Best And Worst Of NJPW: Showdown In San Jose

Previously on NJPW: Hiromu and Jericho returned and democracy decided on a Dome double championship match.

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And now, the best and worst of NJPW Showdown in San Jose.

House Show Vibes

Showdown in San Jose was not a house show. It streamed live on NJPW World on November 9, 2019, with the broadcast looking and sounding way better than those of all the other non-AXS TV international events they’ve had so far. But everything else about Showdown was very house show-esque in ways that made it feel less than must-watch for remote viewers, though it looked like a good time as a live event.

Given that NJPW of America is NJPW trying to replicate their Japanese touring model in the U.S., I think that means this show achieved its primary goal. Like the Fighting Spirit Unleashed shows earlier this fall, it seemed like the audience had fun and sent the message that it’s worth buying a ticket when NJPW comes to your town, even if it isn’t for a huge event like the G1.

Watching on the internet, though, Showdown in San Jose wasn’t all that compelling all of the time. Aside from the title matches, most of the rest of this three-and-a-half-hour show felt like Additional New Japan Bonus Content without the built-in electricity of being a live wrestling show. A side effect of this is that though I think this show worked for what it was, I don’t have a lot of substantial things to say about it in this review! But here we go!

Best: Send In The Clowns, Send Off The Legend

Showdown in San Jose starts with a match between two standouts of the current crop of Young Lions, Alex Coughlin and Ren Narita, who now both represent that LA Dojo. Coughlin and Narita once again look like future stars. The crowd is hot and sounds happy to be there. It’s a strong start to the show.

Coughlin vs. Narita is followed by Jushin Thunder Liger’s last match in the United States, in which the legend teams with Aaron Solow against the god-tier clown team of Colt Cabana and Toru Yano. Liger getting in his big moves for the last time in the U.S. on Yano, NJPW’s true ace, is something I can respect. Yano and Cabana look like they’ll be a lot of fun in World Tag League because of course they will be, and Aaron Solow, a longtime indie wrestler who put in some time at the Fale Dojo and made his New Japan debut on the Southern Showdown tour this year, looked good too, like a guy it makes sense for them to keep having on international shows and maybe bring in for BOSJ or something.

Overall, this was a pretty chill way for Liger to go out in America! If you want to see a more poetic one, I recommend checking out the six-man tag he had in Defy Wrestling a couple months ago with Brian Pillman Jr. on the opposite team, if you haven’t already seen it.

In other old man wrestler news, Minoru Suzuki is in prime overseas form in the night’s third match, Suzuki and El Desperado vs. Karl Fredericks and Clark Connors. It’s another solid undercard match, with some nice cohesion provided by it starting and ending with Fredericks vs. Suzuki.

The trainees look solid again, but The Man With The Worst Personality In The World is clearly the star here. All of Suzuki’s regular signature moves are one hundred times more over outside of Japan and he absolutely knows it. The pin after the Gotch Style Piledriver is a sassier than usual too and Suzuki absolutely basks in those cheers on the ramp. Overall, he has a special pep in his step and, as usual in the UK and the U.S., performs a little differently, with his acting a little more cartoony. If the U.S. Championship was for wrestlers people really like in the U.S. rather than, like, foreign wrestlers in general, Suzuki would be its rightful holder until he retires or loses it to Yano or Ishii.

Worst: The Friend Of My Ex-Friend Is My Enemy

After these matches there are two six-man tags and boy are they two six-man tag matches that happen. These were the part of Showdown in San Jose that seemed like they worked for the live audience – look, it is Ishii in your town! – and were skippable for everyone else.

First, Evil, Sanada, and Bushi continue their losing ways against the patchwork team of TJP, Juice Robinson, and Tomohiro Ishii. This has some entertaining moments but also has the least stakes out of all the matches on the card, which was a pretty low-stakes card, and feels like it.

Rocky Romero, Yoh, and Hirooki Goto then defeat Jado, Taiji Ishimori, and Kenta, in a match that does have some drama behind it. Ishimori and Yoh are half of the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship match at Wrestle Kingdom, which also comes into play later on Showdown. Goto and Kenta are Shibata’s best friend and ex-best friend and Kenta was part of the interference in Goto’s Intercontinental Championship match that was definitely the deciding factor in him not winning the title – he hit his finisher that nobody kicks out of, before the ref was pulled out of the ring – so it is very understandable for them to now have beef. The audience doesn’t sound super hot for their exchanges, but the aggression is there and so is the potential. But though there is stuff happening in this match, it feels so slow-paced and low-intensity that it really is not exciting at all.

Best: Sho Time

I continue to take offense at New Japan telling me to care about the RevPro British Cruiserweight Championship – especially in a show in America, where like five people care about what’s going on in RevPro – but I’m always glad when New Japan gives me the opportunity to care a lot about Sho Tanaka. This guy not only looks like a superstar, but he wrestles like one, and gets to showcase that here.

In this match, like in the Super Junior Tag League final, Sho’s signature High Voltage power is impeded by the damage to his lower back. He plays the mix of injury and intensity very well, and ELP’s focus on that body part is easy to follow without being too heavy-handed. There have been El Phantasmo matches in NJPW that were very much about El Phantasmo, but this one was not and he wrestled accordingly. His heel shenanigans support him playing the villain in a story in which the hero was the protagonist. As usual in Bullet Club title matches, there’s interference here, and, as not so usual (though far from unknown) in New Japan, it’s part of a singles match being used to set up a tag match. Everything gets real dumb after the ref bump, but the match still works overall.

While his annoying stuff supports the story of this match, ELP continuing to do those Bullet Club leader throwback moves supports the idea that maybe Bullet Club should just disband after this Kenta angle wraps up. Kevin Kelly insists that ELP is “not a tribute act,” but there’s no other reason for him to be wearing that jacket, doing the Styles Clash, and doing the V-Trigger. It’s never felt like ELP had any personal connection at all to being in BC besides selling branded merch; this has the same vibe as people wearing certain band t-shirts because this shirt is a thing right, this logo represents something people think is cool, so maybe this will make them think I’m cool?

The stuff about ELP being reminiscent of Prince Devitt doesn’t ring true either because part of what makes what that wrestler does stand out is that it feels like it comes from a creative person as well as a good wrestler. The next coming of this wrestler would be someone who feels original. I hope New Japan stops coming up with 1.5 new Prince Devitt-branded wrestlers a year, especially now that he’s doing that character in NXT so it’s very easy to see these people don’t have the same vibe. Just let the new guys be their own guys, and if their stuff isn’t that good, tacking a disingenuous label on it isn’t going to help.

Best: To Live And Die In America

The IWGP United States Championship has been defended in the U.S. since February because Juice was in a six-man street fight opposite Bully Ray at G1 Supercard and then NJPW gave it to a guy who couldn’t wrestle for them in America. But now the red, white, and blue belt is in the hands of American hero Lance Archer and like George Washington could not tell a lie, I believe this man could not fail to defend the U.S. title on a New Japan America tour.

Archer’s opponent in San Jose is David Finlay, in Finlay’s return match after spending months out of action with a shoulder injury and his biggest singles match since either the 2018 CharaExpo, when he wrestled IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kenny Omega in a non-title match, or his previous U.S. title challenge against Jay White. Finlay would have been in the New Japan Cup if not for his injury, and I have a hunch he would have played Mikey Nicholls’ role in the Juice-Fale-Chase-Nicholls storyline this spring too. Those things might have elevated his profile in the company, but with the way things played out, he’s still a pretty low-level guy.

Finlay does some cool things in this match and looks like maybe next year, if given the opportunity, he could break out. But here he mostly gets beaten up by Lance Archer and then Archer and Juice face-off over his body. It isn’t a match that makes Finlay look like a star, but it’s one that makes him look like a good hand, and despite that phrase motivating The Ten Guy to take off a chunk of Cody’s skull with a chair this summer, that’s not a bad thing to be at all.

Meanwhile, Lance Archer looks like a monster and an extremely weird human being and like he should continue to be a singles champion. If The Eric Andre Show was still on, it would be a travesty for New Japan not to get United States Champion Lance Archer booked on it (in character, obviously.) There are very reasonable reasons for “why” Lance Archer “should not” EBD Claw Jon Moxley at the Tokyo Dome, but what if they had Lance Archer EBD Claw Jon Moxley at the Tokyo Dome?

Worst: Snore With The Switchblade

Very rarely does a New Japan show end with tag matches previewing future title matches when there are title matches on the card, and especially not with two preview tag matches, but that’s what happened at Showdown in San Jose. With the title matches being previewed nearly two months away, this didn’t make much kayfabe sense, even if one accepts that the IC title, Heavyweight title, and/or historic double title match is that much more important than the championships on this card.

Looking at this as a live event though, I can see the logic behind putting the biggest stars at the top of the card even if it exposes a little that this is more entertainment than sport. They did this with the Young Bucks vs. Golden Lovers card placement and the Golden Lovers vs. Okada and Ishii, which both tore the Walter Pyramid down in Long Beach last year. But in San Jose, there is a downside to this card layout from an entertainment standpoint. These star-studded tags, especially the Los Ingos vs. Bullet Club one, are much lower in their intensity than the singles matches that came before them.

When I originally watched the Jay White and Chase Owens vs. Tetsuya Naito and Shingo Takagi tag match, I was convinced it was the most boring New Japan tag match of 2019. I watched it again before writing this article and now I’m not so convinced, but I still think it was very boring. With Wrestle Kingdom all the way off in January, the idea of this as a momentum-building match does’t really take and there isn’t enough cool stuff going on to make up for the lack of stakes in this match.The best action moments here ae Naito throwing the elbows in the gif above and Shingo hitting a shoulder tackle with his non-injured shoulder and otherwise, it is very slow. This all probably wouldn’t have stood out so much if this match was on the undercard, but it was the semi-main event and it did not deliver in that spot.

Best: A Single Title Man

Kazuchika Okada and Will Ospreay vs. Kota Ibushi and Amazing Red picks things up though! People are so excited for Okada and the Ospreay vs. Amazing Red stuff is exciting and impressive, even if Ospreay definitely doesn’t understand the spiritual power of Daryl. (If you missed the Ospreay vs. Red Super J-Cup match, NJPW put it and some other VOD America show matches up for free on YouTube recently.) Like the L.I.J. vs. BC tag, there isn’t a lot of drama here because this bout doesn’t believably mean anything, but this match makes up for that with better action.

After a Rainmaker to Red wins the match, Ibushi and Okada do have a good moment of drama, which makes the end of the show more interesting and works well as a segue into Okada’s promo. Okada fumbles the speech a little bit, but quickly recovers with a joke like a dang professional and gets his point across: “When I come back here, only IWGP Heavyweight Championship” because that’s the only championship that matters.

Looking ahead to Wrestle Kingdom, I think Okada’s continued public trashing of the IC title intentionally establishes him as the least sympathetic guy in the double title picture who isn’t Jay White. Okada has never really wanted to be a double champion and his motivation for winning the January 5 main event would be just to win for the sake of winning everything and being the top dog, while Naito and Ibushi really care about holding both of those championships on a personal level. Okada’s been a pretty straightforward babyface since his feud with Jay White, but now, with this new threat to his top guy status, he’s falling back into his old Rainmaker arrogance, and I think it’s only going to help amp up the Wrestle Kingdom drama as we get closer to January 4.

Before that, the double title drama will take a backseat to World Tag League for a while! I’ll see you back here later this month to talk about the two-on-two adventures of Cabana and Yano and a bunch of other people.