Issue #16: Three Count Fall
Bullet Club and BoSJ Reveal, Shiozaki Takes GHC Title, MIRAI is Cinderella, and Korakuen Celebrates
ONE COUNT: Best of the Super Junior, Bullet Club Return to Normal at Dontaku
As pandemic travel restrictions loosen and the potential for some semblance of normalcy seems within grasp for the Japanese wrestling scene, we saw the positive and negative ends of that spectrum on full display at Wrestling Dontaku for New Japan Pro-Wrestling on May 1st.
Like most things NJPW these days, the attendance for the show as a mixed bag. From a comparative number standpoint, the announced crowd of 8,162 is the best non-Wrestle Kingdom number the company has drawn during the pandemic—a definite positive. That said, an 80 percent empty cavernous dome does not make for great visuals and feels borderline dystopian with a clap-only crowd.
The most exciting news of the year (and maybe since the beginning of the pandemic) for New Japan came in the form of the Best of the Super Junior 29 tournament, which gets underway on May 15th.
After several years of static tournament field populated entirely by the relatively small and arguably stale crew of junior heavyweight company regulars, the BoSJ lineup will once again see an impressive crew of outsiders and foreigners. Joining the contracted talent this year will be:
Clark Connors (LA Dojo)
Alex Zayne (Independent)
Ace Austin (Impact Wrestling)
Francesco Akira (formerly of AJPW)
TJP (NJPW Strong)
Wheeler Yuta (AEW)
El Lindaman (GLEAT)
We will have a full preview of the tournament next week, but the addition of eight top outside names like this makes the Best of the Super Junior tournament appointment viewing, rather than something to get through until the final night. More importantly, this acts as a signal of what we can expect from the G1 Climax tournament this summer—it’s hard not to imagine the possibilities of LA Dojo, Impact, NJPW Strong, AEW, and GLEAT representation in the most important tournament of the year.
There is an old adage that goes something like “you can’t go home again”…and it is clearly a statement that Gedo is not familiar with.
More than anything, Wrestling Dontaku signified the full-scale, full-throated return of Bullet Club to the forefront of New Japan Pro-Wrestling. This is something that Gedo has clearly been preparing for going back to the Jay White-Tama Tonga angle in Impact earlier this year.
Dontaku featured three similar post-match Bullet Club attacks. First, Karl Anderson appeared with Doc Gallows to take out Tama Tonga after he defeated EVIL for the NEVER Openweight Championship. Then, a masked man attacked Hiroshi Tanahashi after he defeated Tomohiro Ishii to win the vacant U.S. Heavyweight Championship, revealing himself to be Juice Robinson. Finally, Jay White appeared and laid out Kazuchika Okada after he successfully defended the World Heavyweight Championship against Tetsuya Naito.
In addition, Taiji Ishmori won the Junior Heavyweight Championship and the team of Bad Luck Fale and Chase Owens won the IWGP Tag Team Championship. Outside of the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship, every title program in the company right now involves the Bullet Club…and that’s not to mention the ongoing mess that is anything involving the House of Torture (EVIL, SHO, and Dick Togo).
The Bullet Club has been around for nine year now, so on some level this is nothing new. We have never seen a NJPW product that is so thoroughly dominated by this level of Western-style booking, though. As much as the company continued to lean into getting heat in heatless buildings during the pandemic, it’s clear that Gedo’s direction for the company is much more of the same as we head out of COVID-restricted shows.
Time will tell how successful this will be. Personally, I am completely over the concept of Bullet Club and the interference/distraction/ref bump style that is its hallmark—I also recognize that it seems to resonate with the domestic New Japan audience that is left, while also pointing out that this audience is the smallest its been under the current booking regime.
Wrestling is littered with bookers who had a few good ideas and spent the rest of their time recycling those ideas, with diminishing returns and dwindling interest. History is not on Gedo’s side here, but anything is possible.
From a wrestling standpoint, the top two matches at Dontaku absolutely delivered. Hiroshi Tanahashi and Tomorhiro Ishii had the match of the night and a high-end Match of the Year contender on just a few days notice, with Tanahashi once again turning back the clock for another ace-level performance against arguably the most consistently great in-ring performer of the past decade in Ishii. There were so many little nuances here, with each man trying to one-up the other by wrestling their opponent’s style.
The nearfall Ishii got on Tanahashi with a La Magistral cradle was right up there with SANADA’s Japanese Rolling Clutch hold nearfall on Kota Ibushi several years ago in the G1 Climax Final, as was Tanahashi kicking out of the vertical drop brainbuster. The only parallel I can make to Tanahashi’s career arc is that of Kenta Kobashi, in that he continues to find ways to adjust and have high-end level as his body breaks down more and more with each passing year. Performances like this only strengthen Tanahashi’s case for being the greatest professional wrestler of the modern era.
Another man forging his own path toward the distinction is Kazuchika Okada, as he successfully defended the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship over Tetsuya Naito in a thrilling match. This was, by far, the best of their three singles matches in 2022—a feat made more remarkable by Naito’s announcement that he will once again be undergoing surgery to correct the same eye-muscle issues that caused him double vision several years ago and has again now.
As with nearly all Okada main events, the finishing stretch here was a back and forth, edge of your seat affair with callbacks to their previous matches and razor thin nearfalls. In this 50th anniversary year for NJPW, Okada has adopted some of the physical characteristics of company founder and legend Antonio Inoki (entrance robe, towel, etc.). He took that one step further here, hitting an Inoki style enzigiri and seemingly inventing a new move out of thin air—taking Inoki’s manjigatame and turning that into an Emerald Flowsion-style driver before hitting the Rainmaker to put Naito away.
As mentioned earlier, the post-match attack by Jay White sets up Okada’s next challenger. A partial card for New Japan’s next major non-BoSJ show, Dominion on June 12th in Osaka, was announced on Monday:
KOPW 2022: Shingo Takagi (c) vs. Taichi-
NEVER Openweight Title: Tama Tonga (c) vs. Karl Anderson
IWGP Tag Team Title: Bad Luck Fale & Chase Owens (c) vs. Great-O-Khan & Jeff Cobb
IWGP World Heavyweight Title: Kazuchika Okada (c) vs. Jay White
TWO COUNT: Go Shiozaki Takes the GHC Title as Kojima Lands in NOAH
Pro Wrestling NOAH’s two-day event on April 29th and 30th brought a mix of surprises and predictable booking patterns, along with the disappointing attendance numbers that have been a recent hallmark of the promotion.
The announced crowd of 1,585 for the April 29th N-Innovation (all junior heavyweight) show is the smallest I was able to find on record for a Japanese promotion at Ryogoku Hall (to be fair, ZERO1’s April 9th, 2022 show in the same building almost surely drew a similar number, despite the inflated 3,500 number public released)—that was to be expected, as this was an event searching for a reason to exist and would have been much better served in a smaller arena.
More concerning is the number for the April 30th Majestic show in the same building, featuring all of the top stars and a large selection of foreigners for the first time since pandemic. Just 2,077 fans attended the show, which is significantly less than DDT and Stardom drew in recent months in the same building for shows of a similar level.
The highlight of the N-Innovation show was an absolutely wild three-way elimination match between Dragon Bane, Alpha Wolf, and America independent standout Ninja Mack. It was one of those matches where not everything landed cleanly, but the degree of difficulty of everything they tried was astronomically high and the things that did go according to plan were next-level mind blowing. Mack got the win here and seems primed for a significant push in the junior heavyweight division.
There was also a heavy Dragon Gate presence on the show with HAYATA defeating Eita to win the GHC Junior Heavyweight Championship (this was good but nothing more—it never hit a higher gear and 28 minutes is a long time to be stuck in that one gear) and Z-Brats defeating the NOAH Junior Army in a very good six man tag team match that seemed to lay the groundwork for a Shun Skywalker-Daisuke Harada match at some point in the future. Skywalker looked great here and had more of a star presence than anyone else on the show, by a significant margin.
The only word I can use to describe the April 30th show is…strange.
The scheduled main event of Kazayuki Fujita vs Go Shiozaki was scuttled by a reported positive COVID-19 test for Fujita. The title was vacated and Kaito Kiyomita, who is forever wandering the wilderness of NOAH’s mid-card despite being the obvious choice for current and future face of the company, was thrust into to the main event spot against Shiozaki for the vacant GHC Heavyweight Championship.
It was notable and again, odd, how little was said about Fujita on the broadcast. The circumstances of the title match changing were mentioned, but there was nothing said about Fujita wanting to challenge for the title he never lost and he is not on any of the upcoming May cards that have been partially or fully announced. That could just be due to uncertainty from the COVID case he is presumably dealing with, but it feels odd.
Shiozaki and Kiyomiya had a tremendous match for the GHC Title, with Shiozaki earning a record-setting fifth championship reign following a series of lariats in just over 30 minutes. The match absolutely breezed by, with nothing feeling superfluous or the match seeming like it went longer than it should have. Shiozaki continues to have a Wrestler of the Year-level run, with Kazuchika Okada as the only wrestler in his league so far this year.
It was also an extraordinarily frustrating match to watch, in that this is what Pro Wrestling NOAH should be—and when COVID is a better booker than the guy actually running the show, that’s a problem.
There has been a lot made of a series of reports from Voices if Wrestling on potential backstage turmoil in NOAH. I have no way of confirming the veracity of the details they have reported, but the reports themselves are immaterial. All you have to do is watch the product to see the problems in stark relief.
Katsuhiko Nakajima, the company’s hottest act for the past several years with the newer and younger part of the fanbase, does not defeat veterans with MMA/shoot-style backgrounds. He was ultimately squashed by Kazayuki Fujita in the closing moments of their GHC Title match and he has yet to pick up a win over Hideki Suzuki, with Suzuki directly defeating Nakajima on April 30th in the GHC Tag Team Championship match and holding onto the pin for an uncomfortable period of time in the process.
Kenoh is pushed to a certain level, but NOAH is always very clear in showing that he is a notch below the MMA veterans in terms of being true main eventers (as evidenced by his destruction at the hands of Fujita last year and his quick loss of the GHC National Championship to Masakatsu Funaki several months ago).
Kiyomiya’s career is completely directionless as a time where he should be in the process of being established in the company ace—instead, he is forever unable to defeat Keiji Muto and is never positioned as a threat to the main event veterans in the company.
Masa Kitamiya is continually sacrificed to veterans and outsiders, whether it be Keiji Muto at the beginning of his title reign or the likes of Michael Elgin here on the April 30th show.
Yoshiki Inamura, a beast of a man who should already be in the main event mix as he nears 30 years old, is instead in year four of being a pin eater for guys 20 years his senior. You can give him and Kinya Okada new gear every few months, but giving them wins over established stars is far more important.
NOAH has created tiers and they are very clear: Muto, Fujita, Funaki, Suzuki, Tanaka, Sugiura, and others in the 50+ category are the top stars. Guys like Nakajima, Kenoh, Kiyomiya, and Kitamiya are the guys who fans want to buy into as top stars but they only beat each other—rarely, if ever, do they defeat the supposed to stars.
Go Shiozaki fits somewhere in the middle. He is once again the GHC Champion, but he lost that title previously to Muto and seems poised to do so again—this time, to the unlikeliest of opponents, Satoshi Kojima.
This goes back to the word I used earlier…strange. Kojima was mentioned by the commentators and by the ring announcer as being from New Japan Pro-Wrestling, but appeared twice on the show wearing a Pro Wrestling NOAH t-shirt. New Japan has not promoted his appearance on NOAH’s show in any way, and they have not mentioned that he will be challenging Shiozaki for the GHC Heavyweight Championship on June 12th.
In some ways, this feels reminiscent of Jun Akiyama’s eventual signing with DDT. First he appeared as a representative of All Japan Pro Wrestling, then he was “on loan” from AJPW until his contract expired, then he signed with DDT.
It’s a scenario I’ve wondered about for a while now—while NOAH is on one extreme end of the spectrum in pushing over-50 wrestlers as their top stars, NJPW is far on the other end in de-emphasizing veteran legends when they can still go at a high level. Would any of those New Japan legends see the spotlight and, presumably money, CyberFight is offering and make the jump?
Kojima has been criminally under-utilized in recent years at a time where he is still able to perform at a high level. He also, unlike Yuji Nagata for example, has left New Japan before. While nothing is official as of press time, this sure feels like Kojima is New Japan to become a top star in NOAH.
It was pushed heavily on commentary that Kojima needs to win the GHC Heavyweight Championship to complete the Japanese wrestling “grand slam” of heavyweight championships. Given NOSAWA Rongai’s penchant for running NOAH like a legends fantasy camp, I see no reason to believe that won’t repeat itself with Kojima.
To be clear, I don’t mind the addition of Kojima in a vacuum. He is precisely the type of veteran I’d want on my roster at the top of the card—large fanbase, can still go at a high level, and presumably is willing to do business. Given NOAH’s recent track record, though, I have a strong suspicion that Kojima will defeat Shiozaki for the GHC Title…and then it won’t be Kiyomiya who he will elevate by losing the GHC Title.
There’s a good chance it will be Keiji Muto (or Kazayuki Fujita), instead.
THREE COUNT: STARDOM Crowns MIRAI as Cinderella Tournament Winner
After 16 years of podcasting and four months of writing this newsletter, I’d like to think that I’m not known for hyperbole or patting myself on the back. With that said, I’ll hope you will allow me this moment of self-congratulations:
I called MIRAI being a main event level star. I called it more than a year ago when she was toiling on the undercards of TJPW shows with no prospect of being a featured star there, and I called it the moment she announced she was leaving the promotion last fall.
With that out of the way, it’s been a remarkably quick ascent to the main event level mix in STARDOM after leaving TJPW in 2021. Her no-nonsense in-ring style is a much better fit for STARDOM where she can play off the wide variety of high flyers and heavy hitters in the promotion, and her genuinely understated likeability (she seems legitimately surprised to have gotten so over this quickly) plays very well in this environment. Getting her away from the more outwardly demonstrative Giulia-Thekla wing of Donna Del Mondo and into a featured role in Syuri’s breakaway God’s Eye stable has also proven to be a much better fit.
She is getting over in STARDOM for the same reason that FTR have exploded as popularity as babyfaces in AEW recently—a naturally charismatic act with a throwback-to-a-bygone era in-ring style feels more revolutionary than nostalgic in a modern pro wrestling landscape. As FTR echoes so many of the forgotten elements of teams like the Midnight Express (while also thriving in a fast-paced style more than people realize), MIRAI’s Jumbo Tsuruta-esque moveset and emphasis on movement/follow-through stands out in the crowded STARDOM landscape.
After defeating fellow formerly-underutilized TJPW talent Natsupoi in the semifinals, MIRAI went on to defeat Koguma in very good match that saw her land several Tsuruta-style lariats before scoring the victory with her Miramare Shock driver. MIRAI returned following the main event in the customary Cinderella Tournament winner’s dress, where she issued a challenge to the winner of May 5th’s Saya Kamitani vs Maika match for the Wonder of Stardom Championship.
It should also be noted how strong the Hazuki vs Koguma semifinal match was, with the tag partners meshing very well as opponents and producing several convincing nearfalls as the match came to a close. Koguma continues to put in entertaining performances, but a Hazuki-MIRAI final would have had the potential to cross over into “great match” territory. Hopefully we see that match at some point this year.
The show itself, held April 29th at Ota City Ward Gymnasium, drew an impressive 2,077 fans—this is nearly 700 more than AJPW drew for their major show here several months ago, and nearly 1,300 fans more than NJPW drew there for a New Japan Cup show in March headlined by Shingo Takagi vs Tomohiro Ishii. Additionally, it outdrew every other pandemic-era show in that building, including events from NJPW, AJPW, Dragon Gate, TJPW, Ice Ribbon, DDT, and more.
Drawing 2,000+ fans for a mid-level Red Belt title defense is even more impressive. Himeka is a featured wrestler in STARDOM but she has not had any sort of sustained singles push and is not coming off a major win at a tentpole event leading into this match. What this shows is that the strength of the STARDOM brand and the reputation for delivering great PPV shows every time out is what is carrying the growth of the company and turnouts like this.
In the main event itself, Himeka had a tremendous performance in the biggest match of her career. If there is ever going to be a chance for her to break out from the pack and join the ranks of Giulia, Syuri, Mayu Iwatani, Tam Nakano, Utami Hayashishita, and Saya Kamitani at the top of the card, an outstanding showing here was absolutely necessary and she delivered.
As I’ve written about previously, Syuri’s style doesn’t necessarily lend itself to particularly dynamic finishing stretches. For my money, Himeka pulled one of the best finishing stretches yet out of Syuri, with the surprise Rainmaker nearfall being the high point of the match. She eventually fell to an accumulation of head kicks and Syuri’s One-Winged Angel/Emerald Flowsion finisher.
Given how dominant Syuri has been and where the other top challengers are occupied currently, it doesn’t seem like her reign will be ending any time soon. It still feels like the ultimate destination is a match with former partner Giulia winning the championship, but Syuri’s next defense will be against PROMINENCE’s Risa Sera.
Arguably the best match on the show was a first-time meeting between High Speed Champion AZM and Gatoh Move sensation Mei Suruga, with AZM getting the win after 13 minutes of lightning-fast action. This was not quite at the level of AZM vs Starlight Kid from Fed. 26th, but the fact that it even approached that level is remarkable given this was their first time meeting.
Suruga is a fascinating wrestler to follow in that she has top-tier ability at a very young age/experience level and has generated buzz with appearances in AEW, STARDOM, and DDT, but still calls the Gatoh Move her home. Suruga may never leave that promotion, but she has the opportunity to be a top star in much bigger settings should she ever make that leap.
STARDOM’s next major show is May 5th in Fukuoka, with the following lineup:
Waka Tsukiyama vs. Hina
Hanan, Saya Iida & Momo Kohgo vs. Saki Kashima, Rina & Ruaka
Utami Hayashishita, AZM & Lady C vs. Tam Nakano, Unagi Sayaka & Mina Shirakawa
God's Eye vs. DDM Elimination Match: Syuri, Konami, MIRAI & Ami Sorei vs. Giulia, Himeka, Natsupoi & Mai Sakurai
SWA Title: Thekla (c) vs. Mayu Iwatani
Goddesses of Stardom Title: Momo Watanabe & Starlight Kid (c) vs. Hazuki & Koguma
Wonder of Stardom Title: Saya Kamitani (c) vs. Maika
FIVE MORE MINUTES: 60 Years of History Celebrated at Korakuen Hall
There may not be any building in the world that has housed more shows, more promotions, and more great professional wrestling matches than Korakuen Hall. Through 60 years and several remodels, anyone who is anyone in the world of Japanese professional wrestling and beyond has performed there.
It’s the perfect size and layout for wrestling—the bleachers provide a great backdrop for hard camera shots, while the rows and rows of orange seats give it a depth and size that most other “small” buildings don’t have. In the best of non-pandemic times it served as the perfect building for small- to mid-sized promotions to run their major shows in front of comparitively large crowds, while for the biggest companies it provides the opportunity to run entertaining events that build to their major arena or stadium shows.
In recent years, Korakuen Hall has seen much smaller crowds. First because of pandemic-informed capacity restrictions, then by pandemic-influenced hesitancy to attend live events and the accompanying contraction of the Japanese wrestling business. Against that backdrop, the large crowds there on April 15th and 16 harkened back to better days and acted as beacons hope for a possible resurgence.
The April 15th show show celebrating 60 years of Joshi wrestling at Korakuen Hall drew 1,251 fans—while not a sellout, this is one of the top few numbers there during the pandemic era. Nearly all of the top women’s promotions, including STARDOM, sent representatives to perform on the show, with Tokyo Joshi Pro-Wrestling notably but unsurprisingly absent.
The main event demonstrated just how big of a star, if you will pardon the pun, Starlight Kid has become. In match featuring legends (Mayumi Ozaki) and current ace-level wrestlers (Takumi Iroha), it was Starlight Kid who scored the direct victory and appearing on Weekly Pro’s cover the next week. Nagisa Nozaki, who I wrote about in last weeks AROUND THE RINGS section, was also very impressive here.
Other highlights included the sequences in the semi-main event featuring Chihiro Hashimoto and MIRAI; Maria’s performance in the opening 10-minute draw, and Arisa Nakajima and Tsukasa Fujimoto in one of their last tag team matches before Fujimoto takes a leave of absence from wrestling.
The following night on April 16th saw the first true sellout of Korakuen Hall in more than two years, as talent from NJPW and AJPW joined forces for very entertaining show. It was notable, to me at least, how much better the talent meshed here than they did at the NOAH-NJPW show in January. While this was on a smaller scale and the matchups didn’t necessarily lend themselves to anything approaching MOTYC performances, characters like Jake Lee, Kento Miyahara, and the Aoyagi brothers felt much more at home among New Japan’s stars than many of NOAH’s wrestlers did.
The star of the show, in terms of in-ring output, was Atsuki Aoyagi. He was perpetual motion opposite Los Ingobernables de Japon here, showing the combination of charisma and effortless high-flying ability that one could easily imagine causing NJPW to look at Master Wato and say “why can’t you be like THAT guy.” The highlight of the show was seeing Kento Miyahara and Hiroshi Tanahashi, the modern aces of these tow historic promotions, share the ring as tag team partners and equals. Post-match, Tanahashi singled out Jake Lee and appealed for him to appear in a New Japan Ring in the future.
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