Previously on NJPW: Juice Robinson got crabby about New Japan’s latest knife enthusiast, Taichi introduced us to a loveable pipe enthusiast, and Sho and Shingo faced off in a battle of bodybuilding enthusiasts.
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And now, the best and worst of the final Best of the Super Juniors 26 show from June 5, 2019, at Ryogoku Sumo Hall in Tokyo.
Housekeeping Note: Apologies For Skimping On Coverage Of Short Kings Appreciation Month
I want to briefly kick off this second Best/Worst article about BOSJ 26 by apologizing for it being only the second one! If you were around for last year’s coverage, you might remember it was a lot more thorough. I initially wanted to cover this year’s the same amount but I couldn’t make watching three hours of TV almost every day and then writing about it in a timely manner work with a change in work schedule.
That being said, I did watch this whole dang tournament and will include some observations from that later in the article. (Here’s one that didn’t fit: Those Korakeun Hall shows that were all block matches and that put most people on hyper-speed from May 22-24 were probably the most entertaining block of shows New Japan has put out this year, so I highly recommend checking them out if you missed them.) But first, let’s start with that insane final match!
Best: That Insane Final Match
A little Worst about this match before it began was Will Ospreay bringing a sword to the ring. To slay the dragon, get it? I know Ospreay’s on a multi-year NJPW contract right now, but he should really go to WWE and bond with Vince McMahon over prop comedy. The only upsides of this are 1) Shingo Takagi reaction’s to Will Ospreay pointing a sword at him being that of actual grown man experiencing someone in Assassin’s Creed cosplay pointing a sword at him at his job, and 2) I still haven’t read Notes on “Camp” even after this year’s Met Gala so it’s possible this is perfect camp and therefore a great entrance for pride month and I didn’t pick that up.
While Ospreay’s playing dress-up and filling the space between moves with the worst facial expressions and general acting known to man (the Taylor Swift Winning An Award Face for wrestling), Takagi continues to be on what can only be described as king shit. The moment in the GIF above was probably supposed to be more about Ospreay doing a less dramatic version of that standoff he had with Ibushi that Keith Lee then did immediately in NXT, but it’s really a study in accomplishing more by doing less.
A great thing about this match is how it highlights how their different wrestling styles that fit their different characters play against each other. Takagi puts Ospreay over hard by being totally caught off guard when he starts breaking out more gymnastics (and also throws something at him when he does his pose, which more people should do.) Ospreay is in incredible athletic form in this match, getting so much air on everything and executing everything so cleanly, but he also gets killed by a chop at one point. There’s a very nice moment that sums this up when it looks like Ospreay and Takagi are going to have the obligatory main event strong style strike exchange, but Takagi quickly dominates with strikes and Ospreay responds with kicks. They’re pretty equally matched overall, but not equally matched at everything and don’t try to be.
Another really strong aspect of the way this match is put together is how each man’s finishers and pre-finishers are used. We know the road to a Shingo Takagi win, at least in a big match, is Noshigami, then Pumping Bomber, and finally Last of the Dragon. In this match, drama is heightened by Ospreay countering Noshigami, then Takagi managing to hit it later, then Ospreay being able to counter a Pumping Bomber, then Takagi managing to hit one.
We never make it to Last of the Dragon because Ospreay takes out Takagi with all three of his finishers — the Oscutter, the dreaded Concussion Elbow, and the Stormbreaker — in a row with no pin attempts in between. It’s the strongest possible way Takagi could have lost this match. When the most arrogant character in wrestling who also happens to be nigh-unstoppable in a clean match right now hits a person with a previously unused ultra-kill version of his finish, that person is clearly not to be taken lightly.
There are a few awkward moments in there (that sequence on the top turnbuckle and apron that seems to lose direction, that attempt at a PAC-style 450 that hits so bizarrely that it cancels out the coolness of the extra rotation), but in the end, each man has the fight of his life and comes out of it looking like a very skilled performer.
Shingo Takagi’s Eight-Month Journey To This Moment
Now that we’ve talked about the match, let’s talk about how we got to this point and why it upset many people.
First, both Shingo Takagi’s presence and undefeated road to the finals of BOSJ have been some of the most consistently good things in New Japan for the past eight months. His star power was undeniable from the beginning and only became more so. I think I’ve mentioned this every time he’s had any kind of featured role on a show and probably described his persona as something like “charismatic, old-school tough guy” more than once.
(After I broke out “charming machismo” in an article previewing the tournament final I petitioned my friend lb hunktears who covers WWE for fanbyte and designed the best Beretta t-shirt for guidance and they recommended “physical charisma” and “magnetism,” which both fit really well. Basically, I felt like it would be bad criticism to resort to saying “this guy f*cks” without literally saying “this guy f*cks,” which I thought would be bad criticism at the time even though the amazing former With Spandex writer LaToya Ferguson wrote a whole, really good article for UPROXX about how a certain TV show f*cks. This is the type of presence Shingo has cultivated for himself.)
What makes Takagi special isn’t just the way he carries himself though, it’s his wrestling style and the way he pulls it off. He combines impressive power and speed with a repertoire that mixes more old-school moves with those more typical of the present day, or at least his era of Dragon Gate. It seems like a GIF of different people doing a beautiful Sasuke Special blows up every two weeks (what up, AEW’s Sadie Gibbs and OWE’s Zhao Yilong) and those types of moves are great and people who can do them are very gifted, but it’s much less common these days that wrestlers pull off moments like the shoulder tackle king ish shown in the previous section or the moment in the gif below, which was not sped up and was even better in context:
And the one in this GIF, and many more:
A downside of this year’s Best of the Super Juniors was the lack of credible contenders to even make it to the finals. Part of this was due to recent departures from the division and last-minute replacements, but also because hardly anyone had a compelling tournament-long trajectory, at least that didn’t revolve around losing a lot or intra-faction drama. Except for Takagi.
Takagi’s winning streak became not just a background statistic, but an overt element of his character during BOSJ 26 and, along with his wrestling, made him the most much-watch wrestler in the tournament. His matches felt like they mattered more than anyone else’s. In A Block, he beat first up-and-coming power junior Sho, later the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, and last a former champion, BOSJ finalist, and established personal rival in Taiji Ishimori.
With this slow-building, logical 8-month-long rise to the top, a series of exciting BOSJ matches, and the support of the crowd, it felt like they could honestly just hand Takagi the trophy right there. In every way besides winning the final, he had won the tournament. There was one credible threat to Takagi left in the winner of B Block, Will Ospreay, the most dominant junior in his prime left in the division, but one who looked like he might be on his way to a different weight class.
And then the final match happened and it ruled, but the result was honestly heartbreaking as a conclusion to the story of BOSJ 26. I personally don’t get very emotional about results anymore since I started watching multiple wrestling promotions at a time and especially since I started covering wrestling, but this made me legitimately sad and angry in a way that was not only extremely unusual for me as adult engaging with art but also as someone watching New Japan, where at least when a result is upsetting it’s at least supposed to be upsetting, if not always in the way it seems like was intended.
It not only was incredibly disheartening as the conclusion of a storyline but also made me actually feel bad for Takagi. Eight months of all those matches and all that build and then completely out of nowhere it turned out all to be in service of him being fed to Will Ospreay. To Will Ospreay of all people, the special baby who gets everything already, a very gifted athlete who nonetheless is a dorkier or as dorky version of so many wrestlers today in AEW, in WWE (still not sure why Ricochet is regarded not as good or not as sympathetic as Ospreay, by the way), of Flip Gordon and Bandido in ROH, of Pac, of at least a quarter of all wrestlers coming up on the indies right now, who it looks like those OWE guys might just completely smoke in about four years in terms of insane gymnastic spots anyway. There are so many GIFs of people doing Sasuke Specials.
It wouldn’t be as heartbreaking for Takagi if Ospreay had anywhere near similar upward momentum within BOSJ, but he did not at all. He didn’t have a character arc or any clear trajectory. Only he and El Phantasmo were credible possible B Block winners and they didn’t even face off on the last night of action. While Takagi’s most significant opponents were the prime talent of the present and future of the junior division, Ospreay’s most significant were two Bullet Club guys who he knew from the indies and who have barely worked in New Japan yet.
Plus, Will Ospreay had already been established as someone who could just join the heavyweight division by being like six feet tall, winning the NEVER Openweight Championship from a heavyweight, and beating larger people in the New Japan Cup. If heavyweight tag wrestlers who rarely work singles matches and Yoshi-Hashi can get in the G1 in kayfabe, he should definitely just be eligible for the G1 in kayfabe without this. Ospreay had notable matches in BOSJ, but it felt like he was just there to have matches, just treading water in the division it didn’t seem like he would be around much longer or that meant anything to his character – but then, what do we know means anything to the incredibly inconsistent Will Ospreay character besides showing he’s better than everybody and being an entitled tool about it all the time.
But wait, suddenly after winning BOSJ, Ospreay is a man with a need to save the junior division, which he and he alone is capable of doing! He moved all the way to Japan to carry the junior division, according to his post-match speech, so the junior division must be pretty garbage because that’s a very dramatic action! That’s the story now when Ospreay has only cared about fighting heavyweights since last fall. What was Takagi doing in this tournament if not showing, by having good matches with, defeating, and putting over afterward the most relevant names in the junior heavyweight division, that he could not so much “carry” (Does it need to be carried? It was doing well without Ospreay for months) but definitely dominate and be basically the ace of the division going forward?
It really doesn’t make the end of his winning streak any less disheartening, but at least we immediately learn backstage that Takagi probably isn’t going to be in non-title junior heavyweight purgatory for the next several months because he asks for a match with a heavyweight at Dominion and gets one. He figures out the basic underlying logic behind Ospreay being the most credible junior threat to his winning streak in the first place: he had experience fighting larger opponents earlier this year. Takagi reiterates what he’s said before, that he hates having to wrestle in only one weight class, and finally gets a match in the next weight class up – against Satoshi Kojima for an experiment in how much arm and pec meat one wrestling ring can possibly contain. It’s dumb and frustrating for this to be what it takes to get a guy who has been acknowledged as big enough and powerful enough to be a heavyweight since the first night he got to New Japan moved to the heavyweight division or at least get to fight some heavyweights, but at least it’s happening.
Made In Japan Vs. Moving To Japan
After he wins Best of the Super Juniors for the second time, a main point of Ospreay’s terrible as usual post-match speech is that he is moving to Japan, which is very unusual for a non-Japanese performer working for NJPW. However, it also continues what seems like a trend with top non-Japanese babyfaces.
An occasional theme in New Japan is that the Japanese style of pro wrestling is the best. This is typically said by good guys. Okada and Tanahashi both criticized NJPW’s shows in America last year in interviews on the NJPW website for not showcasing enough Japanese wrestling. Okada spoke of himself as a representative of Japan and of Japanese pro wrestling while doing press for the G1 Supercard and even more recently when promoting his upcoming match with Chris Jericho.
Part of the process for getting over high-level foreign babyfaces in NJPW right now is definitely having them show as much respect as possible for Japan, beyond just loving the fans. Juice Robinson at one point apologized for being American and growing up only watching American wrestling. Dragon Lee always goes above and beyond integrating himself with all things NJPW, with the help of his friendship with Shibata. NJPW President Harold Meij told Uproxx that when he was appointed the first president of the company not born and raised in Japan, “at first the fans were obviously taken aback, that wait, now there’s this foreigner running our wrestling promotion, right? He’s going to be the boss of our wrestlers” and this reaction and the persistent discussion of Westernizing the product led him to start a blog in order to communicate directly with the Japanese fans.
Though this didn’t seem like the overarching theme of Shingo Takagi’s BOSJ run or time in New Japan so far, his one line about how he thought a Japanese wrestler should win the tournament (which was cheered by the audience to which it was said) was highlighted in the video package for the Best of the Super Juniors final. Takagi’s character has been associated with Japanese nationalist themes earlier in his career and had a finisher called Made In Japan that he wisely saved in New Japan to add even more drama to the Ospreay match.
Takagi was never presented as an unlikable person during this tournament (we know from post-match speech subtitles that Milano has even gushed about how likable he is on commentary) and still had a fair amount of crowd support during the final. However, it’s possible that the explicitly pro-Japan element was added to his character recently specifically to make him a more meaningful person for Ospreay to defeat right before announcing his immigration. He beat the guy embodying Japanese wrestling but he’s moving to Japan so he’s part of Japanese wrestling more than ever so actually, don’t worry, Japanese wrestling is still number one.
So prepare your hearts and minds for Will Ospreay in New Japan on a full time, local performer’s schedule! It’s clear his already stratospheric push is going mesospheric. The company has put an incredible amount of effort into the launch and making sure people are happy about it. If Takagi’s line in that promo was any kind of significant part of that, it was almost certainly not in order for Ospreay show that his point was necessarily wrong, but that Ospreay, like other top non-Japanese babyfaces in recent memory, had assimilated enough to make it as irrelevant as possible in his specific case.
Worst: Back And Beardier Than Ever
In another instance of a charismatic cool guy losing to some try-hard dweeb, Hiroshi Tanahashi was defeated in his return match by Jay White! These two are back at it, but Tanahashi’s more clearly past his prime now and White used his time off to grow a beard that makes him look like Cardinal Richelieu. They’ve had better bouts in the past, but this felt more like a retread than a rematch. There wasn’t much to care about here which meant there wasn’t much crowd hype to carry the parts of the match that dragged, of which there were several.
However, the upside of this match is that it established where these characters will be going into G1 szn in a way that made sense. We’re reminded of what makes Jay White such a threat when he wins after using both legal wrestling moves and some extra-legal help to ruthlessly target Tanahashi’s arms, both of which have now been surgically repaired in real life, then cleverly capitalizes on the damage by cranking on an arm to reverse the set up for the Texas Cloverleaf into a pin.
As for Tanahashi, it looks like our beloved and persevering Ace could be going into the G1… injured??? How can this one in one hundred athlete overcome this obstacle??? This calls for a playing of the classic theme song:
Best/Worst: The Junior Encore, Heavyweight Homecoming Undercard
A sneaky highlight of BOSJ is the part of the final show when all the competitors come out and wrap up the tour before mostly going into the aforementioned non-title junior heavyweight purgatory for a few months or going back to their home promotions. That makes these last tag matches serve as sort of encore performances.
The first of these lower-stakes tag matches sees Dragon Lee, Titán, and Shota Umino defeat Bandido, Jonathan Gresham, and Ren Narita. A few things don’t look like they go as planned, but there are plenty of fun moments like Bandido getting mad at Titán for doing Bandido-esque pointless gymnastics at him and Lee faking out Bandido to dodge the 21 Plex, a moment that is especially appreciated at the end of a tournament in which we’ve seen some people nail the setup of this move and some make it look very awkward. Narita actually holding Lee for the 450 splash in the ropes is great in the same way, but also as the start of a really well put-together sequence of trios offense. Dragon Lee gets what very well might be his last win as a champion (that promo backstage sure sounds like a temporary goodbye to New Japan) over the most obvious pin-eater and the whole things sends the crowd happily into the second match.
It wouldn’t be a tournament in NJPW without internal drama for the Bullet Club and June 5’s second match tells us that this specific drama will extend probably at least to that Australia show. It also shows that some of El Phantasmo’s signature moves are easier to digest after he has already stuck his thumb up a guy’s butt because then no one can care about verisimilitude. Ishimori also doesn’t do much in this six-man tag at all, possibly because of that shoulder injury that kept him off the June 3 show, so we have yet to get a look at how he and ELP will work as a tag team. However, this title match somewhat surprisingly isn’t happening at Dominion, so that doesn’t say much about how good or bad it will be.
For the current tag champs, this BOSJ didn’t feel like as big a deal as last year’s. Sho especially had such a breakout tournament in 2018 but peaked with the Takagi match on the first night of 2019’s. Yoh ultimately made a stronger impression, showing a more developed version of his singles wrestler persona and building up his moveset with the addition of a calf crusher with which he can actually win matches. The Five Star Clutch made for a few good endings last year, but the Stargazer seems like a finisher for someone who’s going to be a bigger deal in the future.
We also welcome back some of the heavyweights and their drama starting with the ten-man Suzukigun vs. Chaos-Hontai tag, an entertaining bout of the undercard ten-man tag genre. Suzuki and Liger resume their secret best feud in the company, Suzuki adopts Douki immediately backstage, and Yoshi-Hashi gets the pin. Gotta build up Yoshi-Hashi before the G1 and, surprisingly, a match in which he probably actually will challenge ZSJ for the RevPro title! This could be his year, you guys!
This tag match also shows the dynamic Ishii and Taichi have created for their NEVER Openweight Championship feud, with Ishii now completely worked up and ready to go while Taichi is mostly trolling and leading him on. Their work together during tag matches towards the end of the BOSJ tour promised a match at least as good as theirs from the New Japan Cup. The incorporation of their history as former friends in the Four Black Saints about ten years ago added a little more emotional depth than both their most recent match and each man’s feud right before this one. Overall, Ishii and Taichi have changed up and elevated things just enough to make the prospect of their Dominion match, which will probably bang, just that much more interesting.
The L.I.J. vs. Ibushi, Makabe, Honma, and Henare match seems very much like a vehicle to get some Ibushi vs. Naito action on the card right up until the ending. Ibushi and Naito remind us of what we already know: they have chemistry and complimentary skills for miles and are going to again try their hardest to murder each other at Dominion. Naito especially is clearly feeling like a psychopath judging from his post-match barricade attack. It’s all very promising.
Most of the tag match that they’re not in is something to sit through, but the ending is a surprise. Evil and Sanada are back in the tag team wrestling game, baby! They’re getting a title match with G.O.D. on Sunday because they got one (1) win with a tag team maneuver and no other teams have any right now! L.I.J. and G.O.D. interacted on the War of the Worlds tour, a fitting setting for a rivalry that now involves two sets of championships, but also a setting that’s kind of under the radar. But you know what, this is the conclusion of Short Kings Appreciation Month and not Over 200 KG Appreciation Month, so that’s fine.
Kazuchika Okada and Rocky Romero vs. Villain Enterprises (Marty Scurll and Brody King) is slower than the other tag matches on the card and doesn’t have much for the crowd to get into. But it does show how King has gotten over with the New Japan audiences by playing a classic giant white man in Japan monster character with some surprising lucha libre moves mixed in. He and Scurll as Villain Enterprises were an unexpected highlight of BOSJ. Some of Scurll’s matches, especially those with Gresham and Ishimori, showed both his wrestling ability and a less campy version of the Villain than we saw in his Bullet Club days. When he and King did get eventually goofy with the cheating and interference, it was in creative ways and with the novelty of King’s presence. Scurll was relatively powered down this BOSJ compared to last years, but he made the most of every match.
Best: What The Hell Does PAINMAKER Even Mean, You Jackass?
Jericho’s latest NJPW video message is hilarious and Okada looks great by dragging it and him right after a strong win over a giant. However, it seems like Okada might be taking him a little too lightly and I am still stressed out about the prospect of IWGP Heavyweight Champion Chris Jericho. I am very much pro Chris Jericho in general and pro the concept AEW World Champion Chris Jericho, but please don’t give him the IWGP one so he can leave and probably become a double champion while only appearing on American TV except for like King of Pro Wrestling until Okada beats him to get it back at Wrestle Kingdom 14! Please do not give your most important championship to someone who doesn’t work for the company, New Japan Pro Wrestling!
Best: Shin Nihon Mox Violence
Speaking of someone who doesn’t work for the company winning a championship (but like the second or third least important one), how about Jon Moxley vs. Juice Robinson! This match can be summed up by saying it was very fun and that some of it looked very painful.
Moxley busting out his slow-looking dive from WWE so early in his first post-WWE match on the last show of the “Oops, all dives!” tour is funny, but this doesn’t define his performance. Like when he showed up at AEW, he feels like if his WWE character wasn’t as micromanaged as those who listened to that Talk Is Jericho interview and/or that Wade Keller interview now know it was. Moxley brawls in and out of the ring, he bites, and he gives and takes crazy table bumps. He even gets a few humorous moments equivalent to one-liners with “Red Shoes” Umino, which the audience enjoys. By the time he wins, he clearly has more support from the audience than when he entered.
Local boy Juice Robinson puts over both himself and his opponent with his performance in this match. We know he’s taking this seriously because he frist reveals that he CUT OFF HIS DREADS, leaving his head looking VERY NAKED. Very early in the match, he confirms that he is pulling out all the stops against Moxley and then some. He sentons off the top of the entrance ramp gateway, he bleeds, he swears at Umino, and he gives and takes crazy table and barricade spots. He goes two steps to the dark side and one step back.
Something you could complain about with this match is that it’s only of those ones where they spend a lot of it targeting one body part (here one of Juice’s knees) but the finish doesn’t directly target that body part. However, the knee work does lead to an important momentum-shift in the match and they both also destroy all of each other’s bodies with the table spots anyway. Plus, Moxley winning with his new finisher, the Death Rider, a high angle butterfly DDT, right after two Dirty Deeds can’t put Robinson away sends a clear message about his intentions for this period of his career.
In the end it’s impossible to feel too bad that Robinson lost his title because both men looked so good in the match and clearly gave it all they had, in real life and in kayfabe. Plus, as we see from the former champion’s next-level backstage promo, this was the best possible loss for the Juice Robinson character’s development.
When Robinson’s WWE complex was introduced last year in his feud with Cody, it felt forced – the guy who just had that “real Japanese pro wrestler” angle was really still that worked up about his old job? But now that this is an established character trait of Robinson, it works really well.
He regained the U.S. Championship from that guy who was more successful than him in WWE and had three defenses and was steadfast in his goal of being the defining U.S. Champion. Then another guy from WWE comes and takes it from him again. But since he was pushed to the limit in a match he fought at the exact same level of sportsmanship as his opponent, he says his WWE complex is cured; CJ Parker is dead. And oh yeah, if you think just because where the former CJ Parker came from means the letters “U.S.” in the name of the title he’s determined to get back mean as much to him as the letters “IWGP,” you can fly to Japan and fight him right now. Juice may have never looked better than after this match, and not just because of the haircut.
As for our good friend Jon Moxley – we learn backstage that, surprise he’s pretty much a babyface! He just also likes leather jackets and thought it would be cool to have a knife in his teaser video and bit a guy. Honestly, that seems way more fun than edgy heel Mox right now. Maybe he and his old buddy Shingo should team up again but both as badass babyfaces this time around. Maybe recruit Goto too whenever he gets back too.
I’ll see you back here after Sunday’s crazy-stacked Dominion to yell, “I told you so!” if my far-fetched fantasy stable becomes a reality, but more realistically just talk about a whole slew of big, promising matches.