I’m just going to come out and say it: I’ve never been much for Will Ospreay. I thought his much hyped IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship match against a returning Hiromu Takahashi was terrible. I wish it wasn’t. Takahashi is an insane genius, a star burning so bright that his next flurry of offense may well be his last, and if there’s something I love more than I should, it’s wrestlers who are willing to die for their art.
I don’t have the right word for how that match made me feel, so I’ll settle for “depressed” and work from there. If there is such a thing as a Will Ospreay Match, this was very much a textbook one: A rehearsed epic completely lacking the spontaneity that makes wrestling one of the world’s most beautiful artforms, a jackoff session that frequently paused to admire its own cleverness. It felt particularly depressing as a Hiromu Takahashi return match, wasting everything that makes Takahashi such an electrifying presence in the service of the kind of style-over-substance wrestling that I’ve come to dread from Ospreay.
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That’s not to say that Hiromu Takahashi isn’t a flashy wrestler, but there’s a kind of reckless abandon to what he’s doing that stands in stark contrast to Ospreay, who is capable of beautiful moves, but executes them in a way that leaves me feeling cold. Isolated to GIFs, their match at Wrestle Kingdom 14 was spectacular. Played out in whole, it was exhausting, and it made me confront, for what feels like the hundredth time, that I just don’t get Ospreay, one of the most ecstatically hyped wrestlers of his generation. Is it me, or is it that Will Ospreay isn’t a good junior heavyweight?
What makes a junior heavyweight “good,” exactly?
This isn’t a hit piece so much as it’s a confessional. I find it genuinely difficult to write at length about what I don’t like in pro wrestling, but watching Will Ospreay exhausts me, y’all. And it’s not because I hate high flying, fast paced wrestling or care too much about selling. When I was writing the Wednesday Night War column, I ran out of ways of saying that I think Rey Fénix is one of the best wrestlers in the game right now, and certainly the most compelling one on American television. Similarly, Kota Ibushi didn’t have a sterling reputation for selling during his time in the junior heavyweight division, but try looking at that man and not being taken by his vibe. I’d go beyond calling both wrestlers good, but let’s settle on that word, since it’s the bar I’m setting for Ospreay.
What makes a junior heavyweight “good,” and how does Will Ospreay fall short of that distinction? Let’s focus on one of the adjectives most frequently appended to the Aerial Assassin: “innovative.” If you think about wrestling divisions as a corporate structure, junior heavyweight and cruiserweight divisions are often pro wrestling’s research and development arm. In my piece on the SuperBrawl II match between Jushin Liger and Brian Pillman, for instance, I claimed that the work on display in that match directly influences the wrestling of this era, and it’s true—that match’s mix of high impact top rope moves and smooth technical wrestling informs how we watch wrestlers like Daniel Bryan, who is an incredible technical wrestler capable of economical, high-impact top rope moves the way wrestlers like Dynamite Kid and Chris Benoit (I know, I know) were.
Innovation, I’ll admit, is a huge cross to bear. It’s easy to look into the past and say that Liger, Pillman, Great Sasuke, Rey Mysterio Jr., Owen Hart, and Eddie Guerrero were innovative junior heavyweights. Daniel Bryan’s undeniable appeal arguably made it possible for wrestlers like Adam Cole to be perceived as main event talent by the WWE. But is it fair to look at wrestlers like Takahashi, Fénix, Dragon Lee, Zack Sabre Jr., KUSHIDA, Kenny Omega, and Will Ospreay with an eye towards what they’ve added to the way wrestling tells stories, even if your answer to that question for any of those men is yes?
Truthfully, I don’t know, but I do think it’s possible to make inferences. Let’s look at someone like KUSHIDA, who, before signing to WWE, was the ace of New Japan’s junior heavyweight division. Unlike Omega and Ibushi, KUSHIDA never seemed marked by New Japan as someone able to transition to the heavyweight division, but as a standard bearer for the juniors, he set a high bar. He was versatile in that he was just as capable of having a match of the year contender with Kyle O’Reilly as he was Takahashi, and now that he’s in NXT he’s seamlessly working wrestlers as different in size and style as Cameron Grimes and Walter. His match against Walter was one of my favorites of 2019, an absolute banger. KUSHIDA is a technical wrestler, one who uses leverage to force his opponents into giving up a limb, usually the arm. That leverage is a lot harder to gain over a wrestler as large and powerful as Walter, so the story of the match, rather than focusing on KUSHIDA’s lightning quick transitions from hold to hold, was how he was able to weather Walter’s assault long enough to utilize his speed and getting his licks in when he could.
That’s classic wrestling storycraft, but it’s incredibly difficult to pull off well and on a consistent basis, which is why one of the notions oldheads hold about junior heavyweight wrestling is that it’s not convincing when someone the size of Rey Mysterio Jr. beats someone the size of the Big Show. If you’re not in the habit of yelling at clouds, it’s possible to see matches like that—all matches, really—as a conversation, a particularly lively exchange of ideas and opinions. And that’s where Will Ospreay loses me: he’s always the loudest, most serious guy in the room, but he’s never got all that much to say.
That holds for me, even in Ospreay matches I’ve enjoyed, like his match against Walter for the OTT Heavyweight Championship two years ago, where Walter pretty much beats the shit out of him for 30 minutes as both dudes stretch the limits of credulity so far as death moves ending in a near fall. That match is at its best when it’s kept simple, which is to say when Walter is walloping Will so hard you see bruises form in real time. It’s like watching someone I find very annoying getting punished by the universe, and that’s about as satisfying as watching an annoying wrestler gets.
I studied the (hidden) blade.
Before Takahashi vs. Ospreay began in earnest, I got my first good look at Ospreay in months. It’s was a lot to take in. His ring jacket was so burdened with adornment that one of the arms wouldn’t lift. His hair was dyed a shade of red that conjured a color printer running out of ink. And he had a samurai sword. None of this, mind you, was a joke. Everything about Will Ospreay is deadly serious, and in that regard he’s the wrestling equivalent of that person you knew in college who went to Mexico on a mission trip and returned pronouncing the word “cerveza” as if each syllable was a separate word, just to let the waiter know how authentic they are.
Given those trappings, it is difficult to stomach his whole thing, especially when his matches hit second or third gear and all of the sudden he’s shouting his opponent’s name or the name of his move really loud before doing the taunt associated with the move then executing or failing to execute it.
It’s been a long time since I’ve played a wrestling video game, but my favorite American one, WCW/nWo Revenge, required you to waggle the joystick to do your signature taunt in order to fill up your Spirit Meter, at which point the game finally allowed you to crush Hulk Hogan’s dumb head into a fine powder with the Evenflow DDT. This works fine in a video game, as part of the fun of playing a wrestling game is rubbing the fact that you’re winning into your opponent’s face. Watching Ospreay sheathe a lil’ invisible sword before going for the Hidden Blade on multiple occasions made me want to throw my non-existent controller through the goddamn television because it gives me enough time to remember that he named it the Hidden Blade in a (now deleted) tweet because “a lot of people were calling it that” despite a twitter search revealing that he was the only one.
Old man yells at cloud.
None of this stuff should bug me. There’s enough wrestling out there, old and new, that I could spend every waking hour of my life watching it and never encounter Will Ospreay again, but I feel like he’d be there in the periphery anyhow. Whether for a ridiculous new sequence or something stupid he Tweeted, he’d still be a topic of discussion. The thing about knowing this and engaging with it, despite knowing I probably won’t like what I see, is that the discourse around wrestlers like Ospreay turns the matter of liking or not liking him into a larger statement about what you think wrestling should be. Are you a good fan who thinks wrestling should grow and change, or are you a Jim Cornette, stuck in the past?
I am not Jim Cornette, but my wrestling memory is long and it takes time for me to figure out wrestlers whose hype I can’t wrap my head around. A lot of Ospreay’s is built on the back of his 2016 match against Ricochet, which main evented the first night of that year’s Best of the Super Juniors tournament.
You probably know this match for its extended exchange of near-misses culminating in dual superhero poses. I don’t know of many wrestlers who’ve benefited as much from a single match as Ospreay did from that one. He and Ricochet were the talk of professional wrestling for much longer than the constant churn of good wrestling matches and seamy wrestling stories suggests possible. The video of that exchange blew up so big that actual good wrestlers like Big Van Vader saw it and passed judgement, and were not kind in doing so.
Blantant acrobatics,no story,is there anything done in this video that relates to winning u could get 2 high school gymnast and put ona show
— Big Van Vader (@itsvadertime) May 29, 2016
I understand how wrestling evolves beendoing for forty yrs around the worldtitles i europe japan mexico usa dumb ass https://t.co/KO5O2MTsv9
— Big Van Vader (@itsvadertime) May 28, 2016
Vader, having made the mistake of having an opinion while being 61 years old, drew a line in the sand on that match and Ospreay: You were either in on what’s hip and cool, or you were an old man better suited for VHS rips of grandpas grappling in waist-high trunks. It’s easy to accuse old wrestlers of not being with it or being hypocritical—Vader’s New Japan debut, a five minute squash of Antonio Inoki that caused a riot and got NJPW banned from Sumo Hall for two years, would have been a goddamn hit if Twitter existed in 1989, to say nothing of his ability to do a moonsault as a 350-400 pound man. Time makes hypocrites and cranks of us all, but what if Big Van Vader was right about Will Ospreay?
I mean, consider this: Vader was active in NJPW from 1989-1992, around which time Jushin Thunder Liger was establishing himself as one of the biggest stars in the promotion. There’s a six-man tag from 1989 where Vader and Liger cross paths that makes me ache for the universe where they met one-on-one. The guy was there, getting his helmet kicked over by the future, an arena full of people chanting for the junior when Riki Choshu is standing right there. If anybody was entitled to his inability to find purchase in what Ospreay brings to pro wrestling, it was him.
As for me, I guess I’ll keep trying. If the past year and a half of his career is any indication, Will Ospreay will only get harder to avoid. What I’m dreading is not knowing whether or not a permanent shift from the junior heavyweight division to the heavyweight division will make everything I find hard to stomach even worse. What if he adds a short sword to the one he carries? What if his hair looks ashier than it already does? Will I be able to sit there and take it when my man Tomohiro Ishii has to eat the Batista Bomb Ospreay busted out for Walter? Or maybe getting clobbered all the time will calm his ass down a little so I can appreciate the balletic way he approaches wrestling without feeling like I’m watching finisher spam in a video game. Regardless, I’m going to be stuck with him for as long as he’s deemed mandatory. I can only hope to someday figure out why.