WrestleWatch: Wrestle Kingdom 14- Night 1
Just a few days into 2020 and we've already got one of the biggest events on the pro wrestling calendar taking place! From New Japan Pro Wrestling, it's Wrestle Kingdom 14! Now, over the last few years, NJPW has solidified itself as the number two promotion in the wrestling world, due to expansion into the US and much more English language content. And before any anti-WWE smarks get mad at me for labelling NJPW secondary to WWE, I mean it in terms of scope, worldwide appeal, brand recognition, that kind of thing. Purely looking at the art of pro wrestling, and matches bell-to-bell, New Japan is as good as it gets.
I'm hardly a New Japan historian, but for a little context- Wrestle Kingdom is the New Japan equivalent to WWE's Wrestlemania event- taking place Jan 4 every year in the Tokyo Dome, it's the biggest show on the NJPW schedule. In fact, WK has been key to NJPW's international expansion. WK 9 was the first event that offered English commentary, with Jim Ross and Matt Striker on the call. WK 10 featured a classic between AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura, who put it all on the line before heading to WWE. WK 12 featured the New Japan return for the legendary Chris Jericho, sending shockwaves through the industry as he challenged Kenny Omega. This year, the ever growing nature of the company provided them the opportunity to do something a little different- for the first time ever, Wrestle Kingdom in 2020 is a two-day event, running the Dome on back-to-back nights on Jan 4 and 5.
I really enjoy having this event at this time of the year because December in WWE is usually a down period, due to the holiday season and being awkwardly stuck between Survivor Series fallout and Royal Rumble build. Even NXT phoned it in this past week with an Awards show. AEW took a week off (admittedly, they came out strong on the Jan 1 Dynamite). So ringing in the New Year with some great and important matches fills that void for me.
Full disclosure- I am currently writing this review while Night 2 of Wrestle Kingdom is taking place. Why? Well, it seems that the streaming service NJPW World was ill-equipped to handle the demands of many new subscribers, which took the live stream out for a considerable length of time. It eventually kicked back in, but the quality of it was so dire that it was basically unwatchable. So, I'm pretty pissed off about that. It is also available through FITE TV on PPV, but seeing as Christmas just happened and a large number of bills swiftly followed, I'm not in a financial position to add the cost of a PPV to my expenses this month. And it would be tough to do on principle alone- I'm a loyal NJPW World subscriber and have been since WK12, I've already paid for this show through my subscription! Arrgh!
(Breathe, Mick, breathe)
I'll just have to watch it on demand tomorrow, once NJPW get their shit together. In the meantime, I don't want my rage to affect my positive feelings on Night 1 of Wrestle Kingdom 14, which was an exceptional show. Let's. Do. This.
Kevin Kelly on the call with Gino Gambino. The man formerly known as "Mr. Juicy" has quickly become a delightful presence on commentary. Also, Gino is Australian, and I'm all for people from the Aussie wrestling scene making it overseas. Also on commentary, Rocky Romero, who has bundles of personality, and Chris Charlton, who isn't the most charismatic talker in the world, but he's still good value- loaded with historical facts and able to translate the Japanese promos for us monolingual plebs.
Match 1: Mayu Iwatani & Arisa Hoshiki def. Hana Kimura & Giulia (at 9:04)
Thoughts: This was a special Stardom match, Stardom being an all-women's promotion in Japan. Unfortunately, I can't provide any more insight into this match, as it was actually a dark match not televised on the pre-show- instead, the pre-show started 15 minutes after the advertised time. Sucks. I've never seen Stardom, but I figured this would be a good introduction for me to the promotion. Don't tell me the New Japan brass are a little Saudi-ish when it comes to women?
No, that can't be right, they basically shove the TV camera up Pieter (The Tokyo Latina)'s ass. Moving on.
Match 2: Toa Henare, Karl Fredericks, Clark Connors & Alex Coughlin def. Togi Makabe, Tomoaki Honma, Yota Tsuiji & Yuya Uemura (at 7:36)
Thoughts: Basic eight man tag action, with a mix of established NJPW talent and "Young Lions" (men in training in the NJPW and LA Dojos). The LA boys are JACKED. Cool spot where Tsuji has someone in a Boston Crab, someone tries to break it up with knife edge chops, and he just sits there taking them, yelling back in his opponents face. Henare, as the only somewhat tenured star on his team, picks up the win with the Toa Bottom- like the Rock Bottom, but his name is Toa, so... genius! (**)
Match 3: Hiroyoshi Tenzan & Satoshi Kojima def. Yuji Nagata & Manabu Nakanishi (at 5:47)
Thoughts: In the same ballpark as the previous match, although a tad slower pace given the age of the competitors. All four men in this tag match are NJPW legends, so it's cool seeing them get a spot on this big Tokyo Dome card as a mark of respect. Nothing overly memorable though (**)
Japanese narration of the opening video package. No idea what dude is saying, but he sounds excited, so I'm in. In the days leading up to WK14, I watched Power Struggle and Showdown In San Jose to build up to this card, so I am really keen for it. Ah, simpler days when NJPW worked properly... no, Mick, focus.
Match 1: Naoki Sano, Shinjiro Otani, Tatsuhito Takaiwa & Ryusuke Taguchi def. Jushin Liger, Tiger Mask, Tatsumi Fujinami & The Great Sasuke (at 8:52)
Thoughts: You bet your ass I'm using Wikipedia to make sure I get the spelling of all these names correct. "Tiger Mask" is a hard one. On a serious note, this weekend marks the retirement of pro wrestling legend, Jushin "Thunder" Liger. He got a tremendous ovation in the Tokyo Dome, as did all the other Japanese legends involved in the match, but even if you don't follow the Japanese wrestling scene, you know who Liger is. It wasn't all about entrances, reactions and emotions though, the old timers actually went out there and threw their bodies around the ring and ringside area with reckless abandon. Tons of fun to kick off the PPV card, a pleasant surprise and the right person won in Taguchi- the youngest man in the match at 40 years old. (***)
After the match, everyone embraced and there was a bit of a curtain call for Liger. He'll be back one more time though, teaming with Naoki Sano to face Hiromu Takahashi and Ryu Lee on Night 2. Still, I'll say it here... Thank You Liger.
Match 2: Suzuki-gun (Zack Sabre Jr, Minoru Suzuki, Taichi & El Desperado) def. Los Ingobernables de Japon (Evil, Sanada, Shingo Takagi & Bushi) (at 8:39)
Thoughts: Faction warfare here, and pretty standard stuff. It's the only negative of this two-night approach- this was simply build to the ZSJ vs. Sanada title match on Night 2, not a Wrestle Kingdom level match on its own merits. Zack makes Bushi tap by doing weird Zack things. Knocking off a half-star due to the awesome Minoru Suzuki being a total non-factor here. (**)
Match 3: Chaos (Hirooki Goto, Tomohiro Ishii, Toru Yano & Yoshi-Hashi) def. Bullet Club (Bad Luck Fale, Chase Owens, Yujiro Takahashi & Kenta) (w/ Pieter) (at 8:17)
Thoughts: Not too dissimilar to the previous match. My early highlight was Pieter, and the camera shamelessly zooming in on her ass as I referred to earlier, but there was some good wrestling action to be found here, the highlight being Ishii hitting Fale with a brainbuster, which drew a "Holy shit!!!" from Gino on commentary. Goto wins with the GTR on Takahashi, looking strong going into his title challenge against Kenta on Night 2. (**1/2)
Match 4: IWGP Tag Team Championship- Finjuice (David Finlay & Juice Robinson) def. The Guerrilas of Destiny (Tama Tonga & Tonga Loa) (at 13:25)
Thoughts: This was the first time since the opener that a match really felt like Wrestle Kingdom. Not just because there was a title change, it just had that sense of importance, and all four men wrestled with that intensity. Finlay looks much leaner and sharper since returning from injury, Juice has found the right balance of being serious to go with his flamboyance, and GOD was the tag team glue holding it all together. Nice false finish where Jado almost costs Finjuice the match with the use of a kendo stick, but the boys rally to claim gold in the Tokyo Dome! (***)
Match 5: IWGP United States Championship- Texas Death Match- Jon Moxley def. Lance Archer (at 14:26)
Thoughts: This was brilliant violence. Not as gory as the AEW Lights Out match with Kenny Omega, but Mox was still Mox, bringing a bunch of weapons, and Archer was all too keen to meet him right there. Archer hit his finisher slam, the Blackout, onto a row of chairs, and later incorporated a plastic bag into his EBD Claw to try and suffocate Moxley. Dude. You sadistic fuck! Mox would win back the gold with a Death Rider (Dirty Deeds, Paradigm Shift... how many names can one finisher have?) off the apron through two tables. The big Texan couldn't answer the 10 count, and that's all she wrote. Moxley vs. Juice is going down on Night 2. (****)
Match 6: IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship- Hiromu Takahashi def. Will Ospreay (at 24:33)
Thoughts: Just when I think Will Ospreay can't amaze me any more... he pulls out another mad sequence. Hiromu on the outside, goes for the Sasuke Special, Hiromu catches him in a German Suplex, Will lands on his feet on the ramp, charges, Hiromu tries to suplex him on the apron, but Ospreay leaps into the ring instead, and quickly springs back out of the ring to hit the Sasuke Special. Inhuman shit. It's already been gifed (is that a word?) incessantly on Twitter, but the character work and psychology of Ospreay really shone here. He's friends with the returning Hiromu, he respects him a great deal, but still... this motherfucker is trying to take his title and legacy, so he's going to be vicious and attack the weak spot of the previously broken neck. All hope seems lost for Hiromu, Ospreay's hitting his best stuff... then Hiromu rallies! He hits the Time Bomb! Ospreay kicks out! Hiromu needs to go beyond! ..And he does, with a spike Emerald Flosion, he wins the title from Will Ospreay in his return singles match. Unreal. (*****)
Hey, Robbie Eagles pinned Hiromu in his actual return match. It was a tag team match, but hey, that's gotta count for something. Hiromu vs. Robbie, just take my money already! Provided you can broadcast the match with the stream breaking its neck. Fuck.
Match 7: IWGP Intercontinental Championship- Tetsuya Naito def. Jay White (at 33:54)
Thoughts: This had a more old school feel and pacing, as most Jay White matches do. It told a great story, with Switchblade ruthlessly targeting the knee of Naito, and Naito struggling to mount offense. At one point, his legs were so shot that they couldn't hold him up after getting shot off the ropes with an Irish Whip. But in classic babyface fashion, Naito rallied, and after multiple Destinos, he finally claimed IC gold once again! (****1/4)
Match 8: IWGP Heavyweight Championship- Kazuchika Okada def. Kota Ibushi (at 39:16)
Thoughts: At this point, these two men are highly familiar with each other. They clashed in a classic in the G1 last year. They traded the advantage several times and the intensity ramped up, hitting each other harder and harder- Ibushi destroyed Okada with a body kick, Okada leapt over the barricade with max speed and force, flattening Ibushi. Okada busted out an old submission, Red Ink, recognising that he would need to throw absolutely everything he had at the Golden Star. Then, a switch flipped. Ibushi got a blank stare on his face, and started walking through everything Okada threw. He retailiated with the stiffest strikes I've ever seen, to the point I almost thought he was straight shooting. He nails Okada with the trademark German Suplex over the ropes. A missed Phoenix Splash gives Okada the opportunity to hit the Rainmaker. Ibushi back with a Golden Star Powerbomb. Okada with a Spinning Tombstone. Ibushi with the Kamigoye. Finally, after several Rainmakers, Okada keeps Ibushi down. A classic absolutely worthy of the storied history of the Tokyo Dome. (*****)
Post-match, Naito walks out, newly won IWGP Intercontinental Championship in hand. It's Okada vs. Naito on Night 2, for all the gold.
Night 1 of Wrestle Kingdom started slow- with the exception of the Liger match- and early on I felt like I was just watching a preview show for Night 2. But by the time the marquee matches rolled around, I almost forgot there was a Night 2 at all. The top 4 matches boasted 4 very different wrestling styles, but all of them were near-perfect representations of those styles. Will Ospreay vs. Hiromu Takahashi and Kazuchika Okada vs. Kota Ibushi have to be at the forefront of the conversation for Match Of The Year by the time 2020 draws to a close. Then again, who knows what MOTY contenders that Night 2 might bring?
Until next time, take care,