The Best And Worst Of NJPW: World Tag League 2019, Nov. 16-17

Previously on NJPW: Sho looking like he was carved out of marble (and then sprayed down with spray tan) wasn’t enough to win him the RevPro Cruiserweight Championship, the U.S. title was defended in the U.S., and Okada almost did a swear.

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And now, the best and worst of the first two nights of World Tag League 2019, November 16 in Kanagawa and November 17 in Tokyo’s Korakuen Hall.

Worst: Almost All Of The Opening Night!

This article will include me writing nice things about good wrestling later, but before most of that good wrestling happened, there was a whole show on almost all boring wrestling.

World Tag League is not to tag team wrestling what the G1 or Best of the Super Juniors is to singles wrestling. Like I wrote about a little when NJPW announced the teams for this year’s tournament, it’s hurt by singles competition being so much more highly prioritized than tag wrestling in New Japan that there are very few active tag teams that feel like serious title contenders at any given time. One could point to other factors like the departure of teams like War Machine, half of Killer Elite Squad, Best Friends, and the Young Bucks over the past few years, and even look back to Gallows and Anderson leaving and Honma and Kojima getting injured and try to figure out the cause and effect of the heavyweight tag division leaning heavily on older and foreign talent.

But whatever reason the heavyweight tag division is like this, it results in us getting World Tag Leagues full of people who don’t regularly compete seriously the tag team division, don’t really have tag team “acts” (for contrast, all the teams in AEW’s tag title tournament had tag team acts), and seem like two friends going after the tag titles because they don’t have anything else to do at Wrestle Kingdom yet. It’s very different from the G1, BOSJ, and even the New Japan Cup, which are mostly made up of people with defined singles acts and almost entirely made up of characters, besides one or two chaotic heels, who really, believably care about winning the tournament for what it is.

The opening night of the 2019 World Tag League in Kanagawa for the most part shows the weaknesses of the tournament in action, especially since the audience is pretty quiet. Weirdly, neither the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Champions or Evil and Sanada, the favorites to win the tournament (by over 5,000 votes in a fan poll!). The main event of Tomohiro Ishii and Yoshi-Hashi vs. Taichi and Zack Sabre Jr. and is a highlight of the show, but it’s not something most people who hype up in advance, which makes it an odd choice of a closer for the opening night.

Most of the card is difficult to even write about very positively or negatively after the fact. FinJuice defeats Hirooki Goto and Karl Fredericks and Juice and Karl are pretty good together. The greatness of Toru Yano and Colt Cabana together is offset by Jeff Cobb and Mikey Nicholls looking like the blandest possible thrown-together tag team of extra guys because there have to be sixteen teams in World Tag League for some reason. (Cobb’s suplex machine stuff is awesome though.)

Nagata and Nakanishi vs. Kenta and the Tokyo Pimp is unsurprisingly very slow and not bolstered by drama. Suzuki and Archer vs. Fale and Owens doesn’t deliver on what a fantasy, on-paper Suzukigun vs. Bullet Club warfare could be, but it’s fun to watch people go kaiju-crazy for Fale and Archer’s monster fighting. The Tanahashi and Henare (named HenarACE by Tanahashi backstage, then possibly renamed Tanare the following night) vs. GBH match prompted me to type “THIS MATCH IS FULL OF OLD PEOPLE” in my notes. For the most part, the opening night of World Tag League is the type of show where I can write one sentence about most of the matches and feel okay about that. There just isn’t a lot going on!

Best: Whatever’s In The Water At Korkauen Hall

The following night at Korakuen Hall though, everything picks up. The hot crowd definitely makes everything a lot easier to watch, and overall, the whole show feels more energetic and aggressive. Plus, way more significant things happen!

We open with Tenzan and Kojima vs. Juice and Finlay and a battle of two teams of best friends and all-around nice guys that built some real drama around whether TenCozy could get it done against their younger opponents. (They could not!) GBH vs. Nagata and Nakanishi is one of the most old people matches possible in this tournament, but the crowd’s enthusiasm combined with the aggression and intention behind everyone’s movements keeps it engaging. The third match, Tanahashi and Henare vs. Fale and Chase Owens, was one that over-delivered for me, a person with basically no expectations going into it, with the amount of teamwork done by both teams and all the shine spots for both babyfaces.

The two Plot Development matches on this show I think under-delivered as tag matches, but had positive aspects. Goto and Kenta had been on a collision course, definitely with their best friend/ex-best friend Shibata involved in some capacity, since Kenta basically cost Goto the IC title and they clashed in San Jose. On November 17, they continue to be very aggressive with each other and though Kenta briefly gets Goto stuck in Game Over, Goto goes into his most murderous mental zone and pins the NEVER Openweight Champion. We probably have a ways to go before anything more dramatic happens with this storyline, but everything about it so far makes me really look forward to it.

November 17 also includes G.o.D. eating their first loss in the 2019 World Tag League in their first match in the 2019 World Tag League to Toru Yano and Colt Cabana. Trying to review comedy matches is tricky because it seems like comedy is even more subjective than other things in art, but in an attempt to review this, I’ll say I thought the comedy parts all worked really well but it felt like the match could have been shorter. The ending is a creative Yano Match one that leaves Tanga Loa traumatized.

The post-match comments reveal what our esteemed tag team champions will be doing this World Tag League, which is not really caring about it. I guess they could have gone with 1) really committing to winning this year, which is like the only thing they haven’t achieved as a team in NJPW so far, or 2) the thing they decided to do, claiming they’ve proved their the best team all year and they already have a spot at the Tokyo Dome, so who cares about this tournament? The option G.o.D. sounds like they’re going with is definitely the more annoying option, which is a valid choice for a team whose whole reign has been defined by tights-pulling rollup wins.

Best: The Real World Tag League Is The Friends We Make Along The Way

What World Tag League lacks in grade one tag team wrestling, it makes up for in team promos. Okay, those don’t really make up for a lot the matches not being so hot, but World Tag League promos and all the friendship going on are highlights of the tournament. New Japan promos being unscripted helps these backstage segments a lot, because even if they’re not that clever, they feel organic.

Kenta, with his hair dye bit with Yujiro and flirty bit with the NJPW World camera, continues to kill it at these, and the guy whose career may have been most helped by this promo format, Juice Robinson, kills it even harder backstage on the 16th. He’s not wearing the Macho Man-esque gear anymore, but his lines about “Everybody says there ain’t no crying in pro wrestling, but there is! There is crying in pro wrestling if you eat, sleep, and breath this shit!”and “I will cry again in 2020, but it’ll be happy tears” might be his most reminiscent of Randy Savage. The dude is just unbelievably good at the talking part of pro wrestling, so I’m very glad to hear him do it again after that mostly silent G1.

Along with FinJuice, another promo highlight (and wrestling highlight!) is the new team of Terrible, on his first NJPW tour since Fantastica Mania, and Shingo Takagi. In the ring, they’re charismatic and aggressive and made their debut as a team with one of the highlights of the November 16 show, an entertaining match with TenCozy. (I mentioned them out of order, but that’s two for two good tag league matches for the team that began in 1999.)

A big part of why Terrible and Takagi are so much to watch as a team is that it seems like they’re having so much fun being a team. They have a secret handshake in their first match and certified lucha hater Shingo is busting out Spanish For Beginners backstage. Terrible says they have a bond of trust that will never end, possibly based on their mutual love of RAMPAGING, which is one of the purest bases for a wrestling friendship I can think of. Doble Rampage might on win literally any matches, but this aggro uncle team has won my heart.

Last year’s breakout team of two guys who absolutely do not speak the same language but are basically best friends anyway, Zack Sabre Jr. and Taichi, aka Dangerous Tekkers, aka Godspeed You! Zack Emperor, return this year in excellent form. Their match against Ishii and Yoshi-Hashi in the main event of the opening night of World Tag League is the show’s other highlight and shows off the best possible version of the Ishii and Yoshi-Hashi team. The cheat code to guessing NJPW tournament finals, looking at the main and semi-main events on the last night of tournament action, shows Ishii and Yoshi-Hashi and Dangerous Tekkers in those matches, so both these teams might be real contenders this year too, which would be an interesting change after two consecutive years of G.o.D. vs. L.I.J.

Best: The Real World Tag League Is Also The Friends We Fight Along The Way

Intra-faction matches are usually highlights of NJPW tournaments (just this year already: both L.I.J. matches in the G1, the Okada vs. Ospreay matches, Archer vs. ZSJ, Goto vs. Ishii, Ishii vs. Okada, Roppongi 3K vs. Mega Coaches, the Chaos-on-Chaos violence in BOSJ…) and on the November 17 World Tag League show, it’s no different.

Last year the highlights of World Tag League, besides the final, were the three Suzukigun teams wrestling each other, and this year’s Suzukigun civil war delivers again. In 2018, there was a clear hierarchy of the Suzukigun teams (K.E.S. the actual active tag team, Sabre and Taichi both wrestlers in their primes but a new team, Suzuki and Iizuka the team with Iizuka), but I couldn’t guess who would win the Minoru Suzuki and Lance Archer vs. Zack Sabre Jr. and Taichi match.

The lack of clear hierarchy in this match – Suzuki’s The Boss but is getting older and was left out of the G1, Taichi’s been steadily on the rise for the past two years and brought Douki into the group AND has been goaded by Naito about his place in the faction, Sabre and Archer are both singles champions – adds tension that really elevates it and keeps it exciting throughout. The standoff between Taichi and Suzuki is VERY INTERESTING, as is watching them just go feral on each other early in the match and Suzuki being the first person in NJPW kayfabe to say “Taichigun” backstage.

The wrestling highlights, though, are the sequences between Suzuki and Sabre, which fit their characters perfectly. One of the ZSJ character’s biggest weaknesses is when he gets too arrogant and starts thinking he can hang in strike exchanges despite being a beanpole, and here that’s added to what reads as a need to prove he’s the equal of his dad-mentor-boss-partner in every way. Suzuki shows that he can absolutely still beat this guy up in a fist (or forearm) fight, but is just a step too slow in the duel of pinning combinations and takes the fall for his team. There’s so much drama but still so much left unresolved, and though the group fist bump (including Miho!) after the match shows everything’s fine for now, it feels like maybe things won’t be fine for too long. Overall, this is an effective combination of good wrestling-wrestling stuff and good soap opera-wrestling stuff.

The match after Suzukigun vs. Taichigun Question Mark is the all Los Ingos match of Evil and Sanada vs. Takagi and Terrible and while it doesn’t deliver on the same level, it’s still fun to watch. This match has an underlying sense of friendship rather than tension and mostly just confirms that yes, whenever New Japan puts Evil and/or Sanada on the same side of a tournament bracket as Shingo those singles matches are going to bang.

There will be another Best and Worst of the third show of the tournament tomorrow (it’s way easier to write about two shows at once than three), but for now, here is the already out of date points and potential title shots tracker after the first two nights of World Tag League 2019:

Points earned:

4 points – 2-0 – Ishii and Yoshi-Hashi, FinJuice
2 points – 1-0 – Evil and Sanada
2 points – 1-1 – Cobb and Nicholls, Dangerous Tekkers, GBH, HenarAce, Fale and Owens, Kenta and Yujiro, LA Dojo, Suzuki and Archer, TenCozy, Yano and Cabana
0 points – 0-1 – G.o.D.
0 points – 0-2 – Doble Rampage, Nagata and Nakanishi

Title shots earned:

IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship – Yano and Cabana
NEVER Openweight Championship: Hirooki Goto

Please sound off in the comments with what you thought about the tournament so far, but especially whether you think the font on the tournament schedule is really too small for Taichi and Zack or if they both just secretly can’t read.