New Japan headed to Sapporo for the first time this year as the first of two The New Beginning shows kicked off this past weekend.

There was a plethora of title matches involving the returning Suzuki-gun – and after seeing their stuff on the Road to the New Beginnings shows, expectations have been set exceedingly low! This was the debut show on English commentary for Don Callis – formerly Cyrus of ECW fame – as he replaced Steve Corino after the latter’s move to WWE.

Yoshinobu Kanemaru & El Desperado vs. KUSHIDA & Hirai Kawato
Kawato started off to get beaten down by Kanemaru, before Desperado came in and instantly took the 19 year old to the outside with a whip into the guard rail. It’s a far cry from your Boston crabs!

The Young Lion is isolated a lot as the Suzuki-gun pairing double-team him, before Kanemaru side-stepped a dropkick as Kawato made a comeback. Finally the youngster tagged in KUSHIDA who was a house of fire on Kanemaru and Desperado, before Desperado’s attempt to break up an O’Connor roll on Kanemaru earned him a German suplex instead.

Kanemaru uses the referee as a human shield to turn things around, before Kawato ducks a clothesline and hits a flying forearm as he took down Desperado. A springboard dropkick gets a near-fall, but Kawato gets caught in a single-leg Boston crab before he crawled to the ropes to force Desperado to break it up. An inside cradle and a schoolboy almost nicks it for Kawato, as did a backslide, but Desperado came back with a spear, before a spinning pumphandle powerbomb gets the win. Decent for an opener, but nothing to write home about. **¾

Yoshitatsu, Henare & Tomoyuki Oka vs. Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Satoshi Kojima & Yuji Nagata
David Finlay’s shoulder injury meant that Oka got his first big show experience here, and it’s the rookies (and Yoshitatsu) who leap into the veterans here.

Kojima turned things around by giving all three of the opposition the rapid-fire chops in the corner, ending with the top rope elbow to Henare for a near-fall. Henare took some Mongolian chops as the New Zealander took the bulk of the offence in this one.

A missed diving headbutt from Tenzan allows Henare to tag in Yoshitatsu, whose barrage of kicks ended with a spinning heel kick on Tenzan for a near-fall. From there, Tenzan tagged out to Nagata, who enjoyed limited success with his kicks to Yoshitatsu, before getting the upper hand on a striking battle. Oka comes in to try and do better than Yoshitatsu, and after a series of shoulder tackles, he finally takes down Nagata after rebounding from a big boot.

Oka scores a two-count from an overhead belly-to-belly, before a Boston crab forces Tenzan and Kojima to break up the hold as Henare and Yoshitatsu take them outside. That allowed Nagata to take down Oka with an Exploder, before the Nagata Lock II is actually broken by the rookie… so Nagata gloats over and reapplies it, forcing the submission. Your basic rookies vs. veteran tag, but they’re giving Oka a lot compared to (say) Henare in these matches… perhaps he’s the new pet project? **

From a distance on commentary, Don Callis really looks like Al Bundy from Married With Children. That’s us now blocked on Twitter…

Will Ospreay, Gedo & Jado vs. Katsuyori Shibata, Jushin “Thunder” Liger & Tiger Mask
This was just to further build-up Shibata/Ospreay for the Osaka show next week… and we started with those two in the ring, grappling with wristlocks and waistlocks.

Shibata escapes some headscissors and swings for Will with a PK, but Ospreay ducks as we get some tags out. Jado and Liger tussle before Gedo attacks Liger from behind for a spot of two-on one. Gado gets an eye poke – through Liger’s mesh covered eyes – after avoiding a Shotei, and its CHAOS who remain on top courtesy of a forearm from Ospreay.

Tiger Mask tags in and levels Gedo with a kick to the head, before a Tiger Driver ‘91 almost winning it, but Gedo hits back with a superkick to a kneeling Tiger Mask before bringing Will back in. Ospreay keeps knocking Shibata off the apron before he hits a springboard forearm on Tiger Mask… and it’s Shibata who breaks it up with some heavy hit.

Ospreay counters a diving dropkick with a shotgun dropkick to Shibata, before finishing off Tiger Mask with an OsCutter. This was a really cold, slow-paced match that aside from the stuff with Will and Shibata, was just filler. The two fought into each other again, with an OsCutter dropping Shibata as the timekeeper just kept hitting the ring bell hoping that’d stop everything. **¼

After the match, Ospreay mocked Shibata’s cross-legged “celebration” with the title, and despite how cold this match was, their outing next week should be all kinds of awesome.

Takashi Iizuka vs. YOSHI-HASHI
Iizuka came through the crowd, with El Desperado doing his best to restrain him.

YOSHI-HASHI goes straight for Iizuka at the bell, and the veteran replies by whipping him into the guard railings. A chairshot follows as Iizuka takes YOSHI-HASHI into the aisle, whilst Desperado got his shots in, before YOSHI-HASHI’s thrown into the ring bell as the referee finally starts a count.

They return to the ring, where YOSHI-HASHI gets choked with the microphone cord, and is actually hung with it. Wasn’t that Hangman Page’s gimmick? Finally YOSHI-HASHI mounts a comeback with a reverse spin kick, then a diving corkscrew neckbreaker as Iizuka’s forced into the corner.

The rope-hung dropkick gets a near-fall, but Iizuka fights back before grabbing some string out of his tights and chokes YOSHI-HASHI to the mat with it. The referee counts the pin until spotting the string, before YOSHI-HASHI lands that left-arm lariat, but his top rope senton gets nothing but Iizuka’s knees.

El Desperado distracts the referee, allowing Iizuka to grab his Iron glove. YOSHI-HASHI ducks the shot and hits a lungblower, before a pumphandle driver gets the win. Thankfully short, but this has been the worst New Japan match I remember that hasn’t involved Bone Soldier… *½

Dragon Lee, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Ryusuke Taguchi, Manabu Nakanishi & Michael Elgin vs. Tetsuya Naito, EVIL, BUSHI, SANADA & Hiromu Takahashi
What in God’s name is this music Dragon Lee’s been dubbed with? It sounds very much like a 3 Count knock-off song… Taguchi was back to mocking EVIL with his plastic scythe, but it was the junior heavyweight contenders who started, as Takahashi and Dragon Lee flew into each other.

That quick burst ended, as we went to Naito and Elgin – the latter pulling off a long stalling suplex on the Intercontinental champion. Taguchi hip attacks wear down Naito for a spell, as Naito took some hip attacks from all three of the six-man champions… hell, from everyone! A long rope-running skit from Naito ends with him being thrown to the outside, before Dragon Lee flew into the guard rails with a tope con hilo aimed at Takahashi.

The Ingobernables came back with their usual combinations, with Taguchi targeted by Naito for a near-fall, before an EVIL back senton got a similar result. Taguchi succeeds with more hip attacks, taking down EVIL with a springboard off the middle rope, before a slingshot body splash from Elgin flattened EVIL. Elgin does the fallaway slam/Samoan drop combo to BUSHI and Takahashi, before Naito’s attempt to rush in gets him a ragdoll German suplex. Ditto SANADA, then EVIL. Everybody gets a German!

EVIL and Tanahashi go at it for a spell, with a Fisherman’s buster taking down the former NEVER champion, before a sequence saw Dragon Lee blast Takahashi with a German suplex, before an Exploder from Hiromu into the corner almost wrecked the turnbuckles! A missile dropkick from BUSHI keeps Dragon Lee down, as does the lungblower, before a Codebreaker gets another near-fall.

We get a parade of big moves from both sides, ending with a Dragon screw to EVIL from Tanahashi, who then tries for a High Fly Flow to the floor, only for Naito’s interference to end up with him taking the dive, courtesy of an Elgin powerbomb into the pile outside. That High Fly Flow follows, before we rush back to the ring where Dragon Lee gets the win with a suplex into a sit-out powerbomb over BUSHI. Easily the best thing on the first half of the show, but this felt a little disjointed at times… ***½

Hopefully things will pick up in the second half, because this first half has been pretty poor by New Japan “big show” standards.

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship: Taichi & TAKA Michinoku vs. Roppongi Vice (Rocky Romero & Beretta) (c)
Taichi’s, erm, “valet” (named as Miho Abe) tries to distract the champions before the match gets going. She then distracts the referee as Yoshinobu Kanemaru and Desperado run in and beat down the champions, and now we’re underway.

Beretta and Romero land a pair of topes early on, before Taichi low bridges Romero to the outside, and we’ve got another Suzuki-gun mugging. Beretta gets slapped by Taichi’s valet, and Taichi’s apparently smuggled the ring bell hammer in the back of his trunks. When they return to the ring, we get TAKA and Beretta briefly, before Desperado causes a distraction so Taichi can use the hammer on Beretta’s head.

Beretta’s left isolated as TAKA counts a pin following a low blow from Taichi, and of course, the referee refuses to acknowledge it. A clothesline from Beretta knocks down Taichi out of the corner, but Desperado pulls Romero off the apron as a tag was almost made. Taichi tries to mock the “Forever” lariats but just takes a tornado DDT before Romero finally tags in.

Romero takes out TAKA with a cross body, before going into him and Taichi with the Forever clotheslines. Taichi blocks the Sliced Bread from Romero, before an enziguiri takes him into the corner, where Romero chops away on him for a brief spell. The pair go back and forth as Romero lands the Sliced Bread on the second go, before a rope-hung dropkick from Beretta gets a near-fall on Taichi as TAKA broke up the count.

Taichi’s valet gets thrown into the ring as Roppongi Vice went for the Strong Zero, but that was just a cover as Beretta took a chair shot from Desperado for a near-fall as Taichi followed up with a roll-up. TAKA comes in and pokes Beretta in the eyes before getting a La Magistral cradle for a near-fall. Beretta then got kicked to the outside as TAKA followed up with an Asai moonsault to the champions, and Beretta continues to take the punishment as we crossed the ten minute mark.

A springboard spinning heel kick should have assisted a Taichi powerbomb to Beretta, but it looked to hit Taichi more than the former Trent, but the Suzuki-gun tandem get a near-fall before TAKA locks in the Bully choke. Beretta manages to wriggle free, but only into another choke, before a low dropkick from Taichi gets them another two-count.

Out no nowhere though, Beretta catches TAKA with a Dudebuster for a near-fall, as Romero gets thrown into the barriers outside. More distractions backfire as Beretta uses a chair on Desperado, then Kanemaru, before a pair of leaping knees tage out Taichi for a Romero tope. TAKA tries to slingshot into the ring, but he’s caught by Beretta, and held until Romero springboards in to hit the Strong Zero for the win. Thank God this is over… with all that interference and smoke and mirrors, this doesn’t make Roppongi Vice look strong, as much as this quartet of Suzuki-gun look weak. *¾

Desperado and Kanemaru attack the champions after the match, and I’m left wondering how long this Suzuki-gun “invasion” is going to last for… or will New Japan just hold on to a group that’s regressing their product for the sake of a story?

NEVER Championship: Juice Robinson vs. Hirooki Goto (c)
This was set-up from Juice’s fall over Goto at New Year Dash – in a match that was quickly forgotten as Suzuki-gun made their return in the post-match angle.

Robinson lit into Goto from the bell with a shotgun dropkick and some clotheslines as he tried to catch Goto out… with the cannonball into the corner seemingly seeing Juice catch the ringpost too! A big swandive headbutt gets Juice a two-count, before Goto rolls to the outside… and yes, Juice teases, then follows him out for some more shots.

Juice whips Goto into the guard railings, then looks to drill him with a cannonball… but Goto rolls aside as Robinson hits the railings, sending the ring bell flying. Goto takes over by posting Robinson, then keeps up the pressure as he whips the former NXT star from corner to corner, before a snapmare and a boot to the spine softens up Juice for a Boston crab.

After breaking via the ropes, Juice gets caught in a rear chinlock, before working free to clothesline Goto to the floor, where he’s met with a plancha! Back inside, Juice almost mimics Jay Lethal’s Lethal Combination before he follows up with a back senton and a leaping frog splash for a near-fall, before a leg lariat takes Goto down once more. A fireman’s carry gutbuster gets Juice another near-fall, only to hit the mat with a moonsault as Goto moved away.

Goto runs into a big boot as Robinson tried to fight him off, succeeding with a forearm shot out of the corner, before he’s caught up top as Goto looked for a superplex, before Juice wriggled free and succeeded with a folding powerbomb out of the corner for another two-count.

Goto counters the Pulp Friction with a German suplex… but Juice pops back up and hits a clothesline, before Goto returned the favour. A series of clotheslines ends when Robinson drills Goto with a massive lariat for another near-fall, before Goto hit back with a rope-hung reverse GTR as he almost took the win – a variation that was massively undersold on the English commentary. One regular GTR later, and Goto retained after a fantastic match which continued the ascension of Juice’s star. Absolutely wonderful stuff. ****

IWGP Tag Team Championship: Killer Elite Squad (Lance Archer & Davey Boy Smith Jr) vs. Togi Makabe & Tomoaki Honma vs. Toru Yano & Tomohiro Ishii (c)
We’re getting a rematch of this in Osaka, so this was sort-of a redundant title match…

Yano starts off outside, as the Killer Elite squad start by throwing Makabe and Honma to the outside, with Makabe getting double-teamed early. They surround Yano on the outside next, but Yano runs into his usual spots as Archer sent him into the ropes. Yano tags in Makabe, who succeeds in knocking down Archer, before Yano goes to the turnbuckle and rips off the padding… before his shoulder shrug mannerism earns him a full nelson bomb.

Davey Boy Smith Jr takes over on Yano, before charging into the exposed buckle as we then get a battle of the hard hitters in Ishii and Smith. Ishii’s German suplex takes down Davey Boy, before Archer counters a suplex, only to get a chop in the throat. Lance charges into that exposed corner again, and that’s enough for Ishii to hit the deadlift suplex on the big guy.

Honma tries his luck with a Kokeshi, but of course, Ishii rolls away, before Smith and Ishii hit dualling clotheslines for a near-fall. A blind tag from Honma sees him bulldog the Bulldog, then hit a Kokeshi for a near-fall, before interference from Archer led to a bridging butterfly suplex for a near-fall from Smith. Archer gets a near-fall from a pop-up power slam on Honma as the match broke down a little with Makabe hitting lariats and slams on everyone else.

Smith takes some mounted punches from Makabe, who then whips Smith into the path of a Kokeshi for a near-fall as the former champions almost regained their belts. A swandive Kokeshi connected, but Yano made the tag and tried to steal the pin on Smith, which led to some bickering as Archer hit a rope-walk crossbody to both Yano and Honma. Yano takes a chokeslam for a near-fall, which he then reversed into a crucifix for another near-fall.

Another Makabe gutteral comeback ends with him running into the exposed buckle, before rebounding with a double clothesline to the KES. Yano tries to take advantage, but he takes a clothesline too, before a flying Kokeshi sends down Ishii like a tree. Honma and Makabe pepper Yano with clotheslines, before Makabe lands his Spider German suplex off the top rope. Archer takes over from there as he tries to set-up Makabe for the Killer Bomb, but after Honma makes the save, they have to make do with a Hart Attack to Makabe instead.

Ishii avoids another Killer Bomb as Yano drops the KES with low blows, before a mule kick and a schoolboy to Makabe ensure that the champions steal another win. This was a fine, fast-paced match, but with the rematch already set, it was hard to care about this match at times. ***½

We get a video package of Suzuki-gun and their criminal hideout, leading to their return at New Year Dash and the challenge for tonight.

IWGP Championship: Minoru Suzuki vs. Kazuchika Okada (c)
Going in, I knew that this match was going to be long, and that it was divisive… perhaps not as much as WrestleKingdom, but divisive nevertheless.

They went over 40 minutes, which is leading some to think that the NOAH-esque long main events are returning to New Japan. The big story going in was an apparent attack by Suzuki on Okada’s knee – footage of which wasn’t shown here – which meant that Okada was going in with a bad wheel.

Taichi was at ringside with Suzuki, because of course, he’s the best one to threaten to ruin these matches. He’s New Japan’s version of Sebastian (you’re welcome).

We start with the formulaic Okada opening sequence – tie-up into the ropes, the mockingly-clean break, etc. Suzuki returns the favour then cheapshots him as the challenger goes straight for a kneebar, forcing Okada to the ropes. They headed outside where Okada whips Suzuki into the barrier, before tentatively following in with a big boot with that bad leg, then ends with a draping DDT off the barriers.

Back inside, Okada keeps up the pressure with a neckbreaker and a strait-jacket, before heading back outside as Suzuki’s whipped chest-first into the barricades. Some interference from Taichi leads to Suzuki taking over as he chopped at Okada’s knee, before using a camera tripod on the champion’s back – amongst any other weapons that he could get his hands on. The injured knee gets wrapped up in the gate of the ringside barrier, before Suzuki uses a chair and smashes it over the taped-up joint.

After returning to the ring, Suzuki almost exclusively targets that knee – wrapping it around the ropes, dropkicking it, before finally going for the heel hook and a knee bar. Suzuki nonchalantly drags Okada into the centre of the ring as he effortlessly transitioned between submissions, including an Okada-like STF before the champion dives for the ropes.

A stomp to the knee further targets Okada’s limb, and the champion is sent reeling into the corner as his wounded leg means that he’s unable to maintain any base. Okada came back somehow with a kick using the bad knee, before another neckbreaker dropped the challenger… as did a DDT and a diving uppercut, with Okada getting a near-fall.

Okada follows up with a slam, but he has to jump off the top to avoid an onrushing Suzuki – and the awkward landing meant that the challenger again took over as Okada eventually fell into a knee bar. Suzuki repeatedly wrenched away on the knee until he was forced to break the hold, which just gave Minoru a chance to bend away on Okada’s knee…

Then Okada just pops Suzuki on the top rope and hits a dropkick, sending Suzuki to the floor, and Okada to the mat as he winces at his knee. Another top rope dropkick gets Okada a near-fall – this time not affecting his knee as much – before he slams Suzuki and goes up top for an elbow drop… then a Rainmaker pose, before Suzuki counters a Rainmaker into another knee bar. Perhaps an absurdly long kneebar, as Gedo leapt onto the apron and teased throwing in the towel… but Okada made the ropes before the towel could be thrown in.

After Okada collapsed as he ran the ropes, Suzuki took him down in a figure four as Okada was pretty much being toyed with here. Out of nowhere, Okada lands a death valley bomb as Suzuki just absorbed the champion’s punches and uppercuts, before he tried to block a tombstone attempt. Instead, Okada aborted the attempt and went to the ropes, but Suzuki pulled the referee in as a human shield… and then we got the interference.

Taichi comes in and stomps on Okada, as do Archer and Smith, but Ishii and Yano make the save before Gedo gets rid of Taichi. Out of nowhere, Okada hits his dropkick – with no ill effects at first – before going for a Gotch tombstone piledriver… only got Suzuki to slip out and back into a knee bar. A stupidly long knee bar, with Suzuki further wrenching on the hold every time Okada threatened to escape.

Finally Okada grabs the ropes after minutes in the hold, but he just gets kicked around a bit more by an ever-ruthless Suzuki, but Okada fires back with some slaps as Suzuki stopped targeting the knee. The favours are returned, but Suzuki ducks under a slap and grabs a sleeper, before Okada came back with a neckbreaker slam, dumping Suzuki onto the bad knee. A dropkick takes Okada down, and Suzuki peppers him with body shots before another sleeper wears down the champion once more for the Gotch piledriver…except Okada wriggles out and lands something approximating a Rainmaker to knock both men down. Okada keeps hold of the wrist, but a second Rainmaker is delayed as Suzuki throws in some more slaps.

Another Rainmaker is continually ducked or blocked, so Okada goes for a German suplex, before rolling it into the Rainmaker… and that’s your lot! Okada retains after a brutal war, and that’s Suzuki-gun sent home with almost nothing! Sure, this had some flaws (Okada going for dropkicks on a bad knee, and barely registering it later), but this was a fun change of pace as they told an old-school story based on wearing down a body part, only for the valiant babyface to overcome it all. ****½

As a show, this was one of the weakest New Japan big shows in memory, with a paper-thin undercard, whilst some of the “build-up” matches sorely underdelivered in terms of excitement. Come for the IWGP and NEVER title matches, and fast-forward through the rest!

So, what do we do with Suzuki-gun now? In their first big show back, they lost where it mattered, coming up short in all three title shots, with them only being in contention for the IWGP tag titles on Saturday in Osaka. It’s too soon to get rid of them, but hopefully they water down Suzuki-gun and their already-tired tropes.