The night after the climactic Wrestle Kingdom 15 at the Tokyo Dome, New Japan Pro Wrestling kicked off their first round of feuds for 2021 at New Year Dash!! at Tokyo Dome City Hall. The show wasn’t as dramatic as some NYDs of the past, but there were a couple of matches worth watching and the beginnings of some very promising angles, including one for one of the best new matches NJPW could do right now.
Dad fights, neck attacks, and an imperial rebranding
New Year Dash!!, like many an NJPW show, is frontloaded with the company’s elders and trainees, but it gives them more dramatic material than usual. Gabriel Kidd vs. Yuji Nagata is a pretty standard Dad vs. Young Lion match, but Minoru Suzuki vs. Yuya Uemura (partnering with Douki and Tiger Mask, respectively) is presented more like a real feud than ever before. Uemura is overwhelmingly focused on Suzuki and attacks him with all of that spirit that makes him look like a future top level babyface. Suzuki has a great time sadistically retaliating, and Douki is basically the third wheel in this match, and Tiger Mask the fourth.
UNITED EMPIRE 【連合帝国】へ、生まれ変わる pic.twitter.com/Je7HnsTU1B
— グレート-O-カーン👑 (@Great_O_Khan) January 7, 2021
In the third match on the card, TenCozy and Tsuji take on The Empire, and they don’t just get beaten by the recovering new faction to prove a point, they get beaten by the recovering new faction to prove a point and to start a feud. I wrote about the why The Empire push/Will Ospreay Big Six situation sucks so much in the Wrestle Kingdom review so I’m not going to get into that again right now. I’ll just add for regular readers to expect this column to be passed on to another person by the time we get the Empire All Belts or IWGP Heavyweight Ospreay moment promised in the near-ish future, because at that point it’s not going to be worthwhile at all to be around the NJPW fan community or to watch all this stuff.
More immediately, New Year Dash!! sees Ospreay and Great-O-Khan start beef with the beloved TenCozy, and the best part of this is O-Khan and Tenzan trying to Mongolian Chop each other straight to hell. A battle for the ownership of this move is what the people really need from this feud, but we just get a post-match set up for Kojima-Ospreay when Tenzan gets stretchered out after the match.
The other development from this six-man tag is that Ospreay gets on the mic to cut an angry promo that the audience largely can’t understand in which he calls his faction “the United Empire” rather than just “the Empire.” This faction is unsalvageable to anyone who cares about the treatment of sexual assault victims more than pretend gymnastics play fighting, but at least this altered name and the presentation of the group in this promo makes O-Khan and Jeff Cobb sound less like colonial subjects and more like active partners in the conquest of the wrestling world or whatever, and that does fix one bad thing about The Empire.
Bullet Club (El Phantasmo, Taiji Ishimori, Tama Tonga, and Tanga Loa) def. Suzukigun (Yoshinobu Kanemaru, El Desperado, Zack Sabre Jr., and Taichi)
I criticized the G.o.D. vs. Dangerous Tekkers match at Wrestle Kingdom for its crime of weird vibes, and in contrast, the rematch feud that begins at NYD immediately has its tone down perfectly. They have real heel 4 heel energy going now, with one side smug in victory, the other bitter in defeat, and both of them cheating whenever possible. The G.o.D. vs. Zack and Taichi feud looks like it’ll be more fun now that it’s based around not just tag title revenge (“Only your family is happy to see you with those belts” is a devastating burn) but Taichi going full “bitch, I’ll kill you” over the theft of the Iron Fingers.
This match both continues the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship feud that climaxed the day before and sets up a new one for the junior tag titles. The junior tag title feud unfortunately does include El Phantasmo, but at least the loaded heel superkick thing is less tired than when his big thing was low blows.
Neither team in either of these feuds has a real moral high ground or a clean, competitive spirit, but this time at least the heavyweight tag picture provides more of a reason to pay attention. So far, I think these are angles to be optimistic about, and it’ll be interesting to see if they lead to a continued face or tweener turn for Suzukigun, maybe without Suzuki, or we’ll see a return to full heel status once they’re done.
Chaos (Kazuchika Okada, Toru Yano, Yoshi-Hashi, Hirooki Goto, and Tomohiro Ishii) def. Bullet Club (Jay White, Evil, Bad Luck Fale, Yujiro Takahashi, and Chase Owens)
The show’s second big Bullet Club group tag, this one against Chaos, doesn’t stand out in terms of wrestling action, but it promises what should be at least one strong singles match to come. First, though, it sets up one of the least appealing matches NJPW could run right now by making it clear that Chase Owens is going to be Toru Yano’s first challenger for KOPW 2021. I don’t know what stipulation they could come up with that would have made this funny at any time, and I especially don’t know why they would decide to make Owens the subject of a public internet fan poll within the next month or two.
Nothing gets set up for the poor, neglected six-man titles despite all of the trios champions being involved in this match, but we do see seeds planted for two singles matches that are sure to be impactful. Evil and Okada pair off in the ring, then call each other out backstage, with Okada pointing out that last year he started to fall short after Evil beat him in the New Japan Cup final.
The feud between the pair that ends the match, Jay and Ishii, could, in theory, be set up the same way; it would be typical Switchblade to find a way to blame Ishii blocking him from the G1 final for his eventual loss at WK 15. However, we’re clearly in an atypical era for Jay White. His behavior is much more subdued than usual, and he doesn’t pick a fight or cut a promo after the match, which he loses for his team after being pinned by Ishii. Ishii, in a completely non-judgemental way, actually encourages him to get it together and come get revenge, and I wish he would do that for me sometime.
Ishii’s brought the best and toughest out of many wrestlers in the past, and the beginning of what looks like that kind of angle with White promises probably a very good match with an interesting story. You can imagine this ending with White going back to his Switchblade self or maybe a more respectable version of that, or possibly an actual face turn. However these special singles matches play out, it looks like either Evil vs. Okada or White vs. Ishii will name Ibushi’s next challenger, so that’s something to anticipate a little further down the road.
Highlights from “NEW YEAR DASH!!” (Jan 6th)
Master Wato , SHO , Rocky Romero , Hiroshi Tanahashi & Kota Ibushi VS BUSHI , Hiromu Takahashi , Tetsuya Naito , Shingo Takagi & SANADA
— njpwworld (@njpwworld) January 6, 2021
Los Ingobernables def Japon (Bushi, Hiromu Takahashi, Shingo Takagi, Sanada, and Tetsuya Naito) def. Master Wato, Sho, Rocky Romero, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and Kota Ibushi
The L.I.J. vs. Miscellaneous Good Guys ten-man tag match is a big group tag on a show full of big group tags, but they manage to give it some main event importance. For one thing, it’s our first time seeing all post-Evil L.I.J. together as a team possibly ever, or at least in a long time, and their entrance is very cool. (Their post-match pose looks like it needs workshopping, but in an endearing way.) This is also the match with the company’s top champions (Ibushi and Hiromu) and their already-approved challengers, and everyone appropriately wrestles like that’s a big deal.
Hiromu vs. Sho looks like, based on their wrestling here and in past matches, it should be very good. Ibushi vs. Sanada looks like it’ll be the same as every other Ibushi vs. Sanada, and I think those matches have shown them to be NJPW’s worst current combination of popular guys besides maybe Sanada vs. Jay. The energy of both the upcoming junior and not-yet-unified double championship matches are the same as that of every Kzy Open the Dream Gate challenge – clearly too early in the new champions’ reign for them to have a shot at winning – but at least one of them should be fun to watch.
Two new feuds come out of this main event too, both of which had groundwork laid on the World Tag League/BOSJ combo tour. Bushi pins Master Wato to win the match, then calls out “Kawato” to go one-on-one, bringing up their BOSJ match and claiming the younger wrestler can never beat him. He explains that this is basically to give himself something to do, which I respect a lot. Wato is Bushi’s sourdough starter.
Meanwhile, we’re getting one of the best new matches that NJPW could possibly do right now, Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Shingo Takagi, for the first NEVER title challenge of the new wrestling year. These guys barely interact in the NYD main event, but it doesn’t matter; the expectations and anticipation have already been well established by their entire careers. And aside from dream match appeal, Takagi-Tanahashi has some straightforward drama behind it. Shingo called out Tana back on December 4, challenging him to live up to his reputation and also give him any kind of singles match, “it doesn’t have to be a title match.” On the Ace’s part, he sees the NEVER title as a possible launching point for another comeback. It all seems like the start of a feud that I would be more than okay with taking up like six non-consecutive months of this year.
Feud roundup and notes on the future
To recap, NJPW’s feuds coming out of New Year Dash!! are:
- Uemura vs. Suzuki, continued
- TenCozy vs. The Empire, with probably Kojima vs. Ospreay and O-Khan vs. Tenzan
- Bullet Club vs. Suzukigun: G.o.D. vs. Dangerous Tekkers for the heavyweight tag titles, Desperado and Kanemaru vs. ELP and Ishimori for the junior tag titles, and Douki vs. Jado
- Bullet Club vs. Chaos: Chase vs. Yano for KOPW, Okada vs. Evil, probably Jay vs. Ishii, and maybe something with the six-man titles in there
- Los Ingos vs. Chaos-Hontai alliance: Ibushi vs. Sanada for the double championship, Hiromu vs. Sho for the junior title, Shingo vs. Tana for NEVER, and Bushi vs. Wato
The most notable guy on the roster left with nothing to do is Tetsuya Naito. He’s not down in the dumps like White is, but he has no clear path forward after losing the double championship. His break from drama seems sure to be an “absence makes the heart grow fonder” situation, and should both give him a break and make audiences more excited in the long term for him to start doing more consequential stuff again.
As much as NJPW can plan its future for 2021, things are still more out of their hands than usual. With coronavirus cases still on the rise in Japan, a state of emergency was declared for the Tokyo area earlier today. It’s currently supposed to remain in effect through February 7, and includes, per NHK, a request for people to “refrain from nonessential excursions after 8 PM each day. It is also considering limiting the number of spectators at events to half their venues’ capacity, or 5,000, whichever is the smallest.” NJPW has yet to announce any changes in response to the state of emergency, but that’s something to watch out for if you’re planning to watch the New Beginning tour.