Tuesday, January 9, 2024

The History of NJPW WrestleKingdom (WK16)

2022 saw the once surefire PPV of the Year contender falter for the first time in a decade, as WrestleKingdom 16's two nights featured a pair of excellent main events but not many memorable moments beyond that....

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 2021'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 Kota Ibushi or Jay White, partly due to the product just not being very hot.   

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.  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. 
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 was booked in the main event of Night 2 and couldn'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 schmoz 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.  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!  

Ok this next match pissed me right off.  On paper 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.  Just drivel.

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.  

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.  

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.   

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

Now for Night 2....

This show strangely had three pre-show bouts, but things kicked off in earnest with the Jr. Heavyweight Tag Titles, as Robbie Eagles & Tiger Mask defended against El Phantasmo & Taiji Ishimori, and Rocky Romero & Ryusuke Taguchi.  This was a lighter echo of the Jr. Tag 4-ways of old, with fast, nonstop action and loads of quick tags.  But things took a turn for the stupid when the babyfaces ganged up on El Phantasmo and took off his shoe to reveal the metal plate he's been using for months to win matches.  Nevermind that a plate sculpted around a person's heel, inside a padded boot, would hurt the wearer more than anyone he happened to kick with it.  The referee was appalled and disqualified ELP and Ishimori, leaving the two babyface teams to finish the bout.  Eagles put Romero in the Ron Miller special (a pretty not-painful-looking leglock) for the tapout win.  This was hurt by the dumb North American wrestling tropes. 

Next up was the featured Stardom match, as Mayu Iwatani & Starlight Kid faced Tam Nakano & Saya Kamitani.  This was nine minutes of wildly quick action that blew away the previous match.  Highlights included Starlight diving off Iwatani's shoulders for a cross-body as the latter stood on the second rope, numerous dives to the outside, a sequence where each woman tried to pin an opponent with a rollup, and finally Kamitani hitting a crisp Phoenix Splash on Starlight for the win.  A very fun undercard match that gave everyone time to shine.  
The match I was dreading was next, as the 2022 King of Pro Wrestling title found its initial recipient, among Toru Yano, Chase Owens, Minoru Suzuki and Cima.  Fortunately Suzuki and Cima were able to carry the load and this match didn't go very long at all.  There was a fun sequence where Cima put Yano in an Indian Deathlock and then suplexed Chase Owens while still in the hold.  He then traded strikes with Suzuki and every time Suzuki knocked him down it put torque on Yano's legs.  Suzuki then put him in a choke and Owens put Suzuki in a choke.  Suzuki finally hit a Gotch piledriver on Yano to win the trophy.  Post-match he tried to choke Yano out, but Yano handcuffed him to the top rope to escape.  This was inoffensive, though I'd rather see Suzuki vs. Cima one-on-one.  

The worst match of the night once again involved Evil (seriously, either put him back with LIJ or get him off my TV), as he, Sho and Yujiro Takahashi defended the meaningless six-man belts against Hirooki Goto, Yoshi-Hashi and Yoh.  This match was entirely forgettable and loaded with dumb interference.  Togo choked Yoh with a wire, Ishii ran in to chase him away, Sho hit Yoh with a wrench for the cheap pin.  You'd think wrestlers as skilled as Evil and Sho would be bored doing these nothing nWo-style matches.  I'm honestly not sure what segment of the audience this House of Torture shit is meant to appeal to.  

The final four bouts were all good at worst, starting with Sanada vs. The Great O-Khan in a skill vs. power battle.  O-Khan tried to control the match with power but found himself playing Sanada's game more, doing a dive to the outside and a moonsault.  They had an interesting exchange where neither could hit a Mongolian chop because the other guy kept blocking it.  After recovering from O-Khan's moonsault, Sanada won in twelve minutes with an O'Connor roll.  This was solid.  

The first four-star match was next as Tetsuya Naito faced Jeff Cobb.  This felt more like a G1 undercard bout than a Tokyo Dome third-from-last outing, but it was pretty excellent nonetheless.  Cobb overpowered Naito for a while but Naito went after Cobb's knee to even things out.  Cobb did a great suplex spot on the outside where he lifted Naito up vertically and bumped him into the post a couple times before hitting the suplex.  Naito worked over the knee some more, locking in his shortleg scissor and hitting multiple dropkicks to Cobb's leg.  Cobb countered a top rope hurricanrana with an explosive second-rope powerbomb that even knocked down the referee.  Cobb hit a lariat and went for Tour of the Islands but his knee gave out and Naito countered with a Destino for the win.  Damn good stuff, though I'd have liked to see Cobb get the big Dome win.  

The semi-main slot went to the Kenta-Hiroshi Tanahashi US Title match, which I'd forgotten was No DQ.  This started out rather pedestrian but built to some remarkable brutality, some of it accidental.  They used kendo sticks to start, followed by trash cans, chairs, and Kenta's briefcase.  Tanahashi set up a table on the outside but couldn't suplex Kenta through it.  Instead he set up a pile of chairs and hit a slingblade on it, followed by a missed High Fly Flow that looked brutal.  Kenta propped Tana in the corner and covered him with chairs, and hit a delayed dropkick through them.  Tana came back after a Twist and Shout onto the chairs, but Kenta did a top-rope Falcon Arrow through a table Tana had set up in the ring.  Kenta set up a 12-foot ladder and a table inside the ring and went for a dive but Tana got up and shook the ladder, sending Kenta crashing face-first into a trash can, bloodying his nose and swelling up his eye.  Tana put Kenta on the table and hit an insane High Fly Flow off the top of the ladder for the pin.  I wasn't excited about this match in the early going but these two sacrificed a lot to make it stand out by the end.  Pretty great semi-main event.  

Finally with the Night 2 main event we were treated to an all-time great match.  Okada-Shingo on January 4th was fantastic, but to me it didn't quite feel worthy of the main event of a WrestleKingdom show.  But Okada vs. Will Ospreay delivered that unforgettable main event we've all come to expect from the Dome.  They went 33 minutes that felt like 20, starting off slow with some chain wrestling, ramping up to big moves and bigger reversals, like Ospreay blocking Okada's corner dropkick, propping him on the top rope, and chopping him to the floor, or Ospreay countering Okada's barricade dive with a thrust kick to the chest.  Ospreay then climbed a lighting truss and hit a breathtaking moonsault to the floor.  Okada countered an outside dive by catching Ospreay and Tombstoning him on the floor.  They had a dazzling sequence of counters where Ospreay ducked a Rainmaker, got his own move countered, and then caught Okada midair during a dropkick attempt, powerbombing him for a nearfall.  Okada later hit Ospreay with his own Stormbreaker, but his next Rainmaker attempt was countered into a Spanish Fly.  Ospreay hit a series of short-arm clotheslines and a top-rope Oscutter.  Okada locked in the Money Clip but Ospreay made the ropes and hit the Rainmaker.  They traded strikes that echoed through the stadium, Ospreay hit the Hidden Blade for a nearfall, but walked into an Okada dropkick.  Okada hit the landslide and another Rainmaker to win the match and retain the title.  Post-match Okada cut a promo but was interrupted by Naito, who challenged him to a future match to celebrate NJPW's 50th anniversary.  Simply a superb, classic main event, and one of the best matches of 2022.

Night 2 still didn't feel like a WrestleKingdom show, and I think these two nights should've been combined into one stacked lineup.  But where Night 1 had a lot of filler and just missed that one match that absolutely blew me away, this show provided that moment of transcendence I want from a WK.  The first four or five bouts are fairly skippable but the final three delivered big.  Go far out of your way to watch Okada vs. Ospreay.

Best Match: Okada vs. Ospreay
Worst Match: House of Torture (what an appropriate name for this stable) vs. Chaos
What I'd Change: Get rid of the loaded boot crap in the opener and focus on a blowaway opener, give Jeff Cobb a big win.
Most Disappointing Match: The Jr. Tag
Most Pleasant Surprise: The US Title match
Overall Rating: 8.5/10


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