The last New Japan Pro Wrestling show was on February 26th for a ‘New Japan Road’ show. And then the world changed.
Skip forward just under four months later and the wrestling community has chosen to deal with the pandemic situation in different ways. WWE have ran shows from their Performance Center, and held ‘film’ matches, with varying results. AEW have ran from Daily’s place and used their wrestlers as their audience. The NWA are running weekly interview-based content, as well as the Carnyland show.
And now ‘The King of Sports’ is ready to return to the ring, running the New Japan Cup and Dominion shows using social distancing measures and empty arenas. There has been much discussion about how successful, from an entertainment point of view, empty arena shows are, so this it will be interesting to see how the biggest Japanese wrestling company, and one of the biggest in the world, will handle the situation. The Together Project was NJPW’s way of keeping fans with fresh content during the pandemic and now the Together Project Special will bring the action back to the ring.
The opening video package sets the tone. “We thought it would be like this forever. Until it wasn’t anymore.” This refers, of course, to pre-pandemic times, but it equally applies to now. It won’t be easy, but people and companies will try and take this awful situation and make a positive out of it, for them and for us. Will it be in the way we would ideally want or expect? No, but hell, is it better than companies not running shows and going bankrupt? I’d argue yes.
“Unleash your emotions, and fight with body and soul! That’s the NJPW way!”
I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Gabriel Kidd vs. Yota Tsuji
The opening match on this historic and important night for New Japan was a stiff, hard-hitting Young Lions encounter that saw Kidd and Tsuji get to the point and batter each other with submissions and tough strikes.
Tsuji had the move of the match, when he released Kidd from a camel clutch, leapt up and splashed him on the back in an awesome moment.
Kidd is to be commended for his commitment to New Japan, staying to train at the dojo during training as opposed to returning home. His looked mean and aggressive here, threatening Tsuji as he entered the ring and not letting up on the intensity.
A short but sweet a battle, which shows both men have a lot offer.
A quick note on the lack of crowd: whilst there wasn’t a crowd per se (there were young lions at ringside as normal, wearing face masks, and people occasionally visible right at the back of the standing area), the matches themselves didn’t really lose anything as opposed to WWE for example. In Japan, crowds are quieter, as it is more of a cultural, respectful thing to be quieter during performances there. Also, as New Japan presents themselves as a more sporting product, as opposed to sports entertainment, there is less need for their performers to play to an audience or a camera as WWE does, and so, whilst there is of course a noticeable difference in atmosphere, it was tangible than it is at WWE.
El Desperado and Yoshinobu Kanemaru vs. Tomohiro Ishii and Yuya Uemura
God, I’d forgotten seeing Big Tom Ishii going out and just bashing the snot out of people with those massive forearm blows! I’ve always been partial to big hosses who can actually go in the ring (e.g. Vader, Stan Hansen), and Ishii is a beast in that squared circle, plain and simple.
His exchanges with Desperado and Kanemaru were packed with power and set us up for the Ishii-Desperado Cup match that, based on this, is likely to be a cracker. Uemura looked strong, and in fact it appears he has been using the lockdown period to bulk up. He would not be the only one, but I will come to that shortly.
A good little match ended with Desperado locking in the Stretch Muffler on Uemura, forcing the submission.
Yujiro Takahashi, Taiji Ishimori, Gedo and Jado vs. Hirooki Goto, Toru Yano, YOSHI-HASHI and Tomoaki Honma
Does Kokeshi truly make you happy? Well, I was certainly happy to see it here, as Honma unleashed it for the first time in months against the combined forces of the Bullet Club.
This was a fun little match that tended to go down the comedy route whenever Yano, Gedo, Jado and Honma stepped into the ring, but picked up whenever Goto got involved. On this note, Goto, and certainly Ishimori, are two of the most talented wrestlers on the New Japan roster, but they really didn’t get much opportunity here to show off their chops.
What we did get, and admittedly it was fun, was a Mexican stand-off, with Yano and his turnbuckle pad, and Jado and his kendo stick. Yano plays his comedy role very well, and the change in style did mix things up nicely after the two hard-hitting encounters that proceeded it.
Yujuri got the win with a DDT on Goto to end an entertaining affair that might not be for everyone, depending on your tolerance for comedy in wrestling.
At this point, the show came to a kind of intermission while the crew disinfected the ring. We went back to the waiting videos they use before a live stream starts. I applaud the desire to be hygienic and keep performers as safe as possible, but it would perhaps be better to have something to show during that time, rather than essentially having dead air.
Ryusuke Taguchi, Satoshi Kojima & Hiroyoshi Tenzan vs. EVIL, SANADA & BUSHI
This was a really fun little match! Taguchi and SANADA started things off with a fine grappling sequence which really makes me want to see a singles bout between the two. Taguchi attempted his own Paradise Lock in a cute spot, but SANADA was easily able to break out of it.
Tenzan and Kojima came in to double team SANADA, and all six men battled outside the ring. Back inside, Taguchi started to use that funky weapon to fine affect, ass-bashing SANADA into oblivion, until SANADA found the perfect counter in the atomic drop. He couldn’t counter Taguchi’s ankle lock, however, giving Taguchi’s team the win.
Please, New Japan, on the off-chance that you read this, please give us a Taguchi-SANADA singles match!
Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kota Ibushi, Yuji Nagata & Togi Makabe vs. Minoru Suzuki, Zack Sabre Jr., TAICHI & DOUKI
At last, two of my favourites – Suzuki and Sabre – back in the ring! Needless to say, your reviewer is a very happy man. Even in an empty arena, Suzuki was still able to find someone to intimidate – in this case, the ring announcer.
Suzuki-Gun started things off in typical Suzuki-Gun fashion – attacking their opponents before the bell. From there we got a really good match that focused on setting up several big matches for the New Japan Cup. Sabre and Ibushi had some excellent, strong-style exchanges, with Sabre picking at Ibushi’s knee. Tanahashi eventually got the hot tag, and he and TAICHI started going at it, until Makabe was tagged in and the heels started to dominate the action.
Eventually, Nagata and Suzuki started smacking the taste out of each other’s mouths, while DOUKI took a swing at Makabe with his pipe. Makabe managed to evade it and hit the King Kong Kneedrop for the win.
After the bell, Sabre and Ibushi traded some hot words, young lions stepping between them to prevent things spilling over into fists, and Tanahashi and TAICHI compared lockdown waistlines, with TAICHI looking enviously at Tana’s tag title belt. Now there’s a tag match I can get behind!
Tetsuya Naito, Shingo Takagi and Hiromu Takahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada, SHO and YO
Main event time, and what a mass of talent to present! Okada and Naito are still two of the greatest wrestlers in the contemporary game, Shingo and Takahashi will no doubt lead the next generation – they’re that good – and SHO and YO are always a solid outfit.
SHO was noticeably much more muscular than before and was rocking a new look of black shorts and shaved-with-long-fringe haircut. Are we seeing the start of a possible singles run in the near-future? STAY TUNED!
Okada and Naito still have unfinished business. No-one can do a cocky smirk like Okada, and his face when Naito escaped a head scissors to roll into the tranquilo pose was priceless.
The match itself was good but felt like the finish was rushed and came out of nowhere. The main bulk of the match was SHO and YOH trying to deal with the might of Shingo, who is just so strong it’s crazy. I really could see a heavyweight title reign in his future with New Japan.
The end came when Naito hit a kind of variation of Charlotte Flair’s ‘Natural Selection’ that looked a little off. I don’t know if that was down to Naito, YOH or just more practice needed – certainly I’ve never seen Naito hit the move before. A quick Destino, though, sealed YOH’s fate and gave Los Ingobernables de Japon the victory. SHO didn’t seem too impressed and had some words with Shingo.
Afterwards, Naito cut a promo and went to do the LIJ fist bump but Shingo refused to partake, walking off to the back alone. Now THERE’S an interesting development…
This was a solid, concise show that did what was needed – reminded the wrestling world of why New Japan is so special amongst the many global promotions vying for your attention.
No, there wasn’t a particularly stand-out moment. No, there wasn’t a major angle or announcement per se. What it did do was tease some threads for the future and put on a fun, consistent, always entertaining evening of wrestling. And with things as they are, we should be grateful for what we get, and I most certainly am, for one.
The empty arena situation wasn’t as debilitating to the show as you’d imagine. The only main criticism would be that there needs to be something done to keep fan’s interest during the ring disinfecting. But that will come with time, I’m sure.
For now, let’s celebrate. The King of Sports is back, and it promises to take you on a very exciting ride for the future.