How NJPW Revived Their Tag Division In 2020

Tag team wrestling back on form.

Golden Aces
Source: NJPW

2020 has been a strange year for New Japan’s Pro Wrestling with EVIL getting a short stint as IWGP Intercontinental and Heavyweight Champion, the odd situation with the G1 winner’s briefcase and the sheer mass of tournaments since its return.

The company’s tag team division has certainly not been an exception to this rule, but perhaps the strangeness in this sense has been a positive influence on the scene, leading to a desperately needed resurgence taking place.

New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s tag team division has become very stale in the last few years. Teams like Guerrillas of Destiny, EVIL and SANADA, and to a lesser extent, FinJuice, became the regulars at the top of the division. The tired nature of the division’s zenith made tag team feuds boring, repetitive and unimportant in the grand scheme of NJPW.

However, this has all changed since the return of New Japan in June, as the tag division has garnered main event level focus. This is thanks to the top-tier teams that have been featured, namely the Golden Aces (Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kota Ibushi) and, reigning champions, Dangerous Tekkers (Zack Sabre Jr. and Taichi).

The enforced lay-off G.O.D have endured has been good for New Japan, and the team in itself, because upon their return for this year’s World Tag League they are a fresh commodity, who seem interesting once again. I’ll be honest, the current moment is the most excited I have ever been to see G.O.D, perhaps evidencing the famous saying ‘absence makes the heart great fonder’.

New Japan’s “franchise” team have been IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Champions six times in less than four years, while EVIL and SANADA won back-to-back World Tag Leagues in 2016-17. No wonder new teams have had such a positive impact on the division as a whole.

Speaking of these new teams, Golden Aces and Dangerous Tekkers have provided one of this year’s best feuds in New Japan. Their couple of matches (Dominion in Osaka-Jo-Hall and Summer Struggle in Jingu) were fantastic; marrying interesting storylines, quality wrestling and character development.

The Golden Aces pairing have added intriguing character wrinkles to both Ibushi and Tanahashi, as the former battled to do both men’s work, due to the latter’s knee injury, which played an important role in both matches. Importantly, it allowed Ibushi to continue his campaign to “become God”, stocking the fire for a potential main event match between the two.

The other thrilling entity in this equation was, the now reigning champions, Dangerous Tekkers. The Suzuki-gun duo are so effortlessly enjoyable to watch, with their chemistry, excellent heel work as well as their superb strategy of attacking a single body part – in this case Hiroshi Tanahashi’s knees.

The two teams gelled really well together, which is of course important in any rivalry, as it provides the basis for great matches to be built upon. From EVIL and SANADA plus G.O.D to Golden Aces and Dangerous Tekkers, the tag titles have been elevated from an undercard mainstay to potential semi-main and main-event worthy championships.

With better wrestlers usually comes better matches, so with Tanahashi, Ibushi, ZSJ and Taichi you expect an increase in match quality. For me both title matches this summer were above 4 stars, this has not been the case in IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship matches for several years.

Not only have Golden Aces vs Dangerous Tekkers been impressive, the rivalry of recent weeks with the Suzuki-gun team taking on Chaos’ Hirooki Goto and Yoshi-Hashi has too. This match went over 30 minutes – something that is incredibly rare for a tag match in the current era of NJPW.

This begins to explore the depth of New Japan’s Heavyweight Tag Team scene, which has been mostly unexplored. The newest high-level team is of course Great O-Khan and Jeff Cobb, who only came together on the opening night of World Tag League 2020. They add an interesting possible direction, with a WTL victory and subsequent Wrestle Kingdom challenge entirely possible.

Despite the glorious state of the Heavyweight Tag Team division, the Junior Heavyweights haven’t been so lucky. With a short tournament in the summer months, culminating with Suzuki-gun’s Yoshinobu Kanemaru and El Desperado becoming the 62nd champions, the titles have only been defended once since. It so happens that this match – vs. Hiromu Takahashi and BUSHI in Korakuen Hall – was very good, but it still illustrates the lack of teams as they have been the only clear challengers.

However, this has multiple causes, firstly, the fact that injuries have hampered the division, namely YOH’s ACL and this past fortnight Kanemaru’s knee. These injuries have made the talent pool even smaller, meaning New Japan were forced to throw Yuya Uemura into BOSJ at the last minute.

Secondly, the losses of such high-quality talents as Shingo Takagi and Will Ospreay to the heavyweight ranks, have meant the jr. division is lacking somewhat in depth. Hiromu Takahashi and Taiji Ishimori are the stars of the jr. heavyweights at present, with SHO and Robbie Eagles knocking on the door. Beyond this, there are no standout talents that could challenge for the titles in a meaningful match.

Thirdly, the lackluster debut of Hirai Kawato as Master Wato is certainly evidence of a pattern of booking decisions that raise more questions than they answer. This was a much-needed opportunity to bolster the jr. heavyweight ranks by adding a once highly regarded Young Lion after time in Mexico’s CMLL. His return was marred by a childish gimmick, horrendous ring-gear (and hair) and an odd choice of first opponent.

Despite its troubles, I remain optimistic that there is still a chance for the jr. heavyweight tag team division to join the resurgence of their heavyweight counterparts.

All in all, it has perhaps been the perfect storm for the heavyweight tag team ranks to flourish, with the fantastic new teams adding star quality, great matches and compelling storylines to the now rejuvenated division.

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