NJPW Kizuna Road 7/1-2/2021: No Country For Old Men

When the 2021 Kizuna Road tour came to a close, New Japan Pro Wrestling‘s old man summer ended just like it began: with the Third Generation beltless. Along the way, we got a range of five singles matches in two days, plus the tour’s best main event. Before we dig into the bigger match from these shows…

Some of the specific Summer Struggles for Sapporo

… let’s talk about the previews for the Summer Struggle in Sapporo main events, the Dangerous Tekkers vs. Naito and Sanada (SaNaito, if you will) tag title match and the El Desperado vs. Ishimori junior title match. The Bullet Club vs. Suzukigun and L.I.J. vs. Suzukigun bouts on Kizuna Road didn’t do much to sell me on these matches more than I was already sold, but they didn’t really need to. Both Desperado vs. Ishimori and Taichi/ZSJ vs. SaNaito (is it sticking?) look like they should be entertaining, and have looked that way from the beginning.

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These last preview matches just add a little more aggression between the rivals (especially on July 2) and a few wrinkles to these angles. Desperado’s promo where he mentions that he doesn’t feel like he’s a worthy champion in the same breath as he commits to elevating the junior title is the most recent of the kind of character moments that played a key part in fans getting invested in him enough to root for him becoming junior champion. Dangerous Tekkers, interestingly, also get a more sympathetic portrayal in their angle when the tag title feud plays up L.I.J.’s heelish qualities at the last minute. It’s a sign that tweener SZKG seems here to stay that this feud ended up as one between two pairs of morally gray fan favorites rather than continuing to play up L.I.J.’s more heroic qualities and going for the valid clearer face-heel dynamic.

All this being said, the most notable event from these preview tags is obviously El Phantasmo going clean-shaven, which I’m convinced was the universe’s equal and opposite reaction to Kenny and the Bucks revealing their insane mustaches on AEW the night before.

Yoshi-Hashi def. Hiroyoshi Tenzan

The big attraction of the July 1 Kizuna Road event is the three Special Singles Matches between the Third Generation and Chaos. This part of the show starts with what is on paper the least attractive, least special singles match of the bunch: Yoshi-Hashi vs. Tenzan. Off paper, it also ended up being not great.

I don’t think either of these men is worth totally writing off as a singles wrestler – Tenzan vs. Great-O-Khan was great earlier this year and Yoshi-Hashi vs. Evil was a sleeper hit of the 2020 G1 – but this match showcased their weaknesses more than their strengths. They were clearly putting in a lot of effort, but their in-ring work together was still rarely exciting to watch. Tenzan looked pretty tired after a certain point, and more in an old guy getting winded kind of way than an inspiring fighting spirit kind of way.

All this stuff could have been easier to overlook if there was any reason to care about who won this match, but there wasn’t. Even for viewers really invested in Yoshi-Hashi succeeding as an underdog, it isn’t really significant for him to get a win over Tenzan at this point. Overall, I would have loved to be pleasantly surprised by this match, but it just didn’t deliver, though not for lack of effort. The Korakuen crowd didn’t hate it though!

Satoshi Kojima def. Hirooki Goto

I was all in on Ishii vs. Nagata going into this show, but Kojima and Goto ended up having the match of the night. These two did not coast whatsoever (it’s always a good sign when New Japan wrestlers get more creative with the outside-the-ring spots early in a match) and Kojima looked like he was in the best shape of the Third Generation. Kojima vs. Goto felt like we were getting the best of 2021 Kojima in a 15-minute package, with Goto supporting him throughout the match.

Kojima vs. Goto also has the most surprising result of this series, with Kojima pinning Goto and earning the old dudes the “1” in Chaos 2 – Third Gen 1. Of course, Goto getting a surprising loss to someone it seems like he should be able to beat is not all that surprising. This type of classic Goto booking has also already happened during this 6-man reign back when Ishimori beat Goto one-on-one with a flash pin. What’s more notable is that Goto later avenged both these losses by pinning the guy who beat him in a singles match to retain the trios titles (Ishimori back on the Road to Dontaku in April, Kojima on the last night of Kizuna Road.) I think there was enough time between these angles to keep the reuse of this story from feeling too repetitive, but still, it’s worth pointing out that they just repeated the same Goto story here, but with an old guy instead of a junior.

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Tomohiro Ishii def. Yuji Nagata

While Goto vs. Kojima exceeded expectations, I think Ishii vs. Nagata was a bit of a let-down. It wasn’t bad, but it lacked the insane energy of previous Ishii vs. Nagata matches – even from as recently as the 2019 New Japan Cup – that was the main reason to rub your little gremlin hands together and get really hyped for Ishii-Nagata 2k21. Ultimately, I think the Ishii vs. Nagata parts of the NEVER 6-man title match got closer to living up to the promise of this singles match than this match singles did.

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Kota Ibushi def. Yota Tsuji and Shingo Takagi def. Yuya Uemura

Better than the Third Gen vs. Chaos singles series on July 1 is the Tokyo Dome main eventers vs. Young Lions singles series on July 2. Ibushi vs. Tsuji isn’t on the level of Ibushi vs. Uemura, but it provides some quality Ibushi action and a promising performance from Tsuji. He probably won’t keep doing the giant swing right into the Boston Crab once he graduates from the dojo, but that type of pseudo-Power Guy stuff seems like it should be a key part of his act.

Speaking of power guys, Takagi vs. Uemura is on the level of Ibushi vs. Uemura, with the common element here being that Uemura seems ready for the big time. In both of these matches, when a top guy tells Uemura to bring it, Uemura shows he can really bring it. Against Shingo, Uemura shows some extra attitude and manages not to seem completely doomed for a while, even though he was clearly doomed before this match started. It’s also fun to see Takagi take the prompt of basically “encourage the kids to fight you, give the kids some extra room to grow for a while, make it look more like sparring than a squash for a while” and use that as an opportunity to be a colossal jerk.

Ibushi and Shingo will get back to regular preview matches soon, but I think these matches with Tsuji and Uemura also effectively promoted their match. Both wrestlers showed their personalities and singles match skills, but also didn’t show everything, even winning their bouts by using tertiary finishers. This setup leaves the audience wanting more from these performers in a slightly different way than preview tags do, and I think it worked well.

NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship match: Yoshi-Hashi, Hirooki Goto, and Tomohiro Ishii (c) def. Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Satoshi Kojima, and Yuji Nagata

While its lead-up singles matches weren’t great, the Chaos vs. Third Generation trios title match completely delivered. Earlier on Kizuna Road, I thought the main event title matches suffered from feeling like they were stretched or padded out to fit a longer, NJPW main event-style runtime. In contrast, this 6-man match went well over 20 minutes and stayed entertaining throughout. The wrestlers keep the energy and aggression up and strike the right balance between giving the various one-on-one, two-on-one, and two-on-two combinations (and so on) enough time to breathe and switching them out before the audience can get bored.

The match also benefits from one of the common strengths of matches involving older wrestlers: every move and pin-break feeling like there’s intention behind it. The structure of the match, and of trios matches in general, also helps mask that one of these teams is made up of wrestlers who are past their physical primes, allowing everyone to go hard in the ring for a bit, then get some recovery time.

I think it helps too that these particular older wrestlers aren’t usually the focus of high-stakes matches, and that it seems like if there’s any high-stakes match in New Japan that Tenzan, Kojima, and Nagata could win at this point, it’s one for the six-man titles. While their challenge is ultimately unsuccessful, Ishii surprisingly initiating a round of handshakes between the teams still creates the sense that this match has a happy ending for everyone. Though this feud had its downsides, it was all in all satisfying and fun to watch, providing some good wrestling and quality promos, and switching things up a little for New Japan.

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The post-match attack by Evil (who should always start feuds by ambushing people with the lights off from now on, and honestly, how did it take until 2021 for the King of Darkness to start doing that?) seemed for a moment like it could be taking the trios title picture to much more repetitive place, with not just another Bullet Club challenge, but another challenge by the same BC team that just challenged last month. I appreciate how quickly Evil and commentary make it clear that isn’t actually about a rematch, but the follow-up to Evil and Ishii’s face-off after that title match in June. This summer may be another one of struggle, but I think this positive momentum for the Chaos midcard squad could easily continue.

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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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