NJPW Summer Struggle 8/26-27 Review: The One With KOPW

welcome back to New Japan Pro Wrestling where everything sounds normal

After a tournament to crown new NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Champions in Japan and one to decide the new number one contender to the IWGP U.S. Championship in the States, New Japan Pro Wrestling returns with yet another, weirder tournament that was bizarre in unexpected ways, but still isn’t as weird as it could have been. The NJPW Summer Struggle tour resumes on August 26-27 with the first round of KOPW 2020, a go-home show for this weekend’s big Jingu Stadium event, a new production element that does not mesh with the quarantine-damaged mind.

NJPW World

August 26, 2020 – Welcome to the Thunderdome!

NJPW’s August 26 Summer Struggle show might be as remembered as much as The One Where They Started Using That App as it is The One With KOPW. New Japan tried out a remote cheering app on an earlier show, but it was too quiet to be heard. When they bring it back on the 26th, it’s so loud that it’s impossible to ignore and often sounds an old and powerful air conditioner. It doesn’t sound pleasant or natural at all and the moments when the audience provides organic, human noise instead by just clapping are a relief.

The introduction of this app seems like an attempt to fix a problem that was already solved. A clapping audience isn’t as loud as a Korakuen Hall crowd in normal times, but it’s a recognizable human sound that adds warmth to the atmosphere and gives an idea of the how the fans are feeling and responding – something that isn’t communicated from the app at all because it doesn’t sound like any NJPW audience outside of the Tokyo Dome or maybe a G1 final. It sounds like exponentially more people than are occupying Korakuen Hall and most of the chants and cheers aren’t even distinguishable, at least not to viewers who aren’t in the venue.

While it seems like wrestling promotions are trying to create as close to a normal, hyped atmosphere as possible, normalcy and hype for wrestling crowds ultimately aren’t about a certain level of noise, but about genuine responses from the audience. The most positive thing that can be said about this app is that at least audience members are choosing which cheer buttons to push so the noise isn’t completely canned, but it effect still something that doesn’t sound human. When each phone makes the noise of a crowd rather than an individual voice, it creates a huge dissonance between what you’re seeing on-screen in a partially-filled venue that seats about 1,500 and the ghost stadium reactions you’re hearing. The illegitimacy of the app noise feels like a step back from the pre-app, post-fans NJPW atmosphere.

It sounds like the August 27 audience is, fortunately, a lot less app-happy than their predecessors, but on August 26 the noise is really distracting and actively hurts the show.

NJPW World

Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kota Ibushi, Master Wato, and Hiroyoshi Tenzan def. Taichi, Zack Sabre Jr., Yoshinobu Kanemaru, and Douki

We’ve seen several matches between this Hontai and this Suzukigun team recently, and most of them have definitely been better than this! This Golden Ace and Wato and Tenzan vs. Dangerous Tekkers and Kanemaru and Douki eight-man isn’t terrible, but it isn’t stand-out good and it isn’t helped by the distracting, robotic app noise that includes booing for things that never get booed by the actual human voices of NJPW audiences.

The thing that sets this match from the rest of the feud apart is Tanahashi’s incredible physique. He always looks great, but now he’s achieved a body transformation to close to what it looked like in his younger, prime Ace years. Tanahashi and Ibushi make sure the audience notices before and after the match, and the leveled-up muscles and the hairdo and the High Fly Flow win work together to further the angle that Tanahashi is over his yips and is being inspired by Ibushi to work towards his best, most godlike self, just in time for their tag title match.

The part with KOPW 2020

NJPW World

No Finisher Match: El Desperado def. Satoshi Kojima

After promos, press conferences, fan polls, and some confusion, KOPW 2020 kicks off with Satoshi Kojima vs. El Desperado, a match that gets weird beyond the off-putting app noise. The democratically elected stipulation is no finishers allowed, but the illegal moves are only Kojima’s lariat and Desperado’s El Pinche Loco. Once these two are in the ring together, the stipulation feels a little off, something that would be unequal if Despy wasn’t a junior and Kojima wasn’t old and the power difference between them wasn’t somewhat vague. It’s odd time for Pinche Loco to be treated like Despy’s only finisher when his two previous singles matches were so heavily built around him trying to weaken his opponent’s knee in order to tap them out with Numero Dos.

The other strange thing about this stipulation is how unexciting a match it creates right up until the end. This was like a match from this year’s New Japan Cup with fewer convincing pin attempts. Aside from Despy going for Numero Dos, there are no real believable attempts at winning; the closet thing we get to Kojima attempting a finisher he can use are the Koji Cutter and a submission towards the end. The tension stays pretty low because it rarely seems like the wrestlers are trying to win in a way that could be successful. The finish might explain, in retrospect, why the rest of the match was like that, and is funny on its own. Desperado repeatedly lariats Kojima, who had barely stopped himself from using the illegal move earlier in the match, until Kojima gets fed up, lariats him, and loses by DQ.

As much as I think this match has issues as a whole, this trickster victory is a good look for Desperado, and KOPW is just the latest in a streak of really strong performances in the ring and on the mic from him since NJPW returned from corona-hiatus. With his recent work and the effort and the chaotic energy he’s brought to the competition for this new title, my fingers are crossed for Despy to win the four-way.

2-Count Pinfall Match: Toru Yano def. Bushi

Bushi vs. Toru Yano probably won’t be included in the canon of certified Toru Yano classics, but it works well as a two-count finish match, with each wrestler showing a lot of urgency and going for as many pin attempts as they can in hopes of getting lucky. The finish is Bushi trying to beat Yano at his own game by taping his legs together, but Yano showing why he’s the king of this shit by turning Bushi’s Magistral Cradle into a pin for the win. Though the match is fun, it’s odd to me that it’s less zany than even Yano’s other recent singles matches when an all gimmick match tournament suggests zaniness.

Unedited screengrab from NJPW World

Submission Match: Sanada def. Sho

On paper, the Sho vs. Sanada submission match is the most straightforward and sports-like of KOPW. In the flesh, it’s its most bizarre.

One description of this match is that the two wrestlers started off with some mat work, a very focused Sho targets Sanada’s arm, Sanada starts targeting Sho’s knee, and Sanada’s knee work pays off when he wins with the figure four leglock. But the visceral experience of watching this match is of being completely taken out of the moment by the sound of two ancient air conditioners and/or 30,000 ghosts and watching two muscular model-types do bridges and handstands in tights. With the ill-fitting soundtrack of a white noise app played from speakers turned up to maximum volume separating this match from its kayfabe reality, it’s most easily and naturally processed as an exhibition of the human body. Sho doesn’t advance to the KOPW four-way, but maybe this match could count as a defense of his NJPW Concurso trophy.

1 vs. 3 Handicap Match: Kazuchika Okada def. Yujiro Takahashi, Gedo, and Jado

The most positive thing I can say about this match is that it’s put together in a way that builds enough drama that it seems at times like Okada could lose, even though in the greater scheme of things it seems impossible for Okada to lose to any of these opponents, even working together. My other positive observation is that it’s fun to see everyone break out some old moves like that Super Powerbomb, Gedo’s unexpected Superfly Splash, and Okada’s senton over the top rope.

The main impression this match leaves me with is that at least it’s thankfully, probably the bow on this Okada vs. Yujiro/BC feud. The Okada vs. Yujiro one-on-one match was fine, but overall this angle has shown why Gedo, Jado, and Yujiro have not been major in-ring characters in feuds in recent years. There’s has been so much of the slow/old man wrestling and the same shenanigans for like a month now and I doubt that if the lumberjack stipulation had won the poll that the KOPW match would have been much better.  Hopefully after the next major show NJPW will split up this skippable combination of people.

NJPW’s August 26 Summer Struggle event ends with the KOPW final set as El Desperado vs. Toru Yano vs. Sanada vs. Kazuchika Okada, and with Okada saying he believes “we accomplished our goal of showing something new in New Japan.” KOPW was different for New Japan and it happened at an ideal time for the promotion to try different things, but I don’t think it capitalized on the full potential of a gimmick match tournament. It didn’t lean hard enough in the direction of sports-like gimmick matches like the submission bout, or in the direction of the potential craziness a fans-pick-the-stipulations situation could bring. New Japan can get weird at times, but most of its success comes from pretty straightforward matches and stakes, and deviations from that (aside from comic relief moments and some hardcore matches and trips to Yano’s world) tend to be more harmful than helpful.

While I don’t think KOPW spells doom for the King of Sports or anything like that, the first round of KOPW also didn’t make this title seem like something to look forward to in the future. NJPW especially doesn’t look like a destination for gimmick match wrestling when you consider that in the Japanese men’s wrestling world alone you can already see gimmick matches and weird stipulations explored to their full potential in DDT and Dragon Gate.

That being said, the Jingu Stadium four-way has potential! It’s an interesting combination of people: two tricksters and two tall blondes, two stablemates in Okada and Yano, two former (or current, if they haven’t dropped it) rivals in Okada and Sanada, two guys with historically good comedy match chemistry in Yano and Sanada, and two guys who, on August 27, show some brand-new regular wrestling chemistry in Desperado and Sanada. It’ll all depend on how they play it, and whoever wins will give fans an idea of what the tone of KOPW 2020 will be like as the year goes on.

More Pro Wrestling:

NJPW World

August 27, 2020 – Last stop on the road to the baseball stadium

After KOPW gives us one of the most unusual shows in recent NJPW history, August 27 provides a very normal and pretty uneventful go-home show for Summer Struggle in Jingu. There’s not too much to say about this! On the plus side, it sounds like the audience heard how weird the app noise was the night before and decided to not press those buttons as much, and I am very grateful. On the minus side, three of the matches on this show rematches from the NEVER 6-Man tournament, and the tournament versions were better.

Most of the notable things that happened in New Japan on August 27 were in backstage promos. While that’s never an indicator of a top-notch show, these were some quality promos, and I’m going to go over them bullet point form:

  • After getting the win for his team on his 31st birthday, Sho announces that he and Yoh will vacate the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship. While he needs to “keep moving forward,” he promises Roppongi 3K will regain the belts when his other half is healed.
  • Minoru Suzuki and Shingo Takagi unsurprisingly deliver two of the best promos of the night after some escalating post-match shit talking. Suzuki is ready to fight right there in the parking lot while Takagi takes something closer to the high ground by being more respectful of his opponent. He also breaks out what I’m pretty sure is a phrase he used to use back in Dragon Gate with that bit about “who’s left standing in the end.”
  • El Desperado promises to pin SPECIFICALLY SANADA, who is too quiet for Despy to be able to immediately remember his name, in the Jingu four-way
  • Taichi kills it with an A+ hypocritical heel promo about how NJPW is playing favorites by giving Golden Ace this title match. Dangerous Tekkers will fight them only to avenge the harm done to his beloved partner Zack with that revenge Dragon Screw. Meanwhile, Golden Ace are in great spirits and while Tanahashi feels great about getting back to close to his prime shape, he realizes the “positions have switched” with him and Ibushi. The drama between these teams has truly played out as much as it can and has been a lot of fun (though arguably a little OOC/OTT at times), and now all that’s left is the deciding tag title match.

August 27’s freshest match is the main event of Evil and Taiji Ishimori vs. Tetsuya Naito and Hiromu Takahashi, and it’s the most eventful on an uneventful show. It starts with some Naito torture, moves to more explosive action between the juniors, then reminds the viewer how good more straightforward wrestling between Naito and Evil can be. The ending leaves L.I.J. in about as much peril as babyfaces can be left on a Road show, with Ishimori doing what looks like serious damage to Hiromu’s recently-injured shoulder and Evil and Togo beating the crap out of Naito and promising to do the same thing at Jingu.

The most unusual moment of the finish is the rare instance of L.I.J. being out-tricked in the ring. Evil escapes from Naito holding him for a dropkick from Hiromu, leaving Naito to fully eat the kick and be unable to save Hiromu from the chair attack that decides the match. Evil’s big wins over L.I.J. members have previously come through cheating that any heel could do, but this makes it seem like maybe he could, from his time in the group, have special inside knowledge that gives him an edge over his former stablemates.

The wrestling in this main event feels very charged and aggressive like in all the previews for the Evil vs. L.I.J. title matches, but afterward the the promos get uniquely nasty. Naito’s goading of Evil about being an unworthy or doomed champion seems meaner than usual and Evil calls Los Ingos losers for not saving each other from heel attacks (something that gets explained as them wanting to fight their own battles every time it happens, but is still a common fan pet peeve because it looks bad and seems dumb of them, or because people forget or never heard the explanations.) It’s still clear who’s our heel and who’s our babyface here, but by the end of this match it feels like everyone’s getting personal and taking the low road. I definitely won’t mind if that ends up setting the tone for the Jingu match because Naito can do some great work when he brings out his more vicious side.

Though its go-home show was pretty forgettable, it looks like something would have to go horribly wrong in order for Summer Struggle in Jingu to not be great. KOPW was hit or miss and that four-way is the wild card on the card, but all the more normal big-match feuds have been strong and compelling, and all of those matchups are promising in the ring as long as they don’t go too crazy with the length or ref bumps and interference. It’s also a show where I feel like all the big matches with stakes could go either way: there are good cases for all of the champions and challengers winning on the 29th and for any of the current title reigns continuing or ending. I’ll see you back here in a few days to go over the battle in the baseball stadium in a review I hope I will not have to type through tears about continuing to live in a Naito Zero Belts world.

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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 about pro wrestling for Fanbyte and Deadlock. Her other bylines include With Spandex on UPROXX, Orange Crush, Mind Games Magazine, FanSided WWE, and Diva Dirt.

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