Shingo Takagi vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi (NJPW Wrestle Grand Slam in Tokyo Dome 7/25/21)

Match Reviews

Featured image by @NAPP0Nx_x_x

Two of the greatest go to war. In many ways, this match is a gift. The intended main event for this Tokyo Dome show was an Ibushi/Shingo title match that certainly looked promising but got pulled due to Ibushi unfortunately contracting aspiration pneumonia. This, of course, was only the latest in miserable luck for New Japan in 2021. Their most over junior heavyweight got hurt (again) to start the year, their hottest foreigner heel injured his back and had his triumphant title reign cut short, and a month filled with huge stadium shows got postponed due to rising COVID cases.

Even outside Ibushi’s illness, this very show’s existence is rife with the signs of the awful year New Japan’s had. Coinciding with the Olympics as well as another surge in COVID cases in Japan, the show takes place in a hollow Tokyo Dome with only a few thousand fans in attendance in a building built for five times as many. There’s no fanfare surrounding this show. The lights sun shines on the afternoon show, fully illuminating the emptiness that only serves to remind us of the heights that the company reached in better times. There’s no big fanfare about the show’s production either. The traditional massive Wrestle Kingdom set is nowhere to be seen. A few lights highlight the pathway the wrestlers walk down to towards the ring. It’s not a good look.

All of that works against this match. The empty arena, the stripped down card of five matches leaving everything going far too long, the looming shadow of a pandemic.

And yet, we have two of the very best wrestlers in the world in the ring. They overcome.

This is a New Japan epic, the best example of one since the last time these two wrestled in January. It’s no coincidence that it comes from the man who mastered that main event style and the only person seemingly capable of continuing that tradition in 2021.

Our aging Ace once again puts the company’s well being on his back to fill in for the failing body of the man who so desperately yearns to overtake him. We know that Tanahashi can turn back the clock to beat Shingo, he did so in January, but this is Shingo ascended. Shingo was already the best wrestler in the company in January, but now he has all the hardware to prove his point as the IWGP World Champion.

Unlike so many other New Japan main events of the last few years, one never gets the sense that this match is wasting your time. Its opening act is already much more filled out and engaging than their January match. The signs of Tana’s aging remain, however. He can’t quite bump as hard, his movements are quite as silky smooth as they could be. And yet, few men are quite as adept at structuring and executing an excellent championship style match.

And of course, few men are as well equipped to carry the more mechanical and physical aspects of a match than Shingo Takagi. Shingo’s just a force of nature at his very best, moving with the ferocity and speed of a freight train. Shingo batters Tanahashi throughout this entire match with a variety of stiff strikes, lariats, and brutal bumps and the violence only serves to dare the Ace into matching the challenge. In fact, it’s come to my attention that oftentimes when two New Japan wrestlers engage in a strike exchange, as the crowd’s clapping along to the rhythm of the strikes grows stronger, the strikes themselves grow weaker as the wrestlers allow the crowd noise to carry the illusion of impact. No such shortcuts from either man on this night, full on every blow.

There’s leg work, because of course there is with Tanahashi. Tana’s first big control segment comes from taking out Shingo’s knee and the champion does well to sell the injury as a nagging problem throughout the entire match. It never devolves into melodrama or self-parody either, Shingo always looks believably distressed yet still tough as nails enough to push through.

The finishing stretch is everything you want it to be. A fiery show of heart from the aging Ace, pushing against an overwhelming champion. Exactly the kind of classic Tanahashi finishing stretch to get the blood flowing and fists pumping.

A triumph snatched from the jaws of miserable defeat by New Japan.

And just as quickly, thrust back into defeat with EVIL revealed as the next challenger. Good things never last.

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