Friday, December 28, 2018

The History of NJPW WrestleKingdom (IV-VI)

Welcome to the second part of the History of WrestleKingdom!  Moving right along....

WrestleKingdom IV - 1/4/10

Here at last is a WrestleKingdom show that's consistently entertaining and also has multiple 3.5-4 star matches.  The stars were beginning to align for New Japan, as the notable talents were falling into their respective current roles and spots on the card.  WK4 also featured a New Japan vs. Pro Wrestling NOAH rivalry, as four second-half matches comprised a card-within-a-card.

A quick six-man kicked things off, as Mitsuhide Hirasawa, Super Strong Machine and Wataru Inoue faced Jushin Thunder Liger, Kazuchika Okada and Koji Kanemoto.  This was an okay opener but far too short to amount to anything.  It was very weird seeing a 21-year-old Okada, who carried himself completely differently back then.  Brief but inoffensive.

The show picked up big with the second match, as Apollo 55 (Prince Devitt and Ryusuke Taguchi) defended the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight straps against Averno and Último Guerrero.  This was a highly entertaining Cruiserweight tag match, with Devitt in particular shining like the rising star he was, displaying spectacular offense and a great ring presence.  On a more streamlined card this match  would've been the hot opener.

The Heavyweight Tag Championship was next, as Team 3-D defended against No Limit (Tetsuya Naito and Yujiro) and Bad Intentions (Giant Bernard and Karl Anderson) with Hardcore rules.  A decent enough garbage match, and light years better than the previous year's Team 3-D bout.  No Limit and Karl Anderson brought enough workrate to compensate for the other three guys.  The hardcore stuff was very played out even in 2010 and they weren't doing anything groundbreaking.  Also the tables and chairs in Japan are pretty flimsy-looking so none of the big hardcore spots looked all that dangerous.  The whole "Get the tables!" bit clearly doesn't play in Japan, as the crowd was apathetic.  But this match was fine.

As with many WK shows, this one had a flurry of tag matches early on, and the fourth consecutive one was Masato Tanaka and Tajiri vs. Akebono and Yuji Nagata.  Pretty entertaining little match.  All the stuff between Nagata and Tanaka was energetic and crisp.  Akebono moved pretty well for his size but at the same time he always looked uncomfortable, like everything took a lot out of him.  Not unlike Yokozuna in that regard.  It was fun seeing Tajiri wrestle again.  He was one of many talents WWE failed to use well.  The finish was pretty clumsy with Gedo distracting the ref on the outside but sorta being in the way of Tanaka's finisher.  Otherwise this was certainly watchable.

Speaking of watchable, this next match wasn't.  In fact it was pretty awful.  Manabu Nakanishi, Masahiro Chono, Riki Choshu and Terry Funk vs. Abdullah the Butcher, Takashi Iizuka, Tomohiro Ishii and Toru Yano.  First off, just too many guys for the match length and way too many old-timers (Chono was 46, Choshu was 59, Funk was 65, and Abdullah was 69!).  Abdullah could barely walk and everything he did looked terrible (not to mention his sideboobs hung down to his waistline.  Eww.).  Late in the match Abdullah accidentally hit Iizuka with a throat thrust, sparking some fisticuffs between the two and eventually leading to The Butcher turning on his team and costing them the match.  Pretty pointless and not much fun.

The first singles match of the night broke out in slot 6 - Togi Makabe vs. Muhammad Yone.  This was also the beginning of the NJPW vs. NOAH mini-card.  Decent while it lasted but not long enough to be memorable.  Yone attacked Makabe on the ramp and they jumped right into the fighting.  A good five-minute match but not much more.

I'll say that up to this point I was not overly impressed with WK4.  But then everything changed in a big way, with a one-two-three punch, followed by a solid finale.  Hold on to your butts.....

Naomichi Marufuji vs. Tiger Mask for the Jr. Heavyweight Title.  Goddamn this was good.  One of the best Cruiserweight-style matches I've seen in a long time.  These two displayed tons of innovative offense without the match devolving into a spotfest.  I first became familiar with Marufuji in 2007 when he started appearing on ROH shows but wasn't blown away by his stuff at the time.  By 2010 though he'd improved immensely and I've really enjoyed the New Japan stuff he's been involved in.  Tiger Mask possesses a great mix of the Luchadore and Strong styles.  This match was almost balletic in its intricacy.

Holy shitballs!

This next match had a tough act to follow, but the two guys involved did just that.  Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Go Shiozaki was a superb match that could easily have been the main event.  Things started out with fluid mat wrestling (which I love to watch) and escalated into an all-out fight with both guys playing the heel at times.  They both broke out some super-stiff moves in the later stages and after nearly 20 minutes Tanahashi took it down with two consecutive Hi-Fly Flows.  There was no one better in New Japan at this point than Tanahashi.

The forearm shots are just brutal.

The GHC Title was on the line next, as Takashi Suguira defended against Hirooki Goto.  The first ten minutes were a bit lackluster and plodding, and I feared this would be very anticlimactic.  Then the second half totally made up for it.  The final ten minutes were amazing, and featured suplexes and reversals galore.  At one point Suguira German suplexed Goto into the turnbuckles, which despite the corner padding, looked devastating.  Suguira's two finishers are directly lifted from Kurt Angle, but he delivers his anklelock by rolling into it, which is a nice visual and sets his version apart from Angle's.  As with most Angle matches there were multiple suspenseful anklelock spots, which ramped up the drama.  This match started out in two-star range and finished near four stars.


The main event, for the IWGP Heavyweight Title, was Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Yoshihiro Takayama.  This was a bit of a letdown after the previous three matches, but still a pretty good main event.  The action was brutally stiff, which made up for Takayama's lack of mobility.  He was 43 at the time and kinda moved around like a 60-year-old, but his offense looked punishing, partly due to his size and partly due to Nakamura bouncing around like a ping-pong ball to sell it.  Really, Nakamura made a pretty awkward challenger look like an absolute monster.  Also Nakamura had by this time evolved into the cocky anti-hero character he is now known for, which made this match more compelling than it would've been a year earlier.  Takayama seemed an odd choice to be in the main event, but this was a solid match to close what turned out to be a pretty damn good show.

Well, this series keeps getting better and better.  WK4, while not as consistent as its predecessor, improved on WK3 by featuring three matches in or around the 4-star range, plus a couple decent undercard bouts and a solid main event.  We are now entering New Japan's must-see phase.....

Best Match: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Go Shiozaki - Dammit Hiroshi, give the other guys a chance!  He's 4/4 thus far.
Worst Match: The 8-man.  Nigh unwatchable, that one.
What I'd Change: Lose the 8-man and give more time to the opener and the Makabe match.
Most Disappointing Match: Probably Makabe vs. Yone
Most Pleasant Surprise: The second half of the show.  After the first six matches this appeared to be a middling PPV, but the last four matches elevated it huge.
Overall Rating: 8.5/10
Better than WrestleMania XXVI? - As an overall show, yes.  Nothing on this show touches HBK-Taker II, but this was more consistently good

WrestleKingdom V - 1/4/11

WK5 was similar to WK3 in that it was a consistently watchable show but was missing a must-see match.  Still there was a lot to like about this show and a ton of great talent showcased.  WK5 was the final event in the series to feature TNA talent.

There were two preshow matches but only one really stuck out - Koji Kanemoto and Ryusuke Taguchi vs. Kenny Omega and Taichi.  This was a very well-worked tag match with tons of spectacular offense.  Omega was clearly the star here, and it's easy to see why he'd soon become a top Jr. Heavyweight player (and of course a main event star later on).  I would've loved to see this as the hot opening match.

The first official PPV bout was Bad Intentions vs. Beer Money vs. Muscle Orchestra for the IWGP Tag belts.  Quite a car wreck of an opener, with 2-3 guys in the ring at a time while everyone else sold on the outside.  This match had decent energy, like all six wrestlers wanted to set the pace for the show.  The most memorable visual was Strong Man gorilla pressing the 330-pound Matt Bloom.  Totally forgettable but on ok opener.

Next up was an incredibly fun Lucha tag match - Máscara Dorada and La Sombra vs. Jushin Thunder Liger and Héctor Garza.  Even at forty years old Garza still looked great, and Sombra displayed some amazing top-rope dives.  Pretty short, but a really exciting aerial bout.

The first semi-miss of the night was next: Hiroyoshi Tenzan vs. Takashi Iizuka in a Deep Sleep to Lose match (meaning you had to put your opponent away with a sleeper hold).  This was a fairly plodding affair and the sleeper stipulation made for a very anticlimactic finish, but this wasn't all bad either.  Just not something I'd ever watch again.

Rob Van Dam vs. Toru Yano was next.  Entertaining, but outside of a few painful-looking spots this was your garden-variety garbage match.  For what it was it was well-executed.  The crowd was into RVD much more than they'd been into Team 3-D the previous two shows, even chanting his initials along with him.  This was fine but approaching filler territory.

The first important match was fifth, as Yuji Nagata renewed his rivalry with Minoru Suzuki in a stiff, no-frills fight.  This is what I was hoping for in their WK1 match.  Lots of grueling standup strikes and multiple submission attempts from both guys.  A real battle of super-tough veterans.

Did you just slap me?

Now we're talkin'.  Next up was Prince Devitt vs. Kota Ibushi for the Jr. Heavyweight Title.  Just a magnificent match, that started out methodical before Ibushi's breathtaking offense took over.  This match had at least 3 or 4 legitimate "holy shit" moves.  Ibushi dominated much of the action until the final minutes when Devitt made a comeback.  This was a really dazzling match and these two are such natural opponents I could watch them wrestle each other all day long.

Super Bloody Sunday!

A surprisingly good tag match broke out next, as Takashi Sugiura and Yoshihiro Takayama faced Hirooki Goto and a repackaged Kazuchika Okada.  Not knowing anything about this feud, I was still able to feel the intensity of this grudge match, which illustrates both the universality of the language of pro wrestling but also the quality of the talent involved here.  That I was able to follow the story they were telling without having seen any of the buildup is pretty remarkable.  This was brutally hard-hitting and the animosity was palpable.  Okada was almost unrecognizable, sporting a slightly bulkier physique and samurai-inspired gear.  Very good stuff.

Here's a pretty foul affair: Jeff Hardy vs. Tetsuya Naito for the TNA Championship.  Jeff looked awful here, moving really sluggishly and seeming barely motivated.  Welcome to Botchton, Messupchusetts (sorry, had to do it).  Of course two months later was TNA's Victory Road PPV, where Jeff showed up pilled out of his mind and they sent him to the ring anyway to drop the title in 90 seconds.  So clearly this wasn't a good period in Jeff's career.  Naito wore a T-shirt throughout this match which was odd.  Anyway, this was not good.

Next up was Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Go Shiozaki, which on paper looked like a surefire Match of the Night.  This was slow at first but picked up in the second half.  Despite Nakamura having fully become the anti-hero persona by 2011, Shiozaki played the heel here, taking out Nakamura's leg early in the match.  Nakamura eventually came back to win with the Boma Ye.  This ended up a very solid match, but a little underwhelming given how good these two are.  Still a good 3-plus stars.

The semi-main slot went to Togi Makabe vs. Masato Tanaka, in a good smashmouth brawl with some hardcore elements.  I liked that they didn't go crazy with the hardcore stuff, just a few big spots, so it was more like a regular match with hardcore sprinkled in.  Nothing amazing but quite entertaining.  Again, the hardcore stuff is so played out by this point, none of it has the impact or realism it had in the late 90s.

Finally we arrive at the main event: Satoshi Kojima vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi for the IWGP Heavyweight Title.  Very solid main event that was just missing that little something to put it over 4 stars (Actually this was a good representation of the whole show - almost everything about it was good but it didn't quite make it to the next level).  Kojima played a good salty heel Champion, working Tanahashi's leg for a lot of the match.  Tanahashi really is incapable of sucking - he's either delivered a show stealer or come damn close on almost every show I've seen.  I went into this match less than pumped for it (mostly because I'm not that familiar with Kojima), but it ended up probably the second-best match of the night.

Wait, it's a Sharpshooter?  Ring the bell.  RING THE FUCKING BELL!

WrestleKingdom V was one of those shows that's perfectly satisfying but doesn't stick with you beyond the initial viewing.  There were several good or very good matches but none that made this a can't-miss event.  A worthy entry in the series but not a great one.

Best Match: Prince Devitt vs. Kota Ibushi
Worst Match: Jeff Hardy vs. Tetsuya Naito
What I'd Change: TNA's involvement in these shows, while a smart way to attract more American eyes to the product, didn't do much for the quality of the PPVs overall.  Yes there were a few little gems involving TNA talent but overall they didn't add much.  A partnership with ROH starting in 2008 would've been more appropriate I think.
Most Disappointing Match: This was by no means bad, in fact it was a good 3-plus stars, but Nakamura vs. Shiozaki should've been a show stealer.
Most Pleasant Surprise: I wasn't expecting much out of Suguira/Takayama vs. Goto/Okada but it was a well-executed tag bout.
Overall Rating: 7/10
Better than WrestleMania XXVII? - Definitely.  WK5 lacked a MOTY candidate, but it was unwaveringly enjoyable and had a couple matches nearing 4 stars.

WrestleKingdom VI - 1/4/12

WK6 was a bit of a step back.  It was by no means a bad show; in fact every match was at the very least watchable.  But in the vein of a SummerSlam '93 there were neither highs nor lows.  It was one of those PPVs where it's hard to pick the best match because nothing really stood out from the pack.

The show started out quite promising, with Apollo 55 vs. No Remorse Corps.  This was a great opener with fast-paced, continuous action with crazy tandem offense.  All four worked well but once again Devitt was the standout - watching NJPW has given me a real appreciation for Devitt/Finn Balor that I wouldn't be able to fully process based only on his NXT run.

The blazing speed continued with Jushin Thunder Liger, Kushida, Máscara Dorada and Tiger Mask vs. Atlantis, Taichi, Taka Michinoku and Valiente.  This was a spectacular Lucha showcase with all kinds of wild aerial moves.  A lot of fun througout, but the ending was abrupt and anticlimactic, kinda coming out of nowhere.

The five-minute Kazuchika Okada vs. Yoshi-Hashi was next; little more than a showcase for Okada's new Rainmaker character (his third gimmick in as many WK PPVs).  The crowd wasn't reacting to his stuff yet, and his Rainmaker clothesline was much less brutal.

The fourth match was a slugfest, as Stack of Arms (Masakatsu Funaki and Masayuki Kono) faced  Seigigun (Yuji Nagata and Wataru Inoue).  This was really good while it lasted and featured stiff MMA-infused offense.  Sadly it was too short to amount to that much and felt like they were rushing to fit everything in.  Five more minutes would've elevated this one.

Next up was MVP and Shelton Benjamin vs. Masato Tanaka and Yujiro Takahashi, in a so-so tag match.  Shelton still looked like his WWE self in 2012; lately he's looked sluggish and unmotivated, but maybe it's his current heelish character.  His offense here was was quite lively.  Tanaka brought out the obligatory table and kendo stick spots.  Not bad but not very memorable either.

The IWGP Tag Championship was next: Bad Intention vs. Tencozy.  This was a pretty good Tag Title match with lots of double teaming and relaxed tag rules.  Almost a tornado tag.  I'm still not convinced Albert was any better in Japan than in the US, and he returned to WWE only a couple months later. 

Business picked up a bit with the final five matches, the first of which was Hirooki Goto vs. Takashi Suguira.  This wasn't quite at the level of their WK4 match, which felt like a main event.  This was shorter and felt more like a midcard match.  Still good and stiff, but lacked the drama and suspense of their previous match.


Next was Togi Makabe vs. Yoshihiro Takayama, which was a little plodding but had some good spots, such as Makabe spider-suplexing Takayama off the top rope.  Takayama is just very sluggish and his style is a little tough to get into.  Against an opponent like Nakamura who can sell like crazy for him, he seems more impressive, but against a brute like Makabe he just seems like a bit of a clod.  Not a bad match but not super exciting either.

A high-energy, compelling tag match was next: Shinsuke Nakamura & Toru Yano vs. Naomichi Marufuji & Go Shiozaki.  I loved the exchanges between Nakamura and Marufuji - they were crisp and extremely well-timed.  Shiozaki and Yano worked pretty well together too, trading big power strikes.  Yano plays a very entertaining douchy heel.  The ending was anticlimactic with Shiozaki just hitting two suplex variations in a row to pin Yano, but otherwise this was a really fun match.

The semi-main event was Keiji Mutoh vs. Tetsuya Naito.  I found this a little too methodical, as the early minutes reminded me of a run-of-the-mill 80s NWA match with all grappling and headlocks.  It was fine but went on a little too long.  They eventually broke out some big outside-the-ring spots, but the second half was much too repetitious, as though they had only mapped out a 15-minute match but were given 22.  Mutoh really relies way too much on the Shining Wizard, hitting it about six times in this bout.  He finally got the win with the moonsault.  I'm thinking Mutoh was probably too old by this point to still be in semi-main events.  This wasn't bad but I'd only give it about 2.5 stars.

Mutoh's forehead is looking like Abdullah's these days.

The main event once again saw Hiroshi Tanahashi defending the IWGP Heavyweight Title, against Minoru Suzuki.  This was a little underwhelming for me.  They worked well together but there wasn't a big sense of urgency to this match.  Their King of Pro-Wrestling match nine months later was significantly better than this one.  Suzuki's character performance adds a ton of drama whenever he's in there and this two told a good story, but it was lacking that extra oomph.  The closing minutes were strong as they turned it up a notch, but I didn't love this match overall and would probably rate it ***1/4.

The Champ's in trouble!

WK6 was the weakest entry since the first, with nothing bad but also nothing above 3 stars or so.  It was just a very middling show from start to finish and aside from the Nakamura tag match and the opener, was missing a real sense of excitement. 

Best Match: Nakamura/Yano vs. Marufuji/Shiozaki
Worst Match: Okada vs. Yoshi-Hashi - Just too short to amount to anything.
What I'd Change: The first half of this show built things up well but then the second half didn't pan out as expected.  This show was again missing that must-see bout.  I'd have cut Mutoh-Naito down to 15 minutes and maybe given the Nakamura match more time to truly steal the show.
Most Disappointing Match: Goto vs. Suguira - given how good their WK4 match was I was expecting more from this
Most Pleasant Surprise: Probably the Nakamura match, which had more of a big-fight feel than I expected
Overall Rating: 6.5/10
Better than WrestleMania XXVIII? - No

Stay tuned for Part 3, as things are about to get good.  I mean reeeeeeeallllly good.

Part 1                                                                                                                                                Part 3

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