Issue #5: Three Count Fall
NOAH's 3 Days at Korakuen, NJPW in Sendai and Beyond, and a look around the rings of GLEAT, OZ Academy, Stardom, and AJPW
ONE COUNT: Go Shiozaki’s Journey Continues as Keiji Muto’s Ends (For Now)
In the shadow of a press conference announcing the vacating of the GHC Tag Team Championships due to Keiji Muto’s hip injury, Pro Wrestling NOAH took to Korakuen Hall for three packed and newsworthy shows.
From a broadcast presentation these shows were unlike anything we’ve seen for wrestling at Korakuen. The events, streamed live on ABEMA (Feb. 9th) and Wrestle Universe (Feb 10th and 11th), featured multiple cinematic ringside cameras and a unique overhead camera shot. The results were mixed, with the cinematic cameras seemingly shooting at different framerates and sometimes going out of focus. The overhead camera, however, was a great addition that provided an insightful view of grappling/submission wrestling sequences, along with a fantastic view of Naomichi Marufuji coast-to-coast drop kick on the Feb. 10th show.
While there were several championship matches scattered across the events, the overarching theme was Go Shiozaki’s continued “Road to GHC.” Beginning last month with a brutally intense match with (and loss to) Takashi Sugiura in the same building, Shiozaki’s path took him to matches with Masato Tanaka, Naomichi Marufuji, and Kenoh here at Korakuen.
NOAH seems to be telling the same “YOH can’t buy a victory and it’s slowly driving him mad” story that NJPW did earlier this year, with the key difference that we are getting a Wrestler of the Year-level run of matches from Shiozaki in the process. Given how much time he missed last year after double shoulder surgery, it’s legitimately remarkable that Shiozaki has been able to already have a half-dozen high-end G1 (or N1, in this case) level matches in the first six months of 2022.
The story that began in the Sugiura match several weeks ago continued here with Shiozaki absorbing an incredible amount of punishment in each match, mounting a valiant comeback, but falling in the end to a brutal onslaught to each of his opponents—with each match having a progressively more beaten-down Shiozaki lose in the end. NOAH’s booking can be unconventional to say the least, but it’s hard to see how this doesn’t lead to Shiozaki finally getting a breakthrough victory and going on a winning streak that takes him back to the GHC Heavyweight Championship.
All three of Shiozaki’s matches this week are well-worth watching, but his match with Marufuji was particularly remarkable. It has almost become cliche to talk about how hard both men throw their chops, but the level of violence here has to be seen (and heard) to be believed. The evidence was left in the form of Shiozaki’s completely tenderized chest and the marks on Marufuji’s neck. It should also be noted that Marufuji is wrestling at the highest level he has in years. While the multiple decades of battles have taken their toll and he will never be quite the athletically-spectcular wrestler he was in his prime, he has gotten himself into incredible shape and it wrestling with a speed and crispness that has been all but absent for past three or four years.
Another early-year Wrestler of the Year contender, Daisuke Harada, continued his very busy beginning of 2022 with a great GHC Junior Heavyweight Championship defense against Tadasuke on Feb 9th. The key to this match was that it was basically all finishing stretch, going just under 12 minutes and never letting up once in its fast pace. There was no feeling out process at all, which was a welcome change to the meandering pace we sometimes see in major junior heavyweight singles matches in Japan and throughout the world. Harada eventually got the win with the electric chair suplex, but the highlight of the match was the slingshot German suplex that he hit just prior to the finish.
The other championship match of this Korakuen run was for the GHC National Title, as Maskatsu Funaki successfully retained in his first defense against Masaaki Mochizuki. This was mostly a grappling and striking battle as expected, and the nine minutes we got of it were very good. While not quite as short as Funaki’s win over Kenoh, the unpredictability of championship matches having the potential of being shorter like this is one of the most significant strengths of NOAH’s booking right now. Funaki’s reign will be interesting to watch, as it seemed pretty clear that the original plan was for Muto to eventually defeat Funaki for the title.
On Keiji Muto: while the news of his hip injury is obviously not good and we all wish him a speedy recovery, it highlights the dangers of investing so much in a near-60-year-old wrestler whose body has more hard miles on it (including a double knee replacement) than any other active wrestler in the world. While I have serious doubts as to whether Muto would have ever lost to Kaito Kiyomiya even if he didn’t get injured, a serious injury like this calls into question his ability to singles matches of any kind in the future if and when he does return.
For all the talk of Muto’s presence leading to a resurgence of Pro Wrestling NOAH, the facts behind that talk are mostly imaginary. His main event run did not pop attendance outside of his title victory over Go Shiozaki, major show attendance (see the this year’s Budokan drop) was down year-over-year, and no one under the age of 40 received the benefit of defeating him in any significant match. Thankfully, Katsuhiko Nakajima was spared from being involved on the losing end of this Muto run in any way—the same unfortunately cannot be said of other main eventers Kiyomiya, Kenoh, Shiozaki, and Masa Kitamiya.
The next major show for Pro Wrestling NOAH takes place on Feb. 23rd in Nagoya, headlined by Katsuhiko Nakajima vs Kazuyuki Fujita for the GHC Heavyweight Championship.
TWO COUNT: NJPW’s Golden Series Gets Back Underway in Sendai with the Same Old Tropes
New Japan Pro Wrestling returned to action this week following a brief COVID-related hiatus, but anyone hoping for a change from the tired pattern of recent NJPW shows and tours would be disappointed.
The most significant show this week took place on Feb. 11th in Sendai’s beautiful new Xebio Arena, with minor card changes as Taiji Ishimori and Yoshi-Hashi remaining absent due to COVID and Jeff Cobb missing the show with a lingering leg injury.
While the main event was the only championship match on the card, the semi-main event highlighted so many of the things that are wrong with main roster NJPW right now. SHO vs YOH continued their long-running feud here, and anyone with the faintest semblance of a pulse could see exactly where this match was going.
Whether it be singles matches with SHO or EVIL, or tag team matches encompassing the House of Torture as a whole, they have become the most predictably unwatchable match/act/segment in all of pro wrestling. No matter how long the match goes, you know that there is a 0.0 percent chance of a finish happening until some variation of ref bump/interference/weapon shot happens…and then from there, you will get the most convoluted, impossible to suspend disbelief series of pratfalls and referee incompetence leading to a tainted finish of some kind.
In other words, imagine the most unsatisfying War Games match possible—20 minutes of wrestling with no chance of a finish, and then the worst finish possible. Instead of “The Match Beyond,” it’s “The Match Beyond…Awful.”
Needless to say, that’s exactly what we got here with SHO vs YOH. We had 20 minutes of mostly very good wrestling that fell completely flat once again because it was clear no one would actually win before the interference happened. And happen, it did—a ref bump, a teased wrench shot by YOH, a run-in by Dick Togo/EVIL/Yujiro/, a run-in by Tomohiro Ishii/Goto, a wrench shot by SHO that was caught by the referee just before the three count, and a belt shot by EVIL behind the referee’s back, all leading to SHO hitting the Shock Arrow on YOH for the win. And yet again, all of this happening in a no-crowd-noise environment.
I try to stay as even-handed as possible in this newsletter and on the Adam & Mike BIG Audio Nightmare podcast, but I genuinely do not understand how anyone could enjoy this presentation of wrestling. If it wasn’t for doing this newsletter and the podcast, I can say with 100 percent certainty that I would simply skip every House of Torture match going forward. Instead, I’ll be watching EVIL vs Ishii in a NEVER Openweight Title Lumberjack Death Match this Sunday…so you don’t have to.
The main event of Sendai’s show was devoid of the mind-numbing machinations of the semi-main event and featured strong action, but didn’t reach the heights of other recent championship matches in the promotion.
While Master Wato picked up a win over El Desperado on the Wrestle Kingdom Night 2 preshow and is continually talked up on commentary as being greatly improved, in reality he is the same old Master Wato—a guy with some potential who still has pretty terrible in-ring instincts and can’t execute at the level that his wrestling style demands.
It’s extraordinarily frustrating because Hirai Kawato looked to be a can’t-miss Young Lion before he left for Mexico, but he had a disastrous excursion filled with long stretches of injury and mostly underwhelming performances. His return to NJPW as the Master Wato was a terrible fit, and he hasn’t gotten much more comfortable in the role even as the company has dialed back the more outlandish aspects of Wato’s look and character.
El Desperado, on the other hand, is one of the most compelling wrestlers in NJPW and remains one of the best reasons to still follow the company on a regular basis through the malaise they are currently in. Here, Desperado led Wato through a match that was not at the level of his other title matches over the past few years but was far above the level of a normal Wato match.
As mentioned earlier, Wato just doesn’t have the requisite level of precision in his execution that the fast-paced, back-and-forth style of his matches needs to reach a level beyond merely “good.” On any given night his kicks are inconsistent, his body control on his high-flying is all over the place, and he often loses his place in more intricate spots.
While this wasn’t a disastrous performance for Wato in a vacuum, it was a performance full of all the aforementioned flaws—and one that showed he still is not ready for a featured spot in the junior heavyweight division. I’ve been more patient than most in waiting on his development, but I’m not really sure what could change for him right now short of a second excursion to completely reset his confidence and rebuild him as a wrestler. And we know that a second excursion will not be coming.
The Golden Series thankfully kicks into higher gear on Feb. 19th and 20th. While Okada vs Naito and Tanahashi vs SANADA are not exactly fresh matches, they are almost guaranteed to deliver at a high level as NJPW heads into New Japan Cup season in March.
THREE COUNT: Around the Rings of New Japan Strong, GLEAT, OZ Academy, and Stardom
Things aren’t all bleak for NJPW from an in-ring perspective, as New Japan STRONG continues to deliver must-see matches that are nearly completely devoid of the company’s worst booking tendencies.
The Feb. 5th episode featured two great matches—most notably, Yuya Uemura’s performance against Brody King in the TV show opener. Uemura continued his remarkable excursion, showing the same poise, charisma, and timing that has marked his appearances on STRONG and in West Coast Pro, Bloodsport, and elsewhere.
Uemura is the most natural babyface in wrestling, yet also seems completely comfortable when in control of matches—the latter being a skill that Hiroshi Tanahashi, for example, didn’t master until several years into his main roster New Japan run.
Yuya Uemura is, in many ways, the culmination of NJPW’s entire 50 year existence distilled into one professional wrestler—and the scary thing is that he’s just getting started and shows marked improvement each time out. All of this was on full display here against Brody King, who is absolutely tailor-made to be the next wrestler in the Giant Bernard-Vader-Scott Norton mold for NJPW. It’s a shame that King’s role in AEW will likely prevent him taking that mantle in New Japan, but matches like this make clear his value to the company regardless.
The main event is also very much worth watching, as Clark Connors got the climactic victory in his long-running feud with former tag team partner TJP. It will be interesting to see the direction for Connors and the rest of the LA Dojo crew as 2022 continues to unfold. A trip to Japan sadly seems unlikely in the near future given the prevalence of the Omicron variant and related restrictions there as of now, but one wonder if the rumored NJPW STRONG Tag Team Titles could be a destination for Connors and Karl Fredericks.
In GLEAT, meanwhile, the second round of the G-REX Tournment kicked off on Feb. 6th in Osaka (the show can be viewed for free on GLEAT’s YouTube Channel). The promotion’s variety was on display here, with several tournament matches, a fast-paced tag match and 8 man tag match, and GLEAT’s two contracted women taking on two of the best in the world (Tsukasa Fujimoto and Tsukushi Hiroka). The key results were El Lindaman picking up the second round tournament win over Soma Watanabe in a good-but-not great match, and Takanori Ito getting the most significant win of his career over CIMA. This result is maybe the most important of any GLEAT match yet, as it shows a continued commitment from the company and its veterans to elevate future top guys like Ito.
OZ Academy is not a promotion that I usually spend much time writing or talking about, as their batting average for great matches is pretty low. That said, I watched the main event of their Feb 6th show is very much worth watching. Hiroyo Matsumoto and Rina Yamashita successfully defended their OZ Academy Tag Team Titles against Mei Suruga and Momoka Hanazono, but the performance of Suruga was the story here. She looked absolutely electric, particularly in her exchanges with Matsumoto, with a creativity level that was off the charts and the execution to match it. With so many wrestlers migrating to Stardom and promotions like OZ Academy, Ice Ribbon, and Seadlinnng needing outsiders more than ever, Suruga should get some high-profile opportunities this year. She would be an ideal full-time target (outside of her guest appearances as Mei Saint-Michel) if CyberFight was more serious about acquiring wrestlers to bolster TJPW’s roster, but I don’t see that as a particularly likely scenario.
It was a relatively slow news week in STARDOM, but the Feb. 6th show as Sendai PIT saw several high-end matches nonetheless. The highlight was a close-to-great 20 minute draw between Queen’s Quest and Donna Del Mondo, with the action largely focused on Saya Kamitani and Natsupoi ahead of their Feb. 23rd Wonder of Stardom Championship match. They had a high-speed exchange of pinning combinations in the waning moments, with Natsupoi landing a German Suplex after the bell. I have high hopes for this match, as their styles should mesh and accentuate the best aspects of what they do. The Oedo Tai vs DDM main event ended just 9 seconds shy of the 20 minute time limit, with Saki Kashima scoring the flash pin on Thekla and earning an SWA title shot in the process.