Thursday, January 4, 2024

The History of NJPW WrestleKingdom (WK13)

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 numerous impending departures, made this a bittersweet show.

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 a legit Ibushi 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, a move he'd adopt 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.  These guys left enough on the table for a rematch, which occurred during the G1 Climax and actually topped this one.  Regardless, this was an incredible opener that set a high bar for the night.

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 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.  He'd break out of the Junior division later in the year, in favor of becoming a NEVER-style bruiser.

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.

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 a tag team centerpiece spot, replacing the departing Young Bucks.

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 was 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 would leave NJPW for NXT, while the Junior division thrived in 2019 with Will Ospreay as its new flag bearer.

Jay White's 2019 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, a huge vote of confidence for the young New Zealander.  White would dethrone Tanahashi a month later for his first IWGP Title run before dropping it to Okada at the G1 Supercard.  Another very good match that could've used more time.

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 up to this point, an excellent brawl that stood apart from every other match on the show.

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.  Omega never hit the One-Winged Angel, leaving the door open for a potential rematch if he and NJPW can come to terms on a return.  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.  

The followup to this show involved much rebuilding, as the losses of Omega, Cody, Kushida and the Bucks left some big roster holes.  But as they'd done in 2016, New Japan made the best of it and then some, creating/importing new stars in Jay White, Kenta and Shingo Takagi, and boosting the profiles of Will Ospreay and Lance Archer.  They'd also maintain relationships with AEW stars Chris Jericho and Jon Moxley, pointing to a potential partnership with the upstart promotion.

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 was, it turned out to be New Japan's best show of 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

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