Friday, December 30, 2016

The History of NJPW WrestleKingdom (7-10)

Alright folks, this is where it really gets good.  The next four installments of WrestleKingdom are about as good as any four consecutive editions of any PPV I can recall.  I know that sounds hyperbolic but I'm being completely serious.  Read on.....


WrestleKingdom 7 - 1/4/13

What a splendid show this was.  From start to finish, WrestleKingdom 7 delivered at about the highest possible level, including an instant classic main event, an unexpectedly great IC match, and one of the best Triple Threats I've ever seen.  New Japan was in the midst of a wrestling renaissance, my friends.

The show started with an amusing opening match designed to ease the crowd into it: Akebono, Manabu Nakanishi, MVP and Strong Man vs. Chaos (Bob Sapp, Takashi Iizuka, Toru Yano and Yujiro Takahashi).  This had a lot of kinda goofy spots, like the babyfaces all hitting corner avalanches on all four heels.  I think they did that spot two or three times actually.  Anyway the match was inoffensive but felt like a throwaway.

The proper start to WK7 was Masato Tanaka vs. Shelton Benjamin for the NEVER Openweight Title, in what was pretty damn good for a six-minute match.  Four more minutes and this would've approached three-star territory.  Side note: Shelton should go back to being a babyface, as his style was much more exciting that way. 

Next up was KES (Davey Boy Smith jr & Lance Archer) vs. Sword & Guns (Hirooki Goto & Karl Anderson) in a surprisingly good Tag Title match.  I didn't think I'd be all that impressed with KES, but they've made a solid top team.  Seeing Karl Anderson as a babyface was pretty weird - he even wore light-colored gear.  This was full of action and fun tandem offense.

The first classic of the night was next, between Yuji Nagata and Minoru Suzuki.  This was their third WK match together, and this blew the other two out of the water.  Really hard-hitting action as usual but this match felt much bigger and got the time it needed.  Nagata finally got the win with the Backdrop Hold after some amazingly stiff wrestling.

Whammo!

The show stealer of WK7 was in the center of the card: Prince Devitt vs. Kota Ibushi vs. Low-Ki for the Jr. Heavyweight Title.  Just an amazing, amazing match, and seriously one of the best of its kind that I've ever seen.  These three managed to make a 3-way match flow totally smoothly, where it wasn't just two guys fighting while the other sold on the outside.  And when that did happen, the third guy would show up out of nowhere with an insane spot.  At multiple points, Wrestler A would hit a big move on Wrestler B, only for Wrestler C to immediately follow it up with some huge move on Wrestler A.  Just a breathtaking match you should go out of your way to see.  Low-Ki by the way was able to wrestle at this level while wearing a full suit (in tribute to the videogame Hitman), which is insane to me.



Next up, Keiji Mutoh renewed his WK rivalry with the team of Tencozy, by tagging up with Shinjiro Otani.  This was fine but I didn't have much interest in it.  Mutoh's matches now consist of the same stuff over and over (seriously, how many Shining Wizards can a guy hit in one match?).  Otani was fun to watch and it was interesting to see him use the Facewash (I assume Samoa Joe lifted it from Otani?), which was over huge.  Kojima has grown on me, though his rapid-fire chops aren't nearly as painful-looking as Kenta Kobashi's.  Execution-wise this match was perfectly entertaining, it just felt out of place so late on the card.  Maybe this should've been fourth or so.

The last three matches are a helluva triumvirate, starting with Togi Makabe vs. Katsuyori Shibata.  This was loads better than it had any right to be given the short length.  Both of these guys are known for incredibly stiff fights, and this was no different.  Not at the level of Makabe's matches with Ishii, but this was a wild slugfest that felt much bigger than its running time would indicate.

The semi-main event was Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Kazushi Sakuraba for the Intercontinental Title.  What a unique, fascinating match this was.  As pro wrestling/MMA hybrids go, this was about as good as it gets.  It kicked off with totally credible ground grappling (to be expected given both of these guys were MMA fighters) which then led to stiff wrestling offense (At one point Nakamura ran into a vicious knee to the face and I can't believe he wasn't legit knocked out).  Sakuraba dominated by working Nakamura's arm, but Nakamura fought through and managed to hit the Boma Ye for the win.  This bout was just about perfect for its spot on the card.

One of the best dropkicks in the biz.

The main event was an early entry in the now-legendary Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada rivalry.  There was no more fitting NJPW main event in 2013 than this epic bout.  These two pulled out everything over 33 minutes and delivered an absolute war.  That Tanahashi and Okada achieved a four-plus star match here and would later top themselves multiple times (at Invasion Attack, King of Pro-Wrestling, and WK9 & 10) is remarkable.  This clearly isn't my favorite episode of this feud but make no mistake, it was an eminently worthy WrestleKingdom main event, and easily the best of the series so far.  Tanahashi stood tall after two brutal Hi-Fly Flows, but Okada would finally dethrone him at Invasion Attack three months later.

WK7 was quite obviously the best edition as of 2013.  With only 9 matches over four hours, this show was streamlined and almost devoid of filler, with a massive headlining match, a short but exceptional MMA-style semi-main, and a mindbendingly awesome Jr. Heavyweight bout.  And what's crazy is this show would be totally overshadowed two years later.....

Best Match: Prince Devitt vs. Kota Ibushi vs. Low-Ki 
Worst Match: The 8-man - if this is your worst match, you've assembled a helluva show
What I'd Change: I'd have cut the Mutoh bout down to 11 minutes or so and given that extra time to Benjamin-Tanaka.  But otherwise there's not much you could improve about this PPV.
Most Disappointing Match: Nothing.  Nothing at all.
Most Pleasant Surprise: I wasn't expecting Nakamura-Sakuraba to be anywhere near as good as it was
Overall Rating: 9.5/10
Better than WrestleMania XXIX? - You bet your sweet bippy




WrestleKingdom 8 - 1/4/14

We're officially in the middle of a streak, as NJPW followed up the excellent WK7 with an almost-as-great WK8.  This show was a bit of a donut, with a good beginning and a great end but not much of a middle.  But that's okay, the good stuff far outweighed the bad.

Kicking things off was a 4-way for the Jr. Heavyweight Tag belts: The Young Bucks vs. Forever Hooligans vs. Suzuki-gun vs. Time Splitters.  This was a crazy spotfest with a lot of comedy mixed in, such as Taka and Taichi spending the first three minutes at the commentators' table.  The action was pretty much non-stop and a lot of fun.  Young Bucks won with the amazing More Bang for Your Buck (I won't attempt to describe this move as it's too complex - just Youtube it).  Even more amazing was the announcer calling the move: "MORE BANG-UH FOR YOUR BUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK-UH!"

The World Tag belts were up next, as Killer Elite Squad defended against Bullet Club members Karl Anderson & Doc Gallows.  This was an energetic Tag Title match where the Bullet Club guys outheeled Smith and Archer and therefore took the belts.  Interesting to see KES become the de facto babyfaces.

In the third slot was the NWA Championship: Rob Conway vs. Satoshi Kojima was surprisingly good, with Kojima carrying most of the workload and the crowd responding well to everything he did.  Nothing mindblowing but a good little match.

The first low point was fourth, as Kazushi Sakuraba & Yuji Nagata faced MMA fighters Daniel & Rollie Gracie.  New Japan has done some excellent faux-MMA matches, but this wasn't one of them.  The Gracies, talented fighters though they may be, don't work well in a pro wrestling format, partly due to their basically being devoid of charisma.  Not terrible, but not good either.

The obligatory Great Muta match was next as he teamed with Toru Yano against Minoru Suzuki & Shelton Benjamin.  A pretty good tag match, largely because of Suzuki and Benjamin's heel shenanigans keeping things fun.  Yano, ever the cheater, managed to play a sympathetic character while still using underhanded tactics.  Muta once again used way too many Shining Wizards.

A "King of Destroyer" match was next: Togi Makabe vs. Bad Luck Fale.  Traditionally the Last Man Standing gimmick is my least favorite type of match, but in New Japan the refs don't overuse the ten-count, and count much faster than their US counterparts.  So this was an okay fight that didn't rely too heavily on bells and whistles.  In fact most of the big spots just involved the wrestlers' signature moves, and Fale got put away after Makabe's King Kong Knee Drop.

Up until this point WK8 was a fairly lackluster card, but as has happened many times before, the last four matches totally made this show.

Hirooki Goto faced Katsuyori Shibata in a really amazing fight full of jaw-rattling strikes.  These two beat the snot out of each other in a match that featured traded forearms, palm strikes, back suplexes, and even Goto's finisher, the Shouten.  This nearly stole the show.

Smash!

The Jr. Heavyweight Championship was next: Prince Devitt vs. Kota Ibushi.  Fantastic match that played out more like a World Title bout.  They saved the big crazy spots for the second half and concentrated on telling the story of Ibushi being outnumbered at ringside by Devitt's Bullet Club stablemates.  For once the repeated outside interference enhanced the story.  Then after the Bullet Club was ejected from the premises, things got down to business and Ibushi and Devitt delivered like they always do.

How boss is this body paint?

The first of two co-main events was for the IWGP World Title.  Kazuchika Okada faced 2013 G1 Climax winner Tetsuya Naito in a marathon World Title match that was not quite on the level of Okada-Tanahashi, but still very good.  Given who the challenger was, there unfortunately wasn't much suspense over Okada possibly losing the Title.  This seemed more like a big match designed to help Okada stand on his own as a top guy, apart from his feud with Tanahashi.  The closing stretch was great and full of innovative reversals.  Overall the match was good but not excellent.

As voted by the fans, the Intercontinental Championship took the main event slot, as Shinsuke Nakamura defended against Hiroshi Tanahashi.  This was a tremendous main event with both guys playing their roles to perfection and delivered probably their best match together (until G1 25 anyway).  They played off their knowledge of each other's big moves, so each knew how to counter the other.  Really crisp, athletic contest resembling the ol' "human chess match."  Tanahashi eventually got the duke after two HFFs.

The main event was all this and much more....

WK8 was a very worthy followup to the awesome WK7, with an absolutely brilliant second half that never let up.  I'd call the Nakamura-Tanahashi main event the third-best in the WK pantheon.  But New Japan wasn't done yet - their unquestionable masterpiece was yet to come.....

Best Match: Nakamura vs. Tanahashi
Worst Match: Sakuraba/Nagata vs. The Gracies
What I'd Change: Dump the whole Gracie angle
Most Disappointing Match: Nothing really
Most Pleasant Surprise: Conway vs. Kojima
Overall Rating: 9/10
Better than WrestleMania XXX? - Not quite, but it's close.




WrestleKingdom 9 - 1/4/15

Every so often a wrestling PPV comes along that seems to render obsolete everything that came before.  There aren't enough superlatives to describe how fucking good the ninth edition of WrestleKingdom was; from top to bottom this show was entertaining at worst, and more often than not was transcendent.  I'm not exaggerating when I say WK9 was just as good as WrestleManias 17 and 19, and annihilated pretty much every other PPV below that top echelon.  This is one of the best wrestling shows I've ever seen.

The show opened with an amazing display of Jr. Heavyweight tag team wrestling, with reDRagon defending their straps against the Young Bucks, Forever Hooligans and The Time Splitters.  There was no big story being told in this match, it was simply a game of aerial oneupmanship.  All four teams worked at a blistering pace to rev up the 36,000 in attendance, and this match accomplished exactly what it needed to. 

Next up were the only two low points of the show, a six-man tag and an 8-man.  Each match only went five minutes and both were inoffensive but forgettable.  The first pitted Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Satoshi Kojima and Tomoaki Honma against Bullet Club members Bad Luck Fale, Jeff Jarrett and Yujiro Takahashi in a sports-entertainment kinda match.  Nothing much memorable here other than Honma getting a rare PPV win.  The other multi-man was a little more fun, as Naomichi Marufuji, TMDK (Mikey Nicholls and Shane Haste), and Toru Yano faced the Suzuki-gun stable of Davey Boy Smith Jr., Lance Archer, Shelton X Benjamin and Takashi Iizuka.  This one had better action than the six-man but was just as brief.  Don't worry though, from here on out this show had nary a lull.

The fourth match was an MMA-hybrid between Minoru Suzuki and Kazushi Sakuraba, to be won only by submission or knockout.  Both guys worked a gritty, realistic fight in which Sakuraba beat the hell out of Suzuki's arm, only for Suzuki to come back with an airtight choke for the win.  Not quite at the level of WK7's Nakamura-Sakuraba, but still captivating.

The fifth bout took this show to the next level, as Tomohiro Ishii defended the NEVER Openweight Title against Togi Makabe, in one of the most ferocious knock-down matches I've ever seen.  At several points this match devolved into each man taking turns smashing the other with forearms and palm strikes.  Makabe would take this match with the King Kong Knee Drop.  This is probably the greatest NEVER rivalry since that Title's inception.

Nothin' like a knee drop to the head.

The Jr. Heavyweight Championship was next, as Ryusuke Taguchi defended against Bullet Club member Kenny Omega.  Taguchi's look and offense are very similar to Eddie Guerrero, while Omega has reinvented himself as a consummately flamboyant heel, a la Brian Pillman.  This was a starmaking performance by Omega, who delivered flashy moves at times but was wise enough to let Taguchi do most of the crowd-pleasing work.  Omega took the Championship with his electric chair driver, called the One-Winged Angel.  Superb match.

In the 7th slot was IWGP Tag Champs Karl Anderson & Doc Gallows vs. Hirooki Goto and Kasuyori Shibata.  This was another fast-paced, non-stop tag bout, with all four guys working hard.  I like Gallows much better than Giant Bernard, as Anderson's partner.  Goto and Shibata won a fairly short, fun match.

The final 90 minute-stretch of this show was simply sublime.

AJ Styles vs. Tetsuya Naito was next in a match between two wrestlers desperate to get back in the World Title picture.  Styles has already created a stellar body of work in New Japan, and while not quite at the top-tier, Naito is one of the most reliable workers in the company.  The result was a beautifully-worked semi-main event kind of match, with Styles getting the win after a death-defying Styles Clash off the second rope.

The WrestleKingdom 9 crescendo continued with a pair of absolutely spectacular main events, the first of which saw Shinsuke Nakamura defend the IC Title against Kota Ibushi.  Prior to this Ibushi had been almost exclusively a Jr. Heavyweight, and this was his attempt to establish himself as a headliner.  Spoiler alert: it worked.  This was an impossibly brilliant match, where  Nakamura threw every MMA-inspired attack at Ibushi, only for the young lion to shake it off and retaliate with an awe-inspiring aerial move.  The pace these two set was truly astonishing without the match coming off as a spotfest.  Every big move had weight and repercussions, and the drama built right up to the end, as Nakamura once again retained with the Boma Ye knee.  But this bout did just as much for Ibushi as for Nakamura, and was my pick (and many others') for the 2015 Match of the Year.

This match was basically perfect.  No more questions....

Finally we arrived at the colossal main event, Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada.  This rivalry belongs in the same class as Rock-Austin or HBK-Taker - two thoroughly charismatic, talented artists who seem to work off each other effortlessly.  This was their seventh meeting in a PPV singles match, and it blew every previous encounter out of the water.  Technically there wasn't anything here that their other matches were lacking, it was just the intangibles and the timing that set this one apart.  Everything just clicked perfectly and the result was a pro wrestling masterpiece - perhaps this era's Flair-Steamboat at WrestleWar '89.  Both guys' finishers have been very well-protected, which made their respective late-match kickouts gasp-inducing.  Tanahashi would outclass his young challenger at the 31-minute mark, and Okada limped back to the dressing room sobbing, selling brilliantly the crushing Championship loss.  This performance was virtuosic.

One man's triumph is another man's heartbreak.  True story.

I urge every wrestling fan to seek out WrestleKingdom 9.  It's simply one of the most perfect wrestling PPVs ever assembled, with two MOTY candidates plus about five other standouts.  This is one of those shows where the entire company is blazing on all cylinders and each match seems better than the last.  Any wrestling promotion will be hard-pressed to top this show anytime soon. 

Best Match: Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Kota Ibushi
Worst Match: Tenzan/Kojima/Honma vs. Fale/Jarrett/Takahashi
What I'd Change: Probably bump the six-man to the pre-show and give that extra five minutes to the 8-man.  But that's nitpicking.
Most Disappointing Match: I guess the 8-man for being so short.
Most Pleasant Surprise: That after nearly 30 years as a fan, any wrestling company is still able to blow me away with a show like this
Overall Rating: 10/10 - There are probably only ten or so PPVs I'd ever rate a perfect 10, but this absolutely qualifies
Better than WrestleMania 31? - By about a million light years




WrestleKingdom 10 - 1/4/16

Wow.  New Japan Pro Wrestling did it again.  They were tasked with living up to the transcendent WrestleKingdom 9 and somehow they managed to do just that.  WrestleKingdom 10 set the bar VERY high for all other wrestling shows in 2016, it was no stretch to say the Best PPV of the Year Award was already decided as of January 5th.  There was literally not one bad match on this show.  It started off incredibly fun and with almost no wasted time in between matches the pitch never dropped below "neato."

The opener was predictably wild and innovative, as reDRagon, The Young Bucks, Roppongi Vice, and Aerial Dogfight (Matt Sydal & Ricochet) tore it up with crazy tandem moves galore.  After nearly 17 minutes of non-stop offense Matt & Nick Jackson regained the Jr. Heavyweight straps.  Great way to kick things off, as usual.

Next was the NJPW debut of The Briscoes, who teamed with Toru Yano against Bullet Club members Bad Luck Fale, Tama Tonga & Takahashi.  This was probably the weakest match of the night, but only by default.  For twelve minutes these six put on a helluvan entertaining little show, culminating in Yano and the Brothers winning the brand-new Six-Man Championship.

For the first time ever the Ring of Honor World Title was defended in the Tokyo Dome as Jay Lethal and Michael Elgin delivered a fine undercard match.  While a bit underwhelming for a major title bout, this was still very solid stuff, and as I expected Lethal retained - I imagine ROH would prefer to book a title change on their own turf.

Moving right along, the hits kept racking up with Kenny Omega vs. Kushida in the rubber match for the Jr. Heavyweight Title.  While not as strong as their previous two bouts (understandable given the time constraints), this was still easily a 3.5-star affair and told the story of Kushida defying the odds to regain the Title.  It also served as Omega's swan song in the Jr. division (as we'd see the following night).  Damn good stuff.


Traditionally the weakest part of most New Japan shows is the World Tag Title match, as their Heavyweight Tag division is paper thin.  But this match was an exception thanks to a massively over set of challengers in Honma and Makabe.  Obviously this was no five-star classic, but the hot crowd and Honma's energetic offense, coupled with a slimmed-down, motivated Karl Anderson added up to a fine bout.  Finally the perennial underdog Honma got his first taste of gold, and I'm hoping Great Bash Heel gets to be the new centerpiece of a reinvigorated tag division.

The final undercard match was next as Hirooki Goto sought revenge against hated rival Tetsuya Naito.  This had a lot of outside the ring shenanigans to kick things off, but once it settled down it became a very worthy bout.  Shockingly Goto withstood interference by Evil and Bushi to get the win, elevating him back into Title contention.

Now just looking back at that undercard, that in and of itself is a rock-solid lineup.  Nothing below 2.5 stars in the first six matches.  But it was the triple main event that launched WK10 into the stratosphere.

The NEVER Openweight Title showdown between Tomohiro Ishii and Katsuyori Shibata was seventeen minutes of sheer brutality.  As expected, these two sluggers beat the bejeezus out of each other, at least equaling the brilliant Ishii-Makabe match from last year.  In the end fan favorite Shibata finally won a singles championship with the Penalty Kick.  I'm very much looking forward to seeing where Shibata takes this belt, which at this point should be renamed Strong Style Championship as far as I'm concerned.  Or maybe something catchier, like the Beat Your Ass Championship.  Excellent match, but we hadn't seen anything yet.


The semi-main event went to the much-anticipated Shinsuke Nakamura-AJ Styles dream match, and it did not disappoint.  If Styles was still suffering from his recent back injury you wouldn't know it by watching this.  Aside from toning down his aerial assault AJ wrestled a near-perfect match and even worked his back injury into a "goldbricking" spot.  Nakamura was amazing as always, and these two A-plus players put together an instant Match of the Year contender.


Okada vs. Tanahashi.  Undoubtedly the greatest feud in New Japan history.  Just when you think two guys have done everything they can possibly do in the ring together, you get a match like this one.  Thirty-six minutes of epic, World Class pro wrestling by two bona fide main event athletes.  The jury's still out on whether this surpassed their amazing effort from WK9, but there's no doubt this match at least equaled that one.  Okada and Tanahashi pulled out every stop imaginable, trading finishers, stealing each other's moves, and somehow creating suspense where none reasonably existed.  Everyone knew full-well Okada would win this, but there were several points during the match where even I gasped.  What else can be said?  This was just about perfect.


Holy goddamn this show was amazing.  It's a tough call which was better, WK9 or 10, but it's splitting hairs.  Both of them are perfect 10 PPVs and belong high on anyone's all-time list.

Best Match: Shinsuke Nakamura vs. AJ Styles, just by the smallest of hairs
Worst Match: Probably the six-man tag by default.  And that was easily a **1/2 match.
What I'd Change: Only the over-reliance on run-ins and pre-match shenanigans.  Otherwise not much at all.
Most Disappointing Match: Jay Lethal vs. Michael Elgin was underwhelming for an ROH Title match, but again, we're talking a **1/2 match at worst.
Most Pleasant Surprise: The Tag Title match
Overall Rating: 10/10
Better than WrestleMania 32? - Ummmm, yeah.



The WrestleKingdom series may have had a rather inauspicious start, but it's evolved into a truly special event that showcases the company roster just as effectively (sometimes moreso) as WrestleMania.  It's an exciting time to be an NJPW fan, as the company is in peak form and routinely delivers a wrestling product that is head and shoulders above its competition.  As I said in my Mid-Year Report, New Japan is as good right now as ROH was in 2006-07, as good as WWE was in 2000, as good as the NWA was in 1989, and I look forward to the next chapter.

Before I go, here are my Best of lists for the WK series.

WrestleKingdom Rankings

10. WKI
9. WKVI
8. WKIII
7. WKII
6. WKV
5. WKIV
4. WK8
3. WK7
1A. WK10
1. WK9


Top 20 WrestleKingdom Matches

20. Prince Devitt vs. Kota Ibushi - WKV
19. Kurt Angle vs. Yuji Nagata - WKII
18. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Shinsuke Nakamura - WKII
17. Yuji Nagata vs. Minoru Suzuki - WK7
16. Kazuchika Okada vs. Tetsyua Naito - WK8
15. Tomohiro Ishii vs. Togi Makabe - WK9
14. Tomohiro Ishii vs. Katsuyori Shibata - WK10
13. Takashi Suguira vs. Hirooki Goto - WK4
12. Prince Devitt vs. Kota Ibushi - WK8
11. Naomichi Marufuji vs. Tiger Mask - WK4
10. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Go Shiozaki - WK4
9. Hirooki Goto vs. Katsuyori Shibata - WK8
8. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada - WK7
7. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Kazushi Sakuraba - WK7
6. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi - WK8
5. Price Devitt vs. Kota Ibushi vs. Low-Ki - WK7
4. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada - WK10
3. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada - WK9
2. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. AJ Styles - WK10
1. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Kota Ibushi - WK9


Thanks for reading!  Comment below with your thoughts.

Part 2

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