The Best And Worst Of NJPW: Sakura Genesis 2018


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Previously on NJPW: Everyone took a field trip to California! The Golden Lovers and Young Bucks made us worry about their kayfabe emotions and shoot bodies, we absolutely did NOT chant “Team Cody,” and Taguchi wore an In-N-Out hat.

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Before We Begin, What Happened On The Road To Sakura Genesis?

Two Young Lions Had The Match Of The Night

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I’m not kidding! Narita and Yagi killed it in the opening match. Both of these young men have developed extremely strong fundamentals. This match really shows off:

  1. The strength of the NJPW dojo training and how it builds wrestling skill from the ground up, not skipping any steps. (Caveat: I’ve kind of had NJPW dojo training on the brain lately.)
  2. You don’t need fancy spots to have a compelling wrestling match. The flashiest moves in this match were a dropkick and a backdrop!

The crowd was really into this match too. It’s heartwarming how much they get into it whenever Young Lions do well. I like to think maybe we’re all happy that Narita and Yagi were probably hardly beaten at all after the show.

Everything Is Evil And Everybody Dies

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Everyone’s favorite wrestler who came straight to the show from falling asleep face-down on the couch during a séance returned and Los Ingobernables de Japon became whole once again! Evil was out with a broken orbital bone for a while, so he gets the pin during the L.I.J. vs. Suzukigun ten man tag match. Now the Killer Elite Squad vs. Evil and Sanada IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship feud is free to begin in earnest.

Unfortunately though, Archer presumably started a feud with Okada when he grabbed a commentary mic and declared Whataburger to be better than In-N-Out (which is a disgusting lie) so he might just get short-arm lariated to death before the title match.

The Rest Of Suzukigun Made Me Feel Bad For Okada And Gedo?

The Zack Sabre Jr. (with Taka Michinoku) and Taichi vs. Okada (with Gedo) and Yoshi Hashi tag match showed what a dangerous, sadistic, and unusual opponent ZSJ is for our ubermensch IWGP Heavyweight Champion.

Sabre Jr. mixed physical expertise with a disregard for the rules, using Red Shoes for support to lock in one hold and the ropes for another while Umino was distracted. ZSJ kept going after Okada’s right arm (the Rainmaker arm,) and won the match by making Yoshi Hashi submit via right arm torture while Okada was forced to watch. Taka even made the effort to psych out his rival hype man Gedo when ZSJ put another hold on Okada’s arm after the match. Gedo was forced to come in and try to save him even though he was outnumbered and knew beforehand he would get the same treatment. (He got the same treatment.)

Now the invincible champ is much more sympathetic. He’s solidly the crowd favorite, unlike in his last two title defenses against Naito and Sanada, because Suzukigun are a bunch of horrible monsters.

And now, the Best and Worst of Sakura Genesis 2018.

Best: Flower Crown Snapchat Filter Violence Aesthetic

Look at this combination of cherry blossoms and millennial pink with serious feuds, people attacking each other, and a close up of Toru Yano’s face. I love it. I wish all wrestling promo videos were exactly like this.

Best/Worst: Tag Matches That Sure Happened

NJPW undercard tag matches can be a mixed bag, and at Sakura Genesis we started out with some raisins. (I’m assuming this mixed bag is of trail mix.)

Our opening Bullet Club (Chase Owens and Yujiro Takahashi) vs. Bullet Club (The Young Bucks) violence was a solid if unremarkable match. From a plot standpoint, it established that 1) The Young Bucks were at the venue, and 2) these four men don’t hate each other.

Owens and the Pimp attack the Bucks from behind because even though they’re friends, they know the Bucks are better wrestlers and they need every advantage they can get. The Honorary Tongans are workmanlike throughout and once again show why they’re valuable stable members, but unlikely to go on to singles glory.

The Young Bucks were also a lot less exuberant than we’ve seen them in the past, and that made sense too. Matt’s back is still injured (has he been angrier than Nick about the Club drama this whole time because he’s constantly in pain?), and both brothers are still beaten up from Strong Style Evolved. Nick’s jumps over the ropes and the Superkick Party were fun, but this wasn’t a Young Bucks match for the ages.

Suzukigun (Taichi and Iizuka) vs. Chaos (Ishii and Yano) was exactly what you would expect, and it was fine. Except for Heavyweight Taichi’s still junior-sized gear. Showing that amount of butt cleavage is a personal choice, but those trunks can’t be comfortable, and I think the armband might be cutting off his circulation.

Taichi and Iizuka have the potential to be the next great odd couple tag team from the entrance mashup alone. They’re also a team that depends so much on foreign object interference. We’ve got the hammer, mic, rope, iron glove, and, of course, chairs and guardrails. Plus so much biting. Hilariously, the first illegal thing the ref actually tried to stop was beard-pulling, which got him attacked. Then he noticed the ALWAYS VERY OBVIOUS iron glove, and got attacked for trying to remove that too. Is there a Go Fund Me I should visit to help with this ref’s medical bills?

Best: The King And Mrs. Haku NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship Defense

Can anyone tell me if the challenging team of Taguchi, Elgin, and Makabe was representing Taguchi Japan, or is Great Bash Heel is happening? Is Makabe just waiting for Honma’s spine to work normally again? It’s been a while. I would join Taguchi Japan if I was him. They give you chicken strips sometimes.

Anyway, this was an oddly wholesome title defense for Tama Tonga, Tanga Loa, and Bad Luck Fale. We knew they were gong to retain from the entrance because Kevin Kelly said that Tanga Loa dedicated this match to his mom, and why would you dedicate a loss to your mom? Tama repped his dad with a pretty rad King Haku shirt too. And while Callis and Rocky Romero were putting the Bad Boy over, Kelly mentioned that “he’s a new daddy.” The Fifita family’s out here looking real strong!

On a related note, was commentary ever putting over Tama hard. There have to be big things in store for him in the near future, or at latest the G1.

But then again, maybe they were just putting him over because they’ve been conscripted into being Honorary Tongans. Because apparently you cannot opt out of that. Fale is a large and aggressiv[ely inclusive] man, and if he choked a guy with a microphone cord right in front of me I think I’d apply for citizenship in whatever country he told me to.

As you’d expect from this combination of people, this was a really fun match. We got some impressive Michael Elgin feats of athleticism like CATCHING TANGA LOA for a power slam, hitting a drop kick from the second rope, and nearly bodyslamming Fale. Makabe looked great in his “clean up hitter” role; it’s always enjoyable to see that guy just come in and punch people.

The Ryusuke Taguchi vs. Tama Tonga (team captain vs. team captain) section of the match was pretty much everything I wanted too. The G.o.D. aren’t afraid to show ass, which is what keeps their team gimmick from feeling too self-serious. Tama and Taguchi dodge each other’s attacks by just running really fast out of the way. Taguchi tricks the brothers into slamming into each other and gets in about a million hip attacks in. We get a dramatic closeup of his captain’s band on the ground when it falls off in the heat of battle.

After a very 2015 Seth Rollins sell of a 619 from Taguchi, Tama Tonga hits the Gun Stun and gets the pin. Makabe says post-match that the Tongan team won because they had better teamwork, and that relates to the Bullet Club storyline right now too. The half of Biz Cliz that’s working together has managed to retain their titles throughout all this drama while the BTE infighting side has lost and then failed to gain back the US Championship. I’m like 85 percent sure this is intentional, and I’m into it.

Best: Suzuki Speaks From The Heart

Another six man tag match continues the Naito vs. Suzuki IC Title feud and Evil and Sanada vs. K.E.S. tag title feud. I’m sure the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship match will be very good, but that storyline is overshadowed by Naito continuing to risk his life in order to be obnoxious to Suzuki. Seriously, Naito, does spitting give you enough satisfaction that it’s worth being thrown over the guardrail into the Spanish English announce table?

Naito gets on the mic after the match and explicitly calls Suzuki out for the first time since this all started. He antagonizes him by saying that 1) the IC belt looks like trash 2) the IC belt doesn’t love Suzuki like Suzuki loves the IC belt, and 3) the IC belt wasn’t trash when he, Naito, had it.

Them’s fighting words, and Suzuki heads back to the ring with an amazing, “Okay, bitches gotta get dealt with” head tilt. He shockingly does NOT attack Naito physically and leaves the ring after cutting his promo, but Naito has to look like the coolest guy and also clearly really, really wants that title. So he gets on the mic AGAIN and tells Suzuki to learn the word “tranquilo.” The crowd loves it, and Suzuki immediately becomes SO NOT TRANQUILO and THROWS A TABLE.

Post-match, Suzuki does some more next-level, classic heeling. He points out that Naito is thirsty for a title as much as he pretends he isn’t, and that means that he’s a scam artist lying to his fans. He says “That’s why most L.I.J. fans are children … Because they’re easy to fool.”

Imagine being one of those Tranquilo Kids who hold out their fists to Naito while being careful to have a totally neutral face, or one of the many young L.I.J. fans who would love to do that. How stressed out are you by this feud? How terrified would you be of Suzuki and K.E.S., and how frustrated with them for always cheating? It makes me a special kind of happy whenever wrestling manages to be really good and appeal to kids at the same time.

Best: Teamwork And Also Cheating Make The Dream Work

I loved the triple threat match in which Suzukigun (Kanemaru and El Desperado) won the Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship from Roppongi 3K over fellow challengers L.I.J. (Hiromu Takahashi and Bushi,) and while the sequel didn’t quite live up to the original, it was still very enjoyable.

Sho and Yoh attacked Suzukigun before the bell, once again showing that they’re learning. Their movesets as individuals have developed too. Sho is now clearly the power guy, with spears and deadlift German suplexes as his big moves, while Yoh still shines with those dropkicks. (An aside: there were a lot of German suplexes and dropkicks throughout Sakura Genesis. Also, stunners. Two stunners is a lot when Stone Cold Steve Austin isn’t on the roster.)

I’m not sure what R3K will be doing next, but these Suzukigun and L.I.J. teams are taking their feud to an interesting place. Hiromu gets a convincing near-pin with his protected Time Bomb finisher, and looks fired up and crazier than we’ve seen him for a while when it doesn’t work. Kanemaru distracts the ref after a second Time Bomb gets what would have been a full three count, and Despy takes advantage of the distraction to tag himself in and win the match. The Road to Wrestling Dontaku schedule shows that these teams will have many opportunities to clash in the near-future, and that should lead to some great matches.

Best: What This Has Come To

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Cody and Hangman Page vs. the Golden Lovers had it all: cool spots, blood, melodrama, sexual subtext, blood, and inter-promotional storyline building. We’re getting Kenny vs. Cody and Ibushi vs. Page at Supercard of Honor this Saturday and tensions couldn’t be higher.

Every Golden Lovers tag match still feels like a special event, and Cody hates how much the crowd loves them. As Callis points out, Cody’s such a sick individual that he can’t let Kenny have even one thing he doesn’t. Cody has good looks, wrestling ability (although the “Three Star Savior” nickname does get to him), a hot wife, lots of money, and success in his career. Yet he felt the need to take over Bullet Club, and now he needs to take over the organic popularity. During this match especially, he also needs to… “take” or “take over” are both gross word choices here (maybe “destroy,” with the whole “unpretty” thing, is the least squicky?) – but he needs to do one of those things to Ibushi.

I’ve criticized Don Callis’s commentary in the past and I’m sure I will in the future, but he did a brilliant job here of supporting Cody’s already exceptional performance. He explained that Cody aws going after Ibushi rather than Kenny because, “It’s like going after someone’s family. It’s like going into someone’s house and terrorizing their wife or their husband.” That really added to the weird sexual violence vibe that’s been going on since that forced kiss, and even earlier, in the build to the Handsome Battle, though I don’t think anyone guessed then that it would go this far. It makes me 1) UNCOMFORTABLE AT TIMES, and 2) want to see Kota save Kenny more in the future, because sometimes he feels too much like a damsel in distress.

The Young Bucks show up when Cody is about to hit a move off the top rope through a table, saying dramatically “Look what this has come to,” and then leaving. It makes sense, at this point in the story, for them not to be tricked by Cody anymore. Hangman Page confirmed for most gullible and/or evil member of Bullet Club!

Possibly due to the Bucks gracing the scene with their spot monkey presence, most of the cool tag team maneuvers happen after the Jacksons leave. Ibushi, thankfully, gets in some offense against Cody, and we get a perfect Cross Slash and a powerbomb into a German suplex. The set up to the Golden Shower gets broken up by Page, but they’ve teased that enough now that we’re definitely getting one in the future, right? Maybe for their first title win?

My favorite and maybe the most impressive spot started as a reprise from Golden Lovers vs. Young Bucks in Long Beach. Kenny went for the One-Winged Angel through the table, Cody broke it, and Ibushi went for the German off the shoulders that worked at SSE. But this time Page countered the suplex attempt into a Doomsday Device, which was extremely freakin’ exciting and looked like it could win the match.

After a super-cheap, cheating rollup victory, our villains are still unsatisfied. Page holds Ibushi while Cody goes for that long-awaited chair attack, and hilariously yells, “Kill him!” Kill him? Don’t you want to have that match at Supercard, Hangman? Please CHILL OUT. The things that are happening with you here are so much less important than the things that happening to almost everyone else. There has to be better treatment for your PTSD than brutalizing the most beautiful living human man.

Relative Worst: The Storylines That Aren’t L.I.J. Vs. Suzukigun Or Okada Or Bullet Club-Related

The Taguchi Japan (Juice Robinson, David Finlay, and Tanahashi) vs. Chaos (Goto, Jay White, and Yoshi Hashi) six man tag furthers stories that have been going on for a little while now.

Juice will face Goto for the NEVER Openweight title on April 24. They last competed a year ago, but that was before Juice got good and everyone fell in love with him and Juicamania started running wild in Japan. This would be Juice’s first NJPW title. That’s the whole thing here!

White vs. Finlay for the US Title is, on paper, an EPIC spanning YEARS about TWO FORMER FRIENDS. One became EDGY AND EVIL, and before he became EDGY AND EVIL he beat the other NINE TIMES IN A ROW, but now that he’s EDGY AND EVIL he’s being a jerk about it. Despite the pull-apart brawl at the Road To show and the surprise stunner here, I’m still not buying Finlay as a tough guy. He looks like he should be a librarian instead of a wrestler, and neither his promos nor ring work is helping change that impression.

The Switchblade, however, cut a nigh-Shakespearean promo on Finlay after the match. It can be easy to sleep on people’s promo skills in NJPW because they’re not usually part of the main show, but please do yourself a favor and admire Jay White’s for a second.

Tanahashi’s role in this match is to shine and look great and like he’s not working hurt and to absorb the love of the crowd. This turns out to be plot relevant later! New Japan is very good at this whole Making Professional Wrestling Shows thing right now!

Best: Bird Fight, and

Worst: OH NO WILL OSPREAY’S NECK

Will Ospreay vs. Marty Scurll for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship was a mostly very good match that became super stressful at the end.

The story here is that Ospreay has never beaten Scurll in a title match (they’ve had four), and he’s on a kick where he needs to challenge and beat everyone in the juniors division in order to lead it. Scurll seems to be in it more for personal glory reasons.

Marty’s heel character work is less sinister than Cody’s, but just as strong throughout the match. He can’t handle the flurry of flips at the beginning and just backs away and calls for a time out. He antagonizes the crowd. He counters a flippy move by just grabbing Ospreay’s arm and trying to snap his fingers, and just slaps the champ in the face after a near fall.

Marty targets a variety small things (twisting the nose, the usual finger work), but the main story of this match is Will Ospreay’s neck. Scurll twists it, slingshots Will into the ropes, tombstone piledrivers him on the mat. He makes Ospreay wrestle his match until the Aerial Assassin turns the tide in his favor with his usual impressive gymnastics.

Then, ironically in neck-based match, we get this VERY SCARY DANGEROUS MOMENT:

How was Ospreay okay in real life after that? How did that not break anything? After this, the match fell apart a little. It didn’t seem like Ospreay should have been able to do the Oscutter after all the damage to his neck (kayfabe damage, although I still marvelled at that in a shoot way too), but he wins after hitting two of them. The Chickenwing sadly joins the Time Bomb in the Way Less Protected Moves After Sakura Genesis 2018 Club in the process too.

Best: The Doorstep Of History

Zack Sabre Jr. was a new kind of opponent for Okada, beyond just making him look unusually sympathetic. He’s a submission wrestler, and Okada’s title defenses have involved a lot of strike exchanges. ZSJ says he does strong style better than the Japanese wrestlers in a company built on submissions. With his (via Taka) “Just tap out” catchphrase and “Giving up is all there is” sub-catchphrase, he’s also anti-fighting spirit, the power of babyface, especially in Japan.

Disclaimer: I’m not crazy about ZSJ. He’s so skinny that he looks goofy when he runs or strikes and sometimes his promos get to close to breaking kayfabe for me (see: “If someone’s about to do a moonsault off a balcony on you, just move.”) I know a lot of people really like him, but he’s not someone I seek out in my indie wrestling viewing. However, this is all just a personal preference thing, and he’s undeniably a submission expert. His holds are so complex and unexpected, and it’s cool to see someone doing something so different.

This match had additional stakes in that winning it would tie Okada with Tanahashi for most successful heavyweight title defenses. If Okada lost, it would be the first time he’s tapped out since a match with Shinsuke Nakamura in 2015. There was even more pride on the line for the Rainmaker than usual.

ZSJ gets the immediate advantage. Okada busts out submission holds he learned training in Mexico and they don’t look bad, but he’s trying to beat Sabre at his own game. That’s not a game he can win, and it’s not how he got to the god tier he’s on now.

Okada gets his first strike thirteen minutes into the match. He isn’t able to clearly dominate, as ZSJ quickly counters a dropkick into a crazy impressive submission hold. But Okada has his confidence back and lures Sabre into a strike battle, something he’s proven he can win.

Soon ZSJ starts his attacks of the Rainmaker arm, which I had figured would be his strategy from the beginning. Now all of a sudden there’s so much arm targeting, but Okada’s also getting in more strikes. ZSJ’s offense is potentially more deadly, but he’s also more tired, desperate, and has taken some damage, so he’s leaving more openings in his already not great (see: the Paper Mario physique) defense.

The end of the match is exciting and the most satisfying Okada win in a while. ZSJ gets him in an armbar and tries to tap out Okada exactly the way Shinsuke did years ago. Okada shouldn’t try to power out of the triangle, but he’s arrogant and tries it anyway and almost gets choked out. When he tries it again he succeeds in standing, maintains wrist control (I hope you marked your Okada Title Defense Bingo card there), and hits the Rainmaker. It takes one more, after another crazy hold, to get the win.

I’m starting to think this Okada guy might be a pretty good wrestler.

Future Best: To Be The Ace

Just when we were all happy for Okada, Gedo came out and made me want him to lose again. He claims, “the Rainmaker is so dominant, he has nobody else to beat. Would anyone dare get in his way, knowing there is no stopping the Rainmaker? Is there anybody?” The fans chant for Tanahashi. In response, very much unlike the Undertaker, TANAHASHI COMES OUT, looking very stylish and smoldering directly at the camera.

Tanahashi challenges Okada, saying he’s the last one left to do it. Last time they faced each other for the title, he was at the top of the promotion. Now the Ace has the chance to regain his former pure babyface glory in the more morally ambiguous Okada Era. For all that Okada’s accomplished, he isn’t beloved like Tanahashi was (and is again since his return from injury.) I’m not sure how much that gets to him, but it’s clear that beating Tanahashi himself to beat the Tanahashi’s record is exactly the challenge that could make or break him.

Cheesy old guy who used to win all the time vs. arrogant young jerk who currently wins all the time, who ya got?

With a disrespectful promo, Okada accepts the challenge. Then he hits his pose and starts eating a piece of the gold confetti. Chuckie T was right, man, Okada has gotten so weird.

That’s it for Sakura Genesis. I’ll see you back here for Road To Wrestling Dontaku, the wrestling holiday it takes several days to drive to! I’d watch New Japan’s social media for changes to the card before then if I were you, because I think Kenny and/or Cody might be killed this weekend!

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