Issue #17: Three Count Fall
NOAH Turmoil, Aoyagi wins Champion Carnival, Around the Rings of Golden Week in Japan!
ONE COUNT: NOSAWA Rongai is Out as NOAH Booker…So What Happens Next?
Our long, international nightmare may be over…and yet, it may be just beginning.
NOSAWA Rongai is out as head booker of Pro Wrestling NOAH after a tumultuous and largely unproductive three-year run at the creative helm of the promotion.
NOSAWA and his Perros del Mal de Japon stable, which also included Kotaro Suzuki and Dragon Gate’s Eita, finished up their NOAH run following the May 5th show at Korakuen Hall, with NOSAWA’s contract not being renewed. The trio then showed up at Dragon Gate’s Dead or Alive show on that same day and promptly won the Open the Triangle Gate championship. There is no indication that NOSAWA will serve in any sort of booking/behind-the-scenes role in that promotion.
NOAH’s disastrous attendance numbers for their back-to-back nights at Ryogoku Sumo Hall (see Issue #16 of THREE COUNT FALL for a full report on those shows) were apparently the final straw that led to NOSAWA’s dismissal.
All indications are that Kendo Kashin, who has been a semi-regular in Pro Wrestling NOAH and had a hand in creative decisions under NOSAWA, will be the promotion’s new head booker going forward. More on that later…
As for NOSAWA’s run booking NOAH, it’s difficult to see where it had any benefit to the promotion whatsoever.
The junior heavyweight division that he also wrestled bordered on (and frequently crossed the line to) self-parody, with numerous turns and unit changes on nearly every major show. It was legitimately difficult to remember who was a member of units like KONGO, Stinger, Perros, and the NOAH Junior Army on any given day—quite possibly the most Vince Russo-style booking I have ever seen in a major Japanese promotion.
On the heavyweight side, no one is more emblematic of NOSAWA’s utter failure as a booker than Kaito Kiyomiya. He inherited the then-22-year-old “supernova” as GHC Champion and kept the title on him until Jan. 4th, 2020, when Go Shiozaki defeated Kiyomiya for the championship.
Since the beginning of 2020, Kiyomiya’s booking has been at a standstill—he regularly defeats junior heavyweights and lower-ranked heavyweights, but has an absolutely horrendous record against established main event-level wrestlers. This includes a 1-8 record in singles and tag team title matches during that period.
As I have talked and written about extensively, nothing exemplifies everything that has been wrong about Pro Wrestling NOAH more than the Kiyomiya-Keiji Mutoh “rivalry. Kiyomiya has an 0-2-1 record against Mutoh in singles matches, lost the GHC Tag Team Championship to him (and Marufuji), and was bloodied/RUN OVER BY A CAR driven by Mutoh’s Great Muta alter ego. Through each one of these instances (including the way he was positioned in his match teaming with Muto to take on Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada), NOSAWA made it clear and obvious that Kiyomiya was not on the same level as the “real stars” like Mutoh. There was no story arc or build to Kiyomiya overcoming the likes of Mutoh—rather, he was there to make Mutoh look good.
In many ways, that’s the legacy of NOSAWA Rongai as booker of Pro Wrestling NOAH. No one was elevated. No one is a bigger star than they were before he took over. The likes of Kiyomiya, Katsuhiko Nakajima, Kenoh, and others are arguably in a worse spot than they were before he took over—now, through NOSAWA’s booking, they are seen as clearly being a level below the likes of Mutoh, Fujita, Funaki, Tanaka, Suzuki, Sugiura, and others.
Where do we go from here? The answer is apparently Kendo Kashin, and you are likely in for serious disappointment if you are expecting a significant departure from recent booking patterns.
The recent championship reigns of Kazayuki Fujita, Masakatsu Funaki, and Hideki Suzuki indicate the already-growing influence of Kashin’s behind-the-scenes power. Given the long-term plans for Fujita as champion prior to him being sidelined with a reported positive COVID test (and his close relationship with Kashin), it is very easy to imagine a scenario where Satoshi Kojima wins the GHC Heavyweight Championship on June 12th and is used as a pass-through transitional champion to get the title back on Fujita.
We won’t have to wait long to get some of these answers. On May 21st at Korakuen Hall, Kiyomiya and Mutoh will be on opposite sides of a six-man tag team match. A bold departure from NOSAWA’s tenure would see Kiyomiya getting a direct fall on Mutoh here, but the odds of that are approximately zero percent. Realistically, the best we can hope for in terms of real change is a more coherently-booked junior heavyweight division from Kashin, as he isn’t wedded to any of the chaotic ideas that NOSAWA had for his pet project.
The near-term direction of Pro Wrestling NOAH seems to be:
Satoshi Kojima challenging Go Shiozaki
A continued Michael Elgin mega-push, now teaming with Masa Kitamiya to challenge new GHC Tag Team Champions Rene Dupree and El Hijo de Dr. Wagner, Jr.
The returns of Keiji Mutoh and Kazayuki Fujita
A continued de-emphasis of Katsuhiko Nakajima as the likes of Fujita, Suzuki, etc. dominate the main event scene
Simon Gotch targeting both Kaito Kiyomiya and Masakatsu Funaki
The rise of Ninja Mack, who signed a one-year deal with the promotion after a week of impressive performances that won over the NOAH faithful like few wrestlers have in recent years
The lineup for NOAH’s next major show in May 21st at Ota Ward General Gymnasium:
Kazuyuki Fujita vs. Kinya Okada
Daiki Inaba & Junta Miyawaki vs. Yoshiki Inamura & Kai Fujimura
Mohammed Yone vs. Shuhei Taniguchi
Daisuke Harada, Atsushi Kotoge, YO-HEY & Haoh vs. Tadasuke, Hajime Ohara, Hi69 & Shuji Kondo
Masakatsu Funaki, Katsuhiko Nakajima & Manabu Soya vs. Takashi Sugiura, Hideki Suzuki & Masaaki Mochizuki
Kenoh vs. Simon Gotch
GHC Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Title: Yoshinari Ogawa & Chris Ridgeway (c) vs. Seiki Yoshioka & Yuya Susumu
GHC Jr. Heavyweight Title: HAYATA (c) vs. Extreme Tiger
GHC Tag Team Title: Rene Dupree & Hijo de Dr. Wagner Jr. (c) vs. Michael Elgin & Masa Kitamiya
Go Shiozaki, Kaito Kiyomiya & Masato Tanaka vs. Keiji Muto, Naomichi Marufuji & Satoshi Kojima
One other thing to keep an eye on: if things in the heavyweight division continue as they have been, how long do guys like Nakajima, Kenoh, and Kiyomiya stick around? One the surface it seems very hard to believe that any of the would leave, but each may have their own limits in terms of how long they want to waste the prime years of their career waiting for something to change when it likely never will.
TWO COUNT: Yuma Aoyagi Defeats Kento Miyahara in Thrilling Champion Carnival Final
All Japan Pro-Wrestling, flying largely under the radar in its 50th Anniversary Year, crowned a somewhat surprising winner of the 2022 Champion Carnival Tournament—Yuma Aoyagi.
This year’s tournament featured some of the best action anywhere in Japan this year, culminating in the final night at Korakuen Hall on May 4th before 986 fans. While it is their best number of the pandemic era at Korakuen, drawing less than 1,000 fans for the Champion Carnival has to be seen as somewhat disappointing.
Whether it be by design or simply a scheduling quirk/oversight, it is notable that All Japan opted to not have Kento Miyahara in a singles match in any of the three tournament shows at Korakuen. Maybe more than any company in Japan, All Japan’s ability to draw in that building is almost exclusively tied to whether Miyahara is in a singles match main event.
There is no more important imperative for the company than creating a second Miyahara-level star—or at least getting someone close enough to that level to not have such a significant drop-off on non-Miyahara headlined shows. The Jake Lee heel turn and subsequent push has worked to an extent, but not enough. Simply put, AJPW desperately needs a “1A” babyface star to take some of the pressure off of Miyahara.
As I’ve written and talked about before, Naoya Nomura was going to be that guy. Before he suffered a neck injury that ultimately took him out of action for several years, 2020 was set to be Nomura’s year. While there is no way to definitively confirm this, I remain convinced that he would have won the 2020 Champion Carnival and by now would have had a Triple Crown Championship reign. His classic All Japan style was a great counter-balance to the flashier, more outwardly charismatic Miyahara and would have served as a top competitive rivalry for years to come.
In Nomura’s absence, Yuma Aoyagi seemed like candidate for that spot but was far enough away from a main event perception that it would take some time to get him to that level. His performances on Jan. 2nd and 3rd, 2021 opposite Suwama in tag title and Triple Crown matches were eye opening, and his subsequent tag title run with Miyahara (after previously turning on and challenging Miyahara in 2020) was built entirely around establishing Aoyagi as a main event threat alongside the company’s ace.
Aoyagi has a playful personality that does not necessarily line up with the usual expectation for a top-of-the-card wrestler, but in a company that already has a borderline manic ace in Miyahara it works better than it would elsewhere.
In-ring, Aoyagi might be the most exciting main event wrestler in the world right. I realize you may balk at that or think I’m trafficking in hyperbole, but Aoyagi (and his booking) has been tremendous in developing a formula that makes for high drama in the biggest situations.
So much of producing great wrestling matches in 2022 is dependent on having multiple credible moves or holds that can end a match—the more you have, the more the fans will by into nearfalls/submission attempts as legitimate finishes (I wrote about this several issues ago when describing what makes Zack Sabre, Jr. so exciting watch). Aoyagi has multiple variations of the Rockstar Buster, a knockout spin kick to the face, a two-stage EndGame submission hold that has been built incredibly well as a move than can finish anyone at anytime (particularly when steps through and really cranks on the hammerlock part of the move), and a cradle variation from the EndGame position.
All of these moves came into play throughout the tournament, either garnering Aoyagi victories or leading directly to the move that would get the victory. Against the back drop of Jake Lee, who has been dominant since returning from injury on the road to regaining the Triple Crown Championship he was never defeated for, Aoyagi was positioned as the underdog trying to do the impossible and excelled in that role here.
The finishing stretch was maybe the most exciting of any this year, with Aoyagi surviving Lee’s most devastating offense before Lee made the cardinal mistake of pulling Aoyagi up at a two count after hitting him with a Saito Suplex that could have finished the match. From there, Aoyagi scored several nearfalls, hit two spin kicks, nearly submitted Lee with the EndGame, and then scored the win and tournament victory with a spinning RockStar Buster.
Aoyagi will go on to challenge Miyahara for the Triple Crown in Sapporo on May 15th. It feels like the time is right to go all the way with Aoyagi here, but there are a few things working against that happening. The first is that this is a small building for a title change, even by modern All Japan standards—if Aoyagi is going to get a career-defining win, you’d have to imagine it will happen somewhere like Korakuen or Ota Ward Gymnasium. The second is that Aoyagi went to a 30 minute draw with Miyahara in their Champion Carnival Block match, and then Aoyagi pinned Miyahara in a tag team match later in the tour. It doesn’t seem likely that he will go through three matches with Miyahara in such a short span without a suffering a defeat.
One other note from the Champion Carnival Final show—go out of your way to watch the STRONGHEARTS vs Kento Miyahara, Atsuki Aoyagi, and Takuya Nomura match. It only went 11 minutes but every moment was eclectic, with T-Hawk notably showing the same vastly-improved form that was on display throughout the tournament. Issei Onnitsuka also continues to impress and improve at a rapid pace, while Takuya Nomura finished off his first full AJPW tour with another great performance. Hopefully we see more of him here in the future.
THREE COUNT: Around the Rings of a Busy Golden Week for Japanese Professional Wrestling
It was customarily busy Golden Week throughout the Japanese professional wrestling landscape, with major shows from most promotions as travel slowly begins to open up.
The biggest show of a packed week for STARDOM took place at the Fukuoka International Center on May 5th, drawing 1,156 fans. For reference, this is nearly 500 more people than Pro Wrestling NOAH drew in the same building two months prior for a show headlined by Kazayuki Fujita vs Masato Tanaka for the GHC Heavyweight Championship.
It was another impressive number for STARDOM, particularly given the lack of a World of Stardom Championship (Red Belt) match on the card. The main event, Saya Kamitani vs Maika for the Wonder of Stardom Championship (White Belt), delivered as two wrestlers each with less than three full years of experienced were entrusted to perform at a top level and did exactly that.
Kamitani continues to learn on the job as a championship-level wrestler—while one could nitpick about small elements of her game her and there, the remarkable growth she’s shown as a wrestler in the past 18 months continues with no end in sight. Maika, meanwhile, has had comparitively few major show main events but more than held up her end of the match here. You can see the wrestler she wants to be (a Tomohiro Ishii-type) and the offense is largely there—it will be a question of how much her selling can catch up to that. She is already a very good wrestler as-is, and there is still plenty of room for growth.
With Kamitani’s victory, she moves on to her next defense against Cinderella Tournament winner MIRAI. Kamitani has racked up an impressive number of defenses (five) already this year, and the match with MIRAI will have more drama than the foregone-conclusion nature of the Maika defense. While I expect Kamitani to retain as this year seems to be largely dedicated to establishing her as an Io Shirai-level player in STARDOM, the company is clearly all-in on MIRAI and the fans have followed in short order.
Koguma and Hazuki regained the Goddesses of STARDOM Tag Team Championship from the team they had lost the titles to, Starlight Kid and Momo Watanabe. This was a different match than they previously had, with Hazuki as the legal wrestler for her team for the vast majority of the match. It appears that the SLK/Watanabe win functioned solely to setup Koguma/Hazuki a big title win in their hometown rematch here. There is an even better match in there somewhere with these two teams, and hopefully it is a rivalry that will be revisited after some time away from each other for both teams.
The other title change on the show was a very good match that could have significant international ramifications, as Mayu Iwatani defeated Thekla to win the SWA Championship. It is a belt that has traditionally had a “champion vs international challenger them” (though that rule has been relaxed during the pandemic), and STARDOM has hinted that Iwatani may travel to defend the championship. While there is nothing on the books between STARDOM and AEW/NJPW for the Forbidden Door event (and STARDOM does have a show on that same June 26th date), sending Iwatani to Chicago to defend the belt—even if it is on the preshow—would be smart on multiple levels.
Big Japan Wrestling (BJW) held one of their biggest shows of the pandemic era at the new Yokohama Budokan on May 5th, drawing a healthy crowd of approximately 1,800 to their home base city.
The highlight of the show was an absolutely incredible tag team championship match between champions Daichi Hashimoto Hideyoshi Kamitani and challengers Fuminori Abe and Takuya Nomura. Everything in this match early on was a struggle in the best way possible, all the way down to side headlocks takeovers and Irish whips. The sequences between Hashimoto and Nomura were particularly brutal and riveting, followed by a dramatic finishing stretch that saw Abe counter Hashimoto’s offense directly into a Manjigatame Clutch to win the match and the championships.
While completely different stylistically, I would put this on the same level as the Briscoes-FTR from Supercard of Honor on being an extreme shortlist Match of the Year Candidate. It aired live on Samurai TV on May 6th and will, ostensibly, be uploaded to the BJW Core streaming service eventually.
Yuji Okabayashi and Daisuke Sekimoto for the BJW Strong Heavyweight Title fittingly headlined this show and was SO much better than their 2021 or 2019 main events. Sekimoto wrestling as the underdog (and at a much higher pace than their previous matches did wonders here), Okabayashi was his usual one-of-the-in-the-world self, and they finally delivered the level of match that many people—myself included—thought they were capable of.
DDT’s Mega Max Bump 2022 show at the same Yokohama Budokan on May 1st drew a disappointing 835 fans on May 1st for a show headlined by Tetsuya Endo vs Yuki Ueno for the KOD Championship. Like with Okabayashi and Sekimoto in years prior, Endo and Ueno *seem* like they should have great chemistry but it never quite connects. This match continued that trend—it was good but never got anywhere near great. It was too long (31 minutes) for the story they were telling, and Endo is just not a compelling lead in a match. He has everything on paper that should make an ace-level wrestler, but it has yet to coalesce into a package that delivers at a consistently high level. Endo retained here as expected, with Ueno’s time at the top of the card in DDT still a ways away.
Tokyo Joshi Pro Wrestling (TJPW) at Korakuen Hall on May 3rd drew 695 fans to Korakuen Hall for a show main evented by a foregone-conclusion POP Championship match between Shoko Nakajima and Hyper Misao. The highlight of the show was the semi-main event, which pitted Hikaru Shida and Miyu Yamashita on opposite sides of a tag team match for the first time. The Shida-Yamashita sequences were electric and befitting of a singles match between the two on a much larger scale.
Dragon Gate’s Dead or Alive Show on May 5th in Nagoya drew 2,640 fans and was headlined by KAI successfully defending the Open the Dream Gate Championship against Susumu Yokosuka. This was, by far, the best match of KAI’s ODG title reign and likely his best match in Dragon Gate. I’ve seen some people say that this was a MOTYC-level match and I didn’t see it as being anywhere near that level, but it still is worth going out of your way to watch. Yokosuka continues to perform at a very high level whenever asked, and drew something out of KAI that others in Dragon Gate been unable to do.
JTO, inconjunction with NJPW World PPV, hosted the TAKA-TAICHI MANIA 2.5 show at Korakuen Hall on May 6th, with Jun Kasai and Tomoaki Honma defeating EL Desperado and DOUKI in a wild main event centered on Kasai and Desperado. Staple guns, knives, and more were in full effect and the blood was flowing from all four wrestlers. Kasai and Desperado agreed post-match to a rematch of their 2019 singles encounter that caused El Desperado to miss the Best of the Super Junior Tournament with a broken jaw.
Ren Ayabe, the 6’8” raw rookie project of the JTO training system, had a spirited outing against Minoru Suzuki on this same show. While he is still very green and nowhere near *good* yet, his combination of youth, size, and athleticism makes him an intriguing prospect. While he has increasingly appeared in AJPW in recent months, don’t rule him out from a future with New Japan Pro Wrestling either.
As I mentioned on Twitter, the past week in AEW was pretty wild from a Japanese wrestling standpoint:
Konosuke Takeshita has come off like a legitimate star in his recent AEW appearances, particularly against Jay Lethal on last week’s episode of Rampage. While he lost, Takeshita was protected in that he did score a “visual pin” on Lethal after hitting his high knee finisher while the referee was distracted. I wouldn’t rule out a TNT Championship challenge at some point in next several months for him.
Yuka Sakazaki’s performance against Riho on that same episode of Rampage was extremely impressive. The match itself was very good, and the fact she wrestled at that level after 16 hour flight preceded by a match on the 5.1 TJPW show made it even more remarkable.
For those of you that asked how to watch the NJPW x AJPW Korakuen Hall 60th Anniversary show, it is now available on New Japan World and AJPW TV.