Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The History of NJPW WrestleKingdom (10-11)

We're almost caught up to the present day, and WrestleKingdom would solidify itself as pro wrestling's most elite supercard.....

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.

WrestleKingdom 11 - 1.4.17

Well this was a big deal, folks.  WrestleKingdom 11 was, as expected, a major hit for New Japan, proving unequivocally that they'd recovered from the significant talent losses of 2016.  But more importantly it was headlined by one of the most buzz-worthy main events of the last twenty years.

The big news coming out of WrestleKingdom 11 was that the 2017 Match of the Year had already been decided.  Hell, this may have been the match of the decade.  I almost don't know how to describe it.  I can't remember being this blown away by a wrestling match since the Triple H-Shawn Michaels-Chris Benoit main event at WrestleMania XX.  If anything tops Okada vs. Omega in 2017 (or anytime soon) I can't wait to see it.  This was nearly 47 minutes of just about everything you could ever want out of a main event.  The match started methodically with both men showcasing their grappling skills.  Act 1 lasted roughly 15 minutes and then the match surged to another level, with Act 2 consisting of some of the most insane high spots I've seen since the Attitude Era.  Omega landed a moonsault from the top rope, over the railing to the floor, he took a back body drop over the top rope through a table on the floor, Okada took a Dragon Superplex that looked like it killed him, and so on.  And this was only the second act of the match!  After this the drama actually escalated as both guys tried to put each other away, Omega kicked out of the Rainmaker (joining a very exclusive club) and tried in vain several times to hit the One-Winged Angel before finally falling to the fourth Rainmaker of the match.  Again, this went 47 minutes and didn't feel a moment too long for me.  I've never seen anything like this.  Dave Meltzer awarded this match an unprecedented six stars, and in no way do I consider that hyperbole.  Okada vs. Omega was one of the most incredible wrestling matches I've ever seen in my thirty-plus years as a fan.  They'd wrestle twice more in 2017, creating the greatest trilogy of matches since Flair-Steamboat (or maybe ever).

Jeezus Christ this match was incredible.

The main event was so good in fact that I feel like the rest of the card got unfairly overshadowed.

The show opened with Tiger Mask W (aka Kota Ibushi) vs. Tiger the Dark (aka ACH) in a quick, lighthearted six-minute match.  Nowhere near what these two are capable of, but it wasn't supposed to be.  Ibushi would fortunately drop the mask just in time for 2017's G1 tournament and resume being the all-encompassingly awesome Golden Star.

The first standout was the Jr. Heavyweight Tag match, a vastly more memorable bout than the previous three WrestleKingdom 4-ways.  Don't get me wrong, those are always fun, but it was great to see the Junior Tags get a simple two-on-two match that told a story.  But this still had the crazy high spots, like Trent Barreta doing a swan dive out of the ring and hitting nothing but floor.  Jeezus, how did he not die?  Rocky Romero then got double-teamed to death before making a surprise comeback and winning the belts.  This was great.

Next was the Gauntlet Match for the six-man belts, a three-segment melee that was fine, but kinda peaked early.  The Bullet Club trio faced the Chaos trio in a fun 7-minute match before moving on to the LIJ trio.  LIJ made short work of the BC and then faced the Champions, Kojima, David Finlay and Ricochet.  LIJ's cheating tactics won the day and the straps (only to lose them one night later to Tanahashi, Manabu Nakanishi and Ryusuke Taguchi).  This was fine, but forgettable.

Cody (Rhodes) made his big New Japan debut against Juice Robinson, in what was a fine showcase and more than I was expecting.  Juice got in a lot of offense (the reason became apparent at New Year's Dash when Juice pinned Goto to earn a NEVER Openweight Title shot), but Cody predictably won with the CrossRhodes.  Solid debut for Cody wherein he began to demonstrate his worth as a New Japan star.  This was also unexpectedly Juice Robinson's coming out party, as he quickly became a very viable New Japan midcarder.

The ROH Title was on the line next as Kyle O'Reilly faced former Champ Adam Cole.  This was a bit underwhelming for me, but still a stronger match than Lethal vs. Elgin at WK10.  I'm still not sold on Cole as an in-ring talent, but his heel antics were very well done, particularly when selling O'Reilly's choke hold interruption of his "Adam Cole baby!" chant.  The match was solid but too short to be all that memorable.  Cole unexpectedly won back the Title, and by the summer both men would be WWE-bound.

Two future NXT stars fighting for the ROH Title on a New Japan show.

Instead of a Jr. Tag clusterfuck this year, we got a Heavyweight Tag one.  Guerrillas of Destiny defended against World Tag League winners Great Bash Heel, and Tomohiro Ishii/Toru Yano (who goaded his way into this match by stealing the tag belts).  This match was a fun brawl but Yano's comedy kept it from being much more than that.  As I suspected, Yano and Ishii won the belts, and post-match Ishii gave Yano his strap and walked to the back, several paces in front of his partner.  Ishii seemed like he had zero patience for the shenanigans, bringing to mind the old Steve Austin-Dude Love partnership.  One night later, the returning Killer Elite Squad made known their intentions to take back the belts.

"I did it all by myself...."

This was a solid, if less than stellar undercard, but WrestleKingdom will be remembered for its final four matches, the first of which pitted Jr. Heavyweight Champion Kushida against the newest LIJ member Hiromu Takahashi.  This sixteen-minute match was intricate and fast-paced, further showing off Kushida's remarkable abilities.  Late in the match Kushida locked in the Hoverboard Lock but Takahashi made it to the ropes and mounted a comeback, nailing his Time Bomb finisher for the win and the belt.  These two would outdo themselves in a big way at Dominion, but this was damn fine stuff.

Each of the final four matches was better than the last, and the crescendo continued with Katsuyori Shibata's fight against Hirooki Goto.  As predicted, these two beat the tar out of each other for a full sixteen minutes, starting out slow and building to a brutal peak.  Goto eventually won the belt with the GTR, and afterwards Shibata announced he was done with the NEVER division.  Sadly Shibata suffered an aneurysm just as he was becoming a main event star, and his in-ring future is still in doubt.

The penultimate match on the card, and the second-best, was Tetsuya Naito defending the Intercontinental Title against Hiroshi Tanahashi, in a classic case of the current hot star against the aging veteran.  This match was full of drama and psychology, with both men working their opponents' legs and trading finisher attempts late in the match.  Naito eventually won with two Destinos after blocking the High Fly Flow, solidifying himself as the Intercontinental Championship successor to Shinsuke Nakamura.  Michael Elgin later challenged Naito to an overdue rematch for the belt.

And that brings us back to the main event, which as I said, stood head and shoulders above the rest of the card, not to mention most other matches I've ever witnessed.  WK11 on the whole was a great show with no bad matches, several good-to-excellent ones, and an unforgettable, transcendent main event.  I'd rank it just below WK9 and 10 and just above 7 and 8.  It stood for me as the best PPV of 2017, headlined by the runaway Match of the Year.

Best Match: Okada vs. Omega
Worst Match: Tiger Mask W vs. Tiger the Dark, by default
What I'd Change: The ROH Title match could've gotten more time, but otherwise very little
Most Disappointing Match: O'Reilly vs. Cole
Most Pleasant Surprise: That after thirty years any match could be as all-encompassingly amazing as this main event
Overall Rating: 9.5/10

Part 3

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 (these days much 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.  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.  We are witnessing a wrestling renaissance with this product.

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

WrestleKingdom Rankings

11. WKI
10. WKVI
7. WKV
5. WK8
4. WK7
3. WK11
1A. WK10
1. WK9

Top 20 WrestleKingdom Matches

20. Yuji Nagata vs. Minoru Suzuki - WK7
19. Kazuchika Okada vs. Tetsyua Naito - WK8
18. Tomohiro Ishii vs. Togi Makabe - WK9
17. Tomohiro Ishii vs. Katsuyori Shibata - WK10
16. Takashi Suguira vs. Hirooki Goto - WK4
15. Prince Devitt vs. Kota Ibushi - WK8
14. Naomichi Marufuji vs. Tiger Mask - WK4
13. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Go Shiozaki - WK4
12. Hirooki Goto vs. Katsuyori Shibata - WK8
11. Katsuyori Shibata vs. Hirooki Goto - WK11
10. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Tetsuya Naito - WK11
9. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada - WK7
8. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Kazushi Sakuraba - WK7
7. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi - WK8
6. Price Devitt vs. Kota Ibushi vs. Low-Ki - WK7
5. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada - WK10
4. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada - WK9
3. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. AJ Styles - WK10
2. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Kota Ibushi - WK9
1. Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega - WK11

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