New Japan Pro Wrestling kicked off four consecutive nights of big shows with two back-to-back Summer Struggle in Osaka events. For July 22-23, the heavyweight tag title feud is the focus of NJPW, and the matches between Naito/Sanada/Zack/Taichi play a major role in delivering some of the most fun NJPW events of the year.
Summer Struggle in Osaka Night 1 – July 22, 2021
El Desperado, Yoshinobu Kanemaru, and Douki def. Sho, Yoh, and Robbie Eagles
The L.I.J. vs. Suzukigun one-on-one matches are supported by fairly strong undercards on both nights, and the July 22 show starts off especially well with Desperado, Kanemaru, and Douki vs. Robbie Eagles and Roppongi 3K. Just like when this group recently battled at Korakuen, Eagles and Desperado make their junior title match look like it’s going to be a Wrestle Grand Slam highlight. Also, watching this junior heavyweight six-some work together kind of makes me wish they were in a company where this exact matchup could have a main or semi-main event level of importance and we could see what they would do in that environment.
Hiroshi Tanahashi, Tomohiro Ishii, and Yoshi-Hashi def. Kenta, Evil, and Yujiro Takahashi
Tanahashi gets the win in this match, but Ishii continues to be the best part of the builds for the big Nagoya matches. Tana and Kenta don’t sell themselves that hard, but Ishii even gets in a surprise post-match dick joke. That is called workrate, my friends!
Backstage, the odd dynamic between Kenta and Tanahashi continues, with Kenta again cutting a promo on the Ace only for Tanahashi to not even mention Kenta by name. They take things in a different direction the following night, but this is still such a weird way to promote the main event of a major show, especially at this point, when there’s a possible open spot in the Tokyo Dome main event on the horizon.
Kazuchika Okada and Hirooki Goto def. Jeff Cobb and Great-O-Khan
On both nights of Summer Struggle in Osaka, the Cobb vs. Okada feud isn’t the worst part of the card, but it is the one with the least to write home (or write in this review) about. The Chaos vs. United Empire tag matches are solid, but not really memorable. The promos don’t stand out much either. If Okada and Cobb have a banger at the Dome, it’ll be one without a real rivalry behind it. But in the context of this tour, that’s not really a problem because 1) the appeal of this match is all the in-ring stuff based on these two wrestlers’ careers, and 2) other people are already bringing enough of the non-wrestling parts of wrestling to Summer Struggle.
Ibushi isn’t here, so it’s Shingo Takagi and Bushi def. Master Wato and Tomoaki Honma
Kota Ibushi gets pulled from this show after being diagnosed with aspiration pneumonia, so of course, Tomoaki Honma is his ideal replacement. It’s wild that this guy seems to be NJPW’s first alternate for pretty much any absence, but that’s how it is, I guess! The best part of this match is that Shingo has spent most of his title reign pinning Suzukigun juniors, Young Lions, and Master Wato, and he is steadily acting like more and more of an asshole about this. We aren’t at Dragon Gate-level bully-heel Shingo, but that obnoxious match-winning pin followed by box jumps on the apron is not too far off!
While people who aren’t in this match don’t directly talk about the Tokyo Dome main event situation at Summer Struggle in Osaka, I think both Honma and Takagi address it well in their promos. Honma continues to win over domestic audiences’ hearts by shooting for the moon, and while Takagi acts like a jerk in the ring, his promos continue to be gracious about Ibushi’s absence while keeping their tough guy flavor. While I wish NJPW had been clearer about what’s going to happen with the Tokyo Dome main event before the Nagoya show, it is nice to see they that seem to be trying to make Ibushi look as good as possible throughout this situation.
Sanada and Zack Sabre Jr. draw, but not in a time-limit way
Sanada and Zack Sabre Jr. have wrestled many times in NJPW. While they always have the same kind of match, the kind of match they have together is different than the type anyone else on the roster is has together, which helps keep the pairing from going stale. I don’t think this is their best bout – some of the moves looks a little sloppy in a way that makes them look faker rather than more painful – but it’s enjoyable and the crowd is hot for it. The story of Sabre focusing on Sanada’s arm while Sanada works his leg gives the viewer something to follow and switches things up from the frequent Sanada vs. ZSJ story of who will get the last counter.
This match is ultimately not about limb work, but about ZSJ still not being about to put L.I.J. away (a trend that continues in the Night 2 main event) and how evenly matched he and Sanada still are. Pulling off a double pin finish to a 20+ minute, mostly serious match is impressive, and it works not just because of how well that pin is executed, but because they did those worse-looking double pin nearfalls towards the beginning of the match to plant the possibility in the audience’s minds. The Chekhov’s gun setup really helps this not feel like a Yano match finish tacked onto a normal match. The bickering backstage segment with some rare English from Sanada definitely helps the ending feel more satisfying too.
Taichi def. Tetsuya Naito
While all the singles matches from these shows are worth watching, Taichi vs. Naito is the best of the bunch. After a hot start that includes Naito doing an unexpectedly early Frankensteiner and turning one of his usual fakeouts into a double fakeout, this is a straightforward build-up from more basic wrestling to higher intensity moves and atmosphere. It does this without feeling crazy-long and succeeds in getting more exciting as the match goes on and both wrestlers get more cool stuff in.
The unexpected thing about this match is how it frames Taichi, who is put in a sympathetic position against a dominant Naito early on, and ultimately wins the match clean soon after a moment when it looks like Naito could take it home. This isn’t that dramatic of a development after the nearly eight months of most of Suzukigun steadily turning face, but looking back on Taichi’s rivalry with Naito and his whole career, this stands out as something that would have been shocking at any other time – which makes it surprising how not-shocking it is.
Sometimes singles matches that are meant to provide “momentum” for tag feuds feel like they don’t have real stakes, but that’s never an issue with L.I.J. vs. Dangerous Tekkers. It’s not just because of match quality, but because the characters involved are so fleshed-out and have so much history together that even when you’re using the smarky part of your brain and thinking about how these people are being booked, it’s still easy to be invested in the story. After Night 2, Sanada says that the heavyweight tag titles are shining because he, Naito, Taichi, and Sabre are wrestling for them, and that’s the actual truth. These guys are seamlessly incorporating popular aspects of their singles wrestling careers into this fight for the tag titles and vice versa. It’s like a better version of the Dangerous Tekkers vs. Golden Ace feud from last summer in which you never worry that people are starting to act too out-of-character.
Summer Struggle in Osaka Night 2 – July 23, 2021
El Phantasmo, Taiji Ishimori, and Jado def. Ryusuke Taguchi, Rocky Romero, and Hirooki Goto
After the heavyweight tag title feud closes Night 1 of Summer Struggle in Osaka, the junior tag feud kicks off Night 2, while the junior singles feud guys have the night off. There’s some typical dumb Bullet Club stuff in this that makes it a weaker opener than that of the night before, but there’s also Hirooki Goto having a great time with a P.E. teacher whistle, so who’s to say whether this match was good or bad!
The one dumb Bullet Club thing you have to respect in this match is the ending: ELP using the Sudden Death superkick on Taguchi not to get himself the win, but to set up Jado to get the pin. There are few greater indignities possible in NJPW than being the one guy who gets beaten by 2021 Jado. This is a fantastic way to heighten the feud a little more ahead of the junior tag title match (with its promised solving of the ELP boot mystery.)
Tana vs. Kenta goes harder this time!
On the last night before their singles match, Tanahashi and Kenta finally bring it in a six-man tag that also includes Ishii, Evil, Yano, and Yujiro. We get Kenta and the Ace really laying in some elbows, the most Tana-Ishii teamwork of the tour, and a post-match fight. Tanahashi still doesn’t talk about Kenta backstage, but finally makes it sound like he could have a bright future ahead rather than just one where he has more defined abs. It’s still weird that Tanahashi and Kenta went this route in promoting their match rather than making their fight feel a little more personal given that they do have some history in NJPW, but at least we get more aggression towards each other in the ring before they go one-on-one.
Shingo Takagi and Bushi vs. Master Wato and Honma also goes way harder this time!
While Night 1’s match from this group is pretty much what you’d expect from something with Honma as a last-minute replacement, on Night 2 they make lemonade from pneumonia lemons. Wato and Honma wrestle like they heard Shingo scorn them backstage the night before, and Honma brings it like he’s really trying to earn that title match, even getting the spirit of Ibushi involved with than Kamigoye-setup Kokeshi. This rematch also gives Takagi the opportunity to apply his skill of bringing real feud energy any time he’s really paired off with someone, even if it’s just a placeholder (see also: that time Shingo and Nagata made it look like Shingo vs. Nagata might happen, but they were really just tagging with Naito/Ibushi.)
While this match doesn’t really have a world title bout to promote, it does a good job of promoting Shingo as a guy you want to see have an actual big match soon, something he finally says backstage he wants to do on Sunday even if Ibushi isn’t available (which also makes it sound like we’re moving out of limbo and towards a new match decision.)
.@seiyasanada "Rolling Elbow→Tiger Driver"
— njpwworld (@njpwworld) July 23, 2021
Sanada def. Taichi
If there is one thing about this match I’m going to remember it’s how much louder and more urgently the crowd starts clapping when it’s Sanada’s turn in the pec-popping contest. This barely-restrained horniness is followed by an exciting, competitive match that wouldn’t feel out of place in the G1. There’s a bad-looking Skull End and an attempted block of a moonsault in there, but there’s also Sanada’s sick Tiger Driver and the finish of an O’Connor Roll countered by a Taichi-style Gedo Clutch countered by an O’Connor Roll. Also, I can’t emphasize enough, there is that pec battle at the beginning. Overall, the second-ever Taichi vs. Sanada match is well-executed, a lot of fun, and will make me look forward to the next time they go one-on-one.
Tetsuya Naito def. Zack Sabre Jr.
Naito vs. ZSJ has its moments – especially some cool DDTs – but it’s a weird one to get into. Past matches between these two have been based more around ZSJ submission torture or mutual brutality, but so much of this one is Naito eating Zack’s lunch and Sabre fighting from underneath. That’s not what the entire match is like, but it’s enough that it seems like it’s set up to make Zack the guy to root for. But doing that would also mean rooting for Naito to lose two main events in a row and that’s impossible, so what I am supposed to do with this match dynamic? It doesn’t help that even for a clap-only crowd, the audience sounds quieter than they could have been for this bout.
It’s an end to Summer Struggle in Osaka that feels a little off, but overall, these two shows are entertaining and worth watching. Especially with Ibushi out, the Dangerous Tekkers vs. Los Ingos feud is doing so much of the heavy lifting for New Japan Pro Wrestling this summer, and while it hasn’t delivered 100 percent hits, it’s been giving a lot more hits than misses.