In the future, 2021 will be remembered as a great year in pro-wrestling, despite the horrible circumstances in the world around it. That calendar year featured a whopping twenty matches rated 5-stars or higher by the (in)famous Wrestling Observer written by Dave Meltzer.
Of those twenty, half took place in New Japan Pro-Wrestling. And the one we’re looking at today was said to be the best out of all of them.
Not only was it said to be better than any other New Japan match in 2021, but it also scored higher than every match that year. It was said to be so great that it went beyond normal levels of historic greatness and into the mythical level of 6-star matches. But was it really that great, or was it just a bunch of hoopla over something we’ve already seen before? Read on to find out.
Today we revisit the 6-star World Title match between Will Ospreay and Shingo Takagi from NJPW Wrestling Dontaku 2021.
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.
This was the fourth-ever singles match between Ospreay and Takagi. Their first match was in the finals of the 2019 Best of the Super Juniors tournament, which saw Ospreay end Takagi’s undefeated streak in New Japan. They met again a year later in the 2020 G1 Climax tournament when both had graduated to the heavyweight division and Takagi evened the score. Then in March 2021, Ospreay beat Takagi in the finals of the 2021 New Japan Cup. With that third win, Ospreay earned a shot at, and beat Kota Ibushi to win, the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship.
This was to be the first big match of a new era in New Japan. The old IWGP Heavyweight title going back to 1987 and the IWGP Intercontinental title had been merged into one new title that Ospreay now carried. He wanted to start this new title’s existence on a high note with a big title defense, and his first challenger was none other than Takagi.
For many people, this was a huge match-up given these wrestlers’ shared history. Ospreay was seen as the future of pro-wrestling by many people and he had plenty of supporters among both fans and his peers. Meanwhile, Takagi had risen through the ranks since 2018 and had matured from just another junior from Dragon Gate to a believable and exciting badass fighter. But which of them would win? There was only one way to find out.
This match originally took place on May 4th, 2021 on night two of NJPW’s Wrestling Dontaku event. It was rated ******, which was an astronomically high rating. Only six other matches have received a similar rating or higher since 1989.
This is for Ospreay’s IWGP World Heavyweight Championship. After some teasing, they lock up and wrestle for control against the ropes. Takagi breaks free and goes for a cheap-shot, but Ospreay ducks and goes for a hook kick that Takagi likewise ducks. They trade side headlocks and then neither man budges on a running shoulder tackle. Then they decide to trade forearms and neither man backs down. Takagi catches a kick and double chops Ospreay to the mat but Ospreay kips up immediately. A lightning-quick exchange ends in a stalemate.
After more teasing, they do the Greco-Roman knuckle lock and Ospreay gets an early advantage until Takagi counters an Irish whip and lands a back body drop. He applies a double-arm stretch with his knee in Ospreay’s back and then lands a shoulder tackle/senton combo for a one-count. Ospreay fights out of a chinlock and blocks another back body drop, only for Takagi to clothesline him out of the ring. Takagi goes to whip Ospreay into the barricade but Ospreay counters. Ospreay goes for a back suplex on the mats. Takagi counters with a takeover and dropkicks Ospreay, sending him face-first into the barricade. Takagi uses everything around him by pushing him into and dropping him onto any hard surface he can find. He tosses Ospreay back into the ring and warns Ospreay’s stablemates to back off. But that split-second distraction allows Ospreay to dropkick Takagi off the apron. Takagi gets thrown into the barricade and suplexed onto the ring apron.
Ospreay goes over to kiss his title belt and then lifts up the table to use as a weapon. But Takagi grabs his own and they hit each other. Ospreay goes down and Takagi sits up the two tables ringside. He goes for a Death Valley bomb but Ospreay escapes. Ospreay charges but Takagi hits him first and goes for a suplex. But Ospreay counters that and suplexes Takagi into the ring.
Ten minutes have passed as Ospreay lands a springboard forearm for a one-count. Ospreay follows with a pendulum backbreaker that gets two and start working over Takagi’s left arm and shoulder. Takagi rolls to ringside but Ospreay chases him and starts stomping on his arm. Ospreay targets that same arm further by driving it into any hard object he can find, such as the barricade and the ringpost, getting revenge for what Takagi did to him earlier. Back in the ring, Ospreay lands some standing armbreakers and kicks Takagi’s shoulder some more. Ospreay tries one more armbreaker but Takagi counters with a sleeper. Ospreay fires back and smashes Takagi’s face into the turnbuckle but Takagi starts hulking up. Ospreay tries some Kawada-style stepkicks but Takagi no-sells those too. Ospreay lands a big chop and charges but Takagi cuts him off with a DDT. Takagi lands a few more simple moves before having a reversal exchange that ends in a vertical suplex. Ospreay kicks out at two as the fifteen-minute mark passes.
Takagi goes for a Gory facebuster but Ospreay elbows out. He gets his boot up in a corner but Takagi blocks and hits a punch/chop combo with his good right hand. Ospreay fires up and responds with a massive chop and whips Takagi but Takagi counters and Ospreay goes into the corner instead. Ospreay avoids this and ties Takagi in the tree of woe and starts mocking him. He slaps Takagi’s face and kicks his shoulders as poor Takagi can only bite Ospreay’s nose to protect himself. Ospreay maintains control with a Reverse Bloody Sunday inverted Brainbuster DDT and pins for two. Takagi powers out of a Stormbreaker attempt and goes for a chop but Ospreay blocks. Ospreay kicks Takagi’s bad hand but gets too greedy with those kicks. Takagi catches his leg and hits a dragon screw leg whip.
Takagi goes to capitalize with a suplex but Ospreay counters with a Stunner. Ospreay regains control with a kick to the bad shoulder and a KUSHIDA-style tilt-a-whirl kimura/Hoverboard lock. Takagi struggles but gets to the ropes and then hits some elbows to escape a wrist lock. But Ospreay shuts down with a Misawa rolling elbow and goes for his springboard Os-Cutter. But he can’t because Takagi cuts him off against the ropes. Takagi goes for a torture rack facebuster. Ospreay escapes and goes for a kick/moonsault splash combo. Takagi dodges the kick and gets his knees up for the splash. Gory facebuster connects. Both men collapse at the twenty-minute mark.
Takagi regains control with a wheelbarrow suplex and pins for a two-count. He kicks Ospreay mockingly and hits some elbows with his right arm but Ospreay fires up. Ospreay kicks at Takagi’s bad arm but Takagi catches on quickly and traps Ospreay’s leg. Then he flips Ospreay up so hard Ospreay flips in midair before landing hard on his back. The guy just has to put flips into everything, doesn’t he? Takagi charges for a sliding lariat. Ospeay ducks to avoid it. Takagi dodges a kick but gets elbowed in the face on a German suplex attempt. Ospreay counters a handspring attack with another German. Ospreay lands on his feet and hits an enzuigiri. Takagi no-sells and charges for a lariat. Ospreay flips over into a powerbomb. Takagi lands on his feet and tries another lariat. Ospreay ducks and lands a handspring enzuigiri. Takagi absorbs it and finally lands the sliding lariat. Both men collapse. All of those moves happened in twenty-five seconds. Damn. Just, damn.
Ospreay gets his boot up to block a corner charge but Takagi answers with a lariat. He goes to the opposite corner for another charge but Ospreay follows him and lands a yakuza kick. Ospreay follows with a thrust kick through Takagi’s legs to his face and goes to the top of the same corner for a big move. Takagi blocks one big move so Ospreay counters with a sunset flip powerbomb. Takagi blocks so Ospreay answers with a big kick to his face. Takagi keeps fighting but that just wills Ospreay forward. Ospreay jumps onto the top rope like he’s Shelton Benjamin and lands a Spanish Fly. Ospreay pins but only gets two.
Ospreay drapes Takagi on the ropes and lands a diving shooting star press, followed by a second one to the mat for another two-count. He sets Takagi up on the tables and goes to the top rope for a dive. But Takagi cuts him off. Both men trade control until Ospreay lands a hook kick. He goes for an Os-Cutter using the ringpost. Takagi blocks it. Pumphandle Half Nelson Driver from the apron through two tables! Takagi smashes Ospreay to smithereens!
The referee begins counting and both men make it in before twenty. With renewed energy, Takagi rushes Ospreay and lands his Made in Japan Half Nelson Driver and goes for a pin. One, two, no, Ospreay kicks out. He sets Ospreay up for a running lariat but Ospreay collapses to the mat in a heap. But instead of pinning, Takagi sends Ospreay into a corner but Ospreay doesn’t even make it all the way across the ring before he collapses again. But instead of pinning his nearly-catatonic opponent, Takagi toys with Ospreay and lands a big corner lariat. Takagi wastes more time with a top-rope DVB but Ospreay hits some desperation elbows first. Ospreay tries to land a top-rope hurricanrana but slips off as Takagi holds onto the ropes. Takagi showboats a bit and dives…into an Os-Cutter. Ospreay suddenly starts recovering and lands a springboard Os-Cutter. One two, no, Takagi survives.
Takagi fights out of a neckbreaker but eats a Misawa rolling elbow from Ospreay. Ospreay goes for his hidden blade elbow smash. Takagi ducks but eats an enzuigiri. Ospreay goes for a corner Os-Cutter. Takagi catches him mid-move and lands a Goto-style GTR elbow drop headlock backbreaker. Ospreay blocks one lariat but can’t block another. Takagi doesn’t pin right away as he used his bad arm. He charges for a right-arm lariat. Ospreay ducks one and flips over another. He goes for an Os-Cutter. Takagi hits first with one of his own. Randy Orton would be so proud. Takagi drills Ospreay with a Pumping bomber lariat. one, two, and…NO, Ospreay barely kicks out.
Ospreay fights out of a Last of the Dragon finisher and counters a pop-up DVB with a crucifix pin for two. He lands a forearm/hook kick combo and goes for his Stormbreaker finisher. Shingo counters with the LOTD. No, Ospreay escapes and lands a poisoned Frankensteiner. Big head spike. Ospreay teases the Os-Cutter. Takagi gets up and lands a poisoned Frankensteiner of his own. Both men get their heads spiked. But Ospreay stays on his feet and lands his Hidden Blade elbow strike. Both men collapse. A nearly-dead Ospreay crawls over for a pin. One, two, no, Takagi gets his hand under the ropes. Great ring awareness.
Ospreay drags Takagi to his feet for the Stormbreaker but collapses before he can lift him fully. Ospreay copies Takagi’s movements from earlier and starts mocking Takagi with kicks to the face. That causes Takagi to hulk up strong-style. Ospreay lands some stiff forearms. Takagi explodes in a flurry of left-and-right lightning-fast elbow smashes. Ospreay blocks a lariat but runs into a pop-up DVB. Ospreay no-sells and the two men go nose-to-nose. Lariat from Takagi. Ospreay barely moves. a second lariat. Ospreay sinks to one knee. Ospreay lands a kick and goes to the ropes. Takagi chases him and hits a third lariat against the ropes. he charges again but runs into a standing Spanish Fly from Ospreay. One, two, Takagi kicks out. Stormbreaker…no, Takagi lands another lariat. Ospreay stays standing and hits a bicycle kick. Both men collapse once again.
Both men fight to their feet and trade more strikes. The crowd claps along with each forearm they hit on one another. Takagi smiles as Ospreay smacks him with a forearm so stiff it echoes through the Tokyo Dome. Simultaneous head-butts. Both men stagger. Takagi goes for LOTD again. Ospreay counters with another Misawa rolling elbow. He ducks a lariat and lands a picture-perfect Okada Rainmaker. Ospreay removes his elbow pad and connects with another Hidden Blade elbow. Stormbreaker corkscrew neckbreaker connects. One, two, and three! There’s the match! The champion retains!
Winner and STILL IWGP World Heavyweight Champion after 44:53: Will Ospreay
If someone asked me to define the term ‘excessive’ in a pro-wrestling context, I’d show them this match. These guys went WAY too far with everything. It was 15-20 minutes too long, yet both wrestlers somehow managed to both drag it out and stuff too much action into it. That might sound paradoxical, but that’s what Ospreay and Takagi did here. They managed to put on a match that was incredibly slow and plodding at some times and overly-explosive and silly in others. It was two extremes right next to each other, lacking in proper pacing or balance. There’s simply no way this match deserves a 5-star rating, much less anything higher than that.
There was a major lack of urgency during the match’s most critical moments. After Takagi hit his Made in Japan signature move, Ospreay looked to be completely out of it. He couldn’t even keep himself up yet Takagi didn’t go for quick pins or try to make him tap out. Instead, Takagi kept setting up big moves because, naturally, he had to get his s**t in. and as he landed move after move, he just stood around looking out to the fans instead of trying to end the match at a point whereby he could’ve conceivably won. Yet moments later, Ospreay showed that he had the wherewithal to land an RKO out of nowhere. Worse, right after that, Ospreay did his same old shtick of running to the ropes and flying, instead of slowing the pace down to further sell how serious of a beating Takagi had given him.
The same thing happens around the forty-minute mark but in reverse. Takagi was out cold and Ospreay didn’t even go for a pin. He toyed with Takagi instead of trying to end the match. He was so caught up in his own self-aggrandizement that he forgets that was (supposed to be) a competition and not a performance.
Outside of a few short moments, Ospreay wrestled like a babyface in this match despite being a heel. I remember playing SmackDown vs. Raw 2006 and the game had a guide for what to do when playing as a face or a heel as there were clear rules for each one, which makes perfect sense. Babyfaces did high-flying dives while heels did underhanded stuff and used weapons. Here, both guys did a mishmash of both but Ospreay was so clearly trying to be a hero even though the storyline had Takagi cast in that role. It was as if he was trying to upstage Takagi when he should’ve been focusing on making himself more compelling to watch.
Worse, the match was filled with absolutely cartoonish selling along with blatant and exaggerated no-selling during the last ten minutes. Ospreay worked Takagi’s legs and Takagi worked Ospreay’s back, but neither of their strategies mattered because both guys no-sold like crazy towards the end. It looked like Ospreay started to go somewhere when he was attacking Takagi’s arm, but it didn’t lead to anything. No critical submission holds, no moment of major concern for Takagi, nothing. All it succeeded in doing was slow him down, which in turn bloated the match’s length. Takagi kept using that weakened arm to score some lariats – and did at the end – only for them to accomplish next to nothing. Takagi only succeeded in hurting himself more while Ospreay absorbed those lariats like they were nothing. In doing so, it made Ospreay look like the valiant hero overcoming the odds when that role was meant for Takagi.
All of this isn’t to say there was nothing redeemable here. It was filled with high-impact bombs and lightning-quick counters and reversals. These two wrestlers did a great job of showing the kinds of crazy limit-breaking and insane offense both of them were known for. But while that was impressive, especially considering that they wrestled at such a frenetic pace for almost 45 full minutes, it was also excessive. It seems like both of them kept asking themselves ‘could we do this?’ instead of ‘should we do this?’.
They left nothing to the imagination and threw everything they had into this, stacking move on top of move in a way that caused the match to more than cross into overkill territory. Both guys spammed so many stiff strikes, finishers, high-impact dives, and finishers on top of one another yet kept kicking out. I get that they were trying to sell the idea that both men were so determined to win that they had to kill each other. And yet, they did so much in the ring that it reached the point that they did too much. That turned the sentiment of this match from ‘these guys are competing for a coveted prize and are willing to do whatever it takes to win’ to ‘ok, now they’re just being silly’. There are limitations and balance in wrestling for a reason. Shoehorn everything into a single match and you leave nothing for the future and you create a lot of noise and unnecessary action that doesn’t fit the story and ultimately adds nothing to the match.
Final Rating: ****1/2
There’s just no way this match deserves to be in the same class as the other six-star matches. Hell, it isn’t even as good as some of Meltzer’s ‘lower’ 5-star matches. To compare this to matches like Misawa/Kawada, Okada/Omega, Flair/Steamboat, or Misawa/Kobashi is ridiculous. The best matches in any of those rivalries have much better pacing and are built in a way that rewards viewers for watching and makes them want to see more. This match throws so much at the viewer so quickly that it makes the viewer want it to end.
Although both wrestlers here deserve credit for the athleticism and conditioning they displayed, all of that came at the expense of logic, flow, and believability. Even though both guys tried to tell a unique story, this match has so many similarities between their earlier matches (with both each other and other wrestlers) that it comes across as forgettable.
That’s perhaps this match’s worst problem: it lacks anything truly memorable to make it stand out. Even with all the craziness they did here, nothing was particularly special and the story was decidedly average. What you’re left with as a viewer is lots of noise and flashy action but no substance whatsoever.
Thanks for reading.