It’s no mystery that I am a pro-wrestling fan and that my fandom spills over the boundaries of mainstream American graps such as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) to include independent promotions in the U.S. and Europe, Lucha Libre from Mexico, and puoresu from Japan. Many moons ago, when I has but a lad of 17, I purchased two 4-head VCRs for the purpose of double taping and dubbing American wrestling matches for the purposes of trading my wares with fans abroad for their local brand of wrestling goodness. I would scour listservs and other forums for results from the biggest shows abroad and then vow to track down the bouts, sometimes waiting as long as six months before getting my hands on them. To this day, my mother’s basement storage area still houses hundreds of video tapes with countless hours of wrestling from Japan, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the United Kingdom, Germany, and even North Korea. Today, almost all of that footage is available online, either “illegally” (that’s debatable) from video websites or licitly from the growing number of dedicated pro-wrestling streaming services that have come online over the past three years. Never in my teenage dreams did I believe such a thing would be possible and yet here we are.
For those unaware, New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) began 45 years ago as a way to showcase what became known as “strong style,” that is, Japan’s unique blend of martial-arts striking and submission wrestling in a worked forum (i.e., the outcomes are predetermined). Today, thanks to tape trading, foreign talent exchanges, and the aforementioned streaming services, strong style is literally everywhere, though arguably few do it well outside of its original Japanese context. For instance, when Shinsuke Nakamura, the self-proclaimed “King of Strong Style,” left New Japan last year for WWE’s NXT brand, everyone knew he would have to cool his jets a bit. And while Nakamura has found a way to retain his strong-style approach to wrestling, it’s clear to anyone who followed his Japanese work that it is watered-down presentation of what he can do fully in the ring. Although NJPW, like any wrestling promotion, has had its ups and downs over the decades, most agree that the promotion has been firing on (almost) all cylinders for the past five years thanks to a mixture of grizzled veterans, new stars, and (largely) top-shelf foreign talent. With the launch of the New Japan World streaming service for a mere 999 Yen per month (roughly $10), which includes new live events and a treasure chest of archival material, NJPW is finally able to reach a global audience quickly and efficiently. Moreover, because of growing interest from the Anglophone world, New Japan World now offers English-language commentary for its biggest shows, though I confess that I still love listening to the Japanese announcers, particularly when the big bouts are hitting their respective crescendos.
For the past 25 years, it has been a NJPW tradition to run shows at the famous Tokyo Dome on January 4. Though the event names have changed over the years, the company has now settled on “Wrestle Kingdom” as its premiere event where all of the major promotional feuds are (typically) brought to a close. Unlike the WWE and other American promotions today, NJPW’s booking style is pretty straightforward: Wrestler A wants to prove he is better than Wrestler B, so they’re going to lock up in the ring to find out. There are, of course, personality clashes mixed in, not to mention some colorful characters and a few guys willing to bend the rules to the breaking point to get what they need, but more times than not it all makes sense. Relying less on over-the-top angles and heavily scripted interview segments, many of New Japan’s storylines are advanced in the ring. In fact, it doesn’t take much effort to figure out the personalities, feuds, and goals in play just by watching a couple of shows, English commentary or not. Yes, NJPW, like all of pro-wrestling, is a work, that is, the wrestlers are not actively competing against each other, but when it comes to Wrestle Kingdom in particular, they are competing for the audience’s adulation and the right to be viewed as the best performers on the planet.
For those interested, here is my brief review of last night’s Wrestle Kingdom 11 event from Tokyo. Instead of running the risk of catching spoilers online, I actually arose at 3am EST yesterday (5pm Tokyo time) to watch the entire show as it unfolded lived. Since I have not had time to go back and re-watch any of the matches, these comments — and the five-star rating system I employ — are best on first impressions from seeing the bouts as they happened. In the heat of the moment, there isn’t much time to second-guess certain spots, match length, or results; the real question comes down to whether or not you are entertained. Not surprisingly, I was very entertained.
01. New Japan Rumble
I’ll be honest: I didn’t watch this match, as it was part of the pre-show and I was still sleeping blissfully at this point. Sorry.
02. Tiger Mask W v. Tiger the Dark
Let me cut to the chase: Tiger Mask is a long-running cartoon in Japan that gave birth to the Tiger Mask persona, first taken up by the great Satoru Sayama in the 1980s and later held by wrestlers such as Mitsuharu Misawa and Koji Kanemoto, both of whom had remarkable careers later on without the mask. This match is more or less a promotion for the relaunched Tiger Mask cartoon, with veteran junior heavyweight competitor Kota Ibushi playing the role of Tiger Mask and African American independent performer ACH assuming the gimmick of Tiger the Dark (I am not even going to get into how potentially racist some Western audiences might see this). The match itself was a brief spotlight of both men’s athleticism with Tiger Mask W predictably going over. As a curtain-jerk bout for the main Wrestle Kingdom card, this was perfectly acceptable, though not essential viewing by any stretch of the imagination. **
03. Roppongi Vice (Rocky Romero & Trent Beretta) v. The Young Bucks (c) (Matt & Nick Jackson – IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Championship
The Young Bucks, who are easily the hottest independent tag-team act in the world, are a polarizing pair. While they have built up a huge fan base around the world while shunning the WWE (at least for now), they have been derisively called “spot monkeys” for building their matches around a series of highly athletic, though sometimes inane, moves without much care for in-ring psychology or storytelling. They hold numerous tag-team titles from various promotions, though some have argued that they have had a detrimental influence on the business. Whether that’s true or not is debatable; what’s less debatable is that their matches in NJPW have gotten stale, as has the Jr. Tag Team division as a whole. Roppongi Vice, which to their credit seem to actually care about having sensible matches, do their best here to guide the Bucks through a watchable match filled with high spots, superkicks, and no-selling which is kept mercifully short. In the end, Roppongi Vice goes over in a paint-by-numbers affair that barely had any business being on the card. **
03. Los Ingobernales de Japan (Bushi, Evil, & Sanada) v. Bullet Club (Bad Luck Fale, Hangman Page, & Takahashi) v. CHAOS (Jado, Will Ospreay, & Yoshi Hashi) v. Kojima, Ricochet, & Dave Finlay (c) – NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship
What is there to say about this match other than it was a massive, sometimes sloppy, but largely entertaining battle between representatives of New Japan’s three main factions, plus the ad hoc grouping of Kojima, Ricochet, and Finaly as the champions? Bullet Club, which has been New Japan’s top heel (bad guy) stable for the past three years, has descended a bit into self-parody, taking on more and more members who have nothing close to the talent or “cool factor” of the group’s alumni who have since left for WWE. Los Ingobernales, however, are on the rise, first making waves in Mexico before returning to Japan hardened and more refined from their time spent abroad. It’s impossible in a short space to chronicle all of the fact in this one, so I am not even going to try. After dispensing with the Bullet Club B-team, CHAOS gets the boot from Los Ingobernales who, in turn, take out the defending champions as well. Since the NEVER 6-Man titles are traded frequently, Los Igobernales’s win doesn’t mean that much for the wrestlers individually, but is confirmation for the fans that the stable has arrived and is probably poised to displace Bullet Club completely in 2017. ***
4. Cody v. Juice Robinson
Cody, who formerly wrestled as Cody Rhodes (son of the “American Dream” Dusty Rhodes and brother of Goldust) in WWE, voluntarily quit the promotion last year to try his hand at the independent and international wrestling scene. The results so far have been . . . mixed. His opponent, Juice Robinson, also wrestled for WWE in its NXT brand. While he was never able to make a go of it there, his in-ring skills have improved markedly since coming to Japan. Unfortunately, they aren’t heightened enough to get a good match out of Cody. This bathroom-break bout unfolded like a WWE midcard match to a mostly silent crowd. While New Japan tried to generate some interest in this contest by announcing Cody as the newest member of Bullet Club, it clearly didn’t work. Had this match been featured in WWE it would be acceptable; at the Tokyo Dome it bordered on embarrassing. Cody: Go back to WWE; the company needs warm bodies to fill the roster. Japan is not the place for you. *1/2
5. Adam Cole v. Kyle O’Reilly (c) – Ring of Honor World Championship
Last month, O’Reilly defeated Cole on a Ring of Honor (ROH) pay-per-view to capture the championship and bring to a close their feud. Unfortunately, questions have been swirling over whether or not O’Reilly would sign a contract extension with ROH. Apparently he did not. Featured at Wrestle Kingdom only because NJPW and ROH have a talent-sharing agreement in place, this abbreviated ROH title match never really got going before Page dispatched O’Reilly handily with a series of superkicks. O’Reilly, who has curried favor with Japanese audiences in the past due to his strong style-influenced wrestling, had some nice moments to shine in this one, but before the match could really build-up any major excitement, it was all over. This wasn’t a bad bout by any stretch of the imagination, but at a mere 10 minutes long, it never truly got to where it was going. ***
6. CHAOS (Ishii & Yano) v. GBH (Honma & Makabe) v. Guerrillas of Destiny (c) (Tama Tonga & Tanga Roa) – IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship
Three-way tag team matches are always difficult to coordinate and this was no exception. The Guerrillas of Destiny (GoD), who are the real-life sons of pro-wrestling legend Haku and members of Bullet Club, have made substantial leaps forward as a tag team recently, having a barn-burner of a match with GBH in the finals of New Japan’s World Tag League last month. In this chaotic context, however, none of the teams could really show off their full potential and settled instead for just beating the hell out of each other. Oh, and for some inexplicable reason, the GoD decided to yell as much profanity on the top of their lungs throughout this match, prompting English-language commentator Steve Corino to take off his headset mid-match because he was laughing so hard. Anyways, after a boat-load of back and forth action, including the GoD hitting all of their big moves on both teams, Yano — who is primarily a comedy act — snuck-in a double low blow on the GoD behind the referee’s back before rolling up Tanga Roa for the 1-2-3. Whole it is doubtful that CHAOS will be keeping the belts for long, the emerging story here is that Bullet Club is now 0-2 at Wrestle Kingdom 11. ***
7. Hiromu Takahashi v. KUSHIDA (c) – IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championship
To quote the great Jim Ross, “Business is about to pick up.” While New Japan fans are well aware of KUSHIDA’s impressive in-ring abilities, Takahashi — who for the last two years wrestled as Kamaitachi in Mexico and is now a member of Los Ingobernales — entered this match with something to prove. For just over 16 minutes, these two demonstrated why the New Japan’s Jr. Heavyweight division is still spoken of with hushed tones to this day, blending crazy bumps, insane dives, and solid in-ring work to finally bring the Tokyo Dome’s 40,000 fans to life. While this match will likely be remembered by casual fans for two spots — Takahashi’s suicidal senton off the top rope to the floor and KUSHIDA later catching Takahashi in a cross-armbreaker in mid air — the entire match delivered in spades with Takahashi refusing to submit before hitting his Time Bomb finisher (fireman’s carry into a high-angle powerslam) on KUSHIDA for the victory. If these two wrestle half-a-dozen more times over the next year, I won’t complain. ****
8. Hirooki Goto v. Katsuyori Shibata (c) – NEVER Openweight Championship
The NEVER Championship matches have developed a reputation in recent years for being a showcase of unmitigated violence — and this was no exception. Shibata, whose battle-worn body is literally being held together by athletic tape and braces — is contemptuous toward Goto, the man who can never win “the big one,” and he shows it right off the bat by slapping his former high-school classmate. Apparently that was enough to wake Goto up, who managed to go blow-for-blow with Shibata, winning the crowd over in the process. Shibata, who may be the hardest striker in the company and not one to shy away from throwing a shoot headbutt or two into his matches, is never able to keep control of the match for long despite laying in a man-sized beating to Goto. Goto, for his part, hangs tough, going after Shibata’s weakened neck before dropping Shibata on the back of his head enough to finally keep him down. Now Goto can join his CHAOS stablemates Ishii and Yano by flaunting some gold of his own while all the king’s horses and all the king’s men put poor Shibata back together again. ****
9. Hiroshi Tanahashi v. Tetsuya Naito (c) – IWGP Intercontinental Championship
Unlike in WWE, NJPW’s version of the Intercontinental Championship is viewed as being practically on bar with the company’s World Heavyweight Championship — a title both Tanahashi and Naito have held in the past. Tanahashi, roughly speaking, is NJPW’s John Cena, the popular veteran who has seemingly done it all in the company and can still manage to go even at age 40. Unlike Cena, however, Tanahashi’s high-impact style has worn his body down to the point that it is a marvel that he can not only still move around the ring with ease, but still hit his elegant High Fly Flow frogsplash from the top rope to the ring (or the arena floor) with ease. Naito, the heelish leader of Los Ingobernales, has long sat in Tanahashi’s shadow before breaking out as a top-level star in 2016. More than a defense of his Intercontinental title, this match is all about Naito proving once and for all that the Tanahashi era is over and he belongs on the big stage alone. While Naito is too far along in his career for this match’s story to simply be “Young Upstart” v. “Grizzled Veteran” (a classic Japanese wrestling trope), it does have that flavor about it at times, especially with Naito uses his superior athleticism to his advantage. However, during the closing minutes of the match, it becomes clear that the story is also about Tanahashi’s time coming to an end and not being able to adapt to a younger, fiercer opponent. As is customary for Tanahashi, he keeps looking for the High Fly Flow to finish off Naito — and Naito has it scouted, goading Tanahashi into trying one too many before putting the nail in Tanahashi’s coffin. After the match, Naito uncharacteristically bows to Tanahashi as a sign of respect, signaling the end of their feud. And with this win, all the members of Los Ingobernales are holding championships. ****1/2
10. Kenny Omega v. Kazuchika Okada (c) – IWGP World Heavyweight Championship
Here’s the deal: After spending more than a decade as an independent wrestler and junior heavyweight for several Japanese promotions, Canada’s own Kenny Omega decided it was time to become the man in NJPW, especially after Nakamura and AJ Styles departed the promotion last year. Omega, who has a reputation for in-ring quirkiness and comedy spots, initially didn’t seem like the right choice as either the new leader of Bullet Club or a foreigner the company should push hard. And yet in August, Omega won New Japan’s coveted G1 tournament, a grueling month-long affair that earned him the right to challenge for the promotion’s biggest prize at its biggest show of the year. Okada, after a disastrous run in the American C-level promotion TNA, returned to Japan several years ago to become one of the major players in the company through a series of highly regarded matches with Tanahashi, Styles, and Nakamura. Before this match was even officially announced, some wondered whether or not Omega had the chops to main event the Tokyo Dome and if Okada could have a great match without an assist from more experienced talent. For nearly 47 minutes, both competitors did everything in their power to prove their critics wrong in a match that seemed to have everything: American-style chain wrestling, death-defying dives that would make any junior heavyweight envious, two brutal table spots, teeth-shattering striking, and one of the most memorable finishing sequences in Japanese wrestling history. Was it a perfect match? No. Okada, for all of his talent, still has not mastered some of the subtleties of selling moves, though this time out he really didn’t have to as the offense he took surely did a toll on his body. Omega, who at the end of the day is still a product of the independent scene, is still finding a way to mesh his style of wrestling in a NJPW main-event environment. Even so, I literally came out of my chair eight or nine times during this match. Maybe it won’t have the same magic when I go back to re-watch it, but it’s hard for me to imagine getting this excited about another wrestling mach this year. Despite a valiant effort, Omega could not pull out a victory here, though he left no doubt in anyone’s mind that he belongs on top of NJPW. ****3/4