Issue #14: Three Count Fall
AJPW Champion Carnival, NJPW Hyper Battle, and a Trip Around the Rings of TJPW, STARDOM, and more
ONE COUNT: All Japan Pro-Wrestling’s Champion Carnival Delivers in First Week of Action
If you can get past what All Japan Pro-Wrestling used to be decades ago and accept it for what it is in 2022, the lineup for this year’s Champion Carnival tournament is about as intriguing as it gets in terms of the potential for great matches and unique matchups.
As I wrote about in last issue’s Champion Carnival preview, almost everyone in the tournament entered as a threat to win or with a credible chance of doing well enough to put themselves in the Triple Crown title picture. Most importantly, each block has an intriguing, high-end outsider (Big Japan Wrestling’s Takuya Nomura in the A Block, GLEAT/StrongHearts representative T-Hawk in the B Block), in addition to a strong group of contracted wrestlers and freelancers who regularly appear in the promotion.
It’s incredible how much adding just a few outsiders can do for the excitement level of a tournament, particularly during this time when bringing in foreigners has been so much more difficult to do. It’s a lesson that almost every promotion other than NJPW has learned (they brought in CIMA for the New Japan Cup, but that was an isolated instance and sadly does not seem to indicate a change in that company’s isolationist stance overall).
The Champion Carnival got underway at the EDION Arena Second Gymnasium in front of 530 fans. While not an immediately attention-grabbing number, it is the largest attendance they have had in that building in the two years of this pandemic-restricted era, including last year’s Champion Carnival show which was headlined by Kento Miyahara vs Zeus in the main event.
For this year’s show on April 9th, the tournament got underway with Nomura facing Yoshitatsu in a match that brought out more of the serious killer-style in the former Naofumi Yamamoto than we have seen in years. Nomura’s performance here was the perfect example of why you bring someone like him in for a tournament like—not only are the matches fresh on paper, but someone so stylistically different from everyone on the roster is going to bring something different out of each opponent than another match against a regular roster member would. Nomura got the win with an octopus hold into a cradle, ensuring that he at least gets on the board in the tournament.
The most refreshing aspect of the Champion Carnival was on display in the second tournament match of opening night, with T-Hawk getting the victory over Ryuki Honda as he rolled through Honda’s pin attempt after the running Muso slam. This went just 7:17 of non-stop action—the whole match was basically an extended finishing sequence from the opening bell. Long matches can be great, but so can sub-10 minute matches and that seems to be one of the guiding lights of the tournament this year.
One of the best matches of the torunament’s first week also took place on opening night, with Shigehiro Irie and Shuji Ishikawa engaging in more than 11 minutes of all-out warfare. Something has clearly gotten into Ishikawa over the past month, as he followed up last month’s MOTYC-level performance against Kento Miyahara with another spirited effort here. He is wrestling at his highest level in years, even in a losing effort here as Irie scored the win via referee stoppage from repeated elbow strikes.
The last two matches on April 9th didn’t quite reach that level, but they were still very good. Kuma Arashi scored the biggest win of his career in what will likely be the most significant upset of the tournament, as he defeated Miyahara with a massive top rope senton. One would think this sets Arashi up as one of Miyahara’s next Triple Crown challengers post-tournament. In the main event, Yuma Aoyagi pinned Suwama after two Rockstar Busters that was reminiscent of their Jan. 3rd. 2021 match for the Triple Crown.
April 10th in Hamamatsu had just three tournament matches, but all again delivered. Ishikawa continued his impressive run, getting the win over T-Hawk with a Thesz Press in a match that once again highlighted the marked improvement T-hawk has made in selling, projecting emotion, and drawing sympathy from the crowd as a babyface. Nomura then continued his winning ways in a very good match with Aoyagi—the theme here was that Aoyagi didn’t take him seriously early and paid for it late, falling to Nomura’s Dragon Suplex.
The main event in Hamamatsu was one of those impossible-to-be-anything-other-than-great pairings—Suwama and Kento Miyahara. Here, the structure was a little different with Suwama working over Miyahara’s leg for the first half of the match before Kento battled back in a dynamic extended finishing stretch. They went the full 30 minutes to a time limit draw, which was more effective given how short many of the tournament matches have been so far. The highlight was a spectacular nearfall for Miyahara off of a standing Frankensteiner into a pinning combination, with the crowd audibly gasping as Suwama barely got his shoulder up in time.
The tournament then moved to Korakuen Hall on April 11th, where once again the determining factor in attendance was “is Kento Miyahara in a singles match main event?” He was not, and the result was a disappointing if not surprising crowd of just 430 fans in the building to see four tournament matches.
The theme of Takuya Nomura being a great wrestler continued here against Suwama. This match won’t be everyone’s proverbial cup of tea, but I thought it was fantastic and is in the running for my favorite match o f 2022 so far. It was rugged and ragged in all the right ways, with mat wrestling early and then Suwama absolutely pounding Nomura with strikes. During one particularly brutal exchange of open-hand slaps, Suwama flashed a wry smile over to referee Kyohei Wada as if to say “what the hell is with this kid?!?” Suwama hit several lariats, followed by a particularly nasty running hammer of a clothesline, to effectively KO Nomura and get the pinfall victory.
Shotaro Ashino and T-Hawk also had a very good match on this show—it’s pretty remarkable to see the “little things” improvement from both guys over the past six months, as they are rounding into the more fully formed wrestlers they need to be in order to be at the top of the card in their respective promotions. T-Hawk again got a flash pin, this time rolling through Ashino’s pin attempt after the T-Bone Suplex to score his second victory of the tournament. T-Hawk’s run through the early shows of this Champion Carnival is actually very similar to the cradle/rollup-laden wins by Tetsuya Naito in the just-completed New Japan Cup.
Jake Lee and Shuji Ishikawa had a strong match in the main event at Korakuen as well, with Lee getting the victory with his familiar one-two punch of the back suplex and brain buster. It should be noted that, from a big move standpoint, Lee is one of the safest wrestlers the in the world. Both of his aforementioned finishers can often become more dangerous head-drops when delivered by other wrestlers, but he delivers each as flat back bumps that still look devastating because of the speed and height from which they are delivered.
The April 13th show in Yokohama was once again a smaller show with only three tournament matches. Ryuki Honda and Shotaro Ashino reprised their feud, this time under normal (rather than Last Man Standing) rules but no less exciting action. Honda never looks better than he does against Ashino, which is another sign of just how top-tier Ashino is becoming. It started out with more of a technical bent, then devolved once again into a wild brawl on the floor, and finally into a sequence of heavy strikes and throws before Ashino picked up the submission win.
Lee and Irie met in a semi-main which saw Lee workshop some new offense (a second rope moonsault that was better as a notion than an actual move) and hit a beautiful counter knee strike as Irie charged in with his diving European headbutt, before scoring the win with a brainbuster once more.
The main event was, on paper, the most intriguing match of the tournament when the brackets were announced. You will not find two more stylistically different wrestlers than Kento Miyahara and Takuya Nomura—sometimes this can lead to a disaster (even when both are great wrestlers), and in other instances it can lead to magic. This was much closer to the latter, as Nomura brilliantly navigated his way through the usual Miyahara match structure while working in enough strikes and nearfalls to feel like a real threat to the champion in the 16 minutes he lasted. Like Nomura’s match with Suwama a few days earlier, this may be an acquired taste but it lived up to all the hype I internalized from the moment it was announced. This was great, and they have a surefire match of the year in them if they ever get to meet again on a bigger stage.
The tournament continues on April 15th (editor’s note: this show occurred after press time) before taking a week off and resuming on April 23rd for the home stretch of dates leading to the April 29th Champion Carnival Final in Nagoya.
TWO COUNT: ZSJ’s New Japan Cup Run Ends at the Hands of the Next Level’s Next Level
If there ever was going to be a time in New Japan Pro Wrestling’s 50th Anniversary year for Kazuchika Okada to be at least temporarily knocked off his perch as the undisputed leader of the company, April 9th at Ryogoku Sumo Hall would have been the time and place.
Zack Sabre, Jr. was coming off of one of the best runs of career in the 2022 New Japan Cup, rivaled only by his performance in the same tournament four years prior. This time, it was a ZSJ who has added size and additional technique to become arguably the best wrestler in the world. As I have written about over the past few weeks, the credibility he has established for almost every move, hold, or pinning combination in his repertoire has made his matches more “edge of your seat” viewing than anyone else in the business.
Beyond that, ZSJ has embedded himself in the culture and has fully embraced being a full-time member of the New Japan mainland roster, to the point of learning quite a bit of functional Japanese and alternate between languages effortlessly in his promos of late. All of this, along with his somehow wholesome and endearing friendship with Dangerous Tekkers partner Taichi, has slowly but surely led to ZSJ becoming one of the most popular wrestlers in NJPW.
I suppose it’s a sign of just how great Zack Sabre, Jr. has been this year that I actually started to believe he would defeat Okada at Hyper Battle for the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship. While 2022 has clearly been built to cement Okada’s status as the greatest wrestling in New Japan’s half-century of existence (an arguable point in reality, but one not without merit), the booking of ZSJ throughout the tournament almost necessitated that he defeat Okada where he had been unable to do so in that same final some four years prior.
In the end, they did not take that route. Okada winning could never be described as even a remote surprise, but I was a bit taken aback that he defeated ZSJ in 5 minutes shorter time than he did in the 2018 New Japan Cup Final. As much as ZSJ’s 2022 Cup run felt like it was being done to elevate him to a higher position while it was happening, the final itself felt more like he was being set one level lower than the top tier that he belongs in.
As for the match itself, it was very good but not quite as the same level as their 2018 Cup Final—which is slightly disappointing given how much ZSJ has improved since then and the extremely high level Okada has been operating at this year. While the finishing stretch was great and the match itself was very good, it felt like there was another gear there that they never quite found. Sabre falling as he did to just one Rainmaker fell somewhat flat, for this viewer at least.
I was struggling to articulate exactly why the match felt a little “off” and I think @Frankies1984 on Twitter hit the nail on the head in his response to me there—it was somewhere in between an Okada match and a ZSJ match in structure, but it never leaned far enough in either direction to really find its footing and built to a dramatic conclusion. Put another way in my own words, it felt like they were wrestling “at” each other rather than with each other. Again, still a VERY good match—I don’t want that to get lost in the discussion—but not to the level of ZSJ’s matches with Ospreay, Takagi, and Naito earlier in the tournament.
Outside of the United Empire’s tag title win over Hirooki Goto and YOSHI-HASHI, the rest of Hyper Battle was not particularly compelling. My enjoyment of main roster NJPW is directly tied to how heavy-handed the House of Torture/Bullet Club presence is, and who they are wrestling on any given show. The worst case scenario is having the most exciting wrestlers in the company opposite these acts, and that is exactly what we had here with Hiromu Takahashi facing EVIL and El Desperado taking on SHO in championship matches.
Takahashi is, by far, the best opponent for this version of EVIL. The problem is that, even with that, pretty much any other top star is a more compelling opponent for Takahashi than EVIL. As always (and this is applicable for SHO as well), there is absolutely no reason to watch an EVIL match until the first ref bump and/or interference spot. The finish NEVER comes before then, so the preceding 15+ minutes always feel like an absolute waste of time.
The Taichi vs Toru Yano no-ropes “sumo style” KOPW Title match was certainly a more entertaining concept than some of the others we’ve seen the trophy contested under, but I actually found the impromptu preview of this at Korakuen Hall on April 4th to be more exciting than what we got here in the actual match. Taichi getting the win opens things up for potentially more serious matches now (Shingo Takagi is his first challenger April 25th in Hiroshima), but I would put some serious money on Yano regaining the KOPW trophy in relatively short order.
After NJPW next major show, Windy City Riot in Chicago (expect a full in-person report in next week’s issue), all eyes turn to Wrestling Dontaku in Fukuoka’s cavernous PayPay Dome on May 1st. The full card is as follows:
Special Six Man Tag Match: Tatsumi Fujinami Shingo Takagi & Hiromu Takahashi vs. Zack Sabre Jr., Taichi & TAKA Michinoku
Special Singles Match: Tanga Loa vs. Yujiro Takahashi
IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Title: Ryusuke Taguchi & Master Wato (c) vs. Yoshinobu Kanemaru & DOUKI
IWGP Tag Team Title, 3 Way Match: Great-O-Khan & Jeff Cobb (c) vs. Hirooki Goto & YOSHI-HASHI vs. Bad Luck Fale & Chase Owens
NEVER Openweight Title: "King of Darkness" EVIL (c) vs. Tama Tonga
IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Title: El Desperado (c) vs. Taiji Ishimori
IWGP US Heavyweight Title Decision Match: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Will Ospreay
IWGP World Heavyweight Title: Kazuchika Okada (c) vs. Tetsuya Naito
THREE COUNT: Around the Rings: TJPW, STARDOM, Pro Wrestling NOAH, and more
On April 9th Tokyo Joshi Pro-Wrestling (TJPW) held their first major show at Korakuen Hall since the promotion’s triumphant Ryogoku Sumo Hall turn last month. There was no way a more by-the-numbers show like this could rival last month’s mega-show, but the Princess Tag Team Title match in particular is worth seeking out.
As I’ve written about before, Arisu Endo and Suzume are the closest thing to future main event wrestlers that TJPW has on their full-time roster. At the same time, TJPW is notoriously slow to pull the trigger on elevating wrestlers to that top level of the card (and you can see the result of that reticence in the defections of Natsupoi and MIRAI in recent years). With that in mind, the result of the Endo’s tag title challenge against Yuka Sakazaki and Mizuki was never in doubt.
I don’t necessarily think now was the time for Endo and Suzume to win the championships, but it is time for them to start picking up wins against top stars (rather than trading falls with other rookie-level wrestlers like Moka Miyamoto). The top mix of Sakazaki, Mizuki, Miyu Yamahshita, Rika Tatsumi, and Shoko Nakajima desperately needs fresh blood, no matter how great those four are.
In the end, this was a really strong performance from Endo and Suzume in defeat. They were clearly positioned as being several levels below the champions in terms of how the match was structured, but they acquitted themselves very well and used some clever and interesting wrinkles on the regular tag team wrestling tropes. They gained a new tag team name (Daisy Monkey) but did not gain the titles, with Endo falling to a Mizuki top rope double stomp. Post-match, Hikari Noa and Nao Kikuta made an appeal to be the next title challengers.
The Shoko Nakajima - Yuki Aino Princess of Princess Championship match was good, but nowhere near the level of the best Yamashita or Tatsumi defenses of the past year or so. There were a few lift-sequences that completely fell apart and Nakajima crashed and burned in terrifying fashion on a somersault suicide dive. Aino is a solid wrestler but it much more well-suited in a tag team environment than in a main event singles setting. After Nakajima won via her top rope senton, Hyper Misao came out and issued a challenge to Nakajima for the an upcoming Princess of Princess Championship match.
STARDOM’s Cinderella Tournament continued on April 10th before 661 fans in Osaka. Most notable was the 15-minute draw between Syuri and Himeka in their second round match. After, Himeka issued a challenge for Syuri’s Wonder of Stardom Championship, which is now set for April 29th on the same show that the Cinderella Tournament Final will take place.
The other second round match on the show, AZM vs Hazuki, was about as good of a five-minute match as you will ever see (and the second-best match in the tournament so far by my estimation, behind the Starlight Kid vs Natsupoi first round match on April 3rd) with some of the best and most creative apron/over-the-top rope elimination spots I’ve seen in a while. Hazuki scored the win with a magistral cradle to advance to the third round.
The Cinderella Tournament continues on April 17th at Korakuen Hall with four more second round matches and two quarterfinal clashes:
Cinderella Tournament - Round 2: Saya Iida vs. Mai Sakurai
Cinderella Tournament - Round 2: Unagi Sayaka vs. Natsupoi
Cinderella Tournament - Round 2: Mayu Iwatani vs. Saki Kashima
Cinderella Tournament - Round 2: Giulia vs. Koguma
Cinderella Tournament - Quarter Final: Giulia/Koguma vs. Saya Iida/Mai Sakurai
Cinderella Tournament - Quarter Final: Mayu Iwatani/Saki Kashima vs. MIRAI
Pro Wrestling NOAH announced the full cards for the April 29th and 30th shows at Ryogoku Sumo Hall. The all-junior heavyweight show on April 29th is going to be a very tough sell. The previous N-Innovation shows have been at very small venues, and the NOAH junior division doesn’t have anything close to a marquee star even with the Z-Brats (Dragon Gate) presence on the show. Unless they are basically getting the building for the free on the 29th in exchange for booking the main show on the 30th, the existence of this junior heavyweight show is puzzling to say the least.
Before I put this newsletter to a close, I want to echo everyone else in the wrestling world and send out positive thoughts and best wishes to Shinjiro Otani and his family after his serious injury at last weekend’s ZERO1 show. As you likely know if you are reading this, Otani suffered a cervical spine injury as a result of a German suplex into the corner pad during his main event match with Takashi Sugiura on April 10th. Otani remained conscious throughout the harrowing scene but lost all feeling in his limbs, with the referee stopping the match after initially initiating a count. While it was concerning that medical attention did not arrive ringside sooner, great care appeared to be taken by the wrestlers (including Sugiura) and staff to keep Otani calm and not cause any further complications by moving him in any way until EMTs arrived.
Otani underwent surgery on Wednesday, described in a press release from ZERO1 as being done “to prevent further deterioration of a cervical spinal cord injury.” The surgery proceeded as planned and Otani has been transferred to another hospital for continued care and treatment.