Happy New Wrestle Kingdom 2016

New Japan Pro Wrestling Wrestle Kingdom 10

 

On the surface, the news coming out of NJPW’s January 4th Tokyo Dome show is dire. Attendance for the annual spectacle dipped to 25,000, reflecting critically on what many have called attention to over the past year: the at times stale booking of NJPW matchmaker Gedo. If losing 11,000 fans wasn’t enough to cause panic, the next day saw the rumored and all-but-confirmed departures of top draws Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles, and the tag team of Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows, for World Wrestling Entertainment.  On the upswing, however, Wrestle Kingdom 10 was an artistically satisfying, hugely significant show that is completely worth spending five hours with.

 

Leaving aside the NJPW Rumble (King Haku! Cheeseburger!), the main card featured nine matches, eight of which were for championships. The first of these, a four-way scramble for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship, is easily the most exciting of the opening contests. Tag team wrestling is largely inconsequential in the United States in 2016 and NJPW’s Junior Tag Team Division, while exciting, has suffered from repetitive booking, but that’s hardly a reflection of the talent in the division. Matt and Nick Jackson, The Young Bucks, are by far the best tag team in wrestling right now, and no team, not even the other three in this match, can touch them. Just listen to them wrestle: The two are in constant communication with each other, in peril or otherwise. All four teams (reDRagon, Aerial Dogfight, and Roppongi Vice) have great tag team moves and work cohesively as a unit (which is more rare than you’d think), but it’s the way the Bucks talk to each other that puts them over the edge, in a way that’s over the top while belying the extreme cohesion you’d expect from a pair of brothers who’ve been teaming for over a decade.

 

The middle of the card featured two matches that symbolized a changing of the guard, and the evening’s one non-title affair. In the Junior Heavyweight Division, Kenny Omega lost his IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championship to KUSHIDA. The match more than set-up KUSHIDA as the new ace of the juniors, fighting, as he did, from underneath Omega and his Bullet Club back up, The Young Bucks. Omega’s a human cartoon on offense and when he’s selling, and that’s either a thing you like or have a big problem with. I happen to be a big fan, and Omega was over the top against KUSHIDA, who is a very serious competitor once the Marty McFly bubble vest comes off.

 

The evening’s one non-title match, between Tetsua Naito and Hirooki Goto, was interesting mostly as a means of tracking Naito’s progress as a scumbag heel. Naito is currently the dark horse of New Japan’s roster, a former semi-main event caliber wrestler who turned heel and really found himself as a member of CMLL’s Los Ingobernables. His heel persona took off in NJPW, but the creation of Los Ingobernables de Japón seemed to weigh him down a bit, if only because it feels so forced. Joined by junior heavyweight BUSHI and laughably named and attired heavyweight KING OF DARKNESS EVIL (with whom Naito nearly won the World Tag League), Naito’s matches have largely become a showcase for routine cheating and sneak attacks, and this match against Goto did nothing to shake that pattern up. After two Bullet Club matches that began with surprise sneak attacks, that a third match on the card began the same way was noticeable, and I can’t get over how backyard KING OF DARKNESS EVIL is. BUSHI, though, is a good compliment to Naito, someone who has spent time in CMLL and, as a masked character, was ripe for reinvention. The match does its job, which is to establish Naito’s stable as a legitimate threat while also establishing Goto as a threat to the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.

 

At the top of the card, Wrestle Kingdom 10 featured three matches that showcase what New Japan Pro Wrestling does better than any promotion going right now, in-ring and long-term storytelling. A title like the NEVER Openweight Championship may seem superfluous in a promotion that has two top-tier championships (or, I suppose, the IWGP Intercontinental Championship may be the superfluous one), but has largely been defined by the stout, hard-hitting brawling of Tomohiro Ishii and Togi Makabe, who switched the title back and forth several times over the course of 2015. With Makabe in the tag division, Ishii took on Katsuyori Shibata, who pinned the champion twice during the 2015 World Tag League. Looking at the two next to each other, the odds would seem to be pretty clearly in the larger man’s favor, but for all the pain and misery a Tomohiro Ishii lariat so obviously inflicts, Shibata’s kicks are capable of that and much more.

 

The NEVER Championship, thematically, is about proving one’s worth as a warrior, and Shibata and Ishii exchanged a sort of delicious violence that can be heard and felt, not just seen. Though the two come out of the gate avoiding each other’s strikes, they soon dare each other to take the other’s strikes. Ishii loses an opening kick battle, flinching with every blow as Shiabata dusts his off. Shibata is, throughout the course of this contest, a man who will not be denied. Every time Ishii has the advantage, Shiabata finds the will, somehow, to turn the tables on the Stone Pitbull. The brutality of his attack, focused around kicks and submisisons, is a beautiful counterpoint to Ishii’s lariats, chops, forearms, and disgusting suplexes. Ishii, for his part, is resolute and terrifying. Every blow seems like a killing blow. Every submission feels like an end. But Shiabata or Ishii gut up and get back into the fight until the point where they’re exchanging headbutts in the center of the ring. All of this to see who the better man is, which is simplicity itself in professional wrestling. I’ve never been much for tracking a wrestler’s “moveset” as a measure of skill, and the NEVER division is proof that such metrics are overrated. With both men working loud and brutal, it’s the subtle things that Ishii does, on the attack and in selling Shiabata, that put this over the top. You know he’s in trouble early from Shiabata’s kicks and the way each one makes him flinch though none are as lethal as the heart-stopping PK. And you know he knows he’s in trouble when he accidentally illegally chops his challenger in the throat, sees that it works, and purposefully does so again. Just an exhausting, classic encounter that revels in physicality.

 

Outside of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, there is likely no more important a title in wrestling than the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, largely because of the man who currently holds it, Shinsuke Nakamura. Nakamura is New Japan’s top draw and, in terms of sheer presence, virtually unmatched as far as charisma goes. Nakamura put out an open challenge to any wrestler in the world to face him for the title and was answered by AJ Styles, setting up a rare first-time-ever dream match between two stars of equal stature that’s actually worthy of the “dream match” billing.

 

I watched the match live, and while I forget what time it was playing and didn’t have the benefit of caffeine, I was really, really alive for it. Thanks to the invaluable live translation of E. Key Oide (@e_key_oide), I know that the announcers for the contest (which included Jushin Liger and Masahiro Chono) put over the match as a clash of two true originals in the world of professional wrestling, and that’s exactly what it felt like. By extension, this is what the IWGP Intercontinental Championship seems to represent: Stars that are IWGP Championship grade (as Nakamura’s t-shirt has it) but who stand just outside or above it, Nakamura being above it and his Wrestle Kingdom challengers (Styles here; Kota Ibushi, Tanahashi, and Kazushi Sakuraba in the past) just to the side of the dominant narrative of Kazuchika Okada’s ascendency to the position of New Japan’s ace. Unlike last year’s match against Ibushi, this one doesn’t start with The King of Strong Style toying with his opponent—there’s a certain amount of gamesmanship, to be sure, as when Nakamura catches Style’s pantomimed bullet and swallows it whole—Styles has nothing to prove to Nakamura, and the two wrestle an even contest from the start. While I find the story of Nakamura/Ibushi to be the best of his Wrestle Kingdom championship defenses, I absolutely love the pace of this match, a measured heavyweight clash that is punctuated by bursts and flurries of violence and technical wizardry. Both men are in scary-good control of their body’s motions and language, such that spots like an early-match counter backbreaker from Nakamura manage to look and feel more gruesome for managing to be a successful audible.

 

Despite how even the two are, Nakamura is on offense much of the time, with Styles opting to employ the Calf Killer as a defensive submission maneuver designed to neutralize the BomaYe. It’s smart, and gives Styles an edge after all the work Nakamura puts in on his back, but the BomaYe’s success as a finishing blow is such that Nakamura goes for it regardless of injury. On equal footing, the two break out the big strikes and moves, a particularly good near-fall being Styles’ counter knee lift into a brutal 450 splash. It’s a beautiful match that I can’t recommend enough, even if Nakamura and Styles’ tenures with NJPW are over and the future of the Intercontinental Championship uncertain except for its pending vacancy when Nakamura leaves for the United States. Their coda, a tag team match on New Year Dash that also featured Kenny Omega and YOSHI-HASHI in a match designed to make Omega the new ace of the Bullet Club and credible challenger to Nakamura’s championship, which it did, but now mostly serves as a teaser for a match that will not be happening. There’s certainly a number of possibilities for New Japan now, none of which I am qualified to speculate on, but as far as final images go, the mid-ring fist bump between Nakamura and Styles in the Dome is a particularly neat one, complete with the required zoom in.

 

The culmination of a years long rivalry that’s headlined the Dome on a number of occasions, Kazuchika Okada’s quest to defeat Hiroshi Tanahashi on a January 4th show came to an end in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 10, where he successfully defended the IWGP Heavyweight Championship and staked his claim as the true ace of New Japan by defeating the man who previously held that spot. It’s a contest that goes nearly an hour, which was rough going live, and really pays off well if you know the history of the two, just an old-school match wrestled at a classic pace, Tanahashi (who doesn’t look anything like he’s near 40 or ready to relinquish the role of ace) playing the sure veteran to Okada’s justifiably cocky younger rival.

 

The first time I saw the match, it was in sequence with the rest of the card, at the end of a very long night, and I just did not have the patience for it. About 10 minutes in, it seemed like the two would be doing everything in their power to go the 60 minute time limit, which, not including a video package and introductions, they very nearly do. The focus of the match is Okada’s leg, which Tanahashi works over fiercely with dragon screw leg whips, dropkicks to the knee, and targeted High Fly Flow splashes from all over the ring. Okada, never one to back down, often sacrifices his leg or knee if it means punishing Tanahashi. That means not selling the leg when he goes into sequences that involve his leg drops, but if that’s a flaw in the storytelling of the match, than it is a very small one in what has largely been a very satisfying epic novel. That legwork is largely what won Tanahashi the match at Wrestle Kingdom 9, the conclusion of which was one of my favorites of a major wrestling event, Okada exiting the arena in tears as Tanahashi played air guitar. It seems like the strategy will work for him again, only it wouldn’t make much sense narratively for Tanahashi to beat Okada in the Dome for a third time. This is the story of Okada’s ascendency, after all, and torch-passings don’t end with the bearer sucker-punching the recipient and taking the torch back.

 

While I’m able to appreciate the match more in a second and third viewing, I have to admit that my mind continued to wander from the match. There was a sense of destiny to the whole thing, and, in a wrestling match, that’s something I can’t claim to be that big a fan of. Okada fighting from underneath Tanahashi and establishing that he truly is the most dominant force in New Japan Pro Wrestling is fine and necessary, but this one just lacked the nuance of previous encounters and didn’t have a classic moment like Okada crying on his way out of the Dome. With both men in the semi-main event on their way out of the promotion, it’s good that Okada is being firmly planted as the new figurehead of NJPW. The next few months will be vital, both in building the promotion around Okada such that a situation like his and Tetsua Naito’s losing the Wrestle Kingdom main event doesn’t happen again, and in filling the holes left by styles and Nakamura. Wrestle Kingdom 10 showed that the way forward for New Japan is not without hope—this still-young year may be the most interesting in recent memory.

 

Match Results (Recommended Matches in Bold)

 

Pre-show) Jado won the New Japan Rumble

 

1) The Young Bucks (Matt and Nick Jackson) def. reDRAGON (Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly, champions), Aerial Dogfight (Matt Sydal and Ricochet), and Roppongi Vice (Baretta and Rocky Romero) for the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Championship.

 

2) The Briscoe Brothers (Mark and Jay Briscoe) and Toru Yano def. The Bullet Club (Bad Luck Fale, Tama Tonga, and Yujiro Takahashi) for the NEVER Openweight Six-Man Tag Team Championship.

 

3) Jay Lethal (champion) def. Michael Elgin for the Ring of Honor World Championship.

 

4) Kushida def. Kenny Omega (champion) for the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championship.

 

5) G.B.H. (Togi Makabe and Tomoaki Honma) def. Bullet Club (Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows, champions) for the IWGP Tag Team Championship.

 

6) Hirooki Goto def. Tetsuya Naito.

 

7) Katsuyori Shibata def. Tomohiro Ishii (champion) for the NEVER Openweight Championship.

 

8) Shinsuke Nakamura (champion) def. A.J. Styles for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship.

 

9) Kazuchika Okada (champion) def. Hiroshi Tanahashi for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.


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