We say goodbye to a legend and potentially bring one of the most epic tales in wrestling – Tetsuya Naito’s journey – to an end.
New Japan Pro Wrestling
Wrestle Kingdom 14 – Night 2
January 5, 2019
Watch: NJPW World / FITE.TV
No matter what you think of the results, this will be a significant night.
NEVER Openweight Six-Man Gauntlet
Los Ingobernables de Japon def. Great Bash Heel & Taguchi, Suzukigun, BULLET CLUB & CHAOS
If this was a throwaway match to get everybody on the card, someone should have told Robbie Eagles. He was fantastic, launching himself around for Bad Luck Fale and emoting a desperation to win a title at the Dome. In fact, most competitors wore their working boots and this cavalcade of puzzle pieces came together to make an entertaining picture to entertain the early risers. Makade did his punches in the corner, Yano removed a turnbuckle and Chase showed off the signature scratching that he has used to carve his place on the roster. A questionable pin to eliminate the CHAOS team could not dampen the action, as it wasn’t long before BUSHI landed on his head and Shingo was battering all in sight. This was by no means essential, but was an appropriate warm up for the upcoming show.
Entertaining fun, and a great pre-show match. ***
Hiromu Takahashi & Ryu Lee def. Jushin Thunder Liger & Naoki Sano
When considering Jushin Thunder Liger’s career, as we are forced to do on the occasion of his last match, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the scope of his achievements. Whether it’s the moves he invented, the iconic matches against the likes of Sano or becoming a true worldwide star through his work in WCW, summarising his career in a paragraph is impossible. I could talk about how a bloody Liger launched the Junior Heavyweight belt at Sano, enraged after having his mask ripped. I could also talk about driving for six hours to see him battle AJ Styles two decades later. There’s always a personal angle with a man like Liger.
As great as those moments are, Liger transcends them. His wonderful skill is surpassed by his colossal presence. His ability to emote anger, joy or humility underneath his mask is born out of a love for the sport he has dedicated his life to. Liger is timeless, ageless and infinite because of that love. He speaks to us all without saying a word, and we smile.
Perhaps it’s this connection to the infinity that makes the retirement so difficult. He might not do the Shooting Star Press very often and he might not extend his legs as much on the Romero Special, but it was all too easy to assume he would be with us forever. The suit served a double purpose. It captivated millions, but hid the inevitable signs of age.
The match itself was exactly as expected. Liger brought his fighting spirit, but was bested by the men in their prime. It’s a timely reminder that this isn’t a complete ending and that, with the likes of Hiromu, junior heavyweight wrestling will continue to amaze and enthrall.
And of course, this isn’t really the end of Liger. He has made such a mark on professional wrestling, and our hearts, that he’ll live forever.
I always have a dorky line that I use whenever I review Liger matches so if you’ll allow it, I’d like to do it one last time. Jushin Thunder Liger gets five stars from my heart and another five from my soul.
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship
Roppongi 3K def. El Phantasmo & Taiji Ishimori
A list of the moves on display here would make this match seem beyond exciting. We saw a double German from Sho, a lungblower into a moonsault and a gangly array of flips and bounces from El Phantasmo.
Unfortunately, Roppongi 3K’s eternal teenager routine is starting to wear thin. Yet again, they turn a tag league victory into gold at the Dome. The law of diminishing returns means that these matches become less and less exciting as time goes on.
The troll moves – corner dick stomp, moonsault into a back rake – aren’t for me, but they certainly have an audience. ELP balances the line between genuine and go-away heat as well as he balances on the top rope. Every person watching will fall on one side or the other.
Ishimori does cool things but is always forgettable – the sliding german is a reminder of how good he is but he never feels like he’s top of the list.
Ultimately, it’s ELP who causes his own downfall. Distracted by Rocky grabbing the belt and foiled by the ball protector, it’s the purity of 3K that wins the day.
Unfortunately, it seems that 3K is stuck in the doldrums again, imprisoned by a title that nobody, even Gedo, seems to really care about while the junior division passes them by. It’s refreshing to see the breakup angle savored until it means the most, but there’s always the danger of letting it sail past. ***1/2
Undisputed British Heavyweight Championship
Zack Sabre Jr. def. SANADA
SANADA and ZSJ have good chemistry, but it feels like it’s wearing thin. Even seeing them wrestle live in Manchester couldn’t do much to whet my appetite for this match. However, the Dome is the Dome and they clearly brought an extra dose of fire.
The opening technical exchange had an intensity that is often lacking from these kind of skill-based battles. It’s not often that Zack Sabre Jr competes against someone with comparable technical skills and the way they seamlessly transitioned from hold to pin and back again was liquid.
One of the most underrated aspects of Zack’s game – his character work – was on full display. The way he petulantly loses his temper when SANADA gains control is fantastic; he becomes the smartest teenager in school who comes second in the big test.
SANADA is a clear star, his aura has transcended his significant wrestling skill, but he feels like he’s still waiting in the wings. This performance was an incredibly solid match, but we’re still waiting for his arrival. ***3/4
IWGP United States Championship
Jon Moxley def. Juice Robinson
This match feels infected with politics. Moxley is a fantastic addition to a card like this but with his AEW commitments it’s impossible to do anything meaningful with him. They have used the two matches this weekend to squeeze as much as they can out of him, but it feels like they have squeezed him dry.
Perhaps by having the standard match second, inverting the normal progression of match gimmicks, wasn’t the best idea. This felt flat. Juice is defined by his spirit and will, but for it to be effective the audience has to go along with him. That wasn’t the case here.
Moxley did show a very underrated aspect of his style; he is excellent at making huge forearms and chokes feel intense. He adds huge drips of reality and violence to every movement and it’s impossible not to be captivated by it. He adds wrinkles, like a sarcastic bow to the referee, and it builds his unpredictable aura.
The spots – Juice punching the chair and the stunning Deathrider – were more than enough to keep my interest, but there was little of the animalistic brutality that captivated me during the Lance Archer match. ***
Of course, the Suzuki challenge was amazing. Suzuki turned up in his working boots, and I dare anyone to make a ‘full gear’ joke within earshot. The sick, demented smile on his face harkened back to a thousand instances of Suzuki taking pleasure in dishing out pain to those who thought they could take it. The stall on the piledriver was perfect.
These are two wrestlers from two very distinct planets, and the idea of them colliding has me salivating.
NEVER Openweight Championship
Hirooki Goto def. KENTA
KENTA is the perfect heel. He exists purely to mock those around him, almost satirizing the ridiculous pedestal they put themselves on. For that reason, Goto is his perfect opponent. Goto, the man who constantly chokes before hitting the top, is defined by his honor. He respects the art of professional wrestling and it has given his life a purpose that drives him forward.
KENTA showed him exactly what he thought of that as he walked by him like he didn’t exist. It said even more than the fantastic promos that built this match. Goto – despite all his waterfall meditations, his G1 victories and title wins – means nothing.
It’s this honor that drove Goto like a madman. Every cowardly escape was met with a chase and Goto kept KENTA on a coiled spring. The simple image of the referee being unable to hold Goto back was sublime.
Goto was relentless and tapped into wrestling’s simple charm. He was beating up the bad guy, laser focussed, and it was excellent.
Of course, KENTA taught him a lesson, too. Burning passion is always short-lived and soon Goto was on the floor while KENTA leaned on the rope looking bored.
The, often underrated, expressive nature of Goto sang here, as he bound off the ropes with desperation. He refused to be mocked on the biggest stage. A no-sold slap to the face, eyes bulging with anger, told us everything we need to know about the man, Hirooki Goto.
This was a fight between two men who hate each other, and the work reflected it perfectly. A horrendous GTR put an end to KENTA’s title reign and taught him a bit of respect… or did it? ****1/4
Jay White def. Kota Ibushi
This was incorrectly billed as the match for third place. A consolation prize. In reality, it was presented as something much more important. To lose this match would be to lose everything. There could be no reasonable claim to either title, and would put a definitive end to their Wrestle Kingdom journey.
Ibushi was masterful here. There was a glorious hesitation that accompanied his walk to the ring. He had to remind himself to pump his fists, desperately hoping that the crowd could carry him, rather than him waltzing them along as usual.
He was brutal here, even by his horrendous standards. When the inevitable murder switch was flipped, it wasn’t the crime of passion from the night before. It was an emotionless, psychotic violence. He doesn’t just hit White, he screams at him to hit back with a guttural, unearthly growl. This match was self-flagellation, his penance for defeat.
Jay White, being the predator that he is, thrives on this kind of vulnerability. He can take a huge Last Ride and horrendous punches. As long as his mind still works, he can scratch a victory.
How he got that victory was familiar, and will no doubt be as divisive as it has always been. Yes, Gedo got what was coming to him in the form of a massive punch to the face, but a huge chair shot to the head after a ref bump brought an end to Ibushi’s dream.
Ibushi will be a character to keep a close eye on in 2020. By finally signing a contract he, and us as fans, believed he had a home where he could thrive. The G1 seemed to confirm that, but this double defeat could be used as a catalyst for a very different, very scary Kota Ibushi. I can’t wait. ****
Chris Jericho def. Hiroshi Tanahashi
Chris Jericho’s rock star persona is fantastic. As a champion, tradition dictates that he is infallible. He is good looking, athletic and gifted. There’s only one person in the world who believes all of those things in 2020 and that is Chris Jericho himself. He thinks the makeup looks cool and he has clearly practiced the maniacal grin in the mirror. I don’t think this is the real Chris Jericho – I think it’s the character – but there is undoubtedly a seed of reality there.
That’s where my problem with Chris Jericho lies. I can see the cogs moving and at this point, it feels like pro-wrestling by numbers. It might paint a masterpiece level painting, but I can see how it was built. I respect the fact that he can turn a silly, throwaway catchphrase into massive t-shirt sales, but it’s not exciting. I appreciate how he perfectly places high spots in his matches to counter the aging process, but smart doesn’t always mean engaging. The concept of Chris Jericho being the ‘smart worker’ is so inherent to the enjoyment of watching him it stops me from becoming invested in the character.
Tanahashi is the opposite. I believe that he is real, in almost direct contrast to how ridiculous he is. I believe he still thinks of himself as the ace, even though the world can see that time has passed.
As for the work here, it was obviously good. Don’t assume that Chris Jericho is broken down – far from it – and the Lionsaults and Codebreakers look as good as ever. The problem with this match wasn’t in how the moves were executed, or even in how they were placed, it was in the fact that it was impossible to separate the reality from the work. I can respect something, but that doesn’t mean I like it.
The question of an AEW alliance was also quashed with Tanahashi losing, which will be a relief to as many as it disappoints.
I liked the air guitar on the top rope, using each other’s finishing and Tanahashi powering out of the Liontamer. They clearly had a blast. But this felt like a work and I want to be able to suspend my disbelief. ***3/4
IWGP Heavyweight & IWGP Intercontinental Championship
Tetsuya Naito def. Kazuchika Okada
Naito walked to the ring with a look on his face that I’d never seen before. It was the look of a man who is both present in the moment and a million miles away. He left the Intercontinental title in the middle of his ring and turned to the corner. It felt different this time, though. He wasn’t turning his back on it. He was moving forward.
Okada was the complete opposite. There was little reflection from him, instead, we got a bellow from the top rope. He was marking his territory, and telling the partisan crowd that their love for Naito wasn’t enough for him to win.
The pace was perfect, the moves were impactful and the drama was off the chart. That’s a given in a Tokyo Dome main event. It was the dedication to the story and the attention to the smallest of details that made this match perfect.
The way they looked at each other when the bell rang told more story than most matches. It was the age-old battle again – the privileged thoroughbred champion battling the man who hates everything that champion represents.
The stare down might have been long, but the action that followed soon carried us all away in a whirlwind of action. There were big DDTs, thunderous elbow strikes and disgusting dropkicks. Behind all of this, however, was a very personal story that captivated me so intently that I couldn’t look away.
Okada’s elbow drops were accompanied by a smug disappointment. A hint that he expected Naito to be better. There was no doubt that we were getting Naito’s best – no fake topes here – but Okada believed he was a step above.
Of course, that didn’t last long and before I knew it Okada’s neck looked like it was being broken by a revitalized Naito and the ten-minute call rang out as a reminder that I hadn’t been breathing properly since this started.
This match was rewarding to watch. Small stutters led to a change in dominance, Naito put years of frustration and rejection into every punch, and Okada took every opportunity to sneer at the man he saw as beneath him.
Every moment blended seamlessly into the next, elevating this beyond any simple description of moves. It wasn’t the failed Rainmaker that was important, it was the panic that came afterward, allowing Naito to regain control.
Finally, Naito earned Okada’s respect mid-match, but this transitioned into a viciousness. He knew the crowd was against him, and he delighted in showing them just how wrong they were. He didn’t use knee strikes; he made statements.
Both men looked at the crowd constantly during the match, but it was Naito who was hardest to read. The emotions moved like oil in water, from desperation to determination, and I lived through him for this thirty-five minutes.
Okada’s Rainmakers came from all over, spinning and sudden, and Naito had to find another gear. The way he wriggled out of the Tombstone piledriver was apropos. This was not the time for slick reversals. It was a fight for his life. Spirit would beat skill.
My favorite moment of the match was the most simple. Despite his chest heaving from multiple Rainmakers, Naito breathed in deeply enough to spit in the face of the IWGP champion. He collapsed. It seemed like his last act was a brilliant display of defiance.
Then the Rainmakers come. One after the other, smashing away the dream with every strike. Naito was being taught a lesson. His face was dull, absent of the satisfied resignation that heralded his last Tokyo Dome defeat.
But no. Suddenly, Naito’s face comes to life with vigor and desperation. There’s a determined tear in his eye as he silently screams that he’s unwilling to let this be the end.
The Stardust Press. The aptly named Destino. The victory.
This is one of the best matches I have ever seen. *****
I have nothing else to say about that last match beyond that it was perfect. The conversation will be dominated by the KENTA attack at the end and that’s fine. Naito fans needs something to moan about and they have it in spades. With Liger retiring and Naito finally reaching the top of the moment, this was one of the most significant moments in New Japan history.