Issue #6: Three Count Fall
KAIRI returns to STARDOM, NJPW's Osaka show, and a trip around the rings of NJPW Strong, Pro Wrestling NOAH, Ice Ribbon, GLEAT, and more
ONE COUNT: Stardom Makes Major News With the Return of KAIRI
On the heels of being voted 2021’s #2 promotion in the world by the readers of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Stardom made their most significant talent acquisition of the BUSHIROAD era on Friday in the return of KAIRI (the former Kairi Hojo/Sane) to the promotion.
The announcement was made by Stardom Executive Producer Rossy Ogawa at a press conference for the March 26th and 27th Stardom World Climax events at Ryogoku Sumo Hall, paying off the long-term “mystery woman” storyline the company has been running with Ogawa and Wonder of Stardom Champion Saya Kamitani.
KAIRI, as she is going by now in Stardom, revealed herself to be the mystery woman in the white hat and announced that she will be wrestling at Stardom World Climax. She was interrupted by Tam Nakano and Unagi Sayaka of Cosmic Angels, with KAIRI responding and saying that she would like to team with fellow Stardom original Mayu Iwatani at Sumo Hall.
Following that challenge, Starlight Kid and Oedo Tai as a whole attacked KAIRI and laid her out at the close of the press conference, seemingly setting up another potential match and feud for KAIRI going forward. There was also a video posted after the press conference with Kamitani seeing a mystery woman in a white hat (and assuming that it was KAIRI), only for KAIRI to appear on the other side of her and indicate interest in challenging for White Belt—setting up both that potential title match and the apparent existence of yet another mystery woman heading to Stardom.
The potential impact of KAIRI rejoining Stardom cannot be overstated. If you were going to map out a realistic dream scenario of who Stardom could be bring in to capitalize and build on their momentum right now, she checks every conceivable box—arguably (along with Io Shirai) the biggest star the company ever created, resonates deeply with long-term domestic (Japanese) fans of the company, is a big enough star through her time in WWE that newer Stardom fans know her as well, and gives Stardom their biggest and most familiar name possible to continue breaking through in the U.S. and elsewhere.
If Stardom is ever going to tour America (as was strongly rumored prior to the pandemic scuttling any plans to this end), having KAIRI as the face of the promotion makes that a much more realistic goal for the company. Adding a star of her level should also have a significant impact on Stardom PPV buys and Stardom World subscriptions. I’m always hearing from people who say that they want to try watching Stardom because of all the buzz surrounding the company but they don’t know who the wrestlers are or where to start—KAIRI gives those people someone familiar to care about and a place to start.
On the domestic side, KAIRI rejoining Stardom is another statement of purpose from the company—they are not here to be a minor player on the scene. Every business indicator in Japan right now shows them to be, at worst, third behind only New Japan Pro Wrestling and Dragon Gate. BUSHIROAD’s goal is to have Stardom be second only to New Japan in the Japanese wrestling landscape, and bringing KAIRI in gets them closer to that goal in a very public way.
From an in-ring standpoint, we know what KAIRI can do. She had some of the best matches in the promotion’s history during her initial run (seek out her singles matches with Shirai, Iwatani, and Meiko Satomura) before going to WWE and having a fantastic run in NXT. Her WWE main roster run was not as successful…but it never was going to be—Vince McMahon and company largely have no idea how to book Japanese wrestlers as anything more than the most two-dimensional characters imaginable. The fact that they saw her work in NXT (or in Stardom, for that matter) and decided she should be a heel on the main roster tells you everything you need to know.
If KAIRI has fully-recovered from the injuries that ended her WWE run (and there is no reason to believe she hasn’t), the possibilities for her in this incarnation of Stardom are endless and almost overwhelming to think about. High-profile singles matches against the likes of top stars like Mayu Iwatani, Giulia, Syuri, Utami Hayashishita, Syuri, and Tam Nakano could all main event major arena shows—and that’s not to mention the possibility of matches with other stars like Natsupoi, Starlight Kid, MIRAI, and AZM (to name just a few).
As mentioned earlier, Stardom has already set up three potential programs for KAIRI coming out of the press conference along: the tag team match at Ryoguku teaming with Iwatani against Nakano/Unagi, a feud with Oedo Tai, and a potential headlining Wonder of Stardom Championship match with Kamitani.
I have talked and written at length about the incredible roster depth Stardom currently has, and how that translates to rapid improvement from the younger/less experienced members of the roster. Beyond the obvious positive impacts at the top of the card and to the bottom line of the promotion, having the opportunity to be in the ring with and learn from a star at the level of KAIRI will only add to the opportunities to improve for the part of the roster that is still growing into the wrestlers they can become. Along these lines, I also wonder if the beginning of Hanan’s rise in Stardom could be aided by an association with/eventual match against KAIRI as well.
While there is no confirmed news as of press time regarding the length and/or nature of the agreement between Stardom and KAIRI, this does not appear to be something that is a one-off deal between the parties. If everything goes well at Stardom World Climax, it seems likely that she will at least be appearing on the company’s major shows going forward.
TWO COUNT: EVIL vs Ishii and a Star-Studded Tag Team Main Event Highlight NJPW’s Return to Osaka
I wrote in these digital pages last week about the Feb. 11th SHO vs YOH match in Sendai and how emblematic it was of the problems in NJPW and the excesses in their fondness for interference, ref bumps, and the like. The next match in that saga took place on Feb. 13th in Osaka, and it both ran to and ran from those tropes.
NJPW’s Golden Series in Osaka drew 2,625 fans to Edion Arena, eclipsing attendance for Power Struggle last November (headlined by Shingo Takagi vs Zack Sabre, Jr.) as well as each of last year’s G1 Climax shows in the same building. The main event was an all-star tag team match pitting Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Tetsuya Naito and SANADA, with a NEVER Openweight Title Lumberjack Match between EVIL and Tomohiro Ishii filling that semi-main event spot.
And about EVIL vs Ishii…going into this show, the bar to eclipse their Wrestle Kingdom 16 match was going to be exceedingly low. That match on Jan. 4th was quite possibly the low point of the modern NJPW product—filled with absurd ref bumps, even more absurd kayfabe incompetence by referees missing blatant interference, and a flat finish that aimed to gain heat in a cavernously empty and quiet Tokyo Dome.
Since then, we’ve seen an endless series of CHAOS vs House of Torture singles, tag team, and multi-man tag team matches that seem to be telling the story of CHAOS slowly realizing that they finally need to fight fire with fire to defeat HoT. While that concept has some merit, the execution has been painfully frustrating to watch—yes, the pandemic is an explanation for why crowds cannot cheer, but it is not an excuse for continuing to chase this kind of heat in an environment where it just can’t happen.
Against this backdrop, the lumberjack match featured more of the same to begin—though you can argue that it is at least more logical to have interference in the match if the parties are already at ringside. Still, the blatant interference (Dick Togo standing on the apron and holding Ishii’s leg as he tried to superplex EVIL, as one example) and manhandling of referee Marty Asami completely took me out of the match. From there, you had the usual procession of HoT interference and CHAOS reprisal, belt/weapon shots, and the like.
With the referee back in play and all lumberjacks neutralized, we finally had EVIL and Ishii in one-on-one action…and it was great! Frustratingly great, in fact. Those five minutes were every bit as hard-hitting, dramatic, and compelling as their singles matches before EVIL joined Bullet Club—and maybe even better, to be honest. It would be less frustrating if EVIL just wasn’t capable of this type of performance—that NJPW insists on the Dick Togo’s 70’s American Wrestling Revue™ formula for a guy that can wrestle at this level is maddening.
The other aspect of this is the way the aftermath of the match was presented on English-language commentary and social media, where it was said repeatedly that this was a “clean victory” for EVIL that showed in storyline that he can win without the HoT assistance. While the last five minutes were heated and highly entertaining, has the bar for a clean win in NJPW been lowered so far that a match with multiple ref bumps, weapons shots, and instance of interference qualifies as such? I’d like to think not, but that appears to be where we’re at in 2022.
The main event was devoid of anything remotely like that, featuring very good action while also highlighting some of New Japan’s other issues that are creeping up against the top of the card.
From a positive standpoint, the decision to main event one of New Japan’s main arenas and best cities with an all-star tag team match seemed to be a wise move. As mentioned earlier, this show outdrew each of the company’s 2021 shows in the same building. Getting more than 2,600 people to come out during a pandemic for a tag team match with no titles on the line is a good sign that a strategy that Mike Sempervive and I have long advocated for on the Big Audio Nightmare podcast is a valid one, particularly when every conceivable permutation of singles matches between top stars has been burned through during this COVID-induced limited roster era. It seems clear that there may be more cache in major Tanahashi and Okada “Dream Team” matches than the company previously thought.
While there were no championships on the line, this acted as the highest profile preview of the Tanhashi vs SANADA (U.S. Title) and Okada vs Naito (World Title) matches that are next on the New Japan schedule (look for full coverage of these in next week’s edition of THREE COUNT FALL).
Tanahashi, in particular, is a unique stage in his career right now. When he lost the IWGP Heavyweight Championship to Jay White in 2019 just one month after winning it from Kenny Omega at Wrestler Kingdom 14, it appeared to signal the beginning of him slowly moving down the pecking order. The idea behind the progression seemed to IWGP Champion/G1 winner level wrestler → legend who can still win a championship → legend who can win a championship but loses in his first defense → legend who can challenge for a championship but won’t win → to eventually settling into some semblance of a “legend on the card” type of role like Yuji Nagata currently holds.
When the pandemic took hold two years ago, New Japan suddenly found themselves needing to utilize veteran wrestlers in different roles than planned. Nagata, along with Satoshi Kojima and Hiroyoshi Tenzan, had previously become afterthoughts that did not get booked on every tour—now, they were needed on every show and we’re put into midcard storylines like we saw with TenKoji and the United Empire. Tanahashi meanwhile, went from beginning to being de-emphasized to being thrust into the spotlight—whether it be his tag team run with Kota Ibushi as Golden Ace, his NEVER Openweight and IWGP U.S. Heavyweight Title runs, his late injury-replacement into a Dome show World Title main event with Shingo Takagi, or his thrilling and terrifying Wrestle Kingdom 16 ladder match with KENTA.
All of that is to say, Tanahashi is at a crossroads. He is, arguably, the greatest professional wrestler of all time when you factor longevity, versatility, importance to his promotion, and connection with the fans. At the same time, he is in third or fourth successive stage of having his body break down—while he has had incredible performances as recently as last summer with Shingo Takagi, his ability to put in that level of performance is now fewer and further between than ever before when you watch him in recent months. The knees just aren’t there anymore, and it’s not just a question of speed at this point. Again, it’s completely understandable that this is the case and it wouldn’t be much of an issue if he was able to be in more of a mid-card “we’re happy to see the legend in action” role on the card.
Tetsuya Naito, meanwhile, continues to be the most popular wrestler in New Japan (and all of Japan, for that matter) as both a merchandise seller and ticket mover. That hasn’t diminished at all over the years, even as the hard miles of a decade of main events and G1 tournaments have taken a terrible toll on his knees and neck. Naito is still able to perform at a very high level, but there are cracks starting to form after the knee injury (and his subsequent early return) from a serious knee injury sustained in last year’s G1—particularly in his ability to spring into some of his more fast-paced and high-flying combinations.
I mention all of this because there was a sequence near the end of the match in Osaka on Feb. 13th that illustrated just how physically tenuous both Tanahashi’s and Naito’s grasp is on being able to perform at the highest level expected in NJPW. Naito went for his running version of the Destino…Tanahashi went to grab him and hold him in place as he would stand upright and Naito would rotate over him and land in the reverse DDT position…and instead it felt like time stopped, Tanahashi’s legs gave way, and they both crumbled to the mat. There were a few more awkward exchanges before Naito eventually hit the traditional Destino and got the direct pinfall on Tanahashi.
In a vacuum, it really wasn’t that big of a deal. Relatively intricate spots can go wrong at any time…but when viewed through the lens of the current NJPW main event scene and the fact that we are likely several years away from help being on the way in the form of a main event Shota Umino, Yota Tsuji, or Yuya Uemura, it gives pause and makes you wonder just how long Tanahashi and Naito can continue to fight against time and injuries to carry the company with the likes of Okada, Ibushi, and others.
THREE COUNT: Around the rings of GLEAT, Pro Wrestling NOAH, NJPW Strong, Stardom, Ice Ribbon
The second round of GLEAT’s G-REX Tournament concluded in Nagoya on Feb. 11th, with semifinals of the tournament to crown the promotions first singles champion now set.
Hayato Tamura defeated Yu Iizuka in the first quarterfinal on the show in a match that is very much worth your time. At less than 100 (Tamura) and less than 200 (Iizuka) matches respectively, they are two of the top young wrestlers in Japan when you consider their experience level. Iizuka is a crisp and violent striker with great grappling, while Tamura is a hard-hitting power fighter in the vein of a Tomohiro Ishii or Yuji Hino. Their styles meshed very well here for a match that was great in its own right, and will probably be the precursor to many higher-profile matches with each other as their careers develop and unfold. Tamura got the win in just under 10 minutes to advance to the semifinals where he will take on Takanori Ito.
The other quarterfinal match on the card saw T-Hawk defeat Minoru Tanaka in another very good match. T-Hawk’s struggle to reach the ropes late while locked in a knee bar was maybe the best he has ever been at showing a struggle and drawing the crowd into the match—particularly for a wrestler that is not especially strong at selling. T-Hawk was victorious in just over 17 minutes and advances to the semifinals where he will face StrongHearts stablemate El Lindaman in an intriguing match.
GLEAT’s next show will again be under the G-Pro Wrestling banner in their first official Korakuen Hall show on Feb. 22nd, featuring the semifinals and finals of the G-REX tournament.
It was a relatively slow week in Pro Wrestling NOAH, but their Feb. 12th show in Shimizu was notable for the result in the semi-main event, as Kaito Kiyomiya finally defeated Yoshinari Ogawa after many tries. It was a marathon match clocking in 40:14—your mileage may vary on long, mat-based wrestling, but the action here was very good and worth watching if you have the time. I will say, though, that Kiyomiya finally beating *Ogawa* just days after it became apparent he will likely never get a win of any kind back over Keiji Muto felt…very peak “NOSAWA’s NOAH.”
That said, I am greatly enjoying the heavyweight division of NOAH right now—much more than NJPW, to be honest (we talked more at length about this on the Big Audio Nightmare earlier this week). Pro Wrestling NOAH returns to action (and with live English-language commentary) on Feb. 23rd for GAIN CONTROL 2022 in Nagoya, headlined by a Katsuhiko Nakajima vs Kazayuki Fujita GHC Heavyweight Championship match that has the potential to be the most brutally violent match we see this year.
On the NJPW Strong front, last week’s episode from Seattle, WA was another must-see show on the strength of the Josh Barnett vs Ren Narita match. It is still completely surreal to see Josh Barnett in New Japan rings again after so many years away. More surreal, yet, is that New Japan’s U.S.-based promotion is regularly home to these hard-hitting, grappling-based, true strong style struggles at the same time that their domestic product regularly features wrenches, Bo staffs, and dog kennels.
Stardom made news this week beyond the huge KAIRI announcement, revealing more details about their intriguing NEW BLOOD series of shows. The first installment will take place on March 11th, featuring new generation wrestlers from Stardom and outside competing in unique matches. Wrestlers from the Marvelous and Diana promotions have been confirmed for the debut show, with the announced card so far being:
Starlight Kid (Stardom/Oedo Tai) & “X” vs Haruka Umesaki (Diana) & “X”
Unagi Sayaka & Waka Tsukiyama (Stardom/Cosmic Angels) vs Maria & Ai Houzan (Marvelous)
Saya Kamitani & Lady C (Stardom/Queen’s Quest) vs MIRAI & Mai Sakurai (Stardom/Donna del Mondo)
While it is not a perfect comparison, this feels like Stardom taking up the mantle for the short-lived, promising, and now-defunct JOSHI ASSEMBLE series of shows that took place last year.
You may be forgiven if you read the above and thought there was a mistake seeing “Donna del Mondo” next to Mai Sakuari’s name, but that’s exactly what we have now after the events of last weekend’s Stardom shows. After the DDM vs Cosmic Angels main event, Sakurai grabbed the mic and said she had made up her mind about whether she wanted to continue being a Kozuen member. With Tam Nakano, Mina Shirawaka, Unagi Sayaka, and Waka Tsukiyama looking on in disbelief, Sakurai said that was tired of dancing and wanted to fight under the tutelage of Giulia and DDM. A wild and emotional scene ensued, with Nakano bitterly swearing revenge and Tsukiyama in tears as she retreated to the locker room. This was very well done, setting the stage for a resumption of hostilities between Giulia and Nakano while also giving the fans a reason to care about two of the least developed undercard characters on the roster (Sakurai and Tsukiyama).
I recently had the opportunity to watch Tsukushi Haruka’s most recent (Jan. 16th) ICExInfinity Title defense against Ibuki Hoshi and came away very impressed. Tsukushi had a great 2021 as well (her Dropkickers team with Tsukasa Fujimoto is one of the best in the world), but she has stepped up considerably in this championship “ace” role with the departure of Suzu Suzuki and other stars from the promotion. She is wrestling with a confidence and control that she hasn’t shown before, and her forearm strikes are pound-for-pound the hardest and most visually impressive of anyone in the world. Hoshi also had a great performance here as well, likely the best of her career. There were some really creative and unique sequences and reversals here, coupled with an escalating physical brutality that built very well and took this into the “great” category.