Monday, January 8, 2024

The History of NJPW WrestleKingdom (WK15)

The second two-part WrestleKingdom show was all about the ascension of Kota Ibushi, in front of a COVID-reduced Dome crowd....

Despite a reduced crowd and shortened lineup, the 2021 edition of WrestleKingdom was, like 2020's, 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.  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 was completely overshadowed by other things on the card but still very good.  

Up third was the Kenta-Satoshi Kojima showdown for the US Title briefcase.  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.  US Champ Jon Moxley would go on to defeat Kenta in their long-awaited NJPW Strong match.  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. 

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 was now wrestling more of a heel style; 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.  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 and he'd go on to win the IWGP Title a few months later.  But aside from that, Okada-Ospreay was an incredible match that left some stuff on the table for another meeting down the road. 

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.  Ibushi's title loss to Will Ospreay only three months later kind of undermined the magnitude of this moment, but at the time it felt huge.

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 Ospreay 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.  
Most Disappointing Match: Nothing really.
Most Pleasant Surprise: That O-Khan didn't stink up the joint.
Overall Rating: 9/10

As for Night 2....

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 was the previous 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 but doesn't belong on a Tokyo Dome show.

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 in January 2021 Shingo was better at them than anyone, while 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.  

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.  This was an enjoyable match between two former best friends. 

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 WK14'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.  

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.  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 they're capable of being the best in the wrestling business.

Best Match: Kota Ibushi vs. Jay White
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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