After losing two of their top four wrestlers, many were sceptical that New Japan could recover quickly, if at all. But they’ve actually had a pretty damn good year business- and creative-wise, and their marquee event, Wrestle Kingdom 11 at the 65,000-capacity Tokyo Dome, is almost upon us. In the spirit of the Puro Pourri Podcast, I’d like to do my best to preview the event in a way that makes it accessible for newcomers to the promotion. I’ve provided a fair amount of detail, but then there’s a lot of performers, stables and belts to cover here. In any event, I hope you all find it useful.
Pre-Show) New Japan Rumble
This is by no means essential viewing, but may provide a little introduction to the New Japan undercard. This is different to the WWE Royal Rumble in that elimination can occur via pinfall or submission as well as being thrown over the top rope. The wrestling in the match itself will probably be pretty rubbish – Japanese promotions have never really got how to do a good battle royal, and last year New Japan made the strange cinematographical decision to broadcast each entrance down the incredibly long Tokyo Dome ramp in full, and then they’d cut back to the ring and you’d discover you’d missed two eliminations. But there’s fun to be had seeing who turns up. I’ll briefly run down the likely participants:
Hiroyoshi Tenzan: Mid-40s former IWGP Heavyweight Champion. Increasingly creaky and all but spent, but capable of a few very good performances a year, as in the 2016 G1 Climax tournament. Silly Brian Knobbs-style mullet.
Yuji Nagata: Proper legend and the company ace in the early 2000s. 49 years old but still phenomenal in the ring. Former WCW jobber and very influential on one Daniel Bryan. His entrance theme starts with the music from Pirates of the Caribbean. The 2015 New Japan Rumble winner.
Manabu Nakanishi: Getting on for 50 years old and all but immobile. There’s a perverse enjoyment to be had in seeing smaller opponents orbiting him like a planet and absorbing his chops. Sometimes he will go to the top rope, and I’m not sure how. Had a great match with Nagata last month.
BONE SOLDIER: Used to be Captain New Japan, a fat Japanese man in a crappy knock-off Captain America costume. Then he joined the Bullet Club and now he’s BONE SOLDIER, a fat Japanese man in a crappy skeleton costume. The only thing that’s changed is that whereas before he got pinned in virtually all his matches, now he loses some by DQ.
Yoshitatsu: Formerly Yoshi Tatsu in WWE (is it really that easy to avoid copyright?) Came back with some fanfare a couple of years back, broke his neck messing up a Styles Clash and now is doing some sort of weird half-speed Triple H cosplay, complete with having Billy Gunn as a tag partner. Has been feuding with BONE SOLDIER, which is just as thrilling as it sounds.
Jushin Liger: All-time great masked cruiserweight star. In his early 50s, but still awesome; had amazing matches with Chris Hero and KUSHIDA last year. Amazingly good entrance theme. Someone I know tickled his tummy at a meet and greet and made him giggle.
Tiger Mask IV: The shittest of the Tiger Mask iterations, and there’s been many.
Ryusuke Taguchi: Ass-based offence. Has a T-shirt that reads “Oh My & Garfunkel”, whatever in the name of Jumping Jehosaphat that means. Finn Balor’s old tag partner. Mostly wank, but can pull it out in big match situations; for example, last year’s Best of the Super Juniors final against Will Ospreay.
Gedo: The booker of New Japan. Likes dressing up like a hoodlum on Breaking Bad for some reason. Nearly killed Chris Jericho with a botched Huracanrana once, so is presumably on the list.
Then we have the Young Lions. We have Hirai Kawato, Teruaki Kanemitsu and Takumi Honjo, and also a couple of former amateur wrestlers called Kitsuya Kitamura and Tomoyuki Oka, who are large men that New Japan clearly have high hopes for; Oka made his debut today against Nagata. Honjo’s a bloody big bugger too. These five men are the lowest on the totem pole, and in real life carry out menial tasks at the dojo. They never win except against each other (though have been known to team up to eliminate someone in the Rumble) and don’t have gimmicks – they only appear in plain black trunks. They won’t have gimmicks until they travel to work in other countries, whereupon they will return repackaged and get a bit more of a push. This tradition goes right back to Rikidozan, Japan’s first superstar wrestler.
There will also be a few returning legends a la the WWE version. If someone comes out who looks older than dirt and who I haven’t mentioned here, assume it’s one of these, and that the crowd is creaming its collective pants at them.
1) Tiger Mask W vs. Tiger the Dark
This is a strange one. Tiger Mask is an anime from the late 60s/early 70s about a pro wrestler. In the early 80s New Japan bought the rights to the character and created a real-life Tiger Mask. There have been many incarnations, including the aforementioned Tiger Mask IV. New Japan’s been co-producing a new Tiger Mask anime, featuring cameos from current New Japan talent, which is currently airing. True to form, there’s an accompanying IRL wrestler to go with the series. Even more bizarrely, he’s portrayed by Kota Ibushi, the former DDT star who looked nailed-on to become a New Japan main eventer until he decided he’d rather travel the world wrestling people with boxes on their heads, piledriving people into toilets and taking mid-match Burning Hammers from Brian Kendrick in front of the douchebags at Full Sail. Making a return to New Japan under a mask and not telling anyone you’re doing so is so very Ibushi. Tiger the Dark is a heel from the anime, and he’ll be played by ACH, late of the ROH parish. Expect flips.
2) IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship: The Young Bucks (Matt Jackson and Nick Jackson) (c) vs. Roppongi Vice (Rocky Romero and Baretta)
The Junior Heavyweight Division is equivalent to the old WWE Cruiserweight division, with an upper weight limit of 220 pounds. In the last few years they’ve done a four-way for the Junior Heavyweight Tag Titles (which is usually the entire division), but this time it’s a straight two-on-two. Junior matches in the opener never get over too much with the Tokyo Dome, but do get them warmed up for what’s to come. In fact, come to think of it, Junior matches never get over too much with the Tokyo Dome crowd regardless of their card position. Roppongi Vice are a pair of party animals with a great self-rapped entrance theme. Rocky Romero loves fur coats, bling and shouting the word “FOREVER” a la Terry Funk. Baretta spend some time in WWE, is an ex of AJ Lee and looks like Aaron Barrett out of Reel Big Fish. The Young Bucks are the biggest tag team on the indies and part of the villainous Bullet Club faction, of which more later. These fellows like inviting people to suck their dicks and paying homage to 90s DX and nWo. They’re not that over in New Japan, but act as though they are. Don’t expect too much psychology or selling, but do expect loads of impressive manoeuvres.
3) Gauntlet Match for the NEVER Six-Man Openweight Tag Team Championship: Satoshi Kojima, Ricochet and David Finlay (c) vs. CHAOS (YOSHI-HASHI, Will Ospreay and Jado) vs. Bullet Club (Bad Luck Fale, Hangman Page and Yujiro Takahashi) vs. Los Ingobernables de Japon (EVIL, SANADA and BUSHI)
NEVER stands for New Blood, Evolution, Valiantly, Eternal and Radical. Lol. NEVER used to be the New Japan equivalent of NXT, but they only ran a couple of developmental shows, and now “NEVER” is a designation appellated to various minor belts. This is a gauntlet match, which means that two teams start, and when one is eliminated they are replaced by another.
Team 1: Satoshi Kojima is a former IWGP Heavyweight Champion in his mid-40s. He’s getting on in years but can still go, has a great Lariat and a nice dynamic with his smaller tag partners: Ricochet, a world class high flyer rumoured to be Prince Puma in Lucha Underground; and David Finlay, the son of the World of Sport, WCW and WWE alumnus of the same name. Finlay took Matt Sydal’s place in the team after the latter was busted for bringing some sweet Mary Jane into Japan. The champs face off with representatives from New Japan’s three main factions:
Team 2: CHAOS, the major face stable in the company. YOSHI-HASHI is Kazuchika Okada’s long-time tag partner. Carries Kilik’s pole from Soul Calibur, not sure why. He’s improved by leaps and bounds in the last 18 months, and had a great G1 showing as a plucky underdog. Will Ospreay is a wonderful high flyer from Essex who has been with New Japan since May, and is the reigning Best of the Super Juniors champion. Hope for some exchanges between him and Ricochet, reprising their memorable and controversial singles match from last year. Jado is New Japan’s assistant booker, and presumably can’t believe his luck in being on the main card.
Team 3: Bullet Club, the heel faction formerly led by Prince Devitt (now Finn Balor in WWE) and AJ Styles. You’ll see their current head honcho in the main event, but for now you have to deal with the dregs of the stable. Bad Luck Fale is a big fat bastard of Maori descent from New Zealand who was a founding member of the faction. He’s good as an immovable object and has had good-to-great singles matches with New Japan’s top guys, but is one of the weaker workers on the roster. Hangman Page is from ROH. He has a nice Shooting Star Press but is otherwise very generic. Yujiro Takahashi is a lewd man who comes to the ring with porn stars on each arm. He’s not very good and often unsafe.
Team 4: Los Ingobernables de Japon. They sell merch by the barrel-load, they’re cool as hell and they’re probably winning this. SANADA is a great young wrestler trained by the legendary Keiji Muto and will probably be a main eventer in a few years, EVIL is a chap seemingly consumed by…well, evil and who makes his entrance in a Grim Reaper costume, and BUSHI, a dark luchador who likes spitting black mist in their opponent’s faces. I can’t do their amazing weirdness justice with mere words, so you’ll just have to experience it for themselves.
4) Cody Rhodes vs. Juice Robinson
It’s utterly insane that this is on a Wrestle Kingdom card. Cody Rhodes should need no introduction; the son of a son of a plumber who quit WWE last year in order to strike out on his own and prove the promotion’s kingmakers wrong regarding his star quality. Opinions vary as to whether he’s doing a good job of that, but I’ve enjoyed his stints in PWG and WCPW. He’s been announced as the newest member of Bullet Club, inevitably, and this is his New Japan debut. His opponent is Juice Robinson, the former CJ Parker of NXT fame. I was incredibly sceptical when New Japan signed Robinson, as he’d never showed me much to convince me he’d be good there, but I’ve been proved thoroughly wrong; he’s over with crowds and has been positioned in an alliance with bulletproof ultra-legend Hiroshi Tanahashi, which has done wonders for his status. As such, there’s an interesting undercurrent to this; the man who wants to prove WWE wrong by excelling in Japan vs. the man who’s already doing it. Not sure how good this will be, but seeing how Cody adjusts to puroresu will be very interesting.
5) ROH World Championship: Kyle O’Reilly (c) vs. Adam Cole
New Japan has a working agreement with ROH, hence why the ROH Championship is being defended here. O’Reilly’s something of a regular in New Japan; usually as a Junior Heavyweight, but he recently declared his intention to move up a division, and had an excellent bout with Katsuyori Shibata for the NEVER title. O’Reilly uses a long of MMA-style offense, which New Japan President Takaaki Kidani is very high on, so he gets booked strongly. Adam Cole was one of the top indie stars a few years ago and was batting away WWE offers on a seemingly daily basis, but seems to have regressed both in-ring and in terms of his status. He’s still good though, and has excellent chemistry with O’Reilly (they’re former tag partners). There’s been rumours that O’Reilly’s off to NXT, so if he drops the belt here then you can assume the worst.
6) Three-Way Match for the IWGP Tag Team Championship: Guerrillas of Destiny (Tama Tonga and Tanga Roa) (c) vs. Great Bash Heel (Togi Makabe and Tomoaki Honma) vs. CHAOS (Tomohiro Ishii vs. Toru Yano)
This could have many outcomes in terms of quality. Earlier this year I’d have told you that Guerrillas of Destiny were one of the worst acts on the roster, albeit in a quiet voice, because Meng is their dad and he once bit a guy’s nose off in a bar fight. They spent most of 2016 coming out in face paint and dead silence, having heatless matches that effortlessly pissed away the momentum Tama Tonga had been building as a single competitor. However, their last title defence and their showing in the World Tag League final were very good, so I’m ready to be impressed. Speaking of the Tag League, their conquerors in said final were Great Bash Heel; the combination of Togi Makabe (charismatic but fairly horrendous in-ring and a genuine mainstream celebrity thanks to his regular magazine show segment where he visits sweet shops) and Tomoaki Honma (an amazing lovable underdog as long as you can get past the domestic abuse allegations and rumours of yakuza connections). Perhaps realising that GoD vs. GBH was a retread in a double sense (in that it’s a rematch of the Tag League final and GBH were in the tag title match at last year’s Wrestle Kingdom), the bookers added a third team to the mix by the kayfabe device of having master ruseman Toru Yano troll the other two pairs until him and his partner got added to the match. I’d say this devalues the Tag League, but it’s not worth much anyway. Luckily, Yano’s partner is world-class wrestler and hardman Tomohiro Ishii, who was originally slated for the Six-Man Title clusterfuck, so it’s nice to see him featured more prominently. Yano is entertaining in small doses, but this will be a fairly long match, so…
7) IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship: KUSHIDA (c) vs. Hiromu Takahashi
Now we’re talking. KUSHIDA has cemented himself as the ace of the Junior Heavyweight division in the last couple of years. A lifelong wrestling fan, his entrance video shows him as a child in home movie footage performing moves in his bedroom. It’s very sweet. He’s got some nice dives in his arsenal, but is mostly a technical wrestler (he’s undefeated in eight MMA bouts). Hiromu Takahashi was formerly known as Kamaitachi. I once had the chance to see him live at the Exeter Corn Exchange and didn’t go, which I regret to this day. After an incredibly successful excursion to Mexico, where he had an amazing in-ring rivalry with Dragon Lee, Kamaitachi returned to New Japan two months ago with a penchant for creepily licking things, a membership in Los Ingobernables and the greatest jacket I have ever seen. This could steal the show.
8) NEVER Openweight Championship: Katsuyori Shibata (c) vs. Hirooki Goto
Shibata’s made the NEVER Openweight Championship his own this year. Many seem convinced that he’ll get a push to main event status in 2017, though some remain sceptical that a relatively no-frills, straight-laced performer can be a viable main eventer in this day and age. My suggested method of marketing him: “Have you seen how sexy he is?” Shibata returned to New Japan in 2012 after a long absence. To be brief, in 2005 New Japan’s business was in the shitter after a long spell of dodgy booking. The decision was taken to build the company around three young stars: Hiroshi Tanahashi, Shinsuke Nakamura (now of NXT) and Shibata. Soon after, Shibata left to become the ace of a short-lived new promotion, and from thence to MMA, where he lost a lot. There was some legit resentment, especially from Tanahashi, about how he left, and a locker room revolt led to management putting the kibosh on a planned IWGP title run for him. He’s been paying dues since then, and has remained loyal, attaining Tanahashi’s forgiveness after a long feud with many shoot elements (brother) and getting a gradual push up the card that shows no signs of abating. Shibata projects such an aura of legit toughness that he makes you forget he fucking sucked at MMA, and is one of my favourite wrestlers in the world. Having met him last year, I can also confirm he’s a lovely bloke in real life. He looked set for a big crossover Dome match with someone from Pro Wrestling NOAH, in which New Japan had a financial interest that led to a promotion vs. promotion feud, but NOAH got sold to another company and so Papa Gedo canned the angle. Without an opponent for Shibata, New Japan looked down the back of the sofa and came up with his former schoolfriend and former tag partner Hirooki Goto. Goto is a perennial choker in IWGP Championship matches (eight opportunities, eight losses) and hasn’t had the best year in-ring, save for an excellent G1 Climax final, but has history with Shibata which this feud is playing on; Shibata has been cutting promos about how Goto hasn’t evolved since their match at Wrestle Kingdom 8 and how he has become complacent with his status on the card. I appreciate they’ve provided a context for the brutality that is sure to follow, but I’m also thinking about what could have been.
9) IWGP Intercontinental Championship: Tetsuya Naito (c) vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi
First of all, don’t assume just because the title is called “Intercontinental” that it’s as worthless as WWE’s version. This title is booked to be prestigious and regularly main events PPVs. The challenger is Hiroshi Tanahashi, the former top guy who passed the torch to new ace Kazuchika Okada at last year’s Wrestle Kingdom and settled into a new role of gatekeeper to the main event scene, much like John Cena’s current position in WWE. An air guitar-playing, super-popular rock star, his look and wrestling style owes as much to Shawn Michaels as any Japanese performer. Just as HBK was Mr. Wrestlemania, Tanahashi is Mr. Wrestle Kingdom; this is the first Dome show he hasn’t main evented since 2010. At the age of 40 and with a lot of miles on the clock, he takes it easy for most of the year but is one of the best in the world in big matches. I’m sure he’ll live up to his usual standard here. As for the challenger, I’d like to self-plagiarise from a recent article of mine if I may:
The victim in the past of poor booking, untimely injuries and in-ring performances that brought to mind an ersatz Tanahashi even at their best, Naito began to hit his stride in 2015 with a new languid, disrespectful heel character, matched with a greater tendency to brawl and cheat his way to victory, and a stable of suspicious weirdos called Los Ingobernables. New Japan firmly established Naito in the top echelon of talent by having him beat Okada for the title in April, and even though he lost it back to the former champ in his first defence, his group’s merch continues to sell by the bucketload and he’s set to take on Tanahashi at the Dome in a match he may well win.
I stand by my assertion in the last sentence, with the caveat that I would never rule out a Tanahashi victory at Wrestle Kingdom. Nevertheless, I expect that Naito will prevail and further cement his place in the main event, and that it’ll be a fantastic match.
10) IWGP Heavyweight Championship: Kazuchika Okada (c) vs. Kenny Omega
Okada’s rise began back in 2012. Only just removed from Young Lion status, he challenged Tanahashi for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship and got laughed out of the building. Then he went and won. Observers thought this to be a disaster. Okada was unproven and had shown few signs of being a good in-ring worker. But once champion, he suddenly became amazing, sporting a new gimmick of “The Rainmaker”, an arrogant young Turk with a love for money and vulgar American bling and suchlike. Tanahashi won the belt back, but the stage was set for a long, significant rivalry. Okada finally proved his supremacy with victory over Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom 10, and is now the undisputed ace of the company. As for his opponent, it’s time for more self-plagiarisation!
Until the end of 2014 Omega was contracted to comedy promotion DDT, and spent his initial year in New Japan as the ace of the company’s slightly moribund Junior Heavyweight division. However, the Bullet Club’s self-proclaimed “Cleaner” (because he cleans the trash out of New Japan) was booked incredibly strongly at the start of 2016. The night after Wrestle Kingdom 10 he pinned Nakamura in a tag match, and then shockingly turned on Styles to usurp the Bullet Club leadership and send the former head honcho packing from the company. A few weeks later he pinned Tanahashi to win the IWGP Intercontinental Championship that had been left vacant by Nakamura’s departure. Three of New Japan’s old Big Four had been defeated, and yet in the following months it appeared that Omega’s place was to be in the upper midcard, joining stablemates The Young Bucks in their wacky antics and defending the IC title against other midcarders while ceasing seriously to challenge top talent. This impression seemed to be confirmed when he lost his belt in a ladder match to Michael Elgin, an entertaining hoss and Tanahashi’s tag partner but hardly a marquee player in the company. When the G1 rolled around, I felt sure that it was Naito’s to lose. How wrong I was. New Japan had other ideas, and Omega’s commanding victory in the tournament cemented his place as a headline act in the company for years to come.
Omega has an unfortunate tendency towards overacting and inappropriate comedy moves in matches that don’t call for it, especially when pratting about with the Bucks. However, he’s ironed this out of his game to a large extent, and in serious big-match situations he’s a hell of a wrestler; see his contests with Naito and Goto from last year’s G1. This is a first time ever bout, and it’s too close to call. My gut says Okada retains, but I’ve been saying all year that Omega’s meteoric rise has to end sometime, and it hasn’t happened yet. Whoever prevails, this should be a cracker.