New Japan Pro Wrestling
Wrestle Kingdom 12
January 4, 2018
Tokyo, Japan – Tokyo, Japan

Watch: NJPW World

Masahito Kakihara wins 21-Man New Japan Rumble

With some real booking attention and a feel good winner, this was by far the best Rambo yet. Some of the highlights include:

  • Katsuya Kitamura doing bodybuilding poses and lasting several minutes into the match. He even eliminated Yuji Nagata (with Chase Owens). He was the only young lion entrant. As the Young Lion Cup winner, with his superstar look, and being 32-years old, he could be headed on excursion as soon as this month.
  • Delirious showed up
  • Chase Owens was rewarded for years of great undercard grunt work with plenty of shine, with three eliminations, including two with his package piledriver (Delirious & Kitamura)
  • The Suzuki-gun juniors were like a pack of wolves, eliminating several men and being awesome
  • Gino “Juicy” Gambino, New Japan’s Australian liaison, debuted
  • Henare seems to have graduated from young lion, debuting new gear and face paint honoring his Maori and Wampanaoq heritages
  • Cheeseburger received his usual monster pop

The final entrant was Masahito Kakihara, ex-New Japan wrestler and cancer survivor, who entered to the UWF theme. A confused Kazuo Yamazaki thought the music was meant for him and nearly left the commentary table, and it fooled me too as I thought they were doing the old Royal Rumble gimmick of an announcer entering the match. It came down to Kakihara, Cheeseburger, and TenKoji. Kakihari & Cheeseburger teamed up to eliminate TenKoji, and Kakihara took care of business against ‘Burger to win the match.

Order of elimination: Delirious, BUSHI, Leo Tonga, Manabu Nakanishi, Yuji Nagata, Katsuya Kitamura, Chase Owens, Jushin Thunder Liger, El Desperado, Tiger Mask, Yoshinobu Kanemaru, TAKA Michinoku, Gino Gambino, Henare, YOSHI-HASHI, David Finlay, Yujiro Takahashi, Satoshi Kojima, Hioryoshi Tenzan, Cheseburger

Kakihara cut a great promo about Yoshihiro Takayama, who is recovering from a stroke. Takayama’s music played him out. A real feel good scene, and a decent match, too. **½

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Titles
The Young Bucks def. Roppongi 3K (c) 

For the second year in a row, the Bucks worked an excellent, story-driven match to open the show. I’m not sure where this idea that the Bucks work to silent crowds in Japan comes from, but it hasn’t been true for years and is nothing more than shit people say at this point.

This had some great storytelling and callbacks. YOH injured his back on a double flip dive to the floor and the Bucks worked it over for the rest of the match. Komatsu was absolutely fantastic here as the face-in-peril, putting in his best performance by far since returning from excursion. Just five matches into their return, and SHO is already one of the best hot tags in wrestling. He shows great fire throwing belly-to-back suplexes and stiff kicks, and looks to be a future junior ace.

The Bucks were pretty nasty here, taking out long time rival Rocky Romero with a powerbomb on the ramp, and doing the same to YOH on the apron to set up the long heat spot. During the build of the match, The Bucks constantly referred to R3K as young boys, so they kept trying to put away YOH with crab holds. In a great callback to last year’s Bucks/RPG Vice match, YOH got a near fall on a crucifix during a More Bang For Your Buck attempt, the same move Rocky used to beat the Bucks last year. The finish saw The Bucks crush YOH with a Meltzer Driver, before Nick tapped him with a sharpshooter.

R3K has been having good, but not great matches since their return. This was their best yet, and the best example of the potential we saw when they were young lions. The Bucks were excellent here as well, extending their record of seven championships. They are each one away from tying Rocky Romero for the most individual reigns. ****

NEVER Openweight Six Man Championship
Gauntlet Match
CHAOS def. Bullet Club (c), Suzuki-gun, Taguchi Japan, and War Machine & Michael Elgin

CHAOS: Beretta, Tomohiro Ishii & Toru Yano
Suzuki-gun: Zack Sabre Jr., Taichi & Takashi Iizuka
Taguchi Japan: Ryusuke Taguchi, Juice Robinson & Togi Makabe
Bullet Club: Tanga Loa, Tama Tonga & Bad Luck Fale

Everyone takes a shit on these matches when they’re announced, but they usually deliver as fast paced, spotty prelim eye candy. Here is how the eliminations broke down:

  1. Zack Sabre Jr defeated Ray Rowe when Rowe passed out to a leg scissors hold
  2. Toru Yano pinned Taichi with a schoolboy
  3. Yano pinned Ryusuke Taguchi with a schoolboy
  4. Beretta beat Tama Tonga with a Dudebuster

Beretta picking up the decisive fall was not incidental, as his slow elevation continues. This was his first title win as a heavyweight. Good action all the way through. ***¼

Kota Ibushi def. Cody (w/ Brandi Rhodes)

Brandi never used the Rhodes name in WWE, so she can be billed as Rhodes whereas Cody cannot.

Somewhere along the way, this ended up being billed HANDSOME BATTLE. Kota hit the triangle moonsault and went to work from there, until Brandi grabbed his leg as he attempted to suplex Cody into the ring form the apron. Cody hit an absolutely disgusting Cross Rhodes from the apron the the floor in one of the best spots of the night. Cody struggled to move the dead weight as Ibushi sold this like he was unconscious (which would be repeated in another match later), as Cody broke out top rope hurricanrana. Ibushi reversed a Cross Rhodes into a lawn dart and it became a battle of attrition, with Cody talking trash about Kenny Omega and barely avoiding two Kamigoye’s before Ibushi hit a third, setting up an emphatic match ending Phoenix Splash.

Ibushi was incredible here, but make no mistake, Cody was right there with him, in what was probably the best singular performance of his career. Seeds continue to be planted for whatever is brewing between Cody, Omega, and Ibushi. ****

Available Now: Voices of Wrestling 2017 NJPW Year in Review eBook

IWGP Tag Team Championships
EVIL & SANADA def. Killer Elite Squad (c)

KES was awesome here, hitting EVIL with a Killer Bomb at the opening bell, mauling young boys, chokeslamming EVIL into a pile of said young boys, viciously beating SANADA, and Lance Archer, just months removed from what could have been career ending back surgery, hitting SANADA with a hybrid top rope overhead suplex that came damn close to being a Spanish Fly. This was a straight up beating, remenicient of gaijin teams of old, and a massive improvement from a mediocre World Tag League final that saw EVIL & SANADA slog through a mediocre match against Guerrillas of Destiny that featured the exact same match layout. If this is the Killer Elite Squad we’re getting in 2018, then I want an immediate rematch at New Beginning, and I think everyone would agree that the three way matches need to go away forever.

What helped this match tremendously compared to the aforementioned WTL final is that SANADA is a much better face-in-peril than the miscast EVIL, and GoD struggles with traditional match structures outside of wild tornado brawls. KES is a better, more well rounded team than GoD, SANADA was outstanding and the star of the match as the F.I.P. (in a match where all four guys were really awesome), so everything that didn’t work at WTL worked here. ***3/4

NEVER Openweight Championship (Hair vs Hair)
Hirooki Goto def. Minoru Suzuki (c)

A cruel, twisted display of brutality, which began with Goto being choked out in the opening minutes as his eyes grotesquely rolled into the back of his head and spittle collected in the corners of his mouth, and ended with Goto’s mouth bloodied and face swollen from Suzuki pounding and slapping and beating and maiming him throughout. He avoided the Gotch piledriver, crushed Suzuki with a brutal top rope Ushigoroshi, and put him away with a second to win the title and the hair that Suzuki swore he didn’t deserve a chance to take. A nasty car crash of a match, with Goto absorbing an incredible beating.

For all of the IWGP Heavyweight losses, there are plenty of G1 and New Japan Cup and Intercontinental title wins, tag titles and World Tag Leagues and incredible beatings endured to beat men like Suzuki and Katsuyori Shibata for NEVER. Goto is at his best when he shows FIGHT, and despite his struggles to win the biggest prize, a title many think he will never win, when he survives beatings like this and shows guts and heart and FIGHT, and the crowd rallies around him, it makes you think the elusive heavyweight crown might just be within his grasp. ****½

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship
Will Ospreay def. Marty Scurll (c), Hiromu Takahashi, and KUSHIDA

This was one part wild spotfest, one part Will Ospreay collecting redemption from long time rival Marty Scurll, and it was a blast.

Wedged between the blunt force trauma of Goto/Suzuki and the serious business of the top of the card title matches, this was the perfect style of match to break things up a bit. All four men were outstanding. Hiromu was manic as usual, including destroying everyone in sight in the closing stretch with his insane flip dive sunset flip to the floor, but this was the Will Ospreay show, with his usual state-of-the-art smooth as silk flying, top class selling that nobody ever gives him proper credit for, and a satisfying title victory over a guy who always finds a way to steal his wins all over the world.

There were too many near falls to keep track of, and I think I bought every single one of them. Scurll knocked out Hiromu and KUSHIDA with the umbrella, but moments later Will hit the Oscutter for the win. This had everything you could want from all four men, with Hiromu being insane, Marty heeling it up, KUSHIDA throwing on Hoverboard locks, and Ospreay being the best junior on Earth. ****1/4

IWGP Intercontinental Championship
Hiroshi Tanahashi (c) def. Jay White

This was the only match that didn’t meet or exceed expectations.

In a vacuum, there was nothing wrong with the work or the story here. “Babyface champion endures injury to vanquish nefarious heel asshole who attacked him for no good reason” is the basis of roughly a billion pro wrestling matches, and the bell-to-bell performances of Tanahashi and White (especially Tanahashi) were excellent, aside from one embarrassing gaff where White went to the top rope for a missile dropkick reversal spot that he was either too early on or Tanahashi forgot about, where White had to sheepishly step down off the turnbuckle to a chorus of groans.

The problem of course, was this was White’s high profile return from excursion, a third from the top match designed to establish him as a top line player. A win would have been ideal, but under the right circumstances, a wrestler can get over in defeat. Neither occurred here, as White not only lost, but also failed to get over in defeat, in what was a well worked match that probably seemed like a good idea on paper but ended up feeling like a flat loss for a guy who needed a breakout performance. This was more perfunctory and clinical than something people will remember.

White should have won. Tanahashi is at a point in his career where losses don’t hurt him, and the right people can still get over by beating him. It’s a window that New Japan would be best served to take advantage of. White losing isn’t the end of the world, but the vibe emanating from the loss was not that of a burgeoning superstar on the cusp, but rather a talented wrestler trying to find his footing in a gimmick he isn’t completely familiar with. That’s tough enough, and it’s a lot to ask on the biggest stage in a match you aren’t even going to win.

The company believes in White, or he wouldn’t have been in this position to begin with. He was one of five featured wrestlers, along with Okada, Naito, Tanahashi, and Omega, on the commemorative chair at the event. This wasn’t a death knell, but it didn’t do a thing for him. This was better than a three star match, but when the greater objectives aren’t met in such obvious fashion, you gotta mark down for that. ***

IWGP United States Championship
Kenny Omega (c) def. Chris Jericho

I have no idea why Omega decided to cosplay a dopey cartoon character with what looked like a bad paper mache Halloween costume for a grudge match in a blood feud. He should have marched out with his fists taped and a scowl on his face, ready to fight. But that’s Kenny, I suppose.

A tremendous plunder brawl, with Chris Jericho turning back the clock and putting in one of the best performances of his career, and Kenny Omega, the hardest working and most driven wrestler in the world, risking his health and his life for the sake of his art.

I don’t know if this was the best Chris Jericho match I’ve ever seen, but it’s in the conversation, and for a part time wrestler with a dad bod who is older than Hiroyoshi Tenzan and has a pretty deep list of great matches, this was some feat. It would’ve been easy to hide behind table bumps and chair shots and other assorted tricks that garbage matches afford the participants, and no one would have blamed him had it resulted in something entertaining, but Jericho worked his ass off, performed physically like he was 15 years younger, and exuded charisma with character work that every single young dude in the back should have been paying close attention to. Fears that the Tokyo Dome crowd wouldn’t respond to his signature stuff or even care about him at all look utterly ridiculous in hindsight. This was an all time great doing all time great things. It left me wondering if Jericho could’ve hung with Omega in Omega’s wheelhouse of workratey star chasing, even if the pacing of the brawl allowed him to cheat a little on cardio.

Omega is Omega. I’m not sure what’s left to say. He’s a force of nature who has no regard for his body and will do anything to have an entertaining match. I used to call him the “beautiful enigma”, but he’s become pretty easy to figure out. He wants to be the best, and the most unique, wrestler on the planet. He wants to be the biggest star, truly believes he can be, and he wants to do it on his own terms. And he’s good enough to do it. How can you not get behind that? How is that not inspiring?

This was a cascade of violence with two of the most creative and interesting pro wrestlers of our generation. An instant classic. ****3/4

IWGP Heavyweight Championship
Kazuchika Okada (c) def. Tetsuya Naito

If fans lose interest in Okada’s title defenses, and he stops selling out shows, the decision was a mistake. If fans lose faith in Naito, and he cools off, the decision was a mistake. If both of these things happen, the decision was an outright disaster. If neither of these things happen, then what? Shoulder shrug?

There were little things about the match I didn’t like. Okada’s first run through his finishing sequence came way to early for even the most naive fan to buy into. Sometimes, Naito lulls me to sleep a little with his control offense. These gripes are beyond minor. When Naito went for the second and ultimately unnecessary Destino, time stood still as Okada reversed it into a tombstone, Naito’s legs kicking in manic desperation, as his head crashed to the the mat. When the Rainmaker hit, I knew it was over, but it was incredibly surreal to watch. I didn’t think Okada had a chance, and the finish was shocked me in all the right ways.

With nearly a 10,000 fan attendance bump (34,995), this was the best built and most anticipated match in the Bushiroad era of New Japan, the high water mark in the latest golden age. Stardust Naito had failed here before, after suffering the indignity of being voted out of the main event. That became the motivation for Ingobernable Naito, and the impetus for this match. His opponent that night was Okada.

This was supposed to be the crowning of The Ingobernable, but he wrestled like Stardust. He was fixated on the Stardust Press, as if he was being defiant in all the wrong ways, trying to prove he was right all along. The callbacks to earlier encounters hammered this home. This wasn’t the new Naito, this wasn’t the Naito that had beaten Okada for this same title once before. This was the Stardust version who was booed out of Osaka and dragged the innocent Okada with him to the semi-main event of Wrestle Kingdom 8 when fans decided they didn’t care about him. The guy who was supposedly too cool to care got caught up in a moment that was too big for him, and the champion who had survived it all, who was him, who made the same mistakes against his own seemingly unmovable thorn-in-the-side rival at Wrestle Kingdom 9, took advantage of Naito’s complacent, cocky, misguided plan. And just like when Okada left the ring in shame at Wrestle Kingdom 9 after being outsmarted and outwrestled and humbled by Hiroshi Tanahashi in the match he was destined to win, Naito too was run down with a passive aggressive attaboy promo from the man who occupied the spot he so badly wants to fill. It was history repeating.

For Naito, perhaps this is still his destiny, and Wrestle Kingdom 10’s history will also repeat next year. Or maybe the Ingobernable one simply isn’t good enough. ****3/4

Final Thoughts

This was as good of a top to bottom show in the Bushiroad era of Wrestle Kingdom, with no bad matches, and four or five pretty great ones. Had Jay White vs Hiroshi Tanahashi delivered, we’d be looking at a card that could reasonably be called near perfect.

The booking decision in the main event will take a few months, and perhaps a year or two, to fully analyze. On the surface, it appears they missed the boat on crowing Naito at his peak. There is a real possibility we see fans lose faith and give up.

The booking decision on Jay White is less dramatic in scope. It could prove to be a missed opportunity to create a new star, but some of the problems with the (re)debut were with White himself, and not just the fact that he lost. I’m not sure the same match we saw, with the winner flipped, helps him all that more than the loss did. His debut needed impact, it needed oomph, and it simply didn’t have it.

The rest of the booking is in the eye of the beholder and will have little to no effect on business.

I’m skeptical of the decisions to beat Naito and White, but of there is any company in the world that has earned benefit of the doubt, it’s this one. Precedent and history matter, and Gedo’s track record in creating stars and building main events is unmatched in modern wrestling. The AJ Styles debut and Wrestle Kingdom 9 are two high profile examples of booking decisions that looked horrendous in real time, but ultimately worked out for the best. Ironically, the last time Gedo & Jado whiffed was with the initial Naito push. That’s nearly a half decade ago. They’ve earned a wait & see.

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