New Japan Pro Wrestling continued to struggle its way through our pandemic summer this Friday with a show that featured a Minoru Suzuki vs. Yuji Nagata main event, while the roster’s other beef continued to marinate. But before we get into that, let’s go over the big developments NJPW announced for later this month. Not KOPW, but the other thing. Actually, two other things.
Would you like a tournament with your tournament?
As I was writing this article, New Japan dropped two huge pieces of news within hours of each other: next week, two tournaments, one in America and one in Japan, will begin within hours of each other. Both of these tournaments are single-elimination with eight entrants and will determine the future of a championship that’s been in limbo, but otherwise, they’re very different.
First, New Japan explained what NJPW Strong is and what’s going to happen on it, at least for the first three weeks. It’s New Japan continuing to pre-taped air shows filmed in the coronavirus-saturated state of California (Tanahashi would, in theory, be ashamed) every Friday night like they did with Lion’s Gate Collision. But rather than showcasing a combination of California-based NJPW talent and local indie wrestlers, NJPW Strong so far features all New Japan regulars or people who have wrestled in New Japan before. On August 7, it kicks off with the New Japan Cup USA, the winner of which will get to challenge for Jon Moxley’s U.S. title at some mysterious point in the future. (Under normal defense rules, Mox would have to defend by August 9, but we’re obviously not living in normal times.)
Concept and matchups aside, it’s hard for me to get sincerely excited about any wrestling in the U.S. right now, to be honest, because of how the COVID-19 pandemic has played out here so far and how we’ve already seen how easily the coronavirus can spread in sports communities, including pro wrestling. Aside from that, which is a huge thing to put aside, this seems like a good way to give the NJPW guys in America something to do while they can’t be part of regular New Japan. And if NJPW Strong uses the typical New Japan booking style, kicking off the show with the first round of a tournament could make for a strong pilot, since it would contain not only a lot of wrestling action, but set up feuds for future episodes of the show.
New Japan then announced that about sixteen hours before the first round of the New Japan Cup USA airs, a tournament for the now officially vacant NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship will begin at Korakuen Hall. With this and the KOPW 2020 tournament starting on the 26th and all the normal title feuds going on, New Japan is making sure August is packed, and I’m here for it.
I’m still skeptical about the whole KOPW 2020 concept, but I like that New Japan is pulling out all the stops to build excitement for a month when they originally were just going to tour Hokkaido because of the Olympics. The amount of stuff going on and that so much of it is new definitely helps keep my attention and interest as a fan, which is probably something important for NJPW with its fanbase in general after their hiatus. They’re also switching things up in a way that still feels true to New Japan Pro Wrestling by using the sports-like stakes of titles and tournaments, so even as out-there as something like KOPW is for this promotion, overall, it doesn’t feel like the NJPW is really jumping the shark out of desperation. They still could, but I don’t think they have yet.
The NEVER Openweight 6-Man Championship tournament should also progress previously-established Road To The Baseball Stadium drama in a way that isn’t as repetitive as regular Korakuen Hall shows could get, especially four in a row like New Japan has from August 6-9. We have the Okada/Yujiro, Dangerous Tekkers/Golden Ace, and Wato/Kanemaru feuds all built into the first round, and the potential for other rivalries to begin that could climax in the KOPW tournament, along with at least one I think will lead to a title match. But before we get to that, let’s finally talk about the actual July 31 Summer Struggle show.
Toru Yano, Yoshi-Hashi, Tomohiro Ishii, and Hirooki Goto def. Yota Tsuji, Gabriel Kidd, Ryusuke Taguchi, and Satoshi Kojima
The show kicks off with a comedy-leaning opener that contains no feuds, but has a lot of good vibes. It’s solid and entertaining all around, with the top highlight for me definitely when Goto turns being whipped into Taguchi’s ass into an enziguri to Taguchi’s ass. The returning Tsuji hits a really nice spear towards the end of the match, but ultimately eats the pin for his team, getting low-blowed and rolled up by Yano for the loss. Possibly in the wrestling world this is the equal and opposite reaction to learning that you didn’t catch coronavirus.
?SUMMER STRUGGLE 2020?
— njpwworld (@njpwworld) July 31, 2020
Sanada and Shingo Takagi def. GBH (Tomoaki Honma and Togi Makabe)
GBH reunite and Sanada-Shingo continue to look more and more like a real tag team in the show’s second match, which I thought was really good despite my usual anti-Honma bias. Both teams are serious, competitive, and always wrestle like they want to win, which is cool to see in itself and a nice change of pace from the light-hearted opener. Los Ingos focus on Honma’s neck enough that they come off like the heelier team and a functional duo, and while Honma himself has some weird stumbles, I think this is overall one of his best post-injury performances. The other three wrestlers in the match all get enough time in the spotlight and bring enough intensity to the match that they all come out of it looking good too.
Backstage, Makabe and Honma both mention titles but we still don’t get a Jingu Stadium challenger for Takagi, something the NEVER Openweight Champion brings up in his own promo. Along with caring about the 6-Man titles hours before it was cool, Shingo resolves to “find my own challenger.” By the end of the show, however, it looks likely that one has already been scoping him out.
Taichi, Zack Sabre Jr., Yoshinobu Kanemaru, Douki, and El Desperado def. Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kota Ibushi, Master Wato, Hiroyoshi Tenzan, and Yuya Uemura
The Hontai vs. Suzukigun feud continues to bring the fun multi-man match action and soap opera drama on July 31, mainly through the Dangerous Tekkers vs. Golden Ace tag title feud. In this ten-man tag, Tanahashi and Ibushi continue on their very different trajectories that now look like they could break their dream team apart. Ibushi looks like a superstar in his prime whenever he’s in the ring, but the Tanahashi character looks more washed than ever. This leads us to a perfect post-match visual of Tana lying flat on his face on the ground while Ibushi looks down on him disappointedly and Sabre and Taichi stand above them in the ring with the belts. Things get even more melodramatic backstage, and it all makes for a perfect “How will heroes get out of this one? Tune in next week!” cliffhanger.
It’s also really interesting as a moment in the whole Tanahashi-Ibushi relationship that’s created top-notch matches and drama since Ibushi returned to New Japan after his 2016 departure. The Ace used to be on a pedestal in Ibushi’s mind as a wrestling god and someone he couldn’t beat, even with the 2018 G1 Climax on the line. Beating Tanahashi in the following year’s G1 after he’d fully committed to NJPW 4 Life was a huge moment for Ibushi. After that, we saw these two on more equal footing, but Ibushi still very respectful and looking up to the Ace. These two seemed to be truly equal in the Golden Ace tag team at first, but now Ibushi is clearly on another level while Tanahashi’s age and injuries have caught up to him, and he’s once again struggling to make a Complete Comeback.
The Ibushi-Tanahashi relationship is one of the best recurring angles New Japan has come up with in recent years and incorporating it into the IWGP Tag Team Championship feud is doing a lot for that title picture. I hope NJPW keeps this energy up once Golden Ace inevitably re-focus on singles competition.
?SUMMER STRUGGLE 2020?
— njpwworld (@njpwworld) July 31, 2020
Sho and Kazuchika Okada def. Yujiro Takahashi and Gedo (with Jado)
After the disinfection intermission, NJPW fans get the rematch we’ve all been waiting for: the third match in three consecutive shows between Shokada and Gedo/Yujiro. This was the only match on the card that made my eyes start to glaze over, but these guys make the effort to try and keep things from getting too monotonous. Jado enters with his Bullet Club buddies this time and tries to help Gedo get the win over Sho, but is unexpectedly thwarted by Toru Yano outta nowhere with a low-blow, allowing Sho to tap out Gedo.
The Okada-Yujiro feud is still the glaring weak point in NJPW right now, but they do sell it pretty hard after the match, with Yujiro finally getting worked up enough that it looks like maybe he might be inspired to step up closer to Okada’s level this time around – or escalate the shenanigans war and redouble his efforts to drag Okada down. Backstage, Yujiro is now very interested in KOPW and wants his rematch with Okada to be in the tournament’s first round. He’s motivated by spite to win the title Okada proposed, and it’s a great example of the cycle of positive reinforcement New Japan has with championships and personal drama.
We rarely get a title match that has the hook of it not really being about the title; if someone has personal beef with a champion, winning the title from them is a key part of winning that conflict, plus holding the title is inherently valuable to either both competitors or one with the moral high ground. Also, in this case, it would also be very funny for Okada to drag the IWGP Heavyweight Championship while promoting this new gimmick he came up with, then immediately get shut out from winning it by the Tokyo Pimp.
— njpwworld (@njpwworld) July 31, 2020
Evil and Taiji Ishimori (with Dick Togo) def. Bushi and Tetsuya Naito
The L.I.J. vs. Bullet Club tag match on this show was originally supposed to be a six-man before Hiromu Takahashi was removed due to a shoulder injury that will hopefully be a lot better by the end of August. This shoulder injury (if that’s really the reason he’s out) was incorporated so much into kayfabe on the previous Summer Struggle shows that I thought it might turn out to be a trick so Hiromu could sneak-attack Ishimori here. But that wasn’t the case and instead, we have a quality two-on-two tag match whose only outside surprises came from Dick Togo living up to his Spoiler nickname while in full Che Guevara/Golgo 13 cosplay, now with black gloves.
Bushi and Naito vs. Evil and Ishimori focuses on the Evil-Naito rivalry, and like the previous matches in this series, it shows Heroic Naito in the best possible light, wrestling with vengeful aggression and earnestness without losing his head or his edge. This Bullet Club group also keeps their streak of strong performances going, and I appreciate that they’ve all been generating frustration from the audience without grinding their matches to a halt with long Heel Heat Spots.
After the match, Naito cuts another promo that shows he’s very aware of fandom discourse, like when gave his thoughts on how the double title situation should be handled. He brings up the theory embraced by some (including me in the previous installment of his column) that Evil’s double championship reign is sure looking a lot like Naito’s first Heavyweight Championship reign, meaning it looks like Evil’s going to lose to Naito. Does Naito bringing up that this could be history repeating itself make history more or less likely to repeat itself? Now I’m stressed out about that, so this promo was probably pretty effective! The result of that match feels just a little more up in the air.
?SUMMER STRUGGLE 2020?(7/31)を公開‼️
— njpwworld (@njpwworld) August 1, 2020
Minoru Suzuki def. Yuji Nagata
Yuji Nagata and Minoru Suzuki have been feuding on and off in New Japan Pro Wrestling since 2003, and for even longer in their kayfabe lives. They’re both 52-years-old, the oldest wrestlers on the roster, and their rivalry has no novelty, but they still put on a series of matches from the 2020 New Japan Cup to the main event of the July 31 Summer Struggle show that were more exciting and effective than what we see regularly from a lot of younger wrestlers who have more athletic ability and flashy moves.
One reason I think their latest match works so well is that Suzuki and Nagata make it as new and different as they can. Both of their recent matches were about twenty minutes long, but they were paced very differently. While it was the latest installment in a 35-year rivalry, Nagata-Suzuki in the New Japan Cup was also very much a tournament match, and while it wasn’t a sprint, never felt like they were taking their time. Both men wrestled like winning was a means to the end goal of winning the tournament. In contrast, their Summer Struggle rematch is fully a grudge match. It’s more drawn-out without sacrificing its intensity, like both wrestlers are in it for the long haul if need be. They’re not clashing by chance on their paths to achieve something in the future, but because they really want to, and defeating their opponent here is their ultimate goal.
Another thing that makes this match stand out from other NJPW singles matches and feuds is not just the age of the wrestlers involved, but the way they embrace their age. Suzuki and Nagata both lean into their grizzled veteran status without overtly trying to prove how hard they can go for their age. There’s a confidence and security in their performances of two people who know their strengths and limitations and know how to play to their strengths. They may not be able to do Shooting Star Presses and Spanish Flies, but they can hit louder elbows than almost anyone in the game, so they showcase sickeningly loud elbow strikes as the match’s big spots.
The match’s finish also embraces its Dad Fight status. Suzuki finally, definitively wins an exchange of blows by sending Nagata collapsing with like ten slaps in a row and a big elbow, then hits what might be the most visibly exhausted Gotch Style Piledriver ever. The match ends with Nagata on one percent battery while Suzuki’s also clearly in the red. It’s not a match designed to make people think “They’ve still got it!”, but it’s a match between two people who still have it.
Suzuki hasn’t been in a singles title picture outside of special international attraction matches since 2018, but it looks like this match puts him back in the running. After insulting Nagata and the clapping fans, he gets mysterious and ominous about his next move, about which his target “has no idea.”
Given that there’s one champion in NJPW without a challenger and Suzuki will face off with him on the first day of the trios tournament, I doubt it’s a rare theory that Minoru has his sights on Shingo Takagi and the NEVER Openweight Championship. If not, I will cope! But my fingers are crossed that that’s one of the things I’ll be writing about when I see you back here next week to talk about the NEVER Openweight 6-Man Championship tournament and how the Summer Struggle tour continues.