Saturday, 17 May 2014

ROH and New Japan Global Wars review

It was in February at the 12th Anniversary weekend that Ring of Honor announced they had formed a partnership with New Japan Pro Wrestling. It was big news, obviously. Firstly, it came with confirmation that ROH and New Japan would be co-promoting a pair of shows in May. It’s not every day that New Japan wrestlers appear in North America, especially on the same card as one another. That alone made it a big deal.

Most people were understandably only bothered by the chance to see New Japan talent either live or on an internet pay-per-view with English language commentary (the latter is not currently something NJPW offers). That meant that the importance of the partnership to Ring of Honor was overlooked. Which is understandable but still a pity because it’s a significant thing for ROH.

Less than a year before their February announcement Ring of Honor had been in a partnership with Pro Wrestling NOAH. The gap between NOAH and New Japan is enormous. Over the last several years, through a combination of poor judgement and bad luck, NOAH has fallen from being the jewel in the puro crown to a promotion struggling desperately to stay afloat. For anyone wanting to know more I’d suggest taking a look at articles by Cewshof Cewsh Reviews and Joe of Voices of Wrestling (click the names for the links).

New Japan has rebuilt itself in the same period. New stars have been built and scores of great matches and hot shows have been promoted. In 2014 New Japan is miles ahead of any other wrestling promotion in Japan. They are easily the number two company in the world, and I’m sure there are people that would argue they’re number one.

That such a successful company wants to affiliate itself with Ring of Honor is a compliment and a vote of confidence. New Japan would not want to be associated with a second rate operation as it would only harm their painstakingly rebuilt image (note how they distanced themselves from TNA as it became increasingly evident that TNA had no idea how to succeed). The partnership was a signal that ROH is a company of significance with a good standing in the eyes of its peers.

The first of the co-promoted shows replaced Border Wars and mostly featured matches presented by one of the two promotions. There was an inter-promotional match on offer (Michael Elgin v Takaaki Watanabe) but for the most part the ROH versus New Japan matches were saved for the following weekend’s War of the Worlds event. It struck me as a strange decision at first. There are, after all, enough stars from both companies to put on several ROH v NJPW cards without worrying about repetition. But having seen the show I think it worked well. I suspect it was intended as a primer designed to introduce people with little or no knowledge of either company (though let’s face it I mainly mean New Japan because this came across as an ROH show guest starrign New Japan) to the main players.

The show started, as wrestling shows tend to, with a video recap. This one started out focusing on Kevin Steen, who said he's refocusing on the ROH world championship after a year of being side-tracked with peripheral feuds. Current champ Adam Cole said he'd beat him. That was followed by shots of New Japan wrestlers wrestling matches. No voiceovers or anything with that though. The language barrier wasn't an issue, Kevin Kelly (or whoever) could have been given something to read over it, which makes me wonder why ROH didn’t bother getting him to.

Live in the Ted Reeve Arena the audience were rowdy and Kevin Kelly and Steve Corino were on commentary. Having 'The King of Old School' was a boon for ROH here, his history in Japan allowed him to bring additional knowledge and insight. It lent an air of credibility to the commentary booth. Had Kevin Kelly had to research the background knowledge Corino dropped in throughout the night the play-by-play would have been drier than usual. And I think we can all agree Double K’s commentary is not known for being packed with personality.

ACH v Michael Bennett was the opener. It was a satisfactory match, a good choice to go on first because of the popularity of ACH and the intense dislike most fans have for Bennett. The action centred around Mr Attitude, Charisma, Heart targeting Bennett's knee, which was apparently injured last year but wasn't operated on. It was a way of evening things up between the two men. Bennett won with a Dominator after he'd knocked Todd Sinclair, causing him to crotch ACH on the top rope. 'The Prodigy' continued to sell his knee after the match, although he also slung Maria over his shoulder(necessary because ACH had avoided a Bennett spear and she’d ended up taking it) and carried her backstage. Consistent selling continues to be a problem in Ring of Honor.  

Takaaki Watanabe was the first New Japan wrestler to enter the arena. His opponent was number one contender to the IWGP heavyweight championship, Michael Elgin. Both got good reactions. Elgin's was slightly better because he's Canadian (national pride and all that). They set a faster pace than the opener, impressive when you remember ACH had been involved in that.

Elgin did his stalling suplex spot then booted Watanabe in the face. His corkscrew senton attempt wasn’t as successful, Watanabe rolling out of the way and dropping Elgin with a running neck breaker. Big Michael returned with an enziguri, a code breaker from the second rope, a rolling elbow and a stalling German suplex for a two count. Watanabe avoided the apron suplex but was nailed with a spinning back fist as he leapt from the top rope. A buckle bomb and Elgin bomb did him in.

It was a short match that didn't allow Watanabe to leave much of an impression. The focus was more on giving 'The Unbreakable One' a solid win over a New Japan guy in preparation for his challenge for the IWGP strap. Watanabe is not NJPW's biggest name so it wasn't surprising the match went this way. It was good for its length but not amongst Elgin's best offerings. I can't imagine it was a notable Watanabe outing either.

Match three was the first of two three-way tag team matches. Decade members BJ Whitmer and Jimmy Jacobs were accompanied by new young boy Tadarius Thomas. They all got booed. reDRagon got cheered, because they've gradually slotted into the cool heels role (or perhaps it’s because wrestling fans can’t resist tough-guy hipsters). Team three was Jay and Mark Briscoe. They got the most cheers. Because they're massively over. I've never fully understood why.

It was another short, action packed encounter. The Briscoes won after Jay hit a gorilla press into a Death Valley driver on Jacobs, following up with a Doomsday Device. They haven't been teaming much lately so it was a good decision to give them the win. reDRagon didn't need it and The Decade are a middle of the card pairing. The Briscoes going over reminds everyone of why they're so highly regarded. The less they lose the more it means when they do. After the match Bobby Fish complained that Todd Sinclair had had no control in the match. That might lead to some sort of future story. But it probably won't.

The Roderick Strong v Cedric Alexander match was preceded by a video package looking at their feud. They've been given a good story: Strong and his Decade pals feel that young wrestlers, Cedric in particular, need to respect the locker room veterans. Cedric felt he'd been respectful and that he needed to stand up for himself. Part of the reason it's been effective is that the "newcomers must earn respect" mentality seems prevalent in wrestling, and has occasionally been linked in interviews and on commentary to Strong. They've implemented other real life aspects like The Decade questioning whether Cedric's wife and child are proud of him, which wasn't entirely necessary but hasn't hurt anything. Cedric in particular has entered some spirited microphone performances. It's a good example of everyone involved striving to turn something good into something better, a mentality from which everyone benefits.

It was a spirited, storyline driven match. Cedric wanted the win to prove he belongs. Strong wanted the win to prove he doesn't. The fans got behind Cedric and his offensive flurries. Back breakers played a part too: they'd been the original spark for the feud with Roddy, 'The Messiah of the Back Breaker' remember, feeling that Cedric should be respectful and not use "his" moves. That setup various near falls. A particularly good one saw Cedric catch Roddy as he attempted a sick kick, hoisting him up and nailing him with a back breaker. That was seconds before the finish: after kneeing Cedric in the head Strong went for a suplex but got caught with a surprise small package.

After the match Jacobs, Thomas and Whitmer ran to the ring and smacked Cedric about. The most significant moment saw Strong hitting a release suplex through four tables. The feud's clearly not over yet, which is good as there are plenty of matches that can still be booked. A stipulation rematch between Strong and Alexander is almost certainly at the top of the list.

Match four was the first New Japan match of the evening. Forever Hooligans (Alex Koslov and Rocky Romero) and Time Splitters (KUSHIDA and Alex Shelley) challenged the Young Bucks for the IWGP junior heavyweight tag team championship. The three teams have worked against one another a lot in New Japan so I expected slick exchanges and plenty of double team work. And I was right to. The match was easily the best thing on the show until that point, and it had by no means been bad beforehand. What's more it ended up as the match of the night too. The six men put on an incredible performance that elevated the entire card, not to mention the junior tag belts they were scrapping over. The Bucks won an electric encounter with More Bang For Your Buck on Koslov.

The second half opened up with RD Evans (now 104-0) and Ramon walking to the ring. They got a mixed reaction. I didn't appreciate that. Evans is tremendous and deserves standing ovations for being one of the most entertaining acts in Ring of Honor. He reminded us he had wrestling's only current winning streak. After the usual shenanigans (during which Evans dubbed himself 'Papa Bear') The New Streak continued with Evans cleanly defeating mighty ring announcer Bobby Cruise with a schoolboy.

Part two proper kicked off with NJPW Intercontinental champion Shinsuke Nakamura teaming with Jado to take on Jushin Liger and 'Mr Air Guitar' Hiroshi Tanahashi. The IC champ and Tanahashi are among New Japan's three biggest stars (they could arguably be considered its top two) while Jado is half of highly respected junior heavyweight tag team The World Class Tag Team with his partner Gedo (with the two also being the company's bookers, being credited with the resurgence over the last few years). Liger is one of the most accomplished junior heavyweights in wrestling history. Basically there was a lot of star power in the match.

Tanahashi and Nakamura, who have had a spirited rivalry dating back years, started off in the ring and gave an enjoyable, if not overly elaborate, sequence. From there the match delivered what it needed to. Liger delivered his signature light routine spots. Nak and Tana had further energetic exchanges. Jado acted like a heat magnet, a role he was particularly well suited to because he is not as prominent a figure as the match's other figures. The faces took extended beatings before making spirited comebacks. Tanahashi got the popular win when he hit a frog splash (not the High Fly Flow because he didn't do the double) on Jado. It was a good match but it never felt any of the four were striving to do more than was required. Perhaps it was simply that they didn’t want to upstage anyone.

Jay Lethal ,the first ever two time ROH TV champion, followed that, defending his title against Silas Young, Matt Taven and Tommaso Ciampa. The first thing I'd like to note is that Taven, while a good wrestler, is not as popular as he could be. His split from Truth Martini late last year may have been a little premature. Conversely I think ROH made the right decision turning Lethal. The crowd got on him from the moment he entered and they stayed on him throughout the match. Not only that but he's got new opponents to face and a fresh twist to put on his matches with the new dynamic being a heel and having a manager brings.

The match started with some ringside brawling. Highlights there included Ciampa taking a wild back drop into the audience, Young performing a superplex off the guard rail, and MTV performing a beautiful plancha. Once they hit the ring the four started swapping signature moves and stiff shots, as is the ROH way. The near falls racked up quickly. Ciampa hit the Celtic Cross. Taven dazzled with a moonsault from the turnbuckle to the outside. Young walloped various people with lariats.

It was another good match that left us wanting more thanks to a shorter than usual running time. The finish came when Truth wound up in the ring, where he distracted Taven with his punchable face long enough to allow Lethal to perform a Lethal Injection for the win.

The penultimate match saw Gedo team with Kazuchika Okada against 'Machine Gun' Karl Anderson and AJ Styles. Anderson is a longstanding member of Bullet Club, NJPW's lead heel faction, and half of the IWGP tag champions (alongside former Aces and Rights stalwart 'Handsome' Doc Gallows). Gedo is the other half of The World Class Tag Team mentioned above, and also the manager of Okada. Okada is a former two time IWGP heavyweight champion whose second reign had been ended just seven days before Global Wars by Styles. That had been Styles's first bout as a contracted New Japan performer, making winning the strap an even bigger deal. Plus he's the first westerner to hold the title since Brock Lesnar vacated it in the summer of 2006. 'The Phenomenal One' has also taken over as the head of Bullet Club. All of this makes it pretty clear that New Japan consider him a big deal and want their fans to as well.

The champs played heel, a peculiar choice considering his popularity in North America. That Okada was until recently about as close to a top heel as NJPW had further highlighted the peculiarity. Not that the match was bad. It wasn't. It was a satisfying affair, more so than the earlier New Japan tag offering. The decision to have AJ work as the bad guy worked out well, fans booing his and Anderson's cheating and rallying around super worker Okada. Either this match or the main event were the second best match of the night.

Gedo fell to a Pele kick, an Ace crusher and a Styles Clash, all while Okada was held back by Anderson. After the match Elgin showed up and bickered with Styles in the ring. Okada briefly got in on that. A three-way between those guys wouldn't go amiss. Not that that seems likely.

Adam Cole defended the ROH championship against Kevin Steen in the main event. A slugfest kicked proceedings off. Steen got the better of that, naturally. They spilled outside the ring where Steen remained in control, smashing the champ into turnbuckles and guard rails. Eventually Cole managed to take the advantage, super kicking Steen's knee and following up with a kneeDT, smacks into the ring apron and knee-centric submission holds. Cole even busted out Bret Hart's hanging figure four. Considering they were in Canada the use of the move didn't get as much heat as I would have expected. Maybe the fans no longer associate the move with hit man.

Steen gave Cole apron bombs on every side of the ring then rolled him into the ring and hit a Swanton bomb for a close two count. Cole escaped an F5 into a Death Valley neck breaker. Steen avoided a top rope hurricanrana and hit a fisherman buster for a two count which got a loud reaction. The champ avoided a cannonball. His package piledriver attempt didn't work because of his weakened knee, allowing Cole to spin out and apply a figure four leg lock. Steen flipped over to force a break. Moments later he hit a pop up power bomb on Cole and applied a Sharpshooter. It wasn't on for long but it get one of the loudest reactions of the night. That's one move Canadian fans do react for.

Steen nailed a sleeper suplex for two. Bennett showed up to try and aid his pal Cole but was swiftly eliminated by a package piledriver. Cole super kicked the challenger in the back of the head and gave him a Florida Quay for a convincing two. He was once again in the Sharpshooter shortly afterwards, this time getting a break using the ropes. A boot to the head floored Steen, giving Cole time to climb to the top rope. That proved a bad decision: Steen dropped him with El Generico's top rope brainbuster for the false finish of the night.

Cole got a small package for two. Steen went for a package piledriver but Cole rolled off his shoulders and thumped him with a super kick. That got him the three count and kept him the title.

Global Wars can’t be considered anything but a success. I don’t know how many people watched online but it was the fastest ticket sell-out in ROH history. That indicates that there was plenty of interest in the event, which should have resulted in big business on Ustream. In the ring it was a great show. I’ve mentioned that several of the matches were shorter than expected but that ended up a good thing: Ring of Honor matches tend towards the too long over the too short. It was (quite literally) a nice change of pace. The quality of the matches never dipped below good and there were three matches I wouldn’t be surprised to see crop up on many match of 2014 lists come December (the junior heavyweight tag match, Styles and Anderson v Okada and Gedo, and the ROH championship main event). I’m eagerly looking forward to War of the Worlds, and any future collaborations the two leagues care to throw our way.

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