It is a known fact that the very worst thing in the world is an upset Hiromu Takahashi. Going into Sengoku Lord everyone’s favourite Time Bomb was a distinctly unhappy soul, and rightly so. You see, it turns out that when your teammate is a man named EVIL, whose catchphrase is ‘Everything is Evil’, there’s a strong possibility he might actually be evil. Who could have foreseen…?

New Japan is slowly piecing together a collection of promising narratives after the heavy disruption of the global COVID pandemic. Unlike other promotions, New Japan opted to break entirely from running shows, which means that what we’re seeing now is almost a soft reset. And that means a degree of patience is needed as we settle into new storylines, new rivalries, and new opportunities…

Let’s look back at what went down in funky Nagoya town.

Taiji Ishimori def. Yuya Uemura

New Japan’s tiniest hunk took on New Japan’s newest hunk in a battle of hunk supremacy. Obvious the Young Lion was never in contention – it’s a rite of passage at this point. But if the point was to make Uemura look like an exciting prospect when he returns from an excursion, well, consider the point made. He’s a rough diamond, and this wasn’t a perfect match by any stretch of the imagination. But Uemura shows a lot of promise, and some time abroad will do him the world of good.

Ishimori scored the win with the Yes! Lock.

Ryusuke Taguchi, Satoshi Kojima and Togi Makabe def. Toru Yano, Gabriel Kidd and Tomohiro Ishii

If you like your comic relief with plenty of butt shenanigans then Taguchi is the gift who never stops giving. Witness also Toru Yano, DVD-shilling legend in capri pants. Mostly, this was wall-to-wall silliness. The occasional cameo from LA Dojo whizz Gabriel Kidd provided a needed change of pace, giving veteran Togi Makabe a run for his money. But a Yano match is a Yano match, and such the comedy element was heavy – great if you’re into that kind of thing, not so much if you were hoping for some hot Ishii action.

Makabe bumped admirably for Kidd, which suggests that New Japan see big things in his future. Nonetheless, it was Makabe who’d take him out with a brutal German Suplex. Still, Kidd looked strong in defeat. A hot prospect for future top Gaijin.

BUSHI, SANADA and Tetsuya Naito def. SHO, YOSHI-HASHI and Hirooki Goto

With regular partner YOH out for the foreseeable, SHO found himself partnered with YOSHI-HASHI and seemed distinctly underwhelmed by the prospect. Joined by the ever-reliable Hirooki Goto, the CHAOS lads nonetheless had an uphill battle ahead of them. Newly reinvigorated by EVIL’s shocking betrayal, the LIJ lads were on fine form. Even SANADA – who has been a little sluggish of late – showed excellent chemistry with R3K’s finest.

Given that SHO is probably CHAOS’ most exciting singles prospect right now it felt a little odd for him to eat the pin. YOSHI-HASHI is right there after all. One of my major gripes with NJPW as promotion is their propensity to put heavyweights over juniors, even where it’d make more sense to build the junior up. But, this was a solid 3-man tag, and LIJ unity is arguably more important now than it ever had been.

SANADA took SHO down with the Skull End – a move with the unique power to extinguish the buzz of even the most exciting match. You can do better, SANADA.

Master Wato, Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Yuji Nagata, Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kota Ibushi def. DOUKI, Yoshinobu Kanemaru, Minoru Suzuki, Zack Sabre Jr. and Taichi

How do you follow a 3-man tag? By throwing EVEN MORE MEN IN THE RING. And one of those men is Master Wato…!

Surprisingly, this was great fun. Suzuki and Nagata absolutely pasting one another in the ring never gets old; Master Wato is an absolute gem. Everyone in this match had chemistry with at least one member of the opposing team, and when multi-man tags click like this, they’re worth their weight in gold.

This new era of NJPW has gifted us with two exciting and disparate tag teams: the Golden Aces (Ibushi and Tanahashi), and Dangerous Tekkers (ZSJ and Taichi). Those teams, in particular, bounced off one another in a terrifically entertaining fashion. If they’re to be the future of New Japan’s tag division, then bring it on.

Ibushi took DOUKI out with the Kamigoye for the win.

Kazuchika Okada def. Yujiro Takahashi

This was definitely a match that happened.

Okada won with the Cobra Clutch, which is perhaps the most ill-advised addition to his arsenal.

NEVER Openweight Championship Match: Shingo Takagi (c) def. El Desperado

A much-needed palate cleanser featuring two of NJPW’s low-key most exciting. It’s gratifying to see Despy elevated to Big Match status at long last. He’s one of the most charismatic juniors around and shows no signs of slowing down. He also whipped out the Big Match gold trim, which was nice to see. Part technical showdown, part slobberknocker, this match showcased the talents of both men.

Despy got to show his weaselly prowess as he mullered Shingo with his own belt. And Shingo got to knock the absolute tar out of Despy; the world’s biggest Junior Heavyweight is like an unstoppable steamroller on his day, and this was definitely his day. But don’t count Despy out. He withstood a tremendous amount of punishment and gave almost as good as he got. Shingo sold for Despy like death, and for a little while, it really looked like Suzuki-Gun’s finest was going to score the upset. Surely an El Desperado singles push is long overdue…?

As expected, Shingo scored the win with Last of the Dragon, retaining for the third time, but Despy looked strong in defeat.

IWGP Heavyweight/IWGP Intercontinental Championship Match: EVIL def. Hiromu Takahashi

Is your heart ready for this? Mine sure wasn’t. The #1 Takahashi in New Japan took on former stablemate EVIL for both belts and the honour of Los Ingobernables de Japon. And this was all about Hiromu. That’s the way it ought to be. Nobody knew whether Hiromu would come back from his life-threatening injury; to see him not only back but thriving is as joyful an outcome as we might cautiously have hoped for. And as the heart and soul of the junior division, Hiromu’s time in the spotlight is long overdue.

EVIL, for his part, is a placeholder champ, and that too is absolutely fine. He plays the part with aplomb; relying on Dick Togo (here sporting a very snazzy suit) for support places him at an interesting contrast to Hiromu, who expressly forbade his team-mates from interfering. And that’s not to suggest that LIJ are strangers to dirty tactics, but there’s a sense of honour in Hiromu which is clearly missing in EVIL. That makes for a compelling narrative, as two ostensible heels fight over the honour of thieves.

As to the actual match, this was excellent. EVIL’s rise has been controversial, with some adamant it should’ve been SANADA’s push, but you can’t deny he’s got the right kind of glowering charisma and punishing, no-nonsense moves to really bring the role to life. And he’s a superb foil to Hiromu, whose boundless energy is so well suited to this kind of furious grudge match.

The pacing was spot on too: starting off explosive, introducing Togo as a spanner in the works. A slower middle portion, during which the drama was cranked up to 11. EVIL ragdolling Hiromu will never send my heart straight into my mouth, but it served exactly the purpose it needed to. If you weren’t rooting for Hiromu before, you sure as hell were by that point.

The best part of this match, though, was the unashamed presentation of Hiromu as a real, credible threat. EVIL’s reliance on Togo shows just how strong Hiromu really is. I’d scarcely dared hope that Hiromu would win, but there were a few moments in which it seemed like he’d really do it. Sadly, it was not meant to be, and Dick Togo and his suit can go straight to hell.

Darkness Falls was swiftly followed by Everything is EVIL, but make no mistake: EVIL did not win this match of his own volition.

An overall strong card with a couple of crushing lows. The highs, however, were more than enough to salvage it overall. New Japan’s upcoming Summer Struggle tour is looking very promising indeed…

All pictures courtesy of NJPW

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