Friday, December 22, 2023

The History of NJPW WrestleKingdom (WK1)

From the wrestling-fixated creator, who brought you the comprehensive histories of WWE's Big Four PPVs (Royal Rumble, WrestleMania, SummerSlam, and Survivor Series) comes another PPV History series: New Japan Pro Wrestling's WrestleKingdom!

How's it hangin' folks?  Time for yet another Enuffa wrestling history lesson, this time about a major annual PPV that I only discovered a couple years ago.  When Jeff Jarrett's Global Force Wrestling announced they'd be distributing NJPW's WrestleKingdom 9 PPV in the States, and Jim Ross himself would be the play-by-play man, I immediately took notice.  I'd read some great things about New Japan even before this, and saw that over the past four years they've garnered loads of Wrestling Observer awards, but until January 2015 I hadn't seen a single NJPW match.  Then an even bigger announcement dropped: New Japan had created its own WWE Network-style streaming service, offering every major show since the company's 1972 inception all for the price of 999 yen per month (That's around nine bucks for American subscribers).  What this meant was that I'd be able to see WK9 as part of my subscription (alas, JR's commentary was not included, but that's ok).  I was quite impressed with WK9, particularly the consistency of its match quality from start to finish.  For a show mostly featuring talent I'd never seen before, and for which I had no context, this was pretty spectacular.  (Note: I watched WK9 again a few months later, now with the proper context, and....well you'll see my revised opinion in Part 3)  From there I started perusing the library, picking out matches and shows I'd read great things about, and in a matter of weeks I was hooked on New Japan Pro Wrestling.  As it stands now, I'm a bigger fan of NJPW than WWE.  New Japan's product is simple, elegant, athletic, realistic, and unbelievably fun to watch.

So this historical piece will be a little different than the WWE ones, in that I've been a WWE fan for nearly 30 years, while New Japan is still relatively new to me.  I've become quite familiar with the current roster, but I unfortunately won't have quite as strong a historical perspective to draw from.  So I'll be talking more about the quality of these WrestleKingdom shows in and of  themselves, and less about their place in the grand scheme.  But for those of you who aren't yet acquainted with New Japan, you may find this approach helpful.  Think of it as something of a beginner's guide, if you will.  As for you New Japan veteran fans, if I've missed any important details, feel free to comment below!

WrestleKingdom is New Japan's biggest show of the year, held annually on January 4th at the Tokyo Dome (I was surprised to learn that the date never changes, regardless of the weekday).  The Tokyo Dome Show tradition began in 1992 and the event has carried various names, but it wasn't until 2007 that the show was broadcast on PPV and given the WrestleKingdom moniker.  So I'll only be talking about the nine (thus far) PPV editions of this extravaganza.  Let's get to it!

WrestleKingdom - 1/4/07

Like WrestleMania, WK is typically a four-hour event.  Unlike WrestleMania, they're able to comfortably fit 9-11 matches on the card without criminally shortchanging anyone.  One thing (of several) New Japan does way better than WWE is time management. 

The inaugural WK card was sort of an odd mishmash, with only four singles matches on a card of nine.  Clearly they wanted to fit as many guys in as possible, but unfortunately it meant the first half of the show was a blur of multi-man tags.

The opener featured El Samurai, Masanobu Fuchi and Ryusuke Taguchi vs. Akira Raijin, Kikutaro and Nobutaka Araya.  It was basically a comedy match, with Kikutaro (who wears a bizarre pink mask based on the Japanese god of good fortune) complaining a lot and even getting punched and kicked by the ref.  Nothing memorable here.

Next up, current NJPW bookers Gedo and Jado took on Tokyo Gurentai (Mazada and Nosawa Rongai) in a match that saw Gurentai dominate the first half of the match, only to fall short in the second.  Not much of interest going on in this one either.

Great Bash Heel (Togi Makabe, Tomohiro Ishii and Toru Yano) were up next against former WWE midcarders D'Lo Brown, Buchanan and Travis Tomko.  This was the first match where I was familiar with everyone.  Buchanan still moved well in 2007 but looked pretty out of shape compared to his 2000 WWF run.  Despite this match being eight years ago, Yano and Makabe looked almost exactly the same.  Ishii not so much, as he sported more colorful gear and a weird-looking tuft of hair on top of his head.  If I didn't know he was in this match I wouldn't have recognized him at all (He wasn't given much to do anyway).  This match was ok and didn't overstay its welcome, but was also totally forgettable.
These tag matches were getting tiresome by this point, and the fourth slot went to a big 8-man, with Giant Bernard, Ro'z, Suwama and Taru vs. Manabu Nakanishi, Naofumi Yamamoto, Riki Choshu and Takashi Iizuka.  Pretty dull and overly long, with a few clumsy spots.  I remember reading that Giant Bernard was a vastly improved in-ring talent after working in Japan, so this must've been very early in his NJPW run.  As of 2007 he looked like the same old Albert.

Things finally picked up in the fifth match, as Kaz Hayashi, Koji Kanemoto, Taka Michinoku, Tiger Mask and Wataru Inoue faced Yashhi, Jushin Thunder Liger, Milano Collection A.T., Minoru and Shuji Kondo.  This clustermess was a lot of fun; a perpetual motion-type match with tons of innovative Cruiserweight-style offense.  This probably should've opened the show, as it was high-energy and athletic, and would've energized the crowd right off the bat.

Nakamura was so plain-Jane back then.

Our first singles match of the night took place in the 6th slot (What is this, WrestleMania 2000?).  Toshiaki Kawada vs. a young white meat babyface named Shinsuke Nakamura.  It was really strange seeing Nakamura prior to his current gimmick.  The in-ring talent was obviously there, but his "stage presence" has improved exponentially since 2007.  This was a good if unspectacular match.  The first half lacked urgency but it picked up in the second half, with traded suplexes and arm submissions.  Easily the best thing so far.

Next was a gritty battle of salty veterans, as Minoru Suzuki took on Yuji Nagata.  This was somewhat hard-hitting, though not at the level I would've expected.  Both guys bladed early during an outside-the-ring skirmish with a chair.  Suzuki took control late in the match by repeatedly using a choke, which eventually won him the match by ref stoppage. 

In the semi-main slot was the IWGP Championship, as a short-haired Hiroshi Tanahashi defended against Taiyo Kea.  This was a very good main event match, featuring crisp grappling early on, some brutal-looking outside the ring offense, and excellent back and forth big moves late in the match.  A very worthy main event, and I'm baffled why this wasn't the show closer.

Not a great still but I couldn't find anything else.

The actual main event saw Japanese veterans Keiji Muto and Masahiro Chono vs. Hiroyoshi Tenzan and Satoshi Kojima.  Quite frankly I have no idea what this match was doing in this slot.  The action was passable but this belonged in the midcard as a special attraction match.  Maybe there was a big angle surrounding it, but the action didn't have the urgency that a PPV main event needs.  At 44, Muto could still pull off those twisting elbowdrops, but just walking around he looked really uncomfortable, like his knees were shot.  Regardless, I much prefer his Great Muta persona.  I was never all that impressed with Masahiro Chono's work, even in WCW in the early 90s.  This was a very anticlimactic way to end the show.

Overall the first WrestleKingdom event was little to write home about.  Being unfamiliar with much of the 2007 roster doesn't help, but that also shouldn't prevent me from enjoying a PPV if the wrestling is good all the way through.  But only four of the nine matches really delivered, and the main event was sadly not one of them.  A rather inauspicious start to the series, but I have a hunch things just might pick up soon.....

Best Match: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Taiyo Kea - Even in 2007 Tanahashi was something to behold.
Worst Match: The 8-man Tag
What I'd Change: Obviously the Tanahashi match should've gone on last.  Also there were just too many multi-man tags.  There was nary a singles match in the first half of the show and everything up to that point kinda blurred together except the 10-man.  The overall show didn't feel like a major supercard since so many matches were pretty phoned-in.
Most Disappointing Match: I guess Suzuki vs. Nagata, which was fine but didn't have the urgency I was expecting.
Most Pleasant Surprise: The 10-man tag
Overall Rating: 5/10
Better than WrestleMania 23? - Nope

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