Every January 4th, New Japan Pro Wrestling has held an annual event since 1992 in the Tokyo Dome that has served as their version of WrestleMania, and this year marks the 12th year under the name Wrestle Kingdom. The Dome is such a visually stunning building, especially with the rich blue lighting they use. If you thought their show at Long Beach last year felt like a major league ticket, imagine the scale of what happens when they’re looking to wow up to 34,000 paid and 43,000 total fans.
Following his victory in the tournament that crowned him the first ever United States Champion, Bullet Club leader Kenny Omega has been targeted by WWE mainstay Chris Jericho for his next defense. Tanahashi’s dealing with perhaps a much tougher challenge than the one Billy Gunn provided, and the former heavyweight champion Naito is looking to finally win back the title he lost back in 2016 from his flamboyant rival. There’s a lot at stake for the various factions in New Japan, so the atmosphere is even tenser than last year’s.
New Japan Rumble
I’ll admit I’m a bit disappointed in Jushin Liger’s quick exit in the Rumble. I get that the “New Japan Dads” tend to put over the younger talent a lot, but someone of his legendary stature should be a little harder to take out in my opinion. Kitamura is just a physical freak of nature, I imagine Vince McMahon would drool if he ever saw this guy. Chase Owens of all people has a strong showing, someone who isn’t the most colorful Bullet Club member.
Suzuki-Gun makes waves in the middle portion, at least until El Desperado has his mask yanked off. Masahito Kakihara, a former UWF International star who’s recovered from a bout with cancer, eventually eliminates the scrawny ROH star Cheeseburger to win the annual event. Kakihara dedicates the victory to Yoshihiro Takayama, who was paralyzed from the neck down not too long ago.
IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Championships: The Young Bucks (Nick and Matt Jackson) vs. Roppongi 3K (Sho and Yo) (C)
Roppongi 3K’s entrance theme they perform with their manager Rocky Romero is hilarious and a pretty catchy tune. Once again, the Bucks prove they’re good for far more than just flipping around, as they employ a good deal of great storytelling and selling throughout this match. It’s almost as good as their Christmas video when they worked a match with Santa Claus (look it up, it’s incredible).
Sho gets an injured back at one point during his match, and the Bucks it an assisted swanton bomb onto his back that looked incredibly painful. Matt’s own selling of his back is quite good in its own right. Eventually, the Bucks hit the Meltzer Driver and lock in the sharpshooter to pick up an unprecedented seventh IWGP Jr. Tag Team Championship.
NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship: Bullet Club (Bad Luck Fale, Tama Tonga and Tanga Roa) vs. Chaos (Toru Yano, Tomohiro Ishii, Trent Baretta) vs. Suzuki-Gun (Zack Sabre Jr. Taichi and Takashi Iizuka) vs. Taguchi Japan (Ryusuke Taguchi, Togi Makabe and Juice Robinson) vs. Michael Elgin and War Machine (Hanson and Raymond Rowe)
Iizuka can’t move that well these days, as is evident by how long Elgin holds him up for a delayed vertical suplex, but he’s got a ton of personality and its fun to watch him roar as he’s led around on a leash during his entrance. Taichi, as usual, is a complete and utter rat as he whacks Hanson in the head with is trademark hammer (the classic “Go Home Taichi” chant breaks out).
It’s always fun watching Zack Sabre Jr. try to trade hands with opponents far larger than him, because it never ends well. Raymond Rowe levels Sabre with a forearm and a series of backbreakers, but Taichi breaks it up with an enzuiguri. Hanson misses on a moonsault badly, and I mean like he’s nowhere near Iizuka, but then Sabre eats a knee and Taichi gets powerslammed to hell and back. Iizuka charges in with the iron glove while Sabre gets a sick armbar and also chokes out Rowe.
I think it’s kind of a shame that Ishii didn’t get a singles match this year, given how great he’s performed in matches with guys like Omega and Naito last year. Toru Yano, the comedic goofball of New Japan, avoids Iizuka’s iron glove shot and low-blows Taichi to eliminate Suzuki-Gun. His attempt to hit Juice Robinson (who’s perhaps the most unironic, old-school babyface I’ve ever seen. This dude’s got teddy bears on his trunks, but he’ll still kick your ass) with the turnbuckle pad doesn’t go as well, and Makabe starts smashing the two members of CHAOS with corner clotheslines.
Baretta makes the save, but all of Taguchi’s team gangs up on Yano, with Ryusuke working in his flying butt attack (yep). Taguchi then goes for his Shinsuke Nanamura tribute move, but Yano rolls him up for another elimination. The boys from Bullet Club come in to wreck house, but Baretta hits the Dudebuster on Tama Tonga to give CHAOS the Six-Man title win.
HANDSOME BATTLE: Cody (w/Brandi Rhodes) vs. Kota Ibushi
Early on Cody hits a smooth transition into a modified figure-four leglock, but Kota gets the ropes. Ibushi then counters Cody’s uppercut with a hurricanrana to the outside, but “accidentally” nails Brandi Rhodes when he tries to hit Cody with a plancha. Ever the gentlemen, Kota tries to tend to the injured manager, but Cody nails him with a hard fist to take over, before him and Brandi laugh over how well their evil plan succeeded.
Ibushi has athleticism and charisma out the wazoo, and I thought his style blended well with Cody’s more “Southern wrestling heel” approach- both are nice storytellers. I’m hearing a lot of wrestling fans claim they think Cody is a bit overrated and that he can’t compete performance wise with most of the New Japan roster. Granted, his style isn’t as high-spot based as someone like Ibushi, Naito or the Bucks, but he’s something totally different in this modern era- it really stands out in 2018, IMO.
So Rhodes levels Ibushi with a gorgeous CrossRhodes to the outside, but Ibushi barely makes it back inside at the count of 19. Cody gloats for a while, then hits Kota with a springboard frankensteiner for a close two-count. When he attempts another CrossRhodes, Ibushi reverses it and literally hurls him like a lawn dart into the turnbuckle. Yowch.
Ibushi gets a Gold Star Bomb for two, but Cody levels him with a lariat. Kota responses with a straightjacket suplex and the Kamigore knee strike, then goes to the top and nails Cody with a Phoenix Splash for the win. I was a bit surprised by the result, as I didn’t forsee Cody taking another major loss after he recently dropped the ROH World Championship to Dalton Castle. Kota is good enough to have exciting matches with blow-up dolls, so a sentient being like CODY was always going to be a good fit for his talents.
IWGP Tag Team Championship: Los Ingobernables De Japon (EVIL and SANADA) vs. Kille Elite Squad (Lance Archer and Davey Boy Smith Jr.)
One thing I really love about EVIL is how nuanced his character feels. Here’s a guy coming down the aisle with a skull mask, a grim reaper outfit and a sickle, but he’s not a supernatural character like Bray Wyatt or many of the wrestlers in Lucha Underground. Not that I have anything against supernatural characters, they’re great, but EVIL is still a wrestler who canonically is rooted in reality like the rest of the roster. It’s also cool how him and SANADA are still carrying around the trophies from their World Tag League 2018 win, it feels like how Owen Hart would parade his Slammys everywhere.
In my dreams, Davey Boy Jr. would make a good fighting babyface for World Of Sport wrestling. Grado’s funny and all, but DBS Jr. would be a much easier sell than him for newer younger fans. Should that not come to pass, he can still play a fun heel, as is evident with how vicious him and Archer are against L.I.J in this match. K.E.S immediately hit EVIL with a Killer Bomb and get a two-count before SANADA breaks it up in a dramatic opening to this match.
You wouldn’t think it was possible, but EVIL and SANADA play great babyfaces-in-peril against the brutal gaijins, as Archer chokeslams EVIL on a group of unfortunate Young Boys to the outside (“MY house!”). SANADA finds himself in the Ricky Morton position when Davey Boy hits him with a great butterfly suplex for a two count, and then Archer uranages him for two. EVIL mounts a comeback with a running bulldog and multiple lariats on Archer, but Lance catches him on the top rope with a Spanish Fly variation.
SANADA’s comeback doesn’t go much better, as he’s hit with a chokeslam and Saito suplex for two before they clobber EVIL with a Hart Attack. A Killer Bomb on SANADA only gets a two count, and EVIL nails Everything Is EVIL on Archer- then him and SANADA hit Davey Boy with a Magic Killer and a moonsault to become the 79th IWGP Tag Team Champions. The good guy vs. bad guy dynamics on this show are totally different from the sort of thing you’d see on a WWE show- the workers are playing more into crowd dynamics and the drama of the match more than a strict script.
NEVER Openweight Championship: Minoru Suzuki ( C) vs. Hirooki Goto
As is evident by his Titantron, Hirooki Goto has an unfortunate reputation of coming up on the short end in many of his big matches. Wanting to humiliate his rival, he’s challenged Suzuki to a title-vs-hair match, where the victor walks always with the NEVER title and the loser goes bald. Goto may be the obvious hero going into this match, but Minoru’s acquired a big following of his own- evident when 40,000+ fans sign the Pancrase co-founder’s “Kaze Ni Nare” theme as he heads to the ring.
Suzuki’s brutality is on display out the gate when he chokes Goto with a sleeper sitting on the top rope, and the referee comes very close to stopping the match early. The Openweight Champion takes this opportunity to beat Goto on the outside and smacks his back with a steel chair. Goto valiantly rallies back with chest slaps, but Suzuki simply laughs his trademark maniacal super-villain laugh and elbows him down.
Goto responses to a corner kick by blocking Minoru’s penalty kick and hits a spinning heel kick of his own in the corner, followed by a bulldog. He counters a sleeper with a suplex for two, but Suzuki locks in a guillotine and sleeper. Goto manages to hit an Ushigoroshi, but Suzuki-Gun makes their way to the ring for interference, then Suzuki hits a fantastic dropkick during the distraction. He then rapidly smacks Goto around with slaps like he’s E. Honda from Street Fighter, then locks in another sleeper.
Hirooki manages to block the piledriver, but Suzuki hooks in a top-rope guillotine. Goto counters it with a super-Ushigoroshi for two, then the two trade some VERY stiff shots before Goto hits two GTRs to win the NEVER title once again. Minoru isn’t willing to just let his buddies drag him to the back though- as evil and sadistic as he is, he’s a man of his word, and he reluctantly shaves off his topknot ponytail before slamming it down bitterly on the seat. Awesome.
As this event is so massive, I feel it’s best if I split it into two parts. Click here for the thrilling second half!