NJPW The New Beginning in Sapporo

February 5th, 15:00 from Hokkaido Prefectural Sports Centre

This is the first of two New Beginning shows and the focus here is on the return of the Suzuki-gun stable, with leader Minoru Suzuki challenging for Kazuchika Okada’s IWGP title, and teams going after both the Junior and Heavyweight tag titles. Elsewhere, Juice Robinson gets his first singles title shot against Hirooki Goto. Let’s get to it.

For those of you catching up, or if this is your first exposure to New Japan following Wrestle Kingdom, here’s how we got to this show:

At New Year Dash on January 5th, Suzuki-gun made their return to NJPW after a two-year absence, attacking the CHAOS stable after a tag match. The group had recently been banished from Pro Wrestling NOAH after a two-year occupation, so while it was somewhat anticipated, the manner in which they returned drew shrieks from the Korakuen Hall crowd. Their leader, Minoru Suzuki, targeted IWGP champion Kazuchika Okada, laying him out with the Gotch-style Piledriver and challenging for the title.

If you’d like a feel for Minoru Suzuki’s personality, as if it weren’t obvious from his in-ring style, here’s an excellent interview on New Japan’s recently refurbished English website.

Kenny Omega and the rest of Bullet Club have been off this tour entirely – a wise move, in my opinion – and will return at the ROH co-promoted Honor Rising shows, while Los Ingobernables de Japón take a backseat today, but feature heavily in next Saturday’s The New Beginning in Osaka.

Here we go…

KUSHIDA & Hirai Kawato vs. Suzuki-gun (Yoshinobu Kanemaru & El Desperado)

Naturally, young boy Kawato was the focus of Kanemaru and Desperado’s attention, and they gave him no quarter in the opening minutes, but a dropkick enabled the hot tag, and Kushida capitalised with a lovely combination German suplex/O’Connor Roll to his opponents. Kawato returned with leaping elbow and springboard dropkick for two, but Desperado locked in the single leg crab, only for Kawato to just make the ropes. Desperado survived a couple of pinning combinations and hit back with a spear and a gutwrench powerbomb for the three-count. A hot opener, with Kawato showing plenty of heart, and Kushida now has a loss to avenge. **1/2

Yuji Nagata, Hiroyoshi Tenzan & Satoshi Kojima vs. Yoshi Tatsu, Tomouki Oka & Henare

David Finlay, who is out because of a torn labrum, was replaced by Tomouki Oka, a 25-year old who looks about 40 and who debuted on January 3rd this year. He looked good here though, with Nagata a willing opponent who allowed Oka far more offence than his experience would usually dictate. Kojima and Tenzan got the crowd going with their usual spots and Yoshi Tatsu showed some decent fire despite his obvious limitations, but it was Nagata who claimed the win, forcing Oka to tap to the crossface. **3/4

Katsuyori Shibata, Jushin Thunder Liger & Tiger Mask IV vs. CHAOS (Will Ospreay, Gedo & Jado)

This did everything needed to hype next week’s singles match between Shibata and Ospreay – a match I’m very much looking forward to. Their opening sequence was excellent, and post-match Ospreay left Shibata laying and mocked his cross-legged sitting pose. In between, Liger took most of the punishment stemming from an eye rake by Gedo, but made the tag to Tiger Mask after a double DDT, although the comeback was cut short, Ospreay connecting with the corkscrew roundhouse and the Oscutter for the win. **1/2

YOSHI-HASHI vs. Takashi Iizuka

Suzuki-gun’s Iizuka was led to the ring on a chain, El Desperado the Frankenstein to his Monster. Yoshi-Hashi tried to attack before the bell, but it didn’t go to well for him, and he was thrown around outside the ring, then choked by a mic cable back inside. A mule kick, running blockbuster and dropkick put Yoshi-Hashi momentarily on top, before Iizuka tried to strangle him into a pin, only for the referee to catch it. The swanton from Yoshi-Hashi missed the mark, but he hit Karma shortly after for a convincing win. Not much to see here, but a victory for Yoshi-Hashi was absolutely the right way to go. **

Michael Elgin, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Manabu Nakanishi, Ryusuke Taguchi & Dragon Lee vs. Los Ingobernables de Japón (Tetsuya Naito, SANADA, EVIL, BUSHI & Hiromu Takahashi)

Taguchi continued to mock Evil’s gimmick, wearing a cloak and carrying a plastic scythe to the ring. We got a preview of Hiromu vs. Dragon Lee and Elgin vs. Naito to begin, before Taguchi, Tanahashi, Nakanishi and Elgin engaged in some ass-based offence. Dragon Lee launched himself with a tope con hilo onto Hiromu, Sanada leapfrog dropkicked Taguchi, and finally LIJ were on top with Naito drawing a two-count from a low dropkick. Evil punished Taguchi for his silliness, but the tag was made to Elgin, who slammed Bushi and Hiromu, German suplexed Sanada and Naito, then tripled German’d Evil for a near-fall. Tanahashi was in to hit the swinging neckbreaker, but Evil managed the tag and we were back to Hiromu and Dragon Lee. Bushi then landed a missile dropkick and a Codebreaker for two, before all hell broke loose, culminating in Elgin powerbombing Naito out of the ring onto Sanada and Evil, and Tanahashi following-up with a High Fly Flow crossbody from the top-rope to the floor. In the ring, Dragon Lee put Bushi down for the three with a cradle Orange Crush. Phew. Breathless stuff, with Elgin and Dragon Lee rightly looking strong going into next week’s title matches and Tanahashi & Co. finally put an end to their string of losses. These Los Ingobernables de Japón multi-man tags are always worth watching, but this was a particularly good example. ***3/4

***INTERMISSION***

IWGP Junior Tag Team Championship

Roppongi Vice (Rocky Romero & Baretta) (c) vs. Suzuki-gun (TAKA Michinoku & Taichi)

Taichi got his ridiculous, long-form Phantom of the Opera-esque entrance, while Taka was left to follow in his wake. A disgrace! Taichi’s ladyfriend helped distract the referee, but Roppongi Vice weren’t fooled and landed stereo suicide dives. Baretta was soon singled out, however, with the whole Suzuki-gun gang (of Juniors) helping to wear him down. Taichi made use of the ringbell hammer, before a desperation tag was prevented thanks to interference. A tornado DDT out of the corner did eventually allow the hot tag, and Romero connected with a springboard crossbody and Forever clotheslines to both opponents. Taichi landed a big kick for two, but Romero hit a twisting cutter and the tag enabled a double-team. More distractions, with Taka almost claiming the win with La Magistral then a knee strike, before hitting a nice asai moonsault to the outside. A double-team powerbomb (almost messed up by Taichi) allowed Taka to grab a bridging crossface, but Baretta fought up for the Dudebuster and used a chair to his advantage. Romero took out the group at ringside with a suicide dive, then Strong Zero connected to give Roppongi Vice the win. Yes! Taichi is not someone I want to see on a regular basis, so I was actively pulling for Baretta and Romero here. Well done boys. ***

Post-match, El Desperado and Kanemaru attacked and challenged for the belts.

NEVER Openweight Championship

Hirooki Goto (c) vs. Juice Robinson

Robinson pinned Goto in a tag match at New Year Dash (just prior to the Suzuki-gun attack) to earn this title match. A reward for his consistent improvement during his time with the company.

Robinson attacked immediately with a dropkick and cannonball, then the diving headbutt earned a two-count and forced Goto to take respite outside. A second attempted cannonball hit nothing but railing and Goto targeted Robinson’s back, a diving elbow to the spine earning two. The Boston Crab had Juice scrambling for the ropes, but he sent Goto to the floor with a clothesline and followed with a plancha, then back in a Russian leg sweep, senton and splash got two. Robinson flipped out of the attempted Ushigoroshi, fired off some punches, and ducked Goto’s strikes to hit a crescent kick and fireman’s carry gutbuster for another two. The moonsault missed, but a big elbow floored Goto and Robinson headed up again, slipping out from under Goto to deliver a running powerbomb for a near-fall. A German suplex dropped Robinson on his head, but he fired up, absorbing headbutts before landing a huge lariat for yet another two-count. Goto blocked the Pulp Friction and connected with a rope-hung inverted GTR for a two-count only! A big kick to the head connected before the GTR proper hit the mark for the three-count. Goto retains. Pleasing to see a different style of NEVER title match and a strong performance from Robinson, who had the majority of the offence and went toe-to-toe with the far more experienced Goto. Nicely done. ***3/4

IWGP Tag Team Championship

CHAOS (Tomohiro Ishii & Toru Yano) (c) vs. Great Bash Heel (Togi Makabe & Tomoaki Honma) vs. Killer Elite Squad (Lance Archer & Davey Boy Smith Jr.)

Killer Elite Squad are the Suzuki-gun representatives here and Archer upset as many people as possible during his entrance by spraying water onto them. “Break!” almost immediately from Yano and he tagged himself out then back in again before Archer hit a full nelson slam and the Killer Elite Squad took control. Ishii came in to German suplex Davey Boy and vertical suplex Archer, then Honma landed the Kokeshi on Davey Boy, who retaliated with a bridging double underhook suplex, and a KES double-team earned a two-count. At this point I had no idea who the legal men were, but in any case, a rocket Kokeshi allowed Makabe to enter the fray, and mounted punches led to a couple more Kokeshis from Honma for two. The diving kokeshi connected, but as Yano and Honma argued, Archer landed the rope-walk crossbody to take both men out. Chokeslam to Yano for two, Makabe with a double clothesline to KES, then a spider German to Yano. Archer and Davey Boy looked to have it sewn up, but Yano recovered to low blow both of them and Makabe too, then rolled him up for the win. I’m not so keen on the format, which doesn’t allow for much beyond mindless action, but it was diverting enough for the duration. ***1/4

Hype video for the IWGP title match (featuring some prominent Triumph Motorcycles product placement).

IWGP Heavyweight Championship

Kazuchika Okada (c) vs. Minoru Suzuki

Okada’s right leg was heavily taped after Suzuki attacked his knee with a chain at the February 2nd tour show in Akita and again after yesterday’s contract signing.

Okada patronisingly slapped Suzuki’s chest after a rope break, which didn’t seem a smart idea and proved not to be, as Suzuki went straight to the leg, grabbing a heel hold and forcing Okada to the floor. More kicks from Suzuki, but Okada replied with elbows and a low dropkick, then a Jericho-style springboard dropkick sent Suzuki outside and the barrier-hung DDT put Okada firmly in control. Back in, a straitjacket chinlock led to a series of European uppercuts, then back on the floor Taichi interjected, allowing Suzuki to attack Okada’s leg with a camera tripod and a couple of chairs. It’s not like Suzuki isn’t open about his bad behaviour, so he took out Gedo while waiting for Okada to break the count. More leg punishment with relish from Suzuki – the man enjoys his work – with Okada only able to find momentary respite from a rope break. Suzuki threw stiff elbows and urged Okada to do the same, but the champ looked spent.

Finally, a cross-armed neckbreaker, DDT and elbow smash made some impact, but Suzuki charged Okada in the corner, causing him to tweak the leg, and a Penalty Kick got two. Elbows back and forth, then Suzuki transitioned beautifully into the heel hold once more, and again a rope break provided only a brief pause in the dismantling. Somehow Okada found an opening and capitalised with a big shotgun dropkick from the top. Scoop slam, the diving elbow hit the mark, and the Rainmaker was signalled. Suzuki countered, however, again returning to heel hold, wrenching Okada’s ankle to an unnatural angle and Okada just made the ropes. An irish whip saw Okada collapse to the mat, so Suzuki applied the figure-four, and it almost looked like Gedo was willing to throw the towel in, but again Okada just made the ropes. Heavy Rain put Suzuki down, and Okada followed with elbow strikes, but the referee was knocked down and out came Killer Elite Squad, only for Yano and Ishii to take care of them. The Dropkick from Okada! He went for the Gotch-style tombstone, but Suzuki again countered to the heel hold, this time grapevined, and Okada looked like he had nowhere to go, looked like he might tap, but eventually – after Suzuki kept the hold on for an age, reapplying it several times – he made the ropes. A couple of hard kicks came next, seemingly awakening Okada’s defiance, and he began to match Suzuki with slaps. Suzuki went for the piledriver, but Okada hit the reverse neckbreaker, then Suzuki hit The Dropkick! Extended sequence of slaps from Suzuki, who grabbed the sleeper but again Okada blocked the piledriver, managing to hit the Rainmaker before collapsing to the mat. Another was blocked desperately, but Okada clung on to hit it for a second time. He picked up Suzuki, whose final attempt at a counter was deadlifted into a German suplex, then turned him inside out with the Rainmaker for the victory! Okada retains at 41 minutes!

Perhaps not a match for everyone, but I thought this was excellent. Suzuki was at his best as he gleefully tore apart Okada’s right leg and dictated the pace, and the champion delivered the kind of performance we’ve come to expect from him. What a 2017 he’s having already. ****1/2

Final thoughts: Suzuki-gun’s big return lasted exactly one month as CHAOS reigned supreme, and I think that was the right decision. Where they go from here is another matter. Minoru Suzuki looked like a killer in the main event, and Archer & Davey Boy were protected in the tag title match, so there’s life in the group yet, but thankfully none of the hangers-on claimed wins for the sake of 50/50 booking.

I thoroughly enjoyed this. The title match was as good as I’d hoped and the booking was spot on throughout as far as I was concerned.

I’ll be back next Saturday for The New Beginning in Osaka, which features Katsuyori Shibata vs. Will Ospreay, Hiromu Takahashi vs. Dragon Lee and Tetsuya Naito vs. Michael Elgin. See you then.