Issue #3: Three Count Fall
AJPW's Triple Crown finds stability, GLEAT's G-REX begins, and a trip around the rings of Stardom, NOAH, and NJPW
ONE COUNT: All Japan Seeks Triple Crown Stability With a Familiar Face
In Issue #2, I wrote of the challenges New Japan Pro Wrestling has faced with their newly-minted IWGP World Heavyweight Championship; with apologies to that star-crossed belt, no championship may be more cursed in recent months than All Japan Pro Wrestling’s Triple Crown Championship.
While AJPW is clearly and quite obviously a shell of its former self, the promotion still carries legitimate historical cache in the form of their top championship, the Triple Crown. Largely on the back of Kento Miyahara, the Triple Crown continues to be perceived as one of the most significant championships in Japan even as the promotion’s visibility has declined.
Along with Suwama, Miyahara has carried on a standard of championship matches that have been at or near the level of heavyweight title matches we’ve seen in NJPW and Pro Wrestling NOAH in recent years. Miyahara’s most recent reign was ended in March 2020 by Suwama in the last major pro wrestling match in Japan to take place without attendance restrictions and with full-throated crowd responses.
Since then, it’s been a struggle for AJPW and the Triple Crown. While I personally enjoyed Suwama’s reign (I continue to maintain that he is one of the most underrated main event heavyweight wrestkers of this era in Japan), it felt like a bit of a step backward for a company that desperately needed to establish a “1A”-level counterpart to Miyahara. To be fair, though, Naoya Nomura was by far the best candidate for that spot and he had just sustained a neck injury that would keep him on the shelf for the better part of the next two years.
Fast forward more than a year later—Suwama was still the champion and Jake Lee, having recently turned heel and with momentum after finally defeating Miyahara in an empty arena Champion Carnival final, was set to challenge Suwama and ostensibly win the Triple Crown at Sumo hall in June. Fate intervened, though, with Suwama contracting COVID-19 and being forced to vacate the championship. Lee went on to defeat both Miyahara and Yuma Aoyagi in a unique “triangle” series of matches between the three men that was derived from the “tomoesen” concept in sumo.
Even though he was denied his signature win over Suwama to win his first Triple Crown, Lee went on to defeat Suwama and Shotaro Ashino in defenses before going the full 60 minutes with Kento Miyohara. Next on the docket was a title defense again Big Japan’s Abdullah Kobayashi, but that match never occurred.
Jake Lee, who won the title himself in a decision match after it was vacated, would be forced to vacate the championship himself on Dec. 28, 2021 after suffering a fractured orbital bone and fractured nasal bone in a match days earlier against Ryuki Honda.
AJPW announced a four-man, one-night Triple Crown tournament for Jan. 23, 2022…and then had to cancel several shows when a COVID outbreak struck. Thankfully, all involved were recovered in time for the tournament but it was another reminder of how cursed things seem to be for All Japan these days.
With Honda having joined the Total Eclipse stable as a way to fill the void during Lee’s absence, he was inserted into the tournament against Ashino in the first round while Suwama and Miyahara would reprise their rivalry in the other match.
Honda vs Ashino is one of those tricky matches that, in a vaccuum, probably seemed like it should have had a different result. In this scenario, though, Honda winning was the right call. Ashino absolutely will win the Triple Crown in the next few years but it will not be in a makeshift scenario like this. Having finally signed full-time with AJPW this year and in the middle of a tag team title reign with Suwama, they are telling a very specific story that will likely end with Ashino in the main event spot that Suwama has held for so long.
In a perfect world, Honda’s push to the title scene would’ve waited another year. He’s talented and has shown great improvement in recent months after joining AJPW from the now-defunct Wrestle-1, but there are still moments where he is clearly thinking his way through matches rather than reacting and fully inhabiting the character that he is in the process of developing. That said, he had a strong performance here and his victory over Ashino figures to set up a tag team title challenge for Honda and a Total Eclipse partner TBD.
Suwama and Miyahara, meanwhile, was exactly what you would expect. They have great chemistry together and always deliver in these spots—this match was more of a sprint and basically was nine minutes of a classic Suwama-Miyahara finishing stretch. Miyahara got win with a flash pin out a Suwama backdrop suplex hold and the final was set.
For a 21 year old wrestler with only three years experience, Honda had an admirable effort here in the main event. The heel turn is something that is a detriment right now, though, in the sense that his mannerism feel very forced and he comes across like a nice kid trying in vain to look mean and tough. The early portions of the match with Honda in control meandered and weren’t at a Triple Crown level.
However, Honda really shined when the match kicked into a higher gear that was all about both men throwing bombs and trying to put each down. Miyahara is a tremendous wrestler who has a very effective championship match formula, and Honda both worked within this structure and added enough wrinkles to it that it didn’t feel like Miyahara versus a generic “create-a-wrestler.” After a great back-and-forth closing stretch, Miyahara was victorious with the same move that carried him through so many Triple Crown matches in the past—the Shutdown Suplex Hold.
In the end, Miyahara was the only decision to make here. He has already had his signature run with the championship. While I’m certain there was a planned run in his future, having him get this impromptu reign doesn’t interrupt or change any of the current plans AJPW may have. You’d have to think Lee will regain the Triple Crown some time soon upon his return, but in the meantime Miyahara is the perfect choice to bring stability to the championship and the company.
TWO COUNT: GLEAT’s G-REX Tournament Gets Underway in Promising Fashion
As covered in Issue #1, GLEAT was one of the relatively few positive stories in an otherwise down year for Japanese wrestling during a pandemic ravaged 2021. With an intriguing split style strategy and a slew of interesting acquisitions, the G-Pro Wrestling side in particular built momentum heading into 2022.
With a solid base established, GLEAT announced the G-REX Tournament to crown the first ever singles champion in the promotion. While it was to be contested under regular pro wrestling (rather than UWF) rules, competitors from both sides of the promotion were included in the single elimination brackets, with four wrestlers (Soma Watanabe, T-Hawk, CIMA, and Hayato Tamura) receiving a bye to the second round.
The tournament got underway on Jan. 26 at Shinjuku Face with an intra-STRONGHEARTS battle between El Lindaman and Issei Onnitsuka, possibly the two quickest wrestlers in the tournament. Lindaman continues to be one of the most unique and charismatic wrestlers in the world (it will be an absolute crime if we don’t see him against the likes of El Desperado and Hiromu Takahashi in this year’s Best of the Super Junior tournament), while Onnitsuka showed rapid improvement in the second half of 2021. Onnitsuka is fascinating to watch because, stylistically, he is almost a perfect blend of T-Hawk, Lindaman, and CIMA—he has legitimate star potential depending on where his career takes him. He’s that good.
This was an action-packed 12 minutes that saw Lindaman get the win with a lightning-fast snap German Suplex Hold to move on to the second round, where he will take on Watanabe on Feb. 6th in what should be another high-speed match that he is favored to win.
Minoru Tanaka and Daijiro Matsui’s first round match was completely different, again showcasing GLEAT’s stylistic diversity. While UWF rules were not in effect, this was a UWF-esque battle in terms of the grappling and striking we saw. Matsui dominated the ground game and came close to submitting Tanaka several times, but Minoru was able to reverse a submission attempt into a Labryrinth-style crufcifx pinning combination for the win. His second round opponent will be T-Hawk, who figures to be one of the tournament favorites, on Feb. 11.
Next up in first round action was another strong match, Yu Iizuka vs Kaz Hayashi. I wrote in Issue #1 about how important it is for wrestlers like Hayashi, Tanaka, and CIMA to not just run roughshod over the top young stars like Onnitsuka, Iizuka, and Takanori Ito. Here, Hayashi followed CIMA’s lead (CIMA lost clean to Onnitsuka last year) and lost in convincing fashion to Iizuka in just under 11 minutes. Iizuka should be the ace of the promotion by this time next year and he needs victories like this to get him there.
This wasn’t presented as a fluke win, either: Iizuka controlled most of the match, particular in the grappling portions of the action. Highlights included the usual variety of impressive kicks and a Code Red by Iizuka, before finishing off Hayashi via submission with a modified cross arm-breaker. Iizuka will go on to face Hayato Tamura in the second round on February 11th.
The final first round match and main event of the show was, once again, different from anything else on the show. Onnitsuka vs Lindaman was fast-paced and silky smooth; Matsui vs Tanaka was a grappling match; Iizuka vs Hayashi was a combination of the previous two. Ryuichi Kawakami vs Takanori Ito, meanwhile, was an absolute war.
When I watch a hard-hitting, physical battle like Kawakami vs Ito, I’m not looking for the same things as in a match like Lindaman vs Onnistuka. There, smooth and crisp execution is what takes it to another level. Here, a bit of ruggedness and borderline uncooperativeness can elevate the match to another tier…and that’s exactly what we got in the main event.
Beyond being a great match in its own right, this is one of those experiences that will make Ito a better wrestler in the long run. Kawakami is a very assertive wrestler—completely professional of course, but he will absolutely gobble you up with his offense if you let him. That happened several times early in this match, but by the end Ito was not only firing back but taking control during any lulls in the action. He survived several lariats, a Splash Mountain, and a sitout Death Valley Driver before turning the tide with a nasty headbutt and a series of German Suplexes. Following a German Suplex that didn’t quite hold, Ito hit one more to get a massive win over one of the top stars in the promotion. He will face CIMA in the second round on Feb. 6th.
As I have previously written about here, it was imperative that Ito and Iizuka in particular made it out of the first round. They are the future of the promotion and GLEAT can’t afford to waste time getting them to those top spots. The booking of both men has been very effective, as they have struggled enough to gain sympathy from the fans but have had enough significant wins (including each scoring their biggest wins in the promotion on this show) to be seen as real threats. Even if neither wins the tournament, their positioning through the first round of the G-REX is an encouraging sign for GLEAT’s immediate and long-term future.
THREE COUNT: Around the Rings—Stardom, NOAH, NJPW
As Stardom heads into the Jan. 29th event in Nagoya (this show will have happened by the time many of you have read this, look for a full report in next week’s issue), the road to NAGOYA SUPREME FIGHT 2022 has been filled with several great matches and noteworthy developments on smaller shows,
The show on Jan. 16th was a perfect example of what I have written about previously—a small Stardom show in a small town, with multiple great matches. MIRAI’s first Stardom singles match against Unagi Sayaka was a fantastic showcase of her strengths, taking Unagi to a time limit draw and giving her the best match of her Stardom career in the process. MIRAI’s base fundamentals are so strong and her in-ring focus is so different from the rest of the roster—the growth she’s already shown here as compared to her TJPW days is a strong sign that she is not close to her ceiling yet.
The main event of the Jan. 16th show was one of those small show Stardom matches that would have been just as at home on one of their major PPV events. Maika, (teaming with Himeka) scored the direct pinfall victory over Wonder of Stardom Champion Saya Kamitani (teaming with Utami Hayashishita) with the Michinoku Driver II. This would normally put Himeka in line for a title shot, but her direct pinfall loss to Kamitani in a tag team match the following weekend may negate that.
The Jan. 23rd show was notable for the debut Momo Kohgo, the former ActWres wrestler who recently joined Stardom. After a solid debut against Unagi, Kohgo declined to join Cosmic Angels and hinted at a different idea. She would emerge later in the show and appeal to Mayu Iwatani, Koguma, and Hazuki to join STARS. This was very well-done, as Kohgo has such an innate likeability and fits so well alongside Iwatani. Hazuki was the only STARS member who was skeptical, so naturally Iwatani charged her with mentoring Kohgo. The show also featured a tremendous intra-DDM main event that hinted at just how physically intense and potentially great the Syuri-MIRAI World of Stardom Championship match will be.
On the Pro Wrestling NOAH front…I will be completely honest and say that I am still trying to sort out my feelings on their Jan. 23rd show in Osaka. It was a typically bizarre show from the Nosawa-booked NOAH—how often do you see the open match go 20 minutes and the main event not even make it to the four-minute mark?
The Haoh vs Nioh opener is definitely worth going out of your way to watch, as they beat the hell out of each other in their first singles match since Haoh left KONGO to join forces with Daisuke Harada. Nioh’s chest and upper neck were an absolute mess by the end of the match, with Haoh’s open hand slaps to the face being particualrly noteworthy and devastating.
The main event, meanwhile, between Kenoh and Masakatsu Funaki was very good for the very brief time it lasted. As much as I want to roll my eyes at Kenoh yet again losing the GHC National Championship and being steamrolled in the process (see his March 21, 2021 match with Kazayuki Fujita for further details), this one didn’t bother me as much as it probably should have.
While this isn’t necessarily the match I would’ve done it in or the result I would have preferred to see, I have long advocated for doing “shock” quick finishes in title matches/main events on occasion. It should not be done regularly because you don’t want to condition the fans that they aren’t going to get their money’s worth, but it needs to be done just often enough to keep them from thinking that the first 15 minute of a match are just time-padding that can’t result in a finish.
For me at least, the difference between Funaki and Keiji Muto is twofold—Funaki can still put on something reasonable close to a prime Funaki match, and he appears to be willing to “play ball” far more than Muto is.
Funaki lost in convincing fashion to Kenoh last year in a GHC National title match, not to mention losses to Katsuhiko Nakajima and Takashi Sugiura in 2021. And he dropped a direct fall to Masaaki Mochizuki on NOAH’s most recent show to set up his first title defense. While Funaki still is largely protected, it is done so in a way that he feels like an integrated part of the roster rather than being above it all.
The post-match scene with Funaki asking to join KONGO was very well done, with the rest of the group’s members showing varying levels of enthusiasm about the move. Nakajima’s skeptical eye hints at potential trouble brewing in storyline, as his partnership in KONGO has always seemed more like a marriage of convenience than anything else.
There isn’t much to report on the NJPW front, as shows were canceled until Feb. 6th out of a COVID-related abundance of caution. The first two shows of the Golden Series on Jan. 20th/21st were not particularly memorable. The highlights were the matches Ryohei Oiwa had with Great O-Khan and Hiromu Takahashi, respectively. That isn’t necessarily a good thing. Saying that a Young Lion had the best matches on a card is roughly equivalent to an NHL coach saying their 4th line players were their best in a particular game—it’s factually accurate, but it says more about the rest of the players (or the show, in this case) than it does about them.
If you haven’t yet checked it out, do yourself a favor and start watching the LION’S ROAR documentary series on NJPW World. I will write much more about it when the series concludes, but it is a fascinating look at maybe the least-known part of the NJPW system—the New Zealand/Fale Dojo. The filmmaking style is very quiet and understated, but that adds to how interesting the show is. It’s fascinating to learn about several of that Dojo’s trainees who graduated to New Japan’s dojo in Japan and failed to stick, and what they are doing to try to work their way back to Japan via the NZ Dojo amid the challenges of a global pandemic