NJPW 49th Anniversary Event Review: Kota ‘Worldstar’ Ibushi

After a weird and eventful two nights of Castle Attack, New Japan Pro Wrestling returns to celebrate its birthday and kick off the 2021 New Japan Cup. The 49th Anniversary Event isn’t wall-to-wall hits and it doesn’t make the belt unification situation any better, but it’s an enjoyable show overall, with a semi-main and main event worth going out of your way to see.

Have you heard about the New Japan Cup and who’s fighting each other in it?

NJPW’s 49th Anniversary Event—game-changing title event aside, which we’ll get to at the end of the article—is a fun, easy watch, with a run time under three hours, a good-looking set design, and a simple, escalating show layout. We start with three tag matches that feature guys who will soon fight each other in the first round of the New Japan Cup on opposite teams, then an intermission, then two NJ Cup matches followed by the big champ vs. champ kahuna.

The matches escalate in quality as well, but even the earlier ones have highlights. Wato, Kidd, Honma, and Goto vs. Douki, Sabre, Suzuki, and Taichi is built around three NJ Cup pairings, two of which are easy examples of how bloated the tournament has become since they doubled its size a few years ago. Suzuki vs. Honma at least gives us some good Suzuki moments. ZSJ vs. Kidd gets points for “better wrestling” but unfortunately, loses points for BritWres being a blight upon this earth. Taichi vs. Goto delivers moments of quality, straightforward heavyweight action though, and looks like they’ll have one of the best matches of the first round (this article will go up after that match happens, so if it actually sucked… you didn’t read this)

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Evil, Kenta, Owens, White, and Ishimori vs. Tanahashi, Juice, Finlay, Henare, and Taguchi is the first time in a while NJPW has had a Hontai grouping you could call Taguchi Japan, and that tells you everything you need to know about the tone of this match. The Bullet Club shenanigans are more comedy-flavored than usual, which somehow leads to the most no-BS, cool-looking Evil victory in quite a while.

The most notable thing about this match, though, is that Juice Robison (and David Finlay, but Juice much more dramatically) debuts a new look. Blues Brothers is out; court jester with an afro for some reason is in! The new costume and debatable hair choice signal the return of a version of Juice that feels like a throwback to like three or more years ago: loud, sweary, energetic, and enthusiastically hyping up the crowd not just for himself, but for his friends. It’s hard to guess what the future holds for Robinson, but this seems like a good sign.

Okada, Ishii, and Sho vs. Takagi, Sanada, and Bushi looks on paper like it’ll be the best match of the undercard, and it does contain the most normal wrestling, but it’s not that great. Ishii and Sanada do a bunch of reversals in the ring ahead of their match and it is not inspiring, but their post-match confrontation is funny and the Ishii-targeting teamwork between Sanada and Shingo is a match highlight. Okada and Takagi don’t go that hard ahead of their first-round match, but it’s their G1 bout from last fall that’s selling it, anyway. The most positive aspect of this match is that gives Sho some flattering things to do, including getting the win, before he goes on break for a while.

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The last event before intermission is the announcement of Wrestle Grand Slam, two big shows coming up in May. As with Castle Attack, I am immediately seduced by the event name, but after Castle Attack, my expectations for these bonus make-up-for-lost-shows tours have been lowered. I’m still very down for the Yokohama Stadium event, though, because the outside baseball stadium vibes of last year’s Summer Struggle in Jingu were impeccable and I need more of that aesthetic in my life! Meanwhile, the Tokyo Dome show, NJPW’s first event in this building outside of January in 16 years, seems iffier and higher-risk. If people still can’t cheer (which seems likely) and the card doesn’t slap, it could have a bleak atmosphere—the opposite of baseball stadium vibes—but, fingers crossed, they’ll actually knock it out of the park with both of these events.

New Japan Cup 2021 match: Jeff Cobb def. Satoshi Kojima

Cobb vs. Kojima is the latest and probably second-to-last match in the TenCozy vs. Empire feud that’s been going on since January 6, and it’s pretty good! These two work well together and play out a story that’s easy to follow and get invested in. Beloved old man Kojima gets dominated by the much younger, stronger, and eviler Cobb until he finally counters some moves and makes an exciting comeback. Kojima smokes his opponent in a lariat showdown at one point, but is otherwise no match for the power of Cobb and falls to the Tour of the Islands. This match has a very midcard feel to it and could have been more intense, making it not really the type of match you’d want to go out of your way to watch, but it’s fun as part of the anniversary show.

New Japan Cup 2021 match: Great-O-Khan def. Tetsuya Naito

Much stronger is the semi-main event between Great-O-Khan and Tetsuya Naito, which looks like the promising start to a longer feud. Both men go into this match off of a string of singles losses, Naito in two title matches against Ibushi and O-Khan with the post-excursion record of losing to Okada, losing to Tanahashi, beating Tenzan for the exclusive right to use the Mongolian Chops, then losing to Tana again on the same show where Tenzan had just started using the Chops again. O-Khan has made a strong and positive impression on audiences so far, but without much to show for it in terms of kayfabe achievements—until now!

Naito and O-Khan have very different, distinct personalities, and they highlight that immediately. O-Khan poses seriously; Naito imitates it and becomes the first person, I think, to pull on his braid. (I think that means he likes him.) But Great-O-Khan proceeds to show, for the first time in an NJPW singles match, that this “dominator” stuff isn’t just the supervillain name he gave himself—he really is extremely dominant for most of this match! It turns out that a master plan of attacking someone’s weak, injured knee is a lot more effective than attacking a strong mentor-mentee bond; who knew?

Naito and O-Khan both put on strong performances to effectively tell the story of a guy who’s only previously lost to NJPW top guys completely having the number and eating the lunch of one of NJPW’s top guys. The hot crowd is with them every step of the way. Their wrestling styles also just look really good together, with Naito’s more junior heavyweight-derived style contrasting and complimenting O-Khan’s unusual but old-school all-heavyweight offense. These factors combined make not just an entertaining GOK-Naito I, but build anticipation for the inevitable GOK-Naito II from both an angle standpoint and as purely an opportunity to see more in-ring action between these two.

IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Double Championship match: Kota Ibushi (c) def. El Desperado

The night’s best match is its main event, a champion vs. champion matchup that nobody saw coming a week ago. The angle leading into the match was even more unexpected. Not only is it El Desperado fighting to prove himself against the guy he made his NJPW debut against eight years ago, now as a babyface and a double champion, but El Desperado doing this as arguably the babyface double champion that NJPW fans are happier with! I wish the state of the world was such that New Japan crowds could cheer normally right now because I would have loved to hear what the soundtrack of fans yelling wrestlers’ names would have been like for this.

Everything about this match is fantastic. For fans who have been around since they first battled for the junior title or have been following these wrestlers for any length of time, it’s so satisfying to see not just Desperado show up in a sick mask after watching him put it together as a singles guy (with the sight of Kanemaru and Taichi in his corner heartwarming instead of a sign to expect some capital-S Shenanigans like it would have been four years ago) but to see Ibushi big dogging it up as the Heavyweight Champion in the anniversary show main event after wrestling in it as the inevitable loser twice in the past. In contrast to the situation with the heavyweight title right now, this matchup makes it feel like it’s worth watching the amount of NJPW that allows you to get everything that’s going on.

The main reason this match is so satisfying is, of course, what a banger it is in the ring. Ibushi and Desperado work amazingly together from the opening hold-to-hold to the closing nearfalls. It’s a basic story of Ibushi pushing Desperado to give him his best and Desperado fighting to prove himself made compelling in every moment by not just how good their wrestling is, but how creative it is. No new moves or crazy spots are invented, but the way both guys move is distinctive and different from other wrestlers, fully backed by their personalities and never generic. There are plenty of classic “one guy gets the shit beat out of him until it unleashes his inner fighting spirit” match no-selling moments, but I like that they switch up this kind of story by having Desperado’s offensive comeback be mostly strategic, targeting Ibushi’s knee to set up for Numero Dos rather than trying to go crazy with power moves.

This match has no bad moments and is in NJPW’s top five of the year so far at least, but I think there’s one standout visual that’ll stick with me the most: Desperado’s dive through the ropes and the way he rolls to his knees and yells afterward. It’s an “are you kidding me with how good that moment is?” moment. It’s a cool move with a fantastic follow-through, it’s sticking the landing, and it’s congratulations, El Desperado, it took you a long time, but you made it.

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Ratioed for crimes against the IWGP Committee

Now we’ve finally reached the part of this article about the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship. In the time since I last wrote about this in the Castle Attack review, fan reactions to this change have solidified as overwhelmingly negative. The YouTube video of the press conference announcing the new title has almost eight times the amount of dislikes as it has likes, and the comments section includes some extremely valid criticisms, pointing out things like how Naito never got separate title defenses as double champion but NJPW unified the titles as soon as Ibushi asked, how so many wrestlers have said they came to NJPW for this belt and have been chasing it their whole careers and now it’s gone, and how fans were able to vote on whether the double championship would be allowed, but had no opportunity to give input on this change.

The negative fan reaction raised some hope in me that they might not actually go through with the unification. NJPW has a history of course-correcting when fans really recoil from something. Like that comment pointed out, a poll wisely took the temperature of the fan base before NJPW pulled the trigger on the controversial Double Gold Dash at Wrestle Kingdom 14. Before that, a hated babyface Kenta turned heel by the end of the 2018 G1, and before that, the infamous Wrestle Kingdom 8 main event fan poll acknowledged that Naito’s push at the time wasn’t going well, and the company’s response to this ended up producing some of its best material of the next six years. In contrast, ending the IWGP Heavyweight Championship is a bigger, inevitably more controversial decision than any of these things, and NJPW just kind of snuck it in as a possibility in online bonus material during the Road to Castle Attack and then pulled the trigger even after the initial backlash.

As much as there’s a precedent of them not doing dumb stuff like this, it’s not like every negative aspect of this situation comes completely out of nowhere. When NJPW established the double championship, there was reason to be optimistic that they would handle it well because while the setup was kind of screwy and confusing, the company was coming off many years of the top title picture usually being the best-handled stuff in the company. But then NJPW ended up dropping the ball. They never made the way the double championship worked fully make sense, with the biggest strike against them the way they set up handing it off to Ibushi, with Ibushi losing the G1 winner’s contract to the Tokyo Dome main event, then getting put in the other Tokyo Dome main event just because Naito requested it.

A sidenote: I’ve seen a lot of tribalistic behavior by Naito and Ibushi stans (really from Naito or Ibushi biases, to go full K-pop terminology) about the unification angle, but there’s no good reason for it. These guys have both been killing it and have just had to deal with way more convoluted material than NJPW top champions of the recent past.

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After the Anniversary Event main event, it’s declared that the unification is happening for real, and the mood quickly drops. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s harder to gauge NJPW crowd reactions sometimes in this no-yelling era, but this sounds like the quietest the Budokan has been all night. Tanahashi looks miserable when they cut to him on commentary. Ibushi’s statements about the unification continue to make no sense, and not in the usual, charming way that Ibushi makes no sense. He keeps insisting that he’s inheriting the histories of both titles, and while maybe that’s true for him (in the Ibushi character’s mind and personal trajectory as a wrestler) that’s literally not true. Both of these title’s official lineages are over; Ibushi is recorded as the first holder of a new championship. He didn’t save the Intercontinental Championship; he killed off it and the Heavyweight Championship.

The fact that this happens on the Anniversary Event, which starts with a video featuring company highlights from nearly five decades, including several clips of Antonio Inoki, especially drives home how much prestige and history is erased from relevance to current NJPW through this unification. Ibushi mentions “the highest global stage” in the ring and that “I want to present to the world a free title” backstage, but nobody wants a “free title” from NJPW, and definitely not the global audience (except for some people who are essentially more Ibushi and/or Golden Lovers solo stans (again, K-pop fandom terms work very well for wrestling.))

For all wrestlers in or aiming at NJPW and for fans following the promotion, the baggage surrounding the nigh-unattainable IWGP Heavyweight Championship is part of what makes it so appealing. This history instantly escalates the stakes of every match for the title and of match or tournament to earn a shot at that title. It delivers enough instant drama and importance that even when some individual title match doesn’t seem that exciting, people tend to give a shit about who has this title. That was something special about NJPW that now they just don’t have anymore.

The one satisfying thing about this unification is that everyone in NJPW who brings it up at the Anniversary Event—aside from, weirdly, El Desperado—hates it. Taichi gets sarcastic about it and Jay White explains, with a perfect mix of paranoia and ego, how this is all actually a plot against him, to destroy his personal legacy. The much more damning comments come from babyfaces, in part because of what those who bring it up don’t say. Sho says it sounds less prestigious than being the double junior champion, Goto and Kojima say they don’t have the right to comment until they start making waves as singles wrestlers but are clearly unhappy, and again, that face from Tanahashi.

Okada is the guy who gets closest to saying with words as much as Tana’s dejected face. I truly went on a journey following his promo, in which he first says he doesn’t have “the right to talk” until he wins the New Japan Cup after two years of talking shit about the double championship and seems very out of character, then ends the promo with the type of cutting criticism that puts the whole thing firmly back into the territory of Rainmaker behavior.

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There’s clearly going to be a big Okada-Ibushi showdown about this at some point, but I don’t know if there’s any chance of someone actually recovering the old title, or if this is an obstacle for Ibushi to overcome on the path to proving the value of the new one. Are they going to use Ibushi’s pure babyface power to ward off criticism for now and hope people get used to it, or will things get beyond the point of “philosophical differences” to where Ibushi should actually turn heel?

More than anything, thinking about the future of the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship is tiring and irritating. NJPW obviously has some direction they want to go with it, but the way they’re executing this angle does not make me want to go in that direction with them. It really seems like the Ibushi character should not have even been able to do this. And I think the real-life bullshit NJPW has been pulling recently is making me fed up with them more quickly than I would be if they weren’t being terrible. 2021 continues to be a real “check out for a while and come back when it looks like they’ve gotten it together” year for NJPW.

But for the next couple of weeks, our new world champion and his new world championship are out of the picture. It’s New Japan Cup season, and while that tournament feels much lower-value this year, it at least has its own built-in stakes to a certain extent, and some promising scheduled and potential matchups alongside the weaker-looking ones. I’ll see you back here later this month for a look back at the final and the best and most important matches and angles of the tournament.