Highway to Hell: NJPW New Japan Road 7/20/2020

New Japan Pro Wrestling starts down the road to Sengoku Lord and also possibly hell

After a Dominion that broke everyone’s hearts and brains, NJPW‘s July 20 New Japan Road event introduces fans to the company’s new normal. It’s New Japan’s first show under the reign of the King of Darkness and the first episode of what could be called regular NJPW TV of the pandemic era, and it’s an overall entertaining, low-stakes two hours of wrestling.

This New Japan Road introduces viewers to the closest thing to a regular smaller NJPW show we’re likely to see until there’s a COVID-19 vaccine or Japan achieves New Zealand-tier virus-squashing success, which seems unlikely any time soon considering the current streak of hundreds of new cases in Tokyo per day. As with the no-fans New Japan Cup shows, NJPW responds to the unusual circumstances and quieter atmosphere (not as dramatic with fans in attendance, but very noticeable at times when you know people would normally be cheering or booing) with a shorter show length, a smart decision that most wrestling companies are making right now when they’re able. The matches are on the shorter side too with the main event the longest at about 14 minutes, and this combined with mostly engaging action and drama makes the show an easy watch.

Young Lions, old guys, and Sho

The show kicks off, as usual, with matches made up of mostly wrestlers past their prime and wrestlers who haven’t hit theirs yet. TenCozy vs. Yota Tsuji and Yuya Uemura is a strong opener, with everyone giving their all and getting the viewers energized for more wrestling to come. The only thing to criticize about this match is Tsuji’s new facial hair configuration, which makes me uncomfortable!

The second match of the home team (Makabe, Honma, Taguchi, and Gabriel Kidd) vs. Chaos (Sho, Yoshi-Hashi, Yano, and Ishii) features some higher status wrestlers but feels more like filler than the opener. The thing about it that stood out the most to me was how out of place Sho looks in this kind of match right after that Dominion NEVER challenge. Everyone gets cycled down the card in New Japan when they don’t have something to do, but Sho really came out of that match with the type of momentum that makes it feel like he should be doing something more meaningful, and hopefully something will emerge for him while Yoh is out injured.

Sho does have some moments of more aggressive, hard-hitting action in this match opposite Togi Makabe, and backstage it looks like the Unchained Gorilla might soon spend some unexpected time in the sun. Toa Henare has spent like three years going “Let me into GBH, let’s do GBH again” to no avail, but here Gabriel Kidd gets up in Makabe’s face and delivers and motivational (??) promo and suddenly Makabe’s dropping f-bombs again.

The prospect of Makabe bringing his IWGP champ attitude back is welcome and the separation in his mind of Chaos and the home team after this long period of the groups coexisting as a big merged babyface faction was interesting, but this Kidd promo, and mainly the fact that he was able to deliver it for two heavily cringe minutes, really confused me. Watching many hours of Young Lion/NJPW Dad character interaction has led me to believe that one of the vets just wouldn’t let one of the trainees talk to him that way. Like, Tiger Mask would have just started kicking the crap out of any dojo boy who talked to him like this, right? I don’t understand why Kidd would be an exception, especially when Kidd has yet to show any unique talents or skills, including promo ability, during his time in NJPW. Makabe getting his groove back and having an actual feud on the Summer Struggle tour or something would be great, but that happening because some BritWres rando decides he gets to mouth off to a former IWGP Heavyweight Champion is not really a badass way for it to come about.

 More Pro Wrestling:

Sanada and Shingo Takagi def. Douki and El Desperado

Along with the main event, Sanada and Shingo vs. Douki and Desperado is one of the strongest matches on this show both in terms of feud-building and tag teamwork. By tag teamwork, I obviously mean that Desperado’s new mask is sick and he and Douki look like they should take the junior tag belts and probably take over the world ASAP. But I also mean that both Despy/Douki and this L.I.J. duo look like they work well together and this match makes me want to see more of both teams.

This match also builds up the Takagi-Desperado rivalry so well that the idea of it ending on Saturday is actually a bummer. The wrestlers do a great job of establishing specific physical stakes for their NEVER title match as they further the grudge match/P.E. teacher vs. delinquent student aspect of the feud. Just like ahead of his Ishii match, Desperado decides to put all his chips on knee work and Numero Dos, and Takagi sells the heck out of all of it. That chair shot to the knee might have been one of the most the most devastating chair shots to the knee of all time.

Hirooki Goto and Kazuchika Okada def. Gedo and Yujiro Takahashi

This match was better than it looked on paper, but it was still the part of the show that made me the most tempted to zone out. It suffers from following a better tag, but it’s still interesting to see Yujiro step his game up when, for the first time in years, he’s asked to do something aside from lose a lot in a tournament or get pinned in a multi-man tag. I’m legitimately interested to see how serious business Yujiro will manifest at Sengoku Lord, and I think that’s probably the smartest selling point they could have come up with for his match with Okada.

I also love that both our heel and our hero bring up backstage that they debuted in the same year and Okada has obviously lapped Yujiro many times since, and that makes Yujiro want to drag Okada down to his level while Okada urges the Tokyo Pimp to rise to his. There’s a motivational parable for an MLM Facebook group in there somewhere.

Taichi, Zack Sabre Jr., Minoru Suzuki, and Yoshinobu Kanemaru def. Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kota Ibushi, Yuji Nagata, and Master Wato

The Suzukigun vs. Hontai eight-man tag is the one match on this show based around generating excitement for feuds that don’t have their big-match climaxes scheduled yet, and it shows. The aggression and action is way more focused on people working out personal grudges, with the tag champs resuming their Tanahashi knee destruction, Suzuki and Nagata getting into an exciting old man slap fight, and Kanemaru wrestling like he actually really hates Master Wato with that spiteful finish. There’s also a lot going on in the backstage comments:

  • Tanahashi puts over Ibushi as the guy carrying their tag team and says he needs to become stronger.
  • Ibushi believes that he and his partner will prove that the tag belts can surpass the singles belts, and weirdly that partner is not Kenny Omega two years ago. This might mean that Tanahashi won the Wrestle Kingdom 13 main event twice in spirit.
  • Taichi correctly points out that Dangerous Tekkers have now thoroughly kicked Golden Ace’s asses in singles and tag matches, so they definitely don’t deserve a rematch right now. Since every other tag team is too scared to face them, Taichi and Zack plan to just defend against Kanemaru and Douki before the six-month time limit.
  •  Nagata and Suzuki seem like they are having a great time!

It’s not clear to me from the schedule when the bigger matches are going to be on the Summer Struggle tour, but all signs point to Wato-Kanemaru, Nagata-Suzuki, and Zack/Taich-Tana/Ibushi happening whenever that is.

Evil, Dick Togo, and Taiji Ishimori def. Hiromu Takahashi, Tetsuya Naito, and Bushi

The main event of the July 20 New Japan Road delivers quality wrestling, quality drama, and crucially, Evil revealing that he dramatically upgraded his new heel gear by switching out the attempt at a gladiator skirt out for pants. In other non-wrestling developments, Hiromu’s Bullet Club swerve is a great moment, especially with the muffled hint of the crowd reaction we’d have heard if people were allowed to make noise.

Evil and Hiromu also do a good job of keeping their feud hot with the post-match stuff without feeling like they need to escalate from the Dominion insanity, which probably would have had diminishing returns. Evil and Togo also mention hell a few times, bringing the show’s total hell count up to four (Evil 2, Shingo 1, Togo 1) which was odd but mostly made me think EVIL VS. SHINGO, WHEN? (I’ll guess an Inferno Match at Wrestle Kingdom 15.)

The actual wrestling in this match is some of the strongest on the show, both from a tag teamwork and an individual performance perspective. Dick Togo sells himself as a threat and reminds everyone that he can very much still go in his first thirty seconds in the ring, and I would be extremely into a match between him and Naito based on their work together. Hiromu and Ishimori, who I’m guessing is his next junior title challenger, still work well together, but the standout junior heavyweight performance here is from Bushi with his doomed mini-rampage against Evil.

All the L.I.J. vs. Evil wrestling is tinged with sadness, even the cool three-on-one missile dropkick, but the Bushi vs. Evil sequences feel extra tragic because they were the first two parejas and why are they fighting this is so sad! Evil is supposed to be on the multi-man tag team that loses because Bushi got pinned, not the one doing the pinning!

But none of this sadness compares to what’s coming at Sengoku Lord on Saturday if Evil vs. Hiromu delivers what it’s promising, and I’ll see you back here after that to discuss the double title match, Despy vs. Shingo, and whether Yujiro delivers the singles performance of his life.

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Emily Pratt

Emily Pratt is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She used to study, write about, and make theater. Now she writes about pro wrestling for Fanbyte and Deadlock. Her other bylines include With Spandex on UPROXX, Orange Crush, Mind Games Magazine, FanSided WWE, and Diva Dirt.

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