By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
Last week on the Pro Wrestling Boom podcast, Jason Powell and I spent the entire episode examining the then-upcoming AEW-NJPW Forbidden Door pay-per-view. We killed it. I’d like to couch the description with something more kind, but there’s no two ways about it: Our expectations were low, our frustrations were high and there might have even been a tiny bit of burnout on the whole thing (at least on my end).
This was supposed to be a landmark show. And let’s not forget that. When AEW was just a twinkle of a flash of a star in a sky, one of the prevailing presumptions among those paying attention to this kind of stuff was that all the great Japanese stars would be involved in some way, shape or form. Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks, especially, catapulted their careers into a different stratosphere in New Japan Pro Wrestling, so some type of working agreement made sense, right?
Nope. Feelings were hurt and once AEW got off the ground, we heard time and again that the relationship between the companies was frosty at best and any crossover between the two was unlikely. So much so, in fact, that we got this nifty little tagline about the divide. That tagline?
“The Forbidden Door.”
The term became ubiquitous in wrestling vernacular. It grew. And grew. And grew. Until …
Well, until the ice thawed. In fact, I’d argue that the ice thawed thanks in part to the term becoming so damn referenced all the time. The constant usage of it reminded both companies how lucrative and/or successful a joint project could be. The demand was there, even if they were holding the supply hostage.
But then, a couple years ago, we saw the companies exchange talent. Kenta showed up on AEW Dynamite. Jon Moxley showed up on NJPW Strong. The walls were broken down. The forbidden door was no more. The problem, of course, was that the figurative door was kicked down in the middle of a global pandemic, so fans were teased with a smattering of crossover here and there, but because travel was so limited and staying healthy was paramount, we never got a full-fledged event.
That changed on Sunday, when New Japan and AEW broke bread in Chicago for an event that should have felt bigger than it did going into it. Yes, I know it’s the second biggest house ever for AEW, and yes, I know, the thing sold out in minutes when tickets went on sale. But the aura surrounding what was the first real, honest-to-goodness collaboration between the two companies felt a little light, a little weak, a little questionable.
And then everybody got hurt. The matches that the masses were willing to get up for started to evaporate. Omega, who’s more synonymous with New Japan than anyone else on the AEW roster, has been out for months, nursing injuries. AEW World Champion CM Punk is gone with a broken foot. Bryan Danielson couldn’t go. There was the Jeff Hardy situation. Hiromu Takahashi got a fever. The list went on and on.
As the days passed and the card for the event formulated, the criticisms started piling up. AEW didn’t properly introduce New Japan wrestlers to those who may not be familiar with the roster. There were no real programs, no real stories behind the matches that were set to go down. Everything just kind of sat there. And as Jason said during last week’s Boom episode, we all knew the matches would probably be very good, but for whatever reason, that admission and/or reality wasn’t enough to sway some of us into thinking this was going to be a memorable show.
But, as they say …
SETTING THE TONE
That’s why they play the games.
I loved Forbidden Door. I had my qualms, but I have my qualms with every wrestling show. At the end of the day, this turned out to be the Little Show That Could. From top to bottom, the main card (the pre-show, as is typically the case, was something you could pretty much throw out, though I’ll get back to that in a minute) was entertaining from the first time the bell rang to the last time a hand was raised. The thing ended before midnight, Eastern Standard Time. And, most of all, those wrestlers delivered great wrestling and those bookers delivered great booking.
Actually, that was the biggest standout to me. On a night when the expectations for the booking were minimal to none, the way these matches unfolded deserves an extra hat-tip, if only because it felt like the impossible became possible and I cared about how these things played out. That wasn’t more evident than it was during the opening bout, as Chris Jericho, Sammy Guevara and Minoru Suzuki went up against Shota Umino, Wheeler Yuta and Eddie Kingston.
There were zero expectations for this match. The walkup was lousy, the way they used the match to get Sammy Guevara attached to Chris Jericho again felt lazy and the outcome of the whole ordeal never felt in doubt. Jericho wasn’t going to be on the losing side of anything Sunday night, if for no other reason than Blood & Guts is looking right around the corner. But then…
But then, well hey there, Shota Umino, welcome to the party!
It was a star-making performance for the young fella and it certainly left the door open for another encounter with Jericho at some point. But that’s for later; for now, those entire 19 minutes felt like they were constructed with the sole objective to get Umino over to a crowd that may have known Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi, but also might not be particularly familiar with some of the NJPW faces that appeared down the card. This match changed that.
It also set the tone for the night — one of the more uninteresting matches on the card came out first and killed it. The drama, the wrestling, the spots, the heartstrings — they were all there. The match came together in a manner that proved to everyone this: If you don’t know who some of these guys are, and you don’t even really want to buy into this match, that’s fine, because we’ll prove you wrong.
And speaking of proving people wrong …
As the card for Forbidden Door came together, there was one match that had almost universal skepticism and it was Will Ospreay vs. Orange Cassidy. The issue wasn’t necessarily that Orange Cassidy is worthless as an in-ring performer; rather, it was that if you were to say Will Ospreay was coming to AEW for one night and you had a chance to book a dream match with him in it, Cassidy probably wouldn’t be No. 1 or No. 10 on the list of opponents.
Still, anyone who knew a little about Cassidy prior to his AEW days knew he could go when asked to go, so inquiring minds were curious to see how this would play out. Me? I figured the match would be fine — OC isn’t a schlub, but the ghost of what could have been weighed heavily on my approach to the match. It’s like going to Outback Steakhouse: You know you want a steak and you know you can’t afford the nice place down the road, so you eat at a chain, knowing you’ll be inevitably disappointed, but your steak craving has been satisfied enough to where you can sleep at night. The match would be fine, it would check the Will Ospreay box that had to be checked for this event, and we could all go our separate ways.
But that’s not happened. Instead, these two had the match of the night. It was spot heavy, which everyone knew would be the case (Ospreay especially hears it the most for “just doing moves,” so this was never going to be for everybody), and it was awfully hard to buy into Cassidy becoming the IWGP U.S. Heavyweight Champion. But damn it all to hell if some of those near-falls didn’t have me jumping out of my couch. There was even one moment where it appeared Ospreay didn’t kick out in time before the three-count and he needed a little help from the referee to make sure the match didn’t end.
In my mind, the match was a microcosm of the night as a whole. There were a million and one reasons to roll your eyes at it, but even as a cautious trust morphed into a solid trust, which then morphed into full buy-in, it became one of those matches from which you just couldn’t turn away. There was just too much action, too many near-falls, too much drama not to appreciate everything that was unfolding. And Cassidy, as one-note as the character might be, proved that when he’s asked to step up, he has no problem basking in the spotlight.
You know who else had no problem basking in the spotlight?
I’ve got three names for you.
The first two are linked, so let’s start there. It was only a couple years ago when I was asked to help out covering NJPW Strong for this website. And when I threw myself at it, I threw myself at it. Covering it during the COVID-19 pandemic meant there were no crowds, and it meant there was essentially a group of unknown young wrestlers getting together in an empty soundstage to figure out how to put together 45 minutes to an hour of television. I fell in love with the moxie.
You can imagine the thrill it was, then, to see Clark Connors, a guy who paid his dues on that show — a show that, wrongly, isn’t even really recognized as a real New Japan product for some people — get the chance of a lifetime in AEW Sunday night as he competed in the AEW All-Atlantic Championship four-way match. It wasn’t perfect, but man, I thought Connors held his own and represented everything that NJPW Strong is about, most notably, the determination to keep fighting for your dreams (as cheesy as that sounds).
And by the way, when it comes to cheesy, the emotion that came over me when Shibata walked down the aisle (for the second time this year, mind you) was probably fairly cheesy, too. Seeing him at Wrestle Kingdom was wild, but watching him walk to the ring after the Cassidy/Ospreay match was the most delightful surprise. Shibata, of course, is the one behind the LA Dojo (or, well, at least that’s who trains the members of the LA Dojo), which is the Dojo that produced a handful of Strong roster members. The family tree is ridiculous.
Also ridiculous (in a good way) was the AEW debut of Claudio Castagnoli. The least-surprising surprises of all surprises proved it didn’t have to be a surprise for it to matter. That Chicago crowd loved itself some Claudio Castagnoli, and Claudio Castagnoli loved that Chicago crowd back. Better yet, he was positioned to look like a star by the time the night was over, between his win over Zack Sabre Jr. and his involvement in the show-closing angle. It was the deserved hero’s welcome a guy like that deserved after being so much of an afterthought on the other channel for so long.
Where he goes from here (or, well, after Blood & Guts) is, of course, the question on everybody’s mind. AEW doesn’t have a perfect track record of bringing in guys and keeping them shiny, due in large part to its ever-increasing roster size. Does Claudio go the Ring of Honor route? Does he immediately get thrust into a title mix? He’s a member of the Blackpool Combat Club, which is great, but does that mean he’ll fade into the background, behind Moxley and Danielson?
Nobody knows right now. What we do know, however …
ONE KEY QUESTION
Is that Forbidden Door exceeded expectations.
And that’s not even a knock. Whether you thought it’d be a fantastic show, an OK show or just a show, you can’t deny that it was a fun four-and-a-half hours of wrestling. And sometimes, that’s all you need — just a good, entertaining evening filled with good, entertaining pro wrestling. There were no real stories that were blown off, no real resolution to some long-standing feud that we all wanted to see. It was just a really fun night to be a wrestling fan.
Now, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the question here will forever be this: Did the first Forbidden Door not suck because it was great or did the first Forbidden Door not suck because everyone had unusually low expectations for an AEW/NJPW pay-per-view? That’s a question with an answer that will probably be predicated on prejudices far and wide. Cynics will say it’s just a product of low expectation; fans will say they knew it’d be good, but they’re happy it turned out great.
Me? I don’t really need an explanation to know that for me, the show turned out to be one of the better pay-per-views of the year so far, across all brands. As recently as Thursday, I told Jason on the Boom that my excitement level going into the show was a five out of 10 — and that it could even go down from there. I don’t take that back. Between injuries and a lackluster build, this show had every opportunity to be a throwaway night of wrestling.
But it wasn’t. And I’m thankful for that. Because while Forbidden Door wasn’t the slam-dunk, can’t-miss, once-in-a-lifetime show some of us might have once thought it could be, it was still a damn good way to spend a Sunday night.
And at the end of the day, what more could any of us, as wrestling fans, ever want?