Monday, January 7, 2019

NJPW WrestleKingdom 13: This Show was Fantastic, So Why Am I Sad?

I'm not sure there's ever been such a great PPV that left me with such mixed feelings as WrestleKingdom 13.  From a booking standpoint everything was done really well.  From a match quality standpoint there wasn't a bad bout in sight, and a few were flat-out excellent.  But the decision to limit the show to four hours when thirty extra minutes would've elevated it to the Best PPV Ever conversation, coupled with all the uncertainty surrounding the All Elite situation and potential WWE talent steals, made what should've been a triumphant moment feel kinda jaded.  This is how I felt after WrestleKingdom 10 to a certain extent, but it's magnified here.

In the opening match, which has to be on the short list for best openers ever, Will Ospreay defeated Kota Ibushi for the NEVER Openweight Title.  This match was fast paced and dazzling as expected, with loads of back and forth offense, some intense striking battles, and tons of athleticism as only these two can deliver.  My favorite spot involved the two of them trading strikes while Ibushi was hanging upside down from the turnbuckles (which is where the legit concussion occurred).  Late in the match Ospreay kicked out of a Last Ride and avoided the Kamigoye knee (though Ibushi at one point hit him with the Boma Ye, in tribute to Nakamura), knocked Ibushi loopy with a driving elbow to the head, and landed the Stormbreaker to win the title.  Ibushi was stretchered out with a kayfabe concussion that in fact turned out to be a legit minor one.  Ibushi, as planned, is off the New Beginning tour but will hopefully be back soon (though who knows if he signs with All Elite or not).  These guys left enough on the table for a rematch so I'm really hoping there is one.  Regardless, this was an incredible opener that set a high bar for the night.  ****1/2

Next up was the Jr. Tag triple threat, with El Desperado & Kanemaru defending against RPG3K and Shingo & Bushi.  This match was fine and all action but was too short to amount to all that much.  It was far better than a WWE throwaway but still felt like a throwaway.  This was one of four or five matches that could've used five more minutes, hence my earlier comment about the show needing an extra half hour.  Shingo was the star of this match, dominating the later minutes and finishing off Sho with Last of the Dragon to win the belts.  **3/4

Another match that could've used more time was Tomohiro Ishii vs. Zack Sabre Jr. for the RPW Heavyweight Title.  As expected this was a stiff, gritty fight pitting Ishii's strikes against Sabre's grappling.  Sabre dominated a lot of this match, which made for a pretty shocking ending when Ishii submitted to Sabre's new double-arm octopus hold.  This match was very good but about five minutes short of greatness.  Sabre continues to shine though as one of the company's top gaijins.  Here's hoping for some IWGP Title matches in his future.  ***1/2

The heavyweight tag match was definitely superior to its Jr. counterpart, as Guerillas of Destiny, The Young Bucks and Evil & Sanada had a wild, energetic match.  The big story element here was Tama Tonga's apparent change of heart at wanting to be a "good guy."  So GoD refrained from their usual illegal shenanigans and it ended up costing them.  The last few minutes of this were insane, with big move after big move.  With GoD knocked out of commission, Evil and Sanada hit Matt Jackson with a Magic Killer, followed by a Sanada moonsault to win the belts and officially move into the tag team centerpiece spot.  The Bucks have of course signed with AEW and are done with New Japan for the time being.  Considering they had just become a top heavyweight tag team, this is a major loss for the division.  But Evil and Sanada will be great custodians for the tag belts, like a modern-day Tencozy.  ***1/4

Yet another too-short match was Cody vs. Juice Robinson for the US Title.  This was on par with their WK11 match but very different, with Brandi interfering extensively until she was ejected by the referee.  From then both guys went for the big moves, hitting each other's finishers before Juice finally hit Pulp Friction.  Juice refused to go for the cover, waiting for Rhodes to get back up, and hit a second for the very decisive pinfall.  In leaving New Japan, Cody did the honors for Juice in a major way.  This was fine but only went nine minutes.  ***

Perhaps the most criminally shortchanged match was Kushida vs. Taiji Ishimori.  We've become accustomed to pretty epic Jr. Heavyweight Title matches, and while these bouts sometimes get limited to a certain extent on Dome cards, this one felt particularly short.  At eleven minutes, it was comparable to the Jr. matches at WK9 and 10, but since this division is now being rebuilt from the ground up with a new star, this seemed skimpy for a coronation.  Still the action was fast and furious, and very well-worked.  After a lot of back and forth exchanges Taiji hit his Bloody Cross finisher for the win and the title.  Kushida has since announced that he's leaving NJPW, and a move to WWE seems very likely.  Frankly I'm not sure what he's thinking with this move.  A 5'7" Japanese wrestler with not much of a US following doesn't strike me as someone the main roster is gonna use in any meaningful way.  Kushida's best hope is to work on NXT or 205, both of which would be a step down from where he is now.  Aside from making better money I don't see an upside to this move.  This leaves the Jr. division is in shambles - we have Taiji Ishimori......and that's about it as far as top-level Jrs.  Hiromu may or may not be back, but it won't be soon, Ospreay is moving up to heavyweight, Scurll is still with ROH so I guess he'll be around.  Sho and Yoh, and Bushi and Shingo are all options but they're primarily tag team guys at the moment.  Both Jr. divisions need serious rebuilding.  As for this match, it was very good but again, five minutes short of being great.  ***1/2

Jay White's main event push took another big step in a 14-minute defeat of Kazuchika Okada.  Okada was back to his original trunks (thank god), and this felt like a bit of a reset for him.  This match had a lot of very good action, plenty of interference from Gedo which allowed for Okada to get some revenge on him, and a wild climactic sequence with traded finisher attempts and reversals.  Okada finally hit a spinning Rainmaker and went for an original one, only to be countered with a Blade Runner for a clean Jay White win.  White is obviously being moved into the top gaijin spot, and his rise reminds me of Okada's to a certain extent.  He's roughly the same age as Okada was in 2012 and he almost seems not quite ready for such a big push, but I have faith he'll get there just like Okada did.  2019 will be a decisive year for him to sink or swim.  This match was also very good but a little too short.  ***3/4 

The last two matches were finally afforded an appropriate amount of time, starting with the brutal Chris Jericho-Tetsuya Naito brawl.  These guys hit each other with everything, and the match felt like a big step up from their Dominion bout (which was pretty damn good in its own right).  At one point Jericho hit a brutal DDT on a ringside table, which Naito took fully on the top of his head, leaving a skull-sized hole in the table.  The match also involved chairs, kendo sticks and the Intercontinental belt itself.  Late in the match Naito ducked a belt shot and sent Jericho into the turnbuckle Jericho had exposed earlier in the match, then hit two Destinos separated by a belt shot to win back the title.  This was easily Jericho's second-best NJPW match and hopefully not his last (He's expressed interest in challenging Tanahashi - MSG main event perhaps?).  An excellent brawl that stood apart from every other match on the show.  ****1/2

The Kenny Omega-Hiroshi Tanahashi main event lived up to expectations and more.  This 39-minute masterpiece equaled and perhaps exceeded even the Tana-Okada matches of WrestleKingdoms past.  As with the Kenny-Okada battles, this involved every facet of the game, from grappling to big impact moves to table spots (Tana went for Hi Fly Flow through a table but missed and took the brutal bump all by himself).  Tana hit multiple HFFs in the ring, one of which Kenny actually kicked out of.  What's telling though is that Kenny never landed the One Winged Angel - to me that felt like New Japan is, or was, planning on a rematch down the line.  These two threw so much at each other but not quite everything.  In the end, Tana escaped an OWA attempt and hit one last HFF to win his 8th IWGP Title at age 41, capping off an incredible story of redemption for the former Ace.  This main event was absolutely superb and may have been the second-best in WrestleKingdom history.  ***** 

As I said, this felt like the first of a series of matches, but Kenny has announced that he is done with New Japan (This could be a kayfabe statement similar to what he said two years ago but it's hard to know: “There is no real place for me to fit, so it’s best for me not to be in NJPW....I can’t be there working under Tanahashi. I don’t think he’s surpassed me, don’t think he’s better. If we can, I want to face him again. But I need time away, and not just from New Japan.”).  Whether that means he's signing with his friends in AEW or jumping to WWE remains to be seen, but to me it feels like he has more to do in NJPW.  There are rematches with both Tanahashi and Ibushi on the table.  A jump to WWE would disallow both of those, while joining AEW would potentially prevent them for the time being (New Japan has stated they won't be working with AEW right now, which I find baffling).  With so much uncertainty it's hard to know how to feel about the fallout from this show.  The New Beginning cards are already taking shape but there are some pretty weak top matches being set up.  Naito's next opponent is Taichi of all people.  Okada's is Bad Luck Fale (a *** match we've seen roughly a thousand times).  Taiji Ishimori's is Taguchi.  Jay White is Tanahashi's next challenger, which I'm fine with, but White isn't nearly at the level Kenny was three years ago.  There's a lot of rebuilding to be done if the All Elite guys are indeed done with NJPW.  And where does this leave Kota Ibushi?  He's not under contract and if he leaves too that would be a pretty devastating loss.  All these departures come at the time when the company is rapidly expanding, and I'm fearing a Crocket Promotions situation.  I think they'll find a way to make it work, but the ambiguity is very unnerving.

All that said, WrestleKingdom 13 was an excellent PPV.  Three great matches, several very good ones, and nothing bad.  But with thirty more minutes this show could've been one of the best ever.  As it is, it's going to be a hard show to top in 2019.  I'm just not sure why they set a four-hour limit when they didn't need to.

Best Match: Kenny Omega vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi
Worst Match: The Jr. Tag
What I'd Change: Add five minutes to the Jr. Tag, Ishii-ZSJ, Cody-Juice, and Kushida-Taiji
Most Disappointing Match: Probably Kushida-Taiji, which got ***1/2 from me but should probably have gotten ****1/2 
Most Pleasant Surprise: I guess that Jericho-Naito delivered so well
Overall Rating: 9.5/10 - This has to be the most melancholy 9.5 I've ever given a wrestling show

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