NJPW Road to the New Beginning 1/17-19 Review: Main Event Wato

After ending the wrestling year with two nights at the Tokyo Dome and kicking it off at New Year Dash!!, January 17-19 saw New Japan Pro Wrestling start down the Road to the New Beginning. Building to events on January 30 in Nagoya and February 10-11 in Hiroshima, these three nights at Korakuen Hall were each two hours of tag matches pitting rivals against each other. A lot of this material was skippable and some unexpectedly weird, with a few matches and developments really stand-out good.

Great O-Khan is for the children (NJPW)

The United Empire vs. TenCozy minus Ten

The opening matches of these first Road to the New Beginning shows pit Will Ospreay and Great O-Khan (the now-United Empire) vs. Satoshi Kojima and either Tsuji or Uemura standing in for the storyline-injured Tenzan. The positive things I can say about these openers are that they make me want to see Kojima do more during his 30th pro wrestling year, especially coming off that great match with Kenta at Wrestle Kingdom, and that O-Khan,  as also demonstrated at WK, has it all put together.

Mostly though, these matches and their placement at the beginning of the shows ushering in the new year make me shake my head and feel sad about how NJPW isn’t as good as it used to be. When I got sucked in by Nakamura and Tanahashi, how could I have anticipated it would eventually lead to me watching Will Ospreay making direct eye contact with the camera three days in a row? What a betrayal!

More seriously, I’ve done by best to analyze different angles of this Empire/Big Six Ospreay situation all over the Fanfyte NJPW tag for the past several months and don’t have much to add at this point, but I will add this: NJPW really had the potential for years, which they never exploited and possibly didn’t even know about, to be the one wrestling promotion in the Western market for normal-ass people and/or women, and they have now completely fumbled that ball with this whack faction and their general lack of response to Speaking Out. It’s depressing. And I know this is a minority view, but it’s really not uncommon in the part of wrestling fandom that isn’t on the WON message boards or whatever, and it’s never going to be less valid than the views that think star ratings have real importance. Women and/or abuse victims’ welfare in the wrestling business is always more important.

I am obsessed with this tank top and how jankily it was modified!!! (NJPW)

Suzukigun vs. Bullet Club

The second matches on these shows – always Gedo, Jado, El Phantasmo, and Taiji Ishimori vs. Minoru Suzuki, Douki, Yoshinobu Kanemaru, and El Desperado – promote the first title match of the New Beginning tour and continue the Suzukigun Face Turn Question Mark angle that’s been going on since December 2020. There’s a lot to unpack here!

First off, the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship feud: it’s fine! I think it’s making the heel vs. heel thing work a lot better than the pre-WK 15 G.o.D. vs. Dangerous Tekkers angle did because the temporarily (?) heroic set of heels has a clear goal to accomplish aside from just winning the match. Even if you’re very weirded out by seeing Kanemaru as a face in peril (something that made me laugh out loud during one of these tags), the dramatic hook of whether the Suzukigun guys can stop ELP’s loaded superkick still works, I think. Also, I think the illegal superkick gimmick is a much better look for Phantasmo than when he was NJPW’s fifth low blow guy. I am still not really into it, but it’s much less generic than what he was doing for his first year in the company and I wish they had gone this direction earlier.

Getting back to the Babyface Suzukigun situation, despite the effort put in, it’s still very weird and usually off-putting. I don’t really think they’re doing a full face turn and it’s more likely they’ll move into a tweener-like position because they’re now more sympathetic by default than Bullet Club and NJPW’s UE. However, that “by default” is still doing a lot of heavy lifting. I don’t think it helps that part of watching Suzuki get a babyface hot tag against Gedo and Jado is thinking “Why am I watching so much Jado and Gedo in 2021?,” but it’s fun to watch The Man With The Worst Personality In The World get ELP’s superkick leg in a submission hold of death, framing him similarly to in his match with Jay White in the 2020 G1. Out of all the feuds on this tour, this is the one I’d like to hear how the Japanese crowds would audibly react to the most to get more of a sense of how this is landing for anybody.

NJPW
NJPW

Chaos vs. Bullet Club

The third match on each of these cards is the Bullet Club team of Evil, Yujiro Takahashi, and Dick Togo taking on Kazuchika Okada and a rotating combination of Hirooki Goto, Tomohiro Ishii, and Yoshi-Hashi. These matches are all fine, but not really anything to write home about. The first of the series could inspire an urgent telegram reading BOOK ISHII VS. TOGO ASAP though, and the second ends strong, with Okada getting worked up to the point that a Money Clip finish looks pretty badass.

The central feud of these matches, Okada vs. Evil, doesn’t have a singles match date yet (I have to guess it’ll be on February’s amazingly named CASTLE ATTACK), so it’s not surprising that it doesn’t heat up as much as some of the others on these shows, especially those in the main and semi-main events. Okada targets Evil in the tag matches; Evil avoids it heelishly at the beginning; Okada needles Evil about his dependence on his cheating manager – nothing all that spicy.

There is some real dramatic intrigue in these tags, though, involving the absent Jay White. Much like Ishii backstage at New Year Dash, Goto is really encouraging to the down-and-out Switchblade, and at this point it looks like Jay could come back into the welcoming arms of at least the more dad-like contingent of Chaos. That could easily be one of the better pro wrestling moments of the year, and I will also tentatively predict it for CASTLE ATTACK.

L.I.J. vs. the home team (feat. Sho)

What meat there is on this first stretch of the Road to the New Beginning 2021 is in the semi-main and main events, which are made up of different combinations of L.I.J. and Hontai members and also Sho. The feuds we’re working with are Sanada vs. Kota Ibushi for the not-yet-unified double championship, Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Shingo Takagi for the NEVER Openweight Championship, Sho vs. Hiromu Takahashi for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, and Bushi vs. Master Wato in a grudge match, plus a bored Naito pairing off with Honma by default.

The matches with this group on January 17th are alright, the main event delivering a lot less than most matches that feature Hiromu and Bushi as a tag team, but on the 18th, things to really start to heat up. The extra aggression that Sho and Hiromu add to their wrestling that night quickly shifts the Ibushi, Sho, and Honma vs. Sanada, Naito, and Hiromu match into gear, and the Tanahashi and Wato vs. Shingo and Bushi main event is even better. The Ibushi and Honma vs. Sanada and Naito semi-main on the 19th is a step down from that of the night before, but the main event – Tanahashi, Sho, and Wato vs. Takagi, Hiromu, and Bushi – is the best of the bunch, with every rivalry super hot and bringing a different wrestling style to the match.

The weirdest thing about these main events on paper is that they all feature Master Wato, but neither he or he and Bushi’s feud feels out of place in these matches. Some drama gets added to their rivalry when Wato gets the win for he and Sho’s promo-averse team on the 17th with his signature head-in-opponents-crotch pin, proving he can beat Bushi at least in a tag match context, and their wrestling together is consistently strong and fun to watch. And while Wato does look like Tanahashi’s kid he brought to work during their post-match air guitar segment, they work well together as a tag team.

njpw takagi tanahashi 2021
The person he said this about previously was DULCE GARDENIA (NJPW)

Stronger and more dramatic is the feud between the guys who get the main event wins on the 18th and 19th, Tanahashi and Takagi. Any time they’ve been in the ring together it’s looked like they’d have a great match (backed up by both of their entire careers), but their work together is so much more fun now that it’s leading to something and they’re both throwing the weight of their personalities behind it.

Tana and Shingo both get tag match wins and quality post-match promos on this tour that both make them look great and show that (high school essay voice) the NEVER Openweight Championship picture is a land of contrasts (end high school essay voice) while providing some of the tour’s best moments so far. The Ace gets a classic High Fly Flow victory on the 18th followed by air guitar, an emotional speech about making it through hard times, and a declaration of love. The worse things get, within reason, the more Tanahashi knows how to handle it with his combination of great wrestling, rock star masculinity, and emotional vulnerability. And the more Prime Tanahashi is on display in this way, the more it feels like a NEVER title win in Nagoya could be the start of his next comeback.

In contrast, Takagi is very much a fighter to Tana’s lover. He wins the main event on the 19th by manuevering a step-up enziguri from Wato into a Last of the Dragon in a way that generated tweets about Wato looking like a dummy (and specifically DDT’s Yoshiko), follows it up with a very loud promo about fighting “no matter what kind of situation we’re in,” and looks nails all of it. Land of contrasts!

Another major element of this rivalry is that Shingo has been hearing Tanahashi’s comeback talk and does not like that he and the NEVER title are being treated as stepping stones for the Ace. The interesting thing about this is that when Shingo calls him out on it, Tanahashi admits that this is what he’s doing, and basically encourages Takagi to do the same, becoming, I think, the first person in NJPW to essentially say that Takagi is IWGP Heavyweight caliber. Shingo’s very invested in being NEVER champ and that’s worked really well for him so far, but Tanahashi makes compelling points! Maybe the Dragon should look into whether the opportunities earned by his win over Ibushi in the 2020 G1 have an expiration date.

The two biggest, title-wise, feuds of this group – Sanada vs. Ibushi and Sho vs. Hiromu – are less fresh and don’t have as much drama, but they’ve been delivering in the ring so far. The double championship feud is still so polite and gentlemanly that it’s kind of funny, and I don’t have high hopes for it based on the past Sanada-Ibushi matches, but we’ll see!

The junior title feud is both more aggressive and more promising. Sho and Hiromu really amped up the intensity between the first and second night of the tour and based on that and their past matches, their title bout seems sure to be a hit. I also like the character detail they added that Sho is looking past Takahashi a little because he wants to face Ibushi, who he idolizes, on the anniversary show. There’s not a ton of soapy drama between these two but they’ve added just enough to draw some more attention until the title match goes down.

Overall, the first group of Road to the New Beginning shows was a weird and sometimes depressing one, but it finished strong. I strongly recommend the last two matches from the 18th and the main event from the 19th to those who might have checked out this article without watching the shows and want some New Japan in their lives right now.

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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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