It’s time. I’m not going to bother with a preamble. It’s January 4th and New Japan are in the Tokyo Dome. We all know what that means. Let’s dish out some stars.
Masahito Kakihara wins the New Japan Rumble
The New Japan Rumble is not conducive to great wrestling. However, it is a lot of fun and gets a whole host of talent on the card. Highlights here were Nakanishi deciding to jog to the ring and being blown up by the time he got there, Chase Owens going on a roll and Cheeseburger still being massively over in Japan. We also saw NJPW give a debut to Mr Juicy, further proving that Australia and New Zealand are in their plans going forward.
The most important part, though, was the heartwarming nature of the winner. I won’t pretend I knew who Masahito Kakihara was when he came out but a bit of research tells me he’s a former NJPW wrestler who has been battling malignant lymphoma. Giving him the victory is no skin off New Japan’s back and will presumably have meant the world to Kakihara. It was a classy move that started off Wrestle Kingdom on the right note.
Verdict: Two Stars
The Young Bucks (Matt and Nick Jackson) defeated Roppongi 3K (SHO and YOH) to win the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Titles
All the back selling. So much back selling that I’m not even sure it was all selling. Both YOH and Matt Jackson did a fantastic job, and there were a couple of moments where I was worried the injuries were legit.
This was a great reminder of what The Bucks can do. They are a very different proposition in New Japan as they work a throwback style. It’s all about isolating a partner and zoning in on a body part.
This wasn’t all about Matt and Nick, though, and this was a big moment for Roppongi 3K. While their matches have been good, their characters haven’t quite matched up. Too arrogant to cheer and too good to boo. Here, they were pure goodies. YOH played the babyface in peril perfectly and how can you not enjoy SHO’s Germans?
This was a fantastic opener. There was a short period near the start where it looked like it was going to lose its way a bit, but they managed to wrestle it back around. They told the story of Roppongi 3K being good and The Young Bucks being that little bit better. This isn’t the last we’ll see of this feud.
Verdict: Three And A Half Stars
CHAOS (Beretta, Tomohiro Ishii and Toru Yano) defeated Team Awkward (Raymond Rowe, Hanson and a piece of shit), Suzuki-gun (Zack Sabre Jr, Taichi and Takashi Iizuka), Bullet Club (Bad Luck Fale, Tama Tonga and Tonga Loa) and Taguchi Japan (Ryusuke Taguchi, Togi Makabe and Juice Robinson) in a Gauntlet Match to win the NEVER Six Man Tag Titles
Beretta deserves that belt purely for the insane bump he took on the apron.
This was exactly what I expected it to be. Everyone attempted to have their moment and because of that no-one had a moment. It got lots of names on the show, it just didn’t lead to much great wrestling.
There were a handful of highlights. I want to see Ray Rowe and Zack Sabre Jr face off at some point, Yano’s roll-up to eliminate Taguchi was smooth as hell and Beretta’s great. That’s kind of it.
Verdict: Two Stars
Kota Ibushi defeated Cody Rhodes
There was a moment in the early goings of this where I thought we were set for a Cody special. It was all stalling and cheap heel tactics. Then, Kota Ibushi got going, and suddenly we had a damn good match.
And you know what, it wasn’t all down to Kota. This was a good performance from Cody, perhaps even a great one. There’s no denying that Ibushi elevated him but it takes two to tango and he did what he had to do. The Cross Rhodes off the apron was incredible and Rhodes was literally taking Kota’s neck into his arms on that spot.
Let’s get back to Ibushi, though, because he’s wonderful. The way he moves in the ring is mesmerising. The Straightjacket Suplex into the Kamigoye was a thing of beauty and his Phoenix Splash is the best in the business. It’s not just the wrestling, either. It’s the facial expressions and the body language. He makes you care. I don’t give a flying fuck about Cody Rhodes. Ten minutes of seeing him work over Kota and I hate the bastard.
Perhaps most excitingly, New Japan continue to sow the seeds for Omega vs Ibushi. Damn, I can’t wait.
Verdict: Four Stars
Los Ingobernables de Japon (Evil and Sanada) defeated Killer Elite Squad (Lance Archer and Davey Boy Smith Jr) to win the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Titles
Killer Elite Squad came out of the gates hot in this one, and I thought we might get a bit of a barnstormer. Unfortunately, it then slowed down and it took a bit of time for it to kick back up into that higher gear. Most of KES’s heat section was dull. Their moves somehow manage to look impactful and yet also plodding.
Then Sanada kicked out of the second Killer Bomb, and everything took off. It was as if both teams clicked and chemistry was born. Those final few moments were reminiscent of the opening seconds, and it’s a shame they couldn’t keep that intensity up for the whole thing.
Verdict: Two And A Half Stars
Hirooki Goto defeated Minoru Suzuki to win the NEVER Openweight Title and force Suzuki to shave his head
They couldn’t resist, could they? They couldn’t resist having that little bit of Suzuki-gun crap? Thankfully, it ended up not playing a big part in a great match.
The tone for this was set in the opening seconds when Suzuki choked Goto out. Either that was the most convincing selling I’ve ever seen or Hirooki was out of it. The way his eyes rolled back into his skull was legitimately unsettling.
From there, the tension started to grow as these two men went to war. With every blow, they got stiffer and stiffer, and you could see the effect it was having. The touch of blood around Goto’s mouth was better storytelling than a hundred promos. This was two warriors beating the hell out of each other. It was just a question of who would be left standing.
And for once, the person left standing was Goto. I know the NEVER Title doesn’t mean much, but on this day, it became the most important thing in the world. Goto is fed up with being known as the man who chokes. This time he refused to do so, he battled back and for once he saw this battle through to the end.
The final touch was Suzuki refusing to run away with his minions. He turned around and like the warrior he is returned to the ring to fulfil the promise and cut his hair. Outstanding.
Verdict: Four Stars
Will Ospreay defeated Marty Scurll, KUSHIDA and Hiromu Takahashi to win the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title
God bless anyone who was trying to write down everything that happened here.
This was everything that I wanted it to be. From start to finish it was a pure heroin shot of incredible. They set the crazy bar pretty high at the beginning and then went about breaking through it time after time.
While doing so, they avoided the curse of multi-man matches. This was an excellent mixture of people pairing off and action that involved all four men. They could realistically find a reason to spin Ospreay off with all three others in the fallout to this.
And, for all I wanted Hiromu to win, you can’t begrudge Ospreay his victory. He worked his ass off here. It’s almost becoming a problem how much he gives opponents. The way he took that sunset flip powerbomb being the perfect example. At this stage in his career, he doesn’t have to do that stuff, and he still does. It’s no wonder he’s banged up.
All four men deserve praise, though. Scurll was shtick heavy, but it wasn’t allowed to dominate proceedings. KUSHIDA, meanwhile, never fails to put in anything below a high-level ]performance. The final words have to go to my favourite, Takahashi, who continues to leave me lost for words. If this leads to the long-teased feud between him and Ospreay, I will be a very happy boy.
Verdict: Four And A Half Stars
Hiroshi Tanahashi defeated Jay White to retain the IWGP Intercontinental Title
This was the first thing to fell flat for me. I came in with big expectations and left disappointed. A large part of that is down to the booking. Jay White had to win and he didn’t. As a general rule, I trust New Japan’s long-term plan, but they brought a new star onto the big stage and had him lose to a one-legged man. Where does he go from here?
I could probably get past that if he’d lost in an epic contest. It never reached those heights, though. This was slow and methodical and worked around Tanahashi’s injured leg, and after the chaos of the Juniors, it was hard to get into that. White is an exciting wrestler and I don’t think we saw it. There was none of the sparkle that I associate with him.
It wasn’t just White either, where was big match Tana’? This is Hiroshi Tanahashi. When was the last time he was alright? You expect better from him. For the first time, I am wondering if that knee injury was holding him back.
There’s every chance that a year from now Jay White will be coming out at the Tokyo Dome and we’ll be laughing about how silly we were to think this was a mistake. However, looking at things now – both the small picture and the big picture – this seems like the rare New Japan misstep.
Verdict: Two And A Half Stars
Kenny Omega defeated Chris Jericho to retain the IWGP US Title
We were promised a fight. We got a fight. This is the best Chris Jericho has been in years, and it all came down to a willingness to have the crap beaten out of him.
What was impressive, though, were the storylines intertwined in the brawling. They never once questioned the idea that Omega was the better wrestler. When the weapons were gone he controlled the action. It was him hitting suplexes and so on. Where Jericho flourished, however, was when this came down to who could be the cruellest. He might not have Omega’s talent anymore, but he is a hell of a lot more devious. Whether it was side-stepping Omega’s dive to the outside early-doors or the rope break after the One Winged Angel, Jericho made up for his age by being smarter than Kenny.
However, Kenny was not going to lose. Jericho destroyed him, driving his head into that chair time after time and he refused to quit. When push came to shove, he reached down inside himself and found that he could be just as big a bastard as Y2J. He was willing to spray him in the eyes or drop him headfirst on a chair. He could play Jericho’s game better than Chris could play his.
This is not what we usually get from NJPW. Compare this to Omega vs Okada, and it’s a different world. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s damn entertaining. No one is questioning Kenny Omega anymore and after this, no one will be questioning Jericho either.
Verdict: Four Stars
Kazuchika Okada defeated Tetsuya Naito to retain the IWGP Heavyweight Title
Holy fucking shit. I was caught off-guard by Tanahashi beating White but not in a million years did I see Naito beating Okada. I just assumed he would win. I think everyone did.
We’ll get to that in a second, though. First, the wrestling. It was incredible. To once again draw a comparison to Tanahashi and White, it started slowly, with one man going after a body-part. In this case, it was Naito attacking the neck of Okada. Unlike the IC match, this one moved on to have all the sparkles.
Because as it went on these two built on that opening. In fact, they built on storylines that have been building for years. Okada’s wrist control, Naito’s arrogance and (the big one) how much that belt means to both those men. The forearm exchange where Okada couldn’t muster the strength anymore was the perfect example. What he needed wasn’t there anymore but there was no chance he was stopping.
Then they moved into that final stretch, which was one of the most edge of your seat, eye-popping and orgasmic finishes of all time. I was so sure that Naito was going to win and yet he couldn’t get it done. Every chance he had came to a screeching halt as Okada came roaring back. When he hit that dropkick and then sneered in Naito’s direction, you suddenly realised there was no way this champion was going down. And he wasn’t. Not today anyway.
So is it the right call? No, probably not. Naito is ridiculously over at the moment and Okada has beaten every obvious challenger to the throne. They can go back to Omega, maybe even to Tanahashi again and there’s always the likes of Ibushi. However, this felt like it was Naito’s time and I don’t know how they build him back up to that point. Do they do so?
Those are questions for another day. In the here and now, this was near perfect pro-wrestling. I’m going to enjoy that for a while.
Verdict: Five Stars
Before I get onto talking about the show in general, can we take a second to appreciate Don Callis and Kevin Kelly? The English commentary has come on leaps and bounds this year and they were fantastic again. The two of them have their jokes and they muck about with each other. However, their main role is putting over what happens in the ring. Very few commentary teams (if any) do it better than those two at the moment and they make watching New Japan a lot of fun.
Now, onto the show, which was exquisite. That shouldn’t be a surprise but I think it exceeded even my expectations. Goto and Suzuki were wonderful, the four-way was a masterclass in spot heavy wrestling and that main event will be talked about for months. Even the matches that disappointed didn’t stink, I just wanted better. This was another world-class performance from New Japan and I’m fascinated as to where they go next.