New Japan Pro Wrestling
Power Struggle 2021
November 6, 2021
Edion Arena Osaka
Osaka, Japan

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

After a entirely unwelcome quick turn-around from the G1 Climax to the Road to Power Struggle tour, and three subsequent Korakuen Hall shows replete with soft work, missed strikes, aimless character improvisations, and a string of breathtakingly incredible KENTA backstage comments… here we are: Power Struggle 2021.

The bilious taste in your mouth is your body’s involuntary reaction to the harrowing memories of Power Struggle 2020 leaking out of your mindspace’s shackled basement. The matches were actually pretty good on that card; Power Struggle 2020 just happens to be the card where Jay White thieved right to the Wrestle Kingdom main event from G1 Climax 30 winner Kota Ibushi, the catalyst for one of the confounding, unfortunately abridged Wrestle Kingdom main event storyline.

You know, the one where Tetsuya Naito just gifted Ibushi a Wrestle Kingdom title shot. Sort of like a college student just tossing random platitudes, idioms, citations, and academic babble into a term paper due to their professors office in, I don’t know, 15 minutes? So the conclusion ends up being 40% of the work and still ends up 750 words short of the minimum.

There’s been a lot of talk about Dick Togo’s flourishing influence, but are we sure Hajime Isayama hasn’t taken over the book now that Titan is finally over?

Actually, we can confirm he hasn’t, because Power Struggle showed that the Bald Junior Tag Team Specialist Booking Consortium learn from the past. As last year invited self-defeat by starting a labyrinthine story arc in October, right before a BOSJ/WTL dual tour, leaving exactly three Korakuen Hall shows during Christmas Week to establish the Wrestle Kingdom main events… this year they hit the ground running from the G1 Climax Final.

Okada’s garrulous nonsense about the V4 belt, his ascendency back to the tippy top, his disregard for Shingo’s legitimacy as champion, all of it provided a necessary prelude to this show. Unlike 2020’s Power Struggle after this one we have significantly more clarity on the path to Wrestle Kingdom. All fucking three of them.

Our Match Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the New Japan Undercard
November 6
, 2021


  • Suzuki-gun (Yoshinobu Kanemaru and DOUKI) DEF. Kosei Fujita and Ryohei Oiwa
  • BULLET CLUB (Gedo, Jado, and Tanga Loa) DEF. Tiger Mask, Tomoaki Honma, and Togi Makabe 
  • Los Ingobernable de Japon (SANADA, BUSHI, and Hiromu Takahashi) DEF. Master Wato, Ryusuke Taguchi, and Yuji Nagata

What To Look For

A Sprint to the Relevance

The match times for the first three matches: 4:33, 5:07, and 7:05. For reference, the average time of the opening G1 matches in G1 Climax 31 was 12:30.  Admittedly, the data in this year’s G1 is maddeningly hindered by Naito’s injury. That left us with eight nights where the opening G1 match was technically a forfeit, so the average here is taken from ten matches instead of 18. Even so, the message holds: the undercard matches here averaged less than half the length of a G1 match in the same slot.

This was the early highlight of Power Struggle 2020: matches that did not deserve to breech ten minutes ending considerably below that mark. 

We barely had enough time to ponder which Young Lion is emerging as the bigger fuckface based on their budding haircuts, or lament Tanga Loa being pitifully orphaned into a trio with the World Class Tag Team. These matches existed in order to give Juniors TV time before BOSJ, and to continue establishing Loa and SANADA’s finishers. That’s all.

Cleanliness: Right Next to Gedoliness

G1 Climax block dynamics often require a bit of persona shapeshifting. In some cases, a G1 block needs balance; there might be a heavy amount of workrate nonsense, and so a wrestler might have to act excessively and uncharacteristically nefarious for a month. Perhaps because there’s simply too much going on in a particular block, and a wrestler will have to work a pristine slate to counteract the story nonsense. Whatever the motivation, tracts of character development will emerge and, often times, dissipate between nights 18 and 19. Sometimes, we yearn for that evaporation, and yet those unfortunate tracts of character development persist. Sometimes we lament.

Tama Tonga has now experienced both sides of this seasonal sea change. In 2018, as the Elite had a foot and a half out the door, holding world titles they wouldn’t defend, building match structures to stockpile Youtube content, breaking kayfabe in the ring to amuse themselves, mentally preparing for the guaranteed ticker tape parade through Bunkyo that they would assuredly receive on Jan 6th, and going out of their way to make other companies money on the way out… as, all that was taking shape, Tama was pushed in a very peculiar direction.

On the cusp of the Firing Squad’s creation, G1 Climax 28 Tama was situated as an unrepentant, braggadocious litterbug that would gladly sacrifice a match result to fuck with an opponent, and fuck with the system itself. This is also the era where G.O.D. had a regrettable bit of on-camera business with Harold Meij (who despite pronouncing his last name in a way that makes no sense in Dutch, is still a Dutch businessman and happened to be correct about everything, even after he was lambasted thoroughly in response to reports from the Elite’s media mouthpieces). Also agreeable to Tama in this era: jumping the rail and scaring the bejesus out of an obstreperous fan that went one heckle too far. Good times.

For 2021, both members of Guerrillas of Destiny received the exact opposite G1 self-contained canon treatment: a month-long establishment of Haku’s boys as grateful, sporting competitors. Bullet Club is in such flux, it made sense to just let the boys exhibit their natural likeability. Unfortunately, it appeared that the post-G1 dissipation was in full effect, their deference being simply a by-product of G1 conditions.  On this tour, it appeared that they were back to the old tricks, setting people up for Jado’s cane nonsense and being largely disingenuous.

And yet on this card, they reverted back to their G1 selves. Jado was an earnestly supportive second, his kendo stick a symbolic prop. He did the bare minimum that his jacked-as-fuck old man body would allow in this undercard tag, and presented an innocuous, fervently reassuring presence for Tama Tonga in the semi-main.

One thing I appreciate more than anything in a results-based wrestling company like this, especially a faction-heavy one, is considerate and supportive relationships, face or heel. I think it’s fairly safe to conclude that the domestic Japanese audience shares those sentiments. It’s the sort of the thing that babyfaced Suzuki-gun to the point where they might be the #2 faction, as depleted as they have been in the last two years. This persuasion might babyface G.O.D. and Jado pretty rapidly, unless they throw it away and toss these guys into House of Torture.

Considering what these three put up with in the first few months of the year, it would be downright villainous to compel them to join that wretched group.

Hiromu: A Perpetually Acquired Taste

We’re now in the third phase of Hiromu. Every time Hiromu returns from an absence, we’re confronted with the jarring, overwhelmingly contrived nature of his zealous, unflinchingly feral disposition. He’s been particularly hard to readjust to him due to the stop-start dynamics inherent with the timing of his return. He came back from injury in late August, lost to Robbie Eagles in early September, and then had to go back into storage during the G1, emerging only to eat some falls in place of his stable’s injured bellwether. And get absolutely obliterated  by KENTA’s backstage comments leading up to the match. Good Lord, do yourself a favor and watch this one if you haven’t already. With all respect to the people doing otherworldly mic work in Jacksonville, KENTA is beyond otherworldly right now.

His return to manic form on this tour reminds me of a Michelin starred chef that emulsifies half their ingredients, flash freezes the other half, deconstructs everything, and tosses handfuls of black truffles on the results.

Then, they close their restaurant, reopen another that is 95% the same (but with a name in a different language), and everyone realizes: this is complete BALLS. Why did they spherify the lamb? But, within six months, everyone is besides themselves with the idea of eating their dessert on a hand-held lazy Susan as it drips off the railing of the fire escape in the back alleyway.

That’s what Hiromu reminds me of. I don’t know why Hiromu and Taguchi decided to build a sub-angle around Mongolian chops on this tour. Hiromu faced Tenzan in a tag match once on this tour: Night 5 in Aomori, which was not televised. Taguchi tagged with Tenzan on Night 1 in Korakuen. That’s the extent of both men’s interactions with the fridge head.

I can’t explain any of these idiosyncrasies at the moment, but when he grabbed the camera as it tried to maintain focus on SANADA after their victory, that was where I felt the involuntary, magnetic pull that lead me to embracing earfuls of frenetic, choleric gibberish arbitrarily alternating w/ sedate, trenchant exposition. You win again, Hiromu, just in time for Super Juniors.

Nothing’s Changed. I Still Love You, Oh I Still Love You… Only Slightly, Only Slightly Less Than I Used To, Wa-to (& SANADA)

So yeah, stop me if you’ve come across this one before:

SANADA’s on the brink. It’ll be any day now.

It’s not exactly a winning style to run off your pathetically low readership (before the actual review portion of the review even begins), but I can’t shake this notion that something is percolating for SANADA. They’re giving him a lot of falls with that O’Connor Bridge, and the camera seems to linger on him more in these matches. It did in Korakuen and it especially did here. What made Hiromu’s usurpation of the camera during LIJ’s exit so funny was that he almost had to do it. The camera followed SANADA the entire length of the ramp, and from a side angle from which they normally don’t do that.

There’s also the case of crowd reactions. Who knows what this will look like with legitimate crowd responses, but I absolutely perceive a unique tenor to the reactions SANADA has been getting lately. For instance, in this match, Hiromu coaxed SANADA into participating in the aforementioned Mongolian Chop argle-bargle. The crowd noticeably perked up in appreciation for SANADA… phlegmatic, stolid, indecipherable SANADA… engaging in that foolishness. But this isn’t comedy spot reaction, it goes well beyond that. This really does seem like an expression of where the domestic audience sees SANADA, and its higher than we’ve perceived it before.

SANADA’s made some adjustments as well. For one, he finally delivered tangible backstage comments during this G1 Climax, burying Chase Owens into the opposite side of the planet (my favourite 14 seconds of wrestling in 2021, see below) and offering up a baffling, inscrutable new catchphrase: “Check 1-2.” The likely outcome here is that SANADA sinks deeper into the Goto Abyss, but I highly recommend watching this tag to witness just how clearly SANADA has endeared himself to the attendees.  

New Japan has pushed the KEEP WARM button on the SANADA water cooker model for 3 whole years now. It might be foolish to expect them to push the button again and boil off the Goto flavours that have been infused in the SANADA drink. I’m just saying, the signs are there that the disarming amiability of SANADA, in spite of his enduring ataraxia and arbitrary flourishes of sloppiness (or maybe enchanced by it), may be reaching critical mass. Finally.

NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship
House of Torture (EVIL, SHO, and Yujiro Takahashi) def. CHAOS (Hirooki Goto, Tomohiro Ishii, and YOSHI-HASHI) (C)

SHO’s HOT persona is Marty Feldman with Frontal Lobe Trauma. It’s really not much different than his CHAOS persona, which was a slight variant, more like a seething pug that watched Makabe-Ishii on repeat while their master was at work all day.

What SHO presented in this match, though, is the subtle likability potential of House of Torture. It’s not an inherent likeability. It takes some assiduous, concentrated effort to unmask and unpack this trait, but this six-man tag was replete with House of Torture’s (and EVIL’s) best idiosyncrasy: their fondness for looking like impotent, overmatched buffoons.

They shrewd ability to exploit that buffoonery for either catharsis (such as EVIL’s loss to Shingo at the MetLife Wrestle Grand Slam, or any major EVIL defeat) or maddening frustration (the other 95% of the time). We need to see them lose because they deserve to lose.  They are incompetent, impotent, vapid cretins and a waste of everyone’s time in an epoch where we’ve had to confront just how brutally dreadful time really is.

Case in point: in this match, SHO and Ishii squared off a number of times. This has backstory stretching ages into the past, especially the period in 2020 when the two CHAOS six-man teams squared off twice within a month over the vacant NEVER 6-Man titles. The centerpiece of that internecine animus was the particularly fervent scrapping between Ishii and SHO.

SHO has been pestering Ishii all tour. In this match, they engaged in several portions of the match. The most memorable was their initial scrap, in which a truculent SHO laid stiff forearms into Ishii. Ishi absorbed them all, increasingly aggravated, until he just dropped SHO with one hard shot, sending the brazen Junior scrambling in a disoriented fog.

As pointed out by noted polemicist Joel Abraham, the G1 Climax match between Jeff Cobb and Evil might have been a proof of concept. When EVIL is vanquished, it’s pretty great. On a smaller scale, his underlings in House of Torture provide the same release, like SHO taunting Ishii relentlessly and then getting annihilated. As much as their callow balderdash is so excessive that it demands we recognize and remember that wrestling is fake… there’s still good, traditional pro wrestling trying to envelope the inanity.

Considering that Suzuki-gun have been babyfaced because of their earnest roguishness, and LIJ went through the same babyfacing years prior (in truth, before the could even truly heel out), BULLET CLUB and this subfaction could fill a niche. But House of Torture is so demonstratively egregious, to the point of screaming the contrivance of the medium… well, fuck ‘em. It’s not fun when they do it. More importantly, it’s not engaging. Not only do we find ourselves fighting the process, we’re fighting the existence of the process.

Even though this match, in a scant 13 minutes, was saturated in House of Torture vulnerability. Even though EVIL has failed for an entire year, serving more as a pellucid boogeyman for the New Japan fanbase, like CRT for the suburban soccer mom in every puro traditionalist. Deep down we know its hogwash, deep down we know this motherfucker won’t prevail, but the chance of EVIL attaining any accolade is such a dyspeptic concept that, simply put, a mass of Westerners decided they’d rather spend all their time on a promotion with Austin Gunn and Played by Julian. 

As for other aspects of the match, there was a bit of clever interplay in the opening seconds. House of Torture did the Down Low Too Sweet thing, then went for a sneak attack, having learned that their opponents often use the DLTS as an opportunity to pounce. But CHAOS had already anticipated that, and cut them off with a preemptive sneak attack.

By the way, that is the only bit of video from this match that NJPW has offered on social media. Not even a gif, just that once video. Just remember, even though Japan seems to be in a future timeline of technology that the rest of the world is constantly chasing, culturally they are not always aligned with their tech. It took years for them to embrace digital manga, and even now there is still lingering reticence. TV Asahi’s baffling, clueless obstinance is just in line with orthodoxy, unfortunately.

Not everything in this match was spectacular or had any deeper connections to anything outside the match. The crowd seemed interested until Yujiro sucked the life out of the crowd. Almost certainly, this confirms Yujiro to be an energy vampire. If he is a Colin Robinson, I hope Pieter is ready to take responsibility for the goo-baby that emerges when Yujiro finally disintegrates.

The camera work was as disinvested as the crowd. The one thing, the one goddamn thing that we can eagerly anticipate in an EVIL match is his assault on the ring announcer, when he sends either Ozaki or Abe ass over tea kettle. It never fails. Its so well established that Shingo and Cobb have elaborately set EVIL up on the table to do it to him. Great spots.

In this case, not only did the spot happen off-camera, the camera next to the EVIL-instigated catastrophe started to turn towards the aftermath, turned back towards the ring before reaching the scene, and then the feed cut to the wide shot. I’m so perplexed. After a year of showing this spot, which has developed into BC EVIL’s signature spot, they went to these lengths to keep it off camera. We could hear the house mic being fumbled with through the PA system.

Getting back to the vulnerability aspect, a lot of EVIL’s spots failed here. YOSHI-HASHI and CHOS thwarted him at every turn, except for the one failsafe method: Dick Togo pulling the ref out of the ring before the three count. It’s frustrating, rebarbative nonsense, lacking any charm or heelish avoirdupois. It just sucks, but the crowd responded audibly. I’ve perceived noticeably less reaction of this sort to EVIL lately, but it still does exist.

YOH returned to spoil HOT’s post-match decimation of the CHAOS boys, looking more K-Pop than ever. And I don’t make that reference lightly. YOH looks like a member of GOT7, specifically. YOH rules. I wish him well in the torrent of unprotected chairshots coming his way (with cushioned chairs, the horror). ***1/2

 As the venerable, indefatigable Chris Samsa told us, this defense was twenty-three minutes short than the previous defense, a 36 minute affair on August 1st between the CHAOS boys and LIJ (BUSHI, SANADA, and the woefully uncapitalized Naito). 

Of course, time is merely a number when it comes to this title reign. Some matches, like defense #2 against Suzuki-gun (Dangerous Tekkers and DOUKI), were legitimately great, even at 32:25. Others, like defense #3 against the BULLET CLUB squadron of Jay White and G.O.D., were underwhelming and unbearable at 27:01.

In their 454 day reign, CHAOS defended these titles nine times. Seven out of nine times were at Korakuen Hall, with the trio main eventing six out of those seven times. They averaged 27:13 per match on this campaign (including their title win and title loss, 11 total matches). That’s a full five hours of in-ring action this wonderful campaign produced. The Cagematch average of their 11-match series, 9 defenses bookended by the win and loss of the championship, is a commendable 7.87 (median 7.895). Considering the state of the titles before the won them, averaging nearly 4 stars a match over the course of a year is astounding.

In short, this was not only the best NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Title reign by a wide margin, it is also the best title reign of New Japan’s pandemic era. If this is YOSHI-HASHI’s one run, he did well.

 Provisional KOPW2021 Championship
Amateur Wrestling Rules Match Stipulation
Toru Yano (c) def. Great-O-Khan

Speaking of proof of concepts… the KOPW experiment can officially be declared: worth it. Taichi’s amusement at this match and the extended preamble introducing it was hilarious. When Sato was announced as the Chairman of the Mat, Taichi broke hard. They also announced Abe as the main referee and Yuji Nagata was given some title and acted as judge, being the most credentialed person they have. That set the tone for a charming match and concept.

They went through an agreeable explanation of the point system, although I couldn’t help but wonder if this also serves as a primer on why wrestling, one of the original 1896 games, a sport so explicitly tied to the Olympics , both the modern games and of antiquity, was almost dropped from the the games altogether. In fact, it was literally voted out in 2013 and had to do a hell of a lot of adjustments to get back in. I’d have to imagine the UWW’s secret Singapore holding accounts must be down to a mere 10 digits to satiate the IOC. Maybe 9!

This worked so well because they committed to the bit. All the bluster and sober procedure leading into the bout gave everything a sense of earnestness. GOK came out in proper wrestling singlet, which I believe drew an audible reaction from the crowd (I couldn’t tell because the Japanese commentary team went absolutely bonkers over this completely perfunctory reveal. I went bonkers when I figured out that GOK was not wearing a headband… he wrapped tape around his head like a headband. GOK rules).

When Yano emerged, you could sense the anticipation in the crowd. Yano also revealed a proper wrestling singlet, and was also entirely restrained about it. Yano later delivered a thoroughly sincere and sedate backstage comment on the benefits of amateur wrestling, counseling youth to attempt the sport and proffering amateur wrestling as the thing that sparked his interest in professional wrestling.

This match was a fun and believably worked match that exploited the point system well. In the first round, Yano went out into an early lead thanks to a mildly disputed call by Nagata. GOK took the advantage with a takedown and roll. That gave him a 4-1 lead heading into the second round.

In that round, both men traded -point rope judgments, and it seemed like an underlying story of the match was GOK’s deficient stamina. The way GOK got off the mat, the way he moved throughout the ring… all seemed to indicate that this was a fighter with a low tank. Again, none of this would have worked unless everyone involved sincerely engaged in the concept, and the two performers obligated to pull this off didn’t have legit credentials themselves. I don’t know enough about Oka’s backstory to know why he didn’t go for the Olympics, but he certainly has a list of dithyrambs to back his talk up:

Yano trailing 5-2 in the second period, pulled out a 6-5 victory with an overhead belly-to-belly suplex throw late in the contest. GOK, of course, took the loss uncouthly, attacking Yano, the Young Lions, and Nagata in succession. Just like in real Olympic wrestling, this one was won on points, for an audience that had a cursory understanding of what the point distinctions meant, and with a mild controversy over the point determinations, to boot. 

That is, it captured the essence of freestyle wrestling. Except for the part about being god-awful boring most of the time. This was awesome.  ***1/2

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship
El Desperado def. Robbie Eagles (C)

As the final IWGP Junior Heavyweight title match of 2021, this was a well-deserved pairing. El Desperado and Robbie Eagles have been staunch foundations of the division at a time when the division is skeletal and desperate to escape pandemic New Japan monotony. They’ve had tremendous defenses, and have fully established themselves as top-level juniors. 

If anything, the pandemic has allowed these guys to ascend in a no-stakes environment, which was all they really needed; as likeable, methodical workers with charming personalities (though we’d have to give a significant edge in talking to Despy over Eagles, and just about everyone but KENTA), all they really needed was time at the top. The chance to educate the audience that they belong in the main event Junior Heavyweight title scene.

They both do, assuredly.

This was one of several rematches of sorts on this show, and the most interesting example of two wrestlers constructing a throughline and narrative between their contests. The other rematches on this show had little material connection to their previous affairs; they were either entirely different or the differences were negligible. In their third singles match, Desperado and Eagles had a match that showed distinguishable growth from their first two bouts, a different foundational strategy but one naturally extended from those earlier confrontations and captured the same essence.

Robbie Eagles returned to New Japan for last year’s Best of the Super Juniors, and met Desperado on the penultimate night of the tournament. Despy won that battle with the Loco Mono-Pinche Loco sequence that they were establishing as his bedrock endgame in that run. The match itself was entirely bound together by Eagles exquisite leg selling, which forced him to abandon moves in mid-stride and continually buckle and/or crumple to the mat when landing off a jump. Instinctual predator Desperado took full advantage of that undulating vulnerability, but still chose to cheat in the end.

Their second match, from July’s Wrestle Grand Slam in Tokyo Dome, was a subtly audacious affair. Instead of going for the gusto, being a fucking Dome show and all, these two delivered a restrained, methodical leg v. leg match. There was a simplicity to their movements, and a sublime level of control from both. Because they have similar target methodologies, that match accentuated their differing perspectives on professional wrestling.

Despy would rather drag his opponent into the grime, playing a devilish game of patience, waiting for the opportunity to exploit an invitation or tell. For a Junior, he’s remarkably grounded, even though you wouldn’t say his basis is groundwork. He’s an opportunist. This is what brought him from mid-level to top-level.

Eagles strategically peppers his sober, scrupulous offense with risk; his nickname is all about his flying prowess, after all. But really, is best attribute is his impeccable, dexterous work and his diligence. The guy rarely flubs, and his ringwork is lazer focused on whatever gameplan his match revolves around. Robbie Eagles is almost callously vicious, clinically breaking down his opponent. A nice complement to Desperado’s jocularly contemptuous, expressive cruelty.

In their Wrestle Grand Slam match, Eagles was able to maneuver control away from Desperado and apply the Ron Miller Special after ruthlessly attacking Despy’s knee in the set-up position (akin to how he beat Hiromu two months later). Despy tapped.

One thing missing in this feud? The sort of fluidity and multi-level sequencing that is abundant in Desperado’s matches with his other pandemic rival, Taiji Ishimori, the third in the 2021 Junior Bedrock Triad. Ishimori is the best junior in the company over the last two years. His two matches with Despy, their only two singles matches ever, are simply not mentioned enough. They rule. One would think Ishimori’s Bone Lock and Despy’s Numero Dos would be incompatible, and yet flow so seamlessly between each other when those two are the ones fighting over them. And that’s just one example. Ishimori and Despy has been a flawless pairing, and an inventive one. 

In this match, Eagles and Desperado finally injected workrate grappling pliability into their rivalry. Case in point: in the battle over who could deliver a tope con giro, the two ended up stringing together a really great sequence highlighted by Eagles walking up and flipping off the ring post. Or the way Eagles squirmed out of the Pinche Loco and quickly turned the position into an Asai DDT. Or the entire sequence when Despy was trying to hit the Muerte. Or when Desperado went for Pinche Loco, Robbie turned it into a rana with a pin, Despy kicked out, and in one motion Eagles dropped a knee to Desperado’s leg.  Or, really, everything past minute 11.

Considering the meticulousness of the first two matches, the fact that they were fighting over who would hit a flying move was evidence of the distinctive nature of this match in context of their rivalry.

Unfortunately for Robbie, the ending here suggested that Despy did his homework on those previous encounters. After that rana pin/kneedrop combo, Eagles went to end things with the Ron Miller Special. This time, he tried to soften the knee first. Despy was able to adjust, having learned from the previous match. Unlike the previous match, Eagles didn’t apply the Ron Miller Special before hammering the knee and re-applying. Thus, because of Eagles error and impatience, Despy saw what was coming and had the wherewithal to stop it. He rolled up Eagles and instantly turned that position into Numero Dos.

In the previous two matches, Desperado went for that inescapable, final form Numero Dos where his grasps both wrists and leaves his opponent helpless and immobile. In both cases, he couldn’t gain control over both wrists. This time, he managed to roll Eagles to the center of the ring and control both wrists. Eagles tapped, and was almost unsettlingly emotional in his backstage comments.  ****¼

I mean, I believe him more than I might have if he was on a trial stand in Wisconsin, I’m just not sure if this does him well or not. Does it accentuate the status of the title, and compel us to cheer Robbie on to regain it? In the end, Eagles’ work is so exceptional that, even if you find this jarring and vitiating to Robbie’s reputation, he’ll just reclaim his spot in the ring.

The question here: was it worth taking the belt off Eagles before BOSJ and Wrestle Kingdom? That depends on how you view Eagles stature at the moment, but I certainly did not see him at a Wrestle Kingdom title match level. Not yet. This title reign is a giant step into that strata.

Whether this reign was too short… I ran the data on that. If we break up the history of the IWGP Junior Heavyweight title into five-year increments, we see some clear trends, and Eagles reign is almost perfectly in line with the average reign length of this epoch. We go with five year trends because that gives us the current 2017-2021 timespan, which covers the point where Hiromu won his first title from the long-retired KUSHIDA at Wrestle Kingdom 11 and brings us to today.

Robbie Eagles first IWGP Junior Heavyweight title reign lasted 104 days. This is how that fits into the Hiromu Era:

With 14 reigns in this timeframe (including his own and not including Desperado’s 2nd, which began with this victory over Eagles) Eagles’ reign ends up being about ten days short of average, and literally is the median. Of course, some of this is skewed because of Hiromu’s two injury-interrupted reigns. Regardless, this was a perfectly acceptable and contextually normal title reign. Eagles confirmed that he could sit atop a division, if only for a standard amount of days. 

IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship
KENTA def. Hiroshi Tanahashi (C)

 One year ago, KENTA defeated Tanahashi to hold the United States Championship briefcase, after bludgeoning Tanahashi multiple times with the thing, leaving a Tanahashi shaped crevice in the damn thing, and very near contaminating the ring with botox poison if he ruptured a cheek. 

Afterwards, he delivered what I consider not only the best promo of 2020, but one of the best promos ever delivered, certainly in the “backstage comment” format. It’s a promo only he could deliver, with his superlative, recherché cadence, tone. His otherworldly ability to balance wildly incongruent message, subject, and purpose:

This year has been equally exceptional in the build up. KENTA, with his dismissive verneer and Lucky☆Star haircut, delivered an unprecedented backstage comment, not only shifting tones and juggling sincerity and irony with remarkable deftness, but he critiqued Tanahashi’s in-ring show closing address in real time. As far as I know, no one has done this, certainly not with the conviction that KENTA did. We’ve been watching these for years, and KENTA broke the barrier. And it was fucking awesome, on its own, a virtuosic performance of diction, tonal shifts, and disdain:

Last year’s Power Struggle match between these two was somewhat prosaic, and would have come across as an oddly unambitious and borning encounter… if it weren’t for the two all-time Hall of Fame level legends executing the stuff. They didn’t do much last year beyond the basics and trademark routines. It was cosmopolitan aside from their staggering charisma and inherently captivating demeanors. They didn’t parade out gimmickry, they didn’t go for facile tricks, and the match ending was fairly clean. It was as professional as wrestling can get, taking a 3.5 star match and, by synthesizing, absorbing and controlling the heightened context, transmuting it into a 4.25 star match.

They made up for that restraint this year.

So, there was some extended character work to start, and it worked because KENTA’s the best character in wrestling. Tanahashi coaxed the crowd into clapping at the bell. KENTA, incredibly, usurped the clapping. He just started clapping at a different rhythm, and within seconds he had all of Edion following his lead. So the Tanahashi stole it back. Superlative. 

Then they started tossing the air guitar to each other. I was convinced that nothing could top KENTA running through a gauntlet of air instruments, mostly air bass, to mock Tanahashi last year, with vainglorious glee. But this year, he did top himself, in this match: when Tanahashi tried to rattle KENTA by tossing him the air guitar, KENTA appropriated the entire situation by turning it into an air violin. New Japan KENTA is a marvel.

Apart from that frivolity, the gimmickry and balderdash was filled to the brim:

  • They fought on the outside; newer fans wondering why Tanahashi runs the way that he does should take note – the snap bodyslam he took on the ramp is the answer.
  • They brought out a table, which was strange. KENTA has saturated his matches with fuckery, especially in the G1 this year, but a table is totally divorced from any of that fuckery. At one point, I thought this was going to be an example of Chekov’s Gun remaining on the wall. But then they did use it. Tanahashi delivered a High Fly Flow from the top to the table set up ringside, with KENTA emerging with a sliced up back. A bad one. Like, Despy after the Super Juniors final last year, where it looked like someone to a fresh, sharpened scapel and just ran a line vertically. Conclusion: maybe don’t use tables from Big Lots for spots like that

Of course, these are two of the smartest, and quite possibly the two most self-aware and self-honest wrestlers in the company, if not the world. They knew goddamn well that with the way Tanahashi has been moving since the latter third of the G1 Climax, that this match needed whatever bewitchery could get them past twenty minutes.

The match did end as a result of the fuckery that is KENTA’s fuckery-of-choice right now: the exposed corner spot. There was a brutally awkward attempt to accomplish this spot near the end of the match… I won’t give this the thorough excoriation I gave last year’s Wato-DOUKI ref bump, but this one was brutally dire itself.

The sequence: Tanahashi was struggling to secure the Texas Cloverleaf, but KENTA shrewdly squirmed his way towards the exposed corner. He tugged on Tanahashi, but the leverage was off, so they had to actually entangle their limbs so KENTA could pull Tanahashi into the corner. The problem is, AARP Hiroshi Tanahashi is not diving impetuously into an exposed turnbuckle. What ended up happening: he essentially stiff-armed the buckle and kinda shoulder-bumped the ropes adjacent to the buckle. Didn’t even come close to his protection hand. Just sort of bounced off the rope and fell backwards into a KENTA roll-up. It was mesmerizingly dreadful. 

Eventually, KENTA finally did run this old pheasant-esque bastard into the exposed buckle, and then something really cool happened.

Last year, KENTA v. Tanahashi ended with KENTA forcing Tanahashi to tap out to the Game Over. It was 100% clean. The funny thing: the crowd audibly reacted to KENTA rolling Tanahashi to the middle, just as Tanahashi appeared to reach the ropes. They knew this was the end. Even though it was forbidden, they involuntarily responded vocally to the demise of their Ace at the hands of this incorrigible bastard.

This year? SAME REACTION! When KENTA ran Tanahashi into the exposed buckle, he followed it up by lifting him into the Go to Sleep position. The crowd audibly reacted because they knew this was the end. KENTA spent the entire goddamn G1 teaching us that the exposed buckle is his endgame; once he runs someone into it, the match is essentially over. KENTA nailed the G2S and got the three-count. Different finish, same stifled but audible reaction. It was pretty awesome.

Not many pairings could have taken this match and made it tolerable. This is a uniquely historic pairing, though. ***3/4

Kazuchika Okada (C?) def. Tama Tonga

 In Tama Tonga’s backstage comments, he referred to himself as the winner.

He’s right. If you’re reading this, Tama, you’re right. You fucking won. From whatever lens you want to view this, from reality to fabrication to a confluence of the two, Tama won.

Earlier I alluded to G.O.D. and Jado being in the process of being babyfaced, and how they deserve it more than anyone else on the entire fucking planet (in wrestling) because of how their year began. Let’s now consider how his year began, for Tama:

  • 22 matches between Tama, Tanga Loa, and Jado v. Dangerous Tekkers and DOUKI between 15 December 2020 and 26 May 2021.
    • Of those twenty-two  matches, seventeen  took place in a thirty-one-day stretch (4 April to 4 May)
    • Add three G.O.D. v. Tekkers matches where someone besides Jado or DOUKI were involved (Chase Owens, Yujiro, and Minoru Suzuki)
    • Add three regular IWGP World Tag Team title matches (4 January, 10 February, 1 June)
    • Add an elimination tag match they were involved with on 1 February
    • Add an 8-man tag they were involved with on 3 February
    • Add a random G.O.D. v. Sabre & DOUKI on 26 May.
  • A ladder match on 3 May. A 27:11 ladder match. Over a gimmicked piece of steel vaguely shaped like a hand.
  • A months-long character arc in which he had to act possessed by that hunk of steel, portraying an outlandishly erratic Mad Hatter character that was unsettlingly incongruous. Like, if you think EVIL and Dick Togo give up the ghost on this company, Iron Fingers Tama was a million times worse. The sad part: he played the role exactly how it was intended. The better his rendition of this persona,, the worse for everyone else.

 The FUCK. This is a dojo guy! Through no fault of his own, beyond delivering what was asked of him, Tama Tonga actively drove fans away, without question. Especially in the West. It might be facile, but compounding the cantankerous EVIL garbage with the intolerable framing of the G.O.D.-Tekkers rivalry, why wouldn’t you just bail and wait for things to get better?

At one point, both teams’ backstage promos had devolved into incredulous griping about how aggravated they were with that specific match-up. Leading up to Wrestling Dontaku, they did three No Contests in a row. The story wasn’t that they couldn’t contain their sanguinary bitterness anymore; the story was that they were sick of having matches against each other.

So yes, Tama Tonga walking into World Tag League with a modestly praised G1, followed up by the best singles match of his career, confidently and cavalierly holding his own with the greatest New Japan wrestler of this generation… yes, Tama won. He won people over, and defeated the leviathan of TRASH that was compiled around him in the first six months of the year.

The match had an incredible pace to start, something rare from Okada, and even more rare that he would be an active contributor of establishing that pace. In that way, Tama won yet again, because he provoked Okada into wrestling at his speed. He compelled Okada to treat the opening stages of a match not as an extended, measured prologue, but an in medias res. Obviously they slowed things down considerably, but there were things they did to make time appear faster. 

Tama, for instance, played around with the New Japan 19-count spot, which they’ve been doing far too much of lately (even by their standards). In the beginning of the match, it looked like Tama was going to wait out Okada and inject that spot into this match. But then Tama broke the count out of nowhere at 11 to slide outside and suplex Okada on the floor. Great timing amplified by clever inversion of current trends.

Another thing that made this match great: Tama got ridiculous air on all of Okada’s signature moves. Every dropkick sent him into low orbit. They flew and crumbled to the floor after the top rope dropkick. The way he launched himself backwards on the flying front dropkick. This really implies that all Okada does is variations of the dropkick, but Tama made them all look so goddamn great.

The crowd, and this was not a traditionally vibrant Edion crowd, were gradually drawn in. Tama, and G.O.D. in general, leave a lot of empty space in their matches, and unfortunately they usually end up as voids. The interstitial and transitory spaces in their matches are bereft of urgency. Sometimes this pays off by the end, oftentimes it just feels like wasted time. In this match, time amalgamated and built. 

In part, Tama lacked urgency between sequences, but he also shortened those spaces a bit in this match (or, it seemed like he had), and his body language suggested that he was fully imbued with the weight of the moment. His movements seemed like they had a little more focus, more determination to them. He never took his eyes off Okada. He was embracing the stakes and the moment.

When I spoke of fluidity in the Eagles-Despy match, we saw august versions of that in this match. The way moves flowed into and exploded out of one another through most of this match was sublime.

The counters at the end went one round too many, and the final sequence was a bit repetitive, but also at a blistering tempo. In the end, the story of the match was that Okada managed to hold up the Gun Stun every time, and Tama tried several times. On his end, Tama avoided the Rainmaker several times as well. It was going to come down to whomever could find that minute invitation to execute their finisher, and Okada once again found that opening. In fencing terms, the match turned to in-fighting, and Okada was the in-fighting, eventually. ****1/4

Now, who didn’t win? Okada, the winner. 

After a year and a half of trying to reclaim the top spot by hubristically insisting on applying his dopey new submission hold, coyly referring to Western dissent over the EVIL push, killing every crowd, then bringing back the Rainmaker but losing to Shingo anyway, this is his answer: just wear the belt of his peak years, and maybe everyone will just think it’s 2017 again.

And it might be working! I get the sense that people are into it. Maybe they’re trolling? Maybe its insincere? I don’t know, but its out there. Listen, I don’t care how that strap on his shoulder makes you nostalgic for the concept of “a little while ago,”, or how thoroughly it distracts you from the underlying sentiment that this company can very well decide to do a retcon erase of an entire year of its canon on 8 January. Okada wearing that belt to the ring, to defend the right to face the actual champion on 4 January, in a big arena with big arena atmosphere… it’s a bit pathetic. This Kazuchika Okada is a moonstruck imbecile. 

Granted, Okada has gradually tempered the belligerently insouciant comments he made at the G1 Final. Although he slips and refers to himself as a champion, he mostly admits that this belt merely acts as a replacement for the briefcase, which everyone can admit was a seven-year mistake. 

He’s also specifically pointed out that he has not worn the V4 around his waist. Apparently he is saving that for his big win on 8 January? He’s been furtively taciturn about what he plans to do once he’s gathered up all the belts. He might want to be careful about this though; the last guy to make a big deal about refusing to wear a championship belt around his waist was Ibushi, earlier this year. We saw how that ended.

If this is intentional, that’s a great callback

IWGP World Heavyweight  Championship
Shingo Takagi (C) def. Zack Sabre Jr.

As with the previous matches on this card, I went back and looked over Zack and Shingo’s G1 Climax match, to see if there were any goodies buried in this one that referenced it. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much, except for one thing.

But it’s a big thing.

In the G1 Climax 31 match, Zack tapped Shingo out to a flash armbar. Obviously, any submission ZSJ applies isn’t necessarily a flash sub. They always seem to emerge from an IKEA instruction booklet’s steps of holds and adjustments and transitions. In this case, Zack worked a triangle, switched it to an armbar as Shingo tried to stand up out of it, and Shingo could do nothing as he was in the dead center of the ring. No matter which way he rolled, he was fucked.

Zack worked so assiduously in this match match to secure that armbar again. If you rewatch from that very narrow lens, you can see the minutiae of Sabre’s techniques building towards that moment. At every step, he’s working towards a culminating moment. 

For instance, if you watch the first match, there is a lot more matwork, and a lot more action in the center of the ring. This time, Shingo was considerably stronger in the center, and had considerably more burst. Zack learned that lesson from the outset. Zack’s adjustment was to exploit the fringes. Like a Stephen Miller of the Mat.

Wow, that was low. I’m sorry, Zack. Let me try again.

Exploiting the fringe? What is he, the Peter Cook of the clinch?

The tenor of the opening salvo turned sharply when Zack was able to catch Shingo in the ropes. When Shingo brought the fight to the center, he was able to completely overpower Zack and use his velocity to disrupt Sabre’s timing. So ZSJ nudged things off-center. In the first volta of the match, Zack turned things around by laying in wait near the edges, and that’s when he managed to trap Shingo’s arm off a sliding lariat. Zack stood up with Shingo’s arm between his feet and ankle and did that twisty thing he usually does to people’s neck. This time, it was to Shingo’s right arm.

Why the right arm, instead of the left, the side almost every wrestler works (outside of Mexico)? 

Because that’s the arm he caught in the G1 match to force Shingo’s submission

At the 23-minute mark exactly, Zack’s labor paid off. After a top rope arm drag, he distracted Shingo by attempting to lock the left arm, then switched over the right as Shingo committed to protecting the left. After some jostling, ZSJ was on the cusp of getting Shingo’s arm straightened. Shingo stood up and tried two meager attempts to lift Zack up. That was the invitation Zack needed to get the extension. He finally achieved the same armbar that ended the G1 match.

Except this time, Shingo fell to his right. And just to Shingo’s right were the ropes. Shingo fell into the damn ropes. Zack’s dismay was instant and clearly visible. He had it but a slight shift of momentum literally cost him. He could bemoan, but that’s all he could do.

I should also point out one other facet of Zack’s game that puts him ahead of the rest: he sells the effects of a submission on the person that went for the submission. We see this all the time in MMA. Guys go for a submission, but that itself is a gamble. The nature of locking in and securing a submission hold on an uncompliant opponent is ridiculously strenuous. The exertion of energy to execute such a thing often takes more out of the person applying than the person escaping. The residual effects of this are self-evident. Zack sells this enervation. Not after all of his blistering torrent of holds, just after the ones that matter. His depleted exasperation after this failed armbar was a prime exemplar.

Three of the match’s major plot points involved Shingo narrowly escaping Zack’s best material. The armbar was actually the least dramatic, even with the historical acknowledgment. The other two both saw Sabre hit the Zack Driver, both times fruitlessly. In the first instance, ZSJ was too enervated to even make a cover. The second Zack Driver, following a blistering penalty kick, resulted in a tremendous near-fall. Alas, not a full fall. Close enough that Taichi was absolutely apoplectic after the match, according Unno with invectives and fulminations and inherently caustic Taichiness, but not a full three count.

Selling auditors might quibble their querulous drivel about Shingo’s use of the arm. The pumping bombers, lifting Zack out of an armbar/triangle attempt (after failing throughout this match and the previous one), throwing a ferocious running forearm… all of it blatant apostasy to the fine art of treating damage to a body part on equal footing as amputation, and rejecting the notion that recovery is a part of the injury process.

What I can’t shake are the two Zack Drivers. I understand that the Zack Driver, while indisputably one of Zack’s finishing moves, is secondary to his arsenal of post-rock titled submission holds. The Zack Driver is used infrequently and functions more as a Road To finish (and mid-tour G1 Climax finish).

But it’s purpose here was to give Zack a little protection in the loss, no? If the intention is to assist the challenger and leave them with some credibility in defeat, you have to choose a path and earnestly engage with it. ZSJ hitting his move finisher on Shingo, but being unable to get the cover, that’s one path. It cleverly invites doubt, conjecture, speculation. What if he covered Shingo? Would he have scored the fall? Could Shingo have kicked out? This is Protection 101. 

Of course, we know the answer to those speculative questions.

Yes. Yes, he would have.

We know because they showed us shortly thereafter. Any future suspense or potential face-saving the first Zack Driver spot would have evoked was completely nullified by the second. In fact, this pretty much kills the Zack Driver for now. As noted above, the second one came after a string of moves, including a massive penalty. And it wasn’t like Zack aimlessly maneuvered into the Zack Driver there; he instantly grabbed Shingo, delivered the move, and pinned him immediately

The message is pretty staunch: the move is weak. It’s baffling, because that near fall was entirely unnecessary for this match. If anything, the strongest portions of the ZSJ-Shingo matches has been the periods that lacked pinfall attempts.

The match was still excellent. There were all sorts of things both guys did that amplified the arduousness of the match. For one, if you look for it you can see Shingo at times hit Zack with a different part of his right arm than normal, highlighting the effects of Sabre’s viciously focused attention to that limb. Both guys worked incredibly hard and delivered a breezy 30 minutes. ****1/4

Final Thoughts

Power Struggle 2021 will not win back any fans that have abandoned the company, nor will it incite buzz an intrigue around the promotion. It will, however, serve as a note to the future that New Japan was getting its act together long before many returned to habitual viewing. Yes, the main event scene for Wrestle Kingdom is a fucking mess, and an easily avoidable one at that, but look at what else is going on here.

A well-booked, dedicated, tested Junior Heavyweight division.

Numerous examples of seemingly unserviceable, hopeless wrestlers that have turned things around considerably: Jeff Cobb and Tama Tonga being at the forefront, and let me just throw Master Wato in that group, as well. Save your receipts on that kid, he’s looking sharp and he’s not getting pushed around by Tenzan in the backstage comments anymore, either.

Zack Sabre Jr jostling his way to the main event scene.

Add to this the bounty of possibilities available to them once things open up again. Add to this the plausibility that Wrestle Kingdom could have cheering fans.

Power Struggle 2021 was another step for New Japan. Not necessarily in the right direction, but a step. That’s good enough for now.

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