On February 23, All Japan Pro Wrestling returned to Korakuen Hall for what seemed to be just another show on paper. By the end of the evening, the face of the company had entirely shifted. The Excite Series this year has lived up to its name.
The main promoted programs involved SUWAMA retaining the Triple Crown Championship over Kohei Sato. While the NEXTREAM team of Kento Miyahara and Yuma Aoyagi defeating the Big Japan Pro Wrestling team of Daisuke Sekimoto and Abdullah Kobayashi to keep their World Tag Team titles. The real story played out on the undercard. In what seemed like a routine six-man tag team match, the Enfants Terribles team of Koji Doi, Kuma Arashi, and Shotaro Ashino challenged Koji Iwamoto, Jake Lee, and TAJIRI.
Enfants Terribles was born in Wrestle-1 as the enforcers for Ashino, the promotion’s longest-reigning champion. Ashino debuted in AJPW last April, one week after Wrestle1 ceased operations. A short time later, he was joined by his minions, and it seemed the group would wreak havoc in All Japan. That did not happen. Enfants drifted in the mid-card position, while Ashino twice failed to wrestle the Triple Crown away from SUWAMA.
The match played out like a typical AJPW six-man bout until the closing moments when Ashino locked Lee in an ankle lock submission. As soon as Ashino applied the lock, his partners charged the ring and attacked Lee’s team, making sure neither man could break up the submission attempt. This tactic of stopping illegal men from making a save happens in most All Japan tag matches. The crowd could see that neither TAJIRI nor Iwamoto could stop Lee from surrendering as Doi and Arashi are monstrous compared with the two junior heavyweights. As Ashino cinched his anklelock on Lee, Arashi went to throw TAJIRI out of the ring, but instead turnsedaround and tossed the former WWE/ECW standout into Ashino! The Enfants leader collapsed. As he struggled to get back to his feet, Doi launched Iwamoto, who sailed like a bullet into Ashino. Lee followed with a stiff knee to the gut and picked up the fall.
Immediately following, the other two members of Enfants, Yosuke Kodama and Hokuto Omori, charged the ring in confusion. Omori was quick to join Doi and Arashi, while Kodama seemed to side with Ashino. As soon as Ashino struggled back to his knees, Kodama threw a vicious superkick to his face. Lee joined in as Enfants lay a series of kicks and stomps onto their former leader. A confused Iwamoto ran back into the ring to stop Lee, who had been considered a babyface previously. Lee then knocked the former Jr. Heavyweight Champion to the ground. This new version of Enfants Terribles beat down both Ashino and Iwamoto while TAJIRI, AJPW’s real-life booker, watched.
This angle, the most exciting and surprising in TAJIRI’s tenure, has brought new life to an arguably stagnant company. Enfants and Ashino seemed poised to do big things in All Japan but have failed. The Enfants, a true heel faction, have no use for a leader who can’t win the big matches. Meanwhile, Lee had been a top player in AJPW but has long been positioned under SUWAMA and company ace, Miyahara. Lee taking over ET places him as one of, if not the top heel in the company heading into the Champion Carnival, All Japan’s G1-Climax round-robin singles tournament. Ashino, whose style and personality can easily translate into a bad-ass-type of babyface, has a chance to establish an updated persona, apart from the Enfants group.
Another wrinkle in the booking is with the inclusion of Iwamoto, who just this past weekend dropped the AJPW Jr. Heavyweight belt to CIMA, the StrongHearts faction leader. After three runs with the belt, Iwamoto seemed to have hit a wall with his positioning within in the company standings. He could have easily stayed outside of the ring while Ashino received his beating. Instead, Iwamoto was included in the attack and was left in the ring alongside Ashino. This will surely create a bond between the two, potentially bringing Iwamoto, whose style and physicality recall a young Dynamite Kid, into a main event situation.
AJPW’s Champion Carnival tournament airs from April 9–May 3 exclusively on AJPW.tv