NEW JAPAN PRO WRESTLING
NEW BEGINNING IN SAPPORO 2024 – NIGHT 1 & NIGHT 2
FEBRUARY 23 & 24, 2024
HOKKAIDO PREFECTURAL SPORTS CENTER
SAPPORO, HOKKAIDO, JAPAN

Watch: NJPWWorld

MEET YOUR REVIEWER:

Suit Williams: Suit Williams is here to cover a newsworthy weekend in Sapporo for New Japan. We’ve got a Tokyo Dome rematch where neither man feels particularly interested in it, a hair match, and a pair of ex-WWE debuts! Oh, and that Okada guy is leaving. Follow Suit on social media @SuitWilliams and check out his AEW Collision reviews on F4WOnline.

NEW BEGINNING IN SAPPORO 2024 – NIGHT ONE

TALES FROM THE UNDERCARD

  • House Of Torture (Ren Narita, Yoshinobu Kanemaru & Yujiro Takahashi) def. Oleg Boltin, Ryusuke Taguchi & Tomoaki Honma
  • CHAOS (Kazuchika Okada, Tomohiro Ishii, YOH & YOSHI-HASHI) def. United Empire (Callum Newman, Francesco Akira, Great-O-Khan & Jeff Cobb)
  • Los Ingobernables de Japon (BUSHI, Hiromu Takahashi, Shingo Takagi, Tetsuya Naito & Yota Tsuji) def. Just 5 Guys (DOUKI, SANADA, Taichi, TAKA Michinoku & Yuya Uemura)

ZACK SABRE JR. DEF. YUJI NAGATA

This was the opener of the show, but it stood out as another feature singles win for Zack Sabre Jr. Three singles match wins for Sabre since losing the TV Title, including an early Match of the Year contender with Bryan Danielson, has Sabre as a favorite to win his third New Japan Cup. With Will Ospreay’s departure and David Finlay’s growing pains, Sabre has a very easy path to take the place of the top foreigner in the promotion. He has the tenure, he has the booking credibility, and he’s having the high-quality matches that are expected at the top of New Japan cards. I would be stunned if Sabre didn’t play a major role in New Japan in 2024, but New Japan is making an unfortunate habit of stunning me lately, as I’ll soon get into.

Sabre got the win in a solid opener with a cross arm breaker. ***1/2

IWGP WOMEN’S TITLE MATCH
MAYU IWATANI (C) DEF. MINA SHIRAKAWA

This was an impressive showing from the Stardom stalwarts here, as the commentary set the stage well for this one. Shirakawa worked on Iwatani’s knee throughout, and since the last IWGP Women’s Title match on a proper New Japan show only went 5 minutes, the Figure Four Shirakawa applied about 8 minutes in felt like it could have been the finish. Iwatani fought hard to the ropes to break the hold, then ran through her big moves before scoring the win with two Dragon Suplexes. Probably the best IWGP Women’s Title match on a New Japan show yet, and the match of the night. ****

IWGP JUNIOR HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE MATCH
SHO DEF. EL DESPERADO (C) BY COUNTOUT – TITLE CHANGES HANDS

There was a time when you could call me a House of Torture defender. As the noise restrictions were lifted, and the House could get the HEAT that they were looking for, they felt like any other overbearing Gedo-era heel unit. And I’ve always noted that they were fine as a goof troupe undercard heel group. However, there was always a limit to my tolerance of House of Torture. For everyone’s convenience, I’ve formatted that limit into a formula.

Introducing the House of Torture Tolerance Formula!

You start with 100% tolerance. Then, immediately subtract 30% because I don’t like the act. After that, subtract 5% for every match past match one. So, if they’re in the opener, I’m 70% tolerant of the act. Match two, it goes down to 65%. So on and so forth until match five, where the tolerance loss doubles to 10%, as their schtick has no place on the business end of the card. The tolerance can fall all the way to 0%, especially on B-shows and during the duller Fall months. Add a title to the mix? The tolerance drastically goes down.

The point is that they’re fine when they aren’t pushed. When they are pushed, it’s hell. This was a slog from the jump, as SHO spent most of the match cheating or selling his knee. Desperado worked slowly after getting choked out early, making this a slow-paced affair. They fought on the floor for a little while before doing the traditional countout tease. Then, Ren Narita pulled Despy out of the ring behind the referee’s back and held him down. The referee got to 20, and SHO became the 95th Jr. Heavyweight Champion via countout. There was a point, not too long ago when you think about it, where SHO was expected to be the next Junior Ace of the company. That point is long gone. With this win, SHO is now going to be in the main event of the Anniversary Show on March 6. Fuck. *1/2

NEVER OPENWEIGHT TITLE MATCH
EVIL (C) DEFEATS SHOTA UMINO

I thought that SHO winning the Jr. Title was a good sign for Shota Umino, who was challenging for the NEVER Openweight Title here. Umino got the win over Ren Narita in Korakuen, where he also got the endorsement from former NEVER Champ Tama Tonga. He was wrestling EVIL, who could easily take a V0 NEVER Title run and go on about his day. He even got a spiffy new haircut, albeit one deserving of a refund. This seemed like an easy way to crown Umino and get his ascension to the top in gear.

Nope.

Instead, EVIL got the win in another House of Torture special, where the interference is commonplace and bland at this point. My hope is that Umino gets his win back in the New Japan Cup before winning the belt at Sumo Hall, but I can just as easily see someone else getting that shot. This won’t kill off Umino, as his work has steadily improved and his connection with the crowd is getting stronger. But this was a baffling decision here, one you can only hope makes more sense in hindsight. **1/2

NJPW WORLD TELEVISION TITLE MATCH
MATT RIDDLE DEFEATS HIROSHI TANAHASHI (C)

Matt Riddle becomes the 3rd NJPW World Television Champion here, beating Tanahashi in about 9 minutes. This was a tough watch, as Tanahashi is cooked, packed, and in the fridge. He’s fought off Father Time as much as you could ask him to, but Father Time is scoring 10-7 rounds at this point. Meanwhile, Riddle came into this match ice cold, as this Sapporo crowd didn’t seem too locked in on their RK-Bro tapes. Riddle looked physically fine here, and I expect his work to get better once he wrestles someone with cartilage in their knees. But this was an inauspicious start to his New Japan career. **

IWGP GLOBAL HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE MATCH
NIC NEMETH DEFEATS DAVID FINLAY (C)

Nic Nemeth became the second IWGP Global Heavyweight Champion, beating David Finlay in his first defense.

When Nic Nemeth talked to the press backstage at Wrestle Kingdom, he sold me on him having a chance to make it in New Japan. As someone who believed he was on his way to standup tours and banging realtors the first chance he got, I saw a fire that I thought had been snuffed out several years and several abandoned pushes ago. This was a man ready to take the world by the horns and prove what kind of a star he could be.

Then, the bell rang, and I remembered that he’s still Dolph Ziggler. Now in fairness to him, it takes time to acclimatize to the world outside of WWE. He’s never been outside of the WWE system, working for them for literally twenty years. He’s not exactly working with a beacon of the style either in David Finlay. And he got the crowd on his side much more than Riddle did the match before, although Nemeth had a lot more time to work with. I say all of this to say that I’m not writing off Nemeth already.

Meanwhile, the booking of David Finlay here is quite odd. He beat Will Ospreay and Jon Moxley to win this title in a featured match at Wrestle Kingdom. He then pinned Will Ospreay in his final match, a bloody war of a cage match just a few weeks ago. He had some booking momentum and credibility, and they paid it off immediately? To Nic Nemeth? A confusing decision that only served to cut off Finlay at the knees. Maybe Gedo is cutting bait. Maybe he thinks Nemeth can help them draw with their US shows. Either way, an odd call here. Nemeth won a solid WWE TV match with the Zig Zag, now renamed the Danger Zone. ***1/4




NEW BEGINNING IN SAPPORO 2024 – NIGHT TWO

TALES FROM THE UNDERCARD

  • El Desperado, Oleg Boltin, Shota Umino, Togi Makabe & YOH def. House Of Torture (Yoshinobu Kanemaru, EVIL, Ren Narita, SHO & Yujiro Takahashi) – YOH stole the Jr. Title from SHO after the match and ran off, thus continuing the belt based shenanigans around the Jr. Title.

  • Nic Nemeth & Ryusuke Taguchi def. David Finlay & Gedo – After the match, Nemeth challenged Tanahashi to a future Global Title match.

KAZUCHIKA OKADA FAREWELL MATCH
CHAOS (KAZUCHIKA OKADA, HIROOKI GOTO, TOMOHIRO ISHII, TORU YANO & YOSHI-HASHI) DEF. UNITED EMPIRE (FRANCESCO AKIRA, GREAT-O-KHAN, HENARE & JEFF COBB) & MATT RIDDLE

With one last Rainmaker to Callum Newman, Kazuchika Okada leaves New Japan victorious, if not very glamorous. This was far from Shinsuke Nakamura’s emotional farewell in Korakuen Hall, carried out on the shoulders of his CHAOS teammates. This was far from Will Ospreay’s emotional farewell just two weeks ago, with his teammates and family sending him off in the main event. This was a guy leaving, and the promotion looking all too okay with closing the door behind him.

I was going to write a column on the situation, but my thoughts boil down to this. Maybe Okada was a headache backstage. Maybe he refused to put guys over. Maybe he left the promotion high and dry. Too fuckin’ bad. Stars on the level of Kazuchika Okada don’t fall off of trees. He’s up there with Inoki and Tanahashi as far as the biggest stars in the history of the promotion. I would have treated this departure with a bit more reverence than New Japan did. But hey, I’m not the one he’s leaving.

TAMA TONGA FAREWELL MATCH – JADO AS SPECIAL REFEREE
EL PHANTASMO & HIKULEO DEF. TAMA TONGA & TANGA LOA

We got all three GOD songs, as Jado came out to Ain’t Nobody Realer Than Guerrilla, ELP and Hikuleo came out to their music, and original GOD came out to their original music from way back when. The pop when GOD came out with the face paint like this was 2017 was nice, and immediately gave this more gravitas than KAZUCHIKA OKADA’S farewell. Sorry, I’m not over that.

Anyway, these two had a solid tag match here, with OG GOD putting over the new team after Hikuleo hit the Godsend on Tama. Funnily enough, it was this time last year when Hikuleo sent another Bullet Club alum – Jay White – out of the company with the Godsend. With this, all four of the original four members of Bullet Club – Prince Devitt, Karl Anderson, Tama Tonga, Bad Luck Fale – are done as full-time members of New Japan. Between that and Okada’s departure, which was a match before this if you recall, there’s no stronger way to mark the end of an era in New Japan Pro Wrestling.

BUSHI DEF. TAKA MICHINOKU

Look, it’s a nice novelty to have a Taka Michinoku singles match on the card. I literally couldn’t think of anything to say about this match, other than it’s as good as it was ever going to be. BUSHI won with a Figure Four style submission. **1/2

DOUKI DEF. HIROMU TAKAHASHI

The best match of the two shows. DOUKI had never beaten Hiromu in a singles match before tonight, and this didn’t look to be an exception. But DOUKI kept fighting back, with Sapporo loudly getting on his side. I’ve really become a big fan of DOUKI over the past year, and I’m not alone. Ever since the pandemic, DOUKI has earned his way back for more tours and higher up the ranks in the Junior division with standout matches.

DOUKI kicked out of the Dynamite Plunger and Time Bomb 1.5. He ran through his big offense, but as always, couldn’t hit the Suplex De La Luna. But after stuffing a Hiromu reversal, DOUKI finally got the arms trapped and hit Suplex De La Luna to score the biggest singles win of his career. I would say the Junior division is the best thing about New Japan right now, but SHO just won the title. So I’ll just say this match was great. ****1/4

TAICHI DEF. SHINGO TAKAGI

There is such a thing as too much candy. This match was very good. However, I feel like I’ve seen this match and these two paired up with each other a dozen times. Surprisingly, this is the first singles match they’ve had in almost a year. The last match they had was the Takagi-style Triad match for the KOPW that Taichi won to end the feud at that point. However, with their factions feuding for a long time since then, it feels like neither man has really moved on.

But this was everything you would want from these two, with their NEVER style hard-hitting getting big reactions from the Sapporo crowd. The same Sapporo crowd that willed Taichi on last year at New Beginning against Will Ospreay willed him on here, and this time, Taichi came through for them. Taichi dropped Shingo with a Dangerous Backdrop to score the win here. My hope is that one of these two, if not both of them, move up the card and start consistently finding themselves in the World Title mix. They’ve been too good not to at least be a defense for someone. ***3/4

HAIR VS. HAIR MATCH
YOTA TSUJI DEF. YUYA UEMURA

I saw what they were going for. This is going to be a tentpole feud for both men, not only at this stage in their careers, but throughout their careers. The moment of Uemura getting his hair cut, alongside the Wrestle Kingdom match, will be in video packages about these two for years to come. They wanted this feud to have its first big New Japan epic and gave them the time and platform to do it.

The problem is that these two are not ready for the big New Japan epic. This match went over 25 minutes, teasing a time-limit draw. This was easily the longest singles match of Uemura’s career, and for Tsuji, it was right there with the Will Ospreay match. They just did not structure this match in a compelling way to fill the time. Uemura’s whole deal is that he sticks to the fundamentals, countering Tsuji’s flash and pomp. That’s fine, but Uemura is not Zack Sabre Jr. or WALTER. He’s not good enough to where simple can be excellent. His simple is just…fine.

Meanwhile, Tsuji spent a lot of time working a heat segment, which isn’t his strong suit. His strong suit is the flashy and impactful moves that surprise you at how smoothly they come from a man his size. What’s even more frustrating is the fact that they had a closing stretch that showed you what this pairing was capable of. Uemura used his basics to evade the Gene Blaster spear multiple times, but eventually Tsuji caught him on the back foot and speared him to hell to get the win and retain his hair. This was a big swing, and unfortunately for the spot they were in, it was a big miss. ***1/4

IWGP WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE MATCH
TETSUYA NAITO © DEF. SANADA

The updated New Japan World has the ability to switch between English and Japanese commentary while staying on the same feed. I wish that there was a third commentary option for this show. I would have paid double the price for a feed of Kazuchika Okada’s honest thoughts as he sat on Japanese commentary. I would wish upon a star to hear what was going through Okada’s head when Yota Tsuji barked his disappointment in him after Tsuji’s disappointing semi-main. I would have maxed out a credit card to see what Okada was thinking as Naito and SANADA crumbled on spot after spot after spot after spot. I would have borrowed money from family to hear Okada realize just how dire the scene for New Japan was after tonight, with the heavyweight division stinking out Sapporo two nights in a row. Oh, how I wonder.

The start of the match was fine but uncompelling work, as I expected from the two. The crowd was 100% behind Naito, which is only surprising if you haven’t watched a SANADA title defense before. I swear to God, Gedo could put me across from SANADA in Osaka and the crowd would be 50/50.  But the thing about this match is that I have been dreading it since it got announced. I was so ready to move on from SANADA as World Champion after the Tokyo Dome, only to be greeted with an immediate rematch 2 months later. I didn’t like their feud going into Wrestle Kingdom, with Naito begging SANADA to promote their match and SANADA refusing. I was not high on their Wrestle Kingdom match, where SANADA had his worst individual performance as champion. I didn’t like the feud coming into this show, with Naito begging SANADA to promote their match and SANADA refusing. I’m not even that hot on Naito as champion, as I’m just waiting for somebody more appealing to me to take the title from him. These two had an uphill climb to win me over anyway.

Then, they toppled over and fell down the hill. I say that as metaphor, but if they had gone onto the ramp, I’ve little doubt that they would have toppled over and fallen down it. Multiple blown Destinos. Multiple stutters and repeated spots. Multiple times where the two grabbed a hold for a minute to try and get this thing back on track. At one point, Naito missed the rope on a tornado DDT, crumbled into a pile with SANADA, and just laid there on the mat in an attempt to make it look like some kind of submission. This was fucking amateur hour, and it just wouldn’t end. They got back on track enough for a closing stretch that saw SANADA run through his big moves. But in the end, Naito reversed a Deadfall into a tornado DDT cradle for the win. A match I didn’t want to see that repeatedly and embarrassingly fell the fuck apart. An unacceptable main event. *

I’m done being nice about SANADA. I’m done couching my thoughts with “I understand why they pushed him.” I’ve had it with this guy. How many main events where he walks to the ring to crickets does he have to have? How many World Title matches does he have to bomb before they understand that he’s not that guy? To paraphrase the late, great Dennis Green, “He is who we thought he was!” SANADA has no semblance of main event presence, no sign of main event charisma, and is incapable of having main event matches on a consistent basis. He bombed in Sumo Hall with the atrocity that was the EVIL Lumberjack match. He gave his worst performance as champion in the main event of the biggest show of the year, then followed it up with an even worse performance. What more can be said? IT’S OVER. IT’S DONE. THE EXPERIMENT HAS FAILED.

Meanwhile, Tetsuya Naito moves on to the Anniversary Show to wrestle SHO in a match that I cannot fathom selling a single ticket. Tetsuya Naito is now the main attraction and the top star of a promotion that in the short-term has a heavyweight division full of unprepared prospects and aging veterans who have never broken through. All while the money is as unsure as it has ever been in the Bushiroad era. Naito reigns over an empire that has seemingly become dirt overnight. The 52nd year of New Japan begins on March 6th, beginning what may be a mid-life crisis for the King of Sports.

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