Monday, July 6, 2015

NJPW Dominion was All Kinds of Awesome

Well another New Japan PPV is in the books folks, and what a helluva show it was.  I just wanted to throw my two cents in about yesterday's Dominion PPV, so bear with me for a few moments.

Dominion was in my estimation the second-best PPV of 2015 so far, behind January's WrestleKingdom 9 (upon which I've heaped mountains of praise HERE).  Of the nine matches only two could be considered weak, and even those weren't bad at all.  The two headlining matches both fell in the four-star range, while several others were approaching that territory.  It's staggering how much better New Japan's product is than that of any other wrestling promotion right now.  Incidentally I went 8 for 9 in my predictions despite having only been a NJPW fan for six months, which I attribute to Jado and Gedo's booking being logical, concise, and satisfying.

The show opened with another wild, fast-paced offering from the Jr. Heavyweight Tag division, as The Young Bucks defended their Titles against reDRagon and RPG Vice.  While these matches won't ever be called epic examples of storytelling, they're always a highly entertaining way to dip your feet in the water.

Next up was one of the weaker matches of the night; Bad Luck Fale and Yujiro Takahashi vs. Tomoaki Honma and Tetsuya Naito.  This wasn't a bad match but the real story here was Naito's gradual heel turn.  He sauntered down to the ring, in no hurry to help out his partner who was being ambushed by the two Bullet Club members, and even refused to tag into the match until very late.  Eventually Honma got the surprise win, but Naito bailed immediately after the closing bell.  It'll be interesting to see where they go with this - Naito's been a pretty bland babyface character for so long, so a heel turn could be just what he needs to get to the next level.  It's nice to see Honma finally getting some kind of a push, as he's really fun to watch and super over.

The "stacked" portion of the card began next with the Shibata-Sakuraba fight.  And I mean FIGHT.  This was one of the best simulated MMA bouts I've ever seen and I'd rank it right up there with Sakuraba-Nakamura from WK7.  The grappling looked totally convincing and snug, and Shibata's strikes were brutal.  Sakuraba dominated the match with some amazing submissions, clinging to Shibata like a spider monkey, until finally Shibata broke free and took the match with the Penalty Kick.  Great fight.

The Jr. Heavyweight match between Kenny Omega and Kushida was unexpectedly devoted to telling a story, as Omega savagely worked Kushida's knee for much of the bout.  Both guys took their time, working hard to differentiate this from the spotfest style of the opening match.  Kushida did an excellent job of selling the knee, even during his offensive flurries.  This has been a case with Kenny Omega's Title defenses in general, but it's very cool to see Jr. Heavyweight matches being worked like main event bouts, where the high spots are carefully picked and not just thrown out willy-nilly.  Damn good match.

The initial trilogy of great matches finished next with Togi Makabe vs. Tomohiro Ishii for the Never Openweight Title.  While not at the same level as their previous two matches, this was another vicious battle of the bulls.  Ishii sold a shoulder injury for a lot of this match, which may or may not have been legit (It certainly seemed to be).  In the end Makabe retained with the King Kong Knee to the back of Ishii's head. 

The only other "weak" spot on this show was the Tag Team Championship.  The Kingdom vs. Anderson & Gallows felt a little too much like a WWE midcard bout for me.  The action was fine but as I feared, they spent a fair amount of time focusing on Anderson's infatuation with Maria.  Anderson & Gallows finally regained the belts and I'll be interested to see where they go with the Tag division.  Right now it's very thin, and probably the only hole in New Japan's otherwise stacked roster.

The surprise hit of the night was Tanahashi vs. Toru Yano.  I went into this expecting more or less a throwaway, but Yano played his role brilliantly, using heel tactics to stay one step ahead of the legendary Tanahashi.  At one point Yano took the match to the floor and threw Tanahashi through one of the ringside barriers before whacking him with a chair.  Yano went back to the ring and Tanahashi just beat the 20-count in probably the most suspenseful near-countout I've ever seen.  Tanahashi of course beat the odds to get a decisive win, and this match was so much better than it even needed to be.

The home stretch featured a pair of superb Title matches.  Hirooki Goto's first IC Title defense against Shinsuke Nakamura is my initial pick for Match of the Night.  This bout easily topped their Wrestling Dontaku match - the early minutes featured slick, innovative grappling, while the later portion was full of crazy reversals and suspenseful near falls.  I actually thought Nakamura might take back the belt a couple times before Goto's last-second kickouts.  Goto retained with the Shouten (one of my favorite NJPW finishers), and I'm curious to see who steps up next to challenge him.  Perhaps his former partner Shibata?  Meanwhile Nakamura is clearly being positioned as a top contender for the World Title.  Regardless, this match was goddamn excellent.

The main event followed it brilliantly though; AJ Styles and Kazuchika Okada are both masters of their craft.  Styles of course had the entire Bullet Club supporting him at ringside, and they figured heavily in the first ten minutes, interfering at every opportunity before the referee ejected them (and told them to "suck it," which was hilarious).  After that the match settled into a wonderful example of Styles-Okada storytelling.  Both guys threw every one of their signature moves at each other, and the match culminated in one of the most amazing closing stretches I can recall.  The counters and reversals on display were truly incredible.  After twenty-six minutes Okada finally regained the World Title, capping off one of the more emotional Championship quests in recent years.  My stream was sadly fraught with buffering issues during this match, so that distracted from my enjoyment of it.  But my initial assessment of it was just below that of the IC match.  That could change on a second viewing.

With some new Champions coming out of Dominion, plus the G1 Climax tourney starting in two weeks, New Japan's summer calendar is looking tremendously exciting and there are numerous intriguing threads being set up to build to WrestleKingdom 10. 

If I may play fantasy booker for a minute, I'd say without a doubt the best possible main event for WK10 would be Okada vs. Nakamura for the belt.  Being Chaos allies, the story could play out that the two of them are jockeying to be the alpha male of that stable.  Now that Nakamura's lost his IC Championship and Okada is the World Champ, the seed could easily be planted that Nakamura is now jealous of Okada's position as the company's top dog, and could conspire with the other Chaos members to have him ousted.  This would complete Okada's babyface turn (which has been brimming for the past half-year anyway), and would position him as a lone wolf who reluctantly enlists the help of his old rival Tanahashi in combating his former stablemates.  Nakamura should win the G1 tournament to earn the WK Title shot; the resulting match would be spectacular.

As I previously mentioned, Goto vs. Shibata would be a great IC Title feud, and I'd love to see AJ Styles feud with Kota Ibushi (their Invasion Attack match was amazing) for the #4 spot on the roster.

Dominion really was an exemplary night of wrestling and delivered in a way WWE can't even touch at the moment.  The product is so far above the American promotions right now it's hard to even take the others seriously.  I've said it before, but I urge everyone to seek out some New Japan shows and see for yourself.  We are witnessing a wrestling renaissance.

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