It’s been a while since I’ve watched New Japan – since the G1 Climax Tournament ended in August, I’ve taken a bit of a break from New Japan. Maybe it’s wrestling burnout, maybe it’s because I’ve been busy but I’ve had no desire to watch over the past month.
However, the Fighting Spirit card changed my mind. It’s a brilliant card, with a huge tag match in the main event, a tournament final and a couple of big title defences. Furthermore, the atmosphere is always great at these New Japan shows held in America so it should be a pretty good show.
A lot has changed since I last watched New Japan Pro Wrestling in August. The Chaos stable, led by Kazuchika Okada has begun to disintergrate, with Okada’s mouthpiece Gedo turning on his long time charge to align with Jay White. Kenny Omega defeated Tomohiro Ishii to retain the IWGP World Heavyweight Title in September and is focusing on his match with Hiroshi Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom 13 on January 4th. Meanwhile, a tournament has begun to crown a new IWGP Jr. Heavyweight champion after Hiromu Takahashi was forced to vacate the title due to injury. Longtime rivals Marty Scrull and Will Ospreay are due to face off at Fighting Spirit Unleashed, with the winner to face Kushida for the title at next week’s King of Pro Wrestling show.
Before I start rambling about Fighting Spirit Unleashed, I’d better explain my rating system. I award matches a rating out of 5 then rate the entire show based on the average rating. I don’t see my ratings as gospel or anything – I just see it as a way to grade the show and help me form an overall opinion. It’s a system that favours efficient shows with fewer but higher quality matches. To be fair that’s what I like to see from my wrestling….
Now, we’re ready to start….
Roppongi 3K & Rocky Romero vs. Jushin Thunder Liger, ACH & Ryusuke Taguchi
This was a typical New Japan opening match – a simple crowd pleaser, designed to warm the crowd up as opposed to an all action WWE style ‘hot opener’, These matches usually rate around 2.5/5 for me, there’s nothing wrong with them, but they’re entirely skippable. Bar the welcome sight of Jushin Liger and a bit of talk on commentary about Liger and Tiger Mask being No.1 contenders to the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Titles, there wasn’t much to this one.
Christopher Daniels & Frankie Kazarian vs. Hangman Page & Chase Owens
I struggled to get into this match, as I wasn’t sure who I should be cheering for.. I like all four guys, so I enjoyed the action, but I think me and the crowd were a bit confused as to who to root for. I felt like the crowd remembered Daniels and Kazarian’s ‘SCU’ gimmick three quarters of the way through and began to cheer for them. That threw me as I had thought Page and Owens were the faces. In the end, this match felt like a fun exhibition, but like the opener, it’s not essential viewing, I’ll say 2.5/5 overall.
Hirooki Goto & Chuckie T. & Beretta vs. Flip Gordon, Jeff Cobb & Chris Sabin
Another multi-man match, but I enjoyed this match more than the preceeding bouts due to Jeff Cobb’s ability to throw humans about and Chuckie and Beretta’s excellent team work and interactions. I’m always happy to see Chris Sabin as well – I loved the Motor City Machine Guns back in TNA. There was some good story development at the end too, with Cobb and Goto having some issues, though I’m not too sure where that will lead. I’ll go 3/5 here, but I found myself wishing that, instead of three multi-man matches to start the show, we could just have one big opener with some stakes attached. Maybe a battle royal with a title shot for the winner or an elimination tag with an incentive for the wrestlers to survive to the end. I know it goes against the style of Japanese wrestling shows, but I think doing this occasionally would add some variety to the beginning of New Japan’s shows.
Killer Elite Squad & Zack Sabre Jr. vs. Tetsuya Naito, EVIL & Sanada
I feel like I’ve watched Suzuki-gun and Los Ingobernables Japan face off hundreds of times this year and all their matches are starting to blend together. Still, it was good to see Killer Elite Squad involved – I enjoy seeing Lance Archer and Davey Boy Smith Jr throw people around and it’s nice to see some fresh faces in these Suzuki-gun vs LIJ matches. I’ll go 3/5 for this, but I think it’s time to have these factions face different opponents.
Hiroshi Tanahashi & KUSHIDA vs. Jay White & Gedo
This match felt like more of a step in the White vs Tanahashi story than a match, with White and Gedo in control for most of the match before winning via brass knuckles. The clear plan here was to set up a White vs Tanahashi grudge match, with Tanahashi’s Wrestle Kingdom title shot at stake. In New Japan, the G1 Climax winner carries a briefcase, much like the winner of WWE’s Money in the Bank ladder match (why a contract must be carried around in a steel briefcase is beyond me, but hey….) so the post match visual of White holding the G1 Climax briefcase over a stricken Tanahashi was pretty effective. As a match though, this was too short to really get my teeth into. I think 2.5/5 is a fair score.
Will Ospreay vs. Marty Scurll (IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title Tournament Final)
I really enjoyed this match – while it wasn’t quite as intense and dramatic as their battle earlier in the year at Sakura Genesis, this was a fine match. I liked the story too – Ospreay, confident after beating career rival Scrull in April, came flying out of the blocks, trying to win the match in the opening minutes. I liked the contrast to the end of the match, with Scrull comfortably winning with a series of signature moves after Ospreay had simply ran out of steam. Throw in a crazy looking bridging Tiger Suplex off the top rope from Scrull to Ospreay and this one is an easy 4/5.
The Young Bucks vs. Guerrillas of Destiny (IWGP Heavyweight Tag Titles)
A fantastic match, built around Matt Jackson putting his back out early on. This led to Nick Jackson valiantly fighting alone for most of the match, until the Guerillas finally caught a weakened Matt with an assisted Gun Stun to win the titles. Both Young Bucks were great here – Nick with his energetic assaults on the Guerillas and Matt selling his back injury (which dates back to Wrestle Kingdom in January) better than anyone since Shawn Michaels in 2002.
The success of Being The Elite and All In (which I need to watch at some point) has masked the fact that the Bucks have been consistently having great matches in 2018.On the flipside, I was pretty down on Guerillas of Destiny after the G1 Climax, but this match restored my faith in them as a tag team. While I don’t see them ever breaking out as solo stars and think they and Bad Luck Fale need more established people in their stable, the Guerrillas reminded me that they are a fine tag team on their day by keeping up with the Bucks with some good double teams. I’m going 4/5 here, I’d put this on par with the Bucks’ matches with Sanada and Evil earlier in the year.
Juice Robinson vs. Cody (IWGP United States Title)
I haven’t seen Cody’s NWA Title win over Nick Aldis yet, but from what I’ve heard about that match and seen in this match, Cody seems to be getting comfortable as a sort of ‘old school’ wrestler, like the travelling champions from wrestling’s past. I like it – I enjoy his slower paced, more story focused matches and I think Cody’s pretty versatile. He can be a good guy or a bad guy, depending on who he’s facing. Here, against Juice, Cody was the bad guy and I really liked the dynamic between the two as Juice comes across as the hard working ‘every man’ while Cody is the spoiled opportunist who was always destined to be a star. This was a good, slow burning match, with Cody always one step ahead of Juice, on route to squeaking out a narrow victory. A solid 3.5/5.
Kenny Omega & Kota Ibushi vs. Kazuchika Okada & Tomohiro Ishii
I thought this match was superb, it reminded me of The Golden Lovers vs The Young Bucks at Strong Style Evolved earlier in the year. That match was a wild affair, full of spectacular signature spots and this was no different. I did prefer the Golden Lovers vs Young Bucks, as it fell right in the middle of the excellent Bullet Club/Elite drama, but this match was a great effort. I’m a big fan of tag wrestling and I think putting your big names into a main event tag match can lead to some great matches. I’d argue the four wrestlers in this match have been the best wrestlers of 2018 thus far and they really clicked here. The result was a flowing, fast tag match, with many of the dull tropes of tag team wrestling absent.
I hope this isn’t the end for Ishii in the main events – he’s been excellent over the past few months and it would be a shame if he was shunted back to the midcard. I wouldn’t complain if Okada and Ishii became a regular team, just to give Okada a break from the main event programs. I settled on a score of 4.5/5 in the end…while this was a great match, I couldn’t go to 5/5, due to the lack of story behind it. A superb exhibition match, but I wish there was more of an issue behind it as more drama would have made this match even better.
Overall – I thought Fighting Spirit Unleashed was a show of two parts – the main matches were really good, while the rest of the card felt like filler. If you condensed the opening three matches into one and maybe gave more time to White/Gedo vs Tanahashi/Kushida, then this could have been a stand out show. As it stands, Fighting Spirit Unleashed scored 3.27/5.00, which is a good score but some quality control would have improved this show. I understand that New Japan like to have multi-man matches early on in the card, but I think less is more sometimes. Still, a good show and I’m excited for King of Pro Wrestling next week.