NJPW Road to the New Beginning 1/23-25 Review: Drawing at Korakuen

With the annual elimination match, a tag title change, a 30-minute draw, and more, these turned out to be eventful Road To shows

New Japan Pro Wrestling continued down the Road to the New Beginning this weekend with an eventful and surprisingly romantic series of shows. The biggest event of the tour so far, on January 23 at Tokyo’s Ota City General Gymnasium, featured New Japan’s yearly elimination match, a junior tag title change, and flashier production. The two following nights at Korakuen Hall included an unexpected time-limit draw, old men getting hardcore, and the confession that started the debate: Hiroshi Tanahashi: simp or siren? Without further ado, let’s dig into all these developments, starting with Suzukigun vs. Bullet Club.

Road to the New Beginning – Ota City General Gymnasium – January 23, 2021

Douki and Minoru Suzuki def. Jado and Gedo

The most recent non-title match offering from the SZKG vs. BC feud is the weird matchup of Douki and Suzuki vs. (F You, We Are) Jado and Gedo, which actually works well in the January 23 opening slot. I do not like that so much of Jado’s wrestling is being put in front of my eyes in 2021 and I’m still not sure what the current power level of the World Class Tag Team is supposed to be and there’s still a lot about the babyface (at least, for now) Suzukigun that I find more offputting and funny than anything else, but Douki and Suzuki getting in offense on these guys is still pretty entertaining.

Douki gets a cool-looking win over Gedo with the Jorge Rivera Special (Milano on commentary: “Lucha libre! Lucha libre!”) that prompts Jado to finally accept his singles match challenge – then brutally rescind it backstage. My reaction to a Jado singles match is still a lot of “let’s get this over with,” but there’s enough “kick his ass, Douki” in there that I’m unironically looking forward to it now.

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Backstage, we also get a teaser for where the BC-SZKG beef could go after the tag title defenses. Suzuki brings up that he hasn’t had anything to do in this feud, and calls out Bullet Club’s heavyweight singles wrestlers: Evil, Jay White, or Kenta. Jay has something in the works with Chaos and may not be BC much longer, but Suzuki taking on Evil or, I think more likely, Kenta, after their current feuds wrap up would work. Either matchup would also easily keep this babyface Suzukigun run going, probably with the same spirit as the Jay vs. Minoru G1 matches.

Kazuchika Okada, Yoshi-Hashi, and Tomohiro Ishii def. Evil, Dick Togo, and Yujiro Takahashi, et cetera

NJPW’s January 23-25 Road to the New Beginning shows feature, like the last trio of RttNB shows, the Bullet Club trio of Evil, Togo, and Yujiro vs. Okada and a rotating duo from the set of Yoshi-Hashi, Ishii, and Goto. Also like on those previous shows, these matches are all fine-to-good and look fun to watch live, but they get repetitive to someone watching these shows through a screen at home.

Hiroyoshi Tenzan Comeback match: Will Ospreay and Great-O-Khan def. TenCozy by DQ

In contrast to Chaos vs. Bullet Club, the Empire vs. TenCozy feud switches things up a lot on these shows, with the return of Tenzan followed by a sharp turn into the realm of the hardcore. Tenzan’s comeback match features a lot of him stuck in the imperial corner, with the bad guys focused on his “injured” neck, but ends with him snapping, getting disqualified for beating up Great-O-Khan with a chair, and both he and Kojima looking badass.

I’ll get into the new negatives of this feud when we get to its January 24-25 developments, but for now, this is a TenCozy appreciation zone. They may be too broken down for G1 Climaxes now and tend to move slower than most of the NJPW roster, but put them in a brawl and it shines through that oh yeah, Tenzan and Kojima are still big, tough dudes who could beat you up for real more credibly than most of the younger wrestlers in the company. Their promo work, especially backstage on the 23rd, is top-notch too, bursting with charisma and aggression. Kojima’s in his 30th wrestling year and Tenzan probably won’t be in the ring too much longer now that Winner Takes The Mongolian Chop stipulation is set, but they’re making the most of every moment they have left, and killing it so far.

Elimination match: Kota Ibushi, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Sho, Master Wato, and Tomoaki Honma def. Sanada, Shingo Takagi, Hiromu Takahashi, Bushi, and Tetsuya Naito

The first and best of the Ota City show’s big matches is the New Beginning tour’s annual faction vs. faction tag team elimination match, this one Hontai vs. Los Ingobernables de Japon. Wrestlers can usually be eliminated from these by pinfall, submission, DQ, or being knocked out of the ring over the top rope, and this time, all of the eliminations here are the latter kind. Some of the elimination spots are a little award – Hiromu’s powerbomb to Wato gets convoluted, Ibushi for some reason tries to suplex Sanada back into the ring before they get knocked off the apron – but most are fun, if muffled a little by the lack of crowd pops.

Overall, the match is enjoyable and a nice change from the four-man and six-man tags this group has been doing on the tour’s other shows. There’s a good army vs. army feel as well as plenty of good faceoffs between pairs of rivals. The weirdest part is that the least exciting rivalry, Naito vs. Honma, is the finish, with Honma eliminating Naito to get the win for his team. Their stuff in this match is good on a scale adjusted for it involving Honma, but it’s still clearly the worst feud of the bunch.

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

The question going into this junior tag title match is if Despy and Kanemaru can stop the superkick, and it turns out that they cannot! ELP and Ishimori become champions for the second in a match that is mostly shenanigans. I swear the back rake and tree of woe dick abuse stuff went on for ten minutes. The referee switching stuff was fresher and funnier though, and got plenty of illegal laughs from the crowd. Overall, this match is not a good source of wrestling and feels like, more than anything, a source of El Phantasmo as a Personality. It’s also still off-putting to watch Kanemaru as a Face in Peril, but his moonsault was cool.

Road to the New Beginning – Korakuen Hall – January 24-25, 2021

The openers: Dads vs. Bads

On January 24-25, NJPW returns to Korakuen Hall and the normal Road show format, and temporarily takes a break from the BC-SZKG feud. The openers are Suzuki, Desperado, Kanemaru, and Douki vs. Makabe, Nagata, Tiger Mask, and Uemura, then Jado, Gedo, El Phantasmo, and Ishimori vs. the same three NJPW Dads with Tsuji – more typical first matches for New Japan cards than the Empire/TenCozy stuff earlier on the tour. The Makabe vs. Suzuki sequence is fun and Uemura continues to show great babyface spirit against Suzukigun; the BC match has an even higher median wrestler age and ELP personality spots. They are okay!

No shirts, no chops, no disqualifications

In the nights’ second matches, the TenCozy vs. United Empire feud continues to move in a more hardcore direction. After our elderly heroes were disqualified on 1/23, the villains get DQ’ed from a match that they don’t even try to wrestle legally on the 24th, and the rematch on the 25th ends in a No Contest. This leads to, as mentioned earlier, Tenzan putting his Mongolian Chops on the line against O-Khan, and to Ospreay challenging Kojima to make their match No DQ, which Kojima accepts.

On paper, it’s easy to see how this is supposed to work. If the Empire sweeps their matches in Nagoya, they’ll have come back from their Wrestle Kingdom losses more vicious than before, and with victories over beloved veterans. If Ospreay beats Kojima, he’ll do it in a brutal fashion that’ll put him over as a threatening top or second-to-top heel, giving some credibility and extra heat just in time for him to challenge the winner of the NEVER title match later on the same show. If Ospreay loses, it will have been on a big platform for him ahead of some bigger accomplishment down the line, similarly to his Wrestle Kingdom match with Okada.

The issue, or one of the issues, with this is that probably the most common criticism of Will Ospreay throughout his whole career is that he is not believably tough. This criticism still holds after they’ve been trying to do a Strong Style Will Ospreay thing for at least two years. All wrestlers are tough – bumping hurts and wrestling training is very difficult – but this is refers to an aura of the kind of toughness that makes you believe that someone could fight somebody for real. Not to sound like the Undertaker, but putting a flippy indie guy of the 2010s in the ring against two heavyweights from the 1990s is not a good way to make said indie guy look tough. Winning a No DQ match that everyone knows is consensual and choreographed doesn’t give someone that type of toughness; Ospreay’s done No DQ matches in the past outside of NJPW and people call him a twerp. Maybe the Japanese audience will be into it though.

This is far from the first time NJPW has pushed someone who isn’t legitimately intimidating to a top heel position; Ospreay is not breaking a pattern. It’s been since GBH Makabe, newly-created Chaos Nakamura, and Suzuki as the head of a much younger Suzukigun – the pre-Bullet Club series of top heels – that NJPW has had a main villain who seemed like he could really mess people up. However, those villains of the recent past didn’t find success by unconvincingly insisting they were scary in promos like Ospreay’s awful “one sick boy” speech (Switchblade quickly pivoted and benefited from self-awareness.) As much weight as Ospreay can put on and as much as Okada can go tell Sports Illustrated that Shibata’s been working with him on his strikes, the dude is not physically threatening and does not wrestle in a physically threatening way. He is a man blessed with incredible gymnastics ability and cursed with a lack of charm, and trying to insist he’s violent or intimidating, especially in the heavyweight division, is not going to make him or his opponents look good.

25% Honma

After the Chaos vs. BC six-mans are semi-main event tag matches that are half the Naito vs. Honma feud – Sho and Honma vs. Hiromu and Naito on 1/24 and Wato and Honma vs. Bushi and Naito on 1/25. The juniors all work well together, and it’s great to see Naito and Hiromu as a duo again, as well as the lower-stakes, more trolling version of Naito that didn’t come out as often when he was the double champ. The make-or-break factor of these matches, though, is Honma.

The first of these matches is good for one that’s 25% Honma, and the second is more what you would expect. By the 25th, it looks like the performances of the previous two days have taken a toll on his broken-down body, and his speed and mobility have declined. At this point, my main take on the Naito-Honma feud is that at least it’s a source of good Naito material and it could be worse, but I’ll be happy when the 2020 MVP moves on to something better and Honma moves on to something less prominent.

The main events: Tanahashi, Ibushi, and Wato def. Takagi, Sanada, and Bushi, then Tanahashi, Ibushi, and Sho wrestle Takagi, Sanada, and Hiromu to a 30-minute time-limit draw

Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one before because it was true of the last set of Road shows too, but the main event tag matches from the L.I.J. vs. Home Team feat. Sho feud really deliver. On January 24, the double champ and his challenger finally move up to the main event, and while they still have the least hyped feud of the group, their work together in tag matches remains strong. Also in this match: the World Tag League 2020 dream lives on with Sanada-Shingo teamwork, Wato and Bushi continue to disprove the haters, and the NEVER title feud gets even spicier. The finish is exciting and takes advantage of the trios match format, though not from a tag team maneuver – with Tanahashi managing to keep a Texas Cloverleaf on Bushi long enough to tap him out thanks to Wato and Ibushi fending off Shingo and Sanada.

The main event on January 25, the go-home show for The New Beginning in Nagoya, goes even bigger and turns out even better. I often whine about NJPW matches feeling too long, but I had no sense that Sho, Tanahashi, and Ibushi vs. Hiromu, Shingo, and Sanada was nearing the thirty-minute mark until the timekeeper started broadcasting. The pairings and teams keep things high intensity and switch things up throughout the match, filling the half-hour with action that is truly all killer, no filler. Sho and Hiromu kick things up a notch in their sequences together, and from the start, Takagi and Tanahashi are so on fire it feels like we’re getting a glimpse of their true power level as opponents. The 1/25 Road to the New Beginning show isn’t great, but the main event is so strong that it’s easy to look back on the whole event with rose-tinted glasses.

Along with how quality these main events were in the ring, we have to talk about how good their post-match segments were. January 24 gives us the very Ibushicore moment of our double champion staring at the ceiling, strumming away on both his titles as commentary wonders what he thinks he’s doing, plus Shingo’s devastating “Go Ace? More like No Ace!” backstage. As the NEVER champ continues to cut straightforward promos on his opponent, his challenger puts him over harder than ever, declaring that Takagi has brought the fire out of him and that his “presence and aura make him a worthy champion.” It’s so complimentary that it makes it look like, even if Shingo loses this weekend, he’ll do big things in 2021. Somehow, that’s not even the most Tana ends up gushing over his opponent – on January 25, he straight-up confesses love to him in the middle of the ring (it is not reciprocated.)

These guys are going to beat the breaks off each other in Nagoya and on the go-home show, they’re like, “Wait a second, let’s sprinkle in a little romance” and that’s how you know they’re two of the best in the business. There are also many other reasons, but let’s just add that to the list.

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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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