At this point, as we reach the ‘Sengoku Lord in Nagoya‘ show, New Japan truly feels like it is back! After an absolute shocker at Dominion, the champion of the people, Hiromu Takahashi, will finally have a shot at the IWGP Heavyweight championship he has dreamed of holding since he was a child. If you are only vaguely familiar with New Japan Pro Wrestling, you may look at Evil now and think “well, he certainly looks like a champion”, which he does in his new Bullet Club garb. If you are a die-hard fan of New Japan, this was the most shocking title win since Okada’s inaugural reign. Jay White’s initial win and Naito’s reign in 2016 were certainly surprises, but Evil in 2020 was on a Jinder Mahal plain of existence. Watching Dominion, half-awake in the wee hours of the morning, I ended up on my feet with hands on head, completely flabbergasted.
Sengoku Lord serves as the end of the official comeback tour. New Japan is wrapping up the rivalries surrounding the New Japan Cup and creating new rivalries going into the Summer Struggle tour. There were certainly some surprising standouts throughout the NJ Cup, and they will have the chance now to show what they are really made of.
Yuya Uemura vs. Taiji Ishimori
New Japan is incredibly deft with match length, more often than not. This match is a prime example. I learned throughout last year’s G1 Climax that I shouldn’t necessarily skip the opening Young Lion bouts. Yota Tsuji and Karl Fredericks were two specific performers that shifted my thinking. Another standout Young Lion is Yuya Uemura. This guy has the look, the speed, and the charisma to be a star. I strongly believe Uemura will be holding a secondary title by this time next year. Taiji Ishimori is one of my favorite Junior Heavyweights because he is more muscle than man. His Junior tag run with El Phantasmo was excellent, especially against acts such as Roppongi 3K.
This match was short but sweet; it continued to familiarize the New Japan fans with a Young Lion that will be in the main event before it is all said and done. Ishimori was his usual Bullet Club bastard self and certainly made Uemura look as though he will be a legitimate competitor down the road. WIith multiple bursts of quickness and strength, it helped my body re-energize itself at four o’clock in the morning.
Gabriel Kidd, Tomohiro Ishii, Toru Yano vs. Togi Makabe, Satoshi Kojima, Ryusuke Taguchi
This match actually had more story behind it than one might expect. Whenever the Young Lions and the “Dad Squad” (Taguchi is an official dad now, right?) get together, it usually serves as a win for the veterans and helps the young guys look strong in the process. After Dominion, Gabriel Kidd called out Makabe, asking for the 2010 “Unchained Gorilla” to come back and show Kidd what Makabe is really made of.
This match is an interesting one; you have some of the hardest men in New Japan mixed in with the silliest men in New Japan. Not that there is anything wrong with that dynamic. I especially enjoyed Taguchi calling plays like a baseball coach in the middle of the ring and Kojima pretending to understand them. Speaking of Kojima, after recently watching some matches of his from twenty years ago, he looks almost exactly the same. A round of applause for Satoshi Kojima
The Young Lions and Junior Heavyweights have benefitted the most from this recent empty arena era. They’ve received opportunities they may not have received otherwise. Kidd is one of those Lions. Once again, this match is just as long as it should be. The basic Taguchi hip spots, Yano being Yano, and Ishii throwing massive elbows. The focal point is the showdown between Makabe and Kidd. Do we see 2010 Makabe? I think not, but he did turn it up a few notches from what you would normally see in an early muti-man tag. Eventually, Makabe was too much, hit a bridged German suplex on Kidd and won the match. We have not seen the end of this rivalry because they get physical with each other immediately after. I am predicting we get a singles match on the Summer Struggle tour.
Los Ingobernables de Japon (Bushi, Sanada, Tetsuya Naito) vs. Yoshi Hashi, Sho, Hirooki Goto
While the juniors and the Lions benefitted greatly from the empty arena era, I have not. Why? I’ve had to watch way too much Yoshi Hashi. Look, he is a fine wrestler, but I believe Damon from the Super J-Cast refers to Yoshi as a “bag of socks”. He’s just kind of there. That is, however, balanced by the attendance of Sho. Sho was the man everyone was talking about after the New Japan Cup, and with Yoh being injured, it looks as though a singles run is in his near future. He challenged Shingo for the NEVER Openweight title at Dominion, and it was arguably the match of the night.
It is strange to see Naito in a multi-man tag in the middle of the card when he was the double champion only a few short weeks ago. In fact, I find it slightly disconcerting… but, tranquilo, I guess. All of LIJ look slightly withdrawn, which is understandable considering the events surrounding Evil’s turn to the dark side. Well, I guess he was always part of the dark side… let’s just say he’s being a jerk about it.
This match was a LOT of fun. Even though LIJ didn’t exactly look like themselves on the way to the ring, they got it together fairly quickly. On the first instance of things falling apart outside of the ring, Naito threw Yoshi into the barricade so hard it made me cry with laughter. The potential match up I was most interested in, Sanada and Sho, totally delivered. Both of these guys make everything look so good. Except the Paradise Lock… that move is the most painfully pro wrestling thing since The People’s Elbow. Everyone beat the absolute p**s out of each other in this match, Sho looked like he could hang with the big boys and LIJ looked far from defeated. The match finished between Sho and Sanada with some brilliant counter wrestling, Sho eventually tapping out to the Skull End. I had hoped for Sho to get the pin on Bushi, but it makes sense considering the desire to keep LIJ strong in their quest for revenge.
Afterwards, LIJ has a show of solidarity and beats up the referee. Just like the good old days. Liger was not pleased about this.
Master Wato, Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kota Ibushi, Yuji Nagata vs. Taichi, Minoru Suzuki, Douki, Yoshinobu Kanemaru, Zack Sabre Jr. (Suzuki-Gun)
Oh, Master Wato, what can I say about you? To be fair, Wato is an interesting performer of which the likes of New Japan doesn’t currently possess. However, he is also incredibly awkward and the gimmick does him no favors. The producers need to figure out some different camera angles for his entrance, because the current presentation makes me laugh way too hard. Tenzan has been accompanying Wato for no other reason than to give him the rub. Hiroshi Tanahashi is so happy to be wrestling in front of fans that he is literally skipping to the ring? Is there a more adorable tag team than Ibushi and Tana? I think not, which is an interesting thing to say ,considering they’re 38 and 43 respectively.
Suzuki-Gun has been on quite the tear since the return of New Japan. Suzuki and Nagata have a rivalry; good murder grandpa vs. evil murder grandpa, and it is amazing. Taichi and ZSJ beat Ibushi and Tana for the tag titles, Douki had a singles match with Wato and Kanemaru is building to one. There is quite a bit of character work being done throughout this match, and it shows in how entertaining it actually was.
Honestly, this was one of my favorite matches on the night. It dissolved into bedlam on multiple occasions, but being that everyone has their nemesis on the opposite side, it led to some pretty incredible action. We should, however, warn Wato to never tempt fate by calling out Minoru Suzuki ever again. Taichi has been one of the standout performers since the empty arena shows. I had become overwhelmingly bored with his matches at this time last year in the G1 Climax, but right now every cylinder is firing. He is somehow a coward and a sadist simultaneously, and the fact that it led to ZSJ holding his first official IWGP title is simply icing on the cake.
Speaking of ZSJ, I want to see him tie up with Ibushi on a daily basis. While they are wildly different in combat, they may be the best at what they do. The best way to describe their work together would be that it has “snap”. Every single movement matters. On the opposite end of that spectrum, Nagata and Suzuki were on the outside for fifteen minutes, hitting each other in the face. Nagata versus Suzuki in the New Japan Cup was one of the best matches of the tournament. It is definitely happening again, and I am glad it will be in front of a crowd. Speaking of the crowd, we should all praise the fans in these arenas for remaining as reserved as possible. They have been asked not to shout or cheer, and beyond the occasional gasp, they’ve done an excellent job. There is no way us Americans would be able to pull that off.
KAMIGOYE! Tanahashi is so full of joy after Ibushi gets the pin on Douki. He sends all of his teammates to the corners of the ring to celebrate and just generally be merry. As they walk up the ramp, Tana is looking to the fans that once asked him to put his sweat on their towels as a keepsake they will always treasure (sounds weirder than it is) and is PRETENDING TO HUG ALL OF THEM. Hiroshi Tanahashi is who we should all aspire to be in these dark days.
Kazuchika Okada vs. Yujiro Takahashi
I am not going to spend much time on this one. Yes, it had a backstory, because Yujiro was a defector from Chaos and once cost Okada the title with interference. Yes, Yujiro, Naito and Okada all came in around the same time. Those two things are all these performers have in common. I do my best to stray away from blatant negativity as much as possible, but this was not good.
Yujiro is nowhere near the level of Okada, and I would go so far as to say that this is the worst Okada match I have ever seen. Nothing really happens, and it takes forever. This match should have been five minutes long if that was the best Yujiro can offer.
Okada gets the submission with the Cobra Clutch he started using in the Cup. I don’t know what the point of this was. We need Jay White… and Kenta… and Will… and Robbie… and Juice… and Mox… Moving on…
Shingo Takagi vs. El Desperado
Now we are back in business. The NEVER Openweight Title is currently the most interesting title in New Japan. With so many heavyweights unavailable for the first time since I have been watching NJPW religiously, it truly feels like an Openweight title. Shingo and Sho had the match of the night at Dominion. After their match, Despy attacked Shingo and stole his championship belt. Both Despy and Shingo deserve heaps of praise: Desperado has been a fantastic smarmy d**k since the beginning of the NJ Cup, and Shingo has been a “match of the night” machine for the last year, at least. Side note: If you haven’t seen Shingo versus Ospreay from the Best of the Super Juniors Final last year, it is on Youtube… watch it now… right now.
This match starts off fast, which isn’t surprising considering Despy has annoyed Shingo in a fairly profound way. Speaking of being annoying, I absolutely love that Desperado has removed the bottom of his mask so we can see when he is running his mouth. I never realized how vocal he is during matches, and it definitely adds a new layer to his character and the match itself.
This match was old school in the best possible way. The entire match is built around Despy working on Shingo’s knee. Both men are spectacular at selling throughout the course of the match. Shingo is his normal barrel-chested, lariat throwing self. Desperado is an absolute bastard. This was most definitely match of the night. Shingo is one of the best wrestlers in the world; I doubt he will ever attain IWGP Heavyweight gold, but there is certainly an Intercontinental or United States title in his future. I just wish Shingo had been around while Kenny Omega was still in New Japan, because that would have more than likely been a match of the year candidate. I’ll say it… Shingo Takagi is my favorite wrestler in New Japan!
Evil vs. Hiromu Takahashi – IWGP Heavyweight & Intercontinental Championship
After what was probably the most shocking title win in recent memory, we get one of the more unlikely challengers in Hiromu Takahashi. Hiromu is the definition of a star. I have no doubt he will hold both of these titles at one point or another, but in Nagoya, it seems like an impossibility. In matches such as this, all I really want is a single moment of belief; a single moment where I truly believe the underdog is going to pull it off. If anyone can make me feel that way, it is Hiromu.
I have never been a fan of Evil’s in-ring style or his aesthetic, for the most part. While he hasn’t changed much of what he does in the ring, his aesthetic has improved drastically. Bullet Club Evil absolutely LOOKS like a champion as he is making his way down to the ring. Nobody in New Japan needed a character overhaul like Evil needed one. His entire presence felt played out and tired. Those days are definitely over. It makes for an interesting summer, if nothing else. What happens to Bullet Club? Does Naito get his revenge? Things are set up for an entertaining summer.
I think Hiromu was pretty angry with Evil. He started off the match with some absolutely huge dropkicks and made it look like this wouldn’t be the one-sided affair some people may have expected. Hiromu hit two dropkicks off of the apron. Hiromu was not messing around. The crowd is almost completely silent any time Evil gets in some offense. The crowd is only allowed to show emotion by clapping, and nobody is clapping along with Evil. Evil removed the large turnbuckle pad and whipped Hiromu into the unprotected steel, twice. This is when the match started to plod along in the classic Evil fashion. Although they are telling a story, so it wasn’t as boring as it normally would be.
There were some huge moves in this match, mostly coming from Takahashi. Hiromu powerbombed Evil off the apron directly on TOP of Dick Togo, Evil’s pareja. Hiromu also hit Evil with a Death Valley Driver on the apron, top rope senton, wild chops; for the first time, Hiromu was in control, and he wanted to punish Evil. It slowed down once again when Evil hit a series of German suplexes, looking as though he is into Brock Lesnar cosplay.
Eventually I got my moment of honest belief: Hiromu reverses Everything Evil and was able to hit the move on Evil himself; Hiromu gave Evil a Death Valley Driver into the exposed turnbuckle; Hiromu hit Timebomb, Evil kicked out (audible gasp); Hiromu hit Timebomb II… I legitimately thought it was over… it’s happening… Hiromu Takahashi! IWGP HEAVYWEI… Dick Togo pulled Red Shoes out of the ring on the count of 2 ¾ … Magic.
Of course, Bullet Club interfered, which allowed Evil to get the win over Hiromu. We all knew this would happen. After the match, Ishimori challenges Hiromu for the Junior Heavyweight Title by beating Takahashi up further. Naito comes out to make the save and officially challenges Evil to a rematch. Certainly not the most incredible New Japan main event I have ever seen, but it was definitely memorable in its most dramatic moments.
If the plan was to make Evil look like “the guy” by putting him up against Hiromu, this was a bit of a failure. However, if this was built to make Hiromu look like “the guy”, then I would say this was an absolute success. Hiromu Takahashi is one of the most popular guys in New Japan. I would go so far as to say he is the MOST popular guy currently in New Japan. There isn’t anyone else who demands attention quite like Hiromu Takahashi; his entire presence is built around a tangible star-quality that he understands how to manipulate and exploit in every situation he finds himself in.
Now, with the Jingu Stadium show announced for August 29th, New Japan is officially working toward a distinctive destination. With about one thousand (exaggeration) Korakuen Hall shows between now and then, I’m waiting with bated breath to see what the company does next.