NJPW Summer Struggle 8/6-9 Review: A Better Tomorrow

Chaos is one big, happy fighting family in the tournament for the vacant NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship

In the cacophony of questions about New Japan Pro Wrestling after Evil joined Bullet Club, one of the quieter ones was “Wait, what’s going to happen to the NEVER Openweight 6-Man Championships?” The four-and-a-half-year-old trios titles were arguably NJPW’s least important— often all but ignored for months at a time. Maybe the company would just quietly retire them, and some people thought they should.

But on August 6-9, 2020, New Japan did the opposite, and it paid off. The tournament to crown the new NEVER 6-Man champs had its ups and downs, but overall delivered some quality matches and moments and elevated the titles to new heights.

The 21st NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship Tournament

Going into the tournament, no one stood out as obvious favorites to win. Every team had an obvious pin-eater and none had ever had any kind of significant trios run before. Even guessing who would make the semi-finals was a shot in the dark. One of the weirdest things about NJPW having six-man tag titles is that they’ve never really had a trios wrestling scene, and that showed in this tournament lineup.

Six-man tags are more often used in NJPW to build to other matches than they’re promoted as matches to get hyped for in themselves, and that’s something that hurt these Summer Struggle shows as a whole. Almost everything on the August 6-9 cards is skippable outside of the tournament action. With so many people wrapped up in the tournament, most of the undercard matches can’t even get the right combinations of people to preview anything.

The two undercard matches before the final show that made an impression on me were the August 6 match that showed everyone that Ishii, Goto, and Yoshi-Hashi could actually kick ass as a three-man team, and the August 7 one that gave Okada, Yano, and Sho a non-tournament win, a little credibility boost. There were also the tag matches previewing Evil vs. Naito and those were fine, but we saw those earlier in the tour and we’ll see more of them late, so before the dramatic events of August 9, they were borderline filler.

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Kazuchika Okada, Sho, and Toru Yano def. Yujiro Takahashi, Gedo, and Jado

This tournament will probably be remembered for its strong ending, but on August 6, it gets off to a weak start. Okada, Sho, and Yano vs. Yujiro, Gedo, and Jado is the worst match of the tournament. The Yano vs. Gedo cheater vs. cheater stuff is fun, but otherwise, there’s so much of Okada and Sho having serious trouble with two much smaller and older guys. I still don’t begrudge NJPW for powering up these Bullet Club guys during the pandemic heel shortage, but that doesn’t mean these three are great to watch.

Another reason this match makes a disappointing start to a trios tournament is that it features very little teamwork and I don’t think any combination moves. It doesn’t explore the possibilities of what three-on-three wrestling can do, which is a lot of cool stuff! This match also feels like any random Road show six-man tag and more of a preview to Okada vs. Yujiro II than its own thing. Though the August 6 main event was a lot stronger, both of this show’s tournament matches make it seem like this series will be more like World Tag League than the G1: a way to see a lot of the roster in a certain kind of tag match, but also something that shows why current NJPW isn’t really a destination for that kind of wrestling. But by the final, the NJPW trios picture, as much as the company can be said to have one, looks a lot more like something to keep an eye on.

Shingo Takagi, Sanada, and Bushi def. Minoru Suzuki, El Desperado, and Douki

L.I.J. vs. Suzukigun on the 6th also features very little real trios action (though Los Ingos are good, as always, for some cool combo moves), but it’s an entertaining main event that kicks off an extremely entertaining feud. Suzuki ominously alluded to his next target after he beat Nagata, and here he quickly reveals that he has his sights on Shingo Takagi and the NEVER Openweight Championship.

Suzuki and Takagi had some exciting exchanges in tag matches at the end of last year, but here they really show how great a singles match between them could be. The exchanges of the attempting, escaping, and landing of signature moves look great and are fueled by the crazy aggression that fits two characters who truly love to fight. I’ll get into this more later in the article, but this match also brings together two of New Japan’s best on the mic and kicks off a series of tense post-match segments and entertaining backstage promos.

Hirooki Goto, Tomohiro Ishii, and Yoshi-Hashi def. Togi Makabe, Tomoaki Honma, and Ryusuke Taguchi

The first tournament match on August 7 is the dark horse hit of the first round. The previous night’s preview match (the same lineup but with Kojima instead of Taguchi) was the first glimpse that Goto, Ishii, and Yoshi-Hashi make a great team, and the eventual tournament winners’ hot streak continues here. Working with Goto and Ishii (and maybe the knowledge he’s going to finally win a title) seems to ramp up Yoshi-Hashi’s intensity and he never stands out as a notable weak link on his team, even though he’s their most obvious pin-eater. Goto, who got one of his once-in-a-blue-moon flash pin wins over Makabe on the 6th, continues to be on his A-game, looking great in the ring with everyone. Along with the individual performances, the Chaos team shows how well they work as a team, using entertaining and effective teamwork throughout the match and looking like they didn’t just come to win, but to win as a coordinated three-man team.

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

Tanahashi, Ibushi, and Wato vs. Taichi, ZSJ, and Kanemaru is a fun match in itself and an important point in the ongoing Dangerous Tekkers vs. Golden Ace feud that’s now set for a title match at Jingu Stadium.

The night before, our heroic former tag champs reach their lowest low point in a match where Tanahashi looks more washed than ever and causes a ton of problems for his team. Things get so bad that Taichi and Sabre take their pitch for Ibushi to team up with them another step further and hold the Ace in Kamigoye position. I saw some observations that Ibushi’s reaction in this moment seemed out of character, and while that wasn’t my reaction, I think that was mostly because I felt like Ibushi actually turning heel would be so out of character, or at least a really weird creative decision. But Ibushi is also a pretty broad actor in a way that would allow a lot of different interpretations about how he played the dramatic moments in this story.

The resolution to the “join us!” part of this angle is one of the August 7 main event’s many satisfying moments. Ibushi continues his Summer Struggle streak of look like a superstar every time he gets a hot tag, and he gets the heroic moment of faking out Taichi and Zack and attacking them rather than his partner when they set up the Kamigoye again. With that drama resolved, Golden Ace is finally able to work as a functional team. Tanahashi starts to get over his debilitating case of the yips, and the match’s final satisfying moment is its final moment when Ibushi saves his partner from Zack Mephisto and Tana rolls up Taichi for the win.

Ibushi, Tanahashi, and Wato vs. Taichi, Zack, and Kanemaru is the by far the soapiest match of a tournament that’s light on feuds, and its epilogue is an important moment in the dramatic  Ibushi-Tanahashi relationship, with the Ace saying that while he’ll keep aiming for the top, he’s not the guy Ibushi saw as a god, so “Ibushi, from this point on, you have to become a god!”

As much as this angle is doing for the tag division, it’s also doing so much for Ibushi and Taichi as singles wrestlers. Taichi’s New Japan Cup run and consistently fantastic promos remind everyone of his strengths as a performer. Meanwhile, Ibushi’s been leaving the audience wanting more with his time in the ring, and now he’s had a big heroic moment and a massive endorsement from the wrestler he looks up to the most.

Kazuchika Okada, Sho, and Toru Yano def. Shingo Takagi, Sanada, and Bushi

On the next following night, the Chaos vs. L.I.J. bout features more teamwork than either trio’s first tournament match, but the highlights come from the way the teams pair off. Sho and Sanada keep things mostly mat-based, a choice that shows off Sho’s BJJ-influenced skills and Sanada’s ground game. Okada vs. Takagi, an inter-promotional top champion dream match from 2016, looks like it should happen in the G1 ASAP, please.

While most of the match draws attention to these two pairings, it’s Bushi vs. Yano that determines the result. The Chaos OG gets revenge for a previous flash pin defeat by tying Bushi’s mask to the barricade in a classic Yano win and one made more impactful by how totally unexpected it is in this mostly serious and straightforward match. Overall, Chaos vs. L.I.J. on August 8 keeps up the positive momentum that tournament has going at this point, and does an unexpected amount of building for KOPW (KOPW takes to come!)

Hirooki Goto, Tomohiro Ishii, and Yoshi-Hashi def. Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kota Ibushi, and Master Wato

This all-babyface match is very fun and incredibly well put together, with plenty of trios teamwork and some standout one-on-one moments. Tanahashi restraining Goto so Ibushi and Wato could kick him at the same time had me rooting for these guys to win the whole thing. Ishii and Ibushi getting the ring together activates both of their murder impulses, which is always great to see, and the finishing sequence between Wato and Yoshi-Hashi is a lot cooler than people might have expected. Goto, Ishii, and Yoshi-Hashi step out of the semifinals and into an all-Chaos final against Okada, Sho, and Yano looking like the standout team of the tournament.

Since Makabe’s “f*ck Chaos” promo there’s been a noticeable split between Chaos and the home team, with the formerly merged groups no longer teaming together. By the end of this tournament, there’s also the first moment since last fall of Chaos feeling like a real unit outside of non-wrestling bonus material. They’re Generic Babyface Unit #2 at this point, but all the members in the ring for the final have plenty of history together. I thought there was basically nothing to do with Chaos at this point except maybe a breakup angle, but I was wrong! There was this and this was very good.

Hirooki Goto, Tomohiro Ishii, and Yoshi-Hashi def. Kazuchika Okada, Toru Yano, and Sho to become the 21st NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Champions

In the August 9 tournament final, Goto, Ishii, and Yoshi-Hashi continue to show their top-notch teamwork, but the standout moments are one-on-one. The exchanges of Sho vs. Goto and Sho vs. Ishii make all three guys look good, and while Sho vs. Ishii was completely brand new and finished the match, it was Sho vs. Goto that made me really want to see them go one-on-one. I think it was just the combination of speed with the hard-hitting stuff.

The compelling pairing of Okada vs. Yoshi-Hashi starts the match and teases finishing it. Whenever these two are in opposite corners it’s always weird and tense in a way you can’t look away from because of their history of coming back from excursion at the same time, then Okada becoming the NJPW’s golden boy and Yoshi-Hashi its perennial loser. Even though Okada’s at far from his most powerful, seeing him start to go for finishers on Yoshi-Hashi makes you think the end is near – though those moments would have been a lot tenser if he wasn’t still in his Cobra Clutch phase.

NJPW World

Goto, Ishii, and Yoshi-Hashi winning the tournament means that Yoshi-Hashi wins his first championship in the more than ten years he’s worked for New Japan, transitioning from perennial loser to… probably still most of the time loser. It’s classic Yoshi-Hashi that championship would be the 6-Man ones, but this team winning after a string of really good performances and as a victory for the everyman does make the 6-Man belts feel more valuable than they did at the tournament’s start.

The post-match moment is successfully heartwarming with the Chaos group picture, Okada strapping the belt on Yoshi-Hashi, and Yoshi-Hashi further connecting the audience to this moment with his promo. Yoshi-Hashi always looks like a regular guy experiencing stress in the extreme world of pro wrestling and that makes him, in a way, the perfect hero for a time that has made Yoshi-Hashis of us all. With “I hope tomorrow brings something better for all of us,” Yoshi-Hashi captures the most optimistic version of the 2020 spirit.

As someone who is aware of things going on in the wrestling world outside of NJPW kayfabe, I think this moment and this promo could have been a lot more effective if when I opened up NJPW World to watch it, the video right next door wasn’t the free match of the week featuring Will Ospreay, a glaring reminder that NJPW is helping make the wrestling world a worse place by enabling widespread sexual abuse to continue with no consequences (which I wrote about in more detail in this piece about NJPW Strong.)

Of course, when NJPW’s UK partner company is slapping Ospreay on their comeback show and Dave Meltzer, an influence on NJPW’s reputation in the English-speaking world, is fully ignoring evidence about what happened with Ospreay in the Wrestling Observer, then why wouldn’t NJPW think they can just keep promoting this guy as usual without it hurting their international business, I guess. But every “to be fair” type of point doesn’t make NJPW’s lack of response to misconduct allegations against their talent any less of something that perpetuates the circumstances that allowed this abuse to thrive or any less of a dog whistle to the misogynistic nerd guys when NJPW’s international fanbase is already kind of assumed to be mostly misogynistic nerd guys. It’s also not any less of a slap in the face to women and sexual assault victims, for whom it continues to look like, in wrestling, tomorrow won’t bring something better. And in its role as a significant player in the US, UK, Australia, and New Zealand wrestling scenes, NJPW is playing a role in that.

All the other titles and all of their drama

Outside of the NEVER 6-Man tournament and KOPW, there’s some pre-Jingu build to the matches for the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championships, NEVER Openweight Championship, IWGP double championship, and IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, and it all ranges from pretty good to very good. Evil and Naito sell the heck out of their rematch and the possibility of Naito’s revenge. Hiromu returns from injury to save Naito, attack Ishimori, and cause a very rare non-comedic NJPW DQ – then cut a promo that’s completely feral-e-cat-boy, featuring the promise to give one of Ishimori’s abs to a YouTube commenter. It’s all great work by everybody.

The builds to Jingu’s other two title matches are equally or more dramatic. Along with facing off in another tag match, Suzuki and Takagi go to town on each other with promos, with Suzuki promising to crack Shingo’s bones and leave him for dead, Shingo challenging him with new lyrics to Kaze Ni Nare, and both guys bringing their A-game in the in-ring promo segment on the 9th. Takagi’s talk about knockouts when I don’t know if he’s ever won a match by KO in his whole career – and definitely hasn’t in NJPW while Suzuki has many times – seems like it could be ominous for his NEVER title reign.

Meanwhile, the Golden Ace vs. Dangerous Tekkers (and also Wato and Kanemaru are there) saga progresses further in an eight-man tag that’s fun, but a little repetitive from their tournament match. Tanahashi finally looks like he’s fully over his yips, he and Ibushi work well together as a tag team again, and the Ace gets his first classic win in a while with a High Fly Flow on Kanemaru. After the match, we get a reversal of the scene we’ve seen several times on this tour when Golden Ace stands in the ring looking down on a defeated Zack and Taichi. Things are looking up for our heroes!

Something I like about the builds for the big Jingu matches is how different they all are, with the very melodramatic and friendship-based tag title feud contrasting with an aggressive NEVER title feud between two guys who live to fight, and both contrasting with the hate-filled one-on-one L.I.J. vs. BC rivalries, which are also playing out in very different ways. Summer Struggle at Jingu looks like NJPW’s most stacked show since Wrestle Kingdom, and New Japan’s doing a great job of getting people invested in not just in the action, but in the outcomes and characters as well.

NJPW World

The C in G1 Climax stands for “confident”

NJPW also confirms during this tour that beyond Jingu, they’re gearing up for the G1 Climax, with a game plan that seems optimistic in our pandemic world. Using fewer wrestlers who aren’t in the tournament than in past years, NJPW intends to do a nineteen-day tournament with dates all around Japan, but noticeably fewer in Tokyo, the prefecture with the most coronavirus cases, than they may have previously intended.

I’m not trying to be a buzzkill for no reason, but I want to point out that while Japan initially had a lot of success controlling the spread of COVID-19, cases have steadily risen since the end of the state of emergency. The situation in Japan is changing all the time like it is everywhere (a recent update: a push to determine whether there should be another state of emergency based on “hospital occupancy rates” rather than total cases), so this tour may or may not be able to go on exactly as planned.

Pandemic aside, the amount of dates makes this look like it will be another twenty-man G1, which raises the question of who those twenty are going to be. Maybe the border situation will change enough in a short amount of time that the need to get coronavirus test results and possibly quarantine for two weeks shortens up even more, but including juniors like the New Japan Cup did and/or getting some guest stars from other promotions seems more doable. It’s definitely going to be a unique G1, and fingers crossed that that’s more in the fun new matchups way rather than the pandemic nightmare way.

Also, they set the whole KOPW lineup!

Now that the trios tournament is over, it’s time for the much weirder KOPW. As NJPW sets up the tournament’s matches, it raises more questions about how this tournament is supposed to work. Usually, wrestlers not only challenge each other in New Japan, but also ask or tell the office to make matches. They can request who they want to wrestle, but they don’t really get to decide.

But on August 6, after Chaos beats Bullet Club in the first round of the NEVER 6-Man tournament, Okada just challenges Yujiro for the first round of KOPW. They each pick their stipulations that night like they don’t need to wait for the office to make the match official. It looks like the wrestlers get to book their own KOPW matches. Either that or Okada just gets to pick, making this look more like his vanity tournament, like something that could or should be on a Kazuchika Okada Produce show.

The theory that maybe Okada is booking this thing is supported by El Desperado just directly addressing Okada when he pitches himself for KOPW. But then Kojima and Desperado, Sanada and Sho, and Bushi and Yano all seem to just decide that they’re going to be in KOPW and wrestling each other in it. I guess New Japan and/or Okada got lucky that exactly eight people turned out to be interested in this eight-person tournament before it started? The most generous take on KOPW so far is that it’s kind of like the BMF belt, and the least generous is that it’s sort of confusing and doesn’t mesh with how NJPW usually works at all.

To recap, here’s what we know to expect from the first round of KOPW on August 26, when these gimmick matches will make up most of the show, which should at least make for something memorable:

  • Okada vs. Yujiro, with Okada pitching a three-on-one handicap match and Yujiro pitching a lumberjack match with belts, two stipulations that fit into their ongoing feud
  • Kojima vs. El Desperado, with Despy pitching a Finishers Match in which they can only use their finishing moves, and then Kojima just being completely fine with that stipulation (because he apparently doesn’t get how KOPW works either?) which causes Despy to switch his stipulation to a No Finishers match
  • Sho vs. Sanada, which doesn’t have any proposed stipulations yet, but I’m guessing will have something to do with submissions
  • Bushi vs. Yano, also with no proposed stipulations

I’ll see you back here after these matches play out in possibly very weird ways to break down the last leg of the Summer Struggle tour before we reach the baseball stadium.