The Best And Worst Of NJPW: New Year Dash!! 2020

Previously on NJPW: No one was tranquilo when Tetsuya Naito won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom. Then no one was tranquilo in the opposite way when Kenta kicked him in the face afterward.

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And now, the Best and Worst of New Year Dash!!, featuring way more double exclamation points than the average Best and Worst!!

Best: Dashing Off Into The Sunset

New Japan’s biggest January 4 Tokyo Dome show ever (because it also included a January 5 Tokyo Dome show) was followed by its biggest-ever New Year Dash!! in Ota City General Gymnasium, a venue that seats about twice as many people as the event’s usual home, Korakuen Hall. The move led to some speculation it might include another big surprise, but aside from an unscheduled appearance by Jon Moxley, New Year Dash!! was just a strong season premiere for the NJPW, with a pretty strong group of matches setting up a promising set of first feuds for 2020, preceded by Jushin Thunder Liger’s retirement ceremony.

A comment backstage on January 5 made me think El Phantasmo and/or the Bullet Club might get involved there, but the ceremony turns out to be completely about celebrating Liger. Like everything else about his retirement, it also makes Liger looks like just about the most gracious man in the world. Commentary says that the Beast God asked for this to go on first rather than main event so it wouldn’t overshadow the wrestlers, speaks highly of NJPW, shares a moment with his wife and son, and even thanks his mom in the audience “for the way you raised me.”

When his theme song plays after the ten-bell salute, it’s as if it’s playing in a minor key. But this bittersweet moment turns into the most heartwarming one of Liger’s whole last year when Tanahashi starts a group singalong, followed by all of New Japan’s good guys waving the superhero off as he makes his exit. Pro wrestling as a whole is a scummy, carny business, but Liger’s retirement has made everyone involved look their best and genuinely made the retiree look like One of the Good Ones. And with this and Iizuka’s retirement last winter, it seems like NJPW could not be better at send-offs right now, which makes it look like the company really appreciates its roster.

Best: Junior Roster Members And Junior Heavyweights

The final goodbye to one of the best things about New Japan’s past is followed by a promising look at the company’s future, featuring Karl Fredericks’ gravity-defying dropkick-to-somersault thing. Henare, Tsuji, Uemura, Fredericks, Connors, and Coughlin all look good again, with the Young Lion Cup winner clearly meant to be the strongest of the group and Uemura still The Baby. Tsuji and Coughlin’s fight after the match brings some surprising chaos to the finish and it and the post-match comments confirm that the Dojo Warz are still going strong. Also, Henare’s promo makes it sound like he just might get to stop looking like a fifth-year senior within the next six months or so!

The night’s second match sets a scene for part of NJPW’s way more immediate future, establishing the state of the junior heavyweight tag team division. It’s the exact same lineup as before Hiromu Takahashi was injured except El Phantasmo still hasn’t gone home or to NXT UK or whatever yet and Taiji Ishimori is also here.

Hiromu chopping Yoh’s chest is a throwback moment that made me remember again how much I missed seeing this guy wrestle for a year and a half, all the heels uniting in stomping on the junior champ is a fun moment, and I like that besides Hiromu, the match mostly focuses on the junior tag teams, the people everyone should be trying to pin in this match. Overall, the all-factions-represented four-way is solid, and New Year Dash!! is a show where it easily works to use a match format we don’t see that often. I think it fits with how everyone just wears their Tokyo Dome gear to a much smaller venue; the show has a kind of hungover vibe.

The finish with Desperado pinning Sho after some involvement from Bushi is a real blast from the recent past, but I like that backstage it sounds like we could get a Despy vs. Sho singles feud in here too. These teams are good and the division was good when it was them before, but I hope we see something a little different for these wrestlers when they’re back at it in 2020 besides just the addition of a fourth team.

Worst: Super Friends

The weakest match of the night is the one about the other tag team wrestling division, the eight-man of Juice Robinson, David Finlay, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and Kota Ibushi vs. G.o.D., Bad Luck Fale, and Chase Owens. While other parts of the show set up future matches with quality wrestling, the wrestling match part of this is pretty forgettable. But Ibushi and Tanahashi getting involved in the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship scene rules and the friendliest tag title challenge ever after this match is adorable.

Like Juice and Finlay before this year’s World Tag League, Ibushi and Tanahashi had become a regular tag team, but not an official one, before this challenge. Putting them in the tag title picture, especially beyond the New Beginning tour, not only adds some people with both star power and plausible tag team power but gives Tanahashi and Ibushi valuable direction coming off Wrestle Kingdom losses. It creates room for different wrestlers to be more active in various singles title pictures and I think it’s preferable to giving both these rays of sunshine depression angles at the same time.

The backstage comments clarify that G.o.D. is still involved in the scene too and why FinJuice is down to fight them in a rematch they didn’t “earn” as well as Ibushi and Tanahashi at some TBD date in the future: Juice and Finlay are fighting champions! This, with the team’s energy and positive attitude that makes it seem like they really care about being the best tag champs they can be, is justification enough for me. Also, this all made me realize we haven’t had a pure babyface tag team – like, not even fan-favorite goths or anything – regularly in the division since like 2017 when War Machine was here and TenCozy were still involved, so this new lineup really seems like a significant and valuable change for the division.

Best Of The Best: Lariatoooo

The actual best match of New Year Dash!! is unquestionably Hirooki Goto and Tomohiro Ishii vs. Shingo Takagi and Evil. This was obviously going to be THE ONE when they announced the card and it does not disappoint. There’s all the forearm, headbutt, and clothesline action you could possibly want (if more classic-style matches like Ishii vs. Cobb and Taichi vs. Takagi were your thing in the G1 and you haven’t seen this tag, you should watch this ASAP), and it does a great job of generating hype for the future Ishii vs. Evil and Shingo vs. Goto singles matches.

A lot of that hype comes from seeing a bunch of good wrestlers aggressively beat each other up, but it’s not just a slugfest: the feuding pairs also incorporate smaller points from their histories together. When Ishii and Evil try to quickly finish each other early on, Evil gets a very close nearfall with Darkness Falls, a callback to the probably unintentional way he pinned Ishii the previous night. We also finally get to see the Takagi GTR, which Shingo was goading Goto about before their match in Kobe but only ever used on a house show. (I promise I don’t expect almost anyone to remember specific promos from the Road to Destruction tour, and that’s part of why I extra appreciate them using these details!)

ShinGoto III is officially set up with a quality, if a little long for the middle of an NJPW show, promo by Takagi – gassing up your buddy as a setup to dragging your rival is an extremely good move – and it’s obviously going to kick ass, and both it and the Ishii vs. Evil rematch work really well as ways for the L.I.J. guys to move forward in their careers. Shingo is obviously perfect for the NEVER scene and has been eying it since at least World Tag League – he cut a promo about the title needed to revived when Kenta had it, that’s not something he just brought up because he wants a rubber match with the guy now wearing the belt. Meanwhile, Ishii vs. Evil has the same dynamic from their match last spring, now with Evil even more frustrated about his place as a singles wrestler in New Japan. A lot can could out of these guys clotheslining each other to hell at the New Beginning in Sapporo, basically.

Mostly Best: Real Heels And Claw Hands

New Year Dash!! concludes with what are on paper its most suspicious two matches, the Chaos vs. Suzukigun eight-man tag and Jay White and Kenta vs. Tetsuya Naito and Sanada. It’s initially unclear what the feuds here are besides Naito vs. Kenta, so it’s like “What are you doing here, New Japan? Is this is the surprise? Is someone getting betrayed???”

The surprise ends up being a very WWE entrance by Jon Moxley to confront Minoru Suzuki. I appreciated Japanese commentary asking, “Did he force New Japan to play his music?” and “They both have to play their music when they interrupt?” about the very sports entertainment production elements of this feud! The secret best part of the little showdown between Mox and Suzuki is Uemura looking terrified as he takes hold of Suzuki to help him to the back like he was just told to pick up a venomous snake, and overall it does a good if extremely hammy job of promoting their title match.

The eight-man tag before this gives us what looks like two but turns out to be actually three different feuds. Archer vs. Yoshi-Hashi is going to be a thing on the American tour, where Archer will absolutely get babyface treatment from the crowd. Will Ospreay and Zack Sabre Jr. will wrestle for the RevPro British Heavyweight Championship, which could be viewed a few different ways:

  1. For people who care about British wrestling, here’s an international showcase for that that isn’t WWE.
  2. If ZSJ’s going to be a bigger threat in actual important New Japan title pictures, giving the title to Ospreay would allow them to switch out Sabre for another big star who might have a less conflicting schedule.
  3. For certified Ospreay haters like myself who also have no strong RevPro opinions, him winning the British Heavyweight Championship means he’s less likely to seriously impact anything in New Japan I actually care about.

The biggest feud coming out of this match is Kazuchika Okada vs. Taichi one-on-one for the first time since Okada was a Young Lion, and it’s probably going to rule. This, like the Jay White vs. Sanada match set up by the main event, is a program that’s been possible for a while, but has been protected even by tournament lineups until now. Since Taichi has been elevated to the status of credible threat heavyweight heel and certified good match haver, he hasn’t really interacted with Okada or Ibushi, so there are plenty of potential fresh, high-profile feuds for him over the next few years as a singles wrestler.

The actual matches coming out of the main event are much less promising to the point where if they both actively suck I will not be surprised at all, but they have a lot of heat and the New Year Dash!! tag match about them is entertaining. People will go crazy whenever Sanada gets the Paradise Lock on Jay White and/or Gedo and the entirety of Naito vs. Kenta will probably be soundtracked by yelling. These two could not have more equal and opposite heat right now, with Naito a true people’s champion years in the making and a lot of fans sounding genuinely mad at Kenta for reasons that probably include but may not be limited to:

  • Ruining the L.I.J. roll call at Wrestle Kingdom 14
  • Coming to New Japan with a lot of hype from Shibata’s introduction and his NOAH days and then beating guys like Ibushi and Tanahashi in matches where he looked way worse than them
  • Having “failed in America” (it seems like he’s typically presented this way in Japan, while American fans see his time in WWE more as the American company having failed him) but still getting special star treatment because he was in WWE
  • Some NOAH vs. NJPW promotional loyalty fan beef that I will not pretend to have a handle on at all
  • Being obnoxious on Twitter

But people are clearly having fun with heel Kenta too, and even though I’m not expecting their title match to be on the level of Naito vs. Okada, their feud should be entertaining.

Overall, I think the most encouraging thing coming out of New Year Dash!! 2020 is how it gives all the guys who seemed like they should have gotten more to do on the biggest show of the year significant angles to kick off the year. That’s what it seemed like should happen for them, and now it’s happening. And it means New Year Dash!! sets up feuds for the New Beginning tour that don’t just look promising, but significantly change things up from the months leading up to Wrestle Kingdom.

I’ll see you back here to talk about those shows later this month after CMLL comes back to Japan and NJPW goes back to America.