NJPW STRONG #123 – Nemesis 2023 Part 1

The most anticipated IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship match since 2018 took place at Wrestle Kingdom this past Wednesday.

After Will Ospreay successfully defended the title against Shota Umino at the NJPW/STARDOM X-over event, Kenny Omega, the inaugural United States champion, appeared on the screen and challenged Ospreay to a title match at Wrestle Kingdom 17 on January 17th. Omega got under Ospreay’s skin by saying he had failed to retain New Japan’s Western audience that was earned by the Elite, and that the smaller Japanese crowds were his fault. He says Ospreay is the virus, and he is the vaccine. Although Omega personally was not interested in returning to New Japan, he decided to return for the sake of pro wrestling.

Ospreay of course took umbrage with this statement. The way he sees it, Omega left, and he kept the heartbeat of New Japan going during some of their darkest days. Backstage, after Ospreay had a chance to process Omega’s words, he said Omega waited until the light began to shine through the darkness that befell New Japan over the course of the pandemic to come back. Ospreay admits that people say he’s been wrestling in Kenny Omega’s shadow. He also admits that he looked up to Omega as an idol and role model, and that Omega assimilated to the Japanese culture and language better than he has. He also thinks Kenny Omega holds a grudge, because on Omega’s last night with New Japan at Wrestle Kingdom 14, Ospreay debuted the Hidden Blade on Omega’s best friend, Kota Ibushi, knocking him out. Ibushi was unable to be in Omega’s corner for his match with Tanahashi, and Omega was unable to say goodbye to his friend on his way out. The Ibushi match also happens to be the last time Ospreay won a match at Wrestle Kingdom. Ospreay also thinks that right now, he is better than Omega, and Omega is planning to halt his momentum before he can surpass Omega’s legacy. He also made a comment that when Omega initially met him, he was an Assassin, and that maybe it was time to bring “him” back

IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship
Will Ospreay vs. Kenny Omega

Wrestle Kingdom 17 – Tokyo, Japan – 1.4.2023

Ospreay has been champion since 6.12.2022 and this is his fifth defense. You’ve probably heard Final Fantasy fans rave about Omega’s entrance, but the symbolism behind it is also important: he is the final boss for Ospreay. Ospreay’s entrance is noteworthy as well, as Omega walked to the ring by himself (with Don Callis eventually joining him ringside before joining commentary), but Ospreay was flanked by United Empire members Aaron Henare, Francesco Akira, Great-O-Khan, Jeff Cobb, and TJP, and came out to his entrance music he used when he was “The Assassin.” The entrance theme is called “Elevated”, signifying exactly what this match would do to Ospreay’s status. While Callis would espouse the greatness of Omega and his accomplishments on commentary, Ospreay’s faction would remain behind a barricade, supporting him throughout the match but keeping their distance.

Tetsuya Naito did significant damage to Ospreay’s back, neck, and shoulders when he defended the title against him in November. Omega knew this, and when he shut down a springboard attempt from Ospreay by shoving him off of the top rope and into the barricades, it reaggravated those injuries. At the five minute mark, Omega removed a turnbuckle pad from one of the corners. The two men exchanged strikes on the apron around the ten minute mark. Omega held onto the ropes to avoid an OsCutter, causing Ospreay to collide back first onto the apron. Omega exacerbated the injury by placing a table onto Ospreay’s back through the table and onto his spine. Omega played around too much after doing so, and a fired up Ospreay violently pulled Omega back first into the barricades before giving him a suplex onto the table’s frame and legs. Ospreay now found himself employing a similar strategy on Omega that Omega was using on him, targeting Omega’s neck and shoulders. The crowd roared when Ospreay took out Omega with the OsCutter back inside of the ring, but it only earned the champion a two count.

Ospreay was feeling himself after giving Omega three Cheeky Nando’s Kicks into the exposed turnbuckle. He ascended to the top rope with Omega. In August, right around the G1 Finals in which he lost to Kazuchika Okada in a highly praised bout, Ospreay revealed a kidney infection almost killed him in May. Omega punched Ospreay in the kidney to shift the momentum, and DDT’d Ospreay right onto the exposed turnbuckle right on the top of his head. It was a move reminiscent of the G1 Finals in 2017 when Omega slipped off the turnbuckles and DDT’d Naito onto the top of the ring post, but this time it was intentional. The United Empire rushed to Ospreay to check on him, but did not get physically involved, and Omega demanded a count out as a bloodied Ospreay pulled himself up to his feet using the barricades. When it was clear he’d make it back into the ring before the twenty count was rendered, Omega decided to dropkick Ospreay through the ropes, sending him back first into the barricades and land the Terminator tope con hilo. Omega then smashed Ospreay’s face repeatedly into the table he utilized earlier, leaving Ospreay’s blood smeared all over the hole he had put into the table from the double stomp.

As the blood from Ospreay’s head continued to flow, and Ospreay could barely defend himself against Omega’s attack, the question became whether Red Shoes Umino would stop the match. Umino had stopped Ospreay’s match with his son Shota Umino on the Royal Quest tour, and came close to doing the same in their U.S. title rematch, and the possibility of history repeating itself loomed large for a moment over the Tokyo Dome. Ospreay had difficulty keeping his footing, but it inadvertently helped him thwart Omega when he stumbled into the ropes and crotched Omega on the top turnbuckle. It took Ospreay some steadying before he could also climb to the top turnbuckle, but when he did, Omega dropped him face first onto the exposed buckle. A V-Trigger sent Ospreay face first into the exposed buckle, and Omega followed that up with a super Croyt’s Wrath. He decided to pull Ospreay up into another V-Trigger, and incredibly Ospreay got his shoulder up from the pin attempt. Almost more amazingly, Ospreay was able to catch a V-Trigger and stifle Omega with several Kawada kicks and chops. He earned a nearfall with a sit-out powerbomb and another with the Chelsea Grin, Hidden Blade, and super OsCutter. Ospreay avoided a One-Winged Angel and pulled out the Styles Clash. Omega kicked out of another Hidden Blade. Omega maintains wrist control when avoids the StormBreaker and hits another V-Trigger. Ospreay knocks down Omega with another Hidden Blade, leaving them both laying, with Omega still keeping hold of Ospreay’s wrist. Omega was first to get offense after this point with a straight jacket German suplex. He unraveled the straight jacket while keeping hold of Ospreay’s wrists. Ospreay defiantly spit at Omega before Omega cracked him with a Kamigoye and pinned him with the One-Winged Angel at 34:38.

This match had very high expectations going into it. It was Omega’s first match in New Japan in nearly four years and Ospreay had been heralded as the best wrestler in New Japan in 2022 (a sentiment I share.) It was their first singles match since December 2015 when they wrestled in PWG, with the two of them evolving into significantly different and better wrestlers since then. I believe those expectations were exceeded. It had the incredible action you’d expect, but the story surrounding that action made the match. They played into Ospreay’s recent title defenses. They played into Ospreay’s life-threatening kidney failure. They played into the referee stoppage from Ospreay vs. Umino in England. The top turnbuckle DDT yielded a failure for Omega in 2017 when he still lost the G1 Finals, but tonight it led him to reclaiming the U.S. title. After the half-year of fantastic title defenses from Ospreay, and Omega winning the title in this epic match, I feel the U.S. title has truly been elevated into. The match also elevated Ospreay, as what he lost in a title, he gained in emotional investment. His post-match promo saw him opine about how he gave everything he had to New Japan and now has nothing, and gave himself a timeline of a year before possibly exiting the company. In other words, Ospreay has essentially given himself a year to defeat Okada and Ospreay, and that to me will be extremely interesting to watch, especially as it pertains to the heavyweight tournaments in Japan, next year’s Wrestle Kingdom, and any big U.S. New Japan events in between.

Had the match ended at its peak, which I believe was the super One-Winged Angel, it would be as close to perfect as a match can get. But it overshot that peak by a few minutes and it showed in the crowd’s diminished reaction until the finish. That said, this was an amazing match. It’s the best IWGP U.S. Title bout yet, and a match worth going out of your way to see. Perhaps the craziest thing about the match is that this was only the first chapter of the Kenny Omega and Will Ospreay story. ****¾

Now onto this week’s episode!

Los Angeles, CA – 1.7.2023

Commentary is provided by Kevin Kelly & Alex Koslov.

Alan Angels & Hikuleo vs. BULLET CLUB (Jay White & El Phantasmo)

This involves half of the competitors from an eight man tag last month. BULLET CLUB requests to start with Angels, the smaller competitor on the opposite side. Angels acquiesces, and is able to knock out both of them with superkicks and White a high crossbody. Hikuleo tags in and bodyslams White, and Angels adds his own bodyslam for good measure. White sends Angels into the turnbuckles with a half hatch suplex. Phantasmo surprises Hikuleo from behind and sends him face first into the stage where the commentary table sits. BULLET CLUB wear down and embarass Angels (nipple twists, anyone?) in their corner Angels escapes an inverted airplane spin and drops Phantasmo with a standing Shiranui. A recovered Hikuleo mows down Phantasmo with a big boot. Hikuleo Snake Eyes’ White into a running big boot, but Phantasmo breaks up his pin attempt. Even though White rakes his eyes, Hikuleo is able to pull off a snap slam on White. White, however, chop blocks Hikuleo when he has Phantasmo lifted up for a chokeslam. Angels tags in after Phantasmo high kicks Hikuleo to the corner. Angels wipes out White with a Heat-Seeking Missile on the floor and uses La Mistica on Phantasmo. White breaks up the submission. White low bridges a charging Hikuleo to the floor, and Angels spin kicks White to the outside as well. Phantasmo superkicks Angels out of mid-air when Angels attempts a lionsault. Phantasmo drops him with a spinning Cutthroat Driver for the pin at 8:47. That was a totally solid but unspectacular tag match. They didn’t even make up a reason for Angels and Hikuleo to team again and White and Phantasmo mostly hammed it up during the course of the bout. **½

We get a video of Jeff Cobb talking about Bad Dude Tito. He resents Tito for trying to make a name off of the United Empire. Next week, as punishment for attempting to do so, he is going to toss Tito all around the ring.

STRONG Survivor Match
Adrian Quest vs. BATEMAN vs. Blake Christian vs. Che Cabrera vs. Christopher Daniels vs. Cody Chhun vs. The DKC vs. Guillermo Rosas vs. Jakob Austin Young vs. JR Kratos vs. Keita vs. KENTA vs. Mascara Dorada vs. Misterioso vs. Rocky Romero vs. Wheeler Yuta

The match begins as a Battle Royal, with over-the-top eliminations until four men remain. It’s still an elimination match at that point, but with pinfalls and submissions as the methods of elimination. Why it wasn’t just a straight battle royal I don’t know. The winner of the match becomes the #1 Contender for Fred Rosser’s STRONG Openweight Championship.

Order of Elimination:

  1. Guillermo Rosas is eliminated by Kieta at 1:33.
  2. Cody Chunn is eliminated by Misterioso at 1:47.
  3. Keita is eliminated by Mascara Dorada at 1:57.
  4. Rocky Romero is eliminated by BATEMAN at 2:47.
  5. Che Cabrera is eliminated by Blake Christian at 3:16.
  6. Misterioso is eliminated by JR Kratos at 3:27.
  7. Mascara Dorada is eliminated by Wheeler Yuta at 3:51.
  8. Jakob Austin Young is eliminated by Wheeler Yuta at 4:17.
  9. Adrian Quest is eliminated by JR Kratos at 5:46.
  10. BATEMAN is eliminated by JR Kratos at 5:52.
  11. JR Kratos is eliminated by KENTA, Blake Christian, and Wheeler Yuta at 6:08.
  12. The DKC is eliminated by Christopher Daniels at 6:41. DKC actually had eliminated Daniels, but because the officials were busy calming down an angry Kratos, they didn’t see the elimination. Daniels snuck back in and tossed an unsuspecting DKC onto the floor where the officials could see.

At this point, the match shifted into a pinfall and submission elimination match, with Blake Christian, Christopher Daniels, KENTA, and Wheeler Yuta as the final four participants.

13. Christopher Daniels pinned Blake Christian with his feet on the ropes at 9:31. Christian had been fighting off both Daniels and KENTA and went to corner tackle Daniels. Daniels moved, Christian collided with the turnbuckle, and Daniels rolled him up right away.
14. Wheeler Yuta pinned Christopher Daniels at 14:32. Daniels and KENTA agreed to continue cooperating against Yuta, but Daniels chose to forgo the partnership when Yuta had been wiped out in the corner, attacking KENTA from behind. Yuta wiped out KENTA on the outside with a suicide dive, and was able to catch Daniels back inside the ring with a German suplex to eliminate The Fallen Angel.
15. KENTA pinned Yuta at 15:45. KENTA immediately nailed Yuta with a Busaiku Knee upon re-entering the ring.KENTA kicked out of a victory roll from Yuta and delivered a second Busaiku Knee while he recovered. The Go 2 Sleep then earned KENTA the victory and the #1 Contendership for the STRONG Openweight Championship.

With so many fast eliminations to begin the match, I think Six Pack Challenge or something of the sort that included the final six individuals in this match would have been much more rewarding. Nobody else had time to do anything of significance. Once we got to the final four, the match got much more coherent and satisfying, which only strengthens my opinion that the match should’ve just been a fatal four way or six way to begin with. KENTA’s chase for the IWGP U.S. Title was a fun story to follow in the early days of STRONG, and I think going after the STRONG Openweight title is a logical follow-up. He’s not doing much in Japan these days anyhow. Him vs. Rosser should be a good match. ***

The Future of STRONG

A blog from Hiroshi Tanahashi on January 6th noted that New Japan STRONG is coming to an end. Whispers began from that blog, and on January 8th, New Japan President Takami Ohbari would expound on this, stating that the show is going to be rebuilt to focus on “quality rather than quantity.” Given that the STRONG tapings stopped traveling outside of Hollywood after May, and the attendance numbers were never great, I can’t say I am surprised. Tony Khan noted that New Japan will be involved in the Ring of Honor weekly show on Honor Club, but without details, it’s hard to say if the decision to put STRONG on ice is correlated to this statement.

Right now, we have three U.S PPV’s on the books, but after January, STRONG is done, at least in this format. I have to admit that it makes me a little sad, but it will give me some time to pivot to some other reviews once the month is over.

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