Issue #10: Three Count Fall
Bullet Club & Great NJ Cup Matches, Stardom Cinderella Cup Announcement, Around the Rings of NOAH, AJPW, GLEAT, and more!
ONE COUNT: Wild Week of Action Sets Up All-Star New Japan Cup Quarterfinals
This Friday’s show at Korakuen Hall put a bow on one of the most newsworthy weeks of New Japan Pro Wrestling action in many months, setting the stage for a star-studded conclusion to the New Japan Cup and a new direction for current and former members of Bullet Club.
In the main event on March 18th at Korakuen, Hiromu Takhashi defeated former Los Ingobernables de Japon stablemate and current House of Torture leader EVIL in a wild match before the biggest crowd in that building in almost two years (1,019 fans). What’s most notable about the attendance is that EVIL main events do not draw in any appreciable way against anyone other than his former LIJ compatriots—which indicates that it’s the deep connection between LIJ and the New Japan fans that deserves the credit here, rather than any groundswell of interest in what the House of Torture is doing.
The match itself, while filled with most of the well-worn HoT tropes, was more watchable than most recent EVIL matches because of Hiromu Takahashi. He continues to absolutely scream *top star* at every turn and this match was no exception, with his connection to the crowd being rivaled only by that of Tetsuya Naito. While they may never fully pull the trigger on him leaving the junior heavyweight division to become a full-time heavyweight, an IWGP World Heavyweight Championship chase and eventual victory for Hiromu is by far the most interesting, fresh, and compelling story NJPW has in their back pocket right now.
When Hiromu was able to successfully fight Dick Togo off and hit EVIL with his own STO for the win, Korakuen Hall erupted more than any NJPW crowd has since the pandemic hit.. It was not the full-throated reaction of the old days (and it still can’t be), but people absolutely let themselves go and enjoy the moment…and when it was announced that he would next face Shingo Takagi in the quarterfinals, another audible wave of excitement spread through the crowd.[Side note: a wrestler actually getting the win with their opponent’s finisher was sorely needed and very much welcome here, as it is an in-match storytelling device that is supposed to set up a dramatic near fall but is undercut by the fact that it virtually never ends the match.]
Takagi advanced to the quarterfinals in Friday’s semi-main, defeating Chase Owens in a match that felt like it found the absolute ceiling of how good a Chase Owens match can be (and it’s not at all surprising that Shingo Takagi is the one that pulled that performance out of him). The match was greatly helped by Owens’ post-match attack on Takagi on the March 17th show, which saw him leave Shingo laying after a package piledriver on a steel chair. This “injury” made it more believable that Owens would have a chance here, and Takagi’s selling throughout the match (including flexing his hand and wrist repeatedly to sell the “pins and needles” numbness often caused by a neck injury) was as good as it’s ever been. Owens’ transition from the failed package piledriver attempt straight into a traditional piledriver made for a great nearfall, but Shingo picked up the win with the Last of the Dragon to advance.
The other major development on this show saw Tama Tonga, Tanga Loa, and Jado shake hands with Master Wato and Ryusuke Taguchi, seemingly aligning them with Hontai after one of the most tumultuous weeks in Bullet Club history. On the March 13th New Japan Cup show in Amagasaki, the company ran a major angle that saw the entire Bullet Club turn on the Guerillas of Destiny and Jado in staggered fashion, with Bad Luck Fale striking the final blow to leave the former tag team champions and their manager down and out in the ring.
Immediately after, I commented on how the angle felt and what it did and didn’t accomplish:
That initial observation may have been harsh, but I stand by it. While Tama Tonga (much like Konnan at his height in WCW) has a strong emotional connection with the fans in Japan, the angle would have come across so much more effectively if Bullet Club/House of Torture currently consisted of a more interesting group than the likes of Chase Owens, Yujiro, El Phantasmo, Bad Luck Fale, etc. The story of the turn was “how could these men turn their backs on Tama Tonga,” but we’ve been given next to no reason to care about what any of those guys have been doing.
The aim here seems to be making Tama Tonga a top babyface star in the company, with Tanga Loa and Jado at his side. It’s an interesting choice, as we’ve been through multiple—largely unsuccessful—attempts over the past decade to expand Tama beyond his role as a tag team wrestler/Bullet Club enforcer. The difference here is that it’s on the babyface side, and the test run of sorts that he had in this role in last year’s G1 Climax worked far better than expected. His match against Okada in the G1, for example, where he worked as a de facto babyface fighting valiantly to beat the top star, was significantly better than the rematch several months later with Tama in a more familiar role. However long this feud with Bullet Club takes (and it won’t be short), I am most looking forward to seeing what this new version of Tama Tonga can do in the mix with the likes of Okada, Takagi, Tanahashi, Ibushi, etc.
The other main story this week is just how many high-end tournament matches there have been over the past several days alone.
Hiromu and Suzuki was just an absolute war, with the first TWELVE MINUTES being nothing but overhand chops (and it was so much more compelling than that sounds on paper). Taichi and Okada had an even better match than in last year’s G1, with Taichi’s continued comebacks until he finally staggered into a landslide driver being the highlight. YOSHI-HASHI had maybe the best singles match of his career this week against Cobb—the crowd reaction here to YOSHI-HASHI was very strong, to the point that it may have been a mistake to not have him score the upset win. Tanahashi and Naito had a very good match that didn’t quite reach the heights of their earlier battles (they had several clunky exchanges that were similar to what happened in their tag match exchanges that I wrote about several weeks ago), but it was different enough that it still worked and continued the “Naito wins by flash pin” story of the tournament. ZSJ vs Great O-Khan was every bit as unique as their match in last year’s G1, with GO-K showing even more of his high-end grappling before succumbing to the flash submission.
The most unfortunate development of the week was the injury suffered by SANADA in his March 17th match against Will Ospreay, as a standing shooting star press by Ospreay resulted in an errant knee to the face and fractured orbital bone. The match as going very well up until that point, with SANADA continuing to show more confidence and fire (while not sacrificing the “effortlessly cool” vibe that has made him such a star with the New Japan fanbase) that has him on the best run of his career. The finish came via referee stoppage after an uncomfortably long—but relatively safe-looking—downward elbow strikes by Ospreay.
With all that said, the New Japan Cup quarterfinals matches are as follows:
Kazuchika Okada vs CIMA
Tetsuya Naito vs Jeff Cobb
Zack Sabre, Jr. vs Will Ospreay
Hiromu Takahashi vs Shingo Takagi
All four matches have the potential to be great, with both matches on March 21st virtually guaranteed to be incredible. The most exciting part of the final eight is how unpredictable the results are—with the exception of CIMA, it would be both believable and logical for anyone else to win the tournament. Given how much this 50th Anniversary year is built around the idea of cementing Kazuchika Okada being the best wrestler in the history of New Japan Pro Wrestling, I wouldn’t be shocked if he runs the table and wins the tournament as champion. The other interesting wrinkle is that Hiromu said that if he wins the Cup, he may choose to challenge EL Desperado for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship…but if Hiromu beats Okada to win the Cup, could that change his mind? Stay tuned.
TWO COUNT: STARDOM Announces Cinderella Cup Brackets as the Road to Ryogoku Continues
As we inch closer to the return of KAIRI and two days of STARDOM WORLD CLIMAX at Ryoguku Sumo Hall later this month, the perpetually busy STARDOM news cycle continued with the announcements of the dates, format, and brackets for April’s Cinderella Tournament.
This year’s tournament will one again be a three-night affair (last year’s shows were spread out between April, May, and June due to COVID complications) and will feature the largest field yet, with 30 wrestlers comprising the brackets. Two wrestlers will receive first round byes, with the current World of Stardom Champion (Syuri) and Wonder of Stardom Champion (Saya Kamitani) getting the free pass to the second round. Needless to say, champions getting byes is far more logical than the likes of Tomoaki Honma, Kosei Fujita, and Master Wato receiving the same in the New Japan Cup.
Cinderella Tournament 2022 Rules
Advance via pinfall, submission, or over-the-top-rope elimination
Time limit draw eliminates both wrestlers in the match from the tournament
Cinderella Tournament winner gets the wish of their choice, ostensibly (but not specifically limited to) a Red or White Belt title match
As always, the most important thing to remember is the over-the-top-rope rule here—simply put, if you throw your opponent over the top and to the floor, you move on to the next round. This has traditionally been a way to allow for surprising results, major upsets, and unusual matchups as the tournament progresses—with such a deep roster and brackets this year, this story device takes on even more importance as a way to have any number of significant first-time matches without giving away a pinfall or submission finish.
Given STARDOM’s propensity for time limit draws, one would expect that we will see several here—particularly in the first round, with just a 10-minute time limit in effect. That will, by extension, create several additional byes throughout the tournament that could create reasons for certain wrestlers advancing in an unexpected way (i.e., a weary champion who has had a match in every round falling to a rested, lower-ranked wrestler who has received one or more byes).
From a top wrestlers standpoint, four matches stand out in the opening round:
AZM vs Momo Watanabe
Thekla vs Giulia
Utami Hayashishita vs Tam Nakano
Starlight Kid vs Natsupoi
Any of those eight wrestlers are legitimate threats to win the tournament. Before the brackets were announced, SLK and Natsupoi were my top two picks to win the tournament given where each wrestler is now and where they project to be by the end of the year. If there is an actual winner here, I would argue that they are potentially the favorite to win it all.
Beyond the eight wrestlers mentioned above, the following seem to have at least a theoretical chance of winning: Himeka, Hazuki, Koguma, MIRAI, Mayu Iwatani, Unagi Sayaka, Maika, Syuri, and Saya Kamitani. The fact that you could make a legitimate argument for 17 of 30 wrestlers, or 56 percent of the field, having a chance to win a high-stakes tournament speaks both to the incredible depth of STARDOM as well as a high degree of watchability and intrigue for the tournament itself.
Another key aspect of the matches to look out for in a tournament like this is wrestlers that have established “flash pin” secondary finishers in their arsenal—a list would include Koguma, AZM, Saki Kashima, Fukigen Death, Mina Shirakawa and even the likes of Hanan and Rina. One other minor prediction—given how prominently rookie Miyu Amasaki has been featured in her first week in the company, I wouldn’t be shocked to see her score an over-the-top-rope elimination against Hazuki in the first round. We will have much more on the Cinderella Tournament, including my final predictions, before the tourney gets underway.
In-ring action on the road to STARDOM WORLD CLIMAX continued this week as well, with a pair of weekend shows in the Tokyo area showing some significant developments.
The March 12th show at Takadanobaba was built around a unique 5-on-5 series of matches between members of Oedo Tai, with the individual matchups and match order determined by a blind draw tug-of-war:
The series opened with what was the biggest possible matchup given current storylines, Utami Hayashishita vs Momo Watanabe. It predictably went to a time limit draw but the action was tremendous throughout—very heated, intense, and physical. Whenever they are eventually put in a main event or semi-main event situation to blow off the feud, it should be one of the best matches of the year (I’m actually glad they held off from putting it on the either of the Ryogoku shows, as it would have been completely lost in the shuffle).
Coming down to the final match, Queen’s Quest held a 2-1-1 lead with Starlight Kid facing rookie Miyu Amasaki in the main event. Amasaki is very green (again, this was only her second match!) and you can see her really thinking her way through every sequence, but the potential is through the roof and she figures to grow into a top star if everything works out right. Her offense already looks good and she has a unique move—the pendulum sitout Pedigree—that is a great nearfall. When her comfort level, speed, and selling catch up, it’s likely that we will see rapid improvement. It is wild, though, to see someone like her in the ring with someone like SLK—they are very close in age but Starlight Kid already has more than six years of experience.
Amasaki took SLK to more than 11 minutes of action before succumbing to a Texas Cloverleaf Hold. That alone is another sign of how high the company regards her. Postmatch, Watanabe confronted Hayashishita and said that 15 minutes was not enough, again teasing a major singles match. She hinted at a Unit Breakup Match, which continues the trend of Oedo Tai saying that Queen’s Quest isn’t a real group anymore and should just break up on their own.
On the following night, STARDOM drew one of the best crowds of the pandemic era at Korakuen Hall (772 fans)—which is made even more impressive by the fact that the main event was an Artist of Stardom 6-person tag title match with an obvious pin eater (Lady C).
Outside of the main event, the most significant development of the show came in the semi main event. Giulia and Thekla wrestled Syuri to a spirited 20 minute draw, with the Giulia-Syuri sequences standing out. This outpost of sorts was sorely needed—the two are wrestling for the Red Belt on March 26th at Ryogoku, but the “preview” tag matches had largely focused on a potential March 27th Red Belt battle between Syuri and Mayu Iwatani.
Immediately after the draw, Risa Sera of PROMINENCE hit the ring and said that she hopes Giuilia loses…not just because of that match, but because she wants Giulia to be in the PROMINENCE vs Donna Del Mondo unit war on March 27th. Giulia quickly grabbed the mic and wondered whether Syuri and PROMINENCE were conspiring to ensure that she loses the title match. After Giulia stormed off, Syuri told Risa Sera that she looks forward to defending the Red Belt against her after she gets past Giulia and Iwatani.
The other thing I wanted to note was just how phenomenal the closing stretch was between Rina and Hanan in the Stars vs Oedo Tai 10-person tag team match—including one nearfall that was so close the timekeeper thought it was the finish even though Rina kicked out! Highlights included a brutally great top rope double knee drop by Rina, leading to her getting the pin on her sister (and the Future of Stardom Champion) after hitting the “Pink Shift” Noshigami. I have written about the rapid improvement period Hanan is in right now, and her 15 year-old sister stayed with her every step of the way here. It’s remarkable how good both are at their respective ages, and their Future title match to open day one of STARDOM WORLD CLIMAX has show-stealing potential.
Lady C was predictably pinned by Maika in the aforementioned championship main event, but there was notable action throughout. The triple team version of the Magic Killer with Kamitani hitting a springboard drop kick was very impressive, and the extended lariat battle between Himeka and Hayashishita was worth the price of admission alone. Cosmic Angels came out post-match to challenge MaiHimePoi, which would pit the current defense record holders against the current champions trying to tie their record.
THREE COUNT: Around the Rings of Pro Wrestling NOAH, All Japan, GLEAT, and more
Pro Wrestling NOAH returned to major show action with a one-night GHC Tag Team Championship tournament headlining a 10-match card on March 13th before 905 fans at Yokohama Budokan.
Hideki Suzuki returned to action on the show, reprising his role in Suguira-Gun and joining Takashi Suguira himself to win the vacant titles in his first wrestling match since late 2020 (he left Japan to become a coach in WWE’s NXT, but never wrestled an official match for the company). While Sugiura choked out Daiki Inaba in the final to win the championships, it was Inaba who had the most impactful showing of the night in pinning Naomichi Marufuji earlier in the evening for the biggest win of career. Inaba’s partner Kaito Kiyomiya really could have used that win, but it should be considered a small victory that Kiyomiya made it out of the two matches without dropping another fall to a much older wrestler.
The other noteworthy result of the show was Dragon Gate’s Eita defeating Daisuke Harada to win the GHC Junior Heavyweight Championship under the Perros del Mal de Japon banner. It was a good match but I honestly expected much more, given Eita’s talent and the consistently high level Harada continues to perform at in 2022. It never really hit a higher gear and ended with a referee stoppage as Eita had Harada hooked in a Rings of Saturn-esque hold.
It’s a significant week ahead for NOAH (albeit one with significantly less online buzz than big shows during Katsuhiko Nakajima’s reign), beginning on Monday with the GHC Heavyweight Championship match and more:
March 21st in Fukoka:
Go Shiozaki vs Masaaki Mochizuki
GHC Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Title: Atsushi Kotoge & YO-HEY (c) vs. NOSAWA Rongai & Kotaro Suzuki
GHC Heavyweight Title: Kazuyuki Fujita (c) vs. Masato Tanaka
March 23rd at Korakuen Hall:
Go Shiozaki vs Katsuhiko Nakajima (this is Nakajima’s singles return from injury)
March 24th at Korakuen Hall:
GHC National Championship: Masakatsu Funaki (c) vs Hideki Suzuku (this match was made after Suzuki pinned Funaki last week in the first round of the GHC Tag Team Championship tournament)
As a side note following up on our long-form article on the problems in Pro Wrestling NOAH: the average age of the current heavyweight champions in the company (Heavyweight, National, Tag Team) is 49.2 years old, with Suzuki the only one under the age of 59 in that group.
In addition to Pro Wrestling NOAH’s upcoming major shows, there are several other major events happening just after press time. Look for full coverage in next week’s issue:
March 19th: Tokyo Joshi Pro Wrestling Grand Princess ‘22
Princess of Princess Championship: Miyu Yamashita (c) vs. Shoko Nakajima –
Princess Tag Team Championship: Yuka Sakazaki & Mizuki (c) vs. Rika Tatsumi & Miu Watanabe –
International Princess Championship: Maki Itoh (c) vs. Yuki Arai
Hikaru Shida vs Hikari Noa
March 20th: DDT Judgement
KO-D Openweight Championship: Konosuke Takeshita (c) vs Tetsuya Endo
March 21st: AJPW Champions Night 3
Triple Crown: Kento Miyahara (c) vs Shuji Ishikawa
World Junior Championship: Hikaru Sato vs Hokuto Omori
Shotaro Ashino vs Ryuki Honda
Look for a full preview of the AJPW Champion Carnival in the coming weeks. The most interesting participant is BJW’s Takuya Nomura, who is beginning to venture outside of his home company more as time goes on. His B Block match on April 13th is one of the most intriguing matches of the year on paper, as they are two of the best wrestlers in world but have dramatically different styles and philosophies of wrestling.
The full card was announced for the April 16th show featuring New Japan and All Japan talent celebrating Korakuen Hall’s 60th Anniversary, with an intriguing main event that unfortunately may be in jeopardy due to SANADA’s injury. The card as it stands is:
Kento Miyahara & Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Jake Lee & SANADA
Suwama, Shotaro Ashino & Dan Tamura vs. Hirooki Goto, YOSHI-HASHI & YOH
Yuma Aoyagi, Atsuki Aoyagi, Togi Makabe & Tomoaki Honma vs. Tetsuya Naito, BUSHI, Shingo Takagi & Hiromu Takahashi
Takao Omori, Ryohei Oiwa & Yuto Nakashima vs. Yoshitatsu, Ryusuke Taguchi & Master Wato
Toru Yano & TAJIRI vs. Black Menso-re & Yoshinobu Kanemaru
Ryo Inoue vs. Kosei Fujita
If it actually ends up happening, the Miyahara and Tanahashi vs Lee and SANADA match is a far bigger main event than I expected for this show. There is no obvious pin eater here with four legitimate stars, and the clear draw is having the two longtime modern aces of AJPW and NJPW teaming together for such a historically significant occasion. In terms of potential replacements, Naito or Takagi could be pulled from their 8-man tag to fill that slot. Other options who are otherwise not booked on that day include EVIL and Kazuchika Okada.
It will also be interesting to see Yoshitatsu, who currently exists in his own “Codyverse”-level bubble in AJPW, mix it up with a couple of NJPW Young Lions. Much like on the Wrestle Kingdom in Yokohama show with Pro Wrestling NOAH, Young Lion Kosei Fujita once again gets to wrestle another promotion’s rookie in the opener. As mentioned last week, the champion vs champion angle to Suwama, Ashino & Tamura vs Goto, YOSHI-HASHI & YOH makes for a very interesting match as well. Kevin Kelly mentioned in passing last week that this show will air tape-delayed/on-demand on NJPW World, but there is no word yet on any live broadcast details.
GLEAT’s latest show took place on March 13th in Osaka, and it was one of their weaker offerings to date. I will fully admit some of this is personal preference, as Quiet Storm soundly defeating Yu Iizuka in the opener felt like an aggressively personal attack on me—and that was made worse when Quiet Storm of all people then successfully petitioned El Lindaman to be his first G-REX Championship challenger. Needless to say, that is not who I would’ve chosen to be Lindaman’s first challenger coming off the buzz of his title win and recent NJPW appearance. I could have also done without having Takanori Ito drop a direct fall to Ryuchi Kawakami, but I assume this will lead to a singles rematch between these two after Ito defeated Kawakami in the G-REX tournament.
On the positive side, Soma Watanabe’s LIDET UWF journey continues to be the most compelling story in the company. As I’ve written about previously, Watanabe does not come from a fighting background and was originally trained strictly as a pro wrestler. He looked very much out of place in his first few UWF-rules matches in the company, but has improved dramatically as he trains with Kiyoshi Tamura. His loss to Seichi Ikemoto on this show was his best shoot-style outing yet, showcasing his increased comfortability in grappling and striking exchanges while also seamlessly integrating aspects of his traditional pro wrestling repertoire.
One last note that I did not have space for last week—the surprising retirement announcement of Tsukushi Haruka. As I’ve written about previously, Haruka has stepped up brilliantly in the face of the late 2021 mass exodus of top wrestlers from Ice Ribbon, taking the mantle of company ace and champion. Her ICExInfinity Championship win over Tsukasa Fujimoto last November was one of the best and most underrated stories/matches of 2021, and she followed that up with several entertaining title defenses.
The loss of a Haruka leaves a massive hole for a company that is already reeling. Until then her retirement announcement makes for one more unique and compelling story, as she has stated that she wants to hold the title until her retirement show on May 4th. The two most logical options to lift the belt would be Tsukasa Fujimoto (back to stability with one of the best wrestlers in the world) or Ibuki Hoshi (with whom she had a great match in January and who seems poised to be their next top star).