In recent years, New Japan Pro Wrestling’s “Wrestle Kingdom” event has evolved into the premier showcase of professional wrestling from around the world. Held every year on January 4th in the Tokyo Dome, Wrestle Kingdom is New Japan’s biggest show of the year. Throughout these last few years, New Japan has also taken many steps forward in their global expansion with the advent of the New Japan World streaming service, a television deal with Mark Cuban’s AXS TV, and working relationships with various independent wrestling companies from around the world. This year’s Wrestle Kingdom event, however, feels different. Granted I’m a bit newer to puroresu, I think it’s safe to say that New Japan have taken an unexpected approach to Wrestle Kingdom 12. They are taking some big risks and going all in with their biggest show of the year.
The first major headline came when former WWE superstar Chris Jericho appeared on the video board at New Japan’s November event Power Struggle. Jericho has a history with New Japan - specifically a friendship with Keiji Takayama better known as Gedo, who is New Japan’s head booker. Jericho arrived to answer IWGP United States Champion Kenny Omega’s open challenge for Wrestle Kingdom 12. This sent shockwaves throughout the world of professional wrestling. Jericho hasn’t wrestled a match outside of WWE since he signed with the company in 1999 and while the build for this match began very similar to other New Japan matches, it quickly took a different path only weeks later at the finals of New Japan’s World Tag League. After Omega’s match with the Young Bucks, Jericho appeared on the video board again. After delivering another message, we returned to the arena only to see Jericho standing behind Omega in the ring. Jericho steamrolled “The Cleaner”, busted him open with a shot from the title belt, and stood tall. He gave ring announcer and long time Bullet Club supporter Don Callis a codebreaker for good measure as well. This is where the match began to take on a life of its own. An important factor in this match will be the age difference. At 34 years old Kenny Omega is one of the best in-ring competitors on the face of the earth. Standing across the ring will be a 47 year old Chris Jericho. There’s no questioning Jericho’s intelligence however there’s no denying he’s not the athlete he once was either. A no disqualification stipulation was added just weeks before the event which assures that this match will quickly deteriorate into depravity. This stipulation could become the focus of the match and these elements are what make this match so foreign to the Wrestle Kingdom setting. The likelihood of outside interference and the proverbial “crimson mask” isn’t something that’s typical for New Japan’s biggest dance. A match like this would fit perfectly in late 90s WWE, but does it make sense now?
Another match that stems from Power Struggle is the Intercontinental Championship match. Jay White, former Young Lion standout returning from his excursion with American promotion Ring of Honor, debuted his new “Switchblade” character by taking out the Ace of New Japan and IWGP Intercontinental Champion Hiroshi Tanahashi. Tanahashi, a mega-star who has carried the torch for New Japan for years, has been dealing with injuries throughout 2017. He first suffered a bicep tear in May followed by a diagnosis of arthritis in his knee. These injuries have led many to speculate that the years of carrying that torch for New Japan have finally caught up to the Ace. White, on the other hand, is a mere 25 years old. He’s a product of the New Japan system and looks primed to be a keystone of their future. It’s safe to say these men are coming into this match at opposite ends of their careers. A second in-ring interaction between these two followed at one of the “Road to Tokyo Dome” events and saw a much different Tanahashi. Despite his ever changing look and champion charisma, he looked a step slower than he did only a month earlier at Power Struggle. Still, Tanahashi is known for showing up and delivering on the big stage against all odds. The idea of White and Tanahashi stealing the show isn’t far fetched, but is the idea of Tanahashi limping his way through the match either? Only time will tell.
The rest of the card is filled out by matches like the defiant Hirooki Goto putting his hair on the line and challenging the man with the worst personality in the world Minoru Suzuki for his NEVER Openweight Championship. Another former WWE star and former Ring of Honor World Champion Cody challenges Kota Ibushi in a singles match that feels like a do-or-die moment for Cody’s pro wrestling career. Many speculate that this could be the bridge between an Omega/Ibushi program. There’s a fatal four way match for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship as Marty Scurll defends against Hiromu Takahashi, KUSHIDA, and former champion Will Ospreay. This is the first time a fatal four way singles match for a championship will be held in New Japan. World Tag League winners SANADA and EVIL challenge Davey Boy Smith Jr. and Lance Archer for the IWGP Heavyweight Tag-Team Championships. One of the matches I’m looking forward to the most is newcomers Roppongi 3K defending the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Titles against The Young Bucks, a team that many consider the face of that division.
It would be foolish to claim there is no intrigue for this event, however, there is undoubtedly a different feel compared to recent years. Many of New Japan’s top players throughout 2017 do not have prominent positions on the biggest card of 2018. Tomohiro Ishii, Juice Robinson, Michael Elgin, and Zack Sabre Jr. are all thrown into a hodgepodge for the NEVER six-man tag titles. The likely career ending injury to Katsuyori Shibata in early 2017 seems to have left a noticeable gap in the middle of this show. Most importantly, while New Japan has traditionally built their Wrestle Kingdom card around in-ring competition and long-term storytelling, it seems that in their desire to reach a global market, they may have forgotten what made their product so appealing to new fans in the past. A number of the matches feel rushed and not well thought out. This is what made Wrestle Kingdom such an attraction in the first place. It was the climax of a year long journey that often tied in stories from years past. And while most of the card may lack in that category, it is where the true main event of this year’s Wrestle Kingdom will deliver in spades.
Only four years ago, Tetsuya Naito won the G1 Climax for the first time and went on to challenge Kazuchika Okada for his IWGP World Heavyweight Championship at Wrestle Kingdom 8. This match was scheduled to be the main event; however, New Japan left it up to a fan vote. Instead of what was supposed to be a moment in the sun for Tetsuya Naito, the fans chose Shinsuke Nakamura’s Intercontinental Championship match against Hiroshi Tanahashi as the main event. Naito would go on to lose the title match and his place in New Japan was uncertain. It wasn’t until 2015 when Naito debuted a new look and persona that everything began to change. Naito joined the Los Ingobernables faction during an excursion with Lucha Libre promotion CMLL. Upon returning to New Japan, Naito formed Los Ingobernables de Japon, his own personal wing of the faction. Again, he took aim at Okada and the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. This time, with help from his Los Ingobernables de Japon stablemates, he was successful. Unfortunately for Naito he would lose the rematch. Once again he had been shoved out of the spotlight which he felt he deserved. Naito then set his sights on the Intercontinental Championship. He would defeat Michael Elgin for the title and go on to successfully defend it against one of the men who stole his spotlight at Wrestle Kingdom 8 - Hiroshi Tanahashi. This was a big step for Naito in reclaiming the spot he felt was taken from him three years earlier. Throughout that title reign Naito degraded and destroyed the championship. From throwing the title around arenas to kicking it across the floor, Naito showed fans how he felt about being robbed of the spotlight. At one point he threw the belt at a ring post so hard that it snapped. It wasn’t until Tanahashi won it back that a new title was made. Once he lost that title there was only one goal Naito had left to achieve: main event Wrestle Kingdom. Naito set out to win the G1 Climax earlier this year and was successful. Something else had changed along the way, too. The fans began to applaud Naito’s every move. Now one of the hottest acts in New Japan after completely reinventing himself, Naito is rolling into Wrestle Kingdom with a monstrous amount of momentum. The fans love Naito because Naito doesn’t love them anymore. A true anti-hero. He is the irresistible force and Kazuchika Okada is the immovable object.
After Okada defeated Naito for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, he would go on to defend it against numerous challengers. His match with Naomichi Marufuji was an instant classic. The trifecta of matches with Kenny Omega are heralded as some of the greatest matches of all time. His legendary clash with Katsuyori Shibata was as much a wrestling match as it was a fight. Minoru Suzuki stretched him to his absolute physical limits. Still, Okada didn’t fold. He has won a plethora of wrestler of the year awards and many fans consider this title reign to be one of, if not the greatest of all time. Okada truly is the Rainmaker. He is the face of New Japan Pro-Wrestling. Nevertheless, one has to wonder if he’s underestimating Naito. Okada knows he can beat Naito. In fact, the only way Naito has managed to beat Okada is with outside interference. Has Okada’s remarkable title run which is now over 550 days, caught up to the champion? Will Naito relent on his quest for that career-defining moment? Can Naito finally defeat a man who has seemed superhuman at times throughout the past year? And most importantly, can he do it on his own? These questions will be answered inside the Tokyo Dome on January 4th.
The potential is there for this to be one of the most entertaining and enthralling events New Japan has produced. The card is loaded with some of the top professional wrestling talent from around the world. New Japan always puts in a ton of effort with production and showmanship. However, it bears repeating, this year’s Wrestle Kingdom feels different. Aside from a main event that promises to be spectacular New Japan is taking a number of risks. While this show will likely provide a great deal of entertainment value, one has to wonder if it will provide classic wrestling matches the likes of which we have seen in the past. New Japan is adopting a new, almost foreign formula for their biggest show of the year. A new chapter in this story is about to be written. How will New Japan begin what promises to be one of the most interesting years in professional wrestling in recent memory? Don’t miss Wrestle Kingdom 12 live on January 4th!
Watch Wrestle Kingdom 12 live on New Japan World on Thursday, January 4th, 2018!
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