NJPW: The New Beginning In Sapporo (Day 1) – Recap & Results

Now, with Wrestle Kingdom 12 in the rearview, we move on to a new year of New Japan events and start, with a New Beginning. With two title matches, a series of promising sounding tag encounters and the latest trial of Kitamura, let’s see if they could keep the year that started with a bang going along nicely.

The Seven Trials Of Kitamura (Match 2): Katusya Kitamura vs Michael Elgin

So if you didn’t read my New Year’s Dash review, Katsuya Kitamura, the standout of the Young Lions class is going through a series of seven important singles matches, he’s probably going to lose all of them but when he’s done he might go on excursion or he might just get an outfit that isn’t plain, black trunks and become part of the NEVER Openweight Champions with Juice Robinson and David Finlay, I don’t know what happens is the answer. This was as perfunctory a singles encounter as you might see with the two men trying to out-power each other as Kitamura tries to hit a Jackhammer for the victory but eventually falling to the former Intercontinental champion’s Buckle Bomb-Sitout Powerbomb combination for the pin. They worked a standard structure but it helped showcase Kitamura who didn’t look at all out of place against his more experienced opponent.

WINNER: Michael Elgin

Ten Man Tag-Team Match: KUSHIDA, Manabu Nakanishi, Jushin Liger, Hiroshi Tenzan & Tiger Mask IV def. Suzuki-Gun (Taichi, TAKA Michinoku, Yoshinobu Kanemaru, El Desperado & Takashi Lizuka)

Suzuki-Gun attacked before the bell. They attempted to divide and conquer, using the numbers game and underhanded tactics to keep down the New Japan Dads…and KUSHIDA. Eventually though, the face tandem managed to power back in and KUSHIDA managed to close a Hoverboard Lock to get a submission victory and some much-needed momentum back on his side. I could have written those sentences any time over the past year, I appreciated the neutralising of the minor ranks of Suzuki-Gun as it levelled the playing field ahead of Suzuki’s main event but otherwise, this was every other multi-man tag match.

WINNER: The New Japan Dads (& KUSHIDA)

 Tag Team Match: CHAOS (Tomohiro Ishii & Toru Yano) vs. Bullet Club (Yujiro Takahashi & Chase Owens)

Chase Owens had an oddly impressive run in the New Japan Rumble this year, possibly managing to jump ahead of Hangman Page in the rankings of ‘Members you forget are in the Bullet Club’. Ishii and Yano are one of my favourite odd-couple teams as they have such clashing styles that it makes no sense but at the same time, makes the most sense. This was tag fundamentals as the Club members worked over Yano until he was able to power out and get a hot tag to Ishii who ran wild and hit a Brainbuster on Owens for the pin. This didn’t do much as a match but if it leads to a Tag Title match for the Stone Pitbull and the Master Thief, I certainly won’t complain.

WINNER: CHAOS

NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship Match: Bullet Club (Bad Luck Fale & GoD) (c) vs. Taguchi Japan (Ryusuke Taguchi, Togi Makabe & Henare)

Here was where the show started to kick into gear. What was nice about this (beyond a NEVER 6-Man team actually successfully defending their belts) was that it worked fast and strong, making use of every one of its nine minutes of action. Every person in this played their role well: Taguchi played the captain, the junior but also frequently the goofball, especially when he openly started ’emulating’ Shinsuke Nakamura after hitting a succession of strong style hip attacks, Makabe was the fiery hot-tag, Henare was the equally fiery junior, while the brothers Tonga worked their normal tag magic and Fale, keeping his involvement to a minimum still managed to get in all his strongman bullying tactics to strong effect. Oddly for a title that seems to constantly change hands, the main issue here seemed to e a lack of jeopardy for the titles which may be down to the Bullet Club side not being as open in making the Taguchi Japan team look as good as vice versa. The finish came as after trying to fight the odds, Henare fell to a flapjack and a Twister submission by Tonga. New Japan obviously sees a lot of money in this trio and I hope that with them, the NEVER titles can be elevated above the constant multi-team scrambles and given an actual storyline going forward.

WINNER: Bullet Club

Six Man Tag-Team Match: Kota Ibushi &Taguchi Japan (Juice Robinson & David Finlay) vs Bullet Club (Cody, Marty Scurll & Hangman Page)

Even in the never-ending tag match section of shows, it’s hard to ever find a truly bad Ibushi match and this is true here as we get some of the most exciting action outside of the main event, working with two of the more underrated performers on the roster in the form of Juice and Finlay the young, they created suspense but clearly this was all about Cody’s ongoing hostilities with Ibushi, with the other four men seeming like afterthoughts, which added an element of surprise to Page being to one to get the pin here, hitting the Rite of Passage bell-to-back tombstone on Finlay as I am hard-pressed to remember anything else the current least-memorable element of Bullet Club did during the match. While the match worked structure, it can’t be denied that the crowd were really alive when Ibushi and Cody were in the ring at the same time and Juice is a reliably great performer so while this is far from being likely to be included on any end-of-year lists, it was fun while it lasted.

WINNER: Bullet Club

Tag-Team Match: CHAOS (Will Ospreay & YOSHI-HASHI) vs Los Ingobernables de Japon (Tetsuya Naito & Hiromu Takahashi

This encounter had added internal stakes as at New Beginning In Osaka, Ospreay defends his Jr. Heavyweight Title against Takahashi and Naito faces HASHI because when you have Naito, you don’t just waste him on constant tags. The four of them work a good, solid tag match with Naito and Takahashi showing a restored heel edge after both losing at Wrestle Kingdom, even if Takahashi didn’t take the pin, hence he is next in line for a title shot. They attacked before the bell with Naito pulling Ospreay to the outside and targetting his knee. Leg-work formed a strong part of the match and this made a lot of sense as not only was this building to a higher profile match for Takahashi but obviously, Ospreay is a known high-flyer, you can’t fly without knees. The finish came as Takahashi ran distraction and Naito hit a low blow before getting a pinning combination on Ospreay. As good as the match was, and it was rather good indeed, the meat really came afterwards as on their way out a fired up YOSHI-HASHI would jump Naito and Takahashi, trying to brawl with Naito to the back but Naito refusing to directly get involved. The story here, being that HASHI is not worthy of Naito’s attention is off to an interesting start as HASHI looked more energised than I think I’ve possibly ever seen him, expect to see more moments like this on the build to Osaka.

WINNER: Los Ingobernables de Japon

Six Man Tag-Team Match: Los Ingobernables de Japon (SANADA, EVIL & BUSHI) def. CHAOS (Kazuchika Okada, Hirooki Goto & Gedo)

This wasn’t a bad match by any means, it was as good as anything else pre-main event but by this point, I was starting to suffer from multi-man tag fatigue. What did help keep this match fresh, even this late on the card and beyond obviously Okada’s Super Saiyan Fandango trousers was the interesting interplay of the two teams as, from a certain point of view, Okada has almost become so big that he can be face or heel depending on who he faces. Of course, this is also direct build for Osaka where SANADA has a Heavyweight Title shot, Goto faces EVIL and BUSHI faces Gedo in what is a nice touch to have the show have all five LIJ members in singles competition. It’s hard to provide too much feedback on these tags as they don’t really have a lot in the way of notable content but this was once again strong, rich competition which didn’t outstay its welcome. Interestingly, Okada got the tapout on BUSHI with the Cobra Clutch that he’s still using, even without a Destino to neutralise. Post-match, Okada would brawl through the crowd with SANADA before getting on the mic to call him out for not saying enough and being not ready for him, to prove his point, he dragged SANADA back to the ring and choked him out with Okada bucks. This could be interesting. Also, SANADA has a new mask, it looks a lot better than his previous bull-skull thing.

 WINNER: CHAOS

Six Man Tag-Team Match: The Elite (Kenny Omega & The Young Bucks) vs Jay White & Roppongi3k

Tomorrow, Omega faces White for the US title and the Bucks have a Wrestle Kingdom rematch with Roppongi3k, this was an odd encounter as the story of White using CHAOS to get to Omega resulted in this being a muddied water in terms of heel-face alignment with, at this point, Omega being the face leader of a heel faction and White the heel member of a conglomerate of assorted faces who really aren’t an actual stable. The Elite have got so good at playing to the crowds that sometimes, their shtick can feel a little like it’s missing something on recording. White would attack at the bell, sending Omega out, turning this into mostly a direct tag match and preview for tomorrow’s tag title defense, just as the CHAOS trio were on top, Omega would return and basically wipe out the trio singlehanded including hitting a beautiful double kotaro crusher rear facebuster on both of Roppongi3K. The finish came as The Elite hit a pop-up Indytaker on Yoh for the pin. Much like the tag title match at Kingdom, I couldn’t help but feel there was too much Elite here and not enough Roppongi but it was stll good, wholesome entertainment. After the match, White would hit his Blade Runner twisting DDT on Omega onto his title to send a very clear message.

WINNER: The Elite

IWGP Intercontinental Championship Match: Hiroshi Tanahashi (c) vs Minoru Suzuki

Well, oh my. The last time these two had a title match was 2012, at the 40th Anniversary King of Pro Wrestling, that was a five star match according to many, not least of all, a certain David Meltzer, this match, it was possibly as good. They worked a slower, more technical style leading in as they grappled back-and-forth with this benefitting Suzuki as his clinical, sadistic style doesn’t need a fast pace. Unsurprisingly, the story of this match quickly became Tanahashi trying to fight through his numerous injuries including his clearly still unhealed arm and frankly, if there’s anyone you don’t want targetting weakened limbs, it’s Suzuki. Luckily, Tanahashi had an opening of his own which is the story of Suzuki’s obsession with finishing matches with the Gotch Piledriver for the pin.

It’s impressive that even at age 40, suffering from seemingly quite serious injuries and facing a man ten years his senior (but still able to move better than most men half his age, especially when it comes to dropkicks), Tanahashi is still deserving of his title of New Japan ace as he continues to be possibly the most reliable big match performer there is. Suzuki, for his credit, is the most legitimate performer of his or probably any generation, bringing his Pancrasse MMA experience to his every movement, in a match that had very little in the way of running the ropes, outside the ring action, surprisingly for a Suzuki match, no outside intervention and beyond an early near fall off Tanahashi’s High Fly Flow frog splash, nothing off the top rope, it felt more like an actual combat sport than a professional wrestling match.

The home stretch of this match was storytelling at its best as try as he might, Suzuki couldn’t force Tanahashi into the Gotch Piledriver, with Tana always finding one more escape and one more slingblade left in him, till Suzuki did, but he didn’t go for the pin. Instead Suzuki transitioned to a kneebar, putting a match of targetted basement dropkicks and focussed grappling into practice as he held it for what felt like a lifetime as Tana refused to give up but also was unable to escape leading Red Shoes to make a decision and that decision was in Suzuki’s favour. I think that wins via Ref Stoppage are made all the more effective when, like here, they are used sparingly. As Suzuki said in his post-match speech, he decided not just to win, not just to make sure that Tanahashi won’t walk out with his title, that he might never walk again. I can believe it and I’m scared of what happens next with Suzuki in control of the second biggest title in New Japan.

WINNER: Minoru Suzuki

While a large amount of the undercard was fun, if inessential, that main event was as good as, if not better than, anything on the Wrestle Kingdom 12 card. If you only took out a NJPW World subscription for ‘Kingdom, I’d recommend sticking around for this.

RESULTS & WINNERS:

* The Seven Trials of Kitamura Singles Match: Michael Elgin def. Katusya Kitamura

* Ten Man Tag-Team Match: KUSHIDA, Manabu Nakanishi, Jushin Liger, Hiroshi Tenzan & Tiger Mask IV def. Suzuki-Gun (Taichi, TAKA Michinoku, Yoshinobu Kanemaru, El Desperado & Takashi Lizuka)

Tag Team Match: CHAOS (Tomohiro Ishii & Toru Yano) def. Bullet Club (Yujiro Takahashi & Chase Owens)

NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship Match: Bullet Club (Bad Luck Fale & GoD) def. Taguchi Japan (Ryusuke Taguchi, Togi Makabe & Leo Henare)

* Tag-Team Match: LIJ (Tetusya Naito & Hiromu Takahashi) def. CHAOS (Will Ospreay & YOSHI-HASHI)

* Six Man Tag-Team Match: CHAOS (Kazuchika Okada, Hirooki Goto & Gedo) def. LIJ (SANADA, EVIL & BUSHI)

Six Man Tag-Team Match: The Elite (Kenny Omega & The Young Bucks) def. Jay White & Roppongi3k

IWGP Intercontinental Championship Match: Minoru Suzuki def. Hiroshi Tanahashi