Wrestling fans in the US will sing the praises of Madison Square Garden and Allstate Arena, but any true fan of the sport will tell you that the greatest wrestling venue known to man is the Tokyo Dome, located in the capital city of Japan. The Dome has housed some of the greatest pro wrestling matches of all time. The Dome has hosted a number of some of the greatest matches in wrestling history. New Japan Pro Wrestling has always made it a point to have their first show of the year at the Dome, the show being the NJPW version of Wrestlemania. This show, called Wrestle Kingdom, is known for showcasing some of the most talented wrestlers in the world today. This latest Wrestle Kingdom, Wrestle Kingdom IX, was no exception. It was not only a dazzling display of excellent wrestling, but a celebration of what it meant to be Japanese, with the traditional values of Japan on full display. So without further ado, let’s dive right in and break this show down match by match.
IWGP JR. TAG TEAM TITLES: YOUNG BUCKS/FOREVER HOOLIGANS/TIMESPLITTERS/REDRAGON(C)
RESULT: REDRAGON HITS “CHASING THE DRAGON” FOR A VICTORY BY WAY OF PINFALL
Cruiserweights generally bore me, and so do tag teams, so this match really had to fight to get my attention. Fortunately, it did. The story behind this match was fairly simple: the Timesplitters (Alex Shelly and KUSHIDA) lost the titles to ReDRagon (Kyle O’Reilly and Bobby Fish) at the Power Struggle show in November. Meanwhile, both the Young Bucks (Nick and Matt Jackson) and the Forever Hooligans (Rocky Romero and Alex Koslov) both want a chance to get some gold.
Despite wowing me with talent, this match failed to really standout from a storytelling perspective. It was essentially a spotfest: only one team were real babyfaces (Timesplitters) while there was one tweener group (Forever Hooligans) and two heels (ReDRagon and the Young Bucks). It made it hard for me to root for any one faction. That everyone except KUSHIDA weren’t even Japanese didn’t seem to help me or the crowd get into the match either. Still, the Young Bucks should be commended for their clever gimmick of parodying indy wrestling stereotypes: excessive flips and superkicks along with overly silly moves like the Meltzer Driver work well with acting like DeGeneration X wannabes in terms of getting over as a heel. Before they even got in the ring I wanted to see them get their asses kicked.
Overall, this match was a spotfest, but without the crazy spots of last year. There was some great physical talent on display with the various spots, but it didn’t bring enough of a story to win me over. The gimmick didn’t help either- it was hard to seriously get invested in any one team when people were tagging each other in and out. It was chaotic, random, and hard to follow. **1/2
SIX MAN TAG: NJPW (Honma , TenCozy)/BULLET CLUB (Jeff Jarrett, Bad Luck Fale, Yujiro Takahashi)
RESULT: HONMA HITS THE KOKESHI HEADBUTT FOR A VICTORY BY PINFALL
Ever since forming in 2013, Bullet Club has grown to be the most hated group of heels in NJPW. Founded by the backstabbing Prince Devitt (now Finn Balor in WWE), the loudmouthed Karl Anderson, and the massive Bad Luck Fale, Bullet Club has run wild over NJPW, much like the nWo initially did in the mid-90’s. In fact, Bullet Club even uses the old “too sweet” hand sign of the nWo in homage to their predecessors. Of course, unlike the nWo, Bullet Club has been given much more shelf life, due to them not being some sort of invincible supergroup that mostly exists to elevate a few key players. Even better, they have the perfect heel gimmick for Japan: evil foreigners. Bullet Club was founded by an Irishman, an American, and a Tongan. Since then it’s ranks have grown, importing new members from the US and Canada as well as the Tongan Islands. They stand in open contempt of Japanese values such as honor, courage, and reverence. Instead, they’re a group of vicious invaders who use western heel tactics like run-ins, weapon shots, and group beatdowns.
In July and August of 2014, NJPW held its annual G1 Climax tournament. Since Kota Ibushi was out with a concussion, his spot in the tournament went to Tomoaki Honma, a veteran deathmatch wrestler from Big Japan Wrestling. Meanwhile, Bullet Club was represented by both Bad Luck Fale and the traitorous Yujiro Takahashi, who betrayed his CHAOS teammates to join Bullet Club at Wrestling Dontaku earlier in the year. Fale finished third in his block with twelve wins, while Yujiro Takahashi finished seventh with only eight. Meanwhile, both members of the tag team TenCozy (veterans Hiroyoshi Tenzan and Satsoshi Kojima) entered as well, Tenzan finishing eighth with eight wins and Kojima finishing seventh with ten. Despite his upbeat nature and never-say-die attitude, Honma finished the tournament as the only man to have not won a single match. Meanwhile, at the finals in Seibu Dome, the legendary Jeff Jarrett, founder of both Total Nonstop Action and Global Force Wrestling, joined Bullet Club by breaking his guitar over the head of the heroic Hiroshi Tanahashi.
So this match had a great story, needless to say. Simple, certainly, but amazing nonetheless. Honma went into the match as a crowd favorite, yet still an underdog. Backed by veterans Tencozy, he set out to defend NJPW’s honor from the vile thugs of Bullet Club. TenCozy showed great tactical acumen, making it a point to gang up on the massive Fale and take him out before the match could even start. They were the brains of the operation, since even commentary noted that Honma has missed so many headbutts that he probably has major brain damage. (You could never make a joke like that in American wrestling) Even though Takahashi and Jarrett pulled out every dirty trick in the book, their poor sportsmanship eventually backfired- when Jarrett went for his signature El Kabong guitar attack, some clever trickery lead to him clocking Takahashi with it instead. When Honma called for the Kokeshi headbutt, the crowd went wild. When he hit it, the audience exploded. When he got the pinfall for his first ever NJPW victory? The normally silent crowd blew the roof off the Dome. It was the perfect underdog story, with heavy Japanese themes of persistence and honor.
Unfortunately even if the story was good, the wrestling was not. Tenzan and Kojima are long past their prime, and Kojima’s lighting chops now just look silly. Despite being the master of lighttubes, Honma’s technical wrestling isn’t anything to write home about either. Meanwhile Jarrett continued to be generally boring while Fale still showed an abject lack of technical skill or grace. Takahashi was the only truly gifted talented wrestler of the bunch, and he barely got any time to shine, aside from selling the El Kabong perfectly. Thankfully though, the match was short and the strong story compensated for the weak ringwork. ***
8 MAN TAG: CHAOS (YTR, TMDK, Naomichi Marufuji)/SUZUKIGUN (Iizuka, INVADER X, KES)
RESULT: MARUFUJI HITS THE TIGER KNEE UPPERCUT FOR A VICTORY BY PINFALL
Minoru Suzuki HATES Toru “YTR” Yano. No one’s really sure why, but does the ill-natured man really NEED a reason to hate someone? The two have feuded for over a year now, with a key turning point being Yano’s friend and tag team partner Takashi Iizuka betraying him at the Back to the Yokohama Arena show in mid-2014. Since then, Yano has wanted to get his hands on his former best friend for some time now. To challenge Suzukigun’s best wrestlers, he brought in some friends from Pro Wrestling NOAH- Heavyweight Champion Naomichi Marufuji and tag team champions The Mighty Don’t Kneel (Mikey Nicholls and Shane Haste). Iizuka, meanwhile, brought the best of Suzukigun: the Killer Elite Squad (Lance Archer and Davy Boy Smith Jr.) and Shelton X Benjamin, AKA Invader X.
While the last match benefited from brevity, this one sure as hell didn’t. All of these men, perhaps barring Yano and Iizuka, are amazing athletes who could probably work a good 45 minute classic. Meanwhile Yano and Iizuka are both excellent characters who could tell a hell of a story. Yano got in a lot of his classic spots: he blatantly cheats by pulling Iizuka’s beard and ripping off the turnbuckle pads. Iizuka, meanwhile, gets his wild brawler style across by taking the pads and clobbering Yano over the head with them. It was a great spot in what soon descended into a chaotic mess of a brawl that failed to provide anything especially memorable.
While we now know that the match was a lead-in for Suzukigun to invade Pro Wrestling NOAH, that doesn’t excuse it from being terribly weak. What should have been the climax of a brutal feud quickly devolved into an overbooked mess with too many wrestlers just doing a spot or two. The only real redeeming qualities was the sequence I described earlier along with the athletic prowess of everyone involved. **
UWFI RULES MATCH: KAZUSHI SAKURABA/MINORU SUZUKI
RESULT: SUZUKI LOCKS IN THE REAR NAKED CHOKE, PUTTING SAKURABA TO SLEEP AND FORCING THE REF TO GIVE HIM THE VICTORY.
When Takeshi Iizuka betrayed Toru Yano, Yano found himself in need of a new tag team partner. Enter MMA legend Kazushi “Gracie Hunter” Sakuraba, who Yano recruited to CHAOS. Minoru Suzuki, of course, is an MMA legend himself, having co-founded the MMA Promotion Pancrase. Both men were trained by legendary Catch wrestlers: Sakuraba by Billy Robinson, and Suzuki by Karl Gotch. Since this would be a dream match for any MMA fan, it was decided that the two would fight under Union of Wrestling Forces International rules- victory could only come through submission, knockout, or referee stoppage.
This match was truly something special. Suzuki came to the ring without his Suzukigun entourage and didn’t even abuse any of the ring boys who opened the ropes for him. His normally black tights were white as snow, and his uniquely-styled hair was dyed white to match. Sakuraba meanwhile came to the ring wearing a gundam-inspired mask, showcasing his unique, offbeat personality. From the starting bell, both men began to lock up in a vintage sequence of shoot-style mat wrestling. Eventually from there it moves to the two men delivering stiff strikes, and Suzuki catching Sakuraba in his signature hangman armbar. After that, it spilled out onto the ramp, where Sakuraba caught Suzuki in a brutal Kimura lock, possibly breaking his arm. The fight eventually found its way back to the ring, where Suzuki seemed to be fighting through the pain in his arm, a trademark of NJPW’s “Strong Style”. Indeed, he seemed to only be fueled by his sheer desire to hurt Sakuraba as much as possible. It paid off- Suzuki’s “fighting spirit” helped him weather everything Sakuraba threw at him, and let him lock in the rear naked choke to win. Following the victory, both men shook hands in mutual, if not begrudged respect.
I’m honestly disappointed this match was as short as it was, but given that they were going for a shoot-style fight it makes a lot of sense. Both men captivated me and the crowd. Suzuki, normally a monster heel, began to win the love and adoration of the audience simply through pure fighting spirit. The entire match was a celebration of Japan’s long history in MMA, and brought out some of the best in two legends through clever use of a gimmick. The two have amazing chemistry and I hope that this feud will go on longer than Suzuki/YTR. ****1/4
NEVER OPENWEIGHT TITLE: TOMOHIRO ISHII(C) VS. TOGI MAKABE
RESULT: MAKABE HITS THE KING KONG KNEE DROP FOR A VICTORY BY PINFALL
After a surprise victory over the legendary Hiroshi Tanahashi and what was an easy five-star classic with Katsuyori Shibata at the 2013 G1 Climax, the veteran Tomohiro Ishii has quickly become a rising star in New Japan. Ishii took 2014 by storm, winning the NEVER Openweight Championship from Tetsuya Naito at The New Beginning in Febuary (his first NJPW title win since his debut in 2004). He held the title until June, and remained a staple of the title scene, winning it back in October. Known as the “Stone Pitbull”, Ishii built up a reputation for himself as one of the toughest SOBs in New Japan. Naturally, he found himself in the sights of the “Unchained King Kong” Togi Makabe, a diehard Bruiser Brody fanboy who considers himself THE toughest SOB in New Japan.
This was the last match before intermission, and it makes sense: I needed a moment to catch my breath after an insane brawl like this. From the starting bell, these two laid into each other with insanely stiff forearms and chops. This wasn’t going to be a pretty technical clinic, it was going to be an old-school brawl. Ishii started off strong in spite of a bad shoulder, and kept on going. This was a blur of hardcore violence, even if no weapons ever came into play. It wasn’t long before the sheer physicality of the blows these two men were landing on each other made me cringe. The forearm strikes turned into lariats, and those eventually gave way to brutal, yet perfectly executed german suplexes. I don’t know if Chris Benoit is in heaven or hell, but I’d imagine he’d be looking on at this and smiling.
To me, this was everything I love about Japanese wrestling. It was Ishii and Shibata’s G1 Climax that got me into NJPW, and it’s these stiff-fests that I love watching. To me, seeing two tough SOBs get in the ring and just hit each other as hard as they can until someone drops is perhaps one of the finest human dramas you could ever witness. It was obvious that Ishii and Makabe’s bodies both had given up somewhere after one of their suplexes, and the two men were running on nothing but willpower and determination. It’s a hallmark of Japanese culture: the willingness to put your own body on the line all for the sake of your honor. And make no mistake, this match was about honor. There were a number of spots where these men would take shots at each other only to stop and dare the other to retaliate, like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. There was a sense of mutual respect in the duel, with each one honoring the fighting spirit of his rival. It reminded me a lot of bushido and the ancient code of the samurai. It was a noble, brutal duel. By the end I was openly wondering how much more these two men could put each other through.
The only thing hurting this match was the ending, which was resoundingly anti-climactic. Aside from that, it was flawless, an embodiment of everything Japanese strong style was meant to be. ****3/4
IWGP JUNIOR HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE: RYUSUKE TAGUCHI (C)/KENNY OMEGA
RESULT: KENNY OMEGA HITS THE ONE-WINGED ANGEL FOR A VICTORY BY PINFALL
Of all the thorns in Bullet Club’s side, Rysuke “The Funky Weapon” Taguchi has been perhaps one of the biggest. Originally the tag team partner of Prince Devitt, it was Devitt’s betrayal of Taguchi that lead to Bullet Club’s formation. It was Taguchi who would eventually oust Devitt from both command of Bullet Club and NJPW as a whole at Invasion Attack in April of 2014. Since then, Taguchi has tried to move on with his career, winning the Junior Heavyweight Championship at Destruction in Kobe in September of 2014. Of course, Bullet Club had no interest in letting him do that. In October, NJPW signed indie darling Kenny Omega, who initially renounced Bullet Club and considered himself one with the people of Japan. However, upon his debut immediately declared his loyalty to the highest bidder, who just happened to be Bullet Club. Dubbing himself “The Cleaner”, Omega set his sights on taking away Taguchi’s championship in the name of the gaijins of Bullet Club.
As far as a cruiserweight match goes, these two certainly delivered. Omega and Taguchi’s ring work was fast-paced, crazy, and all over the ring. These two men showed an incredible display of athletics in a high-energy duel. Also of note were the Yong Bucks, who escorted Omega to the ring. While I found their childish cheering and jeering distracting (although I did laugh when one of them called for Kenny to “Kick Eddie Gurerro’s ass”, referring to Taguchi resembling the legendary mexican jumping bean) they really helped capture the essence of Bullet Club: a group of disrespectful, irreverent outsiders and foreigners. Numerous times the Young Bucks helped run interference for Omega. They would grab his legs if he was near their corner of the apron, and helped distract the ref so Omega could use some cold spray on Taguchi’s eyes. Omega also brought some more eccentric heel tactics, like miming turning on a chainsaw before rubbing his stubble-clad forearms into Taguchi’s face. Eventually, when Taguchi physically threw Omega out of the ring and into his stablemates, the crowd pop was enormous. Of course, sometimes all the heart, courage, and goodness in the world won’t help you, as the mad villain Kenny Omega still managed to walk out with the title.
This was a solid match, really fast-paced and full of action. The presence of the Young Bucks initially hindered it, but it eventually managed to have a meaningful payoff. Still, it was kind of bland, and was missing that special sort of pizzazz that a Wrestle Kingdom match needs. ***3/4
IWGP TAG TEAM TITLES: MEIYU TAG VS. BULLET CLUB
RESULT: SHIBATA HITS THE PENALTY KICK FOR A VICTORY BY PINFALL
Childhood friends and brutal rivals, Meiyu Tag (Hirooki Goto and Katsuyori Shibata) are no strangers to failure. Goto has built up quite the reputation for being a choke artist, and despite his best efforts Shibata still cannot decisively destroy his greatest enemy Hiroshi Tanahashi. Nonetheless, these two men continue to fight onwards, sometimes even with each other. Meanwhile, after winning the title at last year’s Wrestle Kingdom, “The Machine Gun” Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows have dominated the tag team picture for over a year, fending off superteams like Ace to King (Hiroshi Tanahashi and Togi Makabe) and even the Briscoe Boys (Mark and Jay Briscoe) from Ring of Honor. The arrogant heels had already taken down Meiyu Tag once, but after a grueling battle in the finals of the World Tag League in December of 2014, Meiyu Tag got their win back as well as another shot at the titles at Wrestle Kingdom.
Overall, this match was fairly middle of the road. Despite being amazing singles competitors, Shibata and Goto simply aren’t nearly as entertaining as a tag team. I say that knowing that Shibata is probably my favorite wrestler in the world today, and him being in tag matches just dilutes how lethal of a man he is in the ring. However, Anderson and Gallows have AMAZING chemistry as a tag team, and it shows. Even though I see room for improvement in Meiyu Tag, it was still obvious that Bullet Club was carrying them through the match.
To give an example of what I’m talking about, one of Shibata’s signatures is that he beats you down into the corner with a series of vicious forearm and elbow strikes. Then he backs up to the opposite corner, charges you while you’re down, and gives you a nasty dropkick right in your goddamn face. It’s a harsh-looking move that makes me cringe every time I see it, but part of its power is how most of the time, there’s a camera in the victim’s corner to get a good shot of the impact. In this case, there was no camera in the corner since it was done simultaneously with Goto’s similar running knee strike, so the dropkick just looked kind of weak and failed to capture how much of an insane badass Shibata is.
All of my minor fanboy-induced grips aside, the story here was still really strong despite being really simple. Shibata and Goto are true friends, loyal to one another until the very end. It’s a bond that not even a strong professional partnership like Bullet Club’s can overcome. Indeed, Goto and Shibata’s friendship helped them survive Bullet Club’s brutal, relentless offense and win the day. Perhaps the most amazing thing it accomplished was getting Shibata to actually smile, something that not even kicking Tanahashi’s head clean off in the G1 Climax could do. Certainly loyalty and friendship are important values in Japan, reflected in their athletics, their industry, and even in their organized crime. Thus, a victory for Meiyu Tag was a victory for the Japanese people, showing that yes, tradition will always beat out even the best a foreigner could offer.
Overall, while this was a solid match it kind of exposed Meiyu Tag’s weakness as tag team wrestlers. When they have a title held be such legends as the Steiner Brothers and the Dudley Boys, that’s a little worrying for me. Of course, it goes without saying that these four men had a much better match in the finals of the World Tag League, but this one wasn’t especially bad either. ***1/2
TETSUYA NAITO VS. AJ STYLES
RESULT: AJ SYTLES HITS AN AVALANCHE STYLES CLASH FOR A VICTORY BY PINFALL
AJ Styles has had a very interesting year. Having won the TNA World Championship at the end of 2013, he walked out of the company and began the year defending it abroad in Japan and Mexico. Midway through January he lost the title again at Genesis, and left TNA for good. Around the same time, 2013 G1 Climax winner Tetsuya Naito failed to capture the IGWP World Heavyweight Championship from Kazuchika Okada at Wrestle Kingdom VIII. After a few months of touring on the American Indies, Styles shocked the world when he appeared at NJPW’s Invasion Attack and announced that since Prince Devitt had just left the company, he would be taking control of Bullet Club. The Phenomenal One shocked everyone yet again when he won the title from Okada at Wrestling Dontaku in May, becoming the first gaijin to hold the prestigious title since Brock Lesnar in 2005. Styles and Naito met in the 2014 G1 Climax, where Naito was the only man other than Okada to successfully pin him. Styles was NOT going to let that slide, however.
In October of 2014, Hiroshi Tanahashi defeated AJ Styles to win the championship with the help of a returning Yoshitatsu. Outraged, Styles challenged Yoshitatsu to a match at Power Struggle in November. Styles won with his trademark finisher, the “Styles Clash”, which legitimately broke two bones in Yoshitatsu’s neck. After the match Naito came out to confront Styles. Later that month, Styles nearly crippled Satoshi Kojima with the Styles Clash, causing some to call for a ban on the move. Unapologetic, the leader of Bullet Club seems to enjoy his reputation as a “Crippler”, much like the legendary Chris Benoit did all those years ago in ECW.
Tetsuya Naito has a strong cult following, but I’ll never understand why. He failed to impress me at all in the match. Even if he didn’t get in that much offense, it still looked weak and failed to really get me behind him. His selling was poor, and really failed to get most of AJ’s offense over. Watching this match I’m amazed that the bookers thought this guy was remotely qualified to attempt to main event Wrestle Kingdom last year. He’s entirely unremarkable in every way.
In contrast, AJ Styles looked amazing. I had the pleasure of seeing him take on Kevin Steen (now Kevin Owens in the WWE) at Tommy Dreamer’s House of Hardcore V, and he really is just as phenomenal live as he is on TV. Despite being a natural babyface for most of his TNA run, AJ cemented himself as a brutal, nasty heel for me. When he hit the Styles Clash off the second turnbuckle, I let out an audible “OH MY GOD” in the likes of Joey Styles. I felt like I had just watched a live, attempted homicide.
Let’s not dance around it: This was a squash match. I don’t know why they thought it necessary to put a squash match so close to the main event, but they did. It was incredibly one-sided: AJ just wailed on Naito endlessly, with Naito getting in only a small amount of offense in comparison. I love AJ Styles, but the man deserves so much more. Oh, and on a side note: Naito is officially 0 for 4 at Wrestle Kingdom now. I don’t think we can say Goto is the residential choke artist anymore… **1/4
IWGP INTERCONTINENTAL TITLE: SHINSUKE NAKAMURA (C) VS. KOTA IBUSHI
RESULT: NAKAMURA HITS THE BOMA YE FOR A VICTORY BY PINFALL
When then-newcomer Kota Ibushi entered the 2013 G1 Climax, he proved to be more than just a comedy wrestler with a surprise upset win over “The King Of Strong Style” Shinsuke Nakamura, head of the CHAOS stable. Indeed, a rematch between the two was highly anticipated in the 2014 G1 Climax, before a concussion sidelined Ibushi for the tournament. Fast forward to Power Struggle in November, where Nakamura defends his Intercontinental Title against Katsuyori Shibata in the main event. After the match, Nakamura was cutting one of his signature promos when Ibushi suddenly ran in, came at Nakamura from behind, and gave him one of the most painful-looking german suplexes since Brock Lesnar’s at Summerslam 2014. He mockingly challenged Nakamura to a match for the IC belt at Wrestle Kingdom, and the eccentric champion agreed.
Last year at Wrestle Kingdom, Kota Ibushi was a clean-cut, pretty-boy babyface taking on the villainous, demonic Prince Devitt for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title. This year, Ibushi had the same pretty-boy look, but his style and mannerisms were that of a dastardly, arrogant heel. Indeed, if respect was a theme for tonight, then the total lack of respect was one for this match. Naito could not make his disdain for the flashy, Michael Jackson-inspired Nakamura any more obvious. His default expression was a sneer, and he ripped off many of Nakamura’s signature spots. He even tried to use his signature Boma Ye knee strike finisher, but Nakamura managed to kick out before the ref could even count to two.
Of course, Nakamura responded in kind perfectly. When Ibushi resorted to punching Nakamura with a closed fist (an illegal strike in NJPW) the ref, affectionately known as “Red Shoes” stepped in to stop him. Of course, Nakamura simply shoved poor Red Shoes aside and responded with with some brutal punches of his own. When Nakamura locked Ibushi in an armbar, Ibushi’s response was simply to stomp on Nakamura’s face repeatedly until he was forced to break the hold. What started as a brilliant technical flurry of quick grapples and swift strikes soon devolved into an ugly, nasty brawl as the sheer hatred the two men had for each other began to boil over.
This was undoubtedly my favorite match of the night. I had never really thought of Ibushi as main event material, but this cemented it. The match was entirely flawless. It told a perfect story of a desperate contender willing to reach the big times by any means necessary, but ultimately unable to win without any honor. In the end, the strong Japanese tradition of honor once again came shining through, as Nakamura’s knee gave Ibushi’s face a very harsh reminder that disrespect will get you nowhere. *****
IWGP WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE: KAZUCHIKA OKADA/HIROSHI TANAHASHI (C)
RESULT: TANAHASHI HITS THE HIGH FLY FLOW FOR A VICTORY VIA PINFALL
When Kazuchika Okada was signed to TNA in 2010, people thought that his career was as good as dead. Indeed, his incredibly stupid and mildly racist “Okato” gimmick was certainly embarassing. No one could have predicted that he would return to NJPW at Wrestle Kingdom VI and immediately thrust himself into the main event. Nonetheless, he immediately challenged Hiroshi Tanahashi, the “Once in a Century Talent” to a match at The New Beginning in Febuary. Okada joined CHAOS and enlisted the veteran Gedo as his manager and spokesperson. Okada, now calling himself the “Rainmaker” due to his vast wealth and opulent ringwear, introduced his devastating new short-arm clothesline, also called the Rainmaker. He shocked the world with his upset over Tanahashi, and set off what people are already calling the greatest wrestling rivalry of the 2010’s.
While Okada is a rising young talent with a bright future, his rival, Hiroshi Tanahashi is no slouch either. When Brock Lesnar’s world title reign in 2005 turned out to be a massive flop, NJPW was in some dire straits. Young, fresh talent like Katsuyori Shibata began to leave, feeling the company was doomed. However, Tanahashi persevered, carrying the company on his back until they once again were the biggest wrestling promotion in Japan. In a sense, he’s the Japanese John Cena. He’s been the top guy in New Japan for over ten years, and the entire time has carried it as the top babyface, a constant in the main event. Of course, Tanahashi is much more highly regarded than Cena for a number of different reasons, such as a more diverse moveset, actually selling his opponent’s offense, not winning every single major challenge, and having moments where he isn’t such a heroic figure after all (his personal grudge against Shibata has caused him to resort to more heelish tactics more than once just to punish his enemy). Despite being on top for about a decade, he still refuses to let some arrogant upstart like Okada just waltz in and steal his spot.
Almost instantly, Okada and Tanahashi began a chain of grapples and counter-grapples that showed their years of rivalry. Unlike John Cena and Randy Orton using the same old tricks on each other every time without fail, these two men knew each other inside and out, well enough for their fight to be like a game of human speed chess. Nearly every single move had a counter, and that counter often had a counter of its own. After the grappling, they resort to stiffing each other with forearms, mirroring the same sort of respect that Ishii and Makabe showed for each other’s strength earlier in the night. Eventually, the fight goes to the outside of the ring, where Okada’s athletic ability begins to shine: his running big boot over the barricade is astounding, and he delivers a fireman’s carry takeover to Tanahashi on the ramp that makes the Attitude Adjustment look like a slap from Jenna Morosca. He also delivers a stunning hangman DDT that Randy Orton dreams of being able to do. Make no mistake, Okada’s offense in this match was relentless. He knew Tanahashi had a bad back and neck, so he went for a Tombstone piledriver on the ramp. He may be a bleach-blond pretty-boy rich kid, but in the ring he is a ruthless, arrogant technician.
In fact, arrogance summarizes Okada’s character in a nutshell. His ring attire is intentionally garish and vibrant, his moveset is specifically designed to showcase his athletic prowess. He belongs to CHAOS, a group specifically founded by irreverent hotblooded heels who balk tradition in favor of gratifying their own egos. In contrast, Tanahashi is surprisingly humble. In most interviews he’s very calm, mellow, and soft-spoken. He always shows deference to the fans first and foremost, and makes it clear that he strives to uphold the honor of NJPW above anything else. While his moves are flashy, stylized, and technical, it would be wrong to call them dramatic or theatrical like Okada. The difference between the two can be shown in who they had in their corner. In Okada’s corner was his manager Gedo, a loudmouthed braggart who sang the Rainmakers’ praise everywhere he went. In Tanahashi’s was none other than Captain New Japan, a comedy jobber who nonetheless tries his hardest (and fails comically) to uphold the honor of NJPW. Okada’s entrances are often a spectacle in of themselves, with fake dinosaurs, massive broadswords, and fake dollar bills with his face on it raining from the sky. In contrast, nearly all of Tanahashi’s entrances are humble, if not energetic. The most extravagant I’ve ever seen him get was at last year’s Wrestle Kingdom, where his theme was played live by former Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman.
When the match got near the finish, things began to heat up. Okada makes his famous pose to set up for the Rainmaker Clothesline, one of the most powerful finishers in wrestling today. However, he misses, and Tanahashi counters with a dragon screw leg whip, an excellent tactical move that makes up a key point in both his offense and defense. The fight goes back to the outside and Okada misses his running big boot, setting him up for Tanahashi to hit his finisher, the High Fly Flow (A frog splash much like Eddy Gurerro or Superfly Jimmy Snuka’s) from the top rope onto the outside in an amazing spot. The fight goes back into the ring and Tanahashi goes for another High Fly Flow, only for Okada to roll through it. He attempts to use another tombstone, but Tanahashi reverses it and plants Okada down. He hits Okada with two more High Fly Flows, but Okada kicks out. Finally, Okada hits the Rainmaker Clothesline, and the ref goes for the three-count, everyone thinking that this is it, game over.
Except Tanahashi kicks out.
I want to take a moment here to say that this is how you book a “wrestlemania moment.” You build up a move that for YEARS has been totally invincible and no one can kick out of. Make it so that even the most amazing ace can’t escape this deadly move. Then, when the chips are down and things are at their most grim, the hero kicks out of the pinfall attempt. When Tanahashi kicked out, the crowd got even more wild then I thought they could ever get. I was out of my seat in sheer shock. Here was a man who Okada had put through hell and back, and yet still found the heroic resolve, the fighting spirit to keep him going and survive one of the most devastating moves in professional wrestling. If you want an example of heroic resolve in professional wrestling, Hiroshi Tanahashi in that one moment showed more of the babyface spirit than Hulk Hogan or John Cena have done in their entire careers.
Back to the match itself, Okada retaliates with one surprise trick up his sleeve: a devastating pinpoint standing dropkick to Tanahashi’s forehead. The sheer athletic finesse was so overwhelming that it felt like time froze for just a moment as he landed the dropkick. Tanahashi survives, at this point his heroic momentum unbreakable. He takes Okada down and hits him with three more High Fly Flows, putting him away to retain his IWGP World Heavyweight Championship.
After the match, Okada breaks down, crying in his towel as Gedo consoles him. For years, the Rainmaker was on top of the world with an invincible weapon. Now, he’s been thoroughly beaten, with his ace in the hole no longer so invincible. Tanahashi cuts a promo afterwards, telling Okada that he’s still just a young kid, who’s got a long way to go until he’s ready to be the top figure of New Japan. As he celebrates, Wrestle Kingdom IX finally comes to a conclusion.
This was a classic match. Every single thing is done perfectly. There’s a wide variety of athletic finesse, magnetic personality, and an epic story of the haughty young man versus an aging veteran. It reminds us of one of the most important Japanese values of all: humility. Tanahashi singlehandedly saved New Japan and made it into a wrestling monolith. And yet in spite of that, he’s hardly one to brag or boast. He considers himself merely a champion of the company, a hero to the masses. His charisma comes from his eagerness: he loves pro wrestling, he loves New Japan, he loves the fans. He’s like a noble king, who loves his subjects and always tries to answer to a higher power. Okada, while skilled, strong, and charismatic in his own right, was ultimately undone by his own arrogance. When Tanahashi kicked out of the Rainmaker, you could see him begin to fall apart. Defeat was just an inevitability for him. His ego grew too big, and it finally burst. All good wrestling is in a sense a morality play, a tale of right versus wrong. Even though promoters will try to hype up their “shades of grey” morality, there will always need to be a clear-cut protagonist and antagonist in order for there to be a story. This match told a story in spades, with such flair and mastery that I don’t know if I’ll ever see a better one in my entire life. *****
So in conclusion, I can say that without a doubt that New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Wrestle Kingdom IX is the greatest pro wrestling show that I have ever seen. It was a magnificent, brilliant display of amazing wrestling, as well as a refreshing display of good morality and a strong sense of tradition. In this modern world where so many different peoples surrender their tradition and their identity to mindless consumerism and phony globalist progressivism, New Japan Pro Wrestling is a distinctive example of Japanese tradition alive and well. Anyone interested in traditionalism, heritage, cultural pride or just good professional wrestling should be following New Japan.