New Japan Pro Wrestling has long staged its preeminent card at the Tokyo Dome on Jan. 4, well before the event came to be known as Wrestle Kingdom. Ahead of the 12th edition of Wrestle Kingdom — indisputably the biggest Wrestle Kingdom yet — it’s important to look back on the evolution of the Jan. 4 show.
The inaugural Wrestle Kingdom in 2007 marked a desperately needed transitional period in the direction of NJPW. The promotion suffered through a tumultuous identity crisis in the first half of the 2000s. Founder Antonio Inoki — trained in legitimate martial arts and a one-time opponent of Muhammad Ali — readied New Japan for the 21st Century with his vision for the future: a wrestling promotion that blurred the lines between traditional pro wrestling and the brand of shoot fighting most of us here stateside recognize as UFC.
To that end, the Jan. 4, 1999 show featured Shinya Hashimoto, a wildly popular wrestler, against Olympic judo medalist Naoya Ogawa. Long before I ever actually saw this match, I read rumors on message boards of this being a legitimate fight. That seems rather dubious in retrospect, but that was the show Inoki wanted to present in the 21st Century.
His vision resulted in NJPW wrestlers, novices in the shoot fighting world, going head-to-head with seasoned mixed martial artists. We’ve seen in UFC how well that typically goes.
NJPW needlessly delegitimized its own performers on that front, while at the same time presenting a largely nonsensical product. Various attempts to reinvigorate the main event scene included showcasing Bob Sapp — former Washington Huskies offensive line and central figure of the Whammy in Miami — and bringing in a fresh-off-his-Minnesota-Vikings-stint Brock Lesnar.
Lesnar’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship reign came one year before the inaugural Wrestle Kingdom, and marked a decided low-point for NJPW. The road to recovery began in 2007 at the Tokyo Dome, with stars of the future like Shinsuke Nakamura intermingled with legends of NJPW’s excellence in the 1990s like Masahiro Chono and Keiji Mutoh.
Wrestle Kingdom has steadily grown in scope, significance and size, and each of the last three have set new benchmarks in quality. Wrestle Kingdom 12 has a high standard to meet following last year’s edition. What’s more, the stakes have never been greater.
NJPW brass made clear its intent to establish the promotion globally in 2017, the centerpiece of which was a successful weekend of shows in California. New Japan returns to Long Beach in March, this time running Walter Pyramid Arena, with three times the seating capacity of the Convention Center. The company’s continued push to expand the reach of NJPW World, its most important tool, hinges largely on the appeal of Wrestle Kingdom.
The lineup for the biggest and most important Wrestle Kingdom card to date is out. Here’s a rundown.
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship: Roppongi 3K vs. Young Bucks
The high-flying junior heavyweight tag-team division has staked a spot in the first slot for recent Wrestle Kingdoms, often starting the show with a fast pace and plenty of excitement. The Young Bucks’ tireless touring schedule and merchandising deals with Hot Topic position them as arguably the most recognizable non-WWE acts in the United States. In Japan, they are the benchmark of junior heavyweight tag teams.
Roppongi 3K returned from overseas excursion in October and immediately won the tag team titles. They work well together and have a great gimmick. Win or lose, the team of SHO & YOH have possibilities for their future. It might be too early for them to best the top team in the division, setting up a longer chase down the road.
ANTICIPATION LEVEL: 3 Lions
PREDICTION: Young Bucks win
Gauntlet Match for the NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship: Bullet Club vs. CHAOS vs. Taguchi Japan vs. vs. Michael Elgin & War Machine vs. Suzuki-Gun
I occasionally forget these titles exist. They’re seldom defended and never a main attraction on any major show, though they have made for some entertaining bouts on the 2017 Wrestle Kingdom and Dominion cards. There are plenty of standout names involved — some of whom I’d have preferred see in a singles match, like Tomohiro Ishii and Juice Robinson.
The teams are as follows:
- Bullet Club: Tama Tonga, Tanga Loa, Bad Luck Fale
- CHAOS: Tomohiro Ishii, Toru Yano, Beretta
- Taguchi Japan: Juice Robinson, Ryusuke Taguchi, Togi Makabe
- Michael Elgin, Hanson, Ray Rowe
- Suzuki-Gun: Zack Sabre Jr., TAICHI, Takashi Iizuka
Each team has a unique style and flavor to it, and each has at least one name that excites me. The result is ultimately inconsequential, as the finish will likely tie into a different story angle beyond the 6-man division.
ANTICIPATION LEVEL: 1 Lion
PREDICTION: *shrug* Let’s go with Bullet Club retaining
The American Nightmare Cody vs. Kota Ibushi
Originally slated as a Ring of Honor World Championship, Cody lost that title to Dalton Castle at least week’s Final Battle show. No belt is on the line, which is probably for the best: I could not have envisioned ROH putting its top title on the rolling stone Ibushi, even if the promotion exists largely as an American satellite for NJPW at this point. That would have made the result too easy to predict.
Cody’s work since becoming an international barnstorming has been hit-or-miss for me. His IWGP Heavyweight Championship bout vs. Kazuchika Okada in Long Beach was tremendous, but he had a surprisingly bland and uninteresting ROH title defense against Minoru Suzuki in Las Vegas. Kota Ibushi has a reputation for getting top-quality matches out of far lesser performers than Cody, however, so I’m quite bullish on this match’s potential.
ANTICIPATION LEVEL: 3.5 Lions
PREDICTION: Ibushi wins
IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship: EVIL and SANADA vs. Killer Elite Squad
Los Ingobernables de Japon stablemates EVIL and SANADA winning the World Tag League is the breath of fresh air NJPW’s stagnant heavyweight tag-team division needed. Much of 2017 was spent with two very good teams, War Machine and Guerrillas of Destiny, wrestling all over Japan and into the United States. They worked well together, but one can only watch the same two teams wrestle so many times, particularly since NJPW does not have as many gimmick matches compared to WWE. The latter made Usos vs. New Day work for months by introducing new gimmicks and stipulations.
NJPW sought to shake up the division with the reintroduction of former champions Killer Elite Squad, Lance Archer and Davey Boy Smith Jr. Dominant teams of big North Americans are something of a tradition in Japan, and K.E.S. play that role well. Against War Machine and G.O.D., however, the formula was not particularly interesting. War Machine is made up of two brawny, American powerhouses, and one-half of G.O.D., Tanga Loa, fits the billing of hoss.
Pairing the athletic LIJ partners against the 6’8″, 290-pound Archer and 6’6″, 270-pound Smith should provide a styles clash to present a new kind of match — something the heavyweight tag-team division sorely needs.
ANTICIPATION LEVEL: 2 Lions
PREDICTION: LIJ Win
Hair vs. Hair Deathmatch for the NEVER Openweight Championship: Hirooki Goto vs. Minoru Suzuki
Trained MMA fighter and notorious tough guy Minoru Suzuki joins Hiroshi Tanahashi as one of the main-card Wrestle Kingdom 12 participants who also appeared on the inaugural Wrestle Kingdom lineup. This time around, Suzuki is defending the NEVER Openweight Championship, a title that originated as something of a young up-and-comers belt but has since originated into a concept akin to the Brass Knuckles championships territories used in the 1980s.
I am perhaps more excited for this match than any other NJPW fan in the world. I view a wrestling story arc much like the narrative of a comic book. To that end, Suzuki and Hirooki Goto are excellent foils for one another. Goto is a hard-working, determined warrior who seems to fall just short in the big moments, while Suzuki just…doesn’t care. Suzuki is preoccupied with inflicting pain on whomever he can. He is a dishonorable scoundrel, the antithesis of the driven, honorable Goto.
Goto lost in their Lumberjack Deathmatch at Dominion; the narrative is in place for Hirooki to finally get over the mountaintop and win at a critical moment. If he wins, it’s a new direction for his character. If he loses, he also has possibilities for the new step in his character’s evolution.
ANTICIPATION LEVEL: 4 Lions
PREDICTION: Goto wins
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship: Marty Scurll vs. Will Ospreay vs. KUSHIDA vs. Hiromu Takahashi
ECW popularized multi-man matches in the United States more than 20 years. Much like other ECW concepts, it was quickly adopted by the other two, more prominent American federations — WCW and WWF — and run into the ground.
In 2017, WWE booked five different 5-way matches that I can remember. Three-and-four-ways are even more common. Anything unique or special about the concept evaporated in the States long ago, even if multi-mans have produced some great matches. In New Japan, however, they are incredibly rare — especially with a title on the line.
The build to this has been incredibly well done, with various rivalries all colliding at once. Hiromu returned from excursion in Mexico in late 2015 as a member of LIJ and immediately dethroned the junior heavyweight division ace, KUSHIDA. KUSHIDA followed a long journey to redemption after losses to Hiromu mounted, finally besting him at Dominion.
In a similar vein, KUSHIDA was one hurdle up-and-coming star Will Ospreay could not clear. They met in a tremendous Best of the Super Juniors final that KUSHIDA won on his road to redemption, but Ospreay got his shot to finally take the next step in October at King of Pro Wrestling.
Ospreay’s win earned him the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship…for a month. Marty Scurll, a longstanding nemesis of Ospreay, won the belt away in November’s Power Struggle. All the way, Hiromu has sought his rematch…and been thwarted repeatedly along the way.
Hiromu planned ahead at Power Struggle, and the challenge was issued: FOUR-WAY IWGP JUNIOR HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP. All four wrestlers squared off in matches this year that I rate 4.75 stars or better. Put them all together, and the potential is explosive. Don’t surprised if this ends up being the best match on the card.
ANTICIPATION LEVEL: 4.75 Lions
PREDICTION: Will Ospreay wins
IWGP Intercontinental Championship: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. “Switchblade” Jay White
For months, NJPW teased the arrival of a new wrestler by showing only leather-clad gloves and a knife, going over names on a list.
The creepy vignettes led to the return of Jay White, a young star from New Zealand who worked primarily with Ring of Honor in 2016 and 2017. I saw White in person at the July G1 Special shows in California, and was impressed — though he appeared in tag matches, not a singles bout near the very top of the card.
NJPW brass is putting a lot of trust in White to deliver against the man responsible for leading New Japan out of its dark ages, Hiroshi Tanahashi. Tanahashi’s uncanny ability in the ring gets the most out of just about any opponent, so a talented youngster like White should look good. The question is if a newbie will receive much of a reaction on NJPW’s biggest stage.
In all likelihood, Switchblade is poised to become the new Intercontinental Championship. It’s unlikely he’d debut in such a high-profile spot just to lose, immediately deflating his character. What’s more, Tanahashi has nursed a biceps injury for almost a year and could use some time off.
It’s a high-pressure situation to be sure. Luckily for White, Tanahashi shines brightest on the Wrestle Kingdom stage.
ANTICIPATION LEVEL: 2.5 Lions
PREDICTION: Jay White wins
No Disqualification for the IWGP United States Championship: Kenny Omega vs. Chris Jericho
As readers of The Open Man know, I have gushed about the impressive career of Chris Jericho, which adds a surprising new chapter for 2018. Jericho makes his return to NJPW for the first time since 1997, and does so against one of the promotion’s, if not all of wrestling’s, top stars, Kenny Omega.
Born of a social media spat, the battle to determine Best in the World also serves as the most high-profile IWGP United States Championship match since the belt’s inception over the summer. Jericho’s debut at Power Struggle was the most shocking wrestling moment for me in almost two decades, only to be followed a month later with Jericho again making a surprise appearance at the World Tag League final.
His disturbing attack of Kenny Omega upped the ante, turning a throwaway dream match into something more visceral.
Jericho’s antics warrant a No Disqualification stipulation, while also making for a potentially better match. The freedom to bypass rules provides an equalizer for the older yet more savvy Jericho against the athletic dynamo, Omega.
I expect an excellent match, though fully anticipate an Omega win. I can’t imagine Jericho being locked into NJPW long enough to warrant putting a belt on him — but he has already surprised me twice in the Wrestle Kingdom process.
ANTICIPATION LEVEL: 5 Lions
PREDICTION: Kenny Omega wins
IWGP Heavyweight Championship: Kazuchika Okada vs. Tetsuya Naito
The evolution of Tetsuya Naito’s character comes full circle. For the uninitiated, Showbuckle’s mini-documentary on Naito is a must-watch.
It was Wrestle Kingdom 8 that Naito’s ascent to stardom crashed to Earth in a losing effort against Kazuchika Okada. In the years since, while Okada’s grown into the Ace of New Japan, Naito took on a new attitude — one that resonates with fans worldwide.
Naito is the most popular wrestler among the fans, but Okada is the face of the company — a position he earned over the past half-decade and is not prepared to relinquish.
The nature of the rivalry has elements that remind me of Rock-Austin, the premier rivalry of the hottest point in WWF history. Given the clash in personas, the remarkable talent both demonstrate each time they’re in the ring, and the stakes, expect another Wrestle Kingdom to close the show.
ANTICIPATION LEVEL: 5 Lions
PREDICTION: Tetsuya Naito wins