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5-Star Match Reviews: The Golden Lovers (Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi) vs. The Young Bucks – NJPW Strong Style Evolved (03/25/18)

This is one of the most polarizing matches in modern wrestling history. Some people really love it, especially because it features Kenny Omega, Kota Ibushi and The Young Bucks. At the same time, some people hate it because…it features Kenny Omega, Kota Ibushi and The Young Bucks. It was said to be amazing when it first happened and was believed to be a genuine dream match for many people. Now, three years after the dust settled, we look back to see if this match really did deserve all the heaping praise it got.

Today we revisit the tag team match between The Golden Lovers (Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi) and The Young Bucks from NJPW Strong Style Evolved 2018.

As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.

The story

This story unfolded over the course of many months on NJPW’s regular shows, Ring of Honor’s shows, and especially on the Young Bucks’ weekly YouTube show Being The Elite. Basically, The Bucks and Omega were a very close subgroup within The Bullet Club called ‘The Elite’. They were extremely close to each other, having had countless matches together and having spent countless days traveling together. But by 2018, things started to fall apart for the Bullet Club and for The Elite.

After Omega finished his feud with Chris Jericho, he was suddenly attacked by Cody Rhodes. Rhodes was looking to take over The Bullet Club for himself and saw Omega as a threat. But as Cody attacked Omega, Omega was saved by Kota Ibushi, a man that Omega hadn’t really crossed paths with in years. And after saving Omega, the two of them shook hands and hugged, marking the reuniting of the Golden Lovers.

But as the weeks passed, a rift between Omega and the Bucks seemed to form. Omega was spending more time teaming with Ibushi, leading to some jealousy and possible dissension among them. Omega in particular found himself torn between two sides, especially since it seemed that Cody was whispering falsehoods into the Bucks’ ears.

Eventually, things reached a boiling point and the Bucks could take no more of Omega being stuck between The Bullet Club (and the Elite) on one side and Ibushi on the other. Thus, the Bucks announced they were moving up to the heavyweight division, which put them in direct competition with Omega and Ibushi. And in an attempt to solve this heated issue between them once and for all, a match was announced for Strong Style Evolved, which was one of the very few events NJPW held in the United States.

The match

This match originally took place on March 25, 2018. Matt has an injured back going into this match, which is why he has a weight belt around his waist.

Before the bell even rings, Omega and Matt get in each other’s faces. Matt and Ibushi start things off, but Matt walks right past Ibushi and shouts ‘I want Kenny’. They soak in the loud ‘Kenny chants’ and Omega tags in. they seem to have an intense argument – yes, a verbal argument in the opening of this big match – and Matt cheapshots Ibushi on the apron. Omega looks conflicted as he tags Ibushi and Matt tags Nick. They take a long time to lock up, and once the crowd starts chanting for both of them. They dive into a long reversal and dodging sequence. Lots of flips and handsprings here. Ibushi goes for a Greco-Roman knuckle lock but Nick fights out quickly. He goes for a superkick, Ibushi blocks, they high kick each other, and Ibushi drops Nick with a huge second kick. Matt tags in and rushes Ibushi, but Ibushi ducks and punts him in the small of his back. Matt lets out a loud scream as he falls to the mat. Ibushi starts stomping on that exact same spot until Omega comes in to stop him.

Omega seems conflicted here, torn between Ibushi and the Bucks. Omega lifts Matt up but Matt pushes him aside violently. Omega insists he was trying to help him, and then some chaos ensues. Nick comes in and attacks both Omega and Ibushi, but they double-team elbow him down. They go for a double-team combo on Matt, but Matt holds onto the ropes and dodges Omega and Omega falls ringside. Facebuster/corkscrew neckbreaker combo on Ibushi. Hiptoss/flipping dropkick combo on Omega. Aided baseball side dropkick on Ibushi. The Bucks look to continue their tandem offense, but Omega cuts them off and Nick ends up hitting Matt. Omega goes for his suicide dive, but runs into a superkick from Nick. Aided springboard senton by Nick.

Nick lands a leg drop on Ibushi as Matt pulls out a table from underneath the ring. Nick whips Ibushi hard into a corner and then does the same into his team’s corner. Ibushi knocks Matt off the apron and tries to get his feet up for a charging Nick, but Nick sees him coming and lands a neckbreaker, allowing Matt to land a somersault senton.

Matt tags in and whips Ibushi hard into his corner, but Ibushi fights out and Matt ends up knocking Nick off the apron. Ibushi follows with a stiff kick to Matt’s injured back and charges to a corner but Matt gives chase. Ibushi sees him coming and runs to another corner…and dives onto Nick ringside out of nowhere.

Ibushi crawls to Omega for a tag but Matt tries to hold him back. Ibushi gets closer to his corner but Nick knocks Omega off the apron at the last possible second. Matt takes advantage by hitting a turnbuckle powerbomb with Matt kicking Ibushi’s head for extra damage. But Matt hurts his back some more in the process. Matt pins but Omega makes the save. Ibushi tries to reach Omega again but Matt cuts him off.

Matt charges but walks into a huge dropkick from Ibushi. Omega tags in and runs wild. Diving crossbody. Double ax handles. Nick ducks a discus clothesline and whips Omega. Omega reverses an Irish whip. Nick counters into an elbow that sends Omega into the ropes. The Bucks double team hurricanrana Ibushi. Matt holds onto Omega’s head for a double-team move and Nick charges, but Ibushi stops Nick with a springboard dropkick and then punts a trapped Matt in the back once again.

Now it’s the Golden Lovers’ chance for double teams. Roundhouse kick/facecrusher combo on Nick and Nick falls out of the ring. They tease some big double-team move called a ‘cross clash’. Both Omega and Ibushi run to different corners. Omega lands a triangle moonsault on Nick. Ibushi botches his but covers with a headlock takedown. Back in the ring, it’s time for another double-team. Omega lands a rolling fireman’s carry slam and Ibushi lands a running shooting star splash. Omega lands a second-rope moonsault and almost collides with Ibushi in the process. Ibushi lands his own second-tope moonsault and pins, but Matt kicks out, despite both Ibushi and Omega pinning him.

Omega starts hitting Matt’s back extra hard, prompting Matt to ask ‘does that feel good, Kenny?’ Omega seems to be slightly conflicted as he whips Matt hard into a corner and tags Ibushi. Ibushi follows Omega’s example by attacking Matt’s back, and Matt responds by powering up and then spits on Ibushi. Ibushi responds to this by hitting a few elbows and tagging Omega. Not the response I was expecting for a man that just got spat on, but whatever.

Omega lands a running backbreaker and Matt appears to be on the verge of crying, he’s in such pain. Ibushi tags in again and lands a snapmare and a chinlock, but Matt elbows out. He escapes the ring momentarily to knock Omega off the apron and dodges Ibushi to reach his brother, but Ibushi cuts him off by hitting his back again. Ibushi whips Matt, Matt slides under the ring and goes to attack Omega, but Omega counters into a back suplex onto the apron. Matt lands hard on his back, and yet somehow makes less noise than when he hit a softer surface in Omega’s knee. In the ring, Ibushi goes for a back suplex but Matt lands on his feet (which apparently doesn’t hurt his back at all) and makes a critical tag to Nick.

Nick charges in and lands a flurry of different strikes to both Ibushi and Omega, then lands a running bulldog/clothesline one-on-two combo move. Nick places Ibushi in the corner but Omega cuts him off with a chop, only to get reverse whipped into a corner. Omega flips over Nick and lands a snap hurricanrana, but Nick flips out of it and lands a backstabber on Ibushi. Omega looks flustered all of a sudden and sees Matt on the apron and charges but flies out of the ring instead. Nick lands a topé on Omega and a Nagata-style corner knee lift on Ibushi. Matt follows with an aided running shiranui, followed by Nick with a running knee (complete with obvious thigh slap) for two.

Nick goes to the top rope, but Matt tags in and asks his brother to do a double-team move. They’re thinking of the double 450- Splash that Omega and Ibushi do. But before they can fly off, Ibushi cuts them off and tries to superplex Matt. Matt resists, so Omega comes in to help and they land a double-team superplex on Matt. The Golden Lovers go for the Golden Shower (their double 450 splash, which in hindsight is a dreadful move name), but they get cut off. Apron German suplex by Nick onto Omega.

Nick sets up a table and places Omega onto it. Matt has to choose between diving onto Ibushi or onto Omega. The two brothers argue and Matt shifts back and forth. But that delay allows Ibushi to bicycle kick Matt. But then, Nick clotheslines Ibushi out of the ring. Meanwhile, Omega gets up, sees the table, and gets a great idea. He hoists Matt up for the One-Winged Angel. Matt tries to fight out of the OWA into the table, but here comes Ibushi. He springboards onto the top rope and grabs Matt. And then German suplexes Matt off Omega’s shoulders into the ring for a close two-count. Damn, that was crazy.

Ibushi and Omega go for their Golden Trigger double knee strike but Nick grabs Omega’s leg and drags him out of the ring. Ibushi goes for his own Kamigoye knee strike but Matt avoids it and starts brawling with Ibushi. Ibushi lands a KENTA rush and goes for a clothesline but takes too long and gets superkicked by Matt. Matt fires up and charges…but eats a V-Trigger for his efforts. Followed by a clothesline from Ibushi. Last Ride Powerbomb. Matt kicks out at 2.8. Ibushi lifts Matt so that Matt’s sitting up, allowing Omega to land another V-Trigger. Ibushi pins again. Nick makes the save.

Omega tosses Nick out of the ring and Ibushi punts Matt’s back some more. Ibushi continues with those kicks until Matt can take no more and unloads on him. That doesn’t last long as Ibushi lands some chest kicks and when Matt dodges one Ibushi goes for a standing moonsault, only for Matt to get his knees up. Sharpshooter by Matt out of nowhere. Despite the damage to his back, Matt tries to make Ibushi tap out. Omega sees this and hits Matt in the face, but Matt doesn’t relinquish the hold right away. Then, out of anger, Matt bolts to his feet and demands Omega hit him. Omega obliges, but eats a superkick from Nick for his efforts. Omega escapes to ringside. Nick dives onto him from the top rope. Matt reapplies the sharpshooter. Ibushi crawls to the ropes. Nick cuts him off with a springboard facebuster and lands a tornado DDT onto Omega to the floor. Matt sits back and tightens the hold as much as possible. But he can’t go any further. His back gives out and he collapses.

Matt tags Nick and goes for a fireman’s carry, but can’t do so right away without Nick’s help. Nick dropkicks Omegsa off the apron and the Bucks go for More Bang For Your Buck. But Matt makes a last-minute change. Instead of moonsaulting onto Ibushi, he lands a diving elbow onto Omega through the table.

Back in the ring, The Bucks lands a double-team rope-hung 450 splash onto Ibushi for a close two-count. Ibushi tries to fight both Bucks two on one, but they overpower and double superkick him instead. then Omega superkicks Nick and charges towards Matt. But Matt gets his feet up and boots Omega and goes for a springboard, only for Omega to cut him off. Omega goes for the OWA but gets tossed into another superkick instead. followed by another. They try to double-team Ibushi, but he Pélé kicks them both.

Thirty minutes have passed as the crowd chants ‘fight forever’. Omega and Matt tag in and start punching eachother hard in the face. They go back and forth with punches for a while until Omega lands a snap dragon suplex. Matt completely no-sells and lands a piledriver. Matt takes off the weight belt he has been wearing throughout the match and start whipping Omega with it. How that isn’t a DQ for using a weapon is beyond me. The ref tries to pull it away but Matt overpowers him and swings at Omega again. Omega ducks and forearms Matt’s lower back once more and he falls to his knees. Omega grabs the belt and teases being torn between using it or not. He decides not to, throws the belt aside, and lands another V-Trigger knee to Matt’s face. Matt barely moves, so Omega lands another one. Omega isn’t done and goes for a third one. But Matt counters with a spear.

Matt goes to slam Omega but can’t and Ibushi tries to stop Nick from getting into the ring but can’t. Nick aids Matt in holding Omega up in the Tombstone position and goes to the rope. They’re going for the Meltzer Driver. But Ibushi stops Nick from flying and powerbombs him through a table. The Golden Lovers take control of the match. Meltzer Driver. Matt kicks out. Electric chair into a roundhouse kick followed by a gutwrench powerbomb. Matt kicks out again. Omega signals for another v-Trigger but hesitates in charging for it. That hesitation allows Matt to land another superkick. Ibushi answers with a kick to Matt’s back and helps Omega set up the V-Trigger (instead of, you know, hitting a move himself). V-Trigger #5 from Omega. Omega goes for OWA…but he can’t do it. Matt yells at Omega to do it anyway. Omega lands the OWA and pins. One, two, NO, Nick saves his brother and the match!

Nick tries to protect his brother and gets in Omega’s face. He unloads on both Omega and Ibushi. Omega hits him with a V-Trigger. Ibushi lands a German suplex. Nick gets thrown out of the ring. Both Omega and Ibushi pull down their knee pads. Golden Trigger double knee strike to Matt. One, two, three! There’s the match.

Winners after 39:21: The Golden Lovers (Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi)

Review

Oh, God, where to begin with this match?

If there was ever a poster child for ‘overkill’ in professional wrestling, it would be this match. It was all style and no substance. What was supposed to be an intense display of athleticism ended up being a jumbled mess that went way too long. And what was supposed to be a match that told a story of bitter personal jealousy ended up being a perfect example of overacting and exaggerated melodrama.

What should’ve been done in fifteen minutes of airtight and focused wrestling was stretched and bloated to almost forty minutes long. And to make the most of that timeframe, these four wrestlers put on a self-indulgent spot-fest that fell into the typical ‘peak-valley-peak-valley’ rollercoaster that peaked early instead of being built up gradually to a decisive crescendo of a finish.

The match was chaotic from the very beginning and fell apart soon after. For the first ten minutes, both teams actually followed basic tag rules and the match seemed to make sense. But thereafter, both sides basically went into tornado rules mode and interfered nonstop, rendering the point of tagging in completely moot. That was annoying because it betrayed the established rules of the match. Why didn’t the referee do more to have only one person from each side in the ring at once? Because both sides had to ‘get their moves in’ to pop the crowd, logic and story be damned.

That’s a major problem with how wrestling matches today are put together. There’s this unyielding mentality among modern wrestlers that you have to do everything in a match otherwise the crowd won’t appreciate what you do. And in my opinion, that’s a completely moronic philosophy because it creates this atmosphere of phoniness. A great example was when Matt held Omega up for the Meltzer Driver and saw Ibushi knock his brother off the apron. But instead of simply dropping his knees to hurt Omega and possibly win the match, Matt threw a vulnerable Omega aside over a silly distraction. Why? Because the Meltzer Driver requires two people to pull off, even though the person holding up the intended victim does 95% of the work. And by doing so, Matt enabled the Golden Lovers to gain enough momentum to win the match.

Then there was the story. At first, they actually did a tremendous job of building this as a bitter personal war. The Bucks, Matt in particular, seemed hellbent on making Omega regret teaming up with Ibushi some more and seemed downright hostile with him at many points. Meanwhile, Omega was conflicted and seemed reluctant to hurt either of his opponents, leaving him stuck between being friends with them and wanting to win the match with his other friend Ibushi. And for a while, that emotional conflict carried the match in the right direction. Then Matt started getting his back worked over and things fell into overkill territory. The way Matt sold was exaggerated to the point of being comical, and not in a good way. His screams and comments he’d shout at Kenny came across as forced and cringy instead of realistic and badass. Even though he was probably in real pain due to real back problems, it was next to impossible to take him seriously. And this problem was compounded by how he wrestled.

Matt got the piss beaten out of him and seemed like he couldn’t decide on how to sell what was happening to him. At several points, he’d eat a forearm to his back and scream out like he’d been stabbed in the kidneys. Minutes later, he’d get tossed into something much harder back-first and would barely sell, before doing a flip or landing a surprise move out of nowhere while being seemingly unfazed. He really did sell in two different ways, both of which were polar extremes of each other. He sold well, like when he couldn’t continue applying the sharpshooter because his back hurt too much. And he sold terribly, like when he flipped around to get his tandem moves in, despite supposedly being in extreme pain.

What this match really highlighted is these wrestlers’ annoying tendency to make everything so blatantly choreographed. The Bucks are perhaps the most notorious wrestlers not named Will Ospreay to have this philosophy. Most of their offense consisted of corner strikes, flips, and tandem attacks that defied conventional tag team moves. Sure, they looked impressive as acrobats. But very little of their actual offense came across as convincing. There’s something about the way the Bucks in particular wrestle that makes their offensive moves look like they don’t really hurt. Even if their opponents sell as much as they could (which happened here), it was still hard to believe that the Bucks’ moves were actually doing damage to either Omega or Ibushi, especially since those two have been through much more with much stronger opponents.

But the Bucks weren’t alone in having that problem. Omega and Ibushi were equally guilty of building the match around ‘spots’ and ‘sequences’ instead of around the story. Worse, they had some misses and near-misses that almost ended badly. It wasn’t caught on camera but Ibushi botched a corner moonsault onto one of the Bucks. And moments later, Omega did a moonsault and almost collided heads with Ibushi in what could’ve been a major injury to either one. That sort of nonsense underscores why these ‘spot-fest’ matches don’t hold up compared to their predecessors. When wrestlers put everything possible into a single match and don’t save anything for later, their appeal wares off much faster. This mentality comes about wherein you start believing that if you’ve seen one of their matches you’ve seen them all. And instead of telling a nuanced story through subtlety on top of their actions, they make everything so blatant and obvious to the point that they’re basically spelling everything out for you, instead of letting the viewer piece things together for themselves.

Worse still, these wrestlers really did some pointless stuff here that was supposed to be dramatic and exciting but didn’t actually make sense. A great example was when Matt was in position for the OWA, which in this wrestling universe is a guaranteed match-ender if Omega gets the pin. So, according to this ‘logic’, Matt wanted Omega to hit him with his ultimate finisher, even if Omega himself had doubts about doing so, because…why? Why would Matt risk losing such a big match to get under Omega’s skin? It just didn’t make any sense and that sort of dramatic tension could’ve been built up in a different, less harmful way.

Out of the four wrestlers involved, the only one that didn’t do anything particularly bad was Ibushi. He was basically a side character in the Omega-Bucks melodrama, but he was also the most focused and straightforward wrestler in the match. He hit hard, had perfect timing and great facials, and came across as more of a threat to the Bucks than Omega could hope to be. When he was in the ring, the match was great because the Bucks couldn’t try and make him feel ‘conflicted’ about anything. He was the easiest wrestler to rally behind because, quite simply, he wanted to win. And when he was trying to help Omega deal with his personal conflicts, Ibushi facials, body language and actions were subtle and more realistic. He knew what the hell he was doing and didn’t bother with exaggerating, which cannot be said of the other three wrestlers involved here.

Final Rating: ***1/2

If there was ever a match that gave credence to the theory that Dave Meltzer has a personal bias towards these wrestlers (and particularly Omega) it was this one. There is no way this is a perfect 5-star match in any conceivable way. The match’s positives – the athleticism, counters and explosiveness – were completely weighed down by a contrived set of rules, nonsensical and chaotic match structure, unrealistic selling and overemphasized melodrama.

Kenny Omega has had, and would go on to have, much better matches than this one. Same for Kota Ibushi and the Young Bucks. This was supposed to be a dream match of epic proportions, the pinnacle of what these four men could do. But it just didn’t work. These four wrestlers tried to craft a match that could be everything to everyone. But it ended up being a ‘jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none’ contest that did decently well in almost every aspect but failed to excel in any of them.

While there was some good athleticism here, there’s nothing exceptional about this match in any way. If you’ve seen The Young Bucks wrestle on TV, there’s no need to see this match. If you’ve seen all of Omega’s biggest matches, he didn’t bring anything new to the table here either. And if you’re a fan of Kota Ibushi, you’ll be disappointed here because he very much took a backseat to the Omega-Bucks melodrama and never got to really shine.

It’s unfortunately ironic that this match was so disappointing. The Bucks and Omega wanted to show their critics that they could apply proper psychology and story in their matches. They tried that approach here and the result was…meh. At least they learned from their mistakes. Two years later, they ended up having a much better tag match in AEW. At least in that match they learned from their errors here and didn’t ham things up with the exaggerations.

Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.