Monday 5 January 2015

NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 9 review

“This is the WrestleMania of Japan,” said Jim Ross at the start of the English language broadcast of Wrestle Kingdom 9. Comparing one company’s biggest annual show to another’s may not be the best idea, opening up a number of undesirable comparisons to sports entertainment in this case, but it does create a useful shorthand and make an immediate impact on people watching New Japan for the first time.

Yes, Wrestle Kingdom 9. This is the first time I’ve reviewed a New Japan show (their co-productions with Ring of Honor last year were enjoyable but weren’t full NJPW cards). I thought it would be a good one to start with for a number of reasons. Firstly it had English language commentary provided by Jim Ross and Matt Striker, which set it up as a natural jump-on point for anyone who doesn’t speak Japanese. Secondly it was the company’s biggest show of the year, which meant a nice recap of recent plots and what will likely be amongst the most important matches I the company all year. Plus it simply looked like a good show.

After a pre-show Royal Rumble rules battle royal, won by Yuji Nagata, the show proper got underway with a four-way tag team match. The IWGP junior tag team champions reDRagon defended against The Young Bucks, Forever Hooligans, and Time Splitters. As Kushida and Alex Shelley made their way to the ring JR discussed Kushida’s 6-0-2 MMA record. His would be a theme throughout the show (it made a nice substitute for the college football natter he’s more known for).

It took a while to turn into the spot-fest it was destined to be but when it got there it was very enjoyable. Highlights included Shelley super kicking O'Reilly as he leapt off the apron; the Bucks performing a series of dives onto everyone else; Kushida hitting a Swanton onto the three other teams; the Bucks throwing out kicks and JR using the words “super kick party”; a Meltzer driver on Koslov, broken up by Fish and O'Reilly; a double handspring elbow to reDRagon from Kushida; a Bucks buckle bomb; an assisted DDT into a German suplex from reDRagon; and the match-ending exploder and Chasing the Dragon on Koslov. It was the ideal opener, fast paced and action-packed.

Match number two saw Jeff Jarrett, Yujiro Takahashi and Bad Luck Fale take on Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Satoshi Kojima and Tomoaki Honma. The Bullet Club lads had Karen Jarrett (I approve) and Scott D'Amore (I do not approve) at ringside with them.

It was not the best match, but it wasn't meant to be. It was a nice concoction of heel shenanigans and hot tags. Being a Jarrett match this naturally included the use of a flimsy stunt guitar. The introduction of that prop ended up backfiring on him when he accidentally smashed it over Takahashi's head, leading to Honma getting a top rope headbutt on Takahashi for the win.

Sticking with tag action, the third match on the show was an eight man tag bout pitting Toru Yano and NOAH's Shane Haste,  Mikey Nicholls (collectively known as The Mighty Don't Kneel) and GHC heavyweight champion Naomichi Marufuji against Takahashi Iizuka, Shelton Benjamin (who has reinvented himself as the totally different Shelton X Benjamin in NJPW) and Lance Archer and Davey Boy Smith Jr (collectively known as Killer Elite Squad).

Yano and Iizuka started with some comedy but it didn't last long. TMDK and KES soon got into the ring to provide some swift, enjoyable tag action and make sure the match passed muster. That was followed by a spirited but sloppy in places exchange between Iizuka and Marufuji. Benjamin provided the spot of the match with his vault-to-the-top-rope belly-to-belly suplex on Marufuji. The GHC champ won the match for his team after all the Suzukigun members bar Iizuka disappeared, leaving their partner to take a double gorilla press and a tiger uppercut knee lift. The match was short enough to stop the eight outstaying their welcome but long enough for them to make it an enjoyable watch.

Match four saw Kazushi Sakuraba pitted against Minoru Suzuki in a match JR informed us had been a lifetime in the making. Both men had been taught to wrestle by British shooter Billy Robinson, with Suzuki having also received training from the equally formidable Karl Gotch (that guy JBL references every other pay-per-view). It was talked up as a shoot match. It wasn’t a shoot, but it was super stiff.

The pair brawled out onto the entrance ramp within minutes of the opening bell. There Sakuraba applied a kimura to his foe. He ended up breaking when he was told he had to get into the ring to earn a victory. Not that Suzuki had tapped out.

When they returned to the ring Suzuki was clutching his arm. He took a barrel-load of kicks and survived an armbar before they exchanged slaps and he managed to apply a rear naked choke. Sakuraba passed out in that. Suzuki won via referee stoppage. After the match Sakuraba offered a handshake. Suzuki accepted after a Dramatic Pause™.

That slobberknocker (which, amazingly, Ross had to be prompted to say) was followed by another. NEVER openweight champion Tomohiro Ishii defended against Togi Makabe. The early going was characterised by elbows, clotheslines, power slams, chops, forearms, and no-selling. Lots of no-selling. It wasn’t in danger of being overly flashy but both men put such force and ferocity into their performances that even the basic moves they were running through seemed devastating.

The second wrestling move of the match was a northern lights suplex from Makabe. Ishii followed up with a lariat to a cornered Makabe, a stalling suplex from the second rope, and a power bomb. Makabe kicked out and floored the champ with a lariat, then dropped him with a power bomb before hauling him back to his feet for a German suplex.

They returned to the corner, where Makabe hit a ropey fire carry off the top rope. Ishii kicked out, no sold some lariats, fell to a Makabe lariat, and kicked out at one. Back on his feet he gave 'The Unchained Gorilla' a German suplex, but Makabe rolled to his feet... where he was dropped by an lariat from ‘The Stone Pitbull’.

More clotheslines followed. Makabe got a near fall off a dragon suplex. They traded more forearms, then headbutts, and then double arm sledge shots. Makabe ended it with a knee drop from the top rope. By what Striker said it was something of an upset as Ishii is the more popular of the two and has been on a hot streak. Perhaps it was done to get the title off him to free him up for bigger and better things later in the year?

After a lengthy bit of shilling for future shows (which could have been boring but was presented in such an energetic fashion that it wasn't) we were treated to the IWGP junior heavyweight title match. Ryusuke Taguchi, former Apollo 55 tag team partner of Prince Devitt, defended against 'The Cleaner' Kenny Omega. Yes, 'The Cleaner'. JR said Omega reminded him of Brian Pillman. His new entrance gear gave him a look that reminded me of Rhett Titus and Cliff Compton, with Razor Ramon's toothpick thrown in for good measure.

The match had a great opening stretch, being heavy on lightning counter sequences. Omega took control when he sprayed Taguchi in the face with what could have been anything from spray paint to hair spray (judging by Omega’s hair it could have been black tinted hair spray). The challenger controlled the match for several minutes before Taguchi came back with some topes that wiped out both Omega and The Young Bucks, who were acting as heel cornermen.

Taguchi tried for Eddie Guerrero’s Three Amigos but Omega halted it after one. He hit the champion with a Fameasser and then a drop kick as Taguchi went for a cross body block from the top. A power bomb earned him a two count. Power bomb by omega.

Taguchi hit a Chickenwing facebuster, which used to form the basis of Apollo 55’s Black Hole Vacation. That got him two. Sensing their man was in trouble the Bucks tried to distract the champion but ended up getting knocked off the apron. Left alone without any Bullet Club assistance Omega seized the initiative, delivering a German suplex and a knee to the temple on Taguchi. He then pulled him to his feet and gave him an electric chair driver, the One Winged Angel, taking the victory and the championship and ending a great match. 

The gold kept coming as IWGP tag champs Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows, representing Bullet Club, defended against Hirooki Goto and Katsuyori Shibata, collectively known as Meiyu Tag. What followed was a lively bout with plenty of strikes, traditional tag psychology, and power moves. Shibata and Goto worked well together, overcoming the power, dirty tactics and experience of the Bullet Club to capture the titles off a double team alarm clock and a PK on Gallows.

Tetsuya Naito and AJ Styles were up after that. Worth noting is that Ross and Striker discussed the controversial nature of the Styles Clash as AJ walked to the ring. In case you’ve missed the hubbub around, Styles has legitimately broken the necks of Lionheart and Yoshi Tatsu after they instinctively tucked their chins when taking the move, instead of tilting their head back. It was a clever move to get the discussion in as it reminded everyone how dangerous the move and made Styles appear heelish for continuing to use it.

It's a good job they mentioned it during the entrance because Styles went for the move as soon as Naito was in the ring, kicking the match off with a bang. Naito fought him off and they brawled to the outside, AJ taking a drop kick from the apron and sprawling into the guardrail. Back in the ring he turned the tables and worked over Naito’s leg, softening him up for the Calf Killer. After a couple of minutes Naito got a little bit of hope when he hit Styles with a tornado DDT, a drop kick to the back of the head, and a senton splash. He couldn’t keep control of the match though, Styles soon regained the advantage, fighting out of a top rope hurricanrana and smashing Naito with a springboard forearm.

Naito tried a suplex. Styles countered into a neck breaker. Naito took a German suplex and then got a flash rollup for a two count. He smacked Styles with a series of chops then set him up for the Stardust Press but Styles made a quick recovery and trapped him in the Calf Killer. After a lengthy bit of time trapped in the hold Naito gallantly made it to the ropes, but it was clear the damage had been done. He managed to hit 'The Phenomenal Ome' with a Uranage and a dragon suplex but quickly found himself blasted with a Pele kick and Prince Devitt's Bloody Sunday.

Then Styles tried a Styles Clash again. Naito escaped, back dropping Styles over the top rope to the floor. When he returned to the ring he was met with a drop kick and propped up on the top rope for a hurricanrana. That would be Naito’s undoing: Styles halted the move halfway through, turning it into a Styles Clash from the second rope for the victory. It was a good match, constructed and wrestled so well that Naito wasn't weakened by the loss, but that Styles was strengthened by the win.

After that we got, astonishingly, the first video package of the night. It showed us Kota Ibushi and Shinsuke Nakamura talking to the camera, interspersed with shots of them competing. The most noteworthy part (for someone who didn't understand the promos) was that Ibushi snuck up on Nakamura during an in-ring promo and gave him a German suplex. That was presumably the way of setting the match up, Ibushi sending a message to Nakamura that he wasn’t intimidated by his status and wanted a chance to compete for the IWGP Intercontinental title.

Ibushi entered in a T-shirt. Nak entered wearing a humorously long cape and a crown. The match began with a feeling out process that Ibushi got the better of. He couldn't maintain control though. Nak turned things around with a variety of knee strikes and stomps. Ibushi would get a few shots in at points but Nakamura always fired back with a strike that would floor him.

That changed when Ibushi got Nak outside the ring and hit him with a top rope moonsault. Back in the ring he followed up with a springboard drop kick, a wild knee to the face and a standing shooting star press. Nakamura wheeled out his one legged drop kick and a flapjack suplex. Ibushi came back with a top rope hurricanrana. That didn't get him a win. Nor did a standing corkscrew moonsault.

A roundhouse kick floored Nakamura, putting him out long enough for Ibushi to hit a sit out power bomb. Nak kicked out and avoided a phoenix splash, connecting with a Boma Ye to the back of the head and firing himself up with a prolonged series of kicks on Ibushi before punching him in the face. Ibushi tried to come back with a lariat but Nak turned it into an armbar. When Ibushi escaped he gave the champ an inverted exploder suplex before kneeing him with his own Boma Ye, complete with Nakamura-esque pose beforehand. 

A series of strikes followed, Ibushi getting the final word with a double stomp to a running Nakamura. A German suplex from the apron into the ring earned Ibushi a two count. ‘The King of Strong Style’ came back with half a dozen elbows to the back of ibushi's head, connected with his second Boma Ye, a fireman's carry driver, and a third Boma Ye for the victory. After the match Nakamura and Ibushi did a little fist bump. It was another cracker of a match that elevated both men and told a compelling story: Ibushi got closer and closer to beating Nak as the match progressed, only losing at the last minute after Nak fired himself up and hit a series of moves. It was clear that Ibushi could have won if things had just been a little different. For me this was the match of the night.

Finally we came to the main event: Hiroshi Tanahashi defending the IWGP heavyweight championship against Kazuchika Okada. It was only the second match on the card to get a video package. It focused on Tanahashi's history in New Japan, specifically how popular and successful he is, and Okada's G1 Climax win, which earned him the title match, and his previous matches opposite Tanahashi, before giving way to comments from both men. During the entrances JR and Striker put over the importance of the match. Tanahashi was the biggest name in the company, the man who'd helped rebuild it over a course of years, with more world title reigns and Tokyo Dome main events than anyone else. Okada was one of the fastest rising stars ever, the man being built as the future of the company. They had had five previous matches, with Okada winning three and Tanahashi winning two. It was presented as a match that could turn Okada into 'The Man' if he won.

They wrestled at a steady pace, so as not to burn themselves out across the half hour they were allotted.

They expertly built up to a frenzied and incredibly enjoyable final five minutes. Tanahashi kicked out of a Rainmaker before the two traded forearms on their way back to their feet. Okada grabbed Tanahashi for a Tombstone but the champ rolled through and straddled him for an attempted pin. Tana laid into Okada with slaps before Okada ducked one and school boyed him for a two count.

Tanahashi ducked a Rainmaker and got a straightjacket suplex for another two count. Okada escaped a dragon suplex and hit a German suplex. He held on as Tanahashi kicked out and tried to give him another Rainmaker but Tanahashi ducked and hit a German suplex of his own. Okada kicked out and nailed the champion with his much-ballyhooed drop kick. Another Rainmaker attempt failed and ‘The Ace of the Universe’ was able to twist Okada with a pair of nasty dragon screw leg whips in the ropes.

This left Okada propped up against the ropes, allowing the champion to leap to the top rope and hit him with a High Fly Flow. A seated Okada was hit with a second, and then a third as he lay on the mat staring up at the ceiling. It was too much for him to kick out of. Tanahashi got the win and retained his championship.

It was a top notch main event that ended a top notch show. Following the match Tanahashi took a microphone to tell Okada he’s a long way from being the ace of New Japan and that he was proud to still be champion. Because Tanahashi’s character is basically that of late 90s Rob Van Dam: a guy who knows he’s the best and isn’t shy about saying so. Then he gave a short promo and played air guitar to send people home happy. Lovely stuff.

I’d watched New Japan matches in isolation before but this was the first card I watched start to finish. I’m pleased I did. There were no bad performances across the entire show, each match being given exactly enough time as it needed to fulfil its role. Every wrestler seemed motivated and keen to put on the best show possible. There were two early match of the year contenders (Nakamura v Ibushi and Tanahashi v Okada) and some gems on the undercard (Makabe v Ishii and Omega v Taguchi). In an ideal world New Japan would sort out some English language commentary for their top four or five shows this year, but with or without it I’ll definitely be watching more from the promotion.
Results summary:
reDRagon def The Young Bucks, Time Splitters and Forever Hooligans
Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Satoshi Kojima and Tomoaki Honma def Jeff Jarrett, Bad Luck Fale and Yujiro Takahashi
Toru Yano, Naomichi Marufuji, Shane Haste and Mikey Nicholls def Shelton Benjamin, Takashi Iizuka, Lance Archer and Davey Boy Smith Jr
Minoru Suzuki def Kazushi Sakuraba
Togi Makabe def Tomohiro Ishii for the NEVER openweight championship
Kenny Omega def Rysuke Taguchi for the IWGP junior heavyweight championship
Meiyu Tag def Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows for the IWGP heavyweight tag team championship
AJ Styles def Tetsuya Naito
Shinsuke Nakamura def Kota Ibushi
Hiroshi Tanahashi def Kazuchika Okada

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