Boys and girls it is with a happy heart and a jump in my step that I happily welcome you to the holiday season. After a year of doom, gloom, sadness, frustration, and failure, (and that's just TNA,) we have finally reached the most magical moment of the year, the day that brings to us the pinnacle of human happiness and embodies the spirit of giving. And since you've already read the title of this article, you know damn well that i'm not talking about some fat guy bringing you wooden toys. I'm talking about goddamn NJPW Wrestle Kingdom, which will air on January 4th for all the good little girls and boys of the world.
“But Cewsh,” you holler into the night, as if I can hear you, “I haven't really been following New Japan lately, and my friends have never watched New Japan at all! How are we supposed to know what is going on in order to enjoy the show? Should we listen to the English announcers?” To which I would respond that a) you should never, ever, ever listen to the English announcers on a Japanese wrestling show and b) don't worry about a thing, because together we're going to run through everything you need to know before clicking play on your pirated copy of the show. No judgement. We're all sinner here.
So kick back, relax, and get ready to learn how to pronounce some really strange words, (Ingoberanablesbales?) Because we're here to help!
What Is Wrestle Kingdom?
Whether you yourself are new to New Japan, or have simply directed a clueless friend of yours to this post as a way of explaining things, (thanks by the way!) the first thing we have to explain is what Wrestle Kingdom is, and why everyone makes such a big deal about it.
The easiest comparison to make is to WWE's Wrestlemania, which is the only wrestling event of the year that has this level of grandeur and spectacle. But whereas WWE's flagship show is essentially a gigantic carnival designed to make WWE profitable right before the end of the fiscal year, Wrestle Kingdom is, and has always been, built around the concept of establishing the year ahead. Going into each Wrestle Kingdom dating back however many years, there is always a central question revolving around who will be the flagship star of the company for the year to come. Sometimes it's about pitting the old guard against a new up and comer looking to take the throne, (Keiji Mutoh/Hiroshi Tanahashi, Hiroshi Tanahashi/Kazuchika Okada,) and sometimes it's about two men at the very top, looking for one definitive statement to establish themselves as the king, (Shinsuke Nakamura/Hiroshi Tanahashi, Hiroshi Tanahashi/Kazuchika Okada again.) The focus is on concluding the year prior and birthing a fresh new year, which is sort of what Wrestlemania tries to do, except that it waits until goddamn April to do it.
Assembled here are the finest matches that New Japan could produce, (in theory,) and each match tells a very particular story, many of which date back years. There is also almost never a Flo Rida performance.
What Are The Major Storylines Coming Into The Show?
I'll talk a little about the undercard storylines in brief at the end of this article, but those matches aren't what is bringing you to the party. This match is built HEAVILY around 2 matches with major significance, not just to the present of New Japan, but to it's past and future as well. Let's start with the first one...
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Tetsuya Naito
Any discussion of this match has to begin with a thorough explanation of what these two guys represent. For the past 10 years, Hiroshi Tanahashi has embodied New Japan Pro Wrestling in a way that even John Cena would be jealous of. He saved the company from death and obscurity, (which I wrote about here,) produced a rival out of thin air in Okada by carrying him to career making matches, and then spent the next few years being the global face of the New Japan revolution. He is a 5 star match machine, could possibly be one of the finest wrestlers ever to lace up a pair of boots, and is such a goddamn true born babyface by this point that he could legally change his name to Goldy Lionface and all I would do is wonder what took him so long.
And then there's Naito. Originally pushed to the moon as the next Tanahashi, Naito struggled hugely to connect to crowds as a squeaky clean athletic babyface. As time went on, Naito started to explore the concept of being a disrespectful punk kid, refusing to shake Keiji Mutoh's hand after a match, seeming to grow bored with his own matches and just kind of being an ungrateful dickhead. But it wasn't until fans soured on him altogether that New Japan sent him off to Mexico on an excursion and gave him the gimmick that would make his career. Los Ingobernables. Spanish for “The Ungovernables”.
Los Ingobernables was actually a stable that already existed in CMLL, led by Rush, that Naito was made a member of during his sojourn to Mexico, but it was when Naito brought the concept of the group back to Japan that it heated up quickly. Los Ingobernables stand for disrespect. In Japan, a company that, even in modern times, is built upon a foundation of outwardly showing respect to those who have earned it, the idea of a faction devoted entirely to disrespecting anyone and everyone and everything carried serious weight, and Los Ingobernables springboarded off of the backs of the Bullet Club to occupy that space as the top faction in Japanese wrestling. Naito is the figurehead of the whole thing. A man blessed with all the physical gifts in the world, who other wrestlers have referred to as a genius when it comes to putting matches together and inventing new things in a wrestling ring, Naito nevertheless steadfastly does not give a shit. Throughout the year he was such a part of every interesting or controversial moment that took place in New Japan that he was named MVP of Japanese wrestling by Tokyo Sport, becoming the first person not named Okada or Tanahashi to do so in 6 years. Dude has made it.
This is not the first time that Tanahashi and Naito have met, but this one feels big. Naito has been decimating and humiliating all of the pillars of New Japan, from Okada to Girooki Goto to Tomohiro Ishii and on and on, and Tanahashi has promised to become something new in order to turn back the scourge of the Ungovernable, even going so far as to retire his legendary theme music to debut something more fitting for the attitude he's bringing to this match.
Kenny Omega vs. Kazuchika Okada
The Tanahashi/Naito storyline is great, but it's a goddamn curtain jerker next to the long term significance of what is going on in the main event. Kazuchika Okada, (the Japanese wrestler most likely to be known by your 6 year old nephew,) is defending his title against the current leader of the Bullet Club, Kenny Omega. But unlike all of the past leaders of the Bullet Club that Okada has tangled with, Omega has something special going on. In New Japan, no title reign really matters unless it starts or ends at Wrestle Kingdom. So for all the times that AJ Styles held the title in the summer months as a transition champion, it would still be fair to say that no Junior Heavyweight gaijin, (foreign,) wrestler has ever been given a push at this level. Omega is a special case, though. Omega wrestled on the Japanese indies for a decade, paying his dues at every level along the way, and is one of the few gaijin who actually learned Japanese and could communicate fluently with audiences. He's connected in a big way, and has had a series of matches this year that are utterly out of this world, eventually winning the G1 Classic to secure himself this title match against the biggest star in the business outside of Connecticut.
Omega is full of bitterness from a career spent bumping up against glass ceilings placed on gaijin talent in Japan, as well junior heavyweight in general, and he has declared a one man war on Okada that has seen him destroying Okada again and again at the conclusion of shows leading up to Wrestle Kingdom. If Omega wins then it isn't just a victory for himself, but a final dominant declaration of victory for the gaijin invasion that the Bullet Club have been the leering face of since Prince Devitt turned on the Funky Weapon and showed Japan what a heel looked like. Okada is protecting the sanctity of his company, his country and his personal pride from the ever encroaching, ever reaching hand of these American pig dogs. Would it be crazy to say that a nation's pride is at stake? Yes, yes it would be. BUT I'M SAYING IT ANYWAY.
Now let's take a gander at some other matches on this show.
Tiger Mask W vs. Tiger the Dark
In one of the coolest moments in the past year, Japan rebooted the old Tiger Mask cartoon that originally spawned the Tiger Mask gimmick in the first place back in the 70s and 80s. The Tiger Mask character had pretty much died off until this reboot, but now it;s back with a whole new audience and a bunch of fun to be had. And none other than Kota Ibushi, the heart throb from the WWE Crusierweight Classic, is playing the Tiger Mask this time around. Here, he's going up against Tiger the Dark who is played by American indy wrestler ACH. He is called Tiger the Dark because...um...look, let's just not go there, okay?
The Young Bucks vs. Roppongi Vice
The Young Bucks are as much a fixture of Wrestle Kingdom shows at this point as anyone else, and every year they seem to find some way to have a match against Rocky Romero. This match is no exception and should be a fun, high flying spotfest for fun, fun, fun.
Oh, and just because I keep getting this question, Roppongi is the area of Tokyo where all the foreigners hang out and has a super fun and crazy night life scene. Kind of like Miami. Where the show Miami Vice took place. Roppongi Vice. Right. Moving on.
Bullet Club vs. Los Ingobernables vs. David Finlay, Ricochet and Satoshi Kojima
The two biggest stables in Japan today and a motley collection of weirdos thrown together because fans like them and they have nothing better to do. You could post this match description in virtually every undercard 6 man tag in Japanese history.
Cody vs. Juice Robinson
Hey, so remember in NXT a few years ago, there was a dude who looked like a hippy and had crazy hair? Okay, well for some ready New Japan has adopted him as their resident gaijin. Meanwhile Cody Rhodes, who is not allowed to go by the name Cody Rhodes because WWE owns that, has stomped his way into town, joined the Bullet Club and christened himself “The American Nightmare.” This is a squash match with fancy carpeting.
Kyle O'Reilly vs. Adam Cole
Ring of Honor is still a thing? Huh. Good for them.
Guerillas of Destiny vs. Chaos vs. G.B.H
Oine day I will sit down and write the extremely confusing history of Chaos and G.B.H., two stables who have been lazily feuding with each other for a decade for no real reason, and boast members who often don't even acknowledge that they're part of the group. Anyway, this match is mostly a place for them to stash beloved fan favorites whose names begin with T.
Kushida vs. Hiromu Takahashi
If Kushida were 4 inches taller, it's incredibly likely that he would have been the man to succeed Hiroshi Tanahashi as the king babyface of this company. Unfortunately he is a top level talent stuck in a junior heavyweight body, and much like Jushin Liger throughout much of his career, his biggest problem is that there just aren't that many people for him to wrestle. Cue Takahashi, who has just come back from his journey to Mexico with a fresh new weirdo gimmick and who has designs on the title. Very, very passionate designs.
Ahem. Yes. Passionate.
Katsuyori Shibata vs. Hirooki Goto
THE MILD POWERS EXPLODE.
These two are great friends and former tag team partners who have once again found themselves on opposite sides of a match. This match will be so stiff, that each man has a replacement skull on hand in case of emergency.
Alright, that's the card. There will also be the traditional battle royal full of legends, rookies and whoever else picked up the phone that day, and maybe even a surprise or two. And if nothing i've said here has sold you on the show, just remember this. There is no such thing as a bad Wrestle Kingdom show. There has never been one, there might very well never be one. It is the safest investment that your wrestling dollar can buy. So if you're ready for the white hot fire of the wrestling gods, sign up for your NJPW World subscription, tune in at 1 in the morning like the rest of the true believers, and be join the ranks of the converted. I'll be right there with you on the edge of my seat tweeting in all caps like a madman. It's the most wonderful time of the yeeeeeeeeear.