Tuesday, June 27, 2023

AEW x NJPW Forbidden Door 2023 Review: Omega-Ospreay II

The second annual AEW x NJPW Forbidden Door PPV is in the books, and from where I sit the sequel eclipsed the original, no small feat considering last year's event was one of the best shows of 2022.

This year's FD featured bigger top matches and greater star power, bouyed by the fact that AEW wasn't hampered by a rash of injuries this time around.  Of the two marquee bouts, one turned out to be an all-time classic, the other a very slight disappointment due to a tired crowd and a late-match fractured arm.  But we also got a very fun four-way sprint and an excellent team warfare match that furthered numerous story threads.

The show opened (after four pre-show matches which from where I sit is too many - five hours of matches is a lot for a live crowd to take in) with the AEW Championship as MJF defended against NJPW legend Hiroshi Tanahashi.  This felt a lot like an old-school house show main event, with very basic wrestling and plenty of character work from the heel champ.  Tanahashi is in very rough shape these days, his knees not even allowing him to do rudimentary things like running across the ring.  But he and MJF worked around his limitations, delivering an enjoyable 15-minute match that ended with MJF using the diamond ring to steal a win (after Tanahashi scored a visual pinfall on him with the ref down).  Solid opener that gave Max a win over one of the all-time greats.  ***1/2

Next up was CM Punk's first singles match since All Out 2022, as the controversial star faced NJPW veteran Satoshi Kojima.  Performing in front of a hostile crowd, Punk played the heel in this match, mocking some of Kojima's mannerisms and also those of Kojima's old partner Hiroyoshi Tenzan.  Kojima got in his signature offense, including rapid-fire chops outside the ring, and showed that at 52 years old he's still got his mojo.  Punk survived Kojima's big moves and hit the GTS after thirteen minutes or so, to advance in the Owen Hart tournament (I'd bet real money that Phil's winning the bracket this year).  Good stuff.  ***3/4

Third in the lineup was Orange Cassidy defending his International Title in a 4-way sprint against Zack Sabre Jr., Katsuyori Shibata and Daniel Garcia.  As I suspected Garcia was the one to take the pinfall since he was the only guy here without a title.  All four worked great together and this was nonstop action and full of nearfalls.  Shibata had beaten the crap out of Garcia with a rear naked choke and a penalty kick, but before he could go for the pin Cassidy tossed him out of the ring and stole the victory to retain.  Super fun eleven-minute match.  ****

IWGP Champion Sanada was next, defending the title against Jack Perry.  These two had a solid little match but the heat wasn't as strong as it could've been since a) no one thought Perry would win the title and b) Sanada is missing something as NJPW's top champ.  They worked hard though and this match was enjoyable while it lasted.  The finish seemed out of nowhere, as Sanada's first moonsault attempt was countered, the two traded Skull Ends, and Sanada just hit a Shining Wizard and a successful moonsault to get the pin.  The match felt a little flat in the finish.  But the post-match did not, as Jack Perry turned on his friend Hook, laying him out on the entrance ramp and picking up his FTW belt.  Perry as a heel should be interesting to watch, as he's been such a natural babyface.  Oddly, all three Jurassic Express pals from 2022 are now bad guys.  Anyway, decent match, if a little underwhelming.  ***1/2

Things picked up big with the fifth match as the Blackpool Combat Club, Shota Umino and Konosuke Takeshita faced Hangman Page, The Young Bucks, Eddie Kingston and Tomohiro Ishii in an epic war of attrition.  Lots of intriguing dynamics here, as Kingston was conflicted about teaming against his buddy Jon Moxley, and in fact Eddie at one point saved Mox from the Young Bucks double superkick.  Elsewhere we got some amazing exchanges between Ishii and the white-hot heel Takeshita.  Man does this kid have it in spades; Konosuke is gonna be a big deal.  This match brought to mind the Canadian Stampede ten-man from 1997.  Just a great showcase for everyone involved.  In the end it was once again Wheeler Yuta who got beaten, falling victim to a crushing lariat from Ishii, followed by his devastating brainbuster for the pin.  Post-match Eddie and the Young Bucks got into it over Eddie momentarily helping Mox, while Takeshita seemed to distance himself from the BCC.  This was awesome.  ****3/4

The AEW women's title match had a tough act to follow but Toni Storm and Willow Nightingale were up to the challenge.  Willow is such a fantastic, natural babyface the crowd can't help but get invested in her matches; she's truly lovable.  And Storm is becoming one of the best all-around women's wrestlers in the world; turning heel allowed her to find the one thing she was missing: that effortless charisma in the way she carries herself.  When Toni is onscreen now you immediately pay attention.  They only got ten-and-a-half minutes but they packed in as much action as they could.  The Outcasts tried to interfere pretty early, slipping Toni the spraypaint can, but the ref caught it and ejected Saraya and Ruby.  Still in the end Toni was able to steal a win by pulling the ref in the way of an oncoming attack, poking Willow in the eye and hitting Storm Zero to retain.  I could watch these two all day, I hope they get a longer match in the future.  Willow's my pick to win the Women's Owen Hart tourney, likely over Ruby Soho (which would make Ruby a two-time finalist).  ***3/4

The one match Forbidden Door 2023 will be most remembered for was of course Kenny Omega vs. Will Ospreay for the IWGP US Title.  These guys had near-impossible expectations to live up to from their instant all-timer at the Tokyo Dome in January, and I'll be goddamned if they didn't meet or even exceed them here.  The roles were reversed in this match, with Ospreay playing the revenge-obsessed heel to Kenny's home-turf hero.  They paced themselves early on but the energy ratcheted up and they started hitting big moves.  Don Callis got ejected early after blocking Kenny's Terminator dive, which would lead to my one gripe about this match - more on that in a bit.  Things spilled to the outside where Ospreay got some payback for the Dome by ramming Kenny's face repeatedly through part of the announce table; this spot looked brutal and Kenny was busted open.  Will pulled a 1997 Shawn Michaels, wiping his crotch with a Canadian flag before shoving it up his nose.  Kenny then choked him with it, a la Bret Hart.  Kenny rammed Will's head repeatedly into the ring steps, busting Ospreay open and leaving a sick-looking blood splatter on the stairs that remained visible throughout the rest of the show.  The final ten minutes of this were masterful, a combination of big moves, psychology with Kenny trying to mount a comeback with no energy behind it, and loads of nearfalls that everyone bought into.  In the final minutes Callis re-emerged and handed Ospreay a screwdriver, Ospreay poked Kenny with it and then hit Hidden Blade and a Stormbreaker for the most dramatic nearfall I've maybe ever seen.  As the ref was counting Kenny down I reached for my phone, fully certain the match was over.  But then Kenny's foot landed on the bottom rope and the place went nuts.  Ospreay hit a V-Trigger and then a One-Winged Angel, but Kenny kicked out at one; ain't no man gonna beat Kenny with his own move.  Will then hit a Tiger Driver '91 (which looked like it broke Kenny's neck and I have no idea how Kenny wasn't seriously hurt here), followed by another Hidden Blade and Stormbreaker for the win.  Just an insane matchup, and my only complaint is that Don Callis was allowed to stay at ringside despite having been ejected earlier.  He just shouldn't have been ejected - letting the guy come back after that undermines the weight of all ejections going forward.  Regardless, this was an equal to the Dome match and another top contender for Match of the Year.  ******

Given the impossible task of following it was Sting/Darby Allin/Tetsuya Naito vs. Chris Jericho/Sammy Guevara/Minoru Suzuki.  Things started out promisingly enough, with some fun, wild action, but took a turn for the worse when Sting had Jericho in the Scorpion Deathlock and Sammy went for a springboard cutter but instead kind of landed on Sting's head.  Sting seemed off from that point on and while the match was still entertaining to the end, it got very messy and didn't fully recover.  Still we got a Sammy 630 on Sting through a table and some good submissions and reversals until Naito stole a pin on Suzuki with a rollup.  They were in a very tough spot and Sting seemingly getting rattled didn't help things, but they worked hard to keep it together.  **1/2

Kazuchika Okada vs. Bryan Danielson wasn't the all-time banger I expected it to be, and extenuating circumstances put these two in an equally tough spot, but this was still a really good, approaching excellent, main event.  The crowd, spent from the Omega match and the show's long running time, were very subdued for this, but like a NJPW crowd, observed quietly but intently.  I noticed numerous times that many around ringside were on their feet for almost the whole match, just waiting for it to kick into high gear.  And it eventually did, sort of, but unfortunately Danielson took an Okada top-rope elbow in such a way that his right arm was fractured and mostly useless for the last ten minutes of the match.  I have no doubt these two had an epic, climactic final stretch planned but were forced to improvise.  And considering the circumstances the finish they arrived at was quite innovative.  They traded big moves, Danielson kicked out after a Rainmaker and snared a modified LeBell Lock, but since his right arm didn't work, he tied his leg around Okada's free arm and leaned way back, Zack Sabre-style, and Okada shockingly tapped out.  I was not expecting that result at all.  This match felt like the first in a series and I hope that's the case.  Either All In or next year's WrestleKingdom would be a perfect chance for Okada to get some payback.  Danielson confirmed in the media scrum that his arm was indeed fractured and he'd be out of action for 6-8 weeks; hopefully he'll be ok for Wembley, whoever his opponent is.  This match may not have been MOTY-caliber but I'll give it ****1/4 and I think the rematch will live up to our expectations.

Four **** or better matches, one of them an all-time great, plus a host of strong supporting bouts.  Hard to complain about any of that.  As I said, I liked this show better than last year's Forbidden Door and it sounds like the financials exceeded that show as well.  The live gate hit $1.2 million, beating out WWE's Elimination Chamber in Montreal and becoming the third-biggest Canadian gate in wrestling history, plus the PPV numbers apparently exceeded last year's surprisingly high total.  I'd imagine replay buys will do very well too, with all the Omega-Ospreay buzz.  It's a good time to be a wrestling fan.

Best Match: Omega-Ospreay II
Worst Match: Team Sting vs. Le Suzuki Gods
What I'd Change: Take a few minutes away from the Sting-Jericho match and give it to the women's match, and Omega vs. Ospreay really should've gone last (I say this as someone who was adamantly in favor of Okada-Danielson being the main event going in).
Most Disappointing Match: The trios match, as it never got fully back on track after the missed cutter spot.
Most Pleasant Surprise: I figured Callis interference would factor directly into the Ospreay finish but they fooled us all and gave us an incredible ending.
Overall Rating: 9.5/10

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