The Best And Worst Of NJPW: Fighting Spirit Unleashed, Sept. 28, 2019

Previously on NJPW: Almost exactly one year ago, another show called Fighting Spirit Unleashed took place at the Walter Pyramid in Long Beach. Almost exactly one-third of the wrestlers on the broadcast of that show no longer work for NJPW or an NJPW-affiliated company.

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And now, the best and worst of the Fighting Spirit Unleashed event from September 28, 2019, at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City.

Worst: Wahmbulance

Although Fighting Spirit Unleashed in New York ended pretty strong and seemed to send the crowd home happy, it started by pissing everyone off. The show was supposed to start at seven o’clock and it ended up starting closer to eight-thirty. The NJPW World stream cut from the venue to the holding screen to the Japanese announce team (bizarrely, there was no live English commentary for this show) of Milano A.T., Shigeki Kyono, and Toru Yano, who at one point answered questions from fans on Twitter.

In the Hammerstein Ballroom, the audience became increasingly, audibly upset. Kaname Tezuka, who runs Bushiroad USA, entered the ring, bowed prostrate on the mat, and apologized profusely, which I think shocked everyone out of booing. Rocky Romero came out and apologized in English and threw people t-shirts, which people understood a lot more easily. (NJPW also issued an apology online later. )

Word went around that the show was starting late because the on-site ambulance required for a company to run a pro wrestling show in New York was stuck in traffic. Then PWInsider reported that the actual reason there was no ambulance was that someone had called the ambulance company and told them the show had been canceled, so there was no need to send the vehicle. New Japan didn’t come out and say this publicly, but people in the wrestling business including Gran Akuma, EVOLVE’s Gabe Sapolsky, possibly GCW’s Brett Lauderdale, and more seem to believe that’s what happened.

It’s a plausible explanation to my non-expert self just because so often when I talk to someone in or connected to the wrestling business I hear about similarly insane, underhanded stuff. I hope I’m not coming off like, “Aw, New Japan, poor baby,” here because they’re a big company full of experienced professionals, but the wrestling business is crazy a lot of the time and it sucks that there are people in it willing to do this type of behind-the-scenes carnie nonsense, no matter who they work for. Of course, it’s also possible NJPW just forgot to call an ambulance or something and someone put a fake story out there to try and cover it up because the wrestling business is crazy that way too, but PWInsider is pretty reliable.

Whatever the reason (and the reason really might have been corporate sabotage), Fighting Spirit Unleashed at the Hammerstein Ballroom started almost an hour and a half late. Then, after a video package, the opening match is TJP vs. Ren Narita. The thing about TJP is that he an extremely capable wrestler, but he is very annoying. Yes, his character is supposed to be annoying, but many people also just dislike experiencing him at all.

After over an hour of sitting around wondering when this thing was going to start, TJP vs. Narita is almost intolerable to watch even though it was technically fine. It also seems to go just as long as one would expect it to go on a show that started on time. This does not bode well for the remaining two Young Lion matches on the card, as well as for the show as a whole.

More Warmup Young Lion Matches!

Fortunately, though, the second Young Lion match is Lance Archer vs. Young Lion Cup winner Karl Fredericks and Archer is a maniac and a half. His mohawk is now split into two long braids that seem to extend from basically the same place in his head. He starts wrecking shop immediately and delivers all his signature insanity, including a win with the EBD Claw, and Fredericks does a good job responding to it. A show starting off with back-to-back matches in which heels defeat trainees after an hour-and-a-half delay is still not a great vibe though!

The show struggles a little more with the next match, Juice Robinson and Mikey Nicholls vs. LA Dojo guys Clark Connors and Alex Coughlin. Connors and Coughlin have already proven themselves in the ring and clearly have bright wrestling futures, but right now they and Nicholls are extremely bland. They are not the easiest to process at this point in the evening! Thankfully, though, the presence of flamboyant, high-energy babyface Juice Robinson is exactly what Fighting Spirit Unleashed needs at this moment. Nobody in this match wrestles badly, but Robinson keeps it on course by having appeal besides wrestling not-badly.

Best: Sexier Six-Mans

Fighting Spirit Unleashed really picks up with the following match, Roppongi 3K (Sho, Yoh, and Rocky Romero) vs. Bullet Club’s own Tama Tonga, Tanga Loa, and Jado. It’s half shiny babyfaces and all big personalities (Tonga especially looks like he’s thriving in this charged atmosphere) who people know very well. The match is energetic and fun with a cool finish – a toss of a human being into a Gun Stun. It’s all very easy to get into and respond to and this mix of quality wrestling and well-established characters gives the show strong positive momentum.

The following match is the one I was most looking forward on this show and still the one I think I will remember the most: Bushi, Shingo Takagi, and Tetsuya Naito vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi and the Rock ‘N’ Roll Express. This surreal and charismatic combination of people leads to a surreal and charismatic match. Tanahashi and Ricky Morton do tag teamwork on Shingo and Naito spits in Ricky Morton’s eyes. The RNRs do a tope suicidas. Tanahashi pairs off with all the L.I.J. guys for some solid wrestling involving no senior citizens. The RNRs don’t get to pin any New Japan wrestlers in their primes (not even the junior), but they get to do a victory pose because Tana does (on the junior.) Overall, it’s everything one could realistically want from this match and a really good time.

The Amazing Red, Tomohiro Ishii, and Hirooki Goto (which might be an all Chaos team, but Chaos hardly exists as its own entity at this point so I’m not sure how to care if Guest Star Number Twenty-Seven joins it) is less weird and therefore less memorable, but it’s also pretty fun. Amazing Red showed he’s still extremely good at wrestling back in the Super J-Cup and he shows it again here. The moments of Ishii taking on Chase Owens and being In Peril sound a lot more over than Goto taking on White, the part of the match connected to an actual current feud, but the Goto vs. White stuff is solid too. Goto vs. Gedo, the pairing that ends the match also works on multiple levels.

Worst: The NEVER Over Championship Match

This show’s semi-main event is Kenta defending the NEVER Openweight Championship against Yoshi-Hashi (because Yoshi-Hashi brawled with him on the Destruction tour and never even pinned him.) This is an extremely house show championship match with what seemed like (and turned out to be) an very obvious outcome. If it happened in front of a crowd in Japan who was sympathetic toward Yoshi-Hashi like most crowds in Japan are, maybe it would have been more watchable. But here, the audience boos Yoshi-Hashi so much before he even starts wrestling, and not instead of, but in addition to booing Kenta. The combination of heel heat and babyface rejection does not make for a good atmosphere for a championship match, but at least it’s kind of funny?

But unfortunately, it doesn’t stay funny for the entirety of a twenty-five-minute match. Kenta does things for heel heat that worked a lot better recently against the high-energy Ibushi, but here just slow the match down, while doing little to make most of the crowd less hostile towards Yoshi-Hashi. You know a match isn’t working when the crowd chants “Tap!” at the babyface – which is a dick move, but in their defense, the match felt like it had gone on for so long at that point that I just wanted it to be over too, and I’ve liked some Yoshi-Hashi matches this year.

I guess you could say this match not working is partly the crowd’s fault for not appreciating the talent and being jerks, but it’s also the promotion’s fault for booking a twenty-five-minute match nobody cared about or ever thought could end in a title change and then keeping it a twenty-five-minute, slow match even after the show started an hour and a half late. You can’t just put any two NJPW wrestlers in one of these types of matches and have it happen at any time and in any context and have it be good and something people get into. Ultimately, Tiger Hattori coming out and running off G.O.D. (before anyone else from Chaos, none of whom are seventy years old!) might be the most memorable part of this match besides the sheer negativity of the audience during the entrances.

Bonus Best: OMG Babies!

Speaking of Tiger Hattori, though, his U.S. retirement ceremony was really sweet. He’s been in the foreign talent liaison for a while and is known to be a fan of New York City in real life, so maybe this meant something to him beyond just a gimmick for a tour. If it was just a gimmick for the tour though, he still seemed very sincere and chill about it. And his grand-kids were there! And Tanahashi cried! And at that point in the show, between the RNRs and Jay White, it sounded like the crowd response for an old man retiring wasn’t reluctant at all, so it was clearly going well.

Best: King Of New York

There’s no reluctant enthusiasm for the main event either, which is a Super Preview Tag of Kazuchika Okada and Kota Ibushi vs. Evil and Sanada. Evil and Sanada both seem extremely doomed in their upcoming matches at King of Pro Wrestling, but NJPW is doing its best to still keep these young stars looking good.

In the previous night’s main event, this same match but with Tanahashi and Naito each on the appropriate team, Tanahashi actually pinned Naito for the win. I don’t even know the last time Naito was the most pinnable person in a six-man tag and pinning him in a tag match wasn’t something that immediately started a feud (unless all these Naito vs. Tanahashi interactions means they’re reviving their feud later this fall or something.) But the point is, in Boston, Evil and Sanada get to keep looking strong ahead of two of their highest-profile matches of the year (that they will definitely lose) and that continues in New York. (I have no idea how Sanada won’t come out of losing two challenges and three out of four matches with Okada in a year without looking like a chump and I continue to not get this Sanada-Okada feud, but hey, they’re doing right by him in tag matches?)

Putting me going Charlie Kelly for a second trying to figure out some of this booking aside, the New York main event is a fun and well-executed Road To show main event tag match, with all the wrestlers working well together in front of a now-receptive crowd. Evil looks great in that whole stretch of offense that ends with him pinning Ibushi for the win and his post-match promo – all in English except for the very end of his catchphrase – rules. Evil might be too highly regarded and popular now to be truly underrated, but I think the fact that he’s still not regularly in singles title pictures makes him somewhat underrated, and this is a really cool moment for him.

Overall, NJPW’s latest international event continued some major trends of their expansion, for better and worse. The actual wrestling show entertained and satisfied people for the most part, but the event was plagued by production problems and other messiness that never seem to happen with their shows in Japan. While some of these issues weren’t their fault, they should obviously try as hard as possible to have them not happen in the future. People are generally really nice to New Japan, but their honeymoon phase with U.S. audiences might not last forever, especially if NJPW starts feeling like a regular fixture in the live wrestling show scene rather than a special guest. Wrestling fans are fickle, as a wise Washingtonian environmentalist has observed.

I’ll see you back here after NJPW heads back to Japan and has their next live broadcast show – a New Japan Road show on October 7 – as we continue the trek towards King of Pro Wrestling and the mysterious two-day Wrestle Kingdom further down the road.