Another year, another Wrestle Kingdom. Another year, another Tanahashi victory. Since I've started living in Japan and going to the annual Tokyo Dome show, this has been the status of the main events of Wrestle Kingdom:
Wrestle Kingdom 5: Hiroshi Tanahashi defeated Satoshi Kojima to become the IWGP Heavyweight Champion.
Wrestle Kingdom 6: Hiroshi Tanahashi defeated Minoru Suzuki to retain.
Wrestle Kingdom 7: Hiroshi Tanahashi defeated Kazuchika Okada to retain.
Each show? I heard thousands of fans calling out for Tanahashi. No matter how much some people want someone new at the top, Tanahashi still IS the number one guy in New Japan. Watching him in action, I can tell why.
It's very rare that my heart actually races during pro wrestling matches anymore. Maybe it's because I used to wrestle on the independents and that makes me numb to some things and makes me not get as excited. But Tanahashi vs. Okada was pretty spectacular to watch. They had the fans in the palms of their hands.
I can say this for sure as well: Okada has cemented himself as a major player in years to come in NJPW. Everything from his entrance (where I managed to catch some Okada money raining from the ceiling) to his demeanor, to his resilience as a challenger, that was one match I sat there thinking "I have no idea who is going to win this." The suspension of disbelief. What every wrestling fan becomes a fan for.
(I'm starting from the main event and working backwards here, so here are my thoughts on the other matches.)
Shinsuke Nakamura is entrancing to watch. If anyone personifies a snake, it's him. The way he sort of slithers around the ring and just cocks back and blasts folks with the Boma-Ye is really quite impressive. Sakuraba was an excellent challenger though. He had an answer for every move Nakamura made, locking him in a variety of submissions. Lots of nice transitions to give this fight the MMA flavor that both competitors have. I think Nakamura holding the new-ish Intercontinental Championship lends credibility to it as well and I hope he continues to build it's prestige in the coming months. And that knee to Nakamura's face? All I can say is I can't believe his head didn't fly off! The hand-shake at the end signifies that we may see Nakamura shifting more towards a babyface role going forward. I'm still excited to see if they ever put together Okada vs. Nakamura, as I think that would be an excellent match.
Also the surprise of Stan Hansen being there to present the championship to Nakamura also made the moment and the championship more special.
Togi Makabe is New Japan's best babyface. I'm not saying he's more popular than Tanahashi for instance, but he evokes so much sympathy in his beat downs, that he really manipulates the crowd's emotions with ever facial expression and dizzied stumble. Shibata pummeled him with kicks and knees and swaggered around the ring as if to say, "Really? This is all you've got?" Makabe's comeback and brutal table power bomb (I saw a Japanese table break!) showed that even when he looks near death, Makabe is a strong presence in the ring. This was my first time seeing Shibata in action, only being a recent fan of puroresu, and I was very impressed. I can see him being in the main event scene at some point in 2013.
You could see the look on Daichi Hashimoto's face told the whole story: he was supremely disappointed to not be competing at WK. The chants of "Hashimoto! Hashimoto!" rang out through the crowd as a video of the late Shinya Hashimoto played on the screen and Otani stomped his way down to the ring carrying the long white bandana that was Hashimoto's trademark. Through the whole match, Otani, a late entrant, really stood out. He ran himself into Tenzan's chops and looked like a man half his age. Overall, I think the match was designed to put Daichi on the map, but it was still a solid match. Kojima's crushing lariats nearly decapitated both Mutoh and Otani alike. It's always awesome to see Mutoh unleash a dozen or so Shining Wizards as well. Otani's leg sweep tribute to Hashimoto got a nice reaction as well. The slap from Daichi at the end may show a darker edge to Hashimoto's son?
The triple threat match for the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championship was all I expected: an incredible display of athleticism from three of the best juniors in the world. Ibushi was the star of this match for sure. The fans were clamoring for an Ibushi win, much like they were at Wrestle Kingdom 5 (Devitt vs. Ibushi is still one of my favorite matches ever). However, Low Ki's intensity really stood out for me. His tribute to the Hitman series of video games was cool, complete with the bar code on the back of his head. Seeing him kick and flip in that suit made him look really unique and made me want to see him utilize that more.
Yuji Nagata vs. Minoru Suzuki was another great match of two veteran's taking each other to the limit. Both men are two of the best wrestlers going today even being older than most. Suzuki's entrance with the live music really pumped up the crowd and it was probably the first time I saw a genuine smile on Suzuki's face and not a cocky smirk.
The IWGP Tag Team Championship match displayed why the Killer Elite Squad (Lance Archer and Davey Boy Smith, Jr.) may be a force to be reckoned with going forward. Both Hirooki Goto and Karl Anderson are extremely popular on their own, but they didn't have an answer for the brute strength of the champions. I can see Goto and Anderson both go on to more singles matches in 2013 with Anderson specifically being put in high profile matches. I could see Anderson main eventing several big shows for New Japan throughout 2013. Lance Archer had a pretty badass entrance on top of that with the red mask and riding in on a motorcycle. He's legit scary in the ring in Japan. He has that big man aura that terrifies both the fans and challengers alike. I think the KES will continue their reign of terror in New Japan for quite a long time.
The NEVER Openweight Championship match (which I'm still not sure what the title is for) was a pretty good match for its length. Shelton Benjamin had his hands full not only with Masato Tanaka but Yujiro Takahashi on the outside. I'm happy to see Tanaka on the Wrestle Kingdom stage consistently as I think he's one of the top guys I like to watch in all of Japan.
The first official match of the night dealt mostly with Manabu Nakanishi gaining revenge on Takashi Iizuka for constantly stripping the clothes off the announcer when he comes to the ring. It was funny to see the announcer get in the ring after the match and give Iizuka a clothesline for all his years of tormenting him. Akebono and Bob Sapp are huge in person. I have a really crappy camera and the only clear picture I could get was of them because they're so big. Strongman is probably the most jacked person I've seen in person. MVP did very well and got a lot of good offense in. I always enjoy seeing the Ballin' elbow and hearing the fans here chant along with it. Yujiro Takahashi is going to be a big star going forward. He's really come into his own as a cocky playboy type of character. I was a little disappointed Iizuka didn't go into the crowd and start wailing on people, but it's Wrestle Kingdom so...
The two dark matches were both very good. I was most excited to see Jushin Thunder Liger make an appearance. I'll be glad to see some of these guys in the dark matches on the main show in the future, such as Tama Tonga, Ryusuke Taguchi, KUSHIDA, and BUSHI.
Overall, another awesome night. I have to admit, I was disappointed there were no title changes, but I think I have to stop thinking of Wrestle Kingdom as if it's Wrestlemania. I think Wrestlemania likes to bring all of their big storylines to a close, whereas Wrestle Kingdom is more like a showcase of who is going to be the focus of that specific year. Tokyo Dome looked packed, so I'm sure they'll do big business going forward.
1. Hiroshi Tanahashi's win
2. Togi Makabe
3. Shinsuke Nakamura
4. Hashimoto's music/Keiji Mutoh's entrance
5. Kota Ibushi near-falls
1. Taichi interfering in Nagata/Suzuki
2. Kazushi Shibata
3. Killer Elite Squad
4. Minoru Suzuki (after everyone forgot about his awesome entrance)
5. Yujiro Takahashi