Monday, April 30, 2018

NJPW Wrestling Hi No Kuni Review

NJPW Wrestling Hi No Kuni
April 29th, 2018 | Grand Messe Kumamoto in Mashiki, Kumamoto | Attendance: 3,435

Man, these “Road to Wrestling Dontaku” shows have been a chore to get through. Some matches delivered, but it was mostly a lot of fluff that could easily be skipped. I didn’t care enough to do full on reviews, but here were my ratings for the key matches.

4/13 – Elimination Match: Taguchi Japan vs. CHAOS - ***½
4/14 – Elimination Match: LIDJ vs. Suzuki-Gun - ***½
4/23 – IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Championship: El Desperado & Yoshinobu Kanemaru [c] vs. BUSHI and Hiromu Takahashi - ***¼
4/24 – Toa Henare vs. Tomohiro Ishii - ***¾]
4/24 – IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship: Jay White [c] vs. David Finlay - ***¼
4/27 – NEVER Openweight Championship: Hirooki Goto [c] vs. Juice Robinson - ****
4/27 – Hiroshi Tanahashi and KUSHIDA vs. Kazuchika Okada and Will Ospreay - ***½

This show is a B or C event for the company, as they head to Wrestling Dontaku in a few days.

Ren Narita and Yuji Nagata vs. Shota Umino and Tomoyuki Oka
Narita has been rather impressive on these “Road to” shows lately. Guys like Kawato and Oka have probably been best from this class (other than Kitamura), but he’s done well. I was surprised to see Oka against Nagata, since he’s a personal project of Blue Justice. Narita took a beating early, but Oka got cocky and wanted Nagata. Bad move, son. Nagata took these boys to school and forced them to bring intensity as they tried fighting back. They did well, but Umino tapped to the Nagata Lock II in 9:41. That was a fun, energetic opener. The Young Lions brought it, as usual. [**¾]

David Finlay, Jushin Thunder Liger, Ryusuke Taguchi, and Tiger Mask IV vs. IWGP United States Heavyweight Champion Jay White, Rocky Romero, and Roppongi 3K
I still love how Jay White doesn’t come out with the rest of CHAOS. He’s with them for personal gain (and so Gedo can fit him into his endless sea of multi-man tags) and that’s it. Poor Roppongi 3K. People praise NJPW for how they build stars, and while they do it well sometimes (Juice Robinson), they’ve completely missed the ball with Roppongi 3K. From meaningless short title reigns to a shit set of matches with Suzuki-Gun, it’s been rough. Anyway, they seem to be the one unit within CHAOS that White kind of enjoys. Maybe it’s their Young Lion roots. This had more action than I expected, with no down time. Everyone contributed to make this one of the better undercard NJPW in a while. Finlay beat Romero with a Stunner at 7:18 to cap a delightful little match. [***¼]

Toa Henare and Togi Makabe vs. RevPro British Heavyweight Champion Tomohiro Ishii and Toru Yano
These teams met during the New Japan Cup (***) and on 4/14 (**¾), while Henare wrestled Ishii on 4/27 in a banger (see above). Both teams have been solid lately. Ishii and Yano have a weird chemistry, while Makabe is the teacher to Henare’s student. After some early Makabe/Yano exchanges, we got the real treat when Ishii and Henare went at it. Henare doesn’t back down and gets his ass kicked, but it’s always great. When he got left alone with Yano, he nearly won this a few times. However, Ishii came back in and bested him with a Brainbuster in 7:56. They kept it short, sweet, and allowed the personalities to shine here. Another fun undercard match. What company am I watching? [***¼]

Chase Owens, Kenny Omega, Kota Ibushi, and Yujiro Takahashi vs. Taichi, TAKA Michinoku, Takashi Iizuka, and Zack Sabre Jr.
Interesting Suzuki-Gun team as Sabre has been one of the best wrestlers of 2018, while Iizuka has basically been the worst. TAKA is always fine and Taichi has surprisingly not been awful. Weird to see them facing the Golden Lovers Club, who have no real beef with them. I love TAKA’s introduction of Sabre. SG jumped the faces before the match, leading to a brawl around the arena. The focus seemed to be on Omega/Sabre, which I’m all for. Give me that in the G1, please. Once it turned into a more traditional tag, we got to see how great Kenny and Kota are together. There was also a spot where they all did dives outside, including Chase and Yujiro. In the end, it came down to Owens against Sabre. Owens did well, but Sabre countered the Package Piledriver into a grounded octopus hold to win in 8:51. Another good tag. I especially enjoyed the tease of Omega/Sabre. [***]

They hyped the return of BONER Soldier. I only made that joke because of Kenny Omega, by the way. Anyway, this has to be someone new under the mask, right? Gedo wouldn’t really be hyping the return of someone so notoriously bad, would he?

NEVER Openweight Champion Hirooki Goto, IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada, IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion Will Ospreay, and YOSHI-HASHI vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi, Juice Robinson, KUSHIDA, and Michael Elgin
Following Goto’s win over Juice Robinson, it looked like Elgin stepped up for a shot. Not interested in that, at all. I just realized Okada and Ospreay are my least favorite champions in NJPW. Yes, I know they’re better than the Jr. and NEVER Tag Champions, but I’m talking about personal like. Anyway, the crowd popped for Okada and Tanahashi opening this. In the build to their match, Okada has gotten more aggressive. He’s kind of unhinged, as if the thought of Tanahashi, his oldest rival, ending his reign before he sets every single record ever is taking him off his game. Their fight spilled to the aisle, where Tanahashi hit a slingblade. From there, the rest of the programs got shine, from Juice against Goto to Elgin/Goto, and finally, to KUSHIDA/Ospreay. Their matches have mostly produced diminishing returns, but have never been bad. Near the end, everyone got in offense during a wild barrage. Interestingly, when it seemed like Okada was coming in with a rally, Tanahashi basically kicked his ass and then beat HASHI with High Fly Flow in 10:13. I’m loving the compact style of these matches so far. It didn’t last too long, had bell to bell action, and previewed upcoming matches. [***¼]

Post-match, Taichi attacked Goto with his mic stand to build towards a possible Goto/Elgin/Taichi match that sounds like it’ll make me want to Hangman Page myself. Okada, feeling threatened by Tanahashi, attacked him after the match and it led to a pull apart brawl. Tanahashi is in his head.

BUSHI vs. IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Champion El Desperado
I’ll say it right here. These are the two most underrated juniors in NJPW. They met in the BOTSJ last year (***). Is t-shirt BUSHI the same as t-shirt Omega or Naito? Like, he wears it for matches he’s not taking seriously? With both men being heels, there was a lot of underhanded tactics, brawling, and cheating. They fought around the ring, BUSHI attacked before the bell, and Desperado tried removing his mask more than once. Things picked up down the stretch, with both guys coming close to winning. I’m a fan of Desperado using the Stretch Muffler, as it’s a move I always liked. As BUSHI went for MX, Yoshinobu Kanemaru ran in and attacked him for the cheap DQ in 9:58. With nothing on the line, there wasn’t really a need for that kind of finish. The champs retained already, so singles wins would’ve been nice for both Hiromu and BUSHI. Anyway, this was fine. [**¾]

Hiromu Takahashi vs. IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Champion Yoshinobu Kanemaru
Hiromu ran out to save BUSHI from a two on one beating to get this started. Because he’s Hiromu, took a wild bump off the apron in the opening minute. Since he landed on his back, it was key that he spend the match selling that. Luckily, that’s exactly what he did. It showed another aspect to Hiromu’s game that gets overlooked. NJPW hasn’t done much with him since his stellar title run in the first half of last year, but he’s still the best junior they have, with only KUSHIDA being on his level. He resorted to quick bursts of offense to combat his inability to use his back for strength. Desperado got involved, only for BUSHI to make the good guy save. He spat mist at Kanemaru, setting him up for the Time Bomb to get Hiromu a win in 11:29. Some may not like the interference, but I think it worked here. It fit the characters and helped tell the overall story of this match. [***]

IWGP Tag Team Championship: EVIL and SANADA [c] vs. The Killer Elite Squad
This is a Wrestle Kingdom rematch (**½). KES dominated that match, but still lost the titles. It’s taken so long for the rematch due to various injuries, most recently to EVIL. KES attacked before the bell, setting the tone for a brawl. That works best in their favor and honestly, is a good formula for the champs. A table came into play early, but KES got cut off from using it. From there, the champs were in control until KES delivered a vicious Killer Bomb off the apron and through the table onto SANADA. That left them alone with a guy who has been injured for months. Great idea. EVIL took a beating, though he probably ended up surviving a bit too much. SANADA returned in the nick of time and the team was rejuvenated. EVIL nailed the STO on Smith to retain in 17:58. Though EVIL may have survived too much, I appreciated how physical this was. There was an animosity between the teams that we don’t get often enough in NJPW tags. Big improvement on their WK outing. [***½]

Can Gedo book EVIL and SANADA vs. The Golden Lovers soon?

IWGP Intercontinental Championship: Minoru Suzuki [c] vs. Tetsuya Naito
Tetsuya Naito is my favorite wrestler in NJPW by a wide margin. However, Suzuki has been great this year as IC Champion. Also, why would Naito want the title? He hated and disrespected it last time. This is the problem with him losing at WK. Going back to this feels strange. Coming into this, I saw some praise it and some call it awful. It turned out to rank somewhere in the middle. It’s a long match (serious problem NJPW has with their big matches), but doesn’t feel that way when compared to some others. Some of Suzuki’s leg work felt a bit repetitive and it reminded me of his match with Okada last February where he applied the knee bar a lot as a time filler. Like that match, Suzuki’s opponent survived a ton in what was basically a one-sided affair. It felt like the finish came from out of nowhere, with a short Naito comeback leading to Destino and another title reign in 30:22. This was good, but nowhere near what they’re capable of. Suzuki was dominant, but then Naito seemingly found a way to suddenly be better than him. It didn’t really fit with the rest of the story. Naito’s been good this year, but has only had one really great match (against Sabre). This worked well enough, just not on the level I hoped. [***]

There you have it, folks. Naito has officially been Nakamura'd. I called it a while ago and here we sit with Naito as IC Champion yet again.

Overall: 7/10. One of the more consistent NJPW events of the year. My biggest gripe with them have been booking decisions, overly long main events, and weak undercards. This one had mostly good booking and a solid undercard. Two out of three ain’t bad. The main event is a disappointment, but everything else on the show is good, which isn’t often the case with NJPW. It flies by and sets up the more important upcoming shows quite well.