Thursday, January 4, 2024

The History of NJPW WrestleKingdom (WK12)

New Japan draws its biggest Dome crowd in twenty years, thanks partly to a huge dream match...
WrestleKingdom 12 - 1.4.18

The 2018 edition of NJPW's flagship show took some very unexpected turns (most of which made total sense in hindsight) and left more than a few people scratching their heads by the end.  But regardless of flauting anyone's expectations, the 12th WrestleKingdom was still a helluva show.  The nine matches on the main card ranged from inoffensive to pretty awesome.  While WK12 lacked for me that one blowaway match, it was a newsworthy PPV with a ton of variety, and while a bit of an endurance test (The shortest bout was over 14 minutes), never got boring.  There was no intermission and the matches were presented one after the other without a lot of wasted time in between.

The show kicked off with the Jr. Tag Team Titles, as RPG3K defended against The Young Bucks.  The match, like its WK11 counterpart, was much more psychology-based than your average Jr. Tag match, as the Bucks and Sho/Yoh waged a war of attrition, one man from each team selling a back injury.  I especially liked the exchanges where Nick and Sho took turns kicking the injured backs of their respective opponents.  This match got a robust 18 minutes before the Bucks hit Yoh with the Meltzer Driver and finally tapped him with a Sharpshooter.  The ending felt a little flat to me but otherwise this was a fine opening match.  RPG3K would regain the titles shortly after this and the Bucks moved up to heavyweight over the summer.

Next up was the one skippable match, the 6-man gauntlet.  This was mostly pretty nondescript but also inoffensive.  The first segment involved Suzuki-Gun against War Machine and Michael Elgin, which had some fun exchanges and ended in roughly six minutes with Zack Sabre causing Rowe to pass out with a leg scissor.  Ishii/Yano/Beretta then made quick work of SG when Yano rolled up Taichi for the pin forty seconds later.  A few minutes after that Yano pinned Taguchi with another rollup.  Finally the champs, Fale and Guerrillas of Destiny arrived and had the longest segment of the match, looking pretty dominant for a while but ultimately losing the straps as Beretta polished off Tama Tonga with a Dudebuster.  So new six-man champs as per usual.  Again, this match was skippable but fine for what it was.  If this is the worst thing on your PPV, you've put together a pretty damn good PPV.
From here on out it was a block of seven good-to-excellent matches, starting with an unexpectedly strong Cody-Kota Ibushi bout.  Cody and wife Brandi Rhodes played the heel power couple to the tee, including a spot where Ibushi dove on top of Cody but accidentally knocked Brandi over as well.  Brandi sold the move, taking advantage of Ibushi's chivalry and allowing Cody to take over on offense before revealing she was feigning injury the whole time.  The match built in intensity over its generous 15 minutes, until Ibushi (who took some nasty offense including a CrossRhodes off the ring apron) came back to hit his Kamigoye, followed by a picture-perfect Phoenix Splash for the win.  This was a damn good undercard match that portended great things for both guys in 2018.

Next up was one of the best heavyweight tag title matches in WrestleKingdom history, and the best Killer Elite Squad match I think I've ever seen.  KES nailed the Killer Bomb on Evil immediately, teasing a seconds-long win, but Sanada broke it up and the first half or so involved the dominant KES destroying Evil and Sanada.  It was odd to see LIJ playing such traditional underdog babyface roles, but equally as stunning was just how much KES dwarfed them.  Evil and Sanada are not small men, but Archer and Smith towered over them.  This match told a great story and the late-match title-winning comeback by LIJ really felt earned.  Hella good stuff here.

The hits kept coming with a brutal NEVER Openweight bout between Minoru Suzuki and Hirooki Goto.  Suzuki took control early, nearly putting Goto away with a hangman choke, and he dished out the lion's share of punishment throughout.  Goto took a vicious beating, enduring a barrage of palm strikes late in the match that swelled up one of his eyes.  After eighteen brutal minutes, Goto hit a pair of GTRs for the win, the title, and Suzuki's hair.  Suzuki, ever the pillar of machismo, refused to welch on the bet and also refused to give Goto the satisfaction of the shave, shearing off his own hair and walking away.  This was the best NEVER Title match since WK11.

The opening Jr. tag may have cut a fairly tempered pace, but the Jr. Title 4-way was balls to the wall action, as Marty Scurll, Will Ospreay, Kushida and Takahashi each displayed their incredible athleticism.  The big story in this match was Scurll vs. Ospreay, and the announcers hammered home the point that throughout their years-long rivalry, Scurll always had Ospreay's number.  That came into play multiple times here, as Ospreay would attempt a move but Scurll would always counter it.  All four guys got ample time to shine though, with Kushida countering a couple top-rope moves into arm breakers, Takahashi nailing the Time Bomb multiple times to almost capture the title, and Ospreay finally hitting the Oscutter on Scurll for the title win.  Perfect slot on the card for this kind of match and it was everything you'd want from a crazy spotfest.

Now we arrived at the big match trilogy, starting with Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Jay White.  This match was....underwhelming.  Besides not being Jay White's big moment, as he failed to unseat Tanahashi, there was something lacking in the energy.  White was still adjusting to his new heel persona and trying to find a moveset that matched, and Tanahashi was still dealing with a nasty arm injury.  Anyway, this match was fine, but nowhere near as good as we all expected.  Tanahashi retained with the Hi-Fly Flow and White moved on to successfully challenge Omega for the US Title, on his way to becoming the company's hottest new heel character.

The final two bouts each clocked in at around 35 minutes, and despite being very different matches, both delivered.  Kenny Omega vs. Chris Jericho was a car wreck of a match, featuring big, brutal high spots and plenty of palpable animosity.  I was amazed how much time this got and how many false finishes there were.  The action ranged all over the ringside area, including a missed Omega top rope dive onto the English announce table (which put Kevin Kelly and Don Callis out of commission temporarily).  This was one of Jericho's best matches in years and his chemistry with Omega was off the charts.  The match was full of creative spots and gasp-inducing moments.  Omega retained after the second One-Winged Angel of the match, much to the delight of the Dome crowd.  I'd give this the Match of the Night nod, just by a hair.  What a spectacle.  This was just the beginning for Jericho though, who returned at Dominion to unexpectedly capture the Intercontinental Title.

The Okada-Naito main event was roughly what I expected, a slightly lesser version of Okada vs. Tanahashi, until the finish.  These two started out slow, weaving a classic pro wrestling main event with lots of big moves and storytelling, and in the end it was the final ten minutes or so that really made the match for me, as both men kicked out of each other's finishers before Okada shockingly retained with the third Rainmaker of the match.  The Dome audience was very solidly behind Tetsuya Naito, so at the time I was baffled they didn't finally pull the trigger on him.  This crowd definitely banked on their anti-hero dethroning the greatest wrestling champion of the past thirty or so years, and somehow didn't get it.  Of course it all made sense in the end, Okada was being built up as an Inoki-esque great champion, finally dropping the belt to Kenny Omega at Dominion (in the greatest match of all time).  But in the moment it was incredibly shocking to see him retain over Naito.  A very good main event, if a bit short of great.

All in all, WrestleKingdom 12 was an excellent PPV that for me was only missing the one (or two) five-star masterpiece the previous three WK shows had.  A fine pair of main events capped off a diverse set of highly engaging matches (each of which got ample time) and this show continued the tradition of hard-to-follow New Japan PPVs.  This gets a very easy recommendation.

Best Match: Kenny Omega vs. Chris Jericho
Worst Match: The Six-Man Tag Gauntlet, which was fine
What I'd Change: Not much, this was a helluva show.
Most Disappointing Match: Tanahashi vs. Jay White, which was good but not great
Most Pleasant Surprise: Okada's incredible Title run continuing
Overall Rating: 9/10 - This was a notch below WK11 for me, but a notch above WK8.
Better Than WrestleMania 34? - Finally a solid head-to-head matchup in this department, but yes.

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