For as long as I have been a fan of pro-wrestling (coming up to 25 years later in 2017) the idea of Japanese wrestling and of New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW) in particular has been present in the background.
In recent years I’ve sought out matches featuring specific performers, usually those making a mark in WWE such as Shinsuke Nakamura, AJ Styles, Kota Ibushi and Prince Devitt (aka Finn Balor). Now though I have watched my first complete NJPW show, the 25th edition of their ‘equivalent to WrestleMania‘ the 2017 ‘January 4th show’, Wrestle Kingdom 11 in Tokyo Dome.
The more than five-hour event started with a pre-show featuring a warm up match, the New Japan Rumble, in much the same way as its American alternative starts to build hype and warm up the crowd to encourage more to purchase the main programme.
Staring off with ‘Unbreakable’ Michael Elgin (returning from injury) and veteran Billy Gunn, the match loosely took the format of WWE’s Royal Rumble but with the addition of elimination by pinfall and submission and with less of a serious, high stakes tone.
Across the match young performers and legends squared off in mostly scrappy action with Elgin really looking like the only serious contender.
Nostalgia was served with appearances from many legends including WCW main stay Scott Norton, a former headliner here, Tiger Mask (IV) and Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger. Most of the action was unspectacular though Tiger Mask and Liger had a few nice moments while the climax came with a nice sequence seeing the monstrous Elgin going against the minuscule Cheeseburger culminating in a nice powerbomb from Elgin giving him a solid return victory.
From there we got an excellent intro package to the main show hyping all 10 matches and, even though I don’t speak a word of Japanese, I got the general idea and it certainly worked to get me excited as English language commentators Kevin Kelly and a particular ECW favourite of mine, ‘The King of Old School’ Steve Corino welcomed us to the Tokyo Dome along with the 40,000 or so people in the cavernous arena.
The wide shot of the arena was the first place where it really struck me that while a near equivalent to WrestleMania this was going to be a very different show. Most of the set up looked like it could have come for anytime since the 1970s with the ring central and well-lit while the audience were in comparative darkness. The only exception to this was the spectacular stage that did live up to the US comparison though in a very different way that comes into play more as the show goes on and things get more spectacular.
Tiger Mask W vs Tiger The Dark
While the general tone of NJPW is more serious and sporty than the ‘sports entertainment’ of WWE the opener looked, on paper, like it could be straight from the mecca of pro-wrestling commerciality as two cartoon characters faced off in a match as much designed to plug the new series of the Tiger Mask anime series as be a match.
Once the action focussed on the ring though it was clear though that what happened between the ropes was the most important thing with both characters being portrayed by legitimate competitors and the commentary making the point that regardless of the ‘gimmick’ both men were trying to make a point with their performance here.
As the match went on it became clear that the heroic masked tiger was, in fact, Kota Ibushi as he hit a range of his signature spots across the serious and fairly stiff junior heavyweight (NJPW’s version of Cruiserweight) contest. There was some good back and forth but it was clear both men weren’t quite firing on all cylinders, no doubt down to the masks and the early slot, and the end came with Ibushi’s excellent sit-out Last Ride powerbomb so, while not spectacular this was a nice warm up match and scene setter for what was to come.
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship
Roppongi Vice (Rocky Romero & Beretta) representing Chaos vs The Young Bucks (Matt and Nick Jackson) representing Bullet Club (C)
The junior heavyweight action continued next, demonstrating as I’d heard that this is a mainstay of NJPW’s undercard, with a match for the junior tag team titles.
Before they even got to the ring The Young Bucks magic was working on me as I at once hated their cocky attitudes but was loving their work – there is clearly a reason they were carrying multiple championships belt with them.
This was a nice touch and the first time that NJPW’s willingness to cross promote was noticeable tonight really making this feel like an international showcase far more than WrestleMania ever has.
Roppongi Vice on the other hand were more understated but still great in the ring.
In the 10 minutes they had, both teams showed a great range of their skills with great tag team and high-flying moments and some spectacular trash talking from the Jackson brothers. The Bucks had the upper hand for the most part but both teams had their moments and a lot of super kicks (the Bucks trademark) before a well executed last-minute turn around saw the bad guys get their comeuppance as Rocky Romero got the roll up pin in counter to the Bucks high-flying finisher.
This felt like a great shock win given the brashness of The Young Bucks but Roppongi Vice are certainly not a team to ever over look both being veterans of this division. As well as being the first title change of the night, something that was to become part of the show’s full story, it was also the first of the gang warfare type matches between the various factions that vie for control of New Japan.
NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship Gauntlet
The idea of gang warfare grew even more next as the NEVER 6-man tag belts were on the line in a four team gauntlet that kicked off with…
Bullet Club (Bad Luck Fale, Hangman Page & Yujiro Takahashi) vs Chaos (Jado, Will Ospreay & Yoshi-Hashi)
If the opening match had felt a bit PG with the cartoon characters as soon as Bullet Club’s resident pimp Yujiro Takahashi made his way to the ring with a bevy of scantily clad young ladies that thought was put aside for good, although the sheer number of lesser members of Bullet Club couldn’t help but remind me of later NWO in WCW, which isn’t a great thing.
That said as soon as the match got going that was forgotten as both teams put on a great show. The highlight of this section of the match came when ‘The Ariel Assassin’, Essex-boy, Will Ospreay came up against Hangman Page and the duo’s contrasting styles really made for a good match up. It was also great seeing and hearing Ospreay get a lot of respect from both the older performers in the match and the commentators before veteran Chaos member Jado lost the first fall to Takahashi seeing them eliminated from the match.
Bullet Club vs Los Ingobernables de Japon (Bushi, EVIL and Sanada)
With what appeared to be two heel teams facing off this match continued the trend of absorbing competition playing up the gang element though much of it didn’t stick with me right away.
That said LIJ’s characters definitely did and Bushi was impressively fast. The win came for LIJ in a nice heel tactics moment with the help of a chair and, one of my favourite moves, a dragon suplex.
Los Ingobernables de Japon vs David Finlay, Ricochet and Satoshi Kojima (C)
Again a more varied match up like the first part of the gauntlet the veteran Kojima was the first to really get the crowd properly alive with his classic trademark moments. That said he wasn’t my highlight of the match as Ricochet’s high flying work was simply astonishing to behold and LIJ had some excellent three-way offence often missing from WWE’s version of 6-man tag team wrestling.
Bushi’s classic mist blinding Kojima spelt his doom as EVIL connected with Evil (his finishing move) to get the win and claim the championships for the LIJ.
As a whole the match as expectedly very much spot-to-spot but was entertaining none-the-less and the warring gangs story built as it went on as we saw another set of belts change hands.
‘The American Nightmare’ Cody vs Juice Robinson
Making his in-ring debut for NJPW the artist formerly known as Stardust, the son of ‘The American Dream’ Dusty Rhodes, Cody was a standout reason for a WWE fan like me tuning in to Wrestle Kingdom 11 and from the moment he stepped through the curtain it was clear this wasn’t quite the same guy who’d been getting bored on the other side of the Pacific.
That said Juice Robinson (NXT’s CJ Parker in a past life) also seem more energised than when I’d last seen him, but there was no way this was going to be anything but Cody’s match.
Throughout Corino on commentary hyped Cody having feuded with the Dream back in ECW and this, along with Cody’s heel attitude as part of Bullet Club, set him up excellently.
The match itself was far more in the American heavyweight style with Cody focussing on Robinson’s knee as the main story, though Cody still found room for some nice athletic moments only hinted at in WWE.
Some highlights of the match were a very nice inverted figure-four leg lock/Indian Deathlock type hold (apparently dubbed The American Nightmare) and a wink to Randy Orton with a top rope draping DDT that looks particularly nasty before Cody countered Juice’s Pulp Friction finisher into the Cross Rhodes for an emphatic debut win in a match that was a nice change of pace to the openers.
Ring Of Honour World Championship
Adam Cole vs Kyle O’Reilly (C)
Once more this match had a more American feel to the story with former partners who have been battling over the Ring of Honour (ROH) gold for the last few months facing off.
This also continued the international and cross-promotional flavour of the show with this being a championship from one of (if not the) top independent wrestling company in the USA, and it came complete with its own ROH referee.
Cole and O’Reilly met in the centre of the ring to shake hands, apparently observing the ‘code of honour’, until Cole spat in the face in O’Reilly and so it went from there.
O’Reilly came across like an American Dragon for a new era with a great mix of strong strikes and tight holds before Cole hit his Last Shot neck breaker early but only garnered a two count.
If it hadn’t been a heated fight before it was from there and the pair put on a very strong showing highlighted by a powerful ‘hockey fight’, a brutal looking standing ankle lock and many thrust kick and shining wizard variations.
A third Last Shot sealed the deal for Cole to become the first ever three-time ROH World Champion and his shocked reaction was great for a cocky heel of the Bullet Club. The inclusion of the ring attendants rushing in to aid O’Reilly after the match also helped to sell this as the powerful affair it was and if it hadn’t been obvious before the ‘sport’ element of pro-wrestling here was clearly much stronger than I’ve seen in many other promotions.
IWGP Tag Team Championship
Chaos (Tomohiro Ishii & Toru Yano) vs G.B.H. (Togi Makabe & Tomoaki Honma) vs Guerillas of Destiny (Tama Tonga and Tanga Roa) representing Bullet Club (C)
With Toru Yano having stolen both the Guerrillas of Destiny’s (GoD) title belts and G.B.H.’s tag team trophies there was a strong story to this from the start with both teams out for revenge on the comparatively humorous looking grappler.
Before we get to the match though its worth noting how intimidating GoD look on their way to the ring and during the match with them channeling the reputation of their forebear Meng (aka Haku) and adding to it genuinely scary war paint – Uso’s take note, this is how this gimmick is done.
Anyway back to action GoD were far and away the highlight of this match and it being a three-way did seem hamper the action at a few points. That said all three teams had their moments; Ishii is a beast of a man and his stiff shots were impressive while G.B.H.’s slightly more old-school looking approach was a nice contrast.
Another thing worth noting here was the language coming from the ring with some many f-bombs and more dropped Corino lost it to laughter on commentary but it really helped to sell how much these guys were going for each other.
The climax of the match felt like a disappointment but served to develop the story with Chaos getting the win after some rule breaking though it was GoD I came away from this as a big new fan of and I will be investigating them more that’s for sure.
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship
Hiromu Takahashi representing LIJ vs Kushida (C)
It was at this point in the show that the competitors entrances really started to escalate so Takahashi’s ‘Ticking Time Bomb’ gimmick really came across strong in the visuals while Kushida’s Back To The Future referencing was excellent before they kicked off with some high-flying action before the bell even rang.
After a bit of more ground based work Takahashi hit a sunset flip powerbomb to the floor on Kushida and real jeopardy came into play as this was sold as an almost match ending spot with the referee and doctors checking on the champ.
From here he was clearly the injured underdog but fought valiantly with the crowd behind him strongly. As well as a crazy top rope senton spot from Takahashi the pair put on a great fast match with some real fighting over holds that is something often missing in WWE and sells how painful and damaging some of these MMA style holds can be, particularly Kushida’s ‘Hoverboard Lock’ Kimura style arm bar.
As the match went on the crowd really became lively and a straight punch spot really added to this before Takahashi hit a spectacular spinning victory roll driver from the top rope (I can’t think of any other way to describe it) for the win and to become the new Junior Heavyweight Champ in the fifth title change of the night.
NEVER Openweight Championship
Hirooki Goto vs ‘The Wrestler’ Katsuyori Shibata (C)
Even before he got the ring I was impressed with Shibata’s no gimmick gimmick as ‘The Wrestler’ in basic black gear and carrying not only the contested NEVER championship but also the RevPro Championship from the UK-based promotion (yet more international representation).
As the match got going both men impressed hugely with a match that I could only describe as being exactly what sprang into my mind when I first heard the words ‘strong style’.
Excellent mat work, stiff striking and a sense that this isn’t entertainment anymore, this is sport through and through – though with it remaining hugely absorbing and entertaining.
The drama culminated in a GTR from Goto to Shibata giving him the championship after a flat-out excellent, hard-hitting, contest that could easily have been the highlight of the show if there wasn’t more to come.
IWGP Intercontinental Championship
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Tetsuya Naito representing LIJ (C)
With IWGP Intercontinental Championship having gained a reputation putting it on a par with the Heavyweight belt this really felt like the start of a main event and the feeling of the stakes involved and the spectacular entrances really added to that.
Naito in particular brought something of what Nakamura brought to this with his entrance coming across as a kind of manga character underworld mob boss as leader of Los Ingobernables de Japon and while the production isn’t quite as slick as WWE it feels the better and more realistic for it.
The match itself was an excellent example of an all out good guy facing off against and anti-hero with the crowd divided between the two fighters throughout just adding to the drama and action that was both technical and hard-hitting if a bit more mainstream feeling than the preceding NEVER championship bout.
There were too many highlights to mention but a slingblade from Tanahashi on the apron followed by a top rope ‘frog style’ plancha was quite a moment. Both men delivered in fantastic ways at least equaling the previous contest before a series of Destino from Naito saw him buck the night’s trend for title changes by keeping his grip on the IGWP Intercontinental Championship and further confirming his position and reputation while Tanahashi’s place was being called into question.
IWGP Heavyweight Championship
‘The Cleaner’ Kenny Omega representing Bullet Club vs ‘The Rainmaker’ Kazuchika Okada representing Chaos (C)
If the previous two matches hadn’t stolen the show the promo package that aired here upped the stakes further as it was made clear this match wasn’t just for a championship and the individual competitors but the very future of New Japan could hinge on the outcome.
It genuinely felt like it from not only the competitors but the commentators and the crowd as well – something I’ve not felt in a long time on other wrestling shows.
Aping The Terminator (and WWE”s Triple H), Kenny Omega made his way to the ring in genuinely spectacular style before a more traditional but still impressive entrance from the champion Okada which set the scene for what was to come.
Starting with some smooth and flawless chain wrestling both quickly went for their respective finishers, for Omega the One Winged Angel and for Okada The Rainmaker, before breaking off. Both displayed great story work early on that continued and the throughout the wrestling was back and forth and nothing but excellent.
The contrast of Omega’s cockiness and speed with Okada’s confidence and more traditional but still dangerous approach was great to see and as the match went on both men stuck with their styles and characters excellently.
At 46 minutes it would be impossible to pick out everything worthy of note in this match but a terminator riffing senton dive, a draping DDT on the floor, a brutal missile dropkick and a huge springboard moonsault to the floor were a few.
As the match seemed to be nearing its a climax Omega hit a top rope dragon suplex that could easily have ended not just the match by Okada’s career before an extended signature counter sequence with both men struggling to get the upper hand before a final Rainmaker folded Omega up giving Okada the win.
It sounds like hyperbole and enough people have already said as much before me, but this is one of the best and most consistent wrestling matches I have ever witnessed and I could be picky about the amount of finisher kick outs that happened but that would be churlish as both men did something I would never have though possible, especially in a match of this length and I urge anyone with a passing interesting in pro-wrestling to check this out.
In the end Wrestle Kingdom 11 did get off to a slightly shaky start but it built throughout its duration with both the title changes and the gang warfare element to a real climax that all came together far more than I would have thought at the half way mark.
Also as my first experience of a full NJPW show I was happy to see it treat wrestling more seriously and maintain the sport feel often lost elsewhere (and it was a thankful antidote to ITV’s recent World of Sport special). The production was more basic than WWE but this gave it a more real and organic feeling and with a climax like that I defy anyone to not enjoy this show – and in Los Ingobernables de Japon I think I have a new favourite wrestling stable.