The road to Wrestling Dontaku is well underway, making a brief stop in Kumamoto for Wrestling Hi no Kuni on April 29th, before ending in a two day show in Fukuoka on May 3rd and 4th. The shows leading up to the major New Japan events usually feature matches that build up current storylines but have little long-term importance, but this week I went to two shows at Korakuen Hall that featured some more major matchups.
Korakuen Hall is a hallowed venue in the history of Japanese professional wrestling, having first hosted a wrestling show in 1966 (main evented by Giant Baba vs. Luis Hernandez.) The Hall is within the Tokyo Dome City complex, and somewhat overshadowed by the Dome itself, whose towering aspect and bright lights look like an alien spaceship has come to rest in the centre of Tokyo. Korakuen is situated on the fifth floor of the Korakuen Hall Building and the interior is a little underwhelming at first glance – mostly white walls and orange fixed seating. With a capacity of only around 1,800, Korakuen is truly an intimate space given the importance it holds in Japanese wrestling tradition.
However, when Korakuen is full, like it was this week, the atmosphere is almost unrivalled for passion and support. Japanese wrestling crowds have a reputation for being quieter than their American counterparts, but the Korakuen crowd is never quiet. Being such a small venue also means that the wrestlers truly are up close and personal to the crowd, and frequently the action spills out into the audience. I didn’t have any wrestlers thrown into my chair, but at one point Lance Archer did throw water all over me (to the delight of the Japanese fans sitting next to me.)
Since the hall is located on the fifth floor of the Korakuen Hall Building there is always a queue for the elevators on the ground floor, which often extends out of the building. If you choose not to wait, there’s a set of stairs that take you all the way to the fifth floor, covered in graffiti from previous participants in shows at Korakuen. As well as wrestling, Korakuen has a long history of boxing and MMA, and pictures of fight cards and fighters are hung up on the fifth floor at the entrance to the arena. Once inside there is a small space for a merchandise table, as well as a concessions stand. The seating is divided up into north, south, east, and west sides (with south being the hard camera side,) and getting to ringside seats on the north, east, or west sides feels like you’re almost getting into the ring with the wrestlers.
Both nights opened with a Young Lions’ match, showcasing the future of New Japan in matches between the younger trainees. Part of the appeal of the Young Lion system is getting to see young wrestlers develop over time from trainees into fully fledged members of the roster, and the crowd was hot for matches between the two newest Young Lions, Yota Tsuji and Yuya Uemura, who opened the first night’s show. Tsuji and Uemura battled to a time-limit draw, but the other Young Lions matches involved the trainees taking on, and ultimately losing to, older members of the roster in tag team matches. Shota Umino in particular stood out as a rising star of the Young Lions, with Hirai Kawato on excursion and Katsuya Kitamura injured or worse, Umino looks set to take on a more prominent role going forward.
The majority of the rest of the matches on both cards were multi-man tag team matches designed to further the feuds in the lead-up to Wrestling Hi no Kuni and Wrestling Dontaku. Seikigun took on CHAOS to build up matches between Juice Robinson and Hirooki Goto for the NEVER Openweight Title, KUSHIDA and Will Ospreay for the Jr. Heavyweight Title, and Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Title. The matches featuring Juice, Goto, Tanahsahi, and Okada were intense affairs, with all four men showing a level of aggression ahead of their title matches. Okada and Tanahashi in particular set the stage for an epic confrontation in Fukuoka. On the first night Tanahashi displayed flashes of his heelish side that came out when the two met in previous matches in 2013, but on the second night Okada took the aggression to a new level by tombstone piledriving Tanahashi on the floor outside the ring during their match and delighting in the damage that he did to his rival. After the match he had to be restrained by Gedo before attacking Tanahashi further, while Juice and Goto brawled around the outside of the ring.
The other major storyline running through both nights was the feud between Suzuki-gun and Los Ingobernables de Japon. LIJ are all hugely over with the fans, and the chants for Tetsuya Naito during his entrance were by far the loudest of any single wrestler over the two nights. Naito and Minoru Suzuki have a match for the Intercontinental Title at Wrestling Hi no Kuni, along with Killer Elite Squad against EVIL and SANADA for the Tag Team Titles. On both nights KES scored a pinfall over their Los Ingobernables de Japon rivals, but the focus of the matches was more on Suzuki attempting to do as much damage to Naito as he physically could. Both matches spilled out into the crowd, and the members of Suzuki-gun abused their opponents with chair shots, as well as Suzuki hooking in submissions on Naito whenever he had the chance.
Meanwhile the other members of Suzuki-gun, Taichi, Taka Michinoku, and Takashi Iizuka, took on Roppongi 3K on both nights, in matches that both finished in rare disqualification finishes. New Japan is generally a lot more relaxed actions that would lead to disqualification in other promotions, but the story told across the two nights furthered the idea that Sho and Yoh couldn’t deal with Suzuki-gun’s rampant cheating, which had cost them their Jr. Heavyweight Tag Titles in the first place at the Anniversary Show in March, and the rematch at Sakura Genesis. I am not personally a fan of matches that involve Iizuka, since his matches always devolve into him biting people, but the crowd enjoyed seeing Sho and Yoh try to avoid Iizuka, who took a real shine to biting Yoh in both matches.
This led into the main event of the first night, when the defending Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team champions El Desperado and Yoshinobu Kanemaru took on Hiromu Takahashi and Bushi of Los Ingobernables de Japon. Hiromu and Bushi were involved in the triple-threat match at the Anniversary Show and at Sakura Genesis, but those matches didn’t flow together as well as regular tag team matches between the three teams. Thankfully their match at Korakuen broke the trend, and ended up being much better than the previous triple threats. Hiromu is probably the second most over member of LIJ, and the crowd was completely behind him throughout the match. When he hit El Desperado with the Dynamite Plunger, everyone watching thought that the titles were coming back to LIJ, until El Desperado kicked out at the last second. Ultimately, El Desperado and Kanemaru continued Suzuki-gun’s domination by cheating to win – the referee was knocked down, El Desperado hit Hiromu in the face with a title belt, and finally pinned him after hitting a Pinche Loco onto the title belt.
There were only two singles matches over the two nights (not counting the opening Young Lions match,) but the matches were two of the best matches I’ve ever seen on a “road to” show. The first, a special singles match between Toa Henare and Tomohiro Ishii, saw two brawlers go to war, throwing everything they had at each other in an effort to win. Henare has only recently graduated from being a Young Lion, so it was never likely that he would beat Ishii, who is comfortably an upper midcard presence in New Japan. However, the crowd was completely behind Henare as he absorbed the punishment that Ishii doled out and then rallied back, getting some near falls with a roll-up and a vicious spear. Ultimately Ishii emerged victorious after hitting Henare with a brainbuster, but Henare looked very good in defeat, and the Korakuen crowd greatly appreciated the effort of the young New Zealander.
The final match of the second night saw another New Zealand native, Jay White, defending his US Title against David Finlay. White and Finlay perhaps represent the highs and lows of the Young Lion system – both trained together in the New Japan Dojo, and while White left for an excursion in 2016, Finlay remained in New Japan. White returned in late 2017 and was catapulted straight to a match with Hiroshi Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom 12, while Finlay had mostly spent his time in the undercard with little clear direction or character development. However, when White defeated Hangman Page at Strong Style Evolved in March, Finlay demanded a match for the US Title. The two had history as Young Lions, and in the lead up to the title match Finlay showed a fire that had been lacking for much of his time in New Japan. The Korakuen crowd were largely behind Finlay throughout the match, especially as he came in the clear underdog. The Japanese fans that I talked to at the show all seemed to think that White was the most likely winner, even though they admired Finlay’s fighting spirit.
The match itself was good, easily Finlay’s best showing to date. Jay White has also improved in his mannerisms and character of the Switchblade, and he is an excellent technical wrestler. Finlay showed an aggressive side in the match by taking the match to White at a fast pace, and late on in the match, setting up a table outside the ring that he attempted to put White through. Ultimately Finlay was the one who went through the table in a painful looking spot when the table failed to break after he was powerbombed on to it, so White hit an elbow drop from the apron to ensure the table broke. There was a call-back to their Young Lion days at one point in the match when Jay White applied a boston crab to Finlay – a submission that is associated with the Young Lions – then transitioned it into a liontamer. As the match neared its end Finlay reversed the Blade Runner into a stunner but couldn’t get a three count, and ultimately White was able to successfully hit the Blade Runner and defend his title for a second time. Although the crowd had been behind Finlay, both men came out with their stock raised. It was slightly surprising to see a post-match promo following a title match that didn’t end with a new challenger coming out to attack the champion, but most likely after Wrestling Dontaku the landscape of the US Title will be clearer.
Looking forward to the events of Wrestling Dontaku, I expect Okada will be successful in his title defence against Tanahashi. Gedo seems set on making Okada a record-breaking champion, and there is no better story than breaking Tanahashi’s record for most title defences. I think that Will Ospreay will beat KUSHIDA since Ospreay is being built up as a strong champion, and a victory over KUSHIDA would solidify him at the top of the Jr. Heavyweight division. At Wrestling Hi no Kuni I believe that Suzuki-gun will emerge as champions – Suzuki beating Naito, and KES beating EVIL and SANADA for the tag team titles. This is predicated on my belief that Naito will be the one to challenge Okada for the title at Dominion in June, and having a champion against champion match seems much less likely than a straight challenge for the IWGP Heavyweight Title. Okada began his current amazing title reign at Dominion in 2016, and I foresee Naito bringing it to an end at Dominion this year.