It took a while, but Sakura Genesis was a show definitely worth sticking around for.

Formerly Invasion Attack, Sakura Genesis saw the New Japan Cup winner Katsuyori Shibata claim his shot at Kazuchika Okada’s IWGP heavyweight title – and yes, it was as good as you’d expect.

Katsuya Kitamura, Tomoyuki Oka & Hirai Kawato vs. Jushin “Thunder” Liger, Manabu Nakanishi & David Finlay
You can probably guess how the Young Lions started this… yup, they leapt into their more experienced opponents, but it was Kawato who snatched the spotlight early by being like a puppy dog who bit off more than he could chew, and he quickly found himself being folded up by Liger.

Then Finlay, then Nakanishi. Yeah, I get having aims, but perhaps Kawato could pick his fights better! Tomoyuki Oka fared better against Nakanishi for a while, taking down the big man with a belly-to-belly before Kitamura tagged in. Already at 31, Kitamura’s got a lot to pick up and is almost like the DDP of New Japan (expect a yoga DVD in the next twenty years!). Kitamura gave Nakanishi a taste of his own Argentine backbreaker before Liger broke it up, as the Young Lions kept going, only to end up slipping behind once the numbers advantage was taken out with Kawato and Oka being thrown into the guard railings. With that in mind, a Stunner from Finlay gets the win, and whilst this match of Young Lions may be a long way off “graduating”, I like the ill-advised pluckiness of Kawato. **¾

After the match, Kawato slid back into the ring to shove Liger some more – that’s going to be a glorious, arse-kicking pay-off eventually.

Bullet Club (Tama Tonga, Tanga Loa, Yujiro Takahashi & Chase Owens) vs. Tiger Mask W, Tiger Mask, Yuji Nagata & Togi Makabe
Hmm, Tiger Mask W has scars on his chest… I wonder how he got them? It certainly can’t be by raining himself in fireworks whilst standing on a car in East London…

W lit up Tama Tonga early with kicks and a standing corkscrew moonsault for a near-fall as we cycled through tags with Yujiro getting waffled with Nagata’s kicks. Chase Owens gets himself involved as we head outside for the usual Bullet Club brawling, featuring Nagata getting jabbed with Takahashi’s pimp cane.

Nagata trips Tanga Loa into a Nagata Lock crossface, but Chase Owens interferes to break that up, which only delayed an Exploder on Loa, who then resists some clotheslines from Makabe, only for both of the Guerrillas to get flattened by him. Tonga’s forced to kick out of a Tiger Driver, before Tiger Mask W wiped out Takahashi with a Golden Triangle moonsault. The end came not long after that when Tiger Mask (not W) was tripped in the ropes by Owens, allowing Tonga to hit the Gun Stun for the win. Short and basic, but my God it’s weird seeing maybe-Ibushi in openers here. **½

Suzuki-gun (Minoru Suzuki, El Desperado & TAKA Michinoku) vs. YOSHI-HASHI & Roppongi Vice (Beretta & Rocky Romero)
Yup, jump start! YOSHI-HASHI gets wiped out as Suzuki throws him into the ring barriers, as El Desperado gets battered by Roppongi Vice.

Beretta turns a slingshot into the ring into a Northern Lights suplex on Desperado, only for Romero to get caught in a rope-hung armbar by Suzuki, who then took YOSHI-HASHI into commentator’s row to choke him with a chair. Romero fires up against Suzuki, landing a rewind enziguiri before tagging in YOSHI-HASHI, who gets a near-fall from a neckbreaker.

Some forearms and chops unsteady Suzuki, who quickly snapped into a rear naked choke as Suzuki-gun have their shots on YOSHI-HASHI. A Gotch piledriver’s broken up by Beretta, but the match breaks down as YOSHI-HASHI gives TAKA a left-arm lariat, then the Karma (pump handle driver) for the win. Short and sweet, but at least Suzuki keeps up his losing streak by beating the tar out of several people at ringside with chairshots. **½

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships: Gedo & Jado vs. Yoshinobu Kanemaru & Taichi (c)
Gedo just laughs off Taichi’s poorly lip-sync’d ring entrance, like I imagine most people laugh off his matches.

We start with a pair of crossfaces from the challengers, who then take the champions outside for a taste of their own medicine. Taichi uses his valet as a human shield, and of course, he’s got the bell hammer, except he doesn’t use it straight away, as the champions beat down on Gedo.

Eventually Taichi whacks Gedo and Jado with it as Desperado has the referee tied up, it’s the usual crap from Taichi. The contest finally settled into something approximating a standard match when Jado gave Kanemaru a back suplex, before Kanemaru and Taichi flattened Gedo with a pair of superkicks. Gedo counters a top rope move from Kanemaru by getting his knee up – thus crotching the champion – which left him open for a Jado crossface, whilst Gedo gave Taichi one too.

Jado rolls over Kanemaru for a pin, but Desperado pulled out the referee and stormed the ring, only for Roppongi Vice to head out and jump Desperado with a pair of leaping knees. With the masked man gone, Jado delivers the rope-hung DDT that injured Honma, but Kanemaru kicked out at two. Another crossface sees Kanemaru tap, but Taichi’s valet’s been thrown into the ring… cue a mic stand shot from Taichi, which eventually leads to Kanemaru’s top rope DDT for the win. This wasn’t too bad, but I’m beyond done with Taichi as an act. **½

After the match, Roppongi Vice return to the ring, and it seems that they’re challenging for their rematch – which they’ll get on a Road to Wrestling Dontaku event on April 27…

Bullet Club (Kenny Omega & Bad Luck Fale) vs. Tomohiro Ishii & Toru Yano
A lot of comedy early as Yano’s being Yano, which gets him whipped into those guard railings. Back inside, Yano’s targeted still further, and would have been pinned by Fale simply sitting on him, only for Ishii to break that up.

We get more comedy as Yano and Omega pull each others’ hair simultaneously, before a synchronised break from the referee heads to more hair-pulling, and then referee Tiger Hattori pulling hair to break it up. There’s a turnbuckle pad fight, which doesn’t work with Fale, who accidentally gets whacked on the back by Omega, before a powerslam off the ropes from Ishii keeps him down.

Omega comes back with a snap ‘rana, then a Finlay roll and a moonsault off the middle rope to almost win it, before Ishii slips out of a Bad Luck Fall/’cutter combination. Back inside, Omega’s dumped on his shoulder with a German suplex, before replying with a snapping Dragon suplex, as a V-trigger sets up for the One Winged Angel. Yano low blows Omega to stop that, and Ishii almost finishes off Kenny with a lariat.

After being splashed in the corner by Fale, Ishii’s forced to kick out from a diving knee from Omega, before another V-Trigger then the One Winged Angel gets the win. This was really good for where it was on the card – now… can we get Omega and Ishii in the G1, preferably later in the tournament where the match is for something? ***¼

Hiroshi Tanahashi, Ryusuke Taguchi, Ricochet & Juice Robinson vs. Los Ingobernables de Japon (Tetsuya Naito, EVIL, SANADA & BUSHI)
This was really good – even though Ricochet’s in this working hurt (he’s pulled out of Rev Pro’s show this Thursday, and OTT’s card on Sunday as a result of an aggravated neck injury). We had two stories going parallel here, Naito and Robinson’s skirmish, and the on-off feud between the current and former NEVER six-man champions.

If you’ve seen these Ingobernables vs. Tanahashi-and-co tags before, you’ll be familiar with the tropes – Taguchi’s dropdowns, Taguchi directing traffic with a load of avalanches to BUSHI, before Taguchi climbed the ropes so he’d deliver a hip attack in the corner. SANADA tied up Taguchi in a ball around the bottom rope, before eventually dropkicking him free with a basement dropkick. Ricochet comes in and gives chase before spiking SANADA with a roll-up DDT, before Naito and EVIL took a neckbreaker/DDT combo. Some big dives from Ricochet sparked a long series that turned the match around, as Tanahashi tried to tie up SANADA, only for BUSHI to make a save and eventually take a pair of Dragon screws.

Juice Robinson tags in and obliterates BUSHI with a leg lariat, before Naito takes a combination of a backbreaker and side Russian legsweep. The Ingobernables use their numbers advantage to wear down Juice though, with a scoop slam into a reverse DDT nearly getting Naito the win. A Destino attempt is countered with a Tanahashi Slingblade as the match turned into a parade of finishers, before Juice caught a pop-up low blow from Naito, then dumped him with a lariat off the ropes! After spiking Naito on his head with Pulp Friction, Juice claimed another Biggest Win of his Career… that was fantastic! So, this is leading to Juice vs. Naito down the line at Wrestling Toyonokuni on April 29, and this was well worth the set-up! ****

IWGP Tag Team Championship: War Machine (Hanson & Rowe) vs. Hiroyoshi Tenzan & Satoshi Kojima (c)
They paid for War Machine’s music, and in kind, War Machine ponied up for some gear with kanji all over it. Kojima struggles with shoulder tackles early on, and gets decked with a cartwheel clothesline from the monstrous Hanson, then with a diving crossbody as the challengers almost snatched an early win.

Kojima fires back with a DDT to Hanson as he brings in Tenzan, who goes straight for Rowe with Mongolian chops, before getting a near-fall with a Mountain Bomb. The Anaconda Vice follows, but Hanson quickly breaks it up, only to take a spinning heel kick as Tenzan got back to his feet. Kojima finally shoulder tackles Hanson to the outside as he goes to work on Rowe with the machine-gun chops, with the follow-up elbow off the top rope connecting for a change. Tenzan makes the save as the challengers went for Fallout on Kojima, before the champs were forced to wriggle out of a fallaway slam/Samoan drop combo, then land a TenKoji Cutter on Rowe.

A Sky High powerbomb from Kojima sets up for Tenzan going up top, but Hanson press slams him down hard as a prelude to some corner-to-corner clotheslines. Hanson flattens Kojima with a sit-down splash out of the corner, to some boos, before a splash is switched into a top rope moonsault… which misses! A Koji Cutter gets a near-fall after that crash and burn, but War Machine flatten Kojima moments later with a pop-up slam as Hanson followed through with a tope to wipe out Tenzan.

Kojima fights back from a knee strike and levels Rowe with a lariat, before Rowe ducks a Cozy lariat and hits a German suplex, before the Fallout gives us new champions. This was awesome – War Machine were the breakout team from last year’s World Tag League, and despite sporadic appearances, they’ve not slowed down. Worthy winners, and I’d not be against a rematch, especially on this level! Guess what? Looks like we’re going to get it too! ****

NEVER Openweight Championship: Zack Sabre Jr. vs. Hirooki Goto (c)
You know what you’re in for when you watch a Zack Sabre Jr. match – cutting edge grappling, with plenty of transitions between armbars, pinning attempts and the like. Goto didn’t look out of place here either, going hold-for-hold with the man hoping to become Zacky Four Belts by the end of this.

Sabre catches Goto in a knee bar, but they were too close to the ropes, so Sabre releases the hold… and stomps on Goto’s wrist for good measure. The crowd gasps as Sabre tweaks away at Goto’s ankle, and again when he twists on a trapped Goto’s wrist, before a leg trip leads to a PK that again sends Goto down.

Goto comes back with a back suplex for a near-fall, only for Sabre to climb like a monkey around Goto and into a mounted wristlock that’s countered with a deadlifted suplex. A top rope elbow from Goto misses and gets turned into an armbar on landing, before Zack switches it into the Ode to Breaks double armbar, ending when Goto managed to get his foot to the rope to force a break. The Octopus hold follows, but Goto powers up into an ushigoroshi, or as Kevin Kelly deadpan calls it, “neckbreaker”… and now we have the trash. Suzuki-gun hit the ring, with Minoru attacking Goto from behind, before attempting a Gotch piledriver whilst Desperado had the referee distracted.

Minoru eats an ushigoroshi, before a prawn hold from Sabre almost won the belt. Goto powerbombs his way free of a triangle armbar, then throws in some GTRs – a reverse one then a standard, and that’s the title retained. Absolutely glorious stuff; yes, the Suzuki-gun interference was annoying, but this was a fine wrestling match. ****¼

After the match, Suzuki hits the ring again and lays into Goto – the pull-apart sets up for a title match between the two, curiously on a Road to Wrestling Dontaku show in Hiroshima on April 27.

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship: KUSHIDA vs. Hiromu Takahashi (c)
This was odd… and not close to their ****¾ match at WrestleKingdom, largely because it didn’t even go two minutes!

KUSHIDA leapt into Takahashi with a senton during his entrance, then posted him before the bell rang. Once the bell rings, KUSHIDA goes for the Hoverboard lock, but for the second time of the night, we didn’t get an instant submission at the bell, as Takahashi worked free and placed KUSHIDA on the apron for the sunset bomb! That looked to kill KUSHIDA, who was thrown back inside for the Time Bomb, then a running death valley driver into the corner, and a second Time Bomb for the shockingly quick win. This HAS to be leading to a redemption story for KUSHIDA, as this is almost never done in New Japan. ****

After the match, Hiromu “eats” KUSHIDA’s wrist tape, before Ricochet comes in to make the save. There’s your next challenger, for the Wrestling Toyonokuni show on April 29…

IWGP Championship: Katsuyori Shibata vs. Kazuchika Okada (c)
Oh. My. God. Well, I think we’ve given our first ***** of the year…

They grapple in the early going, leading to Shibata mounting Okada… and Okada not succeeding in throwing him off, so Shibata invites Okada to try his best from the mount. Okada… just backed off. When he decided to engage, Shibata outwrestled the champion, and seemed to be just a step ahead of him, diving down into a headlock to avoid a dropdown from Okada.

The crowd booed as Okada threw in some forearms instead of breaking cleanly out of the corner, and that just got Shibata riled up as he threw in some shots of his own. A figure four follows, but Okada fought free and eventually dropkicked Shibata off the top rope to the floor. On the outside, Shibata gets whipped into, then kicked over the guard railing, before a draping DDT saw Shibata become overly friendly with the floor.

Gradually, Okada slipped his way back into the match, but refused to make clean breaks as the crowd leaned further and further against him, but we’ve got Zombie Shibata now, leaning into strikes from Okada before a forearm decks the champ. Repeated forearms and chops in the corner lead to a diving dropkick, before giving the same again against the guard railings.

Back inside, Okada grabs the ropes to avoid a German suplex, so Shibata just kicks away at his arm, only for a big boot to fell the challenger like a tree. Shibata avoids a tombstone but takes a flapjack, which sort-of leads to the Rainmaker elbow as the crowd rains down their boos on the champion, before a Rainmaker is countered with an STO. Okada’s forced again to play to Shibata’s strikes, again coming out on the losing end as he sank to his knees, before recovering with a neckbreaker slam.

A missile dropkick flattens a sitting Shibata, but after kicking out Shibata grabs an armbar, then decides just to kick Okada in the shoulder. As hard as humanly possible. So Okada sits down and does a Shibata, inviting strikes, as this descended into a sit-down slugfest, ending in Okada aping those corner shots and dropkick. In return? More big boots as he was caught in the ropes. Another Okada dropkick counters a PK, but Shibata eventually sits up, then pops up so he can dump Okada on his head with a German… and the pace tears up a couple of dozen notches as Okada returns the favour with some rolling Germans.

Okada lands a Rainmaker, but it doesn’t move Shibata… who wrecks Okada with a clunking headbutt that made him bleed. That is NOT good. With blood streaming down his face, Shibata gets another Octopus on, eventually pulling Okada to the mat, but eventually the champ was able to drag his way to the bottom rope, only to get caught in a rear naked choke.

Somehow Okada powered back to his feet, only to sink again, then get dumped on his head with a sleeper suplex. A Shibata-style Rainmaker sees him slap Okada, then boot him in the chest whilst clinging onto the wrist, but Okada broke free and landed a Rainmaker… and kept hold of the wrist for another Rainmaker, as Okada finally retained! This was a thing of beauty – weighing in at 38 minutes, this didn’t feel as long as the Omega match, nor did it have the spamming of Rainmakers (which I felt hurt the move, since it’s no longer a “killer” finisher), but this was a story of Okada fighting another man’s style against his will, and barely pulling through on the other side with the title intact. *****

On the walk to the back, Shibata kept falling to his knees, and according to media reports needed surgery on Monday to relieve a subdural haematoma – another in a long list of scary injury situations that has afflicted Shibata as a result of his hard hitting style.

Anyway, back in the ring, as Okada celebrated with the title, Bad Luck Fale came out and attacked Okada. Gedo tried to make the save, but took a Grenade from Fale as some Young Lions tried – and failed – to restrain Fale, as Okada finally took a Bad Luck Fall. Yep, there’s your next challenger, for Wrestling Dontaku on May 3rd.

So, Sakura Genesis… a rough start, but eventually it blossomed into a hell of a show, with a bona fide ***** classic at the end of it. Yes, the story’s morphed into Okada clinging onto the title against Omega and Shibata, and whilst I don’t think for one second that Fale’ll be the man to dethrone him, it’s going to be a fun ride to see where this one goes and how much Okada will be stretched before the gold changes hands.