I promise I’ll get to the Stellar Wrestling Show portion of this recap fast as possible, but I’d like to mention a few things first:
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And now, here’s the Best and Worst of NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 11.
The New Japan Rumble
Much like last year, this doesn’t really feel like it fits within the traditional Best/Worst construct, so we’ll just hit the major points here.
– Michael Elgin was the first surprise of the night, returning to New Japan after breaking his orbital bone.
– There was no shortage of returning veterans, including Billy Gunn, Kuniaki Kobayashi, Hiro Saito, and SCOTT BY-GOD NORTON, who still looks like Bass Armstrong.
– Ring of Honor oddity Cheeseburger also made a return, resuming his role as Jushin “Thunder” Liger’s pupil.
– Seriously, Scott Norton came back and he’s still carved out of granite. Where was Muta? I want an nWo Japan reunion tour, dammit.
Elgin actually entered first and went the distance, ultimately getting the final elimination on Cheeseburger. If you put any money down on Cheeseburger outlasting Scott Norton in a 2017 battle royal, you can probably buy a house now.
Best: Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright
Sure, let’s get the wink-wink nudge-nudge out of the way first. Tiger Mask W is Kota Ibushi and Tiger The Dark is ACH. There, we exposed the business. Now can we just focus on how much fun this was, please?
This was pretty much everything I wanted it to be, aside from Yellow Devil running in and laying down the challenge to Tiger Mask for Invasion Attack. I don’t know if you’ve been keeping up with the Tiger Mask W anime, but New Japan went way further than they had to in the pursuit of making this feel like it was part of the show’s universe. For crying out loud, they got Haruna’s voice actress to introduce Tiger Mask in full Haruna cosplay. This is how Wrestle Kingdom STARTED, people.
Also, major props for making sure the Tiger The Dark’s moveset was authentic to the show. Both the Darkness Hold submission and the Darkness Driver tombstone were on display here, which is especially crazy when you consider that the Darkness Hold only debuted last episode and oh god I’ve become THAT fan. Still, if you know anything about ACH, this is probably his dream come true. “Please study this anime very carefully, because we need you to be the real life version of one of the characters.”
Best: We’re Not So Different, You And I
Thank goodness we didn’t hold to tradition and stage a four-way match for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team titles, right? Roppongi Vice versus The Young Bucks felt a lot more personal this time around, and it needed to be. Rocky Romero and Beretta had a newfound synergy after the Super Junior Tag Tournament (as mentioned in Beretta’s inteview with us), and they needed all of it to take on the Bucks, who are still on the shortlist for best tag team in the world.
I think these two teams are a lot more alike than they realize. The Bucks obviously have the upper hand in tag team chemistry, but aside from that, they both have an irreverent streak and an affinity for bending the rules. It’s not a “lesser of two evils” situation, because Roppongi Vice are clearly the good guys here. I’m just saying that they’re all ring-tested veterans that probably have very similar ideas about where they’d like to see the junior tag division heading.
It’s no surprise to say that the Young Bucks just keep finding ways to be some of the best wrestlers in the world. So much of that is in the tiny details, by the way. There’s a point where Nick hits a springboard 450 splash on Rocky, and you can just barely hear Matt tell his brother “You’re legal” as he’s rotating in mid-air. They don’t want a second of wasted motion in any of their matches, and it shows. And yet somehow, Roppongi Vice manage to survive the assault, even after Beretta took a dive to the outside that was good for my first “JESUS CHRIST” of the night.
With his win, Rocky Romero is now in his seventh reign as a junior heavyweight tag team champion, which is more than any wrestler in New Japan history. So, maybe let’s stop leaving him out of the “all-time great junior heavyweights” conversation, okay? In any case, I’m just glad we’re no longer insisting on four-team matches at Wrestle Kingdom.
Worst: Insisting On Four-Team Matches At Wrestle Kingdom
I like a good trios championship, but the NEVER Openweight 6-Man tag titles have felt like NJPW’s least important title from the get-go. My pick for this match was the Los Ingobernables de Japon squad of BUSHI, EVIL, and SANADA, simply because I felt like they were the most cohesive three-man team in the gauntlet. Sure enough, they came out on top, mostly due to the fact that they cheat more than the AI players in Mario Kart.
There were bright spots, don’t get me wrong. I enjoy Will Ospreay simply doing Will Ospreay things, I’m only human. Satoshi Kojima will be an awesome wrestler until the heat death of the universe, that’s always a bright spot. But at the end of the day, this just felt way too long. It somehow felt longer than the 45-minute main event, which is really saying something. Also, can we talk about David Finlay’s ring gear? He legit looks like he’s just wearing normal underpants. He’s a perfectly competent wrestler, he just has the misfortune of eternally looking like some prankster stole his clothes and he’s just deciding to roll with it.
Best: Young Gun Vs. Hired Gun
I don’t know if you can see it in that picture, but homeboy is wearing a single American flag contact lens. Again, wrestling is about details. Details like Jushin Liger’s head just barely poking into the frame from the Japanese commentary table. We see you, Liger!
If I have one request of the Wrestle Kingdom public, I’d ask you all to please remember that Juice Robinson had a great night here, and he’s got the tools to be quite the star in Japan. He was putting on a clinic on how to sell while you’re on offense, which is always something that gets high marks from me. This was a great old-school match. Not much in the way of fancy, flashy spots, but very effective in setting up an outgunned babyface versus a sinister villain. This is the kind of thing that could have headlined a January 4 Tokyo Dome show in the early or mid-90’s.
That said, let’s talk about Cody Rhodes. Not “Cody,” not the American Nightmare, but Cody Damn Rhodes at the Tokyo Damn Dome. We saw hints of it back in the Undashing days, but Cody as an unchained heel is fascinating to watch. He’s unpredictable and ruthless. There’s a point where he chop-blocks Juice and I swear, I thought it was an instant ACL tear. It’s crazy to think that this is the same DNA of Dusty Rhodes, arguably the quintessential wrestling good guy, but that just speaks to Cody’s talent. I wish he’d stick around for the New Year Dash shows, but he’s wrestling in England this weekend. That’s my only complaint. Well, that and the fact that he’s doing the Bullet Club Finger Gun wrong, just like AJ Styles did when he first arrived. It’s only the thumb and index finger, man.
Worst: When A Major World Championship Match Is The Bathroom Break
I have nothing against Ring of Honor, I promise you. But when their world championship match is sandwiched right in the middle of New Japan’s annual “Why We’re Awesome” exhibition, they’re bound to get overshadowed. I think this was better than last year’s Lethal/Elgin match, if that’s worth anything to you. I appreciate Kyle O’Reilly’s kick arsenal, but even that kind of got nerfed when one of the ringside camera angles showed just how much he whiffs his Kawada kicks. And Adam Cole walloped on O’Reilly with a chair in plain view of the referee, yet somehow didn’t get disqualified because … because big match feel? I’m not sure what to make of it all. Again, nothing against ROH, they just had one heck of an uphill battle here. Props to Adam Cole for becoming the first three-time ROH World Champion, of course.
Best/Worst: Tanga Loa Has The Filthiest Mouth In Pro Wrestling
Okay, I’m going to let you in on a bit of a secret … Don’t tell anyone, but if you’re a New Japan wrestler and your first language is English, you can get away with some cursing in the ring. Please note that I said “some.” Swearing in the ring is a privilege rather than a right, and someone forgot to inform Tanga Loa of this. Every other word he says in this three-way match for the IWGP Tag Team titles would get bleeped on American TV. He sounded like Mickey Rourke in that awful Rogue Warrior game, basically. Steve Corino on English commentary actually had to take his headset off because he was laughing so hard.
Otherwise, this was basically just a six-man bar fight for the tag team gold. I am eternally grateful that the CHAOS team of Tomohiro Ishii and Toru Yano was added, because I didn’t really have much interest in another Bullet Club vs. Makabe/Honma encounter. Granted, Tama Tonga and Tanga Loa have been making big strides in the right direction recently. The way Tama moves is fascinating to watch — he’s almost snakelike in his speed and elusiveness. But it was really the job of Ishii and Yano to make this interesting, relying on Ishii’s superhuman brawling skill and Yano’s… um, his kleptomania? Did I mention CHAOS got into this match because Yano stole the titles AND the World Tag League trophies? Strange match here. Don’t expect to see it on the AXS TV replay unless they’ve got some flat-out magical sound people who can scrub out 50 or so F-bombs.
Best: Mister Self-Destruct
Hiromu Takahashi has arrived, everybody. Los Ingobernables de Japon is a stable that includes a grim reaper, a Baseball Fury, and a poison-spitting luchador, and somehow this “ticking time bomb” of a man is the most unsettling character of the bunch. Steve Corino made a good point – maybe we should stop sending wrestlers on excursions to Mexico, because recently they’ve been coming back as unstable narcissists.
The truly frightening thing about Takahashi is that he has no regard for his body whatsoever. He attacks you like he intends on turning himself in at the car rental place and getting a new body tomorrow. When we think of so-called “crazy people” in wrestling, they’re always painted in such broad strokes. Here’s Dean Ambrose, he’s crazy because he kind of flails around! Here’s Eric Young, he’s crazy because he speaks in vague sentences and leads a cadre of people who dress like steampunk Tusken Raiders! But in reality, the best “crazy” characters thrive in subtlety. We don’t know a whole lot about Hiromu (after he left behind his Kamaitachi days), but we’ve seen that he enjoys hurting people, and he doesn’t care if he hurts himself in the process. He’s a punk rock berserker, and you can’t take your eyes off him.
In this match for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, KUSHIDA has to defend the title against this madman. Usually KUSHIDA is the very picture of composure in the ring, but up against such a chaotic weirdo, he’s actually pretty rattled. He’s true to form most of the time (did you see that armbar counter outside the ring?!), but there are little moments where he lets Takahashi under his skin. We see KUSHIDA get just a bit more dark and violent than usual, and those are the moments when Takahashi knows he’s won. His victory isn’t for the championship… just look the leader of Los Ingobernables, titles mean nothing to them. His true victory is breaking the golden boy of the junior heavyweight division. He cracked the armor of Jushin Liger’s chosen successor. Takahashi doesn’t want to defeat you… he wants to watch you defeat yourself. This is a compelling new villain we’re dealing with, and it plants the seed for a potentially amazing KUSHIDA redemption story.
Worst: Battle Without Honor Or Humanity
Listen, folks … I’m sorry. I tried, I really did. But Katsuyori Shibata just isn’t doing anything for me anymore.
Let me try and explain. There was a moment on English commentary during this match where it was mentioned that Shibata gets confused and insulted when people don’t fight the way he does. For the record, I kind of buy this explanation. I can absolutely see a scenario wherein a sociopath shootfighter expects everyone to approach pro wrestling like he does. He thinks his opponents don’t take wrestling seriously if they’re not trying to dislocate your jaw every ten seconds. I understand this logic, but it’s the deeply flawed logic of a belligerent antagonist who thinks pro wrestling is 100% real. Screw that.
Hirooki Goto, on the other hand, understands this much better. He may be “The Wild Samurai,” but he’s still bound to that bushido code. He will always fight hard, but he fights with honor, too. And sometimes, the honorable thing to do is NOT approach a fight like you intend on giving your opponent CTE. And there’s a point in this match where Goto is clearly thinking, “Listen up asshole, I will headbutt this mean streak out of you if I have to.” Spoiler alert: That’s exactly what he does. I enjoy seeing Shibata get knocked down a peg, which is why I liked Yuji Nagata whooping up on him last year. If Goto and Shibata are truly lifelong friends (and trust me, they are), then maybe Goto’s ultimate responsibility is to teach Shibata a more honorable way of wrestling. I hope that’s where we’re going. In any event, I enjoy seeing Goto get big wins, and I hope his NEVER Openweight title reign is a good one.
Best: Two One-Legged Men In An Ass-Kicking Contest
You know how you can tell this is serious? Naito took his shirt off. He’s been refusing to take off his LIJ shirt for opponents that he views as “beneath him,” so when the shirt came off here, that was basically our cue sit the hell down and watch.
I don’t have a whole lot to say about this match, other than the fact that it’s great and just brilliantly paced. You couldn’t really ask for better ebb and flow from your wrestling. Naito starts this match just OWNING Tanahashi. Tana looks like he should have taken a sick day or something. But eventually the playing field evens out and we get something truly epic. Naito smiles when he gets hit. I know he was the Tokyo Sports 2016 MVP, but he still doesn’t get enough credit for being a charismatic scumbag.
Sometimes there are exchanges in wrestling that are so good that you just have to laugh. You’re not making fun of the moment or anything, you’re just so pleased that you can only vocalize in laughter. There’s a moment like that near the end, where Naito and Tanahashi are just kicking the tar out of each others’ kneecaps. They’re so spent at this point, it’s all they can do. It just works. Everything works here. Much like KUSHIDA/Takahashi, I’m eager to see where this leads for the loser. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen New Japan’s ace laid so low, especially after years of untouchable Cena status. There’s a bigger journey here, and I’m very intrigued. Oh, and who’s next to challenge for Naito’s Intercontinental Championship?
Best: Kenny Omega Casually Upstages WrestleMania 31
Do you think Triple H saw this and got pissed? Probably not. I have it on good authority that there’s a plaque in Gorilla Position that says “DON’T MENTION KENNY OMEGA” because he’s still furious that WWE developmental didn’t treat him better. Your loss, dude!
Best: How To Survive A Hostile Takeover
I’d hate to be a wrestler today. How would you even begin to approach your craft after seeing Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship? How do you even start to approach those heights? I know I hyperbolize a lot for comedic effect here, but we’ve got to get something crystal clear right now. This was a magnum opus. This was a 45-minute odyssey into the unlimited potential of professional wrestling as an art form. This was Queen at Live Aid 1985. Good f*cking luck to anyone even thinking about following this.
I thought Omega getting the win made all the sense in the world here, but it’s not what we got. Everything he was saying made sense. If you’re going to take New Japan global, why the hell wouldn’t you put it on the back of a bilingual viral sensation at the peak of his career? Why wouldn’t you cap off his impossibly successful 2016 with the grandest prize in the game? Why?
… I don’t know why. I really don’t. But when we arrive at this question due to a match this f*cking legendary, I’m okay with not knowing. I’m telling myself to let go and be okay with not seeing the logic here. The world just handed me art, beamed across an ocean directly to my computer. Who the heck am I to question these things? The only way this turns into something Not Okay is if Omega’s shot is suddenly abandoned, and that’s just not going to happen. For right now, Okada’s still CEO of Rainmaker Industries, and let’s not forget that it takes two greats to pull off an instant classic like this. Both these men should be damn proud.
This match starts going apocalyptic when Omega takes the gnarliest backdrop in New Japan history, out of the ring and through a table he and the Young Bucks set up. From there, it’s just magic. Shot after shot. Rainmakers. V-Triggers. Everything INCLUDING the kitchen sink. There’s even a callback to Okada’s last-minute wrist-clutch last year. A perfect storm of things that made me yell “KICK OUT, YOU SON OF A BITCH” at six in the morning.
Were this WWE, I’d be mad. I’m all too familiar with that feeling of “the wrong guy won.” The feeling of the status quo seeping into me and cementing me to a place where everything is safe and nothing changes. But this is New Japan Pro Wrestling. This is Wrestle Kingdom. This is Kenny Omega versus Kazuchika Okada. This is the match of the year, if not the match of the decade. And this is business as usual. New Japan continues to make excellence the norm. And when the status quo is this good, why on earth would I complain?
Thank you, Okada. The company is secure in your hands. Thank you, Omega. You will be champion one day. Thank you, New Japan Pro Wrestling. Matches like this are why we still watch wrestling.