New Japan Pro Wrestling
New Beginning in Sapporo 2024 Night 1
February 23, 2024
Hokkaido Prefectural Sports Center
Sapporo, Japan

Watch: NJPW WORLD

Meet our previewers:

J Michael: The North American River Otter is a medium-sized, playful mammal. Males and females range from around 66-107 cm in length, with up to 50 cm being their tail. Males weight roughly 11 kg, with females weighing roughly 8 kg. They live around 8-13 years in the wild, but can reach upwards of 25 years in captivity. While they are renowned for their capabilities in the water, with the ability to submerge nearly 8 minutes and up to 60 feet in depth, they spend nearly 2/3rds of their lives on land. They are a uniquely playful species, and agreeable to captivity in zoos and aquariums. 

River Otters  run in small families, communicating through chirps, chuckles, whistles, screams and other vocalizations. They are a critical species to their habitats. So much so, in fact, that they are known as an indicator species; their behavior reflects the health of their ecosystem. They are the first to show signs of pollution or contaminants. Because of this, conservation efforts were put in place when the river otter had been overhunted. These efforts paid off; the North American River Otter’s conservation status is Least Concern, with a stable population.

Anyway, enjoy the nothing J. Michael offers @ryugu_jo 

John Carroll: Time for another NJPW preview from the most universally beloved author on the Voices of Wrestling website. You can find John on Twitter @toshanshuinla for picks from the Rangers’ big Stadium Series win over the Islanders at Metlife (deepest condolences to everyone who will be coming to that piece of shit for the World Cup finals in a couple of years, by the way). Also @wrestleomakase for whenever John feels like doing a podcast- maybe something for the New Japan Cup? Hmmmmm?

Frontier Zone Match
Toru Yano and Tomoya (Hokuto Pro Wrestling) vs. Shoma Kato and Tomoaki Honma

J. Michael: We have two nights to preview, and they are running the same match tomorrow with the other Young Lion teaming with Honma. Prediction: The astoundingly unfunny motherfucker and the Hokuto guy

John: Hokuto Pro Wrestling is a local promotion in Hokkaido. In a fun fact, their one and only championship (at least according to Cagematch), the HWC Championship, was recently held by Katsuo for exactly 365 days- from November 27th, 2022 to November 27th, 2023. If you don’t know who Katsuo is, I guess you weren’t watching Dragongate in the mid-to-late 2000s, because there’s no way anyone who was will ever forget the Metabolic Brothers. He and Akira Tozawa’s whole thing at the time was being very fat- and yes, I do mean THAT Akira Tozawa. Ultimately, Tozawa ended up going on a diet. Katsuo on the other hand stayed fat, became Cyber Kongcito with funny drawn-on muscles, lost his mask in the place of Cyber Kong when Kong lost a mask vs. hair match, left Dragongate, and then I guess moved to Hokkaido for some reason. What does any of this have to do with this match? Nothing, really. I just couldn’t believe when I was digging around Cagematch for information about this Hokuto Pro Wrestling thing that Katsuo held their title for a full 365 days last year. I hope he’s still very fat. Prediction: The owner of a sports bar in Tokyo that you probably won’t actually be able to get into if you tried to visit & the guy from a promotion where Katsuo was just somehow the champion for a full year

Yuji Nagata vs. Zack Sabre Jr.

J. Michael: Believe it or not, this is only the second time ZSJ and Nagata have faced each other in a singles match. Counting everything, they’ve only shared the ring 15 times. How is that possible? This is the most Mandela’d we’ve ever felt. We can distinctly remember at least 15 dozen times these two have wrestled, not 15 total. They haven’t even been in the same place since WTL 2021. Children have been born and started speaking since Nagata and Sabre last faced off.

Sabre had a tight, enjoyable, almost humble little match against Tiger Mask on this tour, on the January 24th Korakuen. Also on that show: the man Sabre should be facing here, in some way – Kazuchika Okada, who retained/abdicated the NEVER 6-Man title. A title that is either beneath Okada dropping a fall to a wrestler the stature of Kosei Fujita (banal, tortured logic, a devastatingly nihilistic conclusion), or the perfect opportunity to capitalize on the lowest possible stakes to provide a stunning, memorable victory (poignant, bursting with empathy, a flexibly philosophical  mindset). 

And so, Sabre is running his way through the vets, which is cool, but it is also the same thing Great-O-Khan has been doing for the last two years. What Shibata was doing when they got semi-serious enough about him. Hopefully, this really is just a placeholder match for Zack, because he should be the champion before 2024 ends. But, regrettably, there’s still this pestering thought that he’ll just end up being the guy we pick to win the G1 for the next 5 years, and he never even escapes his block. We choose the path of optimism; while Okada could have provided a launchpad, and Nagata is more of a hurdle, Sabre will suffocate Nagata’s earnestness with his typically insouciant Anglican babble and slither his way to victory. Prediction: Zack Sabre Jr.

John: I thought Danielson vs. Sabre from Osaka was your classic “fantastic match that was a touch disappointing based on expectations,” but I seem to be on a bit of an island there- I still went ****¼, but I’ve seen way more 4.75s and even 5s. I liked the Wrestledream match a lot better, which also seems to be a bit of a minority opinion. Regardless, it was a nice win for Sabre (albeit via pinfall rather than submission, as I predicted right on this very website in the Osaka preview), and as J. Michael laid out above, a win over Kazuchika Okada on his way out would have just continued his upward momentum. But since we’ve apparently all decided that asking Okada to do a job or two on his way out of the company is irrational bleating from the hysterical Shin Nihon freaks, he’ll have to settle for a win over Yuji Nagata instead. Not that this match shouldn’t be a lot of fun, mind. Prediction: Zack Sabre Jr.

Oleg Boltin, Togi Makabe, and Ryusuke Taguchi vs. HOUSE OF TORTURE (Yoshinobu Kanemaru, Yujiro Takahashi & Ren Narita)

J. Michael: You can tell we write these things out of order, because we’re about to repeat ourselves from something you haven’t even read yet (unless you read out-of-order as well): it is going to be an arduous road for Ren Narita. There’s a divine ludicrousness to his weapon being some ornate pushup bar, but that’s all the mileage the lad can muster. We’re starting to see this new character emerge from the miasma, and it’s pretty good: he has a truly unnerving vocal tic in his backstage promos, with abrupt, seemingly haphazard spasms of laughter peppering his phrases. His finisher is still trash, he’s been de-escalated even further than he was before the heel turn, but, then again, this is a true rebuilding project. It’s going to take time. And, unfortunately, we all know their speed of action when they realize that they have time. I’m afraid Ren’s 20’s might evaporate before we know it. 

Our new method, now that we’ve committed to previews, is that we are going to advocate for Oleg Boltin to squash every person with whom he’s in a match, teammates and foes, and win the World Title within six months. What the fuck else do you need to see from this guy? He’s an Olympic-caliber amateur wrestler, he speaks Japanese, his physique is unmatched… just put him there and let him grow into it. The people already respond to his more elaborate spots, he has a good finisher. GO.  Prediction: When the stakes are down, the House rises

John: Yeah, as we both covered already in the Osaka write-up, it’s kind of a shame that Ren Narita has just been chilling with the rest of the undercard got-nothing-for-you crew for most of the New Beginning tour after Shota Umino beat him back at Korakuen. I’m somewhat confident he’ll get some focus back on him after this tour wraps up- perhaps by upsetting a bigger name in the New Japan Cup and setting up a program for either Sakura Genesis or the Wrestling Dontaku tour- but it’s dire times out there right now for the SOULED OUT crew. At least he’ll probably get the pin on Taguchi here, I guess. Prediction: HOUSE OF TORTURE




CHAOS (YOH, YOSHI-HASHI, Hirooki Goto, Tomohiro Ishii & Kazuchika Okada) vs. United Empire (Callum Newman, Jeff Cobb, Francesco Akira, Great-O-Khan & TJP)

J. Michael: **Waves goodbye to Okada** 

**Gives Okada the English fuck-you backward peace sign thing when he turns his back**

**Pretends to run the two fingers through our hair when Okada turns around unexpectedly**

**Saves the counter-counter-attack on the Leave Okada Alone counter-attack for Night 2**

Prediction: CHAOS

John: Apparently, the grand total of thirteen words I wrote about Okada’s previous match of this godforsaken, neverending goodbye tour really pissed some people off. Like J. Michael, I’ll share any return volleys for his actual (finally, thank god!!) goodbye match on Night 2. Get your screenshotting fingers ready! Prediction: CHAOS

Los Ingobernables De Japon (Tetsuya Naito, Shingo Takagi, Hiromu Takahashi, Yota Tsuji & BUSHI) vs. Just Five Guys (SANADA, Taichi, Yuya Uemura, DOUKI & TAKA Michinoku)

J. Michael: We gave a lot of credit to the booking of this tour, which masked multiple stages of rivalry between Hontai and House of Torture behind seemingly banal scheduling and programming. That, thankfully, saved us from another New Beginning tour replete with excruciatingly meaningless multi-man tags extending upwards of a month past the “culminating” matches. And thank God they did, because the spinal program of this tour, this faction vs. faction campaign between LIJ and J5G has been drab as fuck. It felt like languid booking at the start, and the match-ups have felt perfunctory at best. The best you can say for it is that Uemura and Tsuji, the young guys, have excelled and dominated the feud.

Which, admittedly, nullifies anything else. Enduring SANADA’s feckless, meager, soporific challenge is well worth it if the result is a greater emphasis on two… we shudder to say pillars of the future… how about two robust obelisks of tomorrow? They were given a big spot in Korakuen Hall, in that gauntlet match, with every other member cleared out for their dramatic denouement. Not only did they meet that challenge, not only did they exceed it, they managed to abscond the entire program, finally pulling the trigger on the lucha de apuestas match the two (or, really, just Tsuji) have been barking about for months. 

It’s hair vs. hair, between a guy that only looks good with long hair, and a guy who annoyingly looks good no matter what the fuck he does. Uemura is still doing the fake clear glasses Liv Morgan look, and he pulls it off every time. Honestly, the limited moveset thing feels less like an overt attempt to link him to New Japan’s past, and more like a thought exercise in how much adversity a hot guy can overcome, by being forthright, boisterous, and hot. I don’t foresee him overcoming that austerity on Night 2. Honestly, a clean sweep by LIJ seems possible.  Prediction: Just 5 Guys

John: Yeah, even as the resident LIJ superfan I can’t muster up much of a defense for how utterly lethargic much of this LIJ vs. J5G feud has been on the New Beginning tour. It got totally overshadowed by the tremendously violent and chaotic BC War Dogs vs. United Empire feud right off the bat and has never really been able to get any kind of shine back on it since. As J. Michael noted, the only highlight of note was really the excellent end game between Tsuji and Uemura to wrap up an otherwise sleepy Korakuen gauntlet match. So here’s one final 10-man tag to try and build some kind of momentum heading into the five match series the next night. I also suspect that LIJ will ultimately win that series, which means J5G probably picks up the victory here. Prediction: Just 5 Guys

IWGP Women’s Championship
Mayu Iwatani (c) vs. Mina Shirakawa

J. Michael: We’re out of any element we could have here. 

What we do know is that Mina Shirakawa is a model, or she was a model? Which made it particularly unfortunate when gender-bent Ibushi cosplayer Saya Kamitani nearly caved her face in with a botched Phoenix Splash. You know, just her finisher, is all. Shirakawa’s teeth were horridly injured. She came back to end Kamitani’s reign with the Wonder of Stardom title. So, Shirakawa is tough and dedicated. 

Iwatani is the franchise. Apparently also constricted from following the guy with the hat as he breaks off to form another off-shoot promotion. By name value, we suppose more people internationally would know Iwatani, at least in America. But if you know Iwatani, you’d probably know Shirakawa?  But then, there’s a film about Iwatani’s life coming out, so they’d want her to be champion for that?

We’ll leave this to joshi correspondent Velkej, who responded thusly when asked why this match might be important:

“First defense of the New Japan’s women’s IWGP title on NJPW branded show since April 8th in Sumo Hall on Sakura Genesis. Since the title’s inception, it was a controversial one, but it had a supposed purpose. To make NJPW appear more westernized with women’s matches on their shows, at least on the bigger ones. But so far, this purpose was taken over by the STRONG women’s title currently held by Giulia. And internal turmoil in Stardom, NJPW’s sister promotion, at the start of the month is marring this return to the original purpose.

Mayu Iwatani is the last remaining Stardom’s original roster member, after Rossy Ogawa’s firing, she is the last remaining on screen person in the promotion. She was in the opener of the promotion’s first show, losing to her fellow debutee Arisa Hoshiki. But as the Stardom’s Icon, she was the perfect IWGP title holder for 2023-2024 and would have been that going forward, if it was not for the power struggle between ex-president Harada and now ex-executive producer Ogawa. Most of the Stardom contracts are supposed to end at the end of March, but Iwatani’s contract is different, she has a movie about her life coming soon and all the reporting on the issue is that she has a different contract, probably for movie promotion, than the rest of the roster.

Why is that important? Because if she had the contract ending in March, she’d be going with Ogawa to whatever his new endeavor will be. So this defense would have been the perfect time to switch the title to Mina Shirakawa, who seems to be staying in Stardom. Where Iwatani is loyal to the man who probably saved her life when she was a teenager, Shirakawa got to wrestling through being an on screen talent for NJPW (she was a Yujiro valet), talk show hostess and a presenter. She has portrayed herself as a huge Jushin Liger fangirl, after her debut in TJPW, she has used a lot of Liger’s signature moves. After joining Stardom, she has been slowly rising on top until a title match in which missed Phoenix Splash shattered her teeth. In the immediate aftermath of that accident, she cut promos that had made her struggle and suffering into fuel for her next few months and she was rewarded by a critically acclaimed title match and win at Stardom’s biggest show to date. 

That reign was cut short because of the presumed power struggle between the booking and the managerial team of Stardom. But if Mayu Iwatani were to leave at the end of March, there is probably nobody better than Mina Shirakawa to represent Stardom to the NJPW audience right now. She speaks English, unlike Iwatani, she was the one who was used at the presser for the NJPW alliance project in SE Asia. Saying this, it looks like the result would have been no doubt, without Ogawa’s firing, but after it, right now, it looks more like 50/50. And what match will NJPW see? Overpowering Icon of Stardom with kicks and a leg submission specialist Mina Shirakawa. Both of them are experts in selling and making audiences care about their pain and struggle. If they are given IWGP singles title match time, they should be able to show off that the title and the “division“ is worth the hassle.”

Thanks to Velkej. By the way, Velkej got quite sour when I called Saya an Ibushi cosplayer, so expect us to do that much more going forward. Anyway, we don’t know which way they’ll go, either, but the film is a compelling factor. Prediction: Mayu Iwatani

John: I don’t have much to offer here either, I’m afraid, as it’s been quite a while since I followed STARDOM closely. Velkej did a great job- just go read his preview again I guess! But even from an outsider’s perspective it will be fascinating to see what the future of the NJPW/STARDOM partnership looks like, given all the turmoil going on over there. Is this the start of them trying to hug the STARDOM brand closer to New Japan while the promotion faces what could very well be a lethal threat from Rossy Ogawa’s departure and a subsequent mass exodus of talent? We’ll just have to wait and see there. Prediction: Mayu Iwatani

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship
El Desperado (c) vs. SHO

J. Michael: In our preview of New Beginning in Osaka, John effusively praised Desperado for refusing to grant SHO a title shot, merely for the far-too-long accepted New Japan practice of:

  • Coming out the curtain first
  • Attacking the champion in the ring
  • Attacking the champion during a backstage comment
  • Simply intruding upon a backstage comment
  • Stealing the belt
  • Coincidentally being booked against the champion in a multi-man tag on the last night of a tour
  • Coincidentally being booked against the champion in a multi-man tag on the first night of a tour

Despy’s remarkably self-aware and a real fan of all kinds of wrestling, sometimes to everyone’s dismay. Further, he was a magnificent bastard of a heel. Thus, it made sense that he would thwart a heel’s attempt to garner a title shot in one of those ways. When John heaped on the laudations, all we could do was concur.

But now it is a title shot, but Desperado didn’t sacrifice his dignity, nor his high ground. Instead, he offered a wager. SHO was granted his title shot, on the condition that if he lost, he would return the belt, leave HOUSE OF TORTURE, and join Strong Style. For those not following closely, there just be several layers of perplexment here:

  • They are running another fucking angle where an HOT goof steals the belt? EVIL just did this twice in the last three months
  • Do you really have to force someone to leave HoT? Kayfabe-wise, they are one of the biggest loser factions in the history of the company, if not the business. Besides Vince’s attempted dunk on Antifa, with the Mace’s and Slapjack’s and the tall fucker who’s 5-star match in PWG is such a distant, faded memory… HOT is it.
  • What in the world is El Desperado doing continuing to carry the flag for Strong Style, a group that never congealed, never compelled, and almost never worked together, the pitiful symbol of Ren Narita’s impotence.

Of course, SHO losing solves so many problems. It gets him out of that fucking group before his prime has completely evaporated. It gives the company a chance to do the Strong Style faction properly. It might even give them a chance to do a junior-specific faction. But then, recent booking decisions and patterns leaves one feeling frosty and defensive.

Strong Style was just starting to make sense, by the end of the Best of Seven Series with the Nagata/Umino/Wato team, just in time for the faction to be splintered off into three tag teams with their adversaries. All of those teams were broken up within the confines of their respective tag tournaments, each one dismaying:

  • DespyWato were booked in nearly every Super Junior Tag League main event, did not make the final, and broke up with an underwhelming backstage comment. But then they got back together after Wrestle Kingdom! And then Wato’s knee exploded.
  • Suzuki/Nagata had an abysmal World Tag League, tied at the bottom of B Block with fucking Bad Luck Fale and Jack Bonza. The crowd laughed at their dyspeptic relationship, though. They gave up the ghost on the final night.
  • Narita/Umino at least ended in an angle, with Narita joining House of Torture. That is at least partially relevant to this match, considering that the end result might be a one-to-one trade, Narita for SHO. Narita has a very arduous path ahead, which is a shame because the team with Umino was getting very positive crowd responses.

It makes zero fucking sense for Desperado to lost the title, a mere month after winning it at Wrestle Kingdom. It makes zero fucking sense for Desperado to lose the title after improbably, illogically ending Hiromu’s year-long reign. It makes absolute zero fucking sense to put the title on frigid-ass rubber faced doofus SHO. It makes absolute zero sense to run two successful title theft angles in the same tour, with the same faction. It makes absolute zero sense to put two titles on this goofball stable.

That would indicate all the trademarks of a company in creative crisis: arbitrary, seemingly capricious title switches.  But then, what’s the point of a SHO/Despy team? Plugging SHO into Wato’s contentious big brother-little brother relationship with Wato?  Prediction: El Desperado

John: Yeah, I don’t fucking get this one at all either. Unlike J. Michael I’m obviously a lot more into the House, and I don’t understand why you would take SHO out of it right now to put him in the stillborn/fake unit of Strong Style. Whatever your personal feelings on the House and SHO’s gimmick are, it’s way more popular than you probably think! People enjoy his antics and his wacky faces quite a lot, and if you want some kind of objective evidence of this, I’ll throw you his second place finish for “Best Technique” in the 2023 Tokyo Sports awards. They almost gave this guy an award for the technique of swinging wrenches around, because he’s popular and well liked in this role (as is the House in general in Japan, which is another thing people don’t really want to hear over here)! So with SHO at arguably the height of his popularity in this role, we’re gonna….take him out of it to have him be a bland technical/power junior again? That seems bizarre, right?

On the other hand, Desperado losing this belt in barely over a month also makes no sense, and Naito/Desperado is a far more interesting anniversary show main event than Naito/SHO. So I have no idea why SHO would be winning this, either. Weirdness all around!

The only thing I can think of is that they want a replacement for the Desperado/Wato odd couple team with Wato out injured long-term, and they think there’s some kind of comedy potential in SHO being forced to go back to his old gimmick against his will (whether he quickly turns back to his HOUSE ways or stays as Desperado’s partner). Maybe that’s it? Honestly, I have no idea what they’re doing here. It feels like they’ve really booked themselves into a corner where either outcome would be more negative than positive, which ultimately makes picking a winner surprisingly hard. I guess I’ll go with my gut and assume they’re still doing Naito/Despy at the anniversary show, but man is all of this really weird. Prediction: El Desperado




NEVER Openweight Championship
EVIL © vs. Shota Umino

J. Michael: As we noted before, one of the more pleasant aspects of the New Beginning 2024 campaign was the way the company believably extended the Honati/HOT programs. Where one assumed them to be the typical “early-tour blowoff → endless string of inconsequential multi-man slogs,” the early tour blow-offs ended up being early-tour catalysts. One of those was the main event of the first big New Beginning show, where EVIL beat lame duck champion Tama Tonga for the NEVER belt. That portended a healthy amount of undercard HoT multi-man diablerie, utterly devoid of meaning or compulsion, but then the early tour Korakuens upended that.

In both El Desperado’s defense against Yoshinobu Kanemaru and Shota Umino’s vanquishing of Geek Prince Ren Narita, the Hontai guys emerged from the back to run off the HoT goofs. This certainly happens more frequently as we get deeper into the House of Torture experiment, but it is still a novelty in New Japan. This is the place where LIJ literally stood around the ring in perplexed disbelief as Chris Jericho fucked Tetsuya Naito all the way up at New Year Dash, years ago. Now, obviously LIJ has always been an abysmal faction when it comes to helping each other, but even they were intoxicated by the reliable “chase off the heels” pop that HoT provides. After the 1/24 Korakuen, the show where Okada should have dropped the fall to Fujita, Tama gave a clear directive to his protege: kick EVIL’s ASS. Tall order to a young man to challenge that thickness, but a surprisingly poignant sentiment.

It’s just been tags since, with nothing of note. This is an odd match, by timing. If Umino wins the title, then Tama stands as a transitional champion, who did a big event build belt swap with Shingo, and then lost immediately to EVIL, who would be a transitional champion to Umino. If EVIL wins, well… then EVIL is champion. Not that EVIL holding the NEVER title is inherently detestable; if anything, his 10-day reign back in his LIJ days signifies the truly detestable aspects of this belt: the hot potato drivel we were subjected to for year. Michael Elgin winning the title from Goto at Dominion, just to lose it back 8 days later, for example. Literally a title switch for the sake of having a title switch on a big show. 

There have been 43 reigns with this belt and fucking 15 have been 50 days or less. And so, EVIL losing the belt in 35 days or so wouldn’t be unusual. But, considering that Umino already beat HoT once, and that SHO should lose the previous match, and that the NEVER title doesn’t fit Umino right now anyway, they might as well keep it on EVIL for now.  Prediction: EVIL

John: The NEVER belt has had such a turbulent life. It was originally conceived as a title for an NJPW sub-brand, but the show where the first champion was crowned ended up being the sub-brand’s final night! Plus, it was ostensibly supposed to be a sub-brand (and thus logically a title) for the younger wrestlers in the company and yet the first champion was Masato Tanaka, who was already older than dirt even back in 2012. Gee, a belt that was supposed to be for younger wrestlers that gets put on an old guy instead- history really does echo, huh? The belt settled into an uneasy function as a third title behind the Heavyweight & IC, then went through a period where it became famous for being on ass kickers like Ishii, Makabe, Shibata, Goto, and (believe it or not, at the time)…..EVIL, if only briefly. 

The “openweight” part of the title has always been basically ignored- indeed, there’s never been a single reign by someone currently in the junior heavyweight division. But once the ass kicker period kind of quietly ended, the belt went through a bit of an identity crisis. There was a time during the pandemic when it looked like it would become the new #2 belt in New Japan, as the IC was being defended as part of the double gold and then was of course formally unified with the heavyweight and the US was on Jon Moxley and essentially left overseas for a period of over a year. Tanahashi held the NEVER during this period, along with Jay White. But that too was dropped, as the US was returned to New Japan in the second half of 2021 and clearly established as the #2 heavyweight title in the company in the absence of the IC, and eventually evolved into the Global title we now know today. The NEVER belt then went through a weird period where it kind of bounced between BC members and former BC member Tama Tonga, and this went on for a LONG time, almost two years in fact- it went EVIL on 1/4/22 to Tama Tonga, Karl Anderson, Tama again, David Finaly, Tama again, and finally Shingo on 10/28/23- and then went back to Tama AGAIN and now back to EVIL, so we kind of went right back to the Tama-BC bouncing! At least we know Tama isn’t winning this belt for a fifth time since he’s leaving and all….

In the middle of that came the addition of the NJPW WORLD TV Title, even further muddying the waters. Here was another openweight belt (whether it’s in the name or not like with the NEVER, Zack certainly defended it against juniors) in the midcard scene, clearly positioned below the US/Global. Did we need another ambiguously placed midcard title in New Japan? No, of course not. So now we have a situation where the NEVER & TV belts essentially serve the same exact purpose, and I would argue the TV title’s 15-minute time limit and unique belt design make it more effective as a tertiary championship. The NEVER belt by comparison is just floating in the midcard ether, a curious looking little round belt that never really had much of a point from day one and certainly has very little reason to exist now.

So who wins this? I dunno. Shota Umino somehow already feels above this thing, but I guess it would be a nice little accomplishment for him to wipe EVIL’s black spray paint off of it. I just don’t know what the point of having this championship around is anymore, and I don’t really care who holds it. May as well let EVIL have it more than 30 days, I guess. Prediction: EVIL

NJPW World TV Championship
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Matt Riddle

J. Michael: In Julius Caesar, Caesar laments to Marc Antony about his political rival Cassius: “Let me have men about me that are fat… Would he were fatter!” That Cassius’ weight was a symbol of his comfort; the fatter he was, the more placated he would be. To Caesar, fatness represented stability. 

If Caesar was alive today and involved in professional wrestling (which he assuredly would be, the only industry where he would feel comfortable) Hiroshi Tanahashi would be his dream. In other words: fucking fat. And this isn’t just a random statement: it’s being highlighted on the shows.

In this case, Tanahashi’s girth represents the death of joy itself. The past is a distant memory, shielded by the literally weight of Tanahashi’s current visage. 2012, 2015… fuck, even 2019 is like a clandestine valley concealed by a Tanahashi’s majestic mountain range of belly. And if you think this is oddly mean, well… they are actually doing spots in Tanahashi’s matches where his opponents grab his belly fat, a fistful of his love handles! Less than two years ago, we was pitifully trying to stand aside Jay fucking White in an ab contest every night. Now he’s having a laugh with it, posing next to hearthrob Soberano Jr. No one has pivoted more sharply, more thoroughly, more meritoriously than Hiroshi Tanahashi leaning into his 50 year old fatness. Literally, in the history of humankind. This is it.

As for Riddle… oh, the groan that emerged from the viscera of the New Japan fandom when Matt Riddle appeared on that video screen at New Year’s dash. The guttural tone, an authentic representation of both dismay, disgust, disappointment, and exacerbation. What a time to be alive. It was like when that dopey evil incorrigible fuck won the Presidency in 2016: no solaces matter. Oh, the art will be good? No, it wouldn’t. It wasn’t. And, as here, no solaces mattered. Oh, don’t worry, there’s no way that burnout will make it into Japan. Well, here we are, he’s coming to Japan. Now, until the bell rings, we’ll see if he makes it, but if he does, we know there’s an Amigara Fault from Japan’s borders to New Japan’s offices. Apologize to Kenny Omega.

Riddle wrestled at the American show last month, and the prevailing notion we perceived: god dammit, he fits in really well. And that was to be expected. Riddle definitely seems like the type that plays to the tenor of the promotion he’s in. It was like that when he was on the indies. He just happened to be in workrate promotions at the zenith of indie workrate lollapalooza. He went to the land of scripted frivolity and real-life tragedy, and wrestled like a doofus. Surrounded by Jeff Cobb, Zack Sabre Jr once again, and galvanized by the chance to share a ring with Bad Dude Tito, he was  sharp and captivating.

Unfortunately for him, Hiroshi Tanahashi is finished. Bottom-of-the-pan rice cooked. His match against Okada in Osaka was a nostalgic ride through a generation’s worth of memories, but hopefully the focus stays on the memories and not on the present-day. Tanahashi looked immense, like someone that’s grown quite accustomed to the Presidential suite… and I’m not even sure Tanahashi has even done anything as President yet.  

Which is to say, Tanahashi is probably going to pull another phantasmagorical feat, throwing caution aside in a shortened time-limit match. Riddle’s cardio is insane, so conceivably he could go full blast for 15 straight minutes. The ethics concerns should not be overlooked, since this is a troublesome pattern. Predicting the match quality is much easier: expect something great. With more time, it would probably be exceptional. As for the victor, it seems premature to put the belt on Riddle, considering the unpredictability involved. He’s known for capriciousness, but I think he’s a bit more calculating than that. The questions are more about his commitments to this company. How long will he be around? How many times can they legally get him into Japan? How many times a year does he want to go to Japan? Unfortunately, stuff that’s not unique to Riddle, as a foreigner, in the current climate.  Prediction: Hiroshi Tanahashi 

John: I don’t have much to say about their decision to bring in Matt Riddle besides the obvious: it sucks, we all saw it coming fifty miles away the moment WWE released him, and we’re just going to have to deal with it for however long it lasts (as J. Michael alluded to, that could just mean “until he tries to get through the airport security at Narita or Haneda a few times”). As I covered in the NEVER section, it doesn’t really make any sense to have both the NEVER & TV titles as they serve the exact same purpose (tertiary championships in the heavyweight division that are technically openweight), especially given the current size of NJPW’s roster and the foreigners they may yet still be about to lose. But I like the TV belt better, both rules-wise and aesthetically, so it can stay.

It’s probably worth noting here that tickets have moved much better for Night 2 than Night 1- that tends to happen anyway on these two-night events, but the gap seems even larger here than normal. For Night 2, you have multiple ticket categories beyond the royal (ringside) seats showing up as sold out on multiple sites. For Night 1, you have no ticket categories sold out besides royal even of the week of the show, and only one category on one site even showing up as few remaining. So I’m not sure this whole “here’s two random WWE guys challenging for our belts” thing has been a big draw, even compared to the quite languid LIJ vs. J5G feud taking center stage the following night. That there’s been no real build to this other than Tanahashi saying he had no idea who this guy was can’t possibly help. Anyway, I’m not writing off Riddle winning this just to establish him in New Japan if nothing else, but let’s just assume President Ace wins this one for the sake of our collective sanity. Prediction: Hiroshi Tanahashi

IWGP Global Championship
David Finlay (c) vs. Nic Nemeth

J. Michael: The Battle of Who Will Change Your Mind the Least. That’s not fair, but that’s what it is. Whatever you feel about these two men, this match will not change it. Well, that’s not entirely true; it will probably amplify your interpretations, to both polarities. It doesn’t help that neither one of these guys are sprinters; Finlay in particular is a slow build guy. When it accumulates well, when the crowd is compliant and gracious, it’s awesome. He’s had great matches with Will Ospreay, Tama Tonga, Shingo Takagi, and such. When it doesn’t land, it’s arctic as fuck, a disconcertingly gelid exhibition. 

When Finlay’s matches land vs. when they don’t is wildly disproportionate in response, too. If he has a worthwhile match, it lightly confirms one’s advocacy for him. When the match falters, the sense of confirmation is resounding. There’s no firmer “told ya so” than the Finlay skeptics. We barely see any “told ya so” for those on his side.

So, we’ll be happy to say that we “told ya so…” kind of. Mostly. He had a really awesome squash match against Callum Newman on this tour. His performance in the three-way at Wrestle Kingdom with Moxley and Ospreay was exquisite. Yet, there’s still a sense of facade, a feeling of fabrication, of conceit. It’s difficult to counter the notion that he’s “playing wrestler” or “playing heel,” when the only retort is: we don’t feel that way about it. We think his promos have been solid. He leans into the yelling too quickly, and his enunciation when he’s trying to be loudly emphatic doesn’t land as well. It’s fighting his voice. But then, you need dynamics, and while we think Finlay works better methodically instead of stentorially, we think it’s still fine.

He carried himself like a leader in the cage match at Osaka. It may have been awkward, but the refinements are there. 

If you’re looking for more urgency, look to his dance partner here. Nemeth’s interview with Chris Jericho was illuminating: as one would expect from some who ingratiated himself into the comedy world, famously dating a famous comedienne, less famously performing shows himself, Nic Nemeth is remarkably self-aware. He knows this could be a bust. He knows if he stumbles, he’ll be labeled a WWE protected bust. If this doesn’t work, it’s all on him.

But he also seems to relish that challenge. The one thing we all hope is that he adjusts the… boisterousness? Amy Schumer once infamously said that sex with Nemeth was “too athletic.” The funny thing about him is: his athletics are too athletic. Or, at least, his fake athletics. Let say someone shows you a GIF of Curt Hennig doing what Curt Hennig did: selling in a preposterously demonstrative manner. Doing standing tornillos the likes you wouldn’t even see in lucha… from a simple punch. Most of the time, the response of those GIFS are a perfect litmus test for people’s true intentions. Namely, the “used to be better” dopes telling on themselves. By praising Hennig’s ridiculous nonsense, the message is loud and clear: they only hate the current stuff because it’s not old.

Nic Nemeth saw those GIFS and said: that’s it, that’s my career. And, like Finlay, when it worked it was sensational. Unfortunately, he got imprisoned on the Hamster Wheel of the Stamford Concussion Factory. The question is whether there was a true savant suppressed by politics and fickleness. We’re willing to bet yes. He’s probably not winning here, but if this is a good match he’ll get all the credit, fair or not. Prediction: David Finlay

John: As usual when following J. Michael I’m not sure there’s much of anything else left for me to say. I made the “David Finlay is good actually” case back in the Osaka preview so I’ll only repeat myself so much again, especially since J. Michael basically just made a case for that too. As he said, the haters are more vociferous with Finlay than the enjoyers, and when he doesn’t land he REALLY doesn’t land, but I do think people are way too stubborn with him. Case in point: he and Tama Tonga had a pretty fucking excellent match back at Destruction in Ryogoku in October, a vicious sub-20 minute brawl that felt like the perfect antidote to their previous boring matches together, and a ton of people just dug in their heels and refused to like it. It’s okay to update your priors! Sometimes people honest to god improve! First impressions don’t have to be the end-all be-all!

But anyway, as J. Michael kind of stated, Finlay is basically in a no-win situation here: if this match sucks he’ll get all the blame for having a bad first defense of his shiny new white belt (and the fact that it’s headlining a show will only make the reaction even worse), but if the match is any good the vast majority of the praise will go to the artist formerly known as Dolph Ziggler for looking great in his big post-WWE run. I’m thinking the match probably will be good so get ready for those “Nic Nemeth still has it….and also David Finlay was technically in the match too who cares” takes, because they’re a-comin’. Prediction: David Finlay

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