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There’s a few things that need to be understood for my opinion on this match to be perfectly clear. First of all, I enter this match with the understanding that EVIL is a bad wrestler. I can absolutely understand why some people would enjoy his work. At the best of times he hits hard and he does some flashy power moves that look pretty good done under the right context. But these all pale in comparison to how so many aspects of his shtick just rub me the wrong way. The unnecessary chair spots that rarely have a pay off. The assisted referee spots which, thank god, he seems to have edited out for now in an attempt to get heel heat. The convoluted distracting of said referee to set up the aforementioned chair spots.
It’s all bad.
All of this means that EVIL already comes into this match with an uphill climb as his ringwork has displayed again and again that he can not perform to the standard that New Japan has set in the last five years. He can’t do it. Will he be able to one day? Who knows? But the baseline that he brings to the dance is fundamentally broken and flawed.
As for Naito, well.
So much was made online about how energized and refreshed Naito’s going to look coming back to wrestling after a break of several months. All that talk gets thrown out the window once we actually see him perform. It’s the same tired, sluggish, slow Naito that made 2019 such a slog to sit through and that contributed to a lackluster Osaka-jo main event just a few months back. We can all hold on to the magical Tokyo Dome performance from January 5th as much as we want but the fact of the matter is that Naito didn’t perform well tonight. He sold his knee for thirty minutes as EVIL bumbled through a bruiser heel routine.
At the outset, this match feels wrong. EVIL comes out with the Bullet Club and Red Shoes forces them to leave the ringside area. We’ve seen this before, probably most effectively done at last year’s G1 Finals when Jay White did the same thing. The problem is that then, Bullet Club consisted of what looked like a dozen wrestlers coming out as a united front. Here we have the ravaged remnants of a stable picked apart by COVID-19. There’s no satisfaction in seeing them banished from ringside because as they are, they’re not threatening.
The match kicks off with another Jay White trademark of EVIL rolling to the outside to stall for heel heat. A completely misplaced moment as the fans in attendance have been instructed not to chant or boo to help curb the potential spread of COVID-19. And so EVIL’s stalling gets met with deathly silence. There’s a brief flash of potential as Naito immediately goes in for the dropkick and hits some sweet looking Irish Whips on EVIL into the barricades. That fire and vigor vanishes immediately as this just turns into another Naito vs. Bullet Club shenanigans match instead.
Naito’s performance is so uninterested and bored throughout the whole thing. One of his closest allies and friends publicly humiliated him just the night before but it’s just another day at the office for Naito. I’m sure many people will come in to defend Naito’s demeanor with some of the usual defenses. “Naito’s being tranquilo, that’s his whole thing.” To those people I say that wrestling operates on dynamics. Having a cool demeanor is only as good as when you lose your cool as a contrast. What’s the point of enacting such a heated and brutal betrayal the night before to react to it with absolutely zero emotion? Naito’s either too broken down to have the match that this story deserves or he’s unwilling to even consider that possibility. Either way, the result is the same: bad wrestling.
Had it not been for the “cinematic” atrocities that the WWE has imposed on us all year, this would be a lock for the worst match of the year.
As with most bad wrestling, this match fails because its lies are blatant and transparent. It wants to convince me that EVIL is a top level heel when he’s never been anything more than midcard tag team fodder. It wants to convince me that Naito is a sympathetic fallen babyface hero when in reality, he’s just an unmotivated and unexciting performer who can occasionally bust out a grandiose performance when the booking works in his favor. Worst of all, it tries to convince me that EVIL is worthy of the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Championships–a lie so disturbing in its audacity that even New Japan’s most ardent defenders can’t quite come to grips with it.
Worst of all, New Japan taunts us by revealing that Dick Togo is the newest member of Bullet Club. Dick Togo, a man who’s been performing at a level far beyond anything EVIL’s ever even dreamed of doing for three decades now. Give Dick Togo the belts instead. He deserves them.
Hiromu Takahashi comes out and cuts a fiery promo on EVIL in Japanese. Situational context leads me to believe that Takahashi wants to avenge his fallen leader and take back the IWGP Double Crown for LIJ. Fine. That’s a fair enough set up. But then the show ends with a prolonged shot of Takahashi hamming it up for the cameras and yelling at the top of his lungs. He gets the pass to be memed because he’s Hiromu Takahashi in New Japan. Put him in NXT and this moment becomes clear for what it is: cheesy exaggerated melodrama.
Now perhaps I’m wrong and Gedo has just set the pieces for a new Rainmaker Shock to lead us even further into the golden age of New Japan. I don’t believe that’s true. This is the booking decisions from a man who meticulously lays out his plans and had the rug pulled out from under him by COVID-19.
New Japan has been coasting for a while now but this is the night that makes the stark reality of things clear: the arc is heading downwards. The peak has passed. It’s looking like downhill from here.