Previously on NJPW: Dangerous Tekkers reestablished themselves as the mean girls of the NJPW universe, Yano reestablished himself as a kleptomaniac, and Shota Umino reestablished himself as the guy who will probably main event the Tokyo Dome against Jay White in five years or less.
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And now, the best and worst of SENGOKU LORD in NAGOYA on April 20, 2019.
But First, Did Anything Happen On The On-Demand Road To Wrestling Dontaku Shows?
Before we get to the actual big show on which important things happened, I should mention that there were two Road to Dontaku shows on April 14 and 15 that didn’t air live, but were uploaded to NJPW World in their entirety. If you want two two-hour blocks of more lighthearted NJPW wrestling in your life, they’re worth watching. They’re definitely non-essential viewing overall, but here are key things on them, (some of which were later mentioned by English commentary during Sengoku Lord):
After Tsuji broke the stalemate of his rivalry with Uemura with a win on the first show of the tour, Uemura beats him with the same move on April 14. But then Tsuji beats him again the next night! This could easily continue for at least a year! (However, I think Tsuji is clearly the more powerful of the two because he won a singles match first and did it on TV rather than VOD.)
Juice Robinson and Bad Luck Fale and Their Friends lean into the slapstick side of the bodyslam element of their feud and make it a lot more fun.
Dragon Lee returns to NJPW as the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion! He does the Cabrón Combinación in a match! Ishimori reminds him that Hiromu Takahashi is not the only wrestler in the world and he’d better keep his masked head in the game or he’ll lose his belt!
The Guerrillas of Destiny get revenge on Yano by stealing he and Makabe’s NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championships, for which they will challenge with their little bro by their side later in the tour, at both shows. (Taguchi later reveals he had totally forgotten about this defense because that’s how important the trios championships are.)
L.I.J. wins both ten-man tag main events against Chaos, first with Evil, then with Shingo Takagi making the pin. Takagi and Bushi attack Roppongi 3K after the match on the 15th, but Takagi still gets cheered when he gets on the mic because they’re in his home province. His subsequent promo turns into kind of a motivational speech about not being afraid to take the next step even if, for example, you are 36 years old like The Dragon. Los Ingos look increasingly bored and it’s pretty funny.
Jay White cuts very mean but true promos about how Hirooki Goto has never managed to win the big one despite working for NJPW for over sixteen years and also calls himself “the real world champion” in a way that gave me flashbacks to Taven and the Purple Ladder. He calls Goto “a f*cking disappointment to the fans, to New Japan, TO YOUR FAMILY, TO YOURSELF” and please let Goto beat this guy, for the love of Wrestling God!
Zack Sabre Jr. continues to hand out on the next level of mean promos! He mocks “~Kota-kun~” for his hero-worship-related devotion to the Intercontinental Championship, expresses a desire to make him cry “because I imagine that’s quite a beautiful sight,” and again joins Taichi in making fun of Jeff Cobb’s weight.
Also, Ibushi has a line about “a certain main” in his April 14 promo that makes it seem like he’s definitely going to defend his title against Tanahashi sooner or later, a perfect thing to happen in the story they’re telling with his first IC reign.
In other, borderline unrelated Ibushi’s Gods news, Shinsuke Nakamura is doing the Sliding German in WWE now after being inspired by Taiji Ishimori, who he met up with on WrestleMania weekend! When like a 45-year-old Nakamura comes back for a The King Returns For One Last Big Run in NJPW it is going to destroy me emotionally, so, you know, make sure to follow my internet presence for however long it takes for that to happen!
Best: What’s A King To A Beast God?
Sengoku Lord in Nagoya opens with an exceptionally energetic Young Lions tag match that made me power rank these lads in my mind (there’s no way not to put Uemura at fourth out of four right now – sorry, Uemura!) and a home team vs. Suzukigun ten-man tag that at first seems like it’ll be another warm-up tag with no real angle. It ends up providing a needed win for Taichi, who’s been supporting ZSJ while Jeff Cobb is busy with the other half of his double champ duties in ROH and could use an opportunity to shine on his own. However, it also turns out to be the start of the first angle of the Liger Retirement Tour, one which was apparently crafted specifically for me by some kind of booking mixologist.
Minoru Suzuki calls out Jushin Thunder Liger to fight in the ring, then relentlessly continues to attack him later outside of the ring in such a way that I typed versions of “GIVE ME SUZUKI-LIGER BEFORE HE RETIRES, YOU COWARDS” multiple times in my notes. I also thought, “Okay, probably don’t talk about how this is a rematch of an actual fight in Pancrase from like seventeen years ago as more than a reference in passing,” but then, after Liger calls Suzuki a “punk” and a “moron” backstage for not following sports rules, we learn that their fight in Pancrase like seventeen years ago is the direct kayfabe reason for Suzuki’s actions.
Liger’s only MMA fight and Suzuki’s second-to-last is an oddity of the wrestling-MMA crossover, peak Inokiism era. While it made sense for guys like just-out-of-college amateur wrestler/pro wrestling trainee Toru Yano to step into the Pancrase ring and for the young, vale tudo-trained Shinsuke Nakamura to have some MMA fights around this time, it’s bizarre that Suzuki vs. Liger – which was originally supposed to be Suzuki vs. Kensuke Sasaki – even happened. Liger was an accomplished amateur wrestler in high school and a student of martial arts but had never fought professionally, while Suzuki – though past his prime and about to return to pro wrestling the following year – had been in the MMA game for almost a decade. Understandably, Liger got completely washed.
I’ve never found a translation for what these two said to each other after the fight, but we learn from Suzuki’s promo backstage in Nagoya that Liger told him to give him a few more years to train for a rematch. NOW SUZUKI IS CALLING HIM OUT ON IT ALMOST SEVENTEEN YEARS LATER.
Does this go down at Dominion, or maybe on the Best of the Super Juniors final show since Liger is the quintessential NJPW junior heavyweight? Could this be where we see the pre-retirement appearance of Kishin Liger we all know is coming? Whenever it happens, I’m very psyched for it and also for the rest of Liger’s last year.
Worst: Mad Mikey Beyond New Japan Cup
After the show kicks off with a hot angle, it cools down with some of the more lukewarm Bullet Club drama. Yano getting the win, but G.O.D. still managing to leave with all the belt after hitting their challengers with them, plus the addition of Tama Tonga’s disrespectful belt-carrying bag, are logical escalations of the feud, but it just isn’t as exciting or compelling as others on the tour. There’s still time for it to end strong – maybe by leaning harder to either the violence or the comedy side or showing more of MVP working as a tag team – but right now it’s an innocuous part of the midcard.
More boring and less logical is the recent trajectory of Chase Owens. Here is the strategy used by this character over the course of his singles push over the past month or so:
- Beats Juice in the New Japan Cup using some shady tactics but no outside interference
- Loses to Yoshi-Hashi and gets eliminated from the Cup directly due to his use of interference
- Loses his U.S. title match against Juice after using even more interference and shenanigans
- Loses to Mikey Nicholls after attempting to use interference but Jado getting ejected from the arena before the match starts
Even before that last bullet point happens, Owens is still very much a low-level goon people don’t think can win. People also still don’t have a good idea of who this version of Mikey Nicholls is so there isn’t much to get invested in. Nobody really cares who wins or loses this match and who wins or loses doesn’t really matter.
Unlike the Hirooki Goto vs. Jay White special singles match feud, in which we understand the statements these well-established characters would make with a victory, the winner of Nicholls vs. Owens will… move another inch up in the NJPW pecking order? I guess Nicholls is avenging the attack on Juice Robinson, but they’re not well established as friends or even in the same faction. It’s possible Nicholls is just being plugged into booking intended for David Finlay before his shoulder injury.
If the actual wrestling in the match had made a strong impression I probably wouldn’t even be devoting brain space to try to figure this out, but it doesn’t. The finish is even kind of confusing, with Owens doing what I guess was supposed to be a setup for a V-Trigger before hitting the ropes, but he hasn’t been using his running knee as a successful finisher or with that much of an Omega-esque taunt, so it feels like he just runs into Nicholls’ arms for the Mikey Bomb.
Best/Worst: The Bad Luck Fale Bodyslam Challenge
The related singles match on Sengoku Lord, Bad Luck Fale challenging Juice Robinson for the U.S. Championship isn’t great, but it makes up for its weaknesses with a clear story and really good selling by Robinson. Everyone watching gets that if someone hurts their lower back it’s harder for them to lift heavy objects, like, for example, Fale in order to bodyslam him. It helps that Robinson continues to sell his back consistently as he slowly starts to make a comeback and doesn’t really “hulk up” to bodyslam Fale, but seems to finally execute the move through a mix of momentum and adrenaline. Plus, by the time he hits Pulp Friction, the realism of Fale’s defeat is helped by the fact that he’s sweating buckets and clearly gassed in real life.
Nobody thought Fale was going to win this match and hopefully, Robinson gets a more convincing challenger for his next defense, but here he at least looked like a superstar to the fans and a strong performer in the ring. Oh, and he cut an excellent promo afterward and gives us the first babyface beer chug of the night:
Best: Chaotic Good
With two down, five to go, it still looks like Goto vs. White could be the best singles match of the Chaos/Hontai vs. Bullet Club feud. These two continue their trend of having promising in-ring sequences together during the White and Hikuleo vs. Goto and Taguchi tag match and Goto looks both so much stronger and more entertaining than he gets to a lot of the time. His Dojo Class of ’02 partnership with Taguchi – with whom it definitely seems like he is friends in real life based on their chemistry in the ring and during their backstage promo – gives us both solid tag teamwork and a look at the less serious side of Goto.
This match is also the most promising for Hikuleo since he’s returned from injury. The mix of him being a so close to Young Lion status that he never wins but still supposed to be a threat due to his height hasn’t really been working out, but we get a hint of how it could in the future with his sequence of offense that starts with a dramatic swinging neckbreaker. Even though Hikuleo was always the most likely pin-eater for this tag match, Goto’s ushigoroshi-to-GTR finish to the former college basketball player still makes the Wild Samurai look pretty good.
In the next match, the majority of Chaos continues to work their way towards their title and grudge matches with members of Los Ingobernables de Japon via ten-man tag match. They’ve been changing these up just enough to keep them from getting stale – and what happens the end of Sengoku Lord makes future staleness even less likely. Here we get a surprisingly engaging finishing stretch between Tetsuya Naito and Yoshi-Hashi and the post-match drama of Evil and Ishii slapping each other in the face, Shingo Takagi and Sho having to be pulled apart, and Bushi and Yoh eyeing each other (and finally solidifying that a rivalry between them backstage.) The audience is into all of it and it’s a solid third-to-main.
Best: These Two Were Offered WWE Contracts In 2016 And Would Probably Be On 205 Live Now If They Had Signed Them, But They Didn’t And Look At Them Now
Previously on NJPW and in at least one alternate universe’s Cruiserweight Classic, we’ve seen Kota Ibushi and Zack Sabre Jr. face each other in tournament matches. In Nagoya, the next chapter in their rivalry is a big title match and it shows. Each man’s strengths and weaknesses are clearly established at the beginning: ZSJ can dominate on the mat, but Ibushi can absolutely destroy him with kicks. I appreciate so much Sabre selling getting kicked by Ibushi like he got f*cking shot in the leg. The way he powders out to stretch outside the ring heightens the drama too.
Said drama is further heightened by Sabre using his brains and loose morals to give himself a needed edge with something for which I believe the technical term is “BARRICADE NECK INSANITY.” His submissions outside of the ring are the most terrifying version of ZSJ body horror and get us closer to the most terrifying version of Ibushi – who takes a long time to emerge; my one gripe with this match is that it is so long and feels that way at times. But the build to Ibushi’s final, alien murderer form pays off in spades (or maybe gold stars?) and watching him get the W over Sabre is a feel-good ending to the show.
ZSJ somewhat cryptically tweeted at Ibushi about both of them choosing not to go to WWE when they were offered contracts during the Cruiserweight Classic three years ago being “the right choice” and after seeing these two thrive in the New Japan environment since then – and especially since committing full time – I don’t think anyone could dispute it.
This match is followed by a challenge to Ibushi by Naito, a segment that is well done in itself but ultimately confusing. Naito’s been doing mostly depressing stuff for almost a year and a half now. We’ve gotten invested in him beating specific people holding the Intercontinental Championship, but after Wrestle Kingdom 12 I don’t think I will ever really want this guy to hold that belt.
I also don’t know why we’re supposed to believe his true goal is now to become a double champion when it seemed like that angle was happening during the New Japan Cup because Naito didn’t actually want the IC title at all. I’m also not sure how we’re supposed to get invested in that when no one has ever held the Intercontinental and Heavyweight Championships at the same time and there’s no way to know if that’s something NJPW would actually do. It seems like it would kind of devalue the god-tier IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
But Naito vs. Ibushi should again be a very good match and Ibushi, the half of it much easier to be optimistic about, immediately commits to the renewed feud super hard. Backstage, he gets the cards for this week’s Korakuen Hall shows changed so suddenly that it should kick off a blood feud between him and whoever was on these Chaos teams originally. He also has an exchange with the press and the champion’s booze that reminds us he is the weirdest human and gives us our second babyface beer chug of the night:
With no new champions but some new impending matches, I’ll see you back here later this week after the Road To shows that will kick off the second half of the Wrestling Dontaku tour.