With any luck, 2015 will be the year that New Japan Pro Wrestling really starts to take off internationally. You know the drill by now – Wrestle Kingdom 9 is headed to American pay-per-view, Jim Ross and Matt Striker will be doing English commentary for it, and AXS TV will be bringing some NJPW matches stateside after that. This is THE time to get on board if you want that unbearable “I liked it before other people” wrestling-hipster cred, folks. As a small taste of the quality you can expect from NJPW, I’d like to present my top five matches of 2014. They are presented in chronological order, because having to rank these would be like asking my mother to rank her children who aren’t named Austin. (I’m somewhere below the family dogs, FYI.) Also, I’m going to break my deathly-fear-of-copyright streak and give you links to the matches, right in the titles. Please share this around, and enjoy!
You couldn’t have written a better story for this one. Sometimes, reality is the best storyline wrestling has to offer. Hirooki Goto is a NJPW mainstay, with over a decade of service to the company under his belt, and yet he’s never won The Big One. The man they call “Wild Samurai” has won the New Japan Cup three times, but the IWGP Heavyweight Championship always seems to elude him. In August 2013, he broke his jaw during the G1 Climax tournament and would be out of action for months. Wrestle Kingdom was his return to action, and as his opponent, he selected Katsuyori Shibata. These two go way back – they’ve been friends ever since they were in high school together. But that doesn’t stop Shibata from hitting Goto like he owes him money. Make no mistake, he’s mauling Goto because he respects the hell out of him. The striking in this match had me wide-eyed. And the smile on Goto’s face after the final bell rings is awesome to see. In NJPW, the best friends you’ll make are the ones who pull no punches.
Here’s a tip for the newbies: When you see the name Tomohiro Ishii, start thinking “BRAWL” in big, red capital letters. Ishii is a criminally underrated workhorse in New Japan, and 2014 was the year where they finally start to let him shine a bit. Tetsuya Naito was just coming off the biggest loss of his life, failing to defeat Kazuchika Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 8 for the IWGP Heavyweight title. However, he was still the NEVER Openweight champion, and he would put the title on the line at The New Beginning, the annual post-Wrestle Kingdom major show. These two spend nearly twenty-five minutes throwing BOMBS at each other. Naito is arguably in his very best in-ring form here, doing his best to show why he deserved that co-main event spot one month prior. And Ishii… well, Ishii takes everything square on the jaw and asks for more, because he is a concrete homunculus and you cannot pin That Which Does Not Feel Pain. Even the referee looks exhausted at the end of this one. Good things should keep happening to Ishii in 2015… maybe a run with the IWGP Intercontinental title? It could happen.
New Japan runs their anniversary show every year in early March, and it’s customary for the main event to be a special showcase featuring the current heavyweight champion versus the current junior heavyweight champion. It’s a real treat that almost always features significantly different styles going head-to-head. As you might expect, the heavyweight champion going over is almost an afterthought, but this year’s match had me wondering if the impossible upset might actually happen. That’s because the junior heavyweight champ as of March was Kota Freaking Ibushi, a man who is himself an impossibility of nature. I have previously theorized that he’s an Airbender due to his EFFORTLESS aerial control. Both Ibushi and Okada are guys at the top of their game, and it’s a privilege to watch them go the extra mile for a match that’s really just an exhibition at the end of the day.
Yes, I just put an AJ Styles match on a year-end best list. And you know why? Because for about five months (May to October, let’s say), NJPW brought out the best in him. This is the best AJ Styles we’ve ever seen, unless you were a really big fan of TNA circa 2005. I’m probably in the minority here, but I like how Bullet Club quickly turned from a dastardly invading army into a gang of NWO-obsessed man-children in the absence of an awesome leader. It felt like weird, cartoonish justice AND a weird meta-statement on the whole Ugly American trope. Oh, and I’m failing to mention that AJ’s opponent here is Minoru Suzuki, a guy who is HERE TO KILL YOU, NO QUESTIONS ASKED. Suzuki comes from the world of MMA, and between his technical skill and his gimmick, he makes Stephan Bonnar and the Diaz brothers look like harmless, well-adjusted young men. This is regarded as the match that made Japanese audiences accept Styles as a legitimate champion. I could have done without the interference from Styles’ and Suzuki’s respective factions, but at least it was kept to a minimum.
Before I get to the last match, I’d like to shout out one very worthy honorable mention – Kota Ibushi vs. Ricochet for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship at the Dominion event in June. As a foreigner, Ricochet turned a lot of heads by becoming the youngest man to ever win NJPW’s Best of the Super Juniors tournament. As his reward, he got a title match against Ibushi, whose airbending skills are in full effect. This match is worth watching for Ricochet’s top-rope Frankensteiner counter alone. And now, to complete our list…
Okay, at the beginning of this, I said I’d be listing the matches chronologically. But here’s a happy accident… the last match on the list just happens to be Austin’s Match of the Year. Not just from NJPW, but across the whole of professional wrestling in 2014. This match is MAGICAL, guys and gals.
How could I not put this on the list? It’s the two coolest guys in New Japan leaving it all on the mat for a title shot at Wrestle Kingdom 9, and it is the HOTTEST of Hot Fire. I’ve already talked about it in my G1 Climax recap, but I’ll try and reiterate here. This match simply comes down to two master craftsmen realizing that they’ve got enough swagger to carry an entire tournament on their backs. It’s intense, satisfying, and flashy when it needs to be. And the counter sequences… Lord Almighty, those counters. The Seibu Dome is coming unglued by the end of this thing. The closing three-minute stretch is just one home-run shot after another. I am absolutely insisting that you watch this one, because I’m not sure how much justice my words can do here. Is it January 4th yet?