The New Beginning In Sapporo 2023 Night 1
February 4, 2023
Hokkaido Prefectural Sports Center
Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan
Watch: NJPW World
February 26th, 2020. After receiving advice from the Japanese Ministry of Health, New Japan Pro Wrestling announced that they would be canceling shows to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. It was believed to be a short-term pause on events to stop the spread of this mystery airborne illness. That sounded reasonable. Two weeks of delays, then moving forward as planned. Everything would go back to normal.
If only it were that easy. 1,074 days. Just over 35 months of attendance restrictions. Nearly three years of noise restrictions. Almost 600 muted pro wrestling shows affected by COVID-19. While there have been recent exceptions, the cloud of COVID has hung over this and every other wrestling promotion in Japan. On January 26th, 2023, that cloud was lifted as government officials announced that all live events could return to regular cheering shows with no caps on attendance. It’s been a rough ride, but puro fans can officially say that they’ve made it to the other side. With the crowd noise back, it makes these interesting New Beginning shows must-watch for me. The energy is back! Unrestricted professional wrestling is back! New Japan is back!
TALES FROM THE UNDERCARD (NAMES IN BOLD INVOLVED IN THE FALL)
- Great-O-Khan def. Oskar Leube – It’s nice that the Champion of the British opened the first televised show after Lanny Poffo’s passing. O-Khan won with the Oozora Subaru Sheep Killer submission.
- El Desperado, Minoru Suzuki, Ren Narita & Ryohei Oiwa def. House Of Torture (Dick Togo, EVIL, SHO & Yujiro Takahashi) – The House of Torture is claiming that they’ve retired the NEVER Six-Man Titles, although it seems like a scheme to get out of a defense against the Suzuki-gun remnants and Narita. Narita submitted Togo with the Cobra Stretch.
- TMDK (Kosei Fujita, Mikey Nicholls, Shane Haste & Zack Sabre Jr.) def. CHAOS (Hirooki Goto, Tomohiro Ishii & YOSHI-HASHI) & Yuto Nakashima – Sabre is teaching Fujita holds in the middle of these undercard matches, and Fujita is catching on quickly. This was the final preview match for both the Tag Team Title matches and the NJPW World TV Title match tomorrow night. Fujita tapped out Nakashima with a double wristlock.
- Guerrillas Of Destiny (Hikuleo & Tama Tonga), Hiroshi Tanahashi & Master Wato def. BULLET CLUB (El Phantasmo, Jay White, KENTA & Taiji Ishimori) – A preview tag for four of the five singles matches on the 11th. Jay White couldn’t break Hikuleo’s grip for the chokeslam, so keep an eye on that. Wato pinned Ishimori with a roll-up.
- Los Ingobernables de Japon (BUSHI, Hiromu Takahashi, SANADA & Shingo Takagi) def. CHAOS (Kazuchika Okada, Toru Yano & YOH) & Ryusuke Taguchi – A preview of the remaining main events of the tour, the Hiromu/YOH Jr. Title match tomorrow night, and the Shingo/Okada Heavyweight Title match on the 11th. Shingo pinned Taguchi with the Last of the Dragon. Post-match, YOH used a rolling knee bar to get the better of a brawl with Hiromu.
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Title: Catch 2/2 (Francesco Akira & TJP) (c) def. Just 4 Guys (DOUKI & Yoshinobu Kanemaru)
Go out of your way to see this one. Not only was this a great match on its own, but I can see this as part of the potential elevation of both Akira and DOUKI as singles players in the Jr. Title scene. This was a fantastic way to kick off the business end of the card.
This match was unbelievably great, although I may have to start believing it when it comes to Catch 2/2. Not since the days of the Young Bucks, reDRagon, and Roppongi Vice trading the titles have the IWGP Jr. Tag Titles felt as must-see as Akira and TJP have made them feel. One benefit of more international eyes returning to New Japan will be the focus put on Catch 2/2 as one of the best teams in wrestling today, right up there with the pushed teams in AEW and WWE.
That’s not to take anything away from Kanemaru and DOUKI. They were far from Just 2 Guys in this match, as Kanemaru was clinical in his attack on TJP’s leg. The work on the leg was constant, with Kanemaru going after it with chop blocks, strikes, and a Figure Four. Even when TJP was able to get Kanemaru off of him, his offense was affected as he couldn’t hold DOUKI up for Akira to hit the Leaning Tower. The leg work and the selling by TJP was fantastic.
As the pre-match video teased, this match came down to Akira and DOUKI. Akira had been more focused on DOUKI than he was on his partner all match long, which almost cost them the match at points. They were isolated in the end, with DOUKI running through his offense and scoring close nearfalls as the crowd got heavily behind him. Akira was able to flip out of the Suplex De La Luna and take DOUKI down with the Speedfire before scoring the win with the Fireball double knees. ****1/4
Will Ospreay def. Taichi
I thought the Jr. Tag Title match was going to be what I was raving about after this show. Then Will Ospreay had a singles match. This was PHENOMENAL professional wrestling.
Ospreay has given himself one year to bring himself back to the forefront of New Japan, with his specific target signified by the single wing on his ring jacket. His journey began here taking on Taichi in a special singles match in Taichi’s home region of Sapporo.
Taichi didn’t take this challenge lightly, and after Ospreay tried hitting him with the kicks made famous by his mentor Toshiaki Kawada, Taichi tried his hardest to make Ospreay fail this first test. Those Kawada kicks took this match into second gear, where these guys just kept throwing bombs until they couldn’t throw them anymore. Heavy chops and hard kicks led to Ospreay dropping Taichi with a Tiger Driver ’98. Taichi responded with a goddamn Ganso Bomb, which Chris Charlton excellently explained the origins of with great detail.
But it’s the finish of this match that took it all the way over the top for me. Ospreay hit Taichi with a jumping Hidden Blade, and had him set up for another one when Taichi rose to his feet. Ospreay laid in heavy elbow after elbow as Taichi refused to stay down. Taichi got off a big shot that rocked Ospreay, but Ospreay finally dropped him with a heavy rolling elbow. The ref pulled Ospreay off of Taichi, starting a 10 count. As his hometown crowd chanted his name, Taichi refused to take a knockout loss. He shoved the ref out of the way, making Ospreay take the kill shot. Hidden Blade and Stormbreaker scored the win.
I’ve tried talking myself down. I’ve tried talking myself out of it. But I can’t do it. This was unbelievably great professional wrestling. This was passion and fire and heart and everything I love about wrestling. I would have loved this regardless of crowd noise or restrictions, but the crowd willing Taichi back to his feet made it clear that the New Japan that I love is all the way back. *****
Tetsuya Naito def. Shota Umino
I understand the story and what these guys were trying to accomplish. But this was a mind-numbingly boring affair that suffered greatly from a lack of crowd connection to Umino.
The parallels drawn here between Naito and Umino and Naito and Keiji Mutoh were made clear by the English announcers. Eleven years ago, the upstart Stardust Genius Tetsuya Naito wrestled his hero Keiji Mutoh at the Tokyo Dome. Mutoh beat him decisively. Now, three weeks before Naito “retires” Mutoh in that same building, the upstart Roughneck Shota Umino looked to pull off the upset that Naito couldn’t all those years ago.
The story that was told here was to mirror that first Naito/Mutoh match by having Naito shown to be leagues ahead of Umino. The problem was that this match was really, really, really, REALLY FUCKING BORING. Umino was not over here in Sapporo. So most of this match was the crowd sitting on their hands as Naito slooooooooowly worked over Umino for the better part of 20 minutes. Umino fought back some, getting his signature offense in. But the crowd still wasn’t into him, with Kevin Kelly generously saying it was a 70/30 Naito split in crowd chants.
Umino also blew a couple of spots, one being a big nearfall move where both he and Naito fell down before setting it up again. It’s reasonable because he just came back from an excursion, but it stands out greatly here because you rarely see blown spots in New Japan main events. And that’s the ultimate point I’m making here. This shouldn’t have been the main event. It surely shouldn’t have been THIRTY-TWO MINUTES LONG. I can’t see this having done much for Umino, and honestly, I don’t think Naito benefited from this either. While the story of the match was that Umino wasn’t ready for main events, it was proven here in a way that I doubt New Japan was looking for. This was a massive swing and a miss, one that may do real damage to Umino going forward. **