TOGI MAKABE, TOMOAKI HONMA, YOTA TSUJI, & YUYA UEMURA vs. TOA HENARE, ALEX COUGHLIN, KARL FREDERICKS, & CLARK CONNORS - 6.5/10
This was a very good match for the time it got, but there was absolutely zero reason for this match to be here. This is the f*cking Tokyo Dome. We don’t need a tag match with three undercard guys going nowhere and a bunch of young-boys.
YUJI NAGATA & MANABU NAKANISHI vs. TEN-KOJI (Satoshi Kojima & Hiroyoshi Tenzan) - 5/10
Copy above paragraph and replace “three undercard guys going nowhere and a bunch of young-boys” with “a bunch of old guys going nowhere.” And this is coming from someone who thinks that both Kojima and Nagata can still go at a high level.
EIGHT-MAN TAG TEAM MATCH WITH NORIO HONAGA AS SPECIAL GUEST REFEREE:
Jushin “Thunder” Liger, Great Sasuke, Tatsumi Fujinami, &Tiger Mask IV vs. Naoki Sano, Shinjiro Otani, Tatsuhito Takaiwa, & Ryusuke Taguchi - 6.5/10
A fun match in which everyone got to do their stuff in front of the big crowd one more time.
LOS INGOBERNABLES DE JAPON (Shingo Takagi, BUSHI, Sanada, & EVIL) vs. SUZUKI-GUN (Minoru Suzuki, Taichi, El Desperado, & Zack Sabre Jr.) - 5.5/10
Suzuki-Gun jump the bell on their opponents. Everyone spills to the outside other than EVIL and Suzuki, and EVIL is soon in control of things, making the heels’ jump-start null and void, so why even do it when all it does is make the babyfaces look dumb for not seeing it coming because Suzuki-Gun do it in just about every match.
Suzuki eventually gets the armbar over the ropes and finally the last pair of guys is on the outside. We get all of the usual bullsh*t, including the heels using a chair and not getting disqualified. Stuff happened, people did their spots, and they had another pointless match. Why are we doing ANOTHER LIJ vs. Suzuki-Gun eight-man tag? Haven’t we seen enough of those in the past year? This is the f*cking January 4th Tokyo Dome show! Why are we seeing a pointless tag involving Taichi, El Desperado, BUSHI, and EVIL when Dragon Lee and Ishimori are sitting on the sidelines?
CHAOS (Hirooki Goto, Toru Yano, YOSHI-HASHI, & Tomohiro Ishii) vs. BULLET CLUB (Chase Owens, Yujiro Takahashi, Bad Luck Fale, & KENTA) - 6/10
Stuff happened. The match was decent, but once again pointless (and no, this doesn’t “build up to KENTA vs. Goto because they’ve been doing these same undercard tags for months now, and you’re not getting anything in this match that you haven’t beaten into the ground already).
IWGP HEAVYWEIGHT TAG TEAM TITLE MATCH:
Guerrillas of Destiny(c) vs. FinJuice (David Finlay Jr. & Juice Robinson) - 7/10
A nice win for a team that has worked pretty damn hard. It’s nice to see Finlay finally really get something after proving he can go at a high level when given the chance over the past two or three years.
TEXAS DEATHMATCH FOR THE IWGP US TITLE:
Lance Archer(c) vs. Jon Moxley - 8/10
This match could be won via TKO (Last Man Standing rules) or via submission. I’m not a big fan of Last Man Standing matches because I think there just isn’t as much visual drama in getting up from a ten count as there is in kicking out of a pin at the last split second. That said, I think these guys did an excellent job of creating some of that drama with the way they sold.
The match, as you would expect, was them hitting each other with stuff, plus Archer trying to suffocate Moxley with a plastic bag. Moxley picked up the win, which surprised me. He then grabbed a mic and cut a promo on Juice Robinson, challenging him to a match tomorrow night to end their feud. I thought this was a particularly brilliant bit of booking, as between the AEW World Title shot stip in tomorrow’s Jericho vs. Tanahashi match and Moxley winning here, they have forced me to reconsider the assumption that I went into this match with, which is that Moxley is just here to get the Tokyo Dome payoff and cross something off of his bucket list, and will be solely in AEW from now on. Now it seems equally possible that he is still in NJPW’s plans and will retain tomorrow as well, or that I was right in general but not in the specifics and tomorrow (or New Year Dash) will be his last night and this was a nice way to get the belt on Juice instead of Archer. (Juice winning the tag titles earlier tonight also feeds my doubt about him winning tomorrow). Well played, Gedo.
IWGP JR. HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE MATCH:
Will Ospreay(c) vs. Hiromu Takahashi - 8.75/10
This is definitely going to be one of those matches where I’m at odds with most of the population. I do my absolute best to avoid spoilers because I don’t want to know who wins the match going in. Pro wrestling being worked, however, means that I often have a darn good idea of who is going to win. I try to not let that affect my evaluation of the art, but in this case, it was very hard not to.
Basically, there was zero doubt in my mind that Hiromu was going to win. It would have been a big downer if he didn’t, they want to move Ospreay to heavyweight, part of Gedo’s pattern of establishing someone in any division other than heavyweight is to put a belt on him right away, and, in general, Gedo loves switching this particular title at Wrestle Kingdom.
The problem is that they didn’t do anything to make me really care about Hiromu winning the belt.
Stop gasping with outrage! I’m not some heartless bastard. I understand everything the man went through, coming back from a broken neck, being stuck in a hospital bed, barely able to move. And that’s why, to me, the big, emotional moment is the comeback match itself. I’m elated to be able to see this man live his dream once again and support himself financially once again.
But he’s going to be wrestling in the Liger retirement match tomorrow whether he wins the belt from Ospreay or not. And he’s going to keep wrestling on all of the shows on all of the tours after that whether he wins the belt from Ospreay tonight or not, just like he did for the past three shows. So, while I could appreciate the athleticism and creativity shown in the match and I appreciated how the parts of the story they told fit together intellectually, the emotion that they were trying to create just wasn’t there for me.
What I think Hiromu’s comeback really needed was a heel. And I don’t mean Will Ospreay taking on the structural role of the person dominating the match so that the hero can come back from behind, overcome the adversity, ands get the win. I mean a real, honest to G-d HEEL. That angle they did with Shibata that everyone went gaga over at the end of the G1 that was a big waste because it didn’t actually lead to Shibata having match? They should have saved that for Hiromu.
For Power Struggle you hype up that Hiromu will be making an announcement about his future. Have him come out and say that while he’s not ready yet, the doctors are pretty sure that he’ll be cleared in time for Wrestle Kingdom. Then have someone utterly despicable, like El Phantasmo or Kanemaru, give him a DDT, and have him do a stretcher job while the announcers scream in horror that he might have re-broken Hiromu’s neck. Hiromu gets to make a big comeback attacking the guy at the end of Tag League tour, then you have the heel cut promos about how at the Tokyo Dome, he’s going to make sure to end Hiromu’s career for good. THEN you do this match, and have the heel actually try to make good on his promise. The story of the match should have been “Hiromu’s opponent tries to end his career,” not “Ospreay works over Hiromu’s neck” (which felt like it was done because it was the obvious story to tell and thus he had to work over the neck). That way it feels like there are real consequences if Hiromu doesn’t put his opponent down.
Then you can spend the next few months building up to Hiromu winning the title back. Instead we got this match which really felt like it was just another work-rate match, and when the match ended, Kevin Kelly said “Hiromu Takahashi completes the comeback” and they killed off MONTHS of potential stories in thirty minutes.
So yes… I thought this was an fantastically-wrestled match, with great storytelling and nice little touches such as Ospreay using the draping DDT that paralyzed Honma for a few months… but I also think it lacked the necessary emotional components to make it the classic that many people seem to be touting it as.
IWGP INTERCONTINENTAL TITLE MATCH: Jay White(c) (w/Gedo) vs. Tetsuya Naito - 8/10
White starts with his usual stalling so Naito rolls out of the ring and grabs Gedo by the beard… and apparently this is Gedo’s week spot, as he just stands there yells for help instead of fighting back like the trained combat athlete he is.
This did, at least, accomplish Naito’s goal of getting White to slide into the ring in an attempt to cross it and save Gedo so that Naito could intercept him and they could begin fighting in the ring. Naito managed to knock White down with a dropkick and White rolled to the outside again. Naito charged and I figured he was about to follow up with a dive to keep White from getting any rest, but of course Naito bounced off the ropes and hit his pose instead. In other words, after doing something specifically to force White to stop taking his time on the outside, Naito then chooses not to follow up on White, allowing White to do the exact thing that Naito had been attempting to prevent him to do moments earlier. When the first two spots in the match don’t make any f*cking sense together, you really should just go back to the drawing board.
Naito controls the match for a bit until Gedo starts interfering right in front of the referee. Never mind a f*cking DQ, Red Shoes doesn’t even eject Gedo from ringside. After the first interference Kevin Kelly told us that Gedo “should not be a physical participant in the match” and that “Red Shoes would be well within his rights to throw Gedo out of the match if he wanted to.” Well if Gedo is doing something wrong and Red Shoes has the ability to eject him from ringside but is clearly choosing not to, what does that tell us about Red Shoes? The answer, of course, is that he’s either incompetent or immoral, and either one of those should be enough to prevent him from refereeing ANY professional match, let alone a match this big, so I am once again forced to ask why New Japan continues to let him referee matches? Do they not care about the integrity of their promotion?
Anyway, Gedo being a factor allowed White to first pull Naito crotch-first into the ringpost, and then Gedo was able to hit Naito in the knee with a chair while White distracted Red Shoes (presumably by handing him a card with “to distract an idiot, see other side of card” written on both sides).
White worked Naito over for a while, including some of Red Shoes usual bullsh*t like refusing to count a pinfall after a pretty much legal maneuver (and, of course, if Red Shoes care about the rules so much that he won’t count a pinfall after ramming someone’s spine into the apron then surely he would have no problem calling for a DQ when he catches a manager interfering in a match, but he won’t even eject Gedo from ringside, so how does that make any sense?).
We got a ref bump so that Gedo could have his attempt at interference foiled. This allowed White to hit Naito with a low blow, but Naito countered the first move White attempted after the low blow. White hit Naito with a chair and was able to hit him with some moves, but Naito popped back up and hit a Destino for a double-down all before Red Shoes came to enough to count anything they had done, putting us pretty much right back at the neutral ground we were on before that whole sequence with the ref bump so what the f*ck was the point of any of that?
Essentially, when they stuck to the story of Naito’s knee getting worked over, I thought this match was awesome. When they were just doing other stuff to each other like the obligatory head-drops (which I guess do qualify as a second story of “both men work the head and neck”) it was fine, although it did drag some. The Gedo interference stuff was painfully overdone and made the match frustrating. It averages out to the 8/10 I gave it above. Naito got the win, which I think was the wrong move unless they’re going to have Naito beat Okada tomorrow night (and even then you really didn’t need this title unification gimmick to set it up), but either way, I don’t want to see these two wrestle each other for a good, solid eighteen months. That’s how sick I am of it.
IWGP HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE MATCH:
Kazuchika Okada(c) vs. Kota Ibushi - 9.5/10
The big story of the match was both guys working on each other’s heads; Kota with his strikes, and Okada with his head-drops and Rainmakers. Kota gave Okada some unintended help at one point when he went for a Pele Kick and landed right on the top of his head. It was horrifying.
On the whole, I thought this was fantastic up until the part where Kota started no-selling. This part of the match was infuriating to me. “Fighting spirit” my ass. You can’t just do it at a random time in the match, which is exactly what this was. And it also made no sense that once he went into fighting spirit mode, all of Ibushi’s strikes seemed to come with superhuman strength.
I guess the story is that Kota went to this dark place inside him that turned him into a supervillain. He started throwing closed-fist strikes. Red Shoes warned him not to but Kota kept throwing them. Of course, this being New Japan (and Red Shoes in particular), rather than calling for a DQ after a wrestler has repeatedly disobeyed the referee’s warnings not to break a rule, the referee just stopped trying to enforce the rule at all.
Red Shoes eventually pulled Ibushi away… and then just let him go right back to Okada even though Okada was in the ropes. In explicable, Kota was no longer in super-made and thus Okada was able to counter his big German Suplex from the ropes spot. They teased some stuff on the apron for a bit until Okada gave Ibushi a Tombstone Piledriver on the apron that looked brutal. Even though there were no count-outs earlier in the match, we got the Count-Out Tease That No One Ever Buys for an empty false finish.
They exchanged a cool series of moves and counters while Red Shoes jumped around and swung his arms in the background, like he was having the match himself in his imagination. Why does he still have a job?
I know I’ve spent more time burying this match than praising it, but there are just some things that REALLY bug me, and doubly so when it’s something like this that won’t actually matter in the long run because Super Kota wasn’t even enough to get the job done, so why do this goofy crap at all?
Anyway, this match was fantastic and you should go watch it immediately. The last fifteen minutes or so are pure magic. The term “WrestleMania nearfalls” is often used as a synonym for kicking out of too much stuff, and while I do think that the Rainmaker doesn’t mean anywhere near what it used to, I think that’s just something that needs to be accepted at this point. It’s a powerful move, but it will never be a killer again. And that’s fine. And doubly so here at New Japan’s WrestleMania. This match (other than the aforementioned count-out tease) is one of those matches that reminds you of why you went bonkers the first time you saw people kicking out of everything. Every finisher, no matter how many times it had been kicked out of previously in the match, felt like it could potentially be the one that ended the match.
POST-MATCH SEGMENT - Meh. Naito came out to confront Okada afterwards. I really didn’t like this because it was one last reminder of the “this feels like a smaller show than it should” feel that I had earlier on in the show. Wrestle Kingdom doesn’t need the post-match confrontation after a title match to set up the next title defense. It has New Year Dash for that. Wrestle Kingdom is the one NJPW show a year where the ending of the show is the end of everything. The year has culminated in this show and (hopefully) peaked with the main event, and the new year starts at New Year Dash. This show didn’t feel that way at all.
This was a tale of two shows. The second half of the card was definitely Wrestle Kingdom, but the first half (other than the Liger match, obviously), was pointless “Road to…” show bullsh*t being used to fill out the card on what is supposed to be one of the biggest nights of the year. It would have been much better to have fewer matches but with people who will at least have exciting match-ups (Shingo, Zack, Suzuki, Dragon Lee, Ishimori) rather than the standard NJPW undercard slog. This is the Tokyo Dome. We don’t need to try to find a spot for everyone.