New Japan Pro Wrestling
Road to Castle Attack – Night 8
February 25, 2021
Watch: NJPW World
Reviewing this tour has frayed my emotional stability. Reality has blurred and disparate mediums have conflated. Case in point, my wife and I watch two things quite a bit: The Olympic Channel (the “Yeah, we’ll show fencing for you bourgeoise fucks twice a year, accept it) and opera.
Opera: the Met’s free streams are currently presenting a tribune week to the late, magnificent baritone Dmitry Hvorostovsky, who tragically died from a brain tumour in 2017. Hvorostovsky was an expert in Verdi roles, and the week is bookended by two of his performances as Di Luna in Il Travatore. You might not recognize the title, but you sure as fuck recognize one of the songs within it: the “Coro di Zingari” (Anvil Chorus) from Act II. Trust me: you know it.
The Olympic Channel: being a Comcast/NBC-operated station, the Olympic Channel airs a lot of commercials for NBC sports properties. Right now, they are relentlessly advertising the PGA’s upcoming Players Championship. The Player’s Championship is always held at TPC Sawgrass, famous for it’s 17th hole and the intimidating “island green.” The commercial, of course, is soundtracked with Stevie Nick’s “Edge of Seventeen.”
The mind-numbing monotony of these Road To Castle Attack shows have corroded my brain to the point where I hear, on never-ending loop, a combination of those two songs. I hear the music of “Anvil Chorus” with the lyrics from “Edge of Seventeen:”
THE WHITE (DING!)
WINGED DOVE (DING!)
SING’S SONG (DING!)
JUST LIKE (DING!)
SHE’S SING-(DING!)-ING (DING!)
Try getting that out of your head. Anyway, 503 people attended this show, and you could hear the difference. This audience was easily stimulated and enthusiastic. They were rewarded with the best show of the tour and a constructive lead-in to Castle Attack in Osaka, even if the main event of the series is still a conceptual and philosophical mess.
Hiromu Relinquishes The IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship
Mere days after his pectoral injury was announced, Hiromu walked to the ring and handed over his championship yet again. He emphasized that his dream was to hold that title, and he’s certainly exceeded that dream. Like no one of this era, that belt is tied to him. They are intrinsically linked, to the point where it’s not difficult to imagine his shadow extending into at least one further generation.
For the sake of the division, Takahashi has chosen to swiftly surrender its top prize. Questions will certainly proceed from here about Hiromu’s durability, irrefutably unfair but understandable. From this point, any 12 months of sustained workability from Takahashi should provoke staggering unease, an agitated anticipation of the next catastrophe. We managed 16 months this time, three of which were in full lockdown with no booked events.
In complement, any time rendered by him upon his return should be cherished. Likewise, notions of him moving up to heavyweight should decelerate and proceed very judiciously. Right now he is listed as 88 kilos. If he is moving up in weight class, any intention of bulking up should be contemplated with cautious meticulousness. That’s not to say he shouldn’t move up, though I’d prefer he simultaneously inhabit both divisions (which they simply will not do). But I suppose that is now the question to ruminate: will adding more weight be self-immolating, or will it preclude further injuries?
This was an excellent babyface promo, like if the Lowell HBK Lost My Smile promo was sincere, and not simply a self-absorbed addict running away from professional obligations and consequences. Of course, Hiromu turned heel by specifically naming BUSHI as his chosen replacement for the February 28 match in Osaka. See you for the G1 Climax, real-life Doflamingo (without the brazen evil, of course).
The Empire (Jeff Cobb, Will Ospreay, and Great-O-Khan) def. Yota Tsuji, Satoshi Kojima, and Hiroshi Tanahashi
Will Ospreay has decided to make the most of his currently reduced role, and by that I mean he’s imbued these Empire multi-man tags with absurdist overselling. Like, it’s literally absurdist artistry at this point: the Buster Keaton selling for Kojima’s machine gun chops, or like on February 22 when Tenzan planked him across the top and booted his stomach. We’ve all seen the spot. Will, however, launched himself like he was trying to get to Mars before Perseverance.
If I may borrow from operatic terminology, Will Ospreay produces coloratura selling. It is melismatic athleticism. In wrestling terms, Will’s selling right now is the physical embodiment of Lex Luger’s old in-match vocalizations.
At this point, anything other than wonder and deferent astonishment at the brilliance of Jeff Cobb is unacceptable. Professional wrestling reached its zenith in this match when Cobb grabbed Tanahashi in a gut-wrench position, walked him over to Tanahashi’s corner, just out of reach of a tag purely to be a fuckface about it, and then played air guitar on the Ace. Spectacular.
.@RealJeffCobb "TANA Guitar?"
— njpwworld (@njpwworld) February 25, 2021
The ending was equally magnificent: Tsuji back-body dropped Ospreay, but Cobb caught Will in mid-air and hoisted him up into a cradled position. Cobb then hurled Ospreay into the air towards Tsuji, allowing Will to deliver an Oscutter on the unsuspecting Young Lion. Ospreay then picked up Tsuji and whipped him into a Tour of the Islands. Sensational.
— Ciaràn (@CiaranRH) February 25, 2021
This faction unquestionably is the best thing in the company right now. Their deft tact and taut restraint are a breath of fresh air. Besides Ospreay’s preposterous selling routine, the unit repudiates uniformity and impels demiurgic vitality from their opponents in response. ***1/4
BULLET CLUB (Dick Togo, Chase Owens, and EVIL) def. CHAOS (SHO, Toru Yano, and Kazuchika Okada)
This one lasted less than 90 seconds, and might be the most glaring example of New Japan taking care of their domestic crowd at the expense of the global audience.
The attendees on hand at Korakuen Hall were ardent throughout the entire extended pull part segment between Okada and EVIL. This Okada-EVIL pairing was, to some degree, the catalyst that sent New Japan into western critical cataclysm. Thus, I presume this barbarous display did little to convince anyone in the global audience that their 2/27 main event is worthwhile at any level. The Korakuen crowd loved it, however, and for good reason. It was a pull-apart where the competitors actually had to be pulled apart, slowly and laboriously by Young Lions and stablemates. It was a successful brawl, similar to the sensational one they had on 2/2 after their dual elimination in the traditional New Japan elimination tag match.
Highlights from “Road to CASTLE ATTACK FINAL” (Feb 25th)
Watch NOW: https://t.co/CcdQ1X9P52
(English video will follow at a later date)
— njpwworld (@njpwworld) February 25, 2021
Motivations in this melee are harder to parse. I’m not sure why EVIL was so apoplectic. He just pinned Okada on February 22, the first person to do so on a Road To show in nearly four years, and he pummeled Okada for the entire 83 seconds of this match. Yet, for some reason, EVIL was brimming with animus, and Okada was incensed throughout in riposte. In his concentrated wrath, he continually found ways to evade the peacekeeping brigade and prolong the assault.
At one point, Okada did the thing my dopey dog tries to do when she wants to go somewhere we don’t want her to: walks two, maybe three paces in the opposite direction, pauses, and assumes that the brief interlude and minuscule misdirection completely disoriented us to the point where she can reverse course and breezily go to the place we’re trying to keep her from entering. She’s an idiot that presumes that we are equally stupid. Okada successfully accomplished that trick here, and the question must be posed: if Tom Brady is, famously, literally a fancy dog, shouldn’t we assume that Okada is as well? **
CHAOS (YOSHI-HASHI, Hirooki Goto, and Tomohiro Ishii) def. BULLET CLUB (Tanga Loa, Tama Tonga, and Jay White)
I just don’t get all the strangle pervert stuff going on with BULLET CLUB. Each match on this tour has ended with at least two instances of strapping, whipping, or choking. Is this Korakuen Hall or the San Francisco Armory?!
Jay White was a maelstrom in this one. At one juncture, he was juggling an insane amount of things at once: he was distracting Taichi for no reason, having polite discourse with the camera people to keep them from getting violently toppled, flexing for the camera and the crowd, badgering the fuck out of Gabriel Kidd trying to get him to clap along to Jay’s rhythm, stealing potshots at Ishii, and obstinately pestering the referee. That summarizes a 15-second sequence for this indefatigable bastard.
YOSHI-HASHI is the King of Korakuen, and the attendees amply honored and encouraged their monarch. There was action the whole way through this one, because everyone involved in this configuration of people work exceptionally in 6-mans. The personality dynamics of the pairings also play a key role; they are exhilarating in this context, where encounters by necessity are brief and eruptive. The more you contract the number of participants, though,, the harder it is to sustain that excitement throughout a match. A tag match leaves a lot of open space, and a singles match is nothing but open space.
And so, Tama Tonga and Hirooki Goto flying around the ring, a torrent of misdirection spots, was captivating. YOSHI-HASHI throwing innumerable superkicks against Tanga Loa’s brash encouragement was galvanizing. The match ended right at the peak, with exquisite timing and structure. It’s enough to pique your interest in the matches to come, but one has to wonder if they can function to this level removed from this propitious format. This tour might have been debilitating, but I do come away optimistic. Goto and Tama were flying around the ring. ***1/4
Kota Ibushi, Tomoaki Honma, and Yuji Nagata def. Los Ingobernables de Japon (Shingo Takagi, SANADA and Tetsuya Naito)
Honma is a box with limbs. He’s like those anthropomorphic snacks from the “Let’s all go to the lobby” song at the cinemas. Athletically, he is no longer a composite human body; every part of Honma moves as one, and not in a figuratively positive way. Very literally, Honma’s body sways like he has a Model T frame instead of a central nervous system.
I also came to a realization about Honma as he did the thing where he taps his scalp repeatedly before the Kokeshi. You know how Wesley Willis developed, over many years, a rock-solid spot on his forehead from headbutting dozens, sometimes hundreds of people after his shows? Is this the process by which Honma went bald, from slapping his scalp on the Kokeshi. Is Honma the Puro Wesley Willis? Rock over Beppu, Rock on Osaka.
This was an acceptable tune-up match, nothing more. Nagata looked off; at one point trying to do the hanging neck breaker thing on SANADA, but didn’t get SANADA’s feet on the ropes. That was awkward. I still would rather see Nagata vs. Shingo replace either of the upcoming main events right now.
Naito did not do anything ambitious, but it was clear that his knee was, at worst, proficient. Nothing he did in the match betrayed anything about his injury, and he showed no signs of defect in his running or lateral movement. He grappled with Ibushi at a very deliberate pace, as they have all tour. Naito spent much of his interactions with Ibushi with an insouciant expression; Ibushi countered with an expression of unimpressed, gentle indifference to Naito’s antics. Again, same as every other card on this tour.
— njpwworld (@njpwworld) February 25, 2021
After the match, Ibushi very gracelessly grabbed Naito’s right knee, which seems to adumbrate something for the February 28 main event. Conversely, after explicitly targeting Ibushi’s knee during their February 16 encounter, both before and after the match, LIJ did nothing to Ibushi’s leg in this match. Considering how aggressively Naito targeted the knee in the February 17 post-match, and how excessively he taunted the injury (faking an injury to mock a fake injury, through an apparently real injury), it is surprising they dropped that angle. It’s just enough to give me hope that the good guy will walk away with both belts after all. ***
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship Match
Suzuki-gun (Yoshinobu Kanemaru and El Desperado) def. Taiji Ishimori and El Phantasmo (C)
With El Desperado back after being scheduled to miss this tour, I can once again give a merch count. Accounting for the possibility of some repeats, which I tried to avoid with thorough inspection, I saw two masks, one hoodie, four shirts, and eleven towels.
It is hard for anything to stand out compared to the pelagic expanse of Naito and LIJ merch on display during Naito’s entrance, but considering the quick turnaround on this match being announced and contested, I consider this another impressive showing for the Despy loyalists.
Most importantly, there is always a Despy bear, and the first one appears at 13:20, during Tanahashi’s entrance:
This was, quite simply, an excellent, worthwhile, wonderful tag team professional wrestling match. There was only one heat segment and the rest was all action, replete with intoxicating double-team work and ebullient character work. Neither team softened their image to accommodate the other; if you weren’t administering the cheating in this match, you were the recipient.
And yet, both teams were also sagacious about that aspect. Nothing became excessive. There was also minimal ringside brawling in this one. Considering the participant’s tendencies, an astounding amount of the match took place between the ropes. If anything, BULLET CLUB toned down their mischief and demonstrative heelwork, and thus the things they did carried significantly more substance.
That said, the crowd was oddly quiescent at points. The heat segment on Despy was eerily silent, to such a degree that ELP audibly scolded them for it. He literally went from ironically engaging them in demeaning clapping rituals, like some sort of clearance rack Jay White, to espousing legitimate dismay at how mute they were. But once Despy slapped Ishimori and fought his way out, they were electric the rest of the way through.
The crowd seemed particularly invigorated by two things: Despy slapping someone (especially Ishimori) in the face, and Despy’s close kick-outs. Every time that seemed to level up the crowd reactions. That is why it is so strange that they were noticeably quiet when BULLET CLUB was working him over. They were even a bit subdued near the end when Despy fought both of them off single-handedly. Considering their reactions to the culminations of those sequences (again, slaps and kick-outs), perhaps they just didn’t know how to express their feelings in claps. They were, without question, unreservedly behind Desperado.
Highlights from “Road to #njcattack FINAL” (Feb 25th)
Watch NOW: https://t.co/CcdQ1XrpWA
(English video will follow at a later date)
— njpwworld (@njpwworld) February 25, 2021
I also cannot stress this enough: Taiji Ishimori x El Desperado is the most mesmerizing, enchanting, and dexterous pairing in the entire New Japan junior division. Only Hiromu x Despy tops it, and I’d suggest that Ishimori and Despy have a stauncher, more adroit dexterity between them. Their work is exceptional. Their interplay is smooth, precise, inventive, and legitimately rousing. The fecund interlocking reversal tree produced by the Numero Dos and the Yes Lock is incredible to observe.
Additionally, they are both lovable heelish imbeciles. They poke their opponents in the eye and trip over their own dicks in equal measure. And this is still a novel rivalry; their first singles match, ever, was during the most recent Best of the Super Juniors. We are just exploring the crust of this combination.
This match had a magnificent call-back to the January 23 match in which BULLET CLUB dethroned Suzuki-gun. That contest was a farcical exhibition, suffused with an abundance of loaded boots and demolished referees. A key spot in that match was when ELP’s boot was caught and then thrown into a replacement ref (or was it the replacement ref’s replacement ref?).
In this match, Kanemaru, the aloof bastard that he is, goaded ELP into throwing the loaded boot. Despite the boot’s overwhelming and established lethality, Kanemaru caught it and threw it into Ishimori’s face, knocking him out cold. Despy then lifted a thoroughly dead weight Ishimori into a sublime Pinche Loco. What a superlative finish, providing the big reference to past encounters and ending the match right at the pinnacle. Not only that, but Ishimori’s selling has given ELP’s boot more credibility than anyone else has yet.
It’s not exactly an easy time to be a fervent New Japan fan, for an ever-growing composite of cause-and-effect forces, but this match might be a panacea that would allow you to forget about those things for a brief interval. ****1/4
Afterward, Despy cut a lengthy promo, first praising the former champions, and then wondering, perhaps as an audience surrogate, why BUSHI is in a title match. He injects himself into that February 28 title match, even speaking English to clarify for ELP (and several sentences in a row, at that!). BUSHI appears and there is a bit of a staredown, until ELP delivers the Sudden Death to Desperado, which itself provides the opportunity for BUSHI to nail his ELP with his codebreaker. BUSHI holds the belt and promises victory for himself and Hiromu. To be fair, they managed to make BUSHI look cool and effectively sell a three-way match. An admirable segment.
A reminder: this junior division can be more than just Hiromu.
With a slightly larger crowd than recent turnouts at Korakuen and a match with legitimate stakes between two teams that have resonant chemistry, this show is an easy one to recommend. For the second straight tour, the Suzuki-gun vs. BULLET CLUB Junior Tag Team Championship match carried the best Road To show on the entire campaign. And just like that 1/23 show on the New Beginning Tour, headlined by these specific tag teams, this Road To show might end up being better than at least one of the major events they are purportedly building towards. Not everything on this show landed successfully, for sure. But if you are looking for a Road To show to remind you of some of the fundamental things about this company’s appeal, this one will suffice. Hopefully they get the lesson, too.