NJPW Summer Struggle in Sapporo 2021 Review: How to Win Tag Titles and Irritate People

After the low-key Kizuna Road, New Japan Pro Wrestling amped things up with Summer Struggle in Sapporo, two back-to-back shows that kick off the tour that will carry the company through August. Although these were NJPW’s biggest events since Dominion, they were still basically one-match cards – but along with the title-match-per-night came plenty of new feuds, a couple of surprises, and the next Tokyo Dome card coming together.

Summer Struggle in Sapporo Night 1 – July 10, 2021

Master Wato’s surprise singles match series, part 1

With Ibushi pulled from the card due to vaccine symptoms, the first night of Summer Struggle in Sapporo begins with a surprise epilogue to Yuya Uemura’s singles match series, going one-on-one with Master Wato. I usually think it’s more fun to sincerely enjoy the sincerely good things about Wato and ironically enjoy the rest than to nitpick our resident Grandmaster, but even a positive Wato attitude couldn’t save this match.

The main issue here is that Wato does not make himself look effective against the bigger, stronger Uemura, even though the whole audience knows from minute one that he’s going to win. That’s clearly an issue on Wato’s end, but I think it can also be accredited to Uemura’s inexperience, and specifically inexperience with being the more intimidating person in a match. If these two were meeting in Best of the Super Juniors after Uemura’s dojo graduation, this match would have likely had a different, more natural-feeling dynamic, but instead, Wato and Uemura have to try to play out the regular dojo boy vs. main roster dynamic, and they do not pull it off. While both of these wrestlers have shown their strengths in the New Japan ring this year, this match is more a showcase of their weaknesses.

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New feuds, fresh out of the oven!

The show doesn’t really pick up in terms of delivering strong matches until after intermission, but the pre-intermission part does feature new feuds that look like they’ll deliver later on. Ishii vs. Evil started with a lights-out sneak attack on the last Kizuna Road show and it gets its first tag match clash on July 10. These two have worked well together in the past, and their story this time around is straightforward and easy to invest in. Ishii is pissed at Evil (and Dick Togo) for cheating; the bad guys are determined to beat him down (after that 6-man title loss) while continuing to cheat. I can already tell that if they beat Ishii through some bullshit I’m going to be Actually Mad for a second, but it’s also nice to see Evil get his first Actually Good singles feud since Wrestle Kingdom. There’s nothing to complain about with this one.

Tanahashi vs. Kenta has been much lighter on in-ring action so far, but is also promising due to 1) their previous matches, and 2) the return of Kenta promos to NJPW TV. Their feud isn’t very intense so far and there’s no real reason for it to be, but it’s fun, and it can probably ride that to its climax. (The Mega Coaches reunion begins in the same match as Tana vs. Kenta, but we’ll get to that later.)

Probably the strongest match of the first night of Summer Struggle in Sapporo is Kazuchika Okada and Sho vs. Jeff Cobb and Great-O-Khan, which brings the grand total of active United Empire members up to two and kicks off a Cobb vs. Okada feud. The highlights of this bout are Cobb and O-Khan throwing Sho around enough to remind everyone why he’s in the junior division, but the Cobb vs. Okada stuff is promising too – some of Okada’s regular moves, like his air raid crash, look especially good on Cobb. The only downside of this feud is that Cobb is not a great promo, something that shows a lot more now that he’s a heel and can’t coast on his natural geniality and saying “gachi muchi” – but that’s not a huge downside considering his wrestling ability.

These new singles feuds provide important substance to the rest of NJPW’s big shows this month, and they all bring to mind that acronym K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple, Stupid. They’re matchups we’ve seen before, but not so many times they feel tired, basic good guy vs. bad guy dynamics with varied personalities involved, and they should showcase different styles of wrestling.

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IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship match: El Desperado (c) def. Taiji Ishimori

While Ishimori vs. Desperado suffers from the usual “this NJPW main event could have been better if it was five minutes shorter!” syndrome, it also benefits from feeling different from the average title match. Ishimori and Desperado take advantage of the fact that neither of them is the most morally upstanding character to make the early part of the match a story of somewhat petty revenge, with Ishimori attacking Despy’s arm, then the champion using the exact same tactics on his knee once he gets the advantage. There’s plenty of personality injected into quality wrestling throughout the match, and these two ramp up the tension enough that a few of Ishimori’s nearfalls towards the end actually freaked me out.

An issue someone could have with this match is how much cheating it includes by Ishimori, who is usually the one guy in Bullet Club you can trust to have a clean singles match. Now he’s suddenly busting out chairs and getting ELP involved, which feels a bit out of character. This was probably just so Despy could do more Despy things in this match while remaining the clear babyface, but I’m a little worried about what this might mean for future Ishimori matches – it was so nice to have the one inexplicably clean BC guy! However, I think this stuff pretty much works for this match. The chair stuff is fun and well-done and the HEROIC KANEMARU RUN-IN absolutely rules. I hope we start getting heroic Kanemaru run-ins all the time. I hope NJPW starts cutting to outside the venue where Kanemaru’s getting an old lady’s cat down from a tree or something.

The match is followed by a video challenge from Robbie Eagles, which is a nice surprise when everything seemed set up for El Phantasmo to be next in line. (He’s still probably towards the front of the line.) I’m usually out here complaining about people getting title shots for reasons that don’t make much sense, but while Eagles hasn’t been seen in NJPW since last December and definitely has not “earned” this match, the junior division needs all the bodies it can get right now and he’s a good wrestler, and under these circumstances I will not complain!

Summer Struggle in Sapporo Night 2 – July 11, 2021

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When Mega Coaches attack

The easiest way to describe the Summer Struggle in Sapporo Night 2 undercard in comparison to that of the first night is “similar, but better.” We get a much stronger opener in Desperado and Kanemaru vs. Uemura and Sho, followed by Bullet Club vs. Chaos, Bullet Club vs. home team, and Chaos vs. United Empire tag matches with similar groups from the night before, but generally higher energy.

The standout moment of all of this is when Tanahashi, Taguchi, and Rocky Romero vs. Kenta, ELP, and Ishimori ends with Rocky rolling up Phantasmo for the win and the reunited Mega Coaches challenge for the junior tag titles. It’s a well-executed finish and promo segment, we get to see ELP get owned, and Romero’s return gives the junior tag division some much-needed fresh blood. Even if this whole feud ends up sucking, which I don’t think it will, I will be grateful not to be watching the same three tag teams wrestle in a triangle forever. I also like that they’ve switched up the “how will our heroes deal with Sudden Death?” story this time around; we’ve already seen people figure out how to dodge ELP’s kick multiple times before, but now the Coaches promise to actually expose what’s in his boot. Most other parts of the Summer Struggle tour still look more exciting than the junior tag title picture, but this is a big upgrade from what it could have been.

Mean (NJPW)

Master Wato’s surprise singles match series, part 2

With Ibushi once again out of action, the night’s semi-main event is a last-minute Master Wato vs. Shingo Takagi singles match, and I did not find it to be an easy watch. The Tsuji-and-Uemura singles series just provided a whole month of singles matches in which high-level wrestlers didn’t go all-out because of ego, willingness to give the kids some practice, or some combination of the two. The previous night’s show unexpectedly included another, ineffective one of those in Wato vs. Uemura. Then, in a show’s semi-main event (long after this type of match usually happens) and right before an anticipated title match, there’s Shingo showboating and not going for the kill against Wato while also not really doing anything cool.

If this was lower on the card I could have handled it, if it wasn’t after all those Young Lion matches I could have handled it, if it wasn’t the one NJPW singles match that didn’t include an old guy or a trainee besides the junior title match in the past month I could have handled it, but that is not the world we are living in. I understand if people tuning in to NJPW this weekend for the first time since Dominion did not mind this match, but seeing this dynamic again was irritating in the context of all recent NJPW.

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IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship match: Tetsuya Naito and Sanada def. Dangerous Tekkers (Zack Sabre Jr. and Taichi) (c)

Criticizing a New Japan main event for going too long sometimes feels like criticizing a WWE show for bad camera work. As much as it makes sense for wrestling fans to complain about it a lot and it does impact the quality of the company’s shows, it seems like the issue is never going to go away, so what’s the use in talking about it all the time? But here I am talking about a New Japan main event going super long again because Naito and Sanada vs. Dangerous Tekkers goes over thirty-five minutes and for what? For what????

Zack and Taichi vs. SaNaito had everything going for it. It was a fresh matchup with an angle that played off of well-received angles of the recent past. All the wrestlers had shown that they work well together in the ring and in non-wrestling segments. There were reasons to care about either team winning or losing. The match gets off to a promising start, with plenty of tension and some quality action. Then the story they go with, for over half an hour, is basically each team wearing the other down to the point of exhaustion, to the point where whoever can manage to put together a killer combo is going to win.

L.I.J.’s winning combo does look cool – after Dangerous Tekkers set up a Holy Zack Driver on Naito, Sanada makes the save, leading to Naito putting ZSJ away with a Destino after Sanada hits a moonsault – as do other sequences in the match, but so much of the journey is these dudes getting increasingly tired in a way that is not that exciting to watch. Wrestling for this long is physically impressive and wrestling stories about pushing the limits of human endurance can be great, but the drama of this tag title match does not increase with its length. There is no entertainment payoff for the viewer watching this match get slower and sweatier.

I think ultimately, whatever the result, the Tokyo Dome rematch is likely to end the Dangerous Tekkers vs. L.I.J. feud on a much sweeter note because it’s only in the semi-main event and likely to be shorter.

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That brings us to this match’s result, which was bittersweet. The pros of Naito and Sanada winning the tag titles: Sanada and Naito staying together as a two-man team for a while, both of these individuals being tag champs, and a big L.I.J. role call. The cons of this title change are what it means for the Dangerous Tekkers story – these guys gradually turned (basically) face during a six-month struggle to get the titles back only to lose in their first defense – and in Taichi’s hometown. However, Taichi’s defeated backstage promo in which he outlines these exact plot points soon shows that NJPW was aware of all this and planned to capitalize on it.

The hilarious backstage confrontation between the main eventers quickly explains why this happened: to set up a rematch at Wrestle Grand Slam. These promos are top-notch “talking segment” in a company that rarely does those – advancing the story between the teams, bringing the jokes, even bringing Sanada bringing the jokes. Verbally! They also drive home that the dynamic of this feud, especially gearing up for round two, still isn’t good vs. evil, but has evolved to trolling vs. sincerity – something anyone online enough to be reading this article can probably relate to.

Upcoming attractions: are they attractive?

As an epilogue for Summer Struggle in Sapporo and preview for the rest of the month, let’s go over the upcoming notable NJPW events this July. A huge upside of this schedule is that it feels like there’s actually stuff going on in New Japan again, with at least two singles matches headlining every major event. For those who don’t want to open up njpw1972.com/schedule, here’s the rundown:

  • July 17 at Korakuen Hall features Taguchi vs. Ishimori and Romero vs. ELP
  • Summer Struggle in Osaka on July 22 – Sanada vs. ZSJ and Naito vs. Taichi
  • Summer Struggle in Osaka on July 23 – Sanada vs. Taichi and Naito vs. ZSJ
  • Summer Struggle in Nagoya on July 24 – Ishii vs. Evil and Tanahashi vs. Kenta
  • Wrestle Grand Slam in Tokyo Dome on July 25 – KOPW battle royal, Mega Coaches vs. Bullet Club, Desperado vs. Eagles, Okada vs. Cobb, Dangerous Tekkers vs. L.I.J., Ibushi vs. Shingo

The biggest potential downsides I can think of for this month are 1) NJPW main events have been real hit or miss lately and that trend could continue, 2) six of these singles matches have the nebulous stakes of “gaining momentum ahead of a tag title match.” Maybe some of the L.I.J. vs. Tekkers ones could pass for grudge matches, but still, the results of these bouts really don’t matter in themselves, which doesn’t make for the strongest possible TV.

However, there are way more upsides: these feuds are all entertaining so far, all these major matches have the potential to be good, and nothing super repetitive or real-life distressing is happening aside from the ongoing pandemic (which I know is a huge “aside,” but such is the state of wrestling.) Ahead of this tour, I was wondering if New Japan had the juice to pull off four back-to-back big shows right now, and while the L.I.J. vs. Suzukigun singles stuff in Osaka might be pushing it, overall, NJPW put together stronger cards than one might have expected given their recent output. Wrestle Grand Slam, Nagoya, and at least one of the Osaka shows seem they like should be worth watching and probably a good time. (And of course, you can expect reviews of them back here on Fanfyte.)

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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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