Ryusuke Taguchi & Yoshitatsu def. Jushin Thunder Liger & Henare
Two consecutive decent matches for the beleaguered Yoshitatsu, soon to be shuffled off to Mexico where he’ll be Arena Mexico’s problem. After failing to successfully hunt one member of the Bullet Club and having his lone stablemate turn on him, one of the saddest things in wrestling is seeing the “Hunter Club” unit designation next to Tatsu’s name on the preshow card graphic. Liger loses again, and based on some of his recent performances abroad (particularly in PWG and Rev Pro), and his yearly hints that he’s done with things like Best of the Super Juniors, it feels like Liger would be more than content slipping into the easy prelim legend role. After the winners put away Henare (who fights with real spirit, and who at minimum looks like he’ll be a really good worker), Liger and Tatsu joined Taguchi in a goofy dance number. ***
Tomohiro Ishii & Toru Yano def. Yujiro Takahshi & BONE SOLDIER
After interjecting himself in the GoD/GBH six man match one night earlier, Yano replaced Gedo here against the Bullet Club C-team. A neat and tidy win for CHAOS, who are now a third entry in the IWGP Tag Team Title match at Wrestle Kingdom, which is a pretty lame piece of booking, considering GBH had to labor through a month long tournament and all Yano has to do is show up after his NOAH vacation and demand to be inserted into the match. A three way tag is a downgrade, especially considering GoD & GBH are coming off the heels of an excellent World Tag League Final. This also removes Ishii from the NEVER six man gauntlet, where he’ll be replaced by Jado, which is another net negative with one of the best wrestlers in the world being replaced by one of the worst major league wrestlers in the world. This series of moves hardly ruins Wrestle Kingdom, but it does suck some of the juice out of two mid card matches that looked way better before these dominoes fell. **3/4
Togi Makabe, Tomoaki Honma, Juice Robinson def. Tama Tonga, Tanga Loa, Chase Owens
I rarely go under 2-stars for a major league match or any substance with a legitimate finish, because when you’re dealing with that caliber of talent, it’s rare when you get something less than average. This is one of those rare instances. This was heatless, lacked and fire, and felt like most of the participants had one foot out the door for their two and a half week Christmas vacation. Yano attempted his bell ringing trick just as Makabe was about to finish off Owens with a King Kong Knee Drop, but unlike GoD the night before, Makabe wasn’t shook, aimed a middle finger in Yano’s direction, and dropped the big knee on The Crown Jewel. The hot Yano angle you need to see took place the night before. This match is an absolute skip. *3/4
Yuji Nagata def. Manabu Nakanishi
The final New Japan show of the year produced their final must see singles match of 2016. Nakanishi, who is this close to being immobile to the point that he’s unwatchable, was incredible here, busting out his awkwardly charming pescado, his shockingly impressive top rope flying cross body, and a top rope drop kick that had me rethinking my Best Flying Wrestler list and wondering if I should shoehorn in a 49-year old man who looks like he can barely walk working in more aerial maneuvers in one match than you get on an entire episode of 205 Live. The match structure was simple and effective, with Nakanishi beating down Nagata and making you believe, Nagata making the comeback, and Nakanishi surviving the big shots (including working in the most emotional count kickout of the year) until finally running out of gas. Look, if a younger wrestler moved around like Nakanishi does, they would be rightfully buried, and everything here wasn’t crisp and perfect, but when a guy about to turn 50 who had one singles match all year prior to this works this hard and produces a match this good (and it was genuinely very good), I feel no regrets grading on a curve. About the only major critique I can make is that with no big plans for Nagata on the immediate horizon, Nakanishi should have won. That would have blwon the roof off of Korakuen. ****
Katsuyori Shibata & Tiger Mask def. Hirooki Goto & Jado
This was basically a rematch from one night prior (with Tiger Mask in place of Liger), but with the result flipped. With Shibata & Goto splitting the go home’s, the NEVER title result at Wrestle Kingdom remains hard to predict. As for this match, it was slightly better than the poor version from the night before, which Jado actively dragged down. Jado wasn’t much better here, but this match had better psychology and a funny spot where Jado’s blows were completely no sold by Shibata as he obliterated a trapped Goto in the corner. If you’re going to watch one Shibata/Goto tag from these two Korakuen shows, make it this one, but prepare to be underwhelmed either way. **3/4
Hiroshi Tanahashi, Satoshi Kojima, Hiroyoshi Tenzan, KUSHIDA, David Finlay def. Tetsuya Naito, EVIL, SANADA, BUSHI, Hiromu Takahashi
The babyface side entered to “High Energy”, and because Kojima scored the fall in what was a fast paced, fun, fairly one sided riot of a match (featuring a great KUSHIDA/Hiromu brawl that felt like a disconnected side dish to the mainline bout), that ring walk will go down as perhaps the final time we’ll ever hear Tanahshi’s iconic theme played while he’s in a ring. Tanahashi is debuting a new theme at Wrestle Kingdom, and like most new themes, I’m sure we’ll all hate it until it grows on us. High Energy hasn’t always been Tanahashi’s entrance jam, but it will go down as his best known, and along with “Subconscious” and “Rainmaker”, is one of the three entrance themes synonymous with the resurgent 2012-2015 period of the company. January 4 is gong to be a weird day. ***1/2
Bad Luck Fale & Kenny Omega def. Kazuchika Okada & YOSHI-HASHI
This was an excellent tag match, with Omega in particular at his absolute best. If Omega works with the same spark, the same snap, in the main event at Wrestle Kingdom, and creatively the match delivers as expected, we are in for an instant classic.
Omega’s year long push is peaking at just the right time, and he’s on the cusp of his final breakthrough to super stardom. A win on New Japan’s biggest stage, over New Japan’s biggest star, could be the final ingredient needed to get him completely over the top. An Okada loss does zero damage. Naito is already a made guy and doesn’t need the title (in fact, his character works better without it). Tanahashi’s time is done.
It’s the right time, it’s the right show, it’s the right opponent. Kenny Omega should win the IWGP Heavyweight Title at Wrestle Kingdom. ****
The final NJPW show of the year exhibited a stark contrast to what the company looked like at the start of 2016. AJ Styles, gone. Shinsuke Nakamura, gone. Guns & Gallows, gone. Tanahashi in full step back mode. Tetsuya Naito, now a bonafide main eventer. Elevations to varying degrees for Katsuyori Shibata, EVIL, BUSHI, Michael Elgin, YOSHI-HASHI, David Finlay, Juice Robinson, and Tama Tonga. The additions of Will Ospreay, SANADA, and Hiromu Takahashi. This was a transition year, coming just at the right time, on the heels of what many considered a stale back end of 2015. Everyone expected a slight step back before moving forward. Instead, they thrived. They grew.
More than all of the changes above, perhaps the most important transition of all will prove to be Kenny Omega going from bored junior to Intercontinental champion to the first foreign G1 winner to (perhaps) the next IWGP champion and next great star. The transition year is complete. In 2017 New Japan moves forward, with Nakamura and Styles ancient history, Tanahashi stepping aside, and Okada leading the company into a new era along with Naito and Omega. There are very bold moves planned, and some of them seem insane. Almost as insane of losing Nakamura, Styles, and Ibushi while halting the push of Tanahashi and somehow managing to thrive, and even grow.
2016 was playing with house money and coming away a winner. 2017 will be a year of real risk. What was fresh and new in 2016 can’t and won’t be new again in 2017. But that’s the nature of the business. Not a single person reading this could have predicted a fraction of what we saw this year. I hope 2017 proves to be just as unpredictable.