Tuesday, January 5, 2021

NJPW WrestleKingdom 15 Night 1 Review

Welcome to the two-part WrestleKingdom 15 review, here at Enuffa.com!

Well, the 2021 Tokyo Dome show is in the books, and like last year's, this was a pretty excellent double album.  In a COVID world, sadly the crowd and time limitations kept WrestleKingdom 15 from fully giving you that epic PPV of the Year-type feeling, but I'll be damned if NJPW didn't work really hard to live up to previous editions.  What we got were two three-hour shows with very little fat on the bone and multiple ****+ matches on each night.  Hard to complain much about that, even if I do miss WrestleKingdom being the single-night blowout of years past.  But let's get to the Night 1 matches.

After the usual forgettable pre-show Rumble to decide the KOPW 4-way on Night 2 (they missed opportunities here to elevate one or two youngins), the PPV got down to business in earnest with Hiromu Takahashi vs. El Phantasmo to determine the number-one contender for Taiji Ishimori's Jr. Heavyweight Title.  Takahashi won the 2020 Best of the Super Juniors tourney, while ELP won the Super-J Cup.  These two had an excellent high-energy opener that saw ELP go all out to show off his prodigious athleticism, while Takahashi seemed to be conserving a little something for Night 2.  ELP paid homage to Bullet Club leaders of old, hitting a Styles Clash and nearly getting off a One-Winged Angel.  Ultimately though, Takahashi stole this match by countering ELP's finish with a Rey Mysterio hurricanrana trap.  A damn fine opener.  ****

Next up were the IWGP Tag Team Titles, and this match was given much more time than most heavyweight tag bouts at the Dome.  Tama Tonga's short haircut and clean-shaven face just looks wrong; he needs to grow that shit back, pronto.  Watching Zack Sabre and Taichi play the babyfaces was different to say the least; their pal Douki tried to get involved on the outside but Jado took him out with a kendo stick shot.  This match was basically nonstop action with a lot of tandem offense and the usual Bullet Club shenanigans.  GOD won after Tama used the iron glove on Taichi, followed by GOD's Apeshit finisher to become record-breaking seven-time IWGP Tag Champs.  This tag division needs some serious beefing up, but the match was very good.  ***1/2

Up third was the Kenta-Satoshi Kojima showdown for the US Title briefcase.  Prior to this match we got a taped promo from Jon Moxley assuring us that he'd defend his title against the winner.  I imagine this match will take place on an episode of NJPW Strong.  There was little suspense over who would win this, but Kojima had a solid showing, giving Kenta just enough of a run for his money.  Kenta retained after two running knees and a Go 2 Sleep.  Moxley vs. Kenta should be a real brawl.  Probably the weakest match of the night but still good.  ***

I was slightly dreading the fourth match, between Hiroshi Tanahashi and The Great O-Khan, but it turns out I needn't have worried.  Tana was classic Tana, and O-Khan held his end of the bargain, showing definite signs of improvement.  O-Khan played the heel bully, Tana the gallant veteran.  Late in the match O-Khan tried to introduce a chair but Tana countered with a Twist and Shout, and like a true babyface, tossed the chair out of the ring and went for his go-home offense.  Two Hi Fly Flows later and Tanahashi took the match.  Not a bad undercard bout at all.  ***1/4

The show stealer, as expected, was Kazuchika Okada vs. Will Ospreay in the semi-main event.  These two got all the time they needed, and they made it fly by.  It's crazy how a 35-minute Okada-Ospreay match feels like 20.  Contrast that with your average 12-minute RAW match that goes on forever.  Ospreay has definitely altered his style of match now that he's a heel; forgoing much of his spectacular offense in favor of gritty heavyweight bad guy stuff.  This was a classic good guy mentor vs. bad guy student match, with Ospreay always trying to push the envelope of aggression, and Okada sitting back a little and letting Ospreay punch himself out.  Okada was still trying to get the win with the Money Clip, but Ospreay escaped it multiple times, and after countering two big Ospreay moves with well-timed dropkicks and barely evading the Stormbreaker, Okada hit a fast tombstone and fell back on his proven finish, The Rainmaker, to get the win.  Good to see the dreaded short-arm clothesline back in action.  I think I'd have given Ospreay the duke here, as his newly formed stable The Empire could've used a big win on this stage.  But aside from that, Okada-Ospreay was an incredible match that left some stuff on the table for another meeting down the road.  ****3/4

The Night 1 main event, for the double championship, was the long-awaited Tetsuya Naito vs. Kota Ibushi rematch.  It had been 18 months since these two scared us all half to death at Dominion 2019, and this match felt much safer in spite of a few big death-defying spots.  Like the previous bout, the main event's 31 minutes felt like 20.  These guys started slow and deliberate, and gradually built in pacing and intensity.  Instead of a heel vs. face dynamic, this felt like two generational heroes gutting it out to see who's truly the best.  Both men kicked out of each other's finishers to up the stakes, and by the end they were both running on fumes.  When Ibushi's match-finishing third kamigoye came, he was so out of it he didn't even realize he'd won.  Kota Ibushi being awarded his first IWGP Heavyweight Title was a huge moment that felt simultaneously like the end of a long journey and a tentative step forward, given his unenviable task to defend it on Night 2.  Naito eventually regained his feet, handed over the two belts, and raised Ibushi's hand, but moments later Jay White appeared to throw water on the celebration, vowing to make Ibushi's reign a one-day affair.  This was a fantastic main event that rewarded the patience of Ibushi's fans.  As always, Gedo's booking reflects his uncanny ability to play the long game and stick to the story he's laid out.  ****3/4

WK15 Night 1 was about as rock-solid a show as you could wish for, with no bad matches and two near-five-star main events to close the show.  For me both big bouts fell just short of all-time classic status, but again, I can't complain about any wrestling show with two matches this good.

Best Match: Kazuchika Okada vs. Will Ospreay
Worst Match: Kenta vs. Satoshi Kojima - Man, when your worst match is three stars, that's a helluva good show
What I'd Change: Like I said, I think Opreay should've gotten his first decisive win over Okada here.  Kazuchika could stand the loss, and it would put Ospreay on a path to a mid-year IWGP Title match.  Then again, there's always the New Japan Cup...
Most Disappointing Match: Nothing really.
Most Pleasant Surprise: That O-Khan didn't stink up the joint.
Overall Rating: 9/10

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