|Osaka-Jo Hall - 6.19.16|
The 2016 edition came at a strange transitional period for New Japan, when they were still recovering from the loss of four major players a few months earlier. While AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Anderson and Gallows were making waves in WWE, NJPW was hard at work to fill the void. Kenny Omega had emerged as the new top gaijin, winning the vacant Intercontinental Title (I'm still baffled they didn't have Nakamura drop the belt to him on his way out the door), while Tetsuya Naito skyrocketed to the main event scene, winning the New Japan Cup tournament on his way to a shocking IWGP Title victory over Okada at Invasion Attack. Replacing Anderson & Gallows as the tag team division centerpiece was another pair of Bullet Club guys, Tama Tonga and Tanga Loa, who got off to a rocky start but quickly grew into the role. And yet another emerging new star was Jr. Heavyweight sensation Will Ospreay, who defeated Ryusuke Taguchi in the Best of the Super Juniors final to earn a shot at division champion Kushida. So in spite of the talent loss, New Japan was making the best of things and then some (as we'd see over the next year).
Dominion opened with the Bullet Club B-Team of Bad Luck Fale, Hangman Page and Yujiro Takahashi facing the Hunter Club of Captain New Japan, Yoshitatsu and Togi Makabe. The heels attacked at the bell and worked over Yoshi momentarily, but things broke down quickly and spilled to the outside. Fale attacked Makabe with the railing, while Page hit CNJ with a shooting star press off the apron (This spot was terrifying, as Page underrotated and was lucky not to land on his head). Yoshi finally made the hot tag to Makabe, who worked with CNJ to dominate the heels, but Page hit Last Rites on CNJ to win the match, and hung him over the ropes after the bell. Not much to write home about here, just a proper showcase for Page more than anything else. *1/2
Up next was a the first of three Chaos vs. Los Ingobernables matches on the show, as the two newest LIJ members Sanada and Bushi faced Tomohiro Ishii and Yoshi-Hashi. Bushi started right in with heel tactics, choking Yoshi with his T-shirt and opening the door for the heels to work him over for a few minutes, before Yoshi hit a neckbreaker and tagged Ishii. Ishii ran wild on both LIJ members. With all four men in the ring Yoshi and Sanada had some good exchanges, with Sanada hitting a top rope dropkick, lariat, and a TKO. He went for Skull End but met an Ishii lariat. Yoshi then countered a second Skull End attempt with his Butterfly Lock, which Bushi tried to break up but found himself snared in an Ishii choke. Sanada tapped to give Chaos the win. This was a decent match but pretty skippable. **1/4
The first noteworthy bout of the night was Hirooki Goto vs. Naito's right-hand man Evil. This slugfest kicked off before the bell, as Goto went right after him, getting the better of the first exchange. They fought outside, where Goto rammed Evil into the railings, but Evil hit a draping neckbreaker and did his signature chair spot, hanging one off Goto's neck and whacking it with another. Goto barely beat the 20-count back in, and Evil spent a few minutes working him over. Goto slowly fought back and they traded lariats, with Goto finally scoring a big clothesline. The finishing sequence saw several reversals before Goto landed a Yushi Guroshi followed by the GTR for the hard-fought win. This was a solid, hard-hitting NEVER Openweight-style match. ***1/4
The next match was an example of a gimmick stipulation hurting the quality; Matt Sydal & Ricochet defended the IWGP Jr. Tag belts against the Young Bucks, reDRagon and Roppongi Vice, in what should've been a potential show stealer but due to the over-the-top-rope elimination rule ended up being just fine. Sydal and Kyle O'Reilly started the match with very cool grappling combinations before respectively tagging Bobby Fish and Beretta. The Bucks kept trying to interfere in the match but it kept backfiring. Things settled down with reDRagon working over Beretta, who finally made a tag to Rocky Romero. Romero ran wild, dominating Fish and O'Reilly and hitting a double blockbuster on the Bucks. He did his neverending running lariat spot, but the Bucks came from behind and dumped both RPG members out for the elimination. Fish and O'Reilly went after the Bucks for a while but Sydal and Ric came from behind to toss reDRagon. Fish and O'Reilly attacked the champs on their way out, hitting their finisher on Ricochet before exiting. Matt and Nick worked over Ricochet, who eventually made the hot tag to Sydal. Sydal and Ricochet hit a moonsault/shooting star press combo, and Nick and Ricochet took turns trying to eliminate each other. The Bucks finally hit several tandem moves on Sydal, culminating with the Meltzer Driver to give the Bucks the win and the belts. This match was fun but would've been so much better with just pins and submissions. I guess they were trying to protect everyone but the sudden tosses over the ropes just felt chintzy. ***
One of the two biggest standouts on the show was Will Ospreay challenging Kushida for the Jr. Title. This was sort of Ospreay's real "coming out" match, as he hadn't had a singles match on this big a stage before. They did some innovative grappling to kick things off, with neither man getting the upper hand. After a reset they went for some wild Junior-style moves and counters, with Kushida creating the first break in the action, countering an Ospreay handspring by savagely kicking his arm. Kushida smelled blood and worked it over, trapping Ospreay in a Kimura and hitting a bulldog on the arm, followed by a short-arm scissor. Ospreay escaped and hit a handspring flip kick without using his arms(!) followed by Pip-Pip Cheerio and a twisting cannonball to the outside. Back in the ring they had a striking war but Kushida landed a handspring kick of his own, followed by a springboard dropkick to Ospreay's face. Ospreay went for a powerbomb but Kushida countered with a sunset bomb for a nearfall. Ospreay attempted a Spanish Fly but Kushida rotated with him and locked in a cross armbreaker before converting to a triangle choke. The finish saw Ospreay hit a corkscrew shooting star and go for the OsCutter but Kushida was ready and countered with the Hoverboard Lock for the tapout win. The story of the match was that Ospreay was the man of the hour but Kushida was ready for him, using his experience and superior grappling to neutralize much of Ospreay's offense. It simply wasn't his night this time. Helluva Jr. match that nearly stole the show. ****1/2
The Heavyweight Tag Titles were next as Guerillas of Destiny defended against ROH legends Jay and Mark Briscoe, in a camo vs. camo war. These teams cut a crazy fast pace; the Briscoes controlled the match early with quick tags and tandem moves on Tama, who worked the lion's share of the match for his team. Tanga finally took control by hitting Mark with a chair shot on the outside and apron-powerbombing Jay. Mark spent the next several minutes playing the babyface-in-peril, but used his insane agility to stage a comeback and get the tag to Jay. Jay ran wild on both heels, turning Tama inside out with a lariat, followed by a Death Valley Driver. They went for the Doomsday Device but it was broken up, and GoD hit a tandem blockbuster for a nearfall. Mark made another comeback with a fisherman buster on Loa, then Jay hit him with a Jay Driller to soften him up for the match-ending Doomsday Device, giving the Briscoes their first taste of New Japan gold. This was technically a very good tag match but it was hurt by the rather lifeless crowd who sadly weren't invested in the Briscoes. I'll go ***1/4 but it would've been higher in front of a hot crowd.
The final trilogy of matches were all very strong, very different bouts, starting with Katsuyori Shibata vying for his former NEVER Openweight Title now held by Yuji Nagata. These two wasted no time, beginning the match with a striking war, until Shibata took over with grappling. He went after Nagata's left arm, even slapping on the Nagata lock as a "fuck you." Shibata hit a barrage of strikes and kicks, but Nagata fired up and returned the favor, finally wearing Shibata down. They traded forearms and then had a suplex war, which Shibata ended with an STO that left both guys laying. Shibata stole Nagata's backdrop driver but missed a Penalty Kick, and Nagata snared his own Nagata Lock. Shibata reached the ropes, fought from underneath, and leveled Nagata with a lightning-fast palm strike before locking in the choke. One Penalty Kick later and Shibata was the NEVER champion once again. Tenzan, Kojima and Nakanishi, who had accompanied Nagata to ringside, congratulated Shibata and put him over in a torch passing moment. This was a basic, damn good fight between two of the toughest in the business. I still haven't gotten over Shibata's premature retirement in 2017; he was one of a kind. ***3/4
The first-ever Ladder Match in NJPW history came about after Kenny Omega defeated Hiroshi Tanahashi to win the vacant Intercontinental Title in February 2016. Tanahashi challenged Omega to a rematch, which was agreed upon as a Ladder Match, but Tana suffered a shoulder injury and wasn't cleared for Dominion, so his ally Michael Elgin took his spot. At the outset of this match Red Shoes smelled a rat, paused the proceedings, and looked under the ring where he found Matt and Nick Jackson hiding out. Red Shoes sent them packing before ringing the opening bell. The combatants cut a furious pace at the beginning, with a quick back-and-forth before Elgin got the advantage with his superior brawling. He went outside to get a ladder but Omega dove on top, and then flattened him with a Terminator dive. As Elgin recovered, Hangman Page and Yujiro Takahashi attacked him, holding him down while Kenny set up a ladder in the ring and started to climb. Elgin broke free and pulled him off, then hit all three heels with the Bubba Ray helicopter spot. He set the ladder up in the corner and repeatedly whipped Kenny into it, hard. Later he retrieved a small ladder under the ring and set it up inside before attempting the Cesaro deadlift superplex, but Page kept feeding Kenny objects to hit him with, including two road signs and a trash can lid. Kenny then countered the superplex into a sunset bomb. Back in the ring, Kenny set up a corner ladder but ended up back body dropped through it, snapping it in half. Elgin found two trashcans and set up a bridge with the small ladder, but Kenny escaped a superplex attempt and gutwrenched powerbombed Elgin through this ladder. Kenny set up a good ladder and both men ended up on top, throwing forearms at each other until they both fell to the mat, loopy. On the outside Kenny set up two tables next to another ladder and attempted a moonsault onto Elgin, but Elgin powerbombed him onto the tables, which didn't break. Elgin looked to be free and clear as he climbed for the belt, but the Young Bucks returned, spraying deodorant in his eyes and handcuffing him to the turnbuckle. Captain New Japan and Yoshitatsu came to the rescue but the Bucks superkicked them to death. Suddenly Matt Sydal and Ricochet showed up and took out the Jacksons, as Elgin broke his handcuff and knocked Kenny off the ladder, climbing up himself and snatching the title. On my first viewing of this match I remember being very underwhelmed due to its 33-minute running time and all the interference at the end. A rewatch improved it quite a bit, though I'm still sad we never got the Omega-Tanahashi match; I felt like Elgin was a little uncomfortable in this environment for some reason. That said, both guys worked very hard to make this a memorable gimmick match debut. ****
Our main event pitted the company's anti-hero phenom Tetsuya Naito against its new Ace, Kazuchika Okada, for the IWGP Title. Okada had been a dominant champion since Dominion 2015 when he regained the belt from AJ Styles, but Naito seemingly came out of nowhere to dethrone him at Invasion Attack. On this night two months later Okada would begin maybe the greatest wrestling title reign of all time. Naito was accompanied here by his three LIJ stablemates but Okada suggested he send them away and make the match truly one-on-one. Naito obliged, and we were underway. They grappled to start off, but things escalated to a series of rope-running exchanges. Okada took control after a sliding kick and a corner dropkick, knocking Naito to the floor. Naito came back with a fantastic-looking running dropkick on the entrance ramp, rolled Okada back in and worked over his neck and upper back. Of note is how solidly behind Okada this crowd was, booing almost everything Naito did. The fight spilled outside again after Okada hit a brutal boot to the face and Naito tried to leave. Okada followed him up the ramp and charged with his own ramp dropkick. Back in the ring, Okada hit a DDT and locked in Red Ink. Naito escaped and Okada hit his top rope elbow, followed by the Rainmaker pose, but Naito sprang up and hit an exploder suplex. They built to some of their big moves; Naito hit one of the crispest-looking top rope ranas I've ever seen, Okada came back with his Air Raid Crash neckbreaker, Naito hit an enziguri and flying forearm and went for Destino. Okada escaped but ate a rolling kick, recovering immediately and stopping Naito dead in his tracks with a beautiful dropkick. Okada went for the Tombstone but Naito countered it with a Destino, picked him up and went for a second, only to be countered with the Tombstone. Okada hit the Rainmaker, but Naito became only the second man ever to kick out of it! The finishing sequence was full of wild counters, leading to Okada hitting three non-consecutive Rainmakers for the win and his fourth IWGP Title. This was a pretty great main event; I consider Okada-Naito to be similar in style and technique to Okada-Tanahashi but missing the amazing chemistry Okada has with The Ace. When Okada won back the belt everyone was flabbergasted at how short Naito's run was, but in hindsight, as with basically all of Gedo's booking, it all fell into place beautifully. Okada's historic two-year reign had begun. ****1/2
So Dominion 2016 was a step below the previous year but still featured three ****+ matches by my count, plus a slew of solid stuff below that. It was missing that one blowaway bout and would be hugely overshadowed by the 2017 and 2018 editions, but this show was nothing to sneeze at either.
Best Match: Tetsuya Naito vs. Kazuchika Okada, just by a hair over the Jr. Title match
Worst Match: The opening six-man
What I'd Change: The Ladder Match could've been a little shorter and less rife with shenanigans at the end.
Most Disappointing Match: Probably the Jr. Tag match given how much talent was involved.
Most Pleasant Surprise: That Okada not only won back the title so soon but how historic his win proved to be.
Overall Rating: 8.5/10
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