I’ve been a big fan of Japanese Wrestling, or Puroresu as it is also known, for a long time now, and recently on the 4th of January, New Japan Pro Wrestling held the 11th instalment of their worldwide acclaimed event known as “Wrestle Kingdom”.
Wrestle Kingdom is held every year on the 4th of January at the giant Tokyo Dome arena in the Japanese capital. This year it’s estimated there were roughly 37,000 people in attendance to watch what is essentially New Japan’s equivalent to WrestleMania.
Being a big fan of the Japanese style, I decide to take some notes while watching it and will give you all a recap of the show as well as my match ratings. Being that art is subjective, my opinions and match ratings may differ to yours based on our own personal tastes, but if you think the show sounds interesting and you’d like to give it a look, you can subscribe to New Japan’s video on demand service, details of which I’ll put at the end of the feature.
14 Man New Japan Rumble
This is a traditional Wrestle Kingdom event, where wrestlers who aren’t on the main show can compete in a Rumble setting. Like the WWE’s “Royal Rumble”, you are eliminated by being sent over the top rope to the floor, but in New Japan you can also be eliminated by pin fall or submission as well.
Usually a few legends return in this match for a quick spot and a pop from the crowd. This year’s legends were Hiro Saito, Kuniaki Kobayashi and Scott “Flash” Norton. The match also featured former WWE Superstars Billy Gunn and Yoshi Tatsu, as well as aging New Japan regulars Yuji Nagata and Manabu Nakanishi.
The match was essentially little more than a showcase for “Unbreakable” Michael Elgin, a squat powerhouse wrestler, who kind of resembles a cross between Taz and Vader. He came in at #1 and lasted all the way to the match’s conclusion, where he eventually won by splatting Ring of Honour guest entrant Cheese Burger with a Power Bomb for the pin.
Match Rating – 55 (I don’t do star ratings, every match gets a score out of 100)
Was an easy enough watch and was just there for a bit of fun to warm the crowd up.
Now we move on to the show proper.
Tiger Mask W Vs Tiger the Dark
This match was a tie-in to the new Tiger Mask cartoon currently airing in Japan. Tiger Mask is an anime that goes many years back, featuring a man in a tiger’s mask battling evil wrestling foes. The character was actually inspiration for the King character in the Tekken series.
Tiger the Dark is apparently Tiger Mask’s nemesis in the new cartoon, so two men donned the costumes for the opener here at the Tokyo Dome. It was a rather short match, clocking in at around 6 minutes, but was enjoyable enough despite the short running time.
Highlights included Tiger Mask W hitting a beautiful moonsault to the outside and Tiger the Dark drilling him with a big Tombstone Piledriver back inside.
Eventually, Tiger Mask sealed the win with a Tiger Power Bomb. Too short to be anything but fun while it lasted.
Rating – 60
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Titles
Champions – Matt and Nick Jackson, “The Young Bucks”
Challengers – Rocky Romero and Beretta, “Roppongi Vice”
Junior Heavyweights are New Japan’s equivalents of the WWE’s Cruiserweights, but they enjoy considerably more prestige in the company’s hierarchy than their WWE brethren.
The Young Bucks are part of nWo style heel faction “The Bullet Club”, whereas Romero and Beretta are part of the “CHAOS” faction.
The Young Bucks aren’t everyone’s cup of tea due to their abrasive personalities and spotty matches, but they are certainly charismatic and are long-time foes of Roppongi Vice.
This was the usual high tempo match between the two sides. In a very funny bit near the start of the match, the Bucks acted like they were going to walk away and take a count out. Romero and Beretta followed them out to bring them back, but it turned out to be a trap as the Bucks cheap shotted them before sprinting back to the ring so the ref could start counting! Vice only just made it back in at the very last second and the match continued.
Towards the end of the bout, Beretta tried to dive onto the Bucks on the outside, but they moved and he splatted on the floor. This left Romero 1 on 2 against the champs, and they hit him with a barrage of double team moves. The Bucks set him up for their finisher (a rolling Samoan Crash into a 450 Splash called “More Bang For Your Buck”), but Beretta revived just long enough to pull Nick Jackson off the top rope, allowing Romero to catch Matt with a pin counter for the upset win.
Rating – 70. I really liked how the finish came out of nowhere, as it felt they had a big finishing sequence planned, but they subverted expectations by taking it home with a flash pin fall. Good double teams from the Bucks, and it was nice to see Vice get the win.
NEVER Openweight Six Man Tag Team Titles
Champions – Satoshi Kojima, David Finlay and Ricochet
Challengers #1 – Yujiro, Bad Luck Fale and Hangman Page of The Bullet Club w/ Loads of lovely ladies
Challengers #2 – Jado, Will Ospreay and Yoshi-Hashi of CHAOS
Challengers #3 – Evil, Bushi and Sanada of Los Ingobernables de Japon
Yes, New Japan have Six Man Tag Titles, and this was a chance to stuff 12 guys into once match.
Things started out with the Bullet Club and CHAOS teams. The Bullet Club came out with a load of sexy ladies, as is Yujiro’s gimmick. The big star of this portiom was British sensation Will Ospreay, who displayed some excellent high flying whilst he was tagged in. Eventually, it all broke down and Yujiro pinned Jado with a sloppy looking DDT to eliminate CHAOS.
Next out were LIJ, who are kind of hard to describe. I guess they’re kind of like a Japanese version of the Wyatt Family, as they’re freaky dudes who wear masks to the ring, along with bringing giant scythes with them. This was two villainous teams going at it, so it was all about cheating. The ref got knocked down, and this allowed Sanada to hit Yujiro with a chair and put him in a Dragon Sleeper to eliminate the Bullet Club.
The final team out were the Champs. The highlight of this section were Ricochets exciting high flying moves and the veteran Kojima hitting all his trademark spots, including a series of chops in the corner and a flying elbow drop. Eventually, LIJ used mist behind the referees back on Kojima and pinned him to steal the win.
Rating – 60. Not great action, but it was inoffensive and didn’t overstay its welcome.
Juice Robinson Vs Cody
This was a match between former WWE Superstars CJ Parker and Cody Rhodes, and it was a solid outing. Cody is the newest member of the Bullet Club, so this was set up kind of like a showcase for him, but Robinson wasn’t treated as enhancement talent and was able to give a good account of himself on route to defeat.
Robinson was doing well, but he delivered a cannonball to Cody on the outside and hurt his leg on the guardrail. Cody worked over the leg back inside and was an entertaining jerk, talking smack to English commentator Steve Corino on a couple of occasions. Robinson made a comeback, but his knee gave out on a Power Bomb attempt, allowing Cody to hit the Cross Rhodes for the win. Cody spat water on Corino after the match, which makes me wonder if they’ll be doing something together either in ROH or New Japan.
Rating – 60. I thought the match was structured well, and I liked how the leg injury paid off in the finish. Cody should be able to make something of himself in New Japan, and Robinson was protected here, which shows New Japan see something in him.
Ring of Honour Championship
Champion – Kyle O’Reilly
Challenger – Adam Cole (Bay-Bay)
This was a match between two very accomplished wrestlers that I just couldn’t get into because of a spot early on.
There was some wrestling at the start and a funny bit where Adam Cole kept trying to do his “Adam Cole Bay-Bay!” taunt, but O’Reilly kept stopping him. The fight spilled outside and Cole smacked O’Reilly with a chair right in front of the referee, but the referee didn’t call for a disqualification.
This took me completely out of the match, and it made the referee look utterly ridiculous. At least in the earlier match with weapons and mist, LIJ had taken care to make sure the referee didn’t see any of their cheating.
It was totally unnecessary as well. Why did Cole have to hit him with a chair? Why couldn’t he have just thrown O’Reilly shoulder first into the ring post on the outside? At least in that scenario you can suspend disbelief that the referee might show some leeway. The commentators tried to explain that the ROH referee would let some stuff go in important matches, but using a chair crosses a line that should result in an immediate disqualification.
It’s a shame as the work in the actual match was good, but I just couldn’t get into it after that spot. The arm injury did play a part in the finish, as O’Reilly couldn’t properly apply an arm bar, allowing Cole to rally and hit him with a suplex onto the knee that he calls the “Last Shot” for the win and the title. This made Cole a 3 time ROH Champ.
Rating – 60. It would have been higher if not for the stupidity of the chair spot.
IWGP Tag Team Titles
Champions – Tanga Roa and Tama Tonga of the Bullet Club
Challengers #1 – Honma and Togi Makabe of GBH
Challengers #2 – Toru Yano and Tomohiro Ishii of CHAOS
The story for this one is that Honma and Makabe won the Global Tag League, which gave them the right to challenge the champs on this show. However, Toru Yano returned from his spell away in another company and stole both the tag belts and the tag league trophies, thus getting his team inserted in the match.
The highlight of this match was Tanga Roa’s potty mouth, as he swore up an absolute storm to the point that Corino had to turn his microphone down because he was laughing so much. The match was all action and a lot of fun. The ending came when Roa and Tonga tried to double suplex Ishii, but Yano ran in and gave a stereo low blow to them before scoring a roll up for the titles! The victorious Yano and Ishii then scampered away into the night.
Rating – 70. I really enjoyed this, it was high tempo and entertaining. I also liked the story of Yano and Ishii finagling their way into the match and then essentially stealing the titles in the climax.
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship
Champion – Kushida
Challenger – Hiromu Takahashi of Los Ingobernables de Japon
This match featured “The Ticking Time Bomb” in Takahashi taking on “The Time Splitter” in Kushida, who has a Back to the Future themed entrance and does a Kimura Arm Hold called “The Hover Board” as a finish.
Kushida is known as the “Ace” of the Junior division, which essentially means he’s the main star, whereas this was kind of Takahashi’s coming out party, as he’s only just recently got this new gimmick. He has tremendous charisma and did a great job selling throughout the bout as Kushida showed a new meaner streak.
Big spots in the match included Takahashi giving Kushida a sunset flip power bomb to the floor, as well as Kushida catching Takahashi off a dive to the outside with a vicious looking arm bar. Back inside, Kushida went to the Kimura and there was an almighty struggle between the two men, as Takahashi refused to submit. It was riveting stuff.
The crowd heat was tremendous, especially after both men just straight up punched each other in the face for a double down. Eventually, Takahashi hit Kushida with a side slam into a power bomb type move to pick up the win and the title.
Rating – 80. I enjoyed this immensely.
NEVER Openweight Championship
Champion – Katsuyori Shibata
Challenger – Hirooki Goto of CHAOS
Both these men were schoolmates and also trained together, so they always have good matches as they aren’t afraid to let the fists fly when they face each other. Goto has a reputation as New Japan’s “nearly man”, as despite the odd big win here or there, he’s never had a consistent run of success at the top of the card. Shibata is known mostly for stiff kicks and brutal submission moves.
As usual when these two meet, the match was a mix of stiff strikes and big high impact moves, and it was a joy to behold!
Shibata went to a rear naked choke a couple of times, but Goto was able to make the ropes to break. There were a series of intense forearm strikes, which led to both men delivering suplex after suplex to one another. Eventually, Goto brutalised his friend with a series of big strikes and then hit him with his trademark “GTR” move, which is kind of like Big Show’s “Final Cut” move but to the knee, for the victory.
Rating – 85. Stiff, brutal and tremendously well worked. Good enough to be match of the night on many a show, but it had to settle for third place on this one.
IWGP Intercontinental Championship
Champion – Tetsuya Naito of Los Ingobernables de Japon
Challenger – Hiroshi Tanahashi
This match had a great back story. Naito was supposed to be in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom a couple of years ago, but the fans rejected him and demanded Tanahashi main event the show instead. This led to a gradual heel turn for Naito as he turned on the fans who he felt had turned on him. He then went on to form the Los Ingobernables de Japon group and started wearing snazzy white suits and wacky masks to the ring.
This, of course, then led to some of the fans cheering him, because this is pro wrestling and anti-heroes are cool. Now the reigning IC Champion, this was a chance for Naito to prove he had surpassed the man who had “stolen” his Wrestle Kingdom main event all those years ago.
Tanahashi is quite possibly the best wrestler of the past decade, but he’d had an underwhelming 2016 and wanted to get back to his winning ways for 2017. This meant there was some genuine needle here in this match, and the fans treated it like it was a big deal from the opening bell.
The match itself was excellent, as both men worked over the others legs and didn’t waste any time in taking cheap shots or taunting their foe. The crowd was pretty split between the two, and the usual babyface Tanahashi had no problem heeling it up against an opponent he openly didn’t like.
As the bout wore on, it degenerated into a good solid minute of the two just kicking each other in the leg, and it was fantastic! Naito’s finisher is a sort of around the world reverse DDT called the “Destino”, and after hitting two of them, he was able to hold Tanahashi down for the three count.
Rating – 90. Tanahashi is one of the best ever, and Naito looks like he’s getting there too!
Champion – Kazuchika Okada of CHAOS
Challenger – Kenny Omega of the Bullet Club
Omega is the leader of the Bullet Club and had an amazing 2016, where he had great matches with everyone and won New Japan’s summer tournament known as “The G1 Climax” to earn his title shot against reigning champion, Okada. This match was to decide not only who would be champion, but also who would be the face of the New Japan brand itself.
Omega’s entrance video parodied Terminator, as he stole a person’s clothes and then came down to the ring wearing a half robot mask and carrying a shotgun. Not to be outdone, “Rainmaker” Okada made it rain thousands of fake dollars during his entrance.
I don’t think I can explain this match and do it justice. It was a 45 minute masterpiece, which featured not just hot moves but also sustained selling and psychology. Omega’s finisher is known as “The One Winged Angel”, where he gets his opponents on his shoulders and then pulls them down into a modified Power bomb/Michinoku Driver. It looks devastating, and the story of the match was that, if he could hit it on Okada, he’d win the match.
As a result, Okada had to fight it off at every turn and kept coming up with counters and ways to slip out at the last minute. It really was thrilling stuff. Okada’s finisher is the “Rainmaker Lariat”, where he gets his opponent in a waistlock, grabs their wrist, pushes them away and then pulls them back into a mighty clothesline. There was a point in the match where Okada had Omega’s wrist and was trying to pull him into the clothesline, and Omega was desperately trying to fight him off with vicious knees to the face. Okada took knee after knee to the head but refused to let go and eventually splatted Omega with the clothesline. It was spectacular stuff!
Other big spots in the match included Omega delivering a Dragon Suplex from the top rope to Okada that looked frankly terrifying. That may come back to haunt Okada one day. The last ten minutes of the match were ten of the best minutes I’ve ever seen in a wrestling match, and they were earned with the first half an hour of great storytelling and psychology.
Eventually, Okada prevailed after a multitude of Rainmakers. A truly excellent performance from both men!
Rating – 100. I didn’t want it to end!
You can probably skip the first half of this show. There’s nothing bad, but there’s nothing amazing either. The last four matches though are all must-see stuff and highly recommended. If you’ve not seen a lot of Japanese wrestling, those four matches would be a great starting point for any new fan.
You can watch the show, with English commentary from Kevin Kelly and Steve Corino, by going to njpwworld.com and signing up. It costs only 999 yen for one month, which is about £7-8, and you get access to this show as well as oodles of classic content. If you’ve ever wanted to give Japanese wrestling a go, there’s never been a better or easier way!