NJPW Wrestle Grand Slam in Tokyo Dome Review: Knee Japan Pro Wrestling

After three days of seasonal struggles in Osaka and Nagoya, New Japan Pro Wrestling makes its return to the Tokyo Dome with Wrestle Grand Slam. It’s NJPW’s first show in the stadium outside of January in over fifteen years, but it doesn’t have the triumphant atmosphere that implies. Even knowing how restricted ticket sales were, it’s off-putting to tune in for the pre-show and see an audience of about 5,000 sitting in mostly floor seats when Wrestle Kingdoms of the recent past have had about 40,000. The lights staying on also contributes to the weird vibe. But once the main card gets going and you get acclimated to the atmosphere, while it might not look like the usual Tokyo Dome show, Wrestle Grand Slam delivers NJPW’s most stacked card since Wrestle Kingdom.

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Pre-show: KOPW New Japan Ranbo with Handcuffs – Chase Owens wins the battle royal and KOPW trophy

The best way to watch Wrestle Grand Slam is to skip the pre-show. The KOPW edition of the New Japan Ranbo, a battle royal in which a wrestler can also be eliminated if he gets handcuffed to something, has an incredibly cursed atmosphere from the start. The pandemic-era lights-on Tokyo Dome visuals, as previously mentioned, are depressing even though they can’t be helped, and the first entrant is a returning Chase Owens, one of the people accused of sexual misconduct during last summer’s Speaking Out movement who was never seriously looked into by any organization.

Skipping to the end of this match, Owens wins and becomes NJPW’s comedy champion, which would be a dumb idea even if these allegations weren’t out there. This dude got a chance at a serious singles storyline with Juice a couple years back that didn’t go well and a KOPW feud with Yano last year that wasn’t funny, but now he’s a title-holder and reportedly set to be in the G1. Pre-2020, you could write this off as basically the same deal as Yujiro in the G1 last year (they need somebody to eat pins), but the allegations turn things from bad to depressing.

What makes the situation so depressing isn’t unique to the Chase Owens case. If people without industry clout come out about someone with more industry power than them (or more powerful industry friends) and don’t have a lot of hard evidence, it’s completely up to the company whether they’re going to take it seriously or even acknowledge it. Because these companies sometimes don’t care even if someone owns up to allegations or there is harder evidence, it can’t be assumed that they’re doing the right thing behind the scenes about the cases they don’t acknowledge. This does not result in good vibes for a storyline about someone throwing sand in Yano’s face!

That being said, the big battle royal format means it’s not difficult to appreciate the Ranbo’s good moments in between the downer start and finish. Great-O-Khan, who I thought might win since he was the one guy to cut a promo about this match besides Yano, commits 110%, fighting with Nagata even after they’re both handcuffed and eliminating Wato and Douki at the same time with a double chokeslam. Suzuki shows up in good spirits and really goes for it with the handcuffs. Kenta, causing problems for people even after he gets cuffed up, continues to be NJPW’s king of prop work. And it’s not so much a highlight as a weird moment of foreshadowing, but Dick Togo showing up to take Evil’s slot telegraphs that the King of Darkness is using that recent singles win momentum to challenge at the end of the show.

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IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship match: Bullet Club’s Cutest Tag Team (c) def. The Mega Coaches

The Taiji Ishimori and El Phantasmo vs. Rocky Romero and Ryusuke Taguchi feud was a pretty successful mix of comedy shenanigans and straightforward wrestling, and their match for the junior tag titles delivers the same.

ELP doing old BC leader moves still feels more like overcompensating than anything, but the other references in this match work really well, from the callback to “Keep on Journey” to the use of Apollo 55 and Roppongi Vice moves to callbacks to moments from the recent ELP vs. Rocky and Taguchi vs. Ishimori matches. Other highlights include the Bullet Club guys’ quedabras right by the scary-close railing and Romero’s counter of the One-Winged Angel. Overall, I think this match strikes the right action-comedy that tone that works for the sections where the wrestlers straightforwardly showing off their in-ring skill, but also how Taguchi blows the match because he’s too focused on looking in ELP’s shoe.

The Mega Coaches have never been a bad combination, but their teamwork in this match makes me want to see them get a championship reign now more than ever before. I don’t know if that will ever happen, but if they really pick this rivalry back up the next time Rocky returns from America, I’ll be down.

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship match: Robbie Eagles def. El Desperado (c)

Robbie Eagles defeats El Desperado to become IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion for the first time in the biggest surprise of the night, and a quality match. It’s also the first of three Wrestle Grand Slam bouts that features a lot of knee-targeting. Despy quickly zeroes in on that part of Eagles’ body to set up for Numero Dos (after attacking it with a chair on the go-home show.) Eagles does his own knee-targeting, for revenge and the Ron Miller Special, when he starts getting in offense. Both wrestlers convincingly inflict and receive pain and sell the heck out of each other’s submissions.

Eagles winning this match postpones the next installment of the fan-favorite Desperado vs. Hiromu rivalry – which I, like many NJPW fans, got worked into thinking was coming up next after Hiromu’s challenge earlier in the show – but he still wins in a way that makes him look good as a babyface champion. NJPW set him up for success by framing him sympathetically at Summer Struggle in Nagoya through his pin over Desperado and the champion’s post-attack, and much of this title match sees Robbie in Peril. He also wins this match in a way that makes him not only look like a good wrestler, but a wrestler who did his homework, able to counter Pinche Loco and Numero Dos and ready for the punch after the ref bump. We simply must respect our new king of short kings, especially when he follows up his victory by doing a shoey in front of half of Chaos.

Kazuchika Okada def. Jeff Cobb

Okada vs. Cobb is straightforward good match between two committed performers. One of the few matches on this show that doesn’t focus heavily on a certain body part (though Okada sells his back a lot), it plays up Cobb’s incredible athleticism as a threat. But Cobb isn’t all that threatening, considering his NJPW singles match record compared to Okada’s, and this is mostly a competitive match with a lot of cool and impressive moments from the former Olympian, like when he catches Okada out of a plancha and transitions it into a brainbuster. Cobb nailing Okada with an Okada-style dropkick off the turnbuckle and Okada paying him back later is another match highlight, and the Best Supporting Actor award for this show has to go to Great-O-Khan fanning Cobb with the Empire rally towel.

The thing about this match that felt a little off in the moment was the finish, but I think that was mostly because Cobb either bumped louder than usual or kind of fell into that position for the pin, not because it was a real “botch.” It kind of sucks that Cobb couldn’t get some momentum as a singles guy here (he hasn’t won in Japan outside of the New Japan Cup since last year’s G1) and couldn’t even get beaten by the actual Rainmaker move.

Cobb and Great-O-Khan (and what’s going on with Henare these days?) are both valuable and entertaining members of the NJPW roster, but it seems like they’re being held back by the side effects of being a four-man faction with a long-term injured leader and two other members who don’t live in Japan (in an age of travel restrictions). It’s not like there are a ton of other Japan-based roster members to spare, but it’s weird that NJPW even started a new mostly-international faction while the pandemic was still going on. Cobb and O-Khan could tear it up as a tag team or as singles guys, but without anyone else to tag with, it looks like they’ll probably be on ice until the G1 unless there’s another battle royal that O-Khan can show up for.

IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship match: Dangerous Tekkers def. Tetsuya Naito and Sanada

For the whole build-up to Dangerous Tekkers vs. SaNatio II, I kept saying that the rematch would benefit from being shorter, and it would probably be shorter because it wouldn’t be in the main event. But now it is time for me to put on my clown mask because this rematch was two minutes longer! And now it’s time for me to put another clown mask on top of that because this rematch was still better even though it was long as heck.

A major strength of this match is how it gives the viewer’s brain so much to latch onto. There’s so much good one-on-one wrestling and tag teamwork in this match, with moments throughout that include something extra to keep hold of your attention. There’s the story of Naito and Sanada targeting ZSJ’s knee, plus moments that call back to the matches between these wrestlers in Osaka. (The one of these that doesn’t really work is the double pin callback in which ZSJ sets himself up to get double-pinned the exact same way he did that to Sanada, for some reason.)

At some point during that long Naito vs. ZSJ sequence, though, it’s like alright, let’s take it home, you guys. I think they succeed in reheating things when people start hitting or nearly hitting finishers, but the actual finish might be the weakest moment of the match. It looks like Naito just gets dragged to the ground by Zack, maybe, and then moves his legs in position for the European Clutch. It’s not a great moment for suspension of disbelief.

The post-match segment is another banger from this group, with Goto and Yoshi-Hashi showing up to leverage their 6-Man titles for a championship match only to be interrupted by Sanada and Naito cajoling/annoying their way into another rematch. NJPW does triple threats so rarely that I didn’t even realize this was a set-up for a triple threat when, in hindsight, it was the clearest triple-threat setup ever. NJPW can run into problems when it moves into three-way and four-way territory and when it moves away from people really earning title shots, but I think they’re pulling it off in this angle because:

  1.  it’s funny
  2.  there are no other tag teams, deserving or not, trying to get title matches and losing out to Naito and Sanada
  3. okay, Goto and Yoshi-Hashi were that more deserving tag team, but that makes this funnier

NJPW could jump the shark if they go too much further in a wacky direction with this angle, but right now I think this works for everybody involved and should continue to draw more interest in the heavyweight tag titles like the Sanada and Naito vs. Zack and Taichi feud did.

IWGP World Heavyweight Championship match: Shingo Takagi (c) def. Hiroshi Tanahashi

The Tanahashi vs. Takagi match is also long as heck but in the opposite direction, with a build from a slower start to a high-intensity finish typical of big Tanahashi matches. That being said, I think this match probably pulls off its length better than the tag title match does. Tanahashi brings a lot of urgency even to the earlier stretch of the match when they’re playing up that he’s the physical underdog. It’s immediately satisfying once they start to speed things up during Tanahashi’s first real offensive streak, featuring a High Fly Flow to the floor.

The middles section of the match, the NJPW Hates Knees section, is not bad, but things really get going in the last fifteen minutes or so, when both wrestlers get more intense and pull off some surprises. Tanahashi going from a High Fly Flow to a surprise Ibushi-tribute Kamigoye to another High Fly Flow and Shingo kicking out earns a rare audible reaction from the crowd and feels like a big deal – almost nobody kicks out of two HFFs that close together. Takagi hitting a Last of the Dragon without going for a cover isn’t the same type of moment, but it’s also exciting and plays with the audience’s expectations of these guys’ finishers. The setup for the match-winning Last of the Dragon is different than usual too, with Tanahashi getting pretty much killed by a Pumping Bomber right beforehand.

While this match came about through less than ideal circumstances, it ends with the feeling that the world title is in a better place. It’s a really good match with no real baggage, but a little positive nostalgia that comes from seeing Tanahashi in a Tokyo Dome main event. Coming out of an NJPW main event with the impression of “good match, kinda long” and the feeling that a championship reign is going well feels a bit nostalgic too. Maybe it also helps that Tanahashi vs. Takagi has a bit of an old school vibe as a clash of two bodybuilding types without much high-flying, or maybe I’m delusional and feel like they could literally muscle us out of the pandemic if they really applied themselves (and enough hair extensions and spray tan).

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Evil makes a video/sneak attack challenge: the booking

Evil’s challenge for the World Heavyweight Championship after the main event was contentious for booking reasons and, later, for real-life reasons. I’m going to address both, starting with the creative choice to put Evil back in this position.

Some people instantly didn’t like this angle is because they just don’t like Bullet Club Evil and/or his matches, while others quickly got excited for Evil vs. Shingo II. I get both perspectives to a certain extent. I think Evil’s matches have gotten worse on average since he joined BC, mainly because of the addition of Dick Togo and way more heelish bells and whistles to his wrestling style. This stuff can be especially irritating in the main event scene and when surrounded by other Bullet Club matches that include very similar shenanigans. I could see this Shingo vs. Evil match being better and more intense than the one they had in the New Japan Cup earlier this year because it’s a world title match, or being dragged down by excessive interference.

The other argument against this angle that’s supposed to be less subjective is that Evil doesn’t really deserve the title shot since he’s been losing all year aside from the New Japan Cup. This falls apart when you think about who else is available to challenge for the world title in NJPW right now; the other choices would be just as bad from this perspective. The only other wrestler coming off of a singles win by the end of Wrestle Grand Slam is Okada, and Shingo vs. Okada just headlined a big show in June. If Cobb had beaten Okada and challenged Shingo at the end of the show that would be a more appealing matchup to some, but it would make as much sense as Evil’s challenge since Cobb’s been losing just as much (and, like Evil, has lost a singles match to Takagi this year.)

NJPW’s booking of title shots has also been all over the place in the pandemic era, and many have been less deserved than Evil vs. Shingo. That doesn’t mean this is an ideal situation, just that this isn’t an outlier. Eagles won a title earlier on this same show after being gone for six months and sending in a video. ZSJ and Taichi got their tag title shot after insisting that Sanada and Naito give them one to make up for being so annoying. Shingo didn’t “deserve” his shot at the vacant title right after an unsuccessful challenge, and he didn’t deserve that challenge right after losing to the new champion either – he was just loud about it! Evil’s getting this title shot through way more conventional circumstances than any of these. Saying he especially doesn’t deserve to be the next challenger for this reason makes as much sense as the argument that his heel turn tanked NJPW’s tickets sales when his heel turn was right when NJPW started having fans back at shows in venues that maxed out at one-third capacity.

Evil makes a video/sneak attack challenge: the controversy

While some people were immediately annoyed by Evil’s challenge as a creative choice, the continuation of his challenge caused some real-life controversy after Wrestle Grand Slam ended. In a backstage promo that was part of the broadcast while the crowd was leaving the venue, Evil used a homophobic slur (definition) (more context), which drew criticism from some Japanese fans and was later cut from the version of the promo that was uploaded with the rest of the backstage comments, and with subtitles. (Like most non-Japanese-speaking NJPW fans who became aware of this, I learned about it later from Twitter; Chris Charlton did not live-translate this as a slur.)

It sucks that this happened at all, but I think it is positive that NJPW cut this part out of the backstage comment video and, with it, the world championship storyline rather than leave it in. It would probably be better if they made some kind of comment along with the cut, but it’s not at all surprising that they didn’t.

Digging into this much more deeply is out of my depth as someone who doesn’t speak Japanese or live in Japan and therefore has a limited grasp on Japan’s evolving attitudes about LGBTQ people and language that refers to them, but I think it is, at least, positive that international fans found out about this through Japanese fans already making it clear they thought this was inappropriate. The last thing I’ll add is that while it’s not impossible that someone besides Evil came up with the idea to say this, NJPW wrestlers have a lot of creative freedom and largely come up with their own promos, so he’s the one to be disappointed in here by default.

That’s a weird note to end this review on, but the Evil slur controversy was a weird epilogue to this mostly very good show. While NJPW put its best foot forward in a few places with Wrestle Grand Slam, the company is still staggering through 2021, continuously stumbling over a mix of obstacles out of its control and its own feet.

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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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