Matt Sydal (ROH) vs. Kaji Tomato (K-DOJO)
I was disappointed with Tomato as the K-DOJO entrant. Its not that he’s bad in the ring. He’s actually very solid but his charisma is rather forced and let’s be honest – without the dancing ring entrance he wouldn’t have even been under consideration. The bigger issue was that there were better choices, Hori Tonai, Shiori Asai, and TAKA himself are all bigger names or also better overall wrestlers. My personal hope was that we would get Ayuma Honda. Honda is an fun submission and mat wrestler who would have brought something diffrent to the tournament. They could have beaten him easily but he would have had a fun first match and stuck out. 2000 J-Cup had Sano and also had Teioh working a more realistic style. This tournament is missing that sort of guy.
That aside, the tournament opener was a completely fine match. I had forgotten that Tomato is pretty great at getting big near falls out of flash pin attempts, which he did twice late against Sydal. The plancha was kind of weak but everything else he did was more or less on point. Sydal gave him a lot before beating him, which I suspect will happen a lot in this first round. They didn’t do too much and had a high energy match, which is really all you want from an opener.
Gurukun Mask (Dragon Pro) vs. Kenoh (NOAH)
I’ve never seen Gurukun Mask, but knowing Liger likes him gives me hope. Kenoh works the same heel junior shtick we have seen a thousand times and is starting to wear thin. They started with a cool kick exchange, then Kenoh took over with the help of some interference from his second. Gurukun looked good. He got nice distance on his dive and is a lot more polished than I would have thought. If I didn’t know and you asked me which of the guys works NOAH and which works Dragon Pro Wrestlingm based on their work here I wouldn’t be able to tell you. If you are going to do a mid-ring back-and-forth strike exchange, I guess I’d rather it be kicks like these two did because its a chance of pace and in general I prefer kicks to elbows and forearms. Still, I am so tired of that trope. Both guys have nice kicks and I’d rather see them weaved into the actual match rather than used in that manner. Like in the opener, the eventual loser (Gurukun) took much of the match. I want to see more of Gurukun after this. I like his mask and he showed enough in the match. Kenoh continues to do very little for me and the match itself is entirely skippable.
Yuma Aoyagi (AJPW) vs. Taichi (Suzuki-gun)
Speaking of heel acts that have run their course, here is Taichi.
Taichi “tags in” El Desperado to start the match and I am hoping the referee allows it (no such luck). Taichi takes an hour to disrobe. At best it drew a modicum of heat but was really just a waste of time. The chair stuff and Desperado distraction spots are met with similar disinterest. I have liked Aoyagi in the past and really wish they would have given him an opponent that could have highlighted his talent a little more. The allure of these types of tournaments is seeing guys of various backgrounds and at various stages in their career interact. Seeing Aoyagi against the most veteran wrestler in the tournament (Liger) would have been cool. Aoyagi is essentially Kanemaru twenty years ago so that match up would have been really neat. Instead, Aoyagi played random foil to Taichi’s usual (and so cliched) heel routine which seems like a waste. The offense Aoyagi got was overall good. I liked the planchas. The running shooting star press was iffy and he should probably shelf it. It is wild seeing an All Japan junior even try a move like that. Aoyagi does a few flash pins and gets a nice reaction, particularly on the bridging pin attempt. I appreciate that they switched up the formula from the first two matches by having the veteran take more of the match, but Taichi didn’t have the offense to make it work. There wasn’t a whole lot to this one.
Jushin Thunder Liger (NJPW) vs. Eita (Dragon Gate)
Ah, here we go. Eita attacks at the bell and does an immediate dive on Liger. Liger injures his arm in the process and finally we get a match that starts with a little juice behind it. Liger fights back with a brainbuster on the floor which Eita sells like he’s not going to be able to get up. Liger continued to pay attention to his own wrist even while on offense so I imagine that is going to come back into play. I could watch Liger roll out his signature offense against random opponents for the rest of my (or his) life and never get bored with it. Loved Eita’s counter of the Shotei into a Fujiwara arm bar. Eita is really wrenching on the arm, Liger wiggles around like he is in all sort of pain, and all of that leads to the most heated match on the card by far to this point.Liger manages to escape and hits a brainbuster shortly after for the win. I am guessing some are going to think the match was too short and I wouldn’t have minded a few more minutes, but I’ll take three minutes too short over three minutes too long almost every time out. Best match of the tournament by far to this point.
Titan (CMLL) vs. Will Ospreay (CHAOS)
Solid match, but Will Ospreay annoys and frustrates me. For every truly breathtaking move he did in this match – the Sasuke special, the octopus hold – je would do a move that was overly complicated and just didn’t look good. The spinning kick at the end was the best example of that. His major tool is that he is super athletic but that doesn’t mean you need to come up with whacky moves that you can’t hit cleanly just to prove it.
I liked the opening and thought Titan had a good showing. The Asai moonsault was beautiful. Not to continue to pick on Ospreay, but this match provided another example of why I don’t believe he is the “other level” flier that he is often made out to be. He is more athletic than almost anyone but that doesn’t necessarily translate into being the other flier. I thought Titan was every part his equal in the air and Titan is probably not a top 5 flier in Mexico.
The match was too short and too one sided to amount to much but was still fun,
Yoshinobu Kanemaru (Suzuki-gun) vs. BUSHI (LIJ)
These two got to do the one crowd brawling spot on the show. They went at it right away and went into the crowd, where Bushi did a plancha from atop one of the tunnels. The match peaked with that spot. The crowd was into Bushi as the de-facto good guy and the spot got a major reaction. The problem with crowd spots is there is a lot of time between the crowd stuff and getting back to the ring. It is easy to lose momentum and I think that’s what happened here. The heat was gone by the time they got back and the match meandered on for a while before the finish.
Daisuke Harada (NOAH) vs. Ryusuke Taguchi (NJPW)
The execution was good and the structure was not necessarily bad, but the layout was also devoid of any sort of hook. This was one of those matches where it is just two guys doing stuff for 10 minutes without any sort of overarching story or structure before getting to the near falls. If the wrestling in those types of matches is not superlative (and it wasn’t in this case) then those matches have a limited upside. In a lot of ways, they wrestled a typical modern New Japan style match. There was not anything to sink your teeth into early on. They more or less killed time before they got to the near fall section. When they pulled out the big moves late, the near falls got a reaction but the rest of the match didn’t have a ton of heat. That seems par for the course these days, not only in New Japan but in most promotions around the world. On the positive side, once they got going with the near falls they never lost me. They didn’t break the momentum with back-and-forth forearms or no-selling or anything like that. They just rolled out four or five near pins and a couple of near submissions to good effect. Above average match (***-ish) but I’ll probably forget most of it in a couple of days.
Kushida (New Japan) vs. Taiji Ishimori (NOAH)
Very good match.
Easily the most “complete” match on this show and I’d go as far as to say it was a more complete match than anything on the first night of the G1. Kushida has gotten very good at structuring his matches so that they are engaging all the way through while still building in a step by step manner. I write that the match was “complete” because they hit on everything I want to see them hit on. They started with the usual Kushida opening mat work. Ishimori got an early showcase segment. Kushida’s transition where he goes after the arm is really well done. There are comebacks and cut offs throughout. There were a couple of points before the ending stretch where I thought they went a little too back-and-forth but for the most part Kushida’s offense and Ishimori’s comebacks were give enough time to develop.
Kushida almost locking in an armbar while in the fireman’s carry position was my favorite spot of the match. I could have lived without seeing another late match strike exchange with limited selling but I do enjoy how Kushida is starting to draw heat for his closed fist punch. Somewhere Jim Ross is smiling. Ishimori’s top rope fall away slam (reminiscent of Ultimo Guerrero versus Mistico) was also an excellent spot. Another thing Kushida does so well is establish the arm work early so that he can go back to it throughout his matches whenever he needs to. He does that hear at the end. I don’t think its essential to payoff early match limb work but it certainly helped here.
Best match of the opening round by far.