Monday, January 5, 2015

NJPW: Wrestle Kingdom 9 Review

New Japan Pro Wrestling Wrestle Kingdom 9 Review

I first discovered NJPW last year when I became virtually obsessed with professional wrestling. The American Independent Scene was my first discovery however it led me to checking out the Japanese style of wrestling known as puroresu. With New Japan being the second biggest company in the entire world and clearly the top promotion in Japan, it was the first puro I laid eyes on.

Since that time, I've watched some of the best matches from the past few years. Styles/Suzuki from last year's G1, Ibushi/Nakamura from the 2013 G1, Devitt/Omega for the Junior Heavyweight title, among others.

With that being said, I'm not completely new to the world of New Japan Pro Wrestling however my first time watching a full NJPW PPV event came with this event - Wrestle Kingdom 9.

Wrestle Kingdom is basically the WrestleMania of New Japan. It's the biggest show of the year where all the best wrestlers in the world come together for one night of unforgettable action.

This year's event is headlined by a rivalry that has reached the heights of Austin/Rock in recent years. That feud being between the IWGP Heavyweight Champion Hiroshi Tanahashi and former champion Kazuchika Okada. They face off in the main event of this show for the aformentioned title which Tanahashi won from AJ Styles. Okada comes into this match with a slight advantage considering he's 3-2 against Tanahashi. Can Okada regain the title he lost to AJ Styles and gain another victory of his arch rival or will Tanahashi even the score & retain his title in the process? That's the question going into the 9th annual Wrestle Kingdom event.

The other big match of the night is a rematch from the 2013 G1 Climax as Kota Ibushi challenges Shinsuke Nakamura for the Intercontinental Championship. Nakamura is known as the most charismatic man in wrestling and the king of strong style. He's been the most popular star and the workhorse of NJPW for the many years. On this evening, a new addition to the heavyweight divison in the form of Kota Ibushi will be attempting to take his title. It's going to be interesting to see how Ibushi adapts to the heavyweight division after spending years dominating the junior heavyweights. Can he hang with the King of Strong Style? Only time will tell.

Also on the card is a four-way match for the IWGP Junior Tag Team Titles between reigning champs ReDragon (Kyle O'Reilly & Bobby Fish), who also hold the ROH World Tag Team Titles and former champions The Young Bucks, Forever Hooligans (Alex Koslov & Rocky Romero), & Timesplitters (Alex Shelley & KUSHIDA).

AJ Styles will be facing off with Naito in a match that is essentially a #1 Contender's Match although it's not billed as one. A win could propel Styles back into title contention while it could also send Naito in the same direction.

That's just some background on a few of the matches taking place on the card. It's stacked from top to bottom and promises to be an amazing show. With it being my first full NJPW event as mentioned before, I couldn't be more stoked heading into it. Especially since arguably the best color commentator ever in wrestling, Jim Ross, will be under the headset for the first time in forever alongside Matt Striker.

So without further a due, let's take a look at the event that shocked the wrestling world on January 4th, 2015 - Wrestle Kingdom 9, LIVE from the Tokyo Domo in Japan!

1) ReDragon (c) vs. The Young Bucks vs. Forever Hooligans vs. Timesplitters - IWGP Junior Tag Team Title Match
What a way to start off the evening! When four teams of this caliber are in the opening match, you know it's a stacked line up. The action here was fast and furious just like you would expect from these teams. There were several tags however everything happened so quickly that it was difficult to keep up. None the less, all four teams got their chance to shine in a match that I would consider an exhibition as we saw the best that each tandem had to offer. From Chasing the Dragon to the Meltzer Driver, it was all here in this action packed opening match. In the end, Kyle O'Reilly & Bobby Fish picked up the win and retained the titles in a wild encounter with the best tag teams in the world. It was a huge win for them and they certainly did ROH proud. Perfect start to the show.

Match rating - ***1/2

2) Jeff Jarrett, Bad Luck Fale, & Yujiro Takahashi vs. Tomoaki Honma, Hiroyoshi Tenzan & Satoshi Kojima

Double J hit the ring here with wife Karen by his side along with fellow Bullet Club members Fale & Takahashi. This was basically Team New Japan vs. Team Bullet Club as it was clear who the fans were behind by rooting for their hometown hero Honma. This was a nice little match although it wasn't anything special. We got to see Jarrett break out the guitar and break it over someone's head. Even though it was unintentionally his own partner, it was still cool to see. Decent little six man tag that kept the show rolling at a pretty fast pace. It only went five minutes so I can't complain too much plus it was placed correctly on the card because a cool down match was needed after that barnburner of an opener.

Match rating - **

3) Shelton Benjamin, Takashi Iizuki, Davey Boy Smith Jr, & Lance Archer vs. Naomichi Marifuji, Toru Yanu, Shane Haste, & Mikey Nicholls
Starting the show with three back to back multi man matches is pretty odd, but I'm not complaning because all these men deserved to be on the card. The first name you may recognize here is Shelton Benjamin. He's done quite well for himself over in Japan since being released from WWE after being treated unjustly despite being one of their most promising young stars. Benjamin is doing well now though and he had some memorable moments here including hitting a belly to belly suplex off the top rope. Davey Boy Smith Jr is another name you may remember as he teamed with Tyson Kidd in WWE under the name "DH Smith" and is also the son of British Bulldog. I was excited to see both he & Benjamin in action for the first time in awhile however, I was most looking forward to two men on the opposite side of things, Shane Haste & Mikey Nicholls, collectively known as TDMK. I saw these two compete in Pro Wrestling Guerrilla on various occassions on their own several years ago and wondered where they had went to, turns out they headed to Japan and made a name for themselves in Pro Wrestling NOAH. So much so that they represented NOAH here in this interbrand eight man tag war of sorts. TDMK were the most impressive to me in this match as they hit several sick double team moves throughout the bout. Aside from them, seeing Marifuji for the first time since his ROH run was extremely pleasant. He's so fun to watch. In fact, that's the best word to describe this match - fun. It didn't last long, but it was much more enjoyable than the six man tag as we got to see an array of bright young stars display their skills.

Match rating - **1/2

4) Minoru Suzuki vs. Kazushi Sakuraba
As mentioned in the first few paragraphs, one of the only NJPW matches I've seen thus far is the classic that AJ Styles had with a man in this match, Minoru Suzuki. I was blown away by the strikes of the MMA veteran Suzuki so I was looking forward to seeing him compete once again here especially since it's against a guy who was apparently trained by the same guy that trained Suzuki, Karl Gotch. In the eyes of Japanese fans this was a dream match and after hearing the backstory, it quickly developed into just that in the eyes of a new fan like myself as well. The rules of this match were different although I had seen matches of the like before. It's a bout held under Knockout or Submission only rules with a referee stoppage being the only other way to achieve victory. From the opening bell, these two men went to battle in a match that was a very nice change of pace from the quickly paced tag matches that opened the show. There was alot of mat work early on, but it soon turned into a fight almost as things spilled to the outside where Suzuki got his arm worked over severely. This became the target of Sakuraba's offense however after a while, Suzuki welcomed it by even agging on Sakuraba to keep kicking him on his injured arm. Suzuki didn't let his left arm being injured stop him as he continued to throw vicious palm strikes with his right arm. All of which rocked Sakuraba and allowed him to eventually lock in a rear naked choke which earned him the win. I really enjoyed this one. Great, unique match.

Match rating - ***1/4

5) Tomohiro Ishii (c) vs. Togi Makabe - NEVER Open Weight Championship Match
I thought the previous match between Suzuki and Sakuraba was stiff, but things were about to be taken to a whole new level as Ishii and Makabe collided in a contest for the NEVER Open Weight Championship. Vicious lariats, slaps, & strikes made up the majority of this match that was best described by JR simply as a slobber knocker between two of the toughest men to ever step foot in a wrestling ring. Beyond the toughness, the strength of both men was put on display on several occassions. The most notable being Ishii hitting a breath taking vertical suplex on Makabe from the top turnbuckle. It wasn't enough to put Makabe away though and the war raged on. To the closing bell, Ishii and Makabe traded brutal shots in the center of the ring. It went from slaps & palm strikes to straight headbutts which connected to the skull & sternum of both men. Ishii had a taped left shoulder here which became a target of Makabe as well during the match as he aimed for it during strike exchanges and dropped Ishii on it with multiple suplex variations. After a valiant effort from both men, Makabe was able to pick up the victory with a knee drop from the top turnbuckle to become the new NEVER Open Weight Champion. Stiff match that was even better than the Suzuki/Sakuraba bout.

Match rating - ***3/4

6) Ryusuke Taguchi (c) vs. Kenny Omega - IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title Match
Being a big fan of Omega, this was a match that I was pumped for. The Young Bucks accompanying him to ringside was a plus as well considering how brilliant they are. Speaking of the Bucks, they played a pivotal part in this match during the early goings as you would probably expect. They distracted the ref on several occasions allowing Omega to spray something in the eyes of Taguchi and even pulled the legs of Taguchi when he was running the ropes. The Junior Heavyweight Champ would neutralize The Bucks soon however as he backbody dropped Omega onto them and then dove onto all three men. Back in the ring, we got some great action as Omega went for a crossbody, but recieved a dropkick to the face in mid-air for his troubles. Things would turn back into his favor though as Omega would get the upperhand in a back & forth battle which allowed him to nail one of those vicious dragon suplexes that he's famous for before following it up with the one winged angel. This leads the Cleaner to victory and to becoming the new IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion! Good match here although it wasn't on the level some may have expected. Still very enjoyable and a great moment for Kenny Omega that was well deserved considering he's been one of the hardest workers in wrestling for quite some time.

Match rating - ***

7) Karl Anderson & Luke Gallows vs. Katsuyori Shibata & Hirooki Goto - IWGP Heavyweight Tag Title Match
Despite these two teams both being in the same weight division, the size difference is pretty vast in the favor of Gallows & Gun. Beyond that, the "Bullet Babe" Amber O'Neal was at ringside which gave the boys of the Bullet Club even more of an edge. This shined through early on as they isolated Goto very well and kept him away from tagging Shibata. I haven't seen the match these two teams had in the 2014 World Tag League so I'm not sure what led them to victory, but here it was clear - their team work and isolation of one member of the opposing team led them to the IWGP Tag Team Championships. Once Shibata got the hot tag after Goto was worked over, things evened up and we saw alot of back & forth action. Shibata & Goto hit Gallows N Gun with an assault of double team manuevers and isolated Gallows which ended up earning them the win. Great tag title match that was better than I expected.

Match rating - ***1/2

8) AJ Styles vs. Testsuya Naito
I really didn't know what to expect with this one. I've been watching Styles for years however this is my first time seeing Naito. Considering that, it was a bit of a surprise when this turned out to be a quite good match. Styles jumped Naito to start and that set the pace for the opening moments as we saw alot of high flying from both men. This led Naito to the advantage, but Styles would soon take his legs out from under him and begin to ground him. Styles worked the left leg and Naito sold it very well throughout the bout including dropping out of a suplex only to have his leg collapse under him. Styles hit a Bloody Sunday here as a bit of an homage to Prince Devitt which was cool to see. The controversy surrounding the Styles Clash made for alot of anticipation for him hitting it here and when he hit the avalanche version of it off the top rope, JR's call was perfect. Pretty good match here.

Match rating - ***1/4

9) Shinsuke Nakamura (c) vs. Kota Ibushi - IWGP Intercontinental Championship Match
This is without a doubt one of the best matches I've ever seen. I'm being completely honest here, it was phenomenal. I've seen some star making performances for certain wrestlers however none were as mindblowing to watch unfold as this one where Nakamura made Kota Ibushi a bonafide superstar. It seemed that Nakamura was taking Ibushi lightly early on despite being out quicked on several occassions. About half-way through the match, I think Nakamura really began to take note that Ibushi wasn't going to be a pushover as Ibushi would begin to simply smile when Nakamura would strike him. It was an amazing visual. Speaking of strikes, this one was every bit as stiff as the NEVER Title match. Seeing these two trade strikes in the middle of the ring with Ibushi never backing down against the King of Strong Style is something I'll never forget. It really proved to any doubters that Ibushi was indeed a force to be reckoned with in the heavyweight divsion. As a guy who just made his way into the divsion, this was the exact performance that he needed and he & Nakamura executed it perfectly. So much so that I'm going the full five stars for this one. I'm doing so for several reasons. Many of which have already been stated earlier in this review although there's one I've yet to mention. Throughout the evening, I had been taking notes on each match to help with this review because there's no way I'd be able to remember everything. However, I didn't take ANY notes on this match because I simply got lost in it. I can't remember the last time that I became as invested in a match as I was in this one. The bottom line is that words won't do this match justice, it's just something you need to see for yourself. A piece of art that showcases professional wrestling at it's finest in the form of action and storytelling. I'm so glad I got to witness this classic.

Match rating - *****

10) Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada - IWGP Heavyweight Championship Match
With this being my first time seeing these two face off, I can't compare it to their previous encounters however I can say that this lived up to all the hype. I totally got the vibe of this being a feud the likes of Austin/Rock or Flair/Steamboat. Much like the IC Title match, this one told a phenomenal story. Okada got the advantage and worked over the champion for about the first half of the match yet it was never enough to put him away. Tanahashi kept coming back and Okada kept taking everything he had & responding with more offense of his own. The drive that Okada had to become the champion and defeat his arch rival is what really shined through during this match. The final 10 minutes of this match had me on the edge of my seat as these two went move for move in a dramatic closing sequence which saw Tanahashi hit Okada's own signature tombstone piledriver on him. Seeing Okada go for it and Tanahashi reverse back out of it and hit it on Okada was unbelievable. JR may have been a bit off early in the evening, but he really turned it up a notch for the final two matches and he did a fantastic job during this one in particular. Some people are going the full five stars for this one however I felt that it didn't quite reach the level of Ibushi/Nakamura. Don't let that take away from this one though because it's a must-see encounter and an early MOTYC without a doubt. Seeing Okada cry after the match because he wasn't able to defeat his rival and regain the title despite throwing everything at him that he possibly could was an emotion invoking visual. Another awesome chapter in what has become one of the greatest rivalries ever.

Match rating - ****3/4

Overall thoughts: As you can probably tell just by looking at the ratings, this is an event that I would HIGHLY recommend checking out. The undercard featured solid wrestling throughout with the NEVER Title match and the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Title bout standing out while the must-see matches of the evening come in the form of two excellent main events that are without a doubt two classic encounters. I don't think I've ever seen two better back to back matches than Ibushi/Nakamura and Okada/Tanahashi, it was so crazy to see. This was a refreshing event to watch considering the general state of mainstream professional wrestling. So thanks to Jeff Jarrett and GFW for helping bring this event to PPV in the United States. It was well worth the $35 I paid for it. The two main events alone were worth that much. With that being said, if you missed this show, it's something worth going out of your way to see.

Thanks for reading and be sure to follow me on Twitter @EthanPWT and this blog @ThePWTruth to keep with all my future columns and reviews.

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