The Best And Worst Of NJPW: Wrestle Kingdom 14

Previously on NJPW Wrestle Kingdom: Tanahashi made his complete comeback, Cody wore Jacksonville Jaguars colors, and Skeleton Jado happened.

You can watch New Japan Pro Wrestling shows on their streaming service, NJPW World, which costs 999 yen (about 9 USD.) You can keep up with With Spandex on Twitter and Facebook, follow our home site Uproxx on Twitter, and even follow me on Twitter @emilyofpratt.

Don’t forget to share this column on Facebook, Twitter, or whatever social media you use! Also, leave a comment with your thoughts on the show and/or article! All feedback is appreciated and will help us keep up the NJPW coverage.

And now, the Best and Worst of the Wrestle Kingdom 14.

Best: The Past, The Present, And The Beast God

The two big selling points of Wrestle Kingdom 14, the Double Gold Dash and Liger’s retirement, were both about ending one era and welcoming the next. That’s not how anyone knew for sure the double championship situation was going to end until it ended, but that was always clearly why Liger’s retirement matches were what they were. The feeling whenever Liger was in the ring, especially during that second match, was that the audience hoped he would never leave, but part of what made these matches so effective was that they weren’t very drawn out or indulgent, especially the one with more physically limited competitors. They also looked to the future as much as possible: Liger got pinned by the youngest guy in his old guys eight-man tag and by the current Junior Champion in the old rivalry vs. current rivalry one.

The veterans tag showcased all the legends involved in a way that hid their weaknesses while allowing them to go as hard as they could during their moments in the spotlight. Shout out to The Great Sasuke, having recently survived another Great Space War, for continuing to wrestle with a twenty-year-old spot monkey’s sense of invincibility! Takaiwa looked hard as nails and made me think about checking out ZERO1, Fujinami’s dragon vs. Liger entrance robe looked badass, and Otani showed how he can still go at least as much as Liger can.

The Liger and Naoki Sano vs. Hiromu Takahashi and Ryu Lee tag match was exactly what Liger asked for, with the younger guys not taking it easy on him at all. They wrestled like they really wanted to beat this guy up and didn’t underestimate him as a threat. Lee and Hiromu knocking Sano off the apron read both as good tag team wrestling strategy and kind of like they just wanted to keep wrestling Liger as long as they could. When Takahashi finally hit Time Bomb 2, it was the definition of a bittersweet victory. After thirty-one years, it was the end of Jushin Thunder Liger.

After putting over others in the ring, Liger continued to look like the most gracious man in the world backstage. He praised wrestlers who came before him and even thanked Michinoku Pro for the Super J-Cup in a much more realistic, humble acknowledgment of history than you usually see from wrestlers discussing their legacy. The backstage segment to watch is the one from January 5, when Go Nagai, the creator of the Liger character shows up with a big bouquet of flowers and the two talk about their shared creation with humor and mutual respect. The cherry on top is Liger keeping kayfabe even as they talked about him as Keiichi Yamada, calling his costume “bio-armor.” You can hear the young Godzilla collector‘s nerdy love of sci-fi lore here.

Liger’s retirement matches and everything surrounding them showed what a special person he’s been in the industry for decades – an impressive athlete even in his fifties, a unique creative mind, and a skilled stage performer – all in a way that makes him seem a like a genuinely good person that any workplace or industry would be sad to lose. I still can’t believe he’s really retired.

Pre-Show Tier Best: Push Toa Henare 2K20

The January 4 pre-show didn’t sneak out an early Match of the Night or anything, but its matches were solid and got the crowd into the Wrestle Kingdom spirit. The opening eight-man tag was mostly a showcase for the Young Lions and Henare and all of them showed off their skills and potential. Like in this fall’s Young Lion Cup, Alex Coughlin, with his combination of a boyish face and murderous chops, was a clear standout, as was Tsuji with his hoss-in-training action. Henare getting the win here, even though it was only over a Young Lion, was a very promising moment for this dude whose post-dojo New Japan career has looked like it should kick off any day now for about a year.

It was the second pre-show match, TenCozy vs. Nagata and Nakanishi, that really got me in the mood for the rest of the night’s wrestling. All the old guys had some extra pep in their step (when was the last time Nakanishi looked this mobile?), their presence brought up memories of Wrestle Kingdoms past, and the familiar, distinct sound of an enthusiastic Tokyo Dome crowd could be clearly heard, one of the wrestling world’s audible equivalents to the welcoming hug when you visit your grandma. There’s a long break between this and the first match on the card, but the good vibes remain intact during that time.

Pre-Show Worst: *Lizzo Voice* Jerome

Stuff like the New Japan Rumble (RIP) and the NEVER Openweight 6-Man Championship Gauntlet Match have always been kind of bleak as well as goofy because these matches always contain people you think should be in more important ones. With the gauntlet on the pre-show this year, its particular mix of main card-tier wrestlers and total jobbers made it feel a little too bleak to be very fun.

There were obvious downsides (In case you couldn’t tell by commentary making fun of the ref the whole rest of the match, Evil definitely wasn’t supposed to pin Ishii with Darkness Falls) and upsides (Evil and Ishii brawling to recover from the botched finish, Taguchi vs. Takagi looking like a huge missed opportunity when they were both in the junior division), but it mostly felt like a match people will look back on in five to ten years after largely forgetting it happened and go, “Huh.”

Bushi, Evil, and Shingo looked good as a team though, and hopefully putting these belts back on L.I.J. is the first step in elevating them a bit. Good trios wrestling rules, and it would be nice to see these belts provide a platform to show that more often.

Worst: The Secret TV And Pee Break Matches

The weak parts of the January 4 show weren’t really that weak, for the most part, but were matches that felt out of place on a Wrestle Kingdom.

The first extremely “TV match” part of WK, the L.I.J. vs. Suzukigun eight-man tag, was the stronger of the two previews, though it felt like we had somehow returned to the pre-show after a detour into Liger Retirement Match main card action. All the guys with nothing else to do on this weekend’s main cards (Bushi, Shingo Takagi, Evil, Taichi, and El Desperado) (and Minoru Suzuki a little less so) wrestled like they were making the most of the brief Tokyo Dome time they had. Their teammates were actually so intense that it made the guys whose match was being previewed, Zack Sabre Jr. and Sanada, look like the worst wrestlers in the match. Sabre hadn’t looked so much like a random skinny indie guy to me in like two years.

The Bullet Club vs. Chaos tag was hurt by having to follow Los Ingos vs. Suzukigun, but it probably would have kind of sucked anywhere on the show. Most of the match is between the jobber types and really makes you resent New Japan padding out two days at the Tokyo Dome like this. I see Yujiro, Chase, and Yoshi-Hashi wrestle in multi-man tags just about every other show of the year; I don’t need this now! The match picks up when Goto and Kenta are tagged in and when Ishii hits the brainbuster on Fale, but almost all of it feels a million years long and totally unneeded.

This was followed by the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship match, which was one of those matches that would have been elevated a few levels by a hotter crowd. Unfortunately though, this was a heavyweight tag team division match and one right in the most natural pee break slot on the show, so people were pretty quiet. It makes me sad that people who don’t watch New Japan aside from Wrestle Kingdom could easily think Juice Robinson isn’t over when he’s usually very over because he’s always stuck in the Secret Intermission at the Tokyo Dome.

There isn’t really anything bad to say about this match otherwise (switching up the beginning with FinJuice meeting G.o.D. was a smart idea to try and grab the crowd); it just didn’t stand out. Maybe FinJuice’s title reign will be very effective as a transfusion of new blood in the tag division and New Japan will add some other teams to the mix and the tag title matches will feel more important in the near future. If not, at least this gave us Juice’s new handlebar mustache and flamboyant cop getup.

Best: The Gold And Silver Man-Guards

Our other Bullet Club tag champions lost their titles in a match that finally acknowledged how goofy the El Phantasmo-Taiji Ishimori tag team is. They’ve been winning their matches with the help of dick jokes and they lost them with the help of a dick joke; it fit ELP’s whole deal way more than that 27-minute feud-concluding match with Ospreay did. The match felt like it never fully shifted into Wrestle Kingdom title match gear and ended with the Lucha Bros’ finishing move, but the reveals of Sho and Yoh’s color-coordinated cups were pretty great. And if you’re going to embrace being the type of tag team that activates light-up sneakers as dramatically as pre-schoolers whose moms just bought them for them, the second-to-opener seems like the place to do it. Overall, this was a fun, lighter match on an otherwise pretty heavy card.

Best: The Dad Rock Hall Of Fame

A better one of the more fun Wrestle Kingdom 14 matches was Chris Jericho vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi, which I kind of forgot was the point of it. As soon as the AEW title came into play, the whole conversation around this match became AEW-NJPW partnership speculation, something that happened again very soon after it too. But this match wasn’t booked in order for people to fantasy book Marko Stunt in BOSJ or tweet at the NJPW Global account a ten-step business plan for how to run their American expansion now that New Japan is off AXS, it was booked because Jericho and Tanahashi have been two of the best and most charismatic wrestlers in the world for like twenty years.

At this point, both of these men’s careers are bolstered by their huge personalities and reputations, but they can still mostly go in the ring (Tanahashi much more consistently than Jericho), and they bring all of this to this match. They do each other’s poses, they play to the crowd, and they do some quality wrestling. Tanahashi and Jericho wrestle like they care about beating each other while keeping the tone of the match appropriate for the one right before the epic for all the gold. They both come out of this without having coasted on their reputations, but having wrestled a match aware that it is a legends dream match without taking itself too seriously.

Best: All My Exes Die In Texas

Jon Moxley vs. Lance Archer was another match that perfectly incorporated both performer’s personalities, which in this case are the personalities of violent crazy people. Something we don’t see a lot in present-day wrestling on a big stage is people acting like complete maniacs, but this match embraces that wrestling can be enjoyed in the same way as the videos posted by the Best Fights Twitter account.

Lance Archer especially, with his hair somehow even more unbelievable than the last time we saw it and his tramp stamp of the crucifixion, continuously generates the delighted reaction of “What the f*ck is this guy doing?”, which is one of the most fun things to think while watching wrestling. He tries to suffocate Moxley with a plastic bag. He chokeslams a Young Lion onto Moxley from the apron. There are trash can lids he probably brought on the plane with him from America. Elevated by a rare ten-count knockout ending that doesn’t feel forced, the Texas Deathmatch is well done and one of the most straight-up fun matches at Wrestle Kingdom 14.

Best: Tokyo Dome Goto, Every Dang Time

The story of Hirooki Goto’s career is that he tends to choke in big match situations. It’s why he holds the record for the most consecutive failed attempts at winning the IWGP Heavyweight Championship and it’s what made that “The G in G1 stands for Goto!” t-shirt so sad. But if Goto somehow only ever wrestled big matches at Wrestle Kingdom, he would be universally regarded as a legend. Tokyo Dome Goto is on another level, and it’s Tokyo Dome Goto who shows up on January 5 to kick Kenta’s ass.

You can tell from the second he enters in that new gear, the most “Wild Samurai” he’s looked in years, that his character was going to be the focus of this match and would probably win. (You could pretty easily tell who was going to win at Wrestle Kingdom 14 by who had fresh gear or a big entrance.) Meanwhile, Kenta played more of a supporting role, a heel who started heeling because he can’t go like he used to – but never tried so hard to get extra heat that it threw off the match’s momentum, and he wrestled in a way that played to his strengths as a performer as it exposed his character’s weaknesses. The final sequences of this match delivered in the exact way you want in a battle for the NEVER Openweight Championship.

Goto going through this whole feud only to become NEVER champ again is kind of funny in the context of Goto’s whole career and all the parts of it that aren’t kicking ass at the Tokyo Dome. But his backstage promo presents this in the most flattering way possible, with Goto saying the fact that he didn’t ask for a NEVER title match but got one anyway must mean his destiny is to revive this championship. Rather than Goto reviving this title himself, it sets the stage for someone to shine it up by taking it off its self-appointed gatekeeper. I also liked that this promo, as well as the match that preceded it, reestablished what the NEVER Openweight Championship at its best is really about – not wrestling between weight classes, despite the name, but matches that are about fighting and showing the primal power of people engaging in combat: “The answers are always in the ring.”

Also, A Bunch Of People Had Rematches Worse Than The Things They Were Rematching

There were multiple matches on January 4-5 that differed in style and quality, but were all weaker versions of pretty recent matches. The second U.S. title match, Moxley vs. Robinson, fell into this category pretty quickly. I zoned out after the attention-grabbing opening sequence while watching this for the first time so I watched it again when it wasn’t super early in the morning. I zoned out the same amount. There’s nothing to say about this match.

Fortunately, the show got a shot of adrenaline directly afterward when Kaze Ni Nare hit. Supported by Moxley’s fantastic selling, Minoru Suzuki owned this segment like the veteran of the stage he basically is. What an amazing performer to get an arena full of people losing their minds for the perfectly-timed removal of tracksuit at age fifty-one. Suzuki and Mox having a match right then and there would have completely broken how New Japan works in the long term, but people were so excited at that moment that they weren’t thinking or caring about that.

Especially as a frequent complainer about NJPW making this the Foreigners Only belt rather than a Wrestler Popular With Americans belt, I’m very excited for the prospect of Suzuki as U.S. Champion. He can defend in America and people would be extremely hyped to see him defend in America; his title reign wouldn’t just be a vehicle for whatever non-Japanese guy New Japan wants to give a bigger singles match platform without disrupting the other title pictures. Though it would be pandering to the American audience and media, it wouldn’t be doing so as blatantly as in the past with the inaugural tournament and Jericho coming in to wrestle for it and a former WWE guy who couldn’t even wrestle for them in America winning it on his first night in the company.

I’m sure some people liked the other international title match, Zack Sabre Jr. vs. Sanada for the RevPro championship, but all I felt here was déjà vu. Very much not helped by ZSJ running around at the beginning and highlighting the physique that makes his matches require more suspension of disbelief than those of most of his peers, this seemed so similar to other matches they’ve had this year that I wondered at times if it was an exact recreation of the one they had in Dallas. There was a chance Sabre and Sanada would have something new planned for the Tokyo Dome, but they didn’t.

The IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship match had more exciting spots than the last two I talked about, but its heightened context made its flaws more glaring. This was the first singles match in about a year and a half for Hiromu Takahashi, one of the most uniquely charismatic wrestlers working today. Takahashi is very good at the athletic part of wrestling, but people were hoping and praying for him to return to the ring because of something less tangible than that, because of the almost spiritual power that made him seem like a he could be a generational talent for the junior division.

Though Takahashi connected with people by being outside of the box, the match in which he regained the title he never lost was for some reason all about checking the boxes of what makes a Great Match TM is supposed to be at this point in time. This match was a once in a lifetime moment, but it could have been on any episode of NXT, any Best of the Super Juniors televised show from the past several years. It could have been the Cruiserweight Championship match on any WWE PPV pre-show of the past few years or featured on most episodes of AEW Dynamite. It could have been between any two very athletically gifted wrestlers, though the double thigh slap before a completing whiffing a missile dropkick felt like a uniquely Will Ospreay moment.

This was surprising to see because the past matches between Takahashi and Ospreay have highlighted both of their strengths, and both of their specific strengths, not those for any wrestler in their genre at a high level. More than any stunt they pulled off in this match, the most shocking part of it was that Hiromu Takahashi won the Junior Heavyweight Championship at the Tokyo Dome and it made me feel nothing.

While the junior title match on the fourth was all athleticism, the Intercontinental Championship match was all drama. While the former seemed to ignore context, this was completely carried by it. After a years-long journey and a video package that used fitting “bottom of the ninth” imagery, it could not be clearer that Tetsuya Naito was The Guy than when he entered the Tokyo Dome to regain the white belt from Jay White. The knee work was even more effective than in most Naito matches because he was in such a sympathetic position, and it played into the main event the following night.

Like the G1 Climax 29 final, it was a good use of people legitimately not wanting to see Jay White win, but that sentiment is often paired with not wanting to see him wrestle at all, or at least in these Big New Japan Matches all the time. Though the stakes of this match kept the viewer gripped, there was no reason for anyone to ever go out of their way to watch this, even more so than White vs. Naito I and II because those two matches already happened.

Worst: The Biggest Loser

The actual worst match of Wrestle Kingdom 14 for me to watch was the battle for fourth place in the Double Gold Dash, Jay White vs. Kota Ibushi. Where their first match was given life through extremely high stakes, this one was murdered by having none.

There were exactly two upsides here: White entering with pyro and new red gear that it looked like he had made for the double title match but was now stuck wearing to the loser match and Ibushi being a dead-eyed, hard-hitting terminator. This was nowhere near enough to make a meaningless twenty-five-minute match with a bunch of manager shenanigans watchable before two of the most highly anticipated matches on the card. The beginning had me appreciating the continuity from their G1 final, with White acting like he remembered very well the experience of losing to Demon Ibushi, but once that section was over, this match was just the experience of thinking, “Okay, guys, taking it home” and then them not taking it home for like fifteen more minutes.

After about a month, White put Ibushi away, making Ibushi the biggest loser of the double title picture. All things considered, this was probably the best look for him if he wasn’t going to win the whole thing. Okada vs. Naito was the January 5 main event that needed to happen and Ibushi vs. Naito would have left the crowd split, robbing whoever won of the true hero’s reception they deserved. Ibushi could have gotten a consolation win against White, but that eluding him puts him in the most sympathetic position possible to start 2020. I think basically everyone agrees that Ibushi deserves to be IWGP Heavyweight Champion in the future, or at least Intercontinental Champion again, and these Wrestle Kingdom losses will only result in more support for the Golden Star when he gets back into a major title picture.

Best: Unrealistic Expectations For Men

In both the British and American versions of the movie Death at a Funeral, there’s a scene in which the protagonist learns that a character played by Peter Dinklage was his later father’s secret lover. In both films, the scene takes place in the dead dad’s office, which is full of art that the family didn’t realize until this revelation was highly homoerotic, including a statue of nude men wrestling that I guess everyone written off as a display of cultured appreciation for the Ancient Greeks. Screenshots or photography from most of Kota Ibushi vs. Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship could be used to the same effect! This match is very much two beautiful men grappling in very little clothing and could be used as evidence that any promoter or marketer of wrestling who thinks their only possible adult market is heterosexual men is not thinking creatively enough.

In addition to men’s idol wrestling, this match is a total success of the New Japan epic style. It’s a battle of athleticism, endurance, toughness, and technical skill between two individuals who seem more like demi-gods than humans. Watching wrestlers try to pull off one of these types of matches and fail can be excruciating; watching wrestlers succeed on every level with one of them is exhilarating.

Ibushi looks maybe his most powerful ever when he goes full demon and starts striking Okada on the ground, but from his entrance onward, Okada comes off even more superhuman. The night before what turns out to be his last at the top, the Rainmaker reminds everyone how amazing it’s been to have him there. He washes away the memories of his lackluster 2019 and recalls the epics with Tanahashi and Nakamura and Omega, the dinosaur entrance, and the IWGP Heavyweight Championship reign that broke all the records. It wasn’t only Okada that delivered amazing performances this whole weekend, but his in the context of his career were the kind that make people immediately start talking about GOAT status.

Best: Destino

Going into the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 14, our champion is a demigod and our challenger is a screwup of a human man with at least one knee that could give out at any second. The entrances again project who’s winning, but also give Naito the same character-specific star presentation that Okada had the night before. The graphics on the big screen are a reminder of his whole journey, from the upside-down Stardust Genius and Mutoh imagery to, hilariously, just the words “BUSY” and “TIRED” in Spanish. He enters in a new, sparkly white suit and a coat that reads both “pimp” and “big suit David Byrne.” Somehow, this is the coolest wrestler in the world, and it’s instantly audible that this is the man the entire Tokyo Dome crowd has embraced as their hero.

Like Ibushi vs. Okada, Naito vs. Okada is a long epic that you could show to someone as one of the most effective examples of the New Japan main event style, but it has a very different story. Naito and Okada both look like great wrestlers and deliver painful-looking offense, but Naito has a much more obvious weak point for Okada to target. After a certain point, the dominant champ is dominating the match and the guy who barely made it into the double championship picture is barely hanging in there.

The history between Naito and Okada beyond this year’s double championship drama heightens the match even further when they start hitting and trying to hit finishers. There’s a sense that Naito has to win, but the past few years have taught everyone that it’s impossible to ever say someone will definitely beat Okada. Every setup for a Rainmaker is terrifying. When Naito kicks out of a version of the move, it sounds like a large part of the audience was holding its breath.

The best and most meaningful finishing move moment and the one based most specifically on the history between these two people was Naito bringing back the Stardust Press to finally hit it on Okada and Okada kicking out. Perfectly, the path to victory is Destino. The version of Naito meant to be the top guy isn’t the man he was; it’s the man he’s become. And in a medium in which the fans are basically a character as well as a group of customers, the top guy wasn’t the persona they rejected, but the one they accepted.

This era of Naito as fan-favorite has been so fueled by him as an outsider and an underdog that people would sometimes question if he would work as a top guy or if the fans will lose interest once he completed his road to redemption. However, the post-main event finish to Wrestle Kingdom 14 showed how Naito can still have the same kind of appeal while being a top guy. He won everything that really matters, ending the night with both titles and that moment of mutual respect with Okada. But he didn’t get the moment of glory that past champions have had, making him still somehow come off like an underdog minutes after achieving one of the most impressive feats in New Japan history.

New Japan’s latest rejected babyface turned heel, Kenta, who delivers a great backstage promo afterward that makes him sounds like a Vanderpump Rules cast member, attacks Natio before he can finish the biggest L.I.J. roll call ever and people are pissed. You can feel the company relishing in how successful this moment was with the urgency of the camera focusing on the little boy in the L.I.J. hat who’s shouting encouragement at his limping hero.

The Kenta attack establishes that Naito, a character who has been defined by struggle, a more relatable hero than most in New Japan, will continue to struggle. He and Los Ingobernables de Japon can keep their outlaw appeal by never becoming the establishment like Chaos did and by always seeming like they deserve at least a little bit more respect.

This same reasoning could be used to try and justify Naito losing at Wrestle Kingdom 12 when he was arguably at the height of his popularity, but I would not argue in defense of that decision. I don’t think what happened at Wrestle Kingdom 14 was all the result of a years-long master plan. But in the end, the main event on January 5, 2020, used everything that led up to it to make the best main event possible. Part of what has made the Naito story connect with people so deeply is that you can tell so much of it was not planned, making his successes sometimes feel more like destiny than booking.

With the Tokyo Dome behind us and Naito 2 Belts a reality, I’ll see you back here soon to talk about how NJPW kicked off a whole new year of wrestling and drama at New Year Dash!!, featuring more Liger feelings.