New Japan Pro Wrestling
Wrestle Kingdom 13
January 4, 2019
Meet our previewers
Joe Lanza: If you think I’m offensive on the Flagship, you should hear the wild shit I say behind a paywall! Find Voices of Wrestling on Patreon (voicesofwrestling.com/patreon) and subscribe today. Go Rams. They are my favorite team.
John Carroll: Well, 2019 is about to start and the planet has not quite melted yet, so I’m considering that a win. As always you can follow me on Twitter @toshanshuinla or my podcast @wrestleomakase. Depending on when this goes up Omakase should either be about to post or will have just posted the NJPW 2018 Year in Review episode which would be a great way to catch up on everything before Wrestle Kingdom, so definitely check that out! Also with the year ending, make sure you watched the greatest anime of 2018 and indeed of all time, Pop Team Epic. Your life will only improve if you do.
Suit Williams: Is Gedo’s pencil on fire? Because this card is red hot! @SuitWilliams on Twitter if you want to block me preemptively for that awful joke. I also review European wrestling for PWPonderings, and co-host a podcast called Smark Sports where I try (and usually fail) to be positive about WWE.
Paul Völsch: Would like a minute of your time to talk to you about the greatness of Koji Iwamoto. Don’t follow him on Twitter. How ‘bout them Cowboys. Also with the year ending, make sure you watch the greatest anime of 2018 Skull-face Bookseller Honda-san.
#1 Contendership Gauntlet for NEVER Openweight 6-Man Titles
Togi Makabe, Toru Yano & Ryusuke Taguchi vs. Yuji Nagata, Jeff Cobb & David Finlay vs. CHAOS (Hirooki Goto & Best Friends) vs. Suzukigun (Minoru Suzuki & Killer Elite Squad) vs. Elite (Hangman Page & Marty Scurll & Yujiro Takahashi)
Joe: Look, the Rambo was zany fun, but killing it off in exchange for moving the dopey gauntlet off the main show is a trade I’m willing to make. I think CHAOS wins and will win the titles the next night at Dash. Prediction: CHAOS
John: So now that we know the participants in this gauntlet, I kinda feel like it just has to be said: this is no replacement for the annual RAMBO. When we first heard that the NEVER 6-man gauntlet was being bumped to the pre-show and the New Japan Rumble was being bumped entirely, there was some speculation from people that perhaps the normal wacky surprise entrants and blasts from the past would just compete in this instead. After all, the thinking went, if this is taking up the same kind of long pre-show spot that the Rambo used to inhabit, why not just include those entries as well in the longer time? But this theory was quickly shot to hell when NJPW came out and listed the participating teams, with no such wacky mystery slots to be seen. Instead, it’s a pretty standard collection of names not taking part on the main card this year, including heavy hitters Hirooki Goto and Minoru Suzuki going from what was probably the match of the night at Wrestle Kingdom 12 to working this thing, which is frankly kind of incredible. But there are some guys who couldn’t even get in this match, like many of the veterans (save Yuji Nagata, and only because he’s a late injury replacement for the originally scheduled Michael Elgin), and poor Taichi. Some reward for having a **** match with Will Ospreay! As far as the teams who ARE involved, picking a winner is pretty difficult since there’s really no good reason any of these teams can’t win. But I’m gonna go ahead and choose the reunion of the Most Violent Players, as that seems like an interesting story and one that would make for a fun comedy challenge the next night at New Year Dash. Prediction: Togi Makabe & Toru Yano & Ryusuke Taguchi
Suit Williams: RIP to the RAMBO. Poor Cheeseburger just lost half of his bookings for 2019. While this gauntlet will be less fun than the RAMBO, it will be a hook for new NJPWWorld subscribers to check out New Year’s Dash and see the winners challenge for the NEVER Trios Titles. Plus, looking at the names involved, this has the potential to be decent. On paper, the SZG team should win this one easily. But my money is on the CHAOS team of Goto and the Best Friends. Chuckie T kinda lost his mind over the course of World Tag League, and that hasn’t been resolved yet. Plus, Jay White has said that he has a mole in CHAOS, I can see that paying off at NYD as well. What a world we live in where I just picked Chuck Taylor to win a match at Wrestle Kingdom. Prediction: Goto & Best Friends
Paul: RIP Rambo 2015 – 2018. While this match won’t be as fun and zany as the Rambo the outcome here will actually matter as the winners will challenge for the NEVER Six-Man titles the next day. One interesting aspect here is Togi Makabe teaming with his former GBH stable mate Toru Yano, which might be indicative of an upcoming faction reshuffle. Then we also have the story of Chuck Taylor’s hunt for the Bullet Club mole tying into this as well. I expect the mole to be revealed in the Never Six-Man titles match, but I can’t see anyone on Chuckies team being the mole. Bullet Club V.4 has a lot of connections in the Oceania region so far with the Tongans and the ANZACS and there is only one man in this match that has a connection to that region. The former Olympic flag bearer of Guam Jeff Cobb. Cobb has been pretty directionless in New Japan so far and joining a faction would give him something to do. Prediction: Yuji Nagata, David Finlay & Jeff Cobb
NEVER Openweight Title
Kota Ibushi (c) vs. Will Ospreay
Joe: Pretty incredible looking opener on paper, and a chance for Ospreay to finally shine with a full spotlight on a Wrestle Kingdom show. The road to get here was convoluted (see John’s blurb below), but I think this is where they intended to land, albeit with the title on the other guy. I thought the de facto mini-tournament and Goto Goto’ing himself out of the title ended up being more interesting than the presumed and direct Ospreay victory over Taichi, and I think Ospreay winning the title at Dome as opposed to defending gives his assumed heavyweight run more of a boost.That’s a lot of presuming and assuming, and it’s entirely possible Ibushi wins, but I think an Ospreay NEVER run makes more sense for both dudes at this point in time. Prediction: Ospreay
John: Even though I have my complaints about NJPW’s booking in 2018, I still have to admit they do a pretty good job setting the table and dropping early hints for their long-term direction, and this match is a pretty good example of that. Way back on September 7th at Korakuen Hall, we were building to a Kenny Omega vs. Tomohiro Ishii IWGP Heavyweight Title match for eight days later in Hiroshima. Thus an Omega/Ibushi vs. Ishii/Ospreay tag match on the card looked to be little more than a set-up for the championship contest. Instead, the focus of the entire tag match ended up being on the junior heavyweight Ospreay and Kota Ibushi, who together wowed the live crowd with a display of high spots. By the time Omega & Ibushi were hitting the Golden Trigger on Ospreay for the pin, it became clear that Ospreay vs. Ibushi was a long-term direction, and Ospreay had been elevated even in defeat. The next month at King of Pro Wrestling he pinned NEVER Openweight Champion Taichi in a six-man tag, but before he could cash in on an expected title shot, he fell prey to injury back in his home country. This lead to Taichi defending against Hirooki Goto again instead and losing the belt back to him, and then Goto defending against Ibushi and losing the belt to HIM. On the same show, Ospreay made his return from injury and defeated Taichi in a #1 Contendership match. So although we took a more convoluted route to get here than originally planned (had Ospreay not been injured, one assumes he would have just beaten Taichi for the title himself at Power Struggle and then challenged Ibushi for the Tokyo Dome), the end result is still the same: Ibushi vs. Ospreay in a highly anticipated, first time ever singles match. This is a hell of a way to kick off Wrestle Kingdom, that’s for sure. I don’t think you can look at the match and come away thinking the winner is a foregone conclusion, either. The real question is, given the original plans would have had Ospreay coming into this show with the title, was Ibushi supposed to end up with the NEVER belt after Wrestle Kingdom to set up whatever is coming next for him in 2019? Or was this always supposed to be Ospreay’s chance to shine, a long reign with the belt that elevates him to heavyweight, with Ibushi just being a successful defense along the way? I think the latter scenario is more likely the case, which is why I think he walks away from this match as champion and leaves Ibushi to pursue bigger and better things (New Japan Cup run? Omega re-match at MSG?) in the first half of the new year. Prediction: Will Ospreay
Suit Williams: FLIPZ. KICKS. UTTER MAYHEM. If these guys get the 20 minutes that were given to last year’s opener (Young Bucks vs. Roppongi 3K), they are gonna burn the fucking house down. I assume that Will was meant to walk in as champ since they moved heaven and earth to get the belt onto Ibushi and have Will as #1 contender. When’s the last time you saw a #1 contenders match for the damn NEVER belt? While I would like to see Ibushi have a run with the NEVER belt, I’m going with Ospreay on this one. Will seems to be getting his wish to have a run at heavyweight, and winning the NEVER Title at Wrestle Kingdom in a match against Kota Ibushi is probably better than beating Taichi for it at Power Struggle (sorry, John). Everything happens for a reason, I guess. Prediction: Will Ospreay
Paul: All aboard the heavyweight Will Ospreay hype train. I expect complete insanity here. Ospreay had an amazing 2018 with great matches in pretty much every promotion he worked for. Meanwhile, Ibushi had a somewhat disappointing year that peaked at the reformation of the Golden Lovers and fell off after that. Nevertheless, both men are primed for an outstanding year and it starts here. I expect Ospreay to win here as he most likely would have won the title off of Taichi if he hadn’t gotten injured. Now that he is back he can use the title reign to solidly establish himself as a heavyweight going forward. Ibushi meanwhile seems destined for a main event slot against Omega at the MSG in April. So I expect him to rebound from this loss rather quickly. If it gets enough time this has the potential to steal the show. Prediction: Will Ospreay
IWGP Jr. Tag Team Title 3-Way Match
El Desperado & Yoshinobu Kanemaru (c) vs. Roppongi 3K vs. Shingo Takagi & BUSHI
Joe: I hate how we got here, but it is what it is, so my focus shifts to hoping it gets enough time to be a good match. If Joe Lanza had THE PENCIL (and let’s be honest, I probably should), LIJ would win, with the clear focus on Shingo, Kanemaru would take the fall (via Last of the Dragon), and R3K vs LIJ would be the program moving forward until Hiromu comes back and Shingo leaves LIJ. Shingo could be a top junior or even a heavy, he’s too good to wither away as a #2 junior in a unit. Prediction: LIJ
John: Ah, speaking of my complaints about NJPW booking in 2018…..booking back-to-back tag team leagues that meant absolutely nothing is quite impressive, Gedo! So here we have an exact rematch of the Super Junior Tag League finals, as Roppongi 3K won the (stupid) 3-way final over these two very teams. But because Shingo & BUSHI weren’t pinned, they get to be in this tag title match at Wrestle Kingdom anyway, rendering the entire exercise absolutely pointless. Hurray! Anyway, will this match be good? Probably, considering the match at Power Struggle was. So if you turn your brain off and ignore the incredibly dumb way we got here, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this. Thinking about who will win this one, I want to discount Desperado & Kanemaru, but…..they’re so close to tying that longest title reign record! On the day of WK13, they’ll be at 304 days (if Cagematch is not lying to me). The record belongs to the fourth reign in the history of the titles, Shinjiro Ohtani & Tatsuhito Takaiwa’s second reign as champions from 7/13/1999 through 6/25/2000. That’s 348 days. So if the champions somehow manage to slither their way out yet again (likely through blatant cheating) they would be less than a month and a half away from tying the record. I don’t know, I have a weird feeling that they just might shock us all yet again and keep this thing going. But if they don’t, I think Shingo & BUSHI take it. R3K just won the junior tag league, and the LIJ duo winning the belts would set up a natural 2 vs. 2 match with the tag league champions (if R3K just win again, on the other hand, Shingo & BUSHI would look like doofuses asking for yet another rematch, even if they’re not involved in the fall yet again, though I suppose that’s never stopped this company before). Ultimately, I think Shingo & BUSHI are gonna win. But man….that record….. Prediction: Shingo Takagi & BUSHI
Suit Williams: After two years of built feuds leading to hot 2-on-2 tags at Wrestle Kingdom, we’re right back to the multi-team nonsense of years past. Even though this match will be quality, I struggle to care about this one. Let’s say Shingo pins Kanemaru. What’s to stop the Suzuki-gun team from getting for a rematch, and 3K getting put in because they weren’t pinned? None of this is definitive, and it’s annoying as hell, especially when you have a tag league to keep this from happening. I’m picking the LIJ team. I doubt they would shoehorn Shingo and Bushi into this match just for them to lose again. Plus, I doubt Shingo signed with New Japan to fill out LIJ tags, so my guess is that he’ll have a run with these titles for a little while. I think Shingo pins YOH, which leads to a two-on-two rematch with the SZG bastards on the New Beginning tour. Prediction: Shingo Takagi & BUSHI
Paul: Ok first things first the Junior tag tournament sucked and making it meaningless by booking this match sucks as well. Now let’s look at the match itself and unfortunately I’m not very confident that this will deliver. On paper, this has the potential to be good, but I highly suspect that this will get very little time. It could still be a good little match though given who is involved. I don’t have a good feeling for who will win. As John pointed out above Despy and Kanemaru have a chance of tying the record so I’ll go with them. Prediction: Suzukigun
British Heavyweight Title
Tomohiro Ishii (c) vs. Zack Sabre Jr.
Joe: This match rocked in New Orleans, and while it won’t get the benefit of main event time on this show with this placement, Ishii is great at sprints and Zack is just simply great, so this should be really good. I’d be lying if I said I had my finger on the pulse of RevPro’s booking, but my gut is telling me Zack gets a big win on the big stage in what should be a big year for him in New Japan. Losses never hurt my man Big Tom Ish anyway. Prediction: ZSJ
John: Zack Sabre Jr. held the British Heavyweight Title, a belt that comes to us from NJPW’s UK partners Revolution Pro, for 396 days between March 6th of 2017 and April 6th of 2018. But in New Orleans last year during RevPro’s Mania weekend event, Tomohiro Ishii defeated Sabre, becoming the second Japanese wrestler to hold the title after Katsuyori Shibata (who Sabre had beaten for the belt in his NJPW debut, in fact). Ishii has now held the belt twice, as he briefly lost the title to Minoru Suzuki before quickly winning it back, but Sabre (who never got a rematch) has decided that he’d finally like his belt back. And so, in the spot that used to be filled by completely heatless ROH World Title matches involving two guys the Tokyo Dome audience couldn’t give two shits about, we get a bonus singles match between two pushed acts in New Japan for another company’s belt instead. This is quite preferable, isn’t it? Zack probably does indeed take his title back here en route to having a big 2019 on both sides of the Pacific. Prediction: Zack Sabre Jr.
Suit Williams: New Japan seems a lot more willing to give Rev Pro that partner spotlight than ROH, but that may be due to the less than stellar ROH World Title matches that have been featured on Wrestle Kingdom’s of old. No offense to him, but I don’t think anyone in the Tokyo Dome will be yearning for a Jay Lethal title defense. I love Ishii getting a spotlight singles match on New Japan’s biggest stage because I can’t think of a time where he hasn’t delivered in spots like this. If you are a betting man, bet the house on Sabre winning the title back here. Don’t look now, but Sabre has gotten one hell of a push this year. He won New Japan Cup, he finished with 12 points in the G1, and he’s beaten Okada, Naito, Ibushi, and Tanahashi. Other than challenging Kenny Omega for the IWGP Title, Ishii’s not done much this year. It’s gonna be Zack Sabre Time on January 4. Oh man, we’re definitely gonna get a TAKA promo in the Tokyo Dome too? Yes! On a side note, Tanahashi never did get that win back on Sabre, did he? Huh. Prediction: Zack Sabre Jr.
Paul: This match is to decide the Champion of the British as Lanny Poffo so eloquently put it. The title joins a long proud lineage of mid card title defenses for outside promotions main titles at Wrestle Kingdom. With that being said this should be a step above the NWA or ROH title matches of years past. We are still in the part of the card that might not get the time it deserves, but these two are masters of their craft so I’m confident we’ll get something compelling anyway. Zack has been one of biggest risers this year in New Japan with a big win over Tanahashi to win New Japan cup and a solid showing during G1. He has been Rev Pro’s anchor for a while now and I expect that to continue for the foreseeable future with him regaining the title here. Prediction: Zack Sabre Jr.
IWGP Tag Team Title 3-Way Match
Guerrillas of Destiny (c) vs. EVIL & SANADA vs. The Young Bucks
Joe: Like the junior match, I hate how we got here. With that said, nobody really needed another GOD/LIJ match, so the Bucks annoyingly being inserted gives us a better match on paper. I think GOD will lose here, and also lose the trios belts the next night at Dash. All signs point to an LIJ win, but since the WTL booking was a carbon copy of the shitty SJTL booking, I’ll say that the interlopers win this one too, leading to a Bucks vs LIJ program for the first quarter of the year. Prediction: Young Bucks
John: And here we have the OTHER tag league rendered totally and completely pointless, as World Tag League winners EVIL & SANADA had to watch the Young Bucks waltz in on the final night and insert themselves into what should have been their rightful tag team title challenge. What really kinda sucks about it is I thought this year’s WTL was the best in many years; the single block format resulted in both more matches between top teams and more interesting intra-factional strife, and the entire thing just seemed to drag way less than usual. But the Bucks being here just makes the whole thing look really silly in hindsight, which is unfortunate. Anyway, putting that aside, this match should be totally fine. The Bucks are here to provide some high spots, EVIL & SANADA are here to provide some crowd heat, and GOD is here to…..uh…..remind us they’re hosting a block party at Mania this year, I guess. Prediction: EVIL & SANADA
Suit Williams: After a year with a built feud leading to a hot 2-on-2 tag at Wrestle Kingdom, we’re right back to the multi-team nonsense of years past. Even though this match will be quality, I struggle to care about this one. Let’s say EVIL pins Tama Tonga. What’s to stop GOD from getting their rematch, and the Bucks getting put in because they weren’t pinned? None of this is definitive, and it’s annoying as hell, especially when you have a tag league to keep this from happening. I’m picking the Bucks. I doubt they would shoehorn one of their most popular teams into this match just for them to lose. I think Matt pins SANADA, which leads to a two-on-two rematch with the GOD bastards on the New Beginning tour. Prediction: The Young Bucks
Paul: It’s baffling how a long time tag team wrestler like Gedo could be so bad at booking tag team divisions. Mandatory rematch clauses are lazy WWE style bullshit. Everything about this sucks. I guess the match could be fine, but three-way heavyweight tags are rarely good and I don’t expect this to be an exception. Fuck this match. Prediction: Guerillas of Destiny
IWGP US Heavyweight Title
Cody (c) vs. Juice Robinson
Joe: Similar to Zack Sabre Jr, I think this is a great opportunity to give Juice a showcase win on the biggest possible stage against a solid upper mid-card act. A Juice win would also be a proper conclusion to the Juice/Cody feud, and set Juice up to defend the U.S. title on the mini United States tour coming up in February. All of this adds up to what I think is the surest outcome on the show. Prediction: Juice Robinson
John: Ever since I saw someone compare this United States title to the WWF European belt back in the day I can’t really un-see the comparison: both started life as a vanity belt for the first champion (Davey Boy/Kenny) before settling into a completely meaningless role in the company after the first champion lost it. The Jay White reign actually wasn’t too bad (certainly better than Shawn Michaels’ Euro title reign), featuring some fun matches with Page & Finlay and then a really good match with Juice Robinson where he lost the title, but after that? Whoo boy. New champion Juice lost to virtually everyone in the G1 (granted, with a legitimate injury excuse), and then rather than having all of the guys who had beaten him in the G1 knocking down his door for a shot, he just defended it against non-G1 competitor Cody on the doomed Fighting Spirit Unleashed Long Beach show and immediately lost it. Juice deserved better. And what has Cody done since winning the title? Not much, considering he immediately got injured too. Granted, that was bad luck, but had he been able to successfully defend the belt against Beretta on a random ROH show (which was the original plan) I don’t think we’d be talking this up as some legendary reign anyway. So here we are at Wrestle Kingdom 13 with two white guys fighting for the white guy belt (there’s been exactly one Japanese challenger for this title since the tournament to crown the first champion: YOSHI-HASHI, in ROH) fifth from the top in a match that has had approximately zero build up in NJPW. For this, we had to leave Hirooki Goto, Minoru Suzuki, and like half a dozen other deserving native wrestlers off the card. Wonderful. This has been pretty negative, so I’ll leave you with this bit of optimism: Juice will probably win here, will hopefully have a second reign that is a lot better than his first (it would be real tough for it to be worse!), and with NJPW set to run more shows like the New Beginning in US events in 2019, this title will probably headline those events and maybe actually mean something for the first time in many, many months. Perhaps a single Japanese wrestler here in New Japan Pro Wrestling might show even the tiniest flutter of interest in it, as well. That would probably help. Prediction: Juice Robinson
Suit Williams: If they didn’t announce this match for the show, I probably would’ve forgotten the US Title existed. Juice winning the title was this great emotional moment, and it really felt like the start of something special. He had a poor record in the G1, but they used his broken hand as an excuse, so it wasn’t too bad. Then New Japan needed an excuse for Cody to get in the King of Pro Wrestling main event, so they just had him beat Juice and win the US Title. Then Cody got pinned, got hurt, and hasn’t been seen with the title since. Let’s get this belt back on Juice and pretend this never happened. Prediction: Juice Robinson
Paul: Honestly I keep forgetting that the US title even exists. It felt important when Kenny became the inaugural champion, but then it was mainly a vehicle to keep him busy before his IWGP title win. Since he lost it the title has been wasting away in just ok title matches. Juice has been a tremendous success story since coming to Japan. He took a chance when he left WWE, where he now would most likely be in a No Way Jose type of situation and it has been paying off for him. It took him a while to get used to New Japan, but he now fits right in. I would like to see Juice regain the title here, however the title is also one of the cornerstones of New Japan’s American expansion and Cody is a much bigger draw in the US than Juice. Therefore I could easily see Cody retain the title as well. However, with the impending launch of AEW Cody’s focus most likely isn’t going to be New Japan’s American shows. But that promotion likely isn’t going to launch for another couple of months. Therefore, I expect Cody to keep the tile at least until the New Beginning shows in America. Prediction: Cody
IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Title
KUSHIDA (c) vs. Taiji Ishimori
Joe: When you consider that KUSHIDA very likely wouldn’t even hold this title right now had Hiromu not gotten hurt, and toss in all of the WWE rumors, it looks like we’re trending towards an Ishimori title reign. Here’s something to think about. If Hiromu were healthy, this probably would’ve been yet another three-way, because I don’t see where KUSHIDA would’ve fit on the card otherwise. Prediction: Taiji Ishimori
John: Of all the matches on the card, this is the one I honestly have no idea what to make of. On one hand, the build for it has been ice cold (Taiji hit KUSHIDA with a crutch once and then said “fuck ‘em” a lot, woopty doo) but you could say that for a few matches on this show honestly. On the other hand, KUSHIDA is obviously really good and Taiji is….well….I don’t know what Taiji Ishimori is, to be quite honest with you. He was not one of my favorite guys in NOAH prior to his jump (though he definitely did have the occasional great performance), then he showed up in NJPW right before Best of the Super Juniors and was placed in the vastly inferior A block where he was basically just fine, then he made it to the finals and had what ended up being my 2018 Match of the Year with Hiromu Takahashi in an instant ***** classic, and then he didn’t have another singles match in New Japan for the rest of the year. So again, I don’t know what to make of any of this! Could he come out here and have another absolutely show-stealing performance with KUSHIDA? Sure! Could he show up with the kind of perfectly fine performances that he mostly brought to the table (in two companies!) before that match? It’s possible! Nothing will really surprise me with this one, and as I said from the jump I have no feel on what’s going to happen here. Either way, I think Ishimori is probably winning here. You’ve got persistent rumors about KUSHIDA possibly jumping to WWE (to the delight of the dozens of people who watch 205 Live, presumably) plus Taiji has made the “boring” state of the division under KUSHIDA’s watch part of his promos in the build-up, which to me would kind of signal that he’s winning. Had the aforementioned Hiromu not suffered his very unfortunate injury back in July I think we’re probably looking at a Hiromu-Taiji BOSJ final rematch here, which would likely be a lot more exciting, but either way I think the end result would have been the same: the reborn BONE SOLDIER walking out of the Tokyo Dome as the new junior champion. Hopefully wherever the division goes next will be a lot more exciting than this placeholder KUSHIDA reign has been. Prediction: Taiji Ishimori
Suit Williams: It’s a bit disappointing that after the year that the junior scene has had, the title match on the big show is kinda just there. KUSHIDA is keeping the belt warm for whenever Hiromu gets back, and Taiji Ishimori is firmly slotted behind GOD, which isn’t helping him. Despite my coldness on the match, I know this match will be great as both guys have shined in big match situations this year. Ishimori picks up the belt here so Hiromu can fight him once he comes back. Prediction: Taiji Ishimori
Paul: With the rumors of KUSHIDA’s impending departure the outcome of this match seems like a lock. Now with that being said, I expect this match to deliver big time. KUSHIDA most likely wants to go out with a bang and Ishimori is going to put in a lot of effort to establish himself at the top of the division. With Hiromu hopefully returning soon we could see a feud between the two kick off next. That really is the best thing about the Junior division in 2018 is that there are a lot of fresh matchups. Two stalwarts of the division are moving on either by going somewhere else (KUSHIDA) or moving up a weight division (Ospreay). Meanwhile, we also have Shingo primed for a singles run in 2019 as well, which is incredibly exciting. Best of the Super Juniors should be hype this year. Prediction: Taiji Ishimori and the Junior singles division has a great year.
Kazuchika Okada vs. Jay White
Joe: The only non-title match on the show, the furthest Okada has been from the Dome main event since 2012, and a chance for Jay White to put his disappointing bout at last year’s show in the rearview.
Okada spent a good chunk of the back end of 2018 helping to get Switchblade Jay over the hump as a top heel, sacrificing card position and probably a few year-end awards in the process. His next task is to give White his first truly memorable bout. If the goal is to elevate White to a true, top, main event level position, beating Okada, who hasn’t lost in this building since 2015 and has beaten a murderer’s row in the process (Tanahashi, Omega, Naito) is the right play. We’ve seen White cheat, we get it, he’s a slimeball. The boldest move would be a Switchblade win, clean in the middle. Prediction: Jay White
John: For all the other complaints about either a lack of build-up or just a lackluster build to matches on the card this year (some kind of out of their control due to injury, granted, though that’s not really the case in the main event for example), I have no such complaints to make here. Okada vs. White was clearly the long-term direction from January 6th, 2018, the day that the former brought out the latter as the newest member of CHAOS. The build here has been pretty masterful, with White immediately just telling Okada to his face that he was going to come after him someday and Okada, then at the absolute height of his powers as the unbeatable IWGP Heavyweight Champion who had just vanquished a career rival in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 12, quite justifiably laughing it off as an idle threat. Now nearly one year later, White is the new leader of the BULLET CLUB, holds a pinfall win over Okada from this year’s G1, and has generally spent the last four months repeatedly getting the better of his former “senpai”. From last year’s WK to now White has gone from being a weird little edgelord who looked like he was in way over his head against Hiroshi Tanahashi to feeling like a legitimate top heel of the company who belongs in the ring with Kazuchika Okada, and while a lot of the credit there can go to White himself for settling into the role, just as much credit should go to the booking. The big remaining question now is a pretty simple one: can he and Okada have the kind of classic, ****½+ match most have come to expect from the Rainmaker at a Wrestle Kingdom? Match quality for White has been inconsistent at times this year, with the cheating that has effectively gotten him over as a top heel kind of overwhelming that aspect (including in the aforementioned White-Okada G1 match, which was good but not nearly at the level most would expect from a big Okada match). If White fails to deliver here he runs the risk of leaving a strongly negative impression on your “parachutes in for Wrestle Kingdom and maybe Dominion” type of very casual fan who saw the disappointing match with Tanahashi last year but maybe missed some of his better work (including a KOPW rematch with Tanahashi and strong US title matches with the likes of Juice Robinson & David Finlay) throughout 2018. I think it’s very important for him and for New Japan’s future for this match to be really good, and ultimately I think he and Okada will find a way to deliver. As far as the result goes, while I can see the argument that White going 0-2 to start his Wrestle Kingdom career might not be ideal, I don’t think a loss here hurts him as long as they do have a really good match. Okada has been beaten by White at every turn in this feud, and I think he finally gets his big win at the Dome. Prediction: Kazuchika Okada
Suit Williams: From a match with a short build to a match that’s literally been building for a year. I can see someone who dipped in for Wrestle Kingdom last year being skeptical about how good this match will be, after Switchblade’s unspectacular re-debut against Hiroshi Tanahashi. If you’re one of those people, I can happily tell you to put your fears away. 2018 has seen Jay White both become one of New Japan’s biggest heels and take control of the Bullet Club, the same unit he rejected at New Year’s Dash. In between all that, he accepted Okada’s invitation to join CHAOS. Despite Jay looking him in the face and telling him that he would get stabbed in the back one day, Big Kaz saw potential in the Switchblade. Well at King of Pro Wrestling in October, Jay did what he said he would do. He turned on Okada, convinced Gedo to join him, and took control of Bullet Club in one fell swoop. Jay now has control of one of the fiercest units in the company, he has the manager that led Okada to the longest reign in the history of the promotion. Even Tanahashi and Okada’s dual efforts couldn’t stop him. Jay White is untouchable right now. That’s why Okada is winning this match. Do you notice that whenever Jay gets too high and mighty, someone brings him back down to Earth? He comes in with a new persona looking to make a big impact, and Tanahashi beats him. He beats Kenny Omega and is defending against a guy with a broken hand? Juice Robinson beats him. He takes control of Bullet Club and has a chance to steal the main event of Wrestle Kingdom? Tanahashi beats him again. Jay is flying too close to the sun again, and this time Okada will be the one to take him down. Prediction: Kazuchika Okada
Paul: For all the faults of the booking of the tag divisions this has been built to perfection. The heat for this match is going to be off the charts as the crowd clamors for Jay White to finally get his comeuppance. If he will get here though is another question. The person winning this match is most likely going to challenge for the IWGP title next. Regardless of who wins the main event it’s rather unlikely that New Japan would do Omega/Okada IV on a New Beginning show and we just had Okada challenge Tanahashi for the briefcase. Therefore White is the more likely winner here. As for the match itself if New Japan keeps the shenanigans to a minimum this has the potential to be really good. White should be motivated to have a good match after his underwhelming effort against Tanahashi last year. Prediction: Jay White
IWGP Intercontinental Title
Chris Jericho (c) vs. Tetsuya Naito
Joe: Naito is winning the G1 and beating somebody (probably Okada if Gedo sticks to his patterns) for the IWGP Title at Wrestle Kingdom. Let’s get that out of the way, even if scorned Naito fans are rolling their eyes right now. If that’s the case, the result here isn’t the foregone conclusion many think it is. Naito would still have to kill some time before July, so a third Jericho match isn’t out of the question. With that said, it would be a real kick in the dick for Naito to lose in the Dome again, and to Jericho again, after losing nearly every big match he had in 2018.
So how about something outside the box? Something like Naito beating Jericho within an inch of his life, losing by DQ and avoiding switching the title, a title he doesn’t need anyway while giving his character a new edge? Let’s get wild here with the prediction. A scenario where everyone wins. Naito loses control, “loses” by DQ but is visually dominant, Jericho keeps the title and can heelishly claim a “win”, and Gedo doesn’t have to figure out an awkward way for Naito to lose the IC title before he heads to WK14. Prediction: Jericho (DQ)
John: A couple things need to be said before I can say anything else: I think Tetsuya Naito is the best wrestler in the world as a complete package (by a substantial margin) and I think his 2018 was a pretty strong waste of his talents. I get what the thinking was here—one last big run for the older Tanahashi (who has done very well in popularity polls all year) and using Omega at the top while you know you have him (who knows what his future holds)—but ultimately I don’t think it was worth wasting most of a prime year for Naito. However, with that said, it’s not doom and gloom for him either. This will be his third straight year in either the semi-main or main event of the Tokyo Dome, he’s facing a worldwide star who (no matter what you personally think of his run) has been very effective in drawing casual fan interest from the West, and his popularity in Japan remains as strong as ever even after a pretty quiet year. In the annual reader-voted Weekly Pro Wrestling (also known as ShuPro) awards that just came out a few days ago, he finished 2nd in the “Grand Prix” voting (basically their Wrestler of the Year), behind only Tanahashi and ahead of both Omega & Okada, and finished 1st in the “Favorite Wrestler” category. If NJPW’s calculation this year was that Naito could be placed on the back burner in Japan and maintain his popularity there, while hopefully expanding his popularity in the West by feuding with Jericho and going on frequent ROH tours (he and the rest of LIJ had not one but two full crossover tours basically built around them), at least half of that calculation has been proven true. So then here we are with Naito and Jericho, a rematch from an excellent brawl at Dominion. Naito is once again challenging for the white belt, a title he has had little use for in the past but one he will likely find himself walking out of the Dome with yet again. Is he “the new Nakamura”, a guy who is super popular but who the company is happy to see carry a secondary title without ever getting a true run with the top belt? Or is this going to be a brief pit stop on the way to finally capturing the IWGP Heavyweight Title again in 2019 and getting a real run with the belt he’s only held for 70 days? I lean toward the latter, but I can’t blame any Naito fans if they’re now convinced it’s the former (even if that “new Nakamura” argument makes a lot of assumptions about what his future in NJPW would have been had he not jumped when he did). Either way, there’s no reason why these two can’t have another stellar match as they did at Dominion. As for Jericho, he’s been more effective in this role than I ever would have imagined when he started. Who knows what the future holds for him, but speaking personally I hope we get the chance to see him match up with the likes of Tanahashi and Okada before he moves on. Prediction: Tetsuya Naito
Suit Williams: I cannot say enough good things about Chris Jericho. This guy has a career of highlights dating back to the mid-’90s, tons of great matches, memorable feuds, and a band that…certainly makes music. He could easily show up with his light-up jacket, spew catchphrases he came up with in 2003, do a couple matches where he plays the hits, and bolt. But no, he shows up, reinvents himself again, and has these memorable brawls that rule. He’s adding onto a portfolio that’s already full enough to make him a Hall of Famer. Then, he’s going up against Tetsuya Naito, who is on the run of his career. He’s had an odd 2018, that went from main eventing the Tokyo Dome to treading water with Minoru Suzuki and Zack Sabre Jr. He’s still over, but getting his most high-profile win to date would really get the ball moving with him again. Naito is pretty obviously going to win this, as Jericho lives to get guys over, and the match should be great as it was at Dominion. My intrigue lies in what’s next for Naito. Where will he go with the Intercontinental Title? Will he ever get his real run with the IWGP Title? Time will only tell. Prediction: Tetsuya Naito
Paul: 2018 was a weird year for Tetsuya Naito. First, he comes up short on his big IWGP title challenge at the Tokyo Dome, then he ends up in a really underwhelming feud with Minoru Suzuki before transitioning into a long feud with Chris Jericho who is only a part-timer. Nevertheless, 2019 is poised to be a stand out year for him. While I do expect him to take back the IC title here I don’t think it will be a long title reign. It’s most likely just going to be a thing to keep him busy for the first part of the year before he begins his climb towards his eventual IWGP title win. As for Jericho, I do think he can still help out New Japan if he wants to return, but I’m not sure who to match him up with though. Maybe Okada since I’m not sure what he’ll do until G1. So far Jericho’s matches in New Japan have delivered so I expect this to be very good as well as Jericho will work his ass off to put over Naito. Prediction: Tetsuya Naito
IWGP Heavyweight Title
Kenny Omega (c) vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi
Joe: I have never bought into the idea that Omega is leaving the company after this match, so I don’t think they have to put the title on Tanahashi. With that said, if the plan is to get the title on to Naito before the G1 to have him defend at WK14 instead of challenge, Tanahashi is the perfect opponent to beat at Dominion or [insert show here].
I think this will be that match of the night. Their previous attempt at a feud was cut short due to injury, so they haven’t shown their hand in terms of what they can do with one another. We’re dealing with perhaps the two best big match wrestlers of this generation, legitimate pro wrestling geniuses, one whose ego and drive won’t allow him to have a letdown on this stage, and another who is an all-time great who always brilliantly finds a way to have the best match possible while conforming to his opponents strengths. This is going to tear the house down, and with no rooting interest whatsoever, I’m just gonna sit back and take it all in. Prediction: Omega
John: This is the worst build up for an IWGP Heavyweight Championship match at the Tokyo Dome in many, many years, since at least the first Okada-Naito 2014 match that felt so cold it got yanked from the main. Kenny has demonstrated why AJ Styles, during his run as top gaijin star and very much part-time NJPW talent, never got to walk into the Tokyo Dome as IWGP champion. It simply is not possible to put together an exciting and fun build for a Dome main event when one of the two participants is never even in the building. Those moments on the “Road to Wrestle Kingdom” like Okada tombstoning Tanahashi on the rampway or Naito finally delivering Destino after weeks of Okada blocking it, moments that made it feel like you really couldn’t wait to see these two men go one on one with the biggest prize in modern wrestling on the line, just never happened this year. What little build we DID get was also strangely meta and nearly bordered on Russo-esque “this is a shoot, bro” stuff, with Tanahashi and Omega not arguing over who was going to beat the other one in a fight because they’re the better man, but rather arguing over who had the best STYLE of pro wrestling. Tanahashi told Omega that this is NJPW and he can’t just do what he wants! He said his style of pro wrestling is bad! Omega said Tanahashi doesn’t have any appeal to foreign fans! His style of wrestling is old! If this stuff interests you at all I’m glad, but personally, it’s not what I want to see for the main event of the Tokyo Dome. It’s just two guys engaged in what feels like an insider dick-waving contest when all I really want to hear about is how they’re gonna beat each other up and become IWGP champion. With all of that said, these two guys are both such big stars that it probably doesn’t even really matter that the build has been so lackluster. The comparison I keep coming back to is Hogan and Rock at WrestleMania X8; by the time they were in the ring with each other in Toronto, the fans in the building didn’t really care that Hogan tried to murder Rock with a giant truck and Rock sold the attempted vehicular homicide by lightly taping his ribs. They simply wanted to see Hogan and Rock because they were Hogan and Rock, and they reacted accordingly. I suspect this will be much the same on January 4th, with the crowd going wild for a match that we haven’t seen in nearly three years. Omega for all his faults certainly has his base of support in Japan, and the Ace has won fan poll after fan poll in 2018, as the fans clearly got behind him in a big way dating back to his challenge against Okada at Wrestling Dontaku in May and never really got off that train. They want to see him regain the IWGP Heavyweight Title one more (last?) time and win the WK main event for the first time since 2015, and I think at the end of the day that’s exactly what’s going to happen. He may not be a long-term champion at this point- it wouldn’t even shock me if he won here and then walked right into New Beginning the next month and lost the title, in fact- but he’s more than earned one last moment in the sun, and I think this will be it. Go Ace! Prediction: Hiroshi Tanahashi
Suit Williams: “We’ve all seen this story. The story of the former great who fights back against Father Time to return to the top of the mountain. We’ve seen it in film, where guys like Rocky Balboa return to the ring to take down an unstoppable Russian juggernaut. We’ve seen it real life, where George Foreman knocked out Michael Moorer at the age of 45 to win boxing’s heavyweight title. It’s a wonderful story, to know that if you work hard, you can succeed at any age. But Father Time is undefeated. And sometimes, you don’t get the storybook ending.”
I wrote that after watching Kazuchika Okada beat Hiroshi Tanahashi at Wrestling Dontaku in May, and beat his record for most title defenses at the same time. While I knew Tanahashi wasn’t moving down to the grandpa 8-man tags, I figured his time in IWGP Title main events was done. I made the fatal mistake of losing belief in The Ace. I didn’t believe he could win the G1 Climax. Tanahashi proved me wrong. I didn’t believe he could beat Okada to keep the title shot. Tanahashi proved me wrong. I didn’t believe he could overcome Jay White to get to Wrestle Kingdom. Tanahashi proved me wrong. I’m sick of being wrong. I believe in The Ace, and I believe Hiroshi Tanahashi will walk out of Wrestle Kingdom 13 as the IWGP Heavyweight Champion. Father Time may be undefeated, but Tanahashi ain’t done fighting yet. Prediction: Hiroshi Tanahashi
Paul: It’s time for the Ace’s last stand. Now 42 years old Tanahashi is clearly on the downside of his career and it is generally at this point that New Japan starts to down cycle guys. I expect this to happen to Tanahashi as well over the coming year. With that being said I fully expect him to be in the mix for lower card singles titles and maybe the tag titles as well. But this may well be his last IWGP heavyweight title challenge. His opponent Kenny Omega is in an interesting position as well. With the impending launch of AEW sometime in the next year, it’s uncertain how much time he will be able to spend in New Japan. The again Omega has always been a Japan first guy since moving there nearly ten years ago. While his title reign has been a bit of a disappointment I do expect it to continue here. New Japan is running a big joint show with ROH at MSG in April and this is most likely where we will get the highly anticipated Omega vs Ibushi singles match and what better price to be on the line than the IWGP Heavyweight title. The match itself should be a banger and is likely going to be an early candidate for match of the year. Prediction: Kenny Omega