Friday, June 12, 2015

2015 Mid-Year Round Up: New Japan Pro Wrestling

We've reached the mid-year point in pro wrestling and its certainly been a wild one. Between attempting to keep up with everything going on in America from WWE to Lucha Underground to TNA to ROH to PWG, I've fell completely behind on puroresu. So last month, I began catching up and decided to put it all together in this one article by promotion. I'm starting here with New Japan and I plan to do one of these for Dragon Gate as well.

It's sort of funny that I say I fell behind on NJPW when the first wrestling event I watched this year was Wrestle Kingdom 9. After that, I completely lost track of things so I'm basically gonna go through and cover all the best matches from that point on. Since I've already seen WK9, I will include some matches from that in this because there were two classics on this show that this column wouldn't be complete without mentioning. Although, it will be the same basic review that I wrote in my original piece on that event. So, if you read that, you can go ahead and skim down past those two matches. None the less, let's get into it and take a look at the best NJPW matches of the first half of 2015!

NOTE: These are not in order of quality, I'm reviewing/covering them by date.

1) Shinsuke Nakamura (c) vs. Kota Ibushi - IWGP Intercontinental Championship Match - Wrestle Kingdom 9 - 1/4/15

There's not much else that can be said about this match that hasn't already been said. With that in mind, I'll simply copy and paste my original review of this contest which I wrote immediately after watching it: "This is without a doubt one of the best matches I've ever seen. I'm being completely honest here, it was phenomenal. I've seen some star making performances for certain wrestlers however none were as mindblowing to watch unfold as this one where Nakamura made Kota Ibushi a bonafide superstar. It seemed that Nakamura was taking Ibushi lightly early on despite being out quicked on several occassions. About half-way through the match, I think Nakamura really began to take note that Ibushi wasn't going to be a pushover as Ibushi would begin to simply smile when Nakamura would strike him. It was an amazing visual. Speaking of strikes, this one was every bit as stiff as the NEVER Title match. Seeing these two trade strikes in the middle of the ring with Ibushi never backing down against the King of Strong Style is something I'll never forget. It really proved to any doubters that Ibushi was indeed a force to be reckoned with in the heavyweight divsion. As a guy who just made his way into the divsion, this was the exact performance that he needed and he & Nakamura executed it perfectly. So much so that I'm going the full five stars for this one. I'm doing so for several reasons. Many of which have already been stated earlier in this review although there's one I've yet to mention. Throughout the evening, I had been taking notes on each match to help with this review because there's no way I'd be able to remember everything. However, I didn't take ANY notes on this match because I simply got lost in it. I can't remember the last time that I became as invested in a match as I was in this one. The bottom line is that words won't do this match justice, it's just something you need to see for yourself. A piece of art that showcases professional wrestling at it's finest in the form of action and storytelling. I'm so glad I got to witness this classic."

Match rating - *****

2) Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada - IWGP Heavyweight Title Match - Wrestle Kingdom 9 - 1/4/15

Same goes for this bout as with Nakamura/Ibushi, this is my original review that I wrote moments after watching it: "With this being my first time seeing these two face off, I can't compare it to their previous encounters however I can say that this lived up to all the hype. I totally got the vibe of this being a feud the likes of Austin/Rock or Flair/Steamboat. Much like the IC Title match, this one told a phenomenal story. Okada got the advantage and worked over the champion for about the first half of the match yet it was never enough to put him away. Tanahashi kept coming back and Okada kept taking everything he had & responding with more offense of his own. The drive that Okada had to become the champion and defeat his arch rival is what really shined through during this match. The final 10 minutes of this match had me on the edge of my seat as these two went move for move in a dramatic closing sequence which saw Tanahashi hit Okada's own signature tombstone piledriver on him. Seeing Okada go for it and Tanahashi reverse back out of it and hit it on Okada was unbelievable. JR may have been a bit off early in the evening, but he really turned it up a notch for the final two matches and he did a phenomenal job in this one in particular. Some people are going the full five stars for this one however I felt that it didn't quite reach the level of Ibushi/Nakamura. Don't let that take away from this one though because it's a must-see encounter and an early MOTYC without a doubt. Seeing Okada cry after the match because he wasn't able to defeat his rival and regain the title despite throwing everything at him that he possibly could was an insane visual. Another awesome chapter in what has become one of the greatest rivalries ever."

Match rating - ****3/4

3) Tomohiro Ishii vs. Tomoaki Honma - NEVER Openweight Title Match - New Begining In Sendai - 2/14/15

This was for the NEVER Openweight Championship which was vacated by Togi Makabe soon after WK9 due to injury. You have the Stone Pitbull and resident badass Tomohiro Ishii against the beloved veteran Tomoaki Honma. It's the perfect match up on paper and it translated into just that in the ring as well. These two plain and simple beat the living hell out of each other for the right to be called the NEVER Openweight Champion. It was pretty back & forth the entire match with neither man get a truly decisive advantage. They traded momentum throughout the bout although Ishii almost gained control after nailing a big suplex off the top turnbuckle and began nailing Honma with lariats only to get reversed into a vicious DDT that spiked his head into the mat. Ishii began showing signs of injury in his shoulder/neck area after this and Honma went to work. DIVING HEADBUTT OFF THE TOP TURNBUCKLE ONTO ISHII ON THE FLOOR! I didn't see that coming whatsoever! It looked like Honma would take control here, but they got back in the ring and the back & forth action began again. Honma nails a sick piledriver that made me mark out for a nearfall. They then began trading headbutts that made me cringe, you could literally hear their skulls smacking each other. Thankfully that only lasted a few seconds because I don't know how many more of those I could take, much less the competitors themselves. In the end, Ishii wins this battle and takes the crown as the NEVER Openweight Champion. This was given five stars by Dave Meltzer and while I won't go that far, I'll say that this definitely lived up to the hype as it was an awesome match. Without a doubt one of the best of the year.

Match rating - ****3/4

4) AJ Styles (c) vs. Kota Ibushi - IWGP Heavyweight Title Match - Invasion Attack 2015

This is a dream match for me. I'm a longtime AJ Styles mark and a newly christened Ibushi mark so this was hype. Before I begin I have to mention the mixed reviews I've seen for this one. Meltzer went 4 3/4 while others said this one shit the bed. This must be why when I originally wrote a piece about this match, I mentioned how I thought this one was underrated and I stand by that statement because I enjoyed just about everything about this bout. One thing I heard a few people point out was that they didn't care for Ibushi's selling while I found no problem with it. Styles worked the leg a little once he got control after catching Ibushi with a german suplex on the floor. Ibushi sold it for a few minutes then kept moving which was completely fine from my perspective, it's not like he had been worked over in various vicious ways for five minutes. I'm not a harsh critic of wrestling then again I am. I don't just hand out high ratings. I feel like wrestling is taken too serious somtimes and hinders others from enjoying it. I personally loved this match. From beginning to end, Styles & Ibushi had my attention. The action was thrilling and the story of Styles being cocky and under estimating Ibushi early on soon to realize that he had more on his hands than he thought was awesome to watch unfold. On top of that, when it comes to storytelling, nothing hit me harder in this match than when Kota Ibushi climbed to the top rope for the phoenix splash and came face to face with Kenny Omega on the ring apron. Omega couldn't bring himself to knock his former partner off the top turnbuckle, but the momentary staredown was enough of a distraction to allow Styles to get up and CATCH IBUSHI IN MID AIR IN THE PHOENIX SPLASH and nail him with a Styles Clash. Omega's face as he realized that he just cost his former best friend & partner the IWGP Heavyweight Title was as emotional as it gets. I'm really shocked I didn't here more about that when reading things about this match. I probably sound like I'm saying that this match got hated on which isn't my intention. It got praise, I just remember not getting anywhere near the buzz I expected it to. It almost made me decided to just pass up on checking this out, but I'm glad I didn't because this was an awesome contest.

Match rating - ****1/2

5) Shinsuke Nakamura (c) vs. Hirooki Goto - IWGP Intercontinental Championship Match - Wrestling Dontaku - 5/3/15

After his WK9 classic against Kota Ibushi, Shinsuke Nakamura went on a bit of a sleeper in his career. He didn't have ANY noteworthy contests until now. On May 3rd, he defended his IWGP IC Title against Hirooki Goto in a extremely hard fought contest. When I heard nothing big about any of Nakamura's matches in the months after WK9, I was just waiting for him to have an awesome match that everyone raved about and this turned out to be it. The King of Strong Style came out and took control of this bout right from the get go. Not without some struggle from Goto however as he continued trying to fight back only to be shut down again. After an extensive period of being worked over by Nakamura, Goto began making an effective comeback that resulted in both men fighting on the top rope. Goto looks like he's going for a powerbomb and I'm on the edge of my seat in anticipation of what's going to happen BUT NAKAMURA REVERSES IT INTO A BACKBODY DROP! Phew! Turns out this was simply a teaser of what was to come in the form of an intense series of nearfalls. Nakamura with a boma knee off the second rope and then a shining wizard. Goto kicks out! Both men are up and trading shots. Headbutt from Goto, LARIATOOOO TURNS NAKAMURA INSIDE OUT! Goto covers Nakamura for another nearfall! Goto lifts Nakamura onto his shoulders and places him on the top rope. He lifts onto hi shoulders as he stands on the second rope, NECKBREAKER ONTO HIS KNEE OFF THE SECOND ROPE!! 1..2..NAKAMURA KICKS OUT! Another neckbreaker variation earns Goto the victory and the Intercontinental Championship. Really good match.

Match rating - ****

6) KUSHIDA vs. Kyle O'Reilly - Best of Super Juniors Finals - 6/7/15

And we close out this list of epic matches with one that took place less than a week ago. A match that is easily one of my favorites of the year. A match that saw one of my top favorites ascend to a new level and a competitor that has long deserved that BOSJ trophy get just that. When Kyle O'Reilly had to stop competing for PWG this year due to his ROH contract, I was bummed because of the lack of singles matches we'd get from him as he's a tag team competitor in ROH. Well, NJPW came to save the day by placing him in the Best of Super Juniors tournament and boy, did it pay off! Great matches with Beretta, Gedo, & Liger and now THIS, the finals of the most prestigious junior heavyweight tournament in pro wrestling. As for KUSHIDA, he was one of the first people I really became a fan of in NJPW after his BOSJ final last year against Ricochet. Alot of people feel like he's been misused and snubbed in the past so nearly everyone was behind him although they weren't necessarily against O'Reilly. The two start feeling each other out and produce a fantastic exchange on the mat that felt more like real grappling than pro wrestling. From that point, I knew this would be something special and it quickly turned into just that - something VERY special. Both men have finishing holds that target the arm so there was some extensive arm work here. O'Reilly dropped KUSHIDA arm/shoulder first off the turnbuckle in one of the most brutal manners possible. So gruesome that the ref had to check to see if he was legit hurt, by the looks of it. Things really took to another level here as the crowd in attendance garnered even more sympathy towards KUSHIDA. The limb work wasn't even the best part of this though. KUSHIDA & O'Reilly put forth a number of vicious striking exchanges that will bring you to your feet in excitement. You got the vibe that these two men were giving everything they had because it's exactly what they were doing. There were a few cool spots here as well including O'Reilly locking KUSHIDA in a guillotine choke on the apron only for KUSHIDA reverse it into a brainbuster/suplex ON THE RING APRON! Oh, and how could I forget KUSHIDA ascending to the top rope and going for a moonsault only for O'Reilly to catch him in a triangle choke - it was unbelievable! Plain and simple, this was one of the best matches of the year thus far in ANY promotion and easily in the Top 3 Best NJPW matches of the year. Post match, KUSHIDA and O'Reilly embrace as they both nurse their injuries and show each other respect. This was a spectacle. Both men took their respective careers to a new level in this one single match/tournament.

Match rating - ****3/4

MVP Of The Half Year: Kota Ibushi

I don't think this award could go to anyone else. He produced a five star classic, won the NJ Cup, and had fanastic matches with Tetsuya Naito, Hirooki Goto, & AJ Styles. Every time he's stepped foot in the New Japan ring, he's stolen the show. The man has solidified himself in the heavyweight division by giving and taking everything that his opponents gave him. He stood toe to toe with Shinsuke Nakamura, took AJ Styles to his limit, and ran through several top names in the promotion in order to earn an IWGP Title shot. Beyond NJPW, I'd say he's the Puro Star of the Half Year in general because Ibushi has a joint contract with NJPW & DDT and he's been tearing it up on both sides of the table. I don't see Ibushi slowing down any time soon, especially with the G1 Climax coming up. I can't wait to see what he does in the remainder of the year.

What to Expect in the next Six Months:
The second half of the year is going to kick off in epic fashion with NJPW's yearly event, Dominion and the card is loaded! Kazuchika Okada is challenging AJ Styles for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, KUSHIDA gets his shot at Kenny Omega's Junior Heavyweight Title, and we get the rematch between Shinsuke Nakamura & Hirooki Goto for the Intercontinental Title. There's a good chance we could see some title changes that could flip the second half of 2015 on it's head. I truly feel like KUSHIDA will take the crown of being Junior Heavyweight Champion. He's worked his ass off and finally won BOSJ, now is the time to put that strap around his waist. Especially since Alex Shelley is injured. Okada is another man that could very well win gold as his determination to regain the IWGP Heavyweight Title is unparalleled. We saw how much it meant to him at WK9 in January when he shed tears after his loss to Tanahashi. Then, you have Shinsuke Nakamura who can strike at any moment therefore, I wouldn't be at all shocked if he regained the IC Title from Goto. Dominion is just the start though because the G1 Climax is on the horizon and while some were disappointed that the field didn't include names like Minoru Suzuki and Roderick Strong, it's still a great looking tourney. The addition of Michael Elgin will include alot of first time match ups. Elgin has been getting alot of hate since winning the ROH World Title last year, but the truth is that he's one of the hardest workers around and I am PUMPED to see him against the likes of Ishii, Shibata, Nakamura, & Makabe. Other competitors in the tournament include Kota Ibushi, Karl Anderson, AJ Styles, Hiroshi Tanahashi, & Tetsuya Naito among others. Things look to only get hotter for NJPW this summer and I can only imagine that will translate to a crazy end to the year as well. I am stoked to see how things shake out!

Well, that's it for my 2015 Mid-Year NJPW Report. Thanks for taking the time to read this and be sure to follow me on Twitter @EthanPWT and this blog @ThePWTruth!

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