Wednesday, January 6, 2021

NJPW WrestleKingdom 15 Night 2 Review

WrestleKingdom 15 Night 2 was on par with Night 1 overall, but less even-keel, mostly thanks to the opening match being subpar and the main event being a masterpiece.

Things started off with the King of Pro-Wrestling Championship 4-Way match, with the four winners of the Rumble squaring off.  This match was an inoffensive 7 minutes but could've been so much more had they included Ishii, Sho, Suzuki, or even one or two of the Young Lions.  Who wants to see Chase Owens or Bad Luck Fale in there?  I get Yano being involved since he's last year's champion, but once you add him the match is limited to a comedy spectacle.  Which is exactly what happened.  Owens and Fale ended up hitting the Grenade Launcher on Bushi, incapacitating him, but then couldn't agree on who would pin him.  Enter Yano with a double low blow to knock both heels down, and pin Bushi.  Yano is the new KOPW Champion for the time being.  Like I said, this was inoffensive.  *3/4

Up next was the Jr. Tag Team Title match, with Desperado & Kanemaru defending against new team Ryusuke Taguchi and Master Wato.  This match exceeded my rather low expectations; it wasn't amazing but it was an entertaining 13-minute match.  It started out pretty fast and furious, almost as a showcase for Wato, but Taguchi dominated the later parts.  The heels worked over Taguchi's leg and he got most of the babyface heat.  Taguchi handled Desperado for a while before Kanemaru distracted the ref, allowing Desperado to land a punch and hit Pinche Loco to retain the belts.  Seems odd to have this new babyface team come up short, but oh well.  The Jr. Tag division needs help.  ***
The real show started with Shingo Takagi vs. Jeff Cobb for the NEVER Openweight Title.  I love NEVER Openweight Title matches, and right now Shingo is better at them than anyone.  And Jeff Cobb is the perfect foil in this scenario.  Just two big bruiser motherfuckers beating the crap out of each other for 21 minutes.  There were striking battles, there were suplex battles, there were big finisher battles.  This was everything you could want out of a NEVER match.  The story here was that, as tough as Shingo is, Cobb is bigger, faster and more athletic.  But Shingo gutted it out and withstood the onslaught, countering a Tour of the Islands attempt with a brutal Pumping Bomber that spun Cobb upside down, and putting him away with Last of the Dragon.  Just an excellent slugfest.  ****3/4

Another fourth-slot match I didn't have super high expectations for, Evil vs. Sanada was my pleasant surprise of the night.  These two have had uneven efforts in the past, and while this match had too much of the usual Evil/Dick Togo fuckery, it worked better than usual here.  Sanada fell victim to the interference for much of the match, but at the end he was able to counter it all, knocking Dick Togo into a table, and blocking an Evil low blow before answering with his own Everything Is Evil and a top rope moonsault to pick up the win.  I should've gone with my gut when picking this match, but for some reason I figured Evil would be the one to challenge Ibushi at New Beginning.  I'm glad I was wrong; Sanada needed this win much more.  This was an enjoyable match between two former best friends.  ***3/4

The Jr. Heavyweight Title was, for the first time, given the semi-main event slot at WrestleKingdom.  That is a super-cool thing.  Coming off his Night 1 victory, Hiromu Takahashi was poised to challenge the man who defeated him last summer, Taiji Ishimori, and the two perennial rivals delivered a blazing battle.  Maybe the most striking thing about this match was that it lasted over 25 minutes, given the incredible pace they set.  Ishimori worked over Takahashi's hand (kayfabe injured in the previous match), and Hiromu sold like crazy (He really is one of the best sellers working today), and later the champ took advantage of a removed turnbuckle pad to ram Hiromu into the post.  At one point Ishimori repeatedly hit Takahashi with forearm strikes, and Hiromu couldn't find a counter.  He'd stumble back, fire up and charge, and be met with another forearm to the jaw.  This went on uncomfortably long, building loads of tension for his comeback.  And come back he did, hitting a DVD into the exposed turnbuckle before rallying and landing Time Bomb II to regain the championship.  This wasn't quite on par with last year's match with Ospreay or the Hiromu-Ishimori Super Juniors final in 2018, but it was nevertheless an incredible title match worthy of the second-to-last match of the night.  ****1/2

But if WrestleKingdom 15 is to be remembered for one specific match, it's Kota Ibushi vs. Jay White.  For an astounding 48 minutes (which felt like 30), these two told one of the most compelling in-ring stories I've ever seen.  This was the 2021 equivalent of Flair vs. Steamboat.  If there were ever any doubts that Jay White is a legit main event heel, this match should erase them.  Jay White may not be a lock to have the best match on any given night, but what he will do is tell the best story.  White is the consummate old-school asshole heel.  His job isn't to dazzle with crowdpleasing offense, but to make the crowd want to see him get his face smashed in.  And he's one of the best in the business at it right now.  Paired with a perfect babyface like Kota Ibushi, the recipe is there to make magic.  This match started slowly, with White taking advantage of Ibushi's Night 1 fatigue and using Gedo on the outside whenever applicable.  But White let his heel ego get the better of him, particularly when squabbling with Red Shoes and allowing Ibushi to make a comeback after a series of vicious kicks.  From there we got some great back and forth action until White snared the TTO.  After Ibushi barely escaped, White went into taunting mode again, kicking Ibushi in the face.  You never taunt-kick Ibushi in the face.  I literally grinned as Ibushi went into psycho mode, no-selling everything and leveling White with numerous forearm shots.  One of my favorite moments came late in the match, after several big moves and pin attempts from both guys (including White kicking out after a kamigoye).  Ibushi hit a Phoenix Splash and seemed to have the match won until Gedo yanked Red Shoes out of the ring.  Gedo climbed in with brass knux in hand, but Ibushi stopped him, grabbed him by both wrists, and smiled sadistically before kamigoye-kneeing him right in his stupid fucking face.  Just the momentary pause as Ibushi savored what he was about to do to this little weasel was so perfect.  White used the distraction to hit Blade Runner, and Ibushi just barely kicked out, made a comeback, hit a V-Trigger and two kamigoyes (one to the back, one to the front), and covered that sonofabitch to retain the titles.  This match left all four of their previous bouts in the dust.  Just 48 minutes of epic storytelling perfection, and when it was over, the hero had decisively vanquished the smarmy bad guy.  This is fuckin' pro wrestling.  After the match Sanada appeared, announcing himself as Ibushi's second challenger, in a rematch from the G1 Final.  No complaints there.  This was the all-time classic WrestleKingdom 15 needed.  *****

So it's tough to pick which night was superior.  Night 1 was definitely more consistent in terms of quality but lacked that one perfect match you usually get from a WrestleKingdom show (though the final two bouts came goddamn close).  Night 2 started out pretty blah, but featured two near-classics and one all-time great main event.  On balance I'll give them the same rating.  Overall, two pretty great nights of wrestling, hindered only by the limited attendance and crowd noise.  NJPW once again proved why they're the best in the wrestling business.

Best Match: Kota Ibushi vs. Jay White is the match to beat in 2021
Worst Match: The 4-way
What I'd Change: Put some better guys in the 4-way so it's a real match
Most Disappointing Match: Nothing disappointed
Most Pleasant Surprise: Evil vs. Sanada was pretty darn good, and that main event far and away exceeded my expectations
Overall Rating: 9/10

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