Previously on New Japan Pro Wrestling: two shows that were not all that fun. This time on New Japan Pro Wrestling: the opposite!
Take me out of the ballgame (field where they’re having a wrestling show)
Summer Struggle in Jingu was easily the most fun NJPW show of the coronavirus era so far. This can be credited to not just the wrestlers and their matches, but a lot of good and different production decisions. It’s an all killer, no filler card like New Japan hasn’t seen since the second night of Wrestle Kingdom 14. The show breezes by with a run time of only two hours and forty-five minutes, six matches on the card, and each match stylistically different from the others.
It also helps that Jingu Stadium looks just as perfect as a wrestling venue now as it did in 1999. The setting— a major company running outdoors, in a venue recognizably intended for a real sport, and with a minimalist set—gives the show a kind of retro charm, while the overhead and crowd shots provide the extremely 2020 comfort of clearly showing that people are social distancing. Plus, this setting makes the remote cheer app noise less off-putting and unnatural most of the times fans choose to use it. All in all, Jingu Stadium is such a perfect wrestling venue that I really hope NJPW comes back to it in the future, ideally before another two decades go by.
Yoshinobu Kanemaru def. Master Wato
The Grandmaster vs. Heel Master battle is well-placed at the beginning of the card. These two wrestlers being the first to get Jingu Stadium entrances as the viewers (at least remote viewers) are absorbing the open-air baseball field venue ambiance rather than going on after two matches of Young Lions and old guys puts it in a position to be as well-received as possible.
As an opener on a show with such a fresh atmosphere, Wato vs. Kanemaru is a pretty fun match. Kanemaru is in his usual role of a good hand who doesn’t really do anything flashy, while Master Wato gets plenty of opportunities to show off his biggest upside: his offensive arsenal of kicks and high-flying. Still, Wato looks really green at times with his repetitive crowd work and some more cooperative moves that don’t go smoothly at all. Kanemaru gets a veteran’s flash-pin win and it feels like he deserved it despite the ref bump because how awkwardly Wato handled some of the action leading up to the finish.
Like I think a lot of people, I have no idea what’s next for Wato and I’m still not sure what kind of guy he’s really supposed to be. Maybe he’ll earn a junior title shot he’s doomed to lose but would give him an opportunity to prove himself in a bigger match setting. Maybe he and Taguchi will win the junior tag titles??? Maybe he’ll do nothing notable until after the G1. The possibilities and potential of the former Hirai Kawato are difficult to guess right now.
KOPW 2020 Final: Toru Yano def. Kazuchika Okada, Sanada, and El Desperado
I thought the part of the KOPW tournament on the 26th was disappointing, but the four-way final at Jingu is a lot of fun and sets the stage for a more entertaining future for the new title. This is a short, mostly fast-paced match that leans on character interactions and competitive spirit. It doesn’t have any crazy spots, but it stays engaging the whole way through by everyone always clearly trying to win. Okada, Sanada, and El Desperado all get moments to shine, but the man of the hour is Toru Yano, who wins KOPW 2020 with a classic low blow-rollup combo to the Rainmaker. Finally a title validates what discerning wrestling fans already knew: Yano is the king of pro wrestling (assuming that’s what KOPW stands for, which I don’t think it officially does!)
The reactions to the win that none of the other competitors saw coming (but really should have seen coming) are all amazing, and KOPW 2020 is firmly established as a comedy title for now – unless Yano gets fan-voted into bringing back his fair play/real shooter side, which would also be cool. If anyone can be trusted to take gimmicks and stipulations to their furthest extent, it’s Yano, and that should give the first-ever KOPW reign a distinct flavor as its own thing and as something separate from the rest of NJPW.
The backstage promos reveal that Okada is now focusing on the G1 and afterward might come back to KOPW or the IWGP Heavyweight or tag title scenes, he doesn’t know which yet. In the meantime, El Desperado politely wants to be the first person to enter Yano’s World. The New Japan Road cards make it look like this probably won’t happen before the G1, which is kind of an odd decision to me, but Yano vs. Despy sounds promising whenever it happens.
More New Japan Pro Wrestling:
NEVER Openweight Championship match: Minoru Suzuki def. Shingo Takagi (c)
The transition from a Yano win to Shingo Takagi vs. Minoru Suzuki for the NEVER Openweight Championship is about as “and now for something completely different” as it gets.
Backstage afterward, Suzuki says this match showed him that L.I.J. doesn’t just look cool, “but one of them can actually fight.” It’s one of the nicest things you can imagine Suzuki saying about one of his enemies, and it fits that this match feels more like a fight than anything else at Summer Struggle in Jingu. Nobody would be fooled into thinking this was a shoot and that wasn’t the intention of the match, but though there are moments of crowd work, this match is two great performers performing a fight and a competition rather than an athletic exhibition or morality play or a performance.
Everyone knows going into this match that Shingo’s the face and Suzuki’s the heel, but Suzuki, like Ishimori in the next match, doesn’t win in any kind of “evil” way. And though Suzuki’s performance includes a few really OTT faces that could be called Suzuki TM in old internet speak, this match avoids both of the two most common categories of latter-day Suzuki matches, the sadistic submission torture session and the sadomasochistic fighting spirit forearm contest. He uses submission holds and there are forearm exchanges and fighting spirit moments, but Suzuki beats Shingo strategically rather than through endurance (like he did Nagata) and without metaphorical mustache-twirling about it.
Suzuki targets Takagi’s head with strikes and applications of his signature sleeper hold, Takagi weaker and weaker each time he locks it on, and by the end of the match, it’s clear that Suzuki has Shingo’s number and deserves to win. And outside of the match itself, though Takagi’s run with the NEVER Openweight Championship was great, Suzuki’s been on a post-hiatus run that makes it undeniable he’s in a good place for a title reign right now too.
Suzuki really going after Shingo’s head is also what kicks this match into high gear right when it needs to get there. If Shingo had won the match with that Last of the Dragon it would have been an alright midcard title defense, but Suzuki escaping the move and repeatedly headbutting him and slapping him in the face quickly elevates the match with violence and insane behavior. It looks like these two have more they could deliver in a second match that Takagi says backstage that he wants somewhere down the line, but they still bring enough to the table here to make their first singles encounter memorable and entertaining.
After intermission, Hiromu Takahashi vs. Taiji Ishimori also features a heel playing things smart and cleanly beating a babyface champion, but takes Summer Struggle in Jingu in another stylistically different direction, one that loudly proclaims that this is a big junior heavyweight match.
There’s the element of Ishimori going after Hiromu’s recently injured shoulder, which is ultimately how he wins, but this match stands out more as the one on the card with the most impressive high flying and the fastest-paced action. Ishimori looks like an absolute junior-style beast when he blocks and flips out of Hiromu’s attempt at his sunset flip powerbomb off the apron and the way Hiromu sets up this move shows him trying to innovate around his injury. If you decided to gif all the cool moves these two did in this match, it would probably take a while.
IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship match: Dangerous Tekkers (c) def. Golden Ace
Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kota Ibushi’s rematch against Taichi and Zack Sabre Jr. had a more drawn-out melodramatic build than the rest of Summer Struggle in Jingu combined. Our heroes went through a long struggle of Ibushi struggling to work with a broken-down Tanahashi, Tanahashi struggling with the possibility he might be truly washed-up, and Ibushi eventually motivating Tana to break his slump and get back in peak shape. At Jingu, they’re feeling great and ready to be tag champions again – now with a mashup theme song! – but it doesn’t work out. Tana doesn’t look like a disaster, but it’s now undeniable that he’s the weaker member of the team.
Ibushi beating Tanahashi last summer was a huge moment on his path to the G1 final and tournament win (after losing to the Ace in the final the year before), but this sort of extended passing of the torch angle really solidifies his place as an S-tier singles star in NJPW, and now securely the top Home Team babyface the company has. It’s a very useful thing to establish right before the G1 Climax 30 begins while setting Tana back on his never-ending quest for another Complete Comeback.
But before we head off to singles tournament land, this is a good tag match! Golden Ace are adorable when they’re working together, while individually Ibushi shines more brightly as an athlete in his prime while Tana gets beat up more and has to put in overtime to keep up. It’s extremely satisfying to see those revenge Dragon Screws in on Taichi and ZSJ after all of their Tanahashi knee torture. Dangerous Tekkers’ work in this match is also excellent. Both guys look good on their own (Taichi wins a kick battle with Ibushi and suplexes Tana out of a pose! Zack stretches Tana’s whole body with his whole body!) and like they, as a duo, should be tag champions.
There are several of elements of Naito challenging Evil for the IWGP Heavyweight and IWGP Intercontinental Championships that I like and think were done very well, most of them outside of the match.
Using both Naito’s baseball and wrestling fandoms in the pre-match videos and bringing back the “bottom of the ninth” imagery NJPW used before this year’s Wrestle Kingdom was nice to see. (I think so much focus on Naito in the match’s promotion with almost nothing from Evil did kind of give away who would win though.) Both Naito and Evil’s entrances looked awesome, especially Evil’s with the purple lighting and the smoke. Bushi and Sanada running in to save Naito in extremely expensive shoes, possibly because they realized the usual L.I.J. fight-your-own-battles strategy is very dumb sometimes, was a fantastic moment. Sanada dropkicking Evil’s chair in Louboutins is cooler than anything he did in his actual match!
And of course, Naito’s post-match promo about everybody getting through This Difficult Time together was perfect, and the show-closing image of him raising his fist and watching the fireworks was instantly iconic. It’s a moment that ends one of the worst summers of just about everybody’s lives with a beacon of hope. Naito is a hopeful champion. His title reigns and overall arc in the fan-favorite era of L.I.J. have had the themes of struggling through hard times and of somehow managing to just barely snatch victory from the jaws of total defeat, and looking cool doing it. Who holds professional wrestling championships won’t do anything to fix the state of the world, but it does feel good to at least be able to see Naito get a big win and for the fans to get another chance at a quality double championship reign for the one true double IWGP champion.
That being said, the best way I can sum up most of this actual Evil vs. Naito match is as a bunch of bullshit. This is a slow, interference-ridden, bullshit match. It doesn’t have the shock factor and the intense emotional drama of the first Bullet Club Naito vs. Evil or Evil vs. Hiromu matches to help carry it through its flaws. It drags on for so long and it features the most generic heel shenanigans possible aside from when Gedo drops a homophobic slur that a bunch of men on social media seemed to think was very funny, in some cases because of the accent. The finish is exciting and there are some nice moves in there, but this is the one match on the show that just doesn’t deliver in the ring. It doesn’t help that it’s also the one match where the app noise gets noticeably weird at times either.
Naito at least gets some good wrestling moments in this match though, and the win puts him back where he wants to be, a champion about to go on tour, still bugging the company to let him defend his belts separately. Three of the company’s top singles guys, Okada, Ibushi, and Tanahashi, are already setting their sights on him via the G1.
What’s next for Evil is not as clear. His first top title reign was lacking in every aspect except crazy drama and costuming. He had one successful defense against a junior and then lost the titles back to the guy he took them off. However, though I didn’t really like any of his double title matches, I’ll keep singing the praises of Evil’s New Japan Cup run, and he was in some really good tag matches earlier in the year too. He’s a quality wrestler and becoming the pseudo-leader of a heel faction allowed a different side of his persona to shine. He’ll need a big win or another streak of strong matches to convincingly establish himself as a top guy after this, but a short first title reign doesn’t mean anyone’s necessarily dead in NJPW. The most obvious parallel is Naito’s 2016 IWGP Heavyweight Championship reign because it was brought up in the angle for this match, but the most recent is Jay White’s transitional-ish zero-defense reign in early 2019, and a few months after that he was a major threat in the G1 final. So if NJPW wants to rebuild up Evil, I think they’ve shown they’re very capable of doing that and have done it in similar situations. And now, whenever Evil does get his next big angle, he’s someone who could credibly win any title in the company.
With an entertaining big show and several quality matches under their belt, NJPW will return in September. Before the G1 we have a junior tag title tournament, and I’ll see you back here next week to talk about its first leg.