NJPW The New Beginning in Hiroshima 2021 Review: Lawn Dart of Vengeance

After a big show in Nagoya and a few nights at Korakuen Hall, New Japan Pro Wrestling wrapped up the 2021 New Beginning tour with back-to-back nights in Hiroshima. A downside of the event going in was how predictable the results of the main events seemed. Sho and Sanada were clearly doomed, for better or worse, and the selling point of both headling matches was just good wrestling. NJPW didn’t end up pulling a massive swerve and neither the IWGP Junior Heavyweight nor double championship changed hands, but The New Beginning in Hiroshima still took some unexpected turns, also for better or worse.

It’s up for debate whether Night 1 or Night 2 of The New Beginning in Hiroshima was the better show – and neither was amazing – but a definite upside of Night 1 was the enthusiasm of the crowd. I have to guess this was at least in part because for the Japanese audience, February 10 wasn’t a random Wednesday like it was for international fans, but the night before National Foundation Day, a holiday on which schools and a lot of workplaces are closed. Maybe there was another reason behind the festive atmosphere, but I think that’s probably part of why this crowd was super responsive to everything on the undercard, something that helped make it an easy watch, even viewing the show through a screen in another country.

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Suzuki vs. Uemura is the most anticipated match of 202?

The show’s opening match pits the children of New Japan against the forces of evil, with Young Lions Gabriel Kidd, Yuya Uemura, and Yota Tsuji inevitably losing to Minoru Suzuki, El Desperado, and Yoshinobu Kanemaru. This is a typical short, energetic dojo boys vs. not-dojo-boys match that successfully warms the viewer up for the rest of the show, and it ends with Suzuki, in a murderous fugue state, tapping out Uemura with a Boston Crab. Suzuki and Uemura continue to work really well together and their feud slow burned itself to its most sadomasochistic place yet on the go-home show (see the screencap above.) I don’t want to exaggerate, but if NJPW doesn’t give them a singles match this year I might die.

Bushi def. Master Wato

The Master Wato vs. Bushi angle worked well as a midcard-tier feud, and their singles match works really well on the February 10 midcard. This match would feel lackluster if it was for a title, but as a grudge match over who can beat who and who looks better in blue (RIP to Wato’s idol hair; that’s probably why he lost!) in front of a hot crowd, it’s a lot of fun. Wato and Bushi both get their stuff in and look pretty good together, and Bushi ultimately wins with a Terrible to an MX.

I was surprised by this result since it seemed like this would be the de facto number one contender’s match for Hiromu’s next challenger, but Bushi – hours before the tag-to-singles title challenge at the end of the night – says that “beating Kawato isn’t enough to earn that shot” and he wants to win BOSJ first. I have to process this as “Aww, Bushi doesn’t want to fight Hiromu again” in order for it to feel in-character at all.

Chaos (Kazuchika Okada, Tomohiro Ishii, Hirooki Goto, Yoshi-Hashi, and Toru Yano) def. Bullet Club (Evil, Jay White, Yujiro Takahashi, Taiji Ishimori, and El Phantasmo)

There’s just enough energy and tag teamwork in this Chaos vs. Bullet Club eight-man tag to make it a fun and breezy watch. The dynamic of White vs. the Chaos dads to be entertaining, with big eff around and find out energy on display. In contrast, it’s clearer than ever that the Okada vs. Evil feud has been lapped by the others in this Chaos vs. BC group. More on this when we get to Night 2, but for now I’ll say that the more bells and whistles are added to Evil vs. Okada to try and ramp up the intensity, the more it exposes the total lack of heat these two wrestlers have right now.

Tetsuya Naito and Sanada def. Kota Ibushi and Tomoaki Honma

The last non-title match of the night is the last preview for the Ibushi vs. Sanada, as well as a continuation of the Naito vs. Honma mini-feud that’s been going on throughout this tour. If you had to guess which of these pairs had a title match coming up just based on the levels of aggression between them, you’d think it was Naito and Honma.

Since this is the last leg of the Ibushi vs. Sanada feud before their title match, let’s talk about how there barely was one. Their third singles match – their first outside of a tournament – was proposed with exceptional politeness by Sanada at Wrestle Kingdom 15. The storyline was that these two are sportsmanlike wrestlers of similar if not equal caliber and they would have a good, clean title match together. However, this angle worked better on paper than it did in practice, and it didn’t work all that well on paper.

Sanada and Ibushi had arguably never had a good match together, or at least not one that was so good it could build excitement for a rematch with no help from a more developed story, and with what seemed like a predictable result. This view was supported by their work together in tag matches throughout the New Beginning tour, on which they were consistently outshined by the other feuds in the L.I.J. vs. Hontai angle – Tanahashi and Takagi, Sho and Hiromu, Bushi and Wato, and often, like on February 10, even Naito and Honma, a feud that contains 2021 Honma. Ibushi and Sanada were getting ready to battle for NJPW’s top title(s), but they had far from the top feud on the tour. To create a good and memorable championship match, they would have to heat things up far beyond the very few sparks generated in the build to this match. Without skipping too far ahead, I’d say they did, to a certain extent.

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Takashi Iizuka Memorial IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship match for custody of the Iron Fingers from Hell: The Guerrillas of Destiny (Tama Tonga and Tanga Loa) (c) def. Dangerous Tekkers (Taichi and Zack Sabre Jr.) by disqualification

In contrast to the water-treading of Ibushi vs. Sanada had been doing since Wrestle Kingdom, the tag title feud between G.o.D. and Dangerous Tekkers paddled so far down a raging river that its climactic match might be confusing if you didn’t tune into the Road Tos. This angle did more with the go-home show than any other in the company, introducing the gag of Tama’s mystery bags and revealing backstage that Taichi was now cursed due to the loss of the Iron Fingers and his “dreams predict the end of days” if it wasn’t returned.

I think the parts of the match that keep this wackiness going are done really well – Tama bringing even more bags to the ring, all containing more gag props; Kanemaru’s involvement from commentary; the way Taichi plays his possession by the Fingers and/or spirit of Iizuka; even the culmination of the Jado vs. Douki stick vs. stick war. The thing that throws this match off is that it also includes like twenty minutes of regular tag wrestling between its comedic opening and climax, racking up a run time of almost half an hour for a match that ends in a DQ.

Taichi and ZSJ failing to regain the tag titles because Taichi is so consumed by the search for the Iron Fingers is not a bad story, but having it play out like this is like if Borat was the length of Lord of the Rings, or some equivalent reference that doesn’t make it sound like I just woke up from a fourteen-year coma. The Dominion 2012 junior tag title match in which Kishin Liger goes crazy on Taichi is only like eleven minutes long, and I get that that was before the great NJPW title match length inflation of the late 2010s, but keeping things tighter like in that match could have helped Guerrillas vs. Tekkers a lot. The finish that basically threw out everything that happened in the middle anyway, and it’s not like we don’t know these teams can wrestle normally.

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship match: Hiromu Takahashi (c) def. Sho

Hiromu Takahashi vs. Sho, Mr. Tanaka’s first challenge for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, isn’t going to go down in any hall of great junior heavyweight matches, but it’s an entertaining main event that makes both participants look good. Sho and Hiromu go hard from minute one, bringing the type of energy that makes the elbow-exchange-to-brawling-outside opening that’s very common in NJPW match layouts feel fresh. Their bout is far from a spotfest, but its several standout big spots look cool and keep the long match (about 35 minutes) from getting monotonous. Overall, it’s the match you’d expect these two to have spiced up with a few surprises.

Hiromu’s victory with Time Bomb 2 is quickly followed up with the meta reason Bushi didn’t want to challenge for the Junior title. ELP gets in the ring as soon as Sho is out and starts loading up the superkick, making it look like NJPW was going to run back one of the worst matches of WK 15 under two months later. But Bushi quickly gets involved and Ishimori runs in after that, so we’re getting a Los Dos Peligrosos vs. Bullet Club tag title challenge, and then they’re running back said WK 15 match. The way this angle is set up at least switches things up in the junior division and gives Hiromu much more of a reason to accept the challenge of a guy he just beat in the Tokyo Dome.

Suzukigun defeats a baby, then different Suzukigun is defeated by a different baby

The challenge that ended The New Beginning in Hiroshima Night 1 results in card changes for the beginning of Night 2, with the Bullet Club and Hontai teams from the second and third matches swapped in order to pit the now-feuding BC and L.I.J. juniors against each other. This means the night’s first two matches feature babyface trios vs. Suzukigun teams in their usual heel alignment. Taichi, ZSJ, and Douki defeat Tsuji, Uemura, and Kidd when Sabre taps out Gabe, and then Wato returns to his winning ways with an awkward (but not terrible) pin over his storied rival Kanemaru. Both of these matches are solid but not really notable, except for a standoff between Sho and Despy that could maybe, fingers crossed, give us another non-title junior heavyweight feud before BOSJ.

Tetsuya Naito, Hiromu Takahashi, and Bushi def. Yujiro Takahashi, El Phantasmo, and Taiji Ishimori

The trios match promoting that new Bullet Club vs. Los Ingobernables juniors feud is a mixed bag, featuring both the annoying stuff about this BC group and the quality teamwork that tends to make L.I.J. trios matches pop. Afterward, ELP and Ishimori officially accept Hiromu’s terms of a tag title shot in exchange for a singles title shot, setting us on the road to Hiromu vs. ELP II at Castle Attack Night 2 and a Los Dos Peligrosos title challenge on the last Road to Castle Attack show. Yes, I still love the name Castle Attack.

Kazuchika Okada and Toru Yano vs. Evil and Dick Togo ends by double countout, then an impromptu Okada vs. Evil special singles match ends by DQ

Not just Okada vs. Evil, but all the Chaos vs. Bullet Club feuds this tour have incorporated a lot of shenanigans to build intensity, and have gone beyond the usual low blows and exposed corners to include stuff that arguably didn’t make sense. The elimination match in which Okada eliminated himself to go after Evil ended with BC ragdolling a kayfabe knocked out Yoshi-Hashi for like two minutes until Goto threw in the towel. Then we got Goto getting a “formal caution” for attacking Jay from commentary because it broke COVID guidelines, followed by Yoshi-Hashi getting a match thrown out by actually getting in the ring from commentary but not getting cautioned. The trios feud redeems itself in the Night 2 semi-main event, but one match earlier, Okada vs. Evil does the opposite.

On paper, what’s been going on with Okada and Evil sounds like it could be building hype. After Evil refused Okada’s singles match challenge many times, Okada started calling him out to fight right after tag matches. On February 11, after a match that ended in about a minute by double countout, Evil actually accepts Okada’s challenge, and for some reason, maybe because they had just essentially lost a whole match’s worth of show content, NJPW also accepts and rings the bell for an official Okada vs. Evil bout. This ends in like five minutes when Dick Togo gets involved and prompts a disqualification, not because Evil was losing, but because that wasn’t the real acceptance of Okada’s challenge. Evil and Togo are cool with a singles match now, but say it needs to be a big deal (like being the main event of Castle Attack Night 1.)

The biggest problem with this angle in practice is that there’s still almost no heat or intensity behind it. Okada, who rarely attacks people with chairs, attacks Evil with a chair and it’s instantly forgettable. On paper, this is some of Okada’s most aggressive behavior of his career, but the energy just doesn’t support it. Evil isn’t making up the difference either. I remember these guys being a lot more fun together back which Evil was in L.I.J. and Okada was more of a brat, but nothing they’re doing is clicking right now. So far it’s just screwier booking than usual that has achieved very little.

NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship match: Tomohiro Ishii, Hirooki Goto, and Yoshi-Hashi (c) def. Jay White, Tama Tonga, and Tanga Loa

While another part of the Bullet Club vs. Chaos battle flounders, the Ishii, Goto, and Yoshi-Hashi vs. Jay and G.o.D. NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship bout is the angle’s best match so far. There was enough weird stuff in the build that I almost didn’t trust it going in, but this is just a very good trios match with a little interference that doesn’t overshadow anything.

We get some good-looking teamwork from both groups – more from the champions, but enough from the challengers that it looks like they’re committed to winning this match and reigning as a three-man team, something that helps add drama to a match for titles that have struggled to retain value and are often challenged for by thrown-together teams. Also adding drama: the smart decision to frame the match around local underdog Yoshi-Hashi, who starts the match being bullied and fighting from underneath, and ends it with a surprise rollup win. It’s a well-wrestled match with a story that’s easy to get behind, and it feels like a logical extension of the Road to New Beginning build, but executed in a much cleaner way.

The post-match stuff keeps the positive momentum going, with Yoshi-Hashi challenging G.o.D. for the tag titles on behalf of himself and Goto, and Bullet Club jumping the champions in a strong backstage segment. This momentum might not continue much longer – the Castle Attack Night 1 card with the G.o.D. singles matches is a weird choice and Chase Owens is going to be involved pretty soon – but wherever this feud ends up going, this NEVER 6-Man Championship match will still stand out as probably the best title match of The New Beginning in Hiroshima.

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

Ibushi and Sanada did not build a lot of hype for their double title match, leaning everything on their ability to deliver in the ring. Their February 11 main event isn’t flawless, but it’s probably the best singles matches they’ve had so far. The standoff after the initial mat work made me a little worried they might go too over the top with the “we are gentlemanly wrestling equals” thing, but this match doesn’t end up feeling too performative. There’s a part after they build from mat wrestling to more dramatic moves when they do similar Frankensteiners right after each other and they don’t play it like a Pointing Spiderman Meme moment even though that was pretty much the point, and I appreciate that so much at this moment in wrestling history.

Along with some other standout good spots (the lawn darts!) there are the standout bad. First, the Skull End still looks terrible and like people should be able to just sit up out of it. This is part of why Sanada is not actually an Ibushi-tier wrestler at this point in his career! The other, weirder match lowlight is Sanada’s TKO of Ibushi from the apron to the floor that lands so bizarrely I needed the instant replay to even understand what had just happened. Seeing the moment more clearly only made it look more awkward, so maybe they shouldn’t have revisited it.

Despite these moments, the match recovers to finish strong. The champ retains after a unique block of the O’Conner Roll, a reverse Kamigoye, a very close nearfall from Sanada that recalls the best parts of their G1 final (the very close nearfalls), and ultimately a fast jumping knee to a pad-down Kamigoye. There’s stuff worth criticizing in this match, but it’s entertaining overall and has a lot more positives than negatives.

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After bows between champion and challenger, Naito comes out to cash in his many wins from this tour and challenge Ibushi – but not for the double championship, which he knows he wasn’t earned a shot at, but for only the Intercontinental title. The gut-level reaction to this is to wonder why, Naito’s history with this belt aside, would he do this? Why would anyone do this? An issue with the whole concept of the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Double Championship was always that nobody would ever want just the IC.

However, Naito’s history with the IC title can’t actually be put aside, and neither can his own history as a double champion. He explains that even though he’s not double champ anymore, he still cares about the titles not being unified. The vibe I got from the way Naito puts it backstage is that if he couldn’t make separate title defenses happen as champ, he’ll make it happen as a challenger, and he will not back down on this point about how the double title should work and he will never log off.

Naito also clearly has an emotional attachment to the white belt, and I think his relationship with it has officially entered a new phase. First, it was his ball and chain, the title he could win while his IWGP Heavyweight dreams eluded him, then it became the stepping stone to his dreams, and now that he’s achieved his ultimate Destino I don’t think there’s any angst between him and this belt anymore. Ibushi says backstage that he thinks Naito challenged for the IC “to be funny” because nobody else has wanted just that title before, and while that’s true of this double title saga, there is one other time someone chose the Intercontinental over the Heavyweight belt. Shinsuke Nakamura (your own god, Ibushi!) used his 2014 New Japan Cup win to challenge for the IC title rather than the Heavyweight, a significant moment in his late-NJPW-career identity as the defining Intercontinental Champion.

Nakamura always had a more positive relationship with that belt, while Naito, the defining Intercontinental champ after his departure, has had a fraught one. But Naito choosing the IC title here seems to truly closes the door on that era as we enter Naito’s post-double champion period. Maybe Naito can now be more content with secondary champion status until he can get another shot at the big one and we’ll see a different type of IC title reign from him this time around. (Honestly, it still looks like kind of a chump move not to try for the Heavyweight, though.)