Japan Trip 2016: Top 10 Matches Part 2 (Live)

Like last year, I was lucky enough to spend two and a half weeks in Tokyo to close out 2016 / start 2017. Here I’ll be going over my top 5 matches from this year’s trip. See part 1 for some general info and stats about what I saw, honorable mentions for this top 10 list, and matches #6-10.

Match reviews copied/modified from my show specific blogs when possible/appropriate.

I’m pleasantly surprised at how many rookies made this top 10. I did a spotlight on several of them, all of which have bright futures ahead. Check it out here.

 

5. Mio Momono vs Mika Shirahime – Marvelous 12/25/16

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I mentioned this match when talking about Mio’s performance in the 7-way at Ribbonmania (#7 on this list, featured in part 1). It was a perfect storm of excellent chemistry between opponents and both performing at a level far beyond their experience levels. Incredible instincts and craft were shown by both rookies, who built drama expertly through the 15 minute encounter and had the crowd going crazy at the end. There were a couple awkward spots, such as an instance from each where they essentially forgot to roll up their opponent, forcing the other to kind of roll herself up and wait for the other to get in proper position. But otherwise this was smooth and well executed. And even in the places I mentioned the ability of the other wrestler to adapt and keep things on track was impressive.

I was at Mio Momono’s debut in New York, and it’s wonderful to see how much she’s capitalized on the potential she showed even then. Her progression in 10 months was incredible. Can’t wait to see what the future holds for this extremely talented youngster.

 

4. International Ribbon Tag Championship: Avid Rival (Misaki Ohata & Ryo Mizunami) (c) vs The Lovely Butchers (Hamuko Hoshi & Mochi Miyagi) – Ice Ribbon 12/31/16

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Photo by Oliver Saupe.

 

I was a bit trepidatious headed into this match, as I generally don’t care for the Butchers’ gimmick, and signs seemed to be pointing towards them dethroning my current favorite tag team for IR’s tag team titles. Mizunami won Wave’s (her home promotion) singles title the night before, and Misaki was declared her #1 contender. Between the roll the Butchers had been on and the new status quo in Wave, it would have made sense for AR to begin dropping their tag titles here (they held the Wave tag titles too).

But I find Hamuko and Mochi vastly more entertaining when they get serious, which they did here to great benefit. They went toe-to-toe with Misaki and Ryo, leading to an excellent match. A particular highlight was an intense lariat exchange between Hoshi and Mizunami, who both throw them with incredible force.

In a pleasant surprise for me, Avid Rival persevered and retained their International Ribbon titles when Misaki hit her beautiful Sky Blue Suplex (bridging half wrist clutch tiger suplex) on Mochi. Kudos to all four here. Fantastic stuff.

 

3. IWGP Heavyweight Championship: Kazuchika Okada (c) vs Kenny Omega – NJPW 1/4/17

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The so called “Six Star Match” was admittedly fantastic, if not quite what the hype suggests. Okada and Omega built to a tremendous crescendo while telling a solid story of the cocky Omega being assured victory if he could hit the One Winged Angel, with the champion avoiding it at every turn until he simply outlasted the challenger and beat down Omega until he just couldn’t continue. They had a good first half of a match that felt largely unconnected to the phenomenal second half once they really kicked into gear.

Again still excellent overall though (which should be an obvious opinion with it here at #3 of 71 matches I saw), it’s just I personally don’t think it was the best match of all time up to that point, considering I didn’t even think it was the best of that show…

 

2. World of Stardom Championship: Io Shirai (c) vs Mayu – Stardom 12/23/16

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In the main event of last year’s Climax Io Shirai claimed the World of Stardom title from  Meiko Satomura in one of my top five matches from that trip. In this year’s main she defended that same title against her former Thunder Rock partner Mayu Iwatani.

This was a great, pedal-to-the-floor main event with tons of jaw dropping exchanges from two pros extremely familiar with one another. Highlights include Mayu hitting dragon suplexes on the apron and floor (ouch!), trying for one from the top rope only to have Io flip out and LAND ON HER FEET, and a trio of rolling Germans from Io that has to be seen to be believed. Strong back and forth contest and an incredible main event.

 

1. IWGP Intercontinental Championship: Tetsuo Naito (c) vs Hiroshi Tanahashi – NJPW 1/4/17

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… so here it is. In what I’m sure will be a largely disputed opinion I enjoyed the semi-main of Wrestle Kingdom 11 a bit better than the main. Naito and Tanahashi built an amazing back and forth struggle from start to finish. The tension gradually ramped to build to a perfect crescendo. Naito is in such command of his character now and the little touches he brings to his performances are a joy to see. Tanahashi is as always wrestling’s rock star. Definitive win for Naito too, which was 100% the right call.

 

——-

 

That does it for this trip. Hope you enjoyed reading about these great matches. Everything I’ve mentioned is well worth seeking out if possible.

Japan Trip 2016: Top 10 Matches Part 1 (Live)

Like last year, I was lucky enough to spend two and a half weeks in Tokyo to close out 2016 / start 2017. During this trip I saw 12 shows from 7 promotions with 71 matches featuring 148 wrestlers.

Slightly less shows and matches than the first trip, but interestingly because of adding in NJPW Wrestle Kingdom (with it’s 11 matches and entirely filled with wrestlers I wouldn’t otherwise see during my Joshi-centric schedule) I actually saw a few more different wrestlers this time.

Here’s a breakdown of matches by company: Gatoh Move: 14 matches, Ice Ribbon: 19 matches, Marvelous: 6 matches, New Japan Pro Wrestling: 11 matches, Pro Wrestling Wave: 8 matches, Tokyo Joshi Pro: 7 matches, and World Wonder Ring Stardom: 6 matches.

Happily, once again the vast majority of what I saw was extremely good. So it was VERY difficult to choose my favorite matches. In fact, things were so close this year I’m doing a Top 10 instead of 5. Even then there are still a lot of worthy wrestlers and matches that won’t be mentioned here, and the order is highly subject to change.

Match reviews copied / modified from my show specific blogs when possible/appropriate.

I’m pleasantly surprised at how many rookies made this list. I did a spotlight on several of them, all of which have bright futures ahead. Check it out here.

This entry will cover honorable mentions and #6-10.

 

Honorable mentions:

Survival Ribbon – Ice Ribbon 1/3/17 

Ice Ribbon’s entire 1/3/17 event gets a mention here, as everything was connected and the appeal was in the whole concept and execution rather than an individual match. Two teams of six were formed, split based on time in IR, with opposite team members randomly paired off in singles matches with the winners advancing to a tag main event. The atmosphere was incredible, with both teams at ringside cheering their side vocally and some fun pairings. Fantastic themed show.

 

Kairi Hojo vs Nana SuzukiStardom 12/22/16

In her debut match model Nana Suzuki got to get in the ring against one of Stardom’s aces, Kairi Hojo, in a singles contest. Nana actually played her role as an overmatched but determined underdog well and the match was quite good. Kairi rightly dominated most of this, but the story was well told and Nana got the crowd behind her comeback spots. Nana seems like she could make the transition and wrestle regularly if she wants to.

 

Misaki Ohata 10th Anniversary Match: Misaki Ohata & Mayumi Ozaki  vs Hiroyo Matsumoto & DASH Chisako – Wave 1/2/29/16

As no Sendai Girls shows fit my schedule, it was a real treat to see Dash chosen to be a part of this match (which I was already excited for as Misaki’s a favorite of mine) and thus give me one opportunity to see her wrestle. This was a fitting and fun “tribute” match.  All four wrestlers were clearly enjoying themselves, particularly Misaki having an absolute blast playing heel alongside Ozaki.

 

Top 10:

10. Ice Cross Infinity Title Tournament Finals: Tsukasa Fujimoto vs Risa Sera – Ice Ribbon 12/31/16

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Technically speaking, I thought this was a great match. It would likely be even higher on the list if not for the atmosphere and lack of crowd heat, as I thought it was pretty much the epitome of the “wrong match for the wrong crowd.” More specifically, it was the wrong match for the story they chose to tell.

It was instead exactly the match they should have had under the original trajectory of Tsukka’s title reign. This match would have been PERFECT as the end of Tsukka plowing through everyone else on a quest to best her own defense record just to run into a determined Risa dead set on proving she could reclaim her title from the woman who dethroned her.

However without Tsukka’s streak still in tact to add drama and uncertainty not one person in arena bought a Tsukka win here. The tournament was sold on the possibility of the unexpected, which made a back and forth contest between determined rivals the wrong framework for the finals. Both competitors should have been conveying desperation here (or better yet someone else should have advanced to face Risa, or the whole tourney been skipped). All that said, the wrestling itself again was great. And this will likely play better on disc.

 

9. Gatoh Move Tag Team Championship: Aoi & Obi (c) v Riho & KotoriGatoh Move 12/24/16

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Aoi is a personal favorite of mine, and this was unfortunately the only chance I had to see her wrestle this trip. Thankfully though it was a main event match in with three other excellent wrestlers, and as such was great.

Both teams were sharp and this was exactly the quick paced, hard hitting main event it should have been. Kotori having a bit of a chip on her shoulder and something to prove was a nice undercurrent, and Riho and Aoi had some fantastic exchanges down the stretch.

 

8. Team REINA (Makoto, Mari Sakamoto, & Hirori) vs Team Gatoh Move (Emi Sakura, Aasa Maika, & Mitsuru Konno) – Gatoh Move 12/24/16

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This 6-woman tag was elimination style, with over-the-top rules in addition to pin/submission. Interesting set up here, with Gatoh Move’s founder and two of her trainees against Reina’s reigning Champion (who was also GM’s IWA Triple Crown Championship) and two of hers. I’d of course seen Emi and Makoto last trip, and also saw Mari when she came to New York with Syuuri last year. Hirori, Aasa, and Mitsuru were all new to me.

The story of the match was phenomenal, with both teams showing real desire to prevail in the inter-promotional contest. The seconds on the outside for each team were visibly engaged and cheering their promotion, which really added to the atmosphere and the sense of something important being at stake here, even if it was just bragging rights.

 

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The action was great too, with everyone looking sharp, things going back and forth nicely, building drama around the eliminations, etc. Makoto’s presence and mannerisms as a cocky heel were several levels better than what I saw of her in a babyface role last year. Aasa got a nice spotlight at the end being the last member of her team left trying to topple Makoto before coming up just short, and her ring style as a pint-sized powerhouse suits her extremely well. I’d like to see more of Mitsuru too in the future, as she looked quite good in the little time she had before being the first elimination.

 

7. 7-Way: Hiroe Nagahama vs Kyuuri vs Maika Ozaki vs Mio Momono vs 235 vs Tequila Saya vs Uno Matsuya – Ice Ribbon 12/31/16

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This was originally scheduled to be a six-woman tag match, but shortly before the event Mio Momono was added to the match and it became a 7-way contest where eliminations could happen by pin, submission, or being thrown over the top rope to the floor. I’d been at Mio’s pro wrestling debut in NYC as well as seeing her in a fantastic opening contest at Marvelous’ Christmas Eve show (more on that later 😉 ), so was quite excited for her Ice Ribbon debut.

It was an extremely fortuitous change, as they really made the most of the format and this was much more interesting than IR’s traditional random 6-man would have been. EVERYONE got a chance to shine at various points, including Ozaki showing off her strength with a double torture rack, innovative multi-person moves and pin attempts, and an incredible sequence where Uno was thrown to the apron and went crazy trying to stay in the match running halfway around the ring on the apron while everyone inside tried to knock her off. The effort from all seven wrestlers was phenomenal, and they really got the crowd fired up for several sequences.

Excellent match overall, and one of my favorites of my trip. In the end Saya got to look strong somewhat surprisingly hanging in until the final two competitors, but the expected (and rightful) wrestler won when Kyuuri pinned her with the Fisherman suplex. Great showings for all involved. Really hope to see Mio continue to wrestle in IR.

 

6. Emi Sakura, Sayaka Obihiro, & Mitsuru Konno vs Riho, Kotori, & Aasa Maika  – Gatoh Move 12/31/17

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This was my favorite Gatoh Move dojo match of the trip. Obviously they all know each other extremely well and have great chemistry together, which led to an thoroughly exciting contest with innovative multi person spots and use of the venue. Riho’s double knees to an opponent seated against the wall looks so vicious.

Towards the end Emi and Kotori tumbled out of the window into my (hastily vacated) seat. Kotori held Emi outside to prevent her from making a save as Riho pinned Misturu. Little things like that are excellent uses of the uniqueness of the environment.

 

——-

 

I  was blessed to have such a great opportunity to visit Japan and see so much phenomenal wrestling. I hope you’ve enjoyed my look at some of the best of the best. Will be back with Part 2 featuring my top 5.

NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 11 Live Thoughts

January 4, 2017 in Tokyo, Japan

During my first trip to Japan I had to travel back during Wrestle Kingdom, so I was extremely excited to actually be able to attend this year. While I generally prefer shows where I can get reasonably close to the ring and really enjoy the benefits of being there live, stadium shows are unique and different experiences in their own right and attending Japan’s biggest wrestling show of the year (at a venue like the Tokyo Dome no less) was definitely a bucket list item for me.

I was happy to have an opportunity to check it off, and had a great time. The atmosphere was unlike any event I’ve been to before and it was a good show with several great highlights.

 

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That said I have to admit I don’t necessarily feel any need to do it again, despite having a lot of fun and enjoying the show. It’s simply too long and the novelty of being at a 27,000 person show won’t be as strong the second time around. As mentioned I enjoy experiencing the energy of live wrestling much closer to the ring. If I have the chance in the future I think I’d rather try to catch their follow up Korukeun Hall show instead next time around.

I’m not going to try to run down or separate thoughts on all 11 matches and do a full review here. My memory’s simply not up to it, and watching from the very top of the Tokyo Dome seats meant I was getting more general impressions than details at certain points anyway.

The pre-show New Japan Rumble was amusing mostly due to the lineup, ranging from Jushin Thunder Liger to Scott Norton to Billy Gunn to Cheeseburger (seriously…). Michael Elgin is extremely over in NJPW, so having him come in and destroy some guys to win it was a good call.

 

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The undercard was the appropriate mix of styles and stories. I don’t recall anything being actively bad, but to be honest I found both Cody Rhodes debut and the ROH title match flat. Both would have benefitted from having Japanese talent involved, although I do acknowledge I’m in the minority of the audience in that Adam Cole vs Kyle O’Reilly in particular is a match I can (and have) see repeatedly in the states. Still, I don’t think it had the impact intended. I understand the benefit to ROH of changing their title at such a big international event, but as one of eight title matches (and one of six title changes) it got lost in the midcard and fell flat. It was also seemed a rather average outing from the two regular opponents to me.

The midcard in general was good but blended together a bit. Standout moments in my memory are a strong finish to the Young Bucks vs Roppongi Vice match, and being annoyed with Yano’s antics and thus disappointed when his team won the tag team championship.

 

At an event like this the top of the card is always where the strongest matches belong, and NJPW pulled that off in spades. The top four contests were all singles title matches filled with wrestlers the crowd went wild for.

The IWGP Jr. Heavyweight title match between Kushida (c) and Hiromu Takahashi was good but spotty, with way too many dangerous looking head drops for my tastes. The story here was escalation, and I think they overdid it. Both competitors looked a bit loopy at times, and it was hard to enjoy this while more and more afraid for the wrestlers’ safety the longer this went. The rest of the crowd was hot for it though, so your milage may vary.

I felt the three matches that followed walked the line better, building increasing drama without going overbaord (ok, the main gets more of a pass on that for being the main). Katsuyouri Shibata (c) vs Hirooki Goto’s NEVER Openweight title match was a tense, hard hitting affair. I’ve heard some comments that it wasn’t the best match the two have had as opponents, but it was the first time I personally was seeing that pairing and I was impressed.

 

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In what I’m sure will be a largely disputed opinion best of the night honors from me go to the semi-main between Tetsuya Naito (c) and Hiroshi Tanahashi for the IWGP Intercontinental title, who built an amazing back and forth struggle from start to finish.  The tension gradually ramped to build to a perfect crescendo. Naito is in such command of his character now and the little touches he brings to his performances are a joy to see. Tanahashi is as always wrestling’s rock star. Definitive win for Naito too, which was 100% the right call.

So of course if Naito vs Tanahashi is my match of the night then (in my opinion) the main event IWGP Heavyweight title match isn’t the the industry redefining match it’s been described as, and certainly not the greatest match of all time. That’s not to take anything away from Kazuchika Okada (c) and Kenny Omega: it was fantastic. It’s just the hyperbole has been out of control regarding this match. The semi main built more smoothly  in my opinion. Here they had a good first half of a match that felt largely unconnected to the phenomenal second half once they really kicked into gear. Again, still excellent though.

 

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Overall

Great show that was just too long for me to enjoy to the fullest extent live. The top of the card hit it out of the park though and reenergized me, and it’ll be easier to watch on replay (with the ability to watch in pieces) anyway. Easy recommendation on the strength of the top 3 matches alone, which are all well worth going out of your way to see.