NJPW Dominion 2021 Review: A Chance at History

Shingo Takagi? As New Japan's world champion? It's more likely than you think

NJPW Dominion 2021 may have kept the name “Dominion 6.6” after getting moved to 6.7, but brought a more surprising major change to New Japan Pro Wrestling. The show that ends with Shingo Takagi as IWGP World Heavyweight Champion is pretty strong all-around, a Cobb vs. Ibushi match of the night, with the start of a new tag title feud, and more.

Finally, Dick Togo

Dominion opens with a ten-man tag in which Bullet Club (Evil, Yujiro, Chase, Ishimori, ELP, and Dick Togo on the side) defeats Tanahashi and Chaos (Goto, Ishii, Yoshi-Hashi, and Sho), and it’s about as good an opening ten-man tag as you could expect from this group. A lot of this match does not feel worth watching, but there’s some quality teamwork from Goto and Yoshi-Hashi, and the match ends strong with Ishimori pinning Sho after a finishing stretch that makes it clear he and ELP are going to be the next junior tag title challengers.

A little less obviously and a lot more excitingly, this match also sets up a new Bullet Club group challenging for Chaos’s NEVER Openweight 6-Man championships. What makes that exciting is that one of those challengers is Dick Togo! After almost a year in NJPW, Dick Togo, who can absolutely still go (or at least could when he started managing Evil), is finally doing something besides illegally choking people and hilariously elbow-drop-bumping through a table at Wrestle Kingdom. If we get an Ishii vs. Togo singles match out of this I will never say anything bad about this company ever again. Maybe.

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L.I.J. (Tetsuya Naito, Sanada, and Bushi) def. Suzukigun (Taichi, Zack Sabre Jr., and Douki)

The heavyweight tag championship angle between Dangerous Tekkers and Naito and Sanada got set up on the Road to Dominion and Twitter, and it begins in Dominion’s second match. The bout is a few steps down from this L.I.J. trio’s last six-man tag (that one was a title match, so it’s fine), but it still makes this rivalry look like it’s going to be a thoroughly good time.

Both pairs of Suzukigu and Los Ingos heavyweights have paired off one-on-one before, have all had storied rivalries along with their quality matches, if you count Taichi playing Ghost Recon as a character who looked exactly like Sanada, which Taichi clearly does. It bugs me that Dangerous Tekkers are doing the same “yeah, you pinned us which should mean you earn a title shot, but we get to make you jump through additional hoops to actually earn said title shot” thing that G.o.D. did to them because I don’t think it makes sense for champions to be allowed to do that, but these teams already have the best possible energy against each other, so I can only grumble so much.

In addition to Tekkers vs. Ingobernables being a fresh take on some old rivalries, I enjoy and appreciate that it’s putting the spotlight on a less common pairing within L.I.J. and giving both wrestlers something a little different to do. Naito and Sanada regularly work well together in multi-man tags, but both have done their notable tag work with other people. And not only does this angle continue to put Naito in new situations (while he continues to make it clear that he’s on a long road back to the Tokyo Dome main event), but it has Sanada cutting happy (?) backstage promos (???) about getting Naito to appreciate the fun of championship-level tag wrestling. I feel like I’m declaring something song of the summer after hearing it once here, but I think this angle might be NJPW’s song of the summer.

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IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship match: El Desperado (c) def. Yoh

The story for Yoh going into his IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship match with El Desperado was that he needed to level up, to show something new in order to be singles champion material. He ended up losing the match, so he apparently didn’t do that in kayfabe—and unfortunately, it didn’t feel like he did that as a performer either.

Yoh vs. Despy has a straightforward story of both wrestlers targeting each other’s knees to set up for signature submissions, Yoh for the Star Gazer and Desperado the Numero Dos, with the additional drama coming from the fact that Yoh recently returned to the ring after getting knee surgery. It’s a match without a lot of moments that are easy to point to as glaring flaws, but also with only a few highlights. There’s some yelling and a convincing nearfall or two, but there’s no fire under this match and it doesn’t contain anything really special. It’s unmemorable even less than a day after watching it.

I went into this match like I think a lot of regular NJPW viewers did, with plenty of goodwill for both performers and characters, but this match took me from being sort of receptive to the possibility of Yoh becoming junior champion to actively hoping he would lose because I would not want to see him have a singles title run. This doesn’t make me like Roppongi 3K any less and maybe after another Best of the Super Juniors or something, Yoh will really make an impression (or make an impression again, because I think he looked better than this for a while), but Dominion 2021 was not a breakthrough for him.

Kota Ibushi def. Jeff Cobb

In contrast to the junior title match, Kota Ibushi vs. Jeff Cobb is consistently exciting, flattering to both wrestlers, and includes plenty of exciting and impressive stuff. Cobb looks so great in this match that it hardly feels like he lost. From his early domination to the feats of strength like catching Ibushi’s plancha, countering a Kamigoye with a belly-to-belly, and the return of the F5000, this match features nearly everything wrestling fans have ever found appealing about Cobb. Ibushi, who shows up to this match ridiculously vascular, also shows some of his attention-grabbing athleticism (the leap into the Quebrada from the top rope looked superhuman.) Though “Murder Ibushi” was brought up straightforwardly in the build, I like that they didn’t really go there in this match—this was Ibushi having the match of the night with no extra gimmicks and no booking angst.

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“The pieces are finally falling into place,” or: the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship picture is a land of contrasts

Back on the Road to Dominion, I wrote a little about how I was disappointed in the lack of hype I felt like NJPW had generated around the match for the vacant world title, and how despite the extenuating circumstances, I felt like they could have done more to build up the match. After that series ended, New Japan did do more to promote the match in an entertaining way, releasing video interviews with Okada and Takagi on NJPW World (for free, with subtitles.) This wouldn’t be the best way to promote a world title match under the ideal circumstances, but under these circumstances, these interviews are really good. If these talking points had been able to be on the opposite sides of a promo battle for a week or two, I think they would have gone further to get more people interested in the match and the story behind it beyond “are they going to put the title on Okada again or what.”

These interviews show how well developed and consistent both Okada and Takagi’s personas are and contain the quality raw material for one of the Different Points Of View Feuds that NJPW can be really good at. Both men are able to clearly lay out why they need to win the world title, and each person’s reasons naturally clash with those of the other. I loved seeing Okada start his video pretty normal, move into talking shit about everything he’s been talking shit about in the world title picture since the Double Gold Dash and then some, and end up acting like it’s back in early 2018 and he’s the god of this promotion in the midst of breaking all the title records. Takagi is also more openly driven as the interview goes on, and where Okada gets to talk about legacy and a karmic connection to the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, Shingo is focused on becoming as successful and famous as possible in NJPW before he gets too old.

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These different perspectives are reflected in how they both talk about the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship. They both acknowledge that the unification was widely unpopular, but the change means something different to Okada—whose whole career is so tied to the previous belt that he didn’t even challenge for another singles title until the double championship era and has been a face of the company for years—than it does to Shingo, who as an outsider from a smaller company, sees the top IWGP title as the top of the wrestling world and the achievement he’s wanted to accomplish in NJPW since day one, even if it’s not quite the same top IWGP title. Okada describes the legacy of the World Heavyweight Championship so far as a curse, while to Takagi it’s a problem to be solved; to Okada, winning the belt and shining it up is his rightful place, while to Takagi it’s “a chance at history,” and maybe his last one.

I’m digging into this so much not only because I think these interviews were really well done, but because I think the difference in approach is part of why it feels really refreshing for Shingo to win the title. Of course, a huge part of why it feels fresher for him to win is that Okada’s been NJPW’s top champion so much and it doesn’t seem like he could deliver a reign as good as his past ones right now. In contrast, Takagi’s new to the world title picture and consistently has really good matches or strong performances in matches. Shingo’s also a more exciting winner because it felt like such a given that Okada was going to win since he was already booked for a title shot, Shingo just lost one, and Okada is Okada. On top of all this, it seemed unlikely that Takagi was ever going to win this belt even though he was obviously an IWGP title-tier wrestler early in his NJPW career (not to mention earlier) because he came over from a Japanese indie in his late 30s. It seemed like he would probably max out at around Ishii’s level, or maybe at being the new defining NEVER Openweight Championship guy.

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So this guy winning the belt (which somehow looks so much uglier when someone’s actually wearing it) under these circumstances is a cool surprise, and on top of that, his outlook means he’s lifting the shroud of doom and/or destiny that’s been hanging over the world title picture for a while. As much as I still wish NJPW could somehow be like “Did you guys know there was a gas leak in the IWGP Committee office for a couple of months? Yeah, we gotta change some things,” I think it’s promising that they strapped up a non-heel who doesn’t have any angst related to the old title, acknowledges the new title has sucked so far, and wants to make his mark as champion by beating people at sports and having cool wrestling matches and not so much being worshipped as a god, lifting the curse of the old belt, et cetera.

NJPW can and has done amazing things with world title angst, but after the mess that the title picture’s been this year, I think something different is needed for a while. While I don’t think Takagi’s going to have a long title reign, I think giving him one or two defenses would make the new belt feel a lot less cursed and hopefully create some more normal wrestling memories around it even in these abnormal times.

Match for the vacant IWGP World Heavyweight Championship: Shingo Takagi def. Kazuchika Okada

Moving on to the wrestling of Okada vs. Takagi, I thought the match was pretty good, but far from a classic. Unconstrained by the tournament time limits their previous matches had, this match was sometimes reminiscent of the beginning of Tanahashi vs. Takagi earlier this year, when it felt obvious they were working the match that way to fit the Tanahashi main event style more than anything else. Okada vs. Takagi doesn’t have a clear pre-exciting portion like that match did, but it often feels slow for the sake of stretching out the runtime and getting that big, epic NJPW main event match length.

Aside from the pacing, the match also featured some recurring factors of present-day Okada matches that make it feel like his best days are behind him: lots of the Money Clip and some counters towards the end of the match that look bad and seem like they’re just happening because in theory if someone did some cool, unexpected counters at that point it would be exciting (but not if they look that awkward and this is now easy to spot as part of the NJPW big match house style.) I didn’t think Takagi could win this match until the last minute or so, but for more of the match, the wrestling made me not want to see Okada win.

Though Okada vs. Takagi sags at times, it also includes a lot of quality wrestling sequences and moments. Both performers bring attitude to the opening section that makes the hold-to-hold and senton exchange fun to watch, we get cool moves like the Made In Japan outside the ring and the return of Stay Dream, and there are points when it’s very visible how much shorter Takagi is than Okada, which is just a good visual. The most exciting part of the match, despite the iffy obligatory counters thrown in there, has got to be the finish, from Okada hitting the Rainmaker without going for the pin to Shingo countering the follow-up with the Pumping Bomber (the moment that made me think maybe Shingo could actually win) to the Last of the Dragon for the victory that even shocked the victor.

I don’t know what’s next for Okada or what should be next and it sounds like he doesn’t either, but Dominion ends with Takagi in a position he where seems to belong, but that it seemed like he would never reach. Considering New Japan’s recent track record, I’m more cautiously optimistic about the future right now than I am fully excited, but coming out of Dominion with a new champion and some promising angles in the works, it feels like maybe NJPW is also back on track to getting where it belongs.

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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 a lot about pro wrestling. Pratt is a regular contributor for Fanbyte, with other bylines at Uproxx, Deadlock, Mind Games, Orange Crush, and FanSided WWE.

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