New Japan Pro Wrestling rolled into Osaka’s Bodymaker Colosseum for NJPW “Power Struggle” featuring a loaded lineup of singles matches that would help continue to set the scene for January’s Tokyo Dome event, plus two very intriguing tag team title matches.

While the outcome was certainly not in doubt in the IWGP Heavyweight Title main event, the question was whether Kazuchika Okada’s title defense against Karl Anderson could match the quality of Hiroshi Tanahashi’s match of the year contender that he produced with Anderson earlier this year. The storyline coming in was Anderson, who lost to Okada in the 2012 G1 Climax final, seeking revenge for Okada “taking his spot” as IWGP champion.

Hiroshi Tanahashi and Tomohiro Ishii were given the nearly impossible task of matching their G1 tilt, in what was yet another Tanahashi match of the year contender in a year that has seemingly featured 8-10 such matches. Tanahashi’s 2013 has to be considered one of the greatest in ring years in professional wrestling history and Ishii seems primed for the first major push of his life with his unique underdog charisma.

In perhaps the most intriguing of the big singles matches, Shinsuke Nakamura, who has single handedly shown that it is still possible to elevate a title these days with his brilliant run as IWGP Intercontinental champ, defended his title against Minoru Suzuki. Of the four big singles bouts, this was the least predictable and a potential show stealer, even on a show featuring multiple potential high-level matchups.

Tetsuya Naito is sort of running in place waiting for Dome and faced Masato Tanaka, the man he defeated for the NEVER Openweight championship several months back. There was zero percent chance Tanaka could win, since the Dome title shot was on the line, but these two always have good matches, even if the veteran Tanaka tends to eat up the offense.

The Young Bucks debuted in New Japan this month as members of the Bullet Club, and have been given the rocket pack push, defeating Barreta & Brian Kendrick, Gedo & Jado, and Forever Hooligans on their way to winning the 2013 Super Junior Tag Tournament. In addition, on this, their first tour, they headlined on every house show stop teaming with Anderson against Okada and a rotating combination of partners, and were already challenging for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team titles on the PPV at the end of the tour. They are the injection that the stale junior tag scene badly needed.

An odd three-way tag match, with both the IWGP Heavyweight Titles (TenKoji) & the NWA World Tag Team Titles (Killer Elite Squad) on the line featured two falls, one for each title. NWA World Champion Rob Conway returned, teaming with NWA Branded Outlaw Wrestling’s Jax Dane, a big hoss who was making his in ring New Japan debut after previously acting as Conway’s bodyguard. There were questions as to whether Dane could hang at this level, with perhaps the most talented roster in the world.

Osaka, which is typically a hot crowd, was just treated one week ago to a very well received Dragon Gate show that drew 5,000 fans. No attendance was available, as of this writing, but with different fan bases, I doubt the Dragon Gate show had much of an effect if any on this event. UPDATE – is reporting 6,400 fans – Super No Vacancy

0. Yujiro Takahashi, YOSHI-HASHI, Forever Hooligans vs. Captain New Japan, BUSHI, KUSHIDA, Manabu Nakanishi – Nothing match. The big spot was Nakanishi doing a plancha. That got a big pop even though it looked terrible. The Hooligans hit the Contract Killer on BUSHI for the win. *1/2

1. IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Titles – TAKA Michinoku & Taichi (c) vs. The Young Bucks – No Bullet Club at ringside for the Bucks. The champions worked face. TAKA & Taichi, who surprisingly knocked off the Forever Hooligans to win the titles, came in with one successful defense, defeating Gedo & Jado on a TAKA & Tachi produce independent show last week. After a series of crazy dives off the top and over the railing, TAKA got a visual tap on a crossface after a ref bump. The Bucks came back with a double superkick on TAKA for two, and another near fall on a springboard spike piledriver. After dispatching Taichi (who broke up the pin following the piledriver) from the ring, they hit More Bang for Your Buck to win the titles. Not bad, but not at the level of the Hooligans/TimeSplitters matches. Post match, The Hooligans hit the ring and challenged for the titles, as did KUSHIDA, who said in English, “Time Splitters coming soon”. Then Taichi talked. It appears a four way for the titles is coming, possibly for the Tokyo Dome show. In an interesting note, The Young Bucks now hold tag team titles under both the New Japan & Dragon Gate (Open the United Gate) banners.  **3/4

2. Tomoaki Honma vs. Katsuyori Shibata – The second extended squash this week for Honma, who did a masterful job getting Bad Luck Fale over as a monster on 11/6. He had his moments here, including a big lariat & brainbuster for a two count, but then he missed his falling headbutt finish and Shibata continued with the murder. Honma’s mouth was busted open, which made for a great visual when he caught the leg on a Penalty Kick attempt and then ate a million hard slaps, with blood flying everywhere, as Shibata tried to free himself. Honma survived a choke, the big corner dropkick, a pedigree, and a gut wrench suplex before falling to Hirooki Goto’s finish, foreshadowing Shibata vs. Goto at Dome. Shibata was all business here, and stormed off right at the bell. This was so good. As good as it gets for a squash, and Honma is my new favorite guy to get people over. He really excels in the role. ***1/2

3. Yuji Nagata & Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Toru Yano & Takashi Iizuka – I was not looking forward to this. Rare is the match where Yano is my favorite guy. Iizuka went after Nogami again (the announcer), put a bell around his neck, and painted his face like Doraemon, a Japanese anime cat. This was a lot of brawling and Saku’s fake MMA that looks horrible. Nagata showed some good fire, but as expected, I could not get into this. Crowd loved the finish, with Shibata spitting blue mist into Iizuka’s eyes as Iizuka loomed with the Iron Glove. Then the faces finished off the heels with dueling arm submissions. **

4. IWGP Tag & NWA World Tag Double Championship 3WAY Match: [62nd IWGP Champions] Hiroyoshi Tenzan & Satoshi Kojima vs. [NWA Champions] Lance Archer & Davey Boy Smith Jr. vs. [Challengers] Rob Conway & Jax Dane – This match was set up at an NWA show in San Antonio, and had wacky rules, with two falls, one for each set of titles. The question mark here was how would Dane do, stepping up and working the biggest match of his career? This was also Kojima’s return match from his shoulder injury. Bruce Tharpe waived a giant NWA flag and cutting an anti-Japan promo before the introductions. The NWA titles were contested in the first fall. This was tornado style. Dane & Conway dominated Tenzan for most of the fall as everybody else brawled outside. Dane looked good using power moves. Conway went for the Ego Trip but Kojima made the save. KES spent most of this on the floor. Tharpe hopped on the apron to distract Kojima, and Dane hit a big spear. Tharpe is so, so awesome in his role. Conway then hit the Ego Trip on Kojima to win the NWA titles. IWGP fall was mostly KES vs. TenKoji. KES hit two Killer Bombs, pinning Tenzan, to win the IWGP titles. This was a good all out brawl. Dane did well, and Kojima looked good even with the taped up shoulder. ***

5. Togi Makabe & Kota Ibushi vs. Prince Devitt & Bad Luck Fale – This was ok, nothing wrong with it, but it had trouble keeping my attention. Makabe is a guy who knows when to turn it on & turn it off, and here he turned it off. Ibushi was the best thing going in this match, and the crowd loved everything he did. It heated up when he was isolated with Devitt. Devitt survived an onslaught, and Fale made a key save when it looked like he was cooked. Makabe decided to participate in the match at that point, and cleared the ring of Fale. Ibushi hit the Phoenix Splash, picking up the win and setting up the likely IWGO Junior Heavyweight Title match at Dome. Fale & Makabe dragged this down some. Fale looked better on 11/6 in the single vs. Honma. **3/4


6. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Tomohiro Ishii – This was a rematch from their classic at G1 that has a good shot at placing in Match of the Year balloting. Tanahashi’s back was taped up. He could really use some time off, but that is never going to happen unless he can’t walk. Tanahashi was voted into the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame this week. The story early was Tanahashi trying to stand up to Ishii, but being on the losing end of each exchange. He used speed & flying to gain an edge. Tanahashi worked on the legs, took Ishii down with a dragon screw, and used a cloverleaf. Ishii fought off some suplexes, got smart to the leg attacks, and used a dragon screw of his own on Tanahashi. The crowd started to get behind Ishii at this point. Ishii hit a big suplex off the top rope for a two count. It was clear at this point that they were working a different style of match than at G1. After a power bomb, Ishii hit a lariat, but Tanahashi fighting spirit no sold and hit a big slap. He went back to the leg attacks, and worked another cloverleaf. Tanahashi worked him over from here, with a mix of boos from the crowd. Ishii caught him on top again, but Tanahashi blocked the suplex and won a strike exchange leading to a standing High Fly Flow. Then a Dragon Suplex, but Ishii blocked a sling blade and hit one of his own. Tanahashi jumped right up and hit a slingblade, but only got a one count, and both men were down. This was starting to get great at this point. Ishii caught him going up AGAIN, and hit another suplex off the top. Big lariat and now Tanahashi kicked out at one. They followed with dueling headbutts, scary stuff. Styled Clash, High Fly Flow, Tanahashi wins. Great match. This was well paced and told a great story. Tanahashi is so good it’s becoming stupid. He never fails to deliver in these big matches. ****1/4

7. Tokyo Dome IWGP Heavyweight Championship Challenger Rights Contract & NEVER Openweight Championship Match – Tetsuya Naito (c) vs. Masato Tanaka – It seems like every time these two hook up, Tanaka takes the majority of the match. This was no different. Tanaka put Naito through a table and it broke in a really ugly & scary way, and Naito was busted open. This was a grizzled vet giving a beating to a pretty boy. I mean, Naito was getting nothing. Tanaka missed a Sliding D, but landed on his feet on a belly to back and hit a Sliding D to Naito’s back. Naito started his first sustained comeback with a flying forearm & dropkick off the top. German for two, held on, side suplex. He went up for the Stardust Press, but missed. Crowd wasn’t really into it, but a small Naito chant broke out. Tanaka won a strike exchange with a big lariat, and Naito was spitting out blood. Great visual. Another big standing lariat for two (nobody bought it), and the Sliding D, which got a pop for the kickout. Naito hit a dragon, a German, and the Stardust Press for the win. The crowd was flat for the finishing stretch, aside for the Sliding D kickout. This was a good match, the majority of which was taken by Tanaka again with a shocking lack of crowd heat. ***1/4

8. IWGP Intercontinental Championship Match – Shinsuke Nakamura (c) vs. Minoru Suzuki – An added stipulation here was that Nakamura must join Suzuki-gun should he lose. The entrances were like a charisma explosion. You can’t take your eyes off either guy. They did the same mat work early that they did in the tag a few days ago. Suzuki was ducking a bunch of wild strikes from the apron, laughing & mocking Nak until Nak hit an enzuguiri. Nak tried a Boma Ye on the apron, but Suzuki moved, and Nak hit the post. This led to Suzuki working the leg. There was a lot of back & forth, but Nak never ignored his injured limb. They rather lost me during the middle portion. Suzuki was working hard to get the crowd into it. Nak went for a Boma Ye, but MiSu caught the injured leg and locked it up. Crowd was still dead, not buying the hold. This was really hurting the match. Suzuki let go and went for a choke instead. Again, they received nothing from the crowd. Crowd finally popped for the Gotch Piledriver attempt. Nak escaped, hit two Boma Ye’s, and won the match. The match structure and execution were good, but the crowd just didn’t react to anything. What they did react to was Tanahashi revealing himself as the next challenger at Dome. That’s some semi-final. ***

9. IWGP Heavyweight Championship Match – Kazuchika Okada (c) vs. Karl Anderson – The video package for this match was pretty great. Anderson had the entire Bullet Club with him; Okada came out with…Gedo. Anderson offered a handshake at the bell, Okada kicked his had away. Then Anderson gave a clean break in the ropes. This was all posturing, as at the first opportunity, Anderson tossed Okada out and held the ref as the entire Bullet Club put the boots to the champion. Anderson used a reverse Gun Stun over the rail on the outside. This led to a long control period. The crowd was more into the meat of this match than the previous two. A big transition spot was Okada catching Anderson on the top rope with a drop kick to the outside, then a DDT over the rail as payback for the reverse Gun Stun. Then he beat him with a chair. Okada mocked the Bullet Club taunt and did his Rainmaker appeal. However, the Bullet Club hopped on the apron and distracted him enough for Anderson to regain control. A big running powerbomb got two. He followed with another reverse Gun Stun, this time coming off the top. Anderson then mocked Okada’s taunt. Fale held Okada and Anderson hit a dangerous looking on leg dropkick to the face on the apron, followed by a powerbomb into the side of the ring. Gun Stun off the top, two count. Shoulder breaker for the patented Okada 2.9 kickout. This ignited the crowd. Okada connects with the audience so much better than Naito at this point. They did about a thousand hot reversals & counters around the Rainmaker, until Okada finally hit one. This is why the Rainmaker is the best move in wrestling, because it lends itself to those crazy closing stretches with the awesome reversals & counters. At two, Devitt yanked the ref out. All hell broke loose. Okada fought off the Bucks. Gedo saved him from Fale with a low blow. Devitt ate a dropkick. Okada delivered a tombstone to Anderson and hit the Rainmaker for the win. Naito came out to hype Dome, and he got ZERO reaction, aside from a smattering of boos. It was scary. He spoke and was booed yet again. Then they did dueling poses and they booed him a third time. Wow. Make no mistake; the two biggest stars on this show were Okada & Tanahashi. ****

This was a very good, but not great show, at least by New Japan standards. Some disappointing matches (Nakamura vs. Suzuki), and a dead crowd for the second half of the show hurt it to some extent. Okada’s ability to connect with the crowd won them back in the main event. Aside from Sumo Hall during G1, Naito has not been over. He was flat out booed here, which surprised me. I get the sense the Tokyo Dome will be solidly behind Okada come January 4. Naito looked a little surprised at the reactions he got.

Okada even brought it up in the post-match presser, when asked his take on Naito: “I guess it was obvious from the reaction of the audience. Was he welcomed? He was literally booed.”

Is it too late to call an audible and get Shibata in the Dome main event?

  • WrestleKingdom looks something like this:
  • Okada vs. Naito
  • Nakamura vs. Tanahashi
  • Shibata vs. Goto
  • Devitt vs. Ibushi
  • Sakuraba/Nagata vs. Gracie’s
  • 4-way Junior tag title match
  • KES vs. winners of Tag League
  • Makabe vs. Fale