Perhaps it was lost in the announcement of the Wrestle Kingdom 14 cards and some of the (frankly kind of silly) debate about a few undercard matches, but this past Sunday we also received the full cards for the final NJPW events of 2019, the Road to Tokyo Dome shows from Korakuen Hall. Taking place on three straight nights—Thursday, December 19, Friday, December 20 and Saturday, December 21—these cards are packed with some of the most fun and interesting looking tag team matches of the year. On top of that, we will be treated to both Jushin Thunder Liger’s final three matches at the legendary Tokyo venue he’s wrestled in (according to Cagematch) 469 times since 1984 and the return of Hiromu Takahashi in his first matches since his neck injury on July 7th, 2018.
NJPW has ended their calendar year with two Road to Tokyo Dome Korakuens every year since 2013 (not counting one Lion’s Gate Project show that was after the Korakuens in 2017), and these events have featured some memorable tag matches over the years. Last year featured a Golden Lovers-Tanahashi/Ospreay match that received great critical acclaim, 2017 brought us an Okada-Naito two-night story with Naito finally solving Okada’s cobra clutch (didn’t work out for him as well at the Dome of course), 2016 featured a great Naito/Hiromu-Tana/KUSHIDA match, 2015 saw Tanahashi and Shibata team up to face Okada and Ishii back when a Tana/Shibata team was quite novel, 2014 saw a huge six-man clash with Tana/Ibushi/Makabe beating Okada/Nakamura/Ishii, and 2013 gave us perhaps the best tag match of them all, the Okada/Nakamura-Tanahashi/Naito 30 minute draw.
This year, with NJPW, of course, expanding Wrestle Kingdom to two straight nights for the first time ever, Road to Tokyo Dome at Korakuen has also expanded to include a third night for the very first time. Which of these many tag team matches will join the pantheon of the best-remembered Road to Tokyo Dome tags? I think there are quite a few candidates on all three cards, so let’s dig right in.
Road to Tokyo Dome Night 1: Thursday, December 19
GBH, Ryusuke Taguchi & Rocky Romero vs. Jushin Thunder Liger, Tiger Mask, Yota Tsuji & Yuya Uemura
We hit the ground running immediately with our first of three final Liger matches in Korakuen Hall. The lineup here is definitely not among the most exciting matches ever- it’s Liger and Tiger teaming with two young lions against Makabe, Honma and the super coaches- but this should be a match that the crowd elevates a lot. Korakuen crowds are hot for virtually anything at any time, but I think they’ll take it to another level watching Liger’s final matches on these three shows. Of course you can expect one of the young lions to get pinned here. Things do pick up for Liger’s last matches on the next two nights, I promise.
Juice Robinson, David Finlay & Toa Henare vs. BULLET CLUB (Guerillas of Destiny & Bad Luck Fale)
Juice and Finlay are preparing to challenge GOD for the IWGP Tag Team Titles on January 4th, so here’s our first hype match between the two teams. Nothing terribly exciting here, and again Henare looms as an obvious fall-taker, but expect the two tag teams to really get into it throughout the weekend, possibly including Jado.
EVIL & SANADA vs. Zack Sabre Jr. & Taichi
Now we’re talking! A real highlight of these undercards is getting not one, not two, but THREE more straight up tags from DANGEROUS TEKKERS. Zack and Taichi are just such a fun tag team both in and out of the ring (their tweets at and about each other are wonderful!) and they were one of the undisputed highlights of the World Tag League for those of us who bothered to watch any of it. Obviously the big thing here will be hyping up the SANADA-ZSJ British Heavyweight Title match on 1/5, and we start off hot, with the two-time WTL winning team of EVIL and SANADA on the other side of our heroes Zack & Taichi. This almost feels like way too big a match to be third from the bottom, but I’ll take it! You also can’t really predict who will take a fall here either- neither Taichi nor EVIL have anything going on for WK so I suppose it could be either one of them, but if any hype match is going to end with a direct fall by Zack or SANADA you’d think this would be it. I’ll go with SANADA scoring yet another flash pin over Zack and ZSJ having himself a good old fashioned tantrum, as we’ve all grown to love seeing.
CHAOS (Hirooki Goto, Tomohiro Ishii & Roppongi 3K) vs. BULLET CLUB (KENTA, Yujiro Takahashi, El Phantasmo & Taiji Ishimori)
Here we’ve got a match building up two title matches, namely the NEVER & IWGP Jr. Tag Title matches, both on 1/5. Yujiro obviously sticks out like a sore thumb here, both from a match quality perspective and when it comes to who might lose the fall, but I still expect some intensity from Goto and KENTA who have really been at each other’s throats for the entire WTL. Even the latest WK press conference ended with KENTA laying out Goto with a surprise belt shot, so expect Goto to be in a foul mood here and go right after the NEVER champion. Also it will just be interesting to see R3K-ELP/Ishimori get hyped up at all; if it feels like we haven’t seen the IWGP Jr. Tag Team Champions in a while, that’s because we haven’t. Other than the Lion’s Break Project 2 shows from CharaExpo in Anaheim, which haven’t made tape yet (and who knows if they will at all), we haven’t seen ELP and Taiji since November 11th, and they haven’t been on a show in Japan since Power Struggle on November 3rd.
Kota Ibushi & Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Tetsuya Naito & Shingo Takagi
The first thing I have to say about this match is pretty simple: how is this only third from the top! My god this match looks incredible! So with that out of the way, let’s also talk about the kind of ingenious thing NJPW did on these shows: on nights 1 and 2, they’re putting together every possible combination you could have for the big double title match on 1/5. It’s Naito-Ibushi and Okada-White on Night 1 and then Naito-Okada and Ibushi-White on Night 2. As a result, no matter what the big match ends up being on January 5th, they’ll have gotten their hype match in. The last night at Korakuen is reserved for hyping the matches we already know for sure are happening, the title matches on 1/4. So here we have Naito and Ibushi across the ring from each other, which hasn’t happened since September 27th (FSU Boston). Of course, if they end up meeting in either the double title match or (god forbid) the consolation match on 1/5, it will be their first singles meeting since their incredible match on June 9th at Dominion. And if you’re gonna find two people with nothing else to do to be your partners, you could sure do a hell of a lot worse than Hiroshi Tanahashi (obviously Jericho isn’t here for any hype matches) or Shingo Takagi. This really has a shot at being the best match of all three shows, and I can’t wait. Shingo looks destined to take the pin here, with Ibushi and Tana coming out on top.
Kazuchika Okada & YOSHI-HASHI vs. Jay White & Chase Owens
This match gets billing above that incredible Naito-Ibushi tag presumably because it’s the clash of the current IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental champions, something which doesn’t happen very often. After doing some research, the last time it happened that I can come up with is when IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada and IWGP Intercontinental Champion Minoru Suzuki met in three separate tag matches (one a six-man) in March of 2018. The Heavyweight and IC champions did team earlier this year when Okada and Ibushi were on the same multi-man teams a few times during the Road to Dontaku tour, but that’s their only other interaction. So I suppose this deserves its semi final placement based on that, even with the teammate quality dropping by quite a lot from our last match. On the upside, it’s much harder to predict a winner here with both YOSHI-HASHI and Chase always capable of taking a pin. I’m gonna say White (and Chase) cackle their way out of Korakuen with a win, as White gets some small measure of revenge for his title loss at MSG.
Hiromu Takahashi & BUSHI vs. Will Ospreay & Robbie Eagles
Our first night at Korakuen ends with Hiromu Takahashi’s return match, his first match since July 2018, and boy what a match it is. Los Dos Peligrosos and Birds of Prey get to main event Korakuen Hall, and I would be real shocked if they didn’t find a way to tear the house down. It should be an emotional match too given how much Korakuen absolutely adores Hiromu Takahashi; while I understand the critique that Hiromu returning here makes his Tokyo Dome match with Ospreay less special, frankly I think Hiromu returning at the place where he won the Best of the Super Juniors, where the fans have a really special emotional connection with him, just makes so much sense. It should be one of the absolute highlights of New Japan’s year. As for who comes out on top, BUSHI is always a favorite to take a fall in nearly any match he’s in, but I think (and hope) we’ll get the feel good moment of Hiromu pinning Robbie and cutting a big promo to send Korakuen home happy.
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Road to Tokyo Dome Night 2: Friday, December 20
Toa Henare vs. Yota Tsuji
Our only singles match across these three shows is Henare clashing with the beefiest of the current young lion class, and the only real intrigue here is whether Tsuji can last longer than the 5:13 he went with Henare when these two met in a singles match at Korakuen on 10/27. Henare always seems like a guy who could be doing a lot more than he’s currently doing, but this should still be a fun enough little opener.
GBH & Yuya Uemura vs. BULLET CLUB (Bad Luck Fale, El Phantasmo & Taiji Ishimori)
With their IWGP Jr. Tag Team Title opponents weirdly occupied on this night, we get a very strange little six-man tag here that isn’t really building up much of anything. Can’t really blame you if you decide to skip this one.
Jushin Thunder Liger & Roppongi 3K vs. Tiger Mask, Ryusuke Taguchi & Rocky Romero
Things pick up with our third match of the night, an all-junior six-man that feels like a fitting “Road to Retirement” match for Liger. He’ll be across the ring from his longtime partner and rival Tiger Mask, giving us a chance to see those two go at it for the last time (they’ll be teammates on 1/4), while Liger also gets the chance to team up with two of the wrestlers who will likely be a major part of the NJPW junior division for the next decade. I like this one a lot more than his match last night, and it’s not super easy to predict a winner either. Gonna say it’s R3K getting a pin over either TMIV or their own manager Romero, but I could really see it going either way here. God knows Liger is always up for taking a pinfall.
SANADA & Shingo Takagi vs. Zack Sabre Jr. & Taichi
SANADA and Shingo as a two-man tag team is pretty rare, though it has happened before- their last match was at Korakuen in fact, when they defeated the team of Okada and Goto on September 4th. Here they’ll be matched up against DANGEROUS TEKKERS, as we get our second of three Zack/Taichi blessings. We are indeed living in a most wonderful of times.
Hirooki Goto, Tomohiro Ishii, Juice Robinson & David Finlay vs. BULLET CLUB (KENTA, Yujiro Takahashi & Guerillas of Destiny)
This time it’s the NEVER and IWGP Heavyweight Tag Titles matches that get rolled together into one hype match. Yujiro still sticks out like a sore thumb but the BC isn’t going to lose every match, are they?
Kota Ibushi & Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Jay White & Chase Owens
The bad-ass team of Ibushi and Tana and the much less bad-ass team of White and Chase are back from the previous evening, this time paired off against each other. With apologies to Chase Owens it isn’t hard to guess who takes the fall here, as Ibushi and White stand across from each other for the first time since the G1 final, and actually only the third time they’ve been in the ring together overall. Their other meeting was…..as a tag team, losing to the BULLET CLUB duo of Bad Luck Fale and AJ Styles on July 25th, 2015, in Takamatsu. Things can change a lot in four years!
CHAOS (Kazuchika Okada, YOSHI-HASHI, Will Ospreay & Robbie Eagles) vs. Los Ingobernables de Japon (Tetsuya Naito, EVIL, Hiromu Takahashi & BUSHI)
Finally, our main event of the evening sees Okada and Naito on opposite sides of a huge 8-man tag. Perhaps this is reading a bit too much into things, but: is it a coincidence that the last of the four “possible double gold dash pairings” matches, as well as the only one to main event, is Okada-Naito? It’s the biggest pairing possible for sure, so perhaps that’s the only reason, or perhaps they’re showing us their hand just a little bit. Anyway, I will make pretty much my only major complaint about these three shows: I really wish this was a traditional Korakuen elimination match. I love those NJPW elimination matches at Korakuen, mainly because the crowd acts like a wrestler is about to get thrown into a pit of molten lava whenever they tease over-the-top-rope eliminations, but you can’t get everything you want I suppose! With an easy fall candidate on each side here in BUSHI and Eagles, the question becomes: do they have Naito end the night with a burst of hope that he’ll be able to pull off his double gold dream, or does the Rainmaker stand tall yet again? Given what I think is likely going to happen on the next night, I think CHAOS (nice to see the unit get some matches without dragging around the main army with them by the way) comes out on top here and Okada pledges to make it rain at the Tokyo Dome.
Road to Tokyo Dome Night 3: Saturday, December 21
Togi Makabe, Tiger Mask & Yuya Uemura vs. Tomoaki Honma, Ryusuke Taguchi & Yota Tsuji
So here you’ve got some veterans who don’t have anything to do and some young lions, typical for an opening match. Perhaps the only thing really worth noting is that Makabe and Taguchi, still 2/3rds of the NEVER 6-Man Tag Team Champions (and you’re VERY forgiven if you’ve forgotten that, given they’ve defended them just twice since April and typically don’t even bother coming out with the belts), are on opposite sides of this one. We know that Taichi has expressed interest in challenging for the belts at Wrestle Kingdom, so perhaps we see some kind of run-in here or some other way to set up a match (or even another gauntlet) for the pre-show on 1/5 (Taguchi is already booked in the Liger eight-man on 1/4).
CHAOS (Roppongi 3K & Robbie Eagles) vs. BULLET CLUB (El Phantasmo, Taiji Ishimori & Yujiro Takahashi)
After taking last night off we get back to hyping up the IWGP Jr. Tag Team Title match with this six-man tag. Yujiro may be a loser but he’s a heavyweight loser, so his presence here as the only heavyweight in the match would suggest Robbie gets pinned and the BC head to the Dome with a final victory.
SANADA & BUSHI vs. Zack Sabre Jr. & Taichi
Another rare LIJ two-man tag team pairing here sees SANADA team with BUSHI for the first time since a Korakuen Hall match on 4/22, where they lost to Kazuchika Okada & YOH. Sadly I can’t see them getting any better result here against DANGEROUS TEKKERS (yes, they get all caps every time and they damn well deserve it), as Zack and Taichi are likely to pick up a final victory to end their weekend.
Hirooki Goto, Juice Robinson, David Finlay & Toa Henare vs. BULLET CLUB (KENTA, Guerillas of Destiny & Bad Luck Fale)
Our last hype match for both the NEVER & IWGP Tag Team Titles sees Henare stepping up to
take the fall team with Goto and FinJuice. After Henare has somewhat bafflingly nominated himself as a possible NEVER title challenger throughout the year (despite his decided lack of direct pinfall wins over anyone other than young lions) hopefully we get a nice little exchange between him and KENTA to kinda pay that off. They could have a stiff little battle if they get some time.
Will Ospreay & Tomohiro Ishii vs. Hiromu Takahashi & EVIL
Oh boy. Talk about a sleeper match here. Take Hiromu and Ospreay, who are probably gonna be two of the hardest workers across these three shows anyway, and then add the beefy dudes of CHAOS and LIJ, and what you’ll probably get is one great tag team match. And again we’ve got a match with no obvious pin eater in it, making it a little more difficult to pick a winning side. Of all the matches I think this is probably the toughest to pick a winner for, so after flipping a coin I’m going with Will and Ishii.
Tetsuya Naito & Shingo Takagi vs. Jay White & Chase Owens
Our final two matches of this mini-tour see us finally get some hype for the double gold dash matches we know are for sure happening. First up, it’s the IWGP Intercontinental Title match on 1/4, with Naito looking to build some momentum in his quest to avenge two straight losses to Jay White. With Chase obviously far lower on the totem pole than Shingo I think Naito will do just that, but also don’t be surprised if Jay lays Naito out at the end with some kind of surprise attack.
CHAOS (Kazuchika Okada, YOSHI-HASHI & Rocky Romero) vs. Kota Ibushi, Hiroshi Tanahashi & Jushin Thunder Liger
We’ve reached our third and final main event for these shows, and I think they did a great job here. Obviously this is a hype match for our 1/4 main event, the IWGP Heavyweight Title match between Okada and Ibushi, but even more importantly Jushin Thunder Liger gets one final main event in his NJPW career. Liger deserved nothing less than a long main event in his final match in the legendary Korakuen Hall, so I’m very pleased with this booking decision. But will Kota overshadow Liger’s curtain call by going all MURDER!Kota on Okada again, like he did at the World Tag League finals? One thinks Okada will be keeping a close eye on Ibushi’s briefcase this time around. Whether there’s another briefcase attack or not, I think the Hontai team comes out on top here, probably by pinning Rocky, and Liger takes his final curtain call at Korakuen Hall as an active wrestler. It should be an emotional ending to what looks like three outstanding Korakuen shows.
There you have it. If you’re a newer fan and you’ve gotten used to skipping Road to Korakuens (and I can’t really blame you on many tours honestly), you should definitely not skip these three. Road to Tokyo Dome is New Japan’s last chance to hype up their major matches for Wrestle Kingdom, and there’s something worth watching virtually every single year. Of course, you can check all three of these shows out on NJPW World, and I’m sure we’ll have review coverage on this very website as well. Until then, see you next time!