The Title Belt As Phallic Symbol: NJPW Summer Struggle 7/26-27/20 Review

The most relatably named tour in pro wrestling kicks off with two days of heated tag matches, plus the announcement of a new title

After a lackluster Sengoku Lord, New Japan Pro Wrestling returned to Korakuen Hall for the first two nights of Summer Struggle, the mostly relatably named wrestling tour of the year. These July 26 and 27 NJPW shows start us down the ROAD TO THE BASEBALL FIELD, with tag matches furthering several feuds that will culminate at or ahead of the outdoor Jingu Stadium show on August 29.

Smaller New Japan shows like these that usually have Road somewhere in their name can be pretty hit or miss, but I thought the July 26 show was really strong, with nearly every match firing on all cylinders. The July 27 show was firing on just most of the cylinders, but was also pretty good.

There are a ton of feuds and angles going into Summer Struggle, enough that I’m just going to list them all here before we start getting into what happened on these shows:

  • Tetsuya Naito vs. Evil (c) for the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Championships
  • Hiromu Takahashi vs. Taiji Ishimori for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship
  • Golden Ace trying to regain the tag titles from Dangerous Tekkers
  • Minoru Suzuki vs. Yuji Nagata
  • Master Wato (with Tenzan) vs. Kanemaru
  • Gabriel Kidd vs. Togi Makabe
  • The mystery of Okada’s potentially controversial secret idea

After the first night of the tour, we also have Okada vs. Yujiro continuing their feud. After the second night, it looks like Yoshi-Hashi might be Shingo Takagi’s next challenger for the NEVER Openweight Championship, and the day after that Okada’s secret idea was revealed. So there’s a lot going on as New Japan struggles through the summer, starting with:

The openers

Both shows open with an all-babyface six-man tag, first Taguchi, Kojima, and Makabe vs. Kidd, Yano, and Ishii, then the same Hontai team against Kidd, Goto, and Ishii. These matches are mostly low-stakes and are energetic enough to warm up the audience for the next two hours or so of wrestling, and their standout moment has to be Taguchi showing off his rolling skills and strength of ass when he’s in the ring with Ishii. The official angle in these tags is still Gabriel Kidd trying to fire up Togi Makabe, and while Makabe looks like he might be a little warmer than usual at times, this feud has yet to yield anything really notable.

Sanada and Shingo Takagi def. Hirooki Goto and Yoshi-Hashi, then Bushi and Shingo Takagi def. Toru Yano and Yoshi-Hashi

Yoshi-Hashi and Shingo Takagi facing off in tag matches two nights in a row could signal they’re wrestling for the NEVER title soon, but so far a feud has yet to really spark between them. In the meantime, both Takagi/Sanada vs. Yoshi-Hashi/Goto and Takagi/Bushi vs. Yoshi-Hashi/Yano are fun tag matches, mostly because of the reunions of those two L.I.J. duos.

Sanada and Shingo work together even better the second time around, this time incorporating some new, painful-looking tag moves into their offense. Bushi and Shingo throw it back to their junior tag champ days with combo moves too, and more importantly, Bushi gets the win! He manages to out-maneuver Yano’s signature rollup by just countering it into his own rollup for a surprising and satisfying finish on the 27th. Finally, some rights for Bushi after he ate that pin from the fallen pareja. You love to see it.

Oh, and as a bonus, the July 26 match gives us the first of multiple Title As Phallic Symbol Summer Struggle moments when Shingo makes direct eye contact with Goto and does a very clear “this title I won from you = my dick” motion. So those two should probably fight again at some point.

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Minoru Suzuki and Douki def. Yuji Nagata and Yuya Uemura, then Minoru Suzuki and El Desperado def. Yuji Nagata and Yuya Uemura

I am so happy to be able to write that Suzuki Minoru is truly On One right now. In both these matches, whether he’s in the ring with Nagata or Uemura, he is his best self, wrestling with that perfect combination of brutality and showmanship that’s made audiences around the world fall in love with him. The contrast of the grizzled veteran brawling with Nagata and the sadistic torturing of Uemura in the same match really allows Suzuki to show off his range, and as well as the insane shape he’s in at 52 years old.

His promos about wanting to publicly execute Nagata are great, but he kicks the mic performance up another notch on the 27th when he decides to take issue with people commenting on things like the insane shape he’s in at 52 years old. Ageism was defeated by this promo. Ageism has tapped out to Minoru Suzuki. Everyone who enjoys wrestling promos should watch this one and marvel that someone managed to pull off yelling at people not to call him old in way that would not make anyone reply with “okay, boomer.”

Both Nagata and Uemura are at their best in these matches too, with Nagata’s brand of old guy toughness the perfect foil to Suzuki’s more bloodthirsty fighting spirit like it was in their New Japan Cup match, and Uemura believably giving every one of his doomed chances his all. I’m not only completely sold on the current Nagata-Suzuki feud, but on Uemura-Suzuki too if they really go ahead with it afterward.

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Golden Ace and Team Wato vs. Suzukigun

The eight-man tags of Tanahashi, Ibushi, Wato, and Tenzan vs. Taichi, Zack Sabre Jr., Kanemaru and either Douki or El Desperado are also successes. They’re overall really entertaining to watch, with plenty of quality action from the teams and individuals involved. Ibushi is especially on fire in the July 27 match, in which he gets the win for his team.

In and out of the ring, the Dangerous Tekkers vs. Golden Ace tag title feud continues in its most fun possible form. Everybody kills it in the backstage promos. The champs interrupt our heroes on the 26th to taunt them and tell them to beg for a title shot; the challengers interrupt our villains on the 27th to confront them for talking shit. Ibushi and Tanahashi continue to be the cutest team in the world, and Tanahashi feels more and more pressure to step his game up, especially after the polite urging from his tag partner. I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t get the pin that earns Golden Ace the chance to regain their titles.

Also, Taichi gives us the tour’s second Title As Phallic Symbol moment during his entrance on the 27th in which it somehow looks like he’s wearing even more clothes than usual and has his belt hanging strategically from his pants. (That’s all of these moments so far, but I’ll give Evil’s tongue action an honorary mention for similar horned up champion vibes.)

More New Japan Pro Wrestling:

Gedo and Yujiro Takahashi vs. Sho and Kazuchika Okada

The July 26 Gedo and Yujiro vs. Sho and Okada tag has the weirdest structure of any match on these shows or any New Japan match I’ve seen in a while. The Bullet Club team just fully kicks Shokada’s butts for ten straight minutes, then the Chaos boys hit two moves each and win. Either Gedo and Yujiro must have some kind of special tag team magic or Sho and Okada have some kind of debilitating anti-chemistry to allow this to happen this way.

The teams face off again the following night, and it’s more of a match to sit through than enjoy. Okada and Yujiro are both extremely down for a singles rematch, and if this was a remotely normal year people would be wondering why, but I think everyone gets it. The roster is thinner than usual and Bullet Club is especially depleted. It’s weird to see Yujiro and Gedo powered up this way, but it’s not hard to understand the decision. It gives Okada something to do at least until KOPW 2020 starts (KOPW 2020 takes coming up later this article!) and it’s not offensively bad or anything, just some fairly basic, low-stakes wrestling filling up part of the card.

Evil, Dick Togo, and Taiji Ishimori def. Bushi, Hiromu Takahashi, and Tetsuya Naito, then Evil, Dick Togo, and Taiji Ishimori def. Sanada, Hiromu Takahashi, and Tetsuya Naito

The combination of this Bullet Club trio and the team of Naito, Hiromu, and another L.I.J. member continues to make for quality main events on the Summer Struggle tour, now with evolved, post-Sengoku Lord drama.

The main event on the 26th starts off with Los Ingos on a road to revenge, outsmarting their opponents to fight them outside the ring at the beginning of the match. But when Ishimori is trapped in the L.I.J. corner, an element is introduced that becomes way more important the following night: Ishimori targeting Hiromu’s taped-up shoulder. From here, the focuses of these matches are a very serious, focused Naito working to do as much damage to Evil as possible, and Hiromu suffering from a shoulder injury that looks like it could be (kayfabe) bad enough to take him out of action.

Hiromu hasn’t had a serious angle where he’s been a straightforward babyface in peril before, and it works really well for him. As seen at Dominion and Sengoku Lord and back when he got people invested in the destruction of an emotional support cat plushie, Hiromu Takahashi is great at getting viewers invested in his wellbeing, and New Japan Pro Wrestling fans are generally willing to throw themselves in front of a bus for him at any time. Part of what makes his persona so compelling is his combination of some vulnerability with the violence and general craziness. The way this angle leans into not only fans’ sympathy about his betrayal, but the desire of many to kind of take care of this feral man would have definitely generated a lot of earnest cheering and screaming at Korakuen Hall this week if fans were allowed to cheer and scream.

The Naito vs. Evil feud also brings out a different side of Naito than we’ve seen since he went Ingobernable. Naito’s no stranger to being placed in the kind of peril Hiromu is in right now or to violently seeking out revenge. But it’s new for the tranquilo version of him to be deal with betrayal and to be out for revenge because of something more than a physical attack and/or a title loss. Basically, whenever he starts brutally stomping Evil in these matches, it feels a little different than when he’s brutally stomped other people in the past, even other people he’s had intense feuds with. As with the presentation of Hiromu in the feud with Ishimori, it’s a departure from what’s made this Naito persona so popular, but in a way that’s still believably within the range of this character.

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Backstage on the 27th, a more familiar aspect of Naito emerges, the Naito who points out issues and inconsistencies with New Japan Pro Wrestling. Here, he takes issues with the much-debated treatment of the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Championships. In addition to getting the personal revenge he clearly wants against Evil, Naito needs to fix how the titles are being treated. Since he started talking about wanting to become double champion last spring, he’s never said he wanted to unify the belts. And after winning them he was clear he wanted to defend them separately, “but now those titles are treated as if they’re a bundle.” A Naito win at Jingu Stadium would put these titles back in the hands of someone with their best interests at heart, and would hopefully result in this whole defense situation starting to make more sense.

While the double title situation is still kind of up in the air, now that Naito is challenging for the belts again, it’s easier to fit the earth-shattering Evil betrayal and title reign into a more normal pattern of NJPW behavior. In the Bushiroad era, the company has rarely had a fully heel champion, and when it has, the heel has won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in a surprising way and held it for a pretty short period of time. I’d put AJ Styles’ 2014 reign, Naito’s first reign in 2016, and Jay White’s in 2019 in this category, along with maybe Okada’s first reign in 2012.

This isn’t the only way New Japan levels up heels, but it’s a tried and true method they’ve used to give their biggest non-face threat extra credibility. It’s also a way to shock the fans and shake up the status quo without really changing anything significant about how the company is booked. All those examples I just listed featured very different wrestlers in very different stages of their careers, which keeps this trend from getting too monotonous (it also helps that there have been years between the reigns of this kind), but it’s still the same basic plot device. If Naito wins the titles back from Evil at Jingu Stadium, Evil’s reign will be nearly identical to Naito’s 2016 reign that began and ended with Okada matches.

This is just a theory and could easily be wrong, but I think it fits with how Evil’s betrayal and championship wins played out considering the overall creative state of the NJPW. With international travel difficult for who knows how long, New Japan needed a new top heel and they effectively made one. Though BC JPN is small and I maintain would be way more interesting if they just made a new faction and came up with a new t-shirt design, it’s now a legit threat, with Ishimori and this leveled-up, actually evil Evil able to credibly win any title they challenge for, with most fans rooting against them.

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Kazuchika Okada’s potentially controversial secret idea revealed!

The postscript to this part of the Summer Struggle tour is that at a press conference on the 28th, Okada reveals his super secret idea that he was right to say could be controversial. His secret idea turns out to be a new title called KOPW 2020, and it’s basically the DDT Extreme Division Championship combined with Taboo Tuesday.

To summarize what this title is and how it’s supposed to work: There’s no belt, and before each title match the champion and challenger will each bring up the kind of match they want to have and the fans will vote on which one they want to see. The first champ will be crowned next month, through eight wrestlers competing in four singles matches on August 26, then the winners of those competing in a fatal four-way on August 29 at Jingu Stadium. The winner of this match will be KOPW 2020 and will defend that title throughout the rest of the year. The person who holds the belt at the end of the year will get a trophy declaring him KOPW 2020, then KOPW 2020 ends and this starts over with KOPW 2021.

I have a few immediate reactions to this, some positive and some negative. The first negative is that I don’t trust NJPW with stipulation singles matches like three-ways or four-ways or ladder matches; I don’t think they have a good track record with less than straightforward singles bouts aside from different kinds of one v. one No DQ matches. The second is that I think KOPW will almost inevitably be the worse version of the DDT Extreme Division Championship. With fewer options available within the NJPW brand, I doubt they can pull off something as good and creative as the Harashima vs. Shinya Aoki Blindfold Hidden Bra Death Match from last March. But maybe I’m just having Elgin vs. Suzuki Lumberjack Match flashbacks.

What was originally my third negative reaction turned into a more positive one, the question “Doesn’t New Japan already have more titles than they know what to do with?” With some of the roster being stuck overseas knocking the U.S. title and the two RevPro titles out of the picture (and who knows what’s going on with the NEVER Openweight 6-man titles), this might be a smart way to give more of the roster something meaningful to do. And these are unusual times for pro wresting along with every over part of the entertainment and/or sports industries, so I get why NJPW would want to switch things up and generate something new to look forward to within the company.

With KOPW and the rest of the baseball field show ahead, I’ll see you back here next month when Summer Struggle continues with Nagata vs. Suzuki and a lot more tag matches.