NJPW Castle Attack Review: Desperate Times Call For Desperado Measures

NJPW's bleak last week of February 2021 at least gave us Castle Attack Night 2 and the elevation of El Desperado

Previously on NJPW, the Castle Attack tour had gotten off to a bleak start, but it was the kind of bleak that I could sum up as “cursed.” When the tour picked up again, the company descended to such a miserable place that using an internet slangy term like “cursed” would feel terrible.

New Japan Pro Wrestling‘s last week of February 2021 ended up including a very strong show in Castle Attack Night 2, but also a very weak show in Castle Attack Night 1, a bizarre decision about the double championship, and the reveal of a real-life terrible decision in the Marty Scurll news. Some of you are probably only here for the commentary on the Scurll story, but that ended up not fitting in this article and you will soon be able to read it elsewhere on Fanfyte. So let’s kick off this article that ended up less of a show review, more of an NJPW week-in-review with the pre-Castle Attack title matches:

The pre-Castle Attack title matches

IWGP U.S. Championship match: Jon Moxley (c) def. Kenta

Before NJPW Strong starts the fire that might drive off a significant amount of New Japan’s international fanbase, it has its biggest match yet in Jon Moxley vs. Kenta. This match really deserved to happen in front of fans who could make any kind of noise about it, but it still delivers in the dark and eerie atmosphere of NJPW Strong. Both wrestlers are aggressive and amped up from the get-go, and throughout the match, they both bring the energy that they are two tough, ornery sons of bitches who can take as much as they can give. From spots outside on the concrete to most of the strikes in the ring (Moxley clotheslines can only go so far), so much of this match looks like it hurts, and what more could you really ask for from this?

Moxley defeats Kenta with a Death Rider to retain the U.S. title, which I did not expect but works way better than Kenta bringing it back to Japan would have. With the AEW and Impact relationships and this American TV deal continuing for however long it’s going to continue, it makes sense to have the U.S. title basically be a top title for Strong, a device to build NJPW matches around in the U.S., and an easy way to bring Moxley back at any time, and maybe other crossover guest stars over in the future. I also like how old school this makes the U.S. Title feel, like those NWA titles you’ll still see floating around in Japan and Mexico that don’t really connect to anything in the U.S. anymore but did at one time.

The Scurll stuff puts a huge asterisk next to everything that could be described as a “good decision” on NJPW Strong right now, but this at least feels like the rightful destiny of a title that only Juice Robinson has ever really cared about. It’s not like this is some weird decision about the IWGP Heavyweight Championship or something, hahahaha.

NJPW

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship match: El Desperado and Yoshinobu Kanemaru def. El Phantasmo and Taiji Ishimori

Meanwhile, in Japan, the last night of the Road to Castle Attack, the go-home show for Castle Attack proper, starts by continuing this tour’s trend of being depressing as heck by starting off with another announcement from an injured person, but by the end, there are glimmers of hope. After final preview tag matches and Naito’s return to the ring, the last-minute IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship match between Bullet Club and Suzukigun far exceeds their first one from the New Beginning tour and ends up setting up the highlight of NJPW’s weekend.

Where the New Beginning tour’s El Phantasmo and Taiji Ishimori vs. El Desperado and Yoshinobu Kanemaru was overly long and fueled by shenanigans, their February 25 main event is a lot faster, tighter, and more aggressive, and all the better for it. There’s still some shenanigans, but it’s way more “here’s some good wrestling between two teams that hate each other and really want to win” than “here’s ELP’s persona.” The last few minutes especially shine as the kind of exciting race to the finish with lots of moving parts that only tag wrestling can create, with the duel between Numero Dos and Game Over, ELP and Kanemaru doing work together that’s head and shoulders above anything during their longer feud, and ultimately a very satisfying thwarting of the superkick that leads to Despy hitting Pinche Loco for the win.

It’s a much shorter second tag reign for the BC juniors than I expected, and it’s for a good cause. El Desperado is consistently framed as a babyface throughout the match, on par with their earlier feud, but then goes the faciest he’s ever been afterward, when he makes his case to be inserted into the Junior Heavyweight Championship match at Castle Attack. It’s the culmination of the faux-luchador’s character evolution that’s been going on since he finally had his breakout as a singles wrestler against Hiromu in the 2018 BOSJ.

Since then, he’s shown that he can have an exciting singles match, that he has fighting spirit up to the gills despite his cheating ways, and that he actually cares about the elevation of the junior heavyweight division. Here, that last part manifests in Desperado being a Title Lineage Nerd and making a sports-logic argument why he should be in Sunday’s title matches through a fantastic promo that completely masks how nerdy his argument is. (And yes, his comments after winning the title that they really should have had a tournament were very validating to me, a fellow Title Lineage Nerd who just argued they should really have a tournament.) His remark that nobody would care who won if the title match was just Phantasmo vs. Bushi probably isn’t completely true, but it’s a standout line for another reason: it’s the most explicitly Desperado has ever acknowledged what a fan favorite he’s become, and that the people are now behind his success. To summarize, this promo is his definitive face turn.

Castle Attack Night 1 – February 27, 2021 – Osaka

Tanga Loa def. Yoshi-Hashi, then Hirooki Goto def. Tama Tonga

Though the Road to Castle Attack manages to end strong, Castle Attack Night 1 is a return to the tour’s uninspiring status quo. This show is all about Chaos vs. Bullet Club, with five singles matches either ending or getting close to ending a set of feuds that have been going on since the year began. On paper, it is one of the least appealing NJPW cards I’ve ever seen, especially for a major show.

Off of paper and in the ring, Castle Attack Night 1 is also one of the least appealing NJPW major shows I’ve ever seen, and part of that isn’t these singles matches in themselves, but that they all happen back to back. If the top of the card had been stronger, I think it would have reflected better on the G.o.D. vs. Go To Yoshi-Hashi singles bouts. They’re not great, but they’re not worse than the average NJPW big show midcards.

The biggest thing Yoshi-Hashi vs. Tanga Loa has going for it is how unintentionally (?) funny it is. It’s a standard underdog Yoshi-Hashi match, but one of the few people on the NJPW roster Yoshi-Hashi actually isn’t an underdog against one-on-one is Tanga Loa, who has had something like three singles matches in the company ever, while Yoshi-Hashi has wrestled in a bunch of G1s and gotten singles title shots. Unsuccessful singles title shots, but still! What Loa lacks in a singles resume, he makes up for in yelling at Yoshi-Hashi like a deranged personal trainer. “GIVE ME YOUR BEST SHOT. DON’T YOU DO THIS TO ME. DON’T. YOU CAME HERE TO FIGHT ME. DON’T YOU DIE ON ME. SHOW ME WHAT YOU GOT.” If he gets tired of being a tag team champion, this guy could make a killing as a Manhattan Spin instructor; just insert a “ladies” somewhere in that dialogue.

These two matches end up bleeding into each other, very Crash TV, and Hirooki Goto vs. Tama Tonga starts with enough Jado stuff that mood sobers up quick. This match has some quality Goto offense and so much Tama offense that it feels like a blast from the past, especially when he brings back Veleno, his ancient singles finisher. Like TL vs. YH, there isn’t that much to sincerely praise about it as a singles match, but I think both of these matches together worked as a longer go-home segment for the tag title match.

KOPW 2021 YTR-style Texas Strap match: Toru Yano (c) def. Chase Owens

Part of my relative positivity about the not-great G.o.D. vs. Goto and Yoshi-Hashi singles matches is due to how much worse the show gets as soon as it returns from intermission, and then again for the main event. Yano vs. Owens gives us the great visual of Yano pawing at turnbuckle pad ties with taped-up hands but otherwise is a tonal disaster. It’s a mix of typical Yano comedy spots with moments that look non-comedically very painful in a way that doesn’t land, especially in an atmosphere even quieter than that of most COVID-era matches. Of course, another factor for many international fans is the allegations about Owens made during Speaking Out, which, especially after the Scurll report, there’s no reason to think anyone in the NJPW office or locker room would care enough to do something about if true. Being reminded of this overall situation in the wrestling industry doesn’t put someone in a laughing mood!

Jay White def. Tomohiro Ishii

The one Actually Good match of Castle Attack Night 1 is its semi-main event, Jay White vs. Tomohiro Ishii. This match delivers in the exact way you expect if you’ve seen their previous singles bouts. Ishii is as fed up with White from his entrance as he gets with most other heels halfway through matches. Meanwhile, Jay starts out the match by trying to mask his inner terror of the Stone Pitbull with outward arrogance, but beneath all of this is a painful-looking plan to beat Ishii down with rib attacks and some interference from Gedo. These two have good physical chemistry, an interpersonal dynamic that’s easy to follow, and a story that keeps you invested, watching Ishii sometimes fall prey to, sometimes overcome White’s game plan.

The match also features an especially satisfying Ishii comeback with a perfect setup: right after White and Gedo make it clear they’re actually trying to beat down Ishii so much he can’t continue to match and any audience member who’s seen an Ishii match before thinks that sounds like a terrible plan, Ishii comes out of the corner trash-talking and mad as hell. The one part of this match that doesn’t deliver is, unfortunately, the finish, a long series of reversals that ends with a Blade Runner. The Blade Runner is not a move that makes these kinds of sequences look good, and they especially look terrible when Ishii and White do them, but for some reason, Ishii and White do them almost every time they’re in the ring together! This makes the ending the lowest-intensity and worst-looking part of the match, but overall, Ishii vs. White is a strong one, and Castle Attack Night 1’s singular highlight.

NJPW

Kazuchika Okada def. Evil

In recent years, it’s become very clear that Okada has different levels of performing, and the god-tier one that earned him his reputation is the level we’re going to see least often. After Wrestle Kingdom 14, I think we saw it against Hiromu in the New Japan Cup, maybe against Evil in the NJ Cup final, against Ospreay and Takagi in the G1, and against Ospreay at WK 15. We do not see it in his first singles main event of 2021, the one after which he declares that the whole double title situation has been a mess and he’s the guy NJPW needs as the sole top champion.

This match starts hot, with Evil and Okada forgoing a lockup to run at each other, but is quickly bogged down by heel shenanigans and manager interference. This wouldn’t be so bad, except that we just saw the exact same heel-with-manager dynamic with more heat behind it in White vs. Ishii. The similarities of these aspects of White and Evil’s acts were recently played up in a tag match in a way that was self-aware and fun, but seeing this stuff in back-to-back long, serious singles matches is painful.

Along with this element of the match that is actively very bad, there’s nothing in this match that’s really standout good. It never compensates for how obvious its outcome seems (again, something Ishii vs. White does better.) It’s easy to see how the ending, with Okada repeatedly getting close to victory with the Money Clip and the villains having to resort to cheating to stop this unstoppable move, then Okada finally busting out one of the least deadly-looking Rainmakers ever, is supposed to be exciting, but it is not played in a way that is exciting at all. As with the feud building up to this match, if you were to look at the events of Evil vs. Okada listed out on paper, it would look like it could describe an exciting match, but it just doesn’t have the spark it needs to really deliver.

Castle Attack Night 2 – February 28, 2021 – Osaka

After the downer that was Castle Attack Night 1 and the majority of the Castle Attack tour and most NJPW-related events outside of the tour this month, Castle Attack Night 2 shows that New Japan hasn’t completely forgotten how to put on an entertaining wrestling show. This show is wall-to-wall fun matches, with a legitimately moving crowning of a new champion in the semi-main and a main event that I’d say is NJPW’s best bout since Wrestle Kingdom.

NJPW

Hiroyoshi Tenzan and Satoshi Kojima def. Will Ospreay and Jeff Cobb

One of the Castle Attack tour’s several depressing trends was shows continuing to almost always open with the United Empire. It’s like “Hey, let’s start a fun night of wrestling! Okay, here’s a reminder of how wrestling treats women terribly and generally sucks—are you having fun now? Are you???” But this time around, the Empire opener isn’t so depressing because they finally lose, and lose in hilarious fashion.

Ultimately, it is probably “bad” for NJPW to have a match for the definitive right to use a certain wrestling move, then have the losing party be allowed to just start using that wrestling move again when he gets fed up with his enemies using it on him in a dickish way. However, Tenzan doing this to the Ospreay and Cobb is way too funny and leads to such a feel-good TenCozy victory that I can’t seriously take issue with it. When the New Japan Cup schedule comes out, it turns out this was in service of Kojima vs. Cobb and Ospreay vs. Tenzan in the first round of the tournament, but I’m keeping my hopes up that in the long term, all this TenCozy activity means they fight G.o.D. for the tag title reign record sometime this year.

IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship match: Guerrillas of Destiny (Tama Tonga and Tanga Loa) def. Hirooki Goto and Yoshi-Hashi

After a blowoff six-man tag of Okada, Ishii, and Yano vs. Evil, White, and Owens that sends Okada into the NJ Cup with another victory, the current record-holding tag champs retain their titles in a solid match. It never really feels like Goto and Yoshi-Hashi could really win this match, but they’re the kind of tag team that’s entertaining even when they’re doomed. All their teamwork is fun to watch, Yoshi-Hashi fights from underneath, and Goto continues to go extremely hard when he’s on offense on his own. This match also includes a couple of nearfalls convincing enough to make your smark brain turn off for a second—Tama surprisingly kicks out of two finishers without interference, including the GYW, which pinned him on the go-home show.

While the finish is achieved through cheating—Tanga Loa’s belt attack doesn’t work, but a kendo stick hit from Jado does, and Goto dies by Gun Stun – but it’s well-executed and not really drawn out, which is really appreciated after how loaded Night 1 was with this stuff. We get a frustrating win for the bad guys out of it, but it doesn’t drag down the whole match.

NJPW

NEVER Openweight Championship match: Hiroshi Tanahashi (c) def. Great-O-Khan

At Wrestle Kingdom 15, Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Great-O-Khan was a classic Tana vs. Bad Guy match featuring a new very capable, interesting, and entertaining bad guy. That ends up being what Tana vs. GOK at Castle Attack is too, but with the Ace winning through his veteran’s smarts instead of with a High Fly Flow. Everything that’s satisfying about Tanahashi in midcard singles matches is on display, Great-O-Khan’s unusual offense gets plenty of time in the spotlight, and the stuff with Tsuji is cartoony fun. It’s like a good Superman story that isn’t a big world-ending crossover event.

Match for the vacant IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship: El Desperado def. Bushi and El Phantasmo

After a NEVER match that satisfyingly keeps a well-established crowd-pleaser in the spotlight, the three-way for the vacant Junior Heavyweight Championship does a fantastic job of elevating a newer one. It starts off on the sliding scale of good-to-annoying depending on your ELP tolerance level, but kicks into another gear as soon as Phantasmo shockingly rips most of Desperado’s mask off. Post-that BOSJ final, I think it’s ELP putting the mask on his own face that might actually be the most offensive-to-Despy part of that. Also because of that BOSJ final, this immediately turns the match’s atmosphere electric; it seems like Desperado could run back into the ring at any moment with a naked face.

Desperado returning in a spare mask from the back is much less dramatic, but still a good moment, and makes it feel like the match has entered the phase that really matters. Its most important-feeling action is between Desperado and Phantasmo, whose offense now looks much more like it has a purpose other than showboating. Things have been set up so it’s easy to get invested in every nearfall and rope break, and soon we get one from ELP that gets an audible crowd reaction. The pinnacle of this match’s nearfalls is, of course, when ELP hits the superkick, then CRII on Despy, but Bushi grabs the referee. This and Bushi rolling out of the ring after getting superkicked soon after saves the match from a depressing ending; kudos to Bushi for a great supporting actor turn in this match that for once doesn’t end with him getting pinned!

The finish of the match continues to take advantage of the tension of ELP feeling like the guy most likely to win, while Desperado being the who it feels like should win. All of the final nearfalls are quick, well-executed, and stressful, and the second Pinche Loco with the disrespectful parody-of-a-parody Undertaker pin especially so. Emotions abound, the match is overall way better than expected, and it feels like the “right” guy won. El Phantasmo will probably get a junior title run someday, but Desperado winning now gives the audience an actually compelling reason to keep following the junior division while Hiromu is out, rather than a reason to kind of tune out until Hiromu can come back for revenge.

NJPW
NJPW

It also, completely out of left field, creates a new, compelling hook for the Anniversary Show main event, which is now babyface champion El Desperado challenging Kota Ibushi to a rematch of his first-ever NJPW feud eight years ago, not only as the representative of the junior division, but to show he’s no longer the screw-up he was back then. Because as Ibushi says in the ring and Desperado agrees backstage, he used to suck! The only really good thing about him in those early title feuds against Ibushi and Kushida was his costume. It has completely made sense for Desperado to be a tag wrestler and lower-level Suzukigun foot soldier for a long time.

But over the past few years, NJPW viewers have watched him step up and put it together as a singles guy in front of our eyes—the kind of evolution that wrestling can do especially well out of all the forms of serialized storytelling because the people paying attention to the story essentially experience it in real-time, which encourages a deeper emotional connection (with maybe a little sunk cost fallacy mixed in). El Desperado’s journey also blurs the lines between reality and fiction in that way pro wrestling does that makes people froth at the mouth. It has become a combination of the performer behind El Desperado improving at his craft, boosted by his character’s fictional achievements and failure. Strong character work and aesthetics and some of the top acting chops in NJPW make this all feel even more recognizable human. These long-term factors, plus a quality triple threat and some strong bookending promos, makes El Desperado’s title win at Castle Attack the climax of the type of wrestling story that pulls you along by your heartstrings (to, ideally, the ticket booth and the merch website).

IWGP Intercontinental Championship match: Kota Ibushi (c) def. Tetsuya Naito

While the Junior Heavyweight Championship provided the moment of the night, the soon-to-be-dearly-departed Intercontinental Championship delivers the match of the night. Naito and Ibushi continue to make every match in their rivalry exciting, with enough maniac energy injected into all of them that it feels inappropriate to call them “consistent” or something than suggests stability (even though “consistently great” would be an accurate way to describe them.)

As always, the chemistry between these men is perfect. The match escalates from mat work to higher-impact moves in a way that keeps the audience hooked, and with both Ibushi and Naito bringing unimpeachable intensity and aggression. Naito shines more obviously at the beginning, with a very dominant performance full of vicious attacks to one of Ibushi’s knees. He doesn’t veer close to his fully heel persona like he did when he faced Ibushi at Dominion 2019, but he’s clearly here to do some damage as well as win.

Ibushi’s comeback, which comes much later in the game than I expected, is also fantastic. His offensive stream that includes the deadlift German into the ring is like a reminder that oh, right, Ibushi rules, after he hasn’t been at his most inspiring since Wrestle Kingdom. This is the tier of Ibushi that made it feel like it would be insane for NJPW never to make him the IWGP Heavyweight Champion. Naito’s A+ performance extends to selling for Ibushi here as well, not just with bumps but things like the way he struggled during that powerbomb setup. It feels like these two can do no wrong when they get in the ring together—other than getting too risky sometimes, depending on your perspective.

And then they merged the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Championships to make the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship

It took until Naito’s performance in the Castle Attack IC title match had become so dominant for such a long, front-loaded stretch for me to realize he was definitely losing, as opposed to it feeling like there was a real possibility that he could lose. This was because, in the great unification vs. separation debate between him and Ibushi, Naito’s plan wasn’t just communicated more clearly and convincingly, but was the one communicated clearly on actual NJPW TV. In contrast, Ibushi first went into full detail about his much more dramatic plan in an online-only interview video shortly before Castle Attack proper, so shortly before that even Naito remarked that a lot of fans wouldn’t have time to see it.

From the surprised fan reactions when the news of the title unification and what it would entail broke, it seems like that guess of Naito’s was correct. Ibushi insisted backstage at Castle Attack that he would protect the legacies of the titles by unifying them, and Chairman Sugabayashi said at the press conference that “the lineage of the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Championships have been merged.” But these legacies have not been unified or merged in any meaningful way because “Kota Ibushi will now be recognised as the first ever IWGP World Heavyweight Champion,” so in reality, unless they pull off a massive swerve, the legacies of both the Heavyweight and Intercontinental Championships will be over after the defense at the Anniversary Show. If they really go through with this, killing the IWGP Heavyweight Championship is the most baffling creative decision that NJPW has made in a long time, even more than “Ibushi gets into the January 4, 2021 main event because Naito requested it and apparently NJPW didn’t have anything else planned for that spot.”

I understand ending the Intercontinental Championship, something that seemed bound to happen whether Naito or Ibushi won at Castle Attack. You could reasonably say that the IC title had served its purpose. It was a selling point for an NJPW US tour back in 2011, it was treated as Nakamura’s project until he left the company, then agonized over as Naito’s ball and chain, and in between it helped elevate the positions of guys like Kenny Omega and, more temporarily, La Sombra within the NJPW heavyweight scene. Going through every good IWGP Intercontinental Championship match and memory and moment could take up a whole other article. But now since it became the lesser half of the double championship and the NEVER Openweight Championship was elevated during that time, it feels reasonable for the IC title, after almost ten years, to be over.

In contrast, nothing about the state of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship suggests that it needs to be killed off. In the inherently silly entertainment genre of pro wrestling, the IWGP Heavyweight Championship is one of the rare entities with gravitas and prestige. Part of the reason the IC title felt so immediately devalued in the double championship arrangement wasn’t because its own legacy was weak, but because comparing it to the Heavyweight title’s was like comparing a lightbulb to the sun at its zenith. Even previous unification storylines were centered around the rightful, one-and-only, top-of-the-company power the Heavyweight title was supposed to have, and pretender-to-the-throne belt, first the NWF title in 2004, then the “third belt” in 2008, was the one whose legacy ended while the Heavyweight Championship’s continued. I’m not even going to try to do a summary of the greatest matches that have been wrestled for this title and angles that have been based around it because whittling the list down would take too long.

In sum, while you can say the IC title was broken, ending the lineage of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship feels like a real “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” situation. The fact that NJPW is even doing this and that they communicated so poorly to fans who don’t pay attention to every single video they put out that this was even a possibility beforehand does not inspire great confidence that the new belt is going to be handled in such a way that doesn’t make it feel like a huge loss and like they made a mistake.

I also think that making Ibushi the instigator of this change—by his request alone!—is not a good look for him. Of course, this is ultimately the company’s call both in kayfabe and in real life (and much more in real life), but Ibushi is bound to get a lot of flak for it as the symbol of the change. Even if this is meant to turn fans against him ahead of a heel turn or something, ending the Heavyweight Championship for real does not seem worth it. Both he and the company are going to have be firing on all cylinders at all times in the top title picture to give this transition a chance of working.

NJPW

One thing I like can appreciate about this development as a diehard Naito homer is how much it sucks for Naito. As he immediately recognizes, it is so perfectly tragic for him. By pushing to be able to challenge for the Heavyweight Championship while still the Intercontinental Champion, he started the company down this path to unification, and ultimately the destruction of the Heavyweight Championship. It would be unbearably tragic if, in the process, he never achieved his destino, but he did, so it’s more bittersweet and kind of funny. And like Ibushi vs. Desperado, it all circles back to Wrestle Kingdom 8, the show that continues to inspire wrestler angst more than seven years later.

This article ended up super long and it didn’t even dig into the implications that happened in NJPW this week! There could have been paragraphs in here speculating about Okada in the new title landscape and Tanahashi’s NEVER Openweight Championship future, but these topics will definitely come up in the future and be addressed then. So this is all for now, and I’ll see you back here to talk about the Anniversary Show.

Tags

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.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.