After a mostly-triumphant return to the Tokyo Dome for Wrestle Grand Slam, New Japan Pro Wrestling hits a bit of a lull. The first three of the four Summer Struggle events that take place at Korakuen Hall on July 27, July 30-31, and August 1 are largely skippable – mostly filler with maybe one or two stronger matches per show, which are still tag matches meant to promote more important things. But the August 1 event closes the week out strong, with Tsuji and Uemura getting high-profile opponents for their sendoff matches and the NEVER Openweight 6-Man title picture continuing its low-profile hot streak.
Before getting to the good stuff though, let’s dig into the feuds that this bunch of NJPW shows sets up for next month’s Wrestle Grand Slam at MetLife Dome.
I (would have) Quit (watching this storyline if not for the need to review it)
The clear lowest-tier storyline of the post-Tokyo Dome part of the Summer Struggle tour is Chase Owens vs. Toru Yano for the KOPW trophy, which was also the worst part of the Tokyo Dome show. Even if the allegations made about Owens last summer during Speaking Out didn’t make the idea of watching a feud centered around him distasteful to many or if Yano was feuding with a different wrestler, I don’t think this angle would be working.
The basic summary is that since winning the Ranbo to become KOPW champ, Owens and some Bullet Club buddies have been yelling at Yano to say he quits and/or have been claiming he’s said, “I quit!” when he hasn’t. At the same time, they’re threatening to break Yano’s baby, the KOPW trophy. It’s a very on-the-nose setup for an “I Quit” match, like one that would happen on an episode of Raw two weeks before a WWE Extreme Rules pay-per-view that everyone forgot was happening because it was wedged between two bigger PPVs.
Like a lot of KOPW stuff since this title was created about a year ago, this feud is weirdly joyless (and not all that weird) for a feud based around Toru Yano. It also doesn’t go far enough in the other direction and bring out Yano’s badass amateur wrestling side. The best Yano matches since he’s become the KOPW guy have been in tournaments, with the setup that his opponent must fight through Yano’s unique and chaotic world on his way to a greater victory. That kind of scenario seems to give everyone involved more breathing room than these contrived-feeling pushes towards a vote for a gimmick match (or just a gimmick match, no vote.)
Even if you love Yano, there’s no reason to care about him retaining the KOPW trophy in these matches because KOPW just isn’t fun. As much as I support being able to call Yano the certified King of Pro Wrestling, the best thing NJPW could do with this title might be to give it to a different wrestler and use it as a platform for more sports-like rather than more gimmicky wrestling, creating opportunities for things like submission matches, UWF rules, etc. The funniest thing they’ve done since creating this pseudo-comedy championship is Kenta romancing a stick in a different title picture.
In better WRESTLE GRAND SLAM in MetLife Dome news
So an Owens vs. Yano I Quit match is now officially on the card for NJPW’s first night at the MetLife Dome, but in more positive news, so is the rematch between Kazuchika Okada and Jeff Cobb. This match has a simple setup: Cobb, who we had been led to believe was already headed back to the U.S., attacks Okada after his match on July 27 and demands a rematch. While Okada beat him at the Tokyo Dome, Cobb feels he didn’t truly defeat him when he got the W with that flash pin.
Cobb might not be back in NJPW until that rematch, but the work here is done. The story isn’t some intense drama, but it dresses up “you want to see these good wrestlers wrestle again, right?” enough, makes sense for both characters, and gives Okada enough promo material for the month until the match. And even if Cobb loses again, at least it seems like he’ll get the dignity of dying by Rainmaker this time.
The other angles on this show outside of the 6-man title scene are the promotion of Super Junior Tag League, which starts next week, and Evil vs. Shingo for the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship, which goes down next month. Super Junior Tag League, when the junior tag title scene is as small as it is and the closest thing to an outsider team this year is Robbie Eagles pairing up with Tiger Mask, doesn’t have much to promote. The one eyebrow-raising element of this tournament is evil uncles Gedo and Dick Togo competing together, but NJPW has also added a storyline about how maybe Roppongi 3K (specifically, Yoh) sucks now and won’t be able to win for the fourth year in a row. If this leads to R3K actually struggling and maybe even having a match in this year’s Best of the Super Juniors it’ll be exciting, but if not, this is the junior tag team version of how Tanahashi’s knees act up before every G1.
Meanwhile, in the heavyweight world, Evil vs. Takagi was marred from the start, for the people who were open to it at all, by fans being disappointed in Evil as a real person, but it’s now progressing as a regular hero vs. villain storyline.
Takagi’s had some straightforward babyface vs. heel matches and feuds in New Japan before, but his time as World Heavyweight Champion has been all face vs. face before this, without even opportunities for him to even cut particularly heated promos on his rivals. Now, after winning the title, making it past V1, main-eventing the Tokyo Dome, and beating two gatekeepers of the NJPW top title scene, Takagi is an established world champ and the clear favorite to win his next defense against the heel with the most heat in the company. This new position is working well for him so far! Evil and Shingo work well together in the ring, and all their playing to the crowd is getting over. The L.I.J. vs. Bullet Club tag matches in which they interact also use Bushi very well as a supporting character, and it’s nice to see this lead to Bushi kickstarting another angle.
Summer Struggle – August 1, 2021 – Korakuen Hall—a show worth watching!
Sending off the super seniors
Before we get to the new storyline kicked off by Bushi, the August 1 Summer Struggle event has a strong, varied lineup for a minor show that also features the Chase Owens KOPW feud. First, local super seniors Yuya Uemura and Yota Tsuji have their final matches before they finally get to graduate from the dojo and go study abroad.
We’ve seen so much of Tsuji and Uemura in their almost three years as Young Lions, and especially recently with their singles match series, so it doesn’t feel like there’s much more to say about them as they head off into the wider world. These guys have seemed ready to take the next step for a while, and I think everyone will be surprised if they don’t make something of themselves in New Japan when they return. Uemura and Tsuji also both get sendoff matches that make them look good, and have plenty of appeal for NJPW viewers.
Uemura and Okada facing off highlights how much Uemura seems destined to be a future marquee star. Okada’s in-ring disdain for the trainees is an entertaining, fitting element of his character that carries over from his Tsuji match, and it gives Uemura a lot to play off of with his trademark skill at getting beaten down and fighting back up. Okada’s backstage promo that sends Uemura off on his coming-of-age journey (which, delivered straight to the camera, looks like the opening of a video game) and his explanation of the true value of excursions (it’s not just about fighting local opponents, it’s about finding yourself!) is also kind of amazing, a promo worth watching with way more substance than you’d expect from one after the opening match.
The sendoff match to really appreciate, though, is Naito vs. Tsuji, the battle that Tsuji tried to make happen earlier this year, but failed to because he couldn’t get enough Twitter likes. The lucha-esque opening gives oxygen to Tsuji’s Mexico dreams and the two continue to work well from there. This bout is also a unique scenario for Ingobernable-era Naito, who never teams with or mentors Young Lions onscreen and only faces them in lower-card tag matches. Not that anyone didn’t know that Naito could have a ten-minute hit with a promising trainee, but it’s nice to see him get to do something different than usual and do it well. With the Tsuji sendoff and the tag title feuds, Naito is really having a summer of variety. His own at-home excursion, kind of.
NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship match: Tomohiro Ishii, Hirooki Goto, and Yoshi-Hashi (c) def. Minoru Suzuki, Zack Sabre Jr., and Taichi
Before the trios title match that’s the biggest highlight of this stage of the tour, the feud between Chaos and Suzuki-gun provides some of the best that these shows have to offer. Their elimination match has some quality wrestling without the dumb extra stuff included in the Bullet Club vs. L.I.J. one, and both builds up the drama between both the feuding threesomes and in the “is R3K OK?” storyline. It also includes the latest chapter in Ishii’s summer of throwing rocks at hornets’ nests and then stancing up to fight the hornets: he calls out Suzuki for being the lowest-profile member of his own faction these days.
The possibility of Taichi-gun has been a cloud drifting back and forth over Suzuki-gun for a couple of years now, and by the end, this 6-man feud seems like it could maybe be the real start of SZKG actually, slowly taking this step. Ishii says if Suzuki doesn’t step up, they might as well change the faction name to Taichi-gun, and then Suzuki gets pinned by Goto and Yoshi-Hashi at the end of the 6-man title match. There’s no beef between the Suzuki-gun members after the match, but Suzuki, conspicuously, doesn’t cut a promo at all. I’ve been burned on “okay, they’re doing Taichi-gun… now!” a few times, but this is a credible turning point in this angle (that could just be a years-long series of teases and not even a real angle.)
Whether or not this is part of a slow-burn faction leadership change arc, this little storyline seems like an important shift in the presentation of Minoru Suzuki. At 53, Ishii is finally treating him the same way he treats Nagata, as an old and post-relevant competitor, rather than a true rival. While Suzuki’s still using his freelancer privileges to do cool stuff in other promotions, it looks like that NEVER Openweight Championship run last year really might have been his last big NJPW angle. The “man who’s still freakishly good and intimidating in his late middle-age” era couldn’t last forever and New Japan’s been phasing him out of major title pictures for a while now, but still, the sadness of the passage of time sneaks up on you sometimes.
But you know what isn’t sad? This NEVER Openweight 6-man title match, which is this Chaos team’s second defense in a row that manages to pull off being the long-as-heck main event of a Korakuen Hall show. The wrestlers pair up in plenty of good singles combinations and switch them up with other singles combos and sequences of tag teamwork at a pace that exploits enough of these different matchups without leaving them in the ring so long that they start dragging. I’d say the one exception to this is when, pretty late in the game, there’s a bunch of Taichi vs. Yoshi-Hashi, which is slower than the rest of the match at a bad time for a match to slow down. But the sequences of Ishii vs. Suzuki, Taichi vs. Goto, Ishii vs. ZSJ, and the teamwork moments especially among the fresher Suzuki-gun team help make this one of Chaos’s stronger defenses and very worth watching.
The match is followed by Bushi, Sanada, and Naito coming out to challenge (through Bushi) for the trios titles again, a development that follows up on
- Bushi doing things on the previous shows and saying he had a plan to do more
- Bushi, Sanada, and Naito’s intentions to challenge for the 6-man titles again, which they stated after their last challenge
- NJPW getting all the combinations of guys in the heavyweight tag title triple threat to wrestle each other beforehand
Further incorporating the trios titles like this is, I think, a good sign for the Naito/Sanada vs. Zack/Taichi turned Naito/Sanada vs. Zack/Taichi vs. Goto/Yoshi-Hashi feud, which continues to be a destination for mostly good wrestling and drama, with the dumb or less successful parts easier to look over and move past because they’re either dumb in a fun way or quickly followed by something better. I’ve said this before, but it’s the song of the summer (struggle), folks!