Before we head full-steam into New Japan Pro Wrestling’s biggest show of the year in our traditional Best/Worst fashion, just a few notes:
– If you missed the show, I highly recommend catching it on demand at NJPW World. They’ve added their own English sign-up guide, so you’ve really got no excuse at this point.
– With Spandex is on Twitter and Facebook, of course. Also, why not follow my personal Twitter here? It’s pretty much half wrestling stuff and half memes about that stormtrooper with the riot baton.
– Share this column! Go forth and make puroresu fans of all the nations!
And now, here’s the Best and Worst of NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 10.
The New Japan Rumble
Sorry to start outside the typical Best/Worst construct, but I feel like this pre-show match only counts halfway at best. Wrestle Kingdom 10 opened with the pre-show New Japan Rumble. As you probably guessed from the name, it worked a lot like the Royal Rumble, but eliminations here were scored not just via ejection over the top rope, but also by pinfall, submission, or disqualification. I was originally not planning on covering this since it seemed like such a throwaway, but suddenly Meng happened, and when Meng happens, you write about it. Billed here as King Haku, he took part in the melee, representing the Bullet Club. This makes total sense, considering he’s the adoptive father of Bullet Club’s very own Tama Tonga. Much more organic than squeezing in Jeff Jarrett for the sake of synergy like they did last year, right?
Anyway, the Rumble was the spot for people not otherwise on the Wrestle Kingdom card — Ryusuke Taguchi, Jushin Liger, Yuji Nagata — and also some surprising old faces like The Great Kabuki, who was disqualified for misting an opponent. The final entrant was New Japan co-booker Jado, which makes you realize just how important creative control is. If that didn’t make it clear enough that he was winning, he also had the added stat bonus of the Celebrity Ring Escort card, here taking the form of Japanese idol singer Momoka Ariyasu. At first I thought she was some joshi I’d never heard of and NJPW was about to bust down some gender bias in the form of a dark match, but I was pretty far off base. Plus, if you need a female in the mix and Great Kabuki is already in the ring, you bring in Command Bolshoi and put her in a nunchuck-fight spot.
(Yes, this is going to be a column full of deep cuts, so buckle up.)
Best: The Uncanny Valley
First of all, quick supplemental Worst to Matt Striker for trying to direct viewers to ProWrestlingTees not even 15 minutes into the main broadcast. But let’s talk about this opening four-way contest for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team titles. In my G1 Climax Finals recap, I brought up the possibility of Ricochet being too good. As this match progressed, I felt like Ricochet and the seven other men in the match were all too good. Bear in mind, I’ve got nothing against wrestling that looks polished. But when you polish something down to a mirror sheen, you start to lose the little intricacies and imperfections that give it personality. Wrestling is nothing without personality, and this match was such a well-oiled machine that it felt lacking in that department, at least in some moments.
I’m still giving it a Best, though. Sure, it all looked like a meticulous fight scene, but at least it was a fight scene where Yuen Woo-Ping retreats into the woods for a month and comes back with nothing short of a martial-arts vision quest. It was a really good match, I just felt like my screen was going to prompt me to press X to block an incoming superkick. My favorite part was when Ricochet springboarded off the top rope with such force that he left the camera frame entirely. For about a quarter of a second, he was just hanging out somewhere in the ionosphere. I didn’t see the Young Bucks victory coming, but it makes a lot of sense. With a Ring of Honor tour of Japan coming up, they’ve already proven to be solid standard-bearers for both ROH and NJPW.
Worst: New Japan Pro Wrestling, Tuesday Nights on SyFy
Double Worst: Luck Be A Lady
The match to crown New Japan’s inaugural NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Champions was probably the weakest match of the night. Looking at the card before the night of the show, it seemed that it was doomed to be the skippable match. And sure enough, it felt like something you’d see on WWE’s version of ECW, which is not something you should be able to say about any match involving Jay and Mark Briscoe. I’ve never really been a huge fan of the Briscoes, but even I know when they’re not being used to their full potential. Kevin Kelly’s weird commentary didn’t help the case, especially when he called the Alabama Slam “one of the most dangerous moves in wrestling.” Sure, maybe when Bob Holly is doing it, but Bob Holly is out to kill people with simple knife-edge chops.
Any bright spots here came solely from the Yano/Briscoes team. Toru Yano’s comedic work is always on point, and he’s the closest to someone like Kikutaro you’ll get in a serious promotion like NJPW. I also enjoyed some of Mark Briscoe’s trademark Redneck Kung Fu. I don’t know if it was the speed he carried into his spots or the weird tattered pants he was wearing, but he looked like an insane Delaware Tarzan and it was hard to take my eyes off him. Bullet Club was doomed from the start here, and not even for wrestling reasons.
Remember Mao? She’s Yujiro Takahashi’s favorite valet, and you may remember that I blamed his loss at G1 on her absence. Eventually she’s going to realize that she’s not just eye candy, but rather a vital cog in the Bullet Club machine. Until that day, every match that doesn’t involve her on Yujiro’s arm is a losing battle from the start. She was absent for Wrestle Kingdom, and Bullet Club once again fell miserably short. She’s starting to notice it, though. She retweeted a bunch of people who lamented that she wasn’t there (myself included).
Worst: Big Mike’s Bogus Journey
Starting with the positives, let’s talk about Truth Martini. Homeboy had a special edition Japanese printing of his “Book of Truth” on hand for Wrestle Kingdom. The devil is truly in the details, and I’ll always appreciate small touches like that. It’s like when Tyler Breeze’s seasonal residence in Cairo influences his decision to be a high-fashion pharaoh at Takeover. I feel like I should also applaud Ring of Honor for not taking the obvious road here. The easiest thing to do here would be to give Michael Elgin the feel-good victory in Japan, much to the delight of the fans he won during the summer. Instead, Jay Lethal retained his world title and we’re obviously going in some different direction.
But while we’re on the topic of direction, let’s focus back on Elgin. If you’ve ever been on a great vacation, you know that the worst part is that last day, when you realize that your return to reality begins the second you step on the flight home. New Japan has been Elgin’s dream vacation, albeit a working vacation. He accomplished his goal of getting a huge match in the Tokyo Dome, he made new fans, and he furthered the relationship between ROH and NJPW. But now that he’s come up short in his title match, I can’t help but think that the vacation’s over. Sure, he’ll finish the ROH/NJPW tour next month, but after that, I can’t help but imagine that he’s right back to the struggle for identity that plagued him to begin with. Michael Elgin in Japan has been fun to watch, but I worry about what happens once he sets foot on his next flight across the Pacific.
Best: KUSHIDA Vs. The World
As anticipated, I loved this match for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship. KUSHIDA is easily one of my top 10 favorite wrestlers right now, maybe even making a case for the top five. Watching this match, I realized just how important he is to the dynamic of New Japan. He’s the moral center of the roster. He fights for what’s right, he values friends like Alex Shelley and Jushin Liger, and those friendships have made him a better wrestler AND a better person. He’s also kind of a dork who’s easily influenced by Western pop culture, but that just makes him all the more endearing. He’s basically the Sami Zayn of NJPW.
Speaking of dorks, Kenny Omega. Don’t get me wrong, I could try my whole life and still be nowhere near as cool as Kenny, but have you ever seen a guy so wrapped up in his own theatrics? “Okay, I’m going to do a suicide dive, but first I’ll need the Young Bucks to play the overture from The Terminator on empty trash cans.” So we’ve got KUSHIDA, beset on all sides by these terrible jerks, who triumphs via nothing but purity of heart and technical prowess. Well, he also had an assist from Ryusuke Taguchi in the world’s worst Doc Brown costume, but you get the point. Shout-out to KUSHIDA for being the wrestler we all need in our lives, but also to Omega for being an absolute monster in the ring. Kenny has mastered so many small details over his career, and when they’re all on display, it’s amazing. There’s a point in this match where he tries to rehabilitate his shoulder by slamming it into the turnbuckle. It makes him look like a maniac. Watch when he goes for a powerbomb with his one good arm, you’ll see what I mean about imperfections being essential.
Worst: Once More, With Less Feeling
Man, I hate to say it, but I hardly remember anything about the IWGP Tag Team title match. Maybe it’s because the World Tag League tournament to name the #1 contenders happened so late in 2015 that it had no chance to set up a solid rivalry against the Bullet Club squad of Doc Gallows and Karl Anderson. Apart from that, Tomoaki Honma and Togi Makabe are technically the babyfaces here, but no one in this match has ever really been accused of being a “nice guy” inside the ring. We know all four of these guys can go, but it made me wonder… what makes a hoss fight good? Is it like art, where you just know it when you see it? Makabe vs. Tomohiro Ishii from last year’s Wrestle Kingdom was a great example of a well-executed hoss fight, but I refuse to believe that a bad hoss fight simply boils down to “Absence of Tomohiro Ishii.” Thankfully, the pace of this match eventually picked up. I’ve noted before that Hiroshi Tanahashi shifts into a different, pissed-off gear when he realizes he’s not winning, but I’m starting to think that’s less of a Tanahashi thing and more of a puroresu thing in general.
Also, with Great Bash Heel winning the championships here, I have to wonder how this plays into the whole Tomoaki Honma domestic-abuse thing. Is he just… in the clear now? Was it ever addressed by the New Japan office? I’m confused. I already miss KUSHIDA.
Best: Squad Goals
Yeah, I refused to put that heading in hashtag form, sue me.
Los Ingobernables are a force to be reckoned with based on the strength of their entrance alone. BUSHI looked like he came straight out of Grim Fandango, and I’m pretty sure EVIL was using his new Laser Fingers to conduct the audience like Yen Sid from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Throughout the course of Tetsuya Naito’s match with Hirooki Goto, I realized that Los Ingobernables is basically what would have happened if Prince Devitt had never left the Bullet Club to pursue professional Jack The Ripper cosplay. They’re carrying on the legacy of the surly, destructive stable that simply doesn’t care about consequence. They are the Kingdom of No F*cks Given. Naito was even taking swings at the cameramen.
As far as the match itself goes, I was very surprised to see Goto pick up the win here. With KUSHIDA already triumphing against overwhelming odds, I thought this match would be the equal and opposite reaction. Instead, it was Goto who powered through adversity and came out victorious. With Naito clearly riding a huge push, I found myself wondering why this was the right call. After thinking it over for a while, I think I arrived at the answer. Naito’s deal is that he hates New Japan. The fans never loved him, and the bookers abandoned his initial shot at the top. He’s convinced that the entire company is out to screw him over, so he put together a posse just as bitter as he is. Naito hates New Japan… but not enough to leave it. It’s like complaining that the food is terrible at a restaurant, yet still eating there every day. Wrestle Kingdom is church for New Japan Pro Wrestling, and a blaspheming heretic will not be allowed to pick up a win in their sacred halls. Hirooki Goto, the righteous defender of the faith, had to protect his house of worship. Naito remaining winless at Wrestle Kingdom sucks, but I understand why it happened.
Best (With a Minor Worst): Violence Solves Everything
Time for an unpopular opinion: I didn’t really care for the beginning of the Tomohiro Ishii/Katsuyori Shibata match for the NEVER Openweight title. I’m no Jim Cornette, but there are certain traditional aspects of a wrestling match that I’ve been trained to recognize and respect, one of which is the process of gradually building to a crescendo in the action. A match should flow like a paragraph, but this match started with about thirty exclamation points written in blood. Yes, I know that exceptions prove the rule. And yes, I’m aware that I predicted shocking violence to begin with. I guess I just expected a feeling-out process that didn’t involve 12 minutes of macho kick-trading. If someone who doesn’t follow wrestling asks you why the wrestlers don’t just do finishers all the time, this is why.
However, once everything got into a rhythm, this got awesome real quick. There are a couple of headbutts from Ishii in here that are just brutal. I’m of the belief that strong style wrestling should occasionally be jarring and hard to watch, you just have to work up to that point for it to be effective. I’m also okay with Shibata winning his first singles title here — Ishii is the more complete champion, but I see no problem with letting Shibata know the pressure of having the bullseye on his back. Bring on the rematch!
Best: Why Didn’t We Do This Sooner?
Let me say it loud for the people in the back: NJPW’s version of AJ Styles is the best version there’s ever been. Forget the savior of the X Division, give me Bullet Club AJ any day. It makes me wonder how many years of Prime AJ we’ve missed due to bad TNA angles in which Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair were basically racing to see who could go completely senile first. Styles vs. Shinsuke Nakamura for the IWGP Intercontinental title was billed as a dream match, and it lived up to every bit of that hype. When two high-profile names meet, you want them to bring out the best of each other, and that’s exactly what we got here.
AJ deserves a medal for selling his legs on offense the way he did. There were moments when he was in such jeopardy that you’d be convinced he was wrestling as the babyface, and it takes real talent (and willingness to put ego aside) to show that kind of vulnerability. Also, he scouted the Boma Ye better than anybody I’ve ever seen. And that submission sequence transitioned into a desperate, one-armed Styles Clash? Perfection. 2015 was the last year that any of us could deny that AJ Styles is anything short of a great wrestler. And to hell with what anyone says, I love that he showed grace in defeat.
Best: The Circle of Life
First things first: MAJOR WORST to whoever/whatever was responsible for resetting the entire video setup of the Tokyo Dome during Okada’s entrance. Imagine 40,000 people forced to hum the Rainmaker’s entrance theme. But yeah, let’s talk about that match.
You could argue that there’s nothing new under the sun in wrestling. Every heel stable wants to be the NWO, every move is stolen from someone else, promotions keep making the same mistakes. There exists a cyclical nature in wrestling, but sometimes it’s used to masterful effect in storytelling. Last year at Wrestle Kingdom, Kazuchika Okada wrestled like a madman to try and win the IWGP Heavyweight Championship from Hiroshi Tanahashi. He made mistakes, he rushed himself, and he failed. He fell to the floor in tears. It was back to square one for him. Now, one year later, he’s the champion and Tanahashi is the challenger. It’s still Jan. 4, but the year has changed. The players remain, but the roles are different. And this time, Okada forced himself to pump the brakes.
It became a war of attrition. At this slower, more deliberate pace, there were no glancing blows. They were destroying each other, you could see it in their faces. I had some sort of problem with the pacing of last year’s match, I forget what exactly. Not this time around, though. Slowing it down made every move more personal. Every counter became a greater insult to the other man’s wrestling ability. When Tanahashi starts spamming dragon screws, he’s sending you a message. “Even if you beat me, you’re not walking out of here.”
The finale of this match should be mandatory viewing for anyone who seeks to understand wrestling. Don’t steal a man’s finisher, because he’ll steal yours. Don’t repeat what you did last time around, because your opponent sure as hell hasn’t forgotten how he lost. He hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in a year, because he’s thinking about what to do differently should he get a second chance. And when he does get that chance, he’s going to hold on to that wrist-clutch for dear life and Rainmaker your ass halfway to Sapporo. This was the best Okada/Tanahashi match yet, not just because people are calling it an overdue passing of the torch. This was the best chapter because it proves that demons can be exorcised. You can get over your mistakes. Eventually, it has to rain.