April 13th, 2015. I took my first venture into reviewing a full BJW event, the March 31st show. I’d seen some of the strong division stuff prior to this, like Yuji Okabayashi’s amazing match with champion at the time Shuji Ishikawa in February. But this show was during BJW’s Deathmatch Survivor tournament; and if you don’t know deathmatches were basically the foundation of the company at its inception. The strong division is still a relatively new concept in the company (The Strong title has only been around since 2012!), but this was the show that cemented it as the most important part of the company. Why is that you ask? The answer was the main event of Strong champion Shuji Ishikawa defending his title against Daisuke Sekimoto, a man who many of us have grown to love this year for a variety of reasons. Whether it’s his amazing facial expressions, ability to tell a story in a match with said body language and just his pure brute strength and impeccable wrestling ability Sekimoto has it all.
Ishikawa is no slouch either. Unlike Sekimoto, BJW is not his home promotion even though he has competed there much in the past 7 years. He’s not BJW’s favorite son, rather he was a scary, gigantic outsider that was holding their belt hostage after he defeated up and coming strong star Ryuichi Kawakami for the vacant belt in December 2014. Come March, he has already beaten Sekimoto’s right hand man in Strong BJ Yuji Okabayashi, and Korakuen Hall was begging, pleading for Sekimoto to win the title that night. The atmosphere was like none other as was the match to go along with it. The two had arguably one of the best matches of the year and Sekimoto conquered the mountain (No literally, he kicked out of Ishikawa’s Splash Mountain powerbomb!) to become the only ever two time strong division champion.
These two’s paths were far from separating though. Sekimoto and Okabayashi make up Strong BJ as mentioned before, while Ishikawa was still holding onto the tag team belts with fellow giant Kohei Sato in the team known as the Twin Towers. These two monsters had a stranglehold on those belts since May of 2014 after beating the smaller but highly skilled team of Yuko Miyamoto and Isami Kodaka. Yuko Miyamoto and Isami are a brilliant team that unfortunately gets bounced around back and forth from Deathmatch BJW and Strong BJW but regardless are a huge part of the Strong success in 2015, and had a heck of a unsuccessful title shot rematch against the Towers at the Sumo Hall show in July. But in 2015, Strong BJ made it known to the Twin Towers they were coming for those belts and would stop at nothing to do so. These two teams proceeded to have four absolutely off the wall matches this year (one was not televised during the 2015 Saikyou Tag League). The first one on Jan 2nd, 2015 saw Strong BJ victorious but the titles weren’t on the line. The second on May 28th was most certainly the best of the series, going to a 30 minute draw and Strong BJ was inches away from ripping the straps away from them. In between many of the matches of this series, Twin Towers would defend against Sekimoto and Okabayashi when the two Strong BJ members tried other tag partners, such as young developing strong sensation Hideyoshi Kamitani with Sekimoto or BJW frequenter and middle finger loving Yuji Hino with Okabayashi. The Towers just wouldn’t fall. Until October. October saw Strong BJ beat them in the untelevised Tag League match which gave them one more crack at taking the belts on Oct. 29th and finally, Strong BJ conquered.
As much as Strong BJ is a tight knit team, some can make a point that Daisuke Sekimoto and Yuji Okabayashi are even better on opposing sides. They occasionally do this in multi man tag matches and it’s all in good fun and they can still respect each other afterwards. But it all came to a head in July this year at Sumo Hall. BJW was running one of their biggest shows ever, and no, a deathmatch was not headlining. Credit chairmain of BJW Great Kojika for putting his faith in the Strong guys, but the main event would see the Strong BJ members collide for Sekimoto’s Strong title. Okabayashi wanted the title so bad, Sekimoto had won that title twice already, while Okabayashi felt like second banana and wanted his taste of victory at the top. The two went to war and put on a hell of a show for the 3,985 in Sumo Hall that night and Okabayashi finally made it to the top by giving Sekimoto the Golem Bomb to win the Strong title. The Strong guys not only proved they can have some of the best matches with anyone, they proved they can draw a good crowd in the process as well.
As previously mentioned, the Strong division wasn’t just comprised of Sekimoto, Okabayashi, Sato and Ishikawa. Really, the growth of the division was aided in part to two of the younger members, Hideyoshi Kamitani and Ryuichi Kawakami. Kamitani is a young man who has grown up so much in a year, going through a look change and developing himself as a major player in the company. He unsuccessfully challenged Sekimoto for the Strong title this year, and has been prevalent in many 6 man and regular tag scenarios as a guy who takes a beating well but can give it out just as well and has a killer Backdrop Suplex to boot. He’s recently gotten two pinfalls over Okabayashi (the current strong champ as of this writing) and now has a chance to dethrone Yuji for the strong title as his incredible growth continues. Kawakami is a guy who has been around much longer in the Strong division, being in the company since 2008. But he’s always just been a bit shy of that top dog spot. He had a title opportunity against Okabayashi ripped away from him in the summer because of a torn ACL and many await to see what he can do when coming back.
Another name that has been on the rize is actual rookie, Toshiyuki Sakuda who has shown flashes of brilliance at only age 24 and a great skillset to fit his compact, but built frame. To round out the BJW rookies, the older Uto and Kikuta have worked with Sakuda in a similar spot on the card and look to further the Strong division in the coming years as the popularity grows. Uto’s long and lanky body looks to serve him well as he develops more clubbing and knee based offense reminiscent of Shuji Ishikawa while Kikuta is developing into an all around worker.
Kazuki Hashimoto and Daichi Hashimoto are certainly an interesting case in this division. Daichi recently just returned to BJW in the summer after a close to one year absence working for Antonio Inoki’s shoot fighting IGF (Inoki Genone Federation) and has now signed up to BJW on a full-time basis.. Daichi is indeed the namesake of the all time great, now deceased NJPW star Shinya Hashimoto. He carries on his father’s legacy of a an absolute kicking machine, and Kazuki (not related) follows suit. Kazuki has been in BJW for around the same time as Kawakami, and is a bit younger. These two more often than not are tagging together but nonetheless are a huge contribution to the Strong division with their incredibly stiff style which complements the skillsets of the likes of Strong BJ, Twin Towers and the like. Daichi’s return has only bolstered the Strong group and has provided many more great multi-man tags to be had on BJW shows. Rounding out the tag division is the career undercard team of Hercules Senga and Tsutomo Osugi, who often find themselves working with fellow high flyer Shinobu at the beginning of the card. Also making occasional appearances in this spot is GUTS World super-worker Tatsuhiko Yoshino who has worked incredibly on the inglorious Japan indie scene for quite some time now. They often work with comedy teams like the Brahmans, Hesei Gokudo Combi (Kankuro Hoshino and Masato Inaba) and 73 year old owner of BJW himself, Great Kojika. These guys definitely provide a change of pace from the normal strong style, but a welcome one as a quickly paced alternative and light-hearted complement to what the bigger strong guys do.
The BJW Strong division also did an amazing job of bringing in incredibly gifted outside talent to compete with their own, and their own felled incredibly well against the talented outsiders. Just look at the Daisuke Sekimoto, Takashi Sugiura & Masato Tanaka vs. HARASHIMA, Yuji Okabayashi & Yuji Hino match from 6/30/15 BJW. You had Strong BJ on opposing sides. You had Dangan Yankees (Tanaka and Sugiura, one of the best Japanese teams out there) brought in to help Sekimoto. Then you had the ace of DDT himself HARASHIMA and former K-Dojo but now freelance hoss Yuji Hino as Okabayashi’s special forces. AS you can expect, Strong BJ meshed unbelievably well with the non-BJW talent brought in here to create a special, close to thirty minute under the radar match of the year candidate where these amazing wrestlers just beat the hell out of each other and went to a draw. Not only can the Strong division hang with their own, they can most certainly go head to head with some of the best workers all around in Japan.
The point where you could actually see the rising growth of Strong Big Japan was at Tenryu’s retirement show on November 15th, 2015. The first sign was the success of Kazuki Hashimoto in the Hikaru Sato, Katsuhiko Nakajima & Kazuki Hashimoto vs. Koki Kitahara, Kotaro Nasu & Ryuji Hijikata match, and then Kawakami working on his messed up ACL just to make his hero Tenryu proud in the match with Akitoshi Saito against former NJPW great Riki Choshu and current NJPW workhorse Tomohiro Ishii, and went toe to toe with Ishii in the process prompting casual NJPW World viewers who weren’t familiar with him to inquire about who this kid was.
But finally, the real sign of the Strong movement was in the Suwama & Okabayashi vs. Sekimoto & Kazuyuki Fujita match. Strong BJ were not originally the participants in this, it was supposed to be Yuji Hino and Kengo Mashimo from K-Dojo but with Hino’s departure from K-Dojo, Strong BJ were able to slide right in to their spots and take advantage of this enormous opportunity with the 10,000+ watching in Sumo Hall and the thousands watching on NJPW World in tribute of Tenryu. The match was quickly turning into an unmitigated disaster as Suwama’s and Fujita’s very much real life heat with each other spiraled out of control and saw the two stare each other down without doing anything for around 5 minutes, followed by ugly blood producing brawling on the outside. Fans were booing, disgusted that this was going on during Tenryu’s sendoff night. But Strong BJ knew what they had to do, and they rectified this situation by going full force at each other and the entirety of Sumo Hall started chanting “Dai Nihon” (Big Japan in Japanese) to recognize the amazing effort of these two men and what the Strong division signifies: hard work, reckless abandon for own bodies and doing whatever it takes to please fans. Any time Fujita or Suwama re-entered, they were met with boos and finally, when Okabayshi pinned Sekimoto, the praise continued. Even into the post match war of words between Suwama and Fujita. That wasn’t what the crowd cared about. Suwama knew what these people really wanted and tried deflecting the hate he and Fujita got by heaping praise onto the two BJW warriors after the match.
Sure enough, Suwama is now going to be working a BJW tag match, his first BJW match in close to five years and his only second match there ever. He will be teaming with Sekimoto against Twin Towers. The strong fever is only growing, with Hideki Suzuki recently joining up as well who has had a heck of a year in Zero 1 and Wrestle-1 booked as shoot fighting prize fighter and now fits incredibly well with what BJW wants to continue doing with the division in the future. Add in occasional guests always making appearances like legends Koji Kanemoto and Tatsuhito Takaiwa, and an eventually returning from injury Kawakami and you have a group of wrestlers that can always keep things fresh and have incredibly entertaining and epic matches. If 2015 was the year the Strong division really put itself on the map, 2016 is the year it completely blows the doors of the puro scene completely wide open and gains some more mainstream appeal in wrestling circles.