I watched roughly 15 hours of wrestling over the weekend, and pretty much all of it was good and a lot of it was great.
NJPW is currently doing a tour called “The New Beginning” which is always early in the year and bookended by PPVs with that title “… in [city]”. If New Year Dash is the kickoff of the new year, The New Beginning is the end of the first chapter, often with significant changes to the landscape. So far this is no exception. This year there are even three dates, two dates in Sapporo which were this weekend, as well as one in Osaka on February 10th, towards which a lot of the undercard in Sapporo built as that date is basically an all out war between the factions of CHAOS and Los Ingobernables the Japon, with each member of LIJ facing a member of CHAOS in a singles match, which is rather a rarity. In Sapporo they were involved of course in multi-tag matches which also had some nice story implications, but aren’t essential viewing. More interesting will be a stop-over in Korakuen Hall next Monday and Tuesday. Monday will have a 10-man elimination match between all the participants, and on Tuesday SANADA and EVIL will have to defend their tag titles against Goto and Okada.
However, for Sapporo where the rubber really meets the road is of course the title matches, and there were three absolute whoppers on the menu. On Saturday Hiroshi Tanahashi defended the Intercontinental title against Minoru Suzuki and that match was brutal. Not as in a bad match, but as in hard to stomach to watch. Suzuki took basically the pliers to Tanahashi, who sold his ass off the entire match. You could legitimately believe he was in excruciating pain, which he most likely was at least to a certain extent. However, Tanahashi just wouldn’t submit, and Suzuki refused to pin him even after hitting his finisher, the Gotch-style piledriver. Eventually, after what felt like an eternity, Red Shoes Unno stopped the match. Then Suzuki got himself a mic to taunt Tanahashi. I only speak basic survival japanese, so I didn’t understand a word he said, but you could just feel the sneer. The crowd was absolutely deflated (in a good way).
The 2nd day had two significant matches. The first was a rematch from Wrestle Kingdom with Roppongi 3K challenging The Young Bucks for the junior tag titles which they lost at WK. This was a great tag match. The Bucks often get a bad rep for their spots and lack of selling, but here they did a fantastic job here, just like WK. A particular focus of the ring psychology was the back of Matt Jackson who sported a pretty big welt. Ultimately the match ended unfortunately on a sour note for me. After a long sequence of back and forth in which The Bucks appeared to have the upper hand, one of them was rolled up for the three count, which seemed rather out of nowhere. This was almost certainly a deliberate callback to Wrestle Kingdom 11 when Roppongi Vice faced the bucks. Rocky Romero who was in Vice is now the “director” of Roppongi 3K.
The second match was the third member of The Elite, Kenny Omega, defending his IWGP United States Championship against Jay White, who refused Omega’s offer to join Bullet Club at New Year Dash, attacked him and later joined CHAOS. And this match was great. I wrote previously about my frustrations with White as a fan who has no attachments to him from his days as a Young Lion, but this match made me a believer with much more interesting wrestling on his part and great selling. For a large portion of the match he looked completely out of it but with stuff like a simple shoulder lift he kept himself alive. Perhaps it was the Tana-Suzuki match from the day before but it all also seemed really heavy and Kenny refused to pin him, also tapping into Kenny’s hubris due to his numerous defenses and the brutal match against Jericho. Jay White fought back into the match and took the title.
After the match Bullet Club member Hangman Page, who had picked up the pin in tag matches on both days, came out and held the title in his hand over an exhausted Jay White, ready to immediately challenge for it. Kenny rips the title from his hand and pushes it into White’s chest who gladly accepts it. While White makes his way to the back, the entire cast of Being the Elite gets into the ring one of after another. Cody confronts Kenny about “taking Hangman’s moment” from him and a they bicker in the ring. When Matt Jackson puts his hand on Kenny’s shoulder, Kenny pushes him down without looking at him, aggravating Matt’s injury. Kenny tries to apologize but the Bucks just leave, not wanting to hear anything right now. The Bullet club disperses while Cody and Kenny seemingly make up, but when Kenny tries to leave Cody and Hangman attack him while Marty Scurrl just looks in disbelief.
Suddenly Kota Ibushi comes running out and chases the rest of the Bullet Club off. Only Kenny remains who refuses to take Kota’s hand, instead pulling himself up with the ring ropes while at the verge of tears. And then Kenny suddenly embraces Kota. The Golden Lovers reunite. Most beautiful thing in wrestling. Still have to wonder how the situation between Kenny and the Bullet Club will develop.
Thankfully both events in Sapporo were at a reasonable time for me, at 10 AM and 7 AM respectively. As such I decided to watch them live and not NXT TakeOver which would have been at 1 AM on Sunday for me. However, as is tradition with Takeover, this was an excellent event to watch.
The Initial Tag Team match between The Authors of Pain and The Undisputed Era (a.k.a. ReDragon) was pretty decent, featuring pretty decent ring psychology on part of the mean motherfuckers that are Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly. I expected them to retain as I imagine AOP is going up and are being replaced as the Big Hoss tag team in NXT with War Machine. The match still featured some decent spots, i.e. one of the AOP slamming a member of TUE into his teammate while that guy was applying a submission, but nothing we haven’t seen before and unfortunately not really on the level of American Alpha or DIY vs. The Revival.
Velveteen Dream vs. Kassius Ohno was pretty decent, mostly carried though by Dream’s charisma. Still can’t stand Ohno’s ring gear. The women’s match between Shayna Baszler and Ember Moon was also good, ending with Moon, after an eternity of getting her arm worked over, stacking the still very green Baszler up from an Armbar and getting the pin. Good character work there.
Next match was an Extreme Rules between the last member of TUE, Adam Cole “Bay Bay”, and Aleister Black. I must say Aleister has perhaps the best gimmick in WWE right now. A bit of stoicism goes a long way when someone threatens you with a steel chair. The match was pretty bloody as bits of debris from broken tables were flying around. Cole also cut upen his thumb at one point and was bleeding pretty badly, and also took a really nasty bump onto the backrests of two steel chairs. Philly hardcore at its finest. At one point Fish and O’Reilly attempted to interfere but got chased off by SAnitY. Great match that neither man really lost, but yeah, Cole got faded to black.
And then there was the main event between Johnny Gargano and NXT champion Andrade “Cien” Almas and boy, that was a rodeo. That match had everything you want in a wrestling contest. A great underdog babyface, a devious heel taking shortcuts, both competitors going all out, multiple false finishes, escalating stakes, etc. Meltzer says it is the best match in NXT history. It is definitely up there but I have different favorites. However, I think it is the 2nd best match of the weekend, and I haven’t talked about the best one yet.
So we come to the Royal Rumble. Madman as I am I watched it live at 1AM to ~5:20 AM in the morning and am now sitting at work, a bit out of it. I haven’t watched the preshow so I am not going to weigh in on that, and I am thruthfully only interested in one match which I will watch when I get home, though I don’t expect much.
The PPV opens with AJ Styles definind the WWE Championship against both Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn in a handicap match. It was pretty decent, but it really felt like they were holding back and there could have been more. Particularly the finish was designed to keep the feud going instead of ending it, which sucks.
The Usos vs. Gable & Benjamin was also good enough, but could have been better. I am not too familiar with Benjamin who has been in my wrestling blindspot before going back to WWE, but three of the four participants have had excellent tag matches with the “2 out of 3 falls” stipulation before so there should be more to give.
Men’s Rumble starts and it was definitely the match of the weekend. I haven’t seen all the Rumble matches, but I have seen those that people say are the good ones. 2001 is considered the best one and this one has it beat by miles in my book. It starts with a now popular Rusev and Finn Balor and just continued great from there, with some decent things to do for pretty much all participants. There were also some nice returns with The Hurricane and Rey Mysterio Jr. who seems to be actually back, I guess to inject something into 205 live. He had a lot of time in the Rumble. The only guy I think lost out was Dolph Ziggler, who has been absent for almost a month, enters at #30, eliminates only a guy definitely lower on the card then him, and gets throw out. Even Shaemus who was immediately eliminated after a whole 2 seconds by freaking Heath Slater looked better, plus Shemus kind of deserves it for what he did to Daniel Bryan at WM28.
The star making performances were definitely given by Finn Balor, and Shinsuke Nakamura. Balor spent almost an hour in the ring and was one of the final four with Nakamura, Cena and Roman Reigns. That’s where the tension really ratcheted up for me, as it was two guys I really wanted to win vs. two guys I absolutely did not want to win. Thank fuck the WWE did something right for a change and made Nakamura win it. After the match he proclaims he wants to face AJ Styles at Wrestle Mania, and I am excited for that.
The next match was The Bar vs. Seth Rollins and Jason Jordan. To be quite honest I didn’t really pay attention as I was exhausted from the rumble. The finish was a dazed Jason Jordan tagging himself out, leaving Rollins stranded and ultimately succumbs to Shaemus and Cesaro who win the RAW tag titles for the 4th time.
The three-way for the Universal title between Strowman, Kane and Lesnar was pretty good. I was somewhat taken aback that it was Lesnar introducing a steel chair first, but overall the match was pretty good. Lesnar wins after planting Kane with an F5 onto a chair.
And now the match I thought would open the show ends the show, the first ever 30 women Royal Rumble. They started it off with a special guest ring announcer who was absolutely awful, as well as Stephanie McMahon on commentary. They also brought out the champions Alexa Bliss and Charlotte Flair. They would not participate in the Rumble but instead watch in chairs from ringside.
I was surprised that they started it off with Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch, who I would have expected to show up later, but it is a decent matchup to start with and keeps some competence in the ring for a while. Sasha Banks would go on to the final four just like Balor did. Most of the current talent did pretty well. However, due to the size of the women’s roster the match heavily relied on bringing back old favorites, some of which weren’t exactly the greatest wrestlers when they were active. The first big pop was Lita. Her appearance would have been a given previously, but since there were rumors that she wasn’t even asked to appear at the 25th anniversary RAW show it was somewhat in doubt.
They also had some NXT callups with Kairi Sane and Ember Moon. I wish Kairi had done more but she almost immediately did her standard spots. I was surprised they gave eliminating Kairi to Dana Brooke. Also surprised to how many eliminations they gave to Michelle McCool. The match overall was very good even with the limitation of the roster, which I guess will rectify itself with time.
Rumors of course were swirling that Ronda Roussey would enter at #30. Instead we got Trish Stratus, which is great but also felt a bit like a consolation prize. At this point there were still at least eight women in the ring, including dominant looking Nia Jax and Asuka, both Bella Twins, Sasha Banks and Mickie James with which Trish had a nostalgia spot. Eliminations comeing left and right and it breaks down to the twins eliminating Sasha with only them and Asuka left. Nikki stabs Brie in the back due to having the opportunity. Both Nikki and Asuka end up on the ring apron, Asuka falls down, kicks Nikki in the Ankle who lands on the floor.
Yes, in both rumbles the japanese competitor won. Welcome to a new WWE? The inaugural women’s Rumble was not quite as good as the men’s rumble, but it was definitely worth the spotlight and deserves to be held annually.
Anyhoo, after the match Asuka finds herself in the ring flanked by Alexa and Charlotte. Of course visually the question is asked who she wants to face, but before she can make a decision, “Bad Reputation” by Joan Jett starts to play and Ronda Rousey arrives. Almost simultanously on twitter it is announced that she has signed a full-time contract with WWE. She makes her way to the ring, points at the Wrestlemania sign and offers Asuka her hand to shake. Asuka slaps her hand away. Ronda exits the ring, goes over to Steph, shakes her hand and leaves, Steph pretending she doesn’t know what is going on.
I don’t follow MMA, but even I know how big this is.
So yeah, this was an amazing, though also very exhausting weekend of wrestling with six matches that could be in contention for MOTY.
In NJPW of course the next thing is the resolution of this ongoing LIJ vs. CHAOS storyline, as well as how this Bullet Club implosion will work out.
As for WWE we get both Roman vs. Lesnar for the casual fans as well as Styles vs. Nakamura for the hardcore fans at mania. In the respective brand’s PPV in february and march I expect Reigns to be finalized as Lesnar’s challenger somehow, as well as match beween Rousey and Asuka. For Smackdown the path seems less set, though maybe we get a match between Dillinger and Zayn as Sami and Kevin Owens beat up Tye backstage when he was called to enter at #10 and Zayn stole his spot. Of course the storyline with Styles also still needs a satisfying conclusion, and perhaps Jiner Mahal vs. the New Day is brewing.
Edit: They put Suzuki’s post match speech up on YT with subtitles (push the CC button). This man scares me.