Claudio Castagnoli made his New Japan Pro-Wrestling debut Sunday, wrestling in a match at Dominion that continued a program that will extend through the Forbidden Door pay-per-view later this month.
Teaming with Jon Moxley and Shota Umino for the NEVER openweight six-man titles against the star-studded championship trio of Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi and Tomohiro Ishii, the match laid further groundwork for the upcoming PPV that will feature talent from AEW and NJPW.
After arriving on a delayed flight and rushing to the Osaka-Jo Hall venue, Castagnoli stepped into a New Japan ring for the very first time—and did so in style, matching up with a wrestling icon in Tanahashi.
The match opened with Castagnoli in the ring squaring off against Tanahashi. For someone who has dedicated and devoted his life to pro wrestling, Castagnoli did not lose sight of the significance of that moment.
“I was very focused, and because of that, I was very much in the moment,” says Castagnoli. “I always want to be in the moment from the second I step out into the arena in order to be the best I can be. Standing in the ring with Tanahashi to start my first match in NJPW is definitely a moment to remember for me.”
Osaka 🇯🇵 pic.twitter.com/RXmQS6628O— Swiss (@ClaudioCSRO) June 4, 2023
Watching the match unfold was a true joy. Despite hardly any time to warm up or discuss what was planned, Castagnoli put on a throwback performance, and set the stage for the possibility of singles matches against Okada, Tanahashi and Ishii. A highlight of the bout occurred when Okada—the face of New Japan—went for a ride on Castagnoli’s vaunted swing.
“Swinging Okada, somebody I’ve known for a long time, in Japan, in my first match in NJPW, that is definitely a top swing,” says Castagnoli, who is hungry for a return to New Japan. “Mox said it yesterday—we have our visas and we’ll be back.”
There was a genuine tension and intensity embedded in the match. That was apparent as soon as Castagnoli and Tanahashi met for their first face-off, as well as when Moxley shared the ring with Tanahashi—who is quickly becoming a rival—or Okada, especially with his new edge. All the New Japan stars were physical with Umino, and this was a chance for Moxley and Ishii to resume the battle they started in an iconic G1 Climax bout four years ago.
“They work surprisingly well together as a unit,” says Castagnoli. “Individually, I was impressed most by Okada’s resilience, Tanahashi’s longevity and Ishii’s fighting spirit.”
🏯DOMINION 6.4 in OSAKA-JO HALL🏯— njpwworld (@njpwworld) June 4, 2023
🆚 @rainmakerXokada & @tanahashi1_100 & 石井智宏 × @JonMoxley & @ClaudioCSRO & @Shooter_us
📲 #njpwworld で配信中📡… pic.twitter.com/sBeQnv14Zu
An especially compelling moment happened when Okada took a Shield-inspired powerbomb, which was especially fitting considering Moxley’s essential role in the group. Speaking with Sports Illustrated in November, Moxley shared that Castagnoli and Blackpool Combat Club partner Bryan Danielson were both integral parts of The Shield.
“We created that ‘Shield work ethic.’ The people we were around have that, too. Claudio [Castagnoli] is an old riding partner of The Shield. Hell, Bryan [Danielson] was our opponent in our first match,” Moxley said at the time. “I still have that. We all do. It makes us who we are.”
Castagnoli fondly reflected on that period of time in his career, which now connects to his current run in AEW.
“For Jon to say we were like extra members is very kind,” says Castagnoli. “I was riding with Jon before he got called up with The Shield but was on the road for almost a year. Then we were all riding together when they became The Shield. So our ways have been intertwined for a long time. I learned a lot from Jon, and we have a lot of memories from the road. We were joking yesterday before the show about the two of us walking around Tokyo looking for a wrestling store on our first WWE tour in Japan. And now we’re here doing what we do best on NJPW.”
The match did not end with a victory for Castagnoli, Moxley and Umino. Just after the 20-minute mark, Okada pinned Umino after hitting him with a Rainmaker. It marked the end to an outstanding match, but the story is far from complete between the BCC and Okada.
Following the match, Moxley grabbed the mike and let Okada know that he had a giant-sized challenge forthcoming, which was explained when a video played and Danielson challenged him. Okada-Danielson would be an incredible addition to the Forbidden Door card, and that still leaves open possibilities for Moxley and Castagnoli.
“I can’t wait for that match,” says Castagnoli, who, like the rest of us, is beyond excited to watch Danielson and Okada. “I’m totally up for a match, too.”
The reigning Ring of Honor champion, Castagnoli could defend his title at Forbidden Door. He had a superb showing at last year’s pay-per-view, defeating NJPW stalwart Zack Sabre Jr.
Castagnoli’s work in the BCC further cements his decision to join AEW. More than two decades into wrestling, this has become one of his most exciting, passionate runs of his entire career.
“Joining AEW just felt right, and being in the BCC just feels right,” says Castagnoli. “Yesterday, when I stepped in a NJPW ring, it just felt right. We in the BCC are having fun and that authenticity translates. You can’t fake passion, and I feel it’s the thing that the BCC is built on.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.