NJPW Wrestle Kingdom
January 4 2019
We’re in Tokyo, Japan at the Tokyo Dome. There are several of my friends in attendance for this one and I am somewhat jealous, although big arena shows are not really my bag. Kevin Kelly and Don Callis on commentary with Chris Charlton on translations.
NEVER Openweight Trios Championship #1 Contendership Gauntlet
Hangman Page, Marty Scurll & Yujiro Takahashi vs. Yuji Nagata, Jeff Cobb & David Finlay
Why can’t this be the Rambo? I love the Rambo. What it does demonstrate is the sick depth of New Japan’s roster that the likes of Nagata, Hangman, Scurll and Cobb can only make it into this match. Chase Owens doesn’t even make it! He’s on the floor playing cheerleader. Page continues a tend of being the hardest working dude on his team but Finlay rolls Yujiro up and they’re out.
Yuji Nagata, Jeff Cobb & David Finlay vs. Hirooki Goto, Chuckie T & Beretta
Oh poor Goto. Always an MVP megastar at WK, dumped onto the pre-show and clearly not giving a single fuck about the match he’s in. Due to his star power he is still the central focus of this with Cobb getting big pops for throwing him around. Cobb comes across like a star and gets to dominate the fall. Finlay picks up another pin at the finish, rolling up Chuck!
Yuji Nagata, Jeff Cobb & David Finlay vs. Minoru Suzuki & KES
I like that Finlay continues his King of the Roll Ups business and nearly gets Archer but the Killer Bomb puts him away right afterwards.
Minoru Suzuki & KES vs. Togi Makabe, Toru Yano & Ryusuke Taguchi
Suzuki begins his 2019 rampage by scaring Don Callis away and knocking Kevin Kelly over. Chris remains seated while chaos erupts around him. Yano and Makabe have history so it’s a little weird that they’re teaming.
Yano asks for instructions but has no idea what Taguchi is telling him. They should team more often. They will team at least once more as Yano smacks DBS in the plums and rolls him up for the win.
Final Rating: **1/2
Some New Japan dates for your diary:
New Beginning 2 3 11 Feb
NJ Cup 23 24 March
MSG April 6
Dominion June 9
G1 Climax USA July 6
G1 Climax July 13 onwards. Final 10.11.12 August Budokan
UK Copper Box August 31
NEVER Openweight Championship
Kota Ibushi (c) vs. Will Ospreay
They start frantic and it’s the kind of thing you can’t look away from. Luckily I can touch type. The first magical spot is Ibushi doing the Golden Triangle and Will booting him out of the air in mid dive. Everything is beautifully fluid and exciting but that spot is them stepping it up. The match perhaps doesn’t live up to the hype but when they increase the pace, like with the powerbomb counters sequence, it quickly becomes very exciting.
Ospreay eats a knee at one point and is left in a bit of a state.
They do a delightful tree of woe sequence, where Ospreay gets mad and stomps Kota’s face in.
The match struggles horribly for flow but does have wonderful sequences and when they get into the business of doing exciting stuff it’s really good. It reminds me that in tags they’ve had incredible sequences but the art of singles wrestling is more than that. Everything outside of the big scary or speedy sequences is a little underwhelming. But then there’s ridiculous shit like Kota’s knee or Ospreay murdering Ibushi with the Decapitation Elbow. Stormbreaker finishes! New Champ! It’s Ospreay’s viciousness that allows him to win. He was so aggressive here. Ibushi’s bloodied face is evidence of this.
Final Rating: ****1/4
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship
Suzuki-gun (c) vs. LIJ vs. Roppongi 3K
I am desperate for Roppongi 3K to turn on Rocky and get rid of that dork and their horrible entrance music. How did Kanemaru get on this card? It’s so stacked and Kanemaru is one of the dirt worst wrestlers in NJPW. It’s not even that he’s always been bad like some guys but rather he’s wrestling a deliberately lazy style as a heel. Shingo vs. SHO has me fired up though. Those are two guys I want to see the junior division built around. The style of match isn’t something I’m fond of. That run of endless triple threat junior tags has effectively ruined the gimmick for me and it’s been done better beforehand. Shingo murders SHO with a pair of Pumping Bombers but somehow that isn’t the finish. Last of the Dragon actually puts SHO away and Shingo, predictably, stands tall. This was fine.
Final Rating: ***
Rev Pro British Heavyweight Championship
Tomohiro Ishii (c) vs. Zack Sabre Jr
Ishii is wearing the Rev Pro title for the last time as there is a new belt, designed specifically to be handed to the winner of this match. ZSJ makes a point of working over Ishii’s strong arm, not only aiming for a submission but also eliminating Ishii’s lariat and arguably the brainbuster too. Not to mention a wealth of strikes. Sabre tends to vary his submissions but here it’s all about the arm. Zack is tactically wonderful. His baiting of Ishii into strikes, where he’s countered right into a hold, is technical wrestling 101. Where this match is different is showing what Ishii has learned from previous losses to Sabre. He has counters lined up! Watching Ishii vary his game and going chaining with Sabre is great. It’s honestly a delightful little match. Everything clips along nicely and there’s no wasted motion.
This is the finish. It has a very long name. Ishii can’t get out. The arm work pays off.
Final Rating: ****
IWGP Tag Team Championship
Guerrillas of Destiny (c) vs. The Young Bucks vs. EVIL & SANADA
This is the match I’m least interested in. Not least of all because they had an entire tournament to determine the challengers and then just added the Bucks in because why not? Basically the tag division in New Japan has been Gedo’s booking Achilles’ heel for years. At least all three of these teams are good wrestlers. That’s an improvement over 2013-2017. SANADA’s beard is an eyesore but Jado attempts to out-do him.
SANADA is the star of this one. Hitting a bunch of moves, one after another to dominate the contest, although the match does end up relying on some tropes that I don’t care for. Like the Tower of Doom and the inevitable interference from Bad Luck Fale and Jado. Why are these guys even here? They throw a bunch of shit at the wall as the match goes on. I love the Gun Stun cutting off the Meltzer Driver. SANADA wins it with the moonsault and the belts switch.
Final Rating: ***1/4
IWGP US Championship
Cody Rhodes (c) vs. Juice Robinson
Juice is 0-2 against Cody.
Here comes the Rhodeses, corporate entities for All Elite Wrestling. They have matching gear, which is cute.
Juice has incredible fashion sense. Brandi gets involved, which isn’t for the best of the match but allows the pervert New Japan cameramen to get a lot of shots of her rear end. Brandi spears Juice at one point and I’ve never heard a crowd go so dead during a match. They then rush right into the near falls. It’s an awful match. It’s like the worst part of Gargano/Ciampa dropped in front of a crowd that doesn’t like that kind of wrestling. Juice wins with two Pulp Frictions to send Cody packing to AEW.
Final Rating: ½*
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship
KUSHIDA (c) vs. Taiji Ishimori
They do a weird entrance. A shrunken KUSHIDA using a 3D printed head of adult KUSHIDA on a child’s body. It’s…strange. Even by Japan’s standards. But Doc Taguchi saves him!
— LARIATOOOO!! (@MrLARIATO) January 4, 2019
The match gets into the business of pro-wrestling very, very quickly. KUSHIDA targeting the arm, Ishimori countering out and showing he’s not just a few flips. He can go on the mat too. But they have crazy stuff like Ishimori going for a 450 Splash and KUSHIDA sliding out sideways to grab an armbar. They do a good job of going back and forth with smooth transitions and natural flow from one guy to the other. Then the Bloody Cross hits and Ishimori wins out of nowhere. This was the absolute opposite of Cody/Juice. All ground work, no flash.
Final Rating: ***1/2
Jay White vs. Kazuchika Okada
Gedo’s switch from Okada to Jay has been a bizarre angle. Switchblade looks like a much bigger star for his work since the summer.
But it’s Okada who makes waves by ditching all the nonsense that plagued the second half of his 2018, going as far as to ditch the long boys and go back to classic Okada shorts. There’s huge pressure on these guys. Jay because he didn’t have a good match at WK last year and Okada because the aura came off him in 2018. An aura that saw him be New Japan’s undisputed ace. It just went. As the gold confetti rained from the ceiling on his entrance that aura came raining back into the Rainmaker. His in-ring has been strong as ever but that aura makes a big, big difference. He’s doing all the same moves but it just feels different. The Rainmaker Pose feels really special here. Credit to Okada for experimenting and making the fans want this again in the worst way. Okada looks like a different guy and Jay bumbles around getting beaten up for most of the match. The biggest difference is the crowd is into Okada 100% here. It’s not like his big Dome matches with Tanahashi or Naito, where the crowd were split. They do a wicked sequence leading into the spinning Rainmaker, countering from one attempted finish to another and BLADERUNNER OUT OF NOWHERE! Jay White wins! Huge victory for Jay, in what had been shaping up to be a domineering return to form from Okada. Jay had one trick too many up the sleeve and was one step ahead.
Final Rating: ***3/4
IWGP Intercontinental Championship
Chris Jericho (c) vs. Tetsuya Naito
I had low expectations for Jericho at WK last year but he did a magnificent job but this feels like the end of his New Japan run. He’s done what he needed to do. Naito seems to have learned from his previous failure too, coming after Jericho before the bell and not even posing or being tranquilo or anything. Where Jericho has a window of opportunity against a younger, more athletic opponent is via the no DQ stipulation he insisted upon.
Naito takes an absolute thrashing once Jericho starts manipulating the rules. The DDT on the announce table looks downright vicious, although Naito does hold on to the rail to stop himself from shoot taking it. He’s not alone in those bumps. Jericho takes a bump over Naito’s knee that looks savage for his neck. It is a testing environment for both men, determined to live up to their second top billing. Naito has a tricky path to walk. Retaining his charismatic personality but also being the underdog. As the LIJ leader he’d effectively abandoned any underdog persona but he manages to walk the line here. It’s also Jericho’s most measured performance in New Japan. He’s been OTT in previous outings, feeling the need to overdo the character to get it over. Here it’s more subtle, more nuanced. He’s a dick to Naito but it doesn’t overwhelm the match at all. Instead his spots are made by Naito taking daft bumps into them. The bump he takes on the Codebreaker is insane. He throws himself face first into Jericho’s knees. Jericho doesn’t have to try hard! But he does kill himself when he has to. There’s one major flaw. Red Shoes being out of position for Jericho to push him aside on the low blow spot. Also it’s a no DQ match so he can hoof Naito in the balls if he wants to. Jericho brings the belt in but Naito uses it and hurls it out of the ring causing Red Shoes to scramble in an attempt to catch it. Destino finishes and Naito overcomes the Jericho assault.
Final Rating: ****1/2
Kenny Omega (c) vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi
Omega’s attempts to transform himself into a video game character have had mixed successes. Meanwhile Tanahashi’s goal of being the best wrestler in the world, year in, year out, even when his body is broken has been one of the most amazing stories in wrestling history. He’ll go into the history books as a legend. The saviour of New Japan Pro Wrestling. All this rests on his shoulders while Kenny tries to come out here looking for a big hero pop and gets *nothing*. Luckily the match structure is different and Omega works firmly heel, dismantling the veteran with vicious shots.
One of my biggest criticisms of Kenny is his bizarre, childish acting and pulling faces. Another is the obsession with weird western things and trying to force that ideology into the Japanese work that he professes to love so much.
That’s not to say I don’t enjoy Kenny Omega. I do but the things that make him different aren’t necessarily good. The intensity is here in this match. Omega’s Terminator dive is outta control and lands hard on the floor. There is a feeling of these bodies being on the line here. They add in a nice wrinkle with Kenny tweaking his knee on his own spot, opening up that target for Tanahashi’s trademark leg abuse.
Tanahashi also abuses Omega with past comrades with the Styles Clash only for Kenny to kill him by getting knees up on the High Fly Flow. That bump from Tana looked downright horrible. My ribs hurt looking at it.
Then he’s flying through a table and then he’s killed with multiple powerbombs. Tanahashi’s back must be in pieces. His ribs are fucked. And then there’s Kenny, who can barely stand with his busted up knee. So they just start slapping each other and it’s quite beautiful. Kenny starts stealing moves but Tana kicks out of the High Fly Flow at one. Fuck your move theft! Tanahashi breaking out a god damn reverse rana has me in bits. The best thing about this match is how invested I am in who wins. I desperately want Tanahashi to win. When he hits the High Fly Flow I’m leaning right into the screen, counting along with Red Shoes. Come on, one more. GAAAAAH, damn it. But then it happens.
Tanahashi wins the title in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom. The greatest wrestler of all time has one more run on top of HIS promotion. The promotion he made.
Final Rating: ****3/4
Hiroshi Tanahashi is the greatest professional wrestler of all time. This was his show. The undercard was stacked and littered with superb wrestling matches but Tanahashi closed the show because he’s the best wrestler of all time. What a performance from him. Even eclipsing an astonishing semi-main event performance from Tetsuya Naito. Great card. Nothing that will probably be there at end of the year when discussing the year’s very best but the card as a whole was so enjoyable I can see this in the talking for show of the year.