Tuesday, June 13, 2017

New Japan Pro Wrestling: Hot Fire Followed by Scorched Earth

Best of the Super Juniors once more
Photo Credit: Scott Finkelstein
On June 3rd, New Japan Pro Wrestling wrapped up their Best of the Super Juniors tournament, in which 16 light heavyweight competitors face off in a round-robin format over 14 nights. I don't mind telling you that I watched all 57 matches of the tournament, partially because I made it a goal to do this and I would have had an OCD-ish freakout had I not seen everything. It wasn't too hard, really. I watched matches on my phone while my daughter napped next to me, I watched on a laptop while my students followed along with an audiobook of The Outsiders...when one needs to find a way, a way will be found.

Highlights of the tournament included:
  • Marty Scurll getting Japanese people to do the "WOOP WOOP" thing in every town
  • Taichi being literally the most irritating wrestler on the planet
  • ACH having a very respectable first tournament, and also acting like an extra in a Godzilla movie
  • Will Ospreay and Ricochet having an even better match than last year's kerfuffle-inducing affair (seriously, go check it out if you haven't yet)
  • Ryuskue Taguchi continuing to pretend as if he is the captain of a soccer team
  • Jushin Thunder Liger losing the first six matches of the final BOSJ of his career, and then getting his one win on the final night of the tournament (knocking that idiot Taichi out of contention in the process)
The winner of the A Block was Will Ospreay and the winner of the B Block was KUSHIDA, so the final match of the tournament was set, and goooooodness gracious it was a doozy. Ospreay continued to show that he is more than eye-popping flips by getting nasty with his opponent, and also by selling pain better than he ever has. KUSHIDA was determined to prove himself after his three-minute loss to Hiromu Takahashi last April, and with the winner of the BOSJ getting a title shot at the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion (Mr. Takahashi himself), victory was mandatory. And a victory for KUSHIDA is how it ended, with Ospreay in tears, still unable to defeat The Time Splitter after his third career attempt.

It says something about the insanely high bar which NJPW has set for itself that this match between Ospreay and KUSHIDA was probably a five-star performance, and yet I wasn't shocked by this. Incredible classics are almost expected at this point. The first half of 2017 has seen several NJPW matches that made me feel as if my heart was going to stop during them. Dave Meltzer isn't biased; it's true that this is the best shit in the world right now.


And then this last Sunday, the whole wrestling world (or at least nerds on the internet) were fixated on Osaka-Jo Hall as Kazuchika Okada and Kenny Omega had their rematch from WrestleKingdom 11, which got six stars from Meltzer and further polarized wrestling fandom in a way that probably wasn't beneficial, but screw it, we got one of the best matches ever out of it.

So did Okada and Omega live up to their own hype? Did they match or exceed what they did in January?

Yes and yes. It was everything it needed to be.

Possibly as a way to thumb their noses at the old timers who think guys these days should do everything the way Ric Flair did it, Okada and Omega put on a 60-minute Broadway. An hour-long draw in 2017, dammit. That takes guts. Most fans barely have the attention span for a 30-minute match, let alone a full hour. But when you have two guys at the absolute top of their game, committed to telling an intricately woven story over that hour, it goes by like nothing.

They had callbacks to spots and moments from their WrestleKingdom match, in ways that made perfect sense. They physically upped the pace despite going 15 minutes longer. And the dramatic moments were even more heightened here. Toward the end, Okada was about to reel Omega in for the Rainmaker when Omega, more exhausted than he thought physically possible, slowly and plainly collapsed to his knees, causing Okada to miss with his clothesline. It's so wonderful to hear 11,000 people in an arena simultaneously realize that they've just seen something that none of them have ever seen.

And yet that is what New Japan Pro Wrestling seems to provide over and over again: a slight twist on a proven formula, just enough to remind you that you are using your free time on watching something truly special. Bless Okada and Omega, bless everyone at NJPW, and bless myself for deciding to go to Long Beach in July for the G1 Special shows.