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!
Putting the Squeeze on Juice Robinson
G1 Special in USA, Night 1 (New Japan Pro Wrestling)
July 1st, 2017, Long Beach, CA
AXStv, NJPW World
The eyes of the wrestling world all turned to Los Angeles this past weekend, as New Japan Pro Wrestling held their very first solo event on US soil and prepared to crown their inaugural IWGP United States Champion. The two-night tournament was thrilling from front to back, including non-tournament matches like Okada’s defense of the company’s top title against Bullet Club heel Cody (Rhodes), but the best bouts of the weekend came from the single-elimination bracket for the US belt. Out of the eight men competing in the tournament, Juice Robinson is probably not anybody’s favorite guy. Mocked for his dumb white boy dreads and tainted by an unspectacular run with NXT as C.J. Parker, Juice came to NJPW with a lot to learn and something to prove. And in his first round match against technical wizard Zack Sabre Jr., Juice seized the opportunity to bring the crowd what—for my money—was the best match of a very competitive night.
If you’ve seen a Zack Sabre Jr. match, then you know that he’s arguably the best mat wrestler in the world, a clinician who’s known for climbing onto an opponent, tangling them up in his own gangly limbs, and calmly hyperextending every joint his foe has. The brilliance of Sabre is that each of his submissions has at least two stages—they’re locked in, they look like they hurt, and then he does something to kick them up a notch. Maybe he’s got your arm in some kind of armbar, which is bad enough, but then he takes hold of your fingers and bends your hand back as far as it’ll go. That’s a relatively tame example.
What sells Juice in this match is that, from the bell, it’s clear he knows exactly what kind of match he’s getting into, and does everything he can to limit the amount of time Sabre has to grab hold of his wrists or ankles. He moves up quick, he strikes, he moves back. He charges shoulder first. When he’s brought down to the mat, he tucks his arm under his body to try and keep it out of reach. It’s all futile, of course—Sabre’s got an answer for everything, targeting Robinson’s dominant left arm and eventually forcing him to tap out. Juice never really has control in the match. What makes Juice Robinson’s performance here so good is the way it’s clear that he knows he’s outclassed, without coming across as weak or helpless. It’s easy to get over by kicking ass, but here Juice is endearing for his heroic fighting spirit in the face of a superior foe.
Extra High Spots: Night 1 of the G1 Special was pretty great from start to finish, and the main event between Kazuchika Okada and Cody Rhodes was no exception. I can’t tell you how tense with worry I was that Cody was going to walk away with the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Thank goodness the match ended the way it did.
– Dylan Roth
See Me/Feel Me/Punch Me/Ishii
G1 Special in USA, Night 2 (New Japan Pro Wrestling)
July 2nd, 2017, Long Beach, CA
NJPW World, AXStv (7/7/2017@8PM)
As much as I would love to gush about the final of the G1 Special in USA, it was a match we’ve seen two times prior, in fact, this was the rubber match in series. On a whim I would say that it was probably my match of the show, but I knew those two would put on a classic and the ending definitely elevated it. This is why I want to talk about a much more unique match, which brings us back to Zack Sabre Jr., who had a really great Night 1 (see above), securing himself a place in the semi-finals of the tournament in the process. On Night 2 he ran into Tomohiro Ishii.
As Dylan mentioned, ZSJ is a technical wizard without parallel, a unique figure in a growing scene of high-flying maneuvers and feats of incredible strength. He relies on outthinking his opponent and tricking them to walk right into his submissions, causing extreme amounts of pain as he ratchets up the viciousness of his holds. On most opponents this works, but pain is Tomohiro Ishii’s oldest friend.
“The Stone Pitbull” Tomohiro Ishii is a small, stout man composed of pure anger and hate trapped behind an eternally stoic expression. With the presumed retirements of Honma and Shibata, Ishii is one of the last practitioners of a particularly nasty form of “Strong Style” that involves stiff forearms, headbutts, and a particularly impressive vertical drop brainbuster. *Extremely Mauro Ranallo voice* Like the villainous Sebastian Shaw, the more hands you throw at Ishii, the worse you’re going to feel in the morning! If your strategy for a match with Ishii is to outstrike him, you fucked up.
Zack Sabre Jr. fucked up. Right out of the gate, ZSJ goes after Ishii with a series of punches that bounce right off of him, there’s a pause, and then in a single strike, Zack is on the mat. He stands up and tries again. Same result. On his feet again he goes for a headbutt. The Stone Pitbull doesn’t even flinch as ZSJ reels from his third misstep before Ishii fires back with his own headbutt. Things are already going very badly for Suzuki-Gun’s technical wizard. A vicious beating ensues, but eventually ZSJ lures Ishii in and begins his submission tactics in an effort to wear down the Little Engine That Could (Kill You in a Fistfight).
What I loved about this match was that the two styles didn’t really mesh per se, which led to an unpredictable bout. ZSJ would lock in some nasty submissions and Ishii would refuse to tap, which would frustrate him enough to strike at him out of desperation, causing Ishii to shrug off the hits and revisit the violence back onto ZSJ tenfold. This wasn’t a match so much as it was a brawl with octopus holds. Without spoiling too much of the action, because you really do need to experience it, there was an amazing moment where Ishii was tied up in a brutal submission and crawling to the ropes for a break, but ZSJ pulled him back to the center several times by locking in more facets to this hold. As the crowd pleaded with Ishii not to tap to what was surely a match ending moment as he finally looked on the edge of his breaking point, Ishii gathered all of his strength to launch his legs up over himself and basically headstand himself onto the ropes all the while he was being constricted. Ishii was all fire and ZSJ dug deep into his bag of tricks to counter the barrage, making this a very close runner up for my match of the show.
Extra High Spots: Again, watch the main event. That aside, I learned something very shocking about myself during Night 1…I really like Juice Robinson. I have seen the error of my ways.
– Kyle Herr
Ishii Bites the Bullet
G1 Special in USA, Night 2 (New Japan Pro Wrestling)
July 2nd, 2017, Long Beach, CA
AXStv, NJPW World
My dad likes to joke(?) that in his younger days, his fighting style was “I’ll block all your punches with my face, and once you’re tired out, I’ll put you down.” Well, that’s one thing my dad and Tomohiro Ishii have in common.
Ishii’s opponent in the finals of an eight-man, single-elimination tournament to crown New Japan’s first-ever United States Champion was the inimitable Kenny Omega. These two put on one of the best matches of the New Japan Cup just about three and a half months ago. (The two most common picks for best match of that round robin tournament are Omega-Ishii and Shibata-Ishii. Hmm, a pattern begins to unfold.) So it should come as no surprise that New Japan looked to round out its two-night foray into wrestling on American soil with a rematch for an appropriately themed title.
It helps that these two wrestlers are near-perfect foils for one another. There is no wrestler in the world hotter than Kenny Omega. He’s become the first foreigner to win the G1 Climax tournament, been the subject of an ESPN personality profile and wrestled one of only two matches in history that revered wrestle-rater Dave Meltzer has deemed worthy of six out of five stars. Meanwhile, Ishii has held the NEVER Openweight title for a total of 14 months (over the course of four runs)—and no other singles title—in his 12 years with the company. Frequently a mid-carder, Ishii is a phenomenal worker, and finding him in the best matches of a given tournament is no fluke. Ishii is one of the best stumblers in wrestling, which makes him an excellent opponent for hard-strikers like Kenny and Shibata. Where Ishii is consistent and tough, Kenny is prone to a silliness that can sometimes interfere with putting on a good match—but when he redlines it, he’s one of the best in the world.
Though Omega was all business tonight, this dichotomy was on full display in the 40-minute slugfest. There were multiple spots where Kenny hit Ishii with swift, stiff, brutal strikes, only for Ishii to shrug it off, invite more, or even lean into it. He sat cross-legged, inviting Kenny to pummel him with more penalty kicks. He stood up as Kenny rained elbows on him in the corner, headbutting into Omega’s flailing arms and pushing his way out of the corner through sheer force of will and lack of neck. While the vicious back and forth—and the length of the match—clearly began to wear on the two men, Kenny wasted a lot of energy getting furious at near falls, while Ishii calmly waded (and often staggered) through a flood of V-Trigger knees. At one point, during a series of V-Triggers, Ishii grabbed Kenny’s incoming knee and stood, prepared to end the devastating offensive, but Omega wriggled free and delivered yet another leaping knee, this time to a standing Ishii’s head, which stunned the smaller man, before another knee put him on his back. Kenny’s One-Winged Angel finisher was countered a couple times throughout the match – and Ishii even got one of his own in on Omega – but he eventually broke through to land the move and secure the pinfall.
Extra High Spots: In an instantly iconic moment, Ishii bit the ring rope in a futile—but successful for several seconds—attempt to hold off a dragon suplex (which involves pinning one’s arms up, making grabbing the rope with his hands out of the question) onto a table set up by the Young Bucks. Even this guy’s teeth are tougher than most entire human beings.
– Cameron DeOrdio
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