IWGP JR. HEAVYWEIGHT TAG TEAM TITLE MATCH:
Roppongi 3K(c) (w/Rocky Romero) vs. The Young Bucks - 8/10
This was one hell of a way to start the show. The Bucks worked over Yoh's back and Yoh was one hell of a babyface in peril. They had some switch-ups on one or two usual spots you'd see, like turning the big forearm exchange into each guy taking turns kicking the other guy's downed partner in the back, which I definitely appreciated, but I'm not really sure how much I liked it. It just kind of bothered me that Sho was going after the other Jackson brother so hard rather than saving Yoh when Yoh's back was already so damaged. I think if rather than just arbitrarily stopping going after the partners to go after each other again, Sho had responded to a kick to Yoh's back with a big forearm to the face of the offending Young Buck it would have gotten a huge pop and been a great way to shift things back up a gear.
They used elements of previous matches (like the powerbomb onto the ramp which is now becoming a signature Young Bucks' spot in the biggest of matches they have for New Japan), which is something I always like. Unfortunately, like always, they applied count-outs completely inconsistently, which I always hate. I was pleasantly surprised that they got as much time as they did, as the pacing of the first few sequences made me think that they had been given less time than they were hoping for and were rushing through things, but things settled into a much better pace after that. The Bucks won the belts, which I really didn't like. Roppongi 3K were fresh faces on top. Have Hiromu lose his match tonight and now you've got Hiromu and BUSHI as a possible new top heel team to face all of the babyfaces in addition to Roppongi 3K being fresh babyfaces to face some sort of Suzuki-Gun pairing or even a secondary Bullet Club tandem of Marty Scurll & Chase Owens (Chase Owens is still a junior heavyweight, right?), and you've got a fresh scene in a division that sorely needs it. Plus, this would free up the Bucks to either work more for ROH and/or try to actually make the NEVER Openweight Six-Man Tag Team Titles mean something. And speaking of those meaningless belts, it's time for the only match on this card I care about less than Goto vs. Suzuki: the...
GAUNTLET MATCH FOR THE NEVER OPENWEIGHT SIX-MAN TAG TEAM TITLES:
Bullet Club (Bad Luck Fale & the Guerillas of Destiny)(c) vs. Michael Elgin & War Machine vs. Suzuki-Gun (Takashi Iizuka Taichi, & Zack Sabre Jr.) (w/Suzuki-Gun) vs. CHAOS (Toru Yano, Tomhiro Ishii, & Trent Beretta) vs. Juice Robinson, Ryusuke Taguchi, & Togi Makabe - 4/10
War Machine's headgear needs to go. And speaking of things that need to go, Iizuka. Why in G-d's name is Iizuka in this match when TAKA Michinoku, El Desperado, and Yoshinobu Kanemaru are right there at ringside, seemingly in perfect health?
Suzuki-Gun jumped the bell on their opponents. I typed that before it even happened, because it always happens. Stuff happened, including interference. They won when Zack choked out Rowe. Next up were CHAOS. The next segment of the match lasted less than a minute, all of which was shenanigans. Well... at least I didn't have to see Yano and Iizuka reprise the most boring feud in wrestling history. CHAOS didn't last long, either, with yet another Yano roll-up finish. Thankfully, the final part of this match was at least good, but this just makes me shake my head and ask why they didn't just build up Bullet Club vs. CHAOS and give them the whole twenty minutes (or just give them twelve and give the remaining eight to other matches), stick Elgin, Makabe, Juice, Taguchi, & Suzuki-Gun in the Battle Royale, and save some money by not flying Zack and War Machine half of the way across the world?
KOTA IBUSHI vs. CODY RHODES (w/Brandi Rhodes) - 8/10
Cody wore his dumb ring gimmick even though he's not the ROH World Champion anymore. He didn't, however, waste everyone's time demanding that Ibushi kiss it, because this is the Tokyo Dome and he actually cares about having a good match because he knows more people will turn on him if he has a bad match against Ibushi at the Dome.
But don't worry. He found other ways to stall. After the bell he rolled outside to dance with Brandy before getting back in the ring and we finally get our lock-up forty-five seconds after the bell rang. After that point, to the shock of all, they actually started to have an exciting wrestling match. Cody got an advantage when Ibushi was dumb enough to fall for Cody pretending to be nice to him, but quickly got it back. Cody finally cut him off when an Ibushi dive hit not just Cody but also Brandi and Brandi played possum to make Ibushi think he had hurt her and when Ibushi went to carry her to the back, Cody took advantage of the fact that carrying Brandi required both of Ibushi's hands to punch Ibushi in his unprotected face.
I often criticize New Japan matches for almost always doing some big count-out tease that no one ever believes anyway, that always requires inconsistently applying the count-outs and exists merely for the sake of its own false drama. Well the big count-out tease these guys did here was the complete and total opposite of that crap. Cody, hit Ibushi with a freakin' Cross Rhodes off the apron to the floor, and the first thought in my head was "okay, I guess Cody is winning by count-out." This was not false drama my friends. This might well have been the best count-out tease New Japan has ever done, and probably the single best one I've seen in a hell of a long time.
While obviously Kota's selling made the spot, Cody deserves a lot of credit for his reaction, too. As the count approached twenty, Cody just assumed he had the win so he got up onto a turnbuckle to celebrate... and when the twenty count didn't come and he realized what must have happened, he turned around with this wonderful look of grim disgust on his face.
This is the sort of match I'd like to see more of out of Cody. He still came across as a bit of a cartoon character do to his exaggerated movements and some of his facial expressions and that awful blond dye-job, but he was a million times more toned down from being a total cartoon than he usually is in ROH. He felt someone who was there to tell me a great story (in this case it was Cody working over Kota's neck) have a great match and try to win it rather than someone who was there to engage in antics with the crowd and waste everyone's time.
Kota picked up the win, which caught me off guard a little bit. I guess I just knew exactly how this plays into whatever Bullet Club split into a Cody faction and an Omega faction might be coming. In a similar vein of thought, if this was the first time you were seeing Cody outside of WWE, you would have had no idea that he was part of Bullet Club. Both he and Brandi were wearing red and yellow, without a single Bullet Club logo in sight, nor was there any of the usual Bullet Club stuff. While Cody is certainly not an offender to the same level as The Elite, it'd be interesting to hear what Tama Tonga thinks about Cody not repping Bullet Club at all on the biggest stage of the year in all of Japan.
IWGP HEAVYWEIGHT TAG TEAM TITLE MATCH:
The Killer Elite Squad(c) vs. Los Ingobernables de Japon (EVIL & Sanada) - 7.5/10
The story of this match was that K.E.S. were big, scary angry dudes that LIJ would have to somehow overcome, and they told that story very well. Actually, a little too well at one point, Smith threw EVIL into his own corner so he could make a tag, then Sanada came in and Smith bodyslammed him over the top rope to the floor... and then rather than press their advantage, K.E.S. just started to randomly assault the young-boys at ringside because Suzuki-Gun. EVIL was an excellent babyface in peril, which is a weird thing to say about a dude who calls himself "EVIL." The match was very fun, with lots of big moves towards the end, and LIJ's victory means we should get some nice, fresh matchups in wrestling's most stale division.
HAIR VS. HAIR DEATHMATCH FOR THE NEVER OPENWEIGHT TITLE:
Minoru Suzuki(c) vs. Hirooki Goto - 6.75/10
This was a deathmatch, so after an exchange of slaps, Suzuki locked in a sleeper hold, climbed to the top turnbuckle, and then choked Goto half to death. After that we got a good solid minute of the referee and another dude (a ringside doctor?) checking on Goto while Suzuki would occasionally throw them off and pull Goto up just to drop him. Suzuki eventually decided to throw Goto to the outside, whereupon I guess the referee decided that the barely-moving Goto was okay to keep wrestling, despite seemingly never having had a chance to finish checking on him due to Suzuki getting in the way... and that was BEFORE Goto got tossed to the floor and collided with a metal guardrail.
The referee then tried to stop Suzuki from using a chair in this "DEATHMATCH," but didn't disqualify Suzuki either for shoving him when he tried to stop him, or for actually using the chair on Goto. But he did come back and yank the chair out of Suzuki's hand and yell at him for using it. Do these referees just not know what a "Deathmatch" is? From a kayfabe point of view, New Japan referees have got to be the dirt worst in the entire world.
We got a whole big segment of Suzuki being a cocky dick and Goto firing up with some big slaps and Suzuki cutting him off and Goto firing up again and it actually built very well, with Suzuki selling the slaps more and more each time, and taking less time playing around with Goto before firing back to cut him off and before you knew it, it seemed like Goto was about to make his big comeback... and then Suzuki put him down again with one big slap. And then Goto was right back on offense again and hit a spinning kick in the corner and then went for a bulldog and something weird happened and it somehow resulted in a double-down even though it just looked like Goto had hit Suzuki with a (moderately week) bulldog.
We then got another exciting sequence with Goto fighting out of Suzuki's attempts to hit his finisher, at which point several members of Suzuki-Gun tried to come out of the crowd to interfere but were cut off by the ringside attendants even though this is a deathmatch and thus their interference is perfectly legal. YOSHI-HASHI was the only member of CHAOs to come out and help Goto, cutting off the one member of Suzuki-Gun who managed to slip past the screen of young-boys. This made Suzuki-Gun look weak and all of the non-YOSHI-HASHI CHAOS members look like dicks.
We then went back to Goto vs. Suzuki, where either a dropkick, a bunch of strikes from Suzuki, or his sleeper hold caused Goto to start bleeding out of his mouth. They went to fight on the top rope, and the referee appeared to be yelling at them to get down from there because apparently you can't fight on the turnbuckles in a "DEATHMATCH."
Suzuki tried to choke Goto out with a front guillotine but Goto threw him off with a SICK Ushigoroshi (AKA the Goto Sleep) from the top rope. We got another big exchange of strikes before Goto hit the GTR and won.
I've got two big points to make here. First, on the match itself, although they had some very awkward transitions, the thing that hurt this match the most was the overbooking. This is the second straight big show where Gedo has stuck Suzuki in some sort of "Deathmatch" that doesn't feel any different than any other Suzuki (or even Suzuki-Gun) match (and that is exacerbated by those not feeling too different from LIJ matches at times, either). The interference and throwing the referee around and using weapons in front of the referee have gotten so out of control that not only to they hurt the matches they're in, but they make matches like this one or the Yano vs. Suzuki "Bullrope Deathmatch" from Power Struggle seem ridiculous when they are now calling it a "Deathmatch" and the referee is still applying the same completely arbitrary enforcement of the rules that you'd see in any random match you'd see involving Suzuki-Gun or LIJ when it isn't billed as anything special. Gedo need to stop this bullsh*t, make the rules mean something, and let Minoru freakin' Suzuki just wrestle like Minoru freakin' Suzuki without all of these dumb crap getting in the way.
Then there is the result. I'm really unhappy with it. I was hoping Goto would lose here for four reasons:
1. So I could call mean names like "Hirooki Baldo" and "No Hair-ooki Goto."
2. Suzuki's hair is awesome and it would be a shame to see him lose it.
3. Because I'm terrified that Suzuki might one day read this and decide to hunt me down if I had been rooting against him.
4. But most importantly, because the past few years of New Japan have taken babyface Goto and made it feel like if you opened a Japanese dictionary, you'd find his picture next to the entry for "Jobber to the Stars." It got to the point where everything he did felt like a failure. Even making it to the finals of 2016 G1 felt like a failure because he was yet again unable to win. The fact that they wouldn't let him beat either Tanahashi or Okada en route to his finals appearance, which he backed into when those two had a draw against each other to hand him the block was a factor as well. But that's exactly the point. He was there to be someone with a decent amount of credibility who Omega could beat, but they weren't about to allow him to beat the actual stars like Tanahashi and Okada in able to let him look better. Even when he beat Nakamura for the IC Title back in 2015, any progress that he made got completely undone the moment he dropped it back to Nakamura right after the G1 and it became clear that the purpose of putting the belt on Goto wasn't to help Goto but rather to allow people to believe that Nakamura had a shot at winning that year's G1, which Gedo wanted him to be in the finals of. Once the tournament was over, Goto dropped the belt right back to Nakamura.
Goto was an excellent babyface in this match, with tons of fight and fire and determination, and at the end of the day, there was no doubt that he was better than Minoru Suzuki tonight and he deserved to win this match and get back the title that Suzuki-Gun screwed him out of back in April.
And yet, back when that finish happened where Suzuki-Gun screwed Goto out of the belt, in expressing my disappointment with the overbooking, I wrote the following: "because G-d forbid that Hirooki 'we all know he'll never win the big one' Goto should do a clean job for MINORU F*CKING SUZUKI."
Hirooki "we all know he'll never win the big one" Goto. And that's exactly how I feel now, over nine months later. Yes, Goto won the feud and won his title back and the story has a happy ending and blah blah blah, and yet my reaction to this win is "it's just the NEVER Title. It doesn't really matter, anyway." Goto has become so stale as a singles wrestler and feels so much like the very embodiment of a jobber to the stars that even a victory for him feels like a disappointment, because he'll never make it to that next level.
Losing this feud and losing his hair would have set him up to do down a road that would make him feel fresh again. Maybe suffering such a shattering loss makes him go crazy. Maybe he gets desperate and starts cheating to in and turns heel. Maybe he keeps his head bald rather than re-growing his hair as a reminded of his failure, and vows to not regrow his hair until he wins a major singles title. Even just the new look would have been something. But instead we're just getting the same old Goto: jobber to the stars, which he'll be for the rest of his career.
SUZUKI GETS HIS HAIRCUT - He didn't get his whole head shaved, which, to me, is BS. "Hair vs. Hair" means all of it! What he did do was insist on doing it himself. He took the clippers and buzzed and big chunk off of his famously-patterned hair, then defiantly slammed it down onto the chair he sat in to do it and walked off. And all I could think during this was that insisting on shaving his own head and defiantly slamming the hair down onto the chair would have been something it would have been really awesome for babyface Goto to do.
IWGP JR. HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE MATCH:
Marty Scurll(c) vs. Will Ospreay vs. KUSHIDA vs. Hiromu Takahashi - 9/10
This was over twenty minutes of an almost artistic sort of CHAOS. Everything was fast-paced and guys were coming from all angles, but everything was set up so perfectly that you could just barely manage to keep track of everything that was happening. Meanwhile, they would interweave these other little stories that folded back on themselves like Scurll getting his fingers snapped after he had done the same to Hiromu, or Hiromu running wild with Arabian Powerbombs on Scurll and Ospreay later eating one himself from KUSHIDA.
One of these stories was Marty Scurll having hidden a bunch of things under the ring to help him cheat, including his umbrella, some powder, and a lot of rolls of athletic tape to tie his opponents to the guardrail with to keep them out of the match. The only person he successfully managed to do the latter to was Hiromu, after which Marty snapped Hiromu's fingers on this non-tied hand. One little bit that I absolutely loved came soon after that when, after KUSHIDA and Ospreay each snapped Marty's fingers, Marty ran over to the bag of tape and taped his fingers up. It made the callback just a little bit better, and was a wonderful logical use of a tool they had already established as being in their toolbox. This match was full of cool little things like that as well as HUGE moves and wonderful false finishes, and all at a pace that left you just barely able to keep track of what was happening, allowing you to perfectly understand everything that happened while still getting that feeling of utter chaos. If you haven't seen this yet, make sure you go check it out.
IWGP INTERCONTINENTAL TITLE MATCH:
Hiroshi Tanahashi(c) vs. Jay White - 7.25/10
Jay White looked great as always, and Tanahashi's injuries didn't seem to bother him too much, but this match didn't feel big in anyway. I think the problem was that the heat wasn't anywhere near long enough, because once Tanahashi started his comeback it felt like he was back on even footing with White WAY too quickly despite all of the damage White had done to his knee, and this made it feel like White just wasn't enough of a threat to Tanahashi to believably beat him.
I also quite frankly don't understand why White was immediately put in such a big spot only to lose. It feels like one of those botched WWE debuts where they tell you the guy is a big deal but then they don't want to have him actually beat a top star so they throw him a title match quickly and just have him lose to the top star, and the guy gets the stigma of "overhyped loser" attached to him. The benefits of giving him the belt greatly outweigh the costs of having him lose. Tanahashi has needed surgery forever, so take the belt off of him and tell him to get the damn surgery. Let White run with the belt for a few months, and if by April you don't think he can deliver in such a prominent role then take the belt off of him at Genesis or at one of the ROH joint shows in May, but at least give the kid a chance first! Where does he go from here that won't be hurt by the stigma of failing in his first big match? If he were a babyface then maybe you could do something with it but he's not.
NO DISQUALIFICATIONS MATCH FOR THE IWGP UNITED STATES TITLE:
Kenny Omega(c) vs. Chris Jericho - a PERFECT 10/10!
The Young Bucks came out with Omega but the referee immediately ejected them from ringside even though 1) they hadn't tried to get involved yet (hell, the match hadn't even started yet) and 2) it's a No DQs match so them interfering wouldn't even be illegal. I just don't understand these referees. Jericho jumped Omega from behind while he was trying to send the Bucks off. Normally when this happens (like earlier tonight when Suzuki-Gun was wrestling) they would ring the bell and start the match, but apparently this time is different. Is it really that hard for a company to order its referees and wrestlers to be consistent with this sort of stuff?
In fact, I kind of don't blame Jericho for attacking the referee and the young-boys because they're all trying to get in his way and stop him from attacking Omega even though this is a No Disqualifications match! He shouldn't have been counting for a count-out, either but these guys basically ignored him that one time (their getting back into the ring off of that really didn't feel like the usual count-out tease), so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and not mark this down to 9.75/10.
This was a match that I will never forget; not just because of the quality of it or the extremely special atmosphere of Chris Jericho- a firmly-established WWE guy for the past eighteen years- wrestling in for New Japan in the Tokyo Dome, but because it was one of those eye-opening moments that we all get from time to time when something prompts our brains to contrast two wrestling products.
That prompt for me was how different Jericho felt here. He was clearly the same guy as WWE Chris Jericho, but he just felt more real here. Like a less cartoony version of the man I've seen in WWE for the past two decades. And that train of thought led me to just how different this match felt from what a similar one in WWE would feel like.
This was NOT WWE. And it's not just the blood. It's the cameras not being perfect and the graininess and not having the announcers beat everything into the ground. Whether true or not, it felt to me like these guys had more freedom not just in terms of what moves could and couldn't be done and what words could and couldn't be said. It felt like they had the freedom to react organically to things. This was dirty. This wasn't a wrestling match; it was a fight. And it felt more real than anything in WWE because it wasn't overthought and polished up. This was- pardon the term- "raw."
I can't see WWE ever letting them do that spot where Omega pulled the ref down so Jericho would trip over him, which distracted Jericho and allowed Omega to slip out of the hold (and then take advantage when Jericho was pushing the ref around). WWE would never let Kenny Omega spray the air freshener all over himself- even his crotch- to use the sensation to help get his adrenaline flowing. They probably wouldn't let him spray air freshener in Jericho's eyes, either, for fear that children might attempt it. WWE wouldn't be happy with them hitting each other with chairs that had the center padding fall out for fear of sharp edges seriously hurting someone (and that's not an invalid fear), but here they did just that rather than going to get a new chair because that was what was in reach.
Jericho worked over Omega's midsection and Omega sold it well, but Jericho definitely kept up his end of the bargain. And not just athletically, either. His shouting of "ALPHA!" whenever he had the advantage was both psychological warfare aimed at Omega and a way to remind the audience of his mindset in this match. He's the best in the world and he is coming into the Tokyo Dome to prove that he is just as good as the guys putting on all Dave Meltzer's favorite matches in New Japan. And he proved that he was right.
IWGP HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE MATCH:
Kazuchika Okada(c) (w/Gedo) vs. Tetsuya Naito - 9.25/10
They did their stuff and this definitely qualified as an epic struggle, but other than praising them for their drama, creative reversals, well-built false finishes, and CRAZY finishing sequence, I don't really have much else to say about the match other than I really wasn't into the first chunk of it. As for the finish, I will say that I actually really liked Okada winning here, simply because I think that the belt is Omega's to take from him. There is also definitely a story to be told out of the fact that EVIL was able to pin Okada but Naito failed to, although admittedly EVIL losing to Okada in a much less epic match and now being established as a tag team wrestler makes that a little bit harder to do.
This result reminds me a lot of Okada's loss to Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom IX, when Gedo decided to extend their story an additional year, and while that plan certainly worked out for the best, this one will be a lot more interesting, as the crowd was solidly behind Naito (maybe 85-15), and I don't think it's impossible that this could result in some sort of crowd revolt against Okada the way people got annoyed at Tanahashi in the "John Cena" role a few years ago. In fact, I'd be shocked if some people's reviews of this very show didn't include the line "OkadaWinsLOL." We'll have to see what happens tomorrow night.
A Show of the Year candidate from New Japan, as usual when they are on this big a stage, despite the pointless NEVER Openweight Six-Man Tag Team Titles match, a few debatable creative misfires, and two key matches not quite reaching the level I think most people expected them to. A great start to 2018. Now let's see if they can keep it up.