Today I present the ten best NJPW PPVs I've seen thus far in my young New Japan fandom (New JaFandom?). As you may or may not know, I just started watching NJPW in January 2015, when they launched NJPWWorld.com, a subscription streaming service not unlike The WWE Network. Basically from day one I was hooked, and I started poring through the archives to absorb as much New Japan awesomeness as I could find. So here are ten essential NJPW PPVs you need to watch (and if you've already seen 'em, watch 'em again!). Here we go:
10. Power Struggle 2013
Often seen as something of a transitory PPV due to its place on the calendar so soon before WrestleKingdom, the annual November show Power Struggle generally features little in the way of important angles or title changes. But that didn't stop NJPW from presenting a very strong edition in 2013. Undercard standouts included the Young Bucks vs. Suzuki-Gun tag match and a short-but-intense Shibata-Honma slugfest, but once again the final four bouts were where business really picked up. Hiroshi Tanahashi and Tomohiro Ishii stole the show with a 17-minute war, Tetsuya Naito settled his months-long feud with Masato Tanaka, Shinsuke Nakamura narrowly retained the I-C Title against Minoru Suzuki, and Kazuchika Okada defended the IWGP Title against Karl Anderson in a main event that far exceeded my expectations. The last three Power Struggle shows have essentially just been a collection of good matches without major consequences, and the 2013 edition was the best of the series.
9. King of Pro-Wrestling 2012
8. WrestleKingdom 8
The 2014 edition of WrestleKingdom has the unfortunate distinction of being sandwiched between the two best all-time WKs, but that doesn't stop it from being a helluva good show in and of itself. The show started out strong with two good Tag Title matches - The Young Bucks defended the Jr. Heavyweight straps against Time Splitters, Forever Hooligans and Suzuki-Gun in a blistering spotfest, while Lance Archer and Davey Boy Smith jr. faced the new Bullet Club combination of Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows for the Heavyweight belts. The middle of the show featured several okay matches before the final third once again took things to the next level. Hirooki Goto and Katsuyori Shibata delivered a brutal war, Kota Ibushi dethroned Prince Devitt for the Jr. Heavyweight Title in a great piece of storytelling, Okada and Naito had a marathon IWGP Title match, and in a first for WrestleKingdom the Intercontinental Title took the main event slot, as Nakamura faced Tanahashi in the clear Match of the Night. While WK8 lacked a true MOTY candidate, it still stacks up as one of the best editions of NJPW's flagship event.
7. Dominion 2015
If any 2015 PPV were going to hold a candle to the sublime WrestleKingdom 9, it would have to be this one. Dominion felt like a half-year tentpole event, much like a huge SummerSlam lineup. With nine matches and only one tag bout that could be deemed a "throwaway," almost everything on the show either settled a feud or decided a championship. After the crazy Young Bucks spotfest opener and an undercard tag match designed to show off Tetsuya Naito's new mean streak, the show hit a stretch of nearly uninterrupted awesome. Shibata faced Sakuraba in a brilliant MMA-inspired fight, Kushida dethroned Kenny Omega for the Jr. Heavyweight Title in a main event-worthy battle, Togi Makabe resolved his feud with Tomohiro Ishii for the NEVER Openweight Title, Tanahashi faced Toru Yano in an unexpectedly engaging bout, and then a pair of superb Title matches closed out the show. Hirooki Goto defended the I-C title against Nakamura in probably the pair's best match to date, and Okada finally scaled the New Japan mountain in an epic IWGP Title showdown with AJ Styles. This match had amazing action and palpable drama, and was an easy MOTY candidate. Dominion was an incredibly satisfying PPV with nary an ounce of fat, and light years better than any WWE show in 2015.
6. WrestleKingdom 7
Speaking of PPVs with no fat, the 2013 edition of WK featured only nine matches (most WKs have ten or eleven), three of which were in the four-plus-star range, and a handful of strong undercard matches. After a few short-but-entertaining bouts (including a nice little Masato Tanaka-Shelton Benjamin outing and a solid Tag Title showdown of Lance Archer & Davey Boy Smith vs. Karl Anderson & Hirooki Goto), NJPW started piling on the classics, starting with Yuji Nagata vs. Minoru Suzuki in their third and best WK match. Then came one of the greatest Cruiserweight-style matches I've ever seen - Prince Devitt vs. Kota Ibushi vs. Low-Ki. All three men worked an insane pace and never let up for the bout's fifteen minutes. After a middling Tencozy vs. Keiji Mutoh/Shinjiro Otani match, the show reached astronomical heights with the final three bouts - Makabe vs. Shibata was short but incredibly intense, Nakamura vs. Sakuraba was an amazing MMA hybrid match, and Tanahashi vs. Okada was an epic 33-minute IWGP Title match that blew away all previous WK main events. The 2013 WrestleKingdom was easily the finest New Japan PPV up until that point, but the company would outdo themselves four times over the next two years....
5. King of Pro-Wrestling 2013
That New Japan was able to better WK7 in calendar year 2013 is nothing short of remarkable, but they did so with King of Pro-Wrestling. The first few matches were brief but serviceable, and then starting with a wild six-man tag involving Prince Devitt and The Bullet Club vs. Kota Ibushi and Great Bash Heel, the show never let up until it was over. Shibata and Ishii reached new levels of violence in their austere singles match, while Nagata and Sakuraba engaged in a submission-heavy war of attrition. Then Naito defended the Never Openweight belt in a solid match against Yujiro Takahashi before the double main event for the top two Championships. Nakamura wrestled Naomichi Marufuji in an startlingly innovative I-C Title match, while Okada faced Tanahashi once again in a 35-minute war that topped all of their previous work. In this match the two reversed roles, with Tanahashi playing the ruthless villain working Okada's arm unmercifully while Okada gallantly refused to surrender. In terms of pure storytelling this might be their best match together. KoPW '13 was a staggeringly good night of wrestling capped off by one of the best matches of the year. Even more amazing is that it still wasn't New Japan's best overall show in 2013.
4. G1 Climax 23 Day 4
The annual G1 tournament has become a favorite among New Japan fans, as it treats us all to one-on-one matchups we normally wouldn't get to see. The number of participants varies each year but the field is divided into two blocks, each of which competes in a round-robin tournament. A win earns two points, a draw earns one, and a loss zero. At the end of the tourney, the two Block leaders face off in the finals to determine the #1 Contender for the next WrestleKingdom main event. In 2013 the best G1 show of the bunch was Day 4, an almost relentless string of good-to-great matches including two MOTY contenders. Yano vs. Takahashi, Karl Anderson vs. Tenzan, Shelton Benjamin vs. Yuji Nagata (which conjured up Angle vs. Benoit memories), and Davey Boy Smith vs. Kojima provided a solid-enough first act, but matches 5 through 10 were an absolutely amazing stretch. Tomohiro Ishii vs. Shibata was an all-out striking war that earned the elusive five-star rating from Dave Meltzer, Hirooki Goto vs. Lance Archer was surprisingly good, Naito vs. Suzuki was an excellent youth vs. veteran battle, Prince Devitt vs. Tanahashi nearly stole the show, Makabe vs. Okada was methodical but intense, and the main event, Nakamura vs. Kota Ibushi was one of the best matches of 2013. From top to bottom this show delivered, making it without a doubt the best New Japan show of the year.
3. G1 Climax 24 Day 7
As good as the aforementioned G1 23 show was, this one was even better. The highlight of the 2014 tournament was Day 7 (of 12), which started off on the slow side but finished with a barrage of unforgettable contests including the Wrestling Observer Match of the Year (the card itself won Best Major Show). First-half standouts included Satoshi Kojima vs. Shelton Benjamin, and Hiroyoshi Tenzan vs. Hirooki Goto, but the second half is where this show picked up HUGE. The last four matches were all in four-star territory, as though each pairing was trying to top the previous one. Makabe vs. Naito, AJ Styles vs. Suzuki (Observer's MOTY), Nagata vs. Sakuraba, and Nakamura vs. Ishii (my personal favorite), were all lean, no-nonsense, restaurant quality matches showcasing the New Japan roster's incredible knack for succinct athletic storytelling. If the company put on a better show in 2014 I haven't seen it.
2. WrestleKingdom 10
In 2016 New Japan was tasked with somehow reaching the impossibly high-set bar of WrestleKingdom 9, and while for me WK10 didn't quite equal that one, it came about as close as can be imagined. There was literally not a bad match on this show. From the crazy four-way Jr. Tag opener to Jay Lethal's ROH Title defense against Michael Elgin, to the excellent Jr. Heavyweight Kenny Omega-Kushida bout, to a shockingly good Tag Title match between Anderson & Gallows and Makabe/Honma, the undercard had plenty to like. But the final three matches launched this show into the stratosphere. The first match of this amazing trilogy pitted Tomohiro Ishii against Katsuyori Shibata in an absolutely brutal slugfest. Next up was possibly the biggest dream match in NJPW history, as Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles delivered a MOTY masterpiece that would serve as their joint New Japan swan song. Not to be outdone, the main event was the rematch from WK9, Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi, where the company's top two stars built on their entire history together, weaving together an epic duel at least on par with their previous match. As I said, I liked WK9 just a hair better than this show, but WK10 ranks right up there as one of the best PPVs of all time. It's rare for any wrestling company to deliver even one "perfect 10" PPV, but New Japan has done it twice now.
1. WrestleKingdom 9
The 2015 edition of WrestleKingdom is one of the greatest PPVs I've ever seen in nearly thirty years of watching wrestling. I haven't seen a show this near-perfect since WrestleManias 17 and 19, I shit you not. WK9 had everything; drama, innovation, athleticism, grit, and as stacked a lineup as I've seen on a New Japan show. The opening 4-way Jr. tag set the tone for a truly special show, and after a couple short multi-man tags, the final seven matches maintained a level of quality and intensity the likes of which we aren't likely to experience again for a long time. Minoru Suzuki faced Sakuraba in another great MMA-type match, Tomohiro Ishii and Togi Makabe beat the living hell out of each other for the NEVER Championship, Kenny Omega was made a star in his Jr. Heavyweight match against Ryusuke Taguchi, Goto & Shibata unexpectedly won the Tag Titles from Anderson & Gallows, and in an absolutely perfect three-match finale, AJ Styles had a main-event worthy duel with Naito, Shinsuke Nakamura and Kota Ibushi stole the show with a five-star instant classic for the Intercontinental Title, and Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada topped every one of their previous efforts with a 31-minute masterpiece for the IWGP Title. Everything about this match screamed "MAIN EVENT," and when it was over the loser, Okada, left the ring in tears. WrestleKingdom 9 was an unquestionable milestone in the history of New Japan, capturing a moment when the company was enjoying probably the highest creative plateau in its 40-year history. And thanks to US PPV distribution it reached a whole new Western audience which will hopefully continue to grow. I consider WK9 one of the two or three best PPVs I've ever witnessed.
That'll about do it for this edition of Top Ten Things. Thanks for reading, and be sure to comment below with any NJPW shows I've missed.