Wrestle Grand Slam in MetLife Dome (not to be confused with the one in the Tokyo Dome) is New Japan Pro Wrestling‘s last big show of the summer and last show, period, before the 2021 G1 Climax. The two-night event included defenses of every available championship, a grudge match between former tag partners, the creation of a new subfaction, and attempted murder by scissors. While the September 4-5 shows didn’t feel like ones for the ages, they were mostly worth watching and set a couple of cool things in motion.
Before we get into the show review, a heads up: Wrestle Grand Slam Night 2 included the announcement of the G1 Climax 31 competitors and blocks, but they’re not going to be discussed here because Fanfyte will have a separate G1 preview article going up soon.
So, NJPW’s 2021 is still going how it’s been going
Like a lot of New Japan shows in the pandemic era, Wrestle Grand Slam was preceded by misfortunes and creative issues (and creative issues caused by misfortunes.) In a situation that saw wrestlers’ health and the WGS card in jeopardy, Takagi and Bushi were diagnosed with COVID-19 in the weeks ahead of the show, and other performers including Evil, Naito, and Sanada had to quarantine because of exposure to them. Fortunately, everybody seems to have turned out fine! But (necessary) wrestler absences and the specter of the coronavirus pandemic don’t exactly generate a fun atmosphere ahead of a big wrestling event.
While the late announcement of Tanahashi vs. Ibushi, with Tanahashi laying down the challenge after winning the U.S. title at Resurgence, was an important addition to the event, it was also unable to be promoted because Tanahashi was quarantining for two weeks after returning from America and Ibushi didn’t return from his bout of aspiration pneumonia until this bout. Also, Resurgence introduced an extremely whack fake world title angle via ten-minute Will Ospreay promo. Also, earlier, the Shingo vs. Evil storyline kicked off with Evil using a slur that was later cut from his promo due to backlash. This is the state of NJPW right now; things rarely seem to go completely right for this company and some of that is due to circumstances beyond their control and some of it is their own fault.
However, it would be wrong to act like no cool stuff happened leading into WGS, because some cool stuff did happen leading into WGS! Super Junior Tag League was mostly skippable this year, but the Roppongi 3K breakup in the midst of it was heartbreaking and well-done. And while Ibushi saved himself for the MetLife Dome, our other beloved recently-unwell weirdo, Hiromu Takahashi, made his in-ring return on the go-home show with a crazy match against Douki. In general, Hiromu and Robbie Eagles did an excellent job of promoting their Junior Heavyweight Championship match as much as they could with what few opportunities they had.
The girls are fighting (on the broadcast, this time!)
One of the more attention-grabbing Wrestle Grand Slam announcements (also announced late in the promotional game) was that the Stardom-offer pre-show matches were broadcast rather than dark. In no surprise to anyone who’s seen these wrestlers before, these matches were really fun ways to open the shows.
Saya Kamitani and Momo Watanabe took on two different Donna Del Mondo teams (Lady C and Maika on Night 1 and tag champs Giulia and Syuri on Night 2) in solid-to-excellent bouts that said hey look, Stardom exists and has cool wrestlers who are good at wrestling! Kamitani’s athleticism was impressive, Giulia and Syuri looked like a championship-worthy tag team, everyone’s gear was impeccable, and the Japanese commentary broadcast included the wholesome moment of both announcers getting really into Lady C using Giant Baba’s overhead chop to the brain. These matches aren’t the tippy top of what Stardom has to offer, but they’re good promotion-offer matches that I think probably gave some viewers enough of a taste test to check out more of what the company has to offer.
Wrestle Grand Slam in MetLife Dome Night 1 – September 4, 2021
Robbie Eagles and Tiger Mask def. Hiromu Takahashi and Bushi
In the Night 1 main card’s opening match, Robbie and Hiromu continued to promote the heck out of their upcoming title bout. The first Los Dos Peligrosos match since before Hiromu’s shoulder surgery delivered on the tag wrestling and the good vibes, and Robbie Eagles wrestled at times like he was his entire tag team. It’s such a shot in the arm for not just the junior division, but NJPW as a whole, to have Hiromu guy back doing the stuff he does better and differently than anyone else.
a standout moment in the meanest entrance video of all time (NJPW)
Sho def. Yoh
Before talking about this match, let’s talk about the reveal of where Sho’s evil allegiances lie, the new Bullet Club sub-faction, House of Torture. Before this show, I subscribed to the popular theory that Sho was going to the United Empire, the faction that still doesn’t have any junior heavyweights. But the second Sho entered the arena looking like he just stopped by the Darkness World Boutique & Salon, it was clear he’d gone from R3K to BC4L. I don’t know why Bullet Club keeps adding more and more members, but I do like that Evil, Sho, Yujiro, and Dick Togo are now the Orange Caramel to BC’s After School. (The better parallel is probably something from NCT, but I don’t know the conceptual difference between NCT U and NCT 127 and at this point I’m too afraid to ask.)
It’s not totally clear why House of Torture exists – the group doesn’t include all the BC members who were in Japan at the time of their formation or who will be in Japan during the G1 – but their concept seems fun-corny so far, and the confusion is part of the fun. Maybe this is the seed of a new faction that will break off from BC, with Evil the top heavyweight and Sho the top junior. Maybe these guys just wanted to hang out together and wear matching shirts. If the entire reason H.O.T. was introduced was to add some more tension to the Evil vs. Shingo title match, I think was a success – but we’ll get to that later in the article.
Yoh vs. Sho achieved four things: it produced a lot of R3K breakup feelings, it introduced Sho’s heel persona, it made me want to see where the rivalry will go next, and it made me really wish Japanese crowds could cheer. Heel Sho could suffer from getting too over-the-top with his new smirk, but so far, this new persona feels like a needed evolution. The same basic wrestling style delivered through fighting like an asshole is a huge change of pace for him, and an opportunity for him to break free of his tendency to go super high tension in matches he ends up losing. The question for him as a character and a singles performer had been what step he could take to make it to the next level, and from what we’ve seen of “the Murder Machine” so far, it seems like this could be the right one.
Yoh does not make his successful next move at Wrestle Grand Slam, but in a way that makes you want to see him figure it out. The match shows a glimmer of what Yoh could be as a singles babyface, with more motivation and a little more edge behind his fired-up offensive comeback than he’s shown in BOSJs in the past. His in-ring work, which looks as good or better than ever, is supported by Yoh being given such a solid platform for success with this storyline so far.
Yoh’s performance of total dejection over being unable to win matches was compelling, and then the guy who at first seemed to support him during this hard time ended up telling him to quit. It made sense for Sho to be frustrated, but Yoh’s plight also felt true to life – who among us, since early 2020, hasn’t had at least one period of feeling trapped in an inescapable pit of despair? This might be the ideal time to give a babyface a potentially career-elevating storyline about getting their shit together after a period of what was looked like depression.
Overall, I think Sho vs. Yoh laid the groundwork for fans to be even more invested the next time they face off, probably in BOSJ. The one downside is that people at shows in Japan can’t cheer or boo right now, which takes away from the part of the show about a new heel and a rising babyface more than from the average wrestling match.
stabby stabby (NJPW)
KOPW 2021 No DQ I Quit match: Toru Yano def. Chase Owens (c)
After the highs of Maika on NJPW World, a strong opener, R3K breakup drama, and the debut of a subfaction that can be enjoyed unironically or ironically, we get the first and worst title match of Wrestle Grand Slam. Also, the worst match of any kind of Wrestle Grand Slam. Also, possibly the match from Wrestle Grand Slam that got the most buzz because of people looking at the nearly half-hour run time for Chase Owens vs. Toru Yano and decrying NJPW’s downfall, etc.
This match’s negative publicity was completely deserved! It had the hook of Yano coming out with his GBH-era look and persona and it was still a drag. The use of trash cans at the beginning, which we haven’t seen in NJPW for a while, was fun and attention-grabbing, but the match soon moved on to common pitfalls of the I Quit genre. It’s so difficult to suspend disbelief for parts of this match because it seems so clear that without disqualifications, the wrestlers could be doing a lot more to get their opponent to quit. For example, Chase straps Yano to the ringpost early in the match and starts hitting him with a kendo stick. When Yano doesn’t give up within seconds, Owens moves on to set up some ladders, and then un-straps Yano himself. But Yano didn’t show any sign that he was able to escape, so why didn’t Owens keep beating on him until he gave up, or at least try to do that a little longer? The meta-answer to that is “for the entertainment value of the match,” but it doesn’t help the entertainment value for wrestlers to do things that so openly don’t make sense in the world where the match is taking place.
Looking back on this match, it’s hard to think of almost anything entertaining about it. Owens and Yano tease cool spots with objects like ladders and tables and don’t do them, then deliver unexciting spots when they return to those objects later. In general, there’s no sense that the match is ramping up in drama or excitement. It doesn’t help that KOPW sucked too much since it was created to make people really care who has the title, and that the reaction to NJPW giving Owens a title run in 2021 was closer to a long sigh than real heel heat or any kind of interest.
The kind of sad part of this match is that Owens and Yano do try to do something here. When Owens has him cuffed to the barricade, Yano escapes by having the key hidden in his wrist tape, a callback to how Owens won KOPW in the battle royal at WGS Tokyo Dome in July. But whatever props could be given for continuity should be taken away for this spot happening twenty-five minutes into a bad Chase Owens match! At least the match does actually, surprisingly, finish strong, with Yano finally bringing forth his true GBH self and looking like a dead-eyed violent maniac as he tries to stab Owens in the face with scissors. If this had happened at the end of a shorter and more Yano-focused match, I think it might have actually gotten some positive buzz.
The one positive takeaway from this match is that even after years of clownery, Yano can still pull off being pretty scary! If he keeps this gimmick going for the G1, it could be a really good run, like the “fair play Yano” angle from a few years ago but with a much more prevalent threat of stabbing.
Every show could be a Wrestle Kingdom if you believe had enough
The September 4 show’s pre-intermission announcement is that Wrestle Kingdom, which for the past two years has expanded beyond January 4 at the Tokyo Dome to also include January 5 at the Tokyo Dome, will, in 2022, include both these days and January 8 at Yokohama Arena. Calling this third show Wrestle Kingdom feels eerily similar to WWE calling Backlash “WrestleMania Backlash” this year in order to try to get people to care more about Backlash. This and Kidani going out and telling Tokyo Sports he has “a sense of crisis” but also saying there’s no way around the absence of foreign wrestlers gives me a sense of crisis about how well these events are going to go!
I can see how the math of more arena shows = more ticket sales works out, but for the greatest long-term benefit, NJPW needs to match the quantity of events with quality. The past two Wrestle Kingdoms have included good matches, but the fallout from how both the two-night WKs have been booked has totally dismantled NJPW’s previously bulletproof world title picture and contributed to year-round creative problems. The way we got the January 4 main event for 2021 was Ibushi losing the right to the title match in the WK main event, then Naito getting him a main event title shot because they’d actually only planned for one main event. Then we lost the IWGP Heavyweight Championship because of this.
You don’t have to be a doomer to lack faith that NJPW can pull off a three-night Wrestle Kingdom right now, especially since one of the big storylines they’ve set in motion, probably for this event, is the replica belt in America. Fingers crossed for a miracle though, because New Japan used to be a lot better and fun than it is right now and it would be cool to get that back.
Jeff Cobb def. Kazuchika Okada
After Chase vs. Yano and the weird WK announcement, the September 4 show picks up again with the Cobb vs. Okada rematch, but it takes a little while. These guys really take their time getting to anything exciting in a way that feels more like padding out the match time than building to something. But once they get to that something (Cobb’s amazing feats of strength) the match becomes more memorable. Cobb catches Okada’s crossbody over the barricade and turns it into a brainbuster! He also catches Okada’s plancha later! This is what we like to see from him!
Okada – who shows up looking almost like his 2014 self – gets some good-looking moments too, with an impressive air raid crash on his larger opponent and one of his classic dropkicks towards the end. The finish – the surprise Tour of the Islands off the ropes followed by the regular Tour of the Islands – ends the match on a high note. While I wonder if Cobb and Okada have run out of gas heading into their rubber match in the G1, they’ve shown this summer that they’re a pairing that can do good things together.
IWGP U.S. Championship match: Hiroshi Tanahashi (c) def. Kota Ibushi
The latest meeting between Ibushi and Tanahashi was unique for 1) being an NJPW main event under 20 minutes long and 2) being nearly angst-free compared to their other matches over the past four years.
Ibushi struggled against one of his personal wrestling gods, finally surpassed him on his way to winning the G1, became a semi-accomplished tag team with him in a part of the story that didn’t go quite as well, and finally was encouraged by his god to become a god himself. He whiffed godhood pretty quickly and then got real-life pneumonia as soon as he was about to start a comeback, and now here he is, facing god again in his return match from that illness. This makes it sound like this match could have had a lot of angst, actually, but Ibushi overtaking Tanahashi in NJPW’s power rankings isn’t something that was taken back by Ibushi losing the world title.
You could look at the current state of NJPW kayfabe and say that Tanahashi is above Ibushi right now, but in the bigger picture, all this win showed was that Tanahashi is powerful enough to retain a midcard championship and that Ibushi has a particularly steep climb to make if he wants to win the G1 again. Tanahashi is in the future special U.S. appearance picture; Ibushi is in the A-Block trifecta of world title contender/1982-line drama that is Ibushi-Takagi-Naito. While Ibushi the character is struggling right now, Ibushi is fine.
Both of these wrestlers show, in their returns from pneumonia and post-travel quarantine, that they are still way more than fine at professional wrestling! The match soon escalates to Ibushi and Tanahashi beating the tar out of each other. It’s a sportsmanly fight, but it’s a fight! Tana is good as usual in this match, but Ibushi is the more exciting wrestler to watch here, especially when he’s been absent for a while. Though he loses, this feels like a success for him as a comeback match. It was a huge bummer when he was embroiled in the title unification stuff this spring, but free of that, Ibushi is still one of the best, and it’s great to have him back. Even though a three-peat of G1 wins for Ibushi seems excessive, I think his loss here and emotional reaction to it will make people more invested in seeing him try to get his grove back in the upcoming tournament.
I get why some people would want Ibushi to win the U.S. title right now, seeing it as a gateway to him going to the U.S. and AEW, but there’s still a two-week quarantine period upon returning to Japan from abroad right now, Ibushi’s main thing for the next month is probably going to be winning that missed world title shot back over Shingo in the G1, Kenny’s pretty busy, and so on. There are so many reasons not to even establish the possibility that Ibushi could show up in AEW if they’re not going to pull that (golden) trigger, and it would distract from what people in both AEW and NJPW are actually doing right now.
Wrestle Grand Slam in MetLife Dome Night 2 – September 5, 2021
Jeff Cobb and Great-O-Khan def. Kazuchika Okada and Tomohiro Ishii
My expectations for this match were probably lower than they should have been after watching so many Cobb vs. Okada preview tags on the Summer Struggle tour, but this WGS Night 2 opener quickly blew those out of the water. This match turned out to be not just a Cobb vs. Okada blowoff, but a preview for the rubber match of that feud and for Ishii vs. O-Khan in the G1, and the wrestlers all put in work building hype for those. I can’t get that into the idea of another Cobbkada so soon, but Ishii and O-Khan bring the heat of a pairing that’s already dug their heels into a feud, and it looks like their G1 match could be a tournament highlight.
Also, I’m sure I’ve written this before, but Cobb and Great-O-Khan continue to be a strong tag team, and it’ll be a happy day when they get the chance to be at the top of the heavyweight tag division rather than the middle of the singles landscape. (So, maybe the World Tag League final in early December or something.)
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship match: El Desperado and Yoshinobu Kanemaru def. El Phantasmo and Taiji Ishimori (c)
Suzukigun vs. Bullet Club’s Cutest Tag Team is a longer rivalry than it is an acclaimed one, and a big part of that lack of acclaim is how inconsistent this Bullet Club team is at the execution of heel shenanigans. The reintroduction of Sudden Death that won them the tag titles earlier this summer was well-executed, but they lost Super Junior Tag League to Despy and Kanemaru by just… forgetting who their opponents’ legal man was, and without their enemies tricking them about it in an impressive way. If these guys managed to become tag champions, I guess the whole tag division is pretty terrible!
Fortunately, these teams did pull off the shenanigans-filled conclusion of their Wrestle Grand Slam rematch, with Desperado getting hold of ELP’s loaded boot and attaching it to his hand to lead his team to victory. The rest of this match leading up to this finish suffered from how many times NJPW has run this matchup this year. Watching it had a similar vibe to getting through the easy part of a video game level you’ve been struggling to beat and playing over and over. I would recommend just looking at a gif of Despy with the boot on his hand much more than I would recommend watching this entire match.
IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship 3-way: Taichi and Zack Sabre Jr. (c) def. Sanada and Tetsuya Naito, also Hirooki Goto and Yoshi-Hashi
In contrast to the junior tag title bout, the three-way IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship match is a change of pace for its division and a fun match from bell to bell. And in contrast to the first Dangerous Tekkers vs. L.I.J. match, everybody in this match works like they’re battling the audience’s attention spans. All the wrestlers use the increased amount of time they get to spend out of the ring due to the three-way format to fuel the time they spend in the ring. The pairings in the ring switch out faster, the individual wrestlers seem like they’re moving faster, and the intensity is kept up throughout the match.
The finish also shows these teams taking full advantage of the triple threat match format, with ZSJ restraining Naito while Taichi hits Yoshi-Hashi with Black Mephisto for the win. Dangerous Tekkers only directly “beat” one team, but they come out of the match looking stronger for ending it dominant over both sets of opponents. (They also look stronger for the almost-kiss after the match: no one else can compete with this bond!)
Although this match was one of the better parts of Wrestle Grand Slam, it does have one weak point: the long-ish sequence of Sanada trying to submit Yoshi-Hashi with Skull End. It looks bad in the same way a lot of these Skull End sequences look bad. They’re the worst part of Sanada’s act and probably just will be forever at this point.
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship match: Robbie Eagles (c) def. Hiromu Takahashi
Robbie Eagles vs. Hiromu Takahashi is a pretty good match that ends up feeling like it could have been better. This is a weird thing to say about a match that has some mouth blood at the end, but it seemed like they went harder in their preview tag match. Hiromu vs. Douki on the last night of Summer Struggle was also a better showcase of Hiromu’s craziness (amplified by playing off craziness from Douki.) It probably didn’t help that soon after Hiromu got into a more deranged zone, this match’s momentum was halted by the awkward moment in the corner, a long setup for a Turbo Backpack off the second rope that felt like watching these guys mess up their original setup for a move and then try to get back into it – which is probably what it was.
This is a “damning with faint praise” kind of review, but this match and its aftermath still made me feel positive about the rest of the year for the junior division. Hiromu winning and then Despy challenging, with the tag titles thrown in, would have been a predictable but crowd-pleasing angle to go with. Eagles’ win takes things in a more interesting direction.
Robbie has looked like a good wrestler the whole time he’s been in New Japan, but he was relegated to sidekick or supporting roles until this run. Since he returned to challenge for the Junior Heavyweight Championship, he’s been flying high, in a position to show his full potential without being overshadowed by the fan-favorites he’s been feuding with. It’s not disappointing at all to see him retain the junior title and stay at the top of the division.
It also creates a windier and more interesting path to whenever they run back Hiromu vs. Despy for the title. If Desperado beats Eagles for the title and then Hiromu challenges him, it would be a reversal of the positions they’ve held in the junior division when they started feuding, and that they had in last year’s emotional Best of the Super Juniors final. That BOSJ is coming up soon and that Sho vs. Yoh is another big, angsty storyline in the junior division makes it harder to predict if that will actually happen around the singles championship, which also makes it more compelling. All in all, after Wrestle Grand Slam, the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship scene is the one current title picture in NJPW that makes the case that it’ll definitely be fun to go along for the ride and seeing how things play out.
IWGP World Heavyweight Championship match: Shingo Takagi (c) def. Evil
Evil vs. Shingo for the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship had a deeply cursed build (and lack of one) but ended up being a fun main event, and one of the better big BC Evil matches. In contrast to Takagi’s last defense vs. Tanahashi, this is way more about the drama and “entertainment” side of wrestling than about wrestling-wrestling. There’s a section that’s straightforward Evil vs. Takagi, but this match is much more Shingo vs. House of Torture. An Evil match with a lot of interference isn’t something that sounds promising at all these days, but the new sub-faction helps make things a lot less repetitive and more exciting. That H.O.T. was created only the night before adds just enough intrigue for it to feel like maybe there’s a sliver of a possibility that Evil could win this match. Plus, Heel Sho is still new enough that just his presence draws more interest than other BC guys getting involved.
It helps that Shingo Takagi is very good at working with cheating and interference and various gimmicks, and has been for a long time. This match was pretty sports-entertainment-esque for NJPW, but it’s nothing compared to the annual Dragon Gate cage match in which people usually get pelted with baseballs, and in which Shingo once failed to stop someone escaping the cage because they escaped their pants on the way out (and then started beating up someone else using that pair of pants.) Shingo’s played the straight man or bully in these kinds of scenes much more than he’s been the person delivering the jokes, but to see Takagi as a totally serious workrate power guy is to misunderstand his career and what kind of performer he is. It’s not surprising that Takagi was the wrestler to play the most into Evil’s recurring bit of knocking over the ring announcer.
Of course, it’s not only Shingo fighting off House of Torture in this match, but the rest of L.I.J. who weren’t limping from getting tapped out by Robbie Eagles, and that’s to this match’s benefit. It’s unpredictable when NJPW will have stablemates come out to help with interference (though L.I.J. is probably the most consistent about it now), making this more of a feel-good moment than every other time L.I.J. does something as a group.
Wrestle Grand Slam in MetLife Dome wasn’t a completely positive event, but the shows had plenty of positive aspects. Both main events delivered in different ways. The junior heavyweight division looks better than it has in a while. Dangerous Tekkers showed the powers of love and a well-timed sumo forearm. Other parts of WGS fully sucked and next up is a G1 Climax tournament with a field that has a lot of people less than hyped, but, you know, this company can still put on good matches and can make you feel feelings from time to time.