CMLL returns to Japan for the first time in three years this week for Fantasticamania 2023. The annual crossover show with NJPW returns after the pandemic hiatus and comes along with CMLL on an upswing. These should be a fun set of shows, even if they miss on reflecting Arena Mexico’s current rivalries.

All six shows of Fantasticamania air live on NJPW World. The Monday (February 27) show will air free for all, the rest as part of the usual NJPW World subscription. Commentary will be in Japanese for all broadcasts; there will be no English announcing for these events.

NJPW and CMLL’s bad habits weighed down that last Fantasticamania in 2020. NJPW’s typical expansions leading to four CMLL Korakuen Hall dates were at least an economic success but not an aesthetic one. Four straight days of notable CMLL shows is a stretch in the best of times, and 2020 CMLL was well into a rut, one they’ve only now escaped. This year’s tour has been scaled back from eight shows to six, from four Korakuen dates to just two, with a smaller CMLL roster. This year’s reductions are said to be due to venue limitations rather than creative choices, so we’ll likely see a return to a lengthier schedule in 2024. I’d be OK if it just stayed like this.

CMLL is in better shape than three years ago through talent changes, more focused directions, and the tiniest bit of modernity. CMLL moves a little faster than it has in past years, which has thrown a bit of a wrench in these shows. The hottest issues in Arena Mexico currently involve Volador & Rocky Romero, who is not present, and Templario & Soberano, who only meet in a trios match on one show. Atlantis Jr. and Los Guerreros severed their pandemic relationship this past autumn but are back together for these shows. It feels like NJPW drew these lineups up back in October, unaware of CMLL’s plans for the next four months. It’s not a fatal flaw, as these Fantasticamania shows always seem to exist somewhere on the edges of CMLL and NJPW continuity anyway. It just doesn’t fully capture the matches that have made people so excited about CMLL at this moment.

The NJPW/CMLL relationship otherwise seems strong.

New Japan seems happy to get these shows back. NJPW’s Naoki Sugabayashi, in an interview with the Mexican wrestling media this past week, mentioned he and CMLL head Salvador Lutteroth tried to get this tour back on the schedule last year, going as far as meeting with the Mexican ambassador to Japan to see if the logistics could get worked out. It wasn’t possible then, but this year’s return is doing well – NJPW is expecting to sell out these events. CMLL seems thrilled with what they’ve gotten out of Rocky Romero’s appearances in Arena Mexico in the last six months, and expect to have more crossover in this 90th anniversary year.

Sugabayshi went as far as to hint a sort of reverse Fantasticamania tour of NJPW wrestlers coming to Mexico is in the cards for 2023. Even minor things like CMLL wrestlers appearing on the NJPW US shows are a big positive. I am still skeptical about a greater AEW/CMLL/NJPW alliance, but the NJPW/CMLL portion is about as healthy as a CMLL relationship can get.

Wednesday’s opening show in Kagawa has the obligatory Tanahashi and Mistico team-up for massive pure babyface energy. It’s also the first round in everyone’s favorite game, “how long will Mistico soak in the ringside adulation after his match?” He’s a league leader in enjoying the moment. El Desperado makes his Fantasticamania debut in the semi-main, perhaps taking the spot of former Fantasticamania regular Namajague. Desperador teams with a man who unmasked Namajague many years ago, Rey Cometa.

Thursday’s show in Kyoto is a lot of casually swapped-around tag matches. The semi-main sneaks in a rare encounter between Magia Blanca and his originally CMLL trainer Ultimo Guerrero; Blanca’s since left for Volador Jr. You’re committed to watch everything if you choose to go through both Wednesday and Thursday’s show.

Tag team tournaments are a staple of these Fantasticamania shows. CMLL has steered heavily towards factions since the pandemic restarts, and those are the focus Friday in Osaka and Sunday in Chiba. Though never in main events, Los Dulce Atrapasuenos (Rey Cometa & Dulce Gardenia) are popular fan favorites in Arena Mexico. Magia Blanca is a fairly obvious pin eater. That leaves the ex-Guerreros (Atlantis Jr. & Ultimo) and LIJ (Titan & BUSHI); the regular NJPW team should be the dissolved CMLL one, but you can’t ever rule out Atlantis and Guerrero getting a win.

Friday and Sunday also feature DOUKI and Desperado on opposite sides for the first time since the dissolution of Suzuki-Gun. Indie Mexican luchador DOUKI facing off against the pretty, polished Soberano Jr. and Mistico is a perfect deep cut. Casual observers see all lucha libre in one (high-flying) bucket, but there are divisions and diverse stylistic disagreements, just like in any other country where wrestling is popular. (I’m in at least one Whatsapp group chat where a friend pops in occasionally to complain about how all modern Mexican wrestling sucks; we are all not so different.) DOUKI, in NJPW interviews, has at times borrowed the language of vocal indie fans towards CMLL, seeing them as privileged wrestlers doing a sanitized and inauthentic version of lucha libre. CMLL aficionados see many indie wrestlers as glorified backyarders who lack the training of Arena Mexico. It’s never as severe as social media arguments make it seem, and there is some unity (both CMLL & indie fans love Hechicero and hate Psycho Clown), it just adds a little flavor to these matchups.

Monday’s Korakuen Hall show (a free show on NJPW World) is headlined by the best on-paper match of the tour. Soberano and Titan’s last singles match in 2020 was CMLL’s best match of the year. (2020 was terrible, but it was a still good match.) Their previous matches have been great, Titan is a NJPW regular now, so they’re going to give him all the time to make this work, and Soberano has reached a new level in both ability and popularity. No one gets more screams walking to the ring than Soberano, and I’m curious to see how that translates to Japan. I’m not the only one – Sugabyashi named Soberano Jr. and Mistico as the two people he was looking forward to seeing the most on this tour. Soberano’s never been part of a NJPW Best of Super Juniors; this tour should make it obvious NJPW needs him for the 2023 version.

Templario plays to Volador’s strengths well, and those two should have a showy exhibition in the semi-main, even with little beyond trios matches to set it up. Capitan Suicida versus Ultimo Guerrero is an intriguing match between two people who never interact in CMLL. The recently upgraded Suicida has the best chance of the three Fantasticamania rookies to return to NJPW next year. (Magia Blanca appears early in a long CMLL career of being unremarkably solid, Hijo del Villano III has made strides in the last months but is here now just because he’s a Villano.) Suicida has a fun style and a colorful look, a combo that made Fuego and Stuka Jr. recurring players in past years. He’ll most likely be handing over this “lightweight high flyer” spot to supernova Panterita del Ring Jr. for 2024, but getting a match with Ultimo Guerrero at least creates the possibility for something more to happen.

Sunday’s show keeps Mistico (ex-Caristico) in the usual tour-ending spot against the person most likely to supplant him in that role next year. Atlantis Jr. barely loses singles matches and does hold a tournament final win over Mistico. Fantasticamania always ends happily, and Atlantis Jr. is a rudo for the week, so it’s probably ending in the center with a La Misitca this year. Soberano and Hechciero and Dulce Gardenia versus Okumura seem likely to be fun exhibition matches, if in vastly different ways. Barbaro Cavernario is in the semi-main trios match; all he’s doing on this tour is tag matches. Caveranrio’s healthy and still popular with NJPW fans, but his star has faded slightly in CMLL. Cavernario has no particular direction, and more motivated wrestlers have passed him. The caveman’s performance in the last few weeks has been a bit better, and maybe he’ll find something more on this trip.

These shows are scheduled later than usual, and the timing is a bit odd. NJPW World still bills on the first of the month, and the first of March will be less than four hours after this show ends Tuesday night. A CMLL fan jumping on board for NJPW has to watch the final show pretty close to live or be willing to pay for an extra month you might not want. An extra 7 USD is a minor cost when these shows routinely produce one or two of the year’s best Mexican wrestling matches.

The 2023 Fantasticamania schedule seems like a return to form after a few years away.

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