New Japan hit Long Beach for the first of two shows as they started a tournament to crown an inaugural IWGP United States champion.

The show opened with a lengthy video package, highlighting a lot of the guys on the two shows, as well as the headline matches on the “tour”: Roppongi Vice vs. the Young Bucks and War Machine against the Guerrillas of Destiny. Hiroshi Tanahashi is also a thing, on the Sunday night show…

The English language commentary came from Jim Ross and Josh Barnett – it’s a straight port of the AXS TV feed, and within the opening moments I was shaking my head. For New Japan’s first live foray into the States, JR and Barnett talked over things like the ceremonial card announcement at the top of the show. Add in AXS continually wandering around with camera angles, and it’s almost like nobody in production had seen this product before. Sadly, this was a trend for the whole evening…

Still, whilst we may have the ROH-ish set-up, we do have a proper New Japan ring, minus adverts on the canvas.

Bullet Club (Bad Luck Fale, Marty Scurll, Yujiro Takahashi & The Young Bucks (Matt Jackson & Nick Jackson)) vs. Briscoe Brothers (Jay Briscoe & Mark Briscoe), Roppongi Vice (Rocky Romero & Beretta) & Will Ospreay
Yes, Fale went after the ring announcer again, but the AXS Production crew didn’t show that. It’s a classic Korakuen Hall-esque ten man tag to kick us off, and we start off with Ospreay and Scurll… with the JR Soundboard in full effect!

Ospreay and Scurll worked really well as they sped through a series that eventually led to a load of escapes, poses… and eye pokes. Ospreay fakes out a dive, but Yujiro comes in and stomps away as we seem to be adopting lucha rules. In comes Jay Briscoe who flips over Fale’s back body drop attempt as the two Briscoes peppered Yujiro with shots before indulging us with dives. We go to the Bucks and Roppongi Vice for a preview of Sunday’s tag title match, but it’s brief as we get Scurll dropping the Briscoes with superkicks, before the Young Bucks throw in some topes to “dem boys”. Ospreay gets involved too as he lands a shooting star press to the pile on the floor, before Jay Briscoe gets a finger snap from Marty… which JR glosses over.

Mark Briscoe goes after the Bucks with ‘ranas, but a superkick cuts that off as the lucka rules make this tricky to follow. Beretta eats a “Just Kidding” superkick as Ospreay returned to hit a standing Spanish fly, before Rocky hits a bunch of Forever lariats, thoroughly nonplussing Fale… whose Grenade attempt was cut-off by Beretta.

The former Trent takes a Bad Luck Fall to the outside, before the Bucks indulge the Briscoes in some superkicks. Rocky takes a buckle bomb/superkick combo, but Ospreay saves him from a Meltzer Driver as a roll-up ges Rocky the win. A decent showcase that started out on fire, but quickly cooled and a little tough to follow with the lucha-rules. ***

New Japan World kept the feed from the arena up as AXS went to commercials. You didn’t miss too much!

Los Ingobernables de Japon (Hiromu Takahashi, EVIL, BUSHI & SANADA) vs. Jushin “Thunder” Liger, Volador Jr, Dragon Lee & Titan
The production truck had a field day, messing up the Ingobernables entrance – cutting away from Hiromu (and Darrell)’s entrance video so they could switch to EVIL and co. JR managed to confuse EVIL and BUSHI… the perils of covering a foreign product live, eh?

BUSHI and Volador start us off at a fast pace, with Volador’s springboard backflip into a ‘rana setting up for a fake-out as Liger tagged in to a nice reaction. Liger fell for a handshake by SANADA as EVIL jumped in, but he was able to outsmart the Ingobernables briefly until the Ingobernables rushed the ring. Titan tries to make a save, but he’s tied up in a ball by SANADA, then dropkicked out of it as Liger took a beating.

We go back to Dragon Lee and Hiromu – which the crowd reacted to instantly – but that was too brief as SANADA cut it off and got taken outside as the luchadors opted to throw in some topes. Titan wipes out Hiromu with a springboard crossbody then a kick for a near-fall, before some lucha spinning headscissors taken Hiromu to the corner.

Takahashi instantly responds with a belly-to-belly into the corner for Titan, before Takahashi held up the referee and unsighted him as Titan took the EVIL chair swinging spot. One Time Bomb later, Titan landed on his head, and that’s all folks. A fun tag, but aside from the usual dives there’s little you’ll remember. **¾

During the commercial break the good guys left, leaving the referee vulnerable as SANADA tied him up in a ball… and dropkicked him free!

IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship Tournament – Quarter-Final: Hangman Page vs. Jay Lethal
JR was talking up how Lethal was carrying an injury after a match with the Beer City Bruiser in ROH recently. Not that you’d notice, given how Lethal moved…

Jay shrugged off an attack from behind to knock Page through a guard rail with a tope before barely getting a one-count from a chop. Lethal’s rib injury seemed to be an afterthought at times, at least until he crashed and burned with a moonsault. From there, Page hangs up Lethal on the top rope, and sent him to the outside for a shooting star headbutt off the apron.

Page connects with a back senton back in the ring as he started to target the ribs of Lethal, before getting a near-fall out of a bridging fallaway slam. Regardless, Lethal tried to come back with a Lethal Injection, only to get caught in an Octopus from Page… but again he escaped and decks Page with a discus forearm, then an Ace crusher!

Jay heads up top for a Macho Man elbow, which connects but at the cost of injuring those ribs some more… eventually he gets a two-count, before a Figure Four attempt ended in a small package for another two-count. Page rebounds with a slingshot into a lariat for a near-fall, but his attempt at a Rite of Passage (belly-to-back piledriver) is blocked, as Lethal chains together a Lethal Combination, then a Lethal Injection to end a rather loose exchange of moves. Some enziguiris from Lethal finally knock down Page, before a second Lethal Injection finally proved to be enough for the win. I guess the rib injury was the reason, but a lot of this match felt slow and sloppy… eh, it did the job, I suppose. **

JR Bot malfunctioned going into commercial, teasing a tournament match between Juice Robinson and “Will Ospreay”. Eh, Zack’s British… close enough.

IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship Tournament – Quarter-Final: Zack Sabre Jr. vs. Juice Robinson
The production truck has another funny moment as Sabre’s music and video restarts a few times ahead of Zack’s entrance. There were no belts or Jeremy Corbyn for Zack here, who was the runaway favourite against Juice Robinson, who’s finally getting some opportunities after a long run impressing in the undercards.

We’ve a typically tentative open as Juice actually enjoys the upper hand early on, taking Sabre into the corners ahead of some Dusty punches, but Sabre quickly took over, using his feet to catch Juice in an armbar ahead of snapping the arm by trapping it between his legs. Sabre keeps up the pressure on the arm, before locking Robinson’s dreadlocks in a cravat for more insult rather than injury.

Zack torques away on Juice’s wrists until Juice picked him up for a fireman’s carry gutbuster to get some separation. Just like that though, Zack leaps back into Juice with a mounted Kimura, but that’s countered with almost a Jackhammer by Juice, then a cannonball in the corner as Robinson looked to get a head of steam.

Sabre escapes the Pulp Friction then tied him up in a Prawn hold for a near-fall. What followed next was easy… pulling down Juice by the leg for a PK before going back to the arm, stomping on Juice’s wrist some more, which meant that the next round of Dusty punches had to come from Juice’s other arm. A leg lariat drops Sabre, who replies with a cross armbreaker, wrapping up Juice in a triangle choke before firing in some elbows to the head… but Juice clung on!

Eventually Juice powerbombed his way free, flipping Zack over on impact, but a pump kick to the arm again rocked Robinson, who recovered to try for Pulp Friction again… but Sabre slips out and into the Octopus hold, throwing in the Young Boy Killer double armbar to force a submission. So much heart by Juice Robinson here, but in the end Sabre’s mean streak and submission expertise gave him little chance. By far the best thing on this show so far – lovely, lovely stuff! ****

Yoshitatsu, Billy Gunn & Tempura Boyz (Sho Tanaka & Yohei Komatsu) vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi, KUSHIDA, Jay White & David Finlay
This is the first time in a while that I’ve seen Tanaka or Komatsu, who are currently with ROH on excursion… they’re also due to head over to the UK later this week for WCPW’s Pro Wrestling World Cup Japanese qualifiers, to really emphasis the travelling part of their excursion! The production crew has another moment as the generic AXS music bleeds over Hiroshi Tanahashi’s new theme, and apparently this is Jay White’s first “sole” New Japan show since November last year, when his excursion to ROH was punctuated with a return home to New Zealand for a charity show.

Komatsu and KUSHIDA get us going as the pair exchange some fluid hammerlocks and headlocks, before KUSHIDA rolled out of a ‘rana and fought off a sunset flip as he then mocked Billy Gunn with a suck-it chant en route to a Hoverboard Lock to Yohei. David Finlay heads in next to drop Komatsu with a European uppercut, as Sho Tanaka ran in… and ate a dropkick. Everyone heads outside as KUSHIDA’s dropkicked off the apron by Sho, as he and Yohei combine to score a near-fall.

KUSHIDA’s kept grounded by some bodyscissors that almost morphed into an armbar by Sho, as KUSHIDA rolled into the ropes before Billy Gunn tagged in to a chorus of boos. Yeah, despite the charm, if you’ve bought a ticket to a “pure” New Japan show, I’m not sure the former Mr Ass is what you’d be thrilled to see. Especially when he’s forcibly telling KUSHIDA to go down on him. A right hand from Gunn gets a two-count as he and Tanahashi squared off, but KUSHIDA’s eventually able to save himself with a hiptoss into a dropkick… only for Gunn to charge in and stop a tag out.

At least for a few seconds, as KUSHIDA brought in Tanahashi to clear the apron… and then go after Gunn with a flying forearm. A crossbody from Tanahashi falls short as Gunn then picked him up for a fallaway slam, only for a Famouser to be cut off with a clothesline from Tanahashi. In comes White and Yoshitatsu for a spell, with Yoshitatsu getting dumped on his head with a back suplex for a near-fall, only for a spinning heel kick to get Yoshitatsu some boos as he took the Kiwi down.

White takes a DDT from Yohei as a parade of moves ensues, ending with a Slingblade to Billy Gunn, before Yoshitatsu gets soundly booed as he went for a Pedigree. He’s shoved off into a backbreaker by Finlay, before the ring filled to break up a cover from a uranage. Seconds later though, the camera barely catches a Flatliner as Jay gets the win… an interesting one given that someone technically on excursion picked up the win. A decent undercard tag, but nothing too earth shattering as the focus was put on Gunn/Tanahashi for the Sunday show. **¾

We get an interval, so cue a lot of fast-forwarding…

No Disqualification for the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship: War Machine (Hanson & Raymond Rowe) vs. Guerrillas of Destiny (Tama Tonga & Tanga Loa) (c)
War Machine dropped the tag titles at Dominion barely three weeks earlier, and they wanted this turned into a no-DQ match because the GOD used weapons in Osaka. They got their wish, even if JR sounded more bored by that ask.

The match starts on the outside as both teams laid into each other, before we headed inside with Tanga Loa using a trash can lid on the head of Rowe. The rest of the can was used to stop a tope from Hanson, before Rowe took the lid again as the champions wore him down with a mixture of weapon shots and splashes in the corner. A leaping neckbreaker, then a legdrop gets a near-fall for the GOD, as Hanson headed back in and blasted the champions with the endless corner-to-corner lariats… until he missed a Bronco buster, that is!

Tama nails a Gun Stun, but things start getting a little tetchy as all four men rained blows on each other, until Loa countered a springboard lariat by just slamming Hanson. A swandive headbutt and a frog splash gets a two-count over Rowe, who responds by catching a Stinger splash from Tonga and dumping him with a uranage onto Loa.

War Machine resurge from there with a pop-up slam for a two-count, before Chase Owens ran in with a chair to stop Tonga taking the Fall Out. That confused JR who seemed to think no-DQ meant no run-ins, especially as Owens hung around to see the champs powerbomb Rowe through a pair of open chairs. Still, Raymond kicked out, so Owens slid a table into the ring as the GOD teased a double-team DDT through it… that was avoided, as was some more interference from Chase… who was taken out with a tope from Hanson!

Back in the ring, Rowe flips over Loa into a knee lift, but he no-sells that and a German suplex, before a second knee dazed him as Rowe set the table back upright. One Fallout through a table later, and War Machine regained the tag titles! A solid match where everyone involved looked awesome, but the match itself felt a little tarnished by the no-DQ stips. ***½

I’m not sure how the hell you can confuse a table with a chair, but right now I’m pining for the combo of Kevin Kelly and Don Callis. At least live, JR’s beyond saving on this product…

IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship Tournament – Quarter-Final: Tetsuya Naito vs. Tomohiro Ishii
Naito jumped Ishii at the bell, knocking him off the apron before taunting Ishii by… tranquilo posing!

You’ll be shocked to know these two knocked it out of the park. Perhaps literally, as Ishii started off by chopping Naito before a headbutt knocked him on his rear. Naito tried to slap back, but it was like bringing a plastic knife to a gunfight, as Ishii headbutted back before Naito hit a neckbreaker to give him some separation.

He goes back to the striking game, but it’s a kick to the midsection is what takes down Ishii… who then came back up with a back suplex as forearms and chops in the corner kept the former IWGP champ at bay, but not for long as an atomic drop and another neckbreaker took down Ishii. How can you break he who has no neck?!

A missile dropkick knocks down Ishii as Naito’s attempt at the outside-in dropkick was thwarted with a clothesline on the apron, only to hit back with a DDT as the pendulum continued to swing back and forth throughout this. Naito keeps up with a German suplex as he tried to target the already minimal neck of Ishii, landing a top rope ‘rana that almost won him the match.

Naito spat at Ishii… at that just irked the Stone Pitbull into decking him with a headbutt, then with a high angle powerbomb for a two-count. An enziguiri attempt is blocked, but Naito connects with a rolling kick before his attempt at a leap saw him dive into a headbutt from Ishii, who countered with another clothesline for a two-count.

A tornado DDT gets Naito back in it, as did a missile dropkick to the back of the head before Gloria gets Naito a near-fall… another headbutt just propels Naito into the ropes for a flying forearm, but Ishii returns with a sliding lariat for a two-count. More back and forth sees Naito almost snatch it with a Dragon suplex, before a pair of lariats from Ishii dumped his foe as the sheer-drop brainbuster booked Ishii his spot in the semis. This was wonderful stuff, hard-hitting and always keeping you on the edge of your seat – these two always produce, and this was no exception! JR tells us we get Ishii/Sabre on night two, which’ll be a hell of a contest. ****¼

IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship Tournament – Quarter-Final: Michael Elgin vs. Kenny Omega
These two had a hell of a match at Dominion last year in New Japan’s first ever ladder match, and you’ll be stunned to know… they did it again!

Omega had the Young Bucks out with him… and for a cheap pop Red Shoes crotch chopped them as they went to “too sweet” him. Once Omega was done backing away from Big Mike, he started putting the blows to him… only for Elgin to power up and launch him into the corner. A leapfrog attempt’s caught, but Omega just gets elbowed in the face instead as we headed to chop town.

Elgin slingshots his way back into the ring to splash Omega, before opting to hold up Kenny in a stalling suplex for a near-fall. Omega rebounds by taking Elgin to the outside for the Terminator dive, but Big Mike slipped back in and drilled Omega with a pump kick… to the crowd’s displeasure. The crowd were quickly back on-side when Elgin’s Asai moonsault was caught, but Elgin’s attempt to lawn-dart him in the aisle ended when Omega slipped out and ran at Elgin with a Kotaro Krusher instead.

Somehow, Elgin narrowly beat the count-out, but was able to get back at Kenny with some chops in the corner, only for Omega to score with a Finlay roll… and get nothing but knees as he went for a springboard moonsault out of the corner. Big Mike keeps up with some rolling German suplexes, only for Omega to flip out of a third one… and get slingshotted into the ring into a slam for another near-fall as Mike kept refusing to hook the leg.

A series of clotheslines rocked Omega some more, before a fifth one was met with an attempt at a ‘rana that turned into a snap Dragon suplex as Kenny countered a counter. Now it’s time for the Terminator tope con hilo as Omega starts gaining momentum… a missile dropkick gave way to some back-and-forth forearms as Omega blasted Elgin with a V-trigger and a cross-legged over-the-knee brainbuster… but a clothesline from Big Mike put things right back on a level playing field.

Omega tries to powerbomb Elgin on the apron, but the big guy fights it… and ends up countering a reverse ‘rana into a German suplex onto the apron instead. Elgin nearly wins it with a Splash Mountain off the top rope, but Omega found enough to kick out at two, before he almost stole it with a small package out of a powerbomb attempt… but Omega started to fight back again from there, shrugging off a clothesline that dumped him on his head to kick out again at two, and then throw in a series of V-triggers to leave Elgin woozy.

A third one finally left Mike open for a reverse ‘rana… but that move never wins matches! Another knee strike put Elgin down again, as did another V-trigger, before Omega went for a package tombstone that dumped Elgin on his head… for another two-count! Yet another V-trigger proved to be enough though, as a One Winged Angel left Big Mike down for the count! Such hard-hitting, and yes, those V-triggers were spammy at the end, but these two hit a solid home run with this. Big Mike goes home, and Kenny’s going to the semis to face Jay Lethal. That might as well be a bye, some would say… ****½

During the next commercial break, they played the audio to a Cody/Okada video package briefly. That then plays again when we returned from the break – it’s clips of Cody mocking Okada for being “Old Japan” in what felt like a very WWE-ish promo.

IWGP Heavyweight Championship: Cody vs. Kazuchika Okada (c)
Cody had a bunch of guys in masks of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton with him for his entrance, as Brandi Rhodes lit up a cigar for Cody in his entrance. Like a poor man’s Bobby Gunns! Cody (redacted) won the ROH title a week ago, and there were quite a few people thinking that he’d do the double here…

I sort of “get” why there’s people who aren’t fans of Cody. It’s really easy to get the perception that he’s not done anything truly on his own, especially if you take the issues with him not being able to use the “Rhodes” name as whining. Or the “American Nightmare” as a take-off on his father’s nickname. Still, you have to have some level of respect for someone who walked away from the big league and has forged a career for himself to the level where he’s become a champion in a company that doesn’t have a track record of giving you something shiny because the letters WWE appear in your resume.

Cody’s working with his shoulder taped up, and we start with Cody and Okada exchanging basic holds back and forth as JR accidentally slips in the surname-that-shall-not-be-uttered. Oh, the things that’d have been cleaned up in post, but we’re live pal!

After another time-out, Cody borrowed from his brother with a basement uppercut before swerving away from an early Rainmaker attempt. Okada keeps up the pressure though with a big boot and a dropkick to send Cody to the floor, and he takes that chance to run into the crowd to gather his thoughts… and quickly lose them via an Okada forearm. Cody goes into the crowd again and gets wiped out with a crossbody as a run-up from Okada helped him clear the guard rails.

Back in the ring, Cody catches Okada with a kick to the head then a Flatliner for a near-fall as the challenger enjoyed a spell on offence. A release suplex gets Cody a two-count, as he waited for Okada to get back up to score a missile dropkick… for yet another two-count. Next up is a full nelson that Okada elbowed free of, before the champion scored with a neckbreaker as both men crashed to the mat. Yeah, this isn’t a patch on Okada’s last title match…

Okada makes a comeback with elbows and forearms, before a diving European uppercut gets a near-fall, as a dropkick knocked Cody off the top rope to the floor. Outside, Cody dumps Okada with a back body drop, before his attempt at a DDT off the apron’s reversed as Okada switched around and dumped Cody to the floor.

Back inside, Cody switches around again with an armdrag off the top, but Okada catches him off the ropes with a flapjack as he bursts into a top rope elbowdrop… and yeah, AXS botched the Rainmaker zoom-out. The time he took to do that left Cody able to roll up into an inverted figure four to push Okada close to a submission, but Okada grabbed that bottom rope as Cody again slowed down the pace of the match.

Some almost leisurely swiped raised the champion’s ire, as Brandi leapt the crowd barrier to cheerlead her husband from ringside… just in time to see him get stomped on by Okada, then take a dropkick to the back of the head. A tombstone follows, but Okada picks up Cody and gets spat at as he went for the Rainmaker… but Okada kept hold of the wrist and decked him with a much-delayed Rainmaker. A second follows, just as Kenny Omega heads to ringside with a towel… callbacks, anyone?

The crowd begged with Omega to throw the towel in like Cody threatened to with him at Dominion. Meanwhile, Cody and Okada counter back and forth into a dropkick as Brandi’s getting a guilt trip over not throwing in the towel… and then Cody countered a Rainmaker into one of his own for a two-count! Cody then grabbed that towel, wiped himself with it and threw it back at Kenny as the Bullet Club woes continued.

Another attempt at the Cross Rhodes sees Okada hit one of his own for a two-count as the pair resumed taking shots at each other. Cody blocks an uppercut and lifts up Okada into a lifting reverse DDT, but that too is only good for a two-count, as Cody then teases hitting a One Winged Angel. No matter, Okada slipped out and blasts him with a German suplex, before using the turnbuckles to flip out of a Cross Rhodes and hit a spinning tombstone! One Rainmaker later, and Okada secures the win in a really solid main event – easily the best thing Cody’s done since leaving from WWE, even if it felt like he was clinging a little too tightly (still) to that pattern of move/pose/move at times. Still, it did feel like this was more than just a match for Okada, and if you’d said when he left WWE that Cody Rhodes was going to main event a New Japan show in America in 2017, you’d have been called delusional! ****

After that match, Omega asks for a microphone and tells Okada that he’s not going to ruin his night… instead, Gedo cut a promo for Okada, shoehorning in the “strong style evolved” tagline that New Japan had been running with over the weekend. Okada then speaks, in English, vowing to “make it rain, strong style, all over the road”. My God, he’s vowing to make it hail! He slips back into Japanese to finish off, and that’s our show!

There’s two ways to look at this show… in the ring, it felt like a decent, upper level New Japan show – a passable at best undercard dragged kicking and screaming into a really good show by a fantastic second half. On the production side… my word, it felt at times like a college project. Audio not being played at the right time, stuttering cues, and then the commentary. This was not a good night for Good Ol’ JR, as the narrative of his best days being behind him – at least on live broadcasts – continues to gain steam.