Issue #9: Three Count Fall
Shingo vs Ishii Classic, Stardom New Blood Show, and a Trip Around the Rings of GLEAT, Dragon Gate, and more!
ONE COUNT: Shingo vs Ishii Classic Stands Out Among This Week’s New Japan Cup Shows
The New Japan Cup moved through the first and second rounds this week in a series of shows that were mostly pedestrian, outside of a predictably great Match of the Year Candidate between two of the best wrestlers in the world.
Shingo Takagi and Tomohiro Ishii may be the two most dependable and consistent wrestlers in the world when it comes to delivering incredible performances against a wide variety of opponents, so it should come as no surprise that they once again put on a top-tier level match against each other on March 7th in Ota City General Gymnasium.
The show drew 777 fans, which is one of the lowest numbers the company has done during the pandemic. Here are the pandemic-era NJPW shows at Ota Ward:
March 7, 2022 (NJ Cup): 777 fans (Takagi vs Ishii)
Sept. 24, 2021: (G1 Climax): 816 fans (Okada vs EVIL)
Sept. 23, 2021: (G1 Climax): 1,284 fans (ZSJ vs Takagi)
March 6, 2021 (NJ Cup): 1,410 fans (Okada vs Takagi)
Jan. 23, 2021: 1,325 fans (ELP/Ishimori vs Desperado/Kanemaru)
A couple things stand out in that list—one, that they drew barely half in that building of what they did exactly one year prior for a New Japan Cup show. Okada is clearly a bigger opponent for Takagi than Ishii is, but when you look at how low the attendance was for Okada vs EVIL in that same building last year the difference may not be as pronounced as one would assume. The second is that 13 months ago they drew almost 600 more fans for a IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Title match that had been done to death than they did last week for a New Japan Cup show with a guaranteed MOTYC main event.
As for the match itself, it was *exactly* what you’d expect from Takagi and Ishii…and I don’t mean that as a criticism in any way. They are two very similar wrestlers—that sometimes doesn’t lead to as great of matches as people would expect, even with wrestlers of this level. Thankfully that isn’t the case with Takagi and Ishii and this was no exception.
While it didn’t quite reach the heights of their G1 Climax match last September, the fact that it was five minutes shorter gave it a distinctly different feel. It never veered toward excess in anyway (unless you have an issue with “Fighting Spirit” spots, which I assume most reading this newsletter do not) and there were several counter/reversal sequences which were unique to their series of matches. The best example of this may have been a late run of action with the two trading hard running lariats. After this repeated several times, Ishii ran in for another lariat but was caught by Takagi all in one motion with a brutal-looking Made in Japan that made for an incredible nearfall—and one that would have been a perfect finish, if NJPW ever allowed for setup moves/secondary finishers to actual get the pin in significant matches. In the end, Takagi scored the victory over Ishii to advance to the second round of the New Japan Cup and run his singles record to 4-1 over him.
The rest of the Cup matches on the show left a lot to be desired—particularly, Hiromu Takahashi vs SHO. In another time and place (like, say, their Best of the Super Jr. XXVII match in December 2020), this would be a match you’d circle in the brackets of any tournament and put on a list of potential best matches of the entire tourney, Unfortunately, we are living in the House of Torture timeline…and in this timeline, it is literally impossible for a SHO match to be anything but massively frustrating.
As I’ve mentioned before, SHO’s UWF-rules match with GLEAT’s Takanori Ito should have been a launch pad and template for the type of fully-formed wrestler he was capable of becoming—instead it ended up being a send-off for that version of SHO, and we were left with an EVIL-lite version in its wake.
It’s not that SHO can’t be an interesting wrestler in 2022. The start of this match was great with SHO apparently attacking Hiromu backstage, dragging him through the curtain and down the rampway, leading to a wild brawl that was more heated and out of control than anything we’ve seen in NJPW this year. By the end, though, we had the usual House of Torture tropes—multiple ref bumps, interference, counters to interference, a weapon shot, another teased weapon shot, another ref distraction, and ultimately a Hiromu roll-up for the win.
If this formula for SHO, EVIL, The House of Torture, and the Bullet Club(s) at large was leading to bigger crowds and more buzz for the product, I would throw my hands up in the air and say that I don’t get it but it’s working. But that’s not what is happening—whether it be the attendance at a show like this in the Tokyo area or the show a few days later in Yamanashi that drew barely half of each of the shows there last year, business isn’t booming domestically as a result of this formula.
Outside of Japan the effect is significantly more pronounced. Discussion of the New Japan Cup on social media platforms like Twitter has diminished dramatically even over last year’s tournament. While I wouldn’t hold the F4W/Wrestling Observer board as anything close to a scientific study, it was remarkable to see that there was not a single post about the Takagi vs Ishii match (or the March 7th show in general) in the first 24 hours after it happened.
From my perspective, the most concerning thing about the past two years in NJPW is that they have actively doubled down on the things—i.e., endless ref bumps and interference, chasing HEAT from crowds that are not permitted to give those reactions, etc. For anyone who was hoping that this was going to change anytime soon, I regret to report those hopes are misguided as it appears we may be heading for a world with THREE Bullet Club subgroups:
The House of Torture
Bullet Club “Too Sweet Up-High”
Bullet Club “Too Sweet Down-Low”
Maybe I am on an island unto myself here, but I could not possibly care about whether Chase Owens is going to side with Jay White or Tama Tonga...or who Yujiro is going to side with when the Bullet Club power struggle shakes out…yet these seem to be the prevailing storylines in the company right now. If nothing else, confining all of the House of Torture/Bullet Club-formula tropes to matches involving only their wrestlers would at least keep them away from the rest of the card.
One other quick note: while some people accurately pointed out that the THREE REF BUMPS in the Will Ospreay vs BUSHI match (March 6th) were played for laughs on a small town show, the problem is that we already have more than enough of these tropes in House of Torture matches and getting them here in the main event match of a New Japan Cup show with non-HoT members just felt like a bridge way too far for this viewer.
There were several other entertaining matches over the past several days of tournament action. ZSJ vs Ryohei Oiwa (March 6th), CIMA vs Yoshinobu Kanemaru (March 9th), and Jeff Cobb vs Satoshi Kojima (March 10th) are all worth your time even if they aren’t anywhere near a “match of the tournament” level. While I wouldn’t put Kazuchika Okada vs Master Wato (March 9th) in the must-watch category, it is fascinating to see Okada brilliantly straddle the line between dominating Wato and giving him just enough offense for it to not feel like a total squash. Wato is nowhere near ready to be pushing Okada (those middle kicks…yikes), though, and the match told that story very well.
The next tournament match with the potential to reach the heights of Okada vs Desperado or Takagi vs Ishii comes on March 13th, with Minoru Suzuki taking on Hiromu Takahashi in a rare fresh singles match in New Japan where either man could conceivably win. That said, I expect Hiromu to advance toward an eventual tournament match with former LIJ stablemate EVIL.
The match between SANADA vs Aaron Henare on March 12th in Nagoya is also one to watch, as SANADA does not yet have a first challenger lined up for his U.S. Heavyweight Champion and a challenge by Henare—even in a losing effort—would be a significant step forward in his career. Will Ospreay vs El Phantasmo on that same Nagoya show has the potential to be the most athletically-spectacular match of the tournament (with a Bullet Club-sized caveat RE: interference). Ospreay is the odds-on favorite to win the match, but with whispers growing louder of a move to heavyweight a win here for ELP cannot be completely ruled out.
TWO COUNT: STARDOM kicks off their NEW BLOOD Series With an Impressive Debut and More
Lost in all the (well-deserved) attention, paid to the upcoming two-day STARDOM WORLD CLIMAX shows at Ryogoku Sumo Hall on March 26th and 27th, STARDOM launched a new series of shows intended to showcase their own young/new stars and shine a spotlight on some of the most intriguing prospects from outside the company.
Held March 11th at Shinagawa Intercity Hall and livestreamed on STARDOM’s YouTube channel, the card was as follows:
Momo Kohgo vs Sayaka (Gatoh Move/ChocoPro)
Unagi Sayaka & Waka Tsukiyama vs Ai Houzan & Maria (Marvelous)
Lady C & Saya Kamitani vs MIRAI & Mai Sakurai
Hanan & Saya Iida vs Tomoka Inaba & Aoi (JUST TAP OUT)
Ruaka & Starlight Kid vs Haruka Umesaki & Nanami (World Woman Pro-Wrestling Diana)
Utami Hayashishita vs Miyu Amasaki (debut)
The production was of the highest quality of any of the non-PPV YouTube livestreams so far, with three cameras (hard camera, ringside camera, and isometric angle from the balcony) and full lighting accompaniment. It also served as an example of the level of production BUSHIROAD could and should give STARDOM events as they continue to cement themselves as the number 2 promotion in Japan behind corporate brother New Japan Pro Wrestling. Any increased investment by BUSHIROAD should include regular livestreaming of events via Stardom World—if companies like NOAH DDT, TJPW, AJPW, and Dragon Gate can do it, there is no reason for STARDOM to not be given the resources by their corporate owners to do the same. It is the next necessary step the company needs to make to maximize the impact of their considerable growth over the past 18 months.
The most significant story of this show was the debut of Miyu Amasaki, STARDOM’s first home-grown wrestler since Lady C’s debut in November 2020. The company has added many wrestlers over the past few years, but the number of wrestlers successfully coming through their traditional dojo system has been minimal in the BUSHIROAD era.
The 19-year-old Amasaki showed great poise in her debut against Utami Hayashishita, particularly as the match wore on when she was on offense. She moved well and seemed equally adept in chain wrestling and high-speed scenarios, showing off a beautifully-unique bridging cradle and several other high-impact moves (including a sort of pendulum double-underhook X-Factor that I’ve never seen executed before). She shares some stylistic similarities to Momo Kohgo, but with a more solid fundamental base. In short, she moved and wrestled like a pro wrestler, which is more of an accomplishment than it may sound on the surface—I’ve seen many wrestlers well into their first year that have more awkwardness and tentativeness than we saw here from Amasaki.
While it was clear that STARDOM was already building to having Amasaki join Queen’s Quest as their fifth member (the upcoming “tug of war” unit battle between QQ and Oedo Tai had an “X” without any other obvious wrestle to fill the spot), Hayashishita seemed genuinely impressed by Amasaki’s performance and appeared to be enthusiastic in offering her the spot. Amasaki accepted, and it appears that there will be a “big/little sister” relationship between the two.
The semi-main event was the other highly anticipated contest, pitting Starlight Kid—2022’s breakout star across the entire Japanese wrestling scene—and Pro Wrestling Diana’s Haruka Umesaki against each other in a tag team match that also involved Ruaka and Nanami. SLK and Umesaki had tremendous chemistry together and their exchanges with each other were the highlight of the show. Umesaki hit a SLK-style top rope twisting splash for a nearfall, before SLK landed a picture-perfect top rope moonsault press onto Nanami for the victory.
Saya Iida’s return was another highlight of this show, with her making a successful comeback after missing 11 months due to a catastrophic knee injury that required reconstructive surgery. She showed little ring rust and came off like more of a star than ever here, finishing off Just Tap Out’s Aoi with brutal spinning brainbuuster. Hanan and JTO’s Tomoka Inaba also had several very impressive exchanges in this tag team match. JTO in general is a promotion to look out for as it relates to STARDOM—while they don’t run many shows, they churn out impressive young wrestlers at a rapid pace and don’t hold their wrestlers back from pursuing bigger opportunities. Aoi has only had 20-some matches in her less than one-year career, all of which had taken place under the JTO banner prior to today’s show. She is at a similar experience level to that of Maika when she started working STARDOM shows before eventually joining the company full-time—it will be interesting to see of Aoi follows in those footsteps or walks a different path.
Maria, of the Marvelous promotion, also had a very impressive performance here, teaming with Ai Houzan to defeat Unagi Sayaka and Waka Tsukiyama. She has been a standout every time she has appeared in a STARDOM ring—given the close and friendly relationship between the two companies, I am hopeful that we will see more of Maria in STARDOM…maybe even in a tournament or two this year.
The only all-STARDOM match on the show ended in a 15-minute draw as MIRAI and Mai Sakurai went to a time limit draw with Saya Kamitani and Lady C. MIRAI and Kamitani had several great sequences throughout and there was enough of a staredown at the end of the match that one wonders whether MIRAI could be a future White Belt challenger for Kamitani should Saya’s reign continue beyond STARDOM WORLD CLIMAX. The finish here was also noteworthy, in that you would look at this match on paper and assume that Lady C or Mai Sakurai would drop the fall. The fact that they didn’t shows they are each starting to get a bit of a push with their new unit affiliations.
While there was no official announcement of the next NEW BLOOD show, it is interesting to note that pictures from the event have a NEW BLOOD copyright and the show was titled “NEW BLOOD 1”—these details seem to lend credence to the theory that this will be an ongoing sub-entity of sorts to STARDOM going forward.
Nothing is official but seeds were pretty overtly planted for several potential matches coming out of NEW BLOOD 1:
Maria vs Unagi Sayaka
Lady C vs Mai Sakurai
Saya Kamitani vs MIRAI (potentially for the Wonder of Stardom Championship)
Hanan vs Tomoka Inaba (potentially for the Future title)
Starlight Kid vs Haruka Umesaki (potentially in a Diana ring)
The entire show is up for free viewing on YouTube as of press time and can be watched below:
THREE COUNT: Around the rings of Korakuen Hall’s Anniversary Shows, GLEAT/LIDET UWF, Dragon Gate, and STARDOM
The 60th Anniversary of Korakuen Hall will be celebrated next month with two shows—one, featuring the top stars of most of the currently-running Joshi promotions in the country, and another featuring the stars of NJPW and AJPW.
Maria (Marvelous) vs. Riko Kawabata (T-HEARTS)
Asahi (Ice Ribbon), Crea (Pure-J) & Kaho Matsushita (Ice Ribbon vs. Madelaine (DIANA), Nanami (DIANA) & Kanon (SenJo)
Tomoko Watanabe (Marvelous), Kaori Yoneyama (YMZ), & Yuki Mashiro (Ice Ribbon) vs. Yuki Miyazaki (WAVE), Kyusei Sakura Hirota (WAVE), Hibiscus Mii (Ryukyu Dragon)
Koguma (Stardom), Manami (SenJo) & Chie Ozora (Pure J) vs. Yuko Sakura (COLORS), Riko Kaiju (Seadlinnng) & Lady C (Stardom)
Kyoko Inoue (DIANA), Sonoko Kato (OZ Academy) & Leon (Pure J) vs. AKINO (OZ Academy), Ayako Sato (DIANA) & Rydeen Hagane (Pure J)
Tsukasa Fujimoto (Ice Ribbon) & Arisa Nakajima ( Seadlinnng) vs. Yurika Oka (SenJo) & AI Houzan (Marvelous)
Unagi Sayaka & Mina Shirakawa (Stardom) vs. Rin Kadokura (Marvelous) & Haruka Umesaki (DIANA)
Chihiro Hashimoto (SenJo) & Yu (EVE) vs. MIRAI (Stardom) & Maika Ozaki (Freelance)
Nagisa Nozaki (WAVE), SAKI (COLORS) & Takumi Iroha (Marvelous) vs. Mayumi Ozaki (OZ Academy), Maya Yukihi (OZ Academy) & Starlight Kid (Stardom)
The sheet breadth of promotions is impressive (no TJPW participation, but that is not a surprise given their isolationist stance) and there are several in-ring interactions (Chihiro Hashimoto-MIRAI and Takumi Iroha-Starlight Kid stand out in particular) that are especially exciting to look forward to. I will have much much more on this show as we get closer to the event. There is no word yet on where the show will air.
Meanwhile, just two matches have been announced for the April 16th show that will feature AJPW and NJPW talent—the symmetry between each of those companies’ 50th Anniversary years and the 60th anniversary of Korakuen Hall seem to be the impetus for their participation here. The card so far includes:
Togi Makabe and Tomoaki Honma (NJPW), Yuma Aoyagi, and Atsuki Aoyagi (AJPW) vs Tetsuya Naito, Shingo Takagi, BUSHI, and Hiromu Takahashi (NJPW)
Hirooki Goto, YOSHI-HASHI, and YOH vs Suwama, Shotaro Ashino & Dan Tamura (AJPW)
Potential highlights include Yuma Aoyagi-Tetsuya Naito (both in-terms of in-ring and the potential of them trolling each other), Hiromu-Atsuki Aoyagi, and Goto-Ashino. Suwama is also always very motivated and aggressive in these interpromotional environments—nothing less should be expected here.
GLEAT, meanwhile, finally held their second full LIDET UWF show at Shinjuku Face on March 5th, headlined by a grudge match between the two most promising shootstyle wrestlers in the country.
Yu Iizuka and Tetsuya Izuchi had two previous singles matches in Hard Hit and Heat-Up, but this was their highest-profile match by far—and promised to be the best example of a more high-speed version of shootstyle that is slowly taking hold. And the first 30 seconds were exactly that, with lightning fast strikes, blocks, counters, and reversals…all leading to Iizuka shooting for a takedown and getting absolutely obliterated by an Izuchi knee to the head (this was the best execution of this spot that I’ve seen since Shinsuke Nakamura and Toshiaki Kawada at the inuagural Wrestle Kingdom in 2007). Izuchi locked on a guillotine choke but Iizuka was already out and the match was stopped in just 39 seconds.
Given how highly-anticipated this match was, there is a temptation to be frustrated that it didn’t even go one minute before ending. As much as I wanted to see a classic between the two, this finish was PERFECT—it established that any match on a LIDET UWF show (even the main event) can end at any time, and it demonstrated that Izuchi is a lethal striker. The eventual rematch will be all the better for it and I cannot wait for whenever it happens.
The UWF side of GLEAT was always going to be a longer-term project, as there simply is not the volume of high-level wrestlers trained in that very specific and long-dormant style (on a national scale anyway, as companies like Hard Hit and HEAT UP have kept elements alive, if not with the same ruleset) as compared to the more traditional G-Pro Wrestling side. That has played itself out predictably, as the wrestling side of the company produced 18 full shows before the UWF side got to their second. This will hopefully begin to even out in the next few years as more potential wrestlers enter under Kiyoshi Tamura’s watchful eye.
That said, one of the really interesting aspects of the LIDET UWF story is seeing how the traditional pro wrestlers adapt and grow in this setting. Young star Soma Watanabe is a perfect example of this, as he had no shootstyle experience before joining the company and committing to both sides—going so far as to wrestle twice (once in each style/ruleset) on each of the first two combined major GLEAT shows at Tokyo Dome City Hall. On this show, he looked far more comfortable in grappling and submission sequences. We also got another glimpse of just how elite Just Tap Out is in developing wrestlers, as 19 year-old Akira Jumonji looked completely in his element in just just his 14th pro match (and his first under UWF rules).
When talking about impressive 19-year-olds in wrestling today, no one come close to Dragon Gate’s Takuma Fujiwara. With less than four months of experience, he is already wrestling at a level higher than most wrestlers several years into their careers. While he could not be more different stylistically, the only person I can compare him to in this way is Jun Akiyama—from the very moment he debuted, in his first pro match, he was a fully-formed pro wrestler capable of having great wrestlers with a variety of opponents. Fujiwara is the same in his own way, most easily comparable to a veteran Matt Sydal…but again, with just over three months of in-ring experience!
It is worth going out of your way to watch Fujiwara’s first-ever title challenge, facing Dragon Dia on March 5th Osaka’s Second Edion Arena. It’s not just Fujiwara’s ability to execute high-flying, intricate sequences (and he absolutely has that); it’s also his instincts and his ability to adapt on the fly when things go wrong in a match. As a side note, he also has the best sell of a back body drop of anyone I’ve seen in 35+ years of watching pro wrestling.
Also on the Dragon Gate front, my first 2022 Match of the Year Candidate from the promotion took place on that same March 5th show as the new GOLD CLASS stable (Kaito Ishida, Kota Minoura & Naruki Doi) defeated the Natural Vibes trio of Jacky Funky Kamei, Kzy & U-T to win the Open The Triangle Gate Titles. At just under 15 minutes there was zero wasted time or motion, with the last five minutes reaching the heights of some of the best six-man tags in the promotion’s history. This was an incredible showcase of the top-tier young talent Dragon Gate continues to churn out, with four of the six wrestlers in the match well under 30 years old.
On the STARDOM front, there was one match this week not featured on the NEW BLOOD 1 show that would have fit that show’s ethos perfectly. AZM (High Speed Champion) faced Hanan (Future of STARDOM Champion) in a non-title match on March 6th that was another “that’s why you should subscribe to Stardom World” examples. AZM had a great performance in control, showing a wider variety of kicks than we’ve seen while holding absolutely nothing back in the high-speed department—and Hanan had one of her most impressive outings to date in keeping up with a style that is somewhat out of her element. It’s wild to think how young/experienced both wrestlers are—AZM is 19 with 6.5 years of experience, Hanan is 17 with 4.5 years of experience—and how many more matches they are likely to have on much larger shows in the coming years.
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