New Japan Pro Wrestling
Wrestle Kingdom 11
January 4, 2017
Tokyo Dome – Tokyo, Japan
Watch: NJPW World
Mike Elgin won the 14-man preshow Rumble Match
The night began with #BigMike walking to the ring, looking like he was being forced at gunpoint. Billy Gunn, who was the fastest novelty to ever wear off in wrestling history last month at World Tag League, started things off with Elgin, and it was clear he wasn’t in a bumping mood. BONE SOLDIER was next, and watching Twitter reactions of casuals who had never seen him was one of the highlights of the bout. Turns out BONER MAN’s role on this night was to be tossed out by returning cult favorite Cheeeseburger for a big pop.
60-year old Kuniaki Kobayashi was a competent Yoshiaki Fujiawara replacement for the smarmy fan who likes to say things like “this old guy is better than the actual New Japan roster!”, except unlike Fujiwara, Kobayashi was able to move around pretty well and was actually decent. The rest of the usual New Japan veterans filled out the dance card, with the only other surprises being Hiro Saito (who has now been in all three Rambo’s) and Scott Norton, who looked exactly how you would picture 2016 Scott Norton. Norton murdered Ryusuke Taguchi with a powerbomb to score an elimination, before taking an over the top elimination at the hands of Elgin. Elgin dumped the final four men, which included a spirited exchange with Cheeseburger as the final two men remaining, to win the 2017 Rambo.
My unofficial count (the camera work isn’t the best for this match) was five eliminations for Elgin, who was clearly booked as a monster here as a make good for not being on the main card, presumably due to uncertainty about his face injury. These matches are like early Royal Rumbles where you can sort of sense they are learning how to book spots for them as the years move along. Bumped it up a star for the cool exchanges at the end between Elgin & ‘burger, and for being FUN. **
Order of elimination, as best I could tell: BONER (Cheeseburger), Gunn (Elgin), Kobayashi (Tiger Mask), Manabu Nakanishi (everyone), Jushin Thunder Liger (?), Tiger Mask (?), Yuji Nagata (Saito, Tenzan), Yoshitatsu (Nagata?), Taguchi (Norton), Saito (Elgin), Norton (Elgin), Tenzan (Elgin), Cheeseburger (Elgin)
Tiger Mask W def. Tiger The Dark
As expected (hinted at months ago, and later reported first by VOW thankyouverymuch), Tiger The Dark was ACH. He did a much better job at trying to avoid his signature stuff while also still pulling off hot moves. On the other hand, Kota Ibushi as Tiger Mask W is much less subtle, tossing in token Tiger Suplexes and such before basically running through the usual Ibushi playbook, which in this case included a springboard moonsault to the floor (more on that later) and finishing off his cartoon foe with the Last Ride powerbomb.
Similar to Ibushi in his first match as Tiger Mask W, ACH seemed to be struggling with the bulky mask a little. The work here was clean, with just enough flipz and action to keep things interesting. Perfect for what it set out to be, and a decent enough opener. ***
Roppongi Vice def. Young Bucks to win the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Titles
They started things off with the Bucks teasing the old Honky Tonk Man taking a powder intentional count out spot. In this case, it’s to bait the opponents into running them down, and then ambush them, to set up their own cheap count out win. I hate this spot in New Japan because titles can change hands via count out. RPG Vice has no incentive to chase the Bucks down, because they win the titles if the Bucks walk away. You could argue RPG Vice are valiant babyfaces who want no part of a cheap win, but they are CHAOS members after all, not white meat territory babyfaces.
Anyway, that’s a nit pick, because I ended up loving this match.
This was the Bucks usual wacky spotfest style cluster (and I mean that in a good way) until Baretta did a flip dive over the top rope, completely missing everybody, landing flat on his back on the ramp with a sickening thud that echoed through the Dome, and then died. R.I.P. Trent.
Baretta wasn’t really dead, but the spot was amazing, and it took him out of the rest of the match. This left Rocky to fight alone, which led to a payoff of an ongoing storyline, and took this match over the top from being a run of the mill junior tag prelim to something special.
For a good chunk of 2016, Romero had lost his groove, with Baretta carrying the team. Baretta was winning all of the falls, Rocky was losing all of the falls, and Baretta was very displeased. It looked like the paint-by-numbers setup for tag team breakup, until Roppongi rallied to win the Super Juniors Tag Tournament. Rocky figured this was the cure to their problems, but Trent was still side eyeing him.
Back to the match. With Baretta dead, Rocky had to figure out how to beat the Bucks (who were the perfect cocky asshole foils for the story) on his own. The Bucks picked him apart, and in a great spot that I bought as the finish, they quickly snuffed out Rocky’s perfectly timed fighting spirit fire up with a double superkick that Romero was barely able to kick out of. With the Bucks in total control and on the verge of hitting the match ending More Bang For Your Buck, Rocky schoolboy’d Nick to win the match
Rocky’s performance, in both his raw work and in getting over the story with just the right doses drawing sympathy and showing fire, was elite tier. It was beyond refreshing to not only see a standard two vs two junior tag title match, but one that was built around a long term storyline and real payoff. I could’t tell you the details of any of the previous Wrestle Kingdom junior tag title multi-team clusters, but I’ll remember this match for a long time. I loved all of this. ****
LIJ (EVIL, SANADA, BUSHI) def. CHAOS (YOSHI-HASHI, Will Ospreay, Jado), Bullet Club (Bad Luck Fale, Yujiro Takahashi, Hangman Page), Satoshi Kojima, Ricochet, David Finlay (c) to win the NEVER Openweight Six Man Titles
It looks like “cramming all of the leftovers onto the Wrestle Kingdom show” is yet another function of the trios titles, in addition to giving select undercard guys a purpose and adding juice to the mid card of random Destruction shows.
This was an uneven but mostly entertaining bout, highlighted early by Will Ospreay’s hot sequence with Hangman Page, and highlighted late by Team Unexplainable Chemistry (my unofficial name for Koji, Ricochet, and Finlay) tearing the house down at the finish.
Bullet Club may as well not have existed if not for the Ospreay/Page sequence. Yujiro pinned Jado to eliminate CHAOS, and was submitted by SANADA moments later, but was otherwise barely more useful than the invisible Bad Luck Fale.
TUC hit the ring and business picked up. Kojima was a house of fire (especially in the closing stretch) and the most over person on the entire show to this point. Ricochet (and Finlay!) flew around like maniacs. This was largely an enormous waste of a lot of talented people, and I still think it was a mistake not booking the hottest singles match on Earth on your biggest show (Ospreay vs Ricochet), but despite a dull few minutes during the middle portion of the bout, this was a perfectly enjoyable prelim match. ***1/4
Cody def. Juice Robinson
This played out exactly how I figured it would, with Juice working incredibly hard and putting in an excellent performance in all facets, from showing fire, to working the crowd, to offensive execution (including tremendous striking), and as always, his top notch bumping and selling. Cody held up his end just fine, with clean work and some real good heel mannerisms.
The psychology here was sound. Cody was cocky, Juice was the fiery upstart trying to win the biggest match of his life. Cody rolled through a high cross body and used the American Nightmare, which was a key spot, because even though Juice made the ropes, it weakened his leg and ultimately cost him the match. Juice fought back from a Disaster Kick (delivered on the apron) and elevated DDT, but he lost Cody on a powerbomb attempt due to his injured leg. Cody hit the Cross Rhodes, and that was that.
Simple, tight work, and good basic psychology. I probably liked this more than most. A really good match. ***1/2
Adam Cole def. Kyle O’Reilly to win the ROH World Heavyweight Title
Very similar to the previous match, in that it featured good clean work and very sound psychology, with the added benefit of a backstory. The problem was that despite working with passion and conveying genuine hate, the live crowd had no feel for the history between the two and failed to respond accordingly. It wasn’t for lack of effort from either man, particularly O’Reilly, whose pinpoint strikes in particular had real snap behind them. Cole’s perfromance was similar to Cody in the previous match, as he more than held up his end by bringing good heel work to the table that may have worked better in a smaller room, and which definitely would have worked better in front of fans who understood the dynamic between the two men. These guys were in a tough spot. Had the match gotten over, this would have been very similar to a hot 10:00 G1 undercard match that comes in around 4-stars. As it was, the subdued crowd sapped some of the excitement and took this down a notch. ***1/2
Toru Yano & Tomohiro Ishii def. Guerrillas of Destiny and Great Bash Heel (Togi Makabe & Tomoaki Honma) to win the IWGP Tag Team Titles
“I hate you motherfucker!”
“Eat shit you asshole!”
With the ring mic seemingly set on max, we were treated to the most uncouth trash talk in wrestling history. We were also treated to the uncouth intrusion of Toru Yano in what would have otherwise been a great match.
This match was frustrating. The annoying inclusion of Yano & Ishii proved to be just that, as GBH and GoD worked incredibly hard and put together a match very similar to their great World Tag League final (which was one of the best tag matches in the world in 2016), ruined every few minutes when we were reminded that Yano & Ishii were a part of it.
It was utterly amazing, actually. Yano would disappear for long stretches of time, the match would kick into high gear, and he’d pop back up to kill the momentum. The finish was a fitting, final, non-verbal FUCK YOU, with Yano slipping under the ropes to steal the pin, which fits his gimmick and fits the story, but just because you tell a coherent story doesn’t mean I have to like it. The GBH & GoD stuff was a continuation of the ugly-in-all-of-the-right-ways brutality of the WTL match, but this was a complete waste of Ishii, and Yano’s presence was like casting Pauly Shore as the comic relief in a Martin Scorsese movie. Picture Shore popping up every 20 minutes or so in Goodfellas, right in the middle of the most intense scenes, to say “Hey Buuuuuu-dy!” to a confused Henry Hill, and that’s what we had here. This could have been really great. ***1/2
Hiromu Takahashi def. KUSHIDA to win the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title
This began the run of four consecutive incredible matches where I’m going to have a hard time conveying just how great this two hours plus of wrestling truly was. All four matches were vastly different, yet great in their own way.
The junior title match was the heated sprint, which played right into the insane style of Hiromu Takahashi.
Takahashi returning from excursion is every bit the same dynamic as a free agent like AJ Styles or Kota Ibushi or Kenny Omega jumping to the company would be in terms of adding a top class elite pro wrestler to the roster. If you followed his excursion, particularly his long stop in CMLL, you already know he’s one of the world’s best. Now everybody else does too.
This was very similar in pace and recklessness to Takahashi’s incredible bouts against Dragon Lee, with KUSHIDA’s arm submission flavor in place of Lee’s dynamic brand of lucha. Some of the spots were outright dangerous, and not just the masochistic body sacrifice that has become commonplace in a Takahashi match. Takahashi attempted a rana off the top rope along the edge of the ropes which was intended to throw KUSHIDA to the floor, but they screwed it up and collapsed to the mat. No problem, no panic. Hiromu kicked KUSHIDA to the floor, climbed up to the top, and flew off with what was supposed to be senton (I think), but ended up being an awkward flying clothesline as he crashed ass first to the floor. It was that kind of match, but these random bouts of aggressive sloppiness worked, because like a modern day Sabu or current day Sasha Banks, Takahashi is a fucking madman and it actually helps that his shit doesn’t look clean.
Exhibit B. Hiromu flies off the apron to the floor, attempting to do only God knows what, but KUSHIDA somehow catches him mid air and transitions into a cross arm breaker as they hit the floor. I have no idea if this was what they intended to do, because I think Hiromu just leaves his feet without a plan and decides what to do while in the air.
In the middle of all of this, KUSHIDA had the fucking audacity to work over the arm to add psychology to this beautiful mess.
When this was over, I openly questioned whether and of the three remaining matches could possibly top it. Welp. ****1/2
Hirooki Goto def. Katsuyori Shibata to win the NEVER Openweight Title
If the previous match was the heated sprint, this was the best possible uber macho NEVER style fight. About ten minutes in, after some shockingly nifty mat work and some teases of mass violence, I thought to myself, this is really good, but it’s time to start hitting each other ridiculously hard, defiantly pop up from some bombs, and stubbornly no sell until one of them has no choice in the matter because they die.
Right on cue.
These matches aren’t for everyone, but unless you’re uncomfortable with stiff, excessive violence in your graps, I’ve always had a hard time understanding what’s not to like about two ultra tough, excessively masculine to a fault, more-pride-than-brains ass kickers beating the living shit out of each other until one man can no longer stand and/or isn’t breathing. This is the one style of wrestling that I would think would have near universal appeal. It’s the best elements of street fight nastiness combined with shoot style violence with the added bonus of worked dramatics. It’s 100% business, 0% bullshit. And I fucking love it.
This was Goto’s match. Not only because he won, but because it was one of those days where he puts it all together and looks like one of the best wrestlers on the planet. I’ve always loved his offense because it looks like it would actually kill you. It’s the nastiest looking stuff in wrestling, and after the Ushigoroshi/Shouten combo wasn’t enough, he added a new wrinkles here, busting out a reverse GTR that crushed Shibata’s throat over his knee, followed by an academic “because I can, m’fer” standard issue GTR to finish Shibata for good.
Never has kayfabe been conflated with reality to produce a shittier narrative than “Goto sucks!”. Hirooki Goto, especially when he has nights like this, is as good as anyone.
As for Shibata, this loss felt a lot like Kenny Omega’s loss to KUSHIDA last year. You get the sense that this is one of those situations where you have to lose to move forward. I have a feeling the NEVER days will now be behind him, as the next steps in his elevation occur over the course of 2017. ****3/4
Tetsuya Naito def. Hiroshi Tanahashi to retain the Intercontinental Title
We’re entering exciting new territory with our old Ace. A new theme (which stinks and isn’t going to grow on me) and a stubborn refusal to accept that he’s lost a step with a hokey (subconsciously) manufactured bravado to go along with it. The story here is he’s good enough to be competent and beat most of these dudes, but at the age of 40 he’s not quite good enough to beat the top 1%. It’s a hard reality to accept, but we all know a guy like this, and he probably has a new Corvette in the driveway and girlfriend who’s about five years too young for him.
Corvette’s haven’t been hip in a long time, and neither is the goofy remixed version of “High Energy”. Like the Corvette, the lyrics “Go Ace!” reek of overcompensation. Like he’s trying to convince himself.
I knew Tanahashi was losing the moment he was hamming it up in the prematch. He’s playing this role to the tilt, a man who deep down can’t convince himself he’s really the Ace, so he tries desperately to convince everyone else.
Naito wasn’t buying it. Naito’s chest pund and bow after putting Tanahashi away felt like he was saying “you showed heart, you did good”, like when a son finally beats his dad at backyard hoops but feels oddly awkward about it, so he goes overboard in no selling his own victory and putting over how well the old man played. And make no mistake, Tanahashi played well, and his top game can still put away the SANADA’s and EVIL’s and just about everybody else, but it isn’t quite good enough for the Naito’s and Okada’s.
The match itself exemplified this, as it was worked even, worked in a mirror. They both attacked the leg. They split the offense 50/50. One guy is in his prime, the other just a little bit past it.
The junior match was the The Sprint. The NEVER match was The FIGHT. This was The Story. ****3/4
Kazuchika Okada def. Kenny Omega to retain the IWGP Heavyweight Title
We had The Sprint, The FIGHT, and The Story.
This was The Spectacle.
I’m not going to call this match the greatest of all time, but I do think what Omega (and Okada) produced might have been the best possible example of the modern New Japan style match.
Omega was flawless in this match. Let’s get that out of the way. There was no aspect of this performance that was not perfect. His execution, his persistence in attacking Okada’s back, his insane bumps (and his routine yet gorgeous bumps), his selling, his emoting, his fire, his balance, his pace, his stamina, his presence, his effort, his guts, his will. This was a pantheon effort. He sold, he fought, he took insane risks, and he left nothing in the ring. He completely emptied the tank and there was nothing left to give. I’d argue his effort on this night against the effort of any wrestler, in any match, ever.
Okada, even with all of his accolades, is perhaps the most underappreciated, unheralded wrestler today, still maligned by some who refuse to let go of a dead era and by others who somehow can’t see his greatness. He has not only inherited the Ace role from Tanahashi, but also his big match track record. Work with the best, learn from the best.
This match went 47 minutes. I initially thought they could have shaved about 15. On rewatch, I decided it was closer to five. To shave more would have forced them to up the pace, because most of the early work plenty to the match later. But that deliberate pace early set up the frantic, insane, unreal pace on the back end. I wouldn’t want to lose that important dichotomy. Eventually it hit me that I was obsessing over cutting a few minutes off of something that was already great the way it was, and it occurred to me how stupid that would be. It would be like dumping your hot girlfriend because her sister is ugly.
This match is so good, that it fools you into thinking it’s going to end before they reach second gear. You think it’s over when Toryumon Okada contorts himself and slips out of the One Winged Angel and hits the Rainmaker. But Kenny kicks out. Kenny kicks out of the Rainmaker! Okada hits three or four or five more before I lose count. Only Tanahashi survives that kind of assault. You’re fooled into thinking the match is going to a draw when it creeps up on 40 minutes. Eventually I stopped looking for the end because I was tired of being wrong. This match breaks every rule and pushes every limit. It’s like nothing you’ve seen before.
You realize towards the back end of the bout that the crazy dives and table crashes and insane spots were actually the meat of the match, the setup to the pure lunacy that followed. This match could have ended a half dozen different times and still been great, but every time it didn’t, it just kept getting better. The pacing of the escalation was the best I’ve ever seen.
It was thick with callbacks and subtle nods. An exhausted Okada holding on to Omega’s wrist. Omega doing a springboard moonsault to the floor, the same one that Kota Ibushi did five hours earlier. Omega’s Bome Ye’s that he stole from Nakamura when he beat him 364 days earlier. Omega eventually fell, but they left the door cracked open. He survived against Okada in a way that only Tanahashi had before. He was never able to hit the One Winged Angel. We still don’t know if Okada could have withstood it.
The work was perfect, the drama was intense, the action was insane. The loser was elevated in defeat. The match ticked every box and delivered on every level. I have zero doubt that Kenny Omega, the most driven man in wrestling, the insane genius, the perfect, beautiful enigma, in the biggest match of his life, in the moment he waited his entire career for, was bound and determined to produce the greatest pro wrestling match of all time.
I don’t know if it was, but I can’t say for certain that it wasn’t, either. *****
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