Friday, January 5, 2024

NJPW WrestleKingdom 18 Review: Not the Homerun I Was Hoping For

WrestleKingdom 18 is in the books, and it was a very good show but I have to consider it a mild disappointment overall.  Too many matches didn't get as much time as they should, even one of the main events, and it was missing that top Match of the Year candidate almost every Tokyo Dome show has had since 2013.  I think I liked last year's show a little better.  That's not to say there wasn't a lot to enjoy here though.

The main card kicked off with the Jr. Tag championship, as Clark Connors and Drilla Moloney faced Catch 2/2 in another rematch from last summer.  TJP, who had been stuffed into a casket in the last bout between these teams, came out dressed as a mythical Filipino creature called Aswang, or a cannabalistic shapeshifter, which was a little hokey but looked kinda cool.  These teams had a crisp back-and-forth bout lasting close to ten minutes before TJP sprayed Moloney with red mist and Catch 2/2 hit double knees to regain the titles.  Solid match to start things off.  ***1/2

Next was the first of multiple bouts that got shortchanged, Zack Sabre Jr. vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi.  The technician and the new NJPW President exchanged a ton of grappling, reversals, submissions, etc. and packed a lot into their nine minutes, but five more would've taken this match to the next level.  The two men went back and forth with rollups until Tana finally held Zack down for the three.  Very good but could've been so much more.  ***3/4
Another bout that suffered from being too short, Yota Tsuji vs. Yuya Uemura was a battle of two future headliners that really should've gotten more of a spotlight given the company's desperate need for new faces at the top of the card.  This went eleven minutes but really needed 17 or so to stand out from the pack and announce these two as The Next Guys.  I'd have also put it later on the card.  Tsuji dominated a lot of this match while Uemura played the babyface in peril, but Uemura made a late-match comeback and took the win with his Deadbolt Suplex (a very cool bridging arm-trap overhead suplex).  This result didn't really work for me either; would it kill you guys to give Tsuji a big win?  This company isn't really in a position to be slow-playing their young talent.  I get that Uemura also needs to rack up some wins but Tsuji is already at a point where he should be a credible title challenger, and that ain't gonna happen if he keeps losing.  This felt like WWE-style 50-50 booking to me.  ***1/2

Not faring much better in this regard was the next match, as Shota Umino and Kaito Kiyomiya faced Evil and Ren Narita in the worst bout of the evening.  This went seven minutes and was full of stupid House of Torture interference.  Seriously, what purpose does this stable serve at this point?  No one in it is over anymore, the crowd doesn't seem to enjoy their antics, the association has actually ruined Sho as a future star and may do the same for Narita.  Disband this group immediately.  Shota vs. Ren should be another rivalry of future main eventers but instead it's a clown show.  Ren got the pin here using a pull-up bar as a weapon.  *1/2

Finally in the fifth slot we were treated to a match befitting WrestleKingdom, as Shingo Takagi and Tama Tonga beat the snot out of each other for the NEVER Openweight Title.  They got 13 minutes but made it feel like a full 18-minute match by packing a ton of action into it.  Both guys were stiff and rugged, and the final few minutes built to a fantastic peak of nearfalls and counters.  Each man kicked out of the other's finisher, Tama broke out Bloody Sunday and the Styles Clash, but it was a Jay Driller that finally put Shingo down.  Great match and easily the best thing on the show thus far.  ****1/2

The battle of heavyweight tag champs was next as Bishomon faced the new Guerrillas of Destiny, Hikuleo and El Phantasmo, with both the IWGP and NJPW Strong belts up for grabs.  This was your standard nonstop action tag title match at the Dome.  They got about ten minutes and didn't waste any of it, with lots of nearfalls and false finishes.  ELP hit his top-rope splash on Goto, who kicked out, but Hikuleo came off the top with his own (which was a little sloppy) to get the pin and the IWGP titles.  This was on par with the opener but obviously a different style.  ***1/2

Hiromu Takahashi vs. El Desperado was another bout that suffered from time constraints, only getting 14 minutes or so.  It was another very good Takahashi match but nowhere near his best stuff.  Desperado worked Hiromu's leg for much of the bout, but Takahashi kept making comebacks.  Desperado won in decisive fashion however, with multiple Pincho Locos (think a sitout Pedigree).  Good match but well below what these two are capable of.  ****

The match that kinda stole the show for me was Will Ospreay vs. Jon Moxley vs. David Finlay.  They got the benefit of a ton of bells and whistles but these three worked their asses of and crammed a ton of action into twenty minutes.  The first act was all about Mox and Ospreay trying to take Finlay out of the match so they could focus on each other.  They took the fight outside and beat Finlay into oblivion before having a one-on-one contest back inside.  But Finlay kept coming back and spoiling their fun, attempting to steal pins and frustrating the two babyfaces.  At one point Moxley piledrive Finlay onto Ospreay, but Finlay paid him back a few minutes later by suplexing him onto a chair and then hitting a dominator on Ospreay, onto Mox.  The War Dogs interfered late in the match but the two babyfaces drove them through tables, Alex Coughlin's body actually punctured the center of the table and he got stuck there for a fun visual.  The final moments were fantastic, as each guy hit a finish only for the other guy to take out the first guy.  Finally Ospreay hit Mox with a Stormbreaker, but Finlay came in and hit a curb stomp and his suplex/GTS move to win the match and become the first Global Champion.  Post-match he got in the face of Nic Nemeth (the former Dolph Ziggler) seated at ringside, and the two had a pull-apart brawl to set up a later bout.  Great stuff all around.  ****1/2

And still another match that got shortchanged, even at 23 minutes, was the long-awaited Bryan Danielson-Kazuchika Okada match.  This was easily better than their Forbidden Door bout since there were no injuries, and it was probably the best match on the show, but even as good as it was it was missing something for me.  The story was Bryan trying to injure Okada's arm, while Okada finally had enough and went after Bryan's injured eye socket.  They worked a methodical pace and both guys got their stuff in, Bryan hitting numerous busaiku knees for nearfalls (one great moment involved Okada charging outside the ring for a crossbody and running into the knee, another involved Okada countering the knee with his signature dropkick).  Okada hit a late-match Rainmaker but couldn't follow up with a pin.  Bryan got a near-submission with the same LaBell variation he won with in June.  Okada made the ropes and staged a comeback, culminating in a second Rainmaker for the pin.  Both men bowed to each other after the match.  Again, an excellent match from these two but it needed five more minutes to be the instant Match of the Year we've come to expect from a Tokyo Dome show.  ****1/2

Alright now for this Tetuya Naito-Sanada main event.  Biggest thing I can say about this match is that the crowd saved it.  For whatever reason the New Japan faithful still LOVE Tetsuya Naito.  Personally I think his schtick got old a long time ago and he's so beaten up he can't deliver in the ring anywhere near the level he could in 2020.  Couple that with Sanada being the least compelling IWGP Champion since I've been watching NJPW (except for Evil, fuck that guy), and this match was just kinda there for me.  There were also some very bad miscues in the last third, where Naito went for a couple Destinos and they just fell apart.  But fortunately both guys got it together for the closing stretch and the finish came off really well.  But man, this for me was easily the worst Tokyo Dome main event since 2012, and that's a sign that this company needs a major overhaul in 2024.  The post-match didn't instill me with confidence either; as Naito was about to do his "roll call," whatever that means, Evil of all fucking people attacked him and started to cut a promo, only to be run off by Sanada.  So I guess we're getting Naito vs. Sanada AGAIN?  Or worse, Naito vs. EVIL??  Remember what I said earlier about slow-playing their next wave of top guys?  Yeah, they need to get moving on this, pronto.  I'll be generous and give this match ****, but for a Tokyo Dome main event that's not a very good star rating, and had the crowd not been SO hot for Naito winning the title again this would've been more like ***1/2.

So yeah, WrestleKingdom 18 left me a little cold.  There were three great matches on this show but nothing that's gonna hold up as a proper MOTY candidate by year's end.  First time that's happened since 2014.  Even Okada-Danielson was nowhere near the level of Omega-Ospreay from last year.  Battle in the Valley is shaping up to be a very good show, but this company needs to make some big moves with their young talent immediately to get back their mojo.

Best Match: Okada vs. Danielson, though I was more entertained by the Ospreay-Moxley-Finlay match.
Worst Match: Evil/Narita vs. Shota/Kaito - Seriously, end this fucking House of Torture faction, like ten minutes ago.
What I'd Change: ZSJ-Tana, Yota-Yuya, Takhashi-Desperado and Okada-Danielson each needed five more minutes.  No reason this show couldn't have been 20 minutes longer.
Most Disappointing Match: Tsuji vs. Uemura
Most Pleasant Surprise: Shingo vs. Tama
Overall Rating: 8.5/10

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