Last year New Japan arrived in the United States of America with a two-night tournament for a new championship. It was a display of brilliant singles wrestling and a celebration New Japan's western star Kenny Omega, who was crowned the new IWGP United States champion.
Last night they returned to California to put on a more traditional New Japan show. Strong Style Evolved saw 8-man faction battles, future title contenders face off in tag matches, a showcase singles match and a strong style title match. What was different was an American-style tag team main event that met every expectation.
As is usual with New Japan, the undercard featured tag team matches to fire up the crowd. Roppongi 3K, Rocky Romero and the junior heavyweight tag team champions SHO & YOH lit the fuse, and then Juice Robinson and David Finlay really got the ball rolling.
All four are future main eventers and terrific workers. Juice in particular has been on an upward trend for a while now. A lot has changed for him since his days in NXT as CJ Parker, and he has more than earned his place in the ring next to a wrestler with a history like Hirooki Goto.
Next was the comedy dream team of Toru Yano and Chuck Taylor against the big heels Lance Archer and Davey Boy Smith Jr. Yano's antics and Taylor's fire got the crowd exactly where it needed to be fir the main matches.
Bullet Club explodes
One of the biggest story arcs in wrestling for the last few months has been Bullet Club's implosion. The most popular faction in global wrestling has been under strain since Cody Rhodes started making moves on Kenny Omega's position as the leader of Bullet Club. That story continued with a match between the iconic pair of Tama Tonga and Tanga Loa, the Guerillas of Destiny, and the partnership of Cody and Marty Scurll.
The stoic Tongans played off the comic villainy of Scurll and the super-villain persona that Cody has been cultivating for some time now. The action was fast-paced and well put together and the finish, Cody picking up the pin via Cross Rhodes, kept the story progressing.
The stars arrive
New Japan has more headlining talent than any other wrestling company, and with their big 8-man match they showcased two of them. The Los Ingobernables de Japon four-some of Hiromu Takahashi, SANADA, BUSHI, and Tetsuya Naito took on Dragon Lee, KUSHIDA, Ryusuke, and Hiroshi Tanahashi in a match that had the whole crowd engaged from the get go.
Dragon Lee and Hiromu's storied history gave the match some menace and speed, while KUSHIDA and Tanahashi, the Aces of their divisions, put on their usual master classes. The popularity of LIJ is insane, and fueled by Naito's enigmatic charisma, and his presence told the crowd both at home and in the Walter Pyramid that it was really show time.
A bicep injury cost us a chance to see Jushin 'Thunder' Liger against Rey Mysterio, but Will Ospreay stood in for Mysterio in excellent fashion. He sold like a champ for Liger's offense, and as usual Liger was the most beloved man in the building throughout. While Ospreay, the current IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, won in fairly convincing fashion, it was the challenges afterwards that were the talking points.
Ospreay challenged Mysterio to a match before Marty Scurll came out to announce himself as the next challenger for Ospreay's title, only to be run off by Liger.
The Sakura Genesis build
Third from the top we got a preview of next weeks Sakura genesis main event as IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada and Tomohiro Ishii took on the team of Zack Sabre Jr and Minoru Suzuki. The main event was all about who was the best tag team in the world, but that is a conversation that needs to include Suzuki & Sabre. The two have been working together for a while now and are British tag team Champions in Revolution Pro Wrestling, where they have put on quality matches consistently. This was no different as the two submission masters took their opponents apart with a string of holds, heelish tactics, and brutal strikes. Suzuki is a maniac, and his slugging showdown with Ishii bought the crowd to its feet.
Most of this match was Sabre & Suzuki wearing out Ishii while taking cheap shots at Okada, and by the end Sabre continued his hot streak by tapping out Ishii with the same double-armbar, single crab combo that he used to tap out AJ Styles two years ago.
The interaction between Sabre and Okada, who face off for the IWGP title next week at Sakura Genesis was mouth-wateringly good. Okada's power and size advantage allowed him to break some holds, but Sabre was able to inflict plenty of damage, and by throwing the belt at Okada's feet after the match he added some spice to the battle.
US Title defended
Last year Omega won the US title, this year it was on Jay White to defend it against another Bullet Club member, Adam 'Hangman' Page.
Neither White or Page are near the stars of Omega, Okada, or Naito, but they are quality wrestlers in their own right. While the crowd was somewhat disinterested at first, the action was good enough to hook them by the end.
The pair took a lot of risks, including a scary apron german suplex moment, and showed exactly why New Japan trust them to be the only title match on the show.
White in particular is a star in the making, and while he has only been in New Japan as 'Switchblade' for some five months, his talent is clear. He needs time to create a story of his own and a few memorable rivalries, but with his strong win and the challenge from David Finlay afterwards it looks like he is firmly on that path.
The Young Bucks & Golden Lovers tear the house down
This is where Strong Style Evolved separated itself from the normal New Japan show. While a singles title match is the main event for almost every show in Japan, the American Indie shows almost always end with a killer tag team match full of chaos and incredible athleticism. At the forefront of that change were The Young Bucks, and while they are usually accused of being unable to tell stories in the ring (mostly by people who never watch their matches), there was no chance of those accusations coming after this match.
The Bullet Club angle has included problems between Matt & Nick Jackson and Kenny Omega, the trio known as The Elite. That story, of friends finding themselves facing off, was prevalent throughout, with Omega's conflict being forced by the animosity from Matt Jackson and Kota Ibushi's desire to win.
The match itself was full of incredibly fluid athleticism and wild risk-taking. There were one or two missteps, but the action more than covered for it, while the physicality undoubtedly took its toll. Omega finished the match with at best a black eye and at worst a fractured orbital bone while it looked like Ibushi lost a tooth.
To recount all the moves and sequences would be crazy, this match deserves your attention. It is worth the price of NJPW World on its own, even if it didn't come with the rest of the show.
The finish, with hesitation V-Triggers and a reluctant One-Winged Angel, was reminiscent of Ric Flair and Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XXIV. And by the time it came it was clear we were looking at a Match of the Year candidate.
The future of New Japan in America
During the show they announced that New Japan would return on July 7 for another show, this time at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, which holds some 12,000 people for basketball.
It is likely to somewhat steal the thunder of All In, which is running a 10,000-seat venue in Chicago in September, but it is also undoubtedly going to be brilliant.
New Japan are in a golden age with the wonderful mixture of a talented roster and excellent booking. With just two weeks before WrestleMania, Strong Style Evolved was the perfect tonic for the overly stylized and inconsistent WWE product. It was pure wrestling, and while the production wasn't quite as clean as it could have been, the quality of the wrestlers quickly made any slips fade into the background. New Japan keep raising the bar for wrestling, and this was just another example of their ability to stun and impress.
What did you think of Strong Style Evolved? Are you excited to see NJPW return on July 7th? Let us know in the comments below!