With three wrestling shows in three days there was really no denying which was the biggest I attended as New Japan Pro-Wrestling put on its first show in the UK promoted without either RevPro or ROH (though it remained clear from some of the talent, referees and ring announcers that behind the scenes RevPro were still involved).
The Copper Box Arena itself is a fairly simple affair (and I preferred it to both the O2 where I saw a WWE Raw taping and Wembley where I saw PROGRESS last September) but this suited the event as really this wasn’t a crowd there for anything but a wrestling show and our seats on the front row of the first raked section afforded us a good view of the ring and stage.
Roppongi 3K (Rocky Romero, Sho & Yoh) vs Taguchi Japan (Ryusuke Taguchi, Ren Narita and Shota Umino)
Things got going, in true New Japan style, with a series of tag team matches and, after a hype video ran through all eight of the evening’s contests the show began with a match promising some exciting action as Roppongi 3K took on a Taguchi Japan team of Ryusuke Taguchi and two of the more popular Young Lions, Ren Narita and Shota Umino.
Given the popularity of Taguchi and his charges Rocky Romero and his team took a slightly more heel role, but really this was a fast paced and exciting exhibition to warm us up with little in the way of serious drama.
The Chaos trio all hit some signature moves while the Young Lions put on a great show with decidedly un-young boy type manoeuvres, showing their continued development.
Of course Rocky got in his Forever Clotheslines and Taguchi’s Funky Weapon came into play a number of times, with him even suffering from Romero’s version of the move.
Predictably in the end it was Roppongi 3K who secured the win but, with all six men popular with the audience, things were already getting lively.
Kota Ibushi & Juice Robinson vs Hikuleo & Yujiro Takahashi
Given the star power of one, if not two, of the men in this match it was surprising to see it so early in the show.
Considering the rest of the line up though I’m not sure where else I’d have put it, (testament to the star quality of this card) as 2019 G1 Climax winner Kota Ibushi teamed with ‘The Flamboyant’ Juice Robinson against the Bullet Club duo of Yujiro Takahashi and one of the sons of Haku, Hikuleo, who is currently on exclusion in the UK.
While there wasn’t a lot riding on the match it was a great chance to see Ibushi in action and Juice showed what a fun performer he is too while it was clear, once again, that Hikuleo is developing very nicely and should be a formidable force when the time comes for him to rejoin his brothers in Guerrillas Of Destiny.
After hitting some of his signature spots it was Ibushi who got the win before he and Juice had a fun celebration in the ring and with some of the fans at ringside.
Will Ospreay & Robbie Eagles vs El Phantasmo & ‘Bone Soldier’ Taiji Ishimori
The first match of the night to feel like something was on the line came as the recently formed team of hometown hero and IWGP Jr Heavyweight Champion Will Ospreay and young Australian stand out Robbie Eagles represented Chaos against another Bullet Club team, and the IWGP Jr Heavyweight Tag Team Champions, El Phantasmo and Taiji Ishimori.
This was great, fast and high flying throughout and made all the more impressive given that three of these men had performed, two in lengthy one on one matches, the previous night at RevPro Summer Sizzler and the speed that Ospreay and Ishimori moved with was genuinely mind boggling.
The climax came as the Chaos team unveiled a new finishing move of a tandem Spanish Fly from the top rope after which Ospreay announced a new name for his team as the Birds Of Prey and, following their win, challenged the champions to a rematch with their belts on the line (a match that has since been confirmed for one of the upcoming Destruction shows back in Japan) which promises to up the ante even further.
Tetsuya Naito & SANADA vs ‘Switchblade’ Jay White & Chase Owens w/Gedo
The last of the night’s undercard tag matches was another with further championship implications, as well as some big name stars, as the Los Ingobernables De Japon team of IWGP Intercontinental Champion, Tetsuya Naito, and SANADA took on yet another Bullet Club team of Jay White and Chase Owens, of course accompanied by Gedo.
Given the talent of three of the four men involved (and Chase Owens showed some skill despite being generally the lower ranked of the four) the match was of course good with all getting some nice signature spots in, very happily including Naito’s famed ‘tranquilo’ roll and pose while SANADA and Owens had some fun with the Paradise Lock.
The real story though came after the match, once Owens had succumbed to SANADA’s Skull End dragon sleeper, as White attacked both his opponents with a chair until Naito turned the tables and hit his Destino spinning reverse DDT but it felt like this is an issue that’s far from resolved between the champion and a potential challenger.
IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship
Guerrillas Of Destiny (Tama Tonga & Tanga Loa w/ Jado) (c) vs Aussie Open (Kyle Fletcher & Mark Davis)
After winning the RevPro tag team tournament the night before Aussie Open made their New Japan debut and challenged the Guerrillas of Destiny (yet another Bullet Club team) for the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championships and things started as they ended at Summer Sizzler with a duelling chant for the two teams but here escalated to nearly 6000 people.
As expected from a GoD match there was lots of rule bending (and out right breaking) but the Aussie’s gave as good as they got with Mark Davis even shaking off a kendo stick shot from ‘Master Heater’ Jado at ringside.
As the match went on Fletcher and Davis looked like they might take the belts home hitting many of their big moves but a spectacular counter from a double team into a Gun Stun by the amazingly charismatic Tama Tonga to Fletcher set the stage for their downfall.
The end came as Tanga Loa incapacitated Davis with a Fire Thunder Driver before the GoD delivered a brutal top rope powerbomb to Fletcher to retain their titles.
While they might not have come out on top for a debut match on a big stage Fletcher and Davis looked great and such a performance can surely only lead to big things down the road.
NEVER Openweight Championship
Tomohiro Ishii (c) vs KENTA
The first singles championship match was up next as NEVER Openweight Champion Tomohiro Ishii defended his title while looking for revenge on KENTA after the double cross at the G1 Climax final.
As you’d expect the match was as hard hitting as they come from the off and Ishii remains one of the most over wrestlers in New Japan while KENTA’s new persona is seeing him cheered for his skill but booed for his actions in equal measure.
Part way through the match things looked like they might be derailed as it was clear KENTA had suffered some kind of injury, initially I thought from a headbutt but it’s since transpired suffered after a German suplex leading to a concussion.
After a couple of moments however it seemed KENTA was back in the fight as the pair engaged in a sit down strike battle before the GoD got involved.
Despite this Ishii fought them off and looked like he might get the win but it was KENTA who somehow managed to muscle up the Stone Pitbull and connect with Go2Sleep to become the new champion.
While the match clearly didn’t go quite according to plan it was still a solid contest and was the night’s real old school Japanese strike battle bout, I just hope KENTA is ok as, arguably, the match really should have been stopped for his well being.
Ishii meanwhile is highly impressive in person, built like a miniature tank his physicality is tremendous and, after Minoru Suzuki, he’s probably the wrestler you’d most believe could actually do you serious damage with a single swing of his arm.
Undisputed British Heavyweight Championship
Zack Sabre Jr (c) vs Hiroshi Tanahashi
New Japan’s links with RevPro were at their most explicit next as Undisputed British Heavyweight Champion Zack Sabre Jr defended his title against The Ace, Hiroshi Tanahashi.
Despite being a member of the villainous Suzuki-Gun faction it’s no surprise that in London Sabre was the returning hero but Tanahashi was greeted equally as positively given his legendary status.
The match itself was exactly what we’d expected being much more mat based than the past contests as Sabre looked to build on his past success against The Ace by focussing on the veterans various well recorded injuries, meaning we got to see a range of varied and impressive submission attempts.
Tanahashi meanwhile, when he got the upper hand, looked to employ his faster and more impactful offence and at one point it looked like he had victory secured as he soared from the top rope with his High Fly Flow frog splash only for Sabre to counter into a triangle choke hold.
While there were more than a few occasions where it looked like the reigning champion would retain Tanahashi unleashed a final flurry of his signature offence, climaxing with a successful High Fly Flow to claim the British Championship in what was, in some ways at least, a shock win in another fine contest between the pair which out Tanahashi 4-3 up in their seemingly ongoing series.
This contest also featured the raucous crowd at their most idiosyncratic thanks to Sabre’s well expressed political leanings and I’m looking forward to seeing how that comes across on the televised version of the show.
IWGP Heavyweight Championship
‘Rainmaker’ Kazuchika Okada (c) vs ‘The King’ Minoru Suzuki
Whether coincidence or not the name Royal Quest perfectly fit the show’s main event as ‘The King’ Minoru Suzuki once again looked to claim his crown, or the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship from Kazuchika Okada.
While both men had plenty of fans present it was clear from the off, as the arena erupted with a cry of ‘Kaze Ni Nare’, that Suzuki was the majority’s choice for the night bringing even more energy and feeling to the contest.
At more than thirty minutes in length (following their last half hour time limit draw for the championship) the match called on everything both men could offer as they led us through a story based around Suzuki continually gaining the upper hand but never quite being able to connect with his trademark Gotch-style piledriver.
While it’s a big feature on TV seeing, and hearing, Suzuki’s forearm strikes in real life is something else — akin to WALTER’s chops — while his presence and general dastardly disposition are second to none.
Okada meanwhile showed why he is considered one of, if not the, best wrestlers in the world in all regards and his current run, away from the previously ever present Gedo and after the crisis of confidence following his loss to Kenny Omega last summer, is looking like it could be his best yet.
The match was highlighted by a series of strike battles and it eventually looked like Suzuki might finally claim his prize but almost from nowhere Okada connected with his Rainmaker lariat to successfully defend his title in a match that was certainly match of the weekend and a strong contender for the best match I’ve had the pleasure to see in person showing just how good both men are at all aspects of professional wrestling.
After the match Okada delivered his traditional post-match address but was interrupted by SANADA who said next time he’s in London he would be IWGP champion and it seemed Okada accepted the challenge closing the night on a high point and with the next chapter of Okada’s reign set in motion.
While it definitely fit the usual template for a New Japan show with the tag matches for the first half and bigger singles matches later it felt like there was something at stake in most of the contests and the performances were uniformly at least very good.
While less intimate than most shows I’ve been to (with the exception of WWE Raw at the O2 and PROGRESS at Wembley) the atmosphere was still terrific and the arena seemed far more suited to this kind of event than either of those making for a great evening of pro-wrestling and showing why NJPW is regarded as one of the best promotions in the world, particularly when it comes to the quality of the work in the ring.