The Best And Worst Of NJPW: Road To The Tokyo Dome 2019

Previously on NJPW: FinJuice became a real tag team and Kenta stalked his fake girlfriend.

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And now, the Best and Worst of the last three New Japan shows of 2019, the Road to the Tokyo Dome events from December 19-21 at Korakuen Hall. Sorry this is a little later than usual, but holiday hours clash with wrestling review writing and posting hours sometimes. (For those checking in looking mostly for a pre-Wrestle Kingdom, here’s a heads up that there will also be a WK14 preview article on UPROXX that breaks down the cards for those shows with way less editorializing.)

Just Hold On, We’re Going Home

Road to the Tokyo Dome is a series of go home shows for Wrestle Kingdom 14, and overall a really good streak of that type of wrestling TV. Its major lulls and weaknesses come from how much Wrestle Kingdom looms over the events. Filler matches feel even more like filler and the parts of preview matches that aren’t adding anything new to feuds also feel like filler, with the quality of the wrestling that isn’t attached to major drama easier to overlook than usual.

The Kenta vs. Goto stuff, for example, is more repetitive and less interesting than their world together on the World Tag League tour. But the wrestling isn’t bad wrestling or anything; it’s just wrestling between two people who should do some better and more definitive wrestling very soon. It doesn’t impact their feud aside from Goto finally bringing a desire to regain the tarnished NEVER Openweight Championship into it, something that probably should have been brought up earlier too.

There’s a lot of Chaos vs. Bullet Club on this tour, which peaks with a standout eight-man tag match on the 21st that pits the people in the upcoming NEVER and IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship matches against each other. FinJuice and the Guerillas of Destiny focusing on each other in these big tag matches has more novelty than the Goto vs. Kenta stuff, and these guys add something to their dynamic that will almost definitely come into play at the Tokyo Dome: the targeting of David Finlay’s injured shoulder. Finlay could previously be summed up as “the member of FinJuice who isn’t Juice,” so giving him something more distinct to do seems like a good idea if these two are going to be more of a real tag team instead of a rising star and his friend.

The Belt Respecters Have Logged On

Over in the other tag title picture, ELP and Ishimori and Roppongi 3K stay on the Goto vs. Kenta track of doing nothing new to promote their match until December 21, when the Chaos boys flip the script on Bullet Club and generate some real momentum for their title bout. Yoh, Sho, and Eagles jump Ishimori, El Phantasmo, and Gedo before the bell in an extremely justifiable move by some guys who have been punched in the balls by ELP about a dozen times each this year. The DQ finish looks pretty stupid, but Yoh and Sho choosing to get their revenge by using their tag team finisher rather than a belt attack is a smart move.

Yoh explains backstage that, “a belt is for holding, not hitting. The belt is a symbol of New Japan,” which perfectly fits the value system these particular babyfaces should have based on their history as a team. This sends Roppongi 3K into Wrestle Kingdom looking every inch the rightful Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champions, which is exactly how they’re supposed to look.

You, Me, And Bushi

The RevPro British Heavyweight Championship picture also gets more entertaining throughout these shows as it takes more unexpected turns, and it takes way more unexpected turns than the junior tag title picture. On December 19, ZSJ and Taichi defeat Evil and Sanada in the exact tag match you’d expect, but with Sabre finally winning one of those pinning combination duels against his rival. The following night, Sanada and Shingo Takagi vs. Dangerous Tekkers is maybe the best tag match of the tour and ends with Sanada getting the pin and Sabre throwing one of the tantrums that have defined most of his New Japan 2019. At this point, it looks like if you typically like ZSJ and Sanada together you’ll like their title match and if you don’t, you won’t.

Then things get weird on the 21st and it’s unclear what’s the real reason why. Sanada is out which what is described as a “facial injury” that it doesn’t seem like he could have sustained in the previous night’s match, so Bushi takes on ZSJ one on one – and wins! It’s a fun match to have on the last show of the year, especially with NJPW’s semi-tradition of doing junior vs. heavyboy matches around this time, and especially after seeing that adorable little boy in a lopsided Bushi mask throwing up the ‘X’ in the crowd.

This surprise win pleases the crowd and allows everyone to put their tin foil hat on when they realize it means Bushi could actually challenge Sabre at the Dome if Sanada’s still out. We get Taichi as Black Masked Horse in this match too, so overall it’s basically a Christmas miracle as long as Sanada’s face is okay.

Back At It Again In The Punk Jacket

L.I.J.’s other junior heavyweight, Hiromu Takahashi has an even bigger moment on the Road to the Tokyo Dome when he has his first match in almost eighteen months. He appears nude in his pre-comeback video package and wrestlers like he hasn’t missed a day, maybe minus a few neck bumps. The criticisms one could have about he and Ospreay’s work together – they’re not the least choreographed-looking pairing – are the same, but it’s clearly only the Hiromu character who has ring rust, not the performer.

Ospreay is actually the one with a more notable change in behavior in these previews for the next IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship match. Beginning at the press conference before the show on the 19th, he goes feel heel, with all the condescending subtext in his usual poorly worded and acted babyface promos now the actual text. His promos now have clear direction instead of veering in three different ones over the course of a six-minute ramble. Ospreay doesn’t go as hard with the bad guy stuff by the 21st, but this kind of character consistency and keeping things to the point would be great to see from Ospreay going forward. And Takahashi is sure to be the favorite at the Tokyo Dome by a wide margin no matter what Ospreay does, so leaning into that ahead of time is a valid character choice.

Before We Get To The Double Title Stuff, How About That Past Year Of New Japan?

The year in review video that opened Road to the Tokyo Dome made me reflect on NJPW in 2019 and the experience of watching NJPW throughout 2019. The year’s strengths included the New Beginning tour, Best of the Super Juniors, G1 Climax, and other upsides. The year also included about six months I probably wouldn’t have watched if I wasn’t writing this column.

There were hours and hours of New Japan content this year that just felt like Additional New Japan Content rather than worthwhile art or entertainment. I hate to dismiss wrestling like that when wrestlers work so hard to do it and it’s so risky and hard on people’s bodies. But this year included two tag tournaments that felt skippable, a needlessly bloated New Japan Cup, and builds to shows outside of Japan that became available to watch on New Japan World at times you couldn’t guess and consequences of those shows put into play before almost anyone could see them (hello, American house show Super J-Cup.) There were also two months-long rivalries in which you knew one person had no chance of getting any really meaningful wins (Okada vs. Sanada and White vs. Goto) and two zero-defense IWGP Heavyweight Championship reigns followed by one from Okada that’s been about as memorable as the app you always forget to leave open on your phone until it drains your battery.

In addition to New Japan often feeling like it was prioritizing quantity over quality, even when it came to the lengths of matches, 2019 continued a creative trend that I think has been going on in New Japan for the last few years. There’s been a decrease in characters who are at least somewhat cool and seem to enjoy competing at combat sports and/or engaging in violence while also feeling like a big deal or like they have career momentum.

There was a fair amount of important guys like this back when Nakamura and Shibata were wrestling in New Japan, Nagata and Makabe weren’t definitely too old to win anything big, and Suzuki was a more major heel. With Goto and Ishii solidified as Forever Mid-carders long ago, Sho and Evil and Henare in some kind of major push holding pen, Shingo Takagi’s hot streak from arriving in New Japan through the Destruction tour did a lot of heavy lifting for making it feel like violence and competition are traits that could possibly get you anywhere in New Japan in 2019. A thing that hooked me about New Japan in the past was that it seemed like the wrestling seemed tougher and more intense than what I was seeing elsewhere and I don’t think guys wrestling for over twenty-five minutes necessarily makes matches deep and Brilliant Storytelling (especially when they’re in the skippable half of the New Japan year), so this also did a lot of heavy lifting in keeping me interested in watching New Japan at all.

I’m sure this doesn’t bother everybody, especially because people get into New Japan at different times and through different people. But being able to enjoy people hitting each other hard without moral baggage isn’t just something I’ve liked about New Japan, but I think something that has been a major element of this promotion that calls itself, “The King of Sports.” Maybe this has so much to do with people who trained under Inoki leaving and getting older (Rocky Romero’s BOSJ run that called back to another era that was presented as such) that it’s just not going to be as big a part of New Japan anymore, though more badass wrestling obviously doesn’t require that background. Maybe whatever happens with Ibushi and Naito and Hiromu, who can all get very violent and usually seem like they care about winning their wrestling matches, at Wrestle Kingdom 14 will bring the old feeling back.

New Japan is doing well financially so it doesn’t seem like they have any incentive to change, especially when they can keep selling out shows in Japan in advance on brand name. More subjective stuff about aesthetic preferences aside, I hope the company at least finds more to spice up the minor tours next year so people don’t have to do long and “epic” singles matches in, like, October without much reason for people to care about or remember them.

Double Gold Dashing Through The Snow

The most interesting parts of New Japan’s last shows of 2019 are the ones that preview the matches that will most impact New Japan’s 2020. The first two nights of Road to the Tokyo Dome don’t preview the IWGP Intercontinental or Heavyweight Championship matches on January 4, but the different combinations of people who could wrestle to become double champion on January 5. It puts Wrestle Kingdom’s top stars in fresher match-ups, which almost always helps wrestlers look a little better and more interesting in the eyes of the fans, and builds some intrigue. You can’t help but watch Okada and Naito or Jay and Ibushi wrestle and wonder if and how they’ll pair off at WK 14 Night 2.

These preview-type matches kick off on the 19th with Kota Ibushi and Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Tetsuya Naito and Shingo Takagi, which is just as good in reality as it looks on paper. It continues to raise expectations for whenever New Japan does Tana-Takagi in 2020 more than it does anything for Naito and Ibushi, but those guys show they still have heat together and their crazy chemistry didn’t somehow wear off. Kazuchika Okada and Yoshi-Hashi vs. Jay White and Chase Owens is a match that stands out a lot less, but the spark between Okada and White reignites just like the one between the previous match’s potential double title opponents.

The matches that paired up Ibushi and White and then Okada and Naito on the 20th showed rivalries we haven’t seen as much of lately. 2019 G1 Climax finalists White and Ibushi now have this thing where White invited him to join Bullet Club after he clocked Okada with the briefcase. White’s line at the press conference about Omega being the wrong guy to bring Ibushi into BC was a lot like what Tama said about Omega trying to recruit White almost two years ago! This creates some drama at the beginning of the match, but most of the standout stuff here is the teamwork between Ibushi and Tanahashi and White’s promo afterward where he reveals that if Bullet Club helped Ibushi beat Okada, the Golden Star would have the honor of lying down for White on January 5. White is probably still the wrong guy to bring Ibushi into Bullet Club!

Okada and Naito have a lot more history together than White and Ibushi and I loved the way they incorporate it into the Chaos vs. L.I.J. eight-man tag later on the 20th. Naito only wearing his suit to face the IWGP Heavyweight Champion is a reminder that this is what it’s all been about for him, and for years. The crowd is crazy loud for Naito vs. Okada starting the match and all their wrestling together shows mutual hatred I’m pretty sure the consequence of the Wrestle Kingdom 8 fan vote instilled in them forever. The IWGP Heavyweight Championship in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom is crucially important to both men, but from very different perspectives – Okada as the perpetual top guy who’s been fighting like crazy to keep that position and Naito as the guy who’s never quite been able to break through, but is finally getting what might be his last chance.

The way Naito confirms backstage that his ideal January 5 opponent is Okada while Okada presents how Naito was the clear crowd favorite in their tag match as “Well, fans will typically support the weakest one” and the fact that this is six years in the making really makes me think this has to be the double title end game. Okada and Naito’s bizarre history together that led to Naito beginning a top star in the opposite way he was supposed to seems just too good to have ended at Wrestle Kingdom 12, especially considering the caliber and popularity of these wrestlers. But so few people guessed what was going to happen back on January 4, 2018, and I wasn’t one of them, so what do I know?

The January 4 opponents finally meet again on December 21 in matches that reiterate what we’ve already seen between them without being too repetitive. Naito and White graduate from using unsportsmanlike tactics against each other to Naito basically trying to kill White among the people. The night’s main event immediately casts a huge shadow over this because it’s Jushin Thunder Liger’s last match ever in Korakuen Hall and he comes out as CTU Liger and hits that Rainmaker-style shotei and almost pins Okada and it’s amazing. It’s not as emotional as Liger and Tiger Mask facing off for the last time the night before (Liger continues to show little emotion about his retirement throughout these shows) but it’s a really fitting TV sendoff before his big ones at Wrestle Kingdom.

Black Liger vs. Okada is sure to be what’s remembered most about this show, but final exchanges between the people in the double championship picture (“We have all the players here,” says Japanese commentary) is an effective pre-WK ending, with focus on the January 4 IWGP Heavyweight Championship match followed by the visual of all the wannabe history-makers standing outside the ring, while Okada stands above them with the gold.

The stakes for Wrestle Kingdom 14 are clear and the outcomes are not. Road to the Tokyo Dome ends with New Japan having presented a compelling case for why viewers should tune in for its biggest show(s) of the year. I’ll see you back here after Wrestle Kingdom to break down the Best and Worst of it all.