6000 people in attendance. Four titles at stake. One huge UK debut for New Japan Pro Wrestling. Saturday afternoon saw legions of wrestling fans descend upon the Copper Box in Stratford, East London, the heartland of West Ham football club and former home of the 2012 Olympic Games. And though NJPW faced stiff competition in the form of concomitant NXT UK TakeOver: Cardiff (as well as AEW’s All Out), there could be no doubt that the crowd was fully invested in New Japan’s best and brightest. Your intrepid reporter was in attendance as belts changed hands, duelling chants duked it out, and a new challenger appeared…
Roppongi 3K (SHO, YOH, and Rocky Romero) def. Ryusuke Taguchi, Shota ‘Shooter’ Umino and Ren Narita // SHO hit Narita with the Powerbreaker
The event started half an hour earlier than the ticket indicated, which meant I missed this pre-show bout, which furthermore meant I missed my Very Favourite Bois, Roppongi 3K. Sources indicate that this was a short and breezy affair, with at least one arena-wide ‘Funky Weapon’ chant.
Kota Ibushi and Juice Robinson def. Hikuleo and Yujiro Takahashi // Ibushi hit Takahashi with the Kamigoye
Filler, but enjoyable filler. Hikuleo and Takahashi are what they are, but Juice and Ibushi elevated this one to something the crowd could actually get behind. Ibushi is absolutely electric in person. Low stakes and ultimately just a way to get Ibushi on the card, but you won’t catch me complaining about any of it.
Will Ospreay and Robbie Eagles (the Birds of Prey) def. El Phantasmo and Taiji Ishimori // Ospreay & Eagles hit ELP with the Red Wing (double top rope Spanish Fly – an insanely brilliant tag team manouevre.)
Unsurprisingly Ospreay was OVER AS FUCK in the Copper Box; the whole crowd got to their feet to welcome him. ELP continues to exude a Marmite aura, but the UK crowd have warmed to him thanks to a year spent on the Rev Pro circuit. Highlights include Ishimori and Eagles in a lightning fast miniature hunk-off, Eagles taking to the skies with an enormous dive, and Ishimori and ELP working in tandem to destroy Eagles’ spine.
This was high-speed and high-risk as you might expect from this quartet, who have terrific chemistry. After the match, Ospreay took to the mic and in a slightly bizarre parody of a Received Pronunciation accent, informed the Bullet Club lads that he and Eagles – henceforth to be known as the Birds of Prey – would be coming for their IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team titles.
Naito and SANADA def. Jay White and Chase Owens // SANADA submitted Owens with Skull End
A relatively quiet match for Naito, who sat back and let SANADA do most of the work. This felt like something of a showcase for Cold Skull, who secured an enormous pop for the Paradise Lock on Owens. Chase Owens has always seemed to me like an average wrestler with a decent amount of charisma, so he seemed well placed as the tool with which SANADA would get even more over than he already was.
A solid match, elevated by the post-match shenanigans that ensued – Jay White storming the ring with a steel chair, intending to clean house, only to be caught unawares by Naito, laying in wait. One Destino later and it was White’s turn to eat the (completely unofficial) pin. Cue Naito setting up shop in the middle of the ring, lounging in White’s steel chair to the delight of the crowd. Such abundant charisma that he doesn’t even need to wrestle much to incur a rapturous reaction.
IWGP Tag Team Championship Match: Guerillas of Destiny (c) (Tama Tonga & Tanga Loa) def. Aussie Open (Kyle Fletcher & Mark Davis)
First things first: London really loves G.O.D. As someone perpetually underwhelmed by Tonga and Loa, I was very surprised at the duration and vehemence of the duelling chant, spanning the entirety of the pre-match and spilling over into the early action. A good three or four minutes of increasingly hoarse exhortations which were pretty evenly matched between the two teams. A degree of “who the hell are Aussie Open?” Must surely have contributed; BritWres regulars will be familiar with Fletcher and Davies, perhaps the best tag team on the British indies right now, but the rest of the New Japan faithful seemed nonplussed by their presence.
Nonetheless, Aussie Open did themselves proud; easily the smallest man in the ring, Fletcher cut a valiant figure against his much bigger opposition, but the match really came alive when Davies tagged in. Aussie Open are at their best when they are able to utilise their skill as a duo, and there was time to shine in a series of well-executed spots. There was never any real danger of an upset, but if nothing else, Aussie Open did not disgrace themselves in defeat, and a whole new audience knows who they are, and what they can do. And that’s a small victory in and of itself.
NEVER Openweight Championship Match: KENTA def. Tomohiro Ishii (c) to become the new NEVER Openweight Champion
You know who London loves more than G.O.D? Tomohiro Ishii. The fierce, diminutive Stone Pitbull is beloved of the London crowd, who were fiercely behind him in this brutal, hard-hitting bout. This was everything you might expect from a match between two certified brawlers; a technical masterpiece it was not, but that was scarcely important. This was two angry men pasting the everloving shit out of one another and it was awesome.
Around halfway through, things abruptly slowed; I learned after the fact that KENTA may have obtained a concussion following a German suplex. It seemed to fit the tempo of the match, though, and it was entirely believable, given the unremitting beatdown these two men had engaged in, that both participants were dazed and exhausted. Some patented G.O.D shenanigans ensued, leading, ultimately, to Ishii’s loss following the Go 2 Sleep. Not a clean loss, then, but a loss all the same, and a probable stroke of genius as the Copper Box unloaded their ire on a woozy but triumphant KENTA.
RevPro British Heavyweight Championship Match: Hiroshi Tanahashi def. Zack Sabre Jr (c) to become NEW RevPro British Heavyweight Champion
It is really, really hard to cheer against the Ace, but ZSJ is every inch the hometown hero that north-of-the-river counterpart Ospreay is, and it was clearly Zack Sabre Time at the Copper Box. From my vantage point on the floor seats, it was occasionally tricky to see what kind of improbable knot ZSJ had tied himself (and Tana) into, but this one had all the hits: multiple painful-looking octopus holds, a plethora of Dragon Screw leg whips, crowd-pleasing Slingblades.
The Ace worked hard to win the crowd over, and although London was firmly in Zack’s corner, it was hard to begrudge Tana the win: a High Fly Flow laid ZSJ out and the second title of the night changed hands. This is huge stuff for Rev Pro, who can now claim the Ace of New Japan as a current champ and eventually as alumni; clearly, NJPW are taking this union very seriously, and it will almost certainly be of benefit to both parties, elevating Rev Pro’s reputation while Tanahashi has something meaningful to defend.
IWGP Heavyweight Championship Match: Kazuchika Okada (c) def. Minoru Suzuki
We’d hardly dared hope to believe. Except, somewhere along the way, we really did believe, and that’s the power of Minoru Suzuki. It’s also the power of Okada, who sold like death to the Suzuki Gun veteran, lolling bonelessly so that every time Suzuki threatened the Gotch-style piledriver the entire crowd held their collective breath in anticipation. London loves Okada, but London loves a magnificent bastard more, and Suzuki has been a stalwart on the BritWres indie scene for long enough that we’ve taken him thoroughly to heart – check out the power of that collective ‘Kaze Ni Nare’. 6000 people in gleeful unison is a beautiful thing.
It was never going to go Suzuki’s way – not in Britain, not at such a minor show – but it was so easy to get carried away on the sheer momentum of this impeccable main event. The defiance of Okada in the face of Suzuki’s punishment, and Suzuki’s belligerent energy made for an exciting back-forth dynamic, and the mutual antipathy manifested in something absolutely extraordinary. The volume of Suzuki’s elbow against Okada’s skull is not something I will forget in a hurry. Okada pulled out a Tombstone and followed up with a thunderous Rainmaker for the win. A bad night for Suzuki-Gun, but it was hard to begrudge the outcome.
After the match, Okada addressed the crowd in English (and what joy to hear a wrestler speak in his second language and NOT receive a barrage of ‘what?’ chants from smarky arseholes – thank you, London). Reverting to Japanese, he told Suzuki that he had repaid his debt from the G1.
He then asked if anyone else had a debt still to be repaid. Enter one SANADA, dressed in an extremely snazzy suit. In English, SANADA vowed that he would challenge Okada and take his IWGP Heavyweight Championship. But while Okada was happy to accept SANADA’s challenge, he was not so convinced about the outcome, assuring the crowd that he would be the one to walk away with the belt.
And that, my friends, was that. A high-quality show with an absolutely killer main event. New Japan, you are welcome back to London any time you like.
All pics and videos courtesy of NJPW and Laura Mauro