Imp’s NJPW Adventure
On May 1st Japan’s Hesei era came to an end. An unprecedented occasion, with the emperor abdicating the throne to his son rather than holding on till he kicks it. A culture anew, a time of reflection and hope as a nation looks on to the next era.
For almost two decades of the Heisei era Hiroshi Tanahashi held the torch for the promotion up high. With one final display at Wrestle Kingdom 13 – the last of the era – he showed the flame hadn’t quite died out yet and was still kindled strong. NJPW’s time of reflection if you will, celebrating the era gone with one last great dance.
Now with Wrestling Dontaku, New Japan looks forward. At their first show of the new era the question became: which wrestler will rule the Reiwa era?
Will Okada continue to raise their banner high and proud? Will the immensely popular (especially in Japan) Los Ingobernables de Japon define the years to come? What about the Western push? Bullet Club have been recruiting some real ammunition, perhaps Jay White wasn’t ‘BS’ing by announcing we were already in the Cutthroat Era?
Madison Square Garden was New Japan’s last major show of the Heisei period, now they look ahead to Dominion next month and have kicked off into the new world with pace. 3 championship matches over the course of two nights: the NEVER Openweight, IWGP Jr Heavyweight and IWGP Heavyweight Championships were all defended.
The Best of the Super Juniors tournament (BOSJ) and Dominion are right round the corner. With the latter being NJPW’s arguably second biggest show of the year, this era looks to be kicking off with one hell of a bang!
So let’s take a wee look at those championship matches, how they went down and how they foreshadowed some immediate futures for the promotion.
First off an honourable mention to the special singles match between Tomohiro Ishii vs EVIL from the May 4th show, an incredibly even, heavyweight slugfest. With the King of Darkness stepping up and taking it toe to toe in one hell of a match, of which seemed to just escalate and escalate with no clear end in sight.
Fantastic contest, well worth the watch that match. Especially if you’re a fan of that hard hitting Japanese Strong Style. A sign of things to come the Los Ingobernables de Japon men stepping up, perhaps?
Wrestling Dontaku 2019
NEVER Openweight Championship
Jeff Cobb vs TAICHI
Ma boi Jeff Cobb finally getting a proper run in NJPW! Honestly though, this is the kind of New Japan match that I can understand a lot of people going, “Meh,” at and forgetting about pretty quickly. A pretty slow affair for a large portion of the match, spotted with the odd awesome move and then turned up a notch for the end. The New Japan Special, if you will.
But for me these two told a story you don’t see too often, that of the mightily talented foreign wrestler somewhat out of his element. Cobb may have been too strong for his opponent, but he eventually got worn down by the more strike focused Japanese style from TAICHI.
The challenger found ways to slip out of Cobb’s Tour of the Islands, at times hitting something like a jumping kick or Saito Suplex to immediately down the Hawaiian. He was utilizing his agility against the bigger man, but as the match went on we learnt that Cobb’s not half agile himself. The American did catch TAICHI by surprise, but at the end of the day Cobb brought honour to a Suzuki-Gun fight.
TAICHI’s antics did push Cobb to elevate the damage inflicted – almost killing the Suzuki-Gun man with a devastating Gutwrench Sit Down Piledriver, which was insane! – however if anything that just awoke the dragon inside of TAICHI. We got to see the ability this man has as Cobb simply couldn’t keep up with the speed and ferocity of the man’s strikes, the challenger stopped pissing about and actually took it to the champ.
TAICHI was trying to push Cobb’s buttons, but in reality it was the champion who pushed his opponent into changed his tact.
Cobb had learned over the match as well, he caught TAICHI’s attempt at a follow up strike and was also ready when the man next slipped out of the Tour of the Islands. The US Olympian clocked him with a lariat and Standing Moonsault combo; his incredible strength and agility combined. Learning from earlier in the match, Cobb had adapted and all signs pointed to this match being over.
Unfortunately, when you’re wrestling a Suzuki-Gun member that only means one thing, it’s time to start cheating. TAICHI pushed the referee and hit a low blow whilst he was turned, leading to Cobb being on the back foot once again as he only just managed to kick out at two. This is the side of TAICHI we expected: taking shortcuts when he’s asked just to dig that bit deeper.
That was enough to swing the match, with Jeff Cobb never really dodging TAICHI’s kicks – rather preferring to absorb them like a muscle sponge – later on they started doing real damage and presented that opening. The champ was out, a shock win for TAICHI, but the story was Cobb was not prepared for the Japanese style, was not prepared for the Suzuki-Gun antics and payed the price.
Oh well, was nice seein’ yer for a wee minute, Jeff!
IWGP Jr Heavyweight Championship
Dragon Lee vs “Bone Soldier” Taiji Ishimori
The Junior wrestlers main eventing in an awesome display of the style! Just in time to get us nice and hyped for the Best of the Super Juniors tournament later this month.
We saw mind games from Ishimori trying to unmask the champion, Dragon Lee doing his best to keep the title warm for Hiromu Takahashi’s return challenge and of course lots and lots of flips. Well, to be fair these are two of the strongest competitors in the division, so this was a little different to style we’ve become accustomed to under the reign of Ospreay last year. Both men have one hell of a German Suplex under their belts, with Ishimori’s sliding variation possibly being my personal favourite in use today.
That said, for me this match came down to cementing one character aspect: Ishimori really forcing Dragon Lee to show he has the heart and will of a champion. That inner strength to fight through all the pain, stand back up and return the favour in kind. Because even though we’ve seen Dragon Lee in New Japan before, it’s only ever really been in short spells. Be it CMLL tours or BOSJ, he’s never really suck around for that long to truly cement his character to the Japanese fans.
His talent shines through though, because in spite of that the Japanese fans absolutely love the man. The numerous classics against Hirmou certainly helped, but Friday night at Wrestling Dontaku the crowd were firmly behind their new champion. This was built upon wonderfully, with Dragon Lee walking out with Hiromu’s Kamaitachi mask (the name the Japanese man wrestled under during his time in Mexico) and seemingly sending a message of honour and respect to his injured adversary before the match.
It’s fair to say Ishimori wasn’t as honourable though, attempting to rip of Dragon Lee’s mask and gain any advantage he could. Which has worked in the past, but in actuality it was a slip up of the young Mexican’s making (he’s only 23!) that led to the challenger snatching momentum for periods. Be it out of desperation to make a mark as champion, but Ishimori dominated for a while after Lee went for just one too big a spot and payed for it.
The Bullet Club Junior played it smart, taking his time and building up his offence to break down the champion. It worked, he even managed nail his double knee Tombstone finisher, with Lee kicking out right at the last and proving his worth after suffering so much damage. Ishimori had shown no sign of panic, but when he couldn’t put the champion away you could see it all over his face.
In the last match I said how Jeff Cobb made the error of bringing Honour, well Dragon Lee is a lot more accustomed to the ‘cheekiness’ of certain individuals on the New Japan roster. He got back at Ishimori with Germans of his own, slapping him with the hand ‘anything you can do I can do better’. Causing the challenger to try and up the ante, which led him straight down the same rabbit hole that had cost Dragon Lee the momentum in the first place.
The champion then destroyed Ishimori with a sliding german, ‘stiff as fuck’ knee strike and Standing Suplex Powerbomb to win the match. With each move catching the challenger with such force that it really could have even been over after just the German, nevermind that devastating knee and Powerbomb.
Dragon Lee proved he has the grit to dig down deep and bring out that something special to end any chance for his opponent in a sudden moment. A mighty step in proving himself as champion, the question is: with BOSJ on the horizon, will he hold onto that title long enough to defend against Hiromu?
IWGP Heavyweight Championship
Kazuchika Okada vs SANADA
The rematch after the two’s fantastic New Japan Cup Final offering, Okada now returned from America with the championship and defending against the ma that gave him one hell of a challenge just one month ago.
Immediately you could tell SANADA meant business, sporting a new attire and a FINALLY newly trimmed beard. I mean, he somehow made that wild thing look cool as hell, but the fact he trimmed it right down tells you how seriously he took this title match. “Envisioning himself as champion,” as Kevin Kelly put it on commentary.
Outside of his calm exterior, would SANADA show signs of nerves though? This was only his second title match and he’s grown so much in the one year and a couple months since the last one, people are really rallying behind him as a name for the future. Which this show is arguably all about: looking forward.
However, in a surprise, it was Okada who took the gamble first, taking the match outside and going to dive over the barricade. The champ ended up hurting his knee, resulting in the majority of the match being in SANADA’s favour. The momentum completely swung, all of a sudden it had become the challenger in control and the champion having to fight his way back in.
If anything Okada only just survived with desperation counters, one in particular to SANADA’s Moonsault was right at the last second. Which in any normal Okada title defence could have spelled the end for the challenger, but here it just brought both guys back to even. Okada getting up his knees in reality had only gotten him back into the match, now on a more level playing field with both guys damaged as hell.
This is New Japan, when that latter half of a lengthy, around 40 minute, match is reached the competitors truly start to show their inner warrior. Both men showed their strength with counter after counter, ending with an amazing sequence with both men using every ounce of strength they had left. Chaining Okada’s Tombstone attempt, SANADA flipped over into a Skull End submission, countered back into a Tombstone, Skull End, Tombstone, Skull End, Tombstone; again and again. Both men seemingly more and more exhausted after each reversal.
In the end neither man won out and they resorted back to strikes, attempting to wear the other man down. Once again SANADA really brought it to the champion, this was more than digging deep as they’d already been through that, this was the will of an Ace. That factor that had helped drive Okada through his incredible, legendary reign, was back on display here at Wrestling Dontaku. The Rainmaker is back with the gold once again, if he gets in his groove who is there top him making the Reiwa era his?
The Cold Skull felt like a true adversary, earning the champion’s respect for the second time in a month and setting himself apart as someone to keep an eye on in the near future. With EVIL’s top notch performance against Ishii earlier in the night as well, the two LIJ men made a real statement at Wrestling Dontaku. Who knows, 2019’s G1 Climax could be the year these men finally have a damn impressive run.
But speaking of the future…
A Quick Look Forward
Okada’s celebrations wouldn’t last long, a sudden interruption halted all of that and set social media alight. A video played on the titantron, in frame was none other than Chris f’n Jericho! Setting the challenge for Okada in the main event of Dominion in June, a kind of opponent the champion really doesn’t have that much experience against.
Maybe the closest comparison could be Suzuki, but even though he’d never say it The King does have modicums of respect within him. Chris Jericho has none of that, as he showed in his feud with Naito, he really is a man that doesn’t care about anything other than his own personal chaos. The man calls himself the biggest wrestling star in the world, taking New Japan’s true biggest star in the current Ace.
Jericho somewhat acted as an embodiment of Naito’s self-confidence last year, which will be quite the contrast as he goes against the cockiest lad of the joint in Okada. Will the veteran surprise us all at Dominion for the second year running? Or will The Rainmaker brush the Canadian aside in ushering in the new era?
Either way, as I said, New Japan is kicking off the Reiwa era with a bang.
Toodles chaps, assen na yo.
Email Imp – [email protected]
This Saturday at 12EST LOP Radio celebrates breaking 7 Million listens (?!) with a special featuring all the hosts from across the brand!
Imp’s on LOP Radio every Thursday with Perfect 10 Wrestling! Last week he was joined by Burn to recap the whole of WrestleMania Weekend!
Imp’s most recent columns:
Imp’s NJPW Adventure – The Story of Hiroshi Tanahashi Part 1: Becoming The Ace
Imp’s NJPW Adventure – The Story of Hiroshi Tanahashi Part 2: The Ace of the Universe
Imp’s WWE Adventure – Superstar Shake-Up Review: “Fox Is Coming.”
Imp’s WWE Adventure – Last Week Tonight with John Oliver Puts the Spotlight on Vince McMahon