NJPW Battle In The Valley 2023

San Jose, CA – 2.18.2023

Kickoff Show

Alex Coughlin vs. JR Kratos

Coughlin defeated Kratos in a singles match back on STRONG #76, which was Coughlin’s final match as a young lion. They met in four different multi-man tag matches since then (splitting the matches 2-2), and Kratos challenged Coughlin to a Last Man Standing match. Unfortunately, Coughlin suffered an injury, and then wrestled in Japan after recovering, but the long awaited rematch finally occurs tonight.The audio was completely gone for most of the first half of the match which is a shame, because these two brought the intensity you would expect from their past interactions and the crowd was into it when the audio finally began working. They started off hot with Kratos striking right at the bell with a leaping shoulder tackle, and they kept that energy going for pretty much the entire match. Kratos suplexing Coughlin across the ring twice looked so brutal. Coughlin kicked out of a lariat and a vertical suplex. Coughlin then earned a nearfall of his own with a bridging fallaway slam, and fired up after giving Kratos a gutwrench suplex. Kratos placed Coughlin on the top turnbuckle, and that turned out to be his undoing, as Coughlin slipped under Kratos and pulled him into a delayed German suplex for the pin at 10:09. It’s a shame this couldn’t have been the Last Man Standing STRONG main event it was intended to be, as I truly think they would’ve had a possible Top 10 STRONG match of the year. Instead, it will be overshadowed by the main card. ***

David Finlay vs. Bobby Fish

Finlay and Fish had an issue simmering in STRONG, stemming from Fish interfering in an eight man tag by grabbing Finlay’s leg, and Finlay responding by chasing Fish away with a shillelagh a few weeks later. They also fought backstage after a multi-man tag match at STRONG #124. The audio was also a mess for this match, which is unacceptably bush league from the second largest pro wrestling group in the world. Fish took control by giving Finlay a dragonscrew leg whip out on the floor, resulting in Finlay crashing into the guardrails. Fish continues to attack Finlay’s leg inside the ring. Finlay stopped a strike barrage with an enzuigiri onto his knee, hurting himself in the process. A hobbled Finlay ducked a high kick from Fish and took him down with a diving uppercut and suplexed him for a two count. Finlay also got two with a Blue Thunder Bomb. Fish escaped Trash Panda and tried for a sleeper hold, but Finlay backed him to the corner immediately. Fish, however, sent Finlay into the same corner with an exploder suplex. Finlay fought out of another sleeper hold attempt and backslid Fish into the Trash Panda for the pin at 10:06. This was solid but lifeless. Part of that may have been the audio issues, but most of the match was a snooze. I am glad Finlay got the W, but I don’t know if Fish adds much to the STRONG brand. **¼

Main Show

Commentary is provided by Ian Riccaboni and Matt Rehwoldt.

Adrian Quest, Josh Alexander, Mascara Dorada & Rocky Romero vs. KUSHIDA, Kevin Knight, The DKC & Volador Jr.

The DKC has graduated, sporting black and yellow short trunks and kick pads. Scott D’Amore joins commentary for this bout. Romero recently defeated Volador to win the NWA World Historic Welterweight championship, and KUSHIDA is scheduled to face IMPACT World Champion Josh Alexander at the NJPW/Impact Multiverse event next month. Those two feuds took different forms of life in this match, as KUSHIDA and Alexander wrestled on a couple occasions to test one another, while Romero refused to get in the ring with Volador until Volador had been laid out by his fellow partner. KUSHIDA was worn down by the opposing team, and after DKC helped turn things around for his team, it seems like they had the match won when Knight and KUSHIDA took down Quest with a Doomsday dropkick. Alexander broke up the pin, and KUSHIDA put him in the Hoverboard Lock. This neutralized Alexander while Knight spiked Quest with a pendulum DDT for the pin at 11:22. That was a fun match to further the two rivalries and to showcase DKC as a fresh graduate. Since Knight and KUSHIDA have the most experience as partners, it makes sense their team would be victorious. Volador cuts a promo in Spanish after the match, seemingly challenging Romero to put his hair on the line in a match. ***

NJPW STRONG Openweight Championship
Fred Rosser vs. KENTA

Rosser has been champion since 6.25.2022 and this is his eighth defense. KENTA earned this title opportunity by winning the STRONG Survivor Match on STRONG #123. Rosser decided he and KENTA should take their strike exchange into the crowd. KENTA obliged, ultimately winning the battle with a yakuza kick that puts Rosser back on the other side of the guardrails. KENTA gave Rosser a DDT on the ring apron after poking Rosser in the eyes to block a back suplex. From there, KENTA’s offense was focused on Rosser’s ear and skull. Rosser meanwhile was looking for his STF chickenwing. KENTA countered into the Game Over the first time he tried it, and then shoved Rosser into the referee when he attempted it again. KENTA then went for the Go 2 Sleep, which Rosser slipped out of and successfully put KENTA in the chickenwing STF. KENTA tapped out, but the referee was still out and did not see it. Juice Robinson then surprised Rosser with the Left Hand of God, allegedly loading his fist with a roll of coins, leading to KENTA successfully connecting with the Go 2 Sleep. He woke up the referee before making the cover, and won the title at 16:31. I liked the story of KENTA going after Rosser’s head and neck, as it was unique and made sense based on his finisher. I suppose I am glad to see Robinson still involved with NJPW, but both Rosser and KENTA deserved a better finish and start to their STRONG title reigns. Very good match until the end, which is the story of many BULLET CLUB title bouts. ***¼

STRONG Openweight Tag Team Championship
The Motor City Machine Guns (Alex Shelley & Chris Sabin) vs. The West Coast Wrecking Crew (Royce Isaacs & Jorel Nelson)

The MCMG have been champions since 10.28.2022 and this is their third defense.The challengers attacked the champions before the bell and showed off their strength with stereo delayed vertical suplexes. Isaacs suplex saw him take Sabin for a lap around the ring before dropping him onto the ring apron, leaving Shelley to fend for himself against both members of the WCWC. Sabin surprises Nelson upon recovering, shoving him off of the top turnbuckle, but Isaacs knocks Sabin off of the apron right after. Shelley sends Isaacs face first into the corner with a Complete Shot. Sabin blocks an attack from Nelson, and Shelley slides through Nelson’s legs to tag in Sabin officially. Sabin tornado DDT’s Nelson, PK’s Isaacs on the floor from the apron, and takes out Nelson with a high crossbody for two. Sabin takes them both out with a suicide dive, and then missile dropkicks Nelson into a Complete Shot from Shelley for two. Sabin accidentally yakuza kicks Shelley. The WCWC follow up with Movies on the Roof to Shelley, and a Death Valley Driver to Sabin onto Nelson’s knees, but the champions kick out from the pin attempt. Shelley saves Sabin from being pinned after a German suplex/Ace Crusher combo. Shelley evades the Thunder Express and with Sabin takes out Isaacs with the Dream Sequence. This leaves Nelson who takes an Ace Crusher from Sabin and succumbs to the Dirt Bomb for the pin at 9:21. I had no doubts MCMG were retaining, but WCWC looked plenty formidable and performed at their typical high level. I hope they do end up with a reign down the line. ***

Loser Leaves New Japan Pro Wrestling
Eddie Kingston vs. Jay White

White pinned Kingston in the main event of “Rumble on 44th Street.” Kingston challenged White to this match on STRONG #124. Last week, White lost a Loser Leaves Japan match to Hikuleo. Two days before this match, Kingston and White were on Wrestling Observer Radio, and a heated discussion resulted in them raising the stakes and making this match a Loser Leaves NJPW bout. Before the match, the announcer informs us that BULLET CLUB is banned from ringside. This was a match where the body language and facial expressions gave you the perfect look into each competitor’s frame of mind as they threw strikes at one another, and how the gravitas of the stakes got to White at one point in the contest. White constantly went to Kingston’s eyes to turn things in his favor and would catch him off guard with DDT’s and Complete Shots as well. While this did wear down Kingston, it also made him angry, and he unloaded heavy chops and headbutts on the Switchblade. Kingston also gave White a taste of his own medicine when he dug his thumbs into White’s eyes to block the Blade Runner. White was able to pull off the Blade Runner, but only after giving Kingston a low blow behind referee Rick Knox’s back. However, as soon as Kingston hit the mat, he rolled to the floor so a pin couldn’t be triggered. White brought him back into the ring for a two count, and Kingston surprised him with two Backfists to the Future. A punch drunk White swiped at Eddie, who ducked and gave White a Sleepwalke suplex. When White kicked out after taking a third Backfist and a 2k1 Bomb, Kingston could only smile and shake his head in disbelief. Kingston whispered in White’s ear before dropping him with a Northern Lights Bomb for the pin at 19:07. I didn’t anticipate White’s New Japan tenure to come to an end at the hands of Eddie Kingston, but that’s a huge feather in his cap, and hopefully yields many future New Japan appearances. There’s few better storytellers in the ring than White and Kingston, and to no surprise they told a heck of a story on this night. I’m looking forward to both men’s wrestling futures. ****

Just as White is about to address the crowd, David Finlay cracks White with his shillelagh! White is Jay’s generational rival. He can’t believe White had New Japan in the palm of his hand and let it be taken from him. For years Finlay has sat back saying he would kill for what Jay White has, and now he’s decided that he will kill for Jay White has – he corrects himself to say what Jay White “had.” He’s sick of being considered an outsider no matter where he wrestles and tells staff to get White out of the ring. He issues a warning to everyone in New Japan and says there is nowhere a savage like him feels more at home than in the ring. Finlay’s promo was a bit unfocused, but it got its point across, and did a great job in transferring the heat from White to him. If this means a regular spotlight for Finlay, I am in favor.

Filthy Rules Fight
Homicide vs. Tom Lawlor

Lawlor challenged Homicide to this match on STRONG #124. This is a rematch from STRONG #116, where Homicide was victorious, and was also victorious in the three multi-man tag matches in which Homicide and Lawlor were opposed. Lawlor wears fighting gloves and black cut off shorts for the bout. I was hoping for more of a Dragon Gate style no ropes match and instead got a hardcore match that dragged. Putting aside that the match wasn’t what I wanted, I do give it points for being fairly innovative. Two moments that stuck out were Homicide digging a fork into Lawlor’s foot to escape ankle lock, and a Death Valley Driver off of the ring apron and through a table set up against the barricades. Homicide followed that up with a piledriver onto a piece of the door inside of the ring. When he tried a second piledriver, Lawlor backdropped him onto a ladder. After throwing a chair at his head, Lawlor penalty kicked Homicide and clobbered him with the piece of the broken door. Lawlor landed a falling headbutt off of the ladder, and after Homicide kicked out from the follow up pin, Lawlor cracked him with the NKOTB and pulled him into a rear-naked choke until Homicide passed out at 16:22. Mileage will vary, I just didn’t think this match ending the feud doesn’t necessarily suit the story of the rivalry. ***

NJPW World Television Championship
Zack Sabre Jr. & Clark Connors

Sabre has been champion since 1.4.2023 and this is his second defense. After defending the title against Tomohiro Ishii, Sabre made an open challenge to any LA DOJO graduate to challenge him, and Connors was quick to accept. All Television title matches have a 15 minute time limit. Connors shows a little bit of hubris when he’s able to take down Sabre early, but Sabre snaps him back to reality when he maneuvers Connors to the canvas and into a neck vice with his ankles. Sabre further attacks Connors’ leg, but Connors is still able to pull off a Pounce. This became the pattern of the match, with Sabre attacking Connors’ leg, then his arm, and pulling off a throw when possible, while Connors raw strength kept him in the game. Connors blocked Sabre’s European Clutch attempt and put him in a sleeper hold. Connors then put Sabre jo, in an ankle lock, which commentary tells us was taught to him by Ken Shamrock after they became associated in October. Sabre however was able to counter the ankle lock into a high angle Fujiwara armbar, to which Connors submitted immediately at 14:06. I think they told the story of Connors utilizing his power to try and best the grappling expert really well, and I especially liked that the urgency of everything Connors did picked up as the ring announcer kept counting down the minutes after the 10 minute mark I still am unsure about the existence of this title, but I did very much enjoy this match, and Sabre is a great champion. ***½

Kevin Knight waits for Sabre at the top of the entrance ramp, motioning that he wants to challenge for the title. Sabre tells Knight he’ll think about it.

IWGP Women’s Championship
KAIRI vs. Mercedes Moné

KAIRI has been champion since 11.20.2022 and this is her second defense. Moné debuted for NJPW at Wrestle Kingdom 17 and challenged KAIRI to this match after KAIRI retained her title against Tam Nakano. Moné is wearing Hana Kimura inspired attire, and her entrance is a tribute to Kimura as well. I completely understand the reason behind them making the title switch in this match – Moné has a following, gets a lot of interest from wrestling fans and media, and this show sold out shortly after this match was announced. She also didn’t roll over or overshadow KAIRI, which was a concern of mine. But I can’t help but feel like KAIRI was somewhat slighted by New Japan. She became the inaugural champion in an excellent match, then had a Wrestle Kingdom match that everyone was waiting to end so they could see Mercedes debut, and then Mercedes ended her reign the very next defense. It seems like New Japan realized they could have Sasha Banks on their roster sometime in the Fall, created this title to justify having women’s matches without muddying up what was going on in STARDOM, and decided KAIRI could hold the title until Mercedes was able to join the company. The transparency of this is borderline laughable. With those sentiments out of the way, I thought the match was very good. Moné tried to establish herself as the alpha early on and was quickly shut down by the champion. Moné then wore down KAIRI’s elbow, making it very clear that she was doing so to nullify the Insane elbow. Moné also utilized double knees repeatedly on offense, but abandoned that when KAIRI countered one of them into a submission hold. Moné pulled the referee in the way out of desperation when KAIRI went for her Cutlass backfist the second time. While the referee was out, KAIRI relentlessly attacked Moné, bringing her up to the entrance area where ultimately she powerbombed Moné through a table. KAIRI went to the Insane blow, but Moné got her knees up, and KAIRI also got her knees up to block Moné’s frog splash and put her in a high-angle crossface. Moné bit KAIRI’s wrist to escape the hold. She then hooked KAIRI’s arms and rolled her into the Moné Maker (a Gory Special into a rolling facebuster) for the pin at 26:47. The referee bump and the stuff by the entrance stage was needless, especially since both of those things happened in previous matches. That’s sloppy shop keeping by the showrunners. I have my complaints, but this was ultimately a really good match. We’ll see how Moné’s reign plays out. ***¾

IWGP World Heavyweight Championship
Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi

Okada has been champion since 1.4.2023 and this is his second defense. The champion actually challenged Tanahashi last week after he retained the title against Shingo Takagi. This is the sixteenth singles match between Okada and Tanahashi – Okada won 7 of their previous bouts, Tanahashi won 5, and 3 went to a time limit draw. This is their first singles meeting since September of 2021, and their first championship match since May of 2018. This was the Rainmaker vs. The High Fly Flow, and just about everything either competitor did was to enhance the effectiveness of their finisher, or to prevent the other person from pulling off their finisher. Tanahashi’s defensive attack was going after Okada’s knee, while Okada utilized dropkicks to shut down the High Fly Flow or turn the momentum in his favor. After Okada dropkicked Tanahashi out of mid-air, Tanahashi was able to counter the Rainmaker with a small package. Okada then pulled Tanahashi into an enzuigiri and muscled him up into the Cobra Flowsion. The Rainmaker finally connected and gots Okada the pin at 21:08. The crowd was pretty beat after the previous match, and it felt like Okada and Tanahashi worked on autopilot, but them working on autopilot is still pretty dang good. The story they told and the consistent momentum swings to keep this daily exciting, and I thought it moved at a pretty solid pace. There was just never any doubt Okada was long. The people who said that Moné vs. KAIRI should’ve been the main event are correct, but this is New Japan, and Okada must pose. ***½

Okada does his version of CIMA’s DGUSA post-show promo. He also tells Tanahashi he wants to reform their dream team and go after the IWGP Tag Team titles. Mercedes Moné then joins Okada in the ring. She thinks the two of them would be a dream team, and they hold up their respective title belts to end the event.

I had this awful realization during the show that with the new STRONG structure, all of these PPV’s are going to be 4+ hours. This is going to be broken down into four weekly hour-long episodes, so these are essentially better structured TV tapings with bigger stars. But on the other hand it’s sort of a choose your own adventure – you can binge STRONG once a month in a large chunk and swear off of it for a few weeks, or take it in once a week in more digestable bites.

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