New Japan kicked off their final tour of the year on Saturday morning – as the World Tag League got underway at Korakuen Hall!

We’ve barely spoken of the tournament this year, but the blocks for it are somewhat interesting, with none of the names involved in big matches at WrestleKingdom being involved. On paper, that blows the field wide open, as we’re not having those block matches where you’re judging “who should win” versus “who’d benefit from it more”. Anyway, due to the continued recovery of Tomoaki Honma, we’ll not be seeing a three-peat for the GBH pairing of Honma and Togi Makabe – but these are the blocks involved this year:

Block A: Hiroyoshi Tenzan & Satoshi Kojima; Yuji Nagata & Manabu Nakanishi; “Death Juice” (Juice Robinson & Sami Callihan); Hirooki Goto & YOSHI-HASHI; Bullet Club (Bad Luck Fale & Chase Owens); Bullet Club (Hangman Page & Yujiro Takahashi); Suzuki-gun (Minoru Suzuki & Takashi Iizuka); Los Ingobernables de Japon (EVIL & SANADA)

Block B: Togi Makabe & Henare; Michael Elgin & Jeff Cobb; David Finlay & Katsuya Kitamura; War Machine (Hanson & Raymond Rowe); Tomohiro Ishii & Toru Yano; Beretta & Chuckie T; Guerrillas of Destiny (Tama Tonga & Tanga Loa); Killer Elite Squad (Lance Archer & Davey Boy Smith Jr.)

The winners of World Tag League will likely get a shot at the current IWGP tag team champions – unless the KES go all the way. This first night of the tournament only included two block A matches, and a lot of that Korakuen staple: undercard tags!

Tetsuhiro Yagi & Ren Narita vs. Hirai Kawato & Shota Umino
I’ve not yet seen Thursday’s Lion’s Gate Project show, but my God, Narita is bulking up. Three quarters of this match have yet to get a point in the Young Lion Cup, so there was a lot to prove, as they seemed to be fighting just to start the match.

Umino looked impressive to get us underway, wrenching away with a camel clutch on Yagi, before things quickly degenerated into overhanded chops. Narita manages to get the tag in and hiptoss Umino for a near-fall, followed by a Boston crab for the obligatory rope break. Tags take us to Yagi against Kawato, giving us the usual plucky fire from Hirai, ending when his Boston crab was easily kicked away. Still, Kawato’s streets ahead of the rest of these guys, so it was no surprise when he blasted Yagi with a roundhouse enziguiri for the rather nonchalant pin. Basic Young Lions fare here – but the right pairing won out. **¼

Bullet Club (Guerrillas of Destiny (Tama Tonga & Tanga Loa) & Leo Tonga) vs. War Machine (Raymond Rowe & Hanson) & Tomoyuki Oka
In the build-up to World Tag League, there was plenty of talk of Oka pairing with Katsuya Kitamura to form “Monster Rage”. Plans changed, and he’s not even in the tournament… but at least he gets to wear War Machine face paint.

The youngest members of each trio got us underway, but things broke down quickly when Oka looked to take a lead. War Machine calmed things down, but Oka found himself on the back foot once Leo started throwing chops. A belly-to-belly suplex gave Oka enough room for Rowe to come in and clear house, as War Machine runs riot. Quite literally, in Hanson’s case, courtesy of endless corner-to-corner lariats! After watching Tanga Loa have everyone slammed on him, the Bullet Club trio mount a comeback, with poor Oka eating everything, including a sit-out tombstone as Tanga Loa picked up the W. Decent enough for what it was – but hardly earth-shattering. **½

Tomohiro Ishii, Toru Yano, Beretta, Chuckie T vs. Michael Elgin, Jeff Cobb, David Finlay & Katsuya Kitamura
As if the “2017 is bonkers” folder wasn’t already overflowing, add in “Jeff Cobb and Chuck Taylor debut in New Japan” to that pile.

We started with Toru Yano dicking around with Michael Elgin… which ended as well as you’d expect. Splat. Tags take us to Finlay having his way with Beretta, at least until Chuckie T made his in-ring debut… which largely featured him slamming Finlay before he and Beretta trolled Korakuen hard.

Jeff Cobb, on the other hand, decides just to show off his suplexes. That instantly won over the Korakuen crowd.

Oh Matthew Riddle, what happened to have you drop out from this softball? We get some brief interactions between Cobb and Ishii – a match I now want to see so bad – especially since it took Ishii a while to brainbuster Cobb… but he kicks out at two and rolled up into a suplex of his own.

Dear Lord that was great.

Once the bigger lads stopped throwing themselves around, Chuckie T had an outing with Kitamura… featuring a big spear for a near-fall, before a double chokeslam from the Best Friends nearly did the deal. Instead, Kitamura’s planted with an Awful Waffle out of the corner, and that’s it. Kitamura sold it like death, which he should. Some bright spots here, and mark my words, Japan is going to love Jeff Cobb. ***

Bullet Club (Bad Luck Fale, Chase Owens, Hangman Page & Yujiro Takahashi) vs. Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Satoshi Kojima, Yuji Nagata & Manabu Nakanishi
Yup, Fale’s back to killing the ring announcer. You know the drill here – everyone cycles through tags, and that gives us an early pairing between Bad Luck Fale and Manabu Nakanishi. A pairing that Korakuen strangely was amped up for, especially when they traded shoulder blocks… and even more so when Nakanishi got Fale off the mat for an Argentine backbreaker.

With Nakanishi briefly worn down, Chase Owens took shots at him before scurrying out… ditto Yujiro and Hangman, but eventually Manabu back body drops them all to the outside, before Fale squashes him in the corner. He’s able to make the tag out to Nagata, who kicks Page repeatedly, before dragging him down into an attempt at the crossface Nagata Lock.

Owens continues the mockery with some machine gun chops on Kojima. You can guess what comes next – the receipt! Followed by more 4-on-1 from the Bullet Club, which Nakanishi waddled in to break up the cover on, before Owens ran into a TenKoji Cutter, then a Strong Arm Lariat as the New Japan Dads beat the Bullet Club. This dragged at times, but you know where the struggle is going to come in this tournament… **¼

Suzuki-gun (Killer Elite Squad (Lance Archer & Davey Boy Smith Jr.) & El Desperado) vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi, Togi Makabe & Henare
Henare picked up an injury on the Togi Makabe anniversary show in February… and now he’s finally back, tagging with Togi in the World Tag League.

Unfortunately, Henare opened up against Davey Boy, and was in a fight early on. Much like last year’s pairing of Nakanishi and Tomoyuki Oka, I sense this is going to be a big of a struggle for the multiple-time league winner Makabe… especially when Henare’s left shin was taped up and a massive target for all.

It was almost like the New Zealander was a tackling dummy for the Suzuki-gun trio, with Davey Boy particularly sensing blood when it came to that shin, wrenching back on it with an Indian deathlock. Henare managed to break free and get a tag out, with Togi Makabe having much better luck against the reigning tag champions… dishing out mounted punches to Archer, who then hit back with a lariat for a near-fall.

Archer tries for an inverted crucifix bomb, but Makabe slips out and lands a lariat before bringing Tanahashi in… and of course, he clears house. Desperado eats a Dragon screw before Archer interferes to spark some 3-on-1 offence, almost ending in a Killer Bomb. Makabe makes the save and clears the ring, before a flying shoulder tackle from Henare looked to do some more damage. In the end, a High Fly Flow to Despy is enough… and if you’re into over analyzing, it says a lot about the KES being unable to put away a near-one-footed Henare when they dominated for so long. **¾

Los Ingobernables de Japon (Tetsuya Naito, BUSHI & Hiromu Takahashi) vs. Kazuchika Okada, Will Ospreay & Gedo
With only two members of LIJ in the World Tag League this year, we’re going to be seeing a LOT of this match, I fear. Not that it’s a bad thing, but so much of the same match being teased quickly becomes grating. Regardless of how good the match is.

Anyway, Korakuen Hall were massively behind Naito at the bell, especially since they thought they were getting Naito/Okada from the off. They even locked up, but we’re quickly into the Ingobernables shenanigans, which Okada fought away from, shoving BUSHI off the apron as Takahashi tended to an ankle that he thought was wounded when Naito threw the G1 winner’s briefcase into it.

LIJ quickly isolate Gedo, with Naito, BUSHI and Hiromu taking shots at him, before Takahashi got poked in the eye. That swung things around as Will Ospreay came in for a brief battle of junior  title contenders – a battle that was swift and fluid, as Ospreay nearly won with a high-angle lifting reverse DDT. Hiromu quickly gets back with the overhead belly-to-belly that almost dumps Will into the top rope, before bringing Naito back inside as tags took us back to where we started. We’re getting ever-so-slightly-more of that WrestleKingdom match in these undercard tags… but it is largely their greatest hits. You know what I mean – Okada’s flapjack, and Naito’s tornado DDT, for instance.

Okada backflips out of Gloria and wiped out his challenger with a dropkick, before we burst into a finishing stretch that almost saw a lungblower from BUSHI get the win… but instead it’s the middle rope lungblower MX that earns the win. Fun stuff, but we’re getting close to this leaving placeholder territory, I feel… ***½

World Tag League 2017 – Block A: Suzuki-gun (Minoru Suzuki & Takashi Iizuka) vs. Hirooki Goto & YOSHI-HASHI
Finally we’re onto tournament matches, and yes, there’s a jump start here as Goto is forced to become a useful tag team partner. After weeks of being worse than useless for Yano, it’s a change… although Goto clearly didn’t learn any of Suzuki’s tricks, as he was caught in an armbar-in-the-ropes pretty early.

All four men brawled through the crowd, with Suzuki making use of chairs, as he’s want to do, before the Suzuki-gun pair double-teamed a specific part of Goto. Namely, his arms.

It’s pretty expected fare here, with Suzuki and Iizuka playing around with Goto like he was a dying animal. Heck, with Iizuka choking him with a rope, it wasn’t too far fetched a scenario. Iizuka’s penchant for biting came back too, but Goto fought free and brought in YOSHI-HASHI, who went to work on Iizuka with a lungblower and a series of chops.

Iizuka backdrops out of an attempt at the flipover powerbomb, and we’re back to Goto and Suzuki, with the latter seemingly revitalised. A top rope elbow nearly does it for Goto, as does a back suplex, but Suzuki throws in something different as a hesitating PK laid out Goto… who hung on in there.

Suzuki swiftly dragged Goto into a rear naked choke, but YOSHI-HASHI tries to break it up… and gets slapped for his troubles. I’m starting to see why Goto did so little before! Iizuka comes back with his oven glove of doom, but he’s stopped from using it as things broke down into a double-team Russian legsweep/running blockbuster combo that drew boos from Korakuen!

It’s been a while since I’ve heard a New Japan crowd boo…

We’re back to Goto and Suzuki as they exchange counters, until YOSHI-HASHI superkicks away a guillotine choke that enabled Goto to land an ushigoroshi, before the GTR – with a side order of boos – got him the win. You have to think that Goto pinning Suzuki here is sewing a seed for something… perhaps a NEVER title match in January? You never know… as a match though, this was a fine, yet unspectacular open to the tag league. ***

Yeah, Suzuki killed a Young Lion after the match. Poor Oka.

World Tag League 2017 – Block A: Los Ingobernables de Japon (EVIL & SANADA) vs. Death Juice (Sami Callihan & Juice Robinson)
As far as mash-up team names go, I’m guessing they figured “Juice Machine” wasn’t as menacing as “Death Juice”, which sounds like a really horrible concoction you’d find in a seedy convenience store.

The opening stages were rather cagey, at least until Callihan tagged in and booted SANADA in the face, as his own way of saying “I want EVIL”. Okay. Another boot greets EVIL as SANADA decides to try and get some retribution… and instead gets himself half of a double dropkick as the newly-formed pair looked to take over. That didn’t quite go to plan, as EVIL and SANADA made use of the guard rails, as they’re mandated to do.

EVIL introduces Callihan to the baseball bat chair shot, which saw someone in the front row get a little too familiar with a flying chair. All whilst SANADA wrang Juice by his own dreadlocks. Hoisted by his own hair/petard, I see!

Things turn around again when Sami gets the tag, as he took the Ingobernables outside for a low-pe, ahead of a sliding forearm smash to EVIL for a near-fall. It’s weird to see New Japan giving a debuting character like Callihan this much spotlight, as he effectively pushed Juice to the back burner for large spells of the match. At least until SANADA tied him in a Paradise lock… something that Juice just stood on the floor and watched happen.

Juice finally gets a tag back in, leading to him flipping SANADA with a lariat, before countering the double-leap dropkick with a powerbomb for a near-fall. The back-and-forth resumes as Juice and SANADA exchanged the advantage, with the Ingobernables slowly looking comfortable as they teased… a Magic Killer?! Is this foreshadowing with a team under contract elsewhere, perhaps?

Anyway, Callihan breaks it up as a Parade of Moves breaks out, ending with Juice blasting EVIL with a Fireman’s Carry Gutbuster, before “Death Juice” pratfalled their way into a pair of dropkicks. Juice is forced to kick out from a Magic Killer, before taking Darkness Falls for another near-fall from EVIL… Sami bites his way out of the EVIL STO, as the new tandem punch their way ahead… and there’s some more boos. What’s going on?! In the end, EVIL takes the pin after Sami planted him with a Pedigree-ish shoulderbreaker, before Pulp Friction earned Juice the three-count. A solid main event, and a shocking as all-hell result. Hands up who had Sami Callihan winning on his New Japan debut? Not many, I see… ***¼

After two matches in block A, we’re at the rather obvious situation:
Hirooki Goto & YOSHI-HASHI; Sami Callihan & Juice Robinson (1-0; 2pts)
Bad Luck Fale & Chase Owens; Hangman Page & Yujiro Takahashi; Hiroyoshi Tenzan & Satoshi Kojima; Manabu Nakanishi & Yuji Nagata (0-0; 0pts)
EVIL & SANADA; Minoru Suzuki & Takashi Iizuka (0-1; 0pts)

All-in-all, the opening night of the World Tag League tour was solid, but not much else. One of those shows that is eminently skippable if you’ve only a passing interest in New Japan. I’d have liked to have had more than two tournament matches, but it is what it is. We’ve 19 shows to cram these matches in, and the bulk of these will be airing on-demand on NJPWWorld – from our favourite fixed-camera position. We’ll be covering those as and when they go up, with the next live show being on November 30, with the Korakuen Hall date being headlined with War Machine vs. KES.