NJPW Road to Castle Attack 2/22 Review: Wrestling in Cursed Times

Maybe the castle is already fighting back?

Despite the cool name and the swords in the logo, New Japan Pro Wrestling‘s Castle Attack tour hasn’t been amazing so far. What would have been a typically hit-or-miss series of Road To shows has been plagued by injuries and weird or bad creative decisions, and that trend continued on the February 22 Road to Castle Attack event. Still, though most of the performers and angles that had previously been tour highlights were out of commission for this show, others stepped up and had their best showings of the tour so far.

A timeline of cursed events

Before starting on the latest stop on the Road to Castle Attack, I want to briefly recap every cursed event (in internet parlance, not in some kind of supernatural terms) that has happened on this tour since it started on February 14. Many of these events are very different in the type or level of cursedness that they have, and by putting them together in a list I am not trying to equate or rank them. I’m just pointing out that all these things happening in the span of about a week has created a pretty bleak atmosphere around New Japan Pro Wrestling.

So, in chronological-ish order, these cursed events have been:

    • Everybody from NJPW who was brought up during Speaking Out returns for this tour after short absences
    • New trainee Yuto Nakashima suffers an elbow injury seconds into his debut match
    • The United Empire’s Proud Boys cosplay merch
    • That weird start to the elimination match where Chase Owens is allowed to use the Texas Strap Match strap in the ring like it’s legal when it should not be legal, and then Yano is able to eliminate him using the strap when he himself had just been eliminated
    • Tetsuya Naito suffers a knee injury and has to take multiple shows off
    • The main event of the 2/17 show is unavailable to watch online due to some kind of archiving issue
    • Hiromu Takahashi unexpectedly has to take a house show off due to a shoulder injury
    • NJPW announces that a “new faction” will begin on 2/22 in a video that Japanese fans recognize as a preview for a promotion with Suntory whiskey (because it says the “faction” is a collaboration with Suntory in the video), but that sets off a bunch of theorizing among international fans because they didn’t realize it was an ad for an ad (the cursed things about this of are that so far this is just a series of normal ads without even Masked Horse-style sponcon shenanigans from Taguchi and that Kanemaru has been denied his rightful destiny as a Suntory spokesperson.)
    • Naito’s continued injury-driven absence means that a tag match on 2/22 is changed to a Sanada vs. Honma singles match, which looks on paper like an incredibly cursed sequel to the impromptu Sanada vs. Nagata bout that had just happened for the same reason
    • Hiromu’s absence is extended to the 2/22 Road to Castle Attack show, and then, right before the beginning of the show, it’s revealed that the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion has a torn pec that will keep him out of action for an estimated six months

… and that’s when we kick off the latest Road to Castle Attack event at Korakuen Hall.

Road to Castle Attack – February 22, 2021 – Korakuen Hall

Brocade and bullying

After the announcement about Hiromu earns a rare New Japan crowd shot of one individual fan’s shocked reaction, NJPW quickly tries to make the atmosphere less depressing and temporarily succeeds! Naito comes out – in a white suit that we have never seen before that has brocade and vest with a train – and reveals that he’ll return to the ring on February 25, the last Road show before Castle Attack. He says he’ll prove those who doubt he’s really ready to return to the ring wrong, but given that this dude has admitted to things like wrestling while seeing double for months without taking time off to get eye surgery, I reserve the right to remain doubtful until at least after the title match with Ibushi. But if Naito is, fingers crossed, really in shape to perform, that should be a huge boost to this tour, and with Hiromu out, will probably make a huge difference in whether people tune in for Night 2 of Castle Attack or not.

When the night’s wrestling starts, we quickly veer back into cursed territory because it’s Empire time! The Great-O-Khan, Ospreay, and Cobb vs. Tanahashi, Tenzan, and Kidd match makes a concerted effort to ramp up the intensity with days to go before O-Khan vs. Tana. Ospreay and Cobb even try to do some shit with the TenCozy feud aftermatch, but this is now not only one of NJPW’s two “remember Speaking Out?” factions, but the faction selling that extremely Proud Boys-looking polo shirt, so who could possibly care about or enjoy this? Not anyone I’d willingly interact with for any extended length of time in real life, that’s for sure!

Following this up with Bullet Club (Owens, G.o.D., and Jado) vs. Chaos (Goto, Yoshi-Hashi, Yano, and Sho) really keeps the bummer energy going for international fans, but this match does have some highlights. I deeply wish I was not going to watch the Chase-Yano KOPW match, but the G.oD. vs. Go To Yoshi-Hashi! tag title bout has consistently looked like it could be very good. Goto and Yoshi-Hashi are an actual champion-quality tag team with a lot of entertaining combo moves. The biggest potential issue with their title challenge, the possibility it’ll go half an hour for no reason, should be countered by how packed with consequential matches Night 2 of Castle Attack is – they can’t all go super long!

RIP the junior tag title feud, long live the new junior tag title feud that’s also the older junior tag title feud

With Hiromu out of action, the night’s third match, El Phantasmo and Taiji Ishimori vs. Bushi and Shingo Takagi, is the conclusion of the L.I.J. vs. Bullet Club IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship and IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship feuds for now. It’s the most recent of many matches that can be ranked on a sliding scale of “okay but annoying” to “good” depending on the viewer’s tolerance level for ELP’s whole deal. Ishimori makes the final pin, but the finish is all about keeping Phantasmo’s Sudden Death superkick safe – ELP kicks Bushi, then kicks Shingo off the apron, and that’s what allows legal man Ishimori to get the win. I guess we’ll have to wait at least six months to see if Hiromu can stop this unstoppable move (after he already stopped it at Wrestle Kingdom. That was a warmup. It’s really unstoppable now!)

With Hiromu gone, not only is the Bullet Club without challengers, but the February 25 show is without a title match main event. NJPW fixes that pretty easily, though, by having Despy and Kanemaru come out to demand a title shot. Like Naito, they show up in suits to do a short talking segment, which I once again highly support. You can’t control your coworkers getting injured, but you can always add some visual flair! Desperado’s promo here is fantastic, and despite so many of their tag team accomplishments being fueled by cheating, Despy and Nobu are at the point where they can make these “we are the true junior tag champs all the time, actually” type of claims and you have to respect it. Under the current circumstances, this was definitely the best the junior tag division could do.

But what about Mr. Belt?

So far we don’t know what’s going to happen with the Junior Heavyweight Championship, and that might not be so easily fixed, in part because it’s a much more elevated title. Hiromu was really firing on all cylinders as the junior ace before his injury, and both the division and NJPW as a whole will feel his absence if he has to vacate the title again (very likely with that six-month estimate), as well as miss Best of the Super Juniors and other major events like Dominion. Whoever the next champion is, he’ll need to really step up in order to get close enough to filling Hiromu’s shoes that it doesn’t feel like the junior division is in a six-month creative drought while waiting for his return.

But before we get to that point, NJPW has to crown a new Junior Heavyweight Champion, and announce how they plan to do that. The last time Hiromu vacated the belt they held a mini-tournament between the four previous champions, but now there aren’t even four previous junior champions available to the company and/or junior heavyweight division. The list of title-holders since 2016 is Hiromu, Ishimori, Ospreay, Dragon Lee, Kushida, Marty Scurll, and Bushi. Still, I think the best thing NJPW could do to uphold the status of the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship and create excitement in the division is to hold some kind of tournament.

Out of the potential champs – Sho, Desperado, Ishimori again, Phantasmo, and further down the tier-list (I’m talking kayfabe power level here, not wrestling ability), Bushi, Rocky, Taguchi, Wato, and Kanemaru – there aren’t two wrestlers who you can easily say deserve to be number one contenders right now, who deserve to have a match for the vacant title. I think the least time-consuming thing NJPW could do to crown a new junior champ in a way that protects the title’s prestige is a mini-tournament between Sho, Ishimori, ELP, and Despy. Another option that could be cool, if they’re comfortable keeping the title vacated for a few months, is making BOSJ for the title this year, which could also create some extra hype around that now Hiromu-less tournament.

However they end up sending Mr. Belt to a new home, I think Sho and El Desperado (especially Despy) are the two who could do the most with a singles title run right now. But since money is what talks the loudest in this business, the identity of the one actual correct next IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion becomes clear: Yoshinobu Kanemaru, getting that Suntory sponcon money.

Sanada def. Tomoaki Honma

Getting back to the actual wrestling that happened this week, Sanada vs. Honma was a match whose announcement was widely mocked by international fans on its announcement, and who can blame them/us! When the February 22 Road to Castle Attack show returned from intermission, I could not have been less excited for this match. A few wrestlers have managed to carry the very broken-down Honma to solid matches since he recovered from paralysis, but Sanada doesn’t tend to be the carrying type. However, while there are moments in this match when it’s very clear that the wrestlers are working around Honma’s physical limitations in a way that makes you wonder how the dude hasn’t retired yet, Sanada and Honma still made this last-minute match work way better than I expected.

The smartest decision made re: this match is to only have it go about twelve minutes. The second-smartest decision is to have Sanada put back on his always-available-to-L.I.J. black hat after a long stretch of time as an increasingly straightforward babyface. This immediately injects some extra aggression and personality into his wrestling and makes the dynamic of Honma fighting from underneath more sympathetic, at least, to the Korakuen crowd. International fans almost universally hate and/or do not get on board with Honma matches, but this story almost always works for domestic crowds, and it does again here. It’s not a match I’m going to go around urging people to watch, but they pulled it off.

Evil (with Dick Togo) and Jay White (with Gedo) def. Kazuchika Okada and Tomohiro Ishii

The most Actually Good match on this weird and accursed show is its main event, Evil and Jay White vs. Okada and Ishii. It’s the highlight of both of these singles feuds so far, and there’s a lot to like about it. Overall, I appreciate that everyone involved brings their main event energy, at least TV main event energy. Rather than just a preview for two singles matches, it always feels like this is a tag match that both duos really want to win. The teamwork between Okada and Ishii and especially between the newer team of Evil and White is always fun to watch, and I love that they decided to really lean into the fact that both members of the heel team each have their own personal ’90s junior heavyweight gremlin who follows them around.

Each singles rivalry gets plenty of time in the spotlight too, and makes the most of it. White and Ishii bringing out the most exaggerated versions of each other continues to be entertaining, and this is definitely the best in-ring showing of the tour for Evil and Okada. It’s their best out of the ring too – Evil’s line that Okada will never be able to beat him because he’s no longer the face of the company actually cuts deep and gets to what this feud is about, Okada trying to get revenge for the 2020 New Japan Cup final on his way back to the title picture. It’s way more specific and therefore way better as a mind game than when Evil was just refusing to fight Okada one-on-one.

So while this show was pretty bleak overall and NJPW is not at its most exciting right now, the February 22 main event finally freed it from that cursed feeling. I’ll see you back here after the big matches of Castle Attack, where we’ll see if NJPW can keep this recovery momentum going and whether or not the double championship will 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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