Day 1 of the World Tag League 2016 acted as a great summary of New Japan’s round robin tournaments. We had some great first impressions, some great build-up for matches to come, and overall, great workrate. Emanating from Korakuen Hall, A Block of the WTL 2016 mixed it up, with the main event featuring Tetsuya Naito going back to the roots of his stable by bringing in Rush of CMLL, a founding member of the original Los Ingobernables. History may tell us that the quality of WTLs can be inconsistent, but I feel optimistic about some of the match-ups we’re going to get in coming days.

Notes From Opening Matches:

Of course, the show opened with a couple of low-stakes encounters, mostly featuring people from the B Block. For the interest of time, I’ll quickly go through some things that were notable from this part of the show.

Young Lions Hirai Kawato and Teruaki Kanemitsu wrestled the opening match. Both these guys seem like promising young athletes, they got the crowd pretty hot, and Kanemitsu seems like he could grow into a real power wrestler. The finish involved him administering a Spinebuster to Kawato, then holding onto the legs so that he could apply a Boston Crab, which he just stomped into. Very emphatic victory, one that should assure anyone who worried that the new YLs wouldn’t be up to snuff with the Finlay/White/Tanaka/Komatsu class.

God, Yoshitatsu just sucks. I don’t derive pleasure from hating wrestlers, there’s a point where you stop laughing at someone being bad at wrestling, and you start wondering “What are you doing here?” He looked like a total goober, both with how he barely got any offense in, plus with how he sloppily performed all of said offense.

I thought Billy Gunn was fine. I also thought that he was in the ring for a cup of coffee. I want to see if he’d be able to maintain the explosiveness we saw in this match, in the sort of 10 minute matches that he’ll be working in the WTL matches. The crowd were into him, so I do hope that we all eat crow on our pessimism about his coming in, if only because it’ll mean we’ll get some good wrestling out of it.

Shibata participated in a 6 man tag here, bringing out both his RPW British Heavyweight Championship and the NEVER Openweight Championship he regained from EVIL at Wrestling World in Singapore, a title change so sudden that Trent’s preview of the B Block still operated under the understanding that EVIL was still the champion.

Obviously, I was as chuffed as anyone with EVIL winning the title at Power Struggle, he’s a snug fit for the no-frills, hard-hitting style that comes with the NEVER title. Even so, I like that Shibata is champion again, because it tells a story that I don’t think is explored enough: A fighting champion who can fall off of the mountain sometimes, but who is good enough that he can climb right back up to the top.

What’s more, I love how the multiple belts look. He looks like a bonafide star with those belts. It’s like the feeling one would get, watching WCW and Ultimo Dragon comes out with belts surrounding his entire being. There’s an inherent mystique about bringing in titles from faraway lands, and it really does well to make someone look like they’re a well-travelled, seasoned competitor.

Now, onto the A Block matches!

War Machine (ROH) Vs. Manabu Nakanishi & Henare

Boy, isn’t War Machine just great? They looked like freakin’ monsters here. They showed an insane amount of power here. They muscled around Henare, throwing him onto Nakanishi on the outside, following that up with a crazy-looking tope suicida. They got irish whipped into each other and no sold it like they were the dang Road Warriors. Hanson even raked the eyes with his beard! Both Raymond Rowe and Hanson move around well, and they have just enough strength-based spots that it looks really impressive when they start flying and springboarding about. Plus, they tag with their forearms, and that looks cool.

I felt sorry for Nakanishi here. He’s spent the last few months in matches where the most physical thing he does is take a brainbuster, or do a splash, now he’s being asked to catch not one, but two large people flying onto his face from inside the ring. He and Henare did put in the work here, as much as they could. Nakanishi, as immobile as he’s become, is still able to do his spots reasonably well. He got both Rowe and Hanson up for the torture rack, which the crowd liked. Henare motioned that he wanted a tag soon after that. I’ve grown to think of tagging in Young Lions as a kiss of death of sorts, after seeing so many matches where a YL comes in with a house of fire, screws something up, then gets destroyed and pinned.

Sure enough, that’s what happened here. Henare tried for a Boston Crab, which I thought was pretty amusing, because Young Lions never seem to learn that the Boston Crab is only a dangerous submission for other Young Lions, and anyone who isn’t a rookie can pretty easily power out of it. War Machine decided to kill him for his efforts; Rowe held him up in a waistlock, Hanson then springboarded off the second rope to hit a lariat, which pushed Henare’s body down to get German suplexed. They finished him off with Fallout, which is basically a combo back suplex and top rope legdrop. Excuse my hyperbole, but there’s nothing I love more than a good, proper tag team who has a whole load of double-team manoeuvres. Great debut, I want to see what they can do against the other teams here. ***1/2

Yujiro Takahashi & Hangman Page (Bullet Club) Vs. Leland Race & Brian Breaker (WLW)

Brian Breaker and Leland Race don’t have that good a look, and I don’t think their work in this match was able to make up much for it. There wasn’t much at all from them that really stood out. They both did running chops which popped the crowd, but other than that, they just had a very average match. Leland had some trouble going over the top rope in a spot where Takahashi was meant to cause him to fall over by lowering the ropes, and the visual ended up being that he basically tilted himself over to the floor. Another thing that hurt this match was that most of it was Yujiro Takahashi doing a heat segment very slowly, rather than showing what these new guys could do. Imagine if the last match was 65% Hanson being unable to irish whip Nakanishi, instead of War Machine making a really good first impression. That’s what should’ve happened here, but it didn’t. I hope future matches can shed some more light on these guys.

Hangman Page was pretty good here. He hit this amazing slingshot lariat on Brian Breaker that looked really athletic. It seemed strange that he’d do a move that would obviously get the crowd excited when he’s basically the most heel of the Bullet Club members. I digress. Race & Breaker performed an assisted Shiranui on Takahashi for the win. After seeing many people do the Shiranui without needing a hoss to hold their butt, it wasn’t much of a sight. **1/2

Hiroshi Tenzan & Satoshi Kojima Vs. Guerillas Of Destiny (Bullet Club)

This was a pretty cool little match. Tencozy are still able to pull out good matches, despite the wear and tear on their bodies, mostly due to the fact that the greatness of both Tenzan and Kojima in the late 90’s and 2000’s did not solely depend on the “how” of everything, but also the “why”. It’s not just that they were able to bump like crazy years before, and now that their bodies are breaking down, they’ve run out of tricks. Both men are charismatic and smart enough in the ring to get the crowd riled up for even the least-physically taxing matches.

For an example of this, look at how much heat Tama Tonga gets for hitting Tenzan with a Mongolian Chop. Look at the reaction Tonga gets when he steals the “Icchauzo Bakayaro!” The crowd has so much respect and goodwill built up for Tenzan and Kojima that seeing such mockery of their signature moves, without fail, no matter how many times you see it, infuriates them. It comes across really well, and it also doesn’t require much physical stress.

The IWGP Tag Team champions continued to look good here, which I’m really happy about. As I mentioned before, I don’t take pleasure in hating wrestlers, I did want Tanga Roa to improve. He seems to have done just that. Tama Tonga continues to be an underrated guy, in my book. He has an amazing in-ring charisma that grabs me whenever he has a match. He used the timekeeper’s hammer as a weapon, then rung the bell afterwards. I thought it was funny, but there was part of me that thought it was cool, and that’s the sort of thing you don’t think about a lot of people unless they’re something special.

The finishing stretch to this match was pretty crazy. G.O.D. threw a lot of their double team bombs at Kojima, culminating in a combination Powerbomb and Neckbreaker (reverse Gun Stun as commentary usually calls it) which he managed to kick out of. They tried to go for the assisted DDT, but Tenzan intervened. Tenzan and Kojima then hit the Tencozy Cutter on Tama Tonga, tried to do the same with Roa, but Roa levelled them with a double clothesline. Kojima recovered, though, and he hit Roa with a Cozy Cozy Cutter on his own, threw off the elbowpad, and laid the Silverback out with a Strong Arm Lariat for the big upset win over the champions.

I loved the post-match here, where Kojima stands up in victory, then just collapses to the ground in exhaustion. Really good selling on his part. Tencozy and the crowd had that same sort of catharsis to their celebration that they had when Tenzan won a match in the G1, it was a nice feel-good moment. Hopefully, as well, it will be an indication of how good the team is gonna be as we go on in the League. ***3/4

Tetsuya National & X (Los Ingobernables De Japon) Vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi & Juice Robinson

X was Rush, as mentioned before. It was one of the main predictions, and Luchablog/Thecubsfan confirmed it on the 15th. It not being much of a surprise, contrary to the mindsets of all bookers who think doing the opposite of what’s expected is always good booking, didn’t take away from how great it was to see El Original Ingobernable join up with the Japan division.

The reveal was done nicely. Ever since Naito’s entrances became a lot more drawn-out, one of the things I’ve enjoyed about them is how they build up tension. People are waiting. The referee is waiting, the crowd is waiting, the announcer keeps raising the mic up to his mouth and then lowering it, and usually, the opponent is waiting too. Even before the bell rings, whether you love him or hate him, you want to see Naito hook ‘em up, as Bill Watts might say. The same was done here, where Naito comes out in a white suit, takes his sweet time, and then whispers something to the announcer. There isn’t any formal announcement, and we see the rest of L.I.J make their way out, all in black suits. By the time SANADA is coming out, I was beginning to wonder what was up, I was hungering to find out who X was. They drew it out so much that I needed to know. Sure enough, Rush came out with the old silver mask on, unmasking to a big pop from the Korakuen crowd. Naito looked stoked to be teaming with him, it gave a new perspective of sorts to his antics seeing Rush do the same sort of stuff.

Tanahashi and Juice Robinson (or Ace Juice, to continue the time-tested tradition of WTL teams having actual names) were great here, themselves. Juice Robinson has been getting himself out there this year; He had a fun match with Kyle O’Reilly on Destruction in Tokyo, he developed a great chemistry with Nakanishi of all people during the G1, and he almost took Kanemitsu’s head off with a lariat at Power Struggle. Hopefully, his participation in the League here is another step towards a more prominent position on the card, because his growth as a wrestler just can’t go unrewarded for much longer.

Rush was pulling out a lot of cool moves here, including the basement dropkick that would make Shibata eat his heart out. He broke up his own cover after that, motioning Tranquilo to the referee, which I thought was just tremendous. Juice created space for the hot tag to Tanahashi with an axe kick to Rush, who I notice falls more than he necessarily bumps. It reminds me a bit of Sid, how he bends his knees and tilts until he smacks onto the mat. It’s unique and I like it.

Rush accidentally clobbered Naito with a lariat, then Ace Juice hit him with a double dropkick. Boy, do I wish David Crockett were here to see this. We got a nice taste of Tanahashi/Naito at Wrestle Kingdom when Naito put out his leg for an enzuigiri, but Tanahashi caught it and did a big dragon screw leg whip. Juice Robinson hit this rad-looking powerbomb on Naito, where he lifted him up, straightened his legs, then just fell forward like a door off its hinges. Los Ingobernables recovered, though, and Juice got hit with the Rush Driver, a reverse DDT, then Destino, followed up by the pinfall victory for Naito and Rush. The show closed out with a Naito promo, followed by all (now five) members of L.I.J arranging a pentagon of fists in the air, as Tanahashi and Juice (who did have juice, after busting up his nose somewhere during the match) lay prone on the mat. Amazing main event. ****

This was, overall, a good show, worth going out of your way to watch. It’s free on NJPWorld, too, so don’t let the price be a deterrent. Let’s hope that the quality here will reflect the quality of the rest of the World Tag League this year.