It’s a historic night for the world’s second largest pro wrestling federation—and arguably top in match quality—as New Japan Pro Wrestling presents its first live show from the United States.
Jim Ross and Josh Barnett are calling the action on AXS TV, and you’re invited to watch along with The A.V. Club starting at 8 p.m. eastern.
Here’s the line-up for night one of the G1 Special in USA show from Long Beach, California:
- Mark and Jay Briscoe, Rocky Romero, Trent Baretta, Will Ospreay vs. The Young Bucks, Bad Luck Fale, Yujiro Takahashi, Marty Scurll
- Jushin “Thunder” Liger, Volador Jr., Dragon Lee, Titan vs. Seiya Sanada, Evil, Bush, Hiromu Takahashi
- Jay Lethal vs. Hangman Page (U.S. title tournament)
- Zack Sabre Jr. vs. Juice Robinson (U.S. title tournament)
- Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kushida, Jay White, David Finlay vs. Billy Gunn, Yoshi-Tatsu, Yohei Komatsu, Sho Tanaka
- Tama Tonga & Tanga Roa vs War Machine (IWGP tag team championship match)
- Tetsuya Naito vs. Tomohiro Ishii (U.S. title tournament)
- Kenny Omega vs. Michael Elgin (U.S. title tournament)
- Kazuchika Okada vs. Cody (IWGP heavyweight championship match)
If you’ve never witnessed the glorious, balletic brutality of NJPW’s strong-style wrestling, my colleague Matt Gerardi offers a primer here.
Kazuchika Okada vs. Cody (IWGP Heavyweight Championship)
Cody receives a strange reaction. At the ROH pay-per-view last Friday, Cody gets a thunderous response from the Bullet Club-heavy crowd. But in front of a New Japan audience, even in America, Cody gets booed to the rafters. Perhaps because his opponent, the IWGP Heavyweight champion Kazuchika Okada, is the best freakin’ wrestler on planet earth, and there’s novelty in seeing him make a rare stateside appearance.
The question was never whether Okada could have a great match—his bout against Bad Luck Fale earlier this year proved Okada could tango with any dance partner. This was a showcase and a test for the former Cody Rhodes, who has emerged as one of the more intriguing characters of 2017. Here’s a wrestler who left the safety net of the WWE to pursue a career as a free agent, appearing for TNA Impact, wrestled at the Tokyo Dome for NJPW, and reigns as the current Ring of Honor champion. The Cody we saw tonight was crisper, with more snap and intensity, and a good 15 m.p.h. faster than when much of America saw him last as Stardust.
Halfway through the match, Kenny Omega strolls down ringside with white towel in hand, mirroring Cody’s action during the Okada-Omega II several weeks back. They’re setting up conflict between Cody and Omega with the Bullet Club; Cody even attempts a One-Winged Angel on Okada in the closing moments. Both wrestlers traded each other’s finishers, and the match ended when Okada hit a spinning jumping tombstone followed by a Rainmaker.
A really good main event—Okada great as ever (with a post-match promo in English and Japanese), Cody more than holding his own, but perhaps a notch below Elgin vs. Omega.
All in all, a show with stratospheric expectations lands somewhere in the 20,000-foot altitude, as several excellent matches topped out in the 4 1/4 stars range. I also expected the Long Beach crowd to go absolutely nuts from start to finish, and they really didn’t until Ishii/Naito, and peaked at the end of the Elgin/Omega match. Wrestling wise, this was a B- show.
And kudos to AXS TV, which for broadcasting a live wrestling show for the first time, did a fairly admirable job (with several technical hiccups, but that’s forgiven). Jim Ross and Josh Barnett were also a pleasure to listen, and J.R. got looser (and funnier) as the show went on.
Michael Elgin vs. Kenny Omega (U.S. Championship first round)
Perhaps the most anticipated match of this two-night special pitted the best big man in wrestling against the most talented worker in the world not named Okada. Michael Elgin can seemingly do any move that a high flyer half his size could execute; Omega, with two six-star matches in 2017 (so far), wrestles with a unique cadence that slow burns and explodes in bursts of lightning-speed offense (see: running knee strikes, snap dragon suplex). Omega may also sell better than any wrestler in the world today.
Intense, vicious match. Elgin delivers the first “holy shit” of the night with a German suplex on the ring apron (New Japan’s rings are notoriously harder than standard American 20-foot rings. Then Elgin hits a crucifix from the top rope into a sit-out power bomb, which Omega kicks out.
Then we get the sequence of the night so far: A series of increasingly violent knee strikes, followed by a reverse Frankensteiner and a near fall. Crowd goes berserk. Omega then hits a package piledriver, another knee strike, then picks up Elgin (!!!) for the One-Winged Angel and scores the pin.
There was a botch early in the match. It was apparent Michael Elgin did not make it back in the ring before the 20 count, but this wasn’t the finish, so Red Shoes allowed the match to continue. That aside, a super match with a super hot finish.
We’re now set for the U.S. championship semifinal on Sunday: Zack Sabre Jr. vs. Tomohiro Ishii, and Kenny Omega vs. Jay Lethal.
Tetsuya Naito vs. Tomohiro Ishii (U.S. Championship first round)
Our first great match of the night, not surprising, considering the two participants are among the best wrestlers in the world.
Tetsuya Naito comes out and the crowd treats him like a megastar. He’s just so good with his heelish mannerisms—the cocky poses, spitting blood in Tomohiro Ishii’s face.
This was a professional, technically sound match, with incredible chemistry from the two veteran rivals. Ishii hits his brainbuster and scores the pin, in what we would consider an upset victory. I’m not sure this matters in the scheme of things; Naito is the presumed favorite in the forthcoming G1 tournament.
War Machine vs. Guerillas of Destiny (IWGP Tag Team Championship)
Yes, this was held under the rules of New Japan Pro Wrestling, but there was nothing Strong Style about this tag team championship match. It was hard-hitting, with comedy and outside interference. War Machine asks to make this a no disqualification match, which G.O.D. responds with a mic shot to the head. Pop of the match saw the 300-pound Hanson go turnbuckle-to-turnbuckle against the Tanga Roa and Tama Tonga. Raymond Rowe kicks out of a power bomb on two steel chairs, and the finish sees War Machine hit The Fallout through the table. War Machine is your new IWGP tag team champion.
Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kushida, Jay White, David Finlay vs. Billy Gunn, Yoshi-Tatsu, Yohei Komatsu, Sho Tanaka
This is the match where the American crowd starts going nuts—it’s their first sighting of big-time Japanese superstars. Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kushida get chants before the bell.
Kushida with DX comedy stylings early on. Billy Gunn tags in and reciprocates, gets booed till Tuesday, and uses a few choice words that makes AXS TV wish they employed the seven-second delay. What little time Tanahashi and Gunn had in this match didn’t look good. Gunn took either a clothesline or sling blade attempt rather awkwardly. (I’m guessing the crowd turned on Gunn, rather than give him the nostalgic pop, because they wished Tanahashi was facing a more-worthy opponent for the IC title.)
Finish sees Jay White hitting the Flatliner on Yoshi-Tatsu. Gunn took the match down several notches, unfortunately.
Juice Robinson vs. Zack Sabre Jr. (U.S. Championship first round)
What we’re seeing on this G1 special so far is that every match is wrestled in a different style. Zack Sabre Jr. shows off his ground game early in the match against Juice Robinson, showcasing his innovative move set. Sabre Jr. is great at psychology—wrenching the fingers, using Robinson’s dreads for leverage. Sabre Jr. spends much of the match placing Robinson in painful submission holds, only to see Robinson break out with bursts of offense. Great moment when Robinson turns a triangle choke predicament into a power bomb. Finish saw Sabre Jr. lock in a modified octopus/Black Widow hold, tapping out Robinson.
Great showing from both wrestlers, but a special shoutout to Juice Robinson, who’s seen his stock rise these last few years. It wasn’t too long ago that he took the loss in Kevin Owens’ NXT debut, to this past April, in a surprising and star-turning match against Tetsuya Naito.
Jay Lethal vs. Hangman Page (U.S. Championship first round)
Story of the match is Hangman Page working over Jay Lethal’s injured ribs. Lethal tries to hit his Lethal Injection—his springboard cutter—but appears to miss the move. Lethal attempts his finisher once more, this time hitting the move on Page, and scores the pin. A so-so match, and crowd is flat after the action-packed opening two matches.
Los Ingobernables de Japon vs. CMLL + Jushin Liger
A harder-hitting, faster-paced multi-person tag action than the opener. Lots more lucha-style aerial moves in this match. Great pop for Jushin “Thunder” Liger, who at 52 is still keeping up with wrestlers half his age.
Crowd roars when Hiromu Takahashi and Dragon Lee share the ring, who have one of the best rivalries of the last decade.
Heel finish, when EVIL strikes Titan with a chair shot while the ref was distracted, followed by Takahashi hitting the Time Bomb finish.
Bullet Club vs. CHAOS
We kick off the G1 Special with what will surely be a choreographed train wreck between CHAOS and The Bullet Club. This will be all action, all high spots, an NBA Jam version of pro wrestling.. Already the crowd is different from the polite Japanese audience—this is a rowdy, PWG crowd. This will be fun to watch.
Finish sees The Young Bucks going for the Meltzer Driver against Rocky Romero, when Will Ospreay sweeps the leg of Nick Jackson. Romero rolls up Matt Jackson and scores the pin. Not the machine gun rat-a-tat offense we’ve seen from other multi-person NJPW tag openers, but everyone got to shine.
Funny line from Matt Jackson post-match: “I got a deal with Hot Topic, I can’t lose on TV!”