Saturday, 11 February 2017

A New Beginning? NJPW Kick Off 2017

(All star ratings and general content of this article is of course just my opinion. I rate on a scale of 0-5. I don’t rate/watch every match on every card, and if a rating doesn’t appear it means I either did not watch it or wasn’t paying close enough attention to rate fairly.)

It’s been a while since I wrote something here, since last year’s G1 Climax actually. A lot has happened in NJPW since then: Kenny Omega built to his first January 4th Dome main event against Kazuchika Okada; Kamaitachi returned to NJPW from his various excursions to massive hype in the Junior division; NJPW and RPW connections grew closer as Katsuyori Shibata won the RPW heavyweight title and on the recent show, which we’ll be discussing to some degree today, defended it in NJPW. There’s much more of course, but what I’ll say to sum it up is that NJPW continued to play up faction warfare between CHAOS and Bullet Club to close out 2016, and the staleness of that feud led me to sour heavily on the product. A few recent injections of talent at the start of 2017, however, have been a much-needed breath of fresh air, and although the core problems continue to exist, opportunities for undercard talent to have sensational matches, like KUSHIDA and Katsuyori Shibata did last year are also plentiful.

The New Beginning in Sapporo – 05/02/2017
Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan

Suzuki-gun (El Desperado & Yoshinobu Kanemaru) def. Hirai Kawato & KUSHIDA
Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Satoshi Kojima & Yuji Nagata def. Henare, Tomoyuki Oka & Yoshitatsu       
CHAOS (Gedo, Jado and Will Ospreay) def. Jushin “Thunder” Liger, Katsuyori Shibata and Tiger Mask
YOSHI-HASHI def. Takashi Iizuka (with El Desperado)
Dragon Lee, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Manabu Nakanishi, Michael Elgin & Ryusuke Taguchi def. Los Ingobernables de Japon (BUSHI, EVIL, Hiromu Takahashi, SANADA and Tetsuya Naito)
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship: Roppongi Vice (Beretta and Rocky Romero) (c) def. Suzuki-gun (Taichi and Taka Michinoku)
NEVER Openweight Championship: Hirooki Goto (c) def. Juice Robinson
IWGP Tag Team Championship: Chaos (Tomohiro Ishii and Toru Yano) (c) def. G.B.H. (Togi Makabe and Tomoaki Honma), K.E.S. (Davey Boy Smith Jr. and Lance Archer)
IWGP Heavyweight Championship: Kazuchika Okada (c) def. Minoru Suzuki ***3/4

Can good offence hinder a match?
In the ying/yang that were these pair of shows, this was definitely the down swing for me personally, large swathes of the card did not interest me, and most of the matches that I wasn’t really looking forward too didn’t seem to overly impress. (Although I did hear that Juice/Goto overdelivered, and what I saw certainly warrants a full watch at some point.) The one match I though had serious potential to excite me was the main event, we haven’t seen Minoru Suzuki grace NJPW with his presence for a while, and the last few times we have we’ve seen some top-notch performances from him. His match especially with AJ Styles helped AJ become the recognised top star he was in Japan, and may well be my favorite AJ Styles match of all time, no mean feat! Suzuki is just nasty, a modern-ish incarnation of the Taue/Kawada side of the pillars, just likes to hurt people and make it look painful. His offence is up there with some of the best on planet at the moment in terms of actually looking painful, and the way he can do so much with so little puts him ahead of guys like Fred Yehi who do so much. Yehi has so many creative ways of punishing an opponent, but Minoru Suzuki kept me invested in a 40+ minute match with give or take around 3 variations of a knee submission.
That’s the main thing I can say to this matches credit, it kept me invested, and did not suffer at all really from the NJPW main event bloat. Could/should it have been half the time? Very much so. But did it keep me invested and have pretty solid content throughout the entire match? Yea, it actually did. I really do enjoy watching Minoru Suzuki wrestle, because it’s almost like a culture shock, he’s one of the few people out there that looks like he’s genuinely hurting his opponents badly, and can get you invested in it. But herein lies a problem that this match really demonstrated for me, and it’s a problem I’ve had to a lesser degree over the past few years with other matches. I had a discussion with some other wrestling folks last year surrounding the Aries/Nakamura match from an NXT show. The jist of my argument was that I didn’t mind the Nakamura selling performance on that show (I didn’t like the match, but for other reasons) because the offence Aries was putting in didn’t justify an over the top or even above average sell job. It’s something the Hero/Riddle series does well, Riddle is a world class seller, Hero’s offence is probably the best on the planet, it meshes.
In most Okada matches, while I’m not his biggest fan, the selling doesn’t really bother me. This is because most of his matches fall into the category of “fighting spirit” archetype stories. Offense is distributed pretty evenly throughout the body as both men fight to inflict as much general punishment on each other, and use their fire (or “fighting spirit”) to demonstrate them fighting through the pain to continue battling. He does these alright, like I’ve said I’m not his biggest fan, but when he’s in there with someone charismatic and over like a Naito or a Tanahashi it can really pull together into something great. This match, however, was different. Because Suzuki’s offense looks so good, so brutal, and because Suzuki was clearly trying to build a limb story, the shoddy selling really stood out to me, and that detracted from the match.
This is a really curious issue, because Tanahashi and Naito both do considerable amount of leg work in their matches, and yet I preferred their work with Okada to this. Which is why I ponder the above question, if the partner they have to work with is a little light on their selling acumen, can amazing offense, such as that of Minoru Suzuki’s legwork exhibition t New Beginning, detract from the match, because it raises the expected level of selling? It’s a question I can’t really answer in full, but I find it really interesting, all I can say is that I didn’t like this as much as many of the Okada matches from last year. Suzuki’s offense was fascinating, Okada’s finishing sequence was flashy enough, not quite up there with the Styles or Naito counter fests, but his fire was pretty enjoyable, more so than usual actually, but there wasn’t enough there for a 40 minute encounter for me personally, and I felt spots like a deadlift German suplex and a jump to the top rope took away from everything after he had done such a good job to sell the offense while it was actually occurring.
Also, on one final note, props to Gedo, for all the shit I give him, for adding a ton as a manager here. His towel-throw teases with great and the strained cries for Okada to reach the ropes really sold the bromance.

The New Beginning in Osaka – 11/02/2017
Osaka, Japan

Taka Michinoku def. Henare
Tencozy (Hiroyoshi Tenzan & Satoshi Kojima) def. KUSHIDA & Yoshitatsu
Juice Robinson, Jushin Thunder Liger, Tiger Mask & Yuji Nagata def. CHAOS (Gedo, Hirooki Goto, Jado & Yoshi-Hashi)
Suzuki-gun (Minoru Suzuki, Taichi & Yoshinobu Kanemaru) (with Taka Michinoku) def. CHAOS (Beretta, Kazuchika Okada & Rocky Romero)
NEVER Openweight Six Man Championship: Los Ingobernables de Japon (Bushi, Evil & Sanada) def. Taguchi Japan (Hiroshi Tanahashi, Manabu Nakanishi & Ryusuke Taguchi) (c)
RPW British Heavyweight Championship: Katsuyori Shibata (c) def. Will Ospreay ***3/4
IWGP Tag Team Championship: Chaos (Tomohiro Ishii & Toru Yano) (c) def. G.B.H. (Togi Makabe & Tomoaki Honma), Suzuki-gun (Davey Boy Smith Jr. & Takashi Iizuka)
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship: Hiromu Takahashi (c) def. Dragon Lee ****1/2
IWGP Intercontinental Championship: Tetsuya Naito (c) def. Michael Elgin ****

New friends, old problems
This show was great. I caught most of the undercard on this one and even those throwaway tag matches had some really fun stuff in them. For example, Taguchi Japan being a knock off cosplay stable of LIdJ, and then the ensuing match containing some pretty great work as the LIdJ tags tend to do. Where it really shone, though, were those top 3 singles matches that showcased exactly what there is to be really excited about with NJPW in 2017: new talent in positions where they deserve to be, great wrestlers being given chance to have great matches, and previously wrote off talent benefiting from a post gaijin-glass ceiling Japan. The Osaka show is usually the bigger of the two, and often gets the IWGP Heavyweight title match, not this year. We got Tetsuya Naito, hugely successful last year despite the brass not getting behind him as heavily as they probably should, taking on a hugely talented foreign star in Michael Elgin, doing absolutely the best work of his career in Japan. It’s a good sign for NJPW business wise, because LIdJ are taking off in a big way and have been for quite some time, and while a lack of real main event spotlight for Naito might eventually lead to them cooling, it’s obvious with spots light this that his success is forcing their hand in some ways.
Hiromu Takahashi, the former Kamaitachi, has been a revelation in NJPW, the man is one of the biggest potential stars on the planet right now, there’s no doubt in my mind. He’s got the looks, the star quality and the presence that makes him noticed in absolutely every company he’s been a part of. Add that to the ability to have crazy, fast paced, ridiculously over the top matches that do not lose sight of the story and heart they convey, and you’ve got my early pick for Most Outstanding Wrestler front runner. His rivalry with Dragon Lee last year and the year before are contenders for feud of the decade, and this match proved why. They escalate like nobody else can, continuing to do more and more crazy spots while still retaining what makes the feud work: they really convey hatred. When you look at Dragon Lee and Hiromu Takahashi it is obvious that these characters absolutely hate each other. Thus, when they throw crazy move after crazy move, and occasionally ignore the previous one so that they can keep up a high pace, it feels like two people willing to die to defeat the other one, rather than two people doing nonsense for no reason. They also for the most part keep the pace pretty good, some selling mixed in after every series of spots with the spots getting faster and faster as the match goes on. This one may be my favourite in the series, it’s absolutely up there, Kama finally getting revenge for Lee taking his mask a few years ago by ripping it off was a great moment, and put him across as a true rudo in typical Kama style, and some of the crazy spots like the sick apron powerbomb and senton to the outside into the guard rail rank up there with some of my favourite they’ve ever done.
This match was a legit MOTYC for me personally, and I recommend anyone to give it a look, Hiromu Takahashi gives me so much hope for the next few months, and I am salivating at the prospect of him in Best of the Super Juniors or an escalated feud with KUSHIDA.
The main event was pretty great, but I did feel like it suffered a bit from the NJPW main event bloat. The story of Michael Elgin clearly having the edge if he was able to hit the powerbomb, and the babyface fire of him getting stumped by the ungovernable one at every turn had some real heat to it. Furthermore, the monthly return of “Naito Hates Knees – Power Hour!” was as enjoyable as ever, especially with Elgin doing a fine job of selling the leg on offense. There was a spot were Elgin hit a big boot, and while planting his foot, it completely gave way. Stuff like that coming together with an urgent pace in a 20-25 minute match would have made for a legit high end MOTYC for me, but I felt with the match going 35+ minutes and a good chunk of it being slower or just lacking substance, I felt the strong storyline threads lost pace and it wasn’t as fun a watch as it could have been. That said this match was awesome! Both guys did great work and have fantastic chemistry together, I’m looking forward to them getting a non-main event slot at Invasion Attack, Dominion or the G1 and hopefully getting a sprint or just a match that keeps its identity a little better. Wishful thinking I know!
Shibata/Ospreay was super fun and well worked. This was the best Young Will has looked for me since Invasion Attack last year in his excellent match with KUSHIDA. I kinda love Ospreay’s selling sometimes, and while this match wasn’t as suited to showing it off as it could have been, Shibata’s offence being what it is, we went in a different, very interesting direction. The story of this match was Shibata trying to wrestle his match, and often getting caught out by Will Ospreay’s creativity and speed. My mind started racing as soon as this thread started to develop: NJPW very rarely let Juniors get one over on the Heavies, it’s often the case that Juniors have a long, proving period where some interesting match stories revolve around them having to evolve. I thought they may end up going the other way here, with Shibata clearly rocked having to work against a guy who’s style is a little different than he’s used to. Last year Shibata had an astonishing feud with Yuji Nagata where we suffered a setback and was forced to evolve to continue his rise. It would have been pretty dope, and it still could be, if he once again had to evolve because Will Ospreay got the better of him. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case, since those threads never really came together and the match turned into a fun little sprint at the end, where Will absolutely held his own in a traditional Shibata brawl-sprint. Was fun, well worked, laid some seeds, but didn’t really pull together it’s storytelling threads.
Overall thoughts

An interesting double salvo of shows from NJPW, Osaka was a lot of fun with some great matches at the top of the card while Sapporo was mostly barren with an interesting main event I think some people are going to really dig.