Here are two of the very few things I know for sure in this world: New Japan Pro Wrestling promoted a lot of great matches in 2018, and late December is the time to reflect and publish Best Of [Current Year] lists on the internet. These two phenomena have combined to bring you this article!
If you read With Spandex’s Best and Worst of NJPW column, you already know I thought so many matches in this company this year were awesome. To thin that herd down for this article, I considered a few criteria:
- Was the match technically well-executed?
- Did it tell a story?
- Was it engaging/entertaining?
- Did this all happen in a way that made sense?
- Would someone think, “Wow, that ruled,” or however they express gut-level enthusiasm about wrestling after watching this match?
Even following these guidelines, there were so many runners up and so many great wrestlers who didn’t end up on this list. (There’s also a galaxy brain version of this article in my head with at least three Toru Yano matches on it.) As much as it almost physically pained me to narrow this down to only ten entries, here are the top ten NJPW matches of 2018, links included.
10. Kota Ibushi vs. Tomohiro Ishii, G1 Climax 28
When Ibushi and Ishii went forehead-to-forehead in the preview tag match for their G1 bout, everyone could tell it was going to be something special, and it was. People sometimes forget that Ibushi can shift into this hyper-violent alien gear. It’s something he didn’t get to do that much in a year in which he spent so much time in the less prominent half of a romance storyline and getting victimized by Cody. But Ishii brings that out of the Golden Star here, the old school, insanely tough guy provoking Ibushi to unleash his inner, also very tough guy to defeat him.
9. El Desperado vs. Hiromu Takahashi, Best of the Super Juniors 25
Hiromu Takahashi and El Desperado feuded in the tag team championship scene and sought each other out during the feud between L.I.J. and Suzukigun this spring, and their first singles match since their Young Lion days exceeded the hype they’d been generating for months. The Ticking Time Bomb was the white-hot babyface star of this year’s Best of the Super Juniors and his unique brand of crazy aggression seemed to bring the best out of every opponent, but especially El Desperado. The level of hatred between these characters and the creativity and willingness to seemingly do anything by the performers keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat for this entire match, and it’s still awesome upon re-watch.
8. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada, Destruction in Kobe
If you’ve watched a few big New Japan shows you know that Tanahashi and Okada are two of the best wrestlers in the entire world. If you’ve seen any installment in their years-long rivalry you know they do a lot of their best work together. Both also had some dramatic character arcs this year, and by Destruction in Kobe they were in far different positions than for their previous two singles matches in 2018.
Okada, the challenger for Tanahashi’s contract to challenge for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at Wrestle Kingdom, still in crisis from his loss of the same title back in June, is at his most ruthless here as he targets Tanahashi’s bad knee. Babyface veteran Tanahashi has to wrestle both smart and hard to defeat the man who replaced him at the top of the company and who he hasn’t defeated in five years, in pursuit of his complete comeback. The combination of technical execution, strong character work, high stakes, and compelling story results in this most recent Tanahashi vs. Okada match ruling super hard.
7. Tomohiro Ishii vs. Hirooki Goto, G1 Climax 28
When you see a match between Chaos stablemates, former rivals, and frequent tag partners Ishii and Goto on a card, you expect some hard-hitting, old school strong style wrestling. That’s exactly what fans get in the Korakuen Hall G1 Climax tournament main event on July 21, 2018, and it delivers every forearm and chop and shoulder tackle of the way. Goto and Ishii drive each other to go harder and harder, and the crowd, welcomed into the match with incredible selling and moments of no-selling, has so much fun watching them.
6. Golden Lovers vs. Young Bucks, Strong Style Evolved
The Bullet Club Civil War storyline reached its emotional and in-ring peak at Strong Style Evolved with the realization of a longtime dream match for indie and/or Japanese wrestling fans, the Golden Lovers (Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi) vs. the Young Bucks (Matt Jackson and Nick Jackson.) The high level of drama and the crazy spots are all totally earned as the two teams battle to show each other and the world who’s better, the Elite (original trio) work out their internal problems, and Matt Jackson deals with his bad back. It’s also only the third tag team match for the reunited Golden Lovers after a three-and-a-half year split, and their first that isn’t really a preview tag for an Omega singles match. The victory of the pair of babyfaces with a heavily implied romantic relationship and still in their honeymoon phase, heavily supported by the audience, was a special and important moment for pro wrestling as well as the end of a very good match.
5. Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kota Ibushi, G1 Climax 28
The crowd could not have been hotter for this year’s G1 final between Tanahashi and Ibushi. There was plenty to root for, with A Block winner Tanahashi (cornered by Shibata) fighting to regain his seemingly lost former glory and Ibushi (cornered by Omega, who he defeated to win B Block) looking like he might finally make that next step in NJPW and earn his way into the main event of Wrestle Kingdom. Both wrestlers prove why they’re two of the best in the game and maintain their babyface roles in a straight-up battle to make it to the peak of the Mount Everest of pro wrestling. As the match goes on, each offensive move is harder and harder earned, and Tanahashi’s third-act hulk up is so well-performed that it reminds you why he’s been at the top of NJPW for so long.
4. Hirooki Goto vs. Minoru Suzuki, Wrestle Kingdom 12
Hirooki Goto was such an underdog going into this NEVER Openweight Championship match that he had to offer up his hair in order to even get Minoru Suzuki to accept his challenge. Suzuki, so confident that he can beat Goto for the third time in a year that he put his own locks on the line and doesn’t bring a second from Suzukigun, spends the first portion of the match looking like he’ll be the one holding the title and the razor at the end. After forgoing a lockup to just knock Goto to the ground with a slap to the face, Suzuki sadistically beats the Fierce Warrior so badly that the viewer’s reaction to Goto’s comeback is as much one of relief as enthusiasm. Also, the hanging choke spot and that dropkick by Suzuki in this match basically burnt out my dopamine receptors for months.
3. Hiromu Takahashi vs. Taiji Ishimori, Best of the Super Juniors 25
The opening sentence of my original review of this match was “Hiromu Takahashi vs. Taiji Ishimori is, unlike the rest of BOSJ, a no time limit match, so of course they wrestle it like they’re trying to die in ten minutes or less,” and I stand by that as something that makes this bout awesome. Both Takahashi and the reborn Bone Soldier/recent NJPW addition Ishimori refuse to be stopped by anything, with Takahashi surviving a hurricanrana down the stairs and babyface-struggling to escape the Yes Lock and Ishimori physically preventing Red Shoes from ending the match while he’s stuck in the D. The whole thing is exciting, physically impressive, emotionally engaging, and overall everything you want from a big match.
2. Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi, Wrestling Dontaku
Okada and Tanahashi’s first singles match of 2018 at Wrestling Dontaku plays off their recent history in tag matches (with the struggle for the Tombstone Piledriver) and their years of rivalry. Okada ended Tanahash’s record streak of eleven IWGP Heavyweight Championship defenses years ago when he was recently the Rainmaker. Tanahashi, who stepped up to challenge Okada for his twelfth defense when literally no one else validly could, is beloved as ever after his return from injury, but it looks like his knee might keep him from the top spot in the future. The bout is an epic clash of the Titans, a matchup of great wrestlers, and a very human story of an inter-generational struggle between two individuals willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals. But though the man named Hiroshi Tanahashi puts up a great fight, he increasingly seems doomed, and his eventual loss is heartbreaking, while Okada comes out of this match looking unstoppable.
1. Kenny Omega vs. Kazuchika Okada, Dominion
Most wrestlers probably should not even try to have a match like Omega-Okada IV. It’s over an hour long, extremely athletically ambitious, two-out-of-three falls, and a tie-breaker for a feud that happened almost entirely in the previous year. But it works, and it’s not an exaggeration to call it an epic. The selling makes the dramatic moves feel like more than just dramatic moves and the men’s history and elevation of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship further justifies why they’re wrestling the way they are. The multiple falls stipulation also helps keep the live audience and other viewers invested, with each fall working like an act break in a play. Each time the match starts again, the dynamic has slightly changed. Okada’s performance after being hit with wrestling’s ultimate one-hit kill move, the One-Winged Angel, in the final stretch, is especially incredible. The reaction of the crowd to his collapse after a Rainmaker that has absolutely no effect is such a fantastic payoff to 720 days of dominance.
Oh, and after all this, Omega’s win isn’t only about years of hard work and the tiebreaker of an epic rivalry, it’s about the power of true love. That’s not something you get to say a lot, and it’s pretty awesome.