NJPW Power Struggle 2020 Review: There’s So Much About Wrestle Kingdom Booking In This One

Please comment with what percentage of God you think Kota Ibushi is after this weekend. I'd say maybe 30%?

With the dramatic conclusion of the G1 Climax behind them, New Japan Pro Wrestling travels further down the road to Wrestle Kingdom with Power Struggle, a show that’s eventful in both positive and negative ways. The November 7 event features title changes and Tokyo Dome challenges, and its fallout could cause long-term damage to NJPW’s creative infrastructure. But before stuff gets weird in a booking way, Power Struggle begins by getting weird in a Toru Yano way.

KOPW Championship No Corner Pad match: Toru Yano (c) def. Zack Sabre Jr.

Zack Sabre Jr. perfectly sums up the Power Struggle opener backstage when he says, “What a ridiculous way to start an event. Oh my god, he really is the King of Pro Wrestling, isn’t he?”

Yano and ZSJ’s No Turnbuckle Pad match delivers everything you would expect from Yano’s KOPW reign (except a fan vote, because Zack just agreed to this stipulation.) There’s some normal, mostly submission-based wrestling, but the highlights are the shenanigans. There’s a good hand sanitizer spot, a big laugh for Yano whipping Zack into an illegally covered corner (the result of mind games or undeniable cheating reflexes), and of course, the finish.

Yano tying Sabre’s shoelaces together in the barricade without him noticing is a new version of a Yano staple, it produces fun dramatic irony for the audience, and most importantly, it’s very funny. Young Lion openers obviously aren’t going anywhere, but I definitely wouldn’t mind more events starting with similar Yano ridiculousness in the future.

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

Shingo Takagi vs. Minoru Suzuki is something completely different from the opener, and it’s about as good as the matches they’ve had in the past.

Their third clash is a mix of each man trying to out-tough the other with Suzuki targeting Takagi’s lower back, which he had also been attacking on Road shows. Suzuki and Takagi’s decision to do head stuff in Jingu, arm stuff in the G1, and now back stuff in Osaka makes me kind of want them to just keep rematching until they run out of obvious body parts and start trying to tell a story around an earlobe.

While Shingo is very over as a babyface in NJPW, I tend to think the ideal face presentation for him isn’t one that asks for so much concern about the physical wellbeing of one of the toughest and scariest-looking guys on the roster, which is what happens here. The ending of this match, the Last of the Dragon after a long-ish pause in the action, also feels a little off. However, Suzuki vs. Takagi III still delivers the feral fun of their earlier matches, features some exciting action, and puts the NEVER Openweight Championship back on Takagi, who goes right back to the champion mindset he had in his excellent first reign, with a focus on elevating the title.

Kazuchika Okada def. Great-O-Khan

Great-O-Khan was always doomed in this match, but in the build, Okada did his best to avoid burying him, saying he had thought O-Khan would be an appetizer before Ospreay, but the younger wrestler showed he was a main course. However, at this point in his career, O-Khan clearly is an appetizer, and so far, he’s owning it.

O-Khan is a fun character and wrestler to watch for many of the same reasons Lance Archer’s post-K.E.S. NJPW singles run was so enjoyable. He’s fully embracing an old-timey monster gimmick, leaning into the cartoony side of wrestling without clowning. O-Khan seems more concerned with playing the role and entertaining the audience than he is with being taken seriously, and that’s refreshing to see from a non-comedic wrestler right now. His match with Okada is closer to okay than amazing and isn’t helped by its predictable outcome, but watching O-Khan in action keeps it interesting.

Of course, Okada vs. O-Khan is just a prelude to Okada vs. Ospreay at Wrestle Kingdom, and that challenge after the match leaves a lot to be desired. I’ve wrote about the many issues I have with The Empire and this summer and fall’s uninterrupted push of Ospreay in my G1 Final review. Power Struggle sees the gimmick evolve to include Ospreay wearing a suit and watch and drinking champagne and bragging about how rich he is. It’s either this character attempting to mimic the Rainmaker or to do a British gentleman thing (the glasses and the faction name make me think it might be the latter?), but in effect, it looks like an example of a suit wearing a man more than a man wearing a suit, and it makes Ospreay look like a child and/or an alt-right pundit.

Okada says backstage that he’s not pulling it off, so maybe that’s intentional, but this whole “I’m so rich” bit still comes out of nowhere and seems unnecessary when Ospreay was already perfectly hateable as just the evil version of his previous NJPW persona who did a lot of public heterosexual kissing. It’s a hat on a hat. I’m obviously very biased against this gimmick and have zero desire to watch The Empire already, so take this with as much salt as you want, but I think this is a mess.

IWGP U.S. Heavyweight Championship Right to Challenge Contract match: Kenta (c) def. Hiroshi Tanahashi

Very much not a mess is Kenta vs. Tanahashi for the U.S. title match contract! It’s an entertaining, competitive hero vs. villain match between two great wrestlers who work well together. Kenta shows really good aggression throughout, Tanahashi has some standout Ace moments like that plancha and the Slingblade counter of the G2S, and many air instruments are played. It’s straightforwardly good wrestling with a few briefcase attacks in there, and I think it’s the best match of the show.

IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Double Championship Right to Challenge Contract match: Jay White def. Kota Ibushi (c)

Jay White vs. Kota Ibushi is, at this point, a reliably good matchup, and they have another quality match at Power Struggle. White is at his annoying best and Ibushi, as always, looks amazingly athletic and brutal. Like the other rematches of recent G1 bouts earlier on this show, they switch things up enough from their previous singles encounter to keep things from feeling repetitive; this one’s an aggressive back and forth, while the last one was more of a Body Part Match.

The one issue I have with this match is the finish. White uses the Blade Runner so much that his winning with a different move is usually surprising and effective, but I thought his legs on the ropes looked too obvious here and it hurt the ending. I know NJPW referees all have kayfabe brain damage and are functionally blind half of the time, but I feel like the winning pin still could have been done in a more believable way.

The post-Power Struggle press conference on November 8 quickly changes what the outcome of this match means and I’ll talk about that later in this article, but first I want to look at what Jay’s win meant for the Wrestle Kingdom picture before then. White winning the contract is a development that I would call subjectively “bad” and “disappointing,” and I don’t think that’s an uncommon opinion. A Naito vs. Ibushi main event is just more exciting to a lot of people than a Naito vs. White one. And, as I wrote about in more detail in the G1 Final review, it comes at what seems like such a good time for Ibushi, as a wrestler and a character, to finally ascend to the upper-upper echelon of NJPW wrestlers after he’s accomplished basically everything else the company has to offer. Jay White is getting better and better all the time, but Ibushi’s amazing, a fan-favorite, and almost forty.

Still, the G1 Climax winner losing his title shot has been a possibility since the briefcase era began, and I guess it was bound to happen at some point. It’s a disappointing development, but one that at least makes sense in the fictional world of NJPW. At least, it is until the fallout from the November 8 press conference turns the situation into something much more convoluted.

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

Remember when running Naito vs. Evil for the fourth time since June seemed like the most annoying title match booking decision NJPW would make this year?

This matchup felt very played out when the Power Struggle main event was announced, but that doesn’t stop Evil and Naito from delivering as much they can. Their matches have been better the more normal, uninterrupted wrestling they’ve been able to do, and they’re able to do a lot of it here.

Rather than a lot of shenanigans throughout the match, Evil vs. Naito has an extended Mainly Run-Ins section after the champ’s visual pinfall, and I think it’s executed as well as it could be. Yujiro getting so involved switches things up from previous Evil matches and Sanada looks fantastic making the save (and that’s the outfit he chose specifically to hang out backstage/do counter run-ins, by the way, because had nothing else to do on this show, though he could have challenged Naito at the end), and the Jay White appearance makes things weird and tense before Ibushi runs him off. Though all this extra stuff wasn’t needed, I think doing it this way hurt the match’s momentum a lot less than the interference in many previous Bullet Club Evil matches.

And then everything gets really dumb and convoluted

Power Struggle ends with Naito winning, White challenging, and a new Wrestle Kingdom main event. At the time, the question of what NJPW will do for the last match on January 4, since Jay insists on main-eventing Night 2. The press conference and match announcements over the next two days reveal that they’re going to do something dumb and convoluted that undercuts the results of the Power Struggle G1 briefcase match, the importance of winning the G1 Climax, and the gravitas of main-eventing an NJPW Tokyo Dome show. It’s a “here’s how Ibushi can still win” solution that’s theoretically good for Ibushi, but also bad for just about everything about how NJPW works, and probably still bad for Ibushi.

At the press conference, Naito proposes that since he doesn’t have a match booked on January 4 and White wants to challenge on January 5, he’d like to defend his titles on Night 1, and he’s specifically like to defend against Ibushi. He knows Ibushi doesn’t have the right to challenge anymore, but he’d still like to face him because he won the G1. In one of the very few times NJPW has ever directly listened to a suggestion from Naito, after a year of ignoring his requests to defend his titles separately, the company just makes this official! Naito vs. Ibushi will now main event 1.4 and the winner will face Jay White in the main event of 1.5.

This development immediately shakes the foundations of NJPW’s creative structure, what makes its title matches, and the IWGP Heavyweight Championship match in the main event of the Tokyo Dome most of all, feel important. In all fiction, making rules and then breaking them generally invites criticism and harms people’s abilities to engage with stories. In wrestling, a major way this happens is when the result of a match is supposed to mean something, but then some kind of authority figure says no, JK, it actually doesn’t! NJPW doesn’t have as visible of authority figures as other companies, but that’s essentially what they’re doing here.

This kind of development isn’t just bad fiction writing and bad wrestling writing, but in a New Japan-specific way, it devalues and decreases the hype around some of the most important and exciting things in the company. Most of the time, the G1 Climax and the main event of Wrestle Kingdom and the IWGP Heavyweight Championship positively reinforce each other’s importance. The G1 is the most important tournament because winning it gets you a shot at the most important title on the most important show, main-eventing Wrestle Kingdom is so important because it’s a match for the most important title involving the winner of the most important tournament, and so on. Someone saying “hey, what if we just let a guy into a Tokyo Dome main event title match because the champion feels like it and we don’t have other plans” is totally out of step with everything that makes this system work.

It also raises the question of why, in kayfabe, didn’t NJPW have something planned for the January 4 main event already when the show is less than two months away? Why wasn’t the plan something like an Intercontinental title defense on Night 1 and a Heavyweight title defense on Night 2, or a number one contender’s match or a Junior Heavyweight Championship defense to end Night 1 and a double title match on Night 2 – any other option that would make it seem NJPW wasn’t just going into their biggest show of the year with no plan?

Both in real life and kayfabe, but mostly in real life, this also brings up the issue of how NJPW hasn’t figured out how to handle the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental double championship ten months after Naito became the first person to hold both belts, and over a year and a half after the double championship storyline began ahead of the 2019 New Japan Cup. The real world is obviously insane right now and lots of things are changing all the time, but they really should have had this figured out last year.

One could look at this situation and say that it isn’t so bad because Ibushi is just the position Naito was in last year, but I think comparing the two cases makes this fall apart even more. The build to the Wrestle Kingdom 14 main events was convoluted and controversial enough it warranted a fan poll. Naito did not deserve to be in the Double Gold Dash as much as White, Ibushi, and Okada. He didn’t hold a title and he wasn’t the G1 winner; all he did was win a de facto IC title number one contenders’ match against Taichi. However, he at least won that number one contender’s match, then had to face one of his main rivals of from year, then had to beat the guy who’d blocked him from winning the Heavyweight Championship at the Tokyo Dome twice before in order to become the double champion – and all this in addition to how Wrestle Kingdom 14 was the culmination of an almost decade-long career/character journey.

In contrast, Ibushi just became the only three-time consecutive G1 finalist and one of the few back-to-back G1 winners only to get into the Wrestle Kingdom main event picture because someone took pity on him. You could say there wasn’t time for him to win some kind of qualifying match like Naito did because of NJPW’s compressed 2020 schedule, but they could have stuck one on the World Tag League/BOSJ final show or something. If Ibushi exits the Dome on January 5 as double champion, people will be happy for him, but it won’t be anywhere near as good of a look as if he won the title in a way that showed he undisputedly deserved it.

If White comes out of Wrestle Kingdom as champion, I’m sure some people won’t like it, but he’ll basically be fine, especially since he’s a heel and he’s still in his 20s. If Naito remains champion, his reign continuing could be cool; there are a lot of people he hasn’t feuded with as champ and he’s been killing it in the ring this year. Either of these guys will be fine if they lose too, though there could be a lot of disappointment about Naito’s reign ending. But for Ibushi, I think Wrestle Kingdom 15 is now bound to make him look like a massive loser if he loses, and a little bit of a loser even if he wins.

The overarching issue with all of this is that New Japan still hasn’t figured out how to have the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental double championship exist in a way that makes sense, and at this point that’s beginning to hurt other aspects of the promotion. I think the best viewers can hope for now is for New Japan to separate or merge the titles ASAP, learn from their mistakes, and find a better way forward, because what happened this week was a step in the wrong direction. Power Struggle was still a fun show though.