The August 21 episode of NJPW Strong brings the LEC Presents New Japan Cup 2020 In The USA to a close and with two post-match attacks, sets up some feuds for the show’s next phase. It also answers the question that discerning fans have been asking for months: would Jay White use quarantine as the opportunity to shave the most cursed beard in NJPW history since Sanada’s billy goat situation? The answer to that question is no and I guess that must be respected for heel heat reasons. With that out of the way, let’s get to the wrestling!
Rocky Romero and Adrian Quest def. Danny Limelight and DKC
The episode begins with a sort of Southern California showcase tag of two guys who had their first NJPW matches on Lion’s Break Collision (Danny Limelight and DKC) vs. Rocky Romero and the New Japan-debuting Adrian Quest, who has worked with/against Romero locally. I was very biased in favor of this match because I live in SoCal and go to shows there and was hoping to see the indie guys do well, and with that in mind, I think they did well! Everyone gets chances to show their strengths and put on a fun match, and I think something that helps make this stronger than last week’s opener is that everyone’s strengths are specific to them and all the wrestlers in this match are more clearly different Types Of Guy. There’s more pizazz and personality around the whole thing.
Brody King and Flip Gordon def. Jay White and Chase Owens
The night’s second match was promoted as the return of Jay White, but ends up being more about Brody King.
White, who doesn’t seem to have any ring rust despite not having performed since February, and Chase Owens put on a quality heel tag team performance, using a mixture of teamwork and cheating to keep Flip Gordon in their corner and keep King out of the ring. King is used sparingly but effectively in this match, coming and in and cleaning house after a hot tag and getting the win over Owens. He’s put over as a powerhouse after that loss to Tama Tonga. (Gordon, meanwhile, looks like he always has, the worst version of the in-fashion type of North America/UK not-lucha high flyer that NJPW currently has five of, if you count NJPW of America talent.) The re-establishment of King as a threat is quickly used to promote a feud with Hikuleo, returning unannounced from his excursion in the UK. Hikuleo, G.O.D.’s really tall little brother, wasn’t really his own guy in NJPW before he headed overseas and a match with King is an opportunity to show how he’s progressed and to prove himself as a giant among giants.
This feud would be VILLAIN ENTERPRISES VS. BULLET CLUB and something people might tweet that one Cody gif at, except that Villain Enterprises is no more and Gordon and King appear as just Gordon and King, tag partners whose entrance gear makes them look like they’re on opposite sides of a protest. The titular Villain, Marty Scurll, is reportedly out of Ring of Honor (and King publicly distanced himself from him via promo before that) after an investigation into the resurfaced allegations of sexual misconduct with a minor. Meanwhile, Chase Owens is just out here wrestling on NJPW Strong without his home company saying anything about the much more numerous, similar allegations about him.
In the latest depressing installment of “Will New Japan acknowledge or do anything about any of their non-Japanese talent being involved in scandals now that they’re a significant presence in the US, UK, Australia, and New Zealand wrestling scenes?” the answer continues to be a resounding “no.” I liked the Jay White beard question a lot better.
New Japan Cup 2020 In The USA Final: Kenta def. David Finlay
Kenta vs. David Finlay is a very normal main event match made weird by its setting. Kenta goes into the match the heavy favorite and wrestles like it, controlling most of the match, especially early on. Finlay puts his best foot forward and looks like he belongs in the ring with Kenta – maybe not, like prime Kenta, but he can definitely hang with 2020 Kenta. It’s not really an underdog performance from Finlay, but I think he does a good job playing the frustrating and determination of a babyface who looks nowhere near winning.
The match ramps up in intensity until both wrestlers are trading bigger moves and getting nearfalls, and it’s at that point that lack of a crowd becomes more palpable than it’s been for the rest of the show. The intensity of the performances really clashes with the quiet and the emptiness of the venue. Maybe if there had been more hype behind this match or some kind of better angle than “I hope the heel wins because that’s the U.S. title match people want to see” it might have distracted from the silence, but here the silence was very noticeable. and I know there’s no universal standard for “off-putting,” but this kind of third act to a match without crowd reactions to punctuate it and create the right atmosphere was off-putting.
I know some people were able to watch the Edge vs. Randy Orton Greatest Match Ever and think that despite the piped-in crowd noise that didn’t fit the actions of the actual audience it was Actually Good, but I guess I’m a more dumb and casual-style fan at heart and if there’s some production element that stresses me out in wrestling I’ll just quit watching something, or at least want to quit watching it. So as an idiot who’s like “entertain me!” more than anything, Finlay vs. Kenta, despite both the performers giving their all, mostly stood out to me as an example of common issues with wrestling presentation in the pandemic/empty arena era.
The Road to Hideo vs. Dean
Kenta’s charisma does fill the venue when he’s on the mic though, and he makes his match with Jon Moxley and the possibility of him as U.S. Champion feel like things to look forward to. His briefcase-holding phase, however, is explained by Kevin Kelly in a way that makes it seem kind of bullshit.
“Somebody might be able to take that contract away from him,” Kelly says, “because Kenta will have to defend that contract just like in the G1.” But the G1 winner has to defend his contract against people who beat him in the G1, and obviously nobody beat Kenta on his path to victory in a single-elimination tournament. I would buy into Kenta being obligated to defend against people who beat him before his match with Moxley, but the way Kenta’s situation is presented as if his U.S. title match contract is immediately at risk when there’s no reason he should have to defend it against anybody undercuts the American New Japan Cup as soon as it’s over rather than make it feel more prestigious and G1-like.
I could buy Kenta being goaded into putting his contract on the line against Jeff Cobb, who attacks him at the end of the show, for character reasons. But if NJPW just says Kenta has to defend against the guy he beat in the semi-final, that really hurts the legitimacy both the tournament that just happened, and I think hurts this very young TV show that’s still revealing its standards for how it will handle things like booking and angles now that the Cup is over. Cobb obviously got the visual pinfall over Kenta and it makes sense that he would feel he lost illegitimately, but if pro wrestling starts using replays and retroactively saying wins by cheating aren’t legit, that’s taking a sledgehammer to one of its load-bearing walls.
Now that the tournament is over, NJPW Strong reveals that it’s on the Fighting Spirit Unleashed “tour” begins next week, and that it’s going to divide itself up into tour-like sections, building to big shows that in theory will be different in some way from the average episode of NJPW Strong, not that viewers really have an idea of what an average episode of NJPW Strong looks like. Whatever that turns out to be, I’ll see you back here next week as Strong starts on the FSU tour with feuds between Hikuleo and Brody King and between Cobb and Kenta with a new Jay White question hanging overhead: do Jay White’s 8/29 tweets mean he’s showing up at Jingu Stadium or that he’ll be on the next episode of NJPW Strong, which airs the morning of 8/29 in Japan? Or is he releasing a new t-shirt on 8/29? With carnies, the possibilities are endless.