NJPW Summer Struggle in Nagoya Review: Shibata Friendship Circle Drama

After two nights of Summer Struggle in Osaka that focused on the heavyweight tag title feud, New Japan Pro Wrestling‘s Summer Struggle in Nagoya is the culmination of singles feuds and the go-home show for Wrestle Grand Slam. These factors combine to appoint Kota Ibushi’s replacement in the Tokyo Dome main event, a moment that’s slightly less dramatic than Shibata snatching his ex-bestie’s emotional support briefcase. Summer Struggle in Nagoya is the weak link of NJPW’s four big shows from July 22-25, but there are some highlights in there, plus some weird moments I will probably think about more than the highlights.

Robbie Eagles and Roppongi 3K def. El Desperado, Yoshinobu Kanemaru, and Douki

The undercard of Summer Struggle in Nagoya has a problem: for those watching all this weekend’s NJPW shows, this is the third consecutive night we’ve seen either these exact matchups or very similar ones. None of the wrestlers involved sleepwalk through these tags, but still, it’s often easy to zone out from these while you wait for the Ishii match to start.

Most of these matches include – or try to include – a moment worthy of the Wrestle Grand Slam go-home show, starting with the last Chaos vs. Suzukigun six-man before Eagles vs. Desperado for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship. The third match in as many days between these guys gets points for looking different than the previous ones by including more outside-the-ring action and ends with Robbie Eagles getting a roll-up pin over El Desperado. It seems like a standard “guy you probably think is losing the PPV match gets a win right before it” moment, but gets complicated by Desperado attacking Eagles’ knee with a chair.

After he was clearly more of a face in the feud with Ishimori, Desperado is back to playing a more explicit bad guy against a Chaos member. Whatever alignment he has, people would be happy to see Desperado retain, but the clearer heel/face split could end up doing more to put over Eagles. My take on this before Wrestle Grand Slam was that the chair attack mostly serves to add a little more drama ahead of the title match, but coming back to this article after that show, the need to put over Eagles a bit more is a lot clearer!

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Mega Coaches, Hirooki Goto, and Yoshi-Hashi def. Taiji Ishimori, El Phantasmo, Yujiro Takahashi, and Jado

The night’s second match has the downsides you’d expect from a match with Yujiro, Jado, and ELP, but there are plenty of upsides as well. The teamwork between Goto and Yoshi-Hashi adds a lot to the match, and the beef between Ishimori and Taguchi’s ass becomes a full-blown subplot. The match’s brightest highlight is how the wrestlers play off that surprise pin by Jado the night before – there are moments when it actually seems like, with his teammates’ help, Jado could get a win again, which makes both Romero’s save of Taguchi from Sudden Death and Taguchi’s ankle lock submission of Jado more satisfying. Sudden Death 2: The Mystery of the Boot has had its issues, but going into its Tokyo Dome climax, it’s been a lot better and less repetitive than NJPW’s previous “who can stop ELP from winning with this specific cheat?” storylines.

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Kazuchika Okada and Toru Yano vs. Jeff Cobb and Great-O-Khan should have been a double count-out #JusticeForGreatOKhan

Okada and Yano vs. Cobb and O-Khan is mostly a pretty good, pretty normal tag match, but it has two wild elements that really stand out. First, Chaos absolutely did not win this match! After cuffing up O-Khan, Yano clearly got up on the ring apron after the announcer reached the 20-count. This was unjust victory for Toru Yano and should have been a double count-out, although that would not have sold Yano as the reigning champion going into the KOPW Ranbo as well. They clearly messed up this finish and then pretended they didn’t and went with the planned result, which is never a good look.

The other wild part of this match is Cobb’s backstage promo afterward, where he says he’s figured out that Okada hates being called a Young Boy specifically by him because Cobb reminds him of Samoa Joe and his time in Impact. If true, this would sure be a problematic new character trait for one of New Japan’s top babyfaces! This is clearly just something Heel Cobb came up with and not a piece of character development for Okada, but that does not make the promo any less of a journey.

Shingo Takagi and Bushi def. Tomoaki Honma and Master Wato again

The third round of Shingo and Bushi vs. Honma and Wato is one of the better matches you could expect that’s half Honma and Wato. It has some nice nearfalls before the finish, but it’s also the third consecutive day of this exact matchup going on while everyone waits for news about Ibushi and the Tokyo Dome main event. These guys continue to make the most of a bad situation, but they can’t fully overcome the situation, and this is the easiest match to zone out during while you wait for the one-on-one stuff to start.

Evil def. Tomohiro Ishii

Ishii vs. Evil includes a lot of Bullet Club interference, even for an Evil match, but I don’t think this was as big of an issue as it could have been. This angle was all about Ishii challenging Evil to step up and fight him one-on-one, while also being completely willing to fight Evil and Togo in a handicap match. They end up leaning into that so heavily here that the beginning of the match is basically watching Ishii fight two guys at the same time, with less sneaking around from the bad guys than usual (though still a lot of sneaking around.) So when the big twist that allows Evil to win is that he’s using two extra people instead of one, it didn’t bother me as much as it would have in a match with a different angle.

That being said, not totally rejecting the story doesn’t turn this into an Ishii classic. There aren’t any standout bad parts as far as how the action is executed, but the match never shifts into the higher gear needed to become something really memorable. It’s nice to get to watch Ishii as a big match hero for the first time in a while and this match doesn’t feel as long as it is, but that’s about the best I can say about it.

(Spoiler for Wrestle Grand Slam: this win also sets up Evil to challenge for the world title, but we’ll dig into that in the WGS review!)

Hiroshi Tanahashi def. Kenta

Kenta and Hiroshi Tanahashi are two men who have longer pasts as high-level pro wrestling stars than they likely have futures. In storylines and in real life, they’ve both dealt with the question of whether or not they’re washed. While I don’t think either of them is, at least not completely, this match makes it look like they are. Most of this match moves at a very middle-aged, broken-down wrestler pace and is full of moves performed in a way that isn’t all that exciting or painful-looking.

The best part of this match is Katsuyori Shibata, which doesn’t reflect well on the rest of the match given that he isn’t one of the people officially wrestling in it. But Shibata playing the equalizer by destroying Kenta and taking his briefcase is still a great moment, and Tanahashi following that up by doing the Shibata-style dropkick in the corner is perfect. Their post-match interaction successfully makes sure you feel things about this match result too, and the Break Glass In Case Of A Need For Feelings strategy with post-retirement Shibata continues to be super effective.

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Though this match isn’t the best example of 2021 Tanahashi as an in-ring performer (his NEVER matches with Jay White and Shingo Takagi were way stronger), his post-match time on the mic is a reminder of his immortal qualities as an entertainer. It seems like a sure thing that he’s going to propose filling the hole in the Tokyo Dome main event, but he draws out the segment until you’re waiting for the challenge, then makes his “appeal” in the most charming way possible after some classic air guitar fan service. That “If needed, I am ready!” delivered the same way he does the “I love you!” is Tanahashi at his most idol-esque (in a good way) (this is pretty much always in a good way.)

Part of the reason this challenge is so humble is probably that 1) the guy who’s been replaced in the main event is so well-liked, and 2) NJPW doesn’t officially announce that Ibushi’s out of the match until the actual day of Wrestle Grand Slam. That second part is a bizarre decision that I don’t think can be fully explained without knowing more about what Ibushi was going through medically and how he wanted to deal with it and how the company wanted to deal with it, but it ultimately works out.

Tanahashi is the safest Tokyo Dome main event replacement NJPW has in any situation, but he also fits especially well in this situation. This sets up only the second-ever Takagi vs. Tanahashi match, it’s Takagi defending his new title against Tanahashi when Tana’s the reason he lost his old one, and this development easily fits Tanahashi’s current self-improvement character arc. Tanahashi in the main event is the best way to keep people from asking for refunds, but Tanahashi can also make it feel like something cooler than that, and that’s part of what being the ace is all about!

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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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