Monday, July 3, 2017

The Strongest Style: NJPW G1 USA Special Night One Review

Sabre, shown here at EVOLVE, was a big part of the show Saturday
Photo Credit: Scott Finkelstein
In the TH Style you all know and love...

  • In the opening match, Roppongi Vice, the Briscoe Brothers, and Will Ospreay defeated the Bullet Club team of the Young Bucks, Yujiro Takahashi, Bad Luck Fale, and Marty Scurll when Rocky Romero pinned Matt Jackson with an O'Connor Roll.
  • Los Ingobernables de Japon, featuring EVIL, SANADA, BUSHI, and Hiromu Takahashi, defeated Jushin "Thunder" Liger, Volador, Jr., Dragon Lee, and Titan when Takahashi pinned Titan after some illegal chair tactics and a Time Bomb.
  • In the first NJPW United States Championship Tournament match, Jay Lethal defeated Hangman Page with the Lethal Injection.
  • Zack Sabre, Jr. advanced in the United States Championship tournament by defeating Juice Robinson via submission with the most painful looking variant on the octopus stretch ever.
  • KUSHIDA, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Jay White, and David Finlay, Jr. defeated Yoshitatsu, Billy Gunn, and the Tempura Boyz with White scoring the pin on Yoshitatsu after a Flatliner.
  • War Machine regained the IWGP World Tag Team Championships by defeating the Guerrillas of Destiny in a no-disqualification match, hitting the Fallout on Tama Tonga through a table.
  • Tomohiro Ishii upset Tetsuya Naito in the third quarterfinal match in the United States Championship Tournament, pinning him after a brainbuster.
  • The last first round match of the United States Championship Tournament saw Kenny Omega best Michael Elgin with the One Winged Angel.
  • In the main event, Kazuchika Okada retained the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship over Cody with a Rainmaker in a match that saw Omega attempt to get Brandi to throw in the towel on her husband's behalf.

General Observations:
  • I actually spent most of the day preceding the live show watching some of the AXS Strong Style marathon, depicting some of the best of New Japan from the year so far. Highlights included Kenny Omega and Tomohiro Ishii going absolutely buck wild in their rematch from the New Japan Cup at Wrestling Dontaku. Lowlights included, well, having to watch Katsuyori Shibata's final match ever knowing what medical trauma he was inflicting on himself against Kazuchika Okada. It wasn't a comprehensive look (especially since I missed most of Okada/Omega II: A QUARTER PAST SIX because I was cooking dinner), but it certainly provided a hell of an appetizer.
  • Jim Ross, calling the show with Josh Barnett, noted that Tetsuya Naito would throw the United States Championship in the ocean if he won it, which made me even more excited for the prospect of him possibly winning.
  • In putting over Marty Scurll and Will Ospreay, Ross called the United Kingdom a "red hot region of the country," referring to the United States. Someone let him know that the UK and US haven't been part of the same nation in 241 years.
  • Any fears I might've had about Scurll joining the Bullet Club were allayed when he started throwing "TOO SWEET" eye pokes.
  • I know it's usually Jay Briscoe who's bald and Mark who has the hair, but man, if you're calling a show, you might want to confirm that the person is who you think he is. Ross and Barnett were both at fault here, although the former was a lot more apt to make mistakes than the latter.
  • Over 15 years in the business and Mark Briscoe is still both insane and spry enough to pull off an off-the-apron blockbuster like he's a wide-eyed rookie. I still wanna see him vs. Ospreay one-on-one.
  • I love Zack Sabre, Jr. and think he's the current GOAT among the technical Brits, but holy shit, Scurll cranking on Jay Briscoe's fingers both horrified and excited me to equal, stratospheric levels.
  • Ross dropped a "Bucks of Youth" reference, which is evidence enough that at least one person in the WWE locker room right now probably was watching this thing.
  • Bad Luck Fale going from no-selling shoulder blocks to tossing Barretta out of the ring with the Bad Luck Fall made me rethink my "Fale is bad, actually" stance.
  • Matt Jackson putting out an imaginary cigarette on Rocky Romero's back was peak scumbag, and it's entirely what the Bullet Club's aura should be, always.
  • I didn't exactly know why Hiromu Takahashi came out with Daryl the Stuffed Cat, but I'm still but an apprentice at New Japan fandom. Jim Ross has been fucking calling the product on AXS TV ever since Mauro Ranallo took the WWE gig. He shouldn't be wondering aloud and then saying "Perhaps I should [know about the cat.]" Buddy, you're damn right you should know about it.
  • Volador, Jr. and BUSHI opening the match with some of the slickest fucking lucha I've ever seen was very much a wake-up call that I should've been watching CMLL all along. It is free, you know.
  • I absolutely loved SANADA offering his hand to Jushin Liger only not for him to murk him but for EVIL to do it from behind. Honestly, I think I'm starting to love scumbag wrestling characters a bit too much.
  • Even though Takahashi and Dragon Lee were only in the ring with each other for like a minute tops, it was perhaps the best pure minute of wrestling on the show. Everyone, myself included, needs to do a deep dive on their feud to catch up.
  • I would've been far happier if Gedo had halved the time on the next eight-man tag to give this one a bit more. It was very good, but it felt truncated, especially the Takahashi/Lee portions.
  • People had jokes about the actual United States Championship belt on Twitter, but when Naoki Sugabayashi came out with it, goddamn, it really did look like it was sponsored by McDonald's.
  • I didn't think anything of it, but once Friend of the Blog IAN noted it on Twitter, yeah, the optics of a White dude with a hangman gimmick coming to the ring with a noose to face off against a Black wrestler were, in a couple of words, uh, not good?
  • I rag on Jay Lethal a lot, but man, in the age of shitty dives on the main level, pulling off an actual tope suicida (not a flippy dive, which almost always look good as long as the dude/gal catches him/her) that looked good was god-level.
  • Ross brought up Lethal's Ric Flair impersonation like it was news and not something anyone who watched TNA in 2010 raved over (and to be fair, TNA still had a million viewers then).
  • Honestly, Hangman Page/Lethal wasn't good, but Page at least had one wow moment with that shooting star shoulder block off the apron.
  • Zack Sabre, Jr. coming out to the ring meant the announcers started shouting out World of Sport legends which wouldn't have been a problem if Jim Breaks wasn't just arrested for murdering his wife. I don't know if Ross didn't know or didn't care, but either way, it wasn't a good night for optics.
  • Barnett, in describing Sabre's ground game, said "[Zack] doesn't care if he's on top or if Juice [Robinson] is on top." I've never heard it described so sexily, and the style is colloquially called #grapplefuck sometimes.
  • Even the best "serious" wrestling can always be better with a bit of comedy, which is why Sabre working over Robinson's trademark braids owned so hard.
  • In this complex world of pro wrestling, bridges and balance might seem underappreciated, but goddamn, Sabre bridging on his neck to apply torque on the triangle choke was perhaps the most impressive aspect of that match.
  • Barnett explaining that the name "Tempura Boyz" wasn't racist shouldn't have been necessary, but wrestling still has an embarrassingly far way to go in terms of racial and ethnic sensitivity.
  • KUSHIDA throwing a "SUCK IT" at William "Mr. Ass" Gunn was a tremendous start to the match, but I'm not sure Gunn following it up by putting KUSHIDA in the corner and telling him to "suck his dick" was  the payoff I'd have wanted. At least it wasn't a Chikara ring, I guess.
  • The most over heel of the night had to have been Yoshitatsu, but only because he was so fucking bad. Gunn, Cody, and he represented the worst of ex-WWE employee absorption as much as Barretta and Robinson represented the best of it and then some.
  • Intermission time, and honestly, I'm shocked but not really shocked that certain personalities on Twitter have made the actual tangible concept of intermission a talking point. Besides the fact that NJPW presents itself as more a sport and all sports have breaks in action, companies that have intermission feel like they place more value on the worker. It's a designated time to get a snack, take a leak, buy some merch, while WWE among others puts wrestlers out to dry in obvious "piss break" matches. To me, it's New Japan officials saying "You might not think all our matches are good, but we value all our employees enough that we'll give you designated time to pee when they're not performing." Or I could be projecting. I don't know. What I'm trying to say is, intermissions are good at best and not something to care strongly about at worst.
  • Ray Rowe wanted War Machine's match against the Guerrillas of Destiny to be no-disqualification, and Tama Tonga replied with a microphone shot to the head. Honestly, that's how anyone should have reacted.
  • Rowe was mid-superman punch, and the cameras cut to the outside of the ring. Kevin Dunn's wrestling cinematography isn't even that bad.
  • I will never not pop for someone's plancha getting countered by getting corralled in a trashcan and then beaten, Tanga Roa doing that to Hanson was fucking sweet.
  • Rowe caught Tonga on a Whisper in the Wind attempt and then slammed him on Roa, a simple counter but something no one that I've seen at least thought to do against the Hardy Boys. Expect to see it happen again at WWE Hurdy Gurdy Man Great Balls of Fire this Sunday.
  • I don't care how athletic everyone in wrestling is getting nowadays, a man like Hanson doing a cartwheel dodge will never not be jaw-dropping.
  • Ross' boner for comparing EVERYONE in the company to an old mainstream wrestling gimmick was annoying on its own, but for fuck's sake, Los Ingobernables de Japon is not just like DX.
  • More wrestling companies, not just WWE, could use antagonists like Tetsuya Naito who are just colossal dickheads, slapping bald guys in the head or rope-a-doping macho chop fests.
  • Barnett on Tomohiro Ishii. "He takes hateful dumps in the morning." I'd be aghast if it wasn't a pitch-perfect description of how he looks and wrestles.
  • Ishii's powerslam early in the match was almost a head drop. I don't know if that's intentional or if it was a slip-up, but it looked badass.
  • Man, I don't mean to spend a whole review harping on Ross and his sub-Matt Striker commentary, but fuck, don't kayfabe CTE, not in WWE, not in New Japan, not anywhere, especially as former workers are suing companies for hiding the dangers.
  • Naito spitting in Ishii's face and then Ishii going full golem and headbutting him into next week was the perfect encapsulation of what I feel the appeal of New Japan is to a lot of people.
  • Again, I'm not sure if it was planned or not, but Naito needing three tries to get off the tornado DDT played off excellently on screen, especially for how wily and stubborn Ishii was and always is.
  • Ross, on Ishii, "He's a goddamn appliance." Fair play to good ol' JR, that line was fantastic.
  • I don't generally like saying "____ does this better than [insert legend here]" but Ishii's lariat brutality in this match at least gave Stan Hansen's a run for its money.
  • The Bucks and Kenny Omega offered to "Too Sweet" referee Red Shoes Unno before the match, and he rebuked them with a "SUCK IT" of his own. Maybe this Bullet Club thing is still viable after all.
  • Outside of Yoshitatsu, the crowd just hated Michael Elgin the most, which surprised me because usually, it feels like American smart-ass/puro-fan/indie crowds like dudes who are good. But then again, my guess is going up against Kenny Goddamn Omega had a lot to do with it.
  • Omega spending the first third of the match on the hyper-defensive felt weird, even in the shadow of his match against Kazuchika Okada being a masterclass in him getting his ass-whipped, but it did set up the ending well.
  • Omega and Elgin worked a double-countout tease, and Elgin made it back in late, causing Unno to break his cadence a bit between 19 and 20. The crowd deflated hard for about a minute, chanting "THAT WAS 20!" The cult of Omega is strong, because Elgin had obtained a rep for improving since going to NJPW and was really good in that match.
  • Just watching Omega go over the ropes and play the apron led me to believe he'd kill it in the Royal Rumble. Not that I necessarily want him in a Royal Rumble match because WWE would have absolutely no idea what to do with him, but he'd certainly kill it there.
  • Again, any dive with flips or twists or whatever are generally easier to do well than a straight tope suicida, but Omega's tope con hilo mid-match looked exceptionally awesome.
  • Elgin must have been watching the Ishii/Naito match for the former's bomb-ass lariats and said to whomever backstage to hold his protein shaker, because man, he was dropping some heat on Omega.
  • Ross harping on faces playing to the crowd annoyed me, but not because it was a Ross talking point. Wrestling commentary is so sports-focused that it can sometimes brainwash people into thinking preening and posturing is a bad thing, when in fact it's an essential task for any wrestler, face or heel, in any given match. I wish more commentary booths would try to work in the crowd-display aspects better in to the raw kayfabe.
  • Omega's flurry of V-Trigger knees at the end was an amazing display, but the third one he hit looked especially *extremely Hugo Savinovich voice* BRUTAL! BRUTAL! BRUTAL!
  • I especially dug the inverted Styles Clash tease, for obvious reasons.
  • Cody entered the arena, cigar in mouth, American-as-fuck gear, and with an entourage of people in Point Break-style President masks because the "c" and "y" in "tacky" are taken right from his first name.
  • Yes, I realize me talking about Cody during this review is salty as fuck. I apologize for it.
  • I noticed that especially in the Shibata match AXS showed in the pre-show marathon that Okada still plays a lot of heelish tropes. They got him booed vs. Shibata, but man, the Long Beach crowd ate him faking the illegal hit in the ropes and just dismissively patting Cody on the chest at the beginning of the match. I guess Cody didn't have homefield advantage after all.
  • Okada reprised his over-the-barricade crossbody on Cody from the second Omega match, and it still looked amazing.
  • Cody was really trigger-happy on the spitting in this match, first hitting Unno and second getting Okada later on. Was this something he borrowed liberally from Naito, or is expectoration more common in Japan?
  • Cody kept selling his shoulder, and I didn't see anything in this match to trigger it. The announcers informed the audience that it was from his ROH World Championship match vs. Christopher Daniels, which is just cheap. I don't wanna have to keep up with ROH just to get my NJPW story beats.
  • Okada went so buck wild mid match pounding on Cody in the ropes and against the referee's instructions that I thought Gedo would be foolish enough to do a DQ finish on his first American show on this run.
  • Rainmaker kickouts, Okada and Cody breaking out each other's finishers, multiple teases and counters... did 1999 Paul Heyman lay this match out?
  • Omega came out and begged Cody's wife Brandi to throw in the towel like Cody tried to do during Okada/Omega II with the Bucks begging him not to stoke the discord. Honestly, I would've liked for Omega to just murk Cody and take his place but that's neither here nor there.
  • Of course, Cody had to tease a One Winged Angel because STORY.
  • I would respect Vince McMahon slightly if he got in the ring after Roman Reigns main event wins to put both Reigns and the company over like Gedo does after every big Okada win.

Match of the Night: Juice Robinson vs. Zack Sabre, Jr. - Three out of four of the US Title tournament matches could've been here easily, but I go for Robinson/ZSJ because it had a lot of what appeals to me personally. Basically, it contained a lot of actual grappling mixed in with emotion, subtle comic relief, and clearly focused storytelling that ended with the right amount of escalation. It's not surprising that Sabre was involved in the best match of the night, and those in the know shouldn't be surprised at the former CJ Parker being there either. For those who only knew him as the goofy NXT job guy who broke Kevin Owens' nose, they got their eyes opened.

I've always dug Sabre, but he's taken this turn, like he found another gear in his engine. His stuff during the Ethan Page feud found him focusing his World of Sport grappling into building heat with his opponent, but his current oeuvre in Suzuki-gun allowing him to go from sporty technician to torturemaster really brings out the best in him. At the peak of action, Sabre grinning sadistically as he pretzel-twisted Robinson's arms and wrists (but not his individual fingers, as Barnett noted, to stay just on the right side of the rules), all while Robinson helplessly gasped for air, was a treat on the same level as ice cream after dinner. By itself, it would've been tremendous, but Robinson was the perfect opponent because of how pure his reactions of terror and pain were.

I could cite so many different sequences as my favorite, like Sabre actually working over Robinson's hair or the triangle stretch sequence that ended with the short-arm scissor bomb, or Robinson's crescent kick that landed right on Sabre's temple or any of the grappling and counter threads. It was everything I wanted from pro wrestling, and it was the perfect representation of both Sabre's technically heavy style and NJPW itself in front of a new, expanded audience.

Overall Thoughts: The first installment of this run of New Japan Pro Wrestling in America wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination. However, outside of outlying events like High Noon or WrestleMania XXX, what shows truly are? I could spend time being annoyed at Yoshitatsu and Billy Gunn getting any time in a match or Jim Ross' drunk-on-absinthe commentary or even the boring schlock-fest that was Jay Lethal/Hangman Page. However, those parts paled in comparison to the highest highs on the show. This first Long Beach show was a perfect entree into New Japan Pro Wrestling for anyone, whether a newbie, a casual fan like myself, or even a hardcore NJPW lifer.

The first thing to note is the match quality. While I wouldn't use the term "all-killer, no-filler," the top four matches on the show compare more than favorably to any other show in the TWB era except maybe Extreme Rules '12. I went in depth on Robinson/Sabre above, but the opening ten-man tag, Naito/Ishii, and Elgin/Omega all came close. The opener had everything one should want out of a curtain jerker. All ten wrestlers were game, even the liabilities like Yujiro Takahashi and Bad Luck Fale. The spots were exciting and fast, the transitions were seamless, and it had a heaping helping of comedy to help keep the affair as light as it should have been. Most importantly, it stoked the fires for the Sunday match between the Young Bucks and Roppongi Vice.

The other two tournament matches, if my coarse viewing of the offerings AXS TV provided before the show came on were any indication, provided a peek into what the arch-main event "style" of NJPW was all about, not so much a one-size-fit-all label one can put on the big boys of the heavyweight top of the card, but an expectation of quality, match length, pacing, etc. The Ishii/Naito match had so much pure brutality and great counterwrestling that are the stereotypical hallmarks of puroresu in general, but Naito especially helped display personality. He's such a dynamic, charismatic dude that no matter how much ol' fuddy dud Jim Ross and his partner Josh Barnett ho-hum his questionable tactics that his following seems justified. Meanwhile, Omega/Elgin was straight out of the classic wrestling playbook. Omega spent the entire first half of the match on the defensive and his comeback was explosive and culminated in this amazing flurry of knees.

The main event stoked a lot of debate and contention, mainly because wrestling criticism has become a culture of takes fueled by cults of personality. Most of the talk chattered around Cody, which is fair. Kazuchika Okada, for all his flaws and contention, has earned the benefit of the doubt, and the match played out about as expectedly as it could have. Cody preened and stalled and made uncomfortably weird gestures and hit his limited repertoire of highlight spots, sometimes multiple times. Okada looked a bit lost at times, but basically everything in the match that felt big and worthwhile came from something he did, whether it was a Rainmaker tease or the rehash of the over-the-barrier plancha from the second Omega match. Some critics thought it as some grand bit of wrestling theater. Diff'rent strokes and all, but honestly, it was what it was, which is to say something that NJPW thought it had to do to gain a foothold in America. It may have minted some New Japan fans, but after seeing Okada drag Bad Luck Fale by the arm to a decent match earlier in the day on the AXS marathon that preceded, I expected more out of it. But hey, Cody is here to stay, I guess.

Still, the G1 USA Special provided a fresh alternative to WWE, something that is sorely missing on the big stage with the atrophy of TNA Impact Wrestling Global Force Wrestling, the refusal of Sinclair Broadcast Group to spend money on ROH (gotta spend all those funds turning local television stations into Trump propaganda arms!), and the uncertain future of Lucha Underground. New Japan Pro Wrestling showed a glimpse of what it offers on a regular basis in its home country, and that glimpse was worthwhile and satisfying on the whole. I can't recommend a re-watch of this show enough, whether done via reruns on AXS TV (if they happen) or by subbing up to New Japan World.