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Last month, I wrote about the struggles NJPW faced in 2020, with the pandemic as well as really questionable booking decisions and a creative direction that relied way too heavily on interference and cheap heel heat turning 2020 into the worst year for NJPW in more than a decade. It looked like 2020 might be the marking of an end of an era.
Then Wrestle Kingdom 15 happened, and while some of the elements that made 2020 a weak year for NJPW were still present, the show also reminded fans of why the promotion has been so good over the past ten years. NJPW at its core, is a slow-burn promotion, a promotion that books storylines years in advance and meticulously pieces them together. Kota Ibushi had to wait years to walk out of the Tokyo Dome as IWGP World Heavyweight Champion; and when he finally did it, it was incredibly satisfying because fans that have watched him for years and years understood how long he had waited, how long WE have waited, to see that story finally conclude in a blaze of glory.
NJPW is very different from other companies; no other promotion takes that kind of time and effort to tell their stories. Not everything is perfect, you can make a good argument that NJPW moves too slowly and they don’t always strike when the iron is hot; but when the story really works, as the one revolving around Ibushi did, nothing is more satisfying.
I think people might be surprised by something like the Empire losing all three of their matches at Wrestle Kingdom. As a new heel group, traditional booking would say that they should get some big wins to build momentum. NJPW does not do traditional booking though; Empire will not just march on to instant glory; it will take years for them to actually achieve their goals, just like how it took Omega, Naito and Ibushi years to achieve theirs. Jay White, who came up short in a major match at Wrestle Kingdom for the second year in a row, is also on that path. That is the kind of slow-burn booking that has made NJPW so outstanding.
Kota Ibushi vs Jay White: *****
Just a gigantic match; I understand that some people will not think this match was as good as I did, but it combined incredible action with great storytelling, in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom, with the double-titles on the line. The story was very simple, but dramatic; to truly achieve his dream, Ibushi needed to spend years grinding away, battling injuries and falling short time and time again; and in one climactic event; he had to wrestle for nearly 80 minutes over two nights to come out as champion.
The layout of the match was different than a lot of other NJPW epics. At times, this felt like the final battle in a superhero movie, with both wrestlers not just controlling the match, but devastating their opponents for like, ten minutes at a time. When those sequences are taking place 30 minutes into the match, you really believe that the match could finish like that, with Ibushi just beating White’s ass for ten minutes and pinning him. It was different, but I thought it really worked. Yes, the match was nearly 50 minutes long, but that just played into the drama because the story being told was that Ibushi was exhausted from having to wrestle Naito the night before.
The highlight of the match for me was the moment, about 30 minutes into it, when Ibushi did his no-selling, with the announcers putting over that Ibushi was going to this trance; “The bright light of Kota Ibushi can occasionally get extremely dark” is how Kevin Kelly described it; and Ibushi just unloading on White with ridiculous strikes. That kind of work creates an aura around Ibushi; he isn’t just an amazing wrestler, he feels like a truly, special star. It is basically the 2021 NJPW equivalent of Hulk Hogan “hulking up” in the 1980s, it just made him feel special.
Jay White has been ridiculed by some, including myself at times, for not being ready for his push. I think since he came back to NJPW after not being able to get into the country during the first several months of the pandemic, he has been tremendous and he absolutely deserved his spot in this match. His vindictiveness was a great counter to Ibushi’s purity, and while it was made clear that Ibushi was the superior athlete and wrestler throughout the match, the idea that White’s craftiness could steal him the match was always lurking. The spot where he placed his feet on the ropes in the same way he stole the G1 Briefcase from Ibushi in November, only for Red Shoes to catch at the last second, was a great near fall and an example of the excellent storytelling that took place in this match. He also cut a great promo in the post-match press conference, convincingly selling the agony and defeat that comes from wrestling for 50 minutes, only to come up short.
I also want to point out how great the English commentary is for these shows. When I first started watching NJPW, there was no English commentary and it took a long time to understand who each of these wrestlers were and what was really going on in NJPW. The team of Kevin Kelly, Rocky Romero and Chris Charlton do a great job informing viewers on the characters of NJPW, as well as selling the action and helping develop the storylines that are taking place in the match. Even for a first time viewer, it is easy to grasp the basics of NJPW because the announce team does such a great job.
Hiromu Takahashi vs Taiji Ishimori: ****¼
This was what you would expect out of a big Hiromu match; just constant action, tons of crazy moves and spots, intricate exchanges and reversals. From a pure technical standpoint, this was probably the most well-executed match on the show. Ishimori is like the perfect athlete. Even just watching him run the ropes, he looks like he is running the perfect physical motion to run fast. The only negative from this match is the just the circumstances; Ishimori and Takahashi have been feuding on and off for years, and while the action is great, these are kind of the same matches each time. Good; even great; but it just doesn’t feel as special this time around.
SANADA vs EVIL: ***¼
The main event push of EVIL in 2020 was a lowlight for many fans of NJPW, as it revolved around constant interference and crappy finishes. This match was hopefully an exorcism of most of that, since SANADA fought off Dick Togo’s attempts to interfere in the match (forcing Togo into taking some very slow, awkward bumps) and beat EVIL. The work in the match was pretty good, and it was a good win for EVIL, but I’m really done with these kind of matches in NJPW.
Shingo Takagi vs Jeff Cobb: ****¼
A brutally physical match; by far the most physical match on either night, which is saying something. This was probably the best match I have seen from Cobb; who is a talented guy but rarely seems to hit that extra gear in big matches. He hit that here against Takagi, and how could he not? Takagi’s pacing and move-set are a perfect opponent for Cobb’s power-style, and both guys beat the hell out of each other here. Cobb getting his nose busted open provided some fortunate color as well. I’m not sure if being a wrestler who had a long career outside of NJPW before coming to the company will hold Takagi down in NJPW, but he should be a main event worker. Could you imagine how great a big Takagi vs Ibushi match would be?
El Desperado and Yoshinobu Kanemaru vs Master Wato and Ryusuke Taguchi: **½
This could have been a lot better. NJPW had high expectations for Wato when he was a young lion, but he didn’t do anything of note when he went on excursion and since coming back as Master Wato he has been a dud. There were a few noticeable timing issues involving Wato and his opponents, and this was not the clean, crisp match you would expect from the junior heavyweights. El Desperado and Kanemaru are good, but this is a division that is desperately in need for new blood and some exciting teams.
Toru Yano vs Bad Luck Fale vs Chase Owens vs BUSHI: *¾
This was a bad match, for the KOPW trophy that nobody cares about. NJPW could have used some of their good wrestlers who were not on the main card of either show, such as Minoru Suzuki, Hirooki Goto or Tomohiro Ishii to make this a serious, very good match. Instead it was built around Yano comedy and Fale and Owens trying to work together. The finish was extremely predictable, with Owens and Fale arguing with each other, allowing Yano to steal the victory. It’s disappointing that NJPW put this on the main card, but could not find a way to fit Suzuki or Ishii on either night.
Kota Ibushi vs Tetsuya Naito: ****¼
This was a very good match; but it unfortunately fell short of the incredibly high standards that the main event of Wrestle Kingdom has set, which is basically five stars or bust. In a way it reminded me a lot of the Johnny Gargano vs Adam Cole matches from NXT; fast paced, tons of big moves and near-falls, but almost so much of it that the drama is dulled, even if the execution of everything is pinpoint. Some people adore that style of match, and if you do this was probably the best match on the first night, but for me it felt jusssst a little too much; especially coming off the heels of the Okada vs Ospreay match which was basically perfect.
Kazuchika Okada vs Will Ospreay: *****
This match had the best story out of any of the matches at Wrestle Kingdom. Ospreay had long been coddled by Okada since coming to NJPW, and their match during the 2019 G1 Climax was the start of a rivalry that turned bitterly personal when Ospreay went heel, beat down Okada and formed his own group, with the goal of Ospreay replacing Okada as the main star in NJPW. Okada to his credit, has played his part masterfully, including a scathing interview on NJPW’s website where he simultaneously downplays Ospreay’s aspirations but also manages to put him over and hype the match. 2020 was a listless year for Okada, which was shocking given his history in the company, but 2021 is off to a great start for him, especially if this feud continues.
Ospreay has always kind of defined himself by having amazing matches, regardless of opponent or situation. Ospreay didn’t “need” to have a great storyline to have a great match; but during that time he rarely has been put in the position to have a top, main-event level match. Sure he had great matches as a junior heavyweight, but those were almost always mid-card matches. For the first time it felt like Ospreay has been put in the position to be a major star, and he got a great story to work with, and the result was probably the best match of his career. I think he should have won this match; but it still managed to be an instant classic even if the wrong guy won. If the feud continues, then it would have made sense for Okada to win.
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Great O-Khan: ***½
This was a huge opportunity for O-Khan, but what I was thinking during this match was just how great of a babyface Tanahashi is. This was a chance to make O-Khan a major star, but it ended up being another showcase for an all-time great in Tanahashi. O-Khan is an interesting case; I like his presentation, I like that he does things differently and he was a good heel for Tanahashi to work against because Tanahashi is such a great seller. However, with the clap crowds, it is really hard to tell just how over O-Khan is. If the crowds were permitted to chant and make real noise, O-Khan might have gotten a ton of heat in this match and the crowd would have been really into it, and he would look like a giant star. Or, the crowd could have been dead and he would be labeled as a bust for having a dead match in the Tokyo Dome with Hiroshi Tanahashi. It’s tough for me to decide if he is a star in the making, or someone who needs to be repackaged.
Satoshi Kojima vs KENTA: ***
Kojima got this match on short notice, as KENTA was supposed to face Juice Robinson, who broke his orbital bone during the World Tag League. Kojima is a capable veteran who can still go in the ring, but this match would have been a legit dream match in 2009 when both of these guys were on the top of their game. In 2021, Kojima is 50 and KENTA isn’t the same after numerous injuries. This was a solid professional wrestling match, but nothing more.
Guerillas of Destiny vs Zack Sabre Jr. and Taichi: **½
The work in this match was quite good; but the match was hurt by the awkward dynamics and constant interference. For all of 2020, ZSJ and Taichi were no good cheating heels; and so they face Guerillas of Destiny, who are also cheating heels. So I guess GoD are bigger heels because they were the heels in this match, which saw a ton of interference and general BS that have hurt NJPW greatly over the past year.
El Phantasmo vs Hiromu Takahashi: ****
Excellent match; and a great showing for Phantasmo. Phantasmo is a heel, but unlike everyone else in Bullet Club, he doesn’t rely on constant interference to get heat, instead doing a lot of basic, more subtle cheating and taunting. Combine that with his athleticism and technical quality, he is a great opponent for a great, charismatic babyface like Takahashi. I would put the title on Phantasmo, but I also understand that Ishimori vs Takahashi is the bigger match for night two, so it makes sense for Takahashi to get the nod. Phantasmo’s time is coming.
In the latest edition of the Gentlemen’s Wrestling Podcast, Jesse Collings (@Jesse Collings) and Jason Ounpraseuth (@JasonOun95) go over their winners and losers of wrestling in 2020. They go over the people, promotions and aspects of pro wrestling that have benefitted during 2020…and the ones that have not. Included are discussions on Roman Reigns, AEW, Monday Night RAW, Hiromu Takahashi, Sasha Banks, NXT and more.