the work.” Actually, I think that when I lot of wrestlers kick. It’s not even that the kicks are weak, they are certainly strong on Eagles end. It’s just the sound of those damn pads overpower everything else. Let the kickpad do the work.

These two have great chemistry, as their BOSJ match last fall evidenced. Actually, for what it’s worth, everyone in this decimated junior division has tremendous chemistry with each other. There is a well-balanced mix of wrestling types, as shown here. Hiromu’s wild and reckless kitchen sink style meshes very well with Eagles mixture of precise aerial work and equally precise limb/submission work.

The first 15 minutes of this one were an eye-blink. The action was so crisp and followed a beautifully natural progression. Everything presented itself as a logical, believable development from what preceded it. Following the sunset-flip powerbomb, which marked the 15-minute mark, the intensity amplified. Hiromu nailed Eagles with a reverse DDT that Eagles decided to take by spiking himself backwards like fucking Scott Steiner. In turn, Robbie hit an avalanche turbo backpack that looked equally sick on Hiromu’s end.

The finish was sublime. Eagles hit his 450 to the leg, followed by the Ron Miller Special. This certainly appeared to be the proper ending. There was a distinct sense of finality to the timing of this one. And yet, Hiromu exquisitely drew out increasingly clap-clamorous support from the crowd as he inched his way to the ropes, really emphasizing the devastating nature of Eagles specialty. And, at just the right moment, Eagles not only pulled Hiromu towards the center of the ring, but kneed the fuck out of Hiromu’s knee before reapplying the hold. Just to make it clear that this is the denouement, and a definitive one.

This division is that much stronger in the long run for Eagles getting the win here. Hiromu’s defiant tap-out and anguished, maniacal wailing afterward was an extraordinary zenith to this spectacular sequence. Outstanding. ****1/2

Afterward, beloved merch moving monster and previous Junior heavyweight Champion El Desperado challenged Eagles to a rematch, with the tag belts up for grabs as well. Despy acted like this is a big deal, when I’m pretty sure three out the last four title programs involved this scenario. The English commentators seemed to take Desperado’s challenge as possibly suggesting a winner-take-all In Your House 3 scenario. That would certainly be something. Considering the shallow gene pool of Juniors, where pretty much any active member could be double champion at any time, why not?

Despy had his hand heavily iced up, selling the pain from his use of ELP’s loaded boot earlier in the night to the point where he grimaced in pain trying to take the tag belt from around his neck. How great was that? I swear, the things people are missing because the clap crowds are so intolerable and undermine everything. It really sucks. Not that some of you motherfuckers aren’t exhausting in the way you handle it, evaluate things, or compare companies with entirely different circumstances. Bloody hell. But still, it sucks.

This stuff fucking rules and they’ve managed to take advantage of this weird global stasis by taking some chances and cementing both Eagles and Despy as legitimate top-of-the-division guy.

IWGP World Heavyweight  Championship
Shingo Takagi (C) def. EVIL

What a wretched coterie, this House of Torture. It’s a subfaction with Dick Togo and Yujiro Takahashi, accented by SHO looking like a telescope goldfish. Holy fucking Moses.

This pandemic has given us title reigns by Ibushi, Shingo, Despy, Tekkers (let alone the stuff outside NJPW, like Akiyama and… yeah, just Akiyama). It’s been a good pandemic for people with my sensibilities. Now, as Huizinga would say, we enter the Autumn of the Pandemic Ages. And with it, unfortunate trends intrude, such as EVIL emerging from KOPW perdition, immediately ascending to the main event of a baseball stadium show, and seeing his turgid on-screen influence swell instead of deflate (just as off-screen influence is swelling in certain places as well, with equally elegiac consequences).

One of the amusing facets of this match was the development of ring announcer Makoto Abe as a hero of infinite resolve and honor. When EVIL did the deal where he knocks over Abe’s table (which still works and always will), Abe was shown tightly clutching the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship, preventing it from further damage (EVIL had knocked off one of the sideplates in the build-up). The crowd applauded. Of course, they could help but immediately repeat the spot, to fainter applause.

There was also a bit of jocularity when EVIL did the spot where he spins Red Shoes around into the turnbuckle and blocks him in, preventing the referee from spotting the vicious assault of EVIL’s phalanx of mid-card juniors on EVIL’s opponent. However, when they rolled Shingo back in the ring, Unno refused to count the cover, instead staying in the corner and pretending to look for whatever nonsense EVIL tried to distract him with from that direction.

That is to say, the best part of this match was procedural meta-humor.

Of course, it also needs to be pointed out that the crowd went clap-bonkers for Unno’s defiance. Remember, Japan happens to be a completely different country than any of the Western countries from which you are reading this. Japanese people, I’ve heard, have different sensibilities than the Western fanbase. The degree to which they have bought into EVIL’s drivel, and the length to which they will enjoy it, can only be answered by a future beyond pandemic restrictions. Right now, the answer is clear: they buy it, and enough people will pay for it to reach attendance limits.

They also clap-popped when Unno kicked the rope to break up the four-level abdominal stretch chain. They’re into it, what fuck do you want? The country to research Western cultural trends and ask permission to like something?

This was all very traditional, wasn’t it? Up until the Torture Jabrones returned, this match comes across as either nostalgic or anachronistic, depending on your perspective. EVIL was the repugnant heel, totally divorced from proper entertainment and devoid of charm. Shingo is the manifestation of mythical Japanese spirit, the sort of intense and rigid attention to detail and craftsmanship that results in an abundance of Meltzer and Michelin stars. Shingo’s searing, fervent charisma ignited the crowd as he overwhelmed EVIL on the comeback, and then constructed an elaborate set-up in which he sat EVIL and Togo down at a crew table, and then rammed Yujiro and SHO into the barricade to upend it, giving EVIL a little just desserts. The production even used one of their sparse replays on the spot, which was fitting considering how much work Shingo took in setting it up. After this, EVIL’s support team were expelled.

Of course, the House of Torture did return. Shingo was able to power out of a spoiler’s choker once, but then Yujiro materialized to hit Shingo with his cane. Yujiro also hit him with his fucking worthless, nothing finisher. Accordingly, it barely got a 2.5 count. That’s when all the run-ins commenced.

Normally, I would conclude that everything about this match, once it had become a total farce, could get fucked, including the things and people I like. But wrestling does have the unique ability to reach an extra layer of balderdash, one step beyond the pale, and that extra, excessive step somehow changes the color of everything that preceded it. In this case, one extra run-in can somehow alter the molecular structure of the preceding ones. Of course, one more beyond that can reverse the modifications, but in this case, the proper number was achieved to frame the falling action of this match as just the right amount of decadent, I liked it.

LIJ are perpetually lame when it comes to factions being factions. It’s hard to forget the image of them all feebly wandering around the ring in utter astonishment and confusion at New Year’s Dash as Chris Jericho brutally assaulted their leader. Or EVIL’s turn, no less, which prompted zero response from Naito’s amigos. Whatever post-facto bunkum excuses they emit to retcon this hokum, it’s lame. But, indisputably, it does make it a bigger deal when they actually do come to the aid of one another.

Without question, there are different contexts wherein this would have worked better. Crowds that can respond normally, vocally. A show without attendance caps. A period where the Western fanbase were actually paying attention. A day where a bigger show, of legitimate historical significance, wasn’t also taking place. Under those circumstances… well, people would still complain about this denigrating the integrity of the New Japan product, an unforgivable severance with the sacrosanct past, but the crowd would have been molten.  Even here, the crowd was as energized as they could be allowed to be as a sequence of one-upmanship took place between the two factions.

Ultimately, we were left with Shingo Takagi as the 80’s-style babyface hero standing tall amongst his friends after vanquishing a fellowship of abhorrent heel fuckfaces. Fuckface heels  that emptied out their trick bag in order to steal the title and, inevitably, could not match the strength of resolve of the valorous World Champion and his fervent cohort. I might be ostracized from Voices of Wrestling for this one.  ****

Final Thoughts

We might have reached a nadir. Impressions are so firmly entrenched, and the bleak near future equally entrenched, that the output of this show had no chance of affecting Western discourse in any way.  And yet, the totality of these two shows is promising. Each night of Wrestle Grand Slam in MetLife Dome provided three worthy matches to varying degrees of excellence, two completely meaningless tag openers, two enjoyable Stardom pre-show tags, and two universally reviled matches (except for the VOW reviews, which of course reflect the unified voice of everyone on the VOW staff, and not just this one particular voice that still manages to follow the company).

If you’ve managed to adjust to clap crowd shows, in these 15 months you’ve had to figure out if you are able to or not, then absolutely watch this show. As with Night 1, the wrestlers worked very hard throughout and the action was clean, robust, and effervescent. If you still can’t stomach clap crowds, this is the point where you must just ignore all of Japan until someone tells you it’s safe to return. You’re missing a lot of great stuff across the landscape of promotions, but you also probably aren’t. You wouldn’t find it great.