Sometimes, when you witness an exemplary piece of wrestling booking, you just have to revel in it. Last weekend, Will Ospreay defended the IWGP US (UK) Championship at New Japan's Power Struggle, facing one of New Japan's new "Three Musketeers," Shota Umino. Just another day at the office for Will...if I were going to rank my top 10 matches of 2023 today, Ospreay would probably be in like three of the top five. In this match, he was tasked with helping bring young Shooter to the next level, and for 40 minutes in Osaka, they told a story with layers.
Ospreay, despite holding the #2 men's singles title in NJPW, is possibly out the door in February, as his contract ends and he has said he's open to all offers. The thought of Ospreay in WWE opens the possibility for tons of fresh dream match-ups, but he wouldn't get to do many of these EPIC matches, and would no longer have Gedo's booking guiding things, so when the crowd roared with appreciative "OSPREAY! OSPREAY!" chants, it was an obvious show of gratitude and love from a crowd that will hate to see him go. Who could possibly fill his shoes in New Japan?
Going into the match, Will claimed that he desperately wants Shota to take his spot. Shota Umino is part of a group of former Young Lions, along with Yota Tsuji & Ren Narita, considered the top three stars of the next generation of the New Japan roster. Shota is a bit of a nepo baby, too -- he happens to be the son of New Japan's top ref, Red Shoes Unno. There are a lot of expectations behind Shota, largely because of this pedigree, and because he also happened to be mentored in his Young Lion days by one Jon Moxley, who beat the ever-loving piss out of Umino in his first-ever New Japan match, then eagerly took Shota under his wing, affectionately nicknaming him "Shooter" and teaching him the finer points of Mox's brand of wrestling. When Umino came back from his excursion in England (he was sent to RevPro in the UK during Covid to develop his individual style and gimmick, as is the norm with the Young Lion program), he adopted a personality largely based on his time with Mox. He wears a white leather jacket to the ring, the name "SHOOTER" emblazoned on his back. He carries a second black jacket in tribute to Moxley. He's the "Roughneck," hinting at a more physical, violent style of in-ring work, although he hasn't really indulged the bloodier facets of Moxley's oeuvre quite yet. And he quite possibly considers Ospreay a measuring stick because Shooter's first match back from excursion was on a show where Moxley beat Ospreay in the main event - a New Japan Strong show in Chicago last year (which I had the fortune to be in attendance at). (Note - Mox's win over Ospreay was a controversial one, as Will kicked out, but the ref missed it and counted three anyway. This will come in to play later.)
During the 40 minute main event at Power Struggle, Ospreay and Shota went back and forth, slowly escalating the violent stakes. Ospreay started out dominant, with Umino working from underneath for the first 15 minutes or so. As soon as he managed to take over, though, things really picked up. Ospreay put the two of them through a pair of tables at ringside. Both men aggressively threw each other into the ringside barricades. If I remember correctly, Shota started bleeding at some point. But as the match wore on, Umino slowly built up enough momentum to where the Osaka crowd was solidly behind him to win the match.
As the match crescendoed in the final 15, Umino dug deep into his bag of tricks to try to put a reeling Ospreay away. But the issue with Shota Umino at this stage of his career is this: he's still borrowing the majority of his personality, gimmick -- and crucially, his moveset -- from other people. Everything he tried to put Ospreay away with was a shoutout to one of his influences. He used Masahiro Chono's STF to try to force a tapout. He used Moxley's Death Rider double-arm butterfly DDT multiple times, including one brutal delivery from the top rope. Ospreay kicked out every time. Shota even tried putting Will away with one of Ospreay's own moves, the Hidden Blade running elbow strike to the back of the head. But nothing put Ospreay down for the count, because Shota Umino has yet to take his offense and truly make it his own. Sure, everyone in New Japan borrows moves from their mentors and influences in tribute -- the current champ SANADA uses the Great Muta's moonsault as a finisher. But in the case of Shota Umino, his moveset and personality still resembles more cover band than original band playing a cover here or there. He's back from excursion but is still finding himself.
And because of this, Ospreay, after 40 minutes, was able to put Umino down with his Stormbreaker finisher. Will Ospreay may be out the door in a few months, but he's still IWGP US -- no, UK champion, a change Ospreay declared as a proud UK citizen, even making a new belt and parading around with both US and UK designs of the same championship.
After the match, a distraught Shota Umino bowed his head low in respect, and Will, having realized that despite losing, Shota is absolutely capable of filling his shoes, bowed in return. But then, after that mutual show of respect, Will Ospreay turned his attention to Umino's mentor, the man who had run down to ringside in the closing third of the match to support his padawan -- Jon Moxley.
Ospreay hasn't forgotten how a referee blew the result of Ospreay and Mox's first-ever meeting a year and a half ago in Chicago, and it still stings. Will needs to prove to the world and himself that he can legitimately defeat Mox. And so he called Jon into the ring to challenge him for the US (UK) title at Wrestle Kingdom on Jan. 4. Mox gleefully accepted -- he's a former US champ himself and carried the belt all the way through the dark Covid period of 2020. He respects that championship. So a one-on-one match at WK for some very high stakes was about to be minted...until Bullet Club leader Dave Finlay stormed the ring and attacked both men.
Dave Finlay is the latest leader of Bullet Club, the son of Fit Finlay, and a man bound and determined to be seen as New Japan's top gaijin talent, whether or not Will Ospreay is in the company. He also, in classic Bullet Club form, loves to piss off the audience by disrespecting tradition, the company, its titles, you name it. (There are a LOT of people who don't buy him in the Bullet Club leader role yet as well -- including former leader Jay White, who lost a Loser Leaves Japan match and now stubbornly leads his own splinter Bullet Club Gold faction in AEW.) So after jumping both Ospreay and Mox, Dave Finlay disrespected both men by taking a sledgehammer to both the US and UK iterations of Ospreay's championship, smashing both belts to pieces, and hoisting the trash in the air defiantly as the crowd booed.
So now, at Wrestle Kingdom, we, naturally, have a triple-threat match ready to go, with loads of juice. Will Ospreay vs. Jon Moxley vs. Dave Finlay for what Ospreay has claimed will be a new Championship. He hinted at combining the US and UK belts and reviving the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, a beloved title that was merged into the IWGP World Title in 2021 -- a move seen by many as a mistake. Ospreay indicated in his post-match comments that the new title was one he would want to take the IC title's place, even if it wouldn't have that same name. Well, as it so happens, Jon Moxley has an earlier date in AEW next weekend at Full Gear for Orange Cassidy's AEW *International* Championship -- a title that Mox won from Orange at All Out but swiftly dropped to Rey Fenix after suffering a mid-match concussion during a title defense. Personally, i think the smart money is on Moxley and Cassidy having yet another banger for the title, with Moxley winning it back once again, and taking the title along to WrestleKingdom in the Tokyo Dome. Will the new IWGP belt be a counterpart to the AEW International Championship -- an IWGP International Title? Will the new belt merge with the AEW title and be co-promoted by both companies? (I'm guessing no to that one, but a nerd can dream about the most out there possibilities.)
In the span of about an hour, Gedo and his wrestlers established Shota Umino as a young rising main eventer, demonstrated yet again why Will Ospreay is one of the best in the world at what he's doing, and set the table for a match at their biggest show that will be packed with heat and intrigue. The main event of Power Struggle was New Japan at its best.
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