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Now, the best and worst of the Wrestle Kingdom 13, at which every championship changed hands, but I didn’t realize that until after the end of the show!
Pre-Show Tier Best: The Most Funky Players
The pre-show trios gauntlet match was entertaining in a way that exactly fit a trios gauntlet match on the pre-show. Everybody got at least one good moment, and the team who partly reunited, partly united for the first time due to a feud against the Bullet Club won the opportunity to face the Bullet Club champions. I’m going to list some observations about this match in bullet point form because it feels like the type of thing to write about via bullet points:
- Commentary might have peaked before the show even started when Chase Owens got on a mic, said “I’m here to support my friends,” and Kelly and Callis SIMULTANEOUSLY replied “You don’t have any friends.”
- Yuji Nagata still rules
- Jeff Cobb also rules, everyone loves him everywhere, and it’s great that he’s getting more and more opportunities in the wrestling business
- Page’s second running shooting star shoulder was a more nonsensical flippy thing than anything in Ospreay vs. Ibushi
- TWO ROLLUP VICTORIES FOR DAVID FINLAY IN A ROW
- I guess Chuckie T dealt with his mental health a little bit after World Tag League, so we just got regular, good wrestling Best Friends
- It was deeply saddening to see Goto entering in a hoodie and Suzuki with barely any swirls in his hair on the pre-show when they had one of the best WK matches last year!
- Pre-show Suzuki still had the best strong style strike exchanges (with Nagata and Makabe) of the show though and sold the heck out of Taguchi’s butt because he’s a pro
- Makabe and Yano probably aren’t going to win the tag team championships or anything, but it’s been heartwarming to see these two show slightly more tag teamwork every time they’re in the ring together, and, of course, a Yano win in the Tokyo Dome is never a bad thing
Beyond Taguchi realizing he and Yano should actually be best friends, the other, also satisfying plot development here was that Chase and Yujiro finally realized they made a huge mistake in San Francisco and should probably stage a jobber revolt against the Elite to earn their way back into regular Bullet Club. Good for them! (Update after New Year Dash!!: It was not against the Elite, but welcome back!)
Top Comment Of The Night (Just One Because There Weren’t That Many Comments):
Jeff Cobb is what you’d get if Bo Dallas ate Otis Dozovic.
Best: A Different Type Of “Please Don’t Die” Match That Expected
After a year in review video and announcements for most of the big shows of 2019, we kick off the main card with the high flyer dream match of Will Ospreay vs. Kota Ibushi.
The premise of this match is a rising star versus his more established idol. It starts fast and flashy, and I appreciated that Ibushi goes for the Kamigoye and Ospreay the Oscutter early, reminding us this is a competition and not just an exhibition. Ospreay starts dominating, and hopping up on the apron as Ibushi set up for a moonsault in order to kick him to the mat while he was moonsault is both cool-looking and one of the smartest-looking things I’ve seen Ospreay do.
There’s an impressive gymnastic sequence that ends with a really cool Spanish Fly counter in the middle of the ring, but this match isn’t really a flippy fantasy. As Kelly points out after Ibushi hits the Bomaye, the Golden Star knows what it’s like to be in the ring at Wrestle Kingdom with an idol. Ospreay vs. Ibushi doesn’t get to the level of Ibushi vs. Nakamura at Wrestle Kingdom 9 (which is not an insult; that’s just a GOAT match), but, reminiscent of that match and his IC title bout in 2017 with his other idol Tanahashi, Ibushi unleashes that inner VIOLENT MANIAC on his opponent. He brings something along those lines out of Ospreay when the Brit starts kicking him in the head during their slap fight in the corner.
I’m not sure when exactly Ibushi gets injured, but the blood makes that CRAZY double stomp look even crazier. The ending with the Stormbreaker right after the ref gets almost mad at Ospreay for striking Ibushi to his messed-up head contributes to this match feeling way more violent than I expected. I figured it would feel dangerous due to the risky flips, not so much the mutual murder energy. It was crazy, but not the type of crazy people might have expected from the advertising of this match.But it kicked off the main card with a level of viciousness you like to see from an NJPW Tokyo Dome show.
(If this match write-up sounds heartless, it’s because it’s based on notes I took before Ibushi was STRAPPED INTO A STRETCHER and carried out of the ring. The announcement from the company said it wasn’t a serious concussion though, so hopefully he recovers quickly and doesn’t do anything dumber than the normal impossibly dumb Ibushi things to hurt his brain more.)
Best/Worst: [Spanish For “Three Way”]
The two three-way tag team championship matches that really shouldn’t have been three-ways were surprisingly short, fun parts of the show, probably nobody’s favorite matches on the card, but ultimately satisfying for me because they led to L.I.J. FINALLY GETTING SOME BELTS.
Each junior heavyweight tag team’s entrance made me want them to win, at least a little. Yoh and Sho are at maximum boy band, but in a way that shows their evolution since last Wrestle Kingdom, at which they were also maximum boy band. The LI.J. team looks tougher and cool as hell, and the extensive dragon graphics on Bushi and Shingo Takagi’s entrance graphics hint at what the end of the match tells us explicitly, that Shingo Takagi is the star of this tag team, and he’s going to be a bigger star in NJPW in the near future.
The match is basically what you’d expect if you saw the previous matches between these teams and/or the Roppongi 3K vs. Desperado and Kanemaru vs. Bushi and Hiromu Takahashi triple threats from early in 2018, but shorter and with surprisingly little focus on the record-setting champions this time around. Roppongi 3K show off their teamwork, Sho looks especially good as an individual, and they bring back that cool, three-person German suplex spot. But let’s be real, this was all about Shingo Takagi who, after Bushi deals with possible pin-breakers, takes it home with Last of the Dragon. Now I’m trying to figure out if/when this means he will challenge Ishimori.
I can see why some people could have not enjoyed the Heavyweight Tag Team Championship match, but it worked for me. It’s not like the match felt like it had any real stakes since the Young Bucks are leaving for their new company and the premise didn’t make sense in the first place, so why not have this be all spots, some comedy bits, and insane entrance gear?
And wow, do these entrances satisfy my craving for over-the-top PPV entrances. Evil made my life by making Sanada carry both trophies so he can bring both his scythe and pentagram laser pointer and taking ten million years to walk to the ring to make sure everyone gets a good look at his shiny new robe. How can you not respect a man who shows up with those braids and a sparklier version of gear that has been revealed to be a tankini, and then lariats the eff out of Matt Jackson on the entrance ramp?
And boys from the Bullet Club were somehow even more extra! My first impluse was to be sad about the loss of “Guerrilla Tactics,” but I’m pretty sure G.o.D.’s new theme song actually bangs. And Tama Tonga was basically in Red Hood cosplay, and Tanga Loa reminded me of Blue Beetle but was more likely Deadshot, AND did half-facepaint? And Jado had a Prince Devitt at Wrestle Kingdom 8-tier elaborate skeleton paint job to do almost nothing? And then Fale was just in NORMAL CLOTHES? I don’t know why any of this happened, but I enjoyed the confusion.
The actual match was alright and fit the energy of these entrance. Nick Jackson vs. Tama Tonga to start could have been some solid wrestling, but it is actually the continuation of “Good Guy” Tama Tonga, which I definitely thought was going to just be a press conference joke, but is now an actual bit he’s doing in matches. He confuses everyone and also not realizing shaking Evil’s hand would count as a tag, which is great. We get a little callback to Matt’s history of back problems (but not via him getting hit with a kendo stick, which I was sure was how it would happen!), the Tokyo Dome pops for the Young Bucks’ masterful double team moves and then goes right back to cheering Evil’s name, and Sanada is a crowd-pleasing hot tag with all those planchas.
There are some weird moments like Nick selling his own 450 splash extremely hard and Fale stopping Jado from hitting Matt with the kendo stick because I guess he’s in on the New Year’s resolution game too, but overall everyone just gets to show they’re good at tag teamwork. And after months and months of fan-favorite faction Los Ingobernables getting their butts kicked most of the time, the frustration is finally worth it when Evil and Sanada walk out of the ring with so much gold. That’s a nice thing to happen on the biggest show of the year.
Worst: The Jacksonville Jaguars Of Wrestle Kingdom 13 Matches
I did not have high expectations of Cody vs. Juice Robinson. Their first match at Wrestle Kingdom 11 was basically the pee break match, and with this spot on the card, their second United States Championship bout felt like it might be that again. If I had been watching this show live, that’s probably what I would have used this time for, to be honest.
Commentary tries their best to make this match interesting, asking “Does Juice have a Cody problem?” and saying they think if the American Nightmare wins, he’ll continue to compete in New Japan. But Cody hasn’t competed in New Japan since October 8 and is leaving to be Executive Vice President of another wrestling company, so he’s almost definitely not keeping this title, so who cares if Juice has a Cody problem?
Cody, in Jacksonville Jaguars colors, does a lot of acting during his entrance, which made me think this match would be very slow and full of acting. And did it ever. Brandi Rhodes gets involved very quickly and does the most annoying thing, for me as a woman, that she could possibly to do, which is really play up the “You can’t hit me because I’m a woman and either it’s wrong because we’re pretending intergender wrestling doesn’t exist when people in this company have wrestled women elsewhere and I’ve challenged men to matches or because you’re afraid it’ll make you look bad in front of all these fans in the Tokyo Dome.” The old-fashioned valet role gets mixed with the fact that Brandi is an actual wrestler, and she spears Juice, which is her big signature move, and then hits him with terrible-looking punches on the ground.
Is Brandi supposed to be a badass who can hang in the ring or is she a trophy wife/manager who can do one move? Why are we doing this thing that makes you want Juice to hit a woman, but also seems to be saying it’s wrong to hit a woman? I guess there’s a whole essay someone could write about the use of valets in the post-intergender wrestling, post-Women’s Revolution world. It’s not like this match is the only one that gets weird with it, or Cody and Brandi are the only pair that mix signals like this. But in general, I think it’s something worth thinking about in the changing wrestling world.
Anyway, Brandi gets ejected, so that problem’s solved, and now Robinson just has to deal with Cody. Who could possibly care at this point, I wonder, but the crowd is into Juice kicking out of things. After he doesn’t take that definitive-looking pin opportunity on Cody, he takes A WHILE to hit Pulp Friction. What a terrible-looking departure finish for Cody, “as he boards a plane for Jacksonville,” commentary says, reminding us how he didn’t seem to care about this at all. I feel like if I was Cody and was heading off to be a top guy in a new promotion I try to advertise myself and my new promotion well on my way out of the second largest wrestling company in the world, but nope, this sucked on every level. It didn’t even make the likable, good-at-wrestling Juice Robinson look likable or like a good wrestler.
Best: Rising Villains Continue To Rise, Part 1
For the show’s third and sixth matches, we saw less passionate, more technical bouts that continued the ascents of new-ish to New Japan heels who dominated the tournaments of spring 2018.
Zack Sabre Jr. defeats Tomohiro Ishii in under twelve minutes (which sounds crazy for a title match in NJPW, but wasn’t short for this card, which only had one match over 35 minutes and two more over 15 and overall had a pace I really appreciated) with Hurrah! Another Year, Surely This One Will Be Better Than the Last; The Inexorable March of Progress Will Leads Us All To Happiness, which is great because now that move is in the history of pro wrestling at the Tokyo Dome, but makes me sad because it requires a verbal submission from the opponent and that opponent is Ishii, but could lead to me very happy in the future if Ishii beats ZSJ (who has now pinned him to win a tag match, submitted him multiple ways, and knocked him out), like, ever. But it’s also good because Sabre Jr., wearing white trunks I think Finn Balor hasn’t worn on Raw yet only because they would break the PG rating, is reestablished after his defeat at the hands of Naito as one of NJPW’s top singles heels.
Ishii and ZSJ couldn’t be more different except for both being really good at wrestling and sharing hatred and respect for each other. Sabre expertly, torturously targets Ishii’s lariat arm, which Ishii sells convincingly. The Stone Pitbull gets some great moments of his own, especially that ankle lock, a suplex I’ll call romantic because it was after ZSJ jumps right into his arms, and OF COURSE winning the strike exchange because he is, as Callis puts it, “a refrigerator.” Ultimately, the brief comeback moments for Ishii only make Sabre look more dominant when he wins. Now he has a shiny new belt to defend (along with the tag championships he shares with Suzuki) in RevPro, which seems like a positive thing for both of these wrestling companies and RPW fans.
Quick question about your entrance, Kushida: WHY???!!! The kid with the mask of an adult face is incredibly creepy. But Kushida’s special Wrestle Kingdom entrances, even this one, are always great because you’d think he’d run out of them considering his very specific gimmick, but he always manages to dig deep and find other options. The fact that Taiji Ishimori is completely unfazed by this one makes it better.
Kushida vs. Ishimori for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship brings the straight-up, good wrestling. This isn’t a very dramatic match, but it didn’t really have an angle that prompted a lot of drama. Ishimori does significant damage with the Yes Lock early and gets to no-sell some chops and impress the crowd with some of his cooler moves. Kushida has some good moments, but Ishimori looks strong and super dominant, especially if you’ve seen a fair amount of Kushida matches and know the regular power of his moveset. Rolling through the Hoverboard Lock into a Death Valley Driver and that jumping knee so soon after the baseball punch were both cool-looking and super impressive, in kayfabe.
Partly because I think he’s had better matches in New Japan (and obviously elsewhere), this match left me excited for the Ishimori-topped junior division. NJPW must have signed away NOAH’s junior ace for more of a reason than a Best of the Super Juniors final. I’m ready to see more singles matches from Ishimori, especially against people he didn’t already face in BOSJ.
Best: Lil Kazu Got Them Short Boys (Rising Villains Continue To Rise, Part 2)
Kazuchika Okada and Jay White had the first of three blood feuds matches in a row at the end of Wrestle Kingdom 13, and the reveal of a pair of short shorts got the biggest pop of the whole dang show.
That might sound like a negative thing, but it was actually an incredible moment. Besides a stadium full of people freaking out over a man’s thighs, it’s part of Okada going even further than I expected to either show that he has his groove back or desperately try to regain his past glory by returning to his classic Rainmaker look, complete with the old theme song and raining money. The biggest difference from the old Okada is that he has 100 percent babyface support now. Jay White brings it too with this new big match white gear, and Gedo wears a white jacket to make this the second evil, rising star white guy with a Japanese manager who was very successful as a junior heavyweight wrestler in the 1990s to don a matching, all-white gear variation on this show.
The match is what you would expect if you’ve been following their feud, and in a good way. Okada’s definitely better in the ring, but White’s also pretty good, and has the special power of getting under people’s skin. Combeined with loose morals and ruthlessness, this has given him is biggest edge, especially against the usually level-headed Okada. White powders out at the beginning of the match, suckering Okada out after him. But Okada has White scouted by now, and the crowd is so into all of his offense.
The classic Okada dropkick to White on the turnbuckle is extra satisfying in this context because, especially against this slimy jerk, the audience NEEDS Okada to be the old Okada, really wants to see those familiar moves do the damage they’re supposed to because they feel like Okada needs and deserves this win. And of course, Switchblade and Gedo help the crowd along with the underhanded tactics that piss them off all the more because they’ve resulted in wins for White this year and feel like they could actually win him this match over the deserving, badass hero.
Both wrestlers dig deep, White even breaking out his old babyface rookie finisher the Kiwi Crusher. The sequence of them dodging and countering each other’s finishers is so good and entertaining, and then wow, Jay White beats Okada with the Blade Runner. It wasn’t a cleanly fought match, but that was a much cleaner win than it could have been, much cleaner than the one in the G1.
So we leave Wrestle Kingdom still wanting a big win for Okada, and with the future looking bright for Jay White. White’s been getting compared to the young Okada himself or to Prince Devitt, but I think he’ss going to continue to grow into his own guy. I’m interested to see who that is, how he continues to improve in the ring, and if HE MIGHT BE THE IWGP HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION SOON AFTER THE EVENTS OF JANUARY 5.
BEST: Hiroshima Carp And Boston Crabs
Especially right after Okada loses, the crowd is REALLY ready to see Tetsuya Naito win. Callis tries his best to put Jericho over as this vicious brawler, the next Bruiser Brody, but come on, dude. Kelly’s read that Jericho’s international superstardom probably bugs Naito, a man frustrated with being unable to be the top guy, works better. Jericho’s always been more someone who believes he’s number one than is number one, but I can buy into him having a status that Naito would like to have. Whatever your mental pictures of these wrestlers, what we get in this match is a no holds barred (non-deathmatch division) battle between two catty and violent men, and it’s super entertaining.
It’s so satisfying to see Naito, who got his butt kicked so much this year, take it to Jericho outside the ring before the match starts, like Jericho did to him at Dominion. Both wrestlers quickly get creative with the No DQ stipulation, including Jericho spiking Naito on a table with a scary-sounding DDT and then ringing the bell to declare himself the victor. There are Y2J supporters in the crowd, but mostly the audience sounds both very into the match and like they’re rooting for Naito. As we’ve seen so much this year, Naito’s a guy you can have get beat up forever in matches and only get more and more love until he makes his comeback.
And that flying forearm was an awesome start to a comeback! It’s not an easy road forward from here for Naito though, and both wrestlers still keep entertaining the crowd by creatively beating each other up. I think the fact that Naito can pull off just going to bat on Jericho with that kendo stick says something the combination of his charisma and the real frustration that many fans feel about his recent career that makes the crowd totally here for this guy cockily just getting his.
After the nearfall for Jericho with a Codebreaker and the throwing of EIGHT CHAIRS into the ring, we get multiple, stressful setups of devastating attacks on the Ingobernable, only for Naito to counter in cool ways – the powerbomb onto the chairs countered into the DDT onto chairs, a Codebreaker from Naito, and overall just letting Naito shine as a cool badass rather than a punching bag magnet for sympathy heat. (Of course, this all works so well partly because of how many times he’s played the latter role since he lost as Wrestle Kingdom 12.)
Even though of course I was rooting for Naito to beat Jericho, just like when he won this title from Suzuki in the spring it’s kind of frustrating to see this guy win the IC title again, rather than anything higher. But the fact that he won it with the ultimate moment of Belt Disrespect, hitting Jericho and then flinging it out of the ring, made me feel happier about the win that if it had happened by Destino alone.
Earlier, Jericho yelled at him “You wanna be the champ?” and I thought, “No, he doesn’t.” This is probably not the result of genius, intentional writing, but it makes Naito feel more human. Sometimes you have to struggle so much to do something that you need to do, but not what you want to do. You have to work a certain job, you have to take the unpaid internship along with the job, you have to get the extra certification at night school, etc., even though you don’t want to, maybe even when you hate it, because there’s a possibility that accomplishing this thing and then working even harder and also probably getting lucky on top of that will get you where you want in life.
Naito, even with the tranquilo attitude, even without getting even close to the top since WK12, continues to fight and be the coolest while he does it, because he and many others still believe that someday there is going to be another moment and he is going to make it to the top. Even though it felt like two steps forward, one step back, for Naito to win the Intercontinental Championship again, he’s not Mr. IC (yet), so his fans can still hang onto the belief that someday he’ll find his redemption via IWGP Heavyweight Championship, which I think is part of why people connect with him so deeply and root for him with so much devotion.
BEST: Love And Energy And Hubris
After Tanahashi does his normal entrance for the main event, I was surprised to see Omega play a short part of his Kenny’s Quest video, which I thought was completely a work/BTE channel thing, because why would Omega think NJPW would let him play a six-minute free ad for Undertale on their show that doesn’t even support the story they’ve been telling for this feud? The video and Omega’s entrance gear, with the video game references and the fact that he’s dressed as essentially an angel warrior (there’s no required video game playing before watching wrestling, so that’s a valid reading) come off as incredibly indulgent and egotistical.
Considering the build to this and the early commentary (maybe coordinate your god comparisons beforehand if you’re going to use them, guys), a part of me thought this match might be super indulgent too. A lot of Omega’s matches since he became champion have featured an opening stretch of him basically showing off all his athleticism, and if not that, burning out before the ending because of every single move happening in a row. But Omega vs. Tanahashi II starts a lot more like their first one in 2016, with some mat wrestling and a real sense of struggle without being forced-epic too early. Omega’s character work is way more in line with his Cleaner persona that anything he’s been doing recently too, and the more he leans into it, the better the match works.
They start off doing more of a Tanahashi match, but Omega still gets to showcase his outside-the-ring athletics. When he breaks out the table, sarcastically cheering for the Ace, it’s the version of Omega that became such a big star in the first place. Tanahashi rolling him back into the ring rather than using the table himself, staying true to his philosophy, is such a good moment too, and pops the crowd. Back in the ring, I love how much Tanahashi goes after Omega’s knee, when Tanahashi himself is usually the one to be knee-victimized in a match. The Dragon Screw off the ropes looks especially brutal.
The first section of the match shows each man fight hard while staying in their lane as per their philosophical battle. When Tanahashi tries to put Omega through the table, it starts a story of not just which man will defeat the other with his preferred wrestling style, but who will defeat himself first with his own hubris. As you would expect from Omega and Tanahashi or any two people who decided to not just do combat sports but also yell “LOOK, I’M RIGHT. HE’S WRONG” in front of 40,000 people, they can’t keep their egos in check in this match, and it hurts them. They both have to not just win, but show that they’re better, their way is better, AND ALSO that they can do the other guy’s way too, ACTUALLY. Omega refuses to take a countout win after the table spot and just throws Tanahashi around in the ring to show off his power, and it looks like this loss of focus on winning the match could be his downfall. After a while, Omega lands a slingblade and hits a High Fly Flow, but nobody does those like Tanahashi, who kicks out at one.
The last act of this match sees both men return to what they know works, is just really good professional wrestling. Tanahashi’s knee work pays off when it causes Omega to land wrong out of a Dragon Superplex. By this point unless you just can’t stand Tanahashi at all, you’re rooting for him to win as Omega keeps kicking out and dominating for a while, but Tanahashi finds new ways to stay alive. After countering the One-Winged Angel and hitting a slingblade the crowd is cheering so loudly it’s just white noise, and Tanahsashi lands the High Fly Flow for the win.
Hiroshi Tanahashi’s not perfect, but he’s pretty close. He fought his way up to this since returning from injury in the spring and achieved his complete comeback by winning the IWGP Heavyweight Championship for the first time in four years. The crowd loves him and he loves them. And he just wrestled, along with his opponent with an uncertain contractual future, an amazing match.
After the sad ending of last year’s Tokyo Dome main event and the bleak NJPW stretch with a lot of heel and/or absentee champions, it feels especially good to get a happy ending for the biggest show of the year, complete with cheesy air guitar.