A warm-up to Sunday’s “bigger show”, The New Beginning in Sapporo’s first night featured the Bullet Club against the New Japan dream team. Again.

We’re inside the Hokkai Kitayell in Sapporo for the first half of this year’s stop for the New Beginning. Kevin Kelly and Andy Simmonz are on commentary.

Yuya Uemura vs. Ren Narita
You know what we’re in for here – the ongoing Young Lion’s proving ground began with Narita and Uemura scrambling for a waistlock, with Uemura getting his first en the way to a pinning attempt.

More scrambling led to Narita getting caught in headscissors, which he eventually kipped up out of before a long tie-up took Uemura into a side headlock. Uemura clings on, only for Narita to trip him into a leg grapevine as the tables turned. We’ve a shoulder tackle after Uemura shoved off, and he quickly had to avoid a Boston crab, clinging onto Narita’s legs as he scurried into the ropes, before the restart led to both men chopping each other’s chests. Narita switches things up with a slam for a quick two-count, before a chinlock gave way to a full on camel clutch on Uemura, which he lost grip of as Uemura again got to the ropes. Undeterred, Narita took his foe into the corner as we got back-and-forth running forearms in the corners, with Uemura throwing in a nice corner dropkick for a two-count. Uemura looked for a Boston crab, but Narita’s able to get to the ropes before the match again descended into strikes.

Narita’s forearm rocks Uemura, who hit back in kind, before Uemura put on the brakes as Narita teased the bridging overhead belly-to-belly. Smart! Instead, Narita lands a release version of the suplex for a two-count, before Uemura capitalised on a drained Narita with a Boston crab right by the ropes… only for Narita to come back with that sweet bridging overhead belly-to-belly for the win. Not quite as firey as some other Young Lion matches, but I do like the current story that one of the main differences Narita has to Uemura right now is “he has a finish”. ***

That belly-to-belly rocked Narita so much the Young Lion’s theme actually looped…

Ayato Yoshida & Shota Umino vs. Manabu Nakanishi & Toa Henare
Commentary mentioned how Yoshida and Umino finally got their first win as a team earlier in the tour. Proper relegation form, and I’d know!

Having been on the losing side of a Young Lion tag earlier in the tour, Henare’s all fired up, as we see with him lighting up Yoshida at the bell with forearms and shoulder blocks. Yoshida’s able to sneak in a body slam as Umino came in and… became the target of Henare’s ire. Things don’t improve either as Nakanishi comes in and helps charge him down ahead of a big splash for a near-fall. Stomps to Umino’s back lead to him being thrown into Henare’s boot in the corner before a Samoan drop by Henare drew a near-fall. Nakanishi’s back to chop Umino back to the mat, only for those chops to get cut-off by way of an Umino dropkick as Yoshida tagged in and… booted Nakanishi to the mat! Yoshida keeps up with a leaping knee into the corner before he just about got Nakanishi up for a suplex for a one-count. Nakanishi responds with a clothesline for a two-count, before he looked to pick up Yoshida for a torture rack… one cross chop to the throat puts him down anyway as Henare tags in… and takes a hanging clothesline from Yoshida!

Umino tagged back in, going after Henare with a back elbow and a low dropkick, before another back elbow and a suplex out of the corner dropped Henare for a two-count. A cross armbreaker’s the instant follow-up, but Henare rolls into the ropes… then gets taken down with a missile dropkick before Henare had to escape a Fisherman suplex. There’s a cross armbreaker as Henare had to be saved by Nakanishi, but both men’s fatigue was showing as Henare lands a pop-up Samoan drop for a near-fall, before a headbutt dropped Umino. From there, the rugby tackle spear follows, but Umino kicked out at two, earning himself a uranage for the win. Enjoyable fare as the frustrated Henare got back to winning ways – but the Yoshida/Umino pairing continue to impress. ***

Suzuki-gun (Takashi Iizuka & TAKA Michinoku) vs. Hiroyoshi Tenzan & Tiger Mask
So, with Iizuka retiring later this month, he’s getting something of a farewell tour. “Can they get down from up there?”, said Andy Boy Simmonz, followed by a plaintive “oh” when Iizuka just stepped over the barrier.

Tenzan said something before the match (apparently that he wanted to tag with Iizuka one more time before he retired), and that just prompted Iizuka to come in, attack him and hang him over the ropes with the ring mic. Serves him right for putting it out into the universe, I guess… Iizuka takes Tenzan deep into the crowd, where Iizuka uses a chair to choke away on Tenzan, before he headed to the ring to look for a count-out… which in turn led to Tenzan sort-of rushing in to beat the 20-count. He’s right back into some boot choking from Iizuka, as Tenzan really can’t get into gear. Yeah, we’ve got biting as Tenzan tried to avoid a charge by sticking his boot up… but eventually, Tenzan lands a spinning heel kick as tags took us to TAKA and Tiger Mask.

TAKA rolls through a cross body as he nearly put away Tiger Mask, who then has to free himself of some Iizuka double-teaming before using a crucifix to get a near-fall. The double-teaming continues with a pump kick from TAKA getting a two-count, with Tiger Mask having to kick out since there’s no way Tenzan’s coming in yet.

Unlike Iizuka, who makes the save on a Tiger Driver before Tenzan tagged back in to dish out a bunch of shoulder tackles and Mongolian chops. A brainbuster/suplex is next as TAKA bounced off the mat for a near-fall. A Mountain Bomb does the same trick, but Iizuka comes in to break up an Anaconda Vise on TAKA, only for him to get a Mountain Bomb too. Hey, there’s more Mongolian chops too, before Iizuka uses a chair to stop a Tenzan moonsault… more chairshots lead to the DQ, and yeah, Iizuka’s final matches aren’t exactly going to be notebook matches! Post-match, Iizuka uses the funky oven glove on Tenzan, which the crowd clap for. *½

Ryusuke Taguchi, Togi Makabe, Tomoaki Honma, Toru Yano & YOSHI-HASHI vs. Bullet Club (Taiji Ishimori, Guerrillas of Destiny (Tama Tonga & Tanga Loa), Chase Owens & Yujiro Takahashi)
Tama Tonga and YOSHI-HASHI open the match, with Tama’s Bullet Club brethren fed up of him being the “good guy”. They eventually lock-up, which gives way to Tama begging off from a shoulder tackle… which is just a cover for a dropkick as he caught YOSHI-HASHI unawares. That doesn’t lead to much, so Honma and Owens come in, with Chase starting the offence, before Jado’s Kendo stick cut off Honma’s comeback, preventing a Kokeshi.

Tama’s annoyed at that, but it’s a convenient cover as the Bullet Club tried to get him to go back to his rule-breaking ways. We’re back in the ring as Tanga Loa and Yujiro Takahashi put the boots to Honma, who was enjoying all of the benefits of being in the wrong corner here. Tama stops his team mates from cheating, removing boots that they were going to throw Honma into… but everyone else just does it without him as Tanga Loa again tries to bully him into being a bad guy. Of course, Honma stops it and throws Tama into everyone’s boots before Ishimori prevented a tag out from being made. At least Honma managed to suplex away Ishimori, before a tag’s made to Taguchi… whose hip attack is instantly stuffed.

Taguchi’s right back with a low dropkick after he rolled through Ishimori’s sunset flip, following up with some rolling suplexes before an ankle lock forced Ishimori into the ropes. The handspring enziguiri catches Taguchi before tags brought in Makabe and Tanga Loa to batter each other with clotheslines. Makabe’s got mounted punches too, but the Northern Lights is blocked… as Makabe instead took a leaping headbutt before a swivel lariat put down Tanga. Yano comes in, but he can’t avoid Tanga Loa’s neckbreaker as Yujiro comes in to maintain the pressure. Tama’s all conflicted as everyone gangs up on Yano, with a back suplex/neckbreaker combo good on its way for a near-fall. A Fisherman buster from Yujiro gets a near-fall after the ring cleared… we quickly get a Parade of Moves, ending with Makabe wiping out the Guerillas with a double clothesline.

Jado holds Makabe in the ropes, but nobody from the Bullet Club helps so Taguchi knocks him down before Yano took advantage of the chaos with a low blow and a roll-up on Yujiro. The Tama Tonga stuff, while a good story, is killing these matches – and they weren’t exactly stellar classics to begin with! **½

Suzuki-gun (Taichi, Yoshinobu Kanemaru & El Desperado) vs. Los Ingobernables de Japon (Tetsuya Naito, BUSHI & Shingo Takagi)
The Suzuki-gun portion of the show started as we built up to tomorrow’s title matches!

We’ve mind games during the intros as Naito made Taichi hold the ropes open for him, and shockingly… there’s no jump start. The juniors instead headed to the floor as Naito and Taicho stared each other down before the offer of a handshake from Taichi is replied to with some spittle from Naito, who got his eyes raked for that. The games continue as Taichi Tranquilo’s on the apron, before tags took us to BUSHI and Desperado, with the latter getting choked in the ropes with a t-shirt. There’s plenty of retribution to be had, and the aggression goes up a notch when Shingo comes in to heavily slam Desperado. Despy’s back with chops to Shingo, before Kanemaru dragged Shingo outside as he took him into the guard rails for a step-up leg drop as chaos broke out again. Naito’s hurled viciously into the guard rails as we’re all on the floor…

Back in the ring, Shingo’s double-teamed by Kanemaru and Desperado, while Taichi commandeered Naito’s Intercontinental title belt. There’s a teased belt shot, but instead Taichi tosses the belt and rakes Shingo’s eyes. The Suzuki-gun trio isolate Shingo, whose attempt at a slam is blocked and met in kind before Kanemaru comes in and finally ends up taking a suplex. Naito finally gets a tag in, but he’s taken into the corner by Kanemaru, forcing him to rebound with a ‘rana before taking care of Desperado… and with Naito posing, he’s almost faking out Taichi, who waited on the apron. Kanemaru’s still legal and took a delayed Combinacion Cabron, with Naito clearing Kanemaru off the apron on the way.

Kanemaru retaliates by using the ref as a human shield before he clocked Naito with an enziguiri… Taichi tags in willingly, taking Naito back into the corner for a gamengiri before a leaping enziguiri finally put Naito down as Suzuki-gun had the upper hand. Off come the trousers, but it’s just a prelude to a dropkick that Naito landed to… almost silence. BUSHI’s in to land a double ‘rana to Kanemaru and Desperado, before a swinging neckbreaker draws a two-count on Taichi. BUSHI heads up for a MX, but we barely see Kanemaru spraying whiskey at BUSHI as things broke down, en route to BUSHI taking a back suplex/dropkick combo, with Taichi’s Axe Bomber getting a near-fall. Naito’s restrained as BUSHI gets dumped on his head with a backdrop driver… and that’s the win for Taichi. Well, it was a match, one that kept the hype going for the title match… but also one that instilled a fear in me ahead of tomorrow: are these two going to lay a proverbial goose egg in the main event? **½

Post-match, Desperado again unmasks BUSHI, who really by now should be wearing two masks. The old luchador trick. Still, at least it made Miho Abe happy.

Minoru Suzuki vs. SANADA
These two have only one prior meeting, in the 2017 G1 Climax, where Suzuki took away the win early in the tournament.

We’ve a deliberately measured start here, with both men biding their time before SANADA tried to tie-up Suzuki in a Paradise Lock. Will you ever learn?! After that swing and miss, they look to keep it simple, swapping hammerlocks and headlocks before SANADA again tries for the Paradise Lock… it’s like he’s going for Hail Marys on Superbowl weekend. Third time looked to be the charm, but Suzuki pulls him into a cross armbreaker before SANADA… FINALLY GETS IT! Oh God, he’s going to die.

Yeah, after getting dropkicked free, Suzuki unloads on SANADA, taking him outside for a PK before throwing him into the guard rails. The head down commentator’s row, where Suzuki bounced a chair off of the back of SANADA, who then got choked with more chairs as SANADA perhaps realised that there’s some bears you just don’t poke.

When referee Marty Asami threatened to DQ Suzuki, things calm down, but instead Suzuki just throws guard railings onto SANADA before he fell into the crowd while pulling seats apart. Well, I did say SANADA was going to pay for that, but somehow he’s able to beat the referee’s count as he sprints back to the ring, where he’s caught in a Kimura, as things got rather one-sided. Chops follow between the pair, with Suzuki having a trickle of blood down his cheek before he turned a PK into a cross armbreaker via some blocks from SANADA. SANADA gets free and catches Suzuki with the double-leapfrog dropkick, following up with a plancha to the outside, before we’re back in with Suzuki booting SANADA in the corner.

A PK from Suzuki’s good for a two-count, which seemingly woke up SANADA, who begins to trade chops and forearms with the veteran. Suzuki’s right back in with a rear naked choke, squeezing the life out of SANADA before he switches into the Gotch piledriver… but SANADA sandbags and gets kneed for his troubles, before an attempted fireman’s carry just gets countered into another rear naked choke from Suzuki. Somehow, SANADA flips free and traps Suzuki in a Skull End, but Suzuki grabs into the referee to delay things. When SANADA weakened Suzuki enough, he went up top for a moonsault, but Suzuki gets his knees up. We’re back to elbow exchanges, which Suzuki won out before he ate a rolling elbow… then responded with a dropkick before a rear naked choke wore down SANADA some more, before another crack at the Gotch piledriver’s countered with a back body drop. There’s more escapes, before SANADA lands a Euro clutch as the pace quickened, with Suzuki eventually avoiding a moonsault press before an Asai DDT just about took SANADA into a Skull End, only for Suzuki to escape and Gotch piledrive him to his doom. This was a little wobbly in places, but on the whole this was violent and bloody enjoyable. Never put Suzuki in a Paradise Lock, is the lesson we learned. ***¾

Zack Sabre Jr. vs. EVIL
It’s a first-time singles match here, but EVIL’s always come a cropper against Sabre in tags… will that continue here?

We’ve a more measured start here as EVIL and Sabre tied-up, using a Greco-Roman knuckle lock before a missed overhead kick and back senton kept both men even. The pace quickens with EVIL charging through Sabre, before a surfboard stretch kept last year’s New Japan Cup winner down. Sabre thought he’d escaped, but EVIL rolls it back, as Sabre was perhaps being outplayed at his own game. Another escape gets rolled back, before Zack finally got free, and looked to issue some retaliation as he sat on EVIL in a double armbar. Sabre takes EVIL into the corner for some boot chokes as Zack went to a cravat, flipping EVIL to the mat ahead of a neck twist, before an abdominal stretch got reversed. EVIL keeps up the pressure with a sidewalk slam, then a bulldog out of the corner as the IWGP tag champion finally managed to sustain some offence. There’s a back senton and an armbar too as EVIL… ends up caught in an Octopus stretch, with Sabre pulling him down to the mat as the submission turned into Hurrah! Another Year, Surely This One Will Be Better Than the Last; The Inexorable March of Progress Will Lead Us All to Happiness… but EVIL gets to the ropes before anyone can start to remember the name.

The pair exchange arm breakers next, before EVIL’s caught in a triangle armbar. He escapes, and after knocking Sabre off the apron, the pair head down the aisle (not like that)… only for EVIL’s presumed attempt at a move’s caught as he has to suplex his way out of a mounted keylock by Sabre. Oof.

Back in the ring, EVIL nails Darkness Falls for a near-fall, before Sabre sparked back into life, snapping the arm between his legs and landing a PK to give himself a breather. TAKA got involved, helping Sabre remove some wrist tape as the pair began trading uppercuts and forearms. Sabre grabs a front facelock, but he can’t quite get off a Zack Driver as EVIL slips out and hits a thrust kick – with some assistance from the referee. Zack’s arm looks to be compromised thanks to overuse (and mostly EVIL’s earlier offence)… but he’s able to counter a superplex by trapping EVIL on the top rope with an Octopus stretch. After letting go of the hold, Sabre’s caught with that superplex off the top, with EVIL following up with a lariat for a near-fall as we sailed past the 20-minute mark. Everything is EVIL is again blocked though, and Zack traps him in a Euro clutch for a near-fall out of nowhere, before he hits in with a bridging backslide a la BUSHI for another two!

The pair look to be working on fumes at this point, with EVIL blasting Sabre with a lariat before another go at Everything is EVIL is turned into a Victory Roll… but EVIL rolls through and finally lands Everything is EVIL to beat Sabre! My word, that was a tour de force – and EVIL finally has his win over Sabre! The result leaves LIJ and Suzuki-gun 1-1 ahead of the heavyweight tag title match tomorrow… and things are wide open. If that tag’s anything like this one, we’ve got a cracker on our hands! ****¼

Bullet Club (Jay White & Bad Luck Fale) vs. Kazuchika Okada & Hiroshi Tanahashi
Much like EVIL, the New Japan Dream Team FINALLY got a win over the Bullet Club heading into this show… can they pick up some steam to derail Jay White’s run at Tanahashi’s newly-won IWGP title?

Jay White interrupted a photo call before the match, demanding the press pack took picture of the “real dream team” of White and Fale. That’s a pretty crappy dream… We open with Tanahashi and White locking-up, eventually backing into the ropes before Tanahashi grabbed a headlock and clung onto it tightly. After White got free, Tanahashi lands a springboard crossbody out of the corner, before Okada and Tanahashi double-teamed White en route to an elbow drop. A sliding dropkick from Okada keeps White down, only for the Switchblade to get up and tag in Bad Luck Fale ahead of his match with Okada in Osaka.

Okada doesn’t hold back, leaping into Fale with forearms before he’s whipped hard across the ring. A back flip over Fale sees Okada avoid a back body drop as he instead leapt onto Fale’s back in a sleeperhold… which ended when Fale just fell back to squash the Rainmaker. White took the chance to knock Tanahashi off the apron before throwing him into the barriers, as we had the obligatory ringside brawl featuring all four men. White takes Tanahashi into the crowd, burying him under guard railings before White took Okada between the guard rails and the crowd barriers. Back inside, White suplexes Okada into the turnbuckle pads for a two-count, as the Bullet Club made use of quick tags to keep Okada worn down.

A grounded chinlock from White just frustrated Tanahashi on the apron more, before a flapjack from Okada finally led to an opening… and yes, the hot tag from Tanahashi! White chops through Tanahashi, but it just seemed to irritate the champion, who then gets his knee chopped out as the Bullet Club found something else to target. Fale’s in, but takes a double-team suplex after some help from Okada, who tagged back in not long after to drop Fale with a DDT. Fale’s back with a slam and a splash for a near-fall as White and Tanahashi were back on the outside… Okada tries to haul up Fale for a neckbreaker slam, but Fale counters out and into a Bad Luck Fall attempt, before instead opting to just charge through Okada. Tanahashi and the foul-mouthed White came back in, trading right hands on each other, at least until a Tanahashi Slingblade drew a near-fall with Okada rushing in to knock Fale off the apron at the last second.

Those two brawl outside next as Tanahashi attempts a Cloverleaf… but White grabs a handful of hair to help him escape. A Dragon screw from Tanahashi is followed up by one from Okada to Fale… but that momentum ends when Gedo trips Tanahashi, allowing White to score a bridging German suplex for a near-fall. Okada’s back with a dropkick to White as all four men ended up in the ring again, but it was the Dream Team that edged ahead, with their finisher of an Okada Tombstone into a Styles Clash from Tanahashi, to an Okada elbow drop and a Tanahashi High Fly Flow… only for Gedo to interrupt that as Fale just throws Tanahashi off the top.

Okada tries to fly in to interrupt things, but he’s met with a Grenade from Fale who then dished one out to Tanahashi. White takes an age to get back to his feet, and when he does get back up, he drops Tanahashi with a death valley driver for a near-fall, before going for a Blade Runner… which is countered into a Twist and Shout! Fale’s still in though, and takes a Twist and Shout too, before Gedo’s distraction allowed White to grab a chair… which he misses a swing with! Another Slingblade from Tanahashi sets up for a German suplex to Fale, before Gedo gets slapped… second time was the charm though, as White smashes a chair to Tanahashi’s knee, and it’s quite elementary from there, as he repeatedly Dragon screws the leg into the mat before an inverted Figure Four in the middle of the ring – coupled with a Bad Luck Fall to Okada – led to Tanahashi tapping out. That was monumental going into next Monday’s title match, with White getting a clean (ish) win over Tanahashi! ***¾

The show came to an end with the image of the Bullet Club once again standing over the so-called Dream Team, as Tanahashi had his knee iced once again…  while Jay White closed out the show holding the IWGP title before dumping Tanahashi with a Blade Runner. Yes, the knee is the clear weakness for the Ace as they headed into Osaka on the 11th.

The first night of The New Beginning in Sapporo was a show that started brightly… burned out badly in the middle, but thankfully picked up by the end. That’s the problem of these big cards being spread out over multiple shows; when you replace the big matches with undercard filler, they almost always feel like we’re just dragging out a feud for longer than they need to. Still, if you watch the opening two Young Lion matches and the final three on the card, then you’re good to go! Fortunately, the “big matches” are all saved for tomorrow, which is going to be a 6am start on a Sunday in the UK. Why not join us in a sleep-deprived trance as we see if Suzuki-gun can make LIJ’s title cabinet a little emptier…