This week’s edition of Wrestle Review Wednesday should be one of celebration. G1 Climax 28 kicks off this weekend, with the first two nights featuring rematches of some 2018’s best matches: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Minoru Suzuki in Night 1 A Block competition, while Zack Sabre Jr. and Kota Ibushi square off Night 2 in the B Block to presumably set the scene for a main event of Kenny Omega vs. Tetsuya Naito.
G1 Climax 28 follows another NJPW show in America, with this year’s version of the G1 Special at San Francisco’s hallowed Cow Palace drawing 6,333 fans for a card that, under different circumstances, would be remembered as one of 2018’s best.
Instead, Saturday’s show serves as another reminder of the risks wrestlers take to entertain and excite audiences.
Hiromu Takahashi rode a wave of momentum into the G1 Special that arguably positioned him as New Japan’s hottest commodity. His performance in the Best of the Super Juniors was nothing short of breathtaking, with standout matches against Ryusuke Taguchi, El Desperado, KUSHIDA, Chris Sabin and Marty Scurll.
My wife unintentionally provided the best description for Hiromu’s finale against Taiji Ishimori: She watched me from the kitchen as I bounced our one-month-old to sleep, with my eyes glued to the TV, and quipped: “You are seriously enthralled by this, aren’t you?”
Yes. Yes, I was.
Hiromu’s BOSJ championship bout featured numerous jaw-dropping moments and moves that made me wince out of fear for the competitors’ safety. And yet, I was captivated. I wanted to applaud in my living room at the match’s conclusion but, well…couldn’t clap while holding a baby. As I wrote in my BOSJ Wrestle Review Wednesday, Hiromu’s character is built around his very real willingness to ” gleefully [put] his own body at risk to win matches.”
Hiromu’s star was on the rise for precisely the reason a dark pall cast over the G1 Special.
Capitalizing on his swelling popularity, NJPW booked Hiromu against his primary rival, Dragon Lee for the G1 Special. The pairing made perfect sense, as the duo put on some of the most critically acclaimed bouts of the last few years. From Mexico to Japan, Hiromu and Dragon Lee engaged in a series of violently compelling (or compellingly violent) matches that stole the show on any card. Their latest chapter ranks among the past BOSJ’s best performances.
A Hiromu vs. Dragon Lee match was only fitting to attract a sizable audience in the burgeoning American territory, precisely because the risks the two have taken when paired together are unlike anything seen in wrestling. And that continued for much of the match on Saturday.
Dragon Lee and Hiromu ramp up the intensity when they’re in the ring together because the two trust one another. A detail I noticed over the course of their encounter was that Takahashi had “ Lee” scrawled on his wrist tape. While the sentiment fits the bizarre Ticking Time Bomb gimmick, one can glean a reality in the message based on the two so willing taking their athleticism to another level any time they are paired.
The sad irony of the move Dragon Lee performed on Hiromu that resulted in Takahashi sustaining a neck injury — early reports say he may have broken his neck — doesn’t appear as dangerous as any number of stunts the duo have pulled off in previous bouts. Dragon Lee is capable of much more exciting offense, and the Phoenix Plex — when performed successfully, as he had against Hiromu at BOSJ — doesn’t enhance the quality of a match.
To that end, it draws an unfortunate parallel to the career-ending headbutt Katsuyori Shibata delivered to Kazuchika Okada at Sakura Genesis 2017. Another startling parallel is that at the time of Shibata’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship bout with Okada, the former was gaining a groundswell among the fans that positioned him in the main-event chase. I could envision a future not far down the line from April 2017 in which Shibata carried NJPW’s top belt.
I can only hope Hiromu’s own meteoric rise won’t end as a result of Saturday’s injury — but that runs a distant second to the hope he suffers no form of lasting paralysis.
A natural reaction to any tragedy is to seek a quick answer as to why; with that often comes a tendency to assign blame. Is the New Japan “style” to blame? Don Callis provided some interesting insight on perceptions of Strong Style during an episode of the Killing The Town podcast last summer, when challenged on stiff forearm shots perhaps causing CTE. Callis detailed a conversation with one of last year’s G1 competitors, who cited former MMA athlete Minoru Suzuki’s particularly vicious-looking forearms.
Suzuki delivers a “blow” that was described as “light as a feather.” Suzuki is such a master of the craft, however, that it appears much more violent. Wrestling shares similarities with a magic show in that a magician’s tricks are sleight of hand rather than actual witchcraft. Still, there are moves in a wrestling ring that cannot be worked to appear more dangerous.
Hiromu Takahashi or Will Ospreay cannot fake their dives. Mick Foley falling from the top of a cage — an iconic moment in wrestling history of which mainstream sports media celebrated last month’s 20-year anniversary — cannot be feigned to look death-defying.
Likewise, danger enhances the theater necessary to craft compelling wrestling. The Tommaso Ciampa-Johnny Gargano saga, on which I lavished praise last month, might not have the same impact without the physical risks the two have repeatedly taken.
This then begs the question: Are we as fans responsible for glorifying these moments, for throwing our support behind the riskiest performers? It’s a moral dilemma with which I wrestle in my coverage of college football, as well. I also do not purport to have any answer.
What I can write definitively is that I want Hiromu Takahashi to stand; to walk. A comeback is secondary.