Issue #8: Three Count Fall
NJPW Celebrates 50 Years, STARDOM's Road to Ryogoku, and a Trip Around the Rings of Japan
ONE COUNT: Okada and Desperado Stage a Classic Battle Worthy of NJPW’s 50th Anniversary
New Japan Pro Wrestling’s 50th anniversary year has so far been a muted celebration of the company’s storied first half-century. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has stalled NJPW’s momentum and blunted their ability to hold large-scale events at the level they would like, but their official 50th Anniversary event served as their boldest attempt yet.
Attendance was largely flat compared to last year at 3,182, drawing about 150 more fans than the 49th Anniversary show. While last year’s show was main evented by the IWGP Champion (Kota Ibushi) vs the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion (El Desperado), this year’s event pushed that traditional main event format by one night to feature a generational six man tag team match celebrating the company’s Strong Style past and present to great effect.
The show event opened with a ceremony celebrating many of New Japan’s greatest stars—with Keiji Muto, Masahiro Chono, Riki Choshu, Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Tatsumi Fujinami, and Seiji Sakaguchi most notably in attendance. There had been hopes, publicly expressed by Kazuchika Okada, that Antonio Inoki would be able to attend in some capacity but ongoing health issues sadly prevented that from occurring.
As for the wrestling itself, there was nothing overly remarkable from a bell-to-bell standpoint. If anything, it was most notable that the House of Torture was confined to the opening match and their antics were significantly dialed down—which begs the question…if it’s not something you want on your 50th Anniversary show, maybe you don’t need it on the rest of your shows?
The STRONGHEARTS trio of CIMA, T-Hawk, and new G-REX champion El Lindaman were a desperately-needed breath of fresh air in their match against Desperado, Yoshinobu Kanemaru, and DOUKI. While the moment seemed to get the better of T-Hawk in a few exchanges, Lindaman showed the same charisma and in-ring electricity here that he’s shown everywhere of late. The high-speed triple team sequences from STRONGHEARTS leading to the finish were among the most exciting moments in NJPW in recent months—Kevin Kelly and Chris Charlton put over STRONGHEARTS very hard (more than GLEAT as a whole, interestingly), and the following night Kelly basically said it’s a guarantee that we will be seeing much more of them in New Japan rings this year. The simmering tease of a Lindaman vs Desperado match continued here and their brief exchanges were every bit as good as you’d expect.
Minoru Tanaka’s return to NJPW was also successful, as he looked fantastic teaming with Taichi and TAKA Michinoku to take on Bullet Club. Kelly seemed genuinely shocked by Tanaka’s speed and conditioning at 50 years old, and Tanaka seemed to indicate an interest in challenging for the IWGP Junior Heavweight Title as he left the ring post-match. Given how stale and lacking-in-depth NJPW’s junior heavyweight division is right now, working with GLEAT to get occasional dates for Tanaka here would be a welcome occurrence.
Another high point of the show was the interaction between 2002 class generational peers Ryusuke Taguchi and Hirooki Goto in the heavyweight vs junior heavyweight tag team champions match. Their history goes all the way back to their days in the dojo, including a memorable Young Lion match in late 2003 and their challenge of Bryan Danielson and “Curry Man” Christopher Daniels for the IWGP Junior Tag Team Titles in 2004. In an interesting note—as Taguchi’s Young Lion period was coming to an end NJPW saw him as a potential ace-level heavyweight, but Taguchi was adamant about being a junior heavyweight and that is where has stayed for the entirety of his career.
The main event of the show featured three generations of New Japan legends teaming for the first time as Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and Tatsumi Fujinami joined forces to take on the legendary Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Minoru Suzuki, and Zack Sabre, Jr. Among other things, this clearly showed just how well-regarded ZSJ is by New Japan management—first he was given the assignment of having Katsuyori Shibata’s first exhibition match back after four years, and then in the main event teaming with two legends against three of the biggest stars in the history of the company and Japanese pro wrestling at large. It’s also noteworthy that it was Minoru Suzuki, rather than ZSJ, that dropped the fall to Okada in the match.
There were highlights aplenty, none more so than the dynamic between Fujiwara and Suzuki—particularly seeing Suzuki so deferential to Fujiwara, and Fujiwara constantly trying to “show Suzuki how its done.” The most striking series of visual was Fujiwara headbutting Okada, then going out to the apron and taking off the turnbuckle connector pad, headbutting the steel, and coming back into the ring to find a less-than-enthusiastic Okada retreating to his corner.
The New Japan Cup 2022 got underway on the following night at the Budokan, this time drawing just 2,007 fans. While this has to be considered a disappointing number, it isn’t entirely unexpected. Top-tier major events (Anniversary shows, G1 Finals, etc) for NJPW at Budokan have been drawing in 3-4,000 range during COVID, while somewhat smaller shows (G1 Block, NJ Cup) have been right around 2,000 fans.
The show was comprised entirely of first round New Japan Cup matches, but the main event overshadowed the rest of the action. The traditional IWGP (World) Champion vs Junior Heavyweight Champion match was held in the tournament itself this year, and Kazuchika Okada vs El Desperado did not disappoint.
As I’ve written and spoken about before, Okada is already having one of those “yep, he’s still as great as he ever was” years. Much like with Mayu Iwatani in Stardom, it’s easy to forget how great he is when is cycled out of the main event/World Title scene…but the second he’s back there you immediately see that he is still wrestling at an all-time great level. And Okada might actually be *improving*, as this match and his defense against Tetsuya Naito last month had a stronger connection between the “feeling out period” early in the match and the typically incredible closing stretch.
Desperado, on the other hand, continues to be a criminally underrated and underappreciated wrestler. I would argue that he’s been most consistently interesting character and highest-performing wrestler on the NJPW roster for the past few years. Whether it’s in junior tag team title matches with Yoshinobu Kanemaru, in his career-defining rivalry with Hiromu Takahashi, or against heavyweights like Ibushi in high-profile main events, Desperado draws something different out of his opponents than anyone else. His ability to have unpatterned matches that somehow both draw opponents out of their comfort zones yet also play to their strengths ins unmatched in wrestling today. Couple that with a physical charisma that, much like Starlight Kid in Stardom, harkens back to the glory years of Jushin “Thunder” Liger and you have one of the most compelling wrestlers in the world.
Here, the story was predictably simple on the surface—Okada, the dominant heavyweight champion, is not taking the junior heavyweight champion as a legitimate threat. Desperado, having learned from last year’s Anniversary Show challenge against Ibushi in the same building, takes a more cautious approach this time. He targets Okada’s knee repeatedly—they same knee worked over by Naito through the entire Golden Series tour.
The match really gets turned on its head when Desperado responds to Okada’s exhortations and absolutely laces into him with several hard chops. I have seen wrestlers’ chest reddened to this degree before, but never from this few chops. It immediately fires Okada up to another level and he blasts Desperado with a shotgun drop kick directly to the face.
From here the match is just a masterclass. Okada is determined to not use the Rainmaker on Desperado—he doesn’t see him as worthy of it and wants to put him away with the Money Clip. As Desperado continues to drag him deeper and deeper into the fight, Okada gets more engaged and starts to go for it repeatedly. Desperado evades several times and comes close to getting the win with the Pinche Loco, before running headlong into a landslide. Okada has no choice but to use the Rainmaker on Desperado if he wants to advance, so he finally does and gets the win.
This may have been the most unique main event/big match of Okada’s career, and it has usurped Starlight Kid vs AZM as my provisional 2022 Match of the Year. It also showed why NJPW could very easily shift to an openweight format if they wanted to—it will never happen, but wrestlers like Desperado and Hiromu Takahashi would reinvigorate the World Title scene if they were ever put in a credible position to be there.
Other strong opening night matches included Hirooki Goto vs Yuji Nagata (the second best match of the night), Hiroshi Tanahashi vs YOH, and YOSHI-HASHI vs Tomoaki Honma. Seeing Yujiro in an 18-minute, House of Torture-laden match with Tetsuya Naito is not something I necessarily needed in my life—they tried several wrinkles in the usual HoT formula, but it still fell flat for all the usual reasons.
TWO COUNT: Stardom Announces Full Cards for STARDOM WORLD CLIMAX in Ryogoku
Stardom continued the road to the most consequential shows in company history this week as they held a press conference revealing the full cards for their STARDOM WORLD CLIMAX 2022 shows at Ryoguku Sumo Hall on March 26th and 27th.
What stands out most is the sheer depth of talent in Stardom right now. I have talked about this ad nauseum over the past few years, but it really comes into focus when you look at the totality of these two cards. Each addition has been impactful when taken singularly, but when you look at the current and future star power and down these lineups you see how loaded the company is for the “now” and for the years ahead. It would take monumental levels of promotional malpractice to put on best-in-the-world shows for at least the next three years with this roster.
March 26 Ryogoku Kokugikan STARDOM WORLD CLIMAX 2022 ~ The Best ~
Future of Stardom Title Match: (C) Hanan vs Rina (Winner defends the title vs Mai Sakurai the next day)
Golden Generation singles match: Saya Iida vs MIRAI
6 Woman Tag Gauntlet Match: Himeka, Natsupoi & Mai Sakurai vs Mina Shirakawa, Waka Tsukiyama & Momo Kohgo vs Saki Kashima, Fukigen Death & Ruaka vs AZM, Lady C & X
DDM vs Prominence: Maika & Thekla vs Risa Sera & Suzu Suzuki
Goddesses of Stardom Title Match: (C) Hazuki & Koguma vs Momo Watanabe & Starlight Kid
Pirate Princess Stardom Revival: Mayu Iwatani & KAIRI vs Tam Nakano & Unagi Sayaka
Wonder of Stardom Title Match: (C) Saya Kamitani vs Utami Hayashishita (Winner defends the title vs Tam Nakano the next day)
World of Stardom Title Match: (C) Syuri vs Giulia (Winner defends the title vs Mayu Iwatani the next day)
March 27 Ryogoku Kokugikan STARDOM WORLD CLIMAX 2022 ~ The Top ~
Future of Stardom Championship Match: (C) Hanan or Rina vs Mai Sakurai
Cinderella Rumble: Unagi Sayaka (Last year's Rumble winner), Mina Shirakawa, Lady C, Miyu Amasaki, Saki Kashima, Ruaka, Saya Iida, Momo Kohgo, Waka Tsukiyama ,Tomoka Inaba, Aoi, Haruka Umesaki, Nanami, Maria, Ai Houzan, Mei Suruga, Yuna Mizumori, and TBA
Golden Generation singles match: 3/26 Loser (Saya Kamitani or Utami Hayashishita) vs MIRAI
Generation of Destiny: Hazuki vs Momo Watanabe
High Speed Title 3 Way Battle: (C) AZM vs Koguma vs Natsupoi
Pirate Princess Stardom Revival: KAIRI vs Starlight Kid
DDM vs Prominence: 3/26 Loser (Syuri or Giulia), Maika, Himeka & Thekla vs Risa Sera, Suzu Suzuki, Akane Fujita & Mochi Miyagi
Wonder of Stardom Title Match: (C) Saya Kamitani or Utami Hayashishita vs Tam Nakano
World of Stardom Title Match: (C) Syuri or Giulia vs Mayu Iwatani
It’s not easy to balance a roster this large and this deep with main event talent, but these shows seem to be poised to do that. Every top wrestler, of which there are well into the double digits, has at least one major featured and/or championship match.
All four major (White and Red Belt) title matches across the two shows should be great, no matter the final permutations of the matches on the second night. The tag team title match should be tremendous (Hazuki & Koguma and Momo Watanabe & Starlight Kid had a GREAT sequence in a multi-person tag match last weekend); the High Speed Title three-way with AZM-Natsupoi-Koguma on night two will deliver; the DDM vs Prominence matches on each night will be a brutally violent change of pace; and the Future title matches on each show should provide another platform for Hana’s early journey to being a future Stardom ace.
Young wrestlers also have their own showcases early on the cards, and the Cinderella Rumble provides an opportunity for the larger Joshi scene to get their own spotlight (cynically, you could also say this provides Stardom with a great opportunity to scout/pitch wrestlers on joining Stardom, but there’s no evidence of that being the case here). Mei Suruga is a surprising and intriguing name here—she has tremendous buzz right now worldwide and would be another valuable “get” for Stardom, even if that is unlikely. Aoi is another name to watch here (and not just because of that sweet Mighty Ducks hockey jersey she was rocking at the press conference), as she has shown tremendous potential and comes from the same Just Tap Out (JTO) promotion that produced Maika.
More than anything else, though, these shows are all about the return of KAIRI. Stardom is going all-in on advertising her and this show, and with good reason—her star power has more potential to bring in new fans than anything Stardom has done to date. The tag team match on night one with KAIRI and Mayu Iwatani vs Tam Nakano and Unagi Sayaka seems to be leading to KAIRI joining Nakano and Sayaka in the Cosmic Angels stable, as Nakano directly appealed for that at the press conference before Sayaka chimed in.
On a two-day stretch of shows that promises to have multiple MOTYCs and memorable moments, there is no more intriguing match than KAIRI vs Starlight Kid. As mentioned in last week’s newsletter, SLK is operating at an extremely high level right now and seems poised to be the breakout star in Stardom and Japan overall in 2022. At this point in her career there is no better opponent to raise her profile and give her a “spectacle”-level match than KAIRI will. There is a very good chance that this match, and these shows overall, will be looked back upon as one of most significant chapter points and launching pads in Stardom’s history.
THREE COUNT: Around the rings of AJPW, DDT, Ganbare Pro, Pro Wrestling WAVE, Dragon Gate, and more
I finally had the chance to watch All Japan Pro Wrestling’s most recent Korakuen Hall show from Feb. 23rd and a couple things stood out. First, the attendance—they drew 792 fans, which is one of the biggest pandemic-era Korakuen Hall crowds for any promotion. The second point relates to the first—as important as it is for All Japan to create another top level drawing wrestler, it’s clear that Kento Miyahara as Triple Crown Champion is the strongest box office attraction the company has. Some grumbled at the thought of going back to him as champion after Jake Lee vacated the title due to injury, but Miyahara really is in the only choice right now. Of course, that can also rightfully be viewed as an indictment of their inability to create new stars (the long-term injury and then departure of Naoya Nomura certainly didn’t help), but that’s a story for another day.
As for the show itself, Miyahara’s Triple Crown defense against BJW’s Abdullah Kobayashi was far better than I expected it to be, and much better than his originally-scheduled challenge against Lee would have been. Kobayashi is largely immobile at this point, but in a strange way that actually helped the match as it forced Miyahara out of his big match pattern and showed how smart of a wrestler he can be. The other factor here is that Kobayashi is just such an oddly charming and charismatic character that the crowd was completely behind him, with a great nearfall on his top rope elbow drop. Miyahara got the win after several Everst German Suplex Holds and will now move on to defending against Shuji Ishikawa on March 21st. [As a side note regarding the March 21st show, I can’t think of too many things I’m less interested in seeing in 2022 than a return of TARU and the VOODOO MURDERS stable to AJPW.]
In other AJPW-related news, the first match and talent announcements have been been released for the show on April 15th to celebrate Korakuen Hall’s 60th Anniversary. The AJPW team of Suwama, Shotaro Ashino, and Dan Tamura will take on the NJPW trio of Hirooki Goto, YOSHI-HASHI, and YOH—pitting the tag team champions in each company against each other as part of a six man tag team match. Other talent announced so far includes: Testuya Naito, Shingo Takagi, Hiromu Takahashi, Togi Makabe, Tomoaki Honma, Yuma Aoyagi, and Atsuki Aoyagi. The fact that SANADA will not join his LIJ stablemates on this show makes me wonder if the IWGP Unites States Champion may instead be earmarked for NJPW’s Windy City Riot show that same weekend in suburban Chicago.
DDT ran the semifinals and final of their tag team tournament on Feb. 27th, the highlight of which was the semifinal match with pitting Konosuke Takeshita and Yuki Ueno vs Jun Akiyama and Tetsuya Endo. This also functioned as a preliminary skimirsh between Takeshita and Endo ahead of their KO-D Openweight Championship match on March 20th. Takeshita got the win here with a modified step through facelock subsmission (Endo returned the favor on March 2nd in a Captain’s Fall elimination match, putting Endo away with a shooting star press).
The main event of the show was a combined KO-D Tag Team Title/Ultimate Tag League 2022 Final match, with Naomi Yoshimura and HARASHIMA defeating Ueno and Takeshita in a highly-entertaining battle with a tremendous finishing stretch between Yoshimura and Ueno. The former NAUTILUS partners had a spirited exchange leading to Yoshimura scoring the most significant victory of his career after hitting Ueno with a fireman’s carry Shouten Kai and running lariat. Yoshimura and HARASHIMA will make their first defense of the championships against Chris Brookes and Masahiro Takanashi on March 20th.
Ganbare Pro is the lowest-profile promotion currently on the Wrestle Universe platform, but they put on one of their highest profile shows to date on Feb. 27th at Korakuen Hall. The main event between Tatushito Takaiwa and Kouki Iwasaki is worth going out of your way to watch for several reasons—Chris Brookes on English play-by-play with Shinjiro Otani provided translated color commentary; Takaiwa somehow being the exact same wrestler (for better or worse) than he was some 25 years ago, and a spirited (and heavy-kicking) performance from Iwasaki in the biggest match of his career.
Shoutout to Red Leaf Retrocast, aka @BowlingJD, for the recommendation to check out the the Feb. 13th Regina Di WAVE Title match between Nagisa Nozaki and Mizuki Takase. This is legitimately one of the best matches of the year, in a promotion (Pro Wrestling WAVE) that isn’t normally top of mind in such discussions. Nozaki wrestles a Yoshihiro Takayama-esque style here, while Takase brings the same physicality and emotion that were hallmarks of her 515 day run as AWG champion when she was the ace of the Actwres girl'Z promotion over the past few years. To be clear, this is not a “high speed” battle—they simply beat the hell out of each other in a match where the drama escalates just as the physicality does.
Dragon Gate’s Feb 23rd show was headlined by an Open The Twin Gate Championship match, with Dragon Dia and Yuki Yoshioka successfully defending against the team of Jason Lee and La Estrella. Yoshioka is the former Dia Inferno, who voluntarily unmasked and joined forces with Dragon Dia after he lost his own mask earlier this year as a result of Shun Skywalker’s betrayal in a match at Korakuen Hall. The unmasked Dia and Yoshioka have since formed a team and won the tag team championships.
This was a showcase of several of the top young and/or up-and-coming wrestlers in Dragon Gate, and another example of their different booking style (relentlessly pushing young stars, like Stardom and even GLEAT to an extent) as opposed to the very different booking style of a company like Pro Wrestling NOAH (see Issue #7’s lead story for much more). It doesn’t always lead to great matches right out of the gate—this was very good but Dia and Yoshioka’s chemistry still needs some work and the finish fell a bit flat)—but what it does lead to in the medium-and-long-term is an ever-replenishing system of top stars that have credibility with the fans and can draw moving forward.
One more thing—while it was the furthest thing from a traditional pro wrestling show, do yourself a favor and watch the TJPW Midwinter Pool Pro-Wrestling on WRESTLE UNIVERSE. It is a completely ridiculous and wildly fun 45 minutes of the TJPW roster competing in a variety of games (water volleyball, among others) and just having the time of their lives…and of course, Yuka Sakazaki does something completely insane (see above)!