A thrilling turnout
It must be rough being a wrestler signed to WWE these days – all you have to do is look over your shoulder to see how much fun Indie wrestlers are having before floods of green envy fill your veins. These days, if you want quality wrestling entertainment, WWE is really stuck in dead last. A combination of terrible booking decisions and a lack of organic spontaneity have alienated all but the most very casual of fans away from the American giant.
Luckily though, fans in Long Beach, California were treated to a modern wrestling spectacle in the form of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Strong Style Evolved event earlier today to brilliant results: The Japanese promotion’s further excursions into the McMahon stronghold of America gains vital footholds with an excellent display of the best Japanese wrestling has to offer on US soil. As is de rigueur for NJPW, it was a night of top-shelf technical wrestling, excellently paced character work, subtle and pitch-perfect story-telling, excellent physical displays as well as an explosive and emotive main event.
Commentary for the evening is provided by Jim Ross along with Josh Barnett – A much more subtle pairing that makes for a change from the annoyingly chatty and sometimes irritating team of Kevin Kelly and Don Mccallis. JR and Barnett bring a professional broadcaster vibe to the usually wince-inducing back and forth between Don and Kevin. Production quality too benefits from a boost in quality, largely due to NJPW’s partnership with American locals AXS TV – though the spectacularly bright camera work you come to expect from NJPW occasionally misses big, punishing spots and replays will happily play over pinfall attempts but even these minor blemishes don’t detract from what is an excellently produced show. NJPW often sets itself apart from WWE’s busy and cluttered output by being brilliantly sparse, and therefore much more professional in tone, dispelling the constantly embarrassing soap operas of the WWE in favour of an immersive, realistic sport-style event. In Strong Style Evolved’s case, these production values also outline the beautiful venue for the event, the Long Beach Walter Pyramid which was filled to the rafters with 8,000 strong. Apparently sold out in under ten minutes, WWE has to be looking over their shoulder now. With a well-produced, professional event gaining even more popularity on their home turf, it’ll be interesting to see how the McMahons sports entertainment juggernaut responds.
But as for the wrestling itself – the entire show was consistently entertaining, playing before an immensely grateful California crowd with much of the evenings loudest pops coming from established NJPW favorites. Gorillas of Destiny took on Marty Scurll and Cody Rhodes in a storied match that only deepened the ongoing rift in the Bullet Club – Cody has blossomed into an excellent and hated heel, arrogantly swaggering to the ring under a chorus of boos. Cutting a pre-match promo, Cody attempts to talk his way out of the match – Bullet Club, apparently, is fine. Evidently, this is roundly rejected by the Gorillas of Destiny and the match ensues. Marty Scurll provides much-needed tension deflating humour for this match, playing the doting henchman to Cody’s evil genius. A fantastic match for those interested in Bullet Club’s ongoing dimensional rift which NJPW has written to perfection.
The gigantic eight-man tag match was especially noteworthy, too. Los Ingobernables face off against Dragon Lee, Ryusuke Taguchi, Kushida and Hiroshi Tanahashi. The match gets a thunderous roar of approval early on as Naito and Tanahashi seek to reignite their old rivalry before it’s promptly extinguished by Naito’s goons. The match breaks down into chaotic, frantic brawling until Naito later scores a destino on Taguchi followed by a successful pinfall. The best take away from this match is the roaring ovation from the American fans which gave the event a truly international feel. It proves that NJPW’s continued popularity isn’t just dumb luck among indie fans but a legitimately entertaining product with real international appeal and seeing NJPW’s native talent being so hugely accepted by the US fans is heartwarming to witness – proof-positive that wrestling fans are one of the few mostly white/male fan bases with truly progressive ideals at heart.
The Ospreay/Liger match drew a huge reaction from fans but the execution felt stilted and underwhelming. Perhaps the last minute appointment of the Essex-born high flyer hurt the preparation of the match – nonetheless, Ospreay and Liger put on an entertaining match that acted as a passing of the torch ceremony after the 3 count on Liger. Ospreay honoured Liger’s legacy and proceeded to call out Rey Mysterio Jr for a title match, turning a luke-warm match into an exciting future prospect. The up and coming Brit facing off against Mexico’s greatest is a tantalizing prospect, to say the least, and hopefully, fans will get to see that dream match come to fruition before Mysterio decides to fly back to the WWE nest. Most shockingly of all, Marty Scurll appears post-match and proceeds to de-mask Mysterio, throwing all kinds of what-if scenarios into the mix for fans to ruminate over.
But the real star of the show, as is usually the case, is the tag-team match between The newly reformed Golden Lovers (Omega/Ibushi) and The Young Bucks (Nick and Matt Jackson). Again, a product of the deepening and irreversible fractures in the Bullet Club camp, this was a high impact story match that fans ate up. Opening the match with hesitation, Omega is slow to strike his former allies but is quickly goaded into action by not only the Bucks themselves but also his tag partner Ibushi. Table spots are teased several times throughout the match, made all the more tantalizing with Matt Jackson’s back troubles which slowly turn into a key storytelling pillar as the match goes on. This is a fantastic main-event match with plenty of build and tension behind the scenes to amplify the four explosive performers well above and beyond your typical WWE main events and one that evaporates any criticisms aimed at The Young Bucks and their apparent lack of wrestling psychology. This final match is a bittersweet, tearful slug-fest with high octane table spots and hard-hitting tandem offense erupting in even more confused divisions deep within the Bullet Club ranks. The Bullet Club story has been tone perfect in the last year, with the fallout being booked to perfection – this match is no different. During a post-match scuffle, Cody storms the ring to berate the Young Bucks, causing the Golden Lovers to flock to their former allies aid. Cody is roundly booed from the arena. A dramatic end to the evening, but with Kenny Omega potentially injured, it might be a while before we see any solid conclusion to the Bullet Club saga.
It’s fantastic to see NJPW’s third ever show on western soil be so well received – not just by local fans, but by the world at large. NJPW continues to be the best in class when it comes to classic professional wrestling and with more compelling characters than ever taking part in excellently booked, long-term storylines now has never been a better time to pull in fledgling WWE deserters. After selling out the Long Beach Walter Pyramid in under ten minutes, the real test for NJPW now comes in the form of consistency – with a new show announced for later in the year in San Francisco, NJPW needs to follow up on this excellent showing by filling an even bigger arena with more American fans who may feel like repeated NJPW shows on American soil may feel less special if they happen more often. But if the WWE keeps screwing up as badly as they are, they should have no problem filling out those seats.