After two nights of Summer Struggle in Sapporo and in between NJPW-affiliated action in three U.S. promotions, New Japan Pro Wrestling returned to Tokyo’s Korakuen Hall for two hours of tag and singles matches. The July 17 Summer Struggle event was definitely one of New Japan’s best non-major shows of 2021 so far, with plenty of enjoyable wrestling and character moments, as well as a surprise return appearance from a certain roster member’s bare ass. (If you clicked on this out of curiosity and didn’t watch the show: the roster member was Taguchi. Of course, it was Taguchi.)
Evil, Kenta, Dick Togo, and Yujiro Takahashi def. Tomohiro Ishii, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Yota Tsuji, and Yuya Uemura
The show starts off fairly strong with a Bullet Club vs. Miscellaneous Good Guys eight-man tag that features good performances from Tsuji and Uemura and hypes up the Ishii vs. Evil feud. These two (and Togo makes three) have not been coasting during the build to their singles match, and their energy is bolstered by a fun rivalry dynamic. Evil and Togo work to bait Ishii, while Ishii, as always, doesn’t seem to care whether he’s being baited or not and is just down to fight whoever’s pissing him off.
The Tanahashi vs. Kenta beef, in contrast, has yet to really start sizzling. Kenta points that out in his backstage promo, so maybe things will get cooking here soon, but in this tag match, these two vets stood out less than the Young Lions.
Taichi, Zack Sabre Jr., and Minoru Suzuki def. Tetsuya Naito, Sanada, and Bushi
The six-man tag match previewing Dangerous Tekkers vs. SaNaito Round 2 delivers the total package needed to make you glad that they’re doing a second round. These guys continue to bring the Bits, with Zack getting laughs from the Korakuen crowd by ignoring Sanada to call out Naito on the apron, as well as quality, straightforward wrestling action. Taichi and ZSJ winning with one of their combination finishers also seems like a smart choice, making them look good as a unit more than as individuals. I still think there’s no way these teams don’t have a more exciting rematch in the Tokyo Dome, where they won’t have to fill, like, the last hour of the show.
Sho, Yoh, and Robbie Eagles def. El Desperado, Yoshinobu Kanemaru, and Douki
The next challenger for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, Robbie Eagles, makes his NJPW return in the show’s third match and makes himself look like a contender. Everyone gets some of their stuff in in what ends up being the cleanest match of the night, but the match is all about giving Eagles the opportunity to shine and that’s what he does, especially in his sequences with the champ and the finishing stretch that ends with him submitting Douki. Overall, I think this match does an effective job of selling the Desperado vs. Eagles junior title match as one of the likely highlights of Wrestle Grand Slam and makes you hope that Eagles is able to stick around afterward.
Before moving on to the show’s singles matches, I want to take a moment to appreciate how varied the matches on this undercard were. Eagles and Desperado start this six-man with a clean lockup after the comedic start to L.I.J. vs. Suzukigun and the jump during the entrances of the show opener. While these multi-man tag matches all have basically the same goal, they otherwise switch things up enough to keep from feeling same-y, which does a lot to keep the show engaging and give it a sense of momentum. (Also, I haven’t been writing a lot about undercards in this column recently, so here’s some extra praise for a good one to compensate.)
Ryusuke Taguchi def. Taiji Ishimori
Speaking of wrestlers who haven’t had a singles match in New Japan since December 2020, Taguchi kills it in his first singles match in New Japan (or anywhere) since December 2020. Like in their junior title feud a couple of years ago, Ishimori and Taguchi are pretty evenly matched, but Taguchi has the advantage of being able to throw Ishimori off by being a wild card of a human being. A lot of this match’s excitement comes from exploring the whole range of Taguchi, from more comedic spots to good wrestling that happens to incorporate a lot of hip attacks to more seriously threatening submissions. Through it all, Taguchi is able to either suddenly die by groin attack or pull off some offense you don’t see coming; he’s one of those guys with a wrestling brain that keeps his matches interesting and fun even this far into his career, even if you’ve seen a lot of them before.
Taguchi’s first counter into an ankle lock in this match is weirdly low intensity, but after this weak moment, he and Ishimori trading submission finishers is an exciting and well-done part of the match that looks like it could include the finish. The actual finish is also well-done but with a way different tone: Ishimori tries to counter Dodon with a sunset flip, Taguchi just holds this down for a pin, Ishimori holds the pin down and pulls Taguchi’s tights, but Taguchi turns the pin back over to win with a rollup and his pants down. The crowd reaction of the part of the audience who couldn’t see the tights-pull and then, SURPRISE, get half of Taguchi’s bare ass when he flips the pin over is incredible.
The post-match segment includes a full WWF-tier Stinkface for some reason and a revenge attack by El Phantasmo for the reason of kicking off the night’s main event when Rocky Romero runs out after him. This didn’t really make me more excited for Rocky vs. ELP, but I think it did a good job of connecting these singles matches to the junior tag title feud for reasons more than ~momentum~. The Mega Coaches are an established tag team, but they’re such an infrequent one that it helps to see them do things together that aren’t title challenges/matches or backstage promos. Wrestling fans love to see bonding! Plus, the extra effort makes this all seem a little less like another one-off challenge and more like they could actually win the titles.
El Phantasmo and Rocky Romero wrestle to a 30-minute time limit draw
If there are two things I tend to have issues with in New Japan right now, they’re super long main events and whatever El Phantasmo is doing. But, the July 17 Summer Struggle show has a long main event co-starring El Phantasmo, and most of it is really good!
A key part of why the first ELP vs. Romero match was so well-received was its circumstances. When they clashed in BOSJ 2019, Rocky could not get a win in what was supposed to be a comeback tournament for him and ELP seemed like he was on his way to being the New Bullet Club Guy in the third consecutive New Bullet Club Guy Arrives As Enemy For Will Ospreay, Makes BOSJ Final storyline. Their latest match doesn’t have anywhere near those stakes, but it plays off that it’s still true that 1) it’s nice to see Rocky do singles things in New Japan (regular New Japan), and 2) it’s nice to see El Phantasmo get owned (that back rake revenge spot is perfect.) That seeing Romero’s serious solo offense is so rare (if you haven’t been watching him recently in NJPW Strong, MLW, AEW Dark, etc.), also makes watching the parts where he dominates the match more exciting. But I think what might help this match the most is the pacing, the way Romero and ELP switch up who’s dominating the match and where and how they’re wrestling. It’s that classic “keep the audience from going for popcorn” strategy of putting together long matches, and it works.
Where I think this match does not work at all is in its last three minutes. Once we get the “three minutes remaining” call, it feels like this match is probably going to a draw, but Romero is in the middle of a streak of doing his current and former tag partners’ moves and that’s entertaining, so that overshadows the timer for a moment. Then ELP does a Styles Clash instead of a CRII and starts moving the slowest he’s moved in the entire match despite the timer running out and it becomes glaringly clear that this match is going to a draw. That’s annoying, but it’s not as uniquely bad as the ending that the match is being drawn out for. Taguchi runs out to throw in the towel for Rocky in the last ten seconds – but really the towel seems like more of a distraction so ELP can’t hit Sudden Death on Rocky, a distraction that also means the half-hour time limit runs out.
The main issue with this finish is that it’s a hat on a hat. There are three gimmicky things going on at the same time. They decide to advance the story of the Coaches trying to figure out ELP’s boot situation by bringing that into the match when everyone’s focus has just been drawn to the time limit. Given that people get kicked by ELP all the time and don’t die or end up on the injured list, it’s confusing for Taguchi to run in so desperate to stop this move with seconds left on the clock. It doesn’t seem inevitable that ELP is going to win or smash Rocky’s brain or whatever if Taguchi doesn’t intervene.
The other issue with this ending is that it doesn’t seem to fit how powerful or dangerous we previously understood Sudden Death to be. ELP stomps Rocky in the head a few times after the Styles Clash so in theory that’s more violence than usual, but these stomps don’t look like they have that much force behind them. Romero sells them in a wobbly-looking way, but none of this is so out of the ordinary that it pulls the audience’s attention from the time limit to “Did ELP’s boot do more damage than normal? Should there be a ref stoppage?” I’m still on board with the #ExposeELP angle, but the whole way this ending was put together just decreases the excitement of the match and ups the confusion.
Also, Ibushi will be wrestling for 100 more years
If I was going to recommend one thing from NJPW this week it would be Ishimori vs. Taguchi and if I was going to recommend a second thing from NJPW this week it would be Chono and Tenzan drawing trading cards. If I was going to pick a third thing, it would be the video interviews with Shingo Takagi and Kota Ibushi that NJPW put together ahead of their title match. With Ibushi having missed Summer Struggle in Sapporo (vaccine symptoms, per NJPW) and out for a future house show (“an illness” with a negative PCR test), this match isn’t going to get much in-ring promotion, so these ten-ish minute interviews are especially good for getting in the mood. The lore about Takagi and Ibushi’s relationship and ’82-line wrestlers is interesting, and some of it feels pretty true to life, like Ibushi’s observation that Shingo “had the confidence of a veteran” early in his career.
The things that most stood out to me from these interviews aside from the lines in the screencaps above were:
- Shingo’s dream of beating Naito at the Tokyo Dome in January to officially becoming the strongest wrestler born in 1982 and also living in the world today
- Both wrestlers get patriotic when talking about their match happening in the Dome while the Tokyo Olympics are going on. This type of thing is typical for Shingo, but Ibushi talking about showing “our pro wrestling” to the world, as in Japanese pro wrestling, rather than “my pro wrestling” or “pro wrestling” in general is different, and probably Olympics-seasonal
- There’s no effort to build up heat between Ibushi and Takagi and their match remains completely face vs. face. They don’t really do a “different philosophies” setup either. The big selling point aside from seeing who will come out as champion is, as Shingo puts it, “I want to bring out his crazy side. To do that, I’ll have to bring out my own too.”
Like with the Okada/Shingo interviews ahead of Dominion, it sucks that this stuff couldn’t be communicated through promos instead to help build more excitement for the match over time. But these interviews also show that there probably wasn’t some big feud NJPW was going to try to do here that got derailed by Ibushi’s health issues. The angle is pretty much “pick who you want to be champion and come see these very intense people wrestle each other!” Hopefully Ibushi can safely return to the ring before July 25 and everyone can get to see this happen.