Katsuyori Shibata (c) vs Tomohiro Ishii
NEVER Openweight Championship
EDION Arena Osaka, Osaka, Japan
(reviewed 01/08/2017) I managed to miss this when it happened, which has created another situation in which a match I missed got a ton of praise and probably won’t live up to the hype, sadly. I like this arena a lot, and they’ve got a very cool-looking stage and setup for this show, which I appreciate a lot, as so many of NJPW’s big shows feel lifeless and samey visually (which is sort of just a cultural difference in Eastern vs Western wrestling, really). As you’d guess, the lads get right to it with some strikes, and Shibata does a cheeky thing early on where he points to his chin as if to ask Ishii for a strike before cutting him off with a forearm just to fuck with him. Ishii is the first to fade in a big forearm exchange, but Shibata’s cockiness fires him right back up again. They trade suplexes in a goofy escalation of their already goofy signature spot, and this time Ishii is the one who comes out on top, laying into some chops in the corner afterward. Peeved by a few errant kicks to the head, Shibata asks for more, and Ishii supplies him with a pair of gross chops to the throat before Red Shoes admonishes him. Fighting through the pain, Shibata cuts his opponent off with a notably stiff forearm before giving Ishii a taste of his own medicine with a throat chop of his own. The champ does his usual facewash and dropkick in the corner spot, but Ishii fires first when they’re both back on their feet, putting Shibata down with a chop. Shibata tries to kip up and fire right back, but he falters in doing it, leading to a brief double down as both men attempt to regain their bearings. It’s a cool moment that may or may not have been intentional but feels good either way. Back on their feet, they trade pretty snug boots and clotheslines, both men unwilling to back down, and Ishii comes out on top with a clothesline as Shibata bounces off the ropes. He follows it up with a superplex for two, and a subsequent powerbomb and pin attempt is reversed into a triangle choke by Shibata. Ishii fades but is able to drape his foot over the bottom rope to escape. Shibata stands him up and lays in some strikes, hitting a sort of uncharacteristic DVD that sends Ishii teetering to his feet again. A German suplex does the same, but Shibata puts him down with a flying boot to the face that earns him a nearfall as Osaka rallies for both men. As Shibata slaps on a sleeper, we see that Ishii is bleeding from his mouth, which is a nice visual as he struggles to make it to the ropes to escape. When he does, Shibata goes for his usual chest kick following a rope break, and Ishii eats it before responding in kind with an enzuigiri that puts them both down for a moment. Rising to their feet, they trade forearms again. Ishii comes out on top, laying out Shibata with a few clotheslines and a German, but Shibata refuses to stay down, popping up to his feet dazed and reeling every time, kicking out of a pin attempt at one and rising to his knees before immediately collapsing again. It’s sort of a goofy idea, but it works due to his selling of it and is probably one of the best one counts I’ve ever seen, and Osaka pops huge for it. A pair of headbutts to the sternum and a sliding D look to put Shibata away, but he kicks out in a quality nearfall. Shibata escapes a brainbuster from Ishii, and when Ishii grabs his chest kick, he applies his MMA background and turns it into a fairly gross cross armbreaker that feels huge when he locks it in fully. The crowd is almost entirely behind Shibata now as he lays in a few kicks to Ishii’s chest and arm. Ishii puts the champ down with another shot to the neck, but a mean spinning slap from Shibata (probably his meanest since the G1 match with Tanahashi in 2014) evens things up. Ishii manages to catch a PK and connect with a headbutt, but Shibata cuts him off with a quality dropkick when the diminutive man bounces off the ropes. A sleeper attempt goes south for the champ and he has to hit another clunker of a headbutt out of desperation. Both men fire off some incredibly vicious chops that leave them both reeling, but Shibata is able to slap on a sleeper to recover briefly while draining the life from his opponent, and he tops it off with a penalty kick for the win. An interesting match here, in that it’s sort of the ultimate Ishii/Shibata match in a lot of ways, escalating themes and spots from their previous bouts. In a few situations, especially late in the match, that sort of escalation works and creates a really memorable, if dangerous and probably career-shortening, title match. But it also makes for some of their most convoluted “now you hit me” spots yet with the suplex exchanges and other touches early on. Still, with the amount of quality, thrilling, hard-hitting action here, as well as a particularly hot Osaka crowd that eats it up, I think the good outweighs the bad here, even though this is a flawed match.