Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Top Ten Things: Essential NJPW PPVs

Welcome to another edition of Top Ten Things, here at, where I count down Ten Things that are at the Top of my list.  Pretty simple really.  Not sure why I have to explain it.

Today I present the ten (or more accurately, fifteen - narrowing this list down to ten is nigh impossible now) best NJPW PPVs I've seen thus far in my relatively young New Japan fandom (New JaFandom?).  I started watching NJPW in January 2015, when they launched, a subscription streaming service not unlike The WWE Network (If you haven't subscribed you should do so - it's cheaper than WWE's version and you'll get access to forty-plus years of New Japan).  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 fifteen essential NJPW PPVs you need to watch (and if you've already seen 'em, watch 'em again!).  Here we go:

15. WrestleKingdom IV

The WrestleKingdom series evolved from New Japan's 25-year tradition of holding a huge Tokyo Dome show every January 4th.  Regardless what weekday that falls on, the Tokyo Dome show is always on the fourth day of the year (weird, right?).  The name has changed several times, and starting in 2007 they turned the event into a PPV and called it WrestleKingdom.  In my opinion he first WK show to really deliver on all fronts was the fourth edition.  The undercard was a bit cluttered with tag matches (as was customary at the time), but once Intermission was over this show really took off.  Besides the couple of standout tags (Prince Devitt & Ryuske Taiguchi vs. Averno & Ultimo Guerrero; No Limit vs. Team 3-D vs. Bad Intentions), WK4 featured four good-to-great singles matches in a row to close out the PPV.  Tiger Mask IV vs. Naomichi Marufuji holds up as one of the best Jr. Heavyweight matches I've seen, which was then amazingly topped by a superb Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Go Shiozaki heavyweight match, which was followed by the surprisingly awesome Takashi Suguira vs. Hirooki Goto for the GHC Championship.  The main event, for the IWGP Heavyweight Title, saw Shinsuke Nakamura (pre-rock star persona) defend against the bruiser veteran Yoshihiro Takayama, in a slow but intense brawl.  This show started out slow but escalated to a fever pitch in the final 90 minutes, making it the best of the early WrestleKingdom events.

Key Matches: Takashi Suguira vs. Hirooki Goto; Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Go Shiozaki; Tiger Mask IV vs. Naomichi Marufuji

14. 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.

Key Matches: Kazuchika Okada vs. Karl Anderson; Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Minoru Suzuki; Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Tomohiro Ishii

13. WrestleKingdom 8

The 2014 edition of WrestleKingdom has the unfortunate distinction of being sandwiched between two of the all-time best 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 better editions of NJPW's flagship event. 

Key Matches: Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi; Prince Devitt vs. Kota Ibushi; Hirooki Goto vs. Katsuyori Shibata

12. WrestleKingdom 12

The 2018 edition of the Tokyo Dome spectacular was a loaded, rock-solid show capped off by two epic main events and drew the biggest NJPW crowd in 20 years.  Aided hugely by the involvement of former WWE mainstay Chris Jericho, WK12 drew 35,000 paid and garnered a ton of industry buzz.  While the show wasn't quite on the level of the tippy-top editions, WK12 was nonetheless an excellent, satisfying PPV with a very strong undercard and the first Match of the Year candidate in Omega vs. Jericho, a wildy violent contest that ranged all over ringside.  The main event of Okada vs. Naito took a shockingly unexpected turn when Naito, overwhelmingly favored to capture the IWGP Title, failed to do so in a 34-minute war.  Elsewhere on the card, Jay White made his post-excursion return in a somewhat underwhelming Intercontinental Title challenge against Tanahashi, while Kushida, Will Ospreay, Marty Scurll and Hiromu Takahashi nearly stole the show in a blazing 4-way Jr. Heavyweight Title match.  WK12 continued the still-ongoing trend of excellent Tokyo Dome supercards, becoming in my estimation the sixth consecutive WrestleKingdom to score a 9/10 or better.

Key Matches: Kazuchika Okada vs. Tetsuya Naito; Kenny Omega vs. Chris Jericho; Marty Scurll vs. Kushida vs. Will Ospreay vs. Hiromu Takahashi

11. King of Pro-Wrestling 2012

Voted the Best Major Show of 2012 by the readers of Wrestling Observer, King of Pro-Wrestling was the first PPV to use that moniker, and was a streamlined, loaded lineup.  Both Jr. Heavyweight Titles were defended in top-flight matches - Forever Hooligans defended the tag belts against Time Splitters, and Low-Ki defeated Kota Ibushi for the singles championship in a 17-minute showstopper.  After a few good but largely inconsequential bouts, the show kicked into overdrive with a trio of excellent matches.  Okada defended his WK7 #1 Contender's slot against Karl Anderson, Shinsuke Nakamura and Hirooki Goto had a blazing I-C Title match, and in the main event Hiroshi Tanahashi faced Minoru Suzuki in an epic 29-minute match with loads of psychology and nary a pin attempt until the very end.  Incidentally this bout was named Match of the Year by the Observer.  KoPW was a tremendous PPV that outshined every other NJPW show in 2012, and amazingly it would be outdone by its 2013 sequel.

Key Matches: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Minoru Suzuki; Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Hirooki Goto; Kazuchika Okada vs. Karl Anderson

10. 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 twice in 2013 alone....

Key Matches: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada; Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Kazushi Sakuraba; Prince Devitt vs. Kota Ibushi vs. Low-Ki

9. 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.

Key Matches: Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi; Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Naomichi Marufuji; Katsuyori Shibata vs. Tomohiro Ishii

8. Dominion 2018

Widely considered the best PPV of 2018, Dominion boasted a very strong undercard with a few standout matches, all of which were nearly forgotten about in the wake of its main event.  Kazuchika Okada and Kenny Omega met for the fourth time in a no-time-limit 2/3 falls match for the IWGP Title, and spun together a 64-minute masterwork that many, including myself, consider the greatest wrestling match of all time.  Okada's unparalleled two-year title reign came to the most spectacular end imaginable in this magnum opus of a match that built on all their previous bouts and paid absolutely incredible attention to detail.  That Okada and Omega were able to top themselves multiple times in this feud is nothing short of miraculous, and this match was so good it overshadowed the rest of the show.  Notable undercard matches included a wild Tetsuya Naito-Chris Jericho brawl in which Jericho unseated the Ingobernable for the I-C Title, a dazzling Will Ospreay-Hiromu Takahashi Jr. Title match, and The Young Bucks capturing the Heavyweight Tag Titles to become that division's new centerpiece.  Dominion 2018 was the first June PPV to upstage WrestleKingdom, with a strong overall show capped by an impossibly amazing main event (that once again broke Dave Meltzer's star rating system with *******).

Key Matches: Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega; Will Ospreay vs. Hiromu Takahashi; Evil & Sanada vs. The Young Bucks 

7. Dominion 2017

In much the same way Dominion 2015 gave WrestleKingdom 9 a run for its money as the PPV of the year, the 2017 edition was almost identical in quality to its Tokyo Dome counterpart (for some even better).  Four of the top-billed bouts were rematches from that show, while the undercard was in some ways superior.  The Roppongi Vice-Young Bucks Jr. Tag rematch was a step above its predecessor, the War Machine-Guerrilas of Destiny Heavyweight Tag match was a bit better than the triple threat Tag match in January, Cody's bout with Michael Elgin topped his debut against Juice Robinson, and the Jr. Heavyweight Title rematch between Hiromu Takahashi and Kushida was one of the best of its kind I've ever seen (On any other show this would easily be Match of the Night).  On top of that we got two stellar co-main events.  Hiroshi Tanahashi overcame a bicep tear to regain the Intercontinental Title from Tetsuya Naito, submitting the LIJ leader with a cloverleaf in a grueling 26-minute war, while Kenny Omega challenged IWGP Champ Kazuchika Okada for the second time, pulling out all the stops and going to a staggering 60-minute draw that left both men totally exhausted.  This main event was enough to break Dave Meltzer's star-rating system once again, earning an unprecedented ******1/4.  NJPW Dominion '17 was a fantastic, epic companion piece to WrestleKingdom 11 and and the year's second instant classic PPV, further establishing New Japan as the hot brand in pro wrestling.

Key Matches: Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega; Tetsuya Naito vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi; Kushida vs. Hiromu Takahashi

6. WrestleKingdom 11

For the third straight year New Japan delivered the best wrestling show of the calendar year, four days in.  After losing four of their top stars one year earlier, WrestleKingdom 11 served as a complete reassurance to New Japan fans that life goes on, new stars are always being created, and above all NJPW is still the best damn wrestling company on the planet.  The fairly loaded undercard boasted a pretty great RPG Vice-Young Bucks Jr. Tag match, a couple of fun multi-team bouts, the debut of Cody Rhodes (which also announced Juice Robinson's arrival as a bona fide talent), and a solid Adam Cole-Kyle O'Reilly ROH Title match.  But where this show soared was in its final four matches, all of which were completely different but stellar examples of New Japan's many facets.  Kushida and Hiromu Takahashi had a breathtakingly intense Jr. Heavyweight sprint, Katsuyori Shibata and Hirooki Goto beat the living crap out of each other for the NEVER Openweight Title, Tetsuya Naito dethroned Hiroshi Tanahashi for the I-C belt in a brilliantly classic professional wrestling match, and the main event......  Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega for the IWGP Title is simply one of the greatest matches I've ever seen.  This 47-minute, three-act war smashed boundaries and lit the wrestling world ablaze, earning an unprecedented six-star rating from Dave Meltzer and cementing both men as the two most accomplished pro wrestlers in the world.  The Okada-Omega feud is in 2017 what Flair-Steamboat was in 1989 - a perfectly constructed rivalry between two in-ring virtuosos that is unlikely to be equaled anytime soon.  WrestleKingdom 11 set the 2017 bar impossibly high and kicked off one of the most incredible calendar years any promotion has ever seen.

Key Matches: Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega; Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Tetsuya Naito; Katsuyori Shibata vs. Tomohiro Ishii

5. 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.

Key Matches: AJ Styles vs. Kazuchika Okada; Hirooki Goto vs. Shinsuke Nakamura; Kenny Omega vs. Kushida

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.

Key Matches: Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Kota Ibushi; Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Prince Devitt; Tomohiro Ishii vs. Katsuyori Shibata

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.

Key Matches: Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Tomohiro Ishii; Yuji Nagata vs. Kazushi Sakuraba; AJ Styles vs. Minoru Suzuki

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.

Key Matches: Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi; Shinsuke Nakamura vs. AJ Styles; Tomohiro Ishii vs. Katsuyori Shibata

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 in the midst of arguably the highest creative plateau in its 40-year history.  And thanks to US PPV distribution it reached a whole new Western audience which has grown steadily in the years since.  I consider WK9 one of the two or three best PPVs I've ever witnessed.

Key Matches: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada; Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Kota Ibushi; AJ Styles vs. Tetsuya Naito

That'll about do it for this extended edition of Top Ten Things.  Thanks for reading, and be sure join us on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and YouTube!

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