The Best and Worst of NJPW: The New Beginning in Sapporo 2020

Previously on NJPW: Jushin Thunder Liger wrestled his last two matches, Tetsuya Naito won two belts in two days, and our friends from CMLL came and hung out for like two weeks.

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And now, the Best and Worst of the New Beginning in Sapporo, which took place on February 1-2, 2020 at Hokkaido Prefectural Sports Center.

Mostly Worst: An Unremarkable Undercard

Both nights of the New Beginning in Sapporo had some really entertaining matches and moments but also started with a skippable hour or so. El Phantasmo and Taiji Ishimori continue to exist as a tag team, the Yuya Uemura-Tiger Mask mentorship relationship continues to be a good look for both of them, Henare makes you hope he really does get that NEVER title shot, and Nakanishi wrestles a little more than usual because he’s retiring soon. The Chaos and Taguchi vs. Suzukigun eight-man on February 1 is more energetic than the matches with Young Lions in them, but it’s not really memorable. The beginning chunks of these shows mostly just don’t leave a strong impression.

Worst: Kidding Around

The worst part of the first part of both nights in Sapporo is Gabriel Kidd’s New Japan debut match against El Phantasmo. Kidd’s a UK indie wrestler who Shibata publicly invited to the LA Dojo at a RevPro show and he’s been training there for a while, but you wouldn’t know it from anything about this match besides the dropkick and Boston Crab Kidd uses toward the end and his awkward baby bird skinhead. The NJPW dojo system is all about strong fundamentals and fighting spirit, but this new NJPW dojo boy is introduced in a match that’s almost entirely ELP shtick and Kidd yelling at him about it. I’ve heard good things about Gabriel Kidd, but nearly everything about this match was bad.

Best: We Just Get New Hiromu Takahashi Matches All The Time Now?!

Fortunately, Los Ingoberables de Japon were also in Sapporo to largely carry the undercards by being very popular and good at wrestling. Ryu Lee and Robbie Eagles vs. Bushi and Hiromu on February 1 is a quality, aggressive tag match and Bullet Club targeting Takahashi at the beginning of their match with L.I.J. on Feburary 2 quickly gets the crowd extra invested. Hiromu Takahashi brings his own special power because, in addition to being popular and good at wrestling, he hasn’t wrestled in Sapporo since his injury, so the crowd responds to him like he’s someone they had heard was resurrected from the dead.

The Naito vs. Kenta stuff is also boosted by aggression and crowd hype, though their actual match doesn’t seem like it’s going to be on the level of a Dragon Lee vs. Kamaitachi. Kenta is still killing it at promos and Twitter (he gets one of his posts edited into one of his promos!), but some of the stuff he makes fun of fans for tweeting at him are valid complaints. Kenta actually would be a lame champion and it’s stupid that his Wrestle Kingdom attack earned him the type of title shot it took Naito like nine months to get. Just because people said these things to Kenta in a dumb way doesn’t mean NJPW isn’t worse as a promotion for them being true. All his points about Twitter are good though!

Best: With Special Guest Star Jon Moxley

Just as fun preview tags as the L.I.J. one are the matches that team Jon Moxley up with members of Chaos against Suzukigun, even though he doesn’t join Taguchi in any butt-based comedy. Moxley showing up on February 1 looking like Snake Plissken with his camos and AEW-continuity eyepatch and having that pre-match moment with Okada was the most Mox in NJPW has felt like a comic book crossover, in the best way.

These tags also solidify the tone of Mox and Suzuki’s feud, and it’s one in which jokes are funny allowed and encouraged. Both men are hamming it up and clearly having a great time, and given the differences in their wrestling styles and the ways they’ve come to earn their reputations as “violent” wrestlers, I think that’s probably the best approach for their singles match. Mox, like Kenta, talked a lot about how important it was for him to be actually wrestling after he left WWE, and, like Kenta, leaving WWE has allowed him to bring out the best of his inner entertainer.

A Less Than Special Singles Match

At the point when Evil vs. Ishii happened in 2019, I thought it was NJPW’s best matches of the year. Their 2020 rematch was not bad, but nothing made it really stand out like last year’s. It felt like one of those solid second or third tournament matches on G1 cards that a lot of people end up forgetting about because something bigger happens on the same show. That’s partly because it’s sandwiched between Moxkada and Shingoto, but also because nothing about it put the “special” in “special singles match.” Evil and Ishii both still kick ass a lot; this match just only kicked ass a little.

Best: NEVERending Possibilities

Hirooki Goto vs. Shingo Takagi is a rubber match, a grudge match, a match for the NEVER Openweight Championship, and the establishment of a new player in New Japan’s big match scene. It works really well as all of those things and just two samurai enthusiasts trying to out-lariat each other.

Goto and Takagi have hated each other since August for the same reasons they would make a kickass tag team or buddy cop duo (Shingo would be the guy who doesn’t play by the rules and Goto would be the veteran who’s too old for this, obviously.) The way their feud, their positions in the company, and the NEVER title picture easily mesh. Goto just won the NEVER Openweight Championship for the hundredth time in a match he really wanted to win but didn’t really want to win because of the title. To Goto, this was a sign he and the belt are meant to be together; to Shingo, it’s another example of his borderline doppelganger handling something in a way he could do better.

The match, like their previous ones, embraces Goto and Shingo’s in-ring similarities. They both try to no-sell lariats, they have a little exchange around the spite-induced move variation that is the Takagi GTR, and they repeatedly headbutt each other at the same time because “showing that you’re willing to die like a man on the battlefield” and “protecting your brain cells” aren’t always compatible. Sincerely, though, one of the match’s most exciting moments is right after the headbutts when these two forearm each other in such a way that you can feel what the elusive “fighting spirit” is probably supposed to be. They succeed in playing the hypermasculine warrior thing super straight and you really feel that there’s some power involved apart from conditioning that allows these guys to keep hitting each other in the neck.

Stylistically, as is pointed out in-universe, this is very much a NEVER Openweight Championship match and it elevates Shingo Takagi to singles champ status in a way that fits both him and the championship. And while it stays true to the NEVER spirit, it’s results also opened up new possibilities. Takagi’s first defense is almost definitely going to be against Ishii, a NEVER scene regular, but NJPW also set up potential matches with Henare, which could make him seem less like a fifth-year senior, and, more likely, Sho, which would be a still-rare openweight match for the openweight title.

The Sho stuff is especially good, calling back to their rivalry last year and using what’s happened since then to move their dynamic forward. That little salute from Shingo to Sho on commentary during the match and their moment afterward, plus Shingo’s line backstage about being more motivated by Sho’s presence, are all quality arch-rivalry material. Chef’s kiss, as the kids were saying like six months ago.

Best: Open The Good Trios Matches Gate

A big part of why NJPW isn’t really a destination for tag team wrestling is because most of it’s matches that aren’t one-on-one are more about setting up one-on-one matches than about being good matches in themselves. But since the L.I.J. trio of Evil, Bushi, and Shingo won the NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship at Wrestle Kingdom, this group has consistently produced actual good tag matches, first with Evil/Shingo vs. Goto/Ishii at New Year Dash!!, then the more comedic trios matches at Fantastica Mania, and most recently the February 2 match between our champs and their next challengers, Goto, Ishii, and Robbie Eagles.

This match and the upcoming 6-Man Championship bout are attached to singles feuds, first Evil vs. Ishii and Shingo vs. Goto and now Shingo vs. Ishii and Bushi vs. Eagles, but there’s enough serious, quality tag teamwork going on that in builds interest in their next trios match too. Ishii and Goto hitting ushigoroshis at the same time was probably my favorite move of night and the Chaos family bonding with Eagles, who doesn’t look like a chump or a sidekick for the first time in about eight months, was one of its better character moments. And we’re definitely, finally getting Ishii-Takagi II out of this! Nobody better say anything bad about the NEVER titles again! Until the next time they get bad!

Like And Make Sure To Give Us Five Stars

Will Ospreay vs. Zack Sabre Jr. starts with like seven minutes that reminds you that Ospreay is good at mat wrestling when a guy like ZSJ or Okada is in charge of the mat wrestling, and that’s what this match is all about. This RevPro British Heavyweight Championship bout is like one of those biopics that mostly exists to be an award-winning tour de force performance for the lead actor, those movies whose titles tend to be just its subject’s first or last name. Ospreay’s not just A Flips Guy or a Dives Guy or a Junior Heavyweight/Little Guy, as he’s been crying about online and in promos and on t-shirts for years! Look, he can do flippy stuff and grappling and a part that’s all strikes and chops and a part that’s all kicks and a part where he no-sells and flexes because he has just enough muscle mass to do that now and being a great wrestler means you do literally everything possible in every match.

With ZSJ performing well in his supporting role, this all comes together to make a certified Five Star Match TM, a match designed for people who watch wrestling while judging it like a figure skating competition. This isn’t that trashy pro wrestling you watched as a kid; this is top-notch prestige wrestling that you can use to explain to someone that pro wrestling is Art, actually. If wrestlers have good-looking costumes or a catchphrase or muscles or a good tan or seem like they could ever get in fight in real life, what they do is embarrassing carnie stuff, but it’s between two guys who only hit the weights when they absolutely can’t avoid it and have talked about watching NOAH tapes, what they’re doing is art, I think.

Anyway, this was a Great Match in a way that made me want to make fun of the culture surrounding how ZSJ and Ospreay became two of the most lauded wrestlers in the world (I’m still working out the process behind these rankings, but I’m pretty sure cutting promos in English and being nerdy get you additional points and working on the WWE main roster or in Mexico takes you completely out of the running.) A lot of talent went into this match and if you enjoy these performers and haven’t seen this it yet, you should definitely watch it. And if you don’t like that someone didn’t review it with the sincerity it deserves, I’m sure you can find a lot of other people on the internet digging into it in a more reverent way.

Best: Zima S J

(Alternate heading for this is Worst: I Am A Baby And I Don’t Like When Things I Like Change To Things I Don’t Like.)

The weirdest development in NJPW this year so far has to be the Zima sponsorship. Now, instead of the visual of champions going backstage and celebrating their accomplishments with or adjacent to beer like regular people, we get the visual of champions going backstage and sitting next to Zima, a beverage no one would ever chug victoriously except as a joke. Maybe this isn’t weird for the Japanese audience, but to me, this seems like turning a cool, human element of NJPW into something corporate and confusing.

Fortunately, Zack Sabre Jr. also acknowledges how weird this Zima situation is, at least for non-Japanese people, by insisting that NJPW “Get the Zimas on ice! No warm Zimas!” after his preview tag and going further with the bit after his title win. He feeds his belt Zima and leaves with multiple bottles stuffed in his trunks. I’m still annoyed by this development (that I might just not be getting because of cultural differences), but I still checked if there were any Zimas left at the closest BevMo because of these promos. There are not, so I’m pretty sure Zima should relaunch them in the U.S. and UK with Zack Sabre Jr. as their sarcastic spokesperson.

Worst: Okada’s Future Starts Slow

In both main events at the Tokyo Dome this year, Okada looked like a wrestling god. In the main event of Night 2 in Sapporo this year, Okada looked like a tired, hurting man. When he took the match back in the ring afterward hitting Taichi with a fantastic crossbody over the barricade, it proceeded very slowly and unremarkably. Taichi performed with more intensity most of the time, but not so much that it countered the overall pace of the match. (His new entrance video in with Miho in the mansion that puts footage of him lipsyncing behind him as he’s lipsyncing his way to the ring was a minor highlight of the show for me, though.)

There were spots built into this match, like Taichi’s attempt at another Black Mephisto on the apron, that seemed meant to amp up the match or at least make it more interesting, but they successfully did neither. The crowd was hot for the ending stretch, but watching from home, the match had worn me down so much that no amount of nearfalls could get me re-invested. Okada the character made an important step forward after his Wrestle Kingdom loss, but for the performer, this match felt like a significant step back.

Housekeeping Note: A New Beginning As Of The New Beginning

The results of the second night of the New Beginning in Sapporo were so status quo that Okada joked about calling out Antonio Inoki to spice things up afterward, but I’m using this review as a time change up the status quo of the Best and Worst of NJPW. Segue!

This column is quickly approaching its second anniversary and for year three, its schedule is going to work a little differently. The plan right now is just to review bigger shows, with short recaps of notable things that have happened in the builds to those shows at the beginning of those reviews. The main reason this is happening is that the times when these shows air, the times it’s normal for a person to be awake, and the times when Uproxx edits and publishes things overlap in the most awkward way possible in my time zone. This column is also very time consuming because NJPW shows are long, and my life doesn’t consist of, like, going to the Uproxx office and watching a four hour New Japan show at my desk and then writing about it and that’s my workday.

Apologies for the abridged schedule, but I think this new plan should mean that going forward these articles won’t read like they’re written by someone who’s stressed out about finding the time to watch and write about like thirteen hours of wrestling and promos from three consecutive days from a company they don’t enjoy as much as they used to. If these Best and Worsts weren’t at that point already, I felt like they were on the verge of getting there, and those aren’t the type of article I want to put out on the internet, or that I think people want to read.

So, on that note, there are a few Road To shows coming up this week, but I’ll see you back here after the New Beginning in Osaka for a review of NJPW’s February 9 show, with a short recap of the most important events from the Road.