The Best And Worst Of NJPW: King Of Pro Wrestling 2019

Previously on NJPW: Okada won the New Japan Cup, Ibushi won the G1, Ospreay won Best of the Super Juniors, and El Phantasmo won the Super J-Cup. More importantly, two men in their fifties pledged to murder each other.

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And now, the best and worst of King of Pro Wrestling from October 14, 2019, at Ryogoku Sumo Hall in Tokyo.

Best: Special Occasions And Blood Feuds

King of Pro Wrestling was a rare non-tournament New Japan show dominated by singles matches, with five out of nine bouts one-on-one. Its tag matches all got their jobs done though, whether they celebrated the past or set things up for the future.

After the announcements about the typhoon-induced absences and card changes, the show opens with El Desperado’s long-awaited comeback match in which he teams with Yoshinobu Nakemaru against Roppongi 3K, previewing Super Junior Tag League and recalling like a year of the junior tag title scene. Judging from his gear, Despy wants to make sure everyone remembers that he broke his jaw in a deathmatch with Jun Kasai, which is a good idea because he looked maybe the coolest of his whole career in that match.

There’s nothing to complain about with his wrestling in this tag match and the way he uses his injury to both fake out the referee and later trash talk his opponents is perfect for the character. Overall, this was a solid match in which everyone performed well and it was made more enjoyable by how good it was to see El Desperado in the ring again.

The second match, Hiroshi Tanahashi and his Hillbilly Jim vs. Togi Makabe and Toru Yano was a celebration of Tanahashi’s twentieth wrestling anniversary and though it was on a larger platform, it had the same feel as celebratory tag matches you see on self-produce special occasion shows, which are secretly one of my favorite things about Japanese wrestling. Makabe vs. Tanahashi calling back to the Ace’s debut match is cool, there are some fun Yano and/or Kokeshi moments, and the man of the hour gets a classic win with the High Fly Flow. This fit perfectly as the second match on the card.

The third match of the night, Tetsuya Naito and Shingo Takagi vs. Taichi and Douki, was originally supposed have Taichi, Archer, and Sabre as the Suzukigun team and I really want to see that version of this match that must have played out in an alternate universe. Going into this show it was clear that the Naito vs. Taichi feud was going to on again, but how would Bushi, Shingo, ZSJ, and Archer pair off? But the two-on-two match we got in this universe was pretty good too!

Taichi, Douki, and Miho Abe have a great aesthetic as a trio and it turns out Takagi and Douki work really well together. Naito and Taichi face off in and out of the ring and the Holy Emperor causes the match to end with an extremely rare DQ when he breaks up Last of the Dragon with his mic stand. Naito just laughing when Taichi attacks the ref is incredible and just one minor item on the laundry list of reasons he should be double champ.

Taichi’s post-match attack on Naito sets up that these two very over people are going to have another singles match, which gets announced the next day for Power Struggle. While their first three matches were had the theme of Taichi trying to move up in the heavyweight division, this one is all about Naito trying to somehow move back into the potential double title picture. I still have no idea how he’s going to do that in a way that makes sense, but Naito now says “With eyes wide open, I’m starting to see it a bit now” and that though time is running out “I won’t give up because I know a path does exist.” Reveal this path ASAP, please, because I am being strung along very effectively by this storyline!

The final tag match of the night, a Bullet Club (Jay White, Kenta, and Yujiro Takahashi) vs. Chaos (Hirooki Goto, Tomohiro Ishii, and Yoshi-Hashi), seems like it’s going to be a cool-down/pee break match because it’s after two important singles things, and it kind of is. But it’s not a bad tag match and it sets up that White vs. Goto for the IC title is definitely happening and that Kenta vs. Ishii for the NEVER title is also happening and happening with more aggressive underlying beef than emo son vs. samurai dad.

The backstage fight between Kenta and Ishii is well done, very funny, and, for me, builds a ton of interest in their rematch. White hyping up and egging on Kenta is hilarious and Kenta’s promo with lines like “I was just pretending to be mad, myself” and the stuff about Ishii being a pretty boy is all really good stuff. I’m very much here for these two getting the chance to redeem themselves from that Royal Quest match that went so severely south, and with a real feud behind them this time.

Best: Battle With Honor And Humanity

KOPW gets to the really good stuff with its first singles match, Minoru Suzuki vs. Jushin Thunder Liger. Everything about the lead-up to this match was so well-done and crazy and entertaining that I was kind of sad it all had to come to an end – but way more psyched to see what would happen in this match now that these two vowed to straight-up kill each other.

Though this match was the return of BATTLE LIGER, it was a lot less murdery than one might have expected, especially after not only Suzuki and Liger’s most recent promos but the Kishin Liger’s attempted stabbing. Rather than a fight to the death, this was a very good wrestling match. Both men grabbed chairs early on, but it was mostly mat-based and in the ring.

At the beginning, it definitely looked like Liger was trying to out-wrestle Suzuki, and often out-wrestle him in a pretty realistic manner, playing out the sequel to their Pancrase fight from seventeen years ago, the thing that kicked off this whole feud. He even lands that kick that he missed back in 2002. But though there are moments when it looks like Liger could win, when Suzuki counters a shotei palm strike with a dropkick, things turn in the King’s favor.

Liger is clearly losing the strike battle as Suzuki urges him on and Liger barely manages to stay in the game. When Suzuki pauses while going for a forearm is the feel-bad moment of the match, I think, because it looks like Suzuki is just letting this continue rather than ending it. But soon he does end it with the Gotch Style Piledriver, which is not the result I expected, but a good and surprising one to very good, surprising match.

The post-match moments here also provide this unexpected, unforgettable feud with an unexpected, unforgettable epilogue. After beating up the two remaining Young Lions in Japan, Suzuki looks like he’s going to attack Liger with a chair, but throws the weapon aside and bows to him instead. The shock and applause from the crowd and the emotion from Suzuki, who looks like he’s on the verge of tears, elevates the moment of respect further.

Backstage, Liger’s thanks to Suzuki pushing him to the limit seems genuine and Suzuki’s promo about how “You’re the one who’s giving up” doesn’t have his usual murderous hatred behind it. Though the winner and loser of this match were very clear, who won and lost their feud is less so. Early in this angle, Liger criticized Suzuki for his brawling and sadistic violence and not showing the skill of pro wrestling, and it ended with Liger basically getting the wrestling match he wanted. And Suzuki got part of what he wanted too, for Liger to give him absolutely everything he had. I’m sad this feud is over, but I couldn’t be happier with how well it ended.

Worst: Murder Hawk Mansion Match

One of the most dramatic things about King of Pro Wrestling 2019 happened before the show when Jon Moxley’s travel to Japan was delayed. He couldn’t make his scheduled title defense, so, per New Japan policy, he had to vacate the United States Championship. So instead of the Mox vs. Juice Robinson No DQ match that could have wrapped up their months-long feud, we got Juice vs. Lance Archer, G1 standout and only wrestler on the roster besides Juice who has recently expressed interest in the U.S. title. Making this last-minute match No DQ at an even later minute because that’s something people had already paid to see was a smart piece of crowd-pleasing/customer service and possibly the wrestling universe’s equal and opposite reaction to the end of The Fiend vs. Seth Rollins.

The match had some fun moments (I thought all the table spots looked really good) and both Robinson and Archer clearly gave it their all, but it felt thrown together at the last minute. Which it was, and that seems like something more difficult to do with a match involving tables and chairs than with a regular match, but this match’s particular type of messiness this match had didn’t work the entire way through. The moments between the spots could have been a lot stronger.

The match ends with Archer, who supposed to be in an undercard tag on this show until hours before it started, winning the “first major singles title” of his career, which was the second major surprise of the night for me. And not to downplay the work Juice has done in his feud with Mox and the next-level amazing, emotional promo he cuts backstage after his loss and the unexpected return of his best friend David Finlay, but it’s cool to see Archer get a concrete reward after upping his whole game and surprising everyone in the best way since Killer Elite Squad ending. I’m rooting for Juice all the way in whatever’s next for him, but I also hope Archer gets to do some cool things as champion.

Will Ospreay vs. El Phantasmo

If you’ve been reading this column this year, you can probably guess that I was not very receptive to the idea of watching Will Ospreay and El Phantasmo have another match. Previously, I put off watching their second New Japan singles match this year for a while by not going to the Super J-Cup final when it was within reasonable driving distance from where I live. I do not want to watch these people.

I understand they can do really cool moves. That’s great. They’ve obviously worked really hard on those. But the whole presentation of this match before it even starts just makes it incredibly unappealing. ELP can mostly get away with being the way that he is now that he’s a heel, but babyface Will Ospreay looks and acts just as stupidly, or possibly more. He makes several very bad faces and even brings back the big match sword for his entrance, a decision that I cannot even process. I don’t understand how an adult human could not feel shame about presenting themselves this way. Anyone who thinks that Will Ospreay looks cool needs to have someone else chose the pictures for their dating profile.

So those are my not-purely-wrestling issues with this match, the climax of Ospreay vs. Scurll Feud II But Now The Bad Guy Is A Tall Canadian. To sum up, it’s that the wrestlers look stupid and the whole set-up and state of the junior division since it has been dominated by this feud has made me not want to watch it.

Then there’s the wrestling match part. I think the moral of its story is just watch lucha libre, where you can see smoother versions of all the tumbling parts on like every major show. Again, a lot of the moves they’re doing are impressive and they worked hard on them and I definitely can’t do then! But I still take issue with the way they’re doing them as someone looking to be entertained by wrestling.

Besides the Hidden Blade at the end, never look like they’re trying to hurt or really impact their opponent at all. For most of this match, it looks like ELP and Ospreay are doing the move that leads into the next move. If there’s any sense of competition, it’s like that of gymnastics or figure skating in which the athletes are having routines scored, which isn’t meant to hate on either of those things – watching the latest Simone Biles floor routines is way more effectively dramatic, feels more important, and features a more likeable person than watching ELP vs. Ospreay!

The part when Gino Gambino got involved is when I absolutely would have gone and done something else or skipped ahead if I was watching this match and didn’t have to write about it. After that, we have the balcony spot that looks like two guys trying to get on a list of famous balcony spots and a cutter from Ospreay on the barricade to ELP on the apron that causes Kevin Kelly immediately goes into veteran commentator explanation cover-up mode like when Ospreay no-sold the Paradise Lock. With Super Junior Tag League coming up, getting Taiji Ishimori and Ospreay’s little buddy Robbie Eagles involved for a moment was probably a smart choice, but ELP doing old Bullet Club leader finishers was probably not. All that does is highlight how much he is not on the level of guys like AJ Styles and Kenny Omega.

Overall, the whole thing is two guys doing all the moves. The order in which they do them doesn’t really mean anything. They’re just showing they can do them. The first time it looks like someone is actually trying to win this match is when Ospreay breaks out a brutal-looking Hidden Blade – the match’s one moment of violence – before hitting the Stormbreaker to for the win. This is twenty-seven minutes into the match.

I think there should maybe be a law that neither Ospreay nor El Phantasmo can go over fifteen for at least six months. It would make me feel a lot better about all the hours I’ve logged watching them do this stuff this year and would probably make their matches less dumb and indulgent. The moral of this story besides “watch lucha libre” is that everyone creative person, even the most talented, needs an editor.

A Tale Of Two Challenges

King of Pro Wrestling was main-evented and semi-main-evented by members of L.I.J. taking on ostensibly purer babyfaces, with Evil challenging Kota Ibushi for his contract for the right to challenge for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at Wrestle Kingdom and Sanada challenging Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. This was not the year either of these prizes changed hands between the G1 Climax and Wrestle Kingdom for the first time! That always seemed very unlikely here, so with the match results basically a given, all a fan can really do here is watch the matches for the sake of matches.

As matches in themselves, these had, for the most part, opposite types of momentum. Evil vs. Ibushi started out with solid but not too memorable basics and signature moves and really picked up once it got to the more believable nearfalls. Throughout the whole match, Evil mostly dominated and looked really good and it felt like Ibushi ultimately pulled off a win rather than walked off with one.

In contrast, I think that besides that sequence towards the end that ended with the O’Connor Roll, Okada vs. Sanada peaks early, while they were keeping things simple. After the very loud popularity contest, Okada controls the match for a little while, then Sanada turns things in his favor outside, then Okada gets back in control after dodging a moonsault. It’s soon after Okada stops Umino from counting out Sanada, which I think makes the Cold Skull look a lot more like a chump than a potential champ, that it became very difficult for me not to zone out.

A lot of what were supposed to be the most dramatic spots involved the locking on of Skull End, and the way Sanada does that Dragon Sleeper makes it so hard to tell if his opponent is supposed to be escaping the move or is being choked out. It’s a lot easier to deal with this move as a quick finisher in tag matches than when it’s supposed to create real drama half an hour into a match. After some finisher exchanges and thirty-seven minutes of wrestling, Okada pins Sanada with a Rainmaker and though he uses a new set-up for the move, the whole thing feels pretty underwhelming. That extremely awkward thumbs up to Sanada crying was a more classic Okada moment than this was a classic Okada match.

As much as I don’t like how long this match was, I actually went into this show expecting it to be longer because it seemed like the next step in the Sanada vs. Okada rivalry might be a time-limit draw. How else does Sanada seem like a contender and legit rival without winning the title? I don’t know the answer to that, and maybe the answer is that the Sanada experiment is over and he’s just going to go back to what he was doing before after NJPW made the most of his current popularity.

It’s possible Sanada comes out of this with his popularity damaged, but this could be one of those examples of how Japanese wrestling tends to be able to pull off a wrestler winning or losing for long stretches without really impacting how over they are. I don’t really understand why this is – Maybe because they’re acknowledged in-universe as really good or bad things happening to people, as the type of phases that can happen in real life? – because I don’t have a very good understanding of Japanese culture at all and still often miss the mark even when predicting how Japanese wrestling audiences will react to things. Maybe Sanada’s fine and maybe he’s not; maybe he’s still supposed to be Okada’s rival or maybe this proves he’ll never be on the Rainmaker’s level. I don’t really get it! But I’m sure we’ll see how this plays out unless the real answer for why this played out like it did is that Sanada’s on his way out of the company or something.

Iffy Okada-Sanada feud aside for now, Ibushi-Okada is already off to a strong start. Ibushi saying Okada on top is getting “kinda lame” gets a big reaction and is a pretty valid point since this is definitely Okada’s worst Heavyweight Championship reign. I also like how Okada finally responds to the whole double championship thing by pointing out that anyone trying to do this will have to go through him first, and that’s a really difficult thing to do!

We’re in a weird position with this storyline where Okada is supposed to be, in kayfabe, basically as unbeatable as ever, having lost only two matches in the G1 and having just passed Tanahashi’s record for combined IWGP Heavyweight Championship defenses, but this is really easy to completely overlook that because he seems so doomed to lose on January 4 so that somebody can become [Wrestler’s Name] Two Belts. Oh how the turntables, as Michael Scott would say.

But the next stop on the road to Wrestle Kingdom isn’t about the Heavyweight Championship, but the junior tag team division! It’s Short Kings Appreciation Month II! I’ll see you back here soon to go over the first block of Super Junior Tag League shows.