New Japan Pro Wrestling’s biggest show of the year, WrestleKingdom, took place on January 4th, and it’s making news all around the world. Not only was it a great show, but it was a shot across the bow to other wrestling companies. New Japan wants to expand more internationally in 2017, and WrestleKingdom 11 was a showcase for the best wrestling in the world. Not only will I be talking about WK11, but also New Year’s Dash, the traditional post-WrestleKingdom show that sets direction into the new year. For the record, I watched both shows with English commentary. Kevin Kelly and Steve Corino are easily the best English commentary team New Japan has used. With rumors that Corino is leaving ROH to do other things, I hope they find a worthy replacement.
New Japan Rumble
This was a fun way to open the show. All the New Japan dad’s were there, along with several legends and ROH’s Cheeseburger. There was however only one real threat in the Rumble, and that was Unbreakable Michael Elgin, returning from having his orbital bone broken by Tetsuya Naito. Elgin won pretty handily, entering first and running the gauntlet. There were a lot of fun bits here, and with only 14 entrants, it didn’t overstay its welcome. Rating: *** Winner: Michael Elgin
Tiger Mask W vs Tiger the Dark
This was a fine opener, but nothing special. Tiger Mask Ibushi hit all his normal spots, which mostly defeats the purpose of wearing the mask. At this point, Tiger Mask W’s identity is about as secret as Mr. America’s was. Tiger the Dark was ACH, and it will be interesting to see if he keeps working for New Japan or if this was just a one time deal. This was as good as any match involving two cartoon tigers could be. Rating: *** Winner: Tiger Mask W
IWGP Jr Heavyweight Tag Team Championship: The Young Bucks (Matt & Nick Jackson) (c) vs Roppongi Vice (Rocky Romero & Beretta)
Most the time, these Jr tag matches suffer because there’s never a story being told. It’s just several teams going out there and flipping around, which is all fine and dandy but does limit ones enjoyment. This was not the case here. RPG Vice has been on the verge of breakup for months, with Romero continually letting his partner down, though he did redeem himself somewhat in the Jr Tag Tournament to win this title opportunity. But when Beretta brutally wiped out on a dive from the top turnbuckle to the floor, Romero was left alone against the champs. Romero managed to outsmart the Bucks, countering their finishes and winning with a roll up. It was a great moment for Romero, who won his 7th Jr tag championship, but the match was hurt a bit by the abrupt ending. We expect these Jr tag matches to end in a flurry of flips and finishes, not a roll up out of nowhere. Rating: ***1/2 Winners: Roppongi Vice
NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship Gauntlet Match: Satoshi Kojima, Ricochet, & David Finlay (c) vs Bullet Club (Bad Luck Fale, Hangman Page, & Yujiro Takahashi) vs CHAOS (YOSHI-HASHI, Will Ospreay, & Jado) vs Los Ingobernables de Japon (EVIL, SANADA, & BUSHI)
There’s not a whole lot to say about this match. It just kind of existed. Bullet Club and CHAOS opened the match, but nothing happened worth mentioning before CHAOS was eliminated. LIJ came in next and quickly eliminated Bullet Club, and the only thing I remember here was Bad Luck Fale being taken out by BUSHI of all people. The champs entered last, which was good to see, and the two teams had a fun little match before EVIL hit EVIL to win the titles. This was fun, harmless, but also utterly forgettable. It did though start a big night for LIJ. Rating: *** Winners: Los Ingobernables de Japon
Cody vs Juice Robinson
Like the rest of the preliminary matches, this was perfectly fine. They didn’t tear the house down, but they didn’t bore either. It felt like a match that would be talked about as underappreciated if it took place on a WWE midcard. A lot of people felt like Cody needed to knock it out of the park here, and he didn’t really do that. Cody’s cocky heel mannerisms have always been good, but his ring work hasn’t changed much. So that is a little disappointing. If he really wants to succeed in New Japan, competent three star specials aren’t going to cut it. Rating: *** Winner: Cody
Ring of Honor World Championship: Kyle O’Reilly (c) vs Adam Cole
I liked this match more then most I feel. O’Reilly took every opportunity to trap Cole in a submission, and I really enjoy watching O’Reilly work like that. Cole hit a series of brutal superkicks at the end, followed by his finish to pick up the win and become the first ever three-time ROH champion. O’Reilly gets the unfortunate distinction of being the shortest reigning ROH champion ever, and the only to never successfully defend his title. Rumors are O’Reilly is WWE bound, and Cole might not be that far behind him. What happens with the ROH title will be interesting to watch. This match also gets the distinction of being my first 4 star match of the year, so congrats! Rating: **** Winner: Adam Cole BAYBAY!
IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship Triple Threat Match: Guerilla’s of Destiny (Tama Tonga & Tanga Roa) (c) vs G.B.H. (Togi Makabe & Tomoaki Honma) vs CHAOS (Tomohiro Ishii & Toru Yano)
Before this match, the Sublime Master Thief Toru Yano stole the trophies GBH won at the Tag League, and also stole GoD’s tag titles. A lot of people were annoyed Yano inserted himself in this match, but those people have no sense of humor. I love Yano’s antics, and was happy to see him and Ishii added to this match. The most notable thing to happen here was Tanga Roa losing his profanity filter, and just going to town, cursing with every move while Steve Corino laughed on commentary. Combined with Yano’s trickery, this match made me laugh more then once. It’s not an all time classic or anything, but it was a fun match to watch. Considering how the final four matches stack up, this was a good palette cleanser. Yano won with a double low blow as the Guerilla’s tried to suplex Ishii, followed by a roll up. Rating: ***1/2 Winners: CHAOS.
IWGP Jr Heavyweight Championship: KUSHIDA (c) vs Hiromu Takahashi
This was insane. Hiromu is a madman, flying around the ring like he’s in someone else’s body. The risks and the bumps he takes are cringe-inducing, in good way. This wasn’t just a flippy spot fest though, oh no, not with KUSHIDA in there. KUSHIDA worked Hiromu’s arm like he was trying to rip it off. There were so many highlights here, but my favorite might have been KUSHIDA catching a diving Takahashi out of midair into an armbar outside of the ring and not letting go. KUSHIDA is much more watchable for me when he strikes a bit of an attitude like this. After the armbar outside, every kick and every attack of KUSHIDA’s was against the arm, really dialing in the damage. He applied the Hoverboard Lock several times, and each time I thought that was going to be it. Hiromu was able to fight his way out of it the last time, and hit his finisher for the win. A great match, hurt only by a few small botches. They didn’t disrupt much, in fact, they kind of add to Hiromu’s death defying style, but still. Also, Hiromu needs a better finish then his spinning side slam thing he does. Great match though, and well worth watching more then once. Rating ****1/4 Winner: Hiromu Takahashi
NEVER Openweight Championship: Katsuyori Shibata (c) vs Hirooki Goto
Everyone knew this was going to be a brutal match, but I wasn’t sure it would match the last couple of WrestleKingdom NEVER title matches involving Ishii. Well, I was wrong, as there two were more then willing to kick the holy shit out of each other. I’ve said before that I don’t really care about Goto, and this match was hurt by me just not caring if Goto could “win the big one.” Despite that, I love this style of hard-hitting fighting. The ending was amazing, as it looked like Shibata was going to put Goto away before Goto responded with a massive headbutt, and just kept headbutting Shibata until the champ was on his knees before finishing him off with the GTR. This was everything I want out of my NEVER matches. Rating: ****1/4 Winner Hirooki Goto
IWGP Intercontinental Championship: Tetsuya Naito (c) vs Hiroshi Tanahashi
This was my easily my favorite match on the card. It doesn’t hurt that it was also my most anticipated, and it delivered big time. This was a mirror image match, which the pre match video package really put over. Naito was supposed to be the New Tanahashi, and instead he has taken a different path. The mirror image concept was really put over in the match, which each man attacking the leg. At one point they just started kicking each other in the knee, over and over again. I loved it. Also, Tanahashi displayed some heelish tactics, mirroring Naito’s own. Tanahashi hit a half dozen High Fly Flows or so, but Naito kept avoiding the killing blow. Naito caught Tanahashi with a Super Destino, followed by a regular one to win the match. Tanahashi has now lost at two WrestleKingdom’s in a row, and Naito seemed to imply that he put the nail in Tanahashi’s coffin, pounding his fist into the chest of his fallen adversary. A few other things about the match. The crowd was on fire for both guys. This was one of the loudest Japanese crowds I’ve heard, and they really enhanced this match. Also, the entire stage and giant screen were set up for Naito’s entrance, in the shape of a giant eye, so I don’t want to hear anymore of the narrative that says that Naito is not a main guy. Rating: ****1/2 Winner: Tetsuya Naito
IWGP Heavyweight Championship: Kazuchika Okada (c) vs Kenny Omega
Despite the previous three matches all being great, this is the only match anyone is talking about. Okada and Omega put on a clinic, but I’ll admit, I didn’t love it as much as a lot of other people. Dave Meltzer gave it 6 stars, a rating he has given maybe three or four times ever. Many, many others went the full 5 stars. If you haven’t seen it yet, do so, as it’s a match that will be talked about for a long, long time.
The biggest compliment I can give it is it doesn’t feel nearly as long as it actually is. I was shocked after I watched it, and saw someone say it was 47 minutes long. Surely that couldn’t be right. When I rewatched, I tried to keep in mind how long it was, but it sucked me in again. Not once did I look at the clock either time I watched this match. The back half of this match is one of the greatest matches I’ve ever seen. The number of believable false finishes makes you jump out of your seat. And yet… I can’t give this match a perfect rating. Certainly not one of the greatest matches of all time. Much of the first half, while good and entertaining, feels superfluous. Looking at it critically, you can’t really eliminate any of it, but it also feels a bit pointless as it’s happening. I made a joke to a friend of mine while rewatching it that nothing matters in an Okada main event until he misses his first Rainmaker, and that mostly applies here.
Even when the match kicks off into third gear though, there’s an issue that it doesn’t give you time to breathe. It’s just balls to the wall, which you wouldn’t think would be bad but…. The biggest example is the dragon suplex. Omega hits a killer Dragon Suplex from the top rope, dropping Okada straight on his head. It’s dangerous, it’s awe-inspiring, and it’s one of the more incredible spots I’ve ever seen. 30 seconds later, Okada is fighting like it didn’t happen. Omega takes a crazy back body drop over the top rope, through a table. 30 seconds later, he’s fighting like nothing happened. This is a rare long match where making it longer might have actually helped. As it is, these huge moments in the match don’t feel important. It just felt like “Big Spot #5”, then okay, time to move onto “Big Spot #6.”
I don’t want to get too negative though. There’s tons to like about this match. Omega kicked out of the Rainmaker, something that very few people do. Okada not letting go, and Omega desperately kicking Okada’s arm. Okada squirming out of the One-Winged Angel every time, Omega not able to hit his big move. Would that have put Okada away? Only the eventual rematch will tell us for sure. Rating: ****1/2 Winner: Kazuchika Okada
This post is too long already, but let’s take a quick look at New Year’s Dash, which set up the spring season for New Japan. Two factions in New Japan came out of WrestleKingdom on top: Los Ingobernables de Japon, and CHAOS. Both took a beating at New Year’s Dash. Big Mike Elgin and KUSHIDA beat Naito and Hiromu in a tag match, with the help of a debuting Dragon Lee. Lee and Hiromu spent the past two years feuding in Mexico, and adding him to the mix is a big move. Lee also stared down KUSHIDA, so who knows where his allegiances really lie. Elgin pinned Naito with a goddamn Burning Hammer, setting himself up to take back his IC title and get some revenge on Naito for breaking his face. And in the main event, Tanahashi got a little bit of payback for losing to Naito, leading the team of Taguchi and Nakanashi to defeat EVIL, SANADA, & BUSHI for their newly won NEVER 6-Man titles.
Meanwhile, CHAOS lost a 10-man tag match, with Juice Robinson pinning Goto, no doubt setting himself up for a NEVER title shot. The big story came after this match though. After spending two years in Pro Wrestling NOAH, Suzuki-gun returned, beating down CHAOS. Suzuki-gun is maybe the biggest heel faction in New Japan now. They don’t try to be the cool heels, they are just bad guys who do bad guy stuff. They aren’t just heels, they’re straight up villains. The beat down happened really well too. The lesser members of Suzuki-gun took out almost everyone, with the Killer Elite Squad of Lance Archer and Davey Boy Smith Jr. taking out Yano and Ishii. Okada hit the ring, and almost single handily held his own against the entire faction before the man himself, Minoru Suzuki, came up behind him, choked out Okada, piledrove him, and put the entire company on notice.
The spring is set up for some big matches. KES vs Yano and Ishii. Dragon Lee vs Hiromu. Naito vs Elgin. Juice vs Goto. And Okada vs Suzuki. The next big NJPW shows, New Beginnings in February, are set up to be really good.