Sunday 2 August 2015

NJPW Dominion 2015 review

With the G1 tournament currently in full swing this seems like the perfect (or most illogical, whichever you prefer) time to review the promotion's last major show, Dominion. I'd been looking forward to this show a great deal due to the fact that it featured a far greater number of singles and championship matches than the average New Japan show. It felt like it was a big deal because of this and, pleasingly, all of the bigger matches were worth watching. This was a show that didn't disappoint.

This said it actually seems like this was a relatively minor New Japan show, designed more as something to get people in position before the G1 tournament. Which does a fair amount to illustrate just how good NJPW is: even its B shows are excellent. It's impossible to imagine the likes of Payback or Battleground being this good. But then New Japan and WWE (and Gedo and Vince McMahon, for that matter) have different approaches and goals with the companies they head.

The show kicked off with a trio of tag matches. The first saw Yuji Nagata, Ryusuke Taguchi, Sho Tanaka, Mascara Dorada and Manabu Nakanishi defeat Jushin Liger, Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Satoshi Kojima, Yohei Komatsu, and Tiger Mask when Dorada pinned Komatsu. The second was the traditionally high spot filled junior tag title match, the Young Bucks successfully retaining against reDRagon and Roppongi Vice in a three-way. The latter seems to have drawn criticism from some for being "too American" but with six westerners in there what else could you expect. As far as these sorts of matches go it was very enjoyable.

The third saw Tetsuay Naito and Tomoaki Honma pair up to defeat Bullet Club lads Yujiro Takahashi and Bad Luck Fale. Naturally it was Takahashi who took the pin because New Japan go out of their way to protect Fale, presumably because he's the closest thing they have to a big, bad monster. Less naturally it was Honma who got the pin for his team, playing into a match-long story of Naito seemingly being unmotivated and not trying especially hard to help his partner out. This story (which has progressed considerably with the G1) was the highlight of the match, although the work between eternal underdog Honma and 'The Underboss' was fun too.

The first singles match of the show pitted Kazushi Sakuraba against Katusyori Shibata. This match was only a little over ten minutes but it felt longer. These are two of the least compeling guys on the New Japan roster for me and as such I found this difficult to engage with. It was technically proficint but it was the least engaging portion of the show for me. Shibata went over with a punt kick to Sakuraba's face after having weakened him with a lengthy sleeper.

Things improved considerably after that with Kushida's return to the top of the junior division with a junior heavyweight championship win over Kenny Omega. Kushida had earned the match by winning the Best of the Super Junior tournament in June, playing into the simple (but slightly unpleasantly racially charged storyline) story of Kenny Omega, a Canadian, having defeated challengers of Japanese, Mexican, and American origin and gloating about how none of them had beaten him. Obviously he was going to get his comeuppance at the hands of a Japanese guy, and it was Kushida, a man who's popularity has been growing considerably over the last eighteen months and who had been perfectly positioned for a singles run away from his Time Splitters partner Alex Shelley, who had to be the one to beat him.

This was the first standout match of the show (and there were several standout matches, as you'll read below). There was early use of a rubbish bin (trash can, for y'all across The Pond) from Omega, designed to play into his weird 'Cleaner' moniker, and then a prolonged sequence of Kushida's leg being worked over against tables and barriers outside the ring. That set him up as even more of an underdog against the despicable westerner and got him doing some very sympathetic selling, drawing the crowd in and prepping him for a piping hot comeback later on in the match.

It came just shy of the fifteen minute mark when Kushida reversed a suplex. From there he hit the champion with a roundhouse kick on the apron, a handspring elbow, and a cross body block from the turnbuckle to the floor (handily wiping out the Bucks too). Omega managed to briefly hold back the tide with, of all things, an Oklahoma Stampede, a decidedly more junior dragon suplex, and a top rope Aoi Shoudou, but it wasn't enough to get him the victory. Kushida would fire back with a number of kicks and applications of the kimura lock. It took a few tries but it was eventually that hold which got Kushida the win, trapping Omega's arm as he hoisted the challenger up for the One-Winged Angel and then locking the hold in place in the centre of the ring.

Following Kushida's lengthy celebration Tomorhiro Ishii strode down to the ring to challenge Togi Makabe for the NEVER championship. Makabe had defeated Ishii at Wrestle Kingdom 9 but was stripped of the title the following month after suffering form influenza and being unable to compete. Ishii would go on to beat Honma for the vacated gold at New Beginning, only to lose it back Makabe at Wrestling Hi no Kuni.

We had the same sort of enjoyably rough and tumble match here as we'd had in their previous meetings. They pummelled one another non-stop for getting on for twenty minutes, throwing elbows like they were going out of style. Big lad matches don't get much finer than what they gave us here, and they built to a great crescendo with Makabe German suplexing Ishii off the top rope before dropping on a knee on his head to once again beat him to retain the championship. This, for the record, was the second standout match of the evening. 

It was followed by a decidedly non-standout match: The Kingdom versus Bullet Club for the IWGP tag team championship. These aren't teams that do great things together. They've wrestled three times on major New Japan shows this year (Invasion Attack, where Bennett and Taven defeated Gallows and Anderson for the tag belts, and Wrestling Dontaku, in a six person match also involving Maria and Amber) and met in a number of matches on house shows in both New Japan and ROH. Despite this they've not managed to develop any sort of noticeable chemistry or interesting spots that can be called back to.

On the one hand that's fair enough. Not every feud is going to see guys find a rhythm that leads to a string of classic matches. It's not their fault that they've been put together so much, that they're all foreign heels (leading to audience disinterest and lack of focus) or that all they've been given to work with in terms of basis for a rivalry is Karl Anderson being infatuated by Maria. But it is their fault that they've not managed to drag any of these matches up to an acceptable level.

Bullet Club regained the titles here when they hit Taven with a 3D and Magic Killer. Hopefully they can move onto something with more talented teams that the audience actually like. Tanahashi wouldn't be a bad idea: he's super over and being in tags would help limit his ring time, preserving his utterly knackered body. It could also give a rub to whoever he was partnered with.

Speaking of Tanahashi, he wrestled in the match after this. It was a feud-ending collision with Toru Yano. Why he'd been pitted against Yano in a series is beyond me. Tanahashi, the man NJPW promotes as 'The Ace of the Universe' is one of the most over men in the company, quite possibly the most over. Yano is a comedy heel. Nobody stood to gain anything from this pairing: Yano wasn't going to be brought up to Tanahashi's level, Tanahashi was only going to be dragged down. It gave Tanahashi a rest, that's true, but there were other ways of achieving that without putting him with Yano.

The match was at least enjoyable. Because Tanahashi, despite being injured and overrated, is still very good, and Yano's shtick works. The obvious result came to pass when Tanahashi gave Yano the sling blade and the High Fly Flow.

The semi-main event was a Shinsuke Nakamura versus Hirooki Goto in a rematch for the Intercontinental championship. Goto had defeated Nak at Wrestling Dontaku in early May after Nak had underestimated and belittled him. The story here was that 'The King of Strong Style' wanted to prove the result had been a fluke and that he had been right to disregard Goto.

They started off with a lengthy feeling out process, Nak toying with the champ by jabbing at him with taunting kicks. Goto would get the best of the first lockup exchange, however, and would also be the first to go on a prolonged offensive streak, grounding Nakamura and wearing him down with chin locks. Nakamura would miss a running knee to the corner before knocking Goto out of the ring and smacking him into some guard rails.

The referee started a count. Goto made it back into the ring at eighteen but was too beaten up to do anything but lay there. Nakamura took advantage of this with some kicks. When he switched to elbows Goto's fighting spirit kicked in and he started fighting back. Nakamura survived a crazy lariat attempt, a spinning heel kick, and a bulldog before buying himself some time with a drop kick. A running knee in the corner missed but he managed to hoist the champion to the top rope and strike him with one there. That earned him a two count.

Goto tried to fire up again but Nak cut him off with another drop kick and a fall forward suplex. A Bome Ye attempt was reversed into a Samoan drop attempt, Nak wriggling off the shoulders and trapping Goto in a Gogoplata. Goto made it to the ropes but not quickly, and he was clearly even more worn down after being released from the hold. So Nakamura slapped on a rear naked choke to keep the pressure on.

Goto fought to his feet only for Nakamura to release the hold and drop him with a couple of suplexes. He again went for the Boma Ye and again found it countered, this time with a lariat. Goto hit an Angle Slam for two. He followed up with a neckbreaker out of the corner and Shouten Kai attempt. Nakamura kneed him in the head to escape that, only to be clotheslined in the corner seconds later. Goto tried to hit something from the top rope but Nak slipped away and power bombed him down to the mat then walloped him with a Boma Ye as he staggered back up.

Back on their feet the two lads traded blows, Nakamura getting the best of the exchange and felling the champ with an axe kick. Goto blearily tried getting back up but got struck with a Shining Wizard. Despite the crowd being convinced it was a match-ender Nakamura's pin attempt only got him a two count. Goto ran the ropes, avoiding two further  Boma Ye strikes before getting punched straight in the face. That caused him to drop to his knees. Nakamura again tried a Boma Ye but Goto caught hold of his knee, allowing him to hit a Goto Shiki and a dangerous-looking bck drop into an inverted power bomb for a beautiful false finish.

Nak got back to his feet and punched Goto again. Goto no-sold and gave Nak some head butts. Nak fell to the mat where he was pulled back to his feet to be hit with the match-winning Shouten Kai, bringing a cracking match to a close. Being a big fan of Nakamura I was disappointed he didn't get to regain the title he, more than anyone else has helped to build up but it would have been pointless for Goto to lose it back in his first defence. It's nice for someone else to have it for a bit to create some variety and allow Nakamura to do other things.

The main event saw AJ Styles defend the IWGP heavyweight championship against Kazuchika Okada. It was preceded by a really quite excellent hype video that did a great job of setting the mood for the match. Footage was used from some of the ROH co-promoted show, establishing how popular Okada is outside of Japan. He was also shown staring wistfully at Madison Square Garden, a building he's unlikely to ever wrestle in unless he makes his way to WWE at some point. It seemed to be presenting him as a humble man driven by ambitions and goals. Meanwhile Styles was presented as brash, arrogant and condescending. It did a great job of setting the scene for the story to come.

That story saw an Okada who refused to be intimidated by Styles dominate the early going. Okada was clearly confident and determined to overcome the entirety of Bullet Club being at ringside and become the heavyweight champion for a third time. The opening minutes saw 'The Rainmaker' outwrestle Styles multiple times, demonstrating that he had the champion's number and would win a fair match. Then, to illustrate that it wasn't a fair match, the interference began. Amber tripped Okada, allowing Styles to take control of the match. Moments later the challenger was tossed out of the ring to receive a kicking from the Biz Cliz.

Okada tried to fight back in the ring ut he got nailed with a drop kick and thrown out of the ring for a second kicking. This time the referee realised what was happening and ordered all Bullet Club members back to the locker room (maybe they should have secured themselves managers licenses and avoided this issue entirely). Okada rocked Styles with elbows, reversed a whip into a DDT, and hit a kip Up. Because athleticism.

Okada got a two count with a flapjack then headed to the top rope. Styles charged in but Okada leapt over him and struck him with an elbow. The champ no-sold that and hit his Asai DDT. He tried to follow up with a springboard but Okada kicked the ropes, toppling him back down onto the ring apron where he took an Okada drop kick.

After a brief brawl around ringside the two returned to the ring and Styles hit Okada with a facebuster for two. Styles tried a springboard again. Okada countered again, this time drop kicking the champion as he sailed into the ring. He followed up with a Macho Elbow to Styles then signalled for the Rainmaker. Styles escaped and suplexed Okada into a turnbuckle board. Then, finally, he hit his springboard forearm.

Okada turned a Styles Clash into Heavy Rain. He tried to follow up with a Tombstone but Styles fought his way out of it. They traded punches, uppercuts and elbows, Styles getting the better of the exchange when he elbowed Okada to the ground and stomped him. Back on his feet Okada hit that perfect drop kick of his and went for the Tombstone again. Styles reversed his way out of it and hit the move himself, following up with the springboard 450 for a two count.

Styles headed to the top rope. Okada followed and hit a dangerous, almost botched-looking, Death Valley Driver from the second rope to the apron. After a pause Styles crawled back into the ring, only to be hit with a drop kick from the top rope. A dazed Styles staggered to his feet and straight into a Tombstone piledriver from Okada. He signalled and went for the Rainmaker again but Styles ducked and struck with a Pele kick, flooring the challenger and buying himself some time to recover.

Back on his feet 'The Phenomenal One' attempted a Styles Clash. Okada pulled out of it and tried the Rainmaker again. Styles ducked it and gave Okada a back slide, rolling him through into the Styles Clash. Okada fought out, only to be set up for Bloody Sunday. He escaped that too and grabbed Styles for the Rainmaker. Styles fired off elbows so Okada dragged him into a back slide and hit him with the Rainmaker. Just to make sure he had him Okada pulled Styles up for another but Styles ducked. It didn't help him though. Okada nailed a pair of German suplexes and another Rainmaker to put AJ down for a three count and win his third IWGP heavyweight championship.

The match was excellent, one of the best I've seen Styles have since joining New Japan. It was easily the best on the card and was of a quality befitting the beginning of 'The Rainmaker's' third title reign. The pair wrestled like the title meant something and did a great job of weaving their finishers and signature moves into the closing third of the match, each man's arsenal being portrayed as absolutely devastating. The match can't be praised enough. It was one of the finest NJPW efforts of the year, and that puts it up against some stiff competition.

The show as a whole was, as I intimated earlier, great. Every match did exactly what it needed to. Makabe v Ishii was great and the junior heavyweight, IC, and heavyweight title matches were all match of the year contenders. This show just edged out Wrestle Kingdom 9 for New Japan's show of the year spot. With this being such a great show and there being two new champions crowned I'm interested to see what New Japan does next.


Results summary:
Yuji Nagata, Ryusuke Taguchi, Sho Tanaka, Mascara Dorada and Manabu Nakanishi defeated Jushin Liger, Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Satoshi Kojima, Yohei Komatsu, and Tiger Mask
The Young Bucks defeated Roppongi Vice and reDRagon to retain the IWGP junior heavyweight tag team championship
Tomoaki Honma and Tetsuya Naito defeated Yujiro Takahashi and Bad Luck Fale
Katsuyori Shibata defeated Kazushi Sakuraba
Kushida defeated Kenny Omega to win the IWGP junior heavyweight championship
Togi Makabe defeated Tomohiro Ishii to retain the NEVER openweight championship
Bullet Club defeated The Kingdom to win the IWGP tag team championship
Hiroshi Tanahashi defeated Toru Yano
Hirooki Goto defeated Shinsuke Nakamura to retain the IWGP Intercontinental championship
Kazuchika Okada defeated AJ Styles to win the IWGP heavyweight championship

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