Issue #15: Three Count Fall
NJPW Windy City Riot, Stardom Cinderella Quarterfinals, and a trip Around the Rings!
ONE COUNT: Suzuki vs Ishii Highlights NJPW Windy City Riot Live Experience
As a decidedly strange kid growing up in the Chicago area, there was nothing more that I wanted as a young wrestling fan than for New Japan Pro Wrestling to come to the city for a major event.
For some of the younger readers out there, please know that this seemed like nothing more than the most absurd pipe dream. Outside of the occasional appearance by the likes of Jushin “Thunder” Liger, The Great Muta, or Masahiro Chono, New Japan had zero presence in the U.S. in the early 90’s. Streaming services were decades away. There was no way to legitimately watch the product—your only hope was tape trading or dodgy ads for massively overpriced VHS tapes of variable, at best, quality.
NJPW had no English-language presence here outside of those rare WCW appearances. The notion of them ever running a proper event in the U.S., much less Chicago, seemed as impossible and unlikely as a human stepping foot on the surface of Mars. There was one problem, though—seeing the first WCW Japan SuperShow on PPV in the spring of 1991 made a 10-year-old me COMPLETELY obsessed with New Japan and the presentation of the product. The cerulean blue mat, the seconds at ringside, the more sports-like presentation…all of it.
So I wrote to every magazine, every newsletter, would try corner anyone who looked official at every WCW show I went to…“when are you going to bring New Japan here??” Needless to say, no magazine or newsletters responded and I’m sure you can imagine the looks I got from Doug Dellenger at the guardrail.
Fast-forward 30 years later and I’m all grown up, just north of 40 years with a life full of adult responsibilities and the mundanity of the everyday like all of us…but when I walked in the doors of the Odeum last Saturday night and took my seat and saw that blue canvass, I was 10 years old again.
The added layer of New Japan’s Windy City Riot being held at the same venue that held the Chicago area’s first ECW show only heightened the surreal nature of the scene to me—here I was, in the same building that I saw one of my other teenage wrestling obsessions, seeing the promotion that made me fall in love with Japanese professional wrestling.
While events taking place in Japan limited the number of main roster New Japan names that would be available for this show, one match instantly convinced me and a small group of friends to go all-in on front row tickets—Minoru Suzuki vs Tomohiro Ishii. The opportunity to see a legitimately, main event/G-1 level New Japan match was worthy of the expenditure, it seemed.
In terms of the difference between a show like this and a main roster NJPW show in 2022, I honestly don’t think I’d trade this card with the recent major shows they have been producing in Japan. Whatever this show was missing without the likes of Okada, Tanahashi, Naito, Hiromu, Desperado, etc., was more than offset by the lack House of Torture/KOPW-style wrestling that has me at my absolutely breaking point.
For that 18:26 (plus entrances) of Suzuki vs Ishii, we may as well have been transported to a pre-pandemic Korakuen Hall. I do my best to not traffic in hyperbole, but in my 30 years of attending live shows this is the only match I’ve seen in person that came close to matching the crowd atmosphere I experienced sitting in the second row in New York City to watch Kenta Kobashi vs Samoa Joe all the way back in 2005. The reactions to each man’s music alone would eclipse that of most matches as a whole.
This was a New Japan crowd. While there were AEW and other wrestling shirts scattered throughout, the fans were there to see NJPW wrestlers—guys like Yuya Uemura and Ren Narita got great reactions, and the crowd did not respond to the reveal of Shota Umino as Jay White’s mystery opponent with the disappointment you may have expected from a stateside crowd.
Never was this more apparent than during Suzuki vs Ishii, as this was the lone match to have been announced when tickets went on sale and nearly sold out in the first day. People in the building came to this show expecting to see a high-end, G-1 level war between the two and they were not disappointed.
One thing that stands out so much more live than on TV is how much better the best wrestlers are than everyone else on the card. As entertaining as the undercard was, no one was operating on the level of Suzuki and Ishii. Their ability, in different ways, to get so much out of comparatively little is incredible to watch up close. Suzuki is able to control the crowd with just the slightest turn of his head or change in facial expression; Ishii is the most effective seller I have ever seen live when it comes to drawing you in to what he is feeling and making you want to will him to victory.
While I have no doubt that they had every pre-match intention putting on a great performance, it was clear that wrestling in front of a vocal crowd who had that level of emotion and intensity drove them perform at an even higher level. The result was a match that was more than I could ever hoped for.
As a wrestling fan, you go to countless shows chasing “that” feeling—when a good match turns great and you’re just swept up in the wave of it all and you completely suspend disbelief. In reality, it doesn’t happen all that often. Shows disappoint, matches that you thought would be great end up being merely good, and even the great matches sometimes don’t take you fully on that ride.
With Suzuki vs Ishii, there was no disappointment. That feeling I had on my 11th birthday when I sat third row to see the Steiner Brothers win the WCW World Tag Titles…being front row for Samoa Joe vs CM Punk 2…that Joe vs Kobashi match in NYC…being in building for the Dragon Gate six-man tag on WrestleMania Weekend in 2006…being ringside to see Okada win the IWGP Title in Madison Square Garden…this was 100 percent right there with any of those.
It’s nice to know wrestling can still make you feel that decades after it first did.
As for the rest of the show, my personal MVP was the Great O-Khan. For a guy with almost no experience performing in front of an American audience, he hit home runs all night. He was one of the most over guys on the show (again, this was a NJPW crowd) and was possibly the best cornerman I have ever seen backing up Will Ospreay in the main event. O-Khan definitely is in that category of guys that has even more charisma live than he does on the screen, seeming completely comfortable in his own skin interacting with the ringside fans and projecting to those at the top of the bleachers. While his in-ring action was limited by the constraints of a 12-man tag team match, everything here screamed “top star” more than ever for him.
Yuya Uemura had a strong performance in the opener, looking every bit of the future ace that he comes across on-screen. Between the crispness of his offense and his natural babyface appeal no matter what audience he is in front of, I came away more convinced than ever that he is THE guy going forward for New Japan. We didn’t get to see as much of Ren Narita with him also a part of that 12-man tag, but seemed every bit as confident and poised here as he did earlier in the month at Lone Star Shootout. As I said then, he is ready right now to be a significant part of the main roster whenever the company chooses to bring him back.
As mentioned earlier, Shota Umino made a surprise appearance as Jay White’s mystery opponent. Umino is still a bit of a vexing prospect, in that the potential is clearly there for him to be a top star but he is still far from putting it all together. What was clear is that his selling, intensity, and emotion have improved greatly as compared to the start of excursion in Rev Pro. He had the crowd with him every step of the way as he absorbed White’s offense and valiantly fought back.
The issue, at this point, with Umino is his offense. He still seems to be figuring what type of wrestler he’s going to be. Is he a ground-based wrestler or a high-flyer? Is he going to be a wrestler who primarily uses his power or speed? Is he an innovator or a traditionalist? He seems caught in between each of those things, and it leads to some awkward moments where he feels a step behind and not in sync with his opponent. To be both clear and fair, this doesn’t mean he won’t get there—you could have said the same thing about Hiroshi Tanahashi at the same stage of his career. It is noteworthy, though, because NJPW desperately needs a new top Japanese babyface star and Umino is not ready to fill that role just yet.
Other highlights included a tremendous main event between Jon Moxley and Will Ospreay that was only marred by a slightly confusing finish (which was either botched by the referee or a continuation of the “refs are screwing Ospreay” story…or maybe both), and a very entertaining Strong Openweight Championship defense for Tom Lawlor over Yuji Nagata. Lawlor is a perfect foil for the third generation NJPW legends (go back and watch his match with Satoshi Kojima from an early NJPW Strong episode) and Nagata is still an absolute master of working a live crowd.
As I was leaving the show, New Japan Pro-Wrestling President Takami Ohbari watched the sellout crowd of 2,227 fans file out and it was clear that, even behind a mask, he was smiling and very pleased with the live show and the crowd’s reaction. Hopefully the technical issues that marred the FITE TV live stream of the show will be resolved in time for May 14th’s Capitol Collision event in Washington, D.C.—early ticket sales are strong for that event and matches like Moxley vs Tanahashi and Ishii vs Eddie Kingston bode well for the quality of the show.
TWO COUNT: Cinderella Tournament Final Four, World of Stardom Championship Match Set
STARDOM’s road to the Cinderella Tournament Final continued on April 17th before 1,151 fans at Korakuen Hall—the largest crowd for the company in that building during the pandemic era, and more than doubling that of New Japan Pro-Wrestling shows there a few days later.
The most significant development was the finalization of the Cinderella Tournament’s Final Four—MIRAI, Natsupoi, Hazuki, and Koguma. A tournament win for any of the four would represent the biggest victory of their career and an elevation to the main event scene. Notably, Dave Meltzer reported in this week’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter that BUSHIROAD made the unusual decision of overruling the original booking which would have seen Unagi Sayaka advance—they requested Natsupoi make the final instead, and that’s what happened.
Looking at the final four, Natsupoi would seem like the obvious choice here at first glance. She is the biggest star of the four, is wrestling at an extremely high level, and just lost to Saya Kamitani in a Wonder of Stardom Championship match. Winning the tournament and going on to defeat Kamitani for the White Belt would be a logical story and would elevate Natsupoi to that next level. It’s hard to determine whether BUSHIROAD’s reported power play would make this more of less likely; on the one hand, it confirms that the original plan was not for Natsupoi to win the tournament—on the other, if they are pushing for her to advance to the quarters who’s to say that won’t continue through the semifinal and final?
If the decision hinged on which wrestler has the most momentum right now, MIRAI would be the runaway choice. As I’ve written about in recent weeks, her popularity is exploding and shows no signs of slowing down. The Red Belt match with Syuri several months ago clearly elevated her in the fans’ eyes, as did her her matches with Saya Iida and Utami Hayashishita at STARDOM World Climax last month. Even in a clap-only environment, her reactions under those restrictions are more pronounced and longer-lasting than anyone else in the company (see her show-closing promo from the April 17th where the crowd clap “chants” interrupted her speaking several times). A tournament win, followed by a challenge of either Kamitani or God’s Eye leader Syuri, would help cement her rapid ascent to the top of the card.
It goes to show just how wild the STARDOM news cycle is that Hazuki’s return after several years away feels like it was years ago—in reality, it was just six months ago. Outside of a World of Stardom Championship match with Hayashishita last November, Hazuki has not been put in many high-profile singles match situations since returning. She has been remarkably consistent in-ring given her time away and still projects to be one of the top stars in the company—a win here would go a long way to moving that process along.
Koguma returned to STARDOM after an even longer, nearly six year layoff. She is the least likely to win the tournament, but I would not rule out a victory her FWC tag team partner Hazuki to reach the final. STARDOM has very carefully positioned her as someone just below the top tier who is always a threat to win any match over and wrestler—even a main eventer.
That said, if I had to predict a final right now I would go with Natsupoi over Hazuki. I’m also fascinated by what the attendance number will be for the Cinderella Tournament Final show at Ota Ward Gymnasium on April 29th. If they drew that well (again, 1,151) at Korakuen for the Quarterfinals and no title matches or marquee matches, what will they draw for the tournament final, Syuri vs Himeka for the Red Belt, AZM vs Mei Suruga for the High Speed Title, and more? Here is the full card:
3 Way Battle: Ami Sorei vs. Mai Sakurai vs. Waka Tsukiyama
Future of Stardom Title: Hanan (c) vs. Hina
Cinderella Tournament - Semi Final: MIRAI vs. Natsupoi
Cinderella Tournament - Semi Final: Koguma vs. Hazuki
Gauntlet Match: Giulia, Maika & Thekla vs. Tam Nakano, Mina Shirakawa
Unagi Sayaka vs. Utami Hayashishita, Saya Kamitani & Lady C vs. Momo Watanabe, Starlight Kid & Ruaka vs. Mayu Iwatani, Saya Iida & Momo Kohgo vs. Saki Kashima, Rina & Fukigen Death
High Speed Title: AZM (c) vs. Mei Suruga
Cinderella Tournament - Final:
World of Stardom Title: Syuri (c) vs. Himeka
One other note from the April 17th Korakuen show—Starlight Kid’s reaction to Saki Kashima’s 17 second victory over Mayu Iwatani just might be my favorite thing in wrestling this year. Definitely worth checking out if you are a STARDOM World subscriber and want a good laugh or smile.
THREE COUNT: Around the rings of GLEAT, WAVE, and The Forbidden Door!
News of the June 26th NJPW x AEW FORBIDDEN DOOR supershow broke just before deadline and we will have much more about it the coming weeks. A few quick thoughts here, though. It really is remarkable that the relationship between the two companies has developed to the point where this is even possible. When AEW began, relations between the two were ice-cold at best and an event like this was not on anyone’s horizon.
While many will rightfully point to the departure of Harold Meij as President of New Japan Pro-Wrestling, the pandemic forcing initial cooperation such as Jon Moxley being allowed to appear on NJPW Strong or KENTA’s shock appearance on AEW Dynamite, any other number of factors, I would nominate another name to the top of that list—Rocky Romero.
Even in the times when the companies were not in touch at the highest executive levels, Romero (through his work as one of the main leaders of the U.S. side of NJPW’s wrestling operations) kept in contact with both sides and worked to make those early, individual deals for certain wrestlers happen. New Japan is not a particularly trusting company when it comes to working with unfamiliar partners, and the work Romero did throughout the early days of the pandemic was absolutely essential to building trust between NJPW and Tony Khan.
Between this work and the quality of the NJPW Strong product that he has a such a strong hand in, Rocky Romero has emerged as one of the unsung heroes of the pro wrestling landscape in 2022.
Meanwhile, GLEAT’s schedule picked up over the past week after a bit of lull. While I cannot thing of a single thing less interesting than Quiet Storm getting a title shot an any major championship as he did on April 16th, both shows this week featured some high-end wrestling that is definitely worth setting aside some time for.
The April 16th show in Fukuoka featured one of the best six-man tag team matches in any promotion this year, as CIMA, T-Hawk & Issei Onitsuka defeated Tetsuya Izuchi, Keiichi Sato & Jun Tonsho when Onnitsuka pinned Tonsho with a spiking Frankensteiner hold. Izuchi continues to show why he is one of the best acquisitions of any wrestling promotion in 2022—his combination of speed, striking, and submission techniques were on full display here, particularly in a breathtaking sequence of moves and counters with T-Hawk that was as good as anything you will see this year. Onnitsuka also continues to improve and impress, growing into his role as one of his GLEAT’s top stars as he develop alongside his STRONGHEARTS seniors.
Takanori Ito and Soma Watanabe, frequent partners and opponents going all the way back to their WRESTLE-1 days, had a tremendous match on April 20th at Shunjuku face. Even in defeat, Watanabe’s marked improvement was on display here. I’ve written here before how Watanabe’s UWF-style training under Kiyoshi Tamura in recent months has resulted in him being far more comfortable in his UWF-rules matches—here, we were able to see just how much that training is benefitting him in traditional matches under the G-Pro Wrestling banner. The confidence and technique he now shows is making good on the raw but unrefined potential he showed as Pegaso Iluminar in the now-defunct W-1.
The other major development of these shows was the continued, extended losing streak of Yu Iizuka since his shocking sub-one-minute loss to Izuchi several months ago. It looks to be classic story of a young wrestler hitting rock bottom, only to build himself back up and go on a winning streak on the way to winning a championship. I would not be surprised if that is the long-term plan here, with Iizuka joining Ito and Watanabe in a “home team” unit of sorts as he moves toward that goal.
GLEAT’s May 18th looks to be one of their most buzzworthy yet, as CIMA’s 25th Anniversary match will bring Korakuen Hall a true “never say never” team in the main event—CIMA will team with Shingo Takagi to take on the Bulk Orchestra duo of KAZMA Sakamoto and Ryuichi Kawakami. On a list of things I would not have expected to see happen again in my lifetime, CIMA and Takagi teaming is nearly a Bischoff-hugging-McMahon level shock. GLEAT is also bringing in American indie wrestling standout Jack Cartwheel for this show.
If you’re looking to follow a championship-level wrestler who is putting on ace-level performances away from the bright lights of wrestling’s major promotions, you could do a lot worse than watching Nagisa Nozaki’s recent matches.
With a style unique from many of the other top wrestlers on the Joshi scene right now, Nozaki is carving out a space for herself in the void of many of the departing top performers like Tsukushi Haruka, Tsukasa Fujimoto and others. This will likely sound like a strange comparison, but I get serious “if Barry Windham was trained in Japan during modern times” vibes from her matches. Nozaki is lanky, hits hard, and is able to make inferior opponents look like serious threats without giving them so much that it takes away from her own aura of dominance. That’s a pretty difficult line to walk and she does it very well.
Nozaki is not new to the scene by any means, but her performances as the current top singles champion in both World Woman Pro-Wrestling Diana and Pro Wrestling WAVE have opened eyes and garnered increased attention. Her match with Kohaku on April 17th was another example of everything I mentioned above. Kohaku is a talented wrestler, particularly in terms of speed and cardio (all those consecutive drop kicks!) but is not someone I would normally think of as being in a very good championship match…but that is exactly what Nozaki pulled out of her here.
EDITORS NOTE: Next week’s issue will feature a full report on the recent Korakuen Hall 60th Anniversary events. They are scheduled to air this weekend and I wanted to wait to write about the shows until I have a chance to watch them in full.