It’s January 4th which means New Japan is in the Tokyo Dome, nothing more needs to be said. Let’s watch some wrestling.
Togi Makabe, Toru Yano and Ryusuke Taguchi defeated Suzuki-gun (Minoru Suzuki, Davey Boy Smith Jr and Lance Archer), Yuji Nagata, Jeff Cobb and David Finlay, CHAOS (Hirooki Goto, Chuckie T and Beretta) and The Elite (Hangman Page, Marty Scurll and Yujiro Takahashi) in a Gauntlet Match to become number one contenders to the NEVER Six-Man Titles
It would be easy to accidentally write far too many words about this meaningless pre-show encounter because a lot happened. We got some tension between the forgotten members of The Elite (Yujiro Takahashi and Chase Owens) and Hangman Page. Chuckie T didn’t flip out – which might be more newsworthy than him doing so – and the reunited Most Violent Players (Makabe and Yano) got the win.
It was also a fun warm-up with some impressive performances. New Japan should be using Jeff Cobb more as he looked great, Finlay picked up a couple of falls while Makabe and Suzuki had a lot of fun beating each other up. Despite that, it was a nothing match. Even the things that happened were teases rather than outright declarations. You won’t hate yourself for watching it, but you also aren’t going to come out the other side raving.
Verdict: Two And A Half Stars
Will Ospreay defeated Kota Ibushi to win the NEVER Openweight Title
Wow, follow that motherfuckers.
The first minute or two made it look like Ospreay and Ibushi were going to go all out in a Junior style sprint. Then, in a callback to the G1, Ibushi went for the Golden Triangle Moonsault too early. Rather than Will being stood on the floor, nicely waiting for the Golden Star to crash into him, he’d popped up onto the apron and caught a flying Kota with a kick.
That was the moment this changed. Suddenly, we weren’t flying (although there was still a bit of that), as instead, these two men went about beating the hell out of each other. The iconic moment of which will be Kota hanging in the Tree of Woe desperately swinging back at Will, refusing to go quietly. That turned out to be a mistake, as his stubbornness led to Will losing his temper and starting to boot Ibushi in the head. The next time the camera focused on his beautiful face, it was stained with blood.
The final sequence was kicked off by a callback to the December tag match with Tanahashi and Omega as Will backflipped out of a Deadlift Second Rope German Suplex. From there they went into a flawless run, packed with counter after counter as they wrestled at a pace and with a smoothness which few can match. Then, all that smoothness went out the window as Will resorted to driving his elbow into the back of Ibushi’s head before hoisting him up for Stormbreaker and the win.
The story they told was that Will’s idolisation of Ibushi made the difference. At all the key moments, he knew how to counter The Golden Star. From the Moonsault to the floor to the Kamigoye and that was ultimately what allowed him to win an incredible opener. Worryingly, Ibushi was stretchered out of the arena, and we can only hope that was either storyline or a precaution because after a performance like that an injury would be a real shame.
Verdict: Four And A Half Stars
Los Ingobernables de Japon (Shingo Takagi and BUSHI) defeated Suzuki-gun (El Desperado and Yoshinobu Kanemaru) and Roppongi 3K (SHO and YOH) to win the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Titles
I think it’s safe to say that the time they gave to Ibushi vs Ospreay was taken away from this one. These three teams wrestled a sprint and, truthfully, it lacked substance. The only thing you can really say is that Shingo was positioned as the star as he won this thing practically solo.
And yet, I didn’t have a huge problem with it. They did what they needed to do and the only part I was slightly unsure of was that SHO took the pin rather than Kanemaru. Even that was slightly tempered by the fact he kicked out of two Pumping Bombers. By the end of the show, no one will remember this, but it was entertaining while it lasted.
Verdict: Three Stars
Zack Sabre Jr. defeated Tomohiro Ishii to win the British Heavyweight Title
Two of my favourite wrestlers doing my favourite wrestler stuff, I was always going to love this.
What makes this match-up incredible is the extreme contrast between the two men. Ishii is the kind of man who headbutts his way through a brick wall while Zack sits in the background, sipping a coffee before stepping through the rubble Ishii leaves in his wake. That kind of sums up their encounter too. In many ways, Ishii dominated the action. It was him coming forward and throwing those crippling blows, but at all the right moments, Zack was ready.
That was never more apparent than after Ishii hit a Superplex and in Sabre’s insane mind that was not a bad a thing, but an opportunity. It got Ishii on his back, and Zack mustered up the energy to flip over, get back to his feet and wrench that arm out of its socket. Suddenly, there was a weakness, and if you have a weakness in the ring with ZSJ, then you’re in trouble.
From there the finish seemed inevitable. Ishii didn’t stop blustering, he never does. He’d keep roaring defiance and charging on, but sometimes a man should learn to stop. Sadly, Ishii didn’t. Zack eventually managed to wrap him up in Hurrah, Another Year… at which point he had no choice, it was tap or snap. Still, what a wrestling match.
Verdict: Four Stars
Los Ingobernables de Japon (Sanada and EVIL) defeated The Young Bucks (Matt Jackson and Nick Jackson) and Guerrillas of Destiny (Tama Tonga and Tonga Loa) to win the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Titles
It’s possible that the most intriguing thing about this match was Sanada pinning Matt Jackson clean. Nick generally takes the falls for the Bucks, so is that a sign of what is to come for The Young Bucks? Is their time coming to an end?
That wasn’t the only intrigue, there was also EVIL’s new haircut, which I’m assuming he got on holiday in Tenerife. Plus, Jado managed to look even more ridiculous than he has lately. Sorry, I’ll talk about the wrestling now.
This was chugging along, bothering no-one, and then Sanada and the Bucks got started. It wasn’t incredible or anything, but those three brought the pace up and with it the excitement. They provided proof that The Bucks vs LIJ was the match we should have got, particularly as Tama was more interested in getting over his new ‘good guy’ shtick than wrestling.
Before the show started, I was struggling to care about this, and they didn’t do much to draw me in. It was fine, I’ll go for the gentleman’s three.
Verdict: Three Stars
Juice Robinson defeated Cody to win the IWGP US Title
Kota Ibushi performed a miracle carrying Cody to a great match last year, didn’t he? Because Jesus Christ this was a nothing performance.
The first half was dominated by Brandi’s getting involved at every opportunity before the second half became all about these men hitting their opponent’s finisher. That, unfortunately, led to the worst Pulp Friction I’ve ever seen. That move is easy to make look shitty, but fuck me, Cody, that was genuinely atrocious.
It was all made worse by the fact that the majority of the crowd didn’t give a fuck. A feeling I joined them in. The title change was the right decision, but Juice’s reign is starting on a bum note.
Verdict: Two Stars
Taiji Ishimori defeated KUSHIDA to win the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title
Hm, I don’t know if KUSHIDA’s creepy ass entrance with the overly realistic masked child threw me off, but something about this didn’t click. Don’t get me wrong, it was far from bad, but it never reached the levels I was hoping for.
They told the story you’d expect them too. KUSHIDA attacking the arm while Ishimori used that explosive offence to counter it. Few wrestlers are better at setting up their game plan and sticking to it than KUSHI. He focuses everything he does on that same limb, and it’s always enjoyable watching him open up those opportunities.
The problem was that the story which should have come from that never got the chance to breathe. Ishimori dominated most of the action, and just as it seemed like they were heading into a back and forth final act, it was over. He no-sold the big punch and dropped KUSHIDA with Bloody Crosses for the win. It was about as definitive a victory as you can get.
That does, of course, play into the idea that this might be KUSHIDA’s last New Japan appearance. If it is, it’s a shame to see him go out on something that was good without ever being spectacular. He’s capable of better than this, as is Ishimori, which is why a match that would have been exceptional from a hell of a lot of wrestlers, merely feels acceptable.
Verdict: Three And Three Quarter Stars
Jay White defeated Kazuchika Okada
That’s more like it!
There was a brief moment in the middle of this where I was worried. Gedo was getting involved and the chair was out. Then, they dealt with it in the exact right way. Okada overcame the shenanigans and left them open to have a clean run towards the finish.
And what a finish it was too. I thought that no-one could top Ospreay and Ibushi in the counter sequence stakes, but these two only went and did it. The desperate battle between Blade Runner and Rainmaker was intoxicating. They were dancing between the moves as both men searched for the opening to put this bed.
Then Knife Pervert only went and won the fucker. While the Discus Rainmaker seemed to have set him up for defeat, Jay White is smarter than you or I. The confidence that moment gave Okada was what he needed, as the leader of CHAOS went in for the kill Switchblade struck. One, two, three, clean in the middle of the ring.
The shocked silence in the Tokyo Dome when the ref’s hand hit the mat was a beautiful moment. They were craving the Okada comeback and, as predicted by me, they got his lowest point. In contrast, a year ago at the Tokyo Dome Jay White fell flat, unable to live up to the expectations against Tanahashi. This time around, things were different. He went out there and did exactly what he said he would while delivering an excellent match. Welcome to the big boy table, Switchblade.
Verdict: Four And A Half Stars
Tetsuya Naito defeated Chris Jericho to win the IWGP Intercontinental Title
The belt that Tetsuya Naito hates driven into the head of the man he despises. How’s that for a story arc?
Before we got there, this was a wild brawl. Someone really needs to tell Naito that it is not always necessary to sell things on your head. That DDT onto the table was particularly insane, but he spent the whole match bumping like a crazy motherfucker. He was acting like it was his job to make Jericho a worldwide star rather than the other way around.
Praise must once again be directed towards Chris Jericho, though. He was fantastic. A snarling old da smeared in KISS make-up and determined to prove that he still had what it took to rumble with the youngsters. It’s impossible to not buy the idea that he’s unhinged as he canters around the ring causing chaos. You believe that he’s as likely to steal a camera, ring the bell or attack a fan as he is to actually wrestle the damn match.
We also saw the benefits of this being a rather tight show (by Wrestle Kingdom’s standards). Twice Jericho hit the Codebreaker, the second of which was after a low blow in a callback to Dominion, and twice I bit on the near fall. With the previous matches having avoided long convoluted finishing sequences with multiple kick outs, the use of them here was ten times more effective. There was a second where I believed Jericho was keeping that title.
Of course, that wasn’t to be. It was driven into Jericho’s skull as Naito embraced the Ingobernable inside of him and went full rudo. He even got a little dig in at Red Shoes post-bell. Then, perhaps surprisingly, he walked out with the belt in his hands. Is it possible that by helping him put down Jericho the Intercontinental Title has captured a little bit of Naito’s heart? Hm, I wouldn’t bet on it.
Verdict: Four And A Half Stars
Hiroshi Tanahashi defeated Kenny Omega to win the IWGP Heavyweight Title
The Ace rises, long live The Ace.
In my preview for Wrestle Kingdom, I complained that the build to this was a mess. The story was all over the place and no-one could quite figure out what they were going for. Well, in the ring, Kenny Omega and Hiroshi Tanahashi finally told their story, and what a story it was.
On the one side, you had Kenny Omega, the brash upstart. The cocky champion who believed that he can change New Japan and reshape it in his image. On the other, there was Hiroshi Tanahashi, the ageing Ace. The man who dragged NJPW out of the dark ages and embodies everything this company is.
Right from the start, Omega looked to be in control. He was stronger than Tanahashi, faster too, and he was able to dominate him, targeting his back. He was getting cocky, Moonsaulting off barricades and pulling tables out in his attempt to forge a new identity for the IWGP Heavyweight Title.
And how dare he get cocky with Hiroshi Tanahashi in the ring. Because when Tana got his chance, damn did he take it. A Dragon Screw Leg Whip from the second rope was the moment that changed the match, Omega’s knee was wrenched around and driven into the mat leaving him groaning with agony. It was an injury which put these two back on an even keel.
That was nowhere near to the end, though. There was still so much story to tell. You had Tanahashi, betraying his principles and trying to drive Kenny through a table with High Fly Flow only to crash and burn at the attempt. Then you had Omega going for the ultimate insult and hitting a High Fly Flow of his own, a move that turned out to be a mistake as it fired The Ace up and he kicked out at one.
There were also V-Triggers, flurries of slaps and, most of all, the gruelling intensity of two men who, by all accounts, genuinely dislike each other. They were giving everything to this match, determined to craft an epic of biblical proportions. A lot of the focus will be on Tanahashi, but Omega was incredible too. He put his ego aside and wrestled a Tanahashi match, enhancing it with flurries of his flair rather than looking to dominate.
January 4th 2018 was not Kenny Omega’s day, though. He may have kicked out of the first brace of High Fly Flows, then dragged Tanahashi off the top with that vicious looking Dragon Suplex, but it wasn’t enough. Tanahashi fought out of the One-Winged Angel and took off. A lifetime’s experience pushing him across that ring to the top rope. The third High Fly Flow was enough. The Ace lives.
Verdict: Five Stars
Ah, Wrestle Kingdom, I really do love you. If you were a real Kingdom, I would happily live in you. It would be wonderful.
There was a bit of a lull in the middle of the show, the tag matches combined with Cody vs Juice and a slightly disappointing Junior Heavyweight defence took a bit of steam out of proceedings. Thankfully, there was plenty of time for them to get it back. From White vs Okada onwards, it was sublime. Throw in Ospreay vs Ibushi and Sabre vs Ishii and, once again, one of the first shows of the year has the potential to be the best. You gotta love it.
Watch Wrestle Kingdom 13: https://njpwworld.com/