NJPW The New Beginning in Nagoya Review: Almost Is NEVER Enough

On January 30, New Japan Pro Wrestling held its biggest non-Wrestle Kingdom show of 2021 so far. The New Beginning in Nagoya clocked in at about two and a half hours and only included five matches, but its three singles matches all went big and had consequences for NJPW going forward. Were any of them worth watching? Keep reading this review to find out! (Spoiler to make that last sentence less annoying: I thought two of them were!)

Forbidden doors and testing windows

Before we get to the events in Aichi, I want to acknowledge that some big New Japan events happened this week outside of the New Beginning tour. In by far the most dramatic thing ever to happen on NJPW Strong, Jon Moxley showed up to confront Kenta, setting up, finally, a match for the U.S. title on February 26. Between this and Ibushi referencing the Golden Lovers for the first time since Kenny left New Japan, it’s been a big few days for Forbidden Door eyes emoji stuff. I don’t plan on really digging into this in this column until it leads to stuff actually happening on NJPW programming (and in the case of Mox vs. Kenta, until they have that match.) For now, most of it is just blurrily, maybe on the horizon, a horizon that’s it’s even less clear how far away than it would be otherwise due to the state of the world.

And speaking of the state of the world, I want to also acknowledge that Japan’s state of emergency is still going on, and could soon be extended. While Japan’s coronavirus situation isn’t as dire as that of, say, the United States, and cases have been declining since the emergency measures began, the country is far from COVID-free, and it’s definitely risky for NJPW and other wrestling companies to be having shows right now. NJPW running seventeen events in the month of February, in different venues and cities around the country, looks a lot riskier than it would have been back in the summer or fall.

With that all being said, let’s get to the wrestling show NJPW had this weekend.

The hometown boy in the opener and the e-boy summit backstage

The New Beginning in Nagoya begins with two okay tag matches, one of which has a backstage segment that I became obsessed with immediately. The opener is Okada and Yano vs. Evil and Yujiro, and its highlights are Okada’s awkward seal clapping and the shenanigans that get Yano the win. The Okada-Evil feud continues to take a long time to heat up while promising that Okada will be back in the title picture at some point soon-ish.

The night’s second match – Ibushi, Honma, Sho, and Wato vs. Sanada, Naito, Hiromu, and Bushi – has some more exciting action, especially between the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion and his challenger, but is overall about what you expect for an undercard bout on a big NJPW show. The part that makes the biggest impression is the post-match meeting of the minds that is Hiromu trying to have a conversation with Sho backstage, then Ibushi squatting between them and trying to make his four-person interview that also includes Sanada happen. The best part might be Hiromu referring to Ibushi as Sho’s big brother and Ibushi awkwardly patting Sho on the shoulder about it (or maybe because he wanted to anyway; the mind of our double champion is unfathomable.)

Before this show, I wasn’t really into both the IWGP Heavyweight (and Intercontinental) and Junior Heavyweight title angles involving the champion trying to have a friendly conversation with his rival. This is New Japan Pro Wrestling, not New Japan Pro Discussion Circle! But now that the full weirdness of this group that includes two of NJPW’s most galaxy-brained individuals and two of its least talkative, plus the contrasting vibes of Hiromu and Ibushi, has set in, I would like to see how this round table plays out out if they make it happen.

Loser must stop using the Mongolian Chop match: Great-O-Khan def. Hiroyoshi Tenzan

The night’s first singles match, and the first of its two climactic TenCozy vs. Empire battles, sees Tenzan lose one of his signature moves, and show off all his other ones in the fight to keep it.

Tenzan vs. Great-O-Khan is a really entertaining and well-put-together match that gives the veteran a rare late-career spotlight to kick ass and delivers another strong singles showing from GOK. The most fun element of this match is Tenzan bringing back all his big moves we rarely see nowadays, successfully using Calf Branding, the Tenzan Tombstone Driver he recently gave to Wato, the Anaconda Vice, and the Anaconda Buster, all called with infectious glee by the Japanese commentary team. It looks like he’s bringing back everything except the Tenzan Press moonsault, which he had to go get surgery very soon after the last time he used – but then he brings back the moonsault! It all rules, and it plays out in a way that makes you turn off the smarky part of your brain that knows Tenzan is doomed, and just root for him and go along for the ride.

Tenzan is still doomed though, and his “you’ve still got it” streak ends when O-Khan dodges the moonsault. This match mostly draws focus on Tenzan, but his younger opponent still gets look like a star at the end. He hits a disrespectful TTD for an exciting nearfall, which works up Tenzan enough to run right into the claw, then get pinned by the Eliminator. It’s not the most dominant match for The Dominator just ahead of a title challenge, but he ends it on a high note, and as a performer, he clearly does a good job.

No DQ match: Will Ospreay def. Satoshi Kojima

Ospreay vs. Kojima is a match that I would not have watched if I wasn’t writing this article. If I had not had to write this article and for some reason kept the New Beginning in Nagoya playing when Ospreay’s theme hit, I would have tapped out at the sight of him entering with a guitar in one hand and a trash can in the other. Having actually watched the match, the nice thing I can say about it is that the spot where Kojima lariat-ed Ospreay off the turnbuckle into the ladder that was set up outside the ring earlier in the match absolutely ruled. And in general, Kojima continues to crush it at this unexpected 2021 singles babyface run.

In contrast, Ospreay continues to very much not crush it at being an intimidating bad guy! Everything I talked about re: this persona pivot attempt in the previous article continues to hold true, and this time around, it’s proved true in much funnier ways. Ospreay bonking Kojima in the head with a baking tray and yelling “Who’s a tough guy in Japan now, huh? It’s me!” might not be as embarassing as the BOSJ final katana, but it’s up there. All of Ospreay’s acting here is hilarious and his overall vibe here sums up 1) why it was always valid to make fun of a ton of BritWres even before the scene was revealed to be overrun with abusers and enablers, and 2) why you can’t “prove” this guy is The Best with fake wrestling math. It’s just a tiny sliver of why if you are for some reason inclined to call Ospreay the current-generation Eddie Guerrero, people will yell at you online for like 48 hours. Basically, if you can’t stomach this wrestler and you paid for the New Beginning in Nagoya anyway, this match might be worth watching anyway for comedy reasons.

Ospreay took a bunch of wild bumps in this match, but this match did not display any new depths or range to him to anyone familiar with his career outside of New Japan. However, both wrestlers act backstage as if it did. Kojima puts Ospreay over hard as an intimidating opponent, even saying “I appreciate that I would face a man like you and live to talk about it” and similar things that can only be explained by the fact that he was kayfabe hit very hard in the back of the head a few minutes earlier. Kojima, you wrestled guys like Choshu, Kawada, and Kensuke Sasaki, and you got your lariat from Stan Hansen – what are you talking about?

Ospreay, meanwhile, asks if this ends “the debate that I’m a one-trick pony” as if he’s still in the “I’m a dive guy” “I’m not a dive guy” t-shirt stage of his career. We’re way past that kind of fake wrestling “controversy” with him now, and he knows it, everyone who speaks English in New Japan (at the very least) knows it, and whoever runs NJPW’s social media sure seems to know it. The wildest part of this promo, though, is the line “Vince had a Rattlesnake, Ted had a Nature Boy, and Heyman had the Franchise. New Japan Pro Wrestling, you have the Commonwealth Kingpin.” Aside from every other point about Ospreay and this heel turn and the Empire as a faction, “the Commonwealth Kingpin” is not even close to on par with those other nicknames!

NEVER Openweight Championship match: Hiroshi Tanahashi def. Shingo Takagi (c)

By the time the New Beginning in Nagoya main event ends, it’s awesome. The big knock against this match, though, is that it takes like fifteen minutes to warm up first. That’s not atypical of NJPW main events and/or big Tanahashi matches, but it still feels unnatural after the instant aggression these two have had in tag matches. It can kind of be explained in kayfabe by Tanahashi controlling the early part of this match, but that doesn’t erase that feeling that Takagi is just working slower to match his opponent’s style.

However, the energy of the match’s last fifteen minutes is the complete opposite! After Takagi breaks out his Takagi-style Twist and Shout, we finally reach the Shingo Does Cool Shit part of the match and things speed up. The knee attacks both wrestlers had been doing escalates to a war of attrition – the Dragon Screws that Shingo hits in the corner after he’s gotten Screwed like twelve times, followed by some disrespectful air guitar on the Ace’s leg, is very fun revenge. Shingo nearly passing out to the Texas Cloverleaf is probably too over-the-top even for his selling style, but every other big move moment is increasingly exciting – the amazing Made In Japan that spikes Tanahashi right on his head, a suplex nearfall by the Ace that the crowd is so into it made me really wish chanting was legal, Shingo catching a High Fly Flow and transitioning it to a DVD, the unexpected Dragon Sleeper and reappearance of the Takagi-style GTR, and that even more surprising late-in-the-game kickout at one are all pop-inducing.

I appreciate that Tanahashi’s most unexpected and exciting moments of the match (aside from the finish) also connect to the angle they built for this match, without feeling like hit-you-over-the-head capital-S Storytelling. On the Road to the New Beginning, while Tana was saying that gaining the NEVER title was just the first step in a comeback for him and Shingo was getting mad about it, the Ace was also getting more and more enamored with his opponent, leading to that ~confession~ on the go-home show. After Tanahashi had shamelessly sung Takagi’s praises, saying he was awesome and he was bringing the fire out of him, the streak of offense that ends with him winning the NEVER title starts with him taking some tips from Takagi’s playbook – that headbutt and that setup for a Slingblade that made it looks like he might bust out a Last of the Dragon. Ultimately, the match makes both wrestlers look really good not just because they both do some great wrestling in it, but because Tana afterward again goes out of his way again to put over the man he just defeated, saying “Takagi-senshu helped remind me what being a pro wrestler is about.”

So January 30, keeps the 2021 Tanahashi comeback run that started at Wrestle Kingdom 15 going, after a 2020 in which he did very little (besides catalyzing Ibushi on his journey to godhood and having some of the best matches of the year in the G1 – very little for the Ace would still be a lot for other people) and ends the NEVER Openweight Championship run that can be sincerely said to have elevated the title. For that reason, it kind of fits that this match is much more in the Big Tanahashi Match style than it is in the NEVER match style. Takagi is the guy who could win the NEVER title and say, “me and this belt represent the same wrestling style and values, and with this belt, I’ll show you why those are the best” and while doing that, quickly make the belt one of the most exciting parts of NJPW cards. Tanahashi, like he’s said in promos, isn’t really looking down on the NEVER title, but it’s serving him a lot more than he’s serving it.

This dynamic is a strong example of the kind of babyface vs. babyface angles that NJPW does that Harold Meij, among others, has described as being about philosophy. Not “about philosophy” as in you need to take a course to understand it, but a battle of personal philosophies, the kind everyone develops to a certain extent about why they’re doing what they’re doing the way they’re doing it, or if they’re unable to do it that way, why they want to. In the escapist world of pro wrestling, people are able to openly, directly express what they want and why and then fight about it and then walk away from that fight, win or lose, and recover to fight another day, and when done well, it feels really good to see. Ideally, in these fights you don’t have fifteen pretty boring minutes before they really pop off, but if they still get there, they get there!

After this face vs. face battle, Tanahashi gets jumped by one of NJPW’s rising villains, Great-O-Khan, which I did not expect! I was thinking that Nagoya’s other special singles match would set up the next NEVER challenger since Ospreay vs. either Tanahashi or Takagi would be a much more hyped matchup, and both of those pairings have enough history to give their next match an easy dramatic hook as well. However, Ospreay already had a NEVER run as part of his long transition to heavyweight, and with how his heel turn has played out so far, it’s not surprising to see him left free to be a favorite to win the New Japan Cup or something like that. I’m still a little surprised to see them run O-Khan vs. Tana back so quickly though. Now the question is whether they’ll cut off Tanahashi’s 2021 comeback streak at two wins and make him a zero defense NEVER champion, or have GOK go 0-2 against the Ace post-excursion.