The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of WrestlingInc or its staff
Tonight NJPW and ROH made history in having the first non-WWE match at Madison Square Garden in 60 years, and delivered a rocking show filled with great matches and also strategic long-term booking aimed at building both companies for the future.
On Friday I wrote that ROH and NJPW would look to use the show to elevate new stars, and that was reflected in big wins for guys like Rush, Jeff Cobb and Zack Sabre Jr. With the exception of the women's match and part of the Honor Rumble, every match on the card managed to connect with the audience and this felt like a well-rounded show, as opposed to one being anchored by a few major stars and everyone else was an unknown.
What stood out to me was that a couple of years ago, when NJPW first came to the US, they sold a lot of tickets, but the crowd wasn't into all of the NJPW stars. They knew the Bullet Club guys, but even someone like Tomohiro Ishii wouldn't get that big of a reaction from the crowd. Over the last few years as more fans become familiar with the NJPW roster, fans have more appreciation for a wider array of guys. On Friday, I wondered how NJPW could continue to grow in the US without the members of AEW, but if anything, tonight proved that the brand of NJPW is very strong in the US. Yes, The Young Bucks and Kenny Omega were not on tonight's show, but after watching it, could anyone say they were really disappointed that they were not there?
Kazuchika Okada vs Jay White: ****1/2
All I can say is that Okada is a wrestling genius. I was really impressed in the beginning just how over he was; the crowd LOVED him and wanted him to win so bad, it really made the match. I was not super impressed with Jay White though; he was there as the foil to Okada, but his personality and charisma did not translate and if he wasn't working with Okada he wouldn't have had nearly as good of a match. I thought the match was a little bit disappointing until the final 7-8 minutes, where they put together a great series of spots and reversals leading to the satisfying finish.
One thing I really like about NJPW is that they don't rely on guys kicking out of a million finishers in their main events. In WWE, and this was especially true during TakeOver last night, they rely on a ton of kick-outs and near-falls following finishers. NJPW instead teases the finishing moves. The finishers are protected as devastating moves because they are rarely kicked out of, so the drama comes in each wrestler attempting to hit their finisher, instead of guys kicking-out and having it be a surprise. I like that method better because there are more ways to counter a finishing move than there are ways to kick out at two, and that means when a guy actually does kick out of the finisher (like White after the first Rainmaker) it means a lot more.
Jay Lethal vs Marty Scurll vs Matt Taven: ****1/2
This match really over-delivered and gave ROH a real highlight to make sure they were not overshadowed by NJPW matches. All three guys risked a ton in performing this match, especially Lethal who took two nasty bumps, one driving an elbow off the top of the ladder through a table on the outside, and another at the end when he fell backwards off the ladder, that was nasty. I thought it really helped that this match was a ladder match; no way a regular triple threat could have been as entertaining and able to follow the Naito/Ibushi match.
I really dig the long-term storytelling ROH has done with Taven, as a heel who believed he arrogantly deserved the championship, but at the same time, was so persistent in his pursuit of the title that there is still something admiral about him. Scurll is a more popular wrestler, but from a storyline standpoint and as a long term name that the company is looking to elevate, Taven was the right call tonight.
Kota Ibushi vs Tetsuya Naito: ****½
Okay this was freaking awesome. Naito and Ibushi both have a certain type of style, where they mix in speed and high-flying with big moves and clean striking, really they are two of the most talented wrestlers we have seen this century and they bring out the best in each other. Thankfully, nobody was killed during this match although Ibushi came pretty close.
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Zack Sabre Jr.: ****
This match worked really well for a number of reasons, beyond just the fact there were two great workers in the ring. I thought it was perfectly placed on the card, following a few hardcore/multi-man matches that involved a lot of brawling and high-spots; Sabre and Tanahashi were a great change of pace and both guys were popular so the crowd was ready for it. In fact, the crowd was more into submission wrestling than any crowd I can remember watching. Obviously submitting Tanahashi is a huge win for Sabre, whose stock continues to rise in NJPW.
Dragon Lee vs Bandido vs Taiji Ishimori: ****
They pumped in just a ton of stuff into ten minutes and had the quintessential modern junior heavyweight match. They really woke the crowd up by doing a bunch of high-flying and dangerous moves, peaking with Bandido's double super fall-away slam, which I've never seen before. Lee has kind of fallen out of the rotation over the last 6 to 8 months, but he is as talented as anyone.
Will Ospreay vs Jeff Cobb: ****
It was a good call to make this the opening match on the show; it was a safe match that you knew the crowd would dig and the guys would be able to deliver. Both NJPW and ROH have big plans for Cobb, especially in NJPW with Michael Elgin leaving the company, that opens a real opportunity for Cobb and he will get a chance to shine in Japan as the NEVER Openweight Champion.
The action was fine, but I thought the best part of the match was the intros. There was a lot of untrained, natural charisma in the ring with The Briscoes, EVIL and SANADA, GoD, who had a great intro, and of course, PCO. PCO really was the star of this match; the delicious absurdity of a guy strapping himself into the electric chair, getting electrocuted, and then walking down the ramp to wrestle, is amazing. When he sat up after getting powerbombed out of the ring I was ready to give him the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship.
It took them some time to get to the point with the angle involving the rapper, but ultimately it was a fun brawl. I really liked the spot where Flip dared the guys to hit him and they annihilated him with the Kendo stick but he no-sold it; it really helped him look like a super babyface.
Kelly Klein vs Mayu Iwatani: **
This wasn't very good; Klein and Iwatani have wrestled in matches before and they just lack chemistry. The Observer reported that they had a little spat backstage after one of their matches but that they had gotten passed it, but it kind of shows in that they just haven't been able to put together a real solid match. Klein has a good look but I don't know if she is clean enough in the ring to justify a big push. The Beautiful People coming back doesn't do much for me, it seems like an old idea that I don't think a lot of people were clamoring for a return.
Rush vs Dalton Castle: *
I liked this as the surprise squash match, it help shorten the show and was probably better for storytelling purposes than if they had had a long match. They want to get Rush over as a top guy, and they needed Castle to have a reason to snap. I think as a heel Castle has a ton of potential, especially since the impetus for the turn seems to be that he was pissed at two guys who have literally worshiped him for years.
Honor Rumble: **¾
As far as a battle royal goes this was pretty good. The match was not about the action in the ring or amazing high spots, this was about guys coming out as surprise entrants and fans popping for them. During the first 20 or so entrants the match was pretty mediocre, but they nailed the last ten, with some fun surprises. The finish of TK O'Ryan and Vinny Marseglia vs The Great Muta and Jushin Thunder Liger was a great touch. The finish might rub some people the wrong way, but I think it got some heat on King, and the crowd still got to pop at the end for the mist from Muta and then Liger getting his curtain call in the ring.
NXT TakeOver New York Review
Johnny Gargano vs Adam Cole: ***
So I didn't really like this match; which I know a lot of people loved and I want to remind everyone that this is just my opinion and I don't think anyone is wrong if they thought this match was awesome.
My problem was the psychology didn't resonate. In all of these TakeOver main events, guys just kick out of big move after big move, and the crowd eats it up and there are a million near-falls. It is a totally successful formula for NXT and I'm not saying they have to change. So you have that, but the first fall of this match is Cole connecting with the running knee and then pinning Gargano 1-2-3. So Cole gets the first fall with his finisher no problem. 20 minutes later, after Gargano is getting pulverized, Gargano is kicking out of EVERYTHING, the running knee, the Panama Sunrise, multiple-man beat downs by The Undisputed Era, etc. To me, it was all too much and didn't make a lot of sense.
The idea is that you are supposed to believe Gargano is going to lose, but he miraculously kicks out. That would work if Cole just hit the knee again and Gargano kicked out; but instead he kicked out like, five separate times. At that point the near-falls cease to be dramatic and I end up disengaged from the match. Again, just my opinion, and if you thought the match was really exciting and rewarding, you are not wrong; it just didn't work for me.
Ricochet and Aleister Black vs War Raiders: ****
This was a great match to open the show and my favorite match on the card. The psychology of the smaller guys doing power moves and the big guys doing high-flying was pulled off really well. The match served as a swan song for both Ricochet and Black in NXT, but the War Raiders also looked great and Hanson in particular was outstanding.
Pete Dunne vs WALTER: ***½
WALTER is funny because he isn't that far removed from wrestling exclusively in small buildings in Germany, yet every time I feel like people see him for the first time he gets over. I don't think a ton of fans were super familiar with WALTER, but that didn't matter by the end of the match because he is such a boss. That being said, I didn't love the match. The work was solid but it was very long and there were too many bits where Dunne went after WALTER's fingers, and when both guys were just stomping each other. If they had a faster, 20 minute match instead of a slower, 30 minute bout, I think it would have worked better.
This was a good match, especially when Shirai and Sane were working with each other. Sane's elbow off the top is amazing to watch. Belair was given a lot of shine in the match, which is fine but I think she is still kind of green, especially when compared to Shirai and Sane. A lot of people didn't like Baszler retaining the title, but I'm cool with it. The main roster probably doesn't have anything for Baszler right now, so she is better off staying down in NXT as the dominant champion until a worthy angle comes along that makes sense for her to drop the title.
Matt Riddle vs The Velveteen Dream: ****
I thought the match was okay until the finish, which I loved. It seemed to be more of a showcase for Riddle instead of a showcase for Dream, but that all played into the finish, when Dream craftily stole the victory with a roll-up. Also, I laugh everytime they call Riddle's senton the "broton." That is the kind of schtick I can get behind.
Must Watch Matches
Will Ospreay vs A-Kid: ****1/2 - Whitewolf Wrestling Total Rumble 9