This past weekend was a big one for junior heavyweights in New Japan Pro Wrestling. In America, El Phantasmo became a two-time Super J-Cup winner, and in Japan, Hiromu Takahashi took home his second winged Best of the Super Juniors trophy. With the BOSJ and World Tag League finals on the same night and Wrestle Kingdom less than a month away, the over-200 kgs wrestlers had a lot going on too.
A housekeeping note before we get started on all that stuff: Apologies for the extreme lateness of this article! I had oral surgery this week and it temporarily derailed my whole life, including this blog.
Note #2: This review is going to start with a bunch of negativity about Wrestle Kingdom builds because I think many of them leave a lot to be desired. However, things will get more positive once we get to the tournament finals, and especially Hiromu vs. Despy, which was one of NJPW’s best matches this year.
Bullet Club (Bad Luck Fale, Chase Owens, and Taiji Ishimori) def. Chaos (Toru Yano, Sho, and Robbie Eagles)
This undercard is all about building to Wrestle Kingdom, and the most shrug-worthy thing NJPW decides to build to Bad Luck Fale vs. Toru Yano for KOPW. Bullet Club and Chaos have what would be a fine opener if not for the ongoing sketchy real-life Chase Owens situation. It’s followed by Fale reheating his beef with Yano from the beginning of Tag League by breaking his trophy, which is no Murder of Daryl but is still a good moment.
The KOPW stipulation Fale proposes backstage is a Bodyslam Match, which could be actually funny. Yano could probably make trying to bodyslam a decorative throw pillow funny. It’s also unintentionally funny because somehow the premise for Fale challenging for the Let’s Get Weird title is essentially the same one they do every time he wrestles Okada. Overall, this match seems like something that should happen on a Wrestling Dontaku or Destruction show rather than at the Tokyo Dome, but it’s probably happening at the Tokyo Dome.
The Empire (Will Ospreay, Great-O-Khan, and Jeff Cobb) def. Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and Toa Henare
The Empire’s first match as a three-man team is a reminder that as good as O-Khan and Cobb got during World Tag League, they still signed up to be Ospreay’s sidekicks so they’re actually chumps. Okay, it’s really about heating up Okada vs. Ospreay’s ex-brotherly WK battle and setting up the O-Khan vs. Tanahashi matched that was teased a little at the beginning of this tour.
Tanahashi vs. O-Khan is Tana’s least auspicious January 4 match since he was a Young Lion, but it’ll probably be at least pretty good. I was negative about the more serious version of O-Khan’s act when he first took it in that direction, but I think he’s since worked the kinks out and showed more of what he can do during Tag League. If Tana-Khan ends up sucking anyway, at least NJPW recently made Tana vs. Shingo look like something that could happen next year, so maybe the Ace will get a feud in 2021 that isn’t about him being washed (and then not washed for the duration of the G1, and then maybe washed again.)
L.I.J. (Sanada and Shingo Takagi) def. Bullet Club (Evil and Yujiro Takahashi)
The first match worth watching on the show is Evil and Yujiro Takahashi vs. Sanada and Shingo Takagi. Sanada and Shingo were to 2020 WTL what Dangerous Tekkers were to 2018 WTL, a recently official team that seemed like they could go right into the tag title picture and also did a lot of Friendship Bonding, but for now, they’re going their separate ways.
The highlight of this match is Sanada finally snapping and just trying to fight Evil. In sharp contrast to Hiromu’s organ-soundtracked breakdown this summer, it took Sanada like six months to show emotion about his partner’s betrayal, and wrestling fans are in no position to judge the timeline of his emotional journey when it’s giving us one of the best-looking matches on January 5.
Doing the grudge match version of this feud also seems like the best move for both Evil and Sanada coming off of, for Sanada, his first G1 final and a fun WTL run, and for Evil, a fine but heatless double title challenge and a less notable tag tournament. The former tag champs’ block-deciding G1 match was entertaining and had the audience invested, and their Wrestle Kingdom match should do the same. It’s hard to predict what the future holds for Evil and Sanada, but this WK match – between two wrestlers who work well together, supported by a story it’s easy to get on board with – could send them into that future with their best feet forward.
Sanada dragging Evil to the back leaves Takagi alone in the ring to get attacked by Jeff Cobb and officially set up a match Cobb had basically challenged for after Empire killed L.I.J.’s tag league dreams. The foundation for an actual rivalry between them has been built – at least in part unintentionally – since they started wrestling in the same circles. From the 2018 PWG BOLA final to the 2019 G1 to the 2020 G1 to the 2020 World Tag League, Cobb and Shingo in the same ring has meant Shingo’s taking the L. Takagi has very much played into this, always selling the bejeezus out of everything Cobb does and reacting to his feats of strength with the non-verbal equivalent of Holy shit, can you believe how strong this guy is??? Cobb vs. Takagi at WK obviously won’t have as much drama as Evil vs. Sanada, but it does have a story that makes sense behind it, plus the promise of a good NEVER-style match.
Kota Ibushi and Master Wato def. L.I.J. (Tetsuya Naito and Bushi)
Ibushi and Wato vs. Naito and Bushi is another solid tag match, this one based around older drama. Naito and Ibushi still work amazingly together in the ring and the whole dynamic of their rivalry is still top-notch. Everything the performers are doing to promote Golden Stardust Showdown Whatever Number This Is is so good that I really wish it was happening for reasons that weren’t so convoluted and dumb! With New Japan, especially when it comes to the IWGP title picture and especially when it comes to the Tokyo Dome shows, it’s usually a lot easier to get excited for without having to do this “well, booking aside” stuff. My fingers are crossed that’s something New Japan can get back to in 2021.
This is also the section where I should say that after Best of the Super Juniors, it’s a lot easier to get Master Wato now. He’s probably not going to achieve a ton soon after excursion, but he doesn’t seem doomed to be a jobber either. Tenzan’s promos about Wato have started to sound more like those of a mentor than a hype man, bringing up how young he is and how far he has to go, and it fits this kind of derpy, very young-looking wrestler in a Lisa Frank kung fu idol getup better than his initial presentation.
?WORLD TAG LEAGUE 2020 決勝戦?
— njpwworld (@njpwworld) December 11, 2020
World Tag League 2020 Final: Guerillas of Destiny (Tama Tonga and Tanga Loa) def. David Finlay and Juice Robinson
After four matches about the future, the World Tag League final gives us some action that matters right here and now (and also in the future!) The finalists, FinJuice and G.o.D., are two teams who would have felt like obvious picks for the tag league final in a regular, no-pandemic version of 2020. In the real 2020, however, this was a tournament that both teams spent reintegrating themselves back into the normal NJPW roster after the majority of a year stuck overseas.
Like their match on the opening night of the tour but more so, FinJuice and G.o.D. wrestle the final like they have something to prove, which despite being half of the tag title picture before the hiatus, they basically do. Their match fights to keep your attention at all times, moving quickly from sequence to sequence, changing up which team is in control and which wrestlers are in the ring, and featuring some cool and unexpected spots like Juice’s counter of the Super Powerbomb. There are some Bullet Club run-in shenanigans, and those have gotten really irritating this year at times, but the Jado-to-Kenta swerve that decides the match is actually surprising and works really well.
G.o.D. hits the Super Powerbomb (sold with a fantastic Looney Tunes physics bounce from Marty Asami upon impact) for the win, and we get a rare heel vs. heel title match at the Tokyo Dome, which probably means babyface-by-default Taichi in the Tokyo Dome, which is something so exciting I can barely process it. While the Guerillas and FinJuice pull out all the stops here to have a final-worthy match, I really hope they move on to feuds with other teams for a while (instead of reconnecting right after WK15) because it feels like they’ve wrestled so many times.
?BEST OF THE SUPER Jr.27 決勝戦?(12/11)を公開‼️
— njpwworld (@njpwworld) December 11, 2020
Best of the Super Jr. 27 Final: Hiromu Takahashi def. El Desperado
Hiromu Takahashi vs. El Desperado looked like the best possible BOSJ final before the tournament began, and it still manages to surpass expectations.
After clashing in the tag title picture earlier this fall, Despy and Hiromu met one-on-one for the first time since summer 2018 and quickly cranked their rivalry up a few notches. Their intensity in the ring was reminiscent of Hiromu’s already canonized rivalry with Dragon Lee, but was unique to the Hiromu-Desperado dynamic. Also like Hiromu vs. Lee but very much its own thing, Hiromu and Desperado amped up the romantic angle even more explicitly than that almost-kiss backstage at Dominion 2018. A wrestler declaring “I’ve always told you that I’ve loved you this whole time” after brutalizing their opponent to get a win and for that to be villainous behavior without a gay panic or “no homo” element is 1) very entertaining, especially with two guys as great at character work as Despy and Hiromu and 2) a vein that hasn’t been tapped much in men’s wrestling, so it deserves a lot of appreciation.
The thing about the Despy-Hiromu block match that carries over to the final (besides the knee attacks) is that even if you’re watching with a minimally smarky mentality, it’s still easy to root for or be sympathetic to the heel. Hiromu had a BOSJ run that made him look like the temporarily uncrowned ace of the division that he is. El Desperado had a great run too, but that’s something that’s come to be expected of him more recently. 2020 was his best year ever as a singles competitor after years as the Suzukigun flag-holder who never seemed to live up to his aesthetic, then an increasingly strong tag wrestler, then finally a breakout as a singles guy when he and Hiromu met one-on-one. “I’ve never finished first in anything in my life,” Despy remarks after learning he’s made the final, and the awareness of this makes it really satisfying to see his perpetual midcard villain finally make it big.
When we reach the December 11 main event between Hiromu Takashi and Noted Yandere El Desperado, the matchup is highly anticipated but doesn’t really feel like face vs. heel, despite our hero being justifiably out for revenge. Hiromu and Despy don’t run straight at each other like the beginning of many big Hiromu matches and unexpectedly start on the mat instead, which makes it more exciting when Hiromu lands his first chop. The match continues with Despy focusing on Hiromu’s knee that he had targeted previously and locking on Numero Dos whenever possible. Hiromu does a fantastic job selling his leg, playing up the peril, and showing good babyface spirit in his comebacks. Also, he does a very cool transition into a Canadian Destroyer that makes me think we might be past this move being played out.
The match would have been very good if it had continued like this, but instead, it ascends to unforgettable status in its third act. After Despy has incorporated chair attacks and a low blow into the match, Hiromu pulls out a bigger gun and goes after his mask, ripping it so much that it draws illegal gasps from the crowd. There’s enough of it left that Desperado could have kept wrestling with just his hair and upper face exposed, but he rips it off and starts forearming Hiromu barefaced. As they move on to slaps and go increasingly feral, it feels, in the moment, like the greatest match ever and like Desperado is the coolest wrestler alive. The finish is the one time I’ve ever been sad to see Hiromu win, though in the long term, of course, I’m rooting for him to get his title back at WK.
This main event leads to, in addition to Hiromu and Despy renewing their vows to fight until they retire and Hiromu challenging the Super J-Cup winner, speculation about what this unmasking means for the Despy character. Both finalists make it clear what it means pretty quickly: El Desperado ripping his mask off didn’t mean he was abandoning the El Desperado persona.
If Despy was a real luchador, this would be a huge deal as a departure from unmasking norms, but he isn’t. The El Desperado persona is a product of appreciation for and appropriation of the lucha libre masked man tradition, but it’s not really a part of it. Unlike many legit luchadors even in our current era of everyone having a camera on them at all times, Despy’s real identity has always been known, and it’s been alluded to several times over the years in a nudge nudge, wink wink kind of way.
If you google “El Desperado” the first results are wiki pages that start with “Kyosuke Mikami,” and it’s easy to track the former dojo boy’s journey in and out of different masks. You can still easily watch him get unmasked as Namajague on his CMLL excursion in 2013, and when “new” wrestler El Desperado showed up at Wrestle Kingdom 8 with a bouquet for Ibushi it was obviously him. The Namajague unmasking, in retrospect, had even less significance in comparison to regular lucha unmaskings because Despy has since re-donned the demon mask for Fantastica Mania, saying El Desperado was out of the country. It’s always been clear who Desperado was, and that he wasn’t really a half-Japanese, half-Mexican guy named José.
Though El Desperado ripping off his own mask isn’t an important part of lucha libre unmasking history in the way that Eddie Guerrero unmasking himself as Mascara Magica was, the moment is still really important to that match, and to Desperado as a character. He puts the mask back on for the next house show and no one says his shoot name on-air, but that didn’t lessen the “reveal” because it wasn’t really a face reveal, but a revelation of hidden depths. Sacrificing the symbol of the identity he created for himself in pursuit of the biggest victory of his career over his biggest rival (who he has intense love/hate feelings toward) is a demonstration of that fighting spirit, that willingness to persevere beyond one’s limits, that’s the real moral arbiter of Japanese wrestling above “good” and “bad.”
The takeaways from the BOSJ final are, in the end, that Hiromu vs. Desperado was a great match and that Desperado could definitely be a singles champion in 2021 (a point his previous singles matches of 2020 made, but this match really drove home.) Looking back after the Super J-Cup, it’s also even more anticlimactic for Hiromu to follow this match by going “and now I must fight the Super J-Cup winner!” I don’t get how this could be followed up with anything but a title match, but it’s really important to get El Phantasmo back in the fold, apparently. Despite that follow-up, though, the Hiromu Takahashi vs. El Desperado BOSJ final stands on its own as a very special, feral, emotional, and exciting match that will hopefully lead to more good things in the future.