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    Thursday, December 31, 2020

    The Year That Was: NJPW

    Many things can be said about 2020 in New Japan Pro-Wrestling. We began the year with satisfying moments, got shocked with the insanity in the middle of the year, and the Juniors stole the show in nearly every way by December.

    Despite the challenges that COVID brought to the entire world, New Japan Pro-Wrestling found a way to keep our eyes glued to their work.

    The year began with the culmination of Tetsuya Naito's nearly seven year storyline. From being the chosen one to becoming El Ingobernable, Naito had a long road to redemption before reaching the pinnacle of New Japan in Tokyo Dome. However, Tetsuya Naito's story is just one of the many events that happened on the NJPW Calendar. Let's take a look back at the year that was...New Japan Pro Wrestling.

    Thank you Liger!

    New Japan's calendar started with a farewell to one of the greatest wrestlers to ever grace the squared circle. Regardless of weight class, Jyushin Thunder Liger brought eyes to Japanese puroresu. Yes, he was a junior wrestler, but he wasn't just any junior. He competed in matches in the '90s that showcased to everyone that the junior heavyweights may be lighter, but that doesn't mean they can't hang with the heavyweights.

    Liger had his final two matches in the Tokyo Dome, the same place where he debuted on April 24, 1989. The man competed in five different decades and withstood the test of time and even survived a brain tumor! No one else comes close when it comes to physical and mental strength.

    Jushin Liger's penultimate match featured numerous opponents from his storied career including El Samurai, The Great Sasuke, Naoki Sano, among many others. Unlike wrestlers in some companies, Liger gracefully took a loss in this match. 

    Night Two featured Liger's final match and we saw a passing of the torch as he hand-picked Hiromu Takahashi and Dragon—now Ryu—Lee as his opponents. Liger's final tag team partner would be Naoki Sano who also retired following Liger's retirement. Many fans were holding out for hope that Liger would be able to pin Hiromu in this match just to see a one-on-one contest between the two. However, Liger would graciously go down for the count and take on final pinfall in front of a stunned Tokyo Dome. Many fans, including myself, sadly did not get to see this portion as the English feed of NJPW World suddenly cut off after Hiromu pinned Liger. Even the website couldn't handle the departure of the legend that is Jushin Liger.

    Naito Two Belts

    Jushin Liger's retirement wasn't the only big story in Tokyo Dome. The other major talking point of the event was the "Double Gold Dash." Earlier in 2019, Tetsuya Naito suggested that it would be nice to hold both the IWGP Intercontinental and the Heavyweight Championships simultaneously. The idea would find a way to reach Jay White who had a valid reason to claim it as he did dethrone Naito as Intercontinental Champion in the 2019 Dominion show. 

    Naito and Jay's storyline would merge with the chase for the IWGP Heavyweight belt when the four wrestlers met at the end of Power Struggle. Jay White called out Naito, Ibushi, and then Okada to state his intentions and that he will win the Double Gold Dash. This video wasn't just for the Dash though. The four wrestlers involved in this match represented the pillars of New Japan. Okada, Ibushi, Naito and White are all wrestlers at their peak. The company can easily build future stories around them and everything will be smooth sailing. 

    What stood out from the meeting was the fact that Okada mentioned the fan vote that happened nearly seven years before. That fan vote started Tetsuya Naito's transformation into El Ingobernable and change puroresu forever. 

    The biggest detail I could take from Naito's journey to double gold was that he needed to learn how to focus. Naito's attention was usually somewhere else during his title matches with Okada. El Ingobernable had to learn to appreciate the belt he hated the most before finally realizing the value of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.

    We waited for seven years to see Naito reach the top of the mountain at Wrestle Kingdom and it was such a satisfying view.

    The rise and fall—and rise again of the Golden Star

    Wrestle Kingdom was such a satisfying moment for Tetsuya Naito, but one of his close friends would have a very disappointing weekend. Despite winning the 2019 G1 Climax and giving his all against Kazuchika Okada at Wrestle Kingdom, Kota Ibushi had a terrible 2020. 

    There was so much hype behind Ibushi going into the big show. He could have easily signed a contract with AEW and join Kenny Omega in the United States. I'm glad that the Golden Star decided to pursue his dream and join New Japan full-time. Ibushi was a freelancer for most of his time in New Japan prior to 2019. As a freelancer, Ibushi had the freedom to wrestle for different promotions such as DDT. 

    A focused Ibushi is a dangerous Ibushi and we got that when we saw it happen when he won the G1 for the second year in a row. He only had to lose to Jay White to make it happen. Ibushi may not have won the Heavyweight belt at his first WK main event, but he made sure to utilize the time in between shows. Ibushi is now on a collision course with Tetsuya Naito to become double champion and face Jay White on night two of Wrestle Kingdom.

    One violent encounter... and a forgotten belt

    The final story from January I want to discuss is the dream match that everyone waited for: Moxley vs. Suzuki. After Jon Moxley defeated Juice Robinson to retain his IWGP US Champinship, the iconic intro of Ayumi Nakamura's "Kaze Ni Nare" brought a loud roar out at the Tokyo Dome. 

    Moxley's arrival in New Japan made all wrestling fans wonder when he would face The King. Many fans, including myself, were wondering why we didn't get the Kaze Ni Nare chant on night one. Well, night two would change it all. 

    Minoru Suzuki attacked Jon Moxley after his title match and the two wrestlers began to brawl to everyone's delight. The two wrestlers finally met at New Beginning where Moxley defeated Suzuki to retain his US title. 

    However, 2020 would have other plans for Moxley's next defense... or lack of it.

    COVID ruins everything

    New Japan would hold another successful New Beginning show where we saw Tetsuya Naito conquer KENTA. The leader of Los Ingobernables de Japon was supposed to face IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion Hiromu Takahashi. Sadly, COVID would steal that match away from us. 

    The month before COVID ruined everything saw two major players in NJPW's history retire: Tiger Hattori and Manabu Nakanishi.

    For those unfamiliar, Tiger Hattori was the liaison for nearly every foreign wrestler who went through New Japan. Talk to any foreign NJPW wrestler from the '90s to the 2010s and Hattori's name will always pop up. He made sure that the wrestlers were taken care of throughout their stay with the company.

    We also saw the departure of Manabu Nakanishi as he finally called it a day. The former IWGP Heavyweight Champion had a legendary career and I'm glad he was able to retire with a crowd so fans could show their appreciation for the man.

    Everything was fine and dandy in New Japan until the Japanese government forced the cancellation of multiple events, regardless if it's a wrestling show or any other kind of event. Many wrestling companies would pause operations or broadcast shows from their dojo to limit the spread of COVID.

    Looking at the silver lining

    Gedo's plans for the year were ruined, but I'd like to look at the cancellation from a positive note. Many of the wrestlers we know and love were working hurt. The COVID break helped the wrestlers get some much needed time to rest. New Japan even released a few documentaries featuring Kazuchika Okada and Hiromu Takahashi to showcase their daily routines. 

    The Okada documentary gave us a better look at the man behind the Rainmaker persona while showing the things he would do to continue wrestling at a high rate while working injured. We also saw Hiromu Takahashi's road to recovery after his freak accident in a match with Dragon Lee in 2019.

    The documentaries are just some of the videos I wish New Japan would release on the streaming service. I love the matches and all, but I love watching videos where we get to know the wrestlers outside the ring as well. 

    The best non-wrestling video I found in NJPW World is still the Toru Yano Talk Show. That was the best video content we got from New Japan during that period. SHO and YOH finally had the chance to participate in one of CHAOS's Toru Yano events where he runs a talk show with members of CHAOS and the NJPW crew as participants. 

    No New Japan Cup? No problem! Let's have a thumb wrestling tournament instead.  

    NJPW Together

    New Japan would return in July after several months of being on pause and we had an announcement video from then-president Harold Meij discussing NJPW's plan for the company after they hold shows again. Sadly, this video would be one of the last public announcements that Meij would make as he was removed from his position around October.

    The return of New Japan included the NJPW Together Project. New Japan released English commentary for matches that previously did not have it to pass the time between March and July. When New Japan finally returned in July, we saw the NJPW Together Project Special.

    Together Project Special was a warm-up for New Japan before we got down to the return of the New Japan Cup. Many fans thought the NJ Cup was going to be canceled due to the pandemic, but New Japan decided to push through with the tournament. The event was originally scheduled to have major matches in the first round such as a rematch between Jay White and Okada. COVID would ruin those plans, but again I'm looking at the silver lining. 

    Wrestlers who were ignored for the younger wrestlers, such as Minoru Suzuki and Yuji Nagata, had the chance to show the world that they are still to be taken seriously. Just because they're old doesn't mean they can't give you an ass-whooping of a lifetime!

    Watch Yuji Nagata vs. Minoru Suzuki and tell me how the younger wrestlers can match that intensity.

    The 2020 NJ Cup started the trail that we are on now when EVIL started to become more violent. He would win most of his matches by cheating until he made it to the finals of the tournament. 

    EVIL would use underhanded methods again to defeat Kazucika Okada win the New Japan Cup. Bear in mind that the finals of the 2020 NJ Cup were the first New Japan show with a crowd in months. The company had to do something big to make everyone remember the show. And we definitely got a memorable moment from that night. 

    Tetsuya Naito went to the ring to approach EVIL and congratulate him on his tournament win. I was just as shocked as anyone in the arena when the LIJ fist bump suddenly turned into a Too Sweet symbol as EVIL took out Naito with his Darkness Falls finishing move and joined Bullet Club.

    I'm still not the biggest fan of EVIL in Bullet Club, but it was a necessary move as we didn't know when the foreign wrestlers would be able to return at the time. The following night in Dominion was an even bigger shocker as EVIL became the second double champion of NJPW. I truly believe the win was made just for the shock factor because EVIL was a very boring champion. 

    Most of EVIL's title matches saw his opponent carrying him. EVIL being carried in a match is most evident in Sengoku Lord in Nagoya. The IWGP double champion faced then-Junior Champion Hiromu Takahashi. The match was dragging until Hiromu took control. You know how good Hiromu is as a wrestler? He carried the match so much that he made the audience break the No Noise Rule. 

    New Japan gave us a rush of adrenaline in July and this would continue in August. 

    One crazy summer

    One of the biggest problems the pandemic caused in New Japan was what to do with the IWGP US Heavyweight Championship. The current champion, Jon Moxley, is stuck in the US and can't defend his title in Japan.

    What does New Japan do? Make a #1 contender tournament of course! Unlike most NJ tournaments, the New Japan Cup USA featured wrestlers from other companies such as GCW and Ring of Honor. KENTA would go on to win the tournament and go on a quest to find Jon Moxley. 

    Programs like NJPW Strong helped keep the US-based wrestlers fresh and, whether or not NJPW admits it, many of these shows were pre-recorded prior to their return to Japan. That's why you have the likes of Jeff Cobb, Jay White, and KENTA appearing almost simultaneously in the US shows and Japan shows at a certain point. 

    Continuing on the point of Jon Moxley's lack of title defenses, NJPW had no choice but to make KENTA carry the feud with his US Championship contract briefcase. I love KENTA's promos though. He has been very entertaining since his return to Japan. You can tell the man has had a field day with his promos from making fun of YOSHI-HASHI to calling out Moxley.

    KENTA is actually more entertaining the longer he holds the briefcase. KENTA should hold the briefcase as long as needed so we can get the Mox vs. KENTA match.

    KENTA's briefcase story isn't the only interesting story that happened in August though. We also had the King of Pro-Wrestling Title and YOSHI-HASHI finally winning a belt.

    The one true king

    One of the craziest ideas that popped up during the pandemic was created by Kazuchika Okada. He decided to create a title called the King of Pro-Wrestling. The KOPW trophy is a title that can be defended with any stipulation the champion and challenger propose. Fans would vote and choose which stipulation wins and the winning stipulation is the match the wrestlers would compete in.

    The first KOPW was crowned in the Jingu Stadium show, NJPW's first outdoor show in years. What made the match so unique was the fact that it was a four-way match. Many of New Japan's matches have been held in traditional formats: one on one, tag team, or multi-man tags. We don't really get matches like four-ways very much. The most recent variety of match I can remember was the terribly awkward three-way match involving Kenny Omega, Kota Ibushi, and Cody Rhodes for the IWGP Heavyweight title at King of Pro Wrestling a few years back. 

    When we got to Jingu Stadium we had four wrestlers contending for the adorably tiny trophy: Toru Yano, SANADA, El Desperado, and Kazuchika Okada. Yano somehow won the match and I am still speechless to this day as to why Yano was chosen. However, this trophy is a joke title after all. Yano is the perfect wrestler to use this trophy. 

    Anyway, the title's rules are terribly convoluted so I suggest you wait for Wrestle Kingdom 15 to see what happens next.

    The underdog finally wins a belt

    YOSHI-HASHI has always been the butt of jokes in New Japan. I mean, compare him to his fellow Young Lions and you can see why he's considered a wrestler who's at the bottom of the barrel in the company. For those unaware, YOSHI-HASHI's Young Lion batchmate is Okada. Imagine being in the same YL generation as one of, if not, the greatest IWGP Heavyweight champions of all time and you're... YOSHI-HASHI.

    The man has not had the best luck in his career. From being the butt of jokes to injuring himself trying to save Okada from another Jay White attack, YOSHI-HASHI was just unlucky. No matter how bad 2020 is, however, YOSHI-HASHI made it his year by finally becoming a champion when he won the NEVER Six-Man belts with Hirooki Goto and Tomohiro Ishii. 

    There was a point when everyone simply forgot about the belt, but placing them on YOSHI-HASHI, Goto, and Ishii was a stroke of genius. Their match to win the vacant belts, against Yano, Okada, and SHO, was one of the most fun wrestling matches I saw all year.

    And the most important thing I got from YOSHI-HASHI winning the NEVER Six-Man belts was his never say die attitude. He may not be the best guy on the mic, but you have to admire YOSHI-HASHI always making an effort in every single match he's in. Whether he's on the main card or the opening match, YOSHI-HASHI gives it his all. I'm glad that he finally won a title after 12 years.

    A frantic fall and winter

    The Power Struggle event saw one of the weirdest decisions ever made in modern NJPW history. Jay White cheats to win the G1 briefcase and Ibushi is now the first person to ever lose it. And yet... Ibushi still gets his double title match against Naito at the Tokyo Dome. Why not place the briefcase on Jay instead? 

    I don't know where Gedo is going with Jay White waiting on January 5 but we will have to wait and see how he will tell the story at Wrestle Kingdom.

    The other major highlight from October to November was the World Tag League and Best of The Super Juniors Tournaments being held on consecutive nights and my goodness. I am glad that the juniors got the respect they deserve when they main-evented Nippon Budokan.

    Let me tell you. Hiromu Takahashi vs. El Desperado is a contender for Match of The Year. The simple act of removing Desperado's mask was enough for the crowd to break the No Noise Rule once again. Both wrestlers gave their all with Hiromu winning the tournament for the second time.

    I want to emphasize how big of a deal it is that Desperado was willing to remove his mask and keep fighting. Desperado had always emphasized being a masked wrestler ever since he returned from excursion. The fact that he was willing to remove his mask completely shows how much he wanted to win the tournament and now I want to see him get the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship already. We've waited far too long. The man became a main eventer in my eyes.

    We also saw G.O.D. finally win the World Tag League. Despite being six-time Heavyweight Tag champs, the brothers have never won the tournament so it's great to see them check off one item from their bucket list and now they face Dangerous Tekkers at Tokyo Dome. Tama Tonga and Tanga Loa now face the task of trying to achieve the impossible and win a tag team title match in Tokyo Dome. They have never won a match in Tokyo Dome which is disappointing. I really hope they finally win on the biggest stage that New Japan can offer.

    The year of the underdog

    Overall, I'd like to think that 2020 was the year of the junior heavyweights. Hiromu and Desperado had one of the best matches of the year. Everyone in the junior division showed how good they truly are. Yes, even Master Wato, who still can't speak without a mentor in Tenzan or Taguchi. The man is a great wrestler. He just needs more practice on the microphone. 

    Whether it was Robbie Eagles showcasing his technical prowess or SHO unleashing his true power, I think 2020 the year that the junior heavyweights showed the world that just because they're lighter doesn't mean they can throw a heavy hit.

    I hope 2021 will showcase more of the Juniors so that the Heavyweights will be forced to step up their game. Like Liger before them, the Junior Heavyweights of New Japan showed that they can hang with the heavyweights with ease. 

    Underdogs like YOSHI-HASHI finally won something and the madness of Toru Yano retaining the KOPW trophy is still hilarious. Kota Ibushi repeating as G1 winner and Jay White stealing the briefcase a perfect description of 2020. I have a good feeling that Ibushi will do everything he can to defeat Naito, but Tetsuya Naito will be ready to compete with the Golden Star at a break-neck speed in Tokyo Dome. 

    Good riddance to 2020 for the most part, but I'm glad the New Japan Pro-Wrestling still found a way to keep our eyes glued to their screens. 
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    Item Reviewed: The Year That Was: NJPW Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Steven Maxwell Tan
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