Tuesday, March 27, 2018

On Golden Lovers vs. Young Bucks

They tore the pyramid down on Sunday
Photo via New Japan Pro Wrestling
Strong Style Evolved was nothing to write home about, compared at least to both G1 Special shows from last year. Sure, the wrestling was fine, especially on the back-half of the show. If you edited some of the slog parts out of the Hangman Page/Knife Pervert Jay White match, that turns into a fine semifinal title match on a strong B-show. The Kazuchika Okada and Tomohiro Ishii vs. Zack Sabre, Jr. and Minoru Suzuki match was a delightfully violent feud-furthering interstitial that helped heap more coal into the furnace for the Okada/Sabre IWGP Championship match this coming Sunday. Several other matches had fun moments. However, while the G1 Specials felt like marquee events, Strong Style Evolved had a distinct house show feeling to it. The show, up until the end of the White/Page match, felt fun but inconsequential at best.

Then, the Golden Lovers and Young Bucks took the ring and gave the event its raison d'etre.

The Young Bucks at least had been clamoring for the match out of character since Kenny Omega got to New Japan in 2014. It certainly has been a dream match for a lot of people for even longer than that wait time, but it needed just the right setup to get there. Honestly, I went into the match having just read the crib notes for the build, but the wonder of modern-day wrestling makes promotions like New Japan and their narratives a lot easier to follow without needing to watch any of the footage, let alone all of it. I left the match feeling the full effect of what the four men were trying to do, which is what any match should do. The eternal nature of pro wrestling can make jumping into a certain promotion at any given time daunting, which is why it takes a team effort from everyone involved to be able to get an audience up to speed with a recap and a complete wrestling match. It's why this match left a similar impression on me that I imagine it did to those who have watched the whole time.

Basically, the match was centered around the drama between Omega and the Bucks, specifically Matt Jackson, who took the business end of a blind shove during the former's ejection from the Bullet Club. That thread, dissociating the Bucks as a collective and allowing one to have emotions to develop and personal heat to fester, was refreshing from bat. Whether in New Japan or Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, the Bucks presentation has almost been that of a hivemind between the two. Even in Chikara when they ganged up on the youngest Jackson/Massie, Malachi, it was always Matt and Nick blending in their motivations. In this match, Matt acted as the more aggrieved, the more hurt party, while Nick played the role of the devil on his shoulder, nudging him to indulge his chaotic evil tendencies and punish Omega for his treason.

It's the kind of characterization that has been missing from Young Bucks matches for whatever reason, but to be fair, a whole lot of lauded and great tag teams go a long time, maybe their whole tenures together without differentiating between the two guys in the team. It's not necessarily a flaw, in that a tag team oftentimes represents a collective interest that is imbued into double the manpower. Of course, when you get what you ask for, you might just end up with a storyline that highlights Road Warrior Hawk's alcoholism. It's what made the Bucks' entire reason for being in the match stand out even more boldly. Coupled with Matt's dedication to selling a long term back injury to add to the in-ring psychology, and basically, it was the platonic ideal of what a Young Bucks match should be if couched in story rather than in having a big spotfest with a ton of flipz. Don't get me wrong; that kind of match is great too when it's needed in an exhibition setting, like at the first Dragon Gate USA show nine years ago (NINE YEARS GODDAMMIT I'M OLD).

On the other side of the ring, the plot was centered on Omega's internal strife rather than external conflict, which is not really something you see all that much in a wrestling match. I mean, yeah, man vs. man is the dominant theme in an actual wrestling match because well it should be explicitly obvious, right? Man vs. self is something that pops up from time to time, and when it's done well, it can create a lasting moment that is etched in history. Who could forget Ultimate Warrior staring into his hands, wondering what else he had to do to put the Macho King away at WrestleMania VII1, or when Sami Zayn wrestled with whether he would cream Neville in the face with the NXT Championship belt at Takeover: R-Evolution? To stretch that over an entire match though and not have it come off as self-indulgent is risky. I thought that at times, Omega wobbled on the line a bit between hammy and poignant, and he needed help from Matt or Kota Ibushi to keep him on track. Then again, what is wrestling but a wholly cooperative act anyway? Besides, it's to be expected that a wrestler's execution feel shticky at times. Robert DeNiro got into acting and not wrestling for a reason. Still, he got the point across loud and clear.

Even more impressive is Ibushi's role in the match as a glue guy. Okay, maybe impressive isn't the word, because it's hard really to look at his role in the match and say he was The Guy without sounding like a contrarian trying to show off that I see things no one else does. No one likes that guy, because oftentimes, that guy is full of shit. Maybe the word is "surprising," since no one really looks to Kota Ibushi, the guy who takes unnecessary bumps on his neck in conspicuous spots during the match or who jumps off high shit just to do it or who is the patron saint of Dramatic Dream Team and its so-far-out-of-the-box-that-it's-on-the-sidewalk-outside approach to wrestling to be more of a background player. But again, it was the story that needed to be told. The match belonged to Omega and Matt really. Ibushi wasn't there to throw someone into a river, but he was there to remind Omega that he should probably hit a Jackson brother with his knee really hard or be there at the right time to interrupt a Meltzer Driver into a Golden Star Bomb into a table or to change his footing mid-move on a double superplex so that he or Omega or the guy taking the move didn't end up with a neck at a permanent 60 degree angle. His role in the match almost felt too subtle that it was setting up some kind of "Everybody Hates Kenny" turn at the end of the match that left Omega without a Club or a Lover to guide him through the wilderness.

Thankfully though, Vince McMahon is not in charge of New Japan Pro Wrestling, so Love did indeed win out in the end. Ibushi and Omega continued on in their quest, and hey, at least one of the Bucks was amenable to a reconciliation, even if it wasn't the more aggrieved one in Matt. However, the foreshadowing to Matt's eventual makeup with Omega happened when Cody Rhodes hit the ring and berated the Bucks after they failed to win, which again, was a nice sort of denouement to keep the overall narrative going. Overall, it was a satisfying end to the show, a clear match of the year candidate, and something that is memorable and accessible enough for a new fan to nucleate a following around. I'd say it was a rousing success, validating the need for a show of that nature, even if the rest struggled to keep pace with its marquee segment.

As a postscript, if you're looking for a blow-by-blow recap and are disappointed with the above, well, you should know that isn't my bag as analyzing big picture themes is. However, if you do want something that takes more of a chronological analysis, TJ Hawke wrote a dandy of a recap with great breakdowns interjected throughout. Those are the best things to read anyway. Who cares to read a script of what happened when you can just watch it? Tell me why something happened, y'know?

1 - Although that technically could be construed as "Man vs. God" as Warrior was speaking to his guiding deities, if you're going by strict canon.