Issue #2: Three Count Fall
What New Japan is Missing in its Golden Year, NOAH Soldiers on in Sendai, Final 2021 Thoughts
ONE COUNT: New Japan Begins Its Golden Anniversary Year With Something Missing
I’ll freely admit that what I’m about to say is not exactly breaking new ground: New Japan Pro Wrestling is clearly missing something right now.
Many of the reasons for New Japan’s relative malaise are obvious. First and foremost, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on every aspect of the product. While every pro wrestling company in the world has been forced to deal with this reality for nearly two years, NJPW has been uniquely affected with a roster that spans the globe in the best of times. With a significant portion of that roster either unavailable or unwilling to quarantine for long periods of time, they have been forced to rely on largely the same small core group of wrestlers for the past 23 months.
Along with the reduced roster size and lack of talent movement, the crowd response restrictions still in place in Japan have had an outsized impact on NJPW compared to other promotions. New Japan’s unshakeable devotion to booking for heat at all costs falls completely flat in an environment where fans are not allowed to make noise with anything other than their hands. While the preponderance of interference, ref bumps/ref incompetence, and heel stable beatdowns was already beginning to wear thin pre-pandemic, the insistence on leaning even further into that element of the product under these restrictions is both baffling and frustrating to watch.
Each of these factors speak to a stubbornness, an unwillingness to change, and a dangerous degree of hubris on the part of New Japan’s booking team and front office. While we’ve seen a few welcome cracks in this wall recently (CIMA’s appearance at Wrestle Kingdom, NJPW vs NOAH at Wrestle Kingdom Night 3), the lineups for the New Year’s Golden Series show a company intent on doing the same things and expecting a different result.
There are no true outsiders on this tour. No appearances by CIMA or his GLEAT/Stronghearts stablemates, as was hinted at after Wrestle Kingdom. Much more disappointing is the inflated presence of Dick Togo’s House of Torture on this tour, with EVIL involved in three championship programs (NEVER Openweight, NEVER Six-Man, and IWGP Tag Titles), along with a SHO vs YOH singles match and a bushelful of HoT multi-man tag team matches headlining the tour.
Yet, none of these things are the most significant problem in New Japan Pro Wrestling right now.
Ask yourself this question: why there is even an IWGP *World* Heavyweight Championship in the first place? It isn’t because the IWGP Heavyweight Championship wasn’t already prestigious enough—for the better part of at least the past decade it was widely regarded as the most important title in all of wrestling. It certainly isn’t because the previous title belt design needed to be improved upon.
The reason for the change to the *World* title is pretty clear—so obvious that it somehow doesn’t get noticed. Simply put, Gedo and NJPW ran out of stories to tell with the IWGP Heavyweight Title.
Look at the roster over the past few years. Everyone at the legitimate main event level—Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Tetsuya Naito, Kota Ibushi, Jay White—already had the defining run of their career with the IWGP Heavyweight Title. And while NJPW has done a great job patching the holes with the elevation of wrestlers like Shingo Takagi and Will Ospreay, there is no new homegrown star on the immediate horizon to take on their first journey to the top title in the company.
So the idea—as half-baked as it ended up being with Ibushi simply saying “I’m the WORLD champion” and it being recognized as such—was to give all those top guys an even “bigger” prize to start their stories all over again: The IWGP *World* Heavyweight Title. To say it hasn’t worked would be an understatement.
Ibushi’s path from unifying the Heavyweight and Intercontinental championships into the new World Heavyweight Title, and starting the championship lineage from scratch, made little to no sense and did no favors in terms of his drawing power. Nothing from a competitive standpoint actually happened to make the IWGP Title into the IWGP *World* Title. In storyline, it just became the world title because one guy said so. It wasn’t quite Eric Bischoff gifting HHH the Big Gold Belt on Monday Night Raw, but in the world NJPW it felt uncomfortably close.
The “who is the REAL IWGP World Champion” was pretty clearly a failure—official attendance for Night 1 of Wrestle Kingdom 16 was flat with last year’s January 4th show (with credible reports that last year’s show significantly outdrew this year’s, but NJPW did not want to publicly state how large last year’s crowd was for fear of COVID-related backlash), and Night 2 of Wrestle Kingdom 16 was down significantly from Night 1 (as well as being down compared to Night 2 of last year’s event).
It has now been a decade now since Okada returned from excursion to defeat Tanahashi to win the IWGP Heavyweight Title. New Japan desperately needs a new, homegrown Japanese babyface main event-level star for fans to follow and get invested in their journey. While their are several candidates on the long-term horizon, none of their returns appear to be imminent.
Shota Umino seemed to be the most likely near-term main event star when he left on excursion, but the time since has been filled with injuries and performances that call that seeming inevitable into at least some question. Ren Narita has had an incredible transformation into a Katsuyori Shibata disciple culminating at Wrestle Kingdom 16, but his excursion is still in progress and he projects to be more of a supporting player than a top star.
Yota Tsuji has had a remarkable first few months on excursion in the UK for Rev Pro, showing more of the combination of size, athleticism, and charisma that we saw glimpses of in his years as a Young Lion—but he is likely several years away from returning. Yuya Uemura may be the most classical talented and charismatic wrestler to come through the New Japan dojo system in at least a decade, but he too is likely still several years away from returning to Japan from his excursion to make a significant impact.
Given the talent of all four, the odds are that at least one will be able to fill this void—but nothing is guaranteed and it will not be happening any time in the near-term.
It’s not all doom and gloom. The pandemic will end at some point. NJPW will once again have access to the AEW-affiliated wrestlers they work with, and the likes of Bryan Danielson and others will eventually be able to make appearances as well. The top stars of New Japan Strong—a show that feels more like the roots of NJPW than the main roster itself does—will be able to travel to Japan and make an impact (look for more on Strong and the stark differences between it and NJPW proper in an upcoming issue of THREE COUNT FALL). Most importantly, the LA Dojo talent that is poised for stardom will finally be able to return to Japan and take on significant roles on the roster.
None of those positive developments appear to be happening soon, though. For the immediate future, the top of the card in NJPW feels perilously like late 1990s/2000 AJPW…filled with the best wrestlers of this generation, but with those same wrestlers beginning to physically breaking down as they have great-but-familiar matches with each other month-after-month and year-after-year.
TWO COUNT: Pro Wrestling NOAH’s Admirable Effort in Sendai
The stars were not aligned for Pro Wrestling NOAH as they made their way to Sendai for Bumper Crop 2022 show on January 16th. While the NJPW vs NOAH show one week earlier was an unqualified success for both companies, attendance for NOAH’s January 1st return to Budokan (down 25 percent from last year’s show) certainly was not.
More importantly, NOAH suffered an outbreak of COVID-19 among their roster as the Omicron variant took hold in Japan and cases increased exponentially in the country.
Yoshinari Ogawa, Junta Miyawaki, Kaito Kiyomiya, Yoshiki Inamura, Kinya Okada, Yasutaka Yano, Super Crazy, Tadasuke, Daiki Inaba, and Masato Tanaka were all forced to miss the Sendai event, either as COVID-19 positive cases or close contacts.
While the company was exceedingly lucky that the six wrestlers involved in the double main event were spared, the situation still necessitated a reshuffling of the rest of the card.
Attendance was not strong for this show either with just 633 fans in the building. With a six-match card still on the books several wrestlers pulled double-duty, including early-year NOAH MVP Daisuke Harada. Fresh off a great match days earlier that saw him regain the GHC Junior Heavyweight Championship over HAYATA (and an equally-entertaining GHC National Championship match against Kenoh on Jan. 5th) Harada had a very entertaining match here with Seiki Yoshioka…and then immediately was greeted by KONGO’s Haoh, who appealed to join forces with Harada. Tadasuke and Aleja hit the ring, prompting an impromptu tag team match that would be be Harada’s 11th match in the first 16 days of 2022.
As mentioned, the top two matches of the show were unchanged by the COVID outbreak. GHC Tag Team Champions Keiji Muto and Naomichi Marufuji turned back the KONGO challenge of Kenoh and Manabu Soya. The action was very good for the stretches where Marufuji and Kenoh were in the ring together, and one would hope that this somehow still fresh matchup gets revisited in a singles match in the coming months. The action between Muto and Soya, however, was somewhat sad to watch. As always, I say this with the utmost reverence for what Keiji Muto has accomplished in his long career (there likely would be no Adam & Mike Big Audio Nightmare podcast or THREE COUNT FALL newsletter if I had not seen The Great Muta on WCW television in 1989)—but this was hard to watch even by his recent standards in NOAH.
After withstanding a series of lariats by Soya, Muto landed a standing Frankensteiner into a pin to get the victory. Unfortunately, this Frankensteiner looked terrible with Muto’s feet barely leaving the ground, basically powerbombing himself as Soya had to roll through and get pinned with Muto lightly laying on his shoulders.
Again, it is COMPLETELY understandable that Keiji Muto had trouble executing this move—he is 59 years old with artificial knees and more miles on his body than any active wrestler in Japan. That said, this finish looked absolutely awful and made Soya look incredibly weak in the process. It’s another move that Muto needs to be retire and another example of how counterproductive his continued main event run in NOAH has been for the wrestlers he defeats on a regular basis.
The main event was a rematch of arguably the NOAH’s 2021 Match of the Year, although this time it would not be held in a steel cage. Former tag team partners Katsuhiko Nakajima and Masa Kitamiya had another absolute war for the GHC Heavyweight Championship here, but this encounter did not have quite the level of drama or excitement as their most recent prior match.
The reasons for this are twofold: as strongly as Kitamiya has been presented otherwise, it is difficult to buy him as a legitimate contender to actually win the GHC Heavyweight Title after he was so easily dispatched by Muto in his challenge for that belt last year. It goes back to the point I made earlier—if Muto’s presence at the top of the card a) isn’t leading to significant gains in attendance and b) has a negative effect on how other top wrestlers in the company are perceived after losing to him in major matches, I’m not really sure what the purpose of having him in that position is.
The other issue is a bit of a conundrum. Nakajima is, undoubtedly, one of the most talented wrestlers in the world and has been one of my favorites to watch for more than 15 years. However, he is generally not a wrestler who puts together dynamically-engaging finishing stretches as champion. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, as it harkens back to the way many championship matches in Japan finished in decades past. His style of accumulating damage and then finishing off his opponent with a series of progressively higher-impact moves absolutely will make for a dramatic title change whenever the time comes for someone to overcome that, but in the interim it keeps his title defenses from reaching as high of a level as some other top champions.
The post-match saw Kazayuki Fujita come out and make a direct challenge to Nakajima and the GHC Title. I am of two distinct minds on this match: 1) Fujita has generally been great in his recent NOAH appearances, particularly the “staredown” draw with Go Shiozaki and his recent 30-minute draw with Masato Tanaka. 2) I’m old enough to remember how disastrous his IWGP Title runs were many years ago, and I will always wince at even the slightest possibility of a similar situation happening again. Whatever the end result ends up being, Nakajima vs Fujita on Feb. 23rd looks to be a fascinating match with the champion being in the rare position of being the perceived underdog.
THREE COUNT: 2021 and Why One Promotion Stood Above the Rest
Before the first month of 2022 gets away from us, it’s worth taking a final look back at 2021. As I mentioned briefly last week, it’s difficult to argue that any promotion in Japan had a more successful year than Stardom.
While it may be lost on newer fans, the idea of women’s professional wrestling company being the third biggest in all of Japan from an attendance standpoint really is remarkable. Even more impressive is that Stardom is the only promotion in Japan to grow in pretty much every metric—overall live attendance, average live attendance, merchandise sales, streaming revenue, overall revenue—during a pandemic that severely limits so many of those things.
They have done this in stark contrast to its BUSHIROAD corporate partner, New Japan Pro Wrestling. As mentioned in this issue’s ONE COUNT, New Japan has taken a very conservative route and basically stayed the course in terms of presentation, talent acquisition, and a touring schedule that is very major city-focused. Stardom, on the other hand, has expanded their roster aggressively and made the strategic choice to tour virtually every corner of the country while also running events at some of the largest and most storied arenas in Japan’s major metropolitan areas.
As referenced in last week’s issue, the boldness of Stardom’s booking with newly-acquired or recently-returned wrestlers has created a situation where the roster is deep into the double digits with main event level wrestlers—with another group (Starlight Kid, Hazuki, Koguma, AZM, Natsupoi, Mirai, Thekla and others) knocking on the door and likely joining the top tier of the card soon.
On a show-by-show basis, no promotion in 2021 produced the quantity of quality that Stardom did. The pay-per-view events delivered with MOTYC-level matches each time out and smaller spot shows were filled with sub-10 minute hidden gem singles matches and quite a few high-end trios matches (particularly between Donna Del Mondo and Queen’s Quest). If you watched the main event from last weekend’s in Toyohashi (Saya Kamitani/Utami Hayashishita vs Maika/Himeka), it’s clear that the trend of Stardom putting on great matches on smaller shows is continuing into 2022.
From an individual wrestler perspective, a strong argument could be made that Stardom had three of the top ten wrestlers in the world (Tam Nakano, Syuri, and Utami Hayashishita) last year, with each of those three having multiple matches that should be at the top of any exhaustive list for 2021 Match of the Year consideration.
On an industry level, Stardom’s commercial and critical success punches at least a small hole in the “but the pandemic” argument. COVID has undoubtedly made things more difficult for everyone involved, but it isn’t an excuse for going into promotional autopilot or refusing to adjust to the circumstances to put out a compelling product that resonates with your fanbase. There is a ceiling to Stardom’s growth under these pandemic restrictions, but they have not hit that ceiling yet.