Friday, January 5, 2024

The History of NJPW WrestleKingdom (WK14)

The first-ever two-part WrestleKingdom took place in 2020, and it was overall a helluva weekend of pro wrestling.  The two shows played like a double album of sorts, with the first disc containing by far the two best tracks, and the second disc being a more solid overall album. 

Night One took a while to really get going, thanks to three consecutive 8-man tags.  I would've liked another singles match in one of these slots rather than just trying to get everyone on the main card.  But the three openers were inoffensive at worst and were kept short.  The first of these was the best, thanks to Jushin Liger and his old-school pals (plus Taguchi) having one last romp to show off their stuff.  Everyone in the match looked great for their age.  After nine minutes Taguchi hit Liger with a Buma ye (that's Nakamura's finisher except with a hip attack instead of a knee), followed by a Dodon for the three-count.  I'd have had Liger win the Night One match, because why not?  He's in there with mostly other old-timers anyway, there's no torch to pass in this match.  But this was a fun opener. 

Next was Suzuki-Gun (led this time by Zack Sabre Jr. to hype his Night Two singles match) vs. LIJ (minus Naito of course).  This was technically the best of the 8-man tags but still too short to amount to much.  The story was Zack vs. Sanada, and Zack won the match by tying Bushi up in knots while smiling sadistically at his Night Two challenger.  This was fine.  

The final 8-man pitted Goto, Ishii, Yano and Yoshi-Hashi vs. Bad Luck Fale, Chase Owens, Yujiro Takahashi and NEVER Champ Kenta, in another match to hype a Night Two singles bout.  This was pretty basic, with the biggest spot being Ishii hitting a hard-fought brainbuster on Fale.  After all eight men started brawling in and around the ring, Goto hit the ushigoroshi followed by the GTR on Takahashi for the win.  Another serviceable but forgettable undercard match.  
The show started in earnest with Match 4, for the IWGP Tag Titles.  Guerrillas of Destiny and FinJuice had a very enjoyable tag bout that was pretty much all action.  Dave Finlay looked really good here, finally coming into his own as a full-fledged roster member.  This match had a ton of back-and-forth, with numerous nearfalls and a bit of Jado interference at the end, before Juice knocked Tonga loopy with a left hand and Finlay hit the Acid Trip to win the belts.  Solid outing.

The next match was a big change of pace, as Lance Archer and Jon Moxley had a wicked hardcore-type brawl for the first real standout of the show.  This was one of the better hardcore matches I've seen in NJPW.  Archer at one point hit his Blackout move, smashing Moxley through four chairs.  Later he tried to suffocate Moxley with a claw hold over a plastic bag.  There was one nice moment where Archer tried to do a top rope walk while holding a kendo stick, but slipped.  Moxley immediately covered it by pulling the stick out of Archer's hands and whacking him with it.  The match ended at 14 minutes when Moxley hit the Death Rider DDT off the apron through a pair of tables on the floor, which cut up Archer's arm something fierce.  This was a brutal-looking finish.  Moxley made it to his feet before the ten count, but Archer couldn't.  This was a really fun, wild brawl. 

The first of two instant mega-classics was up next, as Will Ospreay defended the Jr. Title against the returning (and sorely missed) Hiromu Takahashi.  These guys absolutely tore the house down, with a dazzling combination of lightning fast, creative Jr. moves and great storytelling.  Ospreay targeted Takahashi's injured neck for most of the match, drawing more than his share of boos from the crowd.  Takahashi teased a new finisher at the outset, so I spent a lot of the match looking to see what move he'd pull out.  Both guys hit all their big moves, but Ospreay attempted the Hidden Blade twice before actually connecting with it late in the match, and at that point it meant a ton.  But when he went for the Stormbreaker Takahashi countered with a destroyer (the third of the match), followed by the Time Bomb and his new finisher (a variation on the Air Raid Crash) to regain the Jr. Title.  Just a phenomenal 25-minute cruiser match with a great story, and a wonderful return for Takahashi.  On basically any other show this would've been Match of the Night.

The semi-main event for the Intercontinental Title was probably the disappointing match of the night, though it was still very good.  Jay White vs. Tetsuya Naito went a whopping 34 minutes and there were moments in the last third where it felt like they'd exhausted their movesets and weren't sure what to do next (I liked this match better the second viewing, to be fair).  Both guys played mind games early on, White continued playing the asshole heel to a tee, with lots of shortcuts and multiple interference attempts by Gedo.  The match built to a pretty great peak by the end, with traded finisher attempts, White kicking out after a Destino and going for his finisher but falling to another Destino.  Naito regained the I-C Title and the place went nuts.  As a semi-main event this was very good, but it was sandwiched between two amazing matches and went about eight minutes longer than it probably should have.  Still a worthy bout.

Sweet Jesus, this main event.  Kazuchika Okada proved once again why he's the best in the world, against an opponent who isn't far behind him, in Kota Ibushi.  This match went an epic 39 minutes that felt like 25.  They started out slow and methodical, exchanging grappling, but escalated over the first 10-15 minutes and started hitting big moves.  One scary spot involved Ibushi going for his Pele kick, where Okada was supposed to catch him, but Okada was late and Ibushi basically landed right on his head before Okada picked him up for a Tombstone attempt.  About halfway through the match Ibushi snapped, having absorbed quite enough punishment, thank you.  His expression went blank and he no-sold every strike Okada threw at him, before totally unloading with fists and drawing some boos.  The last ten minutes were masterful, with both guys going for their big moves and collapsing numerous times due to exhaustion.  Okada finally hit a Rainmaker and covered, but Ibushi kicked out (becoming the fourth man to kick out of said finisher).  Okada hit two more Rainmakers and went for a third, but Ibushi countered, hit a V-Trigger and tried for the Kamigoye (a move he never landed in this match), but was reversed into another Tombstone/Rainmaker combo to give Okada the win.  This was goddamn incredible, right up there with 2019's Omega-Tanahashi main event. 

Night One may have bit a little uneven and thus not quite on par with basically perfect shows like WK9 and 10, but any show that has two five-star classics is automatically a great PPV, and this show also boasted three very good undercard matches. 

Best Match: Okada vs. Ibushi
Worst Match: Chaos vs. Bullet Club
What I'd Change: Streamline the semi-main event a bit and maybe move the Jr. Tag match to this show to balance the two lineups.
Most Disappointing Match: White vs. Naito, good as it was, could've been better.
Most Pleasant Surprise: No real surprises, both matches I expected to be great were.
Overall Rating: 9/10

Now for Night 2....

The main card kicked off with part 2 of Jushin Liger's retirement, as he teamed with Naoki Sano against Ryu Lee and brand new Jr. Heavyweight Champ Hiromu Takahashi.  This was fine, but nowhere near as fun as Liger's 8-man tag the night before, and at 12 minutes it felt longer than necessary.  I'd have liked a Liger-Takahashi singles match much better, but maybe the company didn't want to make Takahashi work back-to-back singles bouts.  After some decent back-and-forth, Taka pinned Liger with the Time Bomb finish.  The crowd was pretty dejected at Liger's loss, but it was the right move; Liger passed the torch to the new Jr. champion.

Things ramped up quickly with the second match, for the Jr. Tag Titles, as Taiji Ishimori & El Phantasmo (both working as fantastic douchebag heels) faced Sho and Yoh.  The bad guys cheated like crazy and did a ton of unnecessary posturing to draw great heat, as RPG3K played the underdog babyfaces to the hilt.  Late in the match, during a ref distraction, ELP hit Sho with a low blow (a common move for ELP), only to find that Sho was wearing a cup.  RPG3K then hit a double-stomp/Shock Arrow tandem move on ELP to win the match and the belts.  This bout was super-fun and high-energy, and a great mix of athleticism and babyface vs. heel dynamics. 

The most unusual bout of the night was Zack Sabre Jr. vs. Sanada for the British Heavyweight Title, a mat grappling showcase where Sanada went hold-for-hold with the technical wizard.  Zack as usual had some great counters, like catching Sanada's standing moonsault into an arm hold.  Late in the match Sanada snared the Skull End several times (Zack is perfectly built to be put in this hold) only for Zack to escape or counter.  Finally after a series of cradle near-falls, Zack caught Sanada in a European clutch to retain.  Fun little technical match. 

The most disappointing Night Two match for me was Jon Moxley vs. Juice Robinson for the US Title, a good match that was far below their previous two efforts.  Juice attacked Moxley outside before the bell and they exchanged some chair-centric spots, culminating in a cannonball through the chair by Juice.  In the ring they went back and forth, trading punches and suplexes, and the finishing sequence saw Moxley counter a Pulp Friction into a pair of Death Rider DDTs to retain the belt.  This match was fine but nowhere near as good as they're capable of.   

The NEVER Openweight Title match between Kenta and Hirooki Goto took a while to really get going, but the second half was pretty great.  They did some basic brawling to start, and the intensity ratcheted up as the match wore on.  The real turning point for me was an insanely stiff slap fight that saw both guys hit jaw-rattling palm strikes.  How neither of them got knocked loopy I have no idea.  After some big traded moves, Goto hit his GTW and GTR to win back the NEVER Title.  This wasn't on the level of Goto-Ishii or Goto-Shibata but it was in the tradition of the great NEVER Openweight bouts.  Not too shabby at all. 

From here on out we were treated to a trio of excellent matches.

The two Night One losers, Kota Ibushi and Jay White, had a pretty fantastic, energetic match that cut such a ferocious pace early on I thought it was going under fifteen minutes.  White controlled the early minutes after brutally throwing Ibushi into the barricade multiple times.  Ibushi gutted it out and came back after going into "Deadeyes" mode.  Ibushi kept throwing stiff-as-fuck forearm shots that knocked White down, and goading White into hitting him back.  White hit a spectacular-looking top-rope uranage suplex for a nearfall, but Ibushi regained control after a V-Trigger and Boma ye.  White threw Ibushi into the referee and Gedo tried to interfere, but Ibushi no-sold everything Gedo did.  Ibushi looked to have it won after a Kamigoye, but Gedo pulled the referee out of the ring at the last second, White threw a chair at Ibushi's face, and Gedo hit him with brass knux.  Once the referee was back in the ring, White used every remaining ounce of energy to hit the Blade Runner for the screwjob win.  This match was pretty awesome even with all the shenanigans, and it protected Ibushi for an inevitable renewed push later in the year. 

I absolutely LOVED the semi-main event, pitting AEW Champion (and he wore the belt too) Chris Jericho against Hiroshi Tanahashi, in a dream match of the aging rock star dudes.  This match saw both guys pull out all their big moves, counter finishers, and steal each other's stuff.  It was exactly the kind of classic-style wrestling match you'd want to see from these two, mostly contested in the ring but with some big spots on the floor, like a Hi-Fly Flow off the top to the floor and a brutal-looking Jericho DDT onto an announce table.  The climax saw a ton of big moves and nearfalls, and Tana hit a HFF onto a standing Jericho, who rolled through and slapped on the Walls of Jericho before converting it to a high-angle Lion Tamer, tapping Tanahashi after 22 minutes.  Just a fantastic match between two masters of psychology and storytelling.  This was Jericho's second or third-best NJPW match. 

The climactic main event, for both the IWGP and Intercontinental Titles, capped off a six-year ordeal for Tetsuya Naito.  After his Title match with Okada was voted out of the WrestleKingdom 8 main event slot, Naito eventually became the no-fucks-given anti-hero we know today.  Four years later he got another chance at Okada in the Dome (this time in the main event), but came up short again.  Finally in 2020 Naito got to win the big match that had always eluded him, and what a main event it was.  These two threw everything at each other for over 35 minutes and had the crowd on the edge of their seat the whole time.  This was easily the best Okada-Naito match to date, full of drama and main event-level action.  The final minutes saw both men kick out of each other's finishers.  Okada hit a Rainmaker but Naito kicked out.  Okada hit two more Rainmakers but Naito countered the third with a Destino for two, then hit the Stardust Press for another nearfall.  They jockeyed for position and Naito finally hit another full-on Destino to win the match, both belts, and his first successful Tokyo Dome main event.  The crowd erupted as Naito celebrated with both titles.  Suddenly Kenta attacked him out of nowhere and posed by sitting cross-legged on Naito's chest.  Another excellent main event that brilliantly capped off the two-night PPV.  Not on the level of the two classics the night before, but still great.  

Night Two was overall on par with Night One, more consistently good but missing a true MOTY candidate.  Still, this WrestleKingdom taken as a whole was epic, eventful, and loaded with great stuff.  On balance I think I prefer one stacked night of WrestleKingdom, but the Double Champion Dash provided a good reason to split it in two. 

Best Match: Kazuchika Okada vs. Tetsuya Naito
Worst Match: Liger/Sano vs. Takahashi/Lee
What I'd Change: Make Liger-Takahashi a singles match and have Moxley-Juice be a bit more spirited.  I'd probably also save the Kenta run-in for the next night so everyone could go home happy.
Most Disappointing Match: Moxley vs. Juice
Most Pleasant Surprise: I wasn't sure how good Jericho vs. Tanahashi would be, but it was great.
Overall Rating: 9.5/10
Two-Night Rating: 9.5/10

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