On January 4, 2024, at the Tokyo Dome, Hiromu Takahashi and El Desperado will meet for the 8th time, battling for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship. Considering the stature of the participants, the long and complicated history they share, their parallel status in 2023 as New Japan ambassadors to multiple promotions across multiple continents, and the extraordinary precedent established by their previous matches, this is, without hyperbole, the definitive match of this era of New Japan junior heavyweights. They are the essential rivalry of this generation.

Of course, you wouldn’t grasp the significance of the match from New Japan’s promotional and creative output towards the match. 

There has been no output. 

At the biggest event of the year, the junior’s division’s top match is the most tired, stagnant version of  “two guys with nothing to do” booking. It’s an in-ring challenge back in November, and little more. There was so much material with which to work, disregarded. So much time to set up a different challenger, squandered. 

Underlying this match: it’s a microcosm of a lot of New Japan’s creative shortcomings in 2023. This is a company that seems to think it can get away with the same things it could get away with in the past. 

And, for sure, New Japan’s 2010’s peak was rife with demerits: underdeveloped stories, erratic matchmaking, neglect of entire divisions… but they were red hot and the grander vision was sound and robust.

The pandemic halted that momentum. Roster changes altered the landscape. New Japan treaded water for over two years. We are now more than a year removed from pandemic conditions, and it still feels like they are treading water with austere booking, pedestrian choices, and oddly terminated angles, especially in the back half of 2023. Things shouldn’t be so directionless, so capricious, so desultory. 

And, of course, some amazing, inspired decisions as well: taking the chance on SANADA, the G1 Climax’s A Block, the Best of Seven series between Strong Style and the Nagata-Wato-Umino team, the construction of the new BULLET CLUB, etc. But even then, most of the inspiration was in the assembly; the follow-throughs were a different story. 

El Desperado and Hiromu Takahashi’s build flipped that script. With such a robust set of circumstances, you’d think the story could tell itself. That the story would sell itself. That’s certainly been New Japan’s strategy here.

But stories do not tell themselves. If anything, it’s because of the profundity of the Hiromu-Despy relationship that this match deserved more. And accordingly,  from what we’ve seen there is no buzz for this match; it is totally lost in the shuffle, and this match should never be lost in the shuffle. As Hiromu stated in his Wrestle Kingdom 18 interview: “this is the last time Hiromu vs. El Desperado fight for the junior title in a match other than the main event.”

Without question, El Desperado and Hiromu Takahashi are going to make this all work. They will retroactively justify the existence of this match at the press conference, and when they get in the ring. Wrestle Kingdom 18 itself will, hopefully, nestle into historical record as a turning point: the wrestlers will bail out the booking, and everyone will walk away from January 4th (and 5th) exhilarated, galvanized, rejuvenated. But, post-pandemic, I’d rather leave that sort of thing to the past. Or the Jacksonville-Orlando swamp.

Thing They Can’t Get Away with Anymore
A Haphazard Feel to Matchmaking (To be Overcome By the Wrestlers)

Case Study: Hiromu’s Flippant Challenge to Desperado

It’s not even uninspired, at face value. The natural state of wrestling is to deliver the biggest match possible between the biggest wrestlers on the biggest stage. And yet… why does this feel uninspired? Why does this feel like an afterthought? 

Because this match is an apparition, a manifestation born from resignation and ennui.

We’ve got two prologues to choose from here: New Japan knew all along that they wanted to run this match and purposely isolated these two from each other, or their original plans (if plans existed) disintegrated and this was the safest choice. 

The former makes a lot of sense, in contrast. Hiromu and Desperado’s last singles match was in June 2022. Comparatively, the rest of the Wrestle Kingdom card:

  • SANADA and Naito: March 2023
  • Okada and Danielson: June 2023
  • Ospreay and Finlay: August 2023
  • Ospreay and Moxley: April 2022
  • Bishamon and G.O.D.: December 2023
  • Umino, Kiyomiya, and H.O.T: Who could possibly give a fuck?
  • Shingo and Tama Tonga: October 2023
  • Tsuji and Uemura: April 2021
  • Sabre and Tanahashi: July 2023
  • Catch 2/2 and BC War Dogs: Literally the final show before Wrestle Kingdom, 12/22/2023

In this case, isolation is good. They shared a ring only once between Wrestle Kingdom 17 and the Christmas Week Korakuens. That provided the element of surprise when Hiromu challenged Despy, but also the perplexment. There was no element of foreshadowing here. 

Hiromu’s challenge itself doesn’t help. Where later he would present more corporeal reasons for challenging Despy, in the ring, the most vital moment in this story—considering that it is the bulk of the story—this is the palaver we got:

“Hiromu: The next challenger…? If you’re backstage, ready to come out here…

Please, don’t! Don’t come? Also, to the lighting guy, if a wrestler asks you to cut the lights, don’t listen! Please have the courage to refuse. I will name the next challenger for this belt!

I really want to fight this guy. I feel I have to surpass this man.

Desperado!”

Desperado then talked about his messed up eye, joked about Taguchi seething at the curtain because he wanted to challenge Hiromu first, and nonchalantly accepted Hiromu’s proposition. Hiromu screamed a bit and… that was it. To be clear, the crowd loved it. They popped when Despy was called out, laughed at all the jokes, the whole deal. Their popularity is unquestioned. But it all came across a bit listless in the ring.

Especially when it’s the champion making the challenge. That throws the whole dynamic off, adding an abnormal layer of abstraction. When it’s the champion challenging someone, especially without provocation, there’s some sort of metaphysical motivation going on, something intangible for which they are yearning. And because of that, those convictions need to be explicitly laid out. Especially when the champion, you know, won the last match between the two.

 Such has not been the case here. And as such, it’s hard to grasp this match. 

Thing They Can’t Always Get Away with Anymore: Spartan Builds to a Big Time Matchup

Case Study: The Modest Assembly to This Match

Even if we were running with the notion that this is a name-driven match, a sort of Kantian match-in-itself, which is totally fine, it still falters. As we noted before, Desperado went in for eye surgery right after the challenge. And even if he didn’t, World Tag League ate up the rest of the year. Because of that, all they were able to do in the lead-up was confront each other on the outside of the ring at the Korakuen Hall shows  and… have anodyne conversations? Literally engage in small talk about Despy’s recovery, the state of his eye?

Hiromu did an admirable job trying to construct a framework for this match, recounting his 2023 in the aftermath of challenging Desperado:

“At the last WRESTLE KINGDOM, I fought Ishimori, Wato, and Desperado. I won this belt by beating Wato. But I wouldn’t wear this until I beat Ishimori. And I beat the BEST OF THE SUPER Jr. winner, Wato. After besting Ishimori today, I could finally wrap this around my waist.

Now, only El Desperado is left. January 4 will be a blast.”

Hiromu repeated the idea of running the 2023 four-way gauntlet in his pre-match interview. Again, it’s not that there’s no story here, or even a clandestine one; it’s pretty simple and easily grasped. The issue is:

  • There has been no platform for the story, no tour from which to build 
  • New Japan has a reasonable expectation for there to be no platform; Despy noted this in his 1972 interview:
    • Desperado: Honestly I did think the timing sucked. My surgery date was set, so I was thinking of taking the time off if all I had at Wrestle Kingdom was the Ranbo. With all the people in that thing, you never know what could happen, especially with bad eyesight, so I was thinking that would be my chance to take more time off.
  • There hasn’t been a moment to congeal the story, like in the main event when SANADA kicked Naito out of the ring on December 22nd

The last bit is a key point. In the NJPW Primer that we wrote, we noted how New Japan’s strength comes from the venue of storytelling, that everything is told in the ring, with supplementary backstage comments. This one comes up a bit short there.

Let’s look at an example from the past. To another time two generational rivals found themselves caught in a skeletal story, consisting of an in-ring challenge and inferred allusions to their history: Kazuchika Okada v. Kenny Omega IV, back in 2018.

On May 4, 2018, Kazuchika Okada broke Hiroshi Tanahashi’s IWGP Heavyweight title defense record, by defeating Tanahashi at Wrestling Dontaku. Having vanquished all his adversaries, and with a paucity of challengers, Okada called his own shot, demanding another match with Kenny Omega. Okada was unsatisfied with the two previous efforts, a 60-minute time limit draw at Dominion 2017 and a loss to Omega at G1 Climax 27. 

That in-ring challenge from Okada, and Omega’s response (the 2 out of 3 falls stipulation request) was, indeed, the only parts of that story. Okada and Omega never met in a lead-in tag match; the month between the challenge and the match was almost entirely engulfed by the Best of the Super Juniors, which concluded exactly one day before Dominion.

To be fair, there are several things that dismantle this comparison:

  • That Okada-Omega was a main event
  • That they fought for a title of greater stature
  • That their rivalry took place under normal conditions, instead of the pandemic (where the bulk of Despy-Hiromu has happened)
  • They actually expressed their motivations much clearer in their in-ring confrontation
  • Okada, as champion, was clear in trying to rectify his most recent loss; Hiromu actually beat Desperado in their last contest

But we’re holding firm on the fundamental similarity here: a champion depleted of options, returning to the comfort of their greatest foe, resulting in a match with almost zero subsequent build. Thus ended the greatest title reign of all time, giving way to one of the worst. Despite the minutiae of differences, it is essentially the same circumstance.

Except in one way: in 2018, New Japan was hot.

In 2023, they are not.

As we noted in Part I  of our exhausting Post-G1 Climax State of the Company Analysis, it all comes down to Newtonian physics. Unforeseen in-ring challenges can easily ride a wave of momentum, especially one of the force and volume that New Japan had built by 2018. Motion becomes increasingly easier. 

But once momentum is lost, once we reach a state of repose, you’re totally fucked. The amount of force needed to start again is astronomical. Things are not dire for New Japan, by any stretch, but the amount of momentum they lost is substantial. There’s nothing for Hiromu’s in-ring challenge to ride upon, so we need more. It’s not necessarily bad, but we can do better. 

This is real invisible hand nonsense; we shouldn’t feel an overbearing sense of fabrication, or The Beach-esque dialogue of the two explicitly shouting their motives and desires at each other, but a little more traction would have been nice. Once again: this specific match-up deserved more.

Thing They Can’t Get Away with Anymore: Leaving Something on the Table

Case Study: The Abrupt End to DespyWato, Just As It Was Starting

El Desperado should not even be in this match. Or, rather, there is something more important for him to do right now: team with Master Wato. 

Super Junior Tag League was blatantly constructed around that team, more so than any tournament in recent memory, singles or tag, has been so singularly devoted to one entrant. The numbers are below, but one number not shown there takes precedence: six, the number of main events the team were in… out of nine events. The next closest teams had three mains. 

Beyond the numbers, the story of Wato’s gleeful obliviousness as he attempted to extract some measure of acknowledgement from the gruff, exasperated Desperado was clearly successful. People audibly responded to their entrance. At the end of the tour, when Desperado finally accepted the intentionally goofy “Friends” shirt Wato had made, with a picture of the team on the front, the Osaka crowd responded with tangible joy, legitimate delight over Desperado finally yielding to this doofus.

And yes, this is just another entrant in the 2023 Odd Couple Tag Team Renaissance. There’s little fundamental different between Despy-Wato and whatever the fuck was going on in AEW with Adam Cole and MJF, or whatever the fuck was going on in WWE with Sami Zayn and Roman Reigns, or Breezango, or the Blue Bloods, or any number of pairings that use that reliable comic device. Unlike in America, though, this team actually has at least one manga nerd that understands the dynamic between tsundere veteran and genki upstart, so critical to sports manga. People think they’ve watching cinema on Friday nights, unaware they are actually watching filler episodes of All Out!! Or Area no Kishi. Or… fucking Kinnikuman!

DespyWato didn’t advance to the final, but defeated the champions in league play and won the four-way tag team match at the conclusion of the tour. It looked like the table was set for this team’s 2024 run, no doubt.

And then… they skipped the doubt and went straight to the demolition:

“Desperado: So then… I guess this is it…

Wato: It is?

Desperado: This thing was interesting, for a while. What do you have to say?

Wato: There’s still so much I can absorb from you. I hope to do this again sometime.

Desperado: Maybe. If I feel like it.

Wato: Thank you very much.”

The FUCK? Here we had something beneficial to everyone, in particular, Wato, still in his mid-20s, still grasping for credibility, still trying to get over. And here was something that was 100% over, had legs, compelled people to give a legitimate fuck about the kid, and it was aborted one month in. 

Even worse, DespyWato is just part of a larger failure to capitalize on popular developments. 

In September and October, New Japan ran a tour-specific Best of Seven Series on the Road to Destruction tour. On one side was Strong Style: Minoru Suzuki, Ren Narita, and Desperado. On the other, a Honati team of Yuji Nagata, Shota Umino, and Master Wato. The series ended at Destruction in a 3-3-1 tie.  The Ryogoku crowd was unimpressed by the finish, but grew increasingly elated as each pairing shook each other’s hand, culminating the the old men slapping the fuck out of each other before the handshake. We had three new tag teams with palpable momentum: Suzuki-Nagata, SHOTAxREN, and DespyWato

Here we stand, three months later, and neither of these three teams exist anymore. They each lasted a month, tournament-long gimmicks that, in every case, were super over with the crowds and had a significant amount left in the tank. ShotaxRen famously ended with Narita betraying Ren, joining House of Torture. Monthlies were aghast, HOT perverts rejoiced.

I come down with a third stance: why couldn’t we have had more ShotaxRen? I wholeheartedly agree that the denouement should have been Narita turning on Umino and specifically joining House of Torture. All agreed that Narita desperately needed something after floundering all year. But, then, he did have something: THE TEAM WITH SHOTA. It was working! 

They’re skipping steps. One month was too short. We needed more time with these teams. At least with SHOTAxREN we got a good month of fujoshi-bait, like their fireside chat, where they all but detailed how they would get in each other’s guts, and then dismantled in a big angle. Now Narita can run off and be the Rowan Atkinson to SHO’s Marty Feldman, and hopefully show some personality. With DespyWato, all we got was that awkward backstage comment.

And for what? So Desperado can be called out by Hiromu, whilst sitting on commentary, weeks away from eye surgery? What are we doing here? If the result was going to be just-another-match, did it have to be this one? 

As an addendum to this: we might end up being wrong, since Desperado asked Wato to stick with him to the Dome, after the 12/22 Korakuen:

“Desperado: Stick around with me until the Tokyo Dome, yeah?

Wato: Of course.”

Wato and Despy can be seen below, in a picture posted the morning of January 1st. So, perhaps, just like with Hiromu’s desire to break the title defense record—something Hiromu’s being touting for a year, tacitly recognized but unsupported by the company as of yet—DespyWato is a story arc shelved until after the Dome. But, then, we ask again: what is the point of having a stand-in, lame duck Hiromu v. Despy match?

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Thing They Can Still  Get Away with: Their Best Wrestlers Delivering, No Matter the Circumstances

As we’ve said, we fully expect a great match out of these two, in some manner. Whether it can match their previous matches, that’s probably impossible given the restraints the Wrestle Kingdom circumstances place on them. But, still, we believe in them. Even if a match of this caliber deserved more, we’re still glad we get to see them on this stage.

Now that all the negativity is out of the way, please revisit Part I, where we delivered an ode to this rivalry and break down those previous seven matches, in both standard and in troublingly specific ways.

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