Hiroshi Tanahashi. The Ace of New Japan Pro Wrestling. A man that will go down as one of the greatest of all time. In this match, he solidified that even further when he had one of the best bouts of the year so far, for a title that holds little prestige, on a show that isn’t even the headliner of the New Beginning tour. Oh, and he did it at the age of 44.
The other side of the coin is Shingo Takagi, a near guaranteed future IWGP Heavyweight Champion. He made a name for himself in Dragon Gate; but hit a new level when he reached NJPW. Dragon Lee, SHO, Okada, Suzuki and Ishii are a few of the names that he used to elevate his name as one of the best in the world – but it was this match that marked a turning point for both men.
Considering this was a first time meeting, the slow pace was welcomed as it proved to show how these two very different characters would interact with each other. Takagi used his classic explosiveness to make a statement while Tanahashi did anything and everything to shut down the Dragon with headlocks, arm drags and leg work. Shingo’s selling early on was near-perfect, enough to slow him down between moves and allow for Tanahashi to gain openings but not enough for him to be unable to boss the Ace around. Both exchange periods of dominating the other until things pick up…
Takagi takes a few pages out of his opponents playbook with a Twist and Shout and even working over the Ace’s leg to hinder Tanahashi in the same way Shingo has been for the whole match. Eventually, Tanahashi gets control of the legs and locks the cloverleaf. Takagi looks finished but Tanahashi releases and attempts the High Fly Flow…but Takagi evades. Once again, the Dragon steals some of Tanahashi’s offence with a dragon suplex, a dragon sleeper and drops Tanahashi with a scary-looking Made in Japan.
Both guys sell the exhaustion of this match to perfection throughout which made the final bursts of offence from both even more special. Kickouts at 1 and even a lariat from Tanahashi that makes the Japanese commentary yell in surprise. Tanahashi hits the diving crossbody and as Takagi desperately tries to get away, the Ace pulls him back into a dragon suplex and a final High Fly Flow to capture the NEVER Openweight Championship.
Tanahashi and Takagi did something truly special with this match. Not only did they go out and have one of the best matches of the year, but they single-handedly elevated each other, the NEVER Openweight Championship and set a precedent for New Japan in 2021.
Following Wrestle Kingdom, I was less than optimistic for the company in 2021 but this match has opened a door of possibilities for the rest of the year. A Shingo Takagi main event push and a Tanahashi NEVER title run are two prospects of wrestling that have captured my interest and ignited my passion for New Japan this year – as long as they don’t mess this up.