The Best And Worst Of NJPW: Power Struggle 2019

Previously on NJPW: Super Junior Tag League featured a lot of new teams and also, at long last, El Desperado.

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And now, the best and worst of Power Struggle from November 3, 2019, in Osaka, with some notes about Super Junior Tag League, the rest of the Road to Power Struggle tour, and this show’s immediate fallout.

Best: Into The Undercard-verse

There were lots of big, important things that happened at this year’s Power Struggle, but it’s worth noting that the little things, the first hour or so or the show, delivered too. I originally skipped the opening match because it started while the 100 Plastic Cases match on DDT Ultimate Party was going on and I’m only human (this is a recommendation for DDT Ultimate Party), but when I came back to it, it was a fun, low-stakes tag match. It was the type of wrestling match that makes you want to continue to watch wrestling matches, an effective warmup for the audience.

The night’s second match, El Phantasmo and Taiji Ishimori vs. Rocky Romero and Robbie Eagles, was there to give the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champions a win going into their challenge later in the show, but no one in the match wrestled like this was a transitional segment. It didn’t have title match energy, sure, but it always felt like all the wrestlers cared about getting the win, and there were some cool spots. Also, Ishimori vs. Eagles singles match when? I continue to ask. (The answer is probably BOSJ 2020!)

The L.I.J. vs. Suzukigun six-man tag actually did set up singles matches and had a good time doing it. Minoru Suzuki and Shingo Takagi continue to work really well together with their mutual refusal to seem less than two hundred percent badass at all times and Takagi making smart choices (as a performer) about the shoulder injury. Zack Sabre Jr. and Sanada ending the match with a flash pin in the type of sequence that doesn’t usually end a match was a well-done surprise. Sanada has pinned the British Heavyweight Champion, and their feud will continue.

This match also made me want to see Evil vs. Champion Lance Archer again (Evil couldn’t get the briefcase, but maybe he could get the chance to turn America into Darkness World as compensation?), but just kidding, commentary and Archer set up a title match with David Finlay the next time New Japan is in the U.S. Archer is crushing being United States Champion so far and I love that he keeps dragging Jon Moxley (“a punk-ass bitch“) for not being able to wrestle for New Japan in the States, but Archer vs. Finlay (another “punk-ass bitch,” according to the champ) seems like another Kenta vs. Yoshi-Hashi America show title match booking situation. It was to be expected from how Finlay stepped up to Archer at King of Pro Wrestling though and it should provide a good platform for him to show what he’s got after being away for so long.

I think the undercard peaked with its last match, Kazuchika Okada and Yoshi-Hashi vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kota Ibushi, which did an even better job of showcasing all the wrestlers and characters involved and building interest in their future endeavors. Tensions have appropriately risen between Ibushi and Okada since they’ve been officially locked in as each other’s Tokyo Dome opponents and have started facing off in tag matches, and this one continues to effectively hype their upcoming match. They work well together and clearly offer different things, especially with Ibushi flexing his more impressive athletic ability. The Ibushi-Tanahashi teamwork is also fun to watch and pretty cute, while the Tanahashi-Yoshi-Hashi exchanges have a surprising amount of fire behind them and are as engaging as those between the Wrestle Kingdom rivals.

In other Wrestle Kingdom rival news, if there was any time for Chris Jericho to challenge Tanahashi for the Dome it was after this match, and that’s exactly what he did. Jericho’s brief teaser (which, if you go to indie wrestling shows in California, features some faces you might recognize) gets a great crowd reaction, and Tanahashi’s cool guy response is perfect.

I think we’re past the point of this era of Jericho being credibly scary at all, but as he plays a wannabe horror movie villain, he’s still a fun guy to have around, and everything about how this match was set up it look like it will be fun. Jericho wanting to retire our beloved Ace adds some stakes to make it feel like more than an exhibition match, but I like that there’s no title on the line. The appeal of Tanahashi vs. Jericho in 2020 is that it’s between two charismatic legends who can still go, one a clear hero and the other a clear villain. There’s going to be enough championship-related drama at this Wrestle Kingdom already; some old fashioned good guy vs. bad guy action should add some variety in a good way.

Worst: In Context

When all the big matches for Power Struggle were laid out, I had the highest hopes for Taichi vs. Tetsuya Naito. Naito and Taichi have had good singles matches in the past and built up a lot of tension on the Road to Power Struggle tour, with plenty of mutual hair-pulling and extra-legal violence from both parties, plus the solid undercard storyline of Naito working through a very understandable depression. Even the commentary at the beginning of this match built up that this was sure to be Naito vs. Taichi at their most violent.

Though there were some brutal-looking moments in there, I think ultimately this match did not end up fitting these two wrestlers at this time. The concept that Naito being run into the ring post and hit with a super powerbomb nearly brought about a ref stoppage did not work for me. The degree of peril Naito was supposed to be in was not credible in the context of all the crazier things we see happen to people, including Naito, in New Japan all the time. It was even less credible because Naito’s opponent here was Taichi, who, despite that badass clean win over Ishii in the G1, has still only inflicted possible ref stoppage levels of damage on opponents through foreign objects, which he didn’t use here. Instead of a match with a higher level of violence, this match was just Naito being more susceptible to milder violence.

Best: The Gold And Silver Status Quo

This year’s Super Junior Tag League featured six teams that hadn’t competed the tournament before and four teams that hadn’t even competed as tag teams before the tournament. All this newness wasn’t presented in a way that felt like a revitalization of the junior tag team scene, but more like NJPW didn’t have enough real junior tag teams when October rolled around.

That’s not to say the new teams were bad. Rocky Romero and Ryusuke Taguchi started out as a promising and fun idea and only got better as the tournament went on. Their match against Roppongi 3K with its mix of quality action, a compelling story, and novelty was my favorite of the tour, and I think objectively one of the best by any metric someone could come up with to try and evaluate wrestling matches objectively.

The Birds of Prey and our champs from the Bullet Club put in some good work, but that both these teams are made up guys who have been doing more important stuff with guys who aren’t doing anything right now and that these were the third and fourth most experienced teams in the league contributed to this year’s tournament feeling less than essential. The junior tag title scene has felt dead since ELP and Ishimori won the titles on their first match as a tag team before they were good at literally any tag team stuff together. Then the titles became devices in the Ospreay-ELP-Eagles relationship that also dominated B Block of this year’s Best of the Super Juniors, IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, the RevPro Cruiserweight Championship picture at one point, and the Super J-Cup, and at least two of those things are clearly more important than the junior tag titles.

For better or worse, the end of the 2019 Super Junior Tag League returned things to the status quo that was overturned back on the Kizuna Road tour. The Mega Coaches sadly turned out not to be championship material at this time. Ospreay was pulled back to his Junior Heavyweight Championship duties, which immediately got him a semi-main event on the show where the tournament final was fourth from the top – in real life, because that was a better spot for Hiromu Takahashi’s comeback, but in kayfabe (and probably real life) because the company clearly does not see that much value in the junior tag titles right now.

After months of a tag title scene occupied by moonlighting singles wrestlers, the tournament final was between two teams who we’ve seen really do value the junior tag titles: Roppongi 3K and Suzukigun’s El Desperado and Yoshinobu Kanemaru. These teams have wrestled each other a lot over the past couple years and twice in the past month, but they still managed to step it up and deliver a match people could get into. The surprise attack start wasn’t really surprising, but once Yoh finally took out the bad guys and hot tagged Sho, the match heated up. Sho effectively displayed both his power and his back injury, both teams amped up the drama as R3K continued to struggle, and Desperado, who’s been getting a lot of pins lately, got some nearfalls that really hooked the crowd.

The 3K that got the win kind of came out of nowhere in a good way and now Yoh and Sho back in the title picture with a win over the team that’s been basically their main rivals throughout most of their time as a team. Now we’ll have a clear face vs. heel title match at Wrestle Kingdom, with Roppongi 3K getting the chance to regain the junior tag championship from the team that won the titles from them and stole their tag league trophies. I haven’t been crazy about ELP and Ishimori’s championship reign, but I am invested in R3K challenging them to get the tag titles back.

Mostly Best: Royal Quest Redux

The build to Kenta vs. Tomohiro Ishii II saw these two really commit to trying to beat the crap out of each other in tag matches while Kenta tried to psych Ishii out with the extremely good #TOMO bit backstage. At Power Struggle, Ishii and Kenta delivered a much better version of their Royal Quest match, like the longform version of all the crap-beating they had been getting up to. Ishii hitting that forearm that the entire world heard was the top highlight for me, but both guys had pretty strong performances. Though this match didn’t grip me the whole time and I felt like it could have been shorter – and it turned out not to be all that long when I looked at the match time later – I think it delivered on the expectations for Ishii vs. Kenta in 2019.

There have been so many twists and turns in Kenta’s NJPW career, but this feud and this match was him at his best, showing off the personality that was hidden under “You will respect me!” WWE angles for years. It sounded like he got a little bit realer backstage, before the running gag about doing a fantasy video with the NJPW World cameraperson, with those lines about “People say that I couldn’t make my mark in America. I won’t argue with that. It’s true. But right now, I’m making a new mark here in New Japan. I’m moving forward.” This match did feel like a step forward. Now everyone’s fingers are crossed for Kenta’s next step forward to be directly into a Shibata forearm.

Best: Mist From A Rose

The Junior Heavyweight Championship match on this show will most likely end up being overlooked because of what happened afterward, but Bushi and Will Ospreay put on a solid semi-main event. The ref bump seemed completely unnecessary and Ospreay winking at the camera after the mist spot made me almost reflexively close my laptop, but otherwise, this was enjoyable. It played on the misting that brought us to this point and Ospreay’s neck issues that have been a big part of his past matches with Bushi. And it didn’t depend so much on crazy spots, which was a nice change of pace for this Ospreay title reign by Ospreay, and a break from that type of thing that will probably make the inevitable insanity of his match with Hiromu feel even more dramatic.

BEST: FINALLY, MOTTO HIROMU

Probably the most important thing that happened at Power Struggle 2019 is that Hiromu Takahashi came back, and did so as if he had never been away. There was no indication that this Post-Injury Hiromu Takahashi; he was just as weird and unhinged as before. Maybe his wrestling style will actually be a little different – He’s had over a year to think about that, and I’m sure everyone will notice whether he continues bumping on his head/neck or not – but Takahashi made it clear that’s not what this return is about. He’s still all about his maniacal brand of fun and honestly, thank goodness, because life is hard and Hiromu doing Hiromu things somehow makes it a little less hard. And he’s definitely winning back the belt at the Dome!

Mostly Best: Gedo’s Son And Shibata’s Friend

Like the NEVER title match, Jay White vs. Hirooki Goto for the Intercontinental Championship had points where dragged and felt long. This one actually was a long match and I feel like watching this live on the East Coast of the U.S. at like four in the morning would have been a slog. But I also think this match had a lot of positive aspects and sections that worked really well.

Storyline-wise, it was very predictable White was going to win this match and watching the Goto-centric part of the hype video felt like watching a man who just got out of the hospital after being hit by a car somehow step right into the path of the same car. But the way a lot of this match was laid out still managed to create drama that worked for these guys, playing up White’s biggest strength as his underhanded smarts and Goto’s as his sheer toughness and fighting spirit.

The end of this match ended up being just complete shenanigans and cheating and the setup for another match – hopefully Shibata vs. Kenta, please, if at all medically possible! – but it was executed in a way where it all worked, especially considering we’ve seen these guys have two matches with more normal endings already this year. Goto did not look like a winner, but he did not look bad in this match, and it sent White into the double title picture on a completely bullshit win while showing off some of his strengths as a wrestler.

Weird!: A Long Talking Segment? In My New Japan?

The weirdest thing about Power Struggle wasn’t Hiromu’s cartoon cats or Hiromu’s running directly into a barricade, but that it ended with a twenty-minute in-ring talking segment. A four-person talking segment between singles wrestlers, even! The last time we had something kind of like this was when all the top prospects for the New Japan Cup got in the ring with Jay White, and that wasn’t nearly as drawn out.

Partly because this is not the type of thing New Japan ever does, this segment was pretty awkward, but it did have some good moments and established everyone’s motivations going into Wrestle Kingdom, However, it also very much exposed that some are more compelling than others.

After the segment started hot with a great crowd reaction to Naito just taking the mic from White, Okada’s promo nearly derailed the whole double championship concept. But his promo was also very much in character! To him, the IWGP Heavyweight Championship really is “all that matters in New Japan Pro Wrestling.” He’s never held another singles title and when he lost this one last year he became a balloon-dependent disaster for like six months. On top of that, these guys are talking about him, the guy who’s broken nearly every Heavyweight Championship record New Japan has and used to seem untouchable, like a stepping stone. Of course, he’s going to take issue with this whole situation.

NJPW

Fortunately for New Japan, the result of the fan vote – if the shoot result was released – was a lot more in favor of this angle they’ve been running for most of the year than Okada and the Osaka fans. And it’s Okada’s line about the last time there was a Wrestle Kingdom fan vote that really drove home that this is Naito’s angle and always has been. You can see in the barely-hanging-in-there look on his face and hear in his words at the press conference the following night that Naito is the one guy who, on a personal level, needs to double champion. He needs to fulfill what was until now a quasi-delusional dream in order to finally achieve the redemption he’s been working towards for like six years, since that vote.

When Okada, Naito, White, and Ibushi are all there to compare all at once, it’s Okada and Naito and their historic and relationship that brings the most to this double title storyline. Ibushi was such a feel-good and deserving choice of G1 Climax winner that it felt like it might be his time, but Okada-Naito in the main event of the Tokyo Dome – and Okada-Naito after Okada just beat a fan favorite and Naito won the hated IC title from New Japan’s biggest villain – would really be something special. Okada and Naito might be the only people with whom this angle can work without devaluing either title – or maybe Ibushi and his purity and the secret double champ intentions he mentioned backstage could do it too. Ultimately, we’ll all just see how this goes!

So that’s Power Struggle! So much happened on it! So much is going to happen at the Tokyo Dome in two months! But before that, I’ll see you back here next week to talk about New Japan’s next trip to America.

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