NJPW Review: New Japan Cup Final and Dominion 2020

The New Japan Cup is evil and Bullet Club is evil and Evil is the IWGP Heavyweight/Intercontinental Double Champion???

Before we get into the matches and developments from New Japan Pro Wrestling‘s 2020 New Japan Cup Final and Dominion shows, let’s take a moment to think back to another time. It’s July 3. You’re taking a break from the bleakness of Corona-world to escape into the drama of the New Japan Cup semi-finals. You’re happy that fans will be back at NJPW shows soon.

Maybe you think NJPW will use a Naito-Okada match to sort of reset, to reestablish Naito as the people’s champion with another win over his rival, or to really reset and put Okada back on top. Maybe you’re optimistic that this will really be Evil’s year and he’ll win the tournament, but there’s no way he beats Naito at Dominion. None of your predictions involve Evil wearing pauldrons with guns on them. None of your predictions involve Dick Togo.

Okay, reflection time over! Let’s move on to this weekend’s New Japan Cup Final and Dominion, which ended up involving both of those things!

Please clap (and only clap)

Along with truly buckwild changes to NJPW’s fictional world, this weekend at Osaka-Jo Hall saw significant changes to how New Japan shows look in real life, or at least how they’ve been looking lately. As of July 11, the fans are back, and like the guys on the rollercoaster in that viral video from a reopened Japanese amusement park,  they’re not allowed to cheer. In order to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19, the venue can only be filled to one-third capacity, and the only permitted way to root for the wrestlers is clapping.

Some illegal cheers and boos are heard during the shows’ more dramatic moments, but for the most part, the audience complies with this rule and it doesn’t take away from the importance of their presence. Organic fan response is a crucial part of pro wrestling, defining some of its biggest moments and determining the success or failure of new angles, characters, or moves. Watching wrestling live is one of the best parts of being a wrestling fan, and part of watching wrestling remotely is observing the crowd, living vicariously through their joy or distress, checking if your favorite guy is over in this city (and if not, wondering what is wrong with these Philistines), scoping out signs and cosplay, etc. Without fans in attendance, a wrestling show’s theatrical chorus is absent, its atmosphere is colder, and in the pandemic era, the empty space where the fans should be removes some of wrestling’s escapist power as it reminds the viewer of the reasons for the empty seats.

While the Osaka-Jo Hall audience for the 2020 New Japan Cup Final and Dominion, with their lack of cheers, social distancing, and mask-wearing, is clearly living in a COVID-19 world, their behavior doesn’t set off pandemic-paranoia alarm bells. And their participation not only creates a comfortable atmosphere for about seven hours of wrestling, but plays an important role in selling two of the craziest swerves that NJPW has pulled in recent memory.

July 11, 2020 – New Japan Cup Final

Welcome back (?) to normal New Japan undercards

Along with the paying audience members returns the kind of seven-match New Japan card that’s more warm-up and multi-man tag team matches than anything else. I will sincerely miss the breezy two-hour-ish length of those no-fans shows with their one very energetic and aggressive non-tournament match apiece, but the return to the normal format doesn’t result in unpleasant viewing experiences.

However, most of the July 11 undercard isn’t especially great either; just easy to digest. Makabe and Honma defeat Tsuji and Uemura. TenCozy defeats Goto and Gabriel Kidd, and Kidd for some reason decides to start going oi, oi! to hype up the crowd even though there’s another guy on the roster who already does the exact same thing with more oi!s. After a disinfection intermission, what turns out to be a singles angle for Yujiro Takahashi kicks off with him getting a pin on Bushi. There’s not all that much to say about any of this except that it’s pro wrestling with an audience of regular people applauding for it, and that’s really nice to see.

The last two tag matches of the night are more exciting and pick up the show’s energy heading into the main event. The Taguchi Japan vs. Suzukigun (minus Suzuki) eight-man is the first tag match on the show to actually involve feuds! Sho, Yano, and Ishii vs. Naito, Shingo, and Hiromu includes some fun Yano shenanigans, quality Sho vs. Shingo action, and trademark L.I.J. teamwork, and features what might be the last glimpse at Normal Hiromu in a while. But really, why am I even writing about these tags when I could be writing about the most game-changing match on this card?

Master Wato def. Douki

The hype for Master Wato vs. Douki may have been at least a little bit ironic going in, but my enjoyment of it ended up being totally sincere. Wato could still learn something from Douki when it comes to the gear part of wrestling (and the wrestling part of wrestling), but he looks pretty good in the ring. He shows that his pose can be done less awkwardly, he busts out some good-looking high-flying, and his kicks look really good and distinct from the types of kicks we see from other guys on the New Japan roster right now. Overall, the match makes it seem like a Best of the Super Juniors run could put Wato over in a serious way.

The post-match attack by Kanemaru and save by Tenzan points to the role Master Wato will play at least for the rest of the month, as one of the good guys in a Hontai vs. Suzukigun feud and the protégé of Tenzan, who is completely on board with all things Wato. The Tenzan-Wato interactions on these Osaka shows make it seem like Tenzan’s level enthusiasm might not be totally warranted, but it’s in an endearing way. The angle is goofy and may not be working exactly how it’s supposed to, but it makes the midcard more interesting and it feels worthwhile to watch where it goes.

New Japan Cup Final: Evil def. Kazuchika Okada

After Dominion, looking back at the 2020 New Japan Cup final feels like looking into another dimension. Going in, there’s a dynamic that makes it very easy to root for the heel despite his recent ball-stomping ways. This would be Okada’s second NJC win in two years and third ever, and plenty of fans aren’t crazy about the idea of another championship reign for him right now. Meanwhile, Evil vs. Naito would be a fresher and less stressful title match, and Evil is coming into the final off of a streak of strong performances (against Goto, Yoshi-Hashi, and Sanada.) Plus, he doesn’t seem all that evil: his heel turn doesn’t even feel totally consummated because it happened without crowd reactions. Especially since Okada is also coming off of a hot match, his semifinal bout with Hiromu, there’s a lot about this main event to look forward to and get invested in.

The biggest strength of Evil vs. Okada is probably that all this context makes it very easy to care about the result, but the actual action isn’t all that memorable. It’s not bad, but it’s clearly less intense than both wrestlers’ previous matches when ideally the tournament final should be the most intense match of any tournament. And sometimes Evil vs. Okada is very slow in a way that feels more like the performers might be trying to pad out the show’s runtime rather than that characters are moving more slowly because of exhaustion.

But while the wrestling part of the match, though entertaining, is not especially memorable in the grand scheme of New Japan main events, its Big Moment is unforgettable. When it looks like Okada could beat Evil the same way he beat Hiromu, Bullet Club gets involved. When Gedo showed up I wrote in my notes “IS EVIL LITERALLY IN BULLET CLUB NOW.” For a second I thought maybe this might actually be some side plot to set up Okada fighting Bullet Club because they cost him the match, but it quickly became clear that EVIL IS LITERALLY IN BULLET CLUB NOW.

There are more Takes to be had about the Bullet Club Evil situation when we get to the Dominion main event, but one I think makes sense to talk about here is that New Japan has needed to shake up the factions for a while, and they really need to shake them up after this Evil turn. It’s not only Bullet Club – Chaos is aesthetically nothing, having lost both its initial Shinsuke Nakamura-led vibe and its 2017-18 Golden God Okada-led vibe, and the Suzukigun situation is questionable now that Taichi and Zack are more relevant heel threats than Suzuki – but this creative staleness stands out the most with BC.

Bullet Club has gotten bloated in the past, but now it’s at a point where it has absolutely no connection to what the faction was initially about. Not only is the whole portion of the stable that can actually wrestle in New Japan Japanese when BC was originally an all-foreigner faction, but there’s no sense that BCJPN is invested in the mission of Bullet Club – it’s just a generic heel stable with a little gun imagery mixed in.

The active part of Bullet Club could be a lot more creatively interesting if they embraced their own thing; the group of heavyweight ace Evil, junior ace Ishimori, three 50-plus juniors who started on the Japanese indies in the ’90s, and also Yujiro Takahashi feels like its own distinctive group as much as the initial lineup of BC felt like its own distinctive group. Removing the Pro Wrestling Tees best-selling logo could instantly level-up this group by making them not feel like knock-offs, especially when after Dominion they have a legitimately shocking and emotionally resonant angle going for them. (All this being said, Evil turning the Ingobernable fist bump into the Too Sweet made me laugh and I loved it.)

July 12, 2020 – Dominion

The night after the shock of Bullet Club Evil, Dominion was another entertaining show – I think stronger than the NJC Final – with some quality title matches and the darkest ending to a New Japan event in years. Before the big matches and the organ-backed deranged screaming into the sky, we get another mostly normal undercard that’s easy to sit through. Its most notable elements are that the Wato-Tenzan vs. Kanemaru/Suzukigun angle continues, that Yujiro is now definitely in a feud with Okada (if this is our stepping stone to Okada vs. Togo I WILL TAKE IT), and that L.I.J. is deeply sad about their hermano’s betrayal, especially Hiromu, who’s written “Why? Why? Why?” over and over on his wrist tape. It’s a little weird he doesn’t get set up for a Junior Heavyweight Championship defense after his tag match, but that makes sense a few hours later.

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

On a weekend dominated by Moments, Sho vs. Shingo Takagi stands out as far and away the best wrestling match, and possibly the best NJPW match of post-Wrestle Kingdom 2020. Their pure aggression and mutual Power Fighter heat that helped make their rivalry so compelling in the first place is still there, but in match three of the series, both the energy of the characters and the wrestling action feels like they’ve evolved as the feud has progressed. Takagi shows a lot more grudge match-y attitude now that he’s taken a loss to Sho and Sho imbues brings the same focus from their New Japan Cup match, now imbued with extra confidence. Sho and Takagi also just continue to physically work really well together and change up how they work together just enough that this clearly fits in their singles match series while keeping the action from feeling repetitive at all.

What stands out most about this match besides just how exciting and athletically impressive it is is just how much of it Takagi spends completely eating shit. It feels like Sho kicks Shingo’s ass here more than in their match he actually won. It’s definitely one of Takagi’s least dominant performances in New Japan, and Sho’s most credible as a future singles star not just as a performer, but as a character who could go on a singles match winning streak or hold a title on his own without always playing an up-and-comer or an underdog. I went into this match totally convinced that Shingo was going to retain, but ended up getting completely worked by some of the nearfalls, and that’s one of best feelings a person can have as a cynical adult watching wrestling.

Sho’s immediate future is up in the air with Yoh out injured, but Takagi gets his next feud right after the match when who should attack him from behind but El Desperado, the guy who was calling him out in interviews and on Twitter throughout the whole hiatus. This angle is already fun just from the promos, it gives Despy his first singles angle since before he broke his jaw, and it continues the NEVER Openweight Championship actually being a functionally openweight belt (just as a junior challenges for the IWGP Heavyweight title.) Takagi’s NEVER reign continues to be the best run anyone’s had with this belt since the one Shibata had where he beefed with the New Japan dads.

IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship match: Taichi and Zack Sabre Jr. def. Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kota Ibushi (c)

Dangerous Tekkers vs. Golden Ace is a very different, also strong title match that manages to both include quality tag teamwork and play to every wrestler’s individual strengths. Tanahashi clearly relishes the return of the crowd, Ibushi gets to be a statuesque torture victim and a kick murderer, and while Taichi is definitely the star of the winning team, Zack looks great in his supporting role and actually gets to break out the Zack Driver. The one weird thing about this match was how long Sabre and Taichi were allowed to just go to town on Tanahashi’s knees at the end while Red Shoes did nothing (maybe that save in the main event was out of guilt?), but their knee destruction is still compelling, everything else about the match is really good, and Zack and Taichi hug afterwards, so “Red Shoes WYD???” isn’t the big takeaway of the last match in Ibushi and Tanahashi’s championship reign.

More New Japan Pro Wrestling:

IWGP Heavyweight and IWGP Intercontinental Double Championship match: Evil def. Tetsuya Naito (c)

The main event of Dominion 2020 sees the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Championships change hands in a nearly forty-minute wrestling match that has its wrestling moments but is almost totally overshadowed by its surrounding fashion and drama. Like the New Japan Cup final, it doesn’t especially stand out as a match on its own, but even more than Evil vs. Okada, everything else about it makes Evil vs. Naito at Dominion one of the most memorable and truly unexpected endings to a New Japan show in a long time.

When I wrote about Evil’s heel turn back when he was still in L.I.J. (remember those days???), I noted that he traded in the campiness of the King of Darkness persona to play a more straightforwardly violent role. When Evil enters for Dominion that phase is completely over: the camp is back and turned up to eleven. His new look, entrance cape/shoulder pads included, is gladiator meets late-seventies metal as portrayed by This Is Spinal Tap. The KISS vibes so strong and organ music going so hard that when he raises up the wolf hand signal it reads more like he’s about to start shredding on a multi-neck guitar than like he’s throwing up the Too Sweet (then he does a finger gun and it’s like “Oh, right.”) The whole thing doesn’t look anywhere near as good or badass once he loses the cape, but the first Bullet Club Evil entrance still gets fast-tracked onto the list of most memorable big match NJPW entrances.

The match is mostly about Evil being… evil, completing his transformation into the worst of the worst people in the company by torturing Naito’s knee and ATTACKING MILANO, who was still stanning him after the heel turn! A big part of why the Evil betrayal angle is so effective for the audience and so believably hurtful to the rest of L.I.J. is that he’s taking his own frustration about his inability to progress in his career out on people who never wanted him to fail or even put him in a position to fail. He was part of the best 6-man title run since the last time L.I.J. had the 6-man titles with Bushi and Shingo, Naito was rooting for him even after he won the New Japan Cup because of Bullet Club interference, and, unlike ahead of Kenta’s turn last summer, the fans never stopped supporting him. The Evil heel turn isn’t just a character gaining more willingness to cheat, but a character throwing away everything positive in his life in pursuit of success – those “by any means necessary” lines meant a lot more than ball-stomping, and now everything is sadness.

It’s these emotional stakes that keep the viewer engaged in the Dominion main event more than anything else (the table stuff is exciting though) and what make the post-match challenge the darkest ending to a New Japan show in a long time, but not what make it one of the most insane. Evil wins after a buff guy in a Bushi disguise shows up and starts literally murdering Naito with a cord, then distracts the referee and allows Evil to smash some testicles and get the win. This was such an unexpected result to me that I didn’t fully process that Evil is the IWGP Heavyweight Champion now until he was leaving the venue with the titles on his shoulders.

Of course, part of what makes this ending so shocking isn’t just that Evil wins, but that Fake Bushi turns out to be Dick Togo – like, actual Dick Togo of Kae En Tai and every indie under the sun and some New Japan appearances over the years and a recent hot streak in Pro Wrestling NOAH because he’s one of those wrestlers who can still go super hard at 50. Somehow, Evil was not the craziest addition to Bullet Club this weekend.

While everyone is still freshly in shock about Evil’s double title win and Naito’s double title loss and Bullet Club Dick Togo, New Japan adds to the sensory overload with Hiromu’s challenge, followed by the total mental breakdown of a man who’s basically been mentally broken since he came back from excursion. The crowd hangs on Hiromu’s every word as he confronts his friend in a promo segment fueled by the boundless charisma of the Junior Heavyweight Champion and by years of friendship even before our hero and villain where co-parejas in the NJPW’s most popular faction. Evil leaving without explaining himself to the man whose jacket he carried to the ring for months while he was injured and Takahashi bringing out his most intense acting chops and treating this scene like it’s the climax of Oldboy while electric organ goes off in the background makes this one of the most overwhelmingly melodramatic wrestling moments in recent memory, and it completely works. Who on earth could not be invested in Hiromu vs. Evil for the Heavyweight and Intercontinental titles now, and especially after Hiromu’s more eloquent promo backstage? The Hiromu-chan World seems like it might be a lot scarier than Darkness World, just with more cats around, probably.

Overall, the big takeaway from the New Japan Cup Final and Dominion is that the events of these shows make it feel like anything could happen in New Japan now, at least aside from any of these factions old enough to play little league changing their names. Anybody could win anything. Any man from any other Japanese promotion could show up. And in a promotion whose booking can get pretty predictable (or at least have a pretty limited range of possible outcomes), that’s honestly welcome! The craziness of the real world is extremely stressful right now. I’m down to go along for a rare crazy ride with New Japan Pro Wrestling.