Issue 11: Three Count Fall
ZSJ-Ospreay and NJ Cup, TJPW and DDT Take Ryogoku, Around the Rings of NOAH and AJPW
ONE COUNT: Will Ospreay vs Zack Sabre, Jr. Classic Highlights New Japan Cup Quarterfinal Round
It’s easy to forget just how many legitimately great wrestlers are on New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s roster. NJPW has no but itself to be blame for that, with so many matches on each show featuring mind-numbing levels of interference and a very safe style of booking. Last weekend’s New Japan Cup semifinal shows at Aore Nagaoka served as a potent reminder of how good they can be when the company just gets out of its own way.
After three rounds that largely went according to expectations (CIMA defeating Goto was positioned as an upset, but would only be the case for people who exclusively watch NJPW), the quarterfinals were set with four matches that each could have been major show main events. The shows were held March 20-21, drawing 1,707 and 1,450 fans respectively. This is on par with NJPW’s last visit to the building during the G1 Climax in 2020, which drew 1,685 fans.
The quarterfinal action got underway on March 20th with Tetsuya Naito taking on Jeff Cobb in the latest chapter of their rivalry. They last met on Jan. 5th at Wrestle Kingdom, with Naito picking up the win over an injury-hobbled Cobb in a very good match. Fast forward 10 weeks and Cobb is partially-recovered from his leg injury, with a chance to avenge his loss and move on to the semifinals. For Naito, it was an opportunity to continue his road back to the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship after failing to defeat Kazuchika Okada last month.
The action here was better than at Wrestle Kingdom, as Cobb appears to be much closer to 100 percent than he was that night. From a character standpoint the dynamic between them is tremendous , as it’s two laid-back guys trying to rattle each other while not getting rattled themselves in the process. It’s also notable how over Cobb is with the New Japan audience, to the point that I would almost be surprised if he doesn’t get an IWGP World Heavyweight Championship match at some point the next 12 to 18 months.
Naito’s story throughout this tournament has been two-fold—his inability to cleanly hit the Destino, and his ability to win anyway with a variety of rollup-style pinning combinations. That story continued here as Naito went for the Destino, which was countered impressively into a modified Tour of the Island attempt, which Naito then rolled through into a jackknife pin for the win to move on to the semifinals.
The main event on March 20th saw Kazuchika Okada take on CIMA in a match that feels like it should have happened at least once before given both men’s backgrounds and shared connections, but was in fact the first time they have officially crossed paths.
While Okada came through the Young Lion system, he was first trained in Mexico by Ultimo Dragon as a teenager beginning in 2004. CIMA, meanwhile, was one of the first graduates of Ultimo Dragon’s original Toryumon Dojo in 1997. With Okada in NJPW since 2007 and CIMA walking a path from Dragon Gate to OWE and all over the world, there simply never was the opportunity for them to meet.
They had solid chemistry here given their lack of previous meetings and the action here was very good, but it never felt like the crowd really bought into CIMA having a chance to win. The match never quite hit that next gear that we’ve seen so many times already this year from Okada, but the finishing stretch was engaging enough. Okada was able to counter a lungblower attempt directly into a landslide driver and then the Rainmaker to get the win, setting up a semifinal rematch with Naito. CIMA’s New Japan appearances are set to continue alongside his STRONGHEARTS stablemates, with El Lindaman and T-Hawk hopefully set to get more of the spotlight this time around.
While the first two quarterfinals were very good, the two on March 21st were at a level that any promotion would be happy with as their best matches of the year. First up was an all- Los Ingobernables de Japon battle as Shingo Takagi took on Hiromu Takahashi. Takagi went into the match as the clear favorite, but there was more doubt than usual given Hiromu’s third round win over Minoru Suzuki and his previous New Japan Cup wins against Tomohiro Ishii, Toru Yano, and Tomoaki Honma. The other wrinkle here was Takahashi’s declaration that he would challenge El Desperado for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship (rather than Okada for the World Title) should he win the tournament.
It says everything about both wrestlers that they had one of New Japan’s best matches of the year while also clearly keeping so many potential sequences and moments in reserve for another meeting down the road. It was 23 minutes of pure action—long stretches of mat work would have felt completely out of pace for the styles they each employ, so they just left all of that out and went full-speed from the opening bell.
Takagi is great in any environment, but he’s best when facing a smaller wrestler that he can batter around and take to the brink. Takahashi is obviously incredible in his traditional junior heavyweight role, but he may be even better absorbing beatings from heavyweights and fighting against the odds. Those two elements came together here and when mixed with top-tier speed of both men, made for something special both in the moments of struggle and multiple lightning-fast counter exchanges. Takagi kicked out of the Time Bomb; Takahashi was able to escape from the Made in Japan and a pumping bomber—in the end, Takagi put Takahashi away with a combination Made in Japan/Last of the Dragon to get the win and advance.
The main event of this show ended up being the best match of the tournament to date, along with being my personal front-runner for New Japan’s 2022 Match of the Year so far. Will Ospreay and Zack Sabre, Jr. are the standard bearers of modern British wrestling, having both made their biggest successes in Japan through divergent paths and styles.
As Chris Charlton has pointed out on several occasions, Ospreay and ZSJ really are the UK’s own Okada and Tanahashi. This meeting sees them each at their highest points as wrestlers—Ospreay fully established as a heavyweight who is a threat to win any championship or tournament in New Japan at any time, and ZSJ as a made man with the company’s trust to wrestle a post-injury Katsuyori Shibata in a grappling exhibition and be one of six men to wrestle in the main of event of the company’s 50th Anniversary show.
It should go without saying that they Ospreay and ZSJ have incredible chemistry together, but is so remarkable that it still needs to be mentioned. They are like pieces of a puzzle that fit so perfectly together—Ospreay strikes feed into ZSJ’s submissions, ZSJ’s pinning combinations serve as the perfect counters to Ospreay aerial efforts, and they are both so good at everything that they fill in the rest of the gaps.
The other fascinating thing about rivalries like this is the ability to chart each wrestlers growth, physically and otherwise. While much has been said about Ospreay’s transformation into a heavyweight body, ZSJ has more gradually added size to the point where he now does not look out of place at first glance in the division either. Stylistically, he has added just enough “moves” (the rebounding tornado DDT, basement drop kick, Michinoku Driver, etc.) to complement his dizzying submission style, while Ospreay move into a move aggressive striking style has been well-documented.
The action here was fast-paced and frantic at times, with mat work that slowed the pace down just enough without ever dragging or meandering. They pulled off several remarkably intricate pinning combination sequences that somehow never felt contrived or overly cooperative. The finish was the best in any match this year—Ospreay raining down the same elbow strikes that stopped SANADA just days earlier, ZSJ deftly capturing the arm in mid-strike while also bending Ospreay’s knee back at a terrible angle, and cranking on both for what appeared to be a quick submission. Ospreay immediately objected and said that he was hammering at ZSJ rather than tapping, with Kevin Kelly saying this could have been an understandably quick stoppage by Red Shoes Unno after let SANADA take too much punishment from Ospreay before calling for the bell in that match.
That sets up two potential marquee matchups for the New Japan Cup Semifinals, which may have taken place by the time you read this.
March 26th at Osaka Jo-Hall, with the winners meeting the following night in the same building:
Kazuchika Okada vs Tetsuya Naito
Shingo Takagi vs Zack Sabre, Jr.
We will have full coverage of the final two days of the New Japan Cup in next week’s issiue.
TWO COUNT: TJPW and DDT Take Sumo Hall by Storm in Dramatic Pair of Shows
In an extraordinarily busy holiday weekend for Japanese professional wrestling, sister promotions Tokyo Joshi Pro-Wrestling (TJPW) and DDT Pro-Wrestling provided the most colorful and vibrant action across the scene.
For TJPW, Grand Princess ‘22 at Ryogoku Sumo Hall on March 19th provided an opportunity to step out of the major event shadow of DDT and hold their biggest show of the year on their largest stage yet. A cynical person would say that the announced attendance of 1,747 was disappointingly small given the size of the building; a fair view of that number, however, would note that it was the largest crowd in company history and a further “proof of concept” that the promotion can stand on its own and has room for continued growth.
I fall firmly in the latter camp—given all factors and circumstances, it is a spectacular number. Outside of the use of Hikaru Shida, this was a number drawn by largely the same crew of wrestlers that works TJPW’s Korakuen Hall events and other shows.
One aspect of the Grand Princess ‘22 that was much different than a normal TJPW event was the ring entrances—more than anything, these gave the event and the wrestlers a larger-than-life feel that also felt very distinct and different from what we would see on a major STARDOM show, for example. Whether it be Yuki Kamifuku’s motorcycle entrance, SAKISAMA’s pageantry, or Maki Itoh’s expanded Itoh Respect Army performers, it was clear that this an opportunity to turn up Tokyo Joshi Pro-Wrestling’s most outlandish characters to an even higher level.
From an in-ring perspective, this may also have been the best show in company history. The opener saw the long-awaited debut of Juria Nagano, an actress, karateka and nurse who has been training with Shoko Nakajima for her pro wrestling debut. While very different stylistically from Yuki Arai, it is a somewhat similar situation in that you have someone coming in with a level of notoriety outside of pro wrestling and bringing that celebrity to bear as a pro wrestler.
As with Arai last year, Nagano was very impressive here right off the bat. Her martial arts background played well into a natural tag team with Moka Miyamoto against Arisu Endo and Suzume—Nagano’s strikes in particular were very impressive and unique among the TJPW roster. The other noteworthy thing from this match is how advanced Arisu Endo already is at just over 80 matches into her career. She is still being positioned as a rookie struggling to get wins over Miyamoto, which feels like a lost opportunity. Given Endo’s talent level and performances so far (and TJPW’s desperate need for fresh main event wrestlers), she would be a perfect candidate to go supernova and win a major championship very early in her career. There is always understandable reticence to pull the trigger on such a move, but Endo has all the tools to succeed in a significantly enhanced role.
If you are picking and choosing what to watch, the final four matches from Grand Princess ‘22 are all musts, for different reasons. As mentioned earlier, Hikaru Shida returned to Japan to face Hikari Noa in the latter’s biggest match to date. It started with great intensity and never dropped off—highlights included a chair vs kendo stick battle on the floor, as well as a level of smoothness from Shida in chain sequences that showed just how good she can be against higher-level talent than she usually faces on AEW television. It was also a very strong showing by Noa, who is inching her way to the top of the card and ironing out many of the rougher edges of her game in the process. Shida got the win with a Falcon arrow and pointed her kendo stick toward Aja Kong at ringside, potentially signaling a match on a future major TJPW event.
Yuki Arai is far from a finished product, but her opponent on this night provided a perfect template for how she can get there. For those that haven’t seen Maki Itoh for the past six months or so—or who only saw her few AEW appearances—you could be forgiven for thinking that she is more entrance than match as a wrestler. And to be clear, her entrance is one of the best in all of wrestling and she is as charismatic as anyone in the business. Itoh has, however, found a way to take everything that makes her a compelling character and put that into a slightly more serious in-ring style befitting of a championship-level wrestler. She’s never going to be the best athlete or the most physically-imposing member of the TJPW roster, but she has emerged as one of the smartest in terms of match structure and working within those limitations.
Arai, as mentioned earlier, also comes from a non-wrestling entertainment background and still has one foot in each world. When she debuted it was said that she would wrestle once a month, but over the course of the past year that schedule has ramped up to two-to-three matches per month and she is beginning to feel like a more fully integrated wrestler of the roster. Arai is not anywhere near as over-the-top of a character as Itoh is—the key to her matches so far have been the determination she projects and her selling while fighting back from near-certain defeat.
This was not Itoh’s best International Princess Title match, but it was still very good. The most impressive aspect of the action was Itoh’s confidence and poise in control of the match, as it never meandered or felt like it dragged across its 16+ minutes. This was the type of understated, veteran-like performance that we would not have seen from Itoh in this same spot one year ago.
The Princess Tag Team Title match was just tremendous pro wrestling from all four competitors, with Miu Watanabe having one of the best performances of her career as she weaved “feats of strength” spots with great timing and fire. The double body slam and double giant swing were very visually impressive, but her execution of a standing avalanche powerslam here might have been the most polished she has ever looked.
Yuka Sakazaki and Mizuki are quite possible the most likeable team in all of wrestling (that magic carpet ride entrance!), but Sakazaki in particular is able to flip the switch and become an absolute killer at a moments notice. She is one of the most underrated and “in-match versatile” wrestlers in the world, and all of those qualities were on display during a tremendous extended finishing stretch with Rika Tatsumi. This was one of the best tag team matches of the year and is well worth seeking out.
Miyu Yamashita’s dominant title reign felt like it was one the verge of ending several times—first in her defense last October against Itoh, and then as she faced Mizuki this past January. While a strong argument could be made that the time was right in each case, I was of the opinion that there was more value in making Yamashita an even more authoritative ace than in her previous reigns.
As detailed in the beautifully-produced pre-match VTR, the roots of Yamashita and Shoko Nakajima’s rivalry go back to the very beginning of Tokyo Joshi Pro-Wrestling before the promotion even used a proper wrestling ring. Their main event here smartly eschewed any grandiose entrances or special presentations, as the story itself was more than strong enough on its own.
I’m not sure that I would have this quite at the level of Yamashita’s Jan. 4. 2022 defense vs Mizuki, or Sakazaki vs Mizuki from 11.7.00 (an interesting common denominator there…), but it wasn’t far off. Yamashita’s brutally precise kicks and the weight of her dominance (both in her reign and in this match) could have made the somewhat abrupt comeback and finish be less than satisfying, but the closing sequence was so smooth and Nakajima was so quick that it was believable that she could score an out-of-nowhere win. The frankensteiner nearfall, straight into the double-arm ddt, and into the huge top rope senton would have had an unrestricted crowd coming unglued for the three count.
There cannot be enough good things said about the run Miyu Yamashita has been on. It’s not an easy feat to be a nearly unbeatable champion with a brutally violent repertoire (that Skullkick to the back of the head!) while still giving your opponent enough offense to not feel like they are being completely squashed—Yamashita has mastered that art, whether it be in a championship match or against a rookie on a smaller show. She is coming to the United States in May for several independent shows, and given the announcement of an AEW-DDT/TJPW working relationship (more on that in this week’s THREE COUNT) I wouldn’t be surprised if she has a match or two there as well.
One night later, DDT’s Judgement 2022 proved to be their most significant show and largest crowd of the pandemic era (drawing 2,516 fans) as they celebrated the promotion’s 25th Anniversary.
In an odd way, one of the things I enjoy most about DDT—and the CyberFight/Wrestle Universe promotions as a whole—is that there are many things I don’t enjoy about them. The comedy has never quite landed for me and there are plenty of wrestlers on the roster that are not my proverbial cup of tea, but that makes it easier to focus on and follow the core group of wrestlers that I enjoy.
I would put that core group, featuring the likes of Konosuke Takeshita, Tetsuya Endo, Yuki Ueno, Kazusada Higuchi, HARASHIMA and others, up against the top wrestlers in any promotion in the world. Never was that more evident than in the main event of this show, pitting Takeshita against Endo in a match that enveloped and elevated the entire 25 year history of the promotion.
Having inherited the “dual ace” mantle from Kota Ibushi and Kenny Omega many years ago, Takeshita and Endo have faced each other many times in many different situations. The story here was that, while Endo has defeated Takeshita in less important matches (including earlier this week), Takeshita always comes out ahead when it matters.
The more subtle but equally important story as the match unfolded was just how much both men have improved over the years. While I’m sure some will roll their eyes at the match length (46+ minutes), it really felt like both men have found their final form as legitimate ace-level wrestlers who have left behind the parts of their respective games that didn’t work and have leaned into everything that does.
Takeshita in particular is fascinating to watch, in that he may be the first wrestler I have ever seen with no apparent weaknesses. He is a giant of a man, has a great look, is in incredible cosmetic shape, has high-end functional strength, and as a heavyweight is a better high-flyer than 95 percent of the best junior heavyweights in the world. The only possible criticism I have is that he’s so good at everything that it seems almost unbelievable that he could ever be beaten.
I’ve been slower to the draw with Endo, who has long done many spectacular things but to my eyes they never quite came together into the wrestler he was billed to be. The move from Damnation the the New Burning stable, and with it a more traditional babyface ace role (rather than harder-edged, borderline heel style) suits his offense and his selling much better.
For what it’s worth, this is now my 2022 Match of the Year to date. As I watched it unfold and go past 30 minutes…then past 45 minutes…I started to think it was going to go the distance and fall into that same category of draws from 2021 (Hayashishita vs Syuri I, Kenoh vs Nakajima, Miyahara vs Lee, etc.) that were absolutely incredible, but could have been pushed to an even higher level by having a real finish. With so many incredible callbacks to their history and the history of DDT as a whole, coupled with the drama of the action itself, and the definitive finish of Endo winning with consecutive top rope shooting star presses, they delivered everything needed and then some.
THREE COUNT: Around the Rings with NOAH and All Japan Pro Wrestling + the AEW/DDT Partnership
It was, as always in recent times, a mixed bag of action in Pro Wrestling NOAH over the past week. First, the good—Go Shiozaki and Katsuhiko Nakajima had an absolute classic on March 23rd at Korakuen Hall. Freed from the burdens of being a championship match at a major show, they packed a high-end Match of the Year candidate’s worth of action into just over 17 minutes. For my money, this was significantly more engaging than their match on January 1st and was the best match in NOAH in 2022 to date. Shiozaki is the only wrestler in the world keeping pace with Kazuchika Okada right now.
Shun Skywalker and the Z-Brats group from Dragon Gate also appeared on the March 23rd show, attacking Daisuke Harada and declaring war on the NOAH Junior Army ahead of the April 29th N-Innovation show at Sumo Hall. Skywalker is one of the best wrestlers—and maybe the most compelling character—in the world right now and his presence can only help the division and that show. That said, running a building the size of Ryogoku with only NOAH’s jumbled mess of a junior heavyweight division (the night before a second NOAH show in the same building featuring the heavyweights) is a recipe foe attendance disaster.
As for the not-so-good…there was plenty of that, too. The March 21st show in Fukuoka was poorly attended—the second consecutive Kazayuki Fujita GHC Title match to draw under 700 fans (697 people, in this instance), and the lowest attendance for NOAH in Fukuoka during the pandemic era. Fujita’s defense here against Masato Tanaka dragged considerably in going just over 32 minutes and was nowhere near the level of their 30-minute draw last December, which was one of NOAH’s best matches of 2021.
In the semi-main event, the post-match image of Kendo Kashin attempting to throw Masakatsu Funaki off of a completely empty balcony level of the Fukuoka International Center onto the sparsely populated arena floor felt like a snapshot of everything wrong with the company right now. With Funaki successfully defending the GHC National Championship against Hideki Suzuki on March 24th, Kashin figures to be his next challenger.
Back to Fujita for a moment—his upcoming title defense against Shiozaki on April 30th feels like a watershed moment for the company, one way or the other. The original plan for this reign seemed to have it culminating in a Fujita vs Keiji Muto GHC Heavyweight Title match at CyberFight Festival in June, before Muto’s hip injuries forced him out of action. Keep in mind that this “Road to GHC” storyline for Shiozaki also began prior to Muto’s injury. Reading the tea leaves, one could infer that the original plan was for Fujita to defeat Shiozaki and go on to defend against Muto…and with the staredown between Fujita and Naomichi Marufuji after the six man tag match on March 23rd, it’s reasonable to think NOAH may just keep that original booking plan (Fujita defeating Shiozaki) and just put Marufuji into the match with Fujita at Cyber Fight Festival. As always with modern-day Pro Wrestling NOAH, I hope I’m wrong but fear that I am right.
All Japan Pro-Wrestling also held a major show on March 21st, drawing 1,309 fans for the third installment of the Champions Night series at Ota Ward Gymnasium. This is a healthy number for AJPW in this building, drawing 500+ more fans than NJPW did several weeks ago for a show headlined by Shingo Takagi vs Tomohiro Ishii.
The show was main evented by Kento Miyahara vs Shuji Ishikawa for the Triple Crown in another legitimate Match of the Year candidate, with Ishikawa putting in one of the best performances of his lengthy career here. Miyahara has long been Ishikawa’s best opponent and he once again brought something more out of him here, with Ishikawa moving with a level of intensity and speed that we haven’t seen from him in several years. There multiple very close nearfalls, with the inverted Fire Thunder Driver a terrifying highlight. Miyahara continues to show his worth both as a draw for AJPW as well as a high-end in-ring champion, as this match was at a level above any non-Miyahara Triple Crown match in recent years. It continues to be impossible to argue that any wrestler is more valuable to their promotion than Miyahara is to All Japan Pro-Wrestling.
The other highlight of the show was a brutally entertaining Last Man Standing match between Shotaro Ashino and Ryuki Honda. This is a stipulation we don’t often see in Japan and it would have been temptingly easy for this match to veer into a hardcore spectacle rather than a more physically intense battle. Thankfully ,outside of some table usage (Honda tried to STAB Ashino with a knife and missed, lodging it in the table!), this felt more like an old-school Texas Death Match than anything. There was tremendous intensity throughout, with Ashino showing his continued character development as a hard-nosed, valiant wrestler who can become violent and unforgiving when pushed to his limits. As much as people wanted him to win the Triple Crown immediately upon appearing in AJPW in 2020, his eventual reign will be much more successful because of this growth and his team with Suwama. Honda also looked great here again, and seems to be finding his way as a heel after being pressed into main event duty in Jake Lee’s absence.
The less said about Voodoo Murders return to All Japan, the better. Their match with Total Eclipse on this show went to a no-contest, which unfortunately means we may be seeing more of this in the future. If I’m going to complain about the worst proclivities of NOSAWA’s booking in NOAH, I must do the same here with TAJIRI and AJPW—that said, I’m pretty sure we won’t be seeing TARU in the Triple Crown picture anytime soon.
AEW’s announcement of a working relationship bringing DDT (and by extension, TJPW) wrestlers to America still begs more questions than it provides answers. The agreement, as of now, seems to be focused more on bringing Japanese wrestlers to AEW rather than the reverse. As exciting as it will be to see the likes of Konosuke Takeshita, Takuya Endo, Yuki Ueno, Kazusada Higuchi, etc., I wouldn’t expect much more than what Takeshita was able to put together for himself a few months ago—mostly appearances on Dark or Elevation (with the likely best case scenario that they appear on Rampage at some point). As mentioned in ONE COUNT, the more exciting potential lies in the appearance of TJPW wrestlers in an AEW women’s division that desperately needs more variety and high-end in-ring talent. Yuka Sakazaki has done very well there in the past and I have no doubt that Miyu Yamashita would get over with the AEW fanbase in a matter of moments. Another intriguing possibility would be sending someone like Arisu Endo or Suzume on a mini-excursion to AEW for a few months.
EDITORS NOTE: Next issue’s main stories will cover the STARDOM WORLD CLIMAX events at Ryogoku and the final two nights of the New Japan Cup at Osaka Jo-Hall.