WWE's roster has been plagued with injuries as you know, so the available talent pool is most certainly not at 100%. But there's also been an influx of outside stars brought in, plus some NXT call-ups, making this collection of talent actually pretty fresh and exciting overall. It's just up to the company to make sure they come across as stars we can invest in.
New Japan's in the same boat but for a different reason. WWE has been raiding the New Japan roster since WrestleKingdom, forcing bookers Jado and Gedo to reshuffle the deck and really get creative with the stories being told. Thus far they've defied expectations and presented some excellent shows, and the new directions they've chosen are clicking with the audience. Much like the WWF circa 1998, many new opportunities have opened up for this roster to climb the ol' ladder and carry the company forward. It's made for an intriguing and unpredictable time in New Japan.
So let's take a look at the 2016 face-off!
Cesaro vs. Hirooki Goto
Kicking things off is a battle of two extremely talented wrestlers who seemingly haven't reached their potential. Cesaro is pound-for-pound one of the most gifted athletes in all of WWE, possessing freakish strength rivaling that of Brock Lesnar, and incredible agility on par with Chris Jericho. There should be no ceiling for the Swiss Superman, yet he hasn't quite risen to main event status. Hopefully that will change in 2016.
Hirooki Goto is a former IWGP IC Champ but has never won the top Championship. But two months ago he joined the vaunted Chaos stable led by Kazuchika Okada, hoping the change of scenery would improve his main event prospects. Goto has long been viewed as a very capable wrestler who can deliver big matches, but something of a gatekeeper.
Both wrestlers will be eager to prove their mettle and make a big statement. Cesaro will look to outmaneuver Goto and hit numerous European uppercuts, while Goto's attack will focus on the head and neck. After eleven minutes of furious action Cesaro's pure athleticism wins out as he counters a Shouten attempt with a forearm uppercut, followed by the Neutralizer.
Kalisto vs. Kushida
It's a dazzling aerial battle as the WWE US Champion faces the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion! Kalisto has managed to break out of a moderately successful tag team and become a singles champ, hoping to succeed Rey Mysterio as WWE's top hispanic star. The diminutive luchadore has taken much of Rey's signature style and turned up the volume, slowly building his own highlight reel. While he hasn't been pushed very well as the US Champ, Kalisto is nontheless extremely exciting to watch and his best days are still ahead.
Kushida has become one of New Japan's finest in-ring talents, utilizing a mix of aerial strikes and MMA submissions, and demonstrating impressive ring generalship to make every spot count. Another former tag specialist, he's grown into an excellent Jr. Heavyweight representative, already helping elevate this Title to the same level of importance as the NEVER Openweight belt. In another year he may have done for the Jr. belt what Nakamura did for the Intercontinental.
This will be a fast-paced, blazing contest with loads of crowd-pleasing moves. Kalisto will look to keep things quick, using his slight speed advantage, while Kushida will try to ground the lucha star and soften up the arm for his Hoverboard armlock. After twelve spectacular minutes Kushida finally counters Kalisto's Salida del Sol and locks in the Hoverboard, forcing the tapout.
Sami Zayn vs. Katsuyori Shibata
Sami Zayn is becoming one of my favorite WWE workers, always delivering passionate, gritty matchups that connect with the crowd. He's easily the most likable babyface on the main roster and I hope management allows him to reach his full potential as an underdog star. Whether facing a smaller star like himself or a larger bully of an opponent, Zayn is able to adjust his style to put on the best match possible.
The current NEVER Openweight Champ, Shibata is one of the most brutal strikers in New Japan, playing off his MMA experience and bringing a lethal combination of forearms, kicks and headbutts. Anytime Shibata's in there, be prepared to cringe as he tries to literally beat his opponent into unconsciousness. His rear naked choke/Penalty Kick combination is one of NJPW's most effective finishers.
This would be a real test of Zayn's toughness, as Shibata would endeavor to pound the crap out of him. Zayn would need to use his agility to play a hit-and-run game. At the twelve-minute mark, after absorbing incredible punishment, Zayn would eventually fall to the choke/Penalty Kick.
Kevin Owens vs. Tomohiro Ishii
Probably the best heel on the main roster, Kevin Owens has thus far defied expectations from those who dismissed him due to his look. He's won the Intercontinental Title twice and had a landmark feud with John Cena, defeating WWE's franchise player in his first main roster match. Owens has insane agility for his size and is also one of the most durable members of the roster. Every match he wrestles is compelling.
Speaking of compelling, current ROH Television Champion Ishii fights like a pitbull, turning every match into a war of attrition with jaw-rattling strikes and chops, and priding himself on the amount of pain he can endure. Both his brainbuster and diving lariat are deadly finishers and he's won numerous titles with both.
This would be another brutal war, with neither man giving an inch. The offense would be rugged and cringe-inducing. Owens would try to take to the top rope whenever possible while Ishii would attempt to chop him down. In the end I'd give the nod to Owens 14 minutes into this ferocious battle, after countering an Ishii charging headbutt with the Pop-up Powerbomb.
The New Day vs. Young Bucks
WWE's most charismatic tag team has unexpectedly become one of their most popular acts, after being presented as annoying babyfaces and then turning into hilariously obnoxious heels. Big E, Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods are an incredibly well-rounded team who are effective as a duo or trio. They've made a fine centerpiece to the tag division and show no signs of slowing down.
The Young Bucks have just as much natural charisma but also bring to the table some of the most innovative tandem work since the Hardy Boyz. Matt and Nick Jackson are consistently one of the most entertaining acts in New Japan and their matches are always lightning-fast and a joy to watch.
This would be a wild one, with Xavier Woods and the Bucks' ally Cody Hall getting involved repeatedly. Eventually the official would have to ban both from ringside and the match would settle into a fantastic display of tag team wrestling. Big E would attempt to be the difference-maker, but the Bucks' expertly underhanded tactics would win the day after 15 minutes and a Meltzer Driver on Kofi.
Brock Lesnar vs. Togi Makabe
There's probably no other figure in pro wrestling today who carries more legitimacy than Brock Lesnar. This two-time NCAA Heavyweight Champion and UFC Heavyweight Champion returned to WWE four years ago and remains one of the most compelling stars in company history. Every time Lesnar's in the ring there's a big-fight feel, and more often than not he destroys everything in sight. Lesnar's proven he can work good-to-excellent matches with a variety of opponents while relying on his no-frills offense.
Probably the best-known mainstream star in New Japan is Togi Makabe, who's made numerous television appearances in Japan over the years, particularly on cooking shows. Inside the ring however, Makabe is one of the toughest brawlers in the world, using his gritty, clubbing moveset to wear out his opponents. "The Unchained Gorilla" has been a New Japan mainstay for nearly two decades, winning nearly every championship available.
This one would not be pretty. These two monsters would pound the bejeezus out of each other and there'd be no restholds or downtime. Lesnar would use his size advantage but would marvel at Makabe's high pain threshold. Ultimately look for Lesnar to counter Makabe's King Kong Knee Drop by catching him off the top rope and converting into a devastating F5 at the ten-minute mark.
Chris Jericho vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi
Chris Jericho is no stranger to restaurant-quality main event matches, having competed in countless classics. His mix of flashy aerial moves and ground-based submissions gives him a varied moveset easily adjustable to any type of opponent. He's excelled in virtually every feud he's been a part of and has remained relevant for over twenty years, partly due to his incredible promo skills and willingness to reinvent himself.
Speaking of restaurant-quality main events, Hiroshi Tanahashi has participated in more of them than probably any wrestler in the last decade. Not since Shawn Michaels has any one wrestler earned five-star match ratings on such a consistent basis. Tanahashi is largely credited with reviving the New Japan brand after the company took a major downturn, and after seeing his exceptional body of work it's not hard to see why he's been such a draw. He is possibly the most well-rounded wrestler alive today and despite numerous nagging injuries he still delivers every time he steps through the ropes. Tanahashi is one of the all-time greats.
Jericho and Tanahashi have a lot in common. Both employ a "rock star" persona, both are revered as all-time great workers, both exude palpable charisma, both cite Shawn Michaels as a major influence, and both have become elder statesmen in their respective companies (Jericho a little moreso than Tanahashi). This match would be exceedingly captivating and dramatic, a la Jericho vs. Michaels at WrestleMania 19, or Tanahashi vs. AJ Styles at last year's G1 Climax. The finisher kickouts and reversals would be plentiful, resulting in dozens of gasp-inducing moments and "This is awesome" chants. After twenty minutes of off-the-charts storytelling, look for Tanahashi to counter a Lionsault, spring to his feet, and hit a Sling Blade followed by a game-winning Hi-Fly Flo off the top rope.
Dean Ambrose vs. Kazuchika Okada
Ambrose is WWE's resident maniac, sporting a fearless attitude and unrefined brawling style, and a persona reminiscent of Roddy Piper, Brian Pillman and Terry Funk. Inside the ring Ambrose has routinely delivered unruly but highly entertaining performances, particularly against former friend Seth Rollins. While a bit of an underachiever where Titles are concerned, Ambrose is nonetheless one of the most popular and charismatic guys in WWE and a World Title run could easily be on the horizon.
The 28-year-old Kazuchika Okada is NJPW's new "ace," having taken up the mantle from the great Tanahashi at this year's WrestleKingdom. Despite his young age, Okada is already a three-time IWGP Champion and two-time G1 Climax winner. His wrestling style is methodical but extremely intelligent, and his attack is almost exclusively focused on an opponent's head and neck, softening them up for his lethal Rainmaker clothesline. With most of his career still ahead of him, Okada likely hasn't even reached his full potential yet. An amazing thought considering he's already one of the best in the world.
This would be quite the clash of styles - the blue-chip athlete vs. the psychotic brawler. Okada's wrestling philosophy is all about not wasting motion, while Ambrose will take five shots just to dish one out. Okada would likely dominate much of the offense but would find Ambrose's resiliency and eccentricity vexing. After about 17 minutes look for Ambrose to amazingly kick out of the Rainmaker only for Okada to level him with a second one for the pinfall.
AJ Styles vs. Kenny Omega
Having wrestled all over the world (including two years and two Heavyweight Championships in NJPW), AJ Styles finally debuted in WWE this past January, and has already made a splash, with a strong Royal Rumble showing, two top-notch PPV matches against Chris Jericho, and an impending run at the WWE Title. Styles is unquestionably one of the best wrestlers in the world, racking up literally dozens of four and five-star classics over the past fifteen years. His athleticism is unique and astounding, as he blends effortless-looking high-flying maneuvers with an astoundingly crisp ground game. AJ is an A-list performer in every sense of the phrase.
The man who has more or less taken AJ's former spot in New Japan is the upstart Kenny Omega. Formerly AJ's Bullet Club stablemate, Omega ousted AJ from the group and moved up from the Jr. Heavyweight division to the Heavyweights, quickly capturing the vacant Intercontinental Championship. Like AJ, Omega uses an air and ground attack which makes him deadly against all kinds of opponents. He also possesses fantastic heel charisma, oozing repellent arrogance at every moment. New Japan's loss has thus far been Omega's gain, as he's stepped up in AJ's absence and positioned himself as one of the top heels in the company for a long time to come.
This would undoubtedly steal the show, and the unresolved animosity between these two would make for a stupendously-told story. The grappling and aerial moves would be stunningly innovative, and neither man would keep an advantage for long. At the 24-minute mark look for AJ to counter Omega's One-Wing Angel with a sunset flip into the Styles Clash.
Roman Reigns vs. Tetsuya Naito
What an unconventional main event we have this year. WWE's unloved top babyface vs. NJPW's beloved top heel.
Roman Reigns has had one of the strangest roads to the top of anyone in the company's history. Tapped early on as the next "it guy," Reigns developed as a member of The Shield before being split off as a singles and encountering one of the worst fan backlashes I've ever seen. Despite his winning a Royal Rumble and headlining two WrestleManias, the fans have still not accepted this bulldozer as their hero, and Reigns' resentment is beginning to show. Time will tell if Reigns makes the jump to heel territory (Most of us who possess logic think he should), but for now he's playing something of a 'tweener role. Regardless, he'll be the WWE Champion for the foreseeable future.
Tetsuya Naito actually had a similarly tough road as a babyface. His flashy style made for many well-received matches, but his character seemed very bland and the audience never really accepted him as one of the top guys. Two years ago he was slated to main event WrestleKingdom 8 against Okada for the World Title, but fans voted the Tanahashi-Nakamura IC Title match as the main event instead. Naito became deeply indignant, and by mid-2015 had turned his back on the fans, forming a heel stable called Los Ingobernables. His in-ring antics now include blatant rulebreaking, interference from his stablemates, and flagrantly abusing referees. At Invasion Attack he defeated Okada for the IWGP Title, to the delight of the live crowd, before tossing the belt to the mat and leaving the ring without it. Roman Reigns and WWE could learn a thing or two from Naito's rise as the hottest heel in the company. His new persona is that of a man with no fucks left to give.
This would be one of the more bizarre main events we've ever seen. Naito would toy with the easily-rattled Reigns for much of the bout's first act, rolling out of the ring, stalling, etc. Reigns would finally get impatient and level Naito with his power attack while chasing off Naito's allies on the outside. Naito would counter with every underhanded tactic in the book and achieve several nearfalls. After nineteen minutes Naito would go for his Destino finisher (similar to Kalisto's move). Reigns would counter, tossing Naito into the corner and smashing him with a Superman Punch/Spear combo for the win, much to the dismay of the audience. Los Ingobernables would then descend on the ring and leave Reigns laying in a heap to close the show.
And there's your WWE-NJPW Supercard for 2016! Hope you enjoyed these fantasy matchups - let me know your thoughts in the Comments section below! Thanks for reading!