The Best Of... The Best Of The Super Juniors 26
Back again with another look at a wrestling event, but this one is not going to be a WrestleWatch review per se. As I've mentioned in previous posts, my wrestling fandom has gone outside the WWE walls as of late, and one of the places I've gone to is New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW). They hold an annual tournament with their junior heavyweights (known in some wrestling circles as cruiserweights or light heavyweights) called the Best Of The Super Juniors. This is the 26th instalment of that tournament, and I watched it in its entirety this year.
The reason I'm not doing a detailed WrestleWatch review, with some play by play and analysis of all the matches? You see, BOSJ is not just a one night tournament, or even a tournament over a couple of shows. NJPW BOSJ 26 spanned 15 nights in total throughout May and early June. Like hell am I reviewing all 15 shows match by match, I'd be writing forever. So what I'm doing here is cherry-picking the best matches from the tournament and giving them a run-down, along with a bit about the standout competitors of the tournament. But first, a Context section to explain how BOSJ works.
In Best Of The Super Juniors, the tournament functions in a round robin format. This means that all participants face each other, divided into A Block and B Block. All the A Block wrestlers face each other, and all the B Block wrestlers face each other. Winners are awarded 2 points per victory, while a draw merits both wrestlers a point each. Once all wrestlers have faced each other, the wrestler with the most points in A Block faces the wrestler with the most points in B Block in the finals. The prize? A title shot against the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, Dragon Lee. However, the champion also participates in the tournament, and if he wins, he gets to choose his challenger.
This year's tournament was the biggest to date with 20 competitors in the field. Some of the favourites included:
Shingo Takagi: Debuting in NJPW in October 2018, the "Last Dragon" joined the faction Los Ingobernables de Japan. Barely scraping under the 220 pound (100kg) limit, Shingo came into BOSJ as a dominating force, undefeated in NJPW.
Will Ospreay: A former winner of the BOSJ and a former two-time IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion, Ospreay is one of the biggest stars in New Japan, ever present and capturing the imagination of crowds with his breathtaking aerial offense. Over the last year, he has added muscle in a bid to wrestle against the heavyweights, but is still eligible for this tournament at around the 93kg mark.
Dragon Lee: A big star from Mexico's CMLL, he had a tremendous performance on the G1 Supercard in Madison Square Garden on Mania weekend. As the reigning champion, he's always a threat.
Taiji Ishimori: He joined Bullet Club as the new Bone Soldier last year and participated in last year's BOSJ. He got to the finals but ultimately lost to Hiromu Takahashi. He came into this tournament looking to redeem that loss.
Also, not a favourite to win the tournament, but my personal favourite- Robbie Eagles joined the BOSJ 26 field. Perhaps the best wrestler to come out of Australia- and yes, I'm including those signed to WWE in that statement- Eagles made his NJPW debut in October last year, teaming with Ishimori in the Super Jr Tag League. Although the Eagles/Ishimori team didn't win, Robbie impressed the right people, and was able to make the legendary Jushin Thunder Liger tap in his debut match. He returns to Japan as a solo wrestler here, but representing the Bullet Club faction.
The Best Of
Night 1: Shingo Takagi vs. SHO. After spending much of his career teaming with YOH and Rocky Romero in Roppongi 3K, SHO's individual star has started to rise in recent months. This continued in his first tournament match, facing the unstoppable juggernaut, Shingo. SHO failed to get the win, but put up a valiant fight before losing a 24 minute war. (****1/2)
Night 2: Rocky Romero vs. Robbie Eagles. Eagles was able to display his talent on the worldwide stage, but Rocky was determined to prove he still belonged at a high level as a wrestler after spending a lot of time as a manager and a commentator. Despite playing heel in Bullet Club, Robbie picked up a clean, hard-fought victory here... a story that would come into play later in the tournament. (***1/2)
Night 3: SHO vs. Dragon Lee. Just two nights after the war with Shingo, a banged up SHO came into this battle determined to etch his name in history, but simply couldn't overcome the champion, who was on his A game. This bout nearly reached the time limit at 27:20. Despite having no points on the board yet, SHO is having some career defining performances (****)
Night 4: Will Ospreay vs. Rocky Romero. Much like the Eagles match, Romero brought the fight of his career to the Aerial Assassin. Although Ospreay was the younger, faster, stronger wrestler, Rocky used his veteran savvy to try and even the playing field. Ospreay emerged victorious, beginning a red hot streak of matches throughout BOSJ 26. (****1/4)
Night 5: Dragon Lee vs. Jonathan Gresham. The IWGP champ faced a unique challenge in this one. This tournament was my first time seeing Gresham, and he was extremely slick as a technician, having holds and counters for any situation. All his movements were so smooth and flowing, he's almost like a flashier Zack Sabre Jr. A very different style to the high spots and hard striking we see elsewhere in the tournament (***3/4)
Night 6: El Phantasmo vs. Robbie Eagles. This was a battle of Bullet Club members. Robbie believed it would be a sportsman-like match between two friends, and ELP took advantage of that naivety to pick up the victory. Some tremendous athletic sequences, but I really enjoyed the story being told. Robbie's a good guy, maybe he's not the best fit for the villainous Bullet Club? (***1/2)
Night 6: Ospreay vs. YOH. Yep, this is the night where things really picked up with TWO standout matches on the one show. After seeing his partner SHO tear things up in the A Block, YOH had a chip on his shoulder and put in the performance of a lifetime, coming oh so close to upsetting Ospreay. Tremendous action. (****)
Night 7: Shingo Takagi vs. Marty Scrull. I really enjoyed this one, as Scurll played up to his "Villain" nickname and tried to use every shortcut in the book to take out the monstrous Shingo. It was a different style to the heavy workrate of other tournament matches, and variety is the spice of life! (***1/2)
Night 7: Will Ospreay vs. El Phantasmo. This was the first night that both A and B Block matches occurred on the same night, and the main events of both blocks really delivered. ELP is the newest member of Bullet Club, and is a grade A dick. Kevin Kelly often compares him to Finn Balor, so you imagine that NJPW thinks highly of this young man. Ospreay takes his first loss after a smart gameplan from ELP, and this is bound to take his cockiness to even greater heights (****1/4)
Night 8: Dragon Lee vs. Shingo Takagi. The champ vs. the undefeated destroyer. High drama and high stakes. Shingo's power overcomes Lee's speed and athleticism to gain the undefeated one two more points. So win or lose in BOSJ, Shingo is in a great position in the Jr. Heavyweight division with this victory (****1/2)
Night 8: Will Ospreay vs. Bandido. If you've seen this two men wrestle before, you know what to expect here, and somehow, they still blew away everyone's expectations. Crazy spot after crazy spot, with a particular highlight being Ospreay landing on his feet from Bandido's spectacular 21 Plex. Ospreay gets back on track after the ELP loss, and Bandido's stock rises despite not getting the win. Possibly the match of the tournament. (****3/4)
Night 9: Rocky Romero vs. El Phantasmo. Even though both blocks worked Night 9, there was nothing that great in the A Block. But the B Block main event... holy hell! This drove home the story of Romero, the outgunned veteran trying to make one more run at it, against the cocky upstart that's leading the scoreboard, in a venue like Korakuen Hall which has so much history, both for NJPW and Rocky himself. Rocky upsets ELP in maybe the most emotional match of the tournament, with seconds to spare in the 30 minute time limit (****1/2)
Night 10: Will Ospreay vs. Robbie Eagles. These two men have a storied history, with their two previous singles matches putting Australian wrestling as a whole on the map. Ospreay has a lot of respect (in and out of kayfabe) for Eagles, but Robbie continues to struggle with his Bullet Club affiliation. That slimeball ELP comes to ringside and gets involved as Ospreay and Eagles are putting on a wrestling masterpiece. He gets a cheap shot on Will, Robbie is disgusted, but he knows how much the victory means, so he finishes off Ospreay, conflict written all over his face. (****1/4)
Night 11: Nothing great on this one to be honest. TAKA suffers an injury which takes him out of the tournament, which gives Marty Scrull (and all future opponents) the 2 points by forfeit.
Night 12: Bandido vs. Robbie Eagles. These two men also have a history, over in the States in PWG. They execute some amazing athletic spots, but Bandido gets the W, ending Robbie's hopes of winning his block. Great match though. (***3/4) *bit short to hit four stars*
Night 13: Shingo Takagi vs. Taiji Ishimori. This was the match to decide the winner of A Block. Shingo has been a runaway train through this whole tournament, and Ishimori came in with a neck injury, giving him an out for losing. So that did take away some of the drama for me, but they definitely worked hard and created a little intrigue down the stretch. (***1/2)
Night 14: Will Ospreay vs. Ryusuke Taguchi. Taguchi's run in BOSJ was a little perplexing to me. This was the match to decide B Block. Admittedly, I've been a bit of a casual NJPW viewer in the past, tuning in when The Elite or Chris Jericho are on the card, but I've always known Taguchi as the comedy guy who uses his ass as an offensive weapon. And while that came into play at times, we saw a serious Taguchi throughout much of the tournament. Ospreay and Taguchi had some fun with the ass moves (hey yo) early on, but as the clock ticked by, Taguchi started looking more and more like he might get the job done, working on the legs frequently and doing some nice counters into the ankle lock. Ultimately, big Willy got the job done to face Shingo in the finals, but it was a hell of a struggle getting there. (****)
Will Ospreay- the man routinely put in 20+ minutes all tournament. He's learnt to adapt his flippy moveset to include selling and psychology. He worked with a wide variety of opponents and made them all look great.
Shingo Takagi- Played his role to perfection. He was very convincing as the destroyer, yet had his timing down perfectly to know when to create those hope spots and give the impression he might actually lose.
Rocky Romero- I don't think Romero gets enough credit as a wrestler because he's such a personality. The dude can seriously go. He was incredibly consistent all tournament, not one bad match.
Robbie Eagles- A bit of bias? Yeah, maybe. But like Romero, he was really consistent all tournament. His style made sense, he could fly around if he needed to, but he blended it with a strong submission game. And his story (that still hasn't been resolved) of his values not fully aligning with Bullet Club was really interesting. Of course, his matches with Ospreay and Bandido are talking points coming out of this, but he also gave late replacements Ren Narita and DOUKI some of their best matches. Ospreay and Romero also got strong matches out of Narita, but DOUKI was pretty awful. Eagles managed to give him a great match even after he got his head split open by a poorly done DDT on a chair.
The Finals Of BOSJ are like a PPV event to themselves. Jon Moxley (formerly Dean Ambrose) made his NJPW debut, facing Juice Robinson for the IWGP US Championship. Despite Moxley making headlines by joining AEW, it was actually New Japan that got his first post-WWE match. Also, Hiroshi Tanahashi made his return in a special attraction singles match with Switchblade Jay White.
Jay White kinda bores me, and Tanahashi is definitely getting older and slowing down. Wasn't feeling that one, personally.
Jon Moxley vs. Juice Robinson. So, Juice was tormented for months with videos playing, hyping the arrival of a new challenger. It was revealed to be the "Death Rider" Jon Moxley, and this match played out as a beautifully brutal brawl. Juice, with his trademark locks shaven off, threw caution to the wind with a huge somersault dive off the stage. Mox showed his vicious side by actually biting chunks of skin off Juice's face, busting him open. Mox finally claimed the victory and the championship by hitting Dirty Deeds, followed by a second elevated version of the move, almost like a brainbuster. Incredible. If this is Ambrose free off the WWE's shackles, I can't wait to see more of Jon Moxley. (****1/2)
Will Ospreay vs. Shingo Takagi. The man you could call the Ace of NJPW's junior heavyweights, against the undefeated beast Shingo. Something's gotta give. It seems like both men have heavyweight aspirations in the very near future, so it's tough to call. Both men hit their absolute best, then somehow took it into another gear. Ultimately, Ospreay gets the win with the Storm Breaker. He joins Prince Devitt (Finn Balor) as a 2 time winner of the BOSJ tournament. Post-match, he gets on the mic and reveals he's moving to Japan with the help of the NJPW office. So it looks like he'll be a mainstay of New Japan for a long time to come. Will Ospreay is a damn superhero. Essentially, a perfect match. (*****)
I said I'd cut it down and still wound up writing about 20 odd matches. And that's not to say they were the only good ones. Just that these were the best in my opinion. There's plenty of other good to great matches all across the tournament. I named a few MVPs, but the ones that didn't make the cut, like Ishimori, Dragon Lee, Bandido, Phantasmo... no slouches at all. New Japan is stacked with talent, and BOSJ 26 was an excellent representation of that talent pool.
Until next time, take care,