NJPW Road to Dominion 2021 Review: Additional Boys Are Back in Town

Stan Miho Abe for clear skin

After a late-May comeback weakened by a depleted roster and a lack of storylines, New Japan Pro Wrestling kicked off June 2021 with the much stronger, more energized Road to Dominion.

While these June 1-2 shows weren’t flawless and contained plenty of reminders that the hard times aren’t over yet for the company and the world, the Road to Dominion events were New Japan’s first in a long time that I wouldn’t describe as feeling “cursed” or “bleak.” Wrestlers referenced the pandemic in promos, a planned June 4 event on the tour was canceled due to the ongoing state of emergency, and Dominion had its date changed for similar reasons, but we also saw eleven previously absent wrestlers return to the NJPW ring, most of them after bouts with COVID-19, several angles leading up to what should be an entertaining Dominion, and two quality title match main events.

Back like they never left (except the new song)

The good vibes and good wrestling begin with the first match of the Road to Dominion. It’s Yoh, Sho, and Yuya Uemura vs. El Desperado, Yoshinobu Kanemaru, and Minoru Suzuki, a bout entirely made up of people who have been out of the ring since May 3. Given the fairly common lingering coronavirus side effects of shortness of breath and similar symptoms (which were why Taichi didn’t wrestle on the Road to Wrestle Grand Slam), I wondered if we might see some returning wrestlers appear a little slower or more easily winded on these shows, but this opener starts the trend of the opposite. Everyone here gives one hundred percent and delivers a trios match with more aggression and teamwork than you might expect from an NJPW Korakuen Hall opener. The match between similar teams the following night (Yoh and Sho with Taguchi vs. Despy, Kanemaru, and Douki) delivers as well, starting off with some brawling and ending with Yoh earning a strong submission victory going into his title challenge.

Both of these matches sold me on the upcoming Yoh vs. Desperado match more than the previews from the Dontaku tour. The story is that Yoh needs to take his game to the next level in order to take the next step in his career (making R3K less fun and shiny isn’t going to cut it!) and while he didn’t bust out a new move in these matches or anything, I felt like I was seeing a more impressive, improved version of him as a singles wrestler. I don’t think this is his time to win the title—as a character, a performer, and in the context of the current state of the junior division and how little Desperado’s gotten to do as champ yet—but I think Yoh could build significantly more excitement around himself as a singles guy at Dominion.

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Elsewhere on the undercard, the pair of matches with the least going on story-wise also happen to be the most skippable. The Bullet Club team of Evil, Chase Owens, Taiji Ishimori, and El Phantasmo took on Hontai teams that included Hiroshi Tanahashi and Tomoaki Honma both nights, and while these matches aren’t fully garbage, they are partially garbage in the exact way those team lineups tell you they’re going to be. Thank goodness those lengthy back rake spots are finally back in New Japan Pro Wrestling and that ELP did not realize that Impact Wrestling is his true natural habitat and stay there to do backstage vignettes with Ace Austin or something.

Nooo, don’t bring up the God thing, you know he’s sensitive about that

The Jeff Cobb vs. Kota Ibushi feud continues with Cobb and Great-O-Khan vs. Ibushi and Tsuji, then Ibushi and Wato, and these tag matches rarely capture what’s exciting about Jeff Cobb and Kota Ibushi wrestling each other, but they also aren’t bad. The June 1 tag seems to fizzle out by the end, with an anticlimactic O-Khan vs. Tsuji finishing stretch, but June 2 gives us a post-match brawl that hints at the shoot-ier quality that made their G1 bout so memorable and exciting. I respect that Cobb and Ibushi tried to add a bit of a story to their feud, but I don’t think they ever really pulled off the dynamic they were going for; their personalities might just not mesh in the right way for that. However, those attempts didn’t at all take away from the desire to see these two fight, and in closer to a combat sports way than other pro wrestling pairings.

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“The one and only preview match”

One of the series’ most fun matches is the June 1 semi-main, the eight-man tag that serves as the last preview for both the June 2 NEVER 6-Man title match and the Dominion main event. Like the junior title previews, the levels of aggression in this match successfully sell the viewer on the feuds within, but in the case of Shingo Takagi vs. Kazuchika Okada, it still leaves you wanting more. More as in, wow, these two are one of the stronger and fresher pairings on the NJPW right now and they’re going to have a match for the vacant world title next week and it seems like we should be getting more from the company about that?

Okada vs. Takagi III is almost sure to be very good, based on their tournament matches together, but it seems like NJPW is not putting a lot of effort into building up additional excitement about which of these men (who are very different characters at very different points in their careers, a super easy compare-and-contrast situation) will be the company’s next world champion. Okada describes their Dominion match as “an opportunity to set things right,” and it does feel like a reset more than anything—not just because that’s the easiest smarky way to describe it, but because it’s very easy to see it that way and NJPW isn’t doing much to dress that up and make it less obvious.

This situation is obviously a last-minute development that wasn’t the plan for the title a month ago and there are a lot of difficult extenuating circumstances. Still, I feel like Kojima challenging Kenta for the US title briefcase at the last minute before Wrestle Kingdom had more hype than this match between this generation’s top guy and a more up-and-coming high-level guy for, again, the world championship. I feel like even under the circumstances, this situation could be a lot more exciting. Carnies, please distract me bigger from the circumstances with your circus.

The power of love and Miho Abe

The Dangerous Tekkers vs. Guerrillas of Destiny feud is a loaf of bread that got stale a while ago, but NJPW insisted on continuing to make sandwiches from it. Though this angle has been going on for so long that ZSJ started cutting promos that amounted to We promise it’s almost over! these teams have delivered some late in the game success, unexpectedly with the ladder match, and again with their last title match in, hopefully, a long while.

Like the ladder match, the June 1 main event for the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship gets a boost of power by appealing to the fans’ emotions, and more specifically by appealing to the fans’ emotional connections to Suzukigun side characters. There were a lot of reasons to want Dangerous Tekkers to win this match before Miho Abe returned to New Japan for the first time in well over a year, but once she showed up and started sobbing, then Dangerous Tekkers had to win.

While the incorporation of Abe—both as an emotional supporter of Taichi & co. and as a damsel briefly in distress—gives this match important extra juice, it doesn’t lean on her presence too hard, or on the emotional aspect, in general, so much that it feels like it’s compensating for a lack of confidence in the ability to pull off the wrestling. The match does start feeling long towards the end but overall, it’s a match that seems to recognize that it could lose the audience’s attention, so it keeps moving quickly and in different directions to keep them engaged. The wrestling is fast-paced and aggressive, the pairings or groups in the ring change pretty frequently, and the interference and more dramatic material aren’t overdone.

It also helps that this is the most overtly heroic Dangerous Tekkers tag match ever, and that’s something fresh, too. They were always the default babyfaces in this feud, but after the Ladder Match for Iizuka’s Very Soul they are babyfaces in this feud, period. Taichi ripping his pants off is basically a hulk-up here, and it’s amazing to see.

The whole aftermath of this match is really well done too, from Taichi’s incorporation of his struggle with coronavirus into his post-match promo to the backstage interactions to even the six-man blowoff match the next day. Whoever realized that the Taichi, ZSJ, and Suzuki vs. G.o.D. and Gedo six-man that no one on earth wanted should go two and a half minutes is an actual genius of the wrestling business and has my eternal respect.

The power of teamwork and pissing off Tomohiro Ishii

The match that main events June 2 and sets the NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship defense record is probably one of the best matches in the title’s history. Every wrestler brings their A-game and makes all their time in the ring entertaining. All the rivalries established on earlier shows pay off, with Sanada and Goto keeping up their back attack angle and Yoshi-Hashi and Bushi going hard like they’re trying to fight not just each other, but the perception they have the easiest rivalry of the group to write off.

The highest-profile and most fun of these pairings is Ishii vs. Naito, which perfectly builds up the borderline slapstick drama of Naito trolling Ishii until the riled-up Stone Pitbull inevitably catches him and kicks his ass, followed by Naito getting serious and delivering some of the match’s best straightforward wrestling. A bonus: this taking place in the abridged environment of a six-man tag match takes away any staleness a random Naito-Ishii tournament match could have at this point.

While much of this match is built around one-on-one confrontations, tag teamwork provides some of its strongest moments. I enjoyed the callback to the previous show’s preview match, with Goto and Yoshi-Hashi trying to win with the same combination move that got them the win there, but L.I.J. being able to break the pin this time. The match doesn’t end with a tag team maneuver, but the ending still shows the strength of the Chaos group right before their victory, with Ishii dramatically pulling Naito into a kneebar when it looks like he could break Yoshi-Hashi’s hold on Bushi, and Yoshi-Hashi getting the win while his teammates hold both rivals back. Goto, Ishii, and Yoshi-Hashi have been killing it, slightly under the radar, as trios champions, and this match makes their setting of the defense record feel deserved.

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This match’s backstage promos hint so heavily it’s not really a hint at what Naito will get up to next: he and Sanada are definitely going to start feuding with Dangerous Tekkers for the tag titles during that L.I.J. vs. Suzukigun six-man at Dominion. With Naito continuously making sure everyone knows his goal is still returning to the Tokyo Dome main event (no mention of the new title yet, just of making the Tokyo Dome main event), there’s zero angst around him doing something different and hanging out in various tag divisions for a while. There’s basically no way Naito and Sanada vs. Taichi and ZSJ isn’t one of the most fun wrestling angles of the summer, unless real life gets too much in the way.

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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 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.

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