Thursday, March 15, 2018
The tournament is down to eight participants. Juice Robinson, Michael Elgin, Bad Luck Fale, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kota Ibushi, Zack Sabre Jr., Toru Yano, and SANADA. At least one matchup sounds interesting on paper. Let’s get to it.
Early on, the fans were kind of subdued. Both guys are babyface and Juice showed that he wasn’t some underdog by trading some power stuff. It’s an interesting progression of how far Juice has come in a few short years. He’s a Gedo success story. Anyway, Elgin was still too strong and it showed. He took control and Juice was awesome at bumping for him. He made sure Elgin looked like a monster. Juice had some hope spots, but not any that really got the crowd going. Elgin fought off Pulp Friction on more than one occasion. He hit the Buckle Bomb and went for the Elgin Bomb, only for Juice to counter into an inside cradle that got him the win in 17:04. I thought this was a good match that didn’t have enough drama to make it stand out. I liked how Juice got to look evenly matched at some points.
Sometimes, people can wrestle a bunch and always find ways to make it different (Usos/New Day, Almas/Gargano, Naito/Tanahashi). While I enjoy Bad Luck Fale more than most, he’s kind of limited and Tanahashi can only do so much with him. Gedo has booked this countless times over the past few years. Tanahashi spent the early portions making Fale work and chase him around. Tire out the big man. It’s a good strategy. Tanahashi was the underdog and did all he could to overcome his larger opponent. I did get a kick out of Fale trying to win by countout, which is how Tanahashi beat him in the G1 last year. Tanahashi played that card again, escaping the Bad Luck Fall and sending Fale outside to win by countout after 14:36. Not bad, but it feels like way too much of the same between these two. Fresher booking would help. Speaking of booking, I get the sense this is all leading to Tanahashi challenging Okada with his record number of defenses on the line. Stop me if you’re heard Tana vs. Okada before. A lot.
They had a mini-feud last year, which included a G1 match. There was fun to be had from the start. They took the fight outside and SANDA tried tying Yano up into the Paradise Lock for a countout win, which was how he beat Yano in the G1. Yano slipped free and nearly won by countout. SANADA’s frantic attempts to get back in was great. Yano missed a chair shot and eventually beat a countout of his own. After some surprisingly good counter wrestling, SANADA used a Yano trick by hitting him with a low blow. Skull End followed and Yano was done at 4:51. See how much of a difference it makes when you book Yano to go five minutes instead of thirteen? This was way more entertaining. Some good fun, the right guy went over, and they kept me engaged.
Hands down, the most interesting matchup in this tournament. Their G1 match last year was incredible (****½). It’s interesting to note that Ibushi admitted he’d rather face Naito than Sabre, because Sabre gives him trouble. He did lose to Naito and beat Zack in the G1 last year, though. Early on, Sabre’s methodical pace worked to perfection. He slowed Ibushi and took him to the mat. Sabre used them to combat Ibushi’s kicks. He went after any and all body parts. Usually, that might impact the overall story, but it worked here because Ibushi has so many weapons and he had a grueling match with YOSHI-HAHSI in the opening round. When Ibushi got back into it and they traded stuff, things were great. So many highlight exchanges. I loved that Sabre had the Kamigoye scouted. Ibushi didn’t debut it when they last met, but Sabre did his homework. He kept finding ways to avoid it. There’s a great struggle as Ibushi refused to quit and Sabre grew frustrated as he threw his best submissions at him. They teased the finish from their G1 match twice, but Sabre survived. He managed to trap Ibushi in a brutal octopus hold variation and, while Ibushi still wouldn’t quit, the referee had to call for a stoppage at 21:02. What a match. Neck and neck with Tanahashi/Suzuki for the best NJPW match of the year. Their exchanges were fantastic, while Sabre came out looking like a killer and Ibushi lost nothing as he refused to give up. I love these two.
The semi-finals sound so much better than this round on paper. You’ve got two first time ever matches. Juice against one of his mentors in Tanahashi, while Sabre takes on SANADA in a match that sounds awesome.
Overall: This was a solid round of the tournament. Juice/Elgin was a good way to get things going. Tanahashi/Fale lacked and didn’t click the way their past matches have. Probably because we’ve seen it too often. SANADA/Yano was a nice little surprise that didn’t take too long. Sabre/Ibushi was a must see match between two of the most consistent wrestlers in NJPW. Amazing match.