Shinsuke Nakamura (c) vs AJ Styles
IWGP Intercontinental Championship
Tokyo Dome, Tokyo, Japan
(reviewed 12/30/2016) Video package before the match starts off with “The Match is not even once until now.”, and the last half of it is dubstep, so you know we’re in for a treat here. Nakamura’s entrance gear is literally just a loose v-neck shirt, adding to the problem this show had of not feeling very big at all, though this matchup certainly feels fairly huge. There’s a lengthy feeling-out process at the beginning, as they are wont to do in a first-time meeting. A tease of both the Boma Ye and Styles Clash leads to the famous bullet-eating antics, which I’m mixed about. After being yanked out of the corner, AJ sells his back like he’s hurt (doing it rather convincingly), alluding to the fact that he had recently missed weeks of bookings due to an injury, but when Red Shoes backs Nakamura off, AJ springs to his feet, revealing that it was all a ruse in order to blindside the champ. The crowd mostly just laughs at the spot or doesn’t react, which sure isn’t a good sign. The American retains control with some legwork and striking, and Nakamura has to go to the back again to even things up. It feels weird to do a fakeout with AJ’s back injury earlier in the match before returning to it and treating it like an actual weakness, but I guess it works if you don’t think too much about it. Nakamura controls things for a bit, switching between all-too-brief backwork and his usual fare. AJ slinks his way into a calf killer to turn things back in his favor, but a botched backflip reverse DDT ends badly and is followed up with a weak blue thunder bomb for a two count. Another Styles Clash tease sequence ends with a Boma Ye off the second rope and another long double down. A sloppy strike exchange leads to another Boma Ye and a nearfall. AJ gets a chance with a crucifix pin and buries a knee in Nakamura’s face, rearranging a few molars in the process, before topping it off with a 450 he barely hits for a nearfall, kicking things into high gear. Nakamura reverses a clothesline into a cross armbreaker and does a very weird thing where he pulls back on AJ’s leg in the process before transitioning into a triangle armbar. AJ reverses that into an one-armed Styles Clash for a big nearfall, and Nakamura sells his neck real big despite it clearly being perfectly fine in that spot. Following a pretty gross Bloody Sunday, AJ points at his opponent and screams at the crowd: “he’s a dead man!” Looking to make it so, he goes for a top-rope Styles Clash, but Nakamura slips free and hits a fairly nasty-looking Landslide for a nearfall. Sensing his opportunity, Nakamura puts a Boma Ye through the back of AJ’s neck and follows it up with one to his face, turning the man inside out for the win. I don’t actually recall how I felt about this match a year ago, as I didn’t get around to reviewing it (though that might answer that question all the same). Here, I’m left feeling sort of empty. In the same way that many of the big NJPW matches are, this match feels very constructed, built to be a big emotional roller coaster. But for that reason (as well as some sloppiness, slowness, and general dislike for these two) I end up feeling empty, as the heavy-handed set pieces and elements (bullet-eating, limbwork that is tossed aside later in the match, AJ’s faux-Boma ye, the one-armed Styles Clash, etc.) are obvious and unappealing to me past the surface level. Anything good here (of which there is plenty, as these two are pretty mechanically good to great) is mitigated by the slow-moving Malick-esque pageantry performed by two actors who can’t pull off that sort of emotion. I’m left feeling like I just watched two performers doing their best performances, or what they think are their best performances, rather than two wrestlers having a wrestling match. That lack of reality is what leaves me empty in the end.