Cubed Circle Newsletter 193 – A Busy Week in Japan, WWE in Sumo Hall and NJPW at Osaka Jo Hall!
In this week’s newsletter Ben and I return for an issue published via slow Mauritian internet covering New Japan’s Dominion 2015 show from Osaka Jo Hall, match of the year candidates, WWE ‘Beat from the East’ from Sumo Hall, RAW, SmackDown and NXT!
– Ryan Clingman, Cubed Circle Newsletter Editor
WWE Mixes it Up at Sumo Hall
After weeks of relative calm on the Japanese wrestling scene, the country saw two of the bigger shows of July this past week, as Osaka hosted NJPW’s ‘Dominion’ show, and Tokyo WWE’s first broadcast from Japan in years. Osaka Jo Hall played host to New Japan, whilst WWE ran Sumo Hall a mere 20 or so hours prior.
As much as the two companies express diverging views on how to produce pro-wrestling these shows differed from one another. New Japan clearly had more invested in their show, as it was an event held in their primary market with the majority of their major championships being defended, whilst WWE’s show was essentially a house show with the addition of a Finn Balor’s NXT title challenge and Brock Lesnar versus Kofi Kingston. The features of Sumo Hall are so distinct due to the history of sumo that despite being basted with WWE’s generic house show sheen, the venue still looked distinct. However, portions of the arena were covered in a black tarp, either due to a lack of sales, or more likely, production purposes. As a consequence, Sumo Hall looked far closer to a Manhattan Center than a major 12 or so thousand seat building.
The company’s presentation, however, of what was for all intents and purposes, a Japanese house show, was different from most every company production of the last several years in that explicit reference was made to other companies, championships, and histories, not only for the likes of Chris Jericho, who appeared in the shows opener, but also for Finn Balor, Neville, and others. This isn’t to say, however, that all of this information was correct, for as much information as Michael Cole (who called the show alongside Byron Saxton from Connecticut) had on hand, it was made obvious at numerous points that he had little concept of the context of any of the information he had gathered, nor of what any of it truly meant. As a consequence, he was left repeating several hyperbolic, and at times, blatantly incorrect lines. For example, he pushed Sumo Hall as “the largest indoor sports arena in Tokyo”, when but a few moments earlier he had spoken of the Tokyo Dome nearby. This of course isn’t even considering Budokan Hall, which isn’t used for wrestling anymore, but is still an incredibly significant historical venue, in some ways even more so than Sumo Hall. Then there are buildings such as Yokohama Arena and the Seibu Dome just outside of Tokyo, which are several times larger than the Sumo Hall.
Cole’s inaccuracies didn’t stop there however, as he stated that a WWE championship had only changed hands twice in Japan, something that is blatantly incorrect considering the existence of the WWE Junior Heavyweight Title, International Heavyweight Title, and World Martial Arts titles. This isn’t even taking into account his mispronunciation of “Tatsumi Fujinami” as “Fujiyami” — a man that is in the company’s Hall of Fame and was only inducted this year.
There did exist, however, positives to Cole’s announcing, as whilst he clearly only recorded and then regurgitated various facts and trivia notes, some of them did add some enjoyable context — and, of course, there was a novelty in hearing ‘Frontier Martial Arts’, ‘IWGP, and ‘Best of the Super Juniors’ mentioned on WWE. And there did seem to be an effort, at least by some, to make the show stand out amongst the company’s patterned line of weekly content. A key example came in the semi-main when fans through streamers into the ring for Balor. Clearly, this is something that wouldn’t have been at all tolerated in the company only a couple of years ago. But, there is more to this observation than that, as it was clear that someone went out of their way to incite such a response from the crowd at Sumo Hall, as the fans who attend WWE shows such as this are different in their actions than those who attend NJPW and other events. This isn’t meant to imply that there isn’t a crossover between the two audiences, as there clearly is, but the fans at WWE events generally tend to gravitate more towards American trends than Japanese ones. They come wearing the Cena merchandise, begin “Let’s go”, “NXT” and “This is awesome” chants, and generally mimic much of what they see on the company’s TV product.
But, a pivotal question to ask here is “why would fans, who presumably came to see a WWE house show, or support Fergal Devitt, throw streamers out of nowhere?”. The honest answer is that they wouldn’t. NJPW nothing in the way of streamers, nor does WWE. They wouldn’t then throw streamers at a WWE house show, and were instead given or at least encouraged to buy streamers. This is particularly evident when those in the crowd, who perhaps didn’t have much exposure to early 90s NJPW, or AJPW and NOAH, as they threw streamers off cue, before the announcer had announced Balor’s name. Regardless, it made for a great visual, and is more importantly, a positive sign as far the company embracing wrestling and its history goes.
The match itself was far and away the best of the show, a **** 1/4 level affair with Balor taking the NXT title off of Owens, which will probably result in Owens capturing the US title at Battleground as a full time move to the main roster. Presumably, what this means is that it will still be several months at the very least before we see Balor called up to the main roster, which is fine for all parties. NXT, who is running lower than they were on high-calibre talent with Zayn and Itami injured, and Owens on the main roster, will have Balor to carry the brand. Balor will still be paid good money to work in a less creatively stifling environment, and WWE will have a lesser chance of squandering one of their most promising talents.
On the undercard Neville and Jericho put on a very good opener, which appealed strongly to Japanese wrestling sensibilities, even with a crowd who aimed to lean more towards American tendencies. Sumo Hall popped for matwork that wouldn’t get so much as a passive applause in the United States, and built to several teased Red Arrows before Jericho ultimately submitted Neville. I wouldn’t imagine Jericho having any problems putting someone like Neville over, and as a star who isn’t set to imminently return, I would have expected him to do so. However, the match was good enough, and the stage (in terms of Network viewers), probably small enough that it won’t affect Neville’s career in any meaningful way — and as much as he deserves better, realistically his position at present is approximately equal to that of an Evan Bourne.
The show’s namesake was an appearance by ‘The Best’, Brock Lesnar, in a short, albeit highly entertaining squash of Kofi Kingston. The crowd was receptive towards Brock and his offence, however, the brief nature of the bout seemed to subdue them some, at least until he laid out the remainder of The New Day.
Unfortunately, the main event was neither Lesnar/Kingston, nor Balor/Owens, as a plodding, inconsequential, and thrown-together tag-match of John Cena & Dolf Ziggler versus Wade Barrett & Kane closed the show in numbingly boring fashion. One could attempt to frame this as a sign that the company simply refuses to change and withdraw Cena from the top position, but as has been made evident by the past four or so months worth of pay-per-view cards, John Cena in the main event picture isn’t the company’s primary focus, nor should it be at this point. But, I feel that they may have been reluctant to place Balor/Owens on a broadcast main event, even if the Cena tag main evented the actual house show card as a dark match. Why the match was so boring, I can’t say. The tag can certainly be criticized for the clear lack of any forethought in its creation, although, inevitably it was patterned nature and lack of any real effort that made it such a failure of a main event.
With positive, albeit at times flawed, changes to WWE’s standard presentation, it is difficult not to view ‘Beast in the East’ as a positive and constructive outing. Whether this progression filters through to any of the main televised shows is a different matter, and with Vince’s full attention dedicated to RAW in particular it is doubtful that we will see similar tributes to other wrestling traditions and cultures on the main roster like we saw here. However, if the company pays tribute to local wrestling tradition and lore, even with its perverted historical lens, on Network house shows for the foreseeable future, at least that demonstrates a modicum of progress.
New Japan Returns to Form After Slow Month, Produces One of the Best Shows of 2015
‘The Beast in the East’ may have performed well as far as WWE house shows go, and was even a creative success in certain aspects, however, it was overtaken attendance and gate wise by NJPW’s Dominion a rough twenty hours later, and eclipsed on every imaginable creative front. ‘Dominion’, was the final New Japan show before the 2015 G1 Climax tournament, which, in only mildly hyperbolic terms may very well turn out to be one of the greatest working tournaments of the last thirty or so years, perhaps ever. Instead of conserving the energy of much of the talent involved in that grueling tour, in an attempted to avoid injury, NJPW booked a card more reminiscent of a 2012/2013 card, where they would schedule one main event calibre match after another, as opposed to their more reserved and diluted dual-tour duel iPPVs of recent years — and what followed may very well be one of the best shows of 2015.
Leading into the 2015 edition of one of the company’s longest running annual show titles, alongside Wrestling Dontaku and the G1 Climax, I was heavily invested in but a single match on the 2015 Dontaku card from Osaka Jo Hall — Katsuyori Shibata versus Kazushi Sakuraba in their first singles pairing since returning to New Japan in late 2012. The bout that transpired wasn’t quite the classic I had anticipated, but still a candidate for first or second best match of the night, and a potential match of the year candidate. It was a brutal affair, and often times quite difficult to watch with Shibata clobbering at Sakuraba’s head, which has already sustained a scary amount of punishment over the past decade or two. At the same time, the matwork and story, with Sakuraba stealing Shibata’s knees, as well as the Octopus Hold, which Shibata could only break by grabbing the ropes with his teeth. Shibata was by no means conservative with his slaps either, as he spat on his hands and slapped Sakuraba numerous times with great fury, which added even more heat to a battle between former team mates. Another side story of sorts was that Shibata could not get the better of Sakuraba on the ground, even being subjected to his own hold. Shibata ultimately put away his former team mate, but not before a series of characteristic calls for punishment from Shibata, which depending on the context can be mesmerising or grating. Thankfully, most everything in the match, including those spots was laid out in a logical fashion, and with a hot crowd it couldn’t help but be a strong encounter.
In what was a more surprising outing, at least given my expectations, Kazuchika Okada defeated AJ Styles for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. I can recall of few times in my time as a wrestling fan that I began so overtly negative on a match, before, in the span of 15 minutes, going on to rate it a solid **** 3/4. Their prior bouts entertained me less than most avid New Japan fans, and this match wasn’t different — uninteresting during the first 40 or so percent of the match as the Bullet Club interfered repeatedly. But, when Red Shoes told the Bucks to “suck it”, and sent the stable to the back, the match rapidly ascended in quality — as one would expect from Red Shoes losing it in such a manner. Subsequently, AJ performed his standard springboard forearm off of the guard rail, as well as a variety of additional offence on the outside. Their performance increased only further in quantity when Okada landed one of his dropkicks to Styles in mid-air. The match’s pace escalated dramatically from that point, and culminated in one of the best two or so minute closing stretches of the last few years. The sequence was so captivating that I jumped up, hands clasped against the sides of my head, before thrusting them victoriously into the air repeatedly, as the sequence intensified. Okada eventually pinned Styles with a variant of his double Rainmaker that he executed on Nakamura to close out last year’s G1 Climax at the Seibu Dome. No matter what gripes one has on a booking, execution, or psychological level with this match, and there are various points you could make in each of those categories, very few closing stretches given the men involved, audience, and time frame could have been done better that what we saw from Okada and Styles on the fourth.
Okada recapturing the championship wasn’t entirely unexpected, although many thought that Tanahashi would take the title, as it would have too made sense long-term story-line wise. This is as Okada still looks to avenge his many title loses to Tanahashi, who he has lost the IWGP title to a fair number of times. Of course, their long-term direction will still work with Okada as champion, but will lose some of the dynamic without Okada chasing. Whilst this may seem like overkill to some, I expect to see Tanahashi versus Okada once more at the 2016 Dome Show.
Elsewhere on the card was KUSHIDA’s IWGP Junior Heavyweight title victory, which was preceded by outstanding video work featuring home-video of a young KUSHIDA moonsaulting onto pillows and suplexing homemade dummies. KUSHIDA took his title with a Kimura, which he got to straight from the Katayoku no Tenshi , which was a terrific transition and finish to close one of the better matches of the show. In terms of junior talent, I believe KUSHIDA to be the most talented performer in the company, and there exists some fresh junior opponents for him such as Jushin Liger, Trent, and Dorada, if they choose to invest in the Jr. division, which they haven’t been seemingly interested in for a good couple of years now.
Tomohiro Ishii must have been inspired by KUSHIDA’s senton off of the apron, as he decided to implement the maneuver in his NEVER title challenge against Togi Makabe, the only difference being that Ishii almost never performs dives, and he pretty much missed Makabe completely landing on the outside before popping straight back up! Following a backdrop Ishii sold a “shoulder dislocation” to the extent that I thought he had shoot injured himself until reading about the match in this week’s Observer. Ishii’s selling was, as always, top notch. He and Makabe traded the usual strikes, and Ishii had a doctor check on him repeatedly before waring back, and eventually succumbing to a King Kong knee after taking a spider suplex onto his head. It was the best outing I have seen these to have, the most believable, but also the most grueling, and whilst Ishii shows few signs of wear in-ring, common sense would say that he must be hurting badly given the amount of physical strain he has taken for years.
The semi-main event saw Hirooki Goto defeat Shinsuke Nakamura for a second time, retaining his newly won Intercontinental Championship for the first time. This match, too, was preceded by a highly effective video package. Nakamura’s working ability is constantly praised, and rightfully so, but when ignoring charisma and star power and observing both men work this match, Goto is just as good of a pure worker, and doesn’t get the same praise as Nakamura in that department. Regardless, they see something in Goto, as they gave him what was, at the time of Shinsuke’s reign, the most important championship in the company, alongside the IWGP Heavyweight title. This wasn’t their best match, and perhaps third or fourth best match on the show, but then again, this was one of the better shows of the year thus far, and on most other shows, specifically non-NJPW ones, this would have been a standout.
Below that we had an IWGP Tag title bout with Matt Taven & Michael Bennett dropping the belts back to Anderson & Gallows, in a match far more focused on Maria Kanellis than the tag team championships. Maria was kicked off the apron by Gallows in full view of Bennett, which led to a some very good fire. However, the fact that Bennett didn’t storm the ring at the match’s onset, and instead worked calmly with the men who laid his wife out last month was incredulous, and removed much of the emotion from what could have been a good and unique match. Instead, what we got was a dull and predictable affair, one that did little else than further degrade the tag belts and serve as a buffer between matches, and an excuse to get Maria on camera. The IWGP Junior Tag title opener was also patterned with yet another three-way tag match with RPG Vice, ReDragon, and the Bucks doing the same sort of match that we first got with the Hooligans, Time Splitters, and Young Bucks a year or two ago. This isn’t to say that the match was bad, but it is difficult to get excited for an inconsequential match you have seen a dozen times, even if it does involve some incredible talent.
The top matches for the 2015 G1 Climax were also announced, but given that we look to preview the G1 in full next week, we will analyse the crowd reactions and tour schedule next week!
Bits & Pieces
Ryan’s Ratings for NJPW Dominion 2015:
Yuji Nagata, Manabu Nakanishi, Ryusuke Taguchi & Mascara Dora vs. Satoshi Kojima, Tiger Mask IV, Yohei Komatsu, Jushin Thunder Liger & Hiroyoshi Tenzan: ** ¾
IWGP Junior Tag Title Match – Young Bucks vs. RPG Vice vs. reDragon: *** ¼
Tomoaki Honma & Tetsuya Naito vs. Bad Luck Fale & Yujiro Takahashi: ** ½
Katsuyori Shibata vs. Kazushi Sakuraba: **** ½
IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Title Match – Kenny Omega vs. KUSHIDA: **** ¼
NEVER Openweight Title Match – Togi Makabe vs. Tomohiro Ishii: **** ¼
IWGP Tag Team Title Match – Matt Taven & Mike Bennett vs. Doc Gallows & Karl Anderson: **
IWGP Intercontinental Championship Match – Hirooki Goto vs. Shinsuke Nakamura: **** ¼
IWGP Heavyweight Championship Match – AJ Styles vs. Kazuchika Okada: **** ¾
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Ben Carass’s Twitter: @BenCarass
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Ryan Clingman’s Twitter : @RyanClingman
Ryan’s Ratings for WWE ‘Beast in the East’
Neville vs. Chris Jericho: *** ½
Divas Title Match – Nikki Bella vs. Paige vs. Tamina Snuka: **
Brock Lesnar vs. Kofi Kingston: ** ¾
NXT Championship Match – Kevin Owens vs. Finn Balor: ****
John Cena & Dolf Ziggler vs. King Barrett & Kane: * ½
Next Week’s Issue
In next week’s issue we return with two weeks worth of RAW ratings, a G1 Climax preview, WWE Battleground previews, RAW, NXT, and more!