New Japan Pro Wrestling
Wrestle Kingdom 13
January 4, 2019
Tokyo Dome
Tokyo, Japan

Watch: NJPW World

NEVER Openweight Six Man #1 Contendership Gauntlet
Ryusuke Taguchi, Toru Yano, & Togi Makabe def. Hangman Page, Marty Scurll, & Yujiro Takahashi, Hirooki Goto, Chuckie T, & Beretta, Minoru Suzuki, Lance Archer, & Davey Boy Smith Jr, David Finlay, Yuji Nagata, & Jeff Cobb

We’ll break this down by leg.

First leg: The pure New Japan Sekigun team eliminates The Elite, but the big news here was Yujiro and Chase Owens (who seconded the team) teasing their Elite split, which they would make official the next night at New Year Dash, costing their stablemates the match. This was the first of many very obvious jobs on the way out that we’d see on the show.

Second leg: CHAOS joined the match and the action picked up. In a bit of a surprise, the Sekigun team advanced again. Hirooki Goto’s Wrestle Kingdom was reduced to roughly 6:00 of a gauntlet match.

Third leg: KES quickly ended the Sekigun run. Suzuki and Nagata brawled wildly on the outside, and it became obvious Big Boss Minoru wasn’t going to bump for this shit, while KES looked like they were going to make the most of it. KES scored the fall with the Killer Bomb on Finlay.

Final leg: KES continued to work insanely hard here, tossing dudes around with creative double team moves, and Archer breaking out the rope walk. One thing about Archer, is he keeps a lot of his offense in the holster instead of emptying the tank every match, with stuff like the rope walk, moonsault, F’n Slam, and Blackout used discriminately. Suzuki brawled with Makabe, finally made his way into the ring, and took his one and only bump of the match. Yano pinned Smith to win the match.

This picked up after the first leg, with good, fast-paced action throughout, with KES as the clear standouts of the match overall. I enjoy the wackiness of the Rambo as much as anyone, but this was a better match than any of the Rambo’s and it wasn’t even close. With that said, the Rambo added something light and fun to a show that doesn’t really need more #GoodWrestling. I prefer this format, because sacrificing the Rambo to get the sometimes clunky Gauntlet off of the main show is a trade I’m willing to make. The Gauntlet is probably not going away because it’s the best way to shoehorn everyone onto the show. I think the best compromise might be to include a wacky surprise team or three to the match in the spirit of the Rambo. ***¼

NEVER Openweight Title
Will Ospreay def. Kota Ibushi (c)

An incredibly well-executed introduction of WIll Ospreay to the heavyweight scene, with a brilliant finish that both marked Ospreay’s heavyweight ascent and instantly got his nasty back elbow over as a deathblow.

The match began as the junior style flip fest most were expecting, but ended with the feel of a classic gritty NEVER fight. This served as a symbolic story within a story, as Ospreay shed the flips and won with violence, brutally finishing off Ibushi with the vicious knockout blow before delivering an unneeded Stormbreaker to hammer home the point and leave no doubt of his arrival.

Ibushi’s classic glassy-eyed selling and a stretcher job had people thinking Ospreay legitimately knocked him out. New Japan announced a mild concussion, which if true, more likely occurred on an awkward post set up where Ibushi bonked his head into the steel. The stretcher job was highly suspicious, with one trainer and a gaggle of young lions sloppily strapping Ibushi to a board. New Japan employs two doctors and two trainers for each show. Had the KO not been a planned spot, or if it were a planned spot gone awry, you’d think the doctors would’ve been more attentive.

Either way, Ibushi appears to be fine, so the KO finish achieved the objectives of getting Ospreay over as the KO Assassin, and writing Ibushi out until the Elite situation is sorted out. An excellent match capped off by a finish that told a perfect multi-layered story. ****½

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Titles
Shingo Takagi & BUSHI def. Roppongi 3K and El Desperado & Yoshinobu Kanemaru (c)

This was the Shingo show, a total showcase with the purpose of continuing to plant seeds for Takagi being a major junior (at minimum) star. Desperado & Kanemaru stayed out of the finish, with the story of never being able to tag back in to defend their titles, which will likely keep them in the title mix for the first quarter of the year.

SHO took the pin, which is notable. Shingo and SHO have been paired off a ton since Shingo debuted, so it appears they could be playing the long game and setting up a rivalry. SHO was protected to some degree, as he kicked out following a tremendous sequence where Shingo ran wild on him with a Noshigami and two pumping bombers, before Last of the Dragon finally put him away. Shingo looked like a star here.

It was a little shocking just how focused this match was on one man. Long-term, Shingo is too good to be the #2 junior in a given unit, and New Japan knows it. The big New Japan pushes tend to come slowly, but you can see this one coming from a mile away. ***

RevPro Undisputed British Heavyweight Title
Zack Sabre Jr def. Tomohiro Ishii (c)

This felt like a continuation of their excellent match from New Orleans, with enough new wrinkles to give it a distinctive feel.

In New Orleans, the powerful brute had the answers for the submission artist, and those answers were power and blunt force. Here, the artist was one step ahead of the brute, taking away Ishii’s key offense at every turn. Sabre rolled through a second rope brainbuster and countered with an arm snap. This paid off later, as Ishii resorted to bashing his body into Sabre when he couldn’t raise that same arm for a lariat. In New Orleans, it felt like Sabre was the desperate one, going for home run submissions that Ishii continually fought and powered out of. Here, it was Ishii in the desperation role, with increasingly feckless and reversible offense as Sabre attacked relentlessly until finally locking Ishii in a hold he could not break. Impressive and efficient use of time, telling essentially the same story (albeit with reverse roles) in under half the amount of time, at the same level of quality. ****¼

IWGP Tag Team Titles
EVIL & SANADA def. Guerrillas of Destiny (c) and The Young Bucks

Matt Jackson sold that pesky back injury until the bitter end, taking the pin here following a Magic Killer and SANADA moonsault, after EVIL reaggravated those back issues with a running lariat on the entrance ramp earlier in the match.

This had the makings of a perfectly acceptable but totally forgettable bout until the Bucks and SANADA exchanged a series of zany dives that kicked things into high gear. From there, it was a fun spotfest with the usual array of highspots and pin saves, worked around a brief interference spot by Bad Luck Fale & Jado that LIJ was able to run off before it totally killed the vibe of the bout. I can recommend better spotfest style clusters, but by the end of this it was a lot of fun, even if it felt more like a very good Bucks/LIJ match with a bunch of Tongans hanging around the outside of the ring than it did a three-way. ***½

IWGP United States Title
Juice Robinson def. Cody (c)

The first half of this, built around Brandi Rhodes interference spots that ended up killing the crowd (despite Brandi’s interference being the centerpiece of the build), was not good at all. Brandi was ejected, and when I say not a single person in the entire building cared, I literally mean not one single person.

From there, the match gradually improved. They stole each other’s finishers for near falls. Juice countered a Disaster Kick with a great looking and perfectly timed punch in the face. Juice followed up with a second punch, and the Pulp Friction. To continue the show long theme of definitive, emphatic loses for guys who may not be coming back, Juice gave him a second Pulp Friction for good measure.

This lost the crowd and was flat out bad until Brandi was ejected. Cody’s knee is legitimately thrashed, which explains the shortcuts, but it was simply a story that nobody cared about. Juice’s two big punch spots looked fantastic, and the finish put Cody in a coffin which is exactly what you want when someone is leaving the territory (for now). This was hovering around two-star special territory until the final minutes, which I liked a lot. A generous ***

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title
Taiji Ishimori def. KUSHIDA (c)

The structure of this match didn’t do KUSHIDA any favors in terms of quieting rumors of a WWE jump.

Outside of a brief sequence where a KUSHIDA arm kick set up a Hoverboard Lock (which was straight up powered out of into a Death Valley Driver as opposed escaped with a rope break), KUSHIDA had very little offense. KUSHIDA’s trademark big match baseball punch to the face spot was completely and totally no sold, with Ishimori popping right up and countering with a knee strike, moments before the match ending Bloody Cross, clean as a sheet in the center of the ring.

Conservatively, Ishimori took about 80% of the match. The work was very good, and Ishimori thoroughly dominating was the right story since KUSHIDA is in fact on the way out. ***½

KUSHIDA has confirmed that he is leaving the company. He had a great run. It took longer to get to the top than it probably should have, but he leaves with near half-decade run as the junior ace, which includes a great run on the tag side with Alex Shelley. Too small to be a credible heavyweight, there was really nowhere left to go and nothing left to accomplish, yet his presence almost required NJPW to push him strong, which only served to hold others down. He’s comfortable with the west and western culture, having spent a ton of time in both Canada and the U.S., with a gimmick centered around a famous American film. If he does indeed leave, it’s a move that strikes me as a good (if not necessary) one for all parties involved.

Jay White def. Kazuchika Okada

On a show loaded with top-tier booking and match structures leading to new pushes and elevations, this was by far my favorite story to watch unfold.

You had Okada, not only burning the internet to the ground by going back to his classic look, but wrestling like classic Okada, leaving the long boys and balloons and depression in the rear view while bringing with the trademark cocky confidence he lost when Omega took his title at Dominion. Okada was back, and it was so natural it felt like he never left, like the good-looking charismatic guy who hides in his apartment for six months after getting dumped by the girl of his dreams before waking up one day, snapping out of it, and surprising none of his friends when he’s getting all of the attention from the pretty girls on his first night back out.

And then you had Jay White, who one year ago in this very same building looked like an awkward high school outcast uncomfortable in his own skin, while not quite having a feel for how to work within his new persona. Exactly one year late, he came to the ring a seemingly different human, with the body language of an absolute star before the match and the oozing confidence of one during, and by the finish, leaving zero doubt that he is now a made guy.

The match itself lulled us into thinking we were watching a typical modern era New Japan epic. The pace was a little harder than usual, but the patterns were familiar, with Okada playing the hits, White hanging right with him, and a red hot crowd eating up every second of it. The match peaked with an incredible counter and reversal sequence, reminding us that this was indeed Okada at the Dome.

This built to the perfect and predictable Rainmaker, the satisfying end to depressed Okada, against the best possible opponent, the hateable prick, in the outcome they conditioned us was coming. White’s Blade Runner counter to that Rainmaker, the utterly perfect and razor sharp reversal, will prove to be the defining image of Wrestle Kingdom 13 and the moment White put Wrestle Kingdom 12 behind him for good. A wild, celebratory crowd silenced abruptly and completely, a new top star instantly cemented. That moment, that fraction of a second, was utter brilliance and beauty and perfection. Everyone held their breath for a kick out that would never come, but that they really didn’t want anyway. It was the story you didn’t think you’d get, the story you didn’t know you wanted until you got it. So perfect that you didn’t care that the prick ruined the party. ****½

IWGP Intercontinental Title
Tetsuya Naito def. Chris Jericho (c)

Jericho knocks it out of the park again, with a master class performance in using holds to draw old school heat while somehow simultaneously working a wild brawl with plenty of plunder. These two things normally don’t go together.

Jericho is pushing 50 and looks like he hasn’t gone to the gym in a decade, but somehow he finds the stamina to get through these hard matches with no visible issues. He comes across like an unhinged maniac, with Naito the perfect opponent, bumping like a mad man while pulling the emotional strings on the 40,000 fans of what by this point on the card, from Okada/White onward, were red hot and proving who the real stars were.

There were callbacks to the Dominion match, but this bout was different than the first. Jericho blitzed Naito the first time around, forcing Naito to dig out of what proved to be a slightly insurmountable hole. Naito made sure that didn’t happen again, blitzing Jericho before the bell and ensuring he didn’t fall behind. A perfectly timed Codebreaker produced a nervous near fall, but moments later Naito gave the fans what they were cruelly denied by White earlier in the night.  

Like everything else on the show, the match structure was exactly what the build dictated it should be. Naito was less tranquillo that usual in the buildup, claiming he was going to end Jericho’s career. Then, Jericho put him through a table the night before at the Festival. Naito attacking before the bell reflected the shift from his usual demeanor. It took Chris Jericho to finally draw raw emotion, something than other than the usual performative indifference out of our Naito and it was refreshing to see. ****¾

IWGP Heavyweight Title
Hiroshi Tanahashi def. Kenny Omega (c)

I didn’t think the build for this match was nearly as bad as most people did. I thought the premise of a style battle, with Tanahashi defending the history of New Japan and Omega representing the new school, was a good one. My issue with the build was that it completely petered out beyond the first few weeks. Kenny seemed to disappear. The go home tag match in Korakuen was a Will Ospreay showcase where Tanahashi was barely a participant.

When Kenny Omega backed Hiroshi Tanahashi into the ropes on the opening lockup of the match, Tanahashi paint brushed him across the face. The tone was set, and the ensuing match more than made up for the puzzling aspects of the build.

Omega spent the early portion of the match taunting Tanahashi, trying to bait him to lose his cool and fight his fight. He mimicked the moves of the legends Tanahashi cited in the build, he introduced tables that Tanahashi ignored until he finally couldn’t resist. Tanahashi’s loss of focus nearly cost him the match, whiffing on a High Fly Flow and crashing through a table in what was the nastiest looking bump of the entire show.

Omega had a key whiff of his own, missing a V-Trigger and injuring his knee crashing into the turnbuckle, which he sold for the rest of the bout. Omega was able to survive the High Fly Flow, getting his knees up once and even kicking out at one, but conversely, Tanahashi was never tested by the One Winged Angel, because he always had a counter. Omega used a top rope Dragon Suplex (Tanahashi took the bump flat on his stomach as opposed to his neck) to set up what proved to be his final OWA attempt, but Tanahashi countered it with a leg lariat. A sling blade setup the final High Fly Flow, this one earning the win. Neither man really stuck to their style. Omega exhibited grit, Tanahashi flash. In the end, neither style won. The better man did.

A great match, with great intensity and sneaky violence. My only (very) minor critique is that they barely missed the peak. It probably went about two or three minutes too long. ****¾

Final Thoughts:

On an event where the match quality usually grabs the headlines, the match layouts here should be the real story. It would be hard to nail a transition show as well as this one did. Similar to 2016, New Japan entered the year with the adversity of roster uncertainty and defections. They navigated it then, and absolutely crushed it this time around, with one of the most impeccably laid out shows I’ve ever seen. This was a great show with five excellent matches, a couple of which may prove to be match of the year contenders. But we say that every year. More importantly this time around, they nailed several elevations that will shape New Japan’s 2019 and beyond. An A+ show.