NEW JAPAN PRO WRESTLING
WRESTLE KINGDOM 17
JANUARY 4, 2023
TOKYO DOME
TOKYO, JAPAN

Watch: NJPW WORLD

Meet our reviewers

Suit Williams: It’s January 4. It’s the Tokyo Dome. It’s Wrestle Kingdom. This year, the New Japan feeling of old has never felt closer as the company finally sheds the restrictions of the pandemic era for its biggest show of the year. The excitement is palpable, and Suit can’t wait to dive in. Follow him on Twitter @SuitWilliams.

Jon Hernandez: Jon got a few Progresso soups on a great sale today, he has a pot of coffee on at 1:30 AM, and he’s wrapped in a blanket — it must be January 4. With one hell of a card and a cheering Tokyo Dome crowd, he sure is hopeful the old Wrestle Kingdom feeling is back. You can follow him on Twitter @OldJonHernandez.

EXHIBITION MATCH
RYOHEI OIWA VS. BOLTIN OLEG ENDED IN A TIME-LIMIT DRAW

Suit: Our announce team is Kevin Kelly, Chris Charlton, and the returning Gino Gambino. The first thing I noted was the crowd was not hesitant at making voice calls, so the fans are ready to bring the atmosphere. The debuting Olympian Oleg has good size, and his grappling is sound. The more experienced Oiwa locked on an armbar in the final minute, but Oleg was able to make the ropes. Oleg scored a nearfall with a bodyslam as the bell tolled on the three minute time limit. A nice appetizer and showcase for the highly-touted Young Lions. N/R

Jon: As soon as Boltin Oleg showed up on the ramp, the gravity of the moment was clear. I’ve said it time and time again, I’ve even said it all over this website: put a big dude in a singlet and have him pick other people up and I will 100% be watching.

Speaking of big dudes doing the heavy lifting, can I take a moment to say just how great it is to hear Gino Gambino back at the commentary booth? Welcome back, Mr. Juicy, we’ve missed you.

Oleg exhibits a strength advantage over the also-impressive Oiwa, who threatens a submission once or twice. It was three minutes, but it was promising and will likely prove to be memorable. N/R

NJPW KING OF PRO-WRESTLING TITLE 2023 RIGHT TO CHALLENGE/NEW JAPAN RAMBO MATCH
SHINGO TAKAGI, GREAT-O-KHAN, SHO, & TORU YANO WIN

Suit: The final four men in the match will go on to a four-way match at New Year Dash for the KOPW 2023 Championship, complete with new title belt. The Rambo competitors get to come down the ramp this year, which is nice. Kevin Kelly says that any betting odds on this one are fake and illegitimate. How dare you Kevin Kelly? My father’s not fake. My negative bankroll sure as hell isn’t fake. He should have never been broken in this business. This one started with Hikuleo fighting off a 2-on-1 House of Torture advantage against SHO and EVIL. Ishii came out at #4, and actually helped SHO take down Hikuleo. EVIL was the first man eliminated, after Rocky Romero sent SHO into him accidentally. KENTA power-walked to the ring before Ishii beat him up. Henare and Ishii got into fisticuffs, with Henare eliminating him with the help of the new Champion of the British, Great-O-Khan.

Both Mad Mikey Nicholls and Shane Haste returned to the Tokyo Dome in this one, teaming up to eliminate both Romero and local pervert Ryusuke Taguchi. I was hoping we would get a BAD DUDE TITO sighting, but no luck on that front. O-Khan and Cobb teamed up to take out Hikuleo. We got some quick eliminations, as Jeff Cobb and both members of TMDK got dumped out. El Phantasmo eliminated Henare with a titty twister, the first time that’s ever happened to my record.

Taichi went on a rampage of sumo tosses, until all the competitors teamed up to dump him out. Shingo Takagi seems to be last, and he dumped several Bullet Club members. El Phantasmo had himself a Kofi Kingston spot, sticking on the barricade and getting brought back in by KENTA and SHO. However, Shingo ducked an attack leading to SHO eliminating Phantasmo and ending proceedings. Toru Yano never ended up getting in the ring, which I’m not complaining about at all. Great-O-Khan walked off with the belt as all four men went to the back. It’s the Rambo, a fun time was had. That’s all you can ask for. **1/2

Jon: It doesn’t feel like Wrestle Kingdom night until the Rambo kicks off. As always, this was your standard harmless battle royal, an opportunity to say “hello” to all your pals who didn’t make the cut on the main card. There were some neatly booked moments: Rocky Romero coming to the rescue of his former pupil, SHO; a brief run-in between TMDK and the United Empire; and an almost climactic meeting between Taichi and Shingo.

The final four, who will meet at New Year Dash!!, are Shingo, O-Khan, SHO, and of course, Toru Yano, who I don’t think actually made contact with anyone else in the match. N/R

ANTONIO INOKI MEMORIAL SIX-MAN TAG TEAM MATCH
SATOSHI KOJIMA, TOGI MAKABE & YUJI NAGATA DEF. MINORU SUZUKI, TATSUMI FUJINAMI & TIGER MASK

Suit: All six men came out with Inoki-style red towels. Suzuki stomping down to the ring to Fujinami’s saxophone music is a funny sight, but no Kaze Ni Nare with a crowd that can sing it is unfortunate. Tiger Hattori, who I saw on his retirement tour in Nashville FOUR YEARS AGO, was the referee for this one. He got a sizeable pop too. I got a good laugh at a 17-year-old Sasha Banks stan watching Tatsumi Fujinami exchange chops with Yuji Nagata.

Suzuki and Kojima previewed the next big GHC World Title program with a fun exchange. The Makabe Bump Counter moved to 1, knocking off months of dust in the process. We ended up getting 3 bumps out of Makabe, and Makabe ended up getting the three himself by stuffing a Tiger Mask roll-up…eventually. The clunky finish aside, this was a fine touch football match (copyright Iron Mike Spears), ending with Fujinami doing Inoki’s Ichi-Ni-San-DAAAAA catchphrase. **1/4

Jon: Yuji Nagata has been over in All Japan, and just last night he re-planted himself in the Triple Crown title scene. Satoshi Kojima has been having a tremendous year in Pro Wrestling NOAH, briefly holding the GHC title before transitioning to a powerhouse tag team with Takashi Sugiura. As for Togi Makabe, did I mention they played “Immigrant Song” over the broadcast?

The opposition is Tiger Mask, Minoru Suzuki, and the impossibly-still-okay-at-this Tatsumi Fujinami. The biggest pop is reserved for referee Tiger Hattori. As for the actual match, there’s not that much to say. Fujinami remains shockingly capable for a 70-year-old man, at one point Dragon Screwing the entire opposing squad. The finish between Tiger Mask and Makabe got a little bungled, which is a shame considering how feel-good the affair had been. I’ll leave you with my favorite piece of analysis on this match, courtesy of Garrett Kidney: “I hope Makabe went over because they only paid for Immigrant Song for the night and by god they were getting their money’s worth.” **1/2

IWGP JUNIOR HEAVYWEIGHT TAG TEAM TITLE MATCH
CATCH 2/2 (FRANCESCO AKIRA & TJP) (C) DEF. LIO RUSH & YOH

Suit: YOH kick-started the main card, diving onto the champs onto the floor. It ended up backfiring, as Catch 2/2 Alley-Oop’ed Rush into the ramp and busted him open hard. This was your typical great Jr. Tag Title opener at the Dome, with two fantastic new teams. Catch 2/2 are going to make a run at Tag Team of the Year this year, as Akira and TJP have gelled so well and become a great pair in this division.

The last time these teams went against each other, Akira and TJP took advantage of their slight experience advantage as a team, and took advantage of a slight miscommunication to win. This time, Rush and YOH gelled better, having won the Super Jr. Tag League. They hit their finishing combination that ended in a Lio Rush frog splash, but TJP broke up the pin. In the end, it was TJP catching YOH with a roll-up out of a Direct Drive to score the win. Rush and YOH got closer, and were one big shot away from winning, but it wasn’t to be. This was fast-paced, had great nearfalls, and surprised me with the finish. I’m so glad to see more of this Catch 2/2 reign, as I don’t have enough superlatives for them as a pair. ***3/4

Jon: Lio Rush and YOH are two guys I’d all but given up on getting invested in again, but here we are. With borders finally loosening, the NJPW Junior Tag division came alive again, with these two teams at the center. The big traditional Wrestle Kingdom Junior Tag Title opener feels relevant and exciting again.

Lio took that big bump on the ramp that busted him open, and it gave a little more meat to a match that’s usually all gas pedal. When Rush returned to the ring to lead a big comeback, he was sporting a legitimate crimson mask — in the main card opener, no less!

From there, it was all the pace and execution you’d expect from these teams. Both teams reached deep into playbooks of tandem office, peaking with the LiYOH team scoring a nearfall on a 3K. TJP, the most accomplished grappler in the ring, winning with a roll-up reversal, was a great juxtaposition against the match’s otherwise high-flying nature. Lovely opener, Catch 2/2 are the most exciting champs we’ve had in years. ***3/4

IWGP WOMEN’S TITLE MATCH
KAIRI (C) DEF. TAM NAKANO, AND YES, MERCEDES MONÈ DEBUTED

Suit: This won’t please the stopwatchers among us, as this match went a bit longer than five minutes. But these two battered each other in that time, emptying the clip with all of their big shots. KAIRI hit the Interceptor spear, Nakano hit a big crossbody to the floor and followed it soon after with a goddamn Violent Screwdriver for a nearfall. KAIRI knocked Nakano into next week with two Cutlass backfists before hitting the Insane Elbow to retain. These two maximized their minutes and had as good a five-minute match as you’ll ever see. ***1/2

Post-match, we got the long-awaited debut of the former Sasha Banks, now known as Mercedes Monè. She laid out KAIRI and made a challenge for the Battle In The Valley show in San Jose on February 18th. That new finish needs some work, but otherwise a newsworthy segment. Mercedes has been a fantastic wrestler for years, and she looked like a star here. We’re gonna find out over the next few months just how big that star can shine.

Jon: With a match this brief, it’s difficult for me to think of much to say that Suit hasn’t already covered. I hope people don’t harp on its brevity too much, though. Obviously, time had to be allotted for what was coming after, but Nakano and Kairi had to know a great deal of new eyes were on them tonight, and they accounted for themselves appropriately. Those gnarly backfists, Nakano’s Screwdriver — in just a few minutes they displayed a physicality and intensity that some western fans of women’s wrestling might not be accustomed to. Hopefully, they were enticed by it. I sure was. ***1/4

IWGP TAG TEAM TITLE MATCH
BISHAMON DEF. FTR (C)

Suit: This was the first match where you felt the crowd get back into it. These teams threw bombs at each other, a feat more impressive when you learn that FTR had travel issues that kept them from getting to the arena until the show started. FTR continued their year of incredible tag team wrestling with another heater here. Bishamon kept going for the Shoto finisher, but it kept getting countered. FTR Hair looked like he killed YOSHI-HASHI with the Davey Richards/Eddie Edwards suplex to the outside, and FTR tried to kill Goto with a piledriver and a spike piledriver, but the pin got broken up. Eventually, Goto and YOSHI-HASHI were able to isolate Harwood and hit the Shoto. Goto blocked the pin break-up, allowing YOSHI-HASHI to score the fall and win the titles at the Tokyo Dome for the second year in a row.

I said this last year, but this isn’t the same geek YOSHI-HASHI you saw in 2019. He found himself over these past few years teaming with Goto, and they have become an excellent team in this promotion. Meanwhile, FTR loses their third title in three defenses. While their future may be in question, they can rest assured knowing that they had one of the best 8-month stretches any tag team has ever had. This match was the first on the card where it felt like a major show, a feeling that I missed from Wrestle Kingdom. ****1/4

Jon: I know a bunch of folks were disappointed that this didn’t turn out to be the FTR vs. Aussie Open rematch, but I’ve been over the moon about Bishamon in this spot. It just seemed like such a perfect style matchup. A couple beefy, old-fashioned, hard-hitting dudes you wouldn’t talk back to in a bar. And also, YOSHI-HASHI.

Well, I was right. These guys beat the hell out of each other in a compact, dense match. It’s a shame that the outcome was a foregone conclusion with FTR’s current losing streak story, and that was only cemented after an excellent Big Rig nearfall.

Dax traded forearm shots with Hirooki Goto in one of those almost-dream-matchups you don’t realize you needed until you have it. YOSHI-HASHI eventually scored the pin on Harwood after Bishamon landed the Shoto. The two teams embraced after the finish. I’m bummed to see FTR lose the belts. I think they’re such a great fit for the style, and they really aid a division that lacks defined tag teams. That said, this was a great match on the way out, and as we know, Bishamon whips ass. ****

NJPW WORLD TELEVISION TITLE TOURNAMENT FINAL
ZACK SABRE JR. DEF. REN NARITA

Suit: You’ve probably seen and made jokes about Sabre’s new hair, and if I wasn’t so locked in on this review, I’d have thought of a couple myself. This was everything you would want this match to be, a fast-paced grappling affair making the most of the 15-minute time limit. Narita and Sabre went hard, went quick, and did it smartly. Sabre’s early arm work ended up paying off on the finish, as Narita couldn’t hit his big suplex finish. Sabre caught an armbar and got the quick tap to win his first singles New Japan title.

Post-match, Sabre was confronted by Shane Haste and Mikey Nicholls of TMDK. They recently had a spot in the group open up, so they offered it to Sabre, who accepted it. Zack Sabre Jr has a new unit and a new title. The match was awesome, a technical version of the old NEVER Title matches. Zack in TMDK is a great pivot away from the dissolution of Suzuki-gun. A fun piece of business, and a nice freshening up of the New Japan unit structure. Quite frankly, the most shocking part of this was a Brit winning a final. ***3/4

Jon: I went into the 15-minute time limit matches of the TV Title tournament rubbing my hands together and licking my chops. There’s just something about putting the talent on this roster in a position where they’re forced to cut every bit of fat, not to mention the built-in story of needing to secure a win quickly. There aren’t many wrestlers better suited to fill that time than Zack, with his constant barrage of holds and pins, and Narita, with, uh, Shibata stuff.

This match went exactly how you’d expect. Narita delivered in his first big stage singles match, matching ZSJ’s mat acumen with his own brand of kickpadded violence. At around the ten-minute mark, Zack snagged a deep armbar during a grappling scramble to secure the win and the belt out of nowhere. The finish perfectly suited both the nature of this new division and the matchup of styles we were watching. Excellent match, maintaining the show’s speedy pace. I certainly didn’t see that TMDK thing coming. ****

NEVER OPENWEIGHT TITLE MATCH
TAMA TONGA DEF. KARL ANDERSON (C)

Suit: This show may be blessed by Inoki himself. We got a good Karl Anderson match where he put in a legitimate effort. I was ready to bury MachineGunKA six feet under here, as my patience with Anderson’s Good Brother schtick has grown thinner than looseleaf. But the lights were indeed bright tonight, as Anderson had his working boots on here from the jump.

A belt shot and a Bernard Driver kicked this one off hot, as Anderson was getting heat from the crowd to start. A countered Gun Stun on the ramp got Tama back in business, but he was working on the back foot for a good chunk of this one. Eventually, a series of Gun Stun counters ended with a massive Gun Stun off the middle rope from Tama. And after getting the T-Shirt pop, he hit another Gun Stun to put Anderson away and stand tall as NEVER Openweight Champion. Did this match benefit from a ground-level bar? Undoubtedly. But this match was good on its own merits, and Tama Tonga felt like a new name with momentum on the hontai side. Good on you, Good Brother.

…he could’ve taken that last Gun Stun better, but that would be getting greedy. ***1/2

Jon: When Karl Anderson looked into the camera after beating Hikuleo at the World Tag League finals and said, “You think I’m coming back to New Japan Pro Wrestling to do a jizzob?” I just fell more in love with the guy. Look, I know, he’s half-assed matches, he went running back to Triple H, blah blah. I can’t help it. I think he’s funny. So it’s nice that, for what might be his last ever appearance in the Tokyo Dome, I don’t have to apologize for appreciating his output.

Karl came out here with a vigor we haven’t seen from this guy in years. He clobbered Tama with the belt and dropped him with a Bernard Driver (!!) on the jagged entrance ramp. He slapped Tama around with stiff shots, he talked shit, and then he let his old pal get the huge babyface comeback to an appreciative Tokyo Dome crowd. Then he botched the finish, but hey, I’ll take it. Good match, I’m looking forward to what Tama does with this belt. Thanks for one more good memory on the way out, Machine Gun. ***½

KEIJI MUTO FINAL NEW JAPAN MATCH
KEIJI MUTO, HIROSHI TANAHASHI & SHOTA UMINO DEF. TETSUYA NAITO, SANADA & BUSHI

Suit: Muto started with SANADA, who almost finished Muto off with his own moonsault, but Muto kicked out. After a Shining Wizard, Muto went up top for a moonsault of his own, but Tanahashi reminded him that his knees don’t work like that anymore.

We got a lot of the hits being played, with dragon screws aplenty, and the Muto team putting on their submissions at the same time. It was a fun time regardless. As expected, Muto hit BUSHI with the Shining Wizard and…let Umino hit the Death Rider and score the fall? Huh? Muto stepping aside and letting a young talent shine? Granted, Muto had a taxi running and bolted, but whatever. Kaito Kiyomiya is breaking every piece of furniture in his living room right now. This was fun. ***

After this match, LIJ were confronted backstage by KONGO, the Pro Wrestling NOAH unit led by KENOH and Katsuhiko Nakajima. That sounds like a good bit of fun!

IWGP JUNIOR HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE MATCH
HIROMU TAKAHASHI DEF. TAIJI ISHIMORI (C), EL DESPERADO, MASTER WATO

Suit: Hiromu and Mr. Belt reunited once again. Ishimori played defense to start by baiting his challengers to the outside, taking them out one by one like John Wick, then waiting for a countout. He didn’t get it, so we ended up getting a pretty damn good four-way. This match was all about making Master Wato look like he could fit in the ring with the two aces of the Junior division, as well as the champion. And I’ll be damned, Wato stepped up to the plate and had the Tokyo Dome buying that he could be the new ace of the juniors.

He hit all three men with Recietemente, his Crucifix Bomb finisher that beat Taiji Ishimori back at Declaration of Power. He hit Desperado with it, but Ishimori pulled the ref out of the ring. Ishimori tried to steal it, but Wato hit him with Recietemente before Hiromu broke it up. Wato hit a GIANT German suplex on Hiromu before trying it on Hiromu. But Hiromu turned it into the TB-2 for the win and the title. The way this crowd reacted showed me that they may have something with the blue-haired dork I wrote off as the pin eater. And while he did eat the pin, he may have earned a chance to earn his way to the top of this division. ***3/4

Jon: I don’t want to be an asshole about this one. These guys are all obviously extremely talented wrestlers (well, Wato’s gotten better, at least), and I’ve tried not to be too bummed about getting a four-way rather a singles for the Junior Title match, but I had a hard time getting invested in this one for most of the way.

There was a moment late in the match where Hiromu and Despy faced off and had a really aggressive exchange, and I really wished we could have just had a conventional match between them.

Anyway, for all my sourpussing, the closing stretch of this was GREAT. Master Wato went on a tear, getting four consecutive extremely convincing nearfalls that had the Tokyo Dome crowd (and me, eating a Progresso soup at 5:30 AM) frothing at the mouth. I’m not sold on Wato yet, but this was SOME performance. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s the one that takes the belt from Hiromu down the road. ***¼

IWGP UNITED STATES HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE MATCH
KENNY OMEGA DEF. WILL OSPREAY (C)

Suit: Kenny Omega is back. Kenny Omega is a champion in New Japan Pro Wrestling again. But this wasn’t the Cleaner. This wasn’t the Best Bout Machine. This wasn’t Kenny Omega coming back to win a match. On January 4th, 2023, Kenny Omega was a hitman with a score to settle.

Four years ago, Kenny Omega left New Japan Pro Wrestling. He left as the villain, as the crowd weeped tears of joy for Hiroshi Tanahashi. His contributions in taking New Japan worldwide were taken for granted. His blood, sweat, and tears were all for nothing, as he would simply be replaced by the next athlete, the next star, the next hot name on the marquee. And worse of all, he couldn’t even say goodbye to his best friend because some dickhead from England knocked him out.

Four years later to the day, Kenny Omega came back to the Tokyo Dome. And like he said, it wasn’t for the fans. It wasn’t to be the IWGP US Champion. It wasn’t for the company. He came back to strike down upon those with great vengeance and furious anger those who poisoned and destroyed his brothers. He came back to destroy the man he sees responsible for erasing his hard work, erasing his legacy, and who took his friend away. He came back to make the man who shrunk and silenced the buildings that he filled pay for it in blood. Kenny Omega was here to kill the so-called Assassin. And he came pretty damn close.

Omega brutalized Ospreay here. He first attacked Ospreay’s neck and back, before going after the kidney that almost killed Ospreay earlier this year. Then, Omega took it to the next level by DDT-ing Ospreay on the exposed top turnbuckle, bloodying Ospreay up. What came after that was Omega ruthlessly and violently destroying Will Ospreay. He drilled him with V-Triggers. He took him down off the top rope with a Croyt’s Wrath, which Omega could have won with if he hadn’t pulled Ospreay up from to drill him with another V-Trigger. Ospreay had his hope spots, drilling Omega with the Hidden Blade and the step-up OsCutter. But Omega was not gonna be stopped on this night. He would have his revenge. After he survived one last flurry from Ospreay that included a Styles Clash, Omega took Ospreay’s arms and drilled him with a Kamigoye before finishing the job with the One Winged Angel. This was a beating administered by a man who felt the need to remind everyone exactly who the fuck he was. And now, he’s gonna get on a plane, fly to Los Angeles, and have a highly-anticipated trios ladder match. And he’ll kill it there too. Because Kenny Omega is the God of pro wrestling, and you will know his name is the Lord when he lays his vengeance upon you. *****

Jon: So much history was splayed out for you before the match even began. The return of The Cleaner, Will Ospreay entering to his old theme “Elevated,” and the reunion of Don Callis and Kevin Kelly at the English commentary booth. I don’t need to tell you how big and special this match has felt up to this point, but boy, was it driven home on this broadcast, well before the bell rang.

Right away, you could tell these two understood the gravity of the match. Ospreay let himself go flying into guardrails and corner posts off of kicks from Kenny. Kenny ate stiff closed fists and was dropped headfirst on the steel underside of a table. Kenny Omega wrestled this match with a level of physicality we probably haven’t seen from him since he was IWGP champ. Ospreay brought all the sharpness and athleticism we’ve come to expect from him over the past few years, with an added degree of aggression apropos of the story this match was telling. When the 20-minute call came, Omega’s eye was swollen shut, Ospreay was bleeding out on the floor, the crowd had reached a fever pitch we hadn’t heard all night.

By the 25-minute call, Ospreay had begun to lose composure, and Omega brutalized him. There was no funny video game nerd here, just a monster. It was the match they promised — Kenny displaying what the experience and mental edge really meant. Omega’s offense made me wince in a way I haven’t since Shiozaki-Sugiura in 2020. At 30 minutes, Ospreay woke up. He battered Kenny with Chelsea Grins, with the same Hidden Blades that knocked out Omega’s partner Ibushi, with a Top Rope Oscutter that plummeted Kenny’s forehead into the mat. Both men looked like they’d been run over by an 18-wheeler.

Close to 35 minutes, Kenny brought things to a halt with a V-Trigger, the way he has so many times in that cerulean ring in the past. He hit a Kamigoye and a One Winged Angel to finally put Will down.

Sometimes I listen to so much talk about how great Will Ospreay is, and so much discourse about whatever everyone thinks Kenny Omega is, that I lose the plot myself. These two men built a match with unspeakable expectations and blew through them. I’m glad I got to mash keys about it.

TL;DR: Holy shit. *****

IWGP WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE MATCH
KAZUCHIKA OKADA DEF. JAY WHITE (C)

Suit: Once they did the callback to the Wrestle Kingdom 13 and Dominion 2022 finishes, this match got interesting. They traded finishers. They swapped finishers. They called back to Jay White’s prior main event meltdown against Ibushi from Wrestle Kingdom 15. And eventually, Okada was able to put Switchblade away with a Blade Runner.  They got to their destination. The problem was that it took them the better part of a half-hour to get there. These two had no shot at following the US Title match, especially with the boilerplate main event that this mostly was.

I understand that they want Okada/White to be another one of Okada’s great rivalries, in the realm of the rivalries with Tanahashi and Naito and Omega. The problem is that Jay White is not those guys. Jay White can be great if the circumstances all come together. But he’s not great enough to create those circumstances. He’s too inconsistent to reach those heights, and in a promotion with talent bursting at the seams, he’s not compelling enough to own one of those top spots. Just look at who came out and challenged Okada in the post-match in Shingo Takagi. Shingo can be that guy, he has been throughout his career. It’s an impossibly high bar to clear, and there’s no shame in not clearing it. But Hiroshi Tanahashi isn’t getting eaten up in this spot. Tetsuya Naito finds a way to rise to the occasion. Kenny Omega would tear himself apart at the seams to take the spotlight back. Jay White is not that guy.

Kazuchika Okada stood tall as IWGP World Champion. He was in fact challenged to a title defense by Shingo Takagi, who planned on having the KOPW Title by then as well. Okada then honored Inoki and stood on the ramp to give one final ICHI-NI-SAN-DA! A fitting end to New Japan’s 50th Anniversary year. ***1/2

Jon: When I think about the rivalry between Jay White and Kazuchika Okada, I think of two matches. I think of Wrestle Kingdom 13, when Jay sucked the air out of the room by upsetting Okada in a short 15 minutes, and I think of G1 Supercard in Madison Square Garden where Okada defeated Jay White over a slow, meandering 34 minutes. I almost think of the two matches as ends of a spectrum, and I’m not sure we’ve ever gotten one that hits that sweet middle ground of intensity and pace between them.

Jay White has shown what he’s capable of in the main event at the Tokyo Dome. His 48-minute war with Kota Ibushi at Wrestle Kingdom 15 was a masterstroke performance on his end, slowly unraveling, thread-by-thread, before finally relinquishing his throne to Ibushi. And Okada? This is kinda his whole thing.

Here, the two are tasked with the tall order of following a goddamned all-timer. While Jay’s frequent absences may have hurt the in-story build, I think there’s juice on multiple levels here. This is Kazuchika Okada, the ace of the company, looking to reclaim the title and announce the true return of New Japan to prominence, in front of the first cheering Tokyo Dome audience in years. All that story needs is a good villain, and the Switchblade fits the bill.

Sure, the early stages were paced carefully. These two knew it’d take some work to win this crowd after what they’d seen. But still, there was a promising level of intensity and physicality that you don’t always get in an Okada-White match. And it slowly grew, and grew, and grew. As Jay taunted, as Gedo got involved, Okada would raise the ante with a dive to the outside, or a closed fist to White’s jaw. Finally, we entered the end game, where the infamous Okada-White finisher exchanges live. These days, Okada’s matches build up to the Landfall rather than the Rainmaker, which has been an interesting new wrinkle. He finally scored the Landfall, and in past matches, the following Rainmaker has been academic. Here, White reversed that Rainmaker into a Blade Runner, mirroring the WK13 finish. Okada kicked out.

From there, things began veering back toward the WK15 result, as White’s poise began to crumble all over again. White exhausted his playbook, and nothing was enough. He pleaded, he panicked, he ate another Rainmaker.

The crowd caught on eventually; Okada always manages to figure that part out. This was seemingly the climax of their years-long feud, and it was a suitable one, even if it closely mirrored a similar (and probably better) version between White and Ibushi two years ago. But maybe none of that was the real point. Maybe the point was celebrating the fact that fans are back with the face of the company standing tall.

Either way, it was a good wrestling match placed in a very difficult position. Still, a worthy enough entry in Okada’s Tokyo Dome oeuvre, and a fine endpoint to a return to form for Wrestle Kingdom and the company that hosts it. ****1/4