Not only is Wrestle Kingdom NJPW's premiere yearly showcase, it's the one time of year that a major New Japan Pro Wrestling show seems to get a lot of play stateside. It's a chance for fans who normally only play inside the United States wrestling bubble to get a taste of how other major wrestling promotions do business. And while I'd contend most fans don't want their go-to company simply aping ideas from the competition (where's the fun in that?), New Japan Pro Wrestling offered up some smart ideas that could potentially enhance WWE's biggest show of the year.
Serious Stats Sell Stories
WWE announcers love to remind us how this guy is a multi-time tag-team champion, even if this is a non-title singles bout and his tag-team partner retired last April. Or better, they'll tell us how X superstar, who hasn't won a match since a Sept. 20th, 1998 airing of Shotgun Saturday Night, is suddenly a credible threat to Y superstar, whose only recent loss is in a simulated WWE 2K20 bout my kid nephew played last week, because he has a finishing move that "he could hit at any moment!"
So kudos to Kevin Kelly, Gino Gambino, and the entire Wrestle Kingdom 14 production team, for bringing us statistics that really matter. Instead of overplayed one-liners about championship reigns and pro wrestling lineage, they gave us recent history that explained how Zack Sabre Jr., who held the most 2019 singles wins via submission, just picked up an easy submission victory, and greater insight into why a wrestler such as Okada, who spent more in-ring time last year than any other NJPW star, was perhaps primed to outlast Naito in a lengthy championship bout.
These kinds of nuanced and specific facts give the at-home audience greater context for what they're viewing, and allow them to engage more intimately with the product.
Legends Never Die (Unless You Bury Them Alive)
Many fans wanted a John Cena vs Kurt Angle "The Padawan Has Become the Jedi Master" bout on the WrestleMania 35 marquee. Instead, we got Baron "The Constable" Corbin taking on Kurt "I Picked This Match Out of a Hat" Angle. Which is… fine. Legends SHOULD do business the right way and help make a younger star on their way out the door. The only problem is, in order to cement that young gun as a rising threat, the legend - and by proxy, the match - needs to feel like a big deal.
Jushin Thunder Liger technically wrestled two different retirement matches over the two-day Wrestle Kingdom 14 event, and while both were lower-card six-man tags, both were made to feel like a big deal from Liger's perspective. And even though he lost (twice!), NJPW still spent those final moments on the younger talent respecting Liger. Meanwhile, over on RAW, WWE spent the last few weeks of Angle's career generally poking fun at and putting him down. "But that's Corbin's character!" you say. I'd argue that Corbin acknowledging he conquered one of the greatest ever feels like a much bigger deal than simply admitting he beat someone he already considers to be a loser.
Pro Wrestling is A Dance, You Learn As You Go
Professional wrestling is a weird sport/entertainment/ballet/stage hybrid that doesn't fit neatly into any box. It's spontaneous, and structured… it's reactive, yet planned. But sometimes WWE's in-ring product is choreographed to a fault. The rules feel endless: "Always play to the hard cam when you do X"... "Hook the leg for every pinfall"... "Kick out only with the right shoulder"... etc.
What felt unique about Wrestle Kingdom 14 is that the action and production both flowed naturally. If guys brawled outside the view of the hard cam, the camera team followed. If a wrestler hit a finishing move and his opponent fell awkwardly onto his back, the wrestler would cover him up in that position anyway. Even the individual referees all had their own cadence for counts, unique backstories, and more. The product didn't feel homogenized or overly-produced; instead, every element had a natural flow that seemed more like a fight and less like a show.
Multi-Man Shouldn't Main-Event
WWE wants to get everyone on the WrestleMania card, and I get that. It's the company's biggest show of the year. But I'm over forcing five-star feuds to the pre-show, six-pack challenges for major championships, and opening the show with the Universal Title.
Wrestle Kingdom 14 built a card that opened with shorter six-on-six tag matches and gave it's one-on-one feuds at the top of the card time to breathe. Yes, sometimes the story organically dictates a triple-threat dance, and that's OK. But giving the audience "off" matches near major championships, trying to shoehorn a third woman into what was originally a mano y The Man feud, and putting the tag-team championships on the line against every tag-team in the entire division ever, wears an audience out.
Maybe give us a variety of styles to break things up - I'd personally love to see more Zack Sabre Jr.-style catch-wrestling matches, or even Moxley-inspired blood feuds. But just tossing in more people, more teams, more "stuff," ultimately adds up to a whole lot less.
Two Nights Are Better Than One
Let me take a controversial stance: WrestleMania is too damn long. Yes, it's WWE's biggest show of the year… but that doesn't excuse the fact that I could drive from Atlanta, GA to Disney World in less time than it'd take to watch WM35 (even if I avoided tolls!).
So Wrestle Kingdom 14's two-night structure paid serious dividends. First, night 1 allowed NJPW to further set up and hype matches for night two. Second, it gave the company two nights of box-office returns (over 70,000 seats sold total). And finally, it gave fans a chance to refresh and re-energize so that they could give their best energy to the second half of the card.
The biggest hurdle WWE faces right now is that Saturday is typically an NXT: TakeOver event. But if you take those marquee NXT matches and sprinkle them over both 'Mania shows to create a true supercard (possibly still headlining night 1 with an NXT Championship match), I think even NXT diehards would see the added value and lower their pitchforks.