Issue 22: Three Count Fall
NJPW Direction Post G1, STARDOM's 5 Star GP, NOAH's N1 Victory
ONE COUNT: NJPW Follows a Familiar Post G1 Climax Path
With G1 Climax 32 firmly in the rearview mirror, New Japan Pro-Wrestling is now on the road to Wrestle Kingdom 17.
While the block portion of this year’s G1 Climax did not live up to previous years’ action, the final two nights at the Budokan set the table for the rest of 2022 and beyond, also delivering two of the very best matches of this year.
The star of the 2022 edition of the G1 Climax (and really, the past month in professional wrestling in general when you include his RevPro and AEW matches) was Will Ospreay, by a significant margin. His tournament semifinal with Tetsuya Naito on August 17th would have a strong argument for overall match of the year, if not for the fact that his G1 Final match the following night with Kazuchika Okada absolutely blew it out of the water to be 2022’s clear MOTY to date.
As good as Ospreay is when watching on a small screen or on television, seeing him live is another thing entirely. Having just attended AEW Dynamite in Chicago as Ospreay was opposite Kenny Omega in a six-man tag team match, I was struck by this again. No matter who is on the card, no matter what promotion he appears in, Ospreay stands out by a significant margin from everyone else on the card. His athleticism, body control, timing, and selling of individual moves is several levels beyond the nearest competitor.
Given the post-match angle that was shot after Dynamite and the fact that Ospreay’s mini-AEW run is over for now, it seems nearly certain that Will Ospreay vs Kenny Omega will be one of the main events of Wrestle Kingdom 17. After allowing Jon Moxley vs Hiroshi Tanahashi to take place at Forbidden Door when it was likely earmarked for a major NJPW show instead, New Japan is “owed” something in their partnership and getting Ospreay vs Omega on their biggest show of the year would certainly fit the bill.
On the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship front, the path to Wrestle Kingdom is more predictable than in recent years. After Kazuchika Okada won G1 Climax 32 it was decided that he would not be defending the WK 17 main events rights certificate as in previous years—rather, one half of the January 4, 2023 main event is already set and Okada will wait on whoever the World Champion is.
This is a curious choice, as it largely puts Okada on ice for the last four months of the year. He is wrestling Jonah next month in a rematch of their memorable G1 battle, but with nothing on the line Okada’s inevitable win feels like even more of a foregone conclusion than it otherwise would have. Similarly, Jay White’s next defense is against Tama Tonga—while Tama performed well as a babyface in the G1 and has strong fan support, there is a zero percent chance that he will be main eventing Wrestle Kingdom against Kazuchika Okada.
The only potential wrinkle is if, somehow, Tetsuya Naito earns a World Championship shot sometime before Wrestle Kingdom and defeats White for the title, thus making an Okada vs Naito main event at the Tokyo Dome. This is a fairly unlikely scenario, though, as Okada winning the title back from White to cap off New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s 50th Anniversary year seems like the natural and predictable end to the story Gedo has been telling for the past year.
As logical as Gedo’s booking is when he is at his best, we have also reached the point where it is incredibly predictable. If you have followed his run closely, the patterns are very easy to pick up on. Predictability isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when you don’t have compelling storylines or new stories to tell, that predictability begins to breed indifference.
At this point, there are specific periods where NJPW is worth paying close attention to: Wrestle Kingdom, New Japan Cup, Best of the Super Juniors, and the G1 Climax. But that leaves long stretches of time where there just isn’t anything all that exciting going on. One could argue this has always been the case to a certain extent, but the major championship scenes have been interesting to follow at all points of the year. As I’ve written about before in detail, until we have new journeys to follow—most importantly, the returns of Shota Umino, Ren Narita, Yuya Uemura, and Yota Tsuji—New Japan is largely going to feel like it is running in place.
One thing that was noteworthy in this year’s G1 is that the fresh foreign faces were sorely needed, and we need more of them going forward. While Bullet Club continues to be more of the same nearly a decade into their existence, the performances of the TMDK and Team Filthy stables felt new and exciting. Jonah and Tom Lawlor in particular appear to have earned regular, featured status. Along with the ongoing development of the United Empire, these groups have shown that New Japan should not be as dependent on the Bullet Club/House of Torture western wrestling-parody style as they have become.
The most intriguing element of the remainder of NJPW’s 2022 is their growing corporate partnership with STARDOM. Whether it be the IWGP Women’s Championship, their upcoming appearance on New Japan’s NYC event on late October, or the joint event on November 20 in Ariake Arena, STARDOM’s presence on New Japan Pro-Wrestling shows will provide a jolt of electricity to those events and provide New Japan officials with a vivid, first-hand viewing of what a vibrant, growing wrestling promotion looks like in 2022.
TWO COUNT: 5 Star Grand Prix Continues STARDOM’s Explosive Pandemic Era Success
Stardom continues to ride a wave of momentum unseen by any other promotion in this pandemic era, with two Korakuen Hall sellouts and strong crowds as the 5 Star GP crisscrosses the country.
The August 27th 5 Star GP show drew 1,511 fans at Korakuen, the second time in less than a month that they packed the legendary building for the biggest single-promotion crowds since the pandemic began more than two and a half years ago. Similarly, the August 28th tournament show in Hamamatsu saw STARDOM draw the largest crowd of any promotion in that building since New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s G1 Climax show there in October 2020.
From an in-ring standpoint, the 5 Star GP continues to be one of 2022’s highlights across the wrestling landscape, proving that 15 minutes (or less) is more than enough time to have compelling, stylistically-diverse, satisfying matches. All of the usual suspects have had great performances, with less-heralded wrestlers like Mina Shirakawa, Momo Kohgo, and Hanan putting in some of the strongest performances of their STARDOM careers to date.
Shirakawa’s occasionally over-the-top character as a member of Cosmic Angels can sometimes overshadow the considerable improvement she has shown over the past year—that improvement has been on display in tournament matches against Momo Watanabe (July 31st) and Hazuki (August 13th). Her ring speed, execution, and fire have quietly made her one of the most effective babyface wrestlers in Japan.
Momo Kohgo is still finding her way, but her improvement has really accelerated since her breakout High Speed Title match performance against AZM on July 9th. She is 0-6 so far in this year’s 5 Star GP, but has had strong performances against the likes of AZM in a non-title rematch on August 13th and with Utami Hayashishita the following night. Much like with Natsupoi and MIRAI before her, she entered STARDOM with relatively little initial fanfare but is on track to become a significant star for the company as her athleticism and execution catches up with charisma and natural babyface sympathetic qualities.
Hanan is going to be an ace-level wrestler in STARDOM. It’s not a secret that she has long been slotted for a main event-level spot as she goes through the long process of wrestling as in her early teens and developing into a top star as she approaches 20 years old—much like Starlight Kid and AZM before her. 2022 has seen Hanan expand her moveset and deliver the strongest performances of her career, with consistency being the final piece of the puzzle needed to become a major star. Between her recent Future title matches against Tomoka Inaba and Aoi, as well as her 5 Star GP run, Hanan is well on her way.
On Tomoka Inaba—her long-assumed transition from her Just Tap Out (JTO) homebase to joining STARDOM has begun, as she made the save for Syuri’s God’s Eye stable at the August 26th NEW BLOOD 4 event and was invited into the group. It is a perfect fit for Inaba and her new stable, as Syuri is the perfect wrestler for Inaba to study under and team with (along with Ami Sourei and MIRAI). Like MAIKA before her, Inaba is another example of the world-class training wrestlers are getting in JTO from TAKA Michinoku and company. Inaba, MAIKA, Hayato Tamura, and KANON have all been placed in major promotions in a relatively short period of time, with young giant Ren Ayabe likely to soon follow in their footsteps.
If you are picking and choosing non-PPV 5 Star GP matches to watch, I have two recommendations in particular.
AZM vs Himeka from August 14th is, quite simply, a perfect 8-minute professional wrestling match. It is the ideal “world class high speed wrestler vs tall power wrestler” dynamic and they execute at the highest possible level. If I was sending two wrestlers to a NJPW USA or AEW show, I would be sending AZM and Himeka and just tell them, “do the exact same match you did on August 14th and it will blow people’s minds.” This match was that good.
Starlight Kid vs Giulia from August 27th at Korakuen Hall is, for my money, the best match to date in this year’s 5 Star GP and a legitimate match of the year contender. At only 10 minutes, they maximized every possible second and it felt like a real event seeing the two of them square off in a singles match for the first time since last year’s 5 Star GP. Giulia is wrestling at her highest level since returning from a serious neck injury late last year, and SLK continues to be the most charismatic wrestler in all of Japan. This was a hate-filled brawl with more emotion and fire than anything you’ll see in any other promotion. As great as this was, a possible World of Stardom Championship match between them after Giulia wins that title has the potential to be even better.
The 5 Star GP continues throughout September, leading into the final night on October 1st.
9.3.2022: Takamatsu City General Gymnasium 2nd Stadium
9.4.2022: Hiroshima Industrial East Exhibition Hall
9.11.2022: Yokohama Budokan
9.12.2022: Tokyo Korakuen Hall
9.17.2022: Osaka Edion Arena #2
9.18.2022: Osaka Edion Arena #2
9.19.2022: Nagoya International Conference Hall
9.23.2022: Tokyo Korakuen Hall
9.24.2022: Belle Salle Takadanobaba
10.1.2022: Musashino Forest Sports Plaza
THREE COUNT: N1 Victory Tournament a Thrilling, Refreshing Contrast to G1 Climax
If you’re looking for a change of pace from the interference/weapon/ref-bump laden tournaments in New Japan Pro Wrestling, the N1 Victory tournament may be for you.
Pro Wrestling NOAH has often been criticized in this newsletter, and rightfully. Their reliance on older wrestlers as top stars, at the expense of younger wrestlers who should be being built as the foundation of the promotion, has been well-documented. None of those aging stars—not even Keiji Mutoh—have brought NOAH back to any semblance of prominence.
That said, the format and structure of the actual in-ring action in Pro Wrestling NOAH’s heavyweight division is refreshing in its simplicity—two wrestlers are going to have a fight and one will win (or there will be a time limit draw). No wrenches, no ref bumps, no outside interference. Just pro wrestling an intense, dramatic competition.
This approach shouldn’t feel revolutionary in Japanese professional wrestling, but it almost does in this era of men’s promotions. New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s success leaning into a more western-style presentation of wrestling-as-morality-play is well-documented, as is their descent into borderline self-parody with the proliferation of acts that rely on these tropes in recent years. Worse yet, other promotions see that and can’t help themselves from using similar groups to even worse effect—the return of Voodoo Murders to the main event championship scene of All Japan Pro-Wrestling may be the most egregious of these examples.
For al of these reasons, Pro Wrestling NOAH’s 2022 N1 Victory tournament has been a desperately-needed breath of fresh air. We have seen a variety of styles, match lengths, and finishes that don’t always feel like a simple race to hitting a finisher. Everyone who would be expected to deliver has, and several have exceeded expectations.
The August 19th show at Korakuen Hall is the best example of this, punctuated by a remarkable match between Hideki Suzuki and Kenoh that belongs in the top 10 of any serious MOTY lists. From the hot start with Kenoh attacking Suzuki at the opening bell and nearly finishing him in the opening minute, to the middle portion of high-end mat work, to the dramatic striking struggle that ended as the 30-minute time limit, this was unlike any other match this year and is required viewing.
The only negative has been another ugly incident involving Katsuhiko Nakajima, just a few months after his legitimate, unplanned, and very much unwelcome knockout of Tetsuya Endo at the CyberFight Festival event. On August 28th, Nakajima legitimately broke Kinya Okada’s jaw with a penalty kick directly to the face. On a personal level, Nakajima is and has been one of my favorite wrestlers since he debuted as a teenager many years ago. Personal feelings aside, though, I don’t know how you book Nakajima against any top wrestlers going forward if you are NOAH. It’s too much of a risk at this point, which is extremely frustrating given how great of a wrestler he is.
The September 3rd N1 Victory tournament final is absolutely fascinating on paper. Hideki Suzuki has had a fantastic tournament after spending the past two years on ice as a trainer in WWE’s developmental system. In his NOAH run across several years, Suzuki has never been been directly pinned by a non-shooter—his only direct losses have come at the hands of Kazayuki Fujita and Masakatsu Funaki. He has, however, gone to a time limit draw with other top stars that would otherwise be expected to defeat him.
Kaito Kiyomiya, on the other hand, started the tournament with multiple losses before going on an undefeated run culminating in a victory over Satoshi Kojima to secure his spot in the final.
There is no argument to be had—the only correct decision for this time and place in Kiyomiya’s career is for him to defeat Suzuki to win the N1, defeat Kenoh to win the GHC Heavyweight Championship, and go on to have an Okada-level title run. He is the present and the future, and the time is now to go all in on him and see if it can take NOAH any than where they have been for the past several years.
That’s where the intrigue comes in, though. Suzuki has literally never lost to someone like Kiyomiya in NOAH—to the point that you wonder if such results are baked in as a requirement to having Suzuki in the promotion. If Suzuki defeats Kiyomiya here, it feels like all the talk of Kendo Kashin wanting to push younger wrestlers is just that…only talk.
The full card for the final night of the tournament, which also features Great O-Khan teaming with the Great Muta, is as follows (courtesy of purolove.com).
NOAH "N-1 VICTORY 2022", 9.3.2022 (Wrestle Universe)
Osaka Edion Arena
1. Super Crazy vs. Hajime Ohara
2. Jack Morris & Daiki Inaba vs. Anthony Greene & Stallion Rogers
3. HAYATA, Yuya Susumu & Kai Fujimura vs. Atsushi Kotoge, YO-HEY & Seiki Yoshioka
4. Masakatsu Funaki, Katsuhiko Nakajima & Shuji Kondo vs. Masa Kitamiya, Mohammed Yone & Alejandro
5. Takashi Sugiura & Satoshi Kojima vs. Shuhei Taniguchi & Yoshiki Inamura
6. Dragon Bane vs. Alpha Wolf
7. Naomichi Marufuji, Go Shiozaki, Masato Tanaka & Masaaki Mochizuki vs. Kazuyuki Fujita, Kendo Kashin, Hijo de Dr. Wagner Jr. & Timothy Thatcher
8. GHC Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Title: Yoshinari Ogawa & Chris Ridgeway (c) vs. Eita & Kotaro Suzuki
9. Kenoh, Manabu Soya & Tadasuke vs. Great Muta, Great-O-Khan & NOSAWA Rongai
10. N-1 Victory - Final: Hideki Suzuki vs. Kaito Kiyomiya