Monday, March 26, 2018
After a successful first trip to the United States, NJPW returns with Strong Style Evolved. Last year’s shows crowned the first IWGP United States Heavyweight Champion and featured a handful of standout matches. This year’s card looks much worse on paper. Other than the novelty of the main event, it plays out like a “Road to” show for the company. Those are usually fine shows, but it feels very lackluster to put on one of those for a rare trip to the US. As always, I’m optimistic that the show will be great, so let’s dive in.
Jim Ross and Josh Barnett were on commentary again. JR was a trip last time. The opening video package ran down the card, with a lame voiceover guy.
SoCal Uncensored is Christopher Daniels, Kazarian, and Scorpio Sky. When I see Scorpio, I just wonder if it’s somehow 2005 again. Watching him and Rocky start took me back about a decade. Roppongi 3K worked great together, as always. They’ve just been hampered by bad booking. Lots of fast paced action in this one, with everyone working hard. I got a kick out of seeing Scorpio and Daniels take to the skies like younger men. In fact, Sky had the highlight with a very cool neckbreaker variation. After things broke down and set up a frantic finish, Roppongi 3K got the win with their 3K finisher in 11:03. Good choice for an opener. Lots of energy and some fun spots. Can’t ask for much more than that from the guys involved.
This helps build Goto vs. Juice, since Juice recently beat him in a tag. I’m all for Juice winning a title, especially since it became hard to care about Goto once Okada bitched him out. I may not be a fan of Gedo as a booker, but I mostly enjoy him as a foul-mouthed trash talking wrestler. Juice was introduced as the “Flamboyant” Juice Robinson. Everything involving Juice and Goto was really good, while Gedo provided some good comedy moments. Finlay continues to be an underrated piece of the NJPW roster. I miss his short-lived team with Ricochet. I was happy to see him get the win, hitting Gedo with a stunner in 7:26. That was quite entertaining. I dig this Juice/Finlay team.
A comedy duo against a vicious, bruising tag team. Loud “Yano” chants. As Suzuki-Gun members, it was a given that KES would attack before the bell. This was more fun than expected. The fans ate up each one of Yano’s antics. Seeing a hot tag go to him was a great change of pace. His reactions to everything were perfect. After a Chuckie dive, he faked his own dive and instead pulled off the turnbuckle pad. Chuckie got a few flash near falls on Archer, but fell to the Killer Bomb in 10:48. Again, this was a blast. KES remained strong ahead of their eventual title shot, while Yano and Chuckie were booked as great underdogs.
Before the next match, Cody cut a promo to say that the Bullet Club is fine and the booking of this match was pointless. He called Tama a Bullet Club OG and put them over. However, Tanga Loa said the match would happen and that they aren’t Team Cody.
Marty had some fun early, getting happy when Cody was dumped outside and siding with GOD, only to hug Cody when they tackled him down. From there, Cody spent most of the match playing up to the heel tactics that got the crowd going. Cody’s ring work since leaving WWE has been unspectacular, but the dude always nails his character work. They did well to further the Bullet Club issues, while having a decent match. Though the ring stuff wasn’t great, the character work on display allowed this to be an enjoyable match. Cody won via Cross Rhodes in 10:53.
It makes me sad that this is the most important match KUSHIDA has had since Wrestle Kingdom. Though this was a step away from Naito and Tanahashi’s current feuds with Suzuki-Gun, I can’t hate them facing off. In fact, they started the match and the fans loved it. The same went for the always insane interactions between Lee and Takahashi. They’re so good together. It was also great to see KUSHIDA getting to do something of note. He reminded everyone how good he is. The fans loved LIDJ and it made for the best atmosphere on the show up to this point. Naito got the win after nailing Destino on Taguchi in 12:14. The best match on the card to this point. LIDJ never fail to deliver. Great fun.
This was originally scheduled to be Liger vs. Rey Mysterio. In fact, Mysterio cut a promo before the match to say that will still happen, but he’s just hurt right now. Ospreay is a poor replacement, as we’ve seen this pairing before and it’s always just good and nowhere near great. That was the case here again. Liger hit a brainbuster in the aisle that kept Will down for about 18 second. Then, he miraculously sprinted up and beat the count. You’ve got to make it look better. The frustrating thing about Will is that we’ve seen him do much better (look at his first match with KUSHIDA for example), he just chooses not to and it hurts his matches. He often struggles to put together key things that make a match great. The execution in this one was mostly right, but the crowd didn’t care that much, which was surprising. When Ospreay kicked out of a super brainbuster, it didn’t get the response they hoped for. Will’s floppy selling was also a troublesome point. He won with the Oscutter in 10:36. The match told a fine story of the ageless Liger still bringing quality effort, but some of the technical stuff kept it from being what it could’ve been. Like their BOTSJ matches, it disappointed.
After the match, Ospreay challenged Mysterio to a match at some point. He was jumped by Marty Scurll, because why book something fresh for the juniors division?
Nothing against the main event, but this was the match that I was most interested in on the card. The stuff between Sakura Genesis opponents Okada and Sabre were great. Okada’s usually a cocky prick, but Sabre, just as cocky, was easily twisting him around. He made Okada kind of look like a chump instead of a dominant champion. Their match is going to rule, even if the result is obvious. However, it wasn’t just their stuff that worked. Ishii and Suzuki are two of the baddest wrestlers on the planet. Watching them beat the hell out of each other was fantastic. The strikes they exchanged were cringe worthy in the best possible way. Sabre earned more momentum when he bested Ishii via submission and ref stoppage in 19:56. In an awesome moment, Sabre easily trapped Okada in another submission. The new best match on the show, as four talented guys put together a compelling tag that beautifully built to the PPV.
This has been building for a while. The problem is, Hangman Page just isn’t that compelling of a character or wrestler. He’s been find in multi-man tags, but being asked to go over 20 minutes in the semi main event is a lot. This was built at a very slow pace, without much flow to it. Some of the moments, like a fight outside and one on the top, seemed to go on forever in an effort to extend things. The mostly hot crowd for the night was pretty dead for this. Page got a hot run late that picked up the pace, but it wasn’t enough. He fell to the Blade Runner in a long 25:01. This seemed like another case of NJPW’s thought process that going long = great match. Shave off about ten minutes and this would’ve worked better. It was still good, just probably not at the level it could’ve been. White still seems to be figuring out his ne character in the ring, though he does well with it outside.
Post-match, David Finlay speared Jay White. He came off like a heel and challenged Jay for the title in April. Like Ospreay/Scurll, this should be a good match, but another case of something unoriginal happening. Also, Finlay is like 0-12 against Jay. What gives him the right to a title shot?
I didn’t watch live, so I came into this hearing all the high praise that this might’ve been the greatest tag team match in history. After seeing it, I wouldn’t go that far, but make no mistake. This ruled. For years, my least favorite thing in all of pro wrestling was the Young Bucks. However, for the past year or so, they’ve been so much better. They’ve cut most of the grating personality stuff, improved their selling and, most important, began telling compelling stories in the ring. This was their magnum opus. For 39:23, both teams brought out their big offensive guns, but it never felt like moves for the sake of it. There was meaning behind it all. Omega was conflicted about beating up his pals, Ibushi was happy to do it, and the Bucks had their own ways of responding to it all. Matt sold the hell out of his lower back, which he’s been doing so well since the Tokyo Dome. His back giving out when he applied the Sharpshooter was great. When Omega hoisted Matt up for the One Winged Angel, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Matt, who had antagonized Kenny throughout, demanded he go through with it and put the nail in the coffin. It was a splendid moment that should’ve been the finish, but Nick broke it up. That it continued wasn’t bad, it just would’ve meant more to me if it had finished there. The Lovers used the Golden Trigger on Matt to seal it. All this, without mentioning that these guys all pulled out some of the wildest spots you’ll ever see in tag team wrestling. I’d put it behind DIY/Revival II and the Tag Title match from No Mercy 2002 off the top of my head, but this was tremendous. EASILY the best Bucks match ever and certainly Kenny’s best work of 2018 so far.
After the match, Cody arrived and yelled at Matt, before shoving Nick. The Golden Lovers made the save and Omega hugged Nick. Matt refused and the Bucks left together. Kenny ended the show by saying the Golden Lovers were here to stay and that they would be in featured matches come NJPW’s July 7th return to the US.
Overall: It was basically a two match show on paper and that’s mostly how it played out, though the LIDJ/Taguchi Japan tag was also a highlight. Most of the show felt like a typical NJPW “Road to” event, even the standout Sabre tag. However, the main event was stellar and arguably the best match NJPW has put on this year. The biggest problem with the show was the production. Don’t get me wrong, NJPW production is normally top notch. But, it seems like AXS was running this and it made for bad sound, shit camera angles, and commentary was really bad. Go see Bucks/Lovers, though.