Thursday, January 3, 2019

The History of NJPW WrestleKingdom (10-12)

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

WrestleKingdom 12 - 1.4.18

The 2018 edition of NJPW's flagship show took some very unexpected turns (most of which made total sense in hindsight) and left more than a few people scratching their heads by the end.  But regardless of flauting anyone's expectations, the 12th WrestleKingdom was still a helluva show.  The nine matches on the main card ranged from inoffensive to pretty awesome.  While WK12 lacked for me that one blowaway match, it was a newsworthy PPV with a ton of variety, and while a bit of an endurance test (The shortest bout was over 14 minutes), never got boring.  There was no intermission and the matches were presented one after the other without a lot of wasted time in between.

The show kicked off with the Jr. Tag Team Titles, as RPG3K defended against The Young Bucks.  The match, like its WK11 counterpart, was much more psychology-based than your average Jr. Tag match, as the Bucks and Sho/Yoh waged a war of attrition, one man from each team selling a back injury.  I especially liked the exchanges where Nick and Sho took turns kicking the injured backs of their respective opponents.  This match got a robust 18 minutes before the Bucks hit Yoh with the Meltzer Driver and finally tapped him with a Sharpshooter.  The ending felt a little flat to me but otherwise this was a fine opening match.  RPG3K would regain the titles shortly after this and the Bucks moved up to heavyweight over the summer.

Next up was the one skippable match, the 6-man gauntlet.  This was mostly pretty nondescript but also inoffensive.  The first segment involved Suzuki-Gun against War Machine and Michael Elgin, which had some fun exchanges and ended in roughly six minutes with Zack Sabre causing Rowe to pass out with a leg scissor.  Ishii/Yano/Beretta then made quick work of SG when Yano rolled up Taichi for the pin forty seconds later.  A few minutes after that Yano pinned Taguchi with another rollup.  Finally the champs, Fale and Guerrillas of Destiny arrived and had the longest segment of the match, looking pretty dominant for a while but ultimately losing the straps as Beretta polished off Tama Tonga with a Dudebuster.  So new six-man champs as per usual.  Again, this match was skippable but fine for what it was.  If this is the worst thing on your PPV, you've put together a pretty damn good PPV.

From here on out it was a block of seven good-to-excellent matches, starting with an unexpectedly strong Cody-Kota Ibushi bout.  Cody and wife Brandi Rhodes played the heel power couple to the tee, including a spot where Ibushi dove on top of Cody but accidentally knocked Brandi over as well.  Brandi sold the move, taking advantage of Ibushi's chivalry and allowing Cody to take over on offense before revealing she was feigning injury the whole time.  The match built in intensity over its generous 15 minutes, until Ibushi (who took some nasty offense including a CrossRhodes off the ring apron) came back to hit his Kamigoye, followed by a picture-perfect Phoenix Splash for the win.  This was a damn good undercard match that portended great things for both guys in 2018.

Next up was one of the best heavyweight tag title matches in WrestleKingdom history, and the best Killer Elite Squad match I think I've ever seen.  KES nailed the Killer Bomb on Evil immediately, teasing a seconds-long win, but Sanada broke it up and the first half or so involved the dominant KES destroying Evil and Sanada.  It was odd to see LIJ playing such traditional underdog babyface roles, but equally as stunning was just how much KES dwarfed them.  Evil and Sanada are not small men, but Archer and Smith towered over them.  This match told a great story and the late-match title-winning comeback by LIJ really felt earned.  Hella good stuff here.

The hits kept coming with a brutal NEVER Openweight bout between Minoru Suzuki and Hirooki Goto.  Suzuki took control early, nearly putting Goto away with a hangman choke, and he dished out the lion's share of punishment throughout.  Goto took a vicious beating, enduring a barrage of palm strikes late in the match that swelled up one of his eyes.  After eighteen brutal minutes, Goto hit a pair of GTRs for the win, the title, and Suzuki's hair.  Suzuki, ever the pillar of machismo, refused to welch on the bet and also refused to give Goto the satisfaction of the shave, shearing off his own hair and walking away.  This was the best NEVER Title match since WK11.

The opening Jr. tag may have cut a fairly tempered pace, but the Jr. Title 4-way was balls to the wall action, as Marty Scurll, Will Ospreay, Kushida and Takahashi each displayed their incredible athleticism.  The big story in this match was Scurll vs. Ospreay, and the announcers hammered home the point that throughout their years-long rivalry, Scurll always had Ospreay's number.  That came into play multiple times here, as Ospreay would attempt a move but Scurll would always counter it.  All four guys got ample time to shine though, with Kushida countering a couple top-rope moves into arm breakers, Takahashi nailing the Time Bomb multiple times to almost capture the title, and Ospreay finally hitting the Oscutter on Scurll for the title win.  Perfect slot on the card for this kind of match and it was everything you'd want from a crazy spotfest.

Now we arrived at the big match trilogy, starting with Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Jay White.  This match was....underwhelming.  Besides not being Jay White's big moment, as he failed to unseat Tanahashi, there was something lacking in the energy.  White was still adjusting to his new heel persona and trying to find a moveset that matched, and Tanahashi was still dealing with a nasty arm injury.  Anyway, this match was fine, but nowhere near as good as we all expected.  Tanahashi retained with the Hi-Fly Flow and White moved on to successfully challenge Omega for the US Title, on his way to becoming the company's hottest new heel character.

The final two bouts each clocked in at around 35 minutes, and despite being very different matches, both delivered.  Kenny Omega vs. Chris Jericho was a car wreck of a match, featuring big, brutal high spots and plenty of palpable animosity.  I was amazed how much time this got and how many false finishes there were.  The action ranged all over the ringside area, including a missed Omega top rope dive onto the English announce table (which put Kevin Kelly and Don Callis out of commission temporarily).  This was one of Jericho's best matches in years and his chemistry with Omega was off the charts.  The match was full of creative spots and gasp-inducing moments.  Omega retained after the second One-Winged Angel of the match, much to the delight of the Dome crowd.  I'd give this the Match of the Night nod, just by a hair.  What a spectacle.  This was just the beginning for Jericho though, who returned at Dominion to unexpectedly capture the Intercontinental Title.

The Okada-Naito main event was roughly what I expected, a slightly lesser version of Okada vs. Tanahashi, until the finish.  These two started out slow, weaving a classic pro wrestling main event with lots of big moves and storytelling, and in the end it was the final ten minutes or so that really made the match for me, as both men kicked out of each other's finishers before Okada shockingly retained with the third Rainmaker of the match.  The Dome audience was very solidly behind Tetsuya Naito, so at the time I was baffled they didn't finally pull the trigger on him.  This crowd definitely banked on their anti-hero dethroning the greatest wrestling champion of the past thirty or so years, and somehow didn't get it.  Of course it all made sense in the end, Okada was being built up as an Inoki-esque great champion, finally dropping the belt to Kenny Omega at Dominion (in the greatest match of all time).  But in the moment it was incredibly shocking to see him retain over Naito.  A very good main event, if a bit short of great.

All in all, WrestleKingdom 12 was an excellent PPV that for me was only missing the one (or two) five-star masterpiece the previous three WK shows had.  A fine pair of main events capped off a diverse set of highly engaging matches (each of which got ample time) and this show continued the tradition of hard-to-follow New Japan PPVs.  This gets a very easy recommendation.

Best Match: Kenny Omega vs. Chris Jericho
Worst Match: The Six-Man Tag Gauntlet, which was fine
What I'd Change: Not much, this was a helluva show.
Most Disappointing Match: Tanahashi vs. Jay White, which was good but not great
Most Pleasant Surprise: Okada's incredible Title run continuing
Overall Rating: 9/10 - This was a notch below WK11 for me, but a notch above WK8.

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

12. WKI
11. WKVI
8. WKV
6. WK8
5. WK12
4. WK7
3. WK11
1A. WK10
1. WK9

Top 20 WrestleKingdom Matches

20. Tomohiro Ishii vs. Togi Makabe - WK9
19. Kazuchika Okada vs. Tetsyua Naito - WK12
18. Kenny Omega vs. Chris Jericho - WK12
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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Part 3

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