The best time to be a New Japan fan has come around again as this year’s Wrestle Kingdom has graced our screens. Despite only being four days into the year, the event is often pivotal in setting up match of the year lists and always starts the wrestling year strong. Did this year carry on the tradition and just who felt the highs of victory and the sting of defeat? Let’s find out now.
Most Violent Players/Taguchi Japan (Ryusuke Taguchi, Togi Makabe & Toru Yano) win gauntlet via Low Blow/Roll Up
Instead of the usual New Japan Rumble, this year’s pre show featured a five team gauntlet match to determine the number one contenders for the NEVER Open Weight Six Man Tag titles. As with all NJPW gauntlets two teams started and a new team would takeover once one was eliminated. The first two teams were the Elite (Hangman Page, Marty Scurll &Yujiro Takahashi) vs Team Finlay (David Finlay, Jeff Cobb and Yuji Nagata). Nagata handled most of the offense as the Elite took control early on. They wouldn’t last long though as miscommunication between teammates would see Page push Yujiro into a Roll Up from Finlay. The Roll Up will become a running theme in this match. The Elite were out and the Chaos team (Hirooki Goto, Berretta and Chuck Taylor) would take their place. Once again Team Finlay were on the receiving end of most of the offense until Chuckie T would miss a Moon Sault and fall victim to a Roll Up. Team Finlay had now survived two teams so the Suzuki Gun team (Minoru Suzuki, Lance Archer and Davey Boy Smith Jr) took to the ring. Nagata and Suzuki trade strikes, Archer hits an Old School and eventually Finlay falls victim to a Killer Bomb at the hands of Archer and Smith. The last team to enter are the Most Violent Players. Taguchi is singled out and bullied for most of his time in the ring. He eventually tags in Makabe who trades strikes with Suzuki until he is beaten down. Yano is the last to enter and wins the match for his team by hitting both Smith and Archer with Low Blows and rolls up Smith for the win.
Whilst it may not have been the most engaging match of the show, it did fine as a pre-show starter. It provided a spot for plenty of familiar faces to get on the Wrestle Kingdom card. The Elite team seemed there to say goodbye, Suzuki Gun got to look dominant and the MVP team benefitted from some Yano shenanigans to secure a title shot at New Year’s Dash. It was a harmless fun sprint with enough chaos to keep it from dragging.
Will Ospreay defeats Kota Ibushi via Storm Breaker
Talk about a vicious opening match. Will Ospreay and Kota Ibushi continuously traded striking sessions for high flying escapades as they appeared to legitimately try and kill each other. Kota Ibushi is known for his crazy antics but this match was even more brutal than his usual follies. There were plenty of near-death moves as Will Ospreay kicked Ibushi out of his Golden Triangle, Ibushi tried to cave Will’s chest and back in with a Top Rope foot stomp and an unfortunate push that saw Ibushi smash his chin off of the top of the ring post. The finish saw Ibushi blindsided by a stiff Decapitator Forearm to the back of the head from Ospreay and knocked limp. Ospreay wouldn’t end it there though as he would then dead lift Ibushi into the Storm Breaker and secure a pin fall victory. He would leave with the NEVER Open weight title and Ibushi would leave in a stretcher.
As opening matches go, this is certainly one of the stronger ones in recent years. It was an unflinchingly stiff match where two men beat each other half to death for the sake of a title. That had always been the legacy of the NEVER title but these two seemed to personify that legacy even further. There were plenty of moments for technical prowess too as both men knew each other well enough to counter the other and take advantage of situations that would arise. Ibushi tried to take advantage of Ospreay’s recent rib injury and Ospreay showed no mercy once it was clear Ibushi could no longer defend himself. It was a very visceral match that woke up the crowd and elicited some early gasps of shock that would become so common throughout the later stages of the show.
Shingo Takagi & Bushi defeat Roppongi 3K and Kanemaru & Desperado via Last of the Dragon
This was less of a match and more of a coming out party for Shingo Takagi. The match started with the former champs fighting with Roppongi 3K. Yoh quickly tags in Sho when he gets the chance and Shingo soon tags himself in by hitting Kanemaru. After this point, it is mostly just Shingo beating down Sho. The two start by trading lariats but Sho is soon overpowered and hit with multiple Pumping Bombers, a Noshigami and finished with the Last of the Dragon to secure the LIJ team the win and the Junior Tag Titles.
This match will probably be disappointing to anyone who doesn’t like Shingo Takagi. There was very little in the way of offence or action from the other two teams as they were dispersed in quick fashion. There was even a lack of action from Shingo’s own teammate. Bushi hit a Suicide Dive in the last stages of the match but that was about it. This was less a triple threat and more of a one-sided affair that was ended incredibly quickly.
Zak Sabre Jr defeats Tomohiro Ishii via Hurrah
This was without a doubt one of the highlights of the show. Ishii took on Zack Sabre Jr in a match for the Rev Pro Undisputed British Heavyweight Title. Much like previous matches between the two, this was a back and forth war where ZSJ would trap Ishii in as many submissions as humanly possible. Ishii would come back into the match by using his striking game and even using some submissions of his own. Unfortunately for Ishii, ZSJ was more than ready to target the arms and twist them out of shape. He was laser focused on crippling Ishii’s offence even if it meant taking some of said offense. A standout moment was when Ishii hit a Superplex that ZSJ was able to roll through and transition into an Armbreaker. Eventually, ZSJ was able to lock in an Octopus and transition it into the Hurrah which forced Ishii to tap.
ZSJ and Ishii can’t have a bad match. Every time they meet in the ring they manage to mix both their styles into a smooth, mostly technical masterclass. This one benefitted from the extra stakes as it was for a newly designed version of the Rev Pro belt. ZSJ boasts that he is the best technical wrestler on the planet and with performances like this it is hard not to believe him.
Evil & SANADA defeat Guerrillas of Destiny and The Young Bucks via Moonsault
Thankfully this match was longer than the previous tag title triple threat on the card or there’d have probably been a riot. The Young Bucks had returned to Japan to try and regain their titles from the Guerrillas of Destiny whilst also having to fight against the World Tag League winners Evil and SANADA. Tama Tonga had been claiming to have turned over a new leaf and tried to shake hands with the opposing teams before the match. He was ignored by the Bucks and the LIJ team used the handshake as a means to tag in and instantly took it to the Young Bucks. Evil tried to target the previously injured back of Nick Jackson by attacking him on the apron. LIJ would dominate for a while with SANADA hitting a series of Springboard Cross Body Blocks onto every member of the other teams. This wouldn’t last as the Young Bucks were able to take advantage and hit most of their well-known moves and creative double team manoeuvres. The Guerrillas were mostly a non-entity in the match as they were trying to play fair or had been dispatched in the chaos. They had been accompanied by Bad Luck Fale and Jado who tried to interject themselves into the match but again were either stopped by the ref or the other teams. In the end, Evil and SANADA hit the Magic Killer on Matt Jackson. SANADA seals the deal by following up with a Moonsault to get the pin fall and secure his team the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Titles.
A lot of people were probably imagining the Guerrillas would win due to interference from their stablemates but to everyone’s shock, Tama Tonga tried to play nice and mostly stuck to the rules. He would rush in every now and then to hit a Tongan Twist but wouldn’t do much else. However, this isn’t a negative as they have plenty more chances at the title. The layout of this match presented it more as a last showing for the Young Bucks rather than a balanced triple threat match. LIJ and the Bucks have amazing chemistry so there were plenty of high spots and crazy combinations as the two teams traded momentum. Out of the two tag title matches, this was the more memorable.
Juice Robinson defeats Cody via Pulp Friction
Cody and Juice have a lot of history together. Juice was Cody’s first opponent in NJPW and would later be his latest victim as Cody robbed him of the US Title with an Inside Cradle. This match would allow him to settle the score and get a much-needed win over the Elite member. Both Juice and Cody started the match swinging as Cody tries to hit Juice with the belt but fails. Juice manages to hit an early Juice Box Gutbuster so Brandi Rhodes gets involved. She threw herself on top of her prone husband so Juice couldn’t attack without hurting her. She tried to taunt Juice into hitting her but Juice resisted the urge. Cody takes advantage of the distraction as the two trade finisher attempts on the apron and Cody sends Juice shoulder first into the ring post. They fight some more and Juice hits Cody with the Crossroads. Cody retorts by hitting Juice with Pulp Friction but Juice kicks out. Brandi gets involved again and is told to leave by the ref. In the end, Juice hits the Left Hand of God and two Pulp Frictions to win the belt.
Whilst not as highly anticipated as other title matches on the card, this one still tried to deliver several fun moments. There was minimal stalling from Cody and the interference was kept at a decent level. It’s nice to see Juice recover the belt as the crowd loves him and he has been given another chance to prove his worth. Cody was fun to watch as the cocky then desperate heel and the two managed to put on a simple but enjoyable match before the bigger matches started.
Taiji Ishimori defeats KUSHIDA via Bloody Cross
Nothing could have prepared the audience for what they were about to see as Taiji Ishimori finished his entrance. A mini KUSHIDA took to the ramp and shuffled around lost. Doc Brown (of Back to the Future fame) made an appearance and fixed the problem, returning KUSHIDA to the correct age so he could fight. Taiji Ishimori had a clear power advantage over KUSHIDA and did everything in his power to control the pace of the match. He trapped KUSHIDA in the Yes Lock early on and locked it in for a good couple of minutes. KUSHIDA eventually gets out and starts to come back into the match but can never really get anything going. He pulls off an excellent reversal where he gets out of the Tombstone Double Knees and gives Ishimori’s legs to the ref to hold as he delivers a kick. Unfortunately, Ishimori would power out of a Hoverboard Lock attempt and eventually knee lifts KUSHIDA out of a Back to the Future attempt and hits the Bloody Cross for the win.
Normally KUSHIDA is a master of making matches and showcasing his opponents, for this one he just seemed bored. He wasn’t as enthusiastic as normal nor was he always selling the moves he was being hit with. It was still a fun enough match to watch but compared to what the two are capable of, it fell a bit flat. Ishimori has such a varied move set that he could mesh with KUSHIDA and made the finishing sequence a rush as KUSHIDA looked to have the match won. It was definitely a low point on the card but still watchable.
Jay White defeats Kazuchika Okada via Blade Runner
Jay White had one hell of 2018. He started with a loss to Tanahashi but ended it with multiple wins over Okada, Gedo in his corner and the leader of the new era of Bullet Club. To say he had a lot at stake in his match against Okada would be an understatement. Then again he’d beaten Okada in the G1 and many times in the build to Wrestle Kingdom so he should be able to do it again right? Well, White didn’t know he would be fighting a revitalised Rainmaker. The blonde hair was back, the trunks were back and the iconic theme was back in all its glory. Okada had found his spark again and he was bringing the fight. White backed out of the ring originally and the two went through the feeling out process. White smashed Okada between the rails and ringside but was soon on the receiving end as Okada attacked both him and Gedo, going as far to hit both men with a Cross Body over the rails. The two would then trade moves in the ring for a while and Okada would avoid falling foul to Gedo and White’s tricks. Okada would own a lot of match looking dominant as he did. The final stretch saw each trade Blade Runner attempts, Tombstone attempts and Rainmaker attempts. White got the better of the exchange as he finished Okada with a Blade Runner and left.
If not for the main event, this would have probably taken the top spot for best-built match. The return of the Rainmaker threw in a last minute variable that tricked a lot of audience members into believing Okada couldn’t lose. That this match would be his big return and he would avenge the humiliation at the hands of White and Gedo. Instead, he once again fell short as White got the better of him. Both men traded momentum so often that predicting a winner was borderline impossible. It was a masterclass in suspense as Okada and White almost fell to each other’s finisher. It’ll be interesting to see just where Okada goes from here.
Tetsuya Naito defeats Chris Jericho via Destino
Naito didn’t waste any time going after Jericho once both men were in the ring. Naito wanted some payback for the way Jericho treated him in their last match. He hit him with a Piledriver on the ring apron and kept control of the match until Jericho introduced a kendo stick into the mix. From here Jericho would bully Naito with the kendo stick and drive Naito headfirst into an announce table with a sickening DDT. The two would keep trading moves, taunts and weapon shots as the kendo stick would be an escape mechanism from the Walls of Jericho and an imaginary baseball bat for Naito. Jericho tried to win with a Low Blow/Codebreaker combination but Naito kicked out at two. Infuriated, Jericho reaches under the ring and fills the ring with chairs. He hits Naito with some chairs but ends up eating a DDT onto them. Naito hits Jericho with a codebreaker and a Destino but Jericho kicks out. The last resort for Jericho was to grab the IC belt and smash Naito with it. He misses the shot so Naito uses it on Jericho and hits a final Destino to put Jericho down and win the match. Naito is the new IC champion and has finally conquered the demon that is Jericho.
Jericho has found new life since joining NJPW. His first match against Omega was incredibly well received and this one should receive the same fanfare. The no DQ stipulation was used to boost the match rather than provide cheap spots and both men were a perfect fit for each other in ring. Both men were brought down by their taunts and egos at certain points and both seemed to understand who they were in the ring with. Jericho grew more and more desperate as the match went on and Naito wouldn’t stay down. Wrestle Kingdom has once again provided Jericho with a reason to call himself the greatest of all time.
Hiroshi Tanahashi defeats Kenny Omega via High Fly Flow
Now it’s time for the grand finale. The main event of Wrestle Kingdom was a battle between two different generations. Kenny Omega and Hiroshi Tanahashi have been warring over their different ideologies and attitudes towards pro wrestling. Kenny has annoyed Tanahashi with his Japanese comments whilst Tanahashi is too old and outdated for Kenny to consider. The two ended up slugging it out in a 35+ minute match that played out in three acts. Act one saw Kenny Omega dominate Tanahashi. He hit the Ace with a bunch of classic strong style moves including forearms, Backdrop Suplexes and Powerslams. He only broke this character after he’d thrown Tanahashi into the announcer’s area. Tana would start targeting the knee after hitting a Dragon Screw Leg Whip. Kenny would nearly take himself out at one point by hitting a vicious Rise of the Terminator that took both men out. Act two saw a more even contest as the pair traded moves and momentum continuously. Omega would take control and Tanahashi would find a way back. Both men took some insane moves and would keep coming back for more. Tanahashi would break his traditions by trying to put Omega through a table but only succeeded in putting himself through. Omega would hit some devastating V Triggers and other tricks from his arsenal. The final act was the most desperate as both men hit moves in a panic as exhaustion took hold. Omega would kick out of the High Fly Flow and Tanahashi would reverse the One-Winged Angel. It was a scramble to hit the finisher and win the match. In the end, Tanahashi put Omega down with one final High Fly Flow and set a new record for IWGP Heavyweight Championship wins.
Whilst on the surface this match appears to be a battle of new generation vs the old guard, it slowly twisted and developed into so much more as both men grew more desperate for the win. Tanahashi started to break his own rules as he hit more and more of Omega’s moves. He even managed to twist the trajectory of a Dragon Suplex by landing on his face. By the end, both men were broken and tired, done in by the offence of their opponent. This was a divisive contest as Tanahashi is beloved by the company but Omega has his own devoted fan base. Both men should be commended for their efforts. Omega went from cocky heel to regular Omega as his opponent got series and started to bring the fight. Tanahashi once again proved why he is the Ace by overcoming Omega’s offence and pulling out the win. The crowd loved it but it’s hard not to imagine at least half the fanbase shocked that Omega has been bested by Tanahashi.
Overall this was an excellent show. It may not have been quite as dramatic as previous years but it still delivered a bunch of enjoyable matches and the main event has already set a high precedent for 2019. Some of the matches were lacking in suspense as All Elite Wrestling had been announced before the show. That would suggest that the Elite faction would drop their titles to focus on their own project. The only Elite match this wasn’t a given was Omega as no one knows what his plans are. Despite the circumstances around matches, it was a high calibre show. The wrestling was mostly crisp and there were plenty of shocks with title changes and surprise victories. Ibushi being stretchered out was a scary sight but hopefully, it was just a story device. The company is planning big things for 2019 and Wrestle Kingdom has given them new champions to play with and new stories to tell. It’s going to be an exciting ride.