Tuesday, January 9, 2024

The History of NJPW WrestleKingdom (WK17)

Kenny Omega made his long-awaited, triumphant return to the Dome and helped make a masterpiece...

Not unlike what we saw exactly six years ago when Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada blew the roof off the Tokyo Dome and broke the star ratings system forever, Omega and Will Ospreay lived up to everyone's unreasonably high expectations and more, with a violent, story-driven epic that proved to be only the beginning of their feud.  They'd equal it six months later in an AEW ring.

Omega-Ospreay served as the centerpiece for a very good WrestleKingdom show, one that didn't reach the heights of WK9, 10 or 11, but somewhat recaptured the magic of the glory years.  For the first time since pre-pandemic times, WrestleKingdom felt like a huge flagship show with a star-studded lineup, in front of an engaged audience of 26,000.  The six undercard matches were all kept short and fast-paced, while the final three bouts were given room to breathe and delivered big.  I'd have liked to see a few of the smaller matches get more time, but aside from one glaring example nothing felt terribly shortchanged.  

The main PPV kicked off in classic fashion with an energetic Jr. Tag Title match, as TJP and Francesco Akira defended against Yoh and a match-stealing Lio Rush, who took a nasty bump on the ramp that busted his eyebrow open.  It wouldn't be the first instance of blood on this show.  Rush came off like a big deal in the match but his team came up short when TJP countered Yoh's finisher into a cradle to retain.  Really fun opener that felt like a throwback to the 2015-2017 Jr. Tag openers. 
Most Disappointing match of the night unfortunately has to go to Kairi vs. Tam Nakano, through no fault of either woman.  This match just didn't get enough time to stand out, though both of them crammed in as much action as they could in six minutes.  Tam hit a Steiner Screwdriver but Kairi came back with a pair of spinning back fists, followed by her diving elbow to retain the title. But then the former Sasha Banks, now going by the name Mercedes MonĂ© (pronounced 'mun-nay'), interrupted Kairi's post-match celebration, issuing a challenge for NJPW's upcoming Battle in the Valley show and then hitting her new finisher (which sadly Kairi took wrong).  The ensuing NJPW Women's Title match a month later was a big success, but an ankle break would sideline Mercedes for most of 2023, while Kairi returned to WWE by year's end.

FTR continued their Losing All the Belts tour in a blazing ten-minute bout with Hirooki Goto and Yoshi-Hashi.  This was pretty much nonstop action and Cash Wheeler in particular looked great, breaking out some acrobatic moves like the Owen Hart wristlock reversal sequence and a dive to the floor.  They built to a series of big moves and nearfalls, where partners would dive in to break up pins at the last second.  Bishamon finally put Dax Harwood away with their GTR combo finisher to recapture the titles.  

The first IWGP Television Champion was crowned in another fine Zack Sabre Jr. outing, against Ren Narita.  These two made the most of their allotted ten minutes, with lots of strong grappling and counterwrestling.  ZSJ once again got a surprise win by countering Narita into an airtight armbar.  Post-match his old friends TMDK joined him in the ring and gave him a t-shirt, which he accepted, rejoining the group.  Solid stuff here, and ZSJ would hold this new championship for a full year before dropping it to incoming NJPW President Hiroshi Tanahashi.  

Probably the weakest match of the night (though it wasn't bad at all except for the finish) saw WWE wrestler Karl Anderson finally drop the NEVER Openweight Title back to his former friend Tama Tonga.  Anderson attacked before the bell and hit a Rikishi driver on the ramp to try and end the match early. Tama came back and the bell finally rang, and these two had an intense back-and-forth match full of Stun Gun attempts.  Tama finally hit one off the second rope and went for another, but overshot his mark and the move looked terrible.  But he pinned Anderson anyway to recapture the gold.  Solid match until that awful-looking finish. 

The big Keiji Muto retirement match was as expected a surreal thing to see, mostly because Tanahashi and Naito were in the middle of a Tokyo Dome card, in a six-man.  There wasn't much to this and it only went nine minutes.  Muto did what limited moves he's capable of at age sixty.  There was a funny moment where he went to deliver a moonsault (a move he retired years ago) and Tanahashi had to literally talk him down from the ledge.  Sanada took advantage and hit his own Muta moonsault for a nearfall.  Maybe the biggest thing to come out of this "past, present and future" themed match was that it was Shota Umino and not Keiji Muto who got to pin Bushi at the end.  This was absolutely the right move, but apparently Muto wasn't happy about it.  Anyway, this was fine. 

The show really picked up in the final three bouts, as most of the great WrestleKingdom shows tend to do.  The Jr. Heavyweight 4-way match, Taiji Ishimori vs. Hiromu Takahashi vs. El Desperado vs. Master Wato, was the first to go past the fifteen-minute mark, and these guys had a very fast-paced schmozz.  Side note: during the match Chris Charleton noted that there was a backstage altercation happening, to which Gino Gambino replied with the line of the night, "Uh oh, what's Kenny Omega done this time?"  I laughed.  Anyway, Taiji kept trying to get a cheap win whenever possible, at one point incapacitating his three opponents outside the ring and hoping for a triple countout.  Master Wato looked good in this match and I like his finisher, sort of a mashup of a uranage suplex and a crucifix bomb.  He looked to have the match won a few times but ultimately Takahashi caught him in Time Bomb 2 to recapture the title after two long years.  Takahashi would also hold this title until a year later.  Damn good Jr. match.  ****1/4

Will Ospreay vs. Kenny Omega.  Sweet Jesus, this match.  It was everything we all wanted and more, with Kenny acting the sadistic bastard heel, doing everything in his power to stomp out his competition for Greatest Gaijin of All Time.  Speaking of stomps, at one point Kenny did his usual double-foot stomp through a table, but he weakened the table first so that his double stomp actually went through the table and connected with Ospreay's back.  But the most vicious moment was Kenny hitting a DDT to the top of the exposed turnbuckle, which broke Ospreay's forehead open (a rare NJPW bladejob).  From there Ospreay sold and sold and sold, barely staying conscious and in the match, as Kenny assaulted him with every weapon in his arsenal.  A top rope German suplex, another shot into the exposed buckle, and V-Triggers galore.  But Ospreay mounted a comeback, hitting a Styles Clash and numerous hidden blades for nearfalls.  Ospreay was on the verge of hitting Stormbreaker but Kenny broke out his friend Kota Ibushi's Kamigoye, followed by the One-Winged Angel, to win the match and the US Title.  This had the chaotic action of Kenny vs. Naito coupled with the storytelling of Shawn vs. Taker.  Just magnificent.  Take all the snowflakes, boys.

In perhaps the most unenviable position in wrestling history, the main event pitted IWGP Champion Jay White vs. perennial rival Kazuchika Okada, and while no one on Earth could've followed Omega-Osprey, this was by no means Chris Jericho vs. Triple H at WrestleMania 18.  These two are incapable of having a bad match together, and on any other show this would've been heralded as a great title match.  Okada paid tribute to the late Antonio Inoki by wearing an Inoki-style robe and black trunks, black boots.  These two started out slow and methodical, with White taunting the crowd and trying to get inside Okada's head.  But the unshakeable Okada was having none of it, and stayed on point.  Gedo tried to interfere when the match spilled to the outside, but Okada took both Gedo and White down with a DDT on the ramp.  From there we got the classic Okada-White action with all their greatest hits.  Late in the match White became more and more desperate, on the verge of tears as he repeatedly told Okada "You're never taking my title!"  The finishing sequence saw each man steal each other's finisher after numerous counters.  Okada countered a White Rainmaker attempt into a Bladerunner, followed by his own Rainmaker to win back the championship.  Say what you will about the placement of this match after the previous one, but it was a very compelling main event between two of the best pure storytellers of this generation.  Okada and White have nothing to be ashamed of.

In comparison to the single-night WrestleKingdoms of the past I'd probably put this show in the same pantheon as WrestleKingdoms 7 and 13.  It was a really strong night of wrestling with short undercard matches and a few big bouts, one of which was an instant classic.  The only match that really felt too short was the women's bout, but the undercard flew by before we got to the three big matches.  And any show with a match as good as Kenny vs. Will is an automatic thumbs up.

Best Match: Ospreay vs. Omega, obviously
Worst Match: Karl Anderson vs. Tama Tonga, but that was alright.
What I'd Change: Give the women's match at least five more minutes, that could've been like Ospreay vs. Ibushi from WK13
Most Disappointing Match: Women's match
Most Pleasant Surprise: I guess the opener turned out better than I expected
Overall Rating: 9/10 - Take out the US Title match and it's more like 8/10, but that one match elevates the show a full letter grade 
Better than WrestleMania 39?: Night 1, no.  Night 2, yes.


Before I go, here are my Best of lists for the WK series.

WrestleKingdom Top 10

10. WK17
9. WK15b
8. WK12
7. WK14a
6. WK7
5. WK14b
4. WK13
3. WK11
1A. WK10
1. WK9

Top 20 WrestleKingdom Matches

20. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Tetsuya Naito - WK11
19. Kazuchika Okada vs. Bryan Danielson - WK18
18. Tetsuya Naito vs. Kota Ibushi - WK15a
17. Kazuchika Okada vs. Tetsuya Naito - WK14b
16. Kenny Omega vs. Chris Jericho - WK12
15. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada - WK7
14. Price Devitt vs. Kota Ibushi vs. Low-Ki - WK7
13. Shingo Takagi vs. Kazuchika Okada - WK16a
12. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada - WK10
11. Kazuchika Okada vs. Will Ospreay - WK15a
10. Kazuchika Okada vs. Will Ospreay - WK16b
9. Kota Ibushi vs. Jay White - WK15b
8. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada - WK9
7. Will Ospreay vs. Hiromu Takahashi - WK14a
6. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. AJ Styles - WK10
5. Kazuchika Okada vs. Kota Ibushi - WK14a
4. Kenny Omega vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi - WK13
3. Will Ospreay vs. Kenny Omega - WK17
2. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Kota Ibushi - WK9
1. Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega - WK11

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