NJPW WRESTLE GRAND SLAM: Shingo Takagi vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi
By: Mark Buckeldee
Welcome to this POST Wrestling report for New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Wrestle Grand Slam in Tokyo Dome. This is New Japan’s 3rd Tokyo Dome show of 2021. The last time that New Japan ran 3 Tokyo was in 2005.
This has been a very tumultuous year for New Japan, and it continued with this show. Kota Ibushi had to pull out of the advertised main event due to Aspirational Pneumonia. As such, the main event was changed to Shingo Takagi vs Hiroshi Tanahashi. This was a rematch of the very well-received main event of The New Beginning in Nagoya, back in 2021. That was probably my favorite New Japan match in 2021.
- KOPW 2021 New Japan Ranbo with Handcuffs – Battle Royals with no crowd noise feel so hollow. No need to watch this.
- IWGP Jr Heavyweight Tag Team Championship: El Phantasmo & Taiji Ishimori (c) vs Rocky Romero & Ryusuke Taguchi – A good, entertaining match based around ring smarts, Phantasmo’s high flying and a (possibly) loaded boot.
- IWGP Jr Heavyweight Championship: El Desperado (c) vs Robbie Eagles – A great leg work focused match full of great selling and drama. – RECOMMENDED
- Kazuchika Okada vs Jeff Cobb – Cobb shows off his power and dominance in a very good match.
- IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship: SANADA & Tetsuya Naito (c) vs Zack Sabre Jr & Taichi – Lots of good exchanges but way too long. A good match that would have been great if it was 15 minutes shorter.
- IWGP World Heavyweight Championship: Shingo Takagi (c) vs Hiroshi Tanahashi – Fantastic stuff that just flew by. Incredible drama between two incredible wrestlers. – RECOMMENDED
KOPW 2021 New Japan Ranbo with Handcuffs
If you think that I’m doing play-by-play for this then you are sorely mistaken. Eliminations were by pinfall, submission, being thrown over the top rope and being handcuffed to the ropes.
The 22 competitors, in order of elimination, were: Togi Makabe (over the top), Tomoaki Honma (handcuffs), Minoru Suzuki (over the top rope), Yoshinobu Kanemaru (over the top rope), Yoh (over the top rope), Sho (over the top rope), Hiroyoshi Tenzan (over the top rope), Satoshi Kojima (over the top rope), BUSHI (Handcuffs), Tiger Mask (Handcuffs), Master Wato (pinfall), DOUKI (pinfall), Tomohiro Ishii (over the top rope), Dick Togo (over the top rope), Hirooki Goto (over the top rope), Yuji Nagata (handcuffs), Great O-Khan (over the top rope), KENTA (handcuffs), YOSHI-HASHI (handcuffs), Yujiro Takahashi (over the top rope), Toru Yano (pinfall).
The “highlights” included The Great O-Khan eliminating over 1/3 of the field, Tomohiro Ishii chasing Dick Togo, and the handcuffed KENTA & YOSHI-HASHI breaking up pinfalls between the final 2 of Chase Owens & Yano.
The low light was the incredibly contrived and awkward setup to the eliminations of EVIL and Togo.
Chase Owens won the Ranbo (35:36)
Battle Royales work because the crowd buys in to the drama of the eliminations. With no crowd noise, this just didn’t work. The handcuffs felt contrived and almost anticlimactic, only adding anything with some comedy spots at the very end. Ultimately, there is no reason for anyone to watch this match.
Before the first main card match, Hiromu Takahashi came in to hype up the crowd and the fans. He talked about wanting to challenge the winner of the IWGP Jr Heavyweight Championship match.
IWGP Jr Heavyweight Tag Team Championship: El Phantasmo & Taiji Ishimori (c) vs Rocky Romero & Ryusuke Taguchi
The match started with Taguchi and Romero showing off their ring smarts, anticipating their opponents moves. Ishimori used a Lariat to gain control and the Champions isolated Romero with mocking offense. Phantasmo pulled Taguchi off the apron to stop a hot tag, but a double Hurracanrana by Romero let him tag in Taguchi, who went wild with hip attacks. Taguchi and Ishimori had a good sequence, where Ishimori came close with a morally questionable roll up. When Phantasmo tagged in he rapidly upped the pace with multiple springboard moves and a tope to the outside. Phantasmo got a nearfall with a Styles Clash after a Romero Frankensteiner. The Canadian’s cockiness nearly cost him as Romero countered a One-Winged Angel into a Jujigatame. That was broken up by Ishimori.
Phantasmo and Ishimori tried to double team Taguchi, but Romero hit a doomsday device that inexplicitly caused Phantasmo, who was on the bottom, to take a reverse Rana bump. Ishimori managed to grab the ropes after a Black Hole Vacation by Romero & Taguchi. Ishimori hit a Triangle Moonsault on the outside and Phantasmo hit an impressive rope walk Quebrada, although he seemed to tweak his ankle on the move. When the action got back in the ring things broke down until Taguchi dodged a Phantasmo Superkick and applied an ankle lock. However, Taguchi was more focused on removing Phantasmo’s supposedly loaded boot than he was about making his opponent submit. That cost the challengers as the referee was distracted and El Phantasmo low blowed Taguchi before hitting the CR2 to win the match.
El Phantasmo pinned Ryusuke Taguchi via CR2 (20:56)
This was not the most action packed or memorable Jr tag team title match. That said, Romero & Taguchi added different elements to what has felt like a tired Jr Tag Title scene. The focus on ring smarts, and the loaded boot story made this a fun, entertaining match. Phantasmo still got to show off his big high spots and the crowd were into this. This felt fresher than most of the Jr Tag title matches. It wasn’t anything must see or memorable, but it was a good, comfortable opening match and the kind of thing that these titles are more suited for instead of near 30-minute main event “epics”.
IWGP Jr Heavyweight Championship: El Desperado (c) vs Robbie Eagles
Early on Desperado attacked Eagles’ leg. Eagles kept trying to fight through the pain and stick to his usual game plan, but Desperado was relentless, and the damage repeatedly hampered the Australian. The match was very one sided at the start, until Eagles managed to hit a springboard dropkick to the knee. Eagles immediately followed it up with the Ron Miller special, forcing Desperado to grab the ropes.
Both wrestlers now had injured legs, as Desperado grabbed the eyes to escape a cleverly applied Backpack stunner. They traded elbows on wobbly legs until they moved onto trading kicks to the knee. A flurry of superkicks nearly worked for Eagles but the leg damage let Desperado floor him with a straight punch. Eagles kicked out of the Guitarra de Angel and then escaped the Pinche Loco, but Desperado managed to lock in the Numero Dos. A desperate roll up by Desperado led to a series of pin attempts. An attempt at Sliced Bread #2 by Eagles saw Desperado nearly steal the win with a Lucha style roll up. The Australian used a seated superkick and a backpack stunner, but Desperado kicked out. Eagles soared with a 450 splash to the leg, followed by the Ron Miller Special. He repeatedly dragged Desperado back to the center of the ring, forcing the Champion to tap out.
Robbie Eagles submitted El Desperado via Ron Miller Special (19:56)
This match was great. Desperado has been more grounded than previous Jr Champions and Robbie Eagles was a perfect fit for him. The core of this match was the leg work and especially Eagles’ selling. The Australian was fantastic here, balancing his offense and selling incredibly well. The structure, with Desperado dominating and the early Ron Miller Special being Eagles’ way back into the match really stood out. At times the pacing was a little too slow and the match might have been better with a couple of minutes shaved off, but the drama and the leg work was great. You should definitely give this a go, as Eagles could really help freshen up the Jr Division.
Kazuchika Okada vs Jeff Cobb
Okada and Cobb were even in the opening minutes until Cobb dropkicked Okada out of the ring. Cobb then hoisted Okada in the air and rammed him into the ring apron. The former Olympian dominated Okada, just throwing him around and smashing into him in the corner. Okada was outmatched in forearm exchanges, relying on a Flapjack to get back into the match. The Rainmaker flew around the ring before he was the one dropkicking his opponent off the top rope. Okada applied the Money Clip, but Cobb rammed him into the corner to break the hold. A Plancha from Okada was caught by Cobb, who turned it into a running suplex on the outside.
Back in the ring, Cobb got nearfalls with the Oklahoma Stamped and a standing Moonsault. Cobb hit his spinning back suplex for another nearfall, and Okada desperately relied on a shotgun dropkick and his regular dropkick to escape the onslaught. Okada spammed short arm Lariats, but the Rainmaker was ducked and Cobb floored Okada with a Lariat. Cobb won a strike exchange and nearly won the match with a Doctor Bomb. Okada twice escaped the Tour of the Islands and had to resort to pinning Cobb with a sneaky pinning combination.
Kazuchika Okada pinned Jeff Cobb via pinfall (19:23)
Jeff Cobb dominated this match. It was designed to get Cobb over at a higher level, as he repeatedly manhandled New Japan’s biggest star. The match was very good, and Cobb looked impressive as a dominant force. Despite that this match felt like it lacked something for me, probably due to no audible crowd investment. Personally, it felt like a chance to go all-in with Cobb and set him up as a viable threat at the top of the card. Yet again, it felt like the wrong decision from New Japan.
IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship: SANADA & Tetsuya Naito (c) vs Zack Sabre Jr & Taichi
The match started with cagey grappling between Naito and Sabre Jr. Naito is an underrated grappler and he was on an even footing against Sabre Jr before SANADA and Taichi entered the match. Eventually, the Champions then isolated Sabre by working over his left knee. Some of these exchanges were very good, as Sabre Jr works well with both of his opponents. Sabre Jr used his trickery to escape and Taichi used his kicks to run riot when he tagged in. SANADA tried to stop the momentum with the Paradise lock, but Taichi kept fighting back. The match looked like it might end when Taichi hit a high kick, but SANADA countered with a Rolling Elbow and a Tiger Driver. The match then proceeded to break down as bodies went everywhere, ending with a Taichi Axe Bomber on SANADA.
Taichi and SANADA traded moves until both men were knocked down and Taichi tagged in Sabre Jr. A limping Sabre Jr took out both Champions with big boots, but SANADA soon cut him off by attacking the leg. A flurry of pinning combinations ended with the same double pin sequence that finished the singles match between these 2 last week. This time they managed to kick out. SANADA tagged in Naito, who flipped between kicking the knee and using his standard neck-focused offense. Sabre Jr frantically hit a Tornado DDT, but Naito escaped both the Sabre Driver and the Zack Mephisto. SANADA and Naito teamed up on Sabre Jr for a near fall. Naito then applied a knee lock, but Sabre Jr eventually reached the ropes. He spiked Sabre Jr with a sickening-looking Esperanza for a near fall. Sabre Jr countered a top rope Frankensteiner into a triangle choke. Taichi tied SANADA up with the stretch plum, but SANADA escaped and broke the Triangle Choke up with a Moonsault. All four men then hit each other with their biggest impact finishers, ending with a Sabre Driver on Naito.
Sabre Jr and Naito kicked away at each other before it escalated into a strike exchange that Naito won by kicking the knee. Taichi took SANADA out with a Backdrop and nailed Naito with a running forearm. A Penalty kick nearly won the match for Sabre Jr before he won it seconds later by countering the Destino with the European Clutch. YOSHI-HASHI and Hirooki Goto then came out and claimed that they deserve a shot at the tag team titles.
Zack Sabre Jr pinned Tetsuya Naito via European Clutch (37:58)
This was a great 20-minute match that was stretched out to over 37 minutes. There was great action. The leg work on Sabre Jr was good, and he had great chemistry with his opponents while Taichi provided a good contrast with his striking. The main problem with the match was the length. There was just too much of it and it just felt aimless and meandering. You can have a great tag team match that is over 30 minutes long, but they require focused stories that are clear to the viewer. This match didn’t have that focus and as such it suffered due to the length. Lots of people will get more out of this than I did but I feel that the majority might struggle due to the length. In many ways, this match felt like the definition of my opinions on SANADA: All the pieces were there but it would be so much better with more focus.
IWGP World Heavyweight Championship: Shingo Takagi (c) vs Hiroshi Tanahashi
Shingo Takagi made his entrance with a full Dragon Mask. The Champion won the opening lock up and Tanahashi had to use technique to gain an advantage due to Takagi’s superior power. Tanahashi repeatedly used leg trips to set up headlocks, but the match was back and forth early on. Well, it was until Takagi caught a reverse crossbody and turned it into a DVD. After Takagi threw Tanahashi around the outside the action ended up back in the ring.
Takagi continued to dominate in the ring using suplexes and the Yukon Lariat. When Tanahashi tried to fight back with striking, Takagi’s power advantage soon ensured that things went back in Takagi’s favor. Tanahashi had to rely on his good old backup plan, attacking the leg, to get back into the match. When he wasn’t actively attacking the leg, the damage was enough to make Takagi hesitate.
Takagi fought back but the leg damage hurt Takagi’s stance, which let Tanahashi absorb more of Takagi’s strikes, allowing Tanahashi to get the better of his opponent. Takagi was in trouble, visibly afraid of a Tanahashi hesitation dropkick. A Takagi suplex attempt was countered into a trio of Twist and Shouts. Takagi hit a desperate Noshigami to try and stay in the match. That was followed by a Wheelbarrow Suplex, and a Sliding Lariat, and the Champion had more confidence. So of course, Tanahashi stopped that by dropkicking the knee and hitting multiple Dragon Screws. Tanahashi applied a Texas Cloverhold, but Takagi managed to escape, with Tanahashi losing balance at one point. The Champion bought some time by hitting a Dragon Screw of his own to Tanahashi, following up by attacking the leg and grinding it into the guard rail, and hitting the Takagi GTR on the outside.
When Tanahashi returned to the ring Takagi nearly won the match with a Made in Japan. That was followed by a Pumping Bomber for another near fall. The Last of the Dragon was blocked so Takagi smashed Tanahashi with forearms and a headbutt to the jaw. Tanahashi somehow managed to turn the Last of the Dragon into a Sling Blade, getting a nearfall of his own with the Daruma Style German Suplex. Another Sling Blade earned him another nearfall and Takagi’s injured knee meant that he couldn’t dodge a High Fly Flow. Instead, he desperately grabbed Tanahashi’s ankle, so the Ace hit a Kami-Go-Ye. That was followed by the High Fly Flow, but Takagi kicked out to a huge pop from the crowd. Well, a huge COVID era pop. This was an incredible nearfall.
Takagi just about blocked a Dragon Suplex and hit the Last of the Dragon, but he was too hurt to make a cover. Takagi tried to slap some sense into himself and both wrestlers exchanged forearms, although Takagi looked vulnerable and off-balance. Tanahashi ended the exchange with a headbutt to the jaw, and a Takagi Yukon Lariat was countered by two Dragon Suplexes for a nearfall. Takagi and Tanahashi fought for their lives on the top turnbuckle, with Takagi winning out by hitting the Stay Dream. However, the cover was late and Tanahashi kicked out. Tanahashi and Takagi both looked for knockout slaps, and Takagi gained the advantage with a Pumping Bomber before pinning the challenger with the Last of the Dragon.
After the match and Takagi’s post-match promo the fireworks cut off early and it was announced that EVIL was the next challenger. EVIL appeared and took out Takagi to a deafening silence.
Shingo Takagi pinned Hiroshi Tanahashi via Last of the Dragon (37:26)
This was a last-minute backup plan for the main event, announced 6 hours before the show. It was a new Champion against someone who last fought for the top title nearly 30 months ago. Despite that, this was an incredible match that will be near the top of some people’s MOTY ballots. Shingo Takagi and Hiroshi Tanahashi are just incredibly good professional wrestlers. They are almost inarguably 2 of the best main eventers in the world.
They were able to suck me in with the little things, their mannerisms, and their selling. The selling was both consistent and mesmerizing, especially from Takagi. Takagi’s ability to get into a position without making it look obvious should be studied. He set up a Pumping Bomber with an incredibly smart, logical bit of movement that was brilliant. His work between the moves is up there with the best in 2021. Hiroshi Tanahashi was no slouch either. You can see the years when he wrestles but he is great at making dramatic matches without them feeling excessive. This match went over 35 minutes, and it just flew by. Personally, I think that the 2 Takagi vs Tanahashi matches in 2021 are the best matches that New Japan has put out this year. They work incredibly well together. Please watch this match. If you only want to watch 5 New Japan matches this year, this deserves to be one of them.
In some ways, this show was about hope. Specifically, it gave hope, and it took it away. A lot of COVID era New Japan’s flaws were on display. The venue felt too big, and a smaller venue would have made more sense (I appreciate that the Olympics hampered that). The opening pre-show match was an utter slog that failed partly due to the lack of crowd interactions. Most matches needed to be a little shorter. The Heavyweight Tag match went way too long and was more back and forth title booking. The wrong man won Cobb vs Okada and the show ended on a damp squib with EVIL being announced as the next IWGP World Title Challenger.
Despite that, there was room for hope. The Jr Tag title match was an example of how fun those belts can be with tighter matches. Robbie Eagles felt like a breath of fresh air, with a great technical match. Jeff Cobb feels close to being the finished article as a foreign Heavyweight Hoss. The main event was an incredible match and helped cement Takagi as New Japan’s greatest asset and the best Champion since they created the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship.
New Japan’s goodwill with fans has suffered a lot in the last 12 months, and great matches alone aren’t enough to keep them going. The Japanese scene will struggle in terms of engaging with Western fans now that most other countries are now running shows with audibly hot crowds. That said, Shingo Takagi is the person that they need to build around. Ultimately, as in all things, time will tell for New Japan.