New Japan Pro Wrestling
Wrestle Kingdom 18 in Tokyo Dome
January 4, 2024
Tokyo Dome
Tokyo, Japan


Meet the Previewers

Suit Williams: A Tokyo Dome show with little buzz is like cold pizza. Is it as great as it could be? No, but it’ll probably still be good when it’s going down. I’ve covered most of the year for New Japan for VOW in my busiest year of writing to date, so this will be a nice wrap-up for the year for me personally. Check out my work here at VOW and my work at F4WOnline reviewing Ring of Honor and AEW Collision.

John Carroll: I don’t know what everyone is talking about when they say this show is cold and they’re not excited for it, I’ve been counting down the minutes until December 28th for ten months now. Oh, that’s the day I’m leaving for Japan, not the day of Wrestle Kingdom? Well I guess that explains why I’m so excited! Follow me on Twitter @toshanshuinla if you want to read someone complain about having to watch two of the best hockey teams in the NHL this year like they’re being tortured (not House of Torture’d, which is good) for some reason, and look out for a Very Special Episode of Wrestling Omakase coming live from Tokyo next week covering WK and New Year Dash!

Jeff Andrews: Christmas has come early for the Andrews household. Tanahashi becoming the president of the greatest wrestling promotion on Earth is taking me back to better days, a time where he led us through the disaster of dogshit American wrestling and showed us a true and valuable alternative. I’m probably the high-man on the actual card for this particular WK, but as the resident Shin Nihon Tribal Chief I do think it’s imperative that I keep the faith where some may falter.

J. Michael: There’s a lot of questions running through J. Michael’s mind, and all of them have to do with the Wendy’s commercials. Who are these people? Where do they come from, what world do they live in? They seem to be able to support themselves off a regular Wendy’s salary, so it can’t be ours. They present each situation like working at Wendy’s is a 9-5 job for these people, where everyone works with the same people every day, with consistent hours… and what are these poor fucker’s hours, anyway? We’ve seen them slinging Breakfast Baconators™at sunrise, running the lunch and dinner shifts, and hassling people stuck in line past midnight, shouting into megaphones about regular Baconators™.

The only reasonable answers: they maintain the same crew, every day, rotating through the shifts; they live in a world where America has adopted some kind of 3 day, 16/hr per day work week; this world’s Wendy’s have basements, and that is where these people sleep, and possibly live. But then, we’ve seen that they have cars. We’ve seen that they have moms. Is this an allegory? This is turning into an Abed situation for J. Michael, and we’re at a critical junction; it could as easily go a Who’s the Boss path as it could a Nicolas Cage path.

J. Michael hasn’t written as much as he’d have liked about NJPW in 2023, but he probably won the word count battle. Read his work here, including his already-out-of-date 2023 New Japan Primer from July, and follow him @ryugu_jo 

KOPW 2024 Rambo (Start time 3:30 pm JST)

Suit: Look, it’s the Rambo. This doesn’t really matter outside of getting a match together for Dash the next night. Taichi finished last year as KOPW Champion, so I’ll pick him to get in. Yano’s always in these fuckin’ things, so I’ll pick him. Otherwise, pick two names out of a hat and move along. Prediction: Taichi, Yano, SHO, YOH

John: This will be my first live Wrestle Kingdom (somehow, even though it’s going to be my fourth trip to Japan overall) and I’m kind of expecting the Rambo to be a lot more enjoyable than it usually is just watching at home in the middle of the night. First of all I imagine I’ll still be buzzing off of that “I’m actually in the Tokyo Dome for Wrestle Kingdom, holy shit” energy, but also just the buzzer going off and new entrants constantly coming out will probably be a lot more exciting while I’m there than on TV. Plus it’s the only match they keep the house lights up for all night (since a ton of people are still filing into the building and it’s a lot harder to find your seats in the dark of course!), so I can just distract myself by looking around and going “ooh, ahh” during the inevitable boring parts of this.

Anyway, it’s pretty hard to predict the quartet who moves on to the New Year Dash main event the next night when we don’t even know the participants, barring one (Taichi of course, who will enter last as the 2023 winner). There’s a whole bunch of people who aren’t on the main card but will likely have a spot seconding someone else (think Master Wato for El Desperado and Coughlin/Kidd for Finlay if they’re getting flown over for this, among others)- will they be in the Rambo too, or will their spot on the main card seconding someone else be their only spot of the night? I’m going to assume that seconding someone else doesn’t keep you from also taking part in this match, and in that case I really hope they put either Kidd or Coughlin through. They deserve that main event spot at Dash the next day as one of the most enjoyable parts of the entire promotion at this point. So let’s say Kidd makes it.

Other than Gabe Kidd, who else? Taichi seems like an easy pick- so far the preceding year’s champion has made it each year, and it would be pretty hard for them not to given they come in last. SHO also seems like a solid pick to me, as he also held the title this past year and is probably one of the most over people in New Japan right now not on the main card in any fashion (2023 Tokyo Sports runner-up for Best Technique!). I’ll disagree with Suit though and say that, in an upset, Yano doesn’t get through- he seems like a guy who they really started cycling down this past year, so it might be finally time to pull the band aid off with him and not put him in the KOPW four way either. Instead, I’ll go with the Great-O-Khan, who has a history both with Taichi and this title. Damn, I wrote a lot about this stupid battle royale huh? Gotta end it here. Prediction: Taichi, Kidd, SHO, O-Khan

Jeff: One of the most valuable things the Rambo provides is an opportunity for the wisest of NJPW fans to get a snack for the show ahead. Your choice in this particular venture is very, very important and will help to guide your experience for the rest of the show. I don’t have any recommendations, no ones paying me for my powers of persuasion but I do think it’s imperative that you make the choice that ensures your enjoyment of the night ahead. As for the match, I will probably be half-paying attention until the very end and I don’t know, I guess Taichi is probably going to be in there somewhere and he’ll be pretty good. Look forward to Taichi, that’s my suggestion for the Rambo. Prediction: Taichi, Sho, Ishii, Kidd

J. Michael: This is the most disappointing match every year, especially with the company pinching nickels with flights. I’m just going to imagine that the most entertaining wrestler alive, Kaz Hirata, will be rewarded for his incredible match with Hiromu with a spot at the Tokyo Dome. If not, we can finally admit that meritocracy will never exist in professional wrestling. Prediction: Taichi, Yano, SHO, Kazuki Hirata

IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Championship
BULLET CLUB War Dogs (Clark Connors & Drilla Maloney) © vs. Catch 2/2 (TJP & Francesco Akira)

Suit: For the uninitiated, Connors and Moloney came together after their match during the Best of the Super Juniors tournament last year, a match which might be my Dudes Rock Match of the Year. They scratched, clawed, brawled through the crowd, and flung benches at each other until Moloney won by countout. At Dominion, Moloney turned on his then unit-mates Catch 2/2, joining Connors in Bullet Club before winning the Jr. Titles on the Independence Day Korakuen shows. Catch 2/2 won Super Jr. Tag League, and here we are.

Akira and TJP are one of the best teams in the world right now, as the only thing keeping them from legitimate tag team of the year conversations is volume of work. Oddly, New Japan ran this match on their last Korakuen Hall show of the year as a casket match(?) that the War Dogs won, proclaiming Catch 2/2 to be dead. My expectation is that Catch 2/2 get their win back at the Dome, with Akira pinning Moloney to take the titles. Prediction: Catch 2/2

John: That Casket Match at Korakuen was indeed very strange- at first I thought it was going to be an angle with someone (Kevin Knight? Where’s he been anyway?) popping out of the casket as the newest War Dog to give them an even bigger advantage heading into the Dome, but instead they just beat Catch 2/2’s asses for what felt like the hundredth time and really left them for dead. Anyway, this match is actually getting a lot more promotion than you might think- it’s getting advertised on the subways and such in Tokyo alongside Naito/SANADA, Okada/Danielson, the Global title 3-way and Hiromu/Desperado, presumably because it was the only other official match on the card after Power Struggle when these ads were finalized. Catch 2/2 are quite popular in Japan though (really the entire UNITED EMPIRE is, which makes their post-WK direction after Ospreay leaves for AEW really interesting) so it makes sense to focus some of your promotional might behind this match. They pretty much have to win this at this point, which is a little bit of a shame because I’ve enjoyed the WAR DOGS as dominant heel champions. But I don’t know how they possibly win this after what they just did to them at Korakuen. Prediction: Catch 2/2

Jeff: I think there’s a non-zero chance that Catch 2/2 is the best tag team in the world. Every time they get in the ring the matches are genuinely great, and this is one of the strongest pairings NJPW have had in years. I’m not sure what to make of the casket match thing, I think it was probably just a gimmick and TJP was likely working his own angle. I don’t see a world where TJP is getting reborn or anything like that, I just think they’ll win the titles and we’ll be moving into (hopefully) Catch 2/2’s defining reign with these belts.

I wouldn’t be mad if the War Dogs retained here, and I do think this is a match you could run back regardless of what the outcome might be. Dan Moloney and Clark Connors have both come a long way, and it’s nice to see them rewarded with this particular spot on the card. With all that said, again, I think it’ll be Catch 2/2 winning the belts back here. Prediction: Catch 2/2

J. Michael: A lot of worthwhile Japanese media (ok, fine, anime and manga)  has incorporated Christian elements. One of the underlying aspects of Samurai Champloo, for instance, was the persecution of underground Christian sects in Tokugawa-era Japan. Nobunaga no Chef’s opening chapters heavily feature Christian missionaries. One of Saint Young Men’s main characters is literally Jesus. Add to that works that are literally about the Church, like Blue Exorcist or Make the Exorcist Fall in Love, and works with Christian characters somewhere in the mix, like Trigun, Hellsing, Kids on the Slope, etc. And, sure enough, just about anything will eventually be interpreted as an allegory for Jesus, or something in the Bible.

TJP spent the better half of 2023 insisting, persisting, relentlessly repeating two things in his backstage promos:

  • “Something’s coming”
  • “Catch 2/2 are not dead”

This nebulous palaver was in response to the aforementioned betrayal of the United Empire by Drilla Maloney, and Maloney/Connors subsequent victory over Catch 2/2 for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team championship. Since then, Catch 2/2 largely disappeared, but re-emerged in late 2023 to win the Super Junior Tag League.

This all culminated in the most literal sequence of events possible, as late as possible. Originally, the December 22nd Korakuen show—the final show of 2023 and last event before Wrestle Kingdom—was to feature singles matches between the members of these teams, as a final build to their showdown on January 4th. Then, completely out of nowhere, the War Dogs came to the ring on December 21st with a fucking coffin. Just to make sure we all comprehended the profound subtlety, they screamed at the camera about Catch 2/2 being dead.

At that point, it was just a bit of fun prop work, two dopey transcontinental jock fuckfaces incapable of subtext, but proud of their work. It was pretty great… until the company announced that, because of this audacious display, the go-home Korakuen single matches would be changed to a tag match between the teams. A COFFIN MATCH. A non-title coffin match to set up a regular title match between the teams two weeks later (and a weird one, too, with some of the most ludicrously hilarious slow reaches. Like how people reach for something in a ladder match, except, in this case, just extending their arms. To reach for a lid, through the ropes.) Sounds like Forbidden Door style booking, but this was to set up fucking Wrestle Kingdom.

They’re playing this up like some kind of Undertaker at WrestleMania XX style resurrection story, though the symbolism is about as subtle as HBK at WrestleMania XXV. It would be fucking incredible if TJP had the exact same entrance. Of course, all this is based on the idea that this is going to be some kind of Christian resurrection tale. TJP fancies himself an iconclast, maybe he enacts an Osiris-like story. Just remember, Francesco, the last bit of Osiris’ chopped up body that Isis had to find was, uh… censored in most subsequent versions.

Either way, Catch 2/2 are still the best tag team in the world, this match is going to rule, and, even with all the fun I’ve had with this last minute twist, this is one of the sturdiest stories of any match on the show. Expect fireworks. Prediction: Catch 2/2

NJPW WORLD TV Championship
Zack Sabre Jr. © vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi

Suit: Sabre has been the first and only TV Champion, winning the title last year at Wrestle Kingdom and defending it more often than any other champion in the modern history of New Japan. Tanahashi’s been working well as the NEVER Six-Man Champions alongside Okada & Ishii. Tanahashi pinned Sabre at Power Struggle in a title defense, earning a chance to be a double champion here.

I was really struggling to find any commentary to add here, as I’m not fond of these two as a pairing. But that was before Tanahashi was named the PRESIDENT of the company. This isn’t an on-screen authority figure role here, Tanahashi will have legitimate pull in the big-picture direction of the promotion behind the scenes. I wouldn’t expect the power to go to his head and have him returning to the top of the cards. His body is breaking down at a notable pace, and he was selfless as a top guy in getting other stars over. I do expect Sabre’s promos on tapping out the president to be absolutely mad. Prediction: Zack Sabre Jr.

John: This is one of the matches on the card where I get where other people are coming from when they complain about it (since it’s obviously a matchup we’ve seen many times before- there have been 11 singles matches between the two of them since 2017 to be exact), but I happen to really enjoy this pairing and have zero problem with getting to see them wrestle live for the second time (the first being back at MSG in April 2019). This might surprise you a little but Tanahashi actually has the edge in their all time series 6 to 5, even after losing to Zack this past July in the G1. He’s also beaten Zack for a championship before, namely the RevPro British title back in August 2019 at Royal Quest.

What’s interesting to me is that I can easily make an argument for why both guys should lose- for Tanahashi, he’s of course now the President of the damn company at this point and asking him to take on a role as double champion (since he’s still carrying the NEVER 6-man belts as well) just as he’s starting out with that might be a little bit much. On the other hand, ZSJ has held this title for a full year and really done an amazing job establishing it, but I’m not sure how much juice there is left to squeeze with him as TV champion after an incredible 16 (!) title defenses. With other prominent foreigners either rumored or confirmed to be leaving and Zack seemingly staying (he told Tokyo Sports as much in a recent interview), there’s space for Zack to move up in the ranks as well, so we could be looking at a classic NJPW “losing up” situation here. Winning and losing the belt at the Dome is a nice little book end to what was really a wonderful reign, too. So ultimately, I’m going with Tanahashi here. It kind of puts an exclamation point on the whole new President thing, it frees Zack up for a bigger spot in the New Beginning cycle and going forward into New Japan Cup season, and it’s not like Tanahashi can’t lose the TV title relatively quickly following Zack’s epic reign anyway. Prediction: Hiroshi Tanahashi

Jeff: I love this pairing and hope they run it more for you cowards complaining about it. Some of my favorite stuff from Hiroshi Tanahashi is his mat wrestling, and in saying that I think Zack Sabre Jr. really does often bring out the best in him. I’ve yet to see a Tanahashi/Zack Sabre Jr. match I didn’t like, and I suspect that won’t change here. More interesting than the match itself I think is the result. I am going to go on record and say Tanahashi becoming the President of NJPW is the best thing that could happen to Zack. Simply put, Hiroshi Tanahashi loves the man and I am of the belief that Zack has been bulking up with good reason. My early prediction going into next year is a simple one, and it’s that Zack will be winning the world title at some point in 2024.

So what does that mean for the result of this match? Well I think there’s a world where Tanahashi scores a roll-up pinfall to get the belt off of Zack before he rolls into a title challenge later in the year. I think the more likely outcome however, is Zack beating Tana here then losing at New Beginning so he can be freed up for a New Japan Cup win. Prediction: Zack Sabre Jr.

J. Michael: Listen, I love this pairing, but enough’s enough. They’ve met in the G1 Climax or New Japan Cup every goddamn year since 2017, except for a brief reprieve in 2021, which is the lost year of this company, the year that killed the NJPW Year in Review. They met as soon as July, on Night 2 of this year’s G1 Climax. It was actually one of their most interesting meetings, with Tanahashi attempting to fully embrace a matwork match, as he noted in his recent 1972 interview.

I wrote nearly 25000 words about this year’s G1 Climax, and I couldn’t remember a goddamn thing about that match until Tanahashi’s interview triggered some faint memories. By the numbers, it was the 27th highest rated match of the tournament on Cagematch. People liked the match, for sure, and to be honest, it’s not like we’ve seen a torrent of matches between these two. They’ve wrestled three times since 2019. The problem:

  • The matches have been spaced out, but not enough for it to feel like a reset
  • The matches prior to 2020 were high profile enough to feel more substantive
  • They wrestled five fucking times in 2019. It would take years to erase the feeling of deluge, in a company where singles matches used to feel like a premium event

Add to this exasperation, this feeling of tiredness, is the tiredness of the booking at play here. There were so many options, and they went with the safest, dreariest, most banal option imaginable. A testament to how uninspired a lot of the decision making has been in 2023. Let alone opening themselves to the TV Title Is for the Kids jokes. A year ago, Zack Sabre Jr’s victory over Ren Narita demolished the mission statement for this title. And here he is, 365 days and 16 title defenses later, fighting a man pushing 50 who was just named the president of the goddamn company. The title that was promised to disrupt the system is the most system-affirming token in the promotion.

I see no reason why Zack Sabre Jr should lose, at this point. He’s already obliterated any chance anyone has of ever breaking his defense record, with any of the titles currently established. His defenses have all been great. I like the timing of him losing the title some time in the Spring, to fully fail up to the World Title picture. For real, this time. To win the damn thing. Prediction: Zack Sabre Jr

Yota Tsuji vs. Yuya Uemura

Suit: Of the Reiwa Three Musketeers (more on them later), Yota Tsuji has been by far the most impressive out of the gate. Ever since his return from excursion at Wrestling Dontaku, Tsuji has been one of the more captivating wrestlers in the whole of New Japan. His look, his presence, and his in-ring work have been top notch, as he’s hung side-by-side with top names like SANADA at Dominion, Kaito Kiyomiya in the G1, and Will Ospreay at Destruction in Kobe.

Meanwhile, Yuya Uemura returned from his excursion at Destruction in Ryogoku. He’s seen on the same level as the Reiwa Musketeers but hasn’t gotten the same shine as them due to coming in during New Japan’s slower period (the Autumn Sumo Hall show into World Tag League). This is his chance to shine, as he gets the singles match against Tsuji that he’s been asking for since returning. Both Tsuji and Uemura are thought of highly by New Japan, as their last matches as young lions were singles matches against Tetsuya Naito and Kazuchika Okada respectively on the August 1, 2021 Korakuen Hall show. Tsuji should win this, and I believe he does. Uemura can rebound with the four-match series against Just 5 Guys that he also requested. But I believe that Tsuji is a talent that needs to be elevated to legitimate World/GHC Title contender status sooner than later, and this spotlight singles match is a good way to do it. Prediction: Yota Tsuji

John: I guess I’ll just use this match as my platform for a larger rant- it really annoys me how much people have complained about the R3M (and I guess Yuya too) not getting immediately pushed to the world title right out of the gate, and I think most of those complaints are really unfounded. People act like they’ve gotten buried when they’ve spent most of their first year+ headlining shows in major title matches (Tsuji, who we’re talking about here, of course main evented NJPW’s second biggest standalone show of the year in his very first match back from excursion!) and working with top stars, even if they don’t always get the wins over those stars just yet. I get that people really like these guys (I do too by the way!) and would rather see them in prominent spots than some of the other people NJPW is pushing these days, but what always seems to be glossed over in these conversations is they already are in prominent spots. They have spots on the main Wrestle Kingdom card at all when tons of guys on the roster have been left off it entirely (seriously, you could make a decent card just with NJPW roster members not on the show- try it!), which really should count for a lot more than people are acting like. And that’s not to mention the main events they’ve worked and the titles they’ve challenged for already in their still-very-young careers.

What folks are really asking for here I guess is for them to be immediately made World Champion, and with the exception of two guys (Okada and Nakamura) that’s basically never happened in the last 20+ years of NJPW history. This is a promotion that tends to take its time with younger wrestlers and make you wait for a payoff, so yes, you’re going to be waiting a while for one of these guys to win the IWGP World title at this point. Maybe it will happen in 2024, maybe not until 2025 or even later, but it WILL happen. So relax a little and take it from someone who used to whine about NJPW booking a lot- the payoff will eventually be worth it when it comes, if you really do care about these guys (if you’re just using them to concern troll, uh, I guess you can keep having fun doing that if that’s your thing man). Because as someone who had to wait five years for Naito to win his first IWGP title, then another three and a half for him to win it back even though he was undoubtedly the most popular wrestler in the company, not to mention now another four years (I hope!) for this damn Dome roll call, I can’t help but roll my eyes a little at people lighting themselves on fire over Yota Tsuji not winning the big strap when he’s still less than a year into his post-excursion career. You think you know NJPW booking suffering, R3M complainers? Well actually you know nothing of it, and pray that Gedo does not make you learn!

Anyway, as for this match itself, some people are seeing it as a de facto IWGP World Heavyweight Title #1 contendership match, but I think it’s a little soon for either guy. I think the winner here could just as easily be in line for a shot at any of the other belts, whether we’re talking Global, NEVER or TV, and I think it’s very likely to be Tsuji after Uemura got the pin on him at Korakuen to set this up. Prediction: Yota Tsuji

Jeff: The future of New Japan Pro Wrestling is very exciting, and I expect this match to be a showcase for these two in all the right ways. Uemura’s return from excursion has been a smidge underwhelming, I think it’s fair to say that but this match in particular could absolutely help to give him some much-needed momentum going into next year. Then there’s Yota Tsuji, his debut was a lot more spectacular and I think most would herald it as a success, but he is lacking in terms of major victories to help establish him going forward. I think this will be the start of that, Uemura got his pinfall in the tag match to help him keep his heat going forward and to prove that he “can” beat Tsuji, but in this particular spot the story will be that Tsuji has more experience in big spots and will be using that to get the win.

The good news is I think both guys are being set up for great things in 2024, and I think this will just be the start of it. The winner of this match probably gets a title shot, my prediction is it will be the TV title they challenge for and in an even more bold prediction?

I think they’ll win. But that’s down the line, I think there’s a great chance this ends up being one of the top 3 matches of the night, and we’re in for something genuinely special here. Prediction: Yota Tsuji

J. Michael: I wrote about their farewell trial series back in 2021. Then, as now, I believe Yuya Uemura is the future top guy of his generation. But, at the moment, there’s a poignancy to this match-up. That their first match against each other since the Young Lion days is a singles match at Wrestle Kingdom. A singles non-title match, at that. There weren’t any singles non-title matches last year; this year, it’s this match and the Okada-Danielson semi-main. These are prime spots, especially for a single night Wrestle Kingdom.

There’s a bittersweet nostalgia to this one. Technically, this match is the longest-gap rematch, their last singles match occurring way back in April 2021. These were our pandemic Young Lions. For those of us that endured 2020-2021 New Japan, we saw a lot of them, all three of them. All THREE of them. This match highlights to me what an absolute fucking disgrace it is that Gabe Kidd is not officially on this card. Compared to Uemura, Kidd is miles ahead; he’s already received a catchphrase that he’s expected to regurgitate continuously, shouting “I’m a madman, you know!” at least a dozen times per match.

John dispelled the idea that the RM+1 have been shortchanged on the booking. And, thankfully, we’ve arrived at a good position for all of them as we enter 2024, but it wasn’t without some baffling decisions and underwhelming choices. Yes, Yota Tsuji returned about as strong as anyone has ever debuted. The only way you could return more forcefully would be the main event of Wrestle Kingdom. Remember, Tsuji’s match with SANADA at Dominion was literally his return match; he did not show up for any of the Road to Dominion tag matches.

Of course, he lost at Dominion, and then struggled to win during the G1 Climax, and has sort of floated for the last few months, but the initial message was fully absorbed by New Japan’s audience; at every show, they chant Tsuji’s name and pop for his arrival. We’ll talk about Umino and Narita in the next match, but in short order: they were brought in, placed in structured environments, featured with emphatic zeal, struggled, persevered, and now find themselves in better places.

Yuya Uemura emerged after nearly all of these things had commenced, thus missing out on several things, most critically the chance to ascend to Musketeer status. Despite being from the same class as Tsuji, only Tsuji earned the honor. And, unfortunately, he also missed out on something the other three enjoyed upon return: an actual direction. Tsuji went straight into a world title main event. Umino went straight for Ospreay, a second title main event. Narita was showcased in the TV Title tournament.

Uemura’s been back for nearly three months, and this will be his first singles match. His biggest accomplishment has been almost winning a block in World Tag League with Taichi. He’s the Heat Storm, and no one know what the fuck that means, or is supposed to mean. At least with Gene Blast, we can think to ourselves, “well, whatever they want that to mean, it pairs with Tsuji’s gimmicked smile in a logically unsavory way.” What do we pair with Heat Storm? Uemura’s Young Lion offense? His perpetually out-of-breath backstage comments?

It’s really like they’re handicapping him, limiting his offense and allowing nothing but platitudes and utterly vapid phrases backstage. And even then, it feels like he’s making it work. With an offense that is 90% double hand chops and dropkicks, he’s starting to get his name chanted in nearly equal measure to Tsuji. Their face-offs at the Road to Wrestle Kingdom Korakuen Hall shows felt downright wistful, the fans calling out their names reminiscent of the pre-virus times. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s hotter than the other three combined, pulling off the fake clear glasses look like a New Japan Liv Morgan (but would disappear if also caught with an herbal jazz cigarette).

This match, incredibly, has one of the more robust, traditionally coherent stories on the entire card. When Uemura returned, Tsuji welcomed him through backstage comment (even though they were not in the same match). One month later, on November 4th, they met in a tag match at Power Struggle, with Tsuji gaining the fall on Uemura. Since then, Uemura has stridently claimed that his goal was to return the favor before 2023 ended. He accomplished that in his last possible chance, on the December 22nd Korakuen. The match was set.

I still believe Uemura is the future, the chosen one, the highest ceiling of any of these guys (despite being nearly 30). Thus, it would be detrimental to both of these guys for Uemura to win. Tsuji is a prick-faced disingenuous bastard, someone that should almost always operate from a position of leverage. Uemura conquering this challenge, in his very first singles match, is not compelling enough. He’s the new Tanahashi, right down to the dopey chin-only facial hair thing. He’s going to have to fight for it all, especially against an charismatic enigma in weird pants. Prediction: Yota Tsuji

Shota Umino & Kaito Kiyomiya vs. House of Torture (EVIL & Ren Narita)

Suit: The other two of the Reiwa Musketeers face off in this tag match. Umino and Narita teamed up for World Tag League, but after the run was unsuccessful, Narita turned heel and joined the House of Torture. This coincides with EVIL and Yujiro causing problems with Kiyomiya and Ryohei Oiwa in both New Japan and Pro Wrestling NOAH. There will be a NOAH & New Japan vs. House of Torture 12-man tag match at NOAH The New Year (AKA Road To Tokyo Dome Night 3, have fun filling Ariake with that) before the four big names face off here.

The most interesting angle about this is New Japan carving out a spot on the Wrestle Kingdom card for Kaito Kiyomiya, NOAH’s young ace that got booked into the ground in service to Keiji Mutoh’s retirement tour. Surprise, surprise, losing to a nearly immobile man in major matches multiple times DIDN’T get Kiyomiya over to the next level! Who would’ve thunk it? Kiyomiya’s been backburnered in NOAH for the likes of Jake Lee and his sterling title reign, and he’s spent a couple of tours (G1 Climax, World Tag League w/ Oiwa) with New Japan. Were those auditions? He wouldn’t be the first name from NOAH to jump to fresh surroundings lately, as Katsuhiko Nakajima went freelance and won All Japan’s Triple Crown in November. Keep an eye on how Kiyomiya is used here, and whether he’s booked strongly.

Meanwhile, this match is centered around Umino and Narita in the nascent stages of their generational rivalry. Narita had stalled out as the Shibata-lite “Son of Strong Style” character, and with Shibata himself officially jumping to AEW, Narita shed that label to go with the House of Torture. I don’t see star potential in Narita either way. His work is fine, although that won’t matter in the shenanigan-filled HOT matches. He doesn’t have any kind of star look, and he doesn’t jump off the screen with physical charisma either. He feels destined to be another YOSHI-HASHI/Yujiro/BUSHI type career midcarder, which is a fine career to have. But for a guy considered a new generation Musketeer, a title reserved for tip-top stars of New Japan’s past, that would be a massive disappointment.

My prediction is that they’ll drag out the Narita/Umino stuff for a featured singles match down the line, whether it be for New Beginning, the Anniversary show, or the New Japan Cup. These two will be tied to each other for a while, so I expect the House to score the win here with the help of Narita’s dastardly push-up bar. Prediction: EVIL & Ren Narita

John: Suit really did a great job there covering the major points so I won’t belabor the same takes over again, besides agreeing that I think it seems quite likely that Kaito Kiyomiya will jump to New Japan at some point soon. Even if he ends up staying with NOAH though I do think there is a real opportunity here with the Kaito & Shota tag team to link them up going forward in a really productive way. Some of the comments/tweets I’ve read from Japanese fans would indicate there’s a great deal of excitement about this pairing, and it has the potential to be sort of like a new generation version of the Yuji Nagata/Jun Akiyama cross-promotional on-and-off team and eventual rivalry from the early to mid 00s. Of course, maybe Kaito just jumps to NJPW and they can run with them as generational peers even more. But I wanted to make the point that even if he ultimately stays in NOAH, there’s a lot that you can do with these two in the future.

As for Ren Narita, as a Certified House Enjoyer™ I am more into him joining the group than Suit is of course. I kind of like his persona so far as an Evil Dojo Graduate, where he’s not really moving as far away from his “Son of Strong Style” persona as you might expect, he’s just now being a total asshole. The push-up bar is a really inspired choice for his signature weapon (every House member must have a signature weapon of course!), but while I like the idea behind his new finisher in theory (keep the sleeper hold that was taught to him by Shibata but use it as a set up for a “nasty”/heel finisher in the form of the X Factor), there’s something a little off about it in practice. Maybe it’s as simple as ditching the kick between the sleeper and the X Factor, which looks awkward and goofy. There’s plenty of time to get the kinks out though. But so far he’s already showing far more charisma in this role than he ever did as a babyface (I laughed so hard at him calling Shota “BAKAAAAA” at the end of his last Korkauen promo, and he’s made some truly amazing faces since the very start of this), which I think is promising given how he was almost universally regarded as a distant fourth place among the R3M + Yuya before this started. He may still not be a future World Champion (although honestly, I wouldn’t be so quick to write him off there- he could easily be a transitional heel champion in the not-so-distant-future in my opinion), but he should carve a decent career out for himself, and being the generational rival of Shota Umino sure won’t hurt there. This feud has already been a ton of fun so I’m interested in seeing where it goes next as we build to the inevitable singles match.

When it comes to the match result, I think the way this goes down is the NOAH + Shota/Oiwa crew gets the win in the 6-on-6 elimination match on the 1/2 show (that, as Suit said, is a bonafide Road to the Tokyo Dome show at this point), leaving EVIL & Ren to strike back here, with this feud likely to be far from over after the Dome. In addition to the obvious Shota/Ren singles match, it wouldn’t shock me at all if we get EVIL/Kaito on an upcoming tour as well. Prediction: EVIL & Ren Narita

Jeff: I hate Ren Narita and I somehow hate EVIL more. They’re two of my least favorite wrestlers on the card and I would gladly trade them for Kaito Kiyomiya even if that transaction included my first born being given up in the process. I am pretty excited to see Umino and Kiyomiya team up together, and I expect the fans will be into it as well. I differ from my contemporaries here on this particular review, in that I think this match will be a nice victory for Shota and Kaito as the company has probably soured a bit on Ren, and probably want to continue to sweeten the pot for the seemingly inevitable jump from Kiyomiya.

Is this prediction hopium or intelligent analysis? I’ll leave that for the reader to decide and skip straight to my prediction. Prediction: Kiyomiya & Umino

J. Michael: I’m stealing some of this from my Despy-Hiromu preview article, so forgive the repetition, but nothing frustrated me more in New Japan’s latter half of 2023 than all this stilted, blue balled booking.

I’m a fan of tour-specific programs. Something with a one month shelf life, even if it’s simply a title defense. Go ahead, spice things up with a NEVER 6-man contest. This year, one of New Japan’s most inspired tour-specific gimmicks was the Best of Seven series between Strong Style (Minoru Suzuki, El Desperado, and Ren Narita) and the team of Yuji Nagata, Master Wato, and Shota Umino. Ostensibly, this series was a battle over the philosophical rights to the idea of Strong Style. In reality, we all knew it’s true purpose: to get Shota Umino and Ren Narita over, after a year of stumbles, especially on Narita’s end. Or, entirely on Narita’s end. Umino had turned things around by New Japan Cup. No one can cut a promo like this so early on in their career without having the goods. He ended up having a match of the year contender against Will Ospreay in November 2023, and it wasn’t just Ospreay.

Either way, the point of the Best of Seven was to get the young guys over. Simple as that.

The series was a bit of a let down. I’d say two of the matches were great, a couple were good, a couple were insipid, and one never even aired. But, it ended spectacularly at October’s Destruction at Ryogoku. The Hontai team won, thus bringing the series to a draw, 3-3-1. The crowd was unimpressed by the finish, but grew increasingly elated as each pairing shook each other’s hand, culminating the the old men slapping the fuck out of each other before the handshake. Afterwards, the new pairings vowed to win their respective tag leagues.

Here we stand, three months later, and neither of these three teams exist anymore. They lasted a month, a tour-long gimmick that, in every case, was super over with the crowds and had a significant amount left in the tank. In the case of DespyxWato and ShotaxRen, they barely depleted their reserves; if anything, they had more in the tank by the end of their tournaments than when they began. DespyxWato broke up unceremoniously, in a perplexingly awkward backstage comment, where neither wrestler seemed sure that they were supposed to break up the team or not. ShotaxRen famously ended with Narita betraying Ren, and like every good New Japan apostate, joining a BULLET CLUB faction. The monthlies, who refuse to attempt to comprehend the appeal of House of Torture, were aghast, as if they gave any semblance of a fuck about Ren Narita prior. The House of Torture perverts rejoiced, aware that Narita’s biggest weakness was his complete lack of charisma or charm, and being a member of HOT will rectify that.

I come down with a third stance: why couldn’t we have had more ShotaxRen. I wholeheartedly agree that the denouement should have been Narita turning on Umino and specifically joining House of Torture. And most would say that Narita desperately needed something, after floundering all year. But, then, he did have something: THE TEAM WITH SHOTA. It was working! The crowds liked seeing the two of them together. They worked well together, with Narita’s dreary work becoming exponentially more compelling within the tag team structure. And, most importantly, fujoshi’s had a team they could imagine could be together. Obviously, their fireside chat, where they all but detailed how they would get in each other’s guts, was a home run. This was the team we needed. 2017 was back!

They’re skipping steps. One month was too short. We needed more time with this team. They were liked enough that you could have extended this, had them challenge for the titles in February, or April, or May. Run the turn mid-way through 2024. Obviously, the turn still worked as it was done. But I came away with a yearning for more of what was dismantled, in a way that felt deprived instead of eager to see Shota extract revenge. And for what it’s worth, Narita is probably just going to end up another SHO, greatly expanding his character repertoire, but not much else. But at least he’s going to waste his 20’s making Soupy Sales faces, instead of his 30’s like SHO.

As far as the rest… I don’t want Kiyomiya in New Japan. I think he’s exceptional, but I don’t want every great wrestler to just end up in New Japan. The world is much more fun with the Takeshita’s in the DDT, instead of being gobbled up like they would be in America. And maybe Kiyomiya is an exception; NOAH has certainly proven that they do not deserve this kid. Kiyomiya displays an intensity in New Japan that rarely appears in NOAH. We really only see it consistently when he faces KENOH, but you can’t out-intense KENOH. KENOH rules.

That was a lot of words for the simplest, most surefire ending of the night: House of Torture might be losers, but they can’t lose this one. If Narita takes a loss here, he either has to get his heat back, immediately, in a big way, or he’s no different than he was a year ago, except with a dopey prop and a dopier robe. Prediction: EVIL & Ren Narita

NEVER Openweight Championship
Shingo Takagi © vs. Tama Tonga

Suit: A rematch from a recent match here, as Shingo beat Tama for the belt at Fighting Spirit Unleashed at the end of October. This feels like a match to give Shingo something to do more than anything else. Tama Tonga has been fine in this babyface role but having him in this Shingo match feels like more of a waste of a big time Shingo match. I’m working on this preview out of match order, and I realize that I have all of LIJ winning their matches. So, I’ll pretend that I did that on purpose and pick Shingo to retain. Prediction: Shingo Takagi

John: Of all the matches people have complained about on this card and used to say it’s a very mid-looking Wrestle Kingdom or whatever, this is the only one I actually agree with them on. Tama Tonga is a perfectly fine wrestler who gets way more hate than he deserves, and is also way more over in Japan than people act like he is, but I did not need to see a third match between these two in less than five months. I saw their last match in Vegas live and enjoyed it quite a bit, but I would have liked to have seen something different this time- especially given the large roster of talent NJPW has that’s not booked on this show at all. I mean, how cool would it have been to see a junior get this spot (I know, a junior challenge for the openweight title, gasp)? Someone like Master Wato busted his ass all year and had a great run in BOSJ, and I’d be way more excited to see a first time ever Shingo vs. Wato match than yet another rematch on a card that’s already full of them. Oh well. Anyway, I really have no clue who wins this. Does Tama really job to him twice in a row? Is Shingo destined to lose the belt back to Tama and “fail up” to a bigger spot, the way a lot of NEVER champions have at Wrestle Kingdom over the years? I could go either way here, but ultimately I’ll assume Shingo is holding onto the belt for a while longer. Plus that all-LIJ-winners thing Suit mentioned sounds pretty cool, let’s do it. Prediction: Shingo Takagi

Jeff: Tama Tonga is fine, but I think it’s fair to have wanted more for Shingo at this show. How Shingo continues to be ageless and great is beyond my comprehension, but I’m still happy every time I get to see him in the ring. The match these two had in Las Vegas earlier this year was genuinely great, but nothing about it screamed “I need to see this again” at any point in time. I wish Shingo had a more unique challenger here, and frankly I wish the challenger was a bit better in-ring.

With that all being said, I think the doom and gloom around this match is a bit over the top. Given 15 minutes and a dream, I think Shingo Takagi could pull greatness out of anyone or anything and this match will be no different. I hope Shingo carries this belt for a while, and I predict that he’ll retain it here. Prediction: Shingo Takagi

J. Michael: I wholeheartedly support babyface Tama Tonga. His detractors are fools. They are miserable sons of bitches without taste. Tama is an awesome babyface. People over there love him, squealing with delight when he fires out of the corner with a lariat, ripping off his just-short-of-copyright-infrigment shirt. Those same detractors think this match is a disgrace, a completely uninspired booking decision.

The detractors are right about that.

Three years ago, Takagi and Jeff Cobb tore the house down at Wrestle Kingdom, fighting over this title. Now, one of them isn’t even officially on the card, and the other is fighting for that same title in a match nobody gives any sense of a fuck about.

The fuck are they doing with this title? A year and a half ago, they took the title off revitalized babyface Tama Tonga, after one month, to put the belt on Karl Anderson. And to Anderson’s credit, he came back to Japan three times over the subsequent six months to defend the title. Better than other dudes working in America that New Japan crowned with no idea what to do thereafter. Then again, Karl Anderson fucking sucked. But at least they finished the story with Tama regaining the belt at Wrestle Kingdom 17.

Tama’s loss to David Finlay five months later felt like a natural progression, a useful trinket for the new BULLET CLUB leader to carry. Then Finlay lost it back to Tama in October, who then lost it three weeks later to Shingo. Then, this rematch was announced. And thus, a Shingo Takagi singles match, at Wrestle Kingdom, with no buzz, no intrigue, and no support. Tama, along with pretty much the entire foreign contingent of the roster, did not appear at the Christmas Week Korakuen’s. I’m not sure that would have converted the agnostic, and certainly not the combative, but it could have helped.

Tama is popular enough, has been positioned high enough, and works hard enough, that he should have a place on this card. This, as they say, ain’t it. His draw with Shingo during the G1 Climax was a nice little 3.5 star match. By Cagematch ratings, it was the 45th highest match. Right in the upper-middle range. Their match in America back in October was better. This is going to be a good match. Unless you’re expecting something Shingo-Cobb level, this will exceed your expectations.

Things have been operating on such a short-sighted, superficial level, that I don’t know who would have been a better challenger for Shingo, and I can’t name someone that could challenge after he wins. But, for sure, the options are much healthier, and stand a better chance, if Shingo wins and Tama chases another title for a while (although, unfortunately, could mean another round of David Finlay, this time for the NJPWGHC championship). Prediction: Shingo Takagi

IWGP Tag Team & NJPW STRONG Openweight Tag Team Double Championship
Bishamon (Hirooki Goto & YOSHI-HASHI) © vs. Guerrillas of Destiny (Hikuleo & El Phantasmo) ©

Suit: An odd Tag Team Title match for the Dome, as this will be the third match between these two teams since November. Phantasmo and Hikuleo, who it still feels weird to call GOD, beat Bishamon in the World Tag League opener. Then, Bishamon got their win back in the World Tag League final, becoming the first champions to win a tournament under the Gedo regime. They chose to challenge GOD to a rubber match for both sets of titles. This match should be good, as I went ****1/4 on the World Tag League final. I wouldn’t expect these teams to get the 40 minutes they got in Kumamoto, but needless to say, some fat could’ve been trimmed off of that match. I think there were a couple more interesting routes to take to get to this scenario, but not many of them have a reason for both tag belts to be on the line. With that reasoning, expect Bishamon to win here. Prediction: Bishamon

John: I was in the camp who loved the World Tag League final between these two teams (I went ****1/2 myself), but I’m still not sure we needed yet another rematch on Rematch Kingdom here. It’s going to be weird also watching them go from that 40-minute epic main event to like a 12-minute undercard Dome match. But the STRONG Tag Titles have absolutely no need or reason to exist at this point, so if this match is what it takes to get them sealed into the IWGP Tag Titles as should have happened six months ago then so be it. Prediction: Bishamon

Jeff: Bishamon is excellent, but I think they’ll be hard-pressed to match the quality of their tag-league final here. Simply put, I suspect this will likely be the shortest match on the card and is probably being done in lieu of better options, as well as with the hopes that they can just merge the Strong and IWGP tag titles. Frankly, this is an outcome I’d be more than happy with. New Japan has plenty of belts at this point, and I’d like to see these ones retired for good here. I suspect this match will be good, but I don’t have any expectations of grandeur. Prediction: Bishamon

J. Michael: With all my bellyaching about the current state of the booking, this should be a prime example of the company outsmarting itself. Running the same match three times in a month. The challengers having lost the World Tag League final, to the champions, only for the champions to request a rematch. And yet, it worked. Everything Bishamon does works. They are the most inherently likable people in the company. If you dislike either one, you should be run up a flagpole upside down. If you dislike Hirooki Goto, in particular, you are beyond rehabilitation. There is no punishment adequate enough. A pox on every house associated with you.

World Tag League 2023 was a vindication of the tournament system. It irons out so many things. Just as Super Junior Tag League saw such tremendous growth in Kevin Knight (hands off, America), World Tag League saw great strides made by Yuya Uemura, the Heavyweight War Dogs, and, most considerably, the ELP-Hikuleo version of G.O.D. This team looked promising, but uncoordinated when they first started teaming, post G1 Climax. Hikuleo, who looked like he might be turning a corner to start 2023, plateaued a bit.

That’s all gone. This team rules. Hikuleo is one of the best hot tags out there. His strikes had more weight behind them. His lariats are strong and captivatingly thunderous. He’s working like a big man, without sacrificing mobility. He doesn’t try to do too much, or anything that would undermine his size. He complements ELP exquisitely. ELP’s transition to full-on babyface has been a bit ungainly. Clearly, the crowds are often confused, since there’s little cosmetic difference between his heel and face personas. One crowd during World Tag League gave him absolutely nothing, to the point that he had to reference it in his backstage comment. But, by the end of the tour, both he and the crowd are finding solid footing. ELP’s the real deal.

G.O.D.’s sudden, expansive growth was one of the reasons World Tag League ended up being the second best tournament of the year, behind Best of the Super Juniors.

I don’t follow my colleagues’ rationale here. Bishamon have been champions for nearly the entirety of 2023. They are a magnificent team, with a seemingly endless array of misdirections, tandem offense, and incredible timing. Their matches succeed almost by their sheer will. But I believe that winning World Tag League as the champions was their apex. I’d like to see what a G.O.D. title run would look like. And, frankly, G.O.D. are not young upstarts. ELP just turned 37, and Hikuleo is about to turn 33. Get the belts on these guys, give them a run, and then accelerate their singles pushes. Prediction: G.O.D.

IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championship
Hiromu Takahashi © vs. El Desperado

Suit: There’s not much to say about this one. Hiromu won the title last year and has basically cleaned out the division, to the point where he was left with no one to challenge after beating Taiji Ishimori at Power Struggle. He decided to challenge El Desperado, rekindling their rivalry that peaked during the pandemic. These two have had incredible matches against each other, peaking with the finals of the 2020 Best of the Super Juniors match that saw Desperado emerge as a star in the division. This looks to be where New Japan gives these two the stage that their feud deserves, in front of a loud, passionate Tokyo Dome.

As far as who wins, I have little doubt in my mind that Hiromu will retain. These two had a title match at Wrestle Kingdom 16 that felt like the passing of the torch between Hiromu and Desperado. I wrote at the time that I believed Desperado would be the new ace of the junior division while Hiromu moved up to heavyweight. That didn’t happen, and now we’re back here. This time, I think Hiromu will retain the title because he has unfinished business as champion that revolves around the Anniversary show in March and the man challenging for the Heavyweight Title later in the night. Prediction: Hiromu Takahashi

John: Now of all the rematches people are mad about on this show (and I get that they add up in total), this is the one I do NOT understand the complaints about. You have the junior ace and his biggest rival in a singles match, which oh by the way will be in a singles match in front of a real crowd that can cheer for the first time in over five and a half years, and you’re COMPLAINING? How many times have we had to put up with some stupid multi-way match for the junior title in recent years (including, yes, the match where Hiromu won the belt last year at Wrestle Kingdom 17)? A generational rivalry like this in a singles match for the junior title is a godsend, if you’re sick of seeing it I don’t really get it (they haven’t had a singles match period since June 2022 anyway, easily the longest gap for any of the rematches on this show), and personally I’m more excited to see this one live than any other match on the show. I just have zero doubt that these two are going to deliver.

As for who wins, yeah, it’s probably Hiromu. If Naito wins the IWGP World Heavyweight Title at the end of the night like everyone’s expecting, they’re probably finally going to do that Naito vs. Hiromu match at the anniversary show (one of the first wrestling things we lost due to COVID-19), which would obviously require Hiromu to be champion. He’s been talking about breaking Heat (Minoru Tanaka)’s IWGP Jr. title defense record for a while now and he’s only got four defenses to go to tie him at 11, so this show would obviously bring him one closer.

Obviously if SANADA is winning in the main (which not to spoil my pick there too much feels unlikely but not impossible) then the Naito/Hiromu stuff is moot, and there’s always the chance the junior defense record thing is a red herring. So I’ll give you one more reason why I think Hiromu is winning: in their all time record, not counting YL matches, Desperado is 4-3 against him and also won their last Dome meeting two years ago. So a win here would let Hiromu even up the score on both fronts against his eternal rival. You have to admit though that a Desperado win would really get your heart racing if you’re an LIJ/Naito fan wondering if Naito is just going to lose the main though, right? Maybe they even do some kind of fake out where Desperado wins here, Naito wins the main after all, and then Hiromu is desperate to get the belt back before the anniversary show so they can do the Naito vs. Hiromu match and beats Desperado to regain the title on one of the New Beginnings. But that’s probably overcomplicating things, and that would also throw out the defense record, so let’s just keep it simple here. Prediction: Hiromu Takahashi

Jeff: I’ve been the low-man on Hiromu’s work since 2019 but even I have to admit I’m excited for this match. I’m not here to tell you there’s been an excellent build for this match, I’m not even going to lie to you and try to weave a story from years past and I don’t think I need to. These are generational rivals and two of the best junior wrestlers in the world, and we get the privilege of seeing them in their prime wrestling for gold in front of a rabid audience at the Tokyo Dome. These two are maybe the most beloved Juniors since Liger, and I have no doubt the fans will be into this match from start to finish.

Curiously enough, I do think this match is something of a tip-off to who is winning the main event. I think if Hiromu wins here, Naito is a near-lock to win the world title in the main-event whereas I think Desperado winning leaves the outcome very much in doubt. Depending on your tastes and preferences, you might not like a match that somewhat forecasts the result of the main-event but that’s not a huge deal to me.

With all of this being said, I think this year will be the year where we finally get that Hiromu/Naito match we’ve all been waiting for, and this match is just a stepping stone on the way there. Prediction: Hiromu Takashi

J. Michael: I’m in the process of writing a preview of this match. As you might have noticed from this preview, I’m incapable of holding myself to a word count, and completely negligent of any reader’s needs. Suffice to say, that one-match preview is going to be very long. Are you ready for a breakdown on the state of Desperado’s mask at the end of each of their seven previous matches? Well, that level of minutiae will probably keep me from finishing on time, so it doesn’t even matter.

The short form is this: Hiromu Takahashi vs. El Desperado is the junior heavyweight rivalry of this generation, and one of the greatest in the history of the juniors. With a backstory stretching back to the early 2010’s dojo, these two have been circling each other their entire professional careers.

Some might suggest that Desperado benefitted from the pandemic, particularly the resultant absence of Dragon Lee. That completely ignores a key element: Despy and Dragon Lee were circling each other. Then Jun Kasai shattered Desperado’s jaw, Lee nearly paralyzed Hiromu, and both injured men missed most of 2019. Hiromu returned to win the title back and take part in Jushin Liger’s farewell matches… with Dragon Lee. Desperado returned to the Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships, and a healthy amount of bitterness that Lee was in the Liger Finales and not him.

We missed out on that triumvirate. Or, that tetrarchy, with Ishimori added in, Either way, main event, junior champion Desperado was going to happen. We were deprived of seeing that with cheering crowds. We were deprived of seeing five excellent, sometimes otherworldly matches between Desperado and Takahashi with cheering crowds. And even then, the Best of the Super Juniors 27 final, the famous de-masking match, caused such a frenzy that the crowd did start to cheer, muffled as it was.

In 2018, the two matches these two had were complete bedlam, shambolic displays of agitated delirium. There was little structure to the matches; it was all action from the opening bell, and the ferocity was phenomenal. Post-2019, Hiromu tempered his risk-taking, and Desperado has morphed into a methodical legwork wrestler. Their matches have, subsequently, become significantly and increasingly orthodox. At least, to the degree these two can be orthodox; their brazen ambitions still shine through. The matches are idiosyncratic, but largely an exercise in Despy’s control vs. Hiromu’s explosiveness.

I’ve seen people say that their matches have been diminishing returns since the BOSJ27 final. Alright, fine, I’ve seen one person—noted rabble-rouser Joel Abraham—say that their matches have been diminishing returns since the BOSJ27 final. I love Joel. We talk a lot. He humors a lot of things I throw at him. But, Joel, you deserve to be imprisoned for saying that.

The Best of the Super Juniors final from last year was an overlooked masterpiece. What was so great about that match was the intricate details embedded into it. It played upon the evolution of their careers, their styles, and their rivalry. By the end, they each had exhausted their arsenal, to no avail. Hiromu had to break out a new variant of the Time Bomb to win the match. It was awesome stuff, besides the winner.

Of course, there’s no denying that their weakest match was the Wrestle Kingdom 16 semi-main event, where El Desperado successfully defended the Junior Heavyweight title against Hiromu. At 16:18, it is easily the shortest match in their series. The abbreviated nature of the match didn;t hamper them as much as you’d think. It was, possibly, the quickest pace of any of their matches, and the most striking and reversals. But, structurally, it was an incomplete match. It had a strong ending, but from the 10 min. mark to the closing sequence, the connectedness was lost. It simply wasn’t a full match.

I’d love for Desperado to win here. I think I’ve written more about that man than anyone else alive, in English at least. But I also cannot fathom New Japan depriving their fans of a Hiromu v. Naito match for the second time. I also cannot believe they would let Hiromu prattle on about the defense record without paying that off as well. What else does this reign have, besides a strong first half of matches in 2023, and then increasingly forgettable ones in the latter half?

Whatever time limit they are given, I hope they disregard it entirely. These two are audacious enough to try and steal the show, and considering the rest of the card, I really think they can. Prediction: Hiromu Takahashi

IWGP Global Heavyweight Championship 3-Way Match
Will Ospreay vs. Jon Moxley vs. David Finlay

Suit: The first ever IWGP GHC Champion Global Heavyweight Champion will be crowned here after both the US and UK Titles were destroyed at Power Struggle by David Finlay and his ACME hammer. Ospreay had just beaten Shota Umino to retain the title. Moxley, who had come to ringside to support Umino during the match, stepped to Ospreay in the post-match. Then, Finlay laid them both out with his shillelagh before breaking both belts.

The obvious sore thumb here is Finlay, who hasn’t taken as a top-line heel since taking over Bullet Club in February. Whatever he lacked as a babyface, he still lacks as a heel. His matches continue to lack that second gear, and he lacks that main event aura about him that both of his opponents have in spades. The problem, and the fear from a result standpoint, is that he’s the only person in this match that will work for New Japan come February. Moxley is a frequent outsider, while Ospreay has already publicly signed an AEW deal that kicks in after his New Japan deal ends at the end of January.

That doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for Ospreay or Moxley to win here. Mox has won and lost the US Title while working for AEW. Ospreay has already challenged Kazuchika Okada to a match at Battle in the Valley on January 13th, with the title on the line should he win it here. My prediction is that Ospreay pins Finlay to kick off the lineage of this new belt. Then, you still have the freedom to have him lose it to Okada on the 13th, or anyone else at New Beginning. This is more of a hope than anything, as I just don’t want Finlay winning this thing. Prediction: Will Ospreay

John: Not to sound like a broken record but I’m way less down on this match than the consensus. I don’t generally like three-way matches so that’s a huge negative against it, but other than that I think it’s been built pretty well (the Finlay belt hammer angle at Power Struggle that Suit already recapped was quite great; he also delivered a pretty strong heel promo on YouTube if you missed it). I’m not as down on Finlay as some people and I trust Ospreay & Moxley to have a great match with him. My complaints here are less about the actual match and more about the larger, meta aspects of this new title which Suit didn’t really touch on: namely, did we really need A) yet another brand new title with a totally new lineage & B) another title that is clearly going to be a 1B title to the big belt (you can tell because it’s another title with a name that’s just “synonym for world” like Intercontinental or International) and is destined to eventually be unified with the main title just like the IC was? I think the answer to both is “no”, and I would have been perfectly happy keeping the United States title around as a true secondary title to the World title (with a regional name).

But I guess the moment Ospreay renamed it the UK title this was where we were destined to end up, and the US title probably just reminds people of the failed American expansion so they were probably always going to get rid of it. I just would have rather seen them introduce an IWGP Pacific Title or Pan-Asian Title or something like that instead of the “Global” title, which will definitely not last as its own separate title. Get ready to find out who will be the first IWGP Universal champion in 2032 or so!

Anyway, for a winner here it comes down to why you think David Finlay is in this match: is he here to lose to either Ospreay or Moxley because Tony Khan didn’t want either of them to lose and we’re being cucked by him again, or is he here to win the match because the other two are both AEW wrestlers? I think it’s probably the former, and in that case I would expect Ospreay to win. It gives the belt a direct, clean link to the US/UK title and you have multiple options on when he could drop it (to Okada on 1/13 at Battle in the Valley or maybe even later in the month of January at one of the NB shows) before he goes to AEW. Prediction: Will Ospreay

Jeff: This match will be great but I can’t bring myself to give a single solitary fuck about the outcome.

David Finlay has probably been the biggest disappointment of 2023 for me. He started hot, the promo he cut over Jay White’s prone body is legitimately one of my favorite moments of the year but Finlay has simply never been able to put it all together in-ring. He’s a good not great worker, and he has failed to reach the top gear required of New Japan top stars every time he’s been given the chance to do so. Then that leaves Moxley and Will Ospreay, two wrestlers I like substantially more than Finlay but who aren’t even New Japan contracted talent. Sure, both men will probably show up to a few shows yearly going forward, but is that really what I want to do with a new title?

I have no doubt Will Ospreay and Jon Moxley will work their asses off to make this match special, but I can’t bring myself to care about the outcome and the match will suffer because of that. I think unfortunately, this match will probably suffer due to where it’s placed on the card and this will be an underwhelming goodbye for Will Ospreay’s full-time New Japan run. Prediction: Who fucking cares (but Will Ospreay probably given the backstage comments)

J. Michael: I mentioned this in the NEVER Openweight Championship preview, but Finlay lost that title in mid-October. Inexplicably, most of the decisions made post-G1 Climax have been seemingly determined to squander any goodwill the company might have built up in the first 3-4 months of 2023. I suppose the motivation follows typical New Japan logic: lose one title, ascend to the next tier of title.

And that would be an excellent strategy, if Finlay went from dropping the NEVER title to fucking with Will Ospreay for the United States title. That would be a nice, tidy, compact story. But this a fucking mess. There are far too many ingredients here. First you had Ospreay babbling in his provincial peasant’s jargon about changing the US title to the UK title. And that was fine. It worked. You can’t beat a Brit when it comes to empty gestures.

But then Moxley emerged to challenge for that belt. Fair enough, that’s a big time match-up, a caliber of match you expect from a Wrestle Kingdom.

But then Finlay emerged, laid both of them out, and destroyed Ospreay’s belts with a comically sized hammer. And there, we started sullying the story. Already, we’ve vitiated things by turning a marquee singles match into a three-way, which no one wants to see regardless of the participants.

But then New Japan retired the United States title and presented the Global Heavyweight Championship. And, accordingly, delivered an utterly hilarious statement that looks stupider every time you read it:

With a mindfulness on the international space, there was discussion of renewing the defunct IWGP Intercontinental Championship, but as we see an entirely new level of international involvement, the IWGP Global Heavyweight name was decided to be the most fitting. We hope fans look forward to seeing the brand new title and the matches contested for it.

Try making sense of that. It’s really is a masterful work, not only acknowledging the thing everyone wanted back (the IC belt, practically demanding that the fans completely reject this new ornament), but playing a disastrous language-game so transparently feeble it all but shouts, “WE HAVE NO FUCKING CLUE WHAT WE’RE DOING RIGHT NOW, BUT WE HAD A MEETING, WE WROTE THIS STUFF ON AN INTERACTIVE WHITE BOARD, AND WE’RE NOT LETTING THAT TIME GO TO WASTE.” And so, somehow the word “intercontinental” is insufficient for their international plans, and only the word “global” was adequate.. If the continents cannot contain their ambitions, but the globe does, then there’s only one possible answer: these fuckers are going to start running cards on barges miles out to sea, like underground MMA in the late 90s. And it’ll still draw better than STRONG.

Well, I’ve got two words for ya: capricious and desultory. In other words: THEY HAVE NO FUCKING CLUE WHAT THEY ARE DOING RIGHT NOW. The construction of this match, as well as Finlay executed it, came across arbitrarily, like they were literally thinking it up as it happened. As said before, there are too many incongruous layers here; this is simply not the best Wrestle Kingdom usage for any of these guys. It also doesn’t help that neither of these three men appeared at the go-home Korakuens.

Oh, and also… TWO OF THESE GUYS ARE AEW WRESTLERS. New Japan is trying to add even more to the pot here by having Ospreay face Okada in America two weeks after this show. My colleagues think this points to an Ospreay win, but I wonder if a title would overcomplicate that Okada-Ospreay match.

But then, I can’t deny what Suit said; as much as I like Finlay, and I think his interview hyping the match was excellent, Finlay hasn’t taken as a top guy, or a faction leader. It’s worked at times, but it hasn’t sustained. He, or they, still seem to be grasping for the essence of his character. Even in the interview I linked, he tries to play both an irritable, callous badass and a privileged rich kid. Not that the two are incongruous, but I don’t think Finlay’s found that balance. And that’s before you get into his in-ring; as my friends above have all noted, he’s got a gear problem. Finlay matches are always slow burns; they escalate, but often at an even pace, such that you don’t necessarily get drawn in as much as you could. They’re a bit too professional.

Part of me really wants to see Moxley win this title, but then how would they get it off of him. Tony Khan is on many people’s minds as they try to decipher the booking of this match. Will Tony Khan let one of his wrestlers lose? Will Tony Khan insist on his wrestlers winning? Who gives a fuck? You want a result, get on a plane and campaign for it, pal. Harold was right.

But, fair enough. Here, motherfucker. New Japan doesn’t need 13 titles. You can have this one. Prediction: Jon Moxley

Kazuchika Okada vs. Bryan Danielson

Suit: This is a safe space, right? I can be honest here and you guys won’t kill me for it? Ok. We can admit the Forbidden Door match between these two was a letdown, right? I’m obviously not going to kill them for it because one of them broke a limb during it, but the dream match that I hoped for between these two left me with high hopes that weren’t reached. Luckily, these two have a second chance here to make good on it on Okada’s turf, and I’m not gonna bet against two of the best wrestlers of a generation on the big stage.

Another point of interest in this match lies in the future of Kazuchika Okada, amid rumors that he may be leaving New Japan for a big money deal in America. While a deal with AEW would almost certainly allow Okada to stick around New Japan on a part-time basis, him leaving in any capacity would be stunning. Just last year, Okada closed Wrestle Kingdom shouting the catchphrase of the late Antonio Inoki, carrying the torch that Inoki carried as the head of New Japan. Okada leaving in any capacity would mark a significant shift in his position in the company. He goes from a torchbearer to a visitor, from the ace to an outsider. For there to even be rumors of that same man leaving for America a year later speaks volumes about the financial territory New Japan is in compared to the major American promotions.

The questions about Okada’s future will be answered, but one thing I’m sure of is that these two will be motivated to make the most of this rematch and put on a classic at the Tokyo Dome. Danielson got the win the first time around, so I expect Okada to get his win back on his home turf. Prediction: Kazuchika Okada

John: There isn’t much any fan of New Japan can do but pray that we don’t lose Kazuchika Okada. Even if you’re more of a Naito or Tanahashi fan historically, you don’t want to see him go to WWE or have to live through that goddamn “Kazuchika Okada is All Elite!” graphic. The amount of psychic damage I’ll be taking if I have to see that get tweeted out is immense. Hopefully the recent President Tanahashi developments make it less likely that we’ll have to go down that very dark timeline, but obviously no one will feel secure until we get confirmation that he’s staying. All we can do right now is hope for the best.

As far as this match goes, well, I can’t say I give much of a shit about it honestly. Some of the funniest tweets I’ve read have been from English language speakers insinuating that Okada/Bryan should have been the main event over Naito/SANADA, as if the vast majority of Japanese fans (which it somehow always feels like needs repeating are the people who will be making up most of the audience) could give a shit about this next to whether or not Naito finally gets the roll call. If you’ve been paying attention to the Wrestle Kingdom ticket sales (this much-maligned show sold out all floor seats a week earlier than Wrestle Kingdom 11– yes, as in the Okada vs. Omega show in 2017- did by the way!) you’d know that a ton of tickets moved for this show initially when they first went on sale, when the only announced match was SANADA vs. Naito. So yeah, just wanted to give a little shout out to those people for being massive idiots.

This is another rematch of a match I was already in the building for earlier in the year at Forbidden Door, and as Suit already covered it was a disappointing one at that. Add in the fact that it’s probably the single most easy to predict match on the entire card (Okada is basically a lock to get his win back here) and I just don’t see anything to get excited about, besides maybe getting a Bryan Danielson entrance at the Tokyo Dome. I guess that will be cool (lots of bonus points if they use Final Countdown, although you guys are probably gonna have it overdubbed on World if they do!). Prediction: Kazuchika Okada

Jeff: I’m glad we can admit that the Forbidden Door match was mid as hell now. I was there in the building for it, and I’ve gotta say it was the most disappointing match on the card for me by a landslide. More importantly, the result was horse-shit and with Ospreay leaving now that show feels like a borderline cuckolding of the New Japan office. The reverence given to Danielson in this matchup is weird to me. In my estimation, Okada passed him up as an all-time performer in 2017 and has been lapping him ever since. I don’t have the reverence for Danielson that others do, and I have to admit I’m only excited for this match to see Okada get his win back. If Kazuchika Okada never loses to another white guy again, I’ll have lived a better life for it.

If Okada doesn’t get his win back here, I would be so livid that I would probably legitimately quit watching the promotion. Have some self-respect New Japan, and make that geek Danielson eat a rain-maker. Prediction: Kazuchika Okada

J. Michael: I’ve desecrated this preview enough with my needlessly voluminous, minatory word counts. This one is simple: I thought their match at Forbidden Door was fine. It so clearly telegraphed a rematch that I haven’t thought about it since. I haven’t watched any AEW this year, so I have no clue what Danielson looks like. I hear he’s had an excellent run in their knock-off G1 Climax thing.

I’m vaguely aware that this is a battle of the shadow bureaucrats here. The guy that fines people vs. the guy that ousted the President. I shudder to think about the decision here, but hopefully common sense prevails and Okada wins. Considering that they’ve been granted the semi-main slot, I expect them to basically have carte blanche as far as match length. Prediction: Kazuchika Okada

IWGP World Heavyweight Championship
SANADA © vs. Tetsuya Naito

Suit: As I reflect on my 2023, I’ve done more writing about wrestling than I ever have before. I earned two weekly gigs for F4WOnline, and I’ve upped my output here at VOW as well. Doing all of this writing and engaging with this hobby as much as I have has helped me to figure out what makes me so passionate about pro wrestling, and what particularly about wrestling excites me the most. It has helped me to understand that visible, tangible passion will attract me to just about anything. I once watched a two-and-a-half hour YouTube video about The Vampire Diaries, an early 2010s CW show that I have never and will never watch, because the presenter – Jenny Nicholson – was very clearly passionate about the show. Passion drives my fandom, and I’m sure that I’m not alone in that regard. With that said, you would probably expect me to go on a rant about these two and their nonchalance going into one of the biggest matches of New Japan’s calendar year. And you’re half-right.

When he was 17 years old, SANADA took part in a public tryout for the New Japan Dojo on November 3, 2005. When he had a chance to promote himself to the trainers, he did a single backflip, then said so little that the man running the tryout said “That’s it? Speak up!” He didn’t get chosen for the Dojo on that day, later joining the All Japan Pro Wrestling Dojo.

SANADA’s entire career has been waiting for him to reach the unrealized potential that most people believed was there. His look and his natural athleticism screamed Ace of a Promotion, and all it took would be the right push, the right promotion, the right scenario. It didn’t work in All Japan. It didn’t work in Wrestle-1. He never got the opportunity when he tried to make it in America, peaking with an X Division Title run in TNA. But eventually, he made his way to New Japan Pro Wrestling. The machine that churned out stars at a rate almost unseen in wrestling history could surely make a star out of this guy, right? After 8 years, SANADA finally got the chance. After a long cold streak, SANADA got the right push, leaving Los Ingobernables to be the head of Just 5 Guys. New Japan gave him the opportunity, having him hold Japan’s top title for 9 months.

What I’ve learned over his reign as World Champion is that there is no “right” way to push him to the top. There is nothing more to be mined out of Seiya Sanada. There is no more development. There is no unrealized potential. There is no second gear. There is no next level. Either he simply lacks that intangible “it” factor it takes to become a real deal top guy, or more damningly, he simply doesn’t have the will to find it.

In his title matches, he was outshined by a junior and a returning young lion that hadn’t wrestled a match outside of the prelims in Japan before going to Forbidden Door to have a forgettable match as a backdrop to Jack Perry’s heel turn. He felt like an afterthought in the G1 despite being undefeated in his block before having a House of Torture special against EVIL in October. A run where the promotion hoped that the title would make the man and were proven wrong. Sanada is a solid piece to have for a promotion, but this title reign has proven without a shadow of a doubt that he cannot and should not be the crown jewel of a promotion.

Tetsuya Naito’s attitude comes from a decade of character work that far surpasses anything you’ll see from most other promotions, especially those who claim to be masters of it. At the age of 23, Tetsuya Naito participated in the same public tryout for the New Japan Dojo that SANADA did on November 3, 2005. He loudly proclaimed that “nobody cares more about New Japan Pro Wrestling than I do.” He would be accepted into the dojo, and after 8 years, he was set to take his throne as the ace of the new generation of New Japan. He had won the 2013 G1 Climax, beating Hiroshi Tanahashi in the final, and was set to main event Wrestle Kingdom against newcomer and generational rival Kazuchika Okada. He loudly proclaimed that he was the “shuyaku” – the main star – of New Japan. Something he cared about so much was within his grasp.

Unfortunately, it would remain out of reach. His push faltered, his popularity waned, and his main event was taken from him by the fans he had lost. He would lose to Okada in the semi-main, slide down the card, and start getting roundly booed by 2015. Everything Naito hoped for was slipping away, so he shut himself down. After a tour of Mexico, he came back as El Ingobernable, perpetually unbothered by his opponents or his surroundings. He finally won the IWGP Heavyweight Title at Invasion Attack 2016 – after interference from the debuting SANADA – to cheers from the crowd that once turned his back on him, only to toss the belt in defiance. They couldn’t hurt him anymore. The man who cared so much had shut those emotions down. Nothing could phase Tetsuya Naito, he was tranquilo.

But every now and again, the mask would slip. Naito would find himself taking his anger out on the Intercontinental Championship he seemed destined to be stuck with, physically destroying the belt until the plate was falling off of the leather. He would get his main event with Okada but lose after attempting the Stardust Press, trying to win the match with his old finisher and finally heal those old wounds. It almost cost him a rematch with Okada two years later, this time with both the IWGP and Intercontinental Titles on the line. Naito finally won and stood tall as the winner of the Double Gold Dash but got robbed of his roll call and his moment in the sun by KENTA.

Naito winning the World Title, an amalgamation of the two titles that defined him, in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom after winning the G1 would be a culmination of his life’s work. Getting to do the roll call that he was denied, with the crowd cheering along after two years of enforced silence due to COVID, would be a moment of catharsis for the people who have followed Naito on his journey as the red-headed stepchild of the New Japan boom period. It would allow this man who cares so deeply about New Japan to bathe in a moment that he believed he would never get and would allow him to be the shuyaku he proclaimed himself to be all those years ago.

The difference is clear, and it is stark. One of these men has what it takes to be a top guy. One of these men has what it takes to be a World Champion. One of these men has what it takes to lead a promotion. One of these men has what it takes to be in the biggest spot on the biggest show for the biggest promotion in Japan. One of these men has what it takes to be the star of New Japan Pro Wrestling. And on January 4th, the star will be Tetsuya Naito. Prediction: Tetsuya Naito

John: Geez, let’s all give a round of applause for Suit Williams folks! He just wrote basically his own entire essay on this match and did a tremendous job- honestly, I don’t even know how to really follow that, haha. He kind of covered everything. Yes, SANADA has been extremely disappointing as IWGP World Champion, and I say that as someone who would consider themselves to be a fan of the guy. I thought he was trending in the right direction after winning the title to a huge ovation at Sakura Genesis and having a pair of strong defenses against Hiromu and Yota in May and June (and there’s nothing wrong with being the IWGP champion and having the crowd cheer your challenger- it used to happen to Okada and Tanahashi all the time), but something happened during the G1 with this guy because he snapped back to the “old SANADA” hard. He went from actively engaging with the crowd to going back to the kind of completely stoic persona that works well for an upper midcarder whose nickname is “Cold Skull”, but not so well for the man carrying the IWGP World Heavyweight Title (and thus, the company) for the vast majority of the year.

It gets even worse when you remember what came after the G1- a feud with EVIL and the House of Torture. While some people will act like this was a huge detriment, in reality it should have been easy to get fired up over this jerk stealing your title belt and then one of your original J5G members turning his back on your unit to join them. This was likely the idea behind the entire feud- let SANADA work with possibly the easiest group in the company to get babyface heat against, so he comes into the following Naito feud feeling like a hot babyface star ready to go up against another mega-popular wrestler. But instead of embracing what should have been easy heat, SANADA inexplicably chose to downplay everything at every turn of that feud, basically acting like having his world championship belt stolen annoyed him about as much as missing the bus. For god’s sake, he started wearing a t-shirt that had an image of the belt and pointing to it as if to say “ah, I’m still the champion so who cares that I don’t have the actual belt.” Why he chose to do this, I do not know- perhaps he simply thought the belt theft angle was dumb and/or didn’t really want to work with EVIL and the House.

But regardless, when you yourself tell people that something doesn’t matter (for another recent example of this, see Jay White in AEW at pretty much the exact same time acting like he too missed the bus when he got brutally attacked backstage by the mysterious devil mask guy and his goofy crew- shockingly, that never got over either), the fans pick up on it real quick. And thus instead of heading into the Naito feud as a big babyface star coming off a hot feud, SANADA headed into it feeling like a cold champion who people are begging to see lose this belt already.

And that was BEFORE the Naito feud even started! What have things been like since? Well….how about a ten and a half minute interview with Naito where he doesn’t even bother to mention SANADA until more than six minutes in and spends two minutes on him in total, while completely laughing off the main line from his post-Ryogoku promo in October (really the only time SANADA even talked about Naito at all, as we’ll get to in a sec)? How about a SANADA rebuttal that’s only eight minutes long and sees him spend more time on the weather at their shoot than he does on Naito? SANADA has indeed spent much of his time not even talking at all (much to the shock of Taichi, who made a great shocked face backstage at the recent Korakuens when SANADA went “No comment.” for seemingly the hundredth time), explaining that he doesn’t want to give the admittedly often verbally savage Naito the opportunity to tear into him. This is….not a great way for your defending World Champion to come into the biggest show of the year! Naito to be fair has not really helped, repeatedly calling the guy a failure, but you can sense that he seems to be shoot frustrated with how the build up to this has gone so far and has kind of thrown up his hands at the state of it all. So yeah, the build has not been great.

The truly bizarre thing about the build is that there’s so much material to work with here! New Japan put out an entire little mini-documentary video on their shared history, and if you haven’t seen it, it was absolutely amazing! But where was most of this stuff in their actual feud? Why has SANADA never even brought up once (as far as I can tell) the fact that Naito got to be in Mutoh’s retirement match instead of him, which one would think was both a huge insult and a motivating factor behind him deciding to leave LIJ and go off on his own in the first place? You can quite literally head canon up an entire feud that’s so much better than what they’ve actually done, so as a famous podcast host on this network would say, what are we doing here?!

Now, does all that mean I’m not excited for this match? Well, no, actually I’m still excited haha. Why? I’ll give you a few reasons:

  1. I’m still extremely pumped at just the idea of being there in person to finally hear Naito do the Tokyo Dome roll call (especially since I missed his last big Dome moment in 2020). I’m not 100% certain I’m going to get it so I’m trying not to get my hopes up TOO high there, but it’s definitely going to be an amazing moment if it happens. And honestly, if they do make the somewhat baffling choice to put SANADA over and he does The Gift to a crowd that was probably like 90% against him winning, that will certainly be a moment to remember too!
  2. I think they usually tend to have great matches together, even if they can occasionally get a little sloppy.
  3. I have a perverse kind of “what is the crowd going to be like/how will they make this work after the very subpar build” interest in this match. Watching Red Shoes do his “sticking both hands up to try and gauge who the crowd is in favor of” thing for Naito and SANADA at their last Korakuen warm-up match was so funny, because the crowd was only about 99% behind Naito. They tried to call it “80/20” on the English broadcast but even that really wasn’t even close. With the roll call after four long years on the line, I don’t expect it to be much closer at all at the Dome. Even Hiroshi Tanahashi acknowledged this in a recent interview, basically saying that SANADA may have to “wear the black hat” in this one (which we really haven’t seen him do much since his first few months in NJPW, when he came in as a member of the still-heel LIJ back in 2016; they wouldn’t last as heels for much longer after that, of course). So yeah, I am intrigued at how they make this work.

The result of this one wouldn’t seem to be in doubt at first- put the belt on Naito (a big star) and let him pop some houses for you in 2024, give him the roll call everyone has been waiting four years for, finally do the Hiromu match at the anniversary show after that got canceled in 2020 and then maybe have him put a younger guy over right? Well….yeah, you’d think. But the build for this match has just been SO one-sided toward Naito that it almost makes me wonder how SANADA can afford to lose this one and come back from it (as Tanahashi also points out in the same interview I just linked). Naito has basically called this guy a failure as a champion and a total loser at every turn, and SANADA has only responded by saying he isn’t going to talk and give this guy more fodder. It’s one step above him whining “no bully, please no bully”- not exactly a good look for your IWGP World Heavyweight Champion. So like, IS he losing this? I guess the most likely answer is still “yes”, but with this very one-sided build up they have succeeded in one thing at least: they’ve made SANADA look like SUCH an underdog here that it almost feels to me like he has to win, because anything else would feel like a total burial at this point.

I will say I felt a little more strongly about this before I saw two things in the last week and a half or so: SANADA getting the snow (well, kinda- in classic SANADA fashion it didn’t come down until very late for him, but the point is J5G did win the last tune-up match) at Korakuen and the new merchandise that New Japan just released for Tetsuya Naito. If you haven’t seen it, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to call it “let’s all get hyped for Naito to do the Tokyo Dome roll call!” merch. In fact, unlike for a SANADA “gift” shirt that you could maybe describe as somewhat similar, the description on the Japanese shop is very explicit in saying that the shirt and towel are all about everyone getting ready to yell with Naito at the Tokyo Dome. So it would be truly wild to sell what is likely to be 30k+ tickets AND release official “everyone get ready to enjoy the roll call finally!” merchandise on the promise of finally delivering it this time and then just….not deliver it again.

Of course, it was also wild when they packed the dome full of Naito fans in 2018 who couldn’t wait to see his big crowning moment over Okada that we all knew was coming (I remember even debating with people on who the New Beginning challenger would be for Naito- I think we all landed on Bad Luck Fale for some reason, don’t even remember why because it’s been six years and all), and then uh, you know. So I still wouldn’t completely put it past them. But at the end of the day, I think they’re just going to do the good and obvious thing and give Naito the roll call we’ve all been waiting four years for, not to mention the much-delayed Hiromu match in March. And then we’ll see where we go from there, because obviously there’s a ton of exciting possibilities.

Remember: Wrestle Kingdom is not really about starting the next year (that’s the following night, at New Year Dash), it’s about wrapping up the previous one. And Naito going over SANADA, sending him crashing back down to the midcard where he probably belongs, and finally getting to yell DE JAPON is a damn good way to close out the year. Two questions on the roll call though before I finally wrap this up: 1) will Naito do something special for this extra big roll call like add the names of former members EVIL & SANADA back in (probably not, but it would be cool if he did), and 2) will somebody at least try to crash the ring and break up the roll call again, even if they likely get foiled by the other LIJ members (who should be ready for it this time!), and if so who will it be (probably YES, I sure hope so at least, and fuck it just make it KENTA again). Prediction: Tetsuya Naito

Jeff: My cohorts have decided that they want to bully me off the review by writing novels about a main event that no one seems to care about up to and including the participants. Burying SANADA here feels almost cruel, that horse has not only been beaten to death but the corpse has been carpet bombed to such a point that all that remains is a smoldering horseshoe. I’d like to think that the smoldering horseshoe represents the hot, fiery action we’ll be getting in the Tokyo Dome main event but alas, I think it is far more likely that it represents yet another option that would be superior to SANADA in this particular spot.

Jokes aside, Naito and the NJPW social media has done a hell of a job propping this match up as something special in spite of SANADA’s repeated attempts to ensure no one could ever hope to see it that way. There’s a great 17 minute documentary that NJPW put out that for about 15 minutes made me genuinely excited for this match. In fact, I dare say if that video had been the last thing I saw from this feud going into the Dome, I may have had a much more positive impression of it. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case and instead my last visual was SANADA lazily rolling out of the ring as snow fell in Korakuen. I, like every other sensible person on earth, am hoping that Naito wins here and corrects the errors of our past.

I want my Tetsuya Naito roll call in the dome, and I suspect we’ll have it with the sneaky bonus of SANDA joining in.

As an added prediction, I think we get these two tagging at Dash like Omega/Okada did last year. Maybe against a debuting Nakajima and a title hungry Yota Tsuji? Thoughts for a later time. Prediction: Tetsuya Naito

J. Michael: I’m not going to write as much as Suit, but I will say this: I REFUTE YOUR THESIS.

This idea that the SANADA title reign has been a bust, or shown him unworthy of the title, is flim-flam. Or, it’s partial flim-flam. Perhaps, it’s a smidgen flim-flam. Alright, fine, maybe’s it’s true. SANADA has remained, unimpeachably, SANADA, but to say that he’s the same SANADA as he was before joining Just 5 Guys is simply not true. He’s become significantly more verbose (which, admittedly, was not hard to achieve), and displays much more palpable conviction. If you don’t see it, I’m guessing you’re trying not to see it, or you’ve been engulfed in New Japan Depression.

Of course, John doesn’t fit into this category. And while I agree with their summary of SANADA’s year, I take issue with some of it. Let’s take stock of SANADA’s run:

  • Beat Kazuchika Okada for the title in an excellent match
  • Defended against Hiromu Takahashi in a very good match
  • Defended against Yota Tsuji in a captivating, possibly excellent match
  • Had an underrated G1 Climax
  • Defended against EVIL in a brutally awful lumberjack match
  • Disappointed everyone in the Wrestle Kingdom build

His G1 Climax does not get enough credit. He had good-to-great matches throughout the tournament, running the table as the unflappable champion surrounded by rookies and upstarts. He played his role beautifully. It wasn’t so much stoicness that he exhibited during that month, but a nonchalance, a confidence that the youngsters were not ready to threaten him.

His post-G1 run was, of course, indefensible. The EVIL match, and the build to it, saw a seemingly disengaged SANADA. He did less frequent backstage comments, and wasn’t able to articulate the importance of the match. It was doomed from the start, though, with a TWENTY show build-up, and, you know, a totally pallid, unimaginative choice for challenger. EVIL was such a lame choice that people’s brains dried up and they started to convince themselves that EVIL could win the title and headline the Dome against Naito. That’s how insane SANADA’s insouciant aloofness drives people.

But then again, how many title reigns in recent memory can anyone name with a strong 4th quarter? Okada’s 2016? Okada’s 2015? Okada’s 2013? Tanahashi’s 2012? You know why? Because you remember specific matches: Naomichi Marufuji in 2016, Hiroshi Tanahashi in 2013, Minoru Suzuki in 2012. Perhaps you remember Marufuji in 2012, or, somehow, Karl Anderson in 2013. Satoshi Kojima in 2013. You probably recall Okada’s 2015 autumn run against Will Ospreay, AJ Styles, and then that fucking masochistic match with Genichiro Tenryu.

But then things dry up in 2017. At that point, the top champion’s autumn becomes one match. In fact, it’s a real dire sequence:

  • 2017: Okada defeated EVIL in an adequate match that drew very well
  • 2018: Kenny Omega’s infamous fall 2018, which involved a good defense against Tomohiro Ishii (which didn’t match their incredible G1 Climax match), and that three-way match with Kota Ibushi and Cody, which nobody liked, but drew well
  • 2019: Okada defeated SANADA in a good match, which drew very well
  • 2020: The later pandemic G1 Climax leaves little room, but Naito defeats EVIL in their best match, which no one wanted to see anymore.
  • 2021: As in 2020, Shingo Takagi has enough time to defeat Zack Sabre Jr. in a brilliant match
  • 2022: Jay White appears in Japan six times after the G1 concludes in August, defeating Tama Tonga to defend the belt in a decent match.

The point is, the champion’s autumn schedule has contracted since 2016. There hasn’t been a majestic 4th quarter from the champion since. SANADA’s is no less or more uneventful than any of the ones above. A common thread is EVIL, who went from a passable, perfunctory defense pre-HOT, to his current role: an insufferable, perfunctory defense. If anything, SANADA showed uncharacteristic fire during the lead up to that unspeakably unwatchable lumberjack match, several times attacking EVIL and dragging him into the aisleways for brawls. They were brief flourishes of human emotion, but they happened.

In that way, I’m actually even more disappointed in SANADA than the ones that either missed or forgot those moments. I saw him show something new, but he restrained himself from embracing it for that run. That was unfortunate.

All told, an adequate title reign. Too long for what we got out of it, but that’s what the circumstances dictated. We assuredly would have enjoyed our 2023 more if bitter-ass youth-slayer Okada held the title for longer, but I do admire New Japan for trying. SANADA was a zero-sum game; no westerner who abandoned the product was going to return because of SANADA, no matter what he did. He didn’t draw well, but he didn’t draw poorly, either. His matches were a microcosm of New Japan in general: better than the year before, but not by much. And probably, not enough considering that most of last year was pandemic restricted. In the end, he’s the champion heading into a Dome show drawing 30,000+. He gets to walk out with that.

What this really comes down to is the build to Wrestle Kingdom. If this build was hotter, I think he’d be looked at as a passable champion, a neutral historical stance. But the build to this match has been peculiar, really only coming together at the very end. In the NJPW Primer that I wrote, I noted how New Japan’s strength comes from the venue of storytelling, that everything is told in the ring, with supplementary backstage comments. It took a while for the pieces to connect, but that is indeed what happened here.

To be clear, there is a story at play here, and it’s been directly emphasized on New Japan broadcasts.

The story is simple. John summarized it well. Basically, SANADA has come away from this title reign feeling more emboldened than ever to lean into his natural personality, which paradoxically is iconoclastic by being serene. Unaffected. Pococurante even. The basic concept is that SANADA refuses to follow expectations of a traditional champion in a Wrestle Kingdom build. It’s not totally clear what this means, beyond treating the proceedings as if it were any other event. That itself is not unusual; El Desperado’s 1972 interview essentially espouses the same idea, that Wrestle Kingdom is just another show.

This story didn’t truly congeal until the final Korakuen show on December 22nd. But even before that, we should have known that something was, indeed, being fabricated here. On December 8th, at the World Tag League semi-final, SANADA once again had no comment for the backstage media. John refers to this above; I tweeted about it. What was unusual here was that SANADA’s no comment was recorded and broadcast with the other backstage comments.

From what I understand and have gathered, backstage comments are largely unproduced, though it’s still common for guidance. If you watch enough of them, you’ll see wrestlers walk off camera, then return with a quick fade cut to continue, clearly advised about something they were supposed to mention but forgot. “No comments” are generally left on the floor, if they are even officially stated.

The fact that they recorded SANADA’s no comment, when they hadn’t at any point on this tour, or really at any point in SANADA’s career of “no comment,” was a clear indication that this was purposeful.

After the Just 5 Guys team defeated LIJ, Naito attempted to ensnare SANADA into a verbal battle, but SANADA ignored the bait. He simply asked Naito to leave the ring. This was pretty awesome; it was an inspired way to pay off the “please leave” thing that SANADA has been doing since he left LIJ for J5G in March. And, it stymied Naito, who is obnoxious as fuck in these builds, but gets away with it because his opponent usually cannot handle it (only KENTA has ever truly outwitted him consistently).

And with that, everything made sense. SANADA is not merely oblivious to the expectations of a champion, he’s simply an obstinate guy fully aware of his challengers strengths. He’s played the champion’s leverage masterfully. And, it plays into that video that my friends mentioned above. Because, for fuck’s sake, why does that make SANADA look bad. It’s a very Naito thing, honestly, disguising an intricate, dense system of preparation as if things just happened organically. The guy had been training for that moment for five years. SANADA walked in straight out of math class! Why wouldn’t he hold firm in his natural  principles, when he’s been vilified for them?

So that’s the story.

The story kinda sucks.

This is classic outsmarting yourself. It’s like I always argue when people say the G1 Climax is too predictable, that you can look at the final block night schedules and figure most of it out through backwards design. But then, what’s the alternative? Someone clinching their block halfway through? A main event between a contender and an also-ran? The top two guys in each block meeting in the main event on the final night: that’s the stuff. By the same token, what’s all this business with both guys in the Wrestle Kingdom main event caring, being in opposition with each other. What is one guy simply no-sold the annoying one’s diablerie?

This is what you get. A conceptual build. One that, when examined, does reveal itself splendidly. But there’s no feel, no urgency that is vital to that feel. There’s no sense of consequences here. For Naito, he wants to say a bunch of names after the match. For SANADA, he wants to make it to Sumida City for Dash the next night. Fuck, SANADA has his one unique crowd address, and everyone else is mentioning it but him? Make it Gift vs. Roll Call. Make it something tangible!

And then, there’s the other wrinkle here, which John beautifully explicated: this story only works if SANADA win, and they would be insane to have SANADA win.The whole idea is that SANADA’s entire philosophy is under arbitration here. If he wins, his singular approach is vindicated. His smoldering silence, infuriating to most, is now retconned into professional maturity. The victors tell the history… or at least the initial version. If SANADA loses, he’s a geek and an idiot. He essentially would have watched in silent impotence as his former colleague dominated the feud, won the match, and kicked him back to the upper mid-card. If this wasn’t Wrestle Kingdom, SANADA would have to win.

But it’s Wrestle Kingdom. They can’t deprive the people of their roll call for the third time. Not when the roll caller is 41 years old and has had so many eye surgeries that he’s actually maxed out the amount he can do. Even though the build doesn’t support it, just make the right choice and move on towards the future. Prediction: Tetsuya Naito

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