Section 1- Important Results
Dragons Gate: The Do Fixer unit of Saito, Horiguchi and Dragon Kid won the Triangle Gate titles on Sunday against Blood Generation in a 2 out of 3 falls match. The day before a new wrestler, B.B. Hulk, debuted to a good crowd reaction. Despite the tough-sounding name he’s a high-flyer. Magnum Tokyo announced a split with Do Fixer, and he seems to be gravitating towards Hulk and the remnants of the Italian Connection.
New Japan: Koji Kanemoto and Wataru Inoue snagged the junior tag titles from Jado & Gedo on Friday in an emotional bout.
NOAH: Their Saturday show at the Budokan featured a long-anticipated title change, when Takeshi Rikio downed Kenta Kobashi to win the GHC title. Elsewhere on the show, Yone took the openweight title from Marufuji, Tenryu & Minoru Suzuki beat Akiyama & Morishima, and Team Zero-One (Ohtani/Takaiwa) bested Misawa and Kotaro Suzuki.
Section 2- Other news & Upcoming matches
All Japan: Kawada announced his departure from the regular All Japan roster. This is more a formality than anything, as he’ll still be on most of the shows (including the upcoming Champions Carnival) and he’s been working numerous non-All Japan shows for some time now. Young junior wrestler Ishikari did the same.
Dragons Gate: Do Fixer’s first Triangle Gate defense will be on 4/8 against Yokosuka, K-Ness, and Kensuke Sasaki trainee Nakajima.
New Japan: For starters, a Kanemoto & Inoue vs Jado & Gedo rematch has already been signed for the 21st. They also totally revamped the 3/26 card. The tag match has been scrapped in favor of a 4 man #1 contenders tournament with Tenzan, Chono, Nakamura and Nakanishi facing off for an IWGP title shot vs Kojima at the 5/14 Tokyo Dome show. Fujinami’s opponent was revealed to be Nishimura, who happens to be Tatsumi’s previous opponent (they had a sub-par match on 1/4/03). Last but not least the 16 wrestlers in April’s openweight tournament were announced, with 11 heavyweights and 5 top juniors.
NOAH: Rikio nominated Misawa and Akiyama as top challengers, while Kobashi said he doesn’t want a title shot soon. It should be noted that in Triple Crown/GHC title shots and tournaments, Misawa hasn’t lost since April 1991 (7-0 over that span).
Section 3: Kojima and Rikio, the great burdens to bear
Kojima holds the Triple Crown and the IWGP title. For a number of reasons (not the least of which being that All Japan is the smaller company) this comes as a shock, yet far less of one than a few years ago.
New Japan, having largely broken away from shootfighters as the big ‘outside threat’, feels that it can’t generate compelling draws within its own company. To a large extent that’s correct; young stars like Nakamura and Tanahashi didn’t do much for drawing in their two IWGP title shots apiece, older stars have faced each other so often that the matchups are worn out, and ‘regular’ outsiders like Sasaki, Tenryu and Suzuki have lost their lustre. Kojima is a credible enough heavyweight, and he hasn’t had a high profile match with much of any of the current New Japan roster (let alone recently). Since they can’t get the GHC champion to come in, it might as well be the Triple Crown holder.
All Japan looks to be getting the better end of the deal, assuming that Kojima doesn’t lose right away. Kojima got to beat Tenzan right after a long match with Kawada, winning both titles in four days. Quite a feat in a kayfabe sense. All Japan at the moment is severely lacking in good challengers, as so much of their roster already went over Mutoh. Now they can have New Japan wrestlers come on All Japan shows to challenge Kojima, in addition to Kojima title defenses in New Japan.
Unfortunately I don’t think there’s a combination of Kojima vs _____ on the whole of New Japan and All Japan’s rosters that can legitimately sell out any venue larger than Sumo Hall, at least with the current ‘split titles’ setup. Even if it was a ‘quadruple crown’ that wouldn’t do a whole heck of a lot to improve the underlying merits of a given title match. That right there says a lot about the decline of both companies. New Japan’s big Tokyo Dome show in two months won’t even sell out with heavy papering, barring some sort of miracle or a huge undercard match. In the end we’ll likely see Kojima get used as a vehicle to put over Nakamura or Tanahashi following one of them winning the G-1. To an extent this is sad because both have had some very good matches with Tenzan, and that could have been an effective ‘passing the torch’ match, but of course New Japan doesn’t like the prospect of a long-term build to a face vs face bout being the centerpiece of the year.
On the surface this might seem like a big risk for All Japan and New Japan. To me, as long as Kojima stays healthy I don’t think either promotion could do significantly better. If this fails to draw, that bodes poorly for the future of both promotions.
Then we come to Takeshi Rikio, NOAH’s new GHC titleholder. As far as booking goes this creates some benefits and some harms. On the plus side, it’s a lot easier to take upper-midcard challengers (ie. Scorpio, Ogawa) as a threat to Rikio than to Kobashi, who was nigh invulnerable. Thus it’s possible to create a larger number of competitive Rikio title defenses on paper than it was with Kobashi. On the minus side, Rikio is no Kobashi when it comes to drawing in the clutch. Kobashi sold out the Budokan several times, on occasion with laughably poor undercards; I’m not entirely certain Rikio can do that without some significant help beneath him.
This is a significant turning point for NOAH. Kobashi had his run at the top and I don’t think he has another left in him with the way he bumps in title matches. Misawa is finished as a company ace. Taue is capable of some good performances but has lost all the luster of his wonderful 1995-1996 run. Now the future will be decided almost entirely by three men: Rikio, Akiyama and Morishima. Akiyama has the benefit of not having done as many epic main events and top-rope moves as Kobashi and Misawa, so he should be able to go for a goodly amount of time yet. Morishima has worlds of potential but has yet to put it together as well as is needed for a top-tier guy. I expect title bouts between those three to be the focus of the next two or three years at the very least, similar to how Misawa/Kawada/Kobashi was in the late ’90s for All Japan.
NOAH won’t collapse if, say, Rikio vs Akiyama fails to light the world on fire. They still have Misawa and Kobashi for the upper card, they’re bringing in Tenryu and Suzuki, and the junior division remains very strong. But if they expect to sell out or even mostly fill the Budokan a couple times a year, they’ll need to have compelling main events. And if they even want to run the Budokan when Misawa and Kobashi are put to pasture, they need Rikio and/or Morishima to emerge as one of the top stars in puro. Neither of them has. After them… the future looks quite bleak.