Tuesday, January 4, 2022

NJPW WrestleKingdom 16 Night 1: The Armor is Cracking

Well.....that was underwhelming, wasn't it?  

WrestleKingdom 16 Night 1 overall was I daresay the weakest edition since 2012, with a pretty fantastic main event, a very good semi-main, a couple good matches, and some pretty not-good stuff.  Most of this show did not feel like a Tokyo Dome show to me, and while the reduced, silent crowd didn't help things, that didn't hurt last year's edition much at all.  This show was missing the magic for most of its running time, partly due to booking, partly due to the lack of Ibushi or White, partly due to the product just not being very hot right now.  Let's take a look, shall we?  

Things started off with a rare opening singles match, as former partners Sho and Yoh squared off.  This was one of three bouts hurt by lame WWE-style shenanigans and I've come to an unfortunate conclusion as a result, but more on that in a bit.  Yoh went right after Sho to start things off, and the action spilled to the outside right away, but Sho took advantage after using a ring crew member as interference.  Sho dominated much of the action but Yoh went after a leg, locking in a calf crusher variation and getting a visible tapout while the referee was distracted by Dick Togo.  Sho locked in his own Snakebite submission and almost got the win but Yoh just barely made the ropes.  Sho tried to use a wrench but Yoh sent him crashing into Togo and rolled him up for the win.  This match was good, and a solid opener, but far below my expectations.  ***1/4
Match #2 was the second match with stupid interference, as Hiroshi Tanahashi, Rocky Romero and Ryusuke Taguchi faced Kenta, Taiji Ishimori and El Phantasmo.  This match barely had time to get going.  The action was fast-paced and entertaining, but we got a ref bump, the Bullet Club guys tried to use a kendo stick, but Tanahashi grabbed it and beat up Kenta with it as the referee woke back up, drawing a disqualification.  This was pretty weak-ass for a Dome match.  **

Things were more promising for the Tetsuya Naito/Sanada/Bushi vs. United Empire match.  From the heel side, Jeff Cobb and Great O-Khan did all the work as Will Ospreay sat out nearly the entire match, a nice touch considering he's booked in the main event of Night 2 and shouldn't really be bothered with this nonsense.  The action here was again fast-paced and entertaining, serving as a preview of two Night 2 singles bouts.  Things built to a schmozz and all but Ospreay and Bushi spilled out of the ring, allowing Ospreay to hit the Hidden Blade twice to score the win.  This was fine.  ***

So yeah, thus far this felt nothing like a Tokyo Dome show, but things picked up in the next match.

Katsuyori Shibata came out for his catch-rules match against student Ren Narita, but then grabbed the mic and announced that it would instead be a traditional pro wrestling match.  Oh man.  And with that, the announcers basically made it official that Shibata is fully back as an active competitor.  This was a lovely grappling showcase between teacher and protege that built into an intense striking battle.  Both guys used submissions and traded kicks, and after about 12 minutes Shibata locked in the choke, followed by the Penalty Kick to win his first pro wrestling match in nearly five years.  This wasn't a five-star classic by any means but it was a wonderful thing to see Shibata back in a wrestling ring, and this was the best thing on the show until the last two bouts.  Welcome back, Wrestler!  ***3/4

Ok this next match pissed me right off.  Look on paper at Tomohiro Ishii vs. Evil for the NEVER Openweight Title.  Should be a hard-hitting, late-card standout, right?  Two bulls beating the snot out of each other?  First singles Dome match for Ishii since 2019?  Yeah, forget all that, because we need to do a bunch of Bullet Club interference for no reason.  This felt like a late-90s WCW match.  Evil attacked before the bell, did his chair shit, Ishii came back for a while, Dick Togo interfered, Yujiro interfered, Sho interfered, Yoh ran off Sho, Yujiro hit Ishii with a low blow, Evil used the belt and then hit Everything is Evil to win.  This sucked, and I can't remember the last time a Tokyo Dome singles match was straight-up bad.  There was no reason to book the match like this.  No one in 2022 wants to see a major title match booked like an nWo-era match.  Ok, here's the unfortunate conclusion I've come to: The Bullet Club needs to disband.  It's been going on nearly 9 years, only two of the original members are still with the company, the leadership has changed like four times, the group's gimmick is based off a heel stable from 25 years ago, and their shtick is now regularly making potentially good matches crappy.  Break up this stupid stable.  *1/2

Fortunately the final three matches were all good or better, starting with Dangerous Tekkers facing Hirooki Goto and Yoshi-Hashi for the tag belts.  This went about fifteen minutes and fell right in line quality-wise with most Tokyo Dome Tag Title bouts.  Lots of action, no fat on the bone, and of course a title change.  Goto and Yoshi surprisingly dominated much of the match, making them look like a deserving pair who finally got a big moment after years of falling short.  Chaos finished off Taichi with their Naraku tandem finish.  Good tag match.  ***1/2

The Junior Title once again got the semi-main event slot, and while nowhere near the last two WrestleKingdom Jr. Title bouts, this was very good.  Hiromu Takahashi challenged for the title for the third straight year, this time against El Desperado.  I was expecting another 25-minute classic here but oddly this was kept to just over 16 minutes.  Things started out with striking and gradually built to big moves, a Desperado tope, a Takahashi sunset bomb to the floor, a dynamite plunger, a suplex driver.  They traded punches near the end, and Desperado got the better of the exchange, leading to a pair of Pinche Locos to retain the title, much to my surprise.  A very good match but not at the level you'd expect from a Tokyo Dome semi-main event.  ****1/4

Finally at the end of this show we got a match that felt like it belonged in its spot at WrestleKingdom.  Shingo Takagi and Kazuchika Okada had a classic 35-minute match that felt like 25.  This fell short of the all-time great Dome main events - usually the Dome produces a main event where I'm skeptical anything will surpass it throughout the year - but it was still an excellent match.  They started off slow with basic grappling, the action built a bit and spilled to the floor where Okada hit his DDT only for Shingo to absorb it and counter into a deadlift suplex.  Okada rallied and hit his corner dropkick, and landed his over-the-barricade dive on the outside.  Okada tried to end it with the Money Clip but Shingo escaped, Okada hit the Tombstone and went for the Rainmaker but Shingo countered with his own lariat.  Shingo imitated the Rainmaker pose, and Okada was furious.  They fought to the ramp and an angry Okada tried to Tombstone Shingo on the ramp but got a DVD for his troubles, and barely made the 20-count back in.  Shingo hit two Made in Japans but Okada kicked out.  Okada countered a Last of the Dragon with a Rainmaker but couldn't follow up.  Shingo tried to hit a superplex but Okada reversed into a top-rope DDT.  Shingo went for Last of the Dragon but Okada escaped, hit a dropkick and landed another Rainmaker to win the match and his first IWGP Title in two years.  Post-match Okada bowed before the old belt (Ya know, the REAL belt) before proudly wearing the shitty new one.  Ospreay came out to congratulate Okada on being the "NEEEEWWWW interim champion."  Ospreay left and Okada cut his planned promo to close the show.  Great main event on an otherwise very underwhelming WrestleKingdom show.  ****3/4   

Man, I really hope Night 2 is a big improvement over Night 1.  This was legitimately the first WrestleKingdom PPV since 2012 to fall short of greatness, and it fell very short.  It's the first WK show since I've been watching NJPW that wasn't an instant PPV of the Year candidate.  Between the early stuff not getting much time and being marred by interference to the NEVER match being a total WCW-style clusterfuck, to the semi-main only being very good, this show wasn't worthy of the WrestleKingdom moniker until the main event.  NJPW needs to get their mojo back in a hurry.

Best Match: Shingo Takagi vs. Kazuchika Okada
Worst Match: Tomohiro Ishii vs. Evil - Seriously, when was the last time Ishii was in the worst match of the night?
What I'd Change: Make Evil learn how to fucking wrestle again, ban Dick Togo from this company altogether, give the Jr. match more time.
Most Disappointing Match: Obviously the NEVER bout
Most Pleasant Surprise: Seeing Shibata wrestle a full-on match again
Overall Rating: 8/10, a pretty poor rating for an annual show that is usually a guaranteed PPV of the Year

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