NJPW Review: Wrestling Dontaku 2018 (& Select “Road To” Matches)

Lots to talk about from New Japan for the past little while! No need for a lengthy preface with so much to discuss, so let’s get into it:

April 23:

IWGP Jr Heavyweight Tag Team Title Match: El Desperado & Yoshinobu Kanemaru(c, Suzuki-gun) vs BUSHI & Hiromu Takahashi (Los Ingobernables de Japon) *** The first few minutes of this didn’t feel any more interesting than a typical (below average, even) undercard tag. For everyone but BUSHI, this all felt a bit phoned-in to me. It ended up being little better than okay. The crowd was super hot, though, and that counts for something.

April 24:

IWGP United States Title Match: Jay White (c) vs David Finlay ****1/4 I still feel like Jay White’s gimmick is too close to Omega’s “Cleaner” gimmick, aesthetically. Anyway, I really liked how this started, with both guys sort of pushing Red Shoes out of the way of the fight they wanted to have. Overall, the psychology of this match was really easy to get into; good job on these guys for telling such a coherent story. Good pacing and intensity throughout, with some great emotional spots. The finish was really, really cool.

Jay White Post-Match Promo: **** Just well-grounded in some emotional truths and very well-delivered.

April 27:

NEVER Openweight Title Match: Hirooki Goto (c) vs. Juice Robinson ****1/2 Competitive-feeling from the start. Both guys are really good in-ring psychologists, so the baseline quality of this match was not a surprise. Good, intense back-and-forth as the match progressed, with Juice doing an especially good job of telling his story. This match just kept getting better over time, and it ended up feeling pretty special. The finishing moments were so intense!

Post-Match: Hirooki Goto & Michael Elgin & Taichi ***1/4 Solid prelude to the future of the NEVER Openweight title.

April 29:

IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Title Match: Davey Boy Smith Jr. & Lance Archer (Killer Elite Squad/Suzuki-Gun) vs EVIL & SANADA (Los Ingobernables de Japon) ***1/4 Not bad, but nothing too interesting either. Sometimes I feel like KES wrestle a style that is easy to lose interest in, due to their emphasis on being bullies at the expense of trying to win the match. The finish here was also very so-so to me.

IWGP Intercontinental Title Match: Minoru Suzuki (c) vs Tetsuya Naito **** WIth two of the strongest personalities of NJPW fighting over a title that Naito had a fun, unique reign with last year… this was bound to be good. I feel like Suzuki got more creative than usual with submission holds for this match, so that was especially interesting. However, for all of the strengths of this match, the finish felt a little flat for me and there seemed to be a bit of a botch towards the end.

May 3:

Yujiro Takahashi & Chase Owens (Bullet Club) vs Yota Tsuji & Shota Umino ***1/4 Two early notes: these Young Lions came out looking very strong, and this crowd felt weirdly stubborn in their silence for some time. The wrestling was quite good, but I was put off by how dead the crowd felt for a lot of it. Oh, and I still hate Yujiro’s gimmick.

Ryusuke Taguchi, Tiger Mask, & Jyushin Thunder Liger vs Yuji Nagata, Ren Narita, & Tomoyuki Oka ***1/2 Really cool sequence between Liger and Oka early on, and shortly after that Tiger Mask put together some good-looking offense, too. Later on, Nagata was a fantastic in-ring psychologist and really the “emotional glue” of this one. It’s impressive how well they built some heat for this undercard tag match. I actually really liked it.

SHO, YOH, & Rocky Romero (RPG 3K/CHAOS) vs Davey Boy Smith Jr., Lance Archer, & Takashi Iizuka (Suzuki-gun) Before this match started, I was really feeling like there’s a huge character issue with Archer spitting water all over the crowd and them loving it, when he and Smith try to be such heels in the ring. I kind of feel like Archer should start teasing it and not doing it; folks just seem to enjoy/expect it too much now for it to be heeling. While the finish to this was really interesting and cool, this was barely a match, hence the lack of rating.

Togi Makabe, Juice Robinson, David Finlay, Toa Henare, & Michael Elgin vs Hirooki Goto, Toru Yano, Tomohiro Ishii, YOSHI-HASHI, & Jay White (CHAOS) I was feeling a bit bored with the Goto/Elgin pairing that opened, but Makabe and Ishii made things interesting in the brutal, no-frills manner that they’re both quite good at. Juice had a pretty fun energy in this one, but overall I had a hard time getting invested in this match for whatever reason. Too many dudes and not enough live storylines, maybe?

NEVER 6-Man Tag Title Match: Matt Jackson, Nick Jackson, & Marty Scurll (Bullet Club?) vs Tama Tonga, Tanga Loa, & Bad Luck Fale (c, Bullet Club?) ***1/4 There’s interesting storyline stuff happening in this show with Bullet Club 5th Anniversary robes that Matt, Nick, and Marty aren’t wearing. Scurll was really funny in this match, but it was hard to get especially into it due to how much Bullet Club peacemaking there was to start the match. It just kind of put a ceiling on how competitive this could feel. As underwhelming as this match was, it was kind of fun and it made me eager to see more Nick Jackson vs Tama Tonga due to their combined athleticism. To that point, it’s easy to imagine the newly-heavyweight Young Bucks vs the Guerrillas of Destiny for the IWGP Tag Team titles at some moment down the line, and it’s even easier to look forward to such a thing.

Minoru Suzuki, Zack Sabre Jr. (vegan!), El Desperado, Yoshinobu Kanemaru, & Taichi (Suzuki-gun) vs Hiromu Takahashi, BUSHI, EVIL, SANADA, & Tetsuya Naito ***1/4 It’s interesting that Naito came out without the Intercontinental Championship (unlike how EVIL & SANADA had their IWGP tag titles). Not unlike the earlier ten-man tag, though, I was just left feeling like there perhaps aren’t enough living, breathing storylines in this match. I kept a keen eye out for any teases of Naito/ZSJ, but there wasn’t very much of that. Anytime Sabre was beating on Naito, Suzuki was right there with him, which made it hard to see Naito/ZSJ as a specifically hyped matchup. But this match wasn’t all bad (Naito in particular shone with his selling); it just seemed strange as a follow-up to Suzuki and Naito’s title match, though maybe they’re planning a quick rematch like how Tanahashi and Naito had a string of (very good) matches in a pretty short amount of time last year.

Young Bucks Challenge SANADA & EVIL ***1/2 Cool. The Bucks moving up to the heavyweight division meant they were bound to challenge for the titles before too long. Should be a good match. Matt was funny on the way to the back.

KUSHIDA & Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Will Ospreay & Kazuchika Okada (w/ Gedo, CHAOS) ****1/4 The psychology and hype between Okada & Tanahashi ahead of their match is just electrifying: super obvious stakes (Tanahashi’s record of 11 defenses, which Okada tied against ZSJ) as well as pretty unambiguous heel/face dynamics with Okada being kind of a bully on this tour and Tanahashi just being super popular. KUSHIDA and Ospreay also put on a really good preview; just incredible athleticism and exciting action.

Cody vs Kota Ibushi ****1/2 Really interesting and heated feeling-out sequence at the beginning of the match. I’m just a big fan of the careful pace to the early moments of this match, even in such a heated storyline. I think they did a good job of letting things breathe and making every moment count. Ibushi spent a lot of this match taking offense and abuse from Cody (which worked well), but once it got a little more competitive, it reached a really remarkable level of performance.

Kenny Omega vs Hangman Page ***3/4 After such a deliberately-paced match (Cody vs Kota), this was almost disorientingly fast-paced, to a fault. The action was cool, but it was such a difficult shift of gears for me. That’s not to say the action was bad; it was just a challenging, jarring transition between the previous match and this one. By the time things calmed down (and a certain interfering party oddly disappeared), there was a lot to like in this, but I do question the “plot” of the match to some extent.

May 4:

Yuya Uemura, Ren Narita, & Shota Umino vs Tiger Mask, Jyushin Thunder Liger, & Ryusuke Taguchi ***1/4 This crop of Young Lions seems really exceptional, and they keep being featured in surprisingly compelling matches. I feel like when the previous generation of Young Lions would open the show, it would be a much less interesting squash against veterans. Side note: Don Callis was extremely good on commentary for this show and the previous day as well.

Tomoyuki Oka & Yuji Nagata vs Chase Owens & Yujiro Takahashi ***1/4 I feel like Owens & Takahashi had some more chemistry here than I would normally expect, and this match—while quite different from it—ended up being pretty much as good as the previous one!

SHO, YOH, & Rocky Romero (RPG 3K/CHAOS) vs TAKA Michinoku, Taichi, Takashi Iizuka (Suzuki-gun) *** Pretty cool story to this one, especially in light of yesterday’s match that featured many of these folks. The action itself was a little bit rushed, but there was a lot to like here.

Toa Henare & Togi Makabe vs Toru Yano & Tomohiro Ishii ***1/4 Everything between Henare and Ishii was pretty brilliant, but this wasn’t too remarkable on the whole.

Michael Elgin, David Finlay, & Juice Robinson vs YOSHI-HASHI, Jay White, & Hirooki Goto (CHAOS) ***1/2 Some pretty interesting and unexpected spots in what I figured would be a pretty ho-hum undercard match. Fun stuff.

Hiromu Takahashi, BUSHI, EVIL, SANADA, & Tetsuya Naito (Los Ingobernables de Japon) vs El Desperado, Yoshinobu Kanemaru, Davey Boy Smith Jr., Lance Archer, & Minoru Suzuki (Suzuki-gun) *** Naito still didn’t bring his title out with him. A solid match, but a little too chaotic and unfocused to be anything great.

Jericho Jumps Naito ***1/2 While this was somewhat effective and obviously interesting, I honestly felt like this whole thing was a bit stilted. After the false start earlier in the year, it’s much harder to get excited this time around. And this all overshadows everything they continued to build with Suzuki and Naito, so it just comes across as a little bit confusing to me.

Tanga Loa, Tama Tonga, Bad Luck Fale, Kenny Omega, & Kota Ibushi (Bullet Club?) vs Cody, Marty Scurll, Nick Jackson, Matt Jackson, & Hangman Page (Bullet Club?) ***1/2 Cody was really funny on commentary just before the match, demanding a Bullet Club kimono. Really good theatrics through the entire match, actually. I remain super excited to see more Nick Jackson vs Tama Tonga, as well as the Bucks vs GoD more broadly. It was interesting to see how all of the storylines in play developed, but it was also somewhat hard to follow everything (especially who was on which team, strictly speaking). Finally, the finish was funny but—as a match—this was hard to be too impressed with. Fun, but not amazing.

Hangman, Chase, Marty, Tama, Tanga, Fale, & Yujiro Too Sweet ***1/4 Definitely interesting to see the Bucks throw up a too sweet, with Ibushi looking on and Omega having chased Cody backstage.

IWGP Jr Heavyweight Title Match: Will Ospreay (c) vs KUSHIDA ***** I don’t think KUSHIDA vs Zack Sabre Jr. (vegan, of course) has ever happened in any company I follow, but given how technical KUSHIDA was in this match, I want it really badly now. Maybe I’ll check out their one encounter I found in a quick search, but that’s not what this post is about. The match in question had a really coherent storyline, which is always good: KUSHIDA working the arm and neck of Ospreay relentlessly. Brilliant action throughout, as can be expected from these two. I felt like there were some problems with a somewhat difficult “babyface vs babyface” dynamic early in this match, but by the end of this thing, it was just some of the best action I’ve seen all year. Fantastic stuff. The callback to the scary apron Spanish Fly spot versus Scurll was very interesting.

Tama Tonga Introduces the New Bone Soldier, Who Beats Down Ospreay ***3/4 It’s Taiji Ishimori. Sorry, Captain.

IWGP Heavyweight Title Match: Kazuchika Okada (c, w/ Gedo) vs Hiroshi Tanahashi ***** I really want to compliment Don Callis and Kevin Kelly for helping a ton to tell the story of this match (and rivalry). And as with the previous match, these two wrestlers are basically just too good to have a bad match. The progression of this match was just beyond great, and the crowd was more than ready to be excited for all of it. The peaks this match reached are just so rare to encounter, and—while I didn’t necessarily expect a great match to quite this degree (five stars)—it’s also hard to doubt the ability of Okada and Tanahashi to put on an all-time classic. Count this match as exactly that.

Post-Match: Gedo, Okada, & Omega ****1/2 This was so much easier to enjoy with the live translation of the Japanese; I really appreciate New Japan’s investment in that. But beyond that, it was a very exciting challenge from Okada to Omega given the way they lit 2017 on fire. Given Omega’s victory over Omega in 2017’s G1, I’ve been eagerly awaiting a title match follow-up (not that I’m so unique in that regard). Looks like we have a no time limit, 2-out-of-3 falls match in June between Okada and Omega, and it’s easy to imagine that match being even better than this show’s main event or any of 2017’s Omega/Okada matches. Super exciting stuff.

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