8 Great is our new, extremely original listicle series where we take a break from snark and negativity to focus on the positive and list eight of our favorite examples of something great from pro wrestling. Matches, performers, shows – whatever is helping us enjoy wrestling in a particular week, that’s what this feature is all about.
Two weeks ago Brandon shared eight great Dustin Rhodes matches, last week Elle highlighted LGBTQ wrestlers, and this week I’m basically using With Spandex’s new Friday positivity column to do a midyear report for New Japan Pro Wrestling. But instead of the usual Best and Worst of NJPW, this will just highlight the highlights of the promotion so far this year, with the NJPW wrestling year starting on January 5, the night after the January 4 season finale that is Wrestle Kingdom.
This isn’t an attempt to rank the eight objectively best NJPW matches of the year (though I did pick matches that I thought fit the criteria for a good match I used here), but a selection (with links) of eight matches from New Year Dash!! 2019 through the present that I recommend.
- Yuji Nagata vs. Tomohiro Ishii – New Japan Cup. Yuji Nagata is a fifty-year-old wrestler who understands that he’s a fifty-year-old wrestler. He can’t go as hard as he did last decade anymore, but Ishii pushes him to goes as hard as he still can in the first round of this year’s New Japan Cup and it’s awesome.
- Manabu Nakanishi vs. Yoshi-Hashi – New Japan Cup. Nakanishi is also in his fifties, but way less mobile and able to go hard than Nagata. However, he does everything he still can and possibly more when he gets the rare opportunity to have a singles match. If you’re familiar with how he usually wrestles these days and haven’t seen this match, please watch for the 2019 Nakanishi version of a plancha to the outside.
- Tetsuya Naito vs. Kota Ibushi – New Japan Cup, G1 Supercard, and Dominion. In their matches this year, Naito and Ibushi pushed each other to be more and more violent and dangerous, with most of that danger and violence inflicted to each other’s neck and head areas. By the end of the series, this got to a point that made some viewers very uncomfortable and generated a lot of discussion. That being said, these two wrestlers are masters of their craft, are athletically gifted, and have off-the-charts chemistry with each other, so their New Japan Cup match, at the very least, is definitely worth checking out.
- Best of the Super Juniors runs: Shingo Takagi, TAKA Michinoku, and Rocky Romero. Takagi is many people’s BOSJ 26 MVP and will be in the main part of this list, but it’s worth noting how consistently good his tournament run was. Before he got injured, Michinoku was a more surprising highlight, using his veteran skills to bring out the best in his opponents while looking good himself. The Rocky Romero character didn’t win much in BOSJ, but the performer was definitely one of the winners of the tournament. He had good matches with a variety of tones with a variety of opponents who had a variety of wrestling styles and showed that though he hasn’t been the most prominent member of the junior heavyweight division lately, he can still go with the best of them.
1. Tetsuya Naito vs. Taichi – The New Beginning In Sapporo
Taichi vs. Naito was Taichi’s first feud as a heavyweight and it resulted in a surprisingly good match. Their bout for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship at the New Beginning in Sapporo brings out a side of Taichi that’s helped him become increasingly popular since then – the secret badass within this usually chickenshit heel, with hidden depths of fighting spirit beneath the usual gimmickry and trolling.
After trying to win the match before it even begins via Suzukigun ambush, Taichi ends up stepping up to Naito’s level, which means not only going hard but doing it in more extreme-looking ways than other wrestlers. This feud and match kicked off what has been and promises to continue to be a really good year for the elevated Holy Emperor and in itself is just a lot of fun.
2. Takashi Iizuka, Minoru Suzuki, and Taichi vs. Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Toru Yano, and Kazuchika Okada – New Japan Road, Takashi Iizuka Retirement Match
After over thirty years in NJPW and about a decade as an increasingly raving monster man, Takashi Iizuka retired from pro wrestling. His final match was heavy on the melodrama and character work and emotionally wrapped up the Bald Malice’s career without anyone breaking kayfabe. Both the audience and Iizuka completely commit to the bit to the end. I’m linking to the Japanese commentary version here because announcer Shinpei Nogami, who Iizuka abused for years and does again at the beginning of this match, actually starts crying as he joins Tenzan and the audience in futilely trying to send this old man out sane. This isn’t the type of match that NJPW is known for (make sure to watch the subtitled video above because there’s actually important dialogue) but everyone pulls it off.
3. Roppongi 3K vs. Los Ingobernables de Japon – 47th Anniversary Show and Aki no Kuni SENGOKU EMAKI
Unsurprisingly, most of New Japan’s best and highest profile matches this year were one-on-one, but the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship feud was also a highlight of this spring. The L.I.J. duo of Bushi and Shingo Takagi felt more like a vehicle for the latter by the end of their 2018 Super Junior Tag League run but became a really good and cool tag team during that time as well. Roppongi 3K has been a really good, more classic tag team for a while now, and both Sho and Yoh seem guaranteed to break out as singles stars in the future.
Their matches together this year showed off both excellent tag team wrestling – especially the one at the Anniversary Show in which R3K finally regain the tag titles – and, by the time of their rematch on the Wrestling Dontaku tour, promising singles feuds – especially Sho vs. Shingo – due to pay off during Best of the Super Juniors. Apologies for cheating on this top eight list even more, but I honestly think if you want to watch one of these matches, you’ll really get more out of watching them both in order.
4. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Shota Umino – New Japan Cup
If you watch NJPW’s undercards, you know dojo trainee Shota Umino, son of referee “Red Shoes” Umino, is the chosen one of his class. This couldn’t have been clearer than when the kid earmarked to be the company’s future ace got a spot in the larger-than-usual New Japan Cup and was scheduled to face The Ace in the first round. Of course, Umino fell to Hiroshi Tanahashi, but he exited the ring with his potential as a future star and a good wrestler clearer than ever.
5. Kazuchika Okada vs. Sanada – New Japan Cup Final
Another wrestler pushed more into the spotlight in the first half of this year was Sanada. His new rivalry with Okada isn’t that compelling yet because Okada’s beaten him every time they’ve wrestled (though this year’s G1 could change that) but Sanada has gotten closer to beating NJPW’s top star than a lot of people. Even if you don’t end up liking these two together, it’s worth checking out this now high-profile pairing that live audiences in Japan have been really into. It’s also given us the best Big Okada Match TM of 2019 so far with the New Japan Cup final, a match that shows that after a months-long slump, the Rainmaker is finally ready to retake his rightful place at the top of the company.
6. Tomohiro Ishii vs. Evil – Wrestling Dontaku
One of the best types of feuds NJPW does is when two guys start hitting each other and then cannot stop hitting each other and oh my gosh we better give them a singles match because the violence between these two men cannot be contained to being a part of tag match or even stopped by ringing the bell. Ishii is TOUGH AND HARD and Evil is trying to be tougher and harder. The moves aren’t too fancy, but every move in their match feels like it matters. Overall, it’s really hard-hitting and fun and shows off the best of these two performers.
7. Sho vs. Shingo Takagi – Best of the Super Juniors 26
There’s a similar dynamic to the Sho vs. Shingo Takagi rivalry, which finally pays off in a one-on-one match in the first round of Best of the Super Juniors, and boy, does it ever pay off. We see the work Sho has done to try and level up enough to be the one to beat the undefeated Dragon who took his spot as the most physically powerful junior heavyweight when he arrived in New Japan last fall. Sho’s new techniques influenced by Brazilian jiu-jitsu training look good and he and Takagi have a competitive tough-guy banger. But after winning his most difficult match yet, Takagi comes out the other side looking more like a boss than ever.
8. Shingo Takagi vs. Will Ospreay – Best of the Super Juniors 26 Final
It turns out the one to end Takagi’s eight-month streak is Will Ospreay, and the Aerial Assassin does so in another match that highlights the strengths of both wrestlers. The Ospreay vs. Takagi BOSJ 26 final incorporates everything we know about both men plus plenty of crazy-impressive athletic feats without feeling like a spot-fest. Definitely watch this insanity if you haven’t already!
After watching every dang match New Japan Pro Wrestling has put on this year, those are my recommendations. If you think this list is great, terrible, or something in between, and/or if you want to make your own recommendations from this time period, make sure to give your take in the comments.