Issue #19: Three Count Fall
Best of the Super Junior, Stardom Flashing Champions PPV, Around the Rings
ONE COUNT: Best of the Super Junior Tournament Final and Dominion Preview
New Japan Pro-Wrestling wrapped up its most ambitious and interesting pandemic era tour on June 3rd with the conclusion of the Best of the Super Junior 29 tournament at Nippon Budokan. While the field featured a wide variety of foreigners and outsiders, the tournament final was decided between NJPW’s top two junior heavyweight stars.
The show drew 3,520 fans, which is about 1,500 more fans than the opening night of the New Japan Cup in the same building, and several hundred fans more than the company’s 50th Anniversary show in March.
Most notably, this year’s BoSJ final only drew 300 less fans than last year’s G1 Climax Final between Kazuchika Okada and Kota Ibushi. Outside of Wrestle Kingdom, the upper limit of paid attendance for major shows in the pandemic era seems to be in that 3,500-3,800 range no matter how attractive the card may be. It will be fascinating to see if this ceiling raises, and by how much, when crowd cheering likely is once again allowed in the coming months.
For all the discussion of what the outsiders from NJPW Strong, AEW, CMLL, Impact Wrestling, and GLEAT brought to the tournament (and we’ll get to that later), it was junior heavyweight division standard-bearers Hiromu Takahashi and El Desperado who reached the tournament final to headline this event.
It’s impossible to talk about Takahashi and Desperado without referencing their history, particularly their BoSJ 27 tournament final in 2020 (which drew nearly exact same attendance number as the 2022 edition). That was one of the most intense, edge-of-your-seat, gripping matches in New Japan Pro-Wrestling history—completely with Desperado ripping his already-torn mask off and revealing his face to the crowd in the midst of the battle, harkening back to 2018 when Hiromu ripped Desperado’s mask off in their BoSJ block match at a sold-out Korakuen Hall.
Against that backdrop, this match had an almost impossible task in trying to eclipse those moments. Really, the only way they could have achieved that would be for Desperado to finally get that BoSJ Final win over Hiromu, win the tournament for the first time, and validate his Wrestle Kingdom IWGP Junior Heavyweight victory over Hiromu earlier this year. While that is 100 percent what I would have done, I see the argument (which Dave Meltzer and others have made) that 2022 is a rebuilding year and that needs to be done on the backs of the top stars (Okada and Takahashi, respectively) in each division.
My argument against that would be that most western-based analysts covering New Japan vastly underrate El Desperado’s popularity with Japanese fans, apparently oblivious to the ridiculous number of towels, shirts, masks, and other merchandise in the crowd at Korakuen Hall and other venues on a regular basis. I would argue that a dramatic and decisive Best of the Super Junior Final win for Desperado here may have been the tipping point taking him to that Hiromu level of popularity, which would benefit the division greatly and begin to free Takahashi up for the heavyweight division run that we all know is coming at some point.
The action itself in the tournament final was fantastic, with Takahashi’s kickout of the mutliple Pinche Locos (which had been an automatic Desperado win throughout the tournament) taking the action to the next level. Hiromu also survived multiple attempts and applications of the Numero Dos submission hold, playing off the storyling knee injury that plagued him throughout the second half of the tournament.
Desperado’s kickout of Hiromu’s Time Bombs created drama in terms of his potential win, but a cross-armed variation of Time Bomb 2 was enough to finally put Desperado away. The end result, while the action was as equal as could be, clearly established Takahashi as *the* dominant junior heavyweight in the company by scoring a record third-consecutive BoSJ win and doing so over his toughest rival. One has to think Desperado will win next year’s tournament, either over Takahashi or earn a title shot against him.
Beyond the tournament final, the block action throughout the Best of the Super Junior tournament was largely as expected—and that’s not a bad thing at all. Unlike recent years where match length was stretched to compensate for a smaller field, most tournament match—even main events stayed well under 20 minutes. This was a great benefit to the quality of the tournament overall. I am all for long matches when the story dictates such and the wrestlers are of a high enough quality to pull it off, but the past few years featured way too many matches that needlessly flirted with the 30 minute time limit.
Outside of the finalists, El Phantasmo was somewhat surprisingly a top performer in the tournament. It was surprising not because he hasn’t shown ability before—he is a freak athlete both in terms of athleticism and cardio—but because his matches have often been centered around heel chicanery (the year-long loaded boot saga, for example), ref bumps/interference, and his characters troll-liked tendencies. Here, it felt like New Japan *finally* found the right balance between all of those things for El-P’s character and the match quality followed suit. His match with Robbie Eagles on May 26th at Korakuen Hall was the best of match of the tournament save the final, and his match with Desperado on the final night of block action (May 31st) wasn’t far off that pace.
Ace Austin was the standout of the foreign newcomers, showing a surprising level of poise for such a young wrestler making his first tour of Japan—the excitement of that run is blunted a bit, however, by him joining Bullet Club on the June 3rd. He is likely being positioned to replace Phantasmo as Taiji Ishmori’s tag team partner when El-P makes his long-rumored transition to the heavyweight division.
Wheeler Yuta, Clark Connors, and El Lindaman were strong performers throughout, giving exactly the level of performance one would expect of each of them in this setting. Lindaman’s booking was interesting, in that he dropped several falls as GLEAT’s G-REX Champion that likely will not lead to any actual title matches. Yuta had standout technical matches with the likes of Robbie Eagles and TJP, while Connors showed the same rock-solid form that has been on display throughout his post-Young Lion run on NJPW Strong.
Alex Zayne had a bit of a shaky start to the tournament (to be fair, facing SHO early on does no one any favors) but he really picked up the pace beginning with his match against Taiji Ishimori and never looked back from there. It should also be noted that Zayne was *very* over with the fans, both during the shows themselves and in the very long lines for his autograph sessions.
Titan was one of the best and most consistent performers throughout the tournament, but suffered from the same usual weak booking that often befalls CMLL wrestlers in these tournaments. He went on a run late in the tournament after being mathematically eliminated early, but it would have been nice to see a world-class wrestler of this level play into the final week of the tournament from a points perspective.
Master Wato continued to be…well…Master Wato. He had some solid performances, but also continued to display the same inexplicable lack of instincts and execution that keep him below everyone else in the division. He nearly killed Desperado with a botched springboard move at Korakuen, and fell off the apron to the floor in the most awkward way possible in his final tournament match against DOUKI.
The less said about SHO and Ryusuke Taguchi in this tournament, the better. SHO’s matches since joining the House of Torture continue to be the worst part of New Japan’s shows by a wide margin, and the Taguchi “comedy” reached unbearably embarrassing levels on this tour (with the English-language commentary only making it more cringeworthy).
New Japan’s next major show is Dominion on June 12th at Osaka Jo-Hall, and it is very heavy on Bullet Club influence:
Six Or Nine (Master Wato & Ryusuke Taguchi) & Hiroyoshi Tenzan vs. United Empire (Aaron Henare, Francesco Akira & TJP)
BULLET CLUB (Ace Austin, El Phantasmo & Taiji Ishimori) vs. Los Ingobernables de Japon (BUSHI, Hiromu Takahashi & Tetsuya Naito)
Toru Yano vs. Doc Gallows
NEVER Openweight Six Man Tag Team Title Match: House Of Torture (EVIL, SHO & Yujiro Takahashi) (c) vs. Suzuki-gun (El Desperado, Yoshinobu Kanemaru & Zack Sabre Jr.)
IWGP Tag Team Title Match: BULLET CLUB (Bad Luck Fale & Chase Owens) (c) vs. United Empire (Great-O-Khan & Jeff Cobb)
Interim AEW World Title Eliminator Match: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Hirooki Goto
NJPW King Of Pro-Wrestling Title Match: Shingo Takagi (c) vs. Taichi
NEVER Openweight Title Match: Tama Tonga (c) vs. Karl Anderson
IWGP United States Heavyweight Title Match: Juice Robinson (c) vs. SANADA vs. Will Ospreay
IWGP World Heavyweight Title Match: Kazuchika Okada (c) vs. Jay White
The participation of both Juice Robinson (appendicitis) and Karl Anderson (COVID-19) is in doubt for this show despite them being announced for these matches, while KENTA looks to have a presence of some sort here after returning to NJPW at the BoSJ Final show. Many of the results on this show will lead directly into championship matches at the NJPW x AEW co-promoted Forbidden Door PPV event in Chicago on June 26th.
TWO COUNT: STARDOM x NJPW Show Announced + Flashing Champions Review
This week saw one of the most speculated on and longest-anticipated announcements in recent Japanese wrestling history—a joint show between BUSHIROAD corporate partners and industry leaders, New Japan Pro-Wrestling and STARDOM.
Ever since the October 2019 purchase of STARDOM by BUSHIROAD, fans and wrestling pundits had been calling for some sort of crossover—whether it be “offer” matches or a full co-promoted show—between the two companies. Those calls only grew louder as STARDOM’s growth accelerated, leading to an untelevised STARDOM dark match prior to the Wrestle Kingdom main card on January 4th, 2020. Differing television contracts between the two companies were cited as the reason the match could not be broadcast.
STARDOM once again was featured on the Wrestle Kingdom 15 pre-show, this time with two dark matches on night two of the event. The broadcast issues were rectified later that year with STARDOM being featured on the Wrestle Grand Slam pre-shows, and then this year on the main card at night two of Wrestle Kingdom 16.
With NJPW still positioned as the clear industry leader even during this time of recession, and STARDOM being the fastest-growing major promotion in Japan, the announcement of the NJPW x Stardom special event will be held at Ariake Arena in Tokyo on Sunday, November 20, feels like the right time and the right place—particularly given the BUSHIROAD 15th anniversary alignment.
From an in-ring perspective, the most exciting element of the press conference were the strong teases of several mixed tag team matches potentially being held on the show. Mayu Iwatani appealed to team with Hiroshi Tanahashi on the show, which may be the most perfect pairing of two wrestlers one could imagine. Could you imagine Iwatani and Tanahashi taking on Kazuchika Okada and Utami Hayashishita in the main event? Let’s hope that’s the direction BUSHIROAD is thinking as well.
One specific match was proposed that, while it has not been officially announced, has mind-bending potential. Starlight Kid said that there is only one person for her to team with, and that is El Desperado…and she proposed facing the team of AZM and Hiromu Takahashi. It’s hard to think of a match that one one hand seems like something no one would have ever thought of, and yet upon first hearing it you know it is THE match to make for this show. It would be the two most exciting rivalries of each promotion coming together, not to mention some of the most commanding personalities and best athletes in all of wrestling.
Without knowing for certain at this early stage, I would believe the format will be: 3 or 4 major NJPW matches, 3 or 4 major STARDOM matches, and 2 or mixed matches. Prior to the ongoing disagreement between Kota Ibushi and New Japan management, some sort of Ibushi/Saya Kamitani interaction would have seemed like a lock for this show. Knowing the size of the arena (Ariake is slightly larger than Nippon Budokan) and what STARDOM brought in terms of excitement to this year’s Wrestle Kingdom event, this has the potential to be the most significant non-Tokyo Dome show across the Japanese wrestling landscape this year.
Meanwhile, STARDOM’s most recent major show at Ota Ward Gymnasium on May 28th featured what is my current Match of the Year, along with an uncharacteristically wild main event.
The FLASHING CHAMPIONS show drew a strong number of 1,871 fans, just a few short of a sellout in that half-capacity-mandated building. More impressive is that, once again, they had a good number for a show main evented by title matches that did not include top established stars like Mayu Iwatani, Tam Nakano, Utami Hayashishita, Giulia, etc.
Instead, the standout match of this show featured Saya Kamitani defending the Wonder of Stardom Championship against Cinderella Tournament winner MIRAI. As I’ve written about extensively in previous issues, 2022 is largely about establishing Saya Kamitani as one of the top stars in the company, as have been her multiple victorious appearances on the NJPW shows mentioned earlier in this article. MIRAI, meanwhile, has been on a tear since entering the promotion—particularly since her Wonder of Stardom championship match with Syuri in January and subsequent jump to the new God’s Eye stable.
Both wrestlers showed serious growth here in this championship match. To my eyes, this was Kamitani most confident and controlled performance as a champion leading match. While her spectacular moves like the Phoenix Splash rightfully get the most attention, this was the first time I’ve seen her really feel like a championship wrestler in ever way. MIRAI, on the other hand, showed the same traits that have rocketed her up the card—strong fundamentals on offense, great acceleration and follow-through, and an innate likeability—but most notably displayed significantly improved selling, particularly when locked in a Boston Crab late in the match.
Making a great match even more remarkable is relative inexperience of both wrestlers, with having just crossed the three-year threshold (MIRAI has 180+ matches in her career, while Kamitani has around 50 more since her debut). Any time two wrestlers who are this early in their career and are clearly still in the rapid development stage have a legitimate Match of the Year Contender, it is a very good sign for the high-end ceiling of each of them.
The main event was something completely different, with Syuri successfully defending the World of Stardom Championship against Risa Sera in a hard-hitting brawl that featured much more outside interference than you would normally see in a major singles championship match in the promotion. Ami Sourei’s rampaging attempt to save Syuri from the PROMINENCE attack on the floor was one of the highlights, as were some of the early match strikes from Syuri before things really broke down.
As good as Syuri’s reign has been, it is starting to have a “what next?'“ sort of feel to it. Recent defenses have felt like foregone conclusions on the road to the eventual match with Giulia, which is the biggest match they can put together right now and the most likely endpoint for Syuri’s reign. Next up, however, is a defense against Momo Watanabe that should be one of the best of the year, even if it is very unlikely that we will see a title change.
Upcoming major shows prior to the 5*Star Grand Prix include:
"STARDOM FIGHT IN THE TOP 2022 ~ NAGOYA TOP BATTLE" 6.26.2022
Nagoya International Conference Hall
3 Way Battle: Unagi Sayaka vs. Waka Tsukiyama vs. Ruaka
Saya Iida & Momo Kohgo vs. Lady C & Miyu Amasaki
Himeka vs. Mina Shirakawa
Artist of Stardom Title, 3 Way Elimination Match: Momo Watanabe, Starlight Kid & Saki Kashima (c) vs. Giulia, Maika & Mai Sakurai vs. Syuri, MIRAI & Ami Sorei
Cage Match: Tam Nakano vs. Natsupoi
Cage Match: Mayu Iwatani, Hazuki & Koguma vs. Utami Hayashishita, Saya Kamitani & AZM
"STARDOM MIDSUMMER CHAMPIONS 2022 ~KINGS OF MIDSUMMER~" 7.9.2022
Tachikawa Stage Garden
High Speed Title: AZM (c) vs. Momo Kohgo
Wonder of Stardom Title: Saya Kamitani (c) vs. Starlight Kid
World of Stardom Title: Syuri (c) vs. Momo Watanabe
Most noteworthy on these cards is Tam Nakano facing Natsupoi in a steel cage match. Their April 4th, 2021 match was on my extreme shortlist for Match of the Year and I can only imagine how they will try to up the ante in this setting.
THREE COUNT: Around the Rings of ZERO1, AJPW, Pro Wrestling NOAH, Dragon Gate, and more!
One of the most emotional shows in recent memory took place on June 4th as Pro Wrestling ZERO1 held a tribute and benefit show for Shinjiro Otani, who is still hospitalized with serious injuries as a result of his match with Takashi Sugiura on April 10th at Ryogoku Sumo Hall.
The main event saw Sugiura defend his World Heavyweight Championship against Masato Tanaka. It was clear that Sugiura was wearing the weight of the world on his shoulders as he entered the ring and in the early stages of the match, but as they settled into the action it turned into one of the best matches of 2022 to date. The finisher stealing-trading fighting spirit spot late in the match was remarkable, as were the vocal crowd reactions as the match built to a finish. The dueling headbutt spots were brutal and very uncomfortable to watch, however, particularly given the setting for this match. Tanaka eventually won the match and the championship with a series of Sliding D forearms, and the two men embraced in an heart-wrenching post-match scene.
The other highlight of the show, from an in-ring perspective, was ZERO1 rookie Satsuki Nagao’s spirited performance alongside New Japan veterans Yuji Nagata, Togi Makabe, and Tomoaki Honma in an 8-man tag team match against a BJW team captained by Daichi Hashimoto. Nagata seemed particularly impress during and after the match, cheering Nagao on and imploring him to soak in the cheers of the crowd post-match. While we don’t see talent-poaching often in Japan and a show like this would not be the time or place for those discussions to occur, you couldn’t watch this match without thinking that Nagao may be destined for something bigger than rings of ZERO1.
All Japan Pro-Wrestling has seen a significant number of unit shakeups and new faces in recent weeks, most notably with Total Eclipse members scattered to different corners of the promotion. In just the past few weeks:
Jake Lee and Yuma Aoyagi have begun to form a reluctant tag team, and Yuma has left NEXTREAM
Shotaro Ashino has left the side of Evolution’s Hikaru Sato and Dan Tamura, instead joining a W-1 alumni group of sorts with Seigo Tachibana and Ryuki Honda
Yuji Nagata appeared and aligned himself with Sato and Tamura in their war with Voodoo Murders
Voodoo Murders have become a regular force in AJPW once again, with Suwama joining and Minoru Tanaka arriving
Naoya Nomura returned this week as part of an invading duo with his REAL BLOOD partner Mizuki Takase in a wild scene on June 6th in Kawasaki
Nomura’s return to AJPW is the most intriguing and exciting development of all. His triumphant return from a nearly two year absence due to a serious neck injury was followed immediately by the announcement that he would be departing All Japan. He had a great match with Yuma Aoyagi on the promotion’s Dec. 16th, 2001 show and then disappeared again.
Nomura turned up on a CAPTURE show in March, and then formed the aforementioned REAL BLOOD team with Takase on a series Ganbare Pro events last month. His return to All Japan is unexpected and it is unclear for how long it will last or what the details are, but his first match back will be against Hokuto Omori on June 19th.
Pro Wrestling NOAH held their latest Korakuen Hall show on June 7th and once again failed to break the 500 fans barrier. The recently-released-by-WWE Timothy Thatcher made his debut as Sugiura-Gun’s “X” in the 10-man tag team main event, with Thatcher getting the submission over Yoshiki Inamura.
It is telling that promotions like NJPW, STARDOM, and Dragon Gate have seen their attendances rise back near or above the 1,000-fan threshold at Korakuen over the past month, while NOAH continues to struggle even with the return/debut of so many foreigners and outsiders. In any other promotion this would be cause for internal concern and change, but in NOAH they will continue to do the same things and somehow expect different results.
Dragon Gate’s King of Gate Tournament ended at Korakuen Hall with an excellent final between Yuki Yoshioka and Kota Minoura. You could not draw more of a distinct contrast between NOAH and Dragon Gate when looking at this match, as Yoshioka and Minoura have a combined age that is less than that of former GHC Heavyweight Champion Kazayuki Fujita (which makes the working relationship between the two promotions even more bizarre to watch). Yoshioka will go on to challenge Open the Dream Gate champion KAI, most likely at one of the Kobe World shows next month.