Monday, December 24, 2018

The History of NJPW WrestleKingdom (I-III)

From the wrestling-fixated creator, who brought you the comprehensive histories of WWE's Big Four PPVs (Royal Rumble, WrestleMania, SummerSlam, and Survivor Series) comes another PPV History series: New Japan Pro Wrestling's WrestleKingdom!

How's it hangin' folks?  Time for yet another Enuffa wrestling history lesson, this time about a major annual PPV that I only discovered a couple years ago.  When Jeff Jarrett's Global Force Wrestling announced they'd be distributing NJPW's WrestleKingdom 9 PPV in the States, and Jim Ross himself would be the play-by-play man, I immediately took notice.  I'd read some great things about New Japan even before this, and saw that over the past four years they've garnered loads of Wrestling Observer awards, but until January 2015 I hadn't seen a single NJPW match.  Then an even bigger announcement dropped: New Japan had created its own WWE Network-style streaming service, offering every major show since the company's 1972 inception all for the price of 999 yen per month (That's around nine bucks for American subscribers).  What this meant was that I'd be able to see WK9 as part of my subscription (alas, JR's commentary was not included, but that's ok).  I was quite impressed with WK9, particularly the consistency of its match quality from start to finish.  For a show mostly featuring talent I'd never seen before, and for which I had no context, this was pretty spectacular.  (Note: I watched WK9 again a few months later, now with the proper context, and....well you'll see my revised opinion in Part 3)  From there I started perusing the library, picking out matches and shows I'd read great things about, and in a matter of weeks I was hooked on New Japan Pro Wrestling.  As it stands now, I'm a bigger fan of NJPW than WWE.  New Japan's product is simple, elegant, athletic, realistic, and unbelievably fun to watch.

So this historical piece will be a little different than the WWE ones, in that I've been a WWE fan for nearly 30 years, while New Japan is still relatively new to me.  I've become quite familiar with the current roster, but I unfortunately won't have quite as strong a historical perspective to draw from.  So I'll be talking more about the quality of these WrestleKingdom shows in and of  themselves, and less about their place in the grand scheme.  But for those of you who aren't yet acquainted with New Japan, you may find this approach helpful.  Think of it as something of a beginner's guide, if you will.  As for you New Japan veteran fans, if I've missed any important details, feel free to comment below!

WrestleKingdom is New Japan's biggest show of the year, held annually on January 4th at the Tokyo Dome (I was surprised to learn that the date never changes, regardless of the weekday).  The Tokyo Dome Show tradition began in 1992 and the event has carried various names, but it wasn't until 2007 that the show was broadcast on PPV and given the WrestleKingdom moniker.  So I'll only be talking about the nine (thus far) PPV editions of this extravaganza.  Let's get to it!

WrestleKingdom - 1/4/07

Like WrestleMania, WK is typically a four-hour event.  Unlike WrestleMania, they're able to comfortably fit 9-11 matches on the card without criminally shortchanging anyone.  One thing (of several) New Japan does way better than WWE is time management. 

The inaugural WK card was sort of an odd mishmash, with only four singles matches on a card of nine.  Clearly they wanted to fit as many guys in as possible, but unfortunately it meant the first half of the show was a blur of multi-man tags.

The opener featured El Samurai, Masanobu Fuchi and Ryusuke Taguchi vs. Akira Raijin, Kikutaro and Nobutaka Araya.  It was basically a comedy match, with Kikutaro (who wears a bizarre pink mask based on the Japanese god of good fortune) complaining a lot and even getting punched and kicked by the ref.  Nothing memorable here.

Next up, current NJPW bookers Gedo and Jado took on Tokyo Gurentai (Mazada and Nosawa Rongai) in a match that saw Gurentai dominate the first half of the match, only to fall short in the second.  Not much of interest going on in this one either.

Great Bash Heel (Togi Makabe, Tomohiro Ishii and Toru Yano) were up next against former WWE midcarders D'Lo Brown, Buchanan and Travis Tomko.  This was the first match where I was familiar with everyone.  Buchanan still moved well in 2007 but looked pretty out of shape compared to his 2000 WWF run.  Despite this match being eight years ago, Yano and Makabe looked almost exactly the same.  Ishii not so much, as he sported more colorful gear and a weird-looking tuft of hair on top of his head.  If I didn't know he was in this match I wouldn't have recognized him at all (He wasn't given much to do anyway).  This match was ok and didn't overstay its welcome, but was also totally forgettable.

These tag matches were getting tiresome by this point, and the fourth slot went to a big 8-man, with Giant Bernard, Ro'z, Suwama and Taru vs. Manabu Nakanishi, Naofumi Yamamoto, Riki Choshu and Takashi Iizuka.  Pretty dull and overly long, with a few clumsy spots.  I remember reading that Giant Bernard was a vastly improved in-ring talent after working in Japan, so this must've been very early in his NJPW run.  As of 2007 he looked like the same old Albert.

Things finally picked up in the fifth match, as Kaz Hayashi, Koji Kanemoto, Taka Michinoku, Tiger Mask and Wataru Inoue faced Yashhi, Jushin Thunder Liger, Milano Collection A.T., Minoru and Shuji Kondo.  This clustermess was a lot of fun; a perpetual motion-type match with tons of innovative Cruiserweight-style offense.  This probably should've opened the show, as it was high-energy and athletic, and would've energized the crowd right off the bat.

Nakamura was so plain-Jane back then.

Our first singles match of the night took place in the 6th slot (What is this, WrestleMania 2000?).  Toshiaki Kawada vs. a young white meat babyface named Shinsuke Nakamura.  It was really strange seeing Nakamura prior to his current gimmick.  The in-ring talent was obviously there, but his "stage presence" has improved exponentially since 2007.  This was a good if unspectacular match.  The first half lacked urgency but it picked up in the second half, with traded suplexes and arm submissions.  Easily the best thing so far.

Next was a gritty battle of salty veterans, as Minoru Suzuki took on Yuji Nagata.  This was somewhat hard-hitting, though not at the level I would've expected.  Both guys bladed early during an outside-the-ring skirmish with a chair.  Suzuki took control late in the match by repeatedly using a choke, which eventually won him the match by ref stoppage. 

In the semi-main slot was the IWGP Championship, as a short-haired Hiroshi Tanahashi defended against Taiyo Kea.  This was a very good main event match, featuring crisp grappling early on, some brutal-looking outside the ring offense, and excellent back and forth big moves late in the match.  A very worthy main event, and I'm baffled why this wasn't the show closer.

Not a great still but I couldn't find anything else.

The actual main event saw Japanese veterans Keiji Muto and Masahiro Chono vs. Hiroyoshi Tenzan and Satoshi Kojima.  Quite frankly I have no idea what this match was doing in this slot.  The action was passable but this belonged in the midcard as a special attraction match.  Maybe there was a big angle surrounding it, but the action didn't have the urgency that a PPV main event needs.  At 44, Muto could still pull off those twisting elbowdrops, but just walking around he looked really uncomfortable, like his knees were shot.  Regardless, I much prefer his Great Muta persona.  I was never all that impressed with Masahiro Chono's work, even in WCW in the early 90s.  This was a very anticlimactic way to end the show.

Overall the first WrestleKingdom event was little to write home about.  Being unfamiliar with much of the 2007 roster doesn't help, but that also shouldn't prevent me from enjoying a PPV if the wrestling is good all the way through.  But only four of the nine matches really delivered, and the main event was sadly not one of them.  A rather inauspicious start to the series, but I have a hunch things just might pick up soon.....

Best Match: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Taiyo Kea - Even in 2007 Tanahashi was something to behold.
Worst Match: The 8-man Tag
What I'd Change: Obviously the Tanahashi match should've gone on last.  Also there were just too many multi-man tags.  There was nary a singles match in the first half of the show and everything up to that point kinda blurred together except the 10-man.  The overall show didn't feel like a major supercard since so many matches were pretty phoned-in.
Most Disappointing Match: I guess Suzuki vs. Nagata, which was fine but didn't have the urgency I was expecting.
Most Pleasant Surprise: The 10-man tag
Overall Rating: 5/10
Better than WrestleMania 23? - Nope

WrestleKingdom II - 1/4/08

(Note: Apologies for my WK2 coverage, as NJPW World unfortunately doesn't have it in its entirety due to TNA's involvement; any match featuring a TNA-contracted wrestler at the time is missing.  A couple of these matches are clearly no big loss - Bernard & Tomko vs. The Steiners for example - but the two openers, AJ Styles/Christian Cage/Petey Williams vs. Devitt/Minoru/Milano Collection, and Wataru Inoue vs. Christopher Daniels, are two matches I was excited about.  I was able to track down the semi-main event, Kurt Angle vs. Yuji Nagata, on YouTube, so at least I got to see the most important of the TNA matches.  Anywho, this piece will only cover half the card.)

The second show on paper appeared to be a much more fitting lineup for the biggest PPV of the year, and even featured several top TNA stars.  As with most WK shows the lower card guys were crammed into multi-man tags, but at least this time those matches were spread out a little so they'd stand out more.  Plus the main event was actually a singles match for the IWGP World Title.

Due to the lack of TNA matches on the network, we'll pick up in match 4, as Katsushi Takemura, Masato Tanaka, Tatsuhito Takaiwa and Yutaka Yoshie faced Koji Kanemoto, Ryusuke Taguchi, Takashi Iizuka and Tiger Mask.  This was a decent 8-man spotfest.  Tiger Mask especially looked good, and there were some fun exchanges between Tanaka and Kanemoto (who looks like and uses some of the same offense as Shibata).  Solid but forgettable.

Next was Legend (Akira, Jushin Thunder Liger, Masahiro Chono, Riki Choshu and Tatsumi Fujinami) vs. Yasshi, Gedo, Jado, Shuji Kondo and Taru.  This was another clusterfuck 10-man with the action spilling out all over ringside.  Not much memorable here but it was reasonably enjoyable for seven minutes.

Skipping down the card, we have Hirooki Goto vs. Great Muta, which was a pretty good upper midcard match.  Goto attacked Muta during entrances and had the upperhand until Muta came back with the mist, and then used a ladder and other weapons to bloody Goto.  Keiji Muto looked slimmer and in better shape than the previous year, and his diminished mobility was somewhat hidden by the smoke and mirrors of the Muta character.  A little on the slow side but a fairly entertaining match.

Nagata doesn't quite nail the Crossface.

The co-main event was Kurt Angle vs. Yuji Nagata.  A very well-worked technical match, reminiscent of Angle-Benoit.  The grappling early on was crisp, as is to be expected with Kurt Angle, while the second and third acts featured good submission reversals and counters.  From a pure wrestling standpoint this was the best match on the card.

In the main event we had Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Shinsuke Nakamura.  Nakamura was still the pure babyface, while Tanahashi was the cocky heel Champion.  Interesting to see each of these guys playing the opposite of what they are now.  Tanahashi actually made a pretty compelling bad guy, who seemed to lord his experience advantage over the underdog Nakamura.  Also Nakamura's offense was much flashier in 2008, as he utilized top rope moonsaults and the like.  Nice storytelling throughout this match, with Tanahashi working Nakamura's leg and then later his injured shoulder.  While not as technically sound as the Angle match, I liked this match just slightly better overall due to the storytelling aspect.

Much flashier finisher than the Boma Ye

From what I saw (and how the rest looks on paper), WK2 was a quantum leap over the first edition.  The IWGP Title match was in the main event slot, and both top matches delivered big.  There were multiple clusterfuck tags on this show but at least they weren't all presented in succession, so they didn't blur into each other so much.  The format here was closer to the recent WK shows, where the card built slowly to a peak that left the viewer fully satisfied.  It's hard to rate a show I've only seen half of, but I'll do my best in the blurb below.

Best Match: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Shinsuke Nakamura - I liked this better than the Angle match just by a hair, but both were easily in 3.75-star territory.
Worst Match: Of the five matches I saw I'd put the 10-man match here.  There just wasn't much memorable action.  I'll bet the Steiners match was worse though.
What I'd Change: Well for starters I'd have included all ten matches on the network!  Otherwise not much specifically.
Most Disappointing Match: I guess the 8-man could've been longer and more structured.
Most Pleasant Surprise: Tanahashi working heel.  He's such a straightlaced hero now I wouldn't have pictured him as a convincing villain, but like everything else, he was really good at it.
Overall Rating: 7.5/10 based on what I saw.
Better than WrestleMania XXIV? - No

WrestleKingdom III - 1/4/09

The third edition of WK was most definitely a consistently good overall card.  As usual there were multiple six-plus-man tags but they were mostly different degrees of fun, and a few of the top-billed matches rose to 3.5-star territory or better.  Despite the involvement of TNA talent in several matches I was actually able to track all of them down, so unlike WK2 this review is complete. 

To kick things off we had Místico, Prince Devitt and Ryusuke Taguchi vs. Averno, Gedo and Jado in a very fun opening match showcasing Mistico, the future (and now former) Sin Cara, whose offense was flashy and hyper-agile.  How he's able to land on his feet after a hurricanrana I'll never know.  Anyway, good stuff to kick off the PPV.

Next was the Motor City Machine Guns vs. No Limit.  This was a typical but highly entertaining Jr. Heavyweight tag match with pretty continuous acton throughout and tons of creative spots.  Nothing wrong with that.

The Jr. Heavyweight action continued with Low-Ki vs. Tiger Mask IV.  This was a solid match but never seemed to get to the next gear.  The early going was fairly slow but it picked up later on.  Strangely methodical for such a short match.

The first miss of the night was next, as Kurt Angle, Kevin Nash, Riki Choshu and Masahiro Chono faced Giant Bernard, Karl Anderson, Takashi Iizuka and Tomohiro Ishii.  There didn't seem to be much point to this one, and the match wasn't long enough for everyone to get their shit in.  Why was Nash even here?  I'm not sure he ever got tagged in.

Jushin Thunder Liger and Takuma Sano vs. Koji Kanemoto and Wataru Inoue was in the fifth slot.  Another fast-paced, enjoyable tag match.  The Liger-Kanemoto stuff was very crisp and engaging.  Liger won the match with a superplex - a rarity these days.

Time for the first standout singles match of the night - Yuji Nagata vs. Masato Tanaka for the Zero-1 World Championship (which is actually just the 80s AWA belt).  This bout was a really good, stiff slugfest.  Both guys bled early (Tanaka broke a chair over Nagata's head and then Nagata took some really weak-looking post shots) and ramped up the snug offense throughout.  These two managed to make an eleven-minute match feel like much more.

These two beat the piss out of each other.
Another rugged match followed, as Jun Akiyama faced Manabu Nakanishi.  I'd never seen Nakanishi before, but he's a beast!  This almost seemed like a showcase for him, as he dominated much of the match before Akiyama made his comeback.  The finish was pretty anticlimactic (Akiyama won with a back suplex), but this was another intense, no-frills fight.

I'm not sure why this next one was placed so late on the card, but the only real stinker of the night came just before the two main events.  Team 3-D vs. Togi Makabe & Toru Yano got over fifteen minutes of a hardcore match, which featured sluggish action and pretty soft-looking big spots.  The Japanese tables look especially flimsy, with cardboard inside.  Bubba and Devon looked fairly unmotivated.  Easily the least-entertaining match, and the crowd didn't seem into Team 3-D's shtick at all.

The semi-main slot went to Shinsuke Nakamura and Hirooki Goto vs. Mitsuharu Misawa and Takashi Sugiura.  This was a well-worked good tag match with a big-fight feel and no wasted time.  It was cool to see Nakamura vs. Misawa face off, and these two had some nice exchanges.  Sugiura must be a huge Kurt Angle fan as he uses both the anklelock and the Angle Slam.  Nakamura eventually got the submission victory on Sugiura, and sold the win like it was the greatest moment of his life.  It's refreshing to see a wrestling company treat wins and losses like they mean something.

Finally the main event was Keiji Mutoh vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi for the IWGP Heavyweight Title.  Pretty epic headliner with some refreshingly great mat grappling in the early minutes, before both guys pulled out the big moves.  Mutoh looked much more limber here than at the first WK show, though he relied a little too much on the Dragon Screw and Shining Wizard.  The match probably could've been five minutes shorter, but this was still a helluva Title match with a nice passing of the torch.  Tanahashi was just becoming the company MVP at this point.


If WK3 just had one 4-star match I'd say it was easily the best of the series thus far, as all the NJPW-centric stuff was good or very good, and a couple of the TNA matches were fun too.  But WK2's double-whammy main events put it just above this card.  WK3 was missing that one must-see match, but overall it was a consistently watchable show with almost no bad matches.

Best Match: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Keiji Mutoh
Worst Match: Gotta go with the Team 3-D match, as it was a chore to get through.
What I'd Change: Give Angle a one-on-one match if you're gonna use him here. 
Most Disappointing Match: Probably Team 3D vs. Makabe/Yano - All four guys seemed to be going through the motions so there wasn't much urgency.
Most Pleasant Surprise: Akiyama vs. Nakanishi - This wasn't amazing by any means but it was an intense little slugfest.
Overall Rating: 7/10
Better Than WrestleMania XXV? - It's a more consistent card, but since it was missing a truly  great match I'll say not quite.

That's it for Part 1 of this jaunt down New Japan Memory Lane - check out Part 2!

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