Every year, New Japan Pro Wrestling’s largest show — their analogue to WrestleMania — is Wrestle Kingdom. The event always goes down on January 4, and before New Japan’s rise in stature over the past couple of years, the event was also notable because it tends to be when most wrestlers’ contracts with the companies are due. So for a lot of reasons, eyes will likely be on the January 4, 2018 Wrestle Kingdom 12.
Last year’s Wrestle Kingdom was headlined by the first match in the 2017 trilogy between Kenny Omega and IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada. The match fairly blew up the internet, not least of which because it earned the first-ever six-star rating from Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter.
Omega is not involved in this year’s main event, but his current contract with New Japan is expected to expire after the show, so get ready for more months of speculation on whether he’ll jump to WWE. That, of course, seems less likely this year than last, especially after the whole cease-and-desist business with his Elite counterparts the Young Bucks.
Anyway, similarly to how the winner of the Royal Rumble goes on to main event WrestleMania, the tradition in New Japan is that the winner of the summer-long G1 Climax heavyweight tournament generally goes on to face the IWGP Heavyweight Champion at Wrestle Kingdom. The contract can be defended, however, and on Monday, G1 winner Tetsuya Naito defended his contract against Tomohiro Ishii at King of Pro Wrestling.
Naito was able to emerge victorious, while Okada retained his heavyweight title on the same show against EVIL, also of Naito’s Los Ingobernables de Japon stable. So the WK12 main event appears locked in: Okada vs. Naito for the top title in the company.
This is a rematch of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship match from Wrestle Kingdom 8 in 2014, which was notoriously not the main event of that show. A fan vote determined the main event of WK8, and because 2014 was a long time ago, most New Japan fans felt Naito vs. Okada was underwhelming as a main event at the time. Instead, the IWGP Intercontinental Championship match between Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi was the final match on the card, and ended with Tanahashi, New Japan’s own personal John Cena, standing tall.
(Other ways to tell 2014 was a long time ago: Finn Bálor, Karl Anderson, Luke Gallows, and Shelton Benjamin were on the show, and ROB CONWAY was the NWA Heavyweight Champion.)
Naito’s only reign as IWGP Heavyweight Champion lasted just 70 days, and came between Okada’s third reign and this, his fourth stint holding the title. Okada has held the belt since June of 2016, and if he holds the title until Wrestle Kingdom 12, he will pass both the record for longest individual title reign and longest combined time holding the title in the company’s history.
Kazuchika Okada is pretty good, you guys.