The 2012 version of King of Pro Wrestling was notable for several reasons. It was the first ever New Japan worldwide iPPV offering. It was also the runaway best wrestling show of 2012, and many feel it was one of the greatest top to bottom pro wrestling shows in history. One year later, and New Japan is still riding a wave of momentum as the hottest promotion on the planet, with an unprecedented run of amazing PPV shows (including WrestleKingdom VII, which only three months later supplanted KoPW as the latest “greatest show ever” in the eyes of many puro fans), the rise of a true superstar in Kazuchika Okada, and reports of an increase in profits of 500% over the previous year.
Perhaps the biggest key to this hot run has been the Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Okada feud. Over the last two years, they have paired up for five matches, all incredible, all match of the year contenders, two being perfect (5-stars) in this reviewers eyes. Tanahashi, arguably the best wrestler in the world over the last two years, and also now in the conversation as possibly the best “big match” main event wrestler of all time, has successfully helped elevate Okada, who at 25 years old is already elite in terms of workrate (and to me, is better than Tanahashi in a number of ways, to the point I would argue that he has passed him by as an overall worker), and has improved exponentially in terms of how he carries himself, which was a major drawback in the early stages of his push.
Deadlocked at 2-2-1, the winner of this match was expected to go on to headline the January 4th 2014 Tokyo Dome show, against G1 winner Tetsuya Naito. To me, Naito is light years behind both Tanahashi & Okada in every way. Tonight’s action solidified that opinion for me.
0. Manabu Nakanishi, Super Strong Machine, Jushin Thunder Liger & Tiger Mask vs. Takashi Iizuka, YOSHI-HASHI, Jado & Gedo – Probably the weakest pre show match since the company went to worldwide iPPV. Look, these matches are never good, but this one was probably bad. Just a nothing match. Super Strong Machine, who makes bi-yearly (or so) appearances, was tagged in for approximately eight seconds. Nakanishi used his top rope twisting chop to pin Jado, who always seems to lose the fall in these matches. *
1. IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Title: Rocky Romero & Alex Koslov (c) vs. TAKA Michinoku & Taichi – Time Splitters were supposed to be in this match, but Alex Shelley is injured. Another nothing match. A lot of comedy early, with the TAKA/Taichi team mimicking the signature moves of the champs. This match was short and the finish came out of nowhere, as Taichi low blowed Romero and cradled him for the shocking win. So we have new champs. The junior tag division desperately needs freshening up. The same three teams have been facing each other foooreeeeveeeeer (get it?, get it?). They should mix in Gedo & Jado or Tiger Mask & Liger or Tiger Mask & BUSHI or just about anybody else at this point. Please. *
2. Toru Yano vs. Minoru Suzuki – Yano has been a thorn in the side of Suzuki, knocking him out of G1 contention, beating him by cheap CO, and constantly throwing water in his face to antagonize him. Both guys are so good in their roles. This was more of a long angle than a match. Yano tossed the water in Suzuki’s face again during the intros. The look on Suzuki’s face was priceless. Yano brought out the handcuffs again, but this time HE ended up handcuffed to the railing (this was how he beat Suzuki by count out last month). He had a key in his boot, and just made the 20 count. Suzuki then handcuffed Yano’s hands together, tossed the key into the crowd, and gave him a beating, before finishing him with the Gotch Piledriver. This was the blow off. Fun, but I can’t rate it. Wasn’t really a match. NR
3. Hiroyoshi Tenzan Return & Takaaki Watanabe Farewell Match: Hiroyoshi Tenzan & Takaaki Watanabe vs. Lance Archer & Davey Boy Smith Jr. – As reported by Voices of Wrestling last month, Watanabe is headed on excursion, first to work the two NWA/New Japan joint shows in Texas, then to New Jersey where he will be booked out of PWS (of all places). This was Tenzan’s first match back, and well, it showed. He works really hard, but he’s finished as a big time performer. He simply can’t keep up with this roster anymore. There was an ugly spot were Tenzan blew what appeared to be a Koji cutter or Ace crusher or who the hell knows. I cringed, and felt bad for the guy, although that may not have been his fault. But it looked ugly. Watanabe’s interactions with KES were great, with the big guys no selling his strikes and Watanabe’s feeble attempts at throws. Archer & Smith were pretty great here as bullies. Archer had Watanabe up for Dark Days, and Tenzan saved with mongolian chops. They discarded the ring of Tenzan, hit the Killer Bomb, and that was that. They cut a promo, saying that they were the best team in the world, and that they were going to win back the IWGP titles. Everybody worked hard here, and I know he just came back from injury, but it’s just getting hard to watch Tenzan lately. KES attacked Satoshi Kojima (who was ringside) post match, going after his injured shoulder. He was healthy enough to bump around, so he should be back shortly. TenKoji & KES were scheduled to have a series of matches in both Japan & Texas before the injury. **3/4
4. Togi Makabe, Tomoaki Honma & Kota Ibushi vs. Prince Devitt, Karl Anderson & Bad Luck Fale – This was the “debut” of Ibushi as a full timer. He is staying at junior heavyweight. It looked like they were setting up some singles matches here, with Devitt/Ibushi being an obvious junior title program, Anderson pinning Honma, and Makabe doing a pull apart with Fale. Devitt & Ibushi are world class ad always have great matches, so that’s fine. I think Anderson & Honma could have a killer singles bout. But I wouldn’t do Makabe/Fale, because i’m not sure i’d want to put Fale into singles matches yet. I don’t think he can hang with most of this roster. This had real good action, and Fale did look good cleaning house as a monster, which is his best role. Honma missed his top rope headbutt, and ate a Gun Stun for the pin. Ibushi looked great and the crowd ate him up. ***
5. Tomohiro Ishii vs. Katsuyori Shibata – The rematch from the G1 classic, and they may have done it too soon. This was good, but it was never going to live up. They worked slower this time, but still beat the living shit out of each other. Twitter & the boards seemed to like this more than I did. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it, but it was lacking something. Coolest spot was Shibata setting up his corner dropkick, but Ishii following him out and delivering one of his own. They also did a stretch where they would hit big moves and continuously kick out at one. Another cool sequence saw Shibata go for a Go 2 Sleep, but Ishii countered and delivered a head butt. So then Ishii went for a brainbuster, and Shibata countered and delivered a head butt of his own. Shibata eventually won with the Penalty Kick. ***1/2
Intermission saw the star of the upcoming Tiger Mask movie, Sho Aikawa, cut a promo. They played the trailer, and it looks really cheesy.
I was expecting the blocks to be revealed for G1 Tag League, but it never happened.
Daniel & Rolles Gracie came out, to the sound of crickets. They made an open challenge for Tokyo Dome. Nobody cared. More on this below.
6. Yuji Nagata vs. Kazushi Sakuraba – Well, I hated this. Sakuraba is just not my cup of tea. He’s the shits. The crowd was so not into this early on as they did fake MMA. This was passe 15 years ago for fucks sake, why am I subjected to this in 2013? Nagata worked his ass off and got the crowd to come around for the finish, while Saku did his usual routine of contributing nothing and looking like he’d rather be anywhere else in the universe than in the ring. Nagata won, but the story was the Gracie’s, who have zero personality and moved & spoke like they had lobotomies. Nagata spoke english and accepted their challenge, and apparently will team with Saku. The crowd finally got excited for this. So it looks like Nagata & Saku vs Daniel & Rolles Gracie at the Dome. Great, more fake MMA that people stopped caring about a decade ago. That match should be all sorts of awful. **
7. NEVER Openweight Title (& IWGP Heavyweight Title shot): Tetsuya Naito (c) vs. Yujiro Takahashi – This was basically the same match they always work. It was good, but nothing special, and Yujiro really carried things. Yujiro attacked the leg early, but thankfully abandoned ship, because selling the leg is not something Naito is very good at. The crowd, which usually loves Naito, was not all that into this match. Maybe because it’s been done a million times, or maybe because they were smart enough to realize there was no way Naito could lose. Naito blocked the Tokyo Pimps and hit a dragon suplex for two. The finish was the key. Naito used a Gloria, then a Stardust Press (which missed the mark badly as he landed at Yujio’s feet, something that happens way too much with that move), but instead of the pin he then locked in the submission move that nobody cares about, the Pluma Banca, and Yujiro tapped. This was smart, because he needs to start scoring wins with that thing or else nobody will ever react to it. The match was good enough, but I still have the same complaints about Naito, and they aren’t going away. He’s not in the same universe as Tanahashi or Okada as a performer, at least not yet. ***3/4
8. IWGP Intercontinental Title: Shinsuke Nakamura (c) vs. Naomichi Marufuji – Marufuji, who once was easily top five in the world, has really slipped the last few years, thanks to constant injuries, and inconsistent performances. He really needed to deliver here, and holy shit did he ever. This was vintage Marufuji. He was crisp, his timing was great, and the match was incredible. The crowd was also way more into both of these guys than Naito, which again is unusual as Naito is usually super over. But this match being so good probably helped. Maru used a piledriver on the apron, and I cringed, as did BJ Whitmer. Later, Nak whiffed on a top rope Boma Ye, and Maru connected with a Shiranui for two. Lots of super fast and cool looking kick/knee exchanges, with each guy staying one step ahead of the other. Maru kept trying for the Tiger Frosien to no avail. Nak eventually hit two Boma Ye’s for the pin. It felt a little too short, otherwise I have no gripes. This was great, a must see match. I was hoping for a rematch, but Suzuki came down and challenged Nak, who accepted. If Nak loses, he must join Suzuki-gun. Hmm. ****1/4
9. IWGP Heavyweight Title: Kazuchika Okada (c) vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi – Shame on all of us for ever questioning doing a sixth match between these two. They’ve had five matches, two of which I gave five stars (Invasion Attack, G1), and the “worst” of which I gave four (WrestleKingdom), and this was the best yet. Years from now, this will be the match people point to as the legendary matchup between these two. People who don’t even like the style will be pimping this. Early in the match, Tanahashi appeared to have blown out his knee. The crowd went silent. He was playing possum, and worked the rest of the match heel. Just brilliant and unexpected. Tanahashi was so good and so aggressive here, that it made me want to see a full fledged heel turn. He went after the arm to immobilize the Rainmaker, similar to Invasion Attack. But he was waaay more vicious about it. And I mean VICIOUS. Kicks, stomps, dragon screws, headbutts, you name it. This is how you go after a body part, and Okada sold it like death. This was pro wrestling at it’s highest level. Okada went for Red Ink, but his arm was dead. He went for a Rainmaker, but Tanahashi blocked and Okada sold the pain like he was shot. Tanahashi then used a Gedo clutch, right in front of Gedo:
He eventually hit a Rainmaker, but it had no “power” and he only got a two count. He finally managed to lock in Red Ink, but Tanahashi made the ropes. Okada was fantastic fighting from underneath, and Tanahashi’s subtle heel stuff was off the charts good. Tanahashi hit his dragon suplex, slingblade, High Fly Flow combo, but Okada rolled outside. Tanahashi hit a HFF crossbody on the floor. Both sold it:
Tanahashi recovered first, but Okada reversed into a tombstone. Okada rolled him in, hit two high dropkicks, and went for a Rainmaker. Tanahashi reversed, hit one of his own, and got a 2.9999 count. I was going mental. Okada’s 2.9’s always fool me. At this point all I could think about was how these guys are world’s ahead of Naito, and how Naito’s push was going to drive me nuts if Okada were to lose and get bumped down. Tanahashi hit a Styles Clash, and went up for the HFF. Okada got the knees up. Tombstone. Crowd going bonkers. Me going bonkers. They reversed each other on FOUR Rainmaker attempts, with too much cool shit to describe, before Okada finally hit one and got the pin. Tanahashi can not challenge Okada ever again, and Okada wins the CMLL Universal title. From Tanahashi working heel, to the arm work, the counters, the drama with what was at stake, this was five fucking stars. If six existed, this was it. Lock up Match of the Year, it’s over. One of the greatest matches i’ve ever seen. *****
Post match, Bullet Club attacked Okada, with Karl Anderson laying out the next challenge. So Anderson gets the “keep busy” title match before Dome.
Overall this show was nothing special until the final two matches, which were really great. Both are must see, and the main event is an all time classic.
As far as Tanahashi/Okada goes, for me this rivalry has now surpassed everything with the exception of Misawa/Kobashi. And it’s nipping at the heels of that. Tanahashi is an all time great, and Okada is 25 years old and already well on his way. And as great as Tanahashi is, I think Okada might be even better, and he probably isn’t even close to peaking.
Special thanks to @SenorLARIATO for the gifs.