The world of professional wrestling is so vast and fast-moving that it’s damn near impossible to keep up. Luckily, your pals at Deadshirt are here to keep an eye on squared circles everywhere, from modest bingo halls to packed football stadiums, and bring you the most notable matches and storylines from throughout the past week. And it’s a good thing, too, because there’s just TOO MUCH WRESTLING!
A Hard Rain(maker)’s Gonna Fall
Sakura Genesis (NJPW)
April 9th, 2017, Tokyo, Japan
Spring is here and the cherry blossoms are in bloom, so it’s only fitting that this year’s NJPW spring show should be named in their honor. What else does the thought of cherry blossoms bring to mind other than images of sweaty, ripped men beating the piss out of each other? Formerly known as Invasion Attack, Sakura Genesis is the culmination of the events surrounding the New Japan Cup, specifically providing a stage for the winner of that event’s title match of choice.
This year that chosen match was between the reigning IWGP World Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada and New Japan Cup winner Katsuyori Shibata. The card also featured several other title matches including Hiromu Takahashi vs. KUSHIDA for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship and Hirooki Goto vs Zack Sabre Jr. for the NEVER Openweight Championship.
More impressive than this card, in my opinion, was the attendance record that was achieved by the show. Not only was the show sold out with over 10,000 fans in the attendance, but this was the largest turnout for a NJPW show in the Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Hall in nearly a decade.
Why was this the case? Well, there are a number of factors that I can think of. Wrestling seems to be surging in popularity in the Japanese spotlight again thanks to crowd favorites like Okada, Naito, and Omega, but this particular show seemed to be the breakout moment for the hard-hitting, hard-working Katsuyori Shibata. As soon as the bell rang for the main event, the crowd went ballistic for Shibata which is a fairly rare occurrence at a Japanese wrestling show. Sure, most matches will start with a chant for the crowd favorite, but this was next level.
Even more surprising was that the crowd maintained this fire throughout the entire match. I’ve rarely seen any NJPW main events where the crowd was this invested and passionate bell-to-bell. They had plenty of reason to be. Okada vs Omega at Wrestle Kingdom 11 was an early contender for Match of the Year, but now that legendary performance already has stiff (pun intended) competition.
From the start, Shibata focused heavily on chain wrestling and keeping Okada grounded with his technical and no-nonsense style of grappling. After several minutes, Okada managed to get Shibata into the corner and seemed to be setting up for the “pat pat” thing that he does before breaking from his opponent. Then, in what might only happen once out of every one hundred Okada matches, he forearms Shibata right in the jaw to massive boos from the crowd. This was an amazing moment that came across as Okada deciding that he can’t be cocky for a change and that he needed to end the match fast. This was a BAD idea. Few people strike as hard as Shibata, but a pissed off Shibata? Okada ate a flurry of blows and barely managed any offense of his own before Shibata started into a series of submission attempts. Eventually, after failing to best his opponent in shows of strength, Okada took the match out of the ring and softened up Shibata for a bit. To his dismay, Okada’s first Rainmaker attempt was easily countered for a huge pop, followed by a nasty headbutt from Shibata that split his own head open with a disgusting thud.
I don’t want to go into too many more details because this is both a match that needs to been seen and it was also nearly forty minutes long. Rest assured, there’s an amazing story in that forty minutes and the match doesn’t really plod at all thanks to the brisk pace and brutal offense on display. If there was ever any doubt that Katsuyori Shibata would become a top talent after his return to NJPW, this is the match that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he belongs in the main event picture.
Extra High Spots: Takahashi vs KUSHIDA is definitely worth a watch. This match really surprised me and downright shocked the crowd.
– Kyle Herr
Shake It Off! Shake It Off!
SmackDown Live (WWE)
April 11th, 2017, Boston, MA
While the Raw after WrestleMania is famously packed with debuts, returns, and the occasional title change, there’s frequently a slump that follows the high of WrestleMania weekend as the company tests new talent and storylines. This year, however, the WrestleMania high was extended at least one week further with the two-night “Superstar Shakeup” event, in which performers were traded between Raw and SmackDown Live to inject some extra excitement into both shows. Now it truly does feel like a brand new wrestling season, with 24 superstars switching sides to guarantee that both shows will have new matchups and new stories to tell.
While there were a number of important trades (Bray Wyatt on Raw! Charlotte on SmackDown!), one of the most anticipated was the arrival of smark-favorite babyface Sami Zayn to the blue brand. Zayn has been the most underutilized worker on Raw since the draft, and many fans have hoped that a move to SmackDown—the brand that bills itself as the “Land of Opportunity” where wrestlers who get lost in the Raw marketing machine can work their way up the card—would propel him into the main event scene. And sure enough, his very first week on SmackDown Live, Sami Zayn competed in the main event against AJ Styles and Baron Corbin for a shot at the United States Championship.
Yes, the United States Championship, which arrived this week on the shoulder of Kevin Owens, also acquired from Raw. With part-timer Brock Lesnar sitting on Raw’s top title, seems the red brand is going to need to borrow SmackDown’s WWE Championship to anchor their upcoming Payback PPV, so the US title’s stock has gone up a tick, and that’s great. But nothing helps to make a belt feel important better than a great match about it, and this #1 Contender match was a fantastic start, with three of the show’s best performers giving their all just for the privilege to compete for it. Sure, they won’t get their title shot until after Chris Jericho’s rematch at Payback (the shake-up really has confused the whole PPV situation), but this Triple Threat promises that the wait will be worth it.
AJ Styles is the best wrestler on Earth (and I will apparently never tire of saying so), Baron Corbin is a great SmackDown success story, and they both bring their A-game, but the match is really about Sami Zayn, the perpetual underdog. Sami would face Styles, counter out of supermoves and deliver his own offense, and the moment he’d cleared the ring, Corbin would be right there to deal some damage, and by the time Sami could escape Corbin, Styles would return. It’s the perfect setup for a Sami Zayn match, complete with an appropriate ending to a Sami Zayn match—Sami lost. AJ Styles is now #1 Contender. As it should be—Sami may have been able to walk out of Raw on a win, but now that he’s moved to SmackDown, he’s gotta start from the bottom again and scratch and claw his way back up. Only now that he’s with the blue brand, he may actually be allowed to reach the summit, and that victory will be sweet as hell.
Extra High Spots: The Usos and American Alpha put on their second consecutive PPV-worthy match on TV. DAMN, Jimmy and Jey have been on fire since turning heel, and hopefully the arrival of The New Day (and to a lesser extent, the Shining Stars) will inject some more life into the SmackDown Tag Team picture so they get some more well-deserved attention.
We’ve been covering a lot of WWE during WrestleMania season, but we also want to know what other promotions and performers you want to read about in Too Much Wrestling. Got an underrated indie favorite? Send us your suggestion on Twitter, @DeadshirtDotNet.