Issue 21: Three Count Fall
Kiyomiya Breaks Through, G1 Climax 32 Begins, Around the Rings of Japan
ONE COUNT: Kaito Kiyomiya Breaks Through at Budokan
Kaito Kiyomiya defeated Keiji Mutoh.
You may not have known it from Mutoh’s lack of selling the pain of Kiyomiya’s figure four leglock, or the way Mutoh practically sprinted out of the ring after submitting…but it actually happened.
It may be “too little, too late,” and the idea was better than the reality…but Kaito Kiyomiya finally defeated Keiji Mutoh.
Kiyomiya gave one of the most remarkable performances by any wrestler in the past decade, showing more passion, spirit, and high-end wrestling IQ than ever as he carried Mutoh to his best match in many, many years.
Given what we’ve seen in the back half of Keiji Mutoh’s career, what we got from him on July 16th in front of 3,265 fans at the Budokan was equal parts surprising and predictable.
The fact that Mutoh was willing to finally lose to Kiyomiya was surprising, in that all of their interactions until this point had been constructed in a way that made Kiyomiya look weak and unworthy of being in the ring with near-60-year-old Mutoh. What as predictable was Mutoh’s demeanor in putting over Kiyomiya—his actual submission as almost comical in the way he calmly told the referee that he was ready to give up, then just laid in the ring with a completely blank look on his face. Kiyomiya had to chase Mutoh down outside of the ring post-match for a handshake that Mutoh did not seem particularly interested in.
As I’ve written about in these digital pages before, this is the price of doing business with late-stage Keiji Mutoh. You are, in theory, leveraging his star power and legendary status to help raise the profile of your promotion and its ascending talent. The issue is this—that will never be Mutoh’s agenda, so that misalignment in goals leads to awkward moments that dampen the impact he could bring.
One thing is crystal-clear coming out of July 16th—Kaito Kiyomiya is ready to be the ace of Pro Wrestling NOAH. Not a rising star…not a supernova…but a Hiroshi Tanhashi/Kento Miyahara level ace of his promotion. I cannot stress enough how high-level of a performance Kiyomiya gave here, with an opponent that is exceedingly difficult to have a great match with. Both the subtle and spectacular elements of Kiyomiya’s game were on full display, as he finally seemed to crack the code of how to control a match in a compelling way. As a longtime observer, it reminded me so much of when Tanahashi cracked that same code some 15 years ago in a series of matches with Yuji Nagata.
NOAH needs to go all the way with Kiyomiya, and they need to do it now. It will be promotional malpractice, to turn a phrase, if he doesn’t go on to win the N1 Victory tournament, become GHC Champion shortly thereafter, and go on a Kazchika Okada-level run.
A side effect of this is that fans may finally start believing that younger talent has a chance to win high-profile matches and championships. We already saw signs of that in the match that immediately following Kiyomiya vs Mutoh—while Yoshiki Inamura yet again dropped the fall, the crowd rallied behind him in a way I haven’t previously heard as the GHC Tag Team Championship match came to a close.
The main event also delivered, with Kenoh getting a somewhat surprising win over Satoshi Kojima for his second GHC Heavyweight Championship. The top rope moonsault double knee drop finish was brutal in the best possible way. Kojima again showed why it was a mistake for NJPW to so heavily de-emphasize him in recent years—given NOAH’s proclivity for pushing age 50+ wrestlers, a V.0 reign for him was not expected.
Given his title loss, the assumption post-match was that Kojima would be returning to full-time action in New Japan. The announcement of the N1 Victory tournament lineup confirmed the opposite—we will be seeing much more of Satoshi Kojima in Pro Wrestling NOAH going forward. As I have mentioned previously, it is possible (and maybe even likely) that Kojima will become a full-fledged member of NOAH’s roster when his NJPW contract expires.
Pro Wrestling NOAH N1 Victory Tournament Roster
El Hijo de Dr. Wagner Jr.
The match quality should be very high throughout the tournament that begins on August 11th. Greene is the most surprising including in the A Block, as he appeared to be slotted in the junior heavyweight division. One wonders if he is replacing Michael Elgin, who almost certainly would have been an N1 participant if he had not been removed from the July 16th GHC Tag Team Championship match. In the B Block, Jack Morris is a wildcard of sorts—the 28 year-old, five-year pro from Scotland comes highly regarded but has never been in this high profile of a position before.
TWO COUNT: G1 Climax 32 Gets Underway in Sapporo
G1 Climax 32 kicked off with a pair of shows in Sapporo that showcased the tournament’s new format to mixed results.
For the first time in G1 history, the tournament field boasts 28 men in a four-block format. As I discussed in-depth with Mike Sempervive on the most recent episode of the Adam & Mike Big Audio Nightmare podcast, this format creates a few differences in how the tournament is booked.
On the positive side, having four blocks theoretically allows for at least one surprise block winner, in that they don’t have to rely on each block winner to be a major draw to sell out the tournament’s final night. If you have Naito, Okada, and Ospreay as block winners, for example, you can have someone on the level of Taichi or the Great O-Khan win the other block without any concerns. Doing this would provide a significant bump for one of those wrestlers, while the other three can carry the drawing power on the semifinal night.
On the negative side, having only seven wrestlers per block means that you cannot tell as deep of stories throughout the tournament. Before, a wrestler could lose their first two or three matches and go on a winning streak to get into the final—now, one would think more than one loss early would eliminate a wrestler from contention. Also, while the number of matches overall has increased due to the larger field, the four-block format means that each wrestler will face less opponents than in recent years. For the best wrestlers in the tournament (like Okada, Zack Sabre, Jr., Tomohiro Ishii, Will Ospreay, etc.), this means less opportunities for high-end matches than before.
Against that backdrop, the tournament opened to nearly identical crowds of just under 3,000 fans (nearly 1,000 fans more than the last G1 shows there in 2020, but 4,000 less fans than the last pre-pandemic G1 show there in 2019), at Hokkaido Prefectural Sports Center.
The opening night was highlighted by Will Ospreay vs El Phantasmo, which will likely be the most athletic and viscerally exciting match of the block, if not the entire tournament. Much as in this year’s Best of the Super Junior Tournament, EL-P mostly left his trolling antics in the locker room here and had a tremendous match with Ospreay in the process. Ospreay won in one of the more creative and thrilling finishing sequences of the year, as EL-P countered the OsCutter into a backslide for a great nearfall. As Phantasmo argued with the referee about the count, Ospreay immediately knocked him out with a Hidden Blade elbow to the face for the win.
Kazuchika Okada and Jeff Cobb continued their series of great matches here, with Cobb looking particularly impressive here using much of Okada’s offense before falling to the Rainmaker. Cobb could still be considered a favorite to win the block, but the math dictates that he needs to win his five remaining matches and would need to Okada to lose two matches (since Okada has the direct tiebreaker over him). Aaron Henare defeated Hiroshi Tanahashi in a major upset to open the tournament, but this result may say more about Tanahashi’s slide down the pecking order of NJPW than it indicates major Henare push.
Two standout matches highlighted the following night, with Tomohiro Ishii and Taichi setting the early standard for match quality in this year’s tournament. Taichi has been a high-end wrestler for longer than most people either noticed or will admit to, and Ishii has always been the “Taichi-whisperer.” The near-knockout strikes from each early set the tone far better than the usual forearm exchange would have, and Ishii’s selling yet again elevated the drama as match moved to a finish. Ishii ran right into a sumo-stance forearm from Taichi and finally succumbed to the Black Mephisto.
The other match worth going out of your way to watch from July 17th was KENTA vs Zack Sabre, Jr., with the action and commentary playing heavily off of their time together in Pro Wrestling NOAH where KENTA was ZSJ’s senior. This was one of KENTA’s better matches during his New Japan run to date, with the finish coming via ZSJ submission after KENTA pulled him up from pins several times to deliver more punishment. The logic of KENTA being overconfident due to their history made sense, but in execution it came far too close to making ZSJ look like the inferior wrestler who got a fluke win.
The main event of night two was on the way to being a very-good-to-great match, but completely fell apart near the finish. It is not clear whether Juice Robinson suffered a concussion during a headbutt sequence or was simply exhausted from 20 minutes of hard action after a recent bout of appendicitis, but he appeared to lose his place and needed to be guided heavily by referee Red Shoes Unno and opponent Shingo Takagi to a finish that fell very flat.
In other action, Tom Lawlor had a strong start to his first proper New Japan tour—particularly in a short opening match with Young Lion Kosei Fujita on July 16th. In a sign of how different this format and schedule is, Lawlor will not have his tournament debut until the July 26th show at Korakuen Hall.
It is a slow upcoming week for tournament, with only one show during the work week before back to back shows in Ota Ward Gymnasium on the weekend.
Xebio Arena Sendai
G1 Climax - Block D: David Finlay vs. Yujiro Takahashi
G1 Climax - Block B: Tama Tonga vs. Chase Owens
G1 Climax - Block A: Bad Luck Fale vs. Lance Archer
G1 Climax - Block C: Hirooki Goto vs. Tetsuya Naito
NJPW, 23.07.2022 (NJPW World)
Ota City General Gymnasium
G1 Climax - Block C: Zack Sabre Jr. vs. Aaron Henare
G1 Climax - Block D: Shingo Takagi vs. YOSHI-HASHI
G1 Climax - Block A: Kazuchika Okada vs. Toru Yano
G1 Climax - Block B: Tomohiro Ishii vs. Jay White
NJPW, 24.07.2022 (NJPW World)
Ota City General Gymnasium
G1 Climax - Block D: El Phantasmo vs. Yujiro Takahashi
G1 Climax - Block B: SANADA vs. Taichi
G1 Climax - Block A: Jeff Cobb vs. Bad Luck Fale
G1 Climax - Block C: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Tetsuya Naito
THREE COUNT: Around the Rings of M-Pro, STARDOM, TJPW, All Japan, and more
Simply put, Fujita “Jr.” Hayato’s performance on July 1st at Korakuen Hall was the most remarkable thing I’ve seen in 35+ year of watching professional wrestling.
I’ll leave it to my friend Alan Counihan to tell Hayato’s full story in detail, but he was one of the best and most inspirational wrestlers in the world before he was diagnosed with cancer while already out of action due to a debilitating knee injury. He returned to the ring for one night only in 2019, and in 2021 announced that he would abandon his efforts to return if the situation did not improve soon.
Fast forward to May 10th of this year, when Hayato announced that he would return to active competition on Michinoku Pro’s July 1st Korakuen Hall show to challenge MUSASHI for the Tohoku International Junior Heavyweight Championship.
It would have been completely understandable if Hayato looked rusty or tentative, if his execution was lacking, or if his cardio was not up to par…but in the end, nothing could have been further from the truth. After four years away from regular competition, Hayato looked like the best striker in professional wrestling and went an almost conceivable 35 minutes of hard-hitting action before getting the win.
In writing these words, it is clear to me that they do not do justice to what Hayato did that night. He simply looked like the best wrestler in the world—in every way—in his first match back after a life-threatening illness. That doesn’t happen, yet it did.
The post-match scene, with M-Pro head Jinsei Shinzaki struggling to maintain his composure as he read the proclamation officially declaring Hayato as the new champion, was one of the most genuinely affecting moments in recent wrestling history. After, Hayato issued challenges to generational rival Kenoh as well as NJPW’s Hiromu Takahashi. Should either happen, they will be among the most anticipated matches of 2022 and beyond.
STARDOM’s July 9th show was another in their increasingly long line of high-end PPV events, with the double main event delivering and then some. For my money, however, the most exciting match on the show saw Momo Kohgo step up and deliver the best performance of her career in a losing effort against High Speed Champion AZM.
I could do an entire newsletter or podcast about how much I love this match. If AZM ever gets booked on a major AEW or NJPW U.S .show, she will have a 1995-96 Rey Misterio-level impact on American audiences. There is no one on her level anywhere in the world and fans in the U.S. have never seen anything like her.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more confident, skilled, dynamic wrestler at 19 than AZM. She is so creative, so self-assured, and ridiculously athletic and skilled. The pace she wrestles at, the precision, the almost absurd cardio no matter how high-speed it gets…the thing about wrestling AZM is…her pace is her pace. It’s blindingly fast and it’s not going to change for anyone. She can go GO, she knows it, and you have to two choices as her opponent, particularly in High Speed Title matches: keep up or get get left behind.
Enter, Momo Kohgo.
She came to STARDOM six months ago and it seemed like there was something there with her, definite potential, but she’s nowhere a finished product, and she hadn’t had a real standout performance yet.
So Kohgo gets this High Speed title match with AZM and she DELIVERS. Outside of one *minor* bobble in the opening sequence, Kohgo absolutely stayed with AZM for more than 10 minutes. Ridiculously fast pace, intricate sequences, counters, all of it. It was a star-making performance and the next few months will see just how far she can carry the momentum out of this match.
From a storytelling standpoint, nothing this year will match the Natsupoi vs Tam Nakano saga that ended with Poi turning on Giulia/Donna del Mondo to join Cosmic Angels. Part of what made this work so well is that Natsupoi is a much better fit with Kozuen than the harder-edged DDM, and her promo played on the idea that Natsupoi was almost more of a mascot for DDM than a member that really fit in.
The other thing that really stood out is just how great both Poi and Nakano are when “acting”—there are so many little mannerism and subtle facial expressions that draw you into what they are communicating, which is the exact opposite of the overacting we so often see in wrestling. Natsupoi’s move gives Cosmic Angels a true “1A” to Tam Nakano, and also sets the table for Poi to become the leader of the group should Nakano retire in the next few years.
Tokyo Joshi Pro Wrestling’s July 9th show was also noteworthy for several reasons, including crowd reactions at Ota Ward Gymnasium. This was CyberFight’s first major show with cheering allowed in several years, with many of the wrestlers visibly moved by hearing fans chant their names. It’s easy to forget that younger wrestlers like Arisu Endo, Moka Miyamoto, and others have never wrestled in front of a vocal audience before.
From an in-ring standpoint, Mei Suruga & Suzume vs. Arisu Endo & Riho stood out to me more than some of the more high-profile championship matches that received immediate praise. Suruga and Riho are in so many ways mirror images of each other as high-speed outsiders who can really write their own tickets in terms of where they work and who they wrestle, while Suzume and Endo are the future of the TJPW’s main event scene. Suruga and Suzume may form a long-term team that goes after the tag team titles, but it is desperately important that Suzume (and Endo shortly thereafter) are promptly moved into the painfully stale Princess of Princess (PoP) championship scene as soon as possible.
Suwama inexplicably defeated Jake Lee for the Triple Crown championship on AJPW’s July 14th event at Korakuen Hall. The match, particularly the closing stretch, resembled a poor imitation of the already-terrible House of Torture formula. I am a more of a fan of Suwama than most, but this reprise of his role in Voodoo Murders is as sad to watch as an aging rock band putting facepaint on to play a stadium show for thousands of senior citizens.
The only priority for All Japan right now should be getting someone else up to, or at least near the same level as Kento Miyahara. He is the only person that moves tickets as champion, yet they have not come even close to effectively booking someone into a similar spot. There is simply no argument for having Jake Lee beat Miyahara and then immediately lose the championship to Suwama—if there was no plan for a long-term reign for Lee, the right call would have been to have Yuma Aoyagi win the championship from Miyahara in May after his Champion Carnival victory.
While I wish it would not have taken place to Tetsuya Endo’s injury scuttling DDT’s summer plans, Kazusada Higuchi’s King of DDT Tournament and KO-D Championship win on July 3rd was long-overdue and well-deserved. Higuchi is one of the best wrestlers in Japan and has been for several years, effectively wrestling a big-man style that harkens back to the top heavyweights of years gone by. His tournament victory over Naomi Yoshimura was one of the best matches of 2022, and he deserves a long run as the promotion’s top champion.