Tuesday, January 2, 2024

The History of NJPW WrestleKingdom (WK9)

My proper introduction to NJPW, and probably still the greatest PPV I've ever witnessed....

WrestleKingdom 9 - 1/4/15

Every so often a wrestling PPV comes along that seems to render obsolete everything that came before.  There aren't enough superlatives to describe how fucking good the ninth edition of WrestleKingdom was; from top to bottom this show was entertaining at worst, and more often than not was transcendent.  I'm not exaggerating when I say WK9 was just as good as WrestleManias 17 and 19, and annihilated pretty much every other PPV below that top echelon.  This is one of the best wrestling shows I've ever seen.

The show opened with an amazing display of Jr. Heavyweight tag team wrestling, with reDRagon defending their straps against the Young Bucks, Forever Hooligans and The Time Splitters.  There was no big story being told in this match, it was simply a game of aerial oneupmanship.  All four teams worked at a blistering pace to rev up the 36,000 in attendance, and this match accomplished exactly what it needed to.

Next up were the only two low points of the show, a six-man tag and an 8-man.  Each match only went five minutes and both were inoffensive but forgettable.  The first pitted Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Satoshi Kojima and Tomoaki Honma against Bullet Club members Bad Luck Fale, Jeff Jarrett and Yujiro Takahashi in a sports-entertainment kinda match.  Nothing much memorable here other than Honma getting a rare PPV win.  The other multi-man was a little more fun, as Naomichi Marufuji, TMDK (Mikey Nicholls and Shane Haste), and Toru Yano faced the Suzuki-gun stable of Davey Boy Smith Jr., Lance Archer, Shelton X Benjamin and Takashi Iizuka.  This one had better action than the six-man but was just as brief.  Don't worry though, from here on out this show had nary a lull.

The fourth match was an MMA-hybrid between Minoru Suzuki and Kazushi Sakuraba, to be won only by submission or knockout.  Both guys worked a gritty, realistic fight in which Sakuraba beat the hell out of Suzuki's arm, only for Suzuki to come back with an airtight choke for the win.  Not quite at the level of WK7's Nakamura-Sakuraba, but still captivating.

The fifth bout took this show to the next level, as Tomohiro Ishii defended the NEVER Openweight Title against Togi Makabe, in one of the most ferocious knock-down matches I've ever seen.  At several points this match devolved into each man taking turns smashing the other with forearms and palm strikes.  Makabe would take this match with the King Kong Knee Drop.  This is probably the greatest NEVER rivalry since that Title's inception.

Nothin' like a knee drop to the head.

The Jr. Heavyweight Championship was next, as Ryusuke Taguchi defended against Bullet Club member Kenny Omega.  Taguchi's look and offense are very similar to Eddie Guerrero, while Omega has reinvented himself as a consummately flamboyant heel, a la Brian Pillman.  This was a starmaking performance by Omega, who delivered flashy moves at times but was wise enough to let Taguchi do most of the crowd-pleasing work.  Omega took the Championship with his electric chair driver, called the One-Winged Angel.  Superb match.

In the 7th slot was IWGP Tag Champs Karl Anderson & Doc Gallows vs. Hirooki Goto and Kasuyori Shibata.  This was another fast-paced, non-stop tag bout, with all four guys working hard.  I like Gallows much better than Giant Bernard, as Anderson's partner.  Goto and Shibata won a fairly short, fun match.

The final 90 minute-stretch of this show was simply sublime.

AJ Styles vs. Tetsuya Naito was next in a match between two wrestlers desperate to get back in the World Title picture.  Styles has already created a stellar body of work in New Japan, and while not quite at the top-tier, Naito is one of the most reliable workers in the company.  The result was a beautifully-worked semi-main event kind of match, with Styles getting the win after a death-defying Styles Clash off the second rope.

The WrestleKingdom 9 crescendo continued with a pair of absolutely spectacular main events, the first of which saw Shinsuke Nakamura defend the IC Title against Kota Ibushi.  Prior to this Ibushi had been almost exclusively a Jr. Heavyweight, and this was his attempt to establish himself as a headliner.  Spoiler alert: it worked.  This was an impossibly brilliant match, where  Nakamura threw every MMA-inspired attack at Ibushi, only for the young lion to shake it off and retaliate with an awe-inspiring aerial move.  The pace these two set was truly astonishing without the match coming off as a spotfest.  Every big move had weight and repercussions, and the drama built right up to the end, as Nakamura once again retained with the Boma Ye knee.  But this bout did just as much for Ibushi as for Nakamura, and was my pick (and many others') for the 2015 Match of the Year.

This match was basically perfect.  No more questions....

Finally we arrived at the colossal main event, Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada.  This rivalry belongs in the same class as Rock-Austin or HBK-Taker - two thoroughly charismatic, talented artists who seem to work off each other effortlessly.  This was their seventh meeting in a PPV singles match, and it blew every previous encounter out of the water.  Technically there wasn't anything here that their other matches were lacking, it was just the intangibles and the timing that set this one apart.  Everything just clicked perfectly and the result was a pro wrestling masterpiece - perhaps this era's Flair-Steamboat at WrestleWar '89.  Both guys' finishers have been very well-protected, which made their respective late-match kickouts gasp-inducing.  Tanahashi would outclass his young challenger at the 31-minute mark, and Okada limped back to the dressing room sobbing, selling brilliantly the crushing Championship loss.  This performance was virtuosic.

One man's triumph is another man's heartbreak.  True story.

I urge every wrestling fan to seek out WrestleKingdom 9.  It's simply one of the most perfect wrestling PPVs ever assembled, with two MOTY candidates plus about five other standouts.  This is one of those shows where the entire company is blazing on all cylinders and each match seems better than the last.  Any wrestling promotion will be hard-pressed to top this show anytime soon.

Best Match: Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Kota Ibushi
Worst Match: Tenzan/Kojima/Honma vs. Fale/Jarrett/Takahashi
What I'd Change: Probably bump the six-man to the pre-show and give that extra five minutes to the 8-man.  But that's nitpicking.
Most Disappointing Match: I guess the 8-man for being so short.
Most Pleasant Surprise: That after nearly 30 years as a fan, any wrestling company is still able to blow me away with a show like this
Overall Rating: 10/10 - There are probably only ten or so PPVs I'd ever rate a perfect 10, but this absolutely qualifies
Better than WrestleMania 31? - By about a million light years

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