Updated: Feb 9, 2020
The New Beginnings are a series of wrestling events that are the de facto starting point for New Japan's new year. After the amazing Wrestle Kingdom 11 show, the belts were back on for the first time since January 4. On February 5, the IWGP Heavyweight Championship was defended in Sapporo and on February 11, the IWGP Intercontinental Championship was defended in Osaka.
New Japan does a very interesting type of booking. Most of their talent is based in stables and teams, meaning that any potential feuds, especially for a title, are booked in tag or trios matches. This keeps matches fresh when the stakes are raised for singles competition. Mixed into these feuds and matches are Young Lions, rookies in New Japan's developmental system. On one hand, this lowers the quality of the card, but New Japan doesn't have a weekly show like Raw or Smackdown. It relies on "Road To" cards and smaller pay-per-views.
Sapporo was a solid card, focused more on telling the story of Suzuki-Gun's return and setting up the title matches in Osaka. That's not to say this was a bad card-far from it. It's simply saying this is not Wrestle Kingdom.
Suzuki-Gun is a stable that was exiled to Pro Wrestling NOAH two years ago. Made up of some of Japan's living legends, including Taka Michonoku and Minoru Suzuki. This card was mostly a duel between CHAOS and Suzuki-Gun. Although Suzuki-Gun didn't win any titles, this was a traditional face vs. heel card with classic storytelling. CHAOS is essentially the face of New Japan now, with leader Kazuchika Okada being the company's brightest homegrown star and biggest champion. Formerly a heel in a heel faction, the change from villain to hero has changed Okada and put a target on the Rainmaker's back.
Aiming at this target is Minoru Suzuki, The former King of Pancrase is a MMA and wrestling champion, a legend in his native Japan. This match was an absolute clinic on how to do a proper babyface vs. heel match. Suzuki attacked Okada's previously injured knee, striking it as well as attempting multiple submissions on it. As the match continued, Suzuki used the steel barricades to further injure the knee until finally resorting to using his fellow Suzuki-Gun members. After CHAOS evened the odds and a fantastic sequence with Okada's manager Gedo deliberating whether or not to throw in the towel like something out of Rocky IV. After nailing Suzuki with two Rainmaker clotheslines, Okada retained his championship.
If this doesn't put Okada firmly in the conversation of best wrestlers alive, nothing will. Okada followed the greatest wrestling match of all time with a textbook wrestling match that was beautiful in its simplicity. Suzuki is not a young man, but the grizzled veteran and the young star had an incredible match that showcased the versatility of Okada.
If Sapporo was substance, Osaka was undeniably style. Osaka was a showcase of various types of wrestling and their contrasts.
Shibata's hard-hitting MMA strategy was put up against Will Ospreay's incredible aerial assault. Mexican standout Dragon Lee had a solid Junior Heavyweight match against Hiromu Takahashi. I was pleasantly surprised by Kiwi Young Lion Henare. This card had a much more fun vibe to it, with a few more belts and styles taking center stage. This week still involved Suzuki-Gun, but more in conflict with Los Ignoberables de Japon rather than CHAOS.
This led to a match between ex-Ring Of Honor star "Unbreakable" Michael Elgin and possibly New Japan's best character, the IWGP Intercontinental Champion Tetsuya Naito. Naito is truly something to behold, not caring in the slightest about his title, throwing it in the air and dropping it on the mat. His disregard for the fans was match only by Elgin's rabid following. Naito is very physical, which lent itself well in a match against a powerhouse like Elgin. This was a fight, a brutal affair showcasing the workrate of puroresu's top talents. Naito hit two Destinos to finish, retaining the title and completing LIJ's clean sweep of the card's title bouts.
I'm personally hoping for another match between Elgin and Naito. Unlike Okada and Suzuki, which went predictably to the champion, this match had a real chance of shiftin the balance of power. If nothing but an LIJ vs. Team Elgin match results from this, that'd be just fine.
I'm becoming a bigger fan of New Japan's product as time goes on. There's a level of believability and realism lacking in WWE and Lucha Underground, simply meaning it scratches a different wrestling itch. This was a good, entertaining duo of events I'd absolutely recommend.