Remember New Japan Pro Wrestling? That company Yuji Nagata that sent to fight Jon Moxley? After coronavirus-induced show cancelations and a few weeks of inactivity, NJPW returned for three consecutive nights at Korakuen Hall with a vacant world title, prominent roster members still recovering from COVID-19 or quarantining due to international travel, and a major event coming up on June 6. The comeback left a lot to be desired and many questions unanswered, but had its highlights as well.
New Japan Pro Wrestling is fine
In May 2021, New Japan Pro Wrestling’s fictional world was impacted even more than usual by real-life occurrences, most of them related to wrestlers’ health. As I dug into with more context here, soon after major shows had to be canceled because of the overall COVID-19 situation in Japan, NJPW experienced a nine-person coronavirus outbreak within its roster. The company didn’t name those who were infected, but you could guess based on who was missing from these May 24-26 shows, and Okada, Taichi, and El Desperado all revealed that they were part of that group. Taichi and Okada have returns to the ring on the horizon; so far, nobody else does.
A side effect of the COVID outbreak and continued restrictions on international travel was reports of unrest among the international roster, with a story from Dave Meltzer and a podcast quote from Fit Finlay about what seems to be mostly people being sick of having to quarantine so much after they enter the country. (Ultimately, I think this is fairly undramatic wrestling drama. If anyone leaves the company over this for a job with a less difficult travel schedule so they could spend more time with their family or not sit around so much, etc., that’s totally reasonable. On the company’s side, certain people leaving would make more of a dent, but international rosters of Japanese wrestling companies are basically built to be disposable and fans are used to people coming and going.)
The more impactful foreign wrestler drama of the past month was, of course, Will Ospreay getting injured, vacating the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship, and heading back to the UK for an indefinite length of time to recuperate. It’s official: the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship has had some of the worst possible first months of life it could have possibly had. Its conception was largely hated by fans, its design widely disliked, the babyface whose pristine relationship with the audience still couldn’t deflect criticism of his kayfabe-proposal of the title lost it in its first defense to a guy who decided to make the go-home angle for his challenge confusingly attacking his girlfriend (after being hounded by misogyny-related controversies for years), and then that guy got injured in his first defense. Meanwhile, the next challenger got COVID, but by the time he was diagnosed, that wouldn’t disrupt NJPW’s title defense schedule because they’d already had to cancel the show where that title defense was supposed to happen, also due to COVID.
This combination of events sent NJPW into its comeback tour on unstable ground, with a depleted roster and few active storylines. The company’s current vibe can be summed up by these shows being called the Road to Wrestle Grand Slam, but with the Wrestle Grand Slam stadium shows canceled, these shows are really more like Loading Up the Car Before We Start Down the Road to Dominion.
The angles on these shows either move very slowly or don’t exist. The closest we get to developments in the vacant world title picture is a few people cutting promos. None of the junior heavyweight title-holders are present; neither are the NEVER Openweight Champion or established next challenger. The A-story of the tour is Naito, Sanada, and Bushi deciding to challenge for Goto, Ishii, and Yoshi-Hashi’s NEVER Openweight 6-Man Championship. Tsuji has a singles match series, the Cobb vs. Ibushi feud continues, and G.o.D. and Dangerous Tekkers continue to beef as much as they can with one member of the challenging team still getting back in ring shape after a bout with the coronavirus.
This all impacts the quality of what NJPW delivers in-ring on this tour. Aside from a couple strong main events (the LIJ vs. Chaos + Tana eight-man on May 24 and Naito and Sanada vs. Goto and Yoshi-Hashi on May 26), these wrestling shows tend to be chill-to-boring with a few other highlights throughout the cards. It’s not like people are sleepwalking, but this is more of a “tune in if you want to see your faves do stuff” series than it is appointment television. With that all being said, let’s finally get into the stuff that actually happened on the Road to Wrestle Grand Slam.
Waiting for Godot-kada (Boo this writer)
To keep putting off talking about the wrestling on these wrestling shows as long as possible, let’s start with the most important things that happened outside of the ring: a surprisingly small number of wrestlers throwing their hats in the ring for the vacant World Heavyweight Championship. Aside from Suzuki (who wasn’t on these shows) commenting on social media, Tsuji throwing a backstage Hail Mary, and Zack Sabre Jr. making booking suggestions, Shingo Takagi is the only NJPW wrestler who explicitly says, “give me a title shot ASAP” before May 26.
The case both for and against Takagi getting said title shot is that he was this title’s most recent challenger, with the additional “con,” if you think far enough back, that he barely “deserved” that title shot either: he barged into the Okada-Ospreay confrontation to argue that because he beat Okada in the first round of the New Japan Cup, he should get to third-wheel on their rivalry even though Ospreay had just beaten him in the New Japan Cup final. Takagi uses similar iffy, self-centered logic to push for another title match here, and like before, his campaign makes more sense for him as a character than it does as a company decision that protects the sanctity of earning title shots.
In contrast to NJPW’s other prominent ’82-liners (Ibushi, Naito, Ishimori), Takagi frequently brings up his age in promos, and seems to have a sense that his window for high-level career opportunities could close at any time. That combined with his aggressive “looking out for number one” outlook (the “going my way” philosophy he brought over from his Dragon Gate characterization) means that his arguments about why he should be the number one contender again so soon don’t need to make sense in a booking logic way to make sense for him. Unlike Naito, Ibushi, and Tanahashi with their current focuses on long roads back to deserved spots in the spotlight, Takagi’s all about taking advantage of every iota of momentum he has while he has it and if other people feel like they’re being cut in front of in line, maybe they shouldn’t be so easy to push around. (This character truly only works as a babyface in L.I.J., the fan-favorite faction who closed this tour by jumping a guy three-on-one the day after his birthday.)
In contrast, the wrestler whose vacant title takes are focused on the company as a whole (and the only other person to ask for a title shot before Okada comes back) is Zack Sabre Jr., in his May 24 promo that I loved for being funny, being well-put-together, being very affectionate towards Taichi, and catering perfectly to the exact type of nerd complaints I’ve had about New Japan’s title pictures for the past couple months. Like Desperado with this winter’s vacant Junior Heavyweight Championship, ZSJ points out that they should really have a tournament for this thing.
More than with the vacant Junior Heavyweight Championship, I think that’s something the world title needs. I’ll be very surprised if NJPW books anything other than Okada vs. Takagi (with Okada winning) for the belt at Dominion, but I still think they would benefit from building up prestige behind this new championship. They can keep saying it has the legacies of the old Heavyweight and Intercontinental belts behind it, but the actual legacy of this belt so far is all the dumb/cursed/unfortunate stuff I listed earlier. The pre-title-match video shows a corporate slogan more prominently than individual images of the former champions, and to me, that encapsulates how much this title feels like it’s riding on “we’re New Japan Pro Wrestling and this is our number one belt so no matter what we do with it it’s by definition going to be a big deal, whether it really feels like it or not.” They can coast on this if they want and get away with it, to a certain extent, but it wasn’t that long ago that they had people hugging each other in the Tokyo Dome over Naito winning the old world title, so I feel like they shouldn’t have forgotten yet how to put some blood, sweat, and tears behind a belt and give it the kind of history that makes people really, sincerely care about who’s wearing a specific cartoon fighting accessory around their waist.
Like I mentioned earlier, the most obvious choice as to who New Japan will appoint to be the new champ is Kazuchika Okada, and whether that’s a good idea depends on his physical condition, both in terms of COVID recovery and the status of his long-term injuries. But as long as he’s back in ring shape, even the injury stuff isn’t all that important. If he’s struggling through eight out of ten G1 matches but willing and able to physically wrestle and show up looking like the Rainmaker and making those perfect face-of-the-company speeches like he did in his May 26 return, New Japan can do a lot with that and three bangers a year. I hope NJPW does themselves a long-term favor and at least has some number one contender’s matches, if at all possible, before crowning a new world champion, but if Okada wins it in a good match at Dominion or something it could still turn out well, and I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.
People also wrestled on the Road to Wrestle Grand Slam and some of it was entertaining!
Without any climactic bouts booked and with most titles and a lot of wrestlers missing, the wrestling on the Road to Wrestle Grand Slam was all low-stakes and largely felt that way. At their best, these shows were chill in the way a good episode of AEW Dark is chill, and that their worst they were boring filler.
The openers—Tsuji’s singles matches against Yujiro, then Chase, then Shingo—were somewhere in the middle. Tsuji brings the perfect amount of Young Lion intensity and skill, and it’s exciting to get a sign he might be freed of his super senior status soon. But the jobber vs. trainee singles matches are still less than thrilling, and while the match with Takagi is stronger for the most part, it avoids being the match recommendation of the tour at the last minute when it ends with a kind of awkward, kind of concerning improvised sleeper hold ref-stoppage after it looks like Tsuji knocks himself out on the bump for either a sliding lariat or a Noshigami.
In the second and third matches of the Road to Wrestle Grand Slam cards, different combinations of home team, Bullet Club, and Suzuki-gun members that try to make the most of the whole “absent titles, reduced roster” thing. Taichi is still getting back in ring shape after COVID, so the most NJPW can do with the tag title storyline is have G.o.D. and Zack Sabre Jr. and Douki fight different low-level teams on May 24-25, then clash on the 26th, plus a non-physical confrontation with Taichi on commentary. Tama and Tanga vs. Tenzan and Wato feels more like a tag league match than a random midcard tag and it’s still novel and fun to see this Suzuki-gun group in full-fledged babyface roles (even more so after the ladder match), but pointing these things out is really reaching for positives. As much as everyone seemed to be trying their best with these matches, I was sitting through them more than anything. Hopefully Taichi can make a comeback soon and these groups can move on.
NJPW’s other active feud set up before the break, Jeff Cobb vs. Kota Ibushi, gets featured in a series of tag matches between Cobb and Great-O-Khan vs. Ibushi and first Wato, then Tanahashi, then Honma. While these matches all have their highlights and Cobb and O-Khan remind everyone they could easily be tag title contenders any time, they’re also not amazing. I’m more excited for Cobb vs. Ibushi based on their wrestler vs. kickboxer G1 2020 match than I am from the “Cobb-goye” angle or anything in these tag matches. (Their original Olympics tie-in angle could have been fun in a more normal year, but with Japanese public opinion heavily anti-Olympics right now, the new direction is probably a lot smarter.)
Cobb also starts calling himself “The Imperial Unit” and “The Hatchet” (back to back, as “The Imperial Unit,” “The Hatchet”) on these shows and it feels like that could also be workshopped some more, but this is coming from faction whose leader calls himself “The Commonwealth Kingpin” and whose main shirts look like they were made for a Performance Center signee who’s been on TV twice, so I don’t think it’s going to change.
As almost-funny as it is that NJPW is in such a buffering period right now that their biggest comeback tour angle is for the NEVER Openweight 6-Man titles, the angle for the NEVER Openweight 6-Man titles is pretty good so far! The May 24 main event of Naito, Sanada, Takagi, and Bushi vs. Tanahashi, Ishii, Goto, and Yoshi-Hashi is especially entertaining, and makes the most of the eight-man tag format more than most Road show eight-man tags, with lots of moving parts. In addition to the trios feuds, these shows set up one-on-one rivalries within the groups: Naito vs. Ishii, Goto vs. Sanada, and Bushi vs. Yoshi-Hashi. The all-heavyweight matches here have been done before (Goto and Sanada in multiple tournaments, Naito and Ishii in tournaments and extended feuds) but everyone in this angle wrestles in a way that makes you stop thinking about that while you’re watching them.
Much more than these singles matches that are likely to happen in the future, I’m looking forward to the trios bout between these teams. Goto, Ishii, and Yoshi-Hashi have been quality champions since they won the belts, and Goto and Yoshi-Hashi are a champion-quality tag team on their own. On the challengers’ side, Los Ingobernables tend to deliver more than other groups even in low-stakes multi-man tag matches, we haven’t seen the Naito/Bushi/Sanada combo do much together in a while, and we haven’t even seen Naito in a tag league, not to mention a tag title picture, in years. This trios title feud could be the best straightforward, no-booking-angst wrestling in NJPW in the foreseeable future, at least until more of the roster is back in action.