New Japan Pro Wrestling
Wrestling Satsuma no Kuni 2023
April 29, 2023
Nishihara Shokai Arena
Kagoshima, Japan

Watch: NJPWWorld

New Japan’s Road to Wrestling Dontaku tour sallies forth with Wrestling Sastuma no Kuni 2023 in scenic Kagoshima. Headlining the show is the latest chapter in the Shingo Takagi-Taichi rivalry for the KOPW2023 Provisional Championship, while Aussie Open make their second defense of the IWGP Tag Team Titles against fellow countrymen TMDK in the semi-main. Since those are the only two matches of note on the card, I’ll take a page out of my pal Suit Williams’ playbook and give those two matches the deeper focus, while offering some scant thoughts on the undercard. I think I’ll give that section a cute name, something like…

Undercard Follies (Names In Bold Involved in the Fall)

  • Bishamon (Hirooki Goto & YOSHI-HASHI) def. Boltin Oleg & Toru Yano – Oleg was the one to get the hot tag for his team, which is surprising for a young lion but not so surprising for a man built like a tank. He’s just starting out, but the look and the raw material are there. Bishmon won with Shoto.
  • House of Torture (EVIL & Yujiro Takahashi) (w/ Dick Togo & SHO) def. Oskar Leube & Shota Umino – Umino came out with the following items on his person: Bucket hat, baseball jersey, baseball cap, NJPW t-shirt, towels, handheld NJPW lights, armband, and plastic bauble, the latter two he handed to kids in the crowd. The man was a walking merch store. Yujiro is as cooked as a Passover brisket; he tried to do the “run at opponent, who pulls the top rope down to send them over” spot with Umino, but he couldn’t even make it over the top rope. Yujiro won with Pimp Juice after Togo and SHO interfered with the Spoiler’s Choker and a wrench shot.
  • United Empire (Aaron Henare, Francesco Akira, & TJP) def. Intergalactic Jet Setters (Kevin Knight & KUSHIDA) & Tomoaki Honma – TJP was sporting a massive bandage over his left eyebrow after it got split open in the Jr. Tag Title match two days prior. Milano yelled “Jet!” early on when Knight did some flying around. Maybe he’s a big Wings fan. Henare made Honma submit with Ultima after some dueling headbutts.
  • United Empire (Great O-Khan & Jeff Cobb) def. TMDK (Kosei Fujita & Zack Sabre Jr.) – Fujita was itching to start with O-Khan, repeatedly shoving him before the bell. He even showed off some of those technical skills he’s picked up from Sabre, rolling O-Khan into an ankle hold and almost pinning him with an O’Connor Roll. Zack and Cobb had a real fun exchange of technique vs. power to preview their NJPW World TV Title match coming up at Wrestling Dontaku. Fujita tapped to the Subaru Ozawa Sheep Killer.
  • STRONG STYLE (El Desperado, Minoru Suzuki, & Ren Narita) & Yuto Nakashima def. CHAOS (Kazuchika Okada & Tomohiro Ishii), Ryohei Oiwa, & Togi Makabe – Narita submitted Oiwa with the Cobra Twist. This had some fire to it, especially between Oiwa and Nakashima, but the real blaze started afterwards with a post-match brawl between STRONG STYLE and CHAOS. The timekeeper kept ringing the bell, but they wouldn’t stop fighting. Ishii threw a guardrail at Desperado, and even Boltin Oleg as a ringside attendant got a punch in the face from Suzuki for his troubles. Makabe Bump Counter: 2.5.
  • Guerrillas of Destiny (Hikuleo, Jado, & Tama Tonga) & Master Wato def. BULLET CLUB (David Finlay, Gedo, KENTA, & Taiji Ishimori) – Watching Ishimori sell for Jado’s 1-ply toilet paper offense was funny. Tama got the hot tag and eventually pinned Gedo with the Gun Stun. Afterwards Finlay laid out Tama with the shillelagh and KENTA went kendo stick crazy on Hikuleo to build to their respective matches at Dontaku. I’m still waiting on that big Gedo vs. Jado grudge match though.
  • Just 5 Guys (DOUKI, SANADA, & Yoshinobu Kanemaru) def. Los Ingobernables de Japon (BUSHI, Hiromu Takahashi, & Tetsuya Naito) – In a break from the usual LIJ entrance format, Hiromu came out last for his team as SANADA’s upcoming title challenger. He and SANADA only had a brief in-ring exchange, but what we saw showed promise for their match at Dontaku. SANADA submitted BUSHI with the Skull End.

IWGP Tag Team Championship: Aussie Open (Kyle Fletcher & Mark Davis) © (w/ Aaron Henare & Great O-Khan) def. TMDK (Mikey Nicholls & Shane Haste) (w/ Kosei Fujita & Zack Sabre Jr.)

History was made in Kagoshima as for the first time in its 37-year-plus history, the IWGP Tag Team Championship was defended in a match between two Australian teams. The elder team, TMDK, were labeled Australian pioneers in the pre-match VTR. They were the ones carrying the flag for Australian tag team wrestling for years, kicking down the door that would allow a newer team like Aussie Open to thrive in Japan. And while Nicholls and Haste have had plenty of championship success in NOAH, it’s eluded them so far in NJPW. Aussie Open are the ones wearing IWGP gold, not them. Aussie Open are the new standard bearers of Australian tag team wrestling, not them. TMDK beat Fletcher & Davis in World Tag League last year, but this time the stakes were a lot higher with tag team gold and personal pride on the line.

After an opening salvo, TMDK took control and worked over Fletcher in the first half. After Kyle got the hot tag to Davis, that’s when things broke down–as they typically do in these big New Japan tag matches–into an “everybody in the pool because it’s time to rock and roll” situation with lots of double team moves and sequences. Both of these teams are great at bringing that sizzle to the table, but they also provide the steak too. This was just as intense as it was razzle dazzle flashy, if not more. At one point Nicholls, alone in the ring against Aussie Open, slapped them both hard in the face before getting his own face mushed in with a double kick.

TMDK got a little cheeky. Haste borrowed a cue from Aussie Open’s stablemate Will Ospreay, countering a lariat with a backflip into a sitout powerbomb. He didn’t do it as fast as Ospreay, mind you, but it still looked impressive. Then they hit Fletcher with Aussie Open’s own tag finisher Corealis, only for Davis to break up the pin. Davis made the crucial save again a few minutes later after TMDK hit Fletcher with a Tank Buster on the apron and then another one in the ring.

As we got past the 20-minute mark, TMDK went for Thunder Valley, only for Fletcher to counter it into a double DDT. Aussie Open then emptied the clip, hitting their individual piledrivers on each guy, crushing both of them with the Cross Bomber, then hitting it again on Haste and finally putting him away with Corealis. Aussie Open make their second successful defense of the IWGP Tag Team Titles. This didn’t quite reach the heights of the AO/Bishamon match at Sakura Genesis, but both teams put the work in to deliver one hell of a tag match. 2023 feels like Aussie Open’s crowning year, and it’s cool to see their predecessors TMDK help build them up along the way. ****1/4

Afterwards, TMDK shook hands with Aussie Open and left. Bishamon came out to presumably challenge, but before they could say anything, House of Torture ran in to attack everybody. They got run off, with EVIL declaring on the mic that the tag titles belong to HoT. Just when we thought the heavyweight tag title scene was looking pretty damn good in New Japan, Gedo decided to laugh in our faces. We’re probably getting either Aussie Open vs. EVIL & Yujiro as the next match, or more likely a three-way with Bishamon. We’ll see just how great Aussie Open are as a team when they’ve got Huge Yuj to deal with.

KOPW2023 Provisional Championship – Takagi Triad Match: Taichi (w/ DOUKI, SANADA, TAKA Michinoku, & Yoshinobu Kanemaru) def. Shingo Takagi © (w/ BUSHI, Hiromu Takahashi, & Tetsuya Naito)

On July 28, 2020, Kazuchika Okada introduced the KOPW Championship to New Japan Pro Wrestling. Originally represented as a handheld trophy, it would be contested under fan-voted gimmick matches throughout the year as a provisional title. Whomever possessed the trophy at the end of the year would be considered that year’s official champion. In a sign of how important this new title would be, Okada proceeded to wrestle for it once and then never acknowledge it again.

Instead, KOPW spent its first few years as a lower card “comedy” title mainly revolved around Toru Yano. Matches involving no corner pads, blindfolds, dog cages, alcoholic drinks, handcuffs, and amateur wrestling competitions played out in front of clap crowds to the befuddlement of many who wondered, “Why the hell is this stuff in New Japan?”

Then, on April 25, 2022, Shingo Takagi defeated Taichi in a 30-count pinfall match to win the KOPW2022 Provisional Championship. While it may have seemed like a major downgrade for the man who had held the IWGP World Heavyweight Title and main evented night one of Wrestle Kingdom 16 a few months earlier, Takagi decided to bring this title out of the muck and make it somewhat respectable. For the next year, he did just that. Whether it was continuing his battles with Taichi in a 10-minute unlimited pinfalls match or a Last Man Standing Lumberjack match (the latter earned 5 stars from Dave Meltzer, however much that means to you); engaging in a heated feud with El Phantasmo in the fall following the G1 Climax; or having the best KOPW match to date against Aaron Henare in April’s Ultimate Triad Match, Shingo gradually changed the perception of this title from one you roll your eyes at to one that grabs your interest. He even replaced the trophy with an actual belt, though that was because it was repeatedly stomped on and broken by ELP.

Which brings us back to Taichi, a man who knows a thing or two about changing your perception. Once a subject of derision for emphasizing heel shtick over in-ring work (just look up the reaction to his run in the 2016 Super J-Cup), Taichi’s hard-hitting battles with the likes of Ishii, Okada, SANADA, Ospreay, and Shingo in recent years highlighted his own gradual shift from a slimy scuzzball to a valiant warrior fighting for the admiration and respect of the fans. Now he was facing off with Shingo one more time for a championship that few people cared about until it was forced to be taken more seriously. Just like Taichi.

The rules of the Takagi Triad Match are similar to the Ultimate Triad Match. A wrestler needs to score three different falls on their opponent to win. Ultimate Triad had three ways to score a fall, while Takagi Triad has five: Pinfall, submission, countout, 10-count KO, and TKO/ref stoppage/throw in the towel. In an absolute rarity, LIJ accompanied Shingo as his seconds for the match. Keep that in mind for later.

Like Ultimate Triad, this match was meant to be an endurance test for both wrestlers. (I guess all wrestling matches are meant to be endurance tests, but still.) That meant going long. Really long. 43 minutes and 40 seconds long, which I imagine is the longest match of Taichi’s career. The first few falls came at an average of every five minutes, starting when Shingo scored a pin at around 10 minutes with the Ground Cobra Twist. At 15 minutes, Taichi evened the sides by countering Last of the Dragon into a Gedo Clutch. Taichi then got a KO fall after hitting Shingo with Black Mephisto, then Shingo got his own KO by destroying Taichi with a Takagi Driver ’98, a massive Pumping Bomber, a sliding elbow to the head, and then Last of the Dragon for good measure.

Nearing 30 minutes and both guys looked spent. Shingo went for the submission win with another Ground Cobra. Kanemaru hopped on the apron with a towel, teasing like he wanted to throw it until Taichi got his foot on the ropes. Shingo tried for another Last of the Dragon but collapsed. This allowed Taichi to rally with a Dangerous Backdrop and Yokozuna elbow that sent both men to the outside. What happened next was maybe the closest countout tease I’ve ever seen in wrestling. Taichi made it back into the ring first, then Shingo barely made it in right as Red Shoes was throwing his arm on the 20 call. I’d call it a 2.99 in countout form, but I guess it’s technically a 19.99.

After 35 minutes, both men were exhausted. They threw strikes with little impact. Taichi hit his Tensho Jujihou thrust kick and locked in Seitei Jujiro, but he couldn’t hold onto it, either due to fatigue, sweat, or both. At the 40 minute mark, Taichi got one last burst in him and hit two massive Gamengiris that Shingo sold like he was completely dead on his feet. A third Gamengiri was countered with a lariat and it looked like Shingo was gonna find that last bit of energy to win, but a fourth Gamengiri found its mark and knocked Shingo right on his ass. Taichi locked in Seitei Jujiro again and this time it was Hiromu who got on the apron with a towel, looking like he was going to throw it. He didn’t and instead screamed at Shingo to get up. Shingo was out cold though and Red Shoes finally called for the stoppage. Taichi is the new KOPW2023 Provisional Champion.

There was a lot about this I loved. Shingo and Taichi wrestled with the seriousness and intensity of a typical world title match in an untypical stipulation. They also did a fantastic job selling the exhaustion as they went deeper into the fight, and used or teased each of the five optional falls to great effect. On the other hand, Red Shoes had a few hiccups doing the KO counts. He also probably should have called for the stoppage a lot sooner because Shingo looked out the moment Taichi put him in the second Seitei Jujiro. I get that they wanted to do the tease of Hiromu throwing in the towel, but that would have come off a bit better if Shingo had one last gasp then faded while in the submission (like the finish of the Okada G1 match in 2020). As for the length, I can see it being a turn off for people, but it did follow the precedent set by the Ultimate Triad match, which was only a few minutes shorter.

So no, I wouldn’t call it a perfect match. I would, however, call it a perfect story. One year ago, Shingo Takagi entered the KOPW division by beating Taichi. When it came to these kinds of matches, he looked unstoppable. He elevated and transformed the title with his performances. Taichi, after suffering two more defeats at the hands of Shingo last year, went through another transformation of his own in 2023. He got rid of the blonde in his hair, the last vestige of his villainous days in Suzuki-gun. He went out on his shield like a noble hero against Will Ospreay in a match of the year candidate in February. He was the catalyst for SANADA leaving LIJ and joining Just 5 Guys, treating him like an equal and a friend. This is a guy who used to get beaten up as a rookie by his mentor Toshiaki Kawada, and now here he was using one of Kawada’s signature moves to finally defeat a longtime rival in a nearly 45-minute war. For so long, KOPW meant nothing. For Taichi, it now means everything.

The reign of the Dragon is over. The reign of the Holy Emperor has begun. ****1/2