Strong Style For All – A Wild New Beginning In Sapporo

Writing a feature editorial earlier this month on Chris Jericho’s and Kenny Omega’s brilliant buildup to their Wrestle Kingdom 12 match made me realize something–I really enjoy writing about pro wrestling.

I’ve spent the last 12+ years reporting on video games, hockey, movies, television, comics, and literature, but rarely has my journalism career stepped into the squared circle. My love for pro wrestling was revitalized when I subscribed to the New Japan World streaming service and started watching the New Japan Pro-Wrestling product regularly. The Geekiverse already has a history of covering pro wrestling for our fans, thanks largely to crew member Austin Brunner, but now we’ll be able to say that we’re dishing out our thoughts on New Japan just as much as we are WWE. With New Japan on the rise, I’m very much looking forward to offering some thoughts and analysis on a regular basis. At the very least, expect this to be a monthly column, with each new edition following a major show. But, with New Japan’s schedule always getting more busy, I might just have to make this a more regular thing.

It was a stacked weekend for New Japan as it hosted a pair of events on January 27th and 28th. The New Beginning in Sapporo shows are the first major events to kick off the new year following Wrestle Kingdom 12, and already the landscape of 2018 has been dramatically changed for New Japan. The company didn’t waste any time stirring the pot this year. Here’s the biggest headlines following a pair of wild nights in Sapporo.

 

DISSENSION IN THE BULLET CLUB

Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi reunite

Wow. Where to begin? The finale to Night Two in Sapporo wasn’t just a shakeup, it was a sheer bombshell. Cody turning on Kenny Omega may have been hinted at here and there over the last six months or so, but to see that betrayal finally manifest itself is still shocking. For so long, the Bullet Club seemed like this untouchable faction that was going to thrive on both sides of the Pacific, their impact being felt both in New Japan, and Ring of Honor. With one sudden Cross Rhodes on Omega, Cody has shattered that unified dominance that the stable was looking to establish in pro wrestling’s two largest markets. 

There’s a lot to unpack from this, but first and foremost comes this pivotal question–where, exactly, are the lines drawn? When you look at that segment, Cody and Hangman Page are the only two who are deliberately, decidedly out to punish Omega. The Young Bucks walked out upset after Kenny inadvertently pushed Matt Jackson, but they weren’t around to either participate in or stop the attack on Kenny. Only Marty Scurll was on the scene, and he was visibly conflicted about what was playing out before him. He didn’t help Cody and Adam Page, but he also didn’t really do anything to stop them from what would have been a beatdown on Kenny. Is Kenny eventually going to take umbrage with that? Along with the fact that the Bucks never came back to save him? It was suggested that he was a little miffed at them the night before for failing to recognize that Jay White was performing a sneak attack on him after their tag match.

That doesn’t even get into the rapture that many fans are experiencing from the reunion between Omega and his former tag partner, Kota Ibushi. New Japan had masterfully teased fans for months that the Golden Lovers would be rebuilding bridges; the realization of this angle both cements Omega’s babyface turn, and feels like one of the most genuine storylines out of professional wrestling in a long while. The most recent episode of Being The Elite on YouTube ended with a cliffhanger as Kenny and Ibushi met with the Bucks. What the four planned to discuss remains a myster, but at least there is some hope for The Elite to stay together, and maybe even gain a new member in Ibushi.

The fact that this angle only involved members of the Bullet Club who regularly perform with Ring of Honor may be telling. The members who are exclusively New Japan–Bad Luck Fale, Chase Owens, Tama Tonga, Tonga Loa, Leo Tonga, Yujiro Takahashi–were not present for any of this. It makes sense, because I find it hard to believe that, under any circumstance, the New Japan Bullet Club members would side with a relative newcomer like Cody over Kenny, who has been in the stable since 2014. Remember Tama Tonga hyping the heck out of Omega at the G1 press conference?

If there’s some kind of NWO/nWo Wolfpac scenario in our future, I suspect that it’d be a sort of a Bullet Club New Japan vs. Bullet Club Ring of Honor deal.  The New Japan guys stick with Kenny, while guys like Adam Page and Marty stick with Cody. It could also be a case where strictly Cody and Adam Page are going rogue.

What would surprise me the most is if the majority of the Bullet Club turned on Kenny, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kenny stepped away, on his own. Don’t be shocked if he finds himself unable to choose between his former tag partner and the stable that he’s lead for the last two years, and ultimately decides to walk his own path.
His public statement, which has now gone viral, paints the picture that he’s intent to stay by Ibushi’s side.

If anyone from the Bullet Club can leave and retain their star power, it’s Kenny and the Bucks. Most guys in the stable wouldn’t stand out on their own, but they’re such major talents by now that they can draw with or without the stable’s affiliation. The Elite are main event performers who are arguably bigger than the Bullet Club. Were they to disband, it would then open up the limelight to another Club member, like a Tama Tonga, to lead the stable and significantly boost his prestige.

I’ll stop being a mark for a minute and comment on something very real. There are absolutely some financial ramifications to all of this. Bullet Club has grown to be one of the most recognizable brands in pro wrestling, dominating two major promotions in two very different markets, Japan and North America. Ring of Honor’s business has skyrocketed since Cody and the Bullet Club became staples of the company, while New Japan has the Bullet Club to thank for the majority of its success in expanding beyond Japan.

There’s no way that the stable is outright going to dissolve; that’d be financially asinine for either promotion who employs them. Ring of Honor can’t afford to lose out on the recognition that the Bullet Club brings, and New Japan’s expansion to North America comes to a grinding halt without it. Hot Topic sure as heck isn’t going to let that merchandise disappear from their shelves. Cody and the Bucks have a show later this year where they hope to sell out a 10,000 seat arena; their prominence, and those of other talent like Kenny are key to realizing that goal.

What’s the fine line that needs to be tread for this dissension to actually be meaningful according to the storyline, but doesn’t undo all of the progress that the Bullet Club has made for both New Japan and Ring of Honor? Who has enough star power that they can survive the hit that would surely come from no longer being affiliated with the Bullet Club?

But most importantly…who is Stephen Amell going to side with in all of this!? 

It’s going to be a very interesting 2018 for the Bullet Club.

NIGHT 2 BRINGS NEW CHAMPIONS

Jay White – New United States Champion

Lost in the shuffle of all the Bullet Club drama was that we crowned a new IWGP United States Heavyweight Champion in Jay White. The young New Zealander has been in nothing but high profile feuds since returning from excursion. First it was the pursuit of Hiroshi Tanahashi’s Intercontinental belt, then it was a challenge for Kenny Omega’s United State strap.

Not all of it has been appropriate. White never should have been paired with Tanahashi for his debut feud if he was just going to lose, because that loss carried over to a lack of momentum against and a lack of believable threat to Omega. Prior to the match, White’s resume post-excursion was an admirable, but losing effort to a worn-down Tanahashi, a win over Young Lion Katsuya Kitamura, and a tag team loss to The Elite. It feels like a bit of a stretch that he would beat Omega clean when the United States Heavyweight Championship was on the line. It was a no-win situation from a booking perspective; either he loses a second high profile match in as many months and has his hype utterly grounded, or he wins a match that he has no earthly right to against arguably the promotion’s most recognizable star.

Questionable booking, aside, Jay White’s in-ring performance can’t be dismissed. He held his own with Omega and proved that he belonged in that spot. It wasn’t a classic, but it was a good match with a brilliantly-executed finish, especially on White’s part. It’s likely (and understandable) that New Japan brass wants the United States belt to be held primarily by English-speaking talent for the time being. White may be no Omega, but he’s young, he’s solid in the ring, and he’s got a great persona as this indifferent loner. Let him expand his arsenal of moves in the ring and he’ll be a highlight for New Japan sooner rather than later.

Omega/White may not have been a classic, but what preceded it certainly was. The Young Bucks and Roppongi 3K put on what was easily the best match of the weekend, and one of the best tag matches we’ve seen in a long time. Their first encounter at Wrestle Kingdom 12 was great; this rematch blew right past it. These two teams have such great chemistry in the ring, in no small part because of Roppongi 3K’s crazy athleticism. Sho and Yoh are probably two of the very few guys who can actually match the Young Bucks’ agility and speed, allowing both teams to hit the most impressive spots they can come up with.

Most remarkable were the sell jobs between the teams, with Matt Jackson doing it better than anyone else. This match felt like one giant rebuttal by the Bucks for all of those fans and critics who mockingly label them “spot monkeys”. It was in defiance to those who say the Bucks can’t sell or can’t tell a story. Matt Jackson sold his back injury as well as you’ll ever see in the business, taking it well past the match and letting it play an integral role in the drama that followed the evening’s main event. Having to release a sharpshooter that seemed destined to tap out Yoh because maintaining the hold put too much strain on his own, injured back was a genius moment. Also, Matt deserves a ton of credit for toughing it out after he took a nasty bump on the ring apron, which left a very large, and very red scrap along his ribs.

I’m never a fan of seeing titles bounce around as frequently as the Junior Heavyweight Tag Team belts have in the last couple of months, but Roppongi 3K are deserving title holders. They earned a clean win like this over the Bucks. These two kids have a lot of seriously entertaining matches ahead of them.

 

MINORU SUZUKI DISMANTLES HIROSHI TANAHASHI

Minoru Suzuki (left) locks in a heel hook on Hiroshi Tanahashi (right)

The title change that occurred on Night One deserves its own headline. Hiroshi Tanahashi’s impressive run as Intercontinental Champion ended in devastating fashion at the hands of Minoru Suzuki, who finally claimed a major title with New Japan through the win. The match and subsequent finish played out pretty much exactly as it should of given the two participants; Suzuki was out for blood after losing the NEVER Openweight Championship at Wrestle Kingdom 12, and he was taking on a guy in Hiroshi Tanahashi who was suffering from a litany of injuries, not all kayfabe.

It started as slow and as methodical as you would expect it to, building its pace in the middle, and then settling into an agonizing finish for Tanahashi that probably went on for much longer than it should have. There was definitely one or two more heel hook and figure four locks than was necessary to get the point across that Suzuki’s submissions were tearing away at Tanahashi. It felt like the final 1/4th of the match was spent entirely on the mat with Tanahashi just writhing in pain, and it’s not compelling when it goes on for that long.

I also question if Suzuki was the right guy to end the Ace’s title run. Suzuki is deserving of a lofty spot on the roster, but let’s revisit some of the guys who Tanahashi beat over the past few months; Zack Sabre Jr., Kota Ibushi, Jay White. All young [ish], promising talent who are the future of New Japan, and Tanahashi went over on all of them before finally dropping the belt to a 49 year old Minoru Suzuki.

Suzuki already has the most palpable persona in the company; he doesn’t need a belt to be relevant. Letting one of the aforementioned young guns secure a win over the Ace and capture one of the most prestigious belts in the company would been a have huge push for them.

At least the storytelling that came out of this was very good. Tanahashi’s renowned willpower kept him from submitting, but it wasn’t enough to help him fight back, ultimately leading to the referee Red Shoes call for the bell in Suzuki’s favor. Can we also take a moment to appreciate how fit and how skilled these performers were to execute the match as well as they did? Tanahashi and Suzuki are a combined 89 years old. You’ll probably never see greater grit and athleticism between two wrestlers of their age.

Tanahashi is out for the time being as he recovers from legitimate injuries. No telling when he returns, but I’d hope he takes a few months off for some well-deserved rest. Let him heal up and return for Dominion in June, perhaps. Meanwhile, Suzuki proves that he rebounded quickly from his setback at Wrestle Kingdom, and he’s set to wreck more havoc across the roster as he did in 2017. It seems like Togi Makabe will be his first challenger for the Intercontinental strap. Hopefully his run will include better matches than what his NEVER Openweight title run entailed, and concludes with him doing the job for a younger star to build up.

 

THE WAR BETWEEN CHAOS AND LOS INGOBERNABLES DE JAPON

Kazuchika Okada (left) winds up a forearm against SANADA (right)

In less than two weeks, there will be five different singles matches on The New Beginning in Osaka card that pit a member of Chaos against a member of Los Ingobernables de Japon. These two stables are in the middle of what feels like one giant feud, and there were a few developments that have built anticipation for these future matchups.

Key among them is a rise in aggression—and even some heel-like actions—by the babyface members of Chaos. After Tetsuya Naito talked all kinds of smack about him to the Japanese media, Yoshi-Hashi was a man possessed on both New Beginning in Sapporo shows. He attacked Naito after the bell following both multi-man tag matches between Chaos and LIJ, going so far at one point to chase Naito down through the crowd to continue brawling with him. It’s a good turn for Yoshi-Hashi, who has been pretty irrelevant for a while now in New Japan and desperately needed a boost. He successfully built some hype for his impending meeting with Naito, which, low-key, is an important match for both. Naito is trying to get back on track following his unsuccessful quest to capture the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at Wrestle Kingdom 12, while Yoshi-Hashi is looking to score a huge win over the guy who was among New Japan’s most successful talents over the last several months.

Let me also just take a moment to mention how much I love that Naito is totally cool with commentator Kevin Kelly. The guy is notorious for disrespecting New Japan personnel, even beating the tar out of them, sometimes, but the one and only dude he is chill with is the babyface English announcer. What a hilarious and awesome idiosyncrasy.

I doubt Yoshi-Hashi goes over, however, and it’ll be another unfortunate stumble for him. He’s an underrated performer with solid in-ring skills; his resume over the last year or so has largely consisted of him challenging for titles or participating in major tournaments, but never with good results. If New Japan wants to continue using him as a sort of gatekeeper, he needs a big win here or there to maintain some credibility.

Going beyond aggressive and arguably stepping into heel territory was IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada. His blindside attack on SANADA—and subsequently stuffing Okada bucks into SANADA’s mouth—after SANADA refused to join him in in the ring and say something into the microphone was another in a series of subtle, but consistent edgy gestures by Okada. His crowd receptions aren’t unanimously-adoring like they’ve been in the past. Gradually, they’re getting more mixed. I’m starting to wonder if Okada is poised for a true heel turn in the near future, which I think would go a long way toward making his current title run a lot more interesting.

I argue to death that Naito should have dethroned him at Wrestle Kingdom 12. Okada’s had the title for so long that he’s starting to run out of believable matchups. SANADA is a stretch as a suitable challenger, even if they managed to build some shred of interest in their February 10th meeting for the title through the developments at the New Beginning in Sapporo shows. SANADA choking out Gedo (Okada’s hype-man, essentially) in a multi-man contest was a statement. No doubt he and Okada will put on a good match, but will it have the wow factor that an IWGP Heavyweight title match should? We’ll have to see in a week and a half at The New Beginning in Osaka.

 

SILVER LINING FOR BULLET CLUB

Tonga Loa (left) Bad Luck Fale (middle) Tama Tonga (right) celebrate a successful title defense

Not all went wrong for the Bullet Club this past weekend. Bad Luck Fale, Tama Tonga, and Tonga Loa retained their NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship against the hodgepodge team of Ryusuke Taguchi, Toa Henare, and Togi Makabe. The match largely seemed to serve as a showcase for Tama Tonga’s and Tonga Loa’s in-ring skills, and Toa Henare’s selling ability, seeing as how he got smoked for the duration.

At one point during the match, English commentator Kevin Kelly noted that plentiful champions have reigned during the short time that the belts have been around. It prompted me to research the subject and see the numbers, myself. In the two years that the championship has been active, there have been 11 different teams to hold the belts, and 16 different title reigns, altogether. There’s only been ten successful title defenses.

The “one and done” stigma unfortunately sticks well to the NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Championship, which goes a long way toward limiting its prestige. It largely feels like a championship just for the sake of having a championship. I’ve never been a big fan of the concept, to begin with. I realize that other promotions like Ring of Honor, Lucha Underground, CMLL, among others have 3-man tag championships, but I just don’t see the point of it. The scarcity of dedicated 3-man tag teams means that the vast majority are just thrown together featuring three random talents that have little cohesion. It’s nice to see a team as compelling as Fale, Tama Tonga, and Tonga Loa hold some gold, but they’re an exception to the rule that 3-man tag teams are meaningful.

 

KITAMURA GAME, BUT CONTINUES TO FALL IN BEST OF SEVEN SERIES

Katsuya Kitamura (left) braces for a chop from Juice Robinson (right)

After dominating the revival of the Young Lion Cup, where six of New Japan’s most promising rookies participated in a round robin tournament, Katsuya Kitamura is being tested against some of the main roster talent in singles matches. His “Best of 7 Series” doesn’t really have any stakes behind it aside from simply seeing how much he’s progressed. He doesn’t need to win a certain amount, and it doesn’t appear that he’s being rewarded with much by the end of this.

That’s a good thing, because he’s already down 0-3 in the series. He kicked it off with a loss to Jay White at New Years Dash!!, and over the weekend dropped two straight to Michael Elgin on Night One, and then to Juice Robinson on Night Two. Kitamura hasn’t been squashed in any of these matches, but he also hasn’t come off as remarkable, either. He’s very slow in the ring, to the point where it seems as though he’s incapable of maintaining a pace that is desired for one of New Japan’s patented rapid-fire finishes. There’s no eruption from him; he goes at one pace the entire match.

It’s hard to tell how much of that is a work, or legitimate deficiencies. There’s no doubt that he’s being pushed because of his ludicrous physique. The guy is jacked to the max. At this point, he might serve well as the muscle in a tag team (maybe a dedicated 3-man tag team to help build the NEVER 6-man tag belts’ cred?), sort of like a Fale-type, but as of now I see a singles competitor whose got a pinch of substance, but is mostly style. Perhaps his eventual excursion will do him some good.

Match of the Night/s – The Young Bucks vs. Roppongi 3K

Spot of the Night/s – Kenny Omega powerbombs Jay White onto several rigid chairs (ow)

Don Callis Quote of the Night/s – “So, we witnessed someone putting on an animal mask and grinding their heel into someone’s crotch tonight. I thought I’d have to wait until later for that. Heyo!”

Next up – Road to The New Beginning in Korakuen Hall, Monday, February 5th

All images provided by NJPW1972.com and the New Japan Pro-Wrestling English Facebook Page

Watch all New Japan shows live or at your convenience by subscribing to the New Japan World streaming service (English options available)

Jeff Pawlak has been a fan of pro wrestling since around the same age that he could talk. He’s an admitted mark for New Japan Pro Wrestling, a proud subscriber to the New Japan World streaming service, and is beyond hyped to see what the rest of 2018 has in store for it. Find him on Twitter @JeffreyPavs for more of his thoughts on New Japan, WWE, and other wrestling promotions. 

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