Thursday, January 7, 2016

Wrestle Kingdom 10

New Japan Pro Wrestling yet again throws down the gauntlet for the year with a top flight PPV that boasts a great card and even better work. No use beating around the bush, here are breakdowns and ratings for the event. (WARNING: contains spoilers. I would highly recommend you track down this event, or at least the final three matches, immediately if you have yet to watch them.)





New Japan Rumble
Participants, in order: Jushin Thunder Liger, Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Tiger Mask, Cheeseburger, Hiro Saito, Yoshi-Hashi, Máscara Dorada, Captain New Japan, Manabu Nakanishi, Yuji Nagata, Satoshi Kojima, Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Ryusuke Taguchi, Shiro Koshinaka, King Haku, The Great Kabuki, Kazushi Sakuraba, Jado
Rating: **


As with last year’s event, Wrestle Kingdom 10 opened with a rumble featuring both legends too old to fit on the card and youngsters who haven’t earned their shot. In practice, it resembles the gimmick battle royal from Wrestlemania X-Seven, a chance for old-timers to get one last go-around at the dog and pony show. No match like this could ever be mistaken for great, but for what it is this is fairly fun. For those (like myself) with little to no exposure to the history of Japanese wrestling, it’s hard to get excited for many names, but it’s clear from this slow mess that everyone is just happy to be there.


The match’s pace is set by the old wrestlers, who hit sluggish versions of what spots they can still do, yet despite it all there’s so much going on that the camera misses all kinds of things, including only catching the fallout of two wrestlers going over the top rope and being eliminated. Still, there’s a goofy charm to seeing the old timers gang up on the new guys, or in sly visual gags like the moment where Saito goes to slam the hapless young gimmick Cheeseburger and Jushin Liger calmy shoves Cheeseburger so that he falls onto Saito and into a pinfall. It’s also cool to hear the crowd, still filing their way to their seats, legitimately pop when King Haku strolls out to the Bullet Club’s music, and despite the whole thing making for an ass-numbing half-hour, it was a silly and enjoyable opening. (Having said that, whatever respect this kind of match is supposed to show for the promotion’s legends was thoroughly muted by the English commentary, which freely mocked the wrestlers for being old and paunchy, a heel move that was just out of character.)


reDRagon (Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly vs. The Young Bucks (Matt Jackson and Nick Jackson) vs. Aerial Dogfight (Matt Sydal and Ricohet) vs. Roppongi Vice (Trent Baretta and Rocky Romero)
Four-Way Tag Team Match for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship
Rating: ***1/2


If all modern wrestling is limited by history and repetition, tag team wrestling is even more hampered, if only because the pool of viable talent is a small portion of the full roster. NJPW’s tag stable is majorly represented in this giant match, and anyone who’s watched even a single NJPW event lately has seen at least two of these teams face off; in fact, Wrestle Kingdom 9 opened proper with both ReDRagon and the Young Bucks in the same four-way tag. Regardless, this is a killer opener, arranged as a series of spots that nonetheless gets enough time to breathe and build a latticework of moving components. The pauses make big moves mean more, and everyone gets a moment to shine.


As patiently built as the match is, there are highlights out of the gate, like the Young Bucks working over Bobby Fish before Fish flips Matt over the rope in time for O’Reilly to land a brutal apron kick. There’s also the Bucks’ superkick frenzy, including a kick to a leaping Ricochet’s jaw that could have been the match’s conclusion but is instead delivered almost off-handedly, as if without effort. But the time taken throughout to properly scout each move helps the workers to fully interlock their moves so that showstoppers become part of a grand pas de deux (or pas de huit). There’s great continuity here, as in the Bucks absolutely beating the crap out of Trent, only to get cocky and go after his partner Romero, only to give Trent the chance to catch his breath and counter a running corner strike into a vicious double-footed stomp on Matt that sends the suddenly stunned Jackson scrambling to tag in his brother, who rushes in for revenge only to catch a tornado DDT.


Then there are just great spots, like Cody Hall interceding on behalf of the Young Bucks to perform his dad’s Razor’s Edge on Ricochet to send him over the top into a crowd of guys, or the hilarious mega-suplex in which everyone locks up except for Romero, who sprints around the hunched, interlocked bodies like the runt of the litter before he finally worms his way into a spot. But really, it’s Sydal and Ricochet who steal the show, from their simultaneous standing moonsaults onto Nick to their perpendicular shooting star presses. The best moment of the entire match belongs to Ricochet, who hits a running kick on a seated Nick, then swerves out into a run back to a rope for a massive springboard into a shooting star press on a ringside Hall. Ricochet gets so much air that the camera, already filming from master shot distance well away from the ring, has to zoom out even further because he sails up out of the frame. A sneaky finish robs the flyers of their rightful win and manages to spoil things a bit, which given the hot potato nature of the Jr. Heavyweight tag title is a testament to how good these two were, but overall this was a superb way to get the heart pumping for a low-stakes undercard.


The Briscoes (Jay Briscoe and Mark Briscoe) and Toru Yano vs. Bullet Club (Bad Luck Fale, Tama Tonga and Yujiro Takahashi)
6-Man Tag Match for the NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship
Rating: *1/2


Things cool waaaaaaaay down for the next tag match on the card, this one a two-team, six-man bout for the newly created NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag title, a belt that loses legitimacy before it’s even gained from this weakly booked, slow-moving brawl. Redneck warriors the Briscoes jump out of the gate with a lot movement, hitting tagged kicks and grips that set a pace that soon collapses when their teammate Yano is tagged in and the Bullet Club’s Bad Luck Fale joins the fray. These two large, slow behemoths can only make clumsy entreaties to the crowd as testaments to their strength, but both men move at such a glacial pace that bruising moves instead look like a first rehearsal, with moves so easy to scout that no one could believe a person would sit still long enough to catch a blow. Things heat up a bit when Tonga gets involved and gives the Briscoes an opponent who can actually work with them, but by then the match has had its momentum snapped. The only memorable spots comes at the end, with Tonga hitting a skull-cracking powerbomb on Jay Briscoe and the two getting into a battle on the top turnbuckle that ends with Jay grabbing Tonga and Yano smashing Tonga’s grip on the ropes with a chair to let Jay go for the pin. The Briscoes have enough personality to at least maintain some interest, and it’s almost surprising to see this match lasted nearly 12 minutes as it only feels about five. Even if it was five minutes, though, it would only have enough memorable spots to fill half that time.


Jay Lethal vs. Michael Elgin
Singles Match for the ROH World Championship
Rating: **3/4


What a strange thing to put on a card, a match for the top belt of another promotion. Ring of Honor and New Japan obviously share close ties and regular interpromotional matches, but this feels like a step too far out of the gate. Not helping matters is the fact that ROH’s current champion, Lethal, isn’t well known in Japan while Elgin is coming off a strong G1 run during the summer that gets him a massive pop. The early exchanges do everything to spotlight Elgin’s strength: Lethal slaps Elgin as they break from a lock, and Elgin responds with a smack of his own that buckles the champion. Lethal hits running clotheslines on Elgin that do not even faze the man, and the challenger not only catches a leapfrog for a powerslam but performs a delayed vertical suplex in which he repeatedly squats the lifted opponent as if he weighed nothing. Truth Martini attempts to help his boss by hitting Elgin on the apron (with, amusingly, a Japanese cover of the Book of Truth), but Elgin avoids even this before catching a dropkick from Lethal that puts him at ringside.


Not to be outdone, Lethal goes for a suicide dive that Elgin avoids in time for the champ to crash into an outside guardrail. It’s a nasty fall with nothing to soften the impact, but Lethal still stands right up and goes for another dive. Lethal uses his speed to roll into a few countermoves, but Elgin is always ready, and when he grabs a hold on Lethal, he makes the smaller guy pay dearly. A deadlift German suplex looks particularly nasty as Elgin draws it out not to stress the effort but just to build the impact of the near-fall. Lethal hits a Lethal Combination and then goes for a Randy Savage diving elbow drop that starts to, finally, get some crowd investment. Nothing, however, beats the Deadlift Falcon Arrow that Elgin hits on the second rope, masterfully holding out the move as he lifts Lethal so that the slam breaks the dam on the crowd’s ambivalence. The finish, of Martini distracting Elgin to let the champ defend with a Lethal Injection, illustrates the fundamental issue of the match, in that it makes perfect sense for ROH continuity but no sense in Tokyo Dome where the crowd still doesn’t much care about Lethal while popping for Elgin’s power moves. Overall, both men do some fine in-ring work, but despite performing on New Japan’s top stage, this seems more like the set up for the coming ROH Japan tour instead of a significant event in its own right.


Kenny Omega vs. Kushida
Singles Match for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship
Rating: ****


First things first: Kushida gets the introduction of the night with a bizarre mock-up of Back to the Future with our hero as Marty McFly and an accompanying Ryusuke Taguchi dressed as Doc Brown. Kenny Omega comes out like a Canadian Terminator; he needs your clothes, your boots, and your motorcycle, and he’s sure sorry about it. Omega is accompanied by freshly minted champs the Young Bucks, who get involved before the opening bell by tossing Taguchi out of the ring and landing a joint kick on Kushida. The Bucks play up Omega’s Terminator angle by playing that film’s theme on some trashcans they use throughout the early part of the match, including a highlight of Omega jumping up on a guardrail as Matt Jackson hands him a can that Omega then backflips onto a prone Kushida.


Soon, the Jacksons and Kaguchi bow out to pull focus onto the superb work of the two wrestlers. Omega is an outstanding heel, not only in his arrogance and aggression but his silent clown-level pantomime as he gives Kushida what for. Then he sells like an absolute master when Kushida gains momentum, and in particular the way he absolutely lets his left wrist go slack when Kushida targets it is the sell job of the night. Omega is so consistent that he at one point rams his arm into a turnbuckle to shake some blood into the numbed limb, and he hits a one-armed powerbomb that is the best moment of the night to that point. The two work so well together that you start to forget about all their valets, right about the moment they all rush back in to muck up an excellent exchange of reversals that sees Kushida’s running flip kick caught into a German suplex that Kushida grabs into a lock. The interference detracts from the excellence of the ring material instead of adding to it, and it docks an otherwise stellar match that finally gets the crowd going


Bullet Club (Doc Gallows and Karl Anderson) vs. G.B.H. (Togi Makabe and Tomoaki Honma)
Tag Team Match for the IWGP Tag Team Championship
Rating: ***1/2


Honmamania runs wild on Tokyo Dome as the challenger team of GBH enters the arena to square off against the Bullet Club. After only truly popping at end of the previous match, the crowd sounds electric when Honma gets in the ring. The energy propels a solid tag match, where Honma gets ganged upon early on and tags to Makabe, who gets his jaw given a good pounding by Anderson before finally tagging back to Honma. When Honma enters the ring a second time, he is filled with purpose, and he commences a headbutt display that is both impressive and worrying for his overall health. But for a match that eases off the energy of its predecessor, this is a lot of fun, and Honma looks incredibly charismatic for a guy whose entire narrative hinges upon a reckless, resilient move like a headbutt to represent his overall tenacity and refusal to give in. The moments where Honma gets carried away and gets laid out (as much by himself as at the hands of an opponent) only add to the excitement of him getting back up for more, and despite the bizarre choice not to give Honma himself the victory-assuring pin, it’s an entertaining match that manages to cool down the crowd while getting them heated all over again.


Hirooki Goto vs. Tetsuya Naito
Singles Match
Rating: ***1/4


Discounting the pre-show rumble, this is the only match of the night to not be for a a title of some kind. Naito comes out in a mask and a three piece suit and is the first person of the night to have a truly star-worthy introduction, only to be immediately outdone by the choral strains of Goto’s music, which is so eerie that the sudden burst of guitar spoils the grandeur of it a bit. It’s all great and then...interference, courtesy of Naito’s Los Ingobernables faction. It’s getting old at this point and spoils the supposed rarity of such distractions in Japanese matches.


The match itself, however, is great. The action spills ringside almost immediately, where Evil jumps into the fray and puts Goto’s head in a chair before hitting that chair with another chair. As with the Kushida/Omega match, these guest spots come and go, with the stretch between appearances the highlight of the bout. In keeping with the straightforward storytelling of the singles matches this evening, the heel initially dominates before a lapse in attention opens a hole that the face exploits to bruising effect. Naito may get in a bunch of early hits, but it’s Goto who looks impressive when he abruptly has enough and lands a sick clothesline before a corner strike and a suplex. Naito responds with a chest-caving top rope dropkick followed by a missile kick from the apron, but this is Goto’s match. The pace moves at double-time, and the speed of the competitors adds to the impact of the spots, especially a Code Red that Goto hits on Naito that sends the latter to the mat so loudly it sounds like his spine turned to powder. A late-stage run-in by Bushi and Evil is just irritating and marks the moment where all the outside crap on the undercard becomes too much to tolerate, but a quick finish after this lessens some of the impact of this unwelcome complication. As with the Junior Heavyweight bout, this is just great wrestling, kept from being a great match by too many complicating factors that misjudge the crowd investment or try to cram too much into the PPV.


Tomohiro Ishii vs. Katsuyori Shibata
Singles Match for the NEVER Openweight Championship
Rating: ****1/2


This match is brutal before it even starts. The video package used to introduce both fighters is stark and stripped-down compared to the chromatic and bubbly videos for everyone else. Ice blues and whites introduce Shibata simply as “The Wrestler” before an air raid klaxon and a barking dog announce Ishii. These two look tough; Shibata with nary an ounce of fat on him, Ishii such a hard lump of a man that even the thin line of his narrowly trimmed beard looks like a streak of gravel. The match itself begins viciously, with an open-handed slap exchange that gives way to a sick battle of wills as each wrestler presents his back to the other for kicking, absorbing very real blows and making a great sell out of not selling. That immediately becomes a chop fight so brutal that you can see flesh turning red and purple in real time before Ishii hits a vomit-inducing strike on Shibata’s throat, hits another that sends Shibata down only for him to immediately spring back up and land bury a forearm into Ishii’s jaw before the man has a chance to brace himself.


For the majority of this match, it’s hard to describe what’s happening as wrestling; it more resembles an MMA fight with pacing. In one of the few observant moments of English commentary during the entire event, Yoshi Tatsu observes several minutes into the match that it has consisted only of kicks, forearms and clotheslines, aptly calling attention to the savage simplicity of the bout. But the no-frils nature of the moves only adds to their sense of power; it’s past the halfway point of the match that Shibata hits the first suplex, a basic maneuver that would be considered warm-up in most matches but here feels as powerful as a finisher because so many minutes have been devoted to straight battery. The crowd groans in unison with suplexes and powerbombs because everyone can see that those on the receiving end are landing on thoroughly weakened bodies. The holds, when they come, don’t look like flashy, for-the-TV-monitors-and-cheap-seats grips of wrestling but the practical grips of true fighting, the kind of moves you use to genuinely snap an arm or choke out an opponent. One of the best spots of the match involves a hold that a prone Shibata locks on a kneeling Ishii, who stands out to turn it into a powerbomb, which Shibata worms his way out of to hyperextend Ishii’s arm and immediately buckle him in pain.


This match is downright unpleasant at times. One extended passage features traded headbutts so hard you can hear the dull thwack echo around the stadium, the kind of ill-advised moves that make you worry for these guys’ health. By the time the action comes to an end it feels like an act of mercy, not for the wrestlers’ sake but the audience’s. It’s a textbook illustration of how the style (and popularity) of MMA can be folded into the structure of wrestling, in which the point is not to knock someone out in under a minute but give people their money’s worth while still going hard. In some respects, this is the match of the night, even if the remainder of the card is so stacked that picking a highlight is impossible. With the sudden overhaul of NJPW talent announced just after Wrestle Kingdom, both Shibata and Ishii prove they are ready to move even higher on the card to fill that vacuum.

Shinsuke Nakamura vs. A.J. Styles
Singles Match for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship
Rating: ****3/4

There wasn’t much build for the penultimate event of Wrestle Kingdom, with nothing more to set up two of the best wrestlers in NJPW (and the world) than the simple fact of their immense quality. As such, the intercontinental bout lacks the same narrative strength of Kota Ibushi’s go-for-broke comeback at Wrestle Kingdom 9, wherein months of inactive-roster injury brought out the fire in the challenger, and substituted a feud for a more concise story of one man’s quest for self-elevation. This match is even more basic, a dream match that exists because it for some reason had not happened yet, and that lack of story should hamper the overall impact of the wrestling itself.


But Nakamura and Styles are no ordinary wrestlers, and this dream match had more hype than everything else on the card possibly excepting the main event. And God did it deliver. Last year’s Nakamura showcase roared out of the gate, but here the champ and Styles cool the audience down from the intensity of the previous match, beginning with a series of grips designed to test each other and let the crowd breathe a bit. But even here you can see the in-ring charisma of these two, especially Nakamura, who locks up one wrist but uses his free hand to tease a hold, waving his hand in an out of Styles’s open palm as if playing a game of “I’m not touching you.” Nakamura cites Michael Jackson and Freddie Mercury as stylistic influences for his persona, but his general affectation and aloof, alien charm he most resembles Bowie. This is also true of Bowie’s capacity for trying on different styles and discarding them like old clothes; Nakamura leaps in and out of his opponents’ move-sets and their own characters, best seen here when Styles performs his finger gun shot, prompting Nakamura to mime grabbing the imaginary bullet in mid air and stuffing into his mouth, then dropping Styles to the mat and flashing the Bullet Club leader’s hand salute.


Once the match heats up, it becomes a clinic, not just a technically proficient exchange of reversals, counters and quick-thinking moves but a clear-headed development of ring psychology and injury selling. Styles’s legitimate back injury plays a part in all of his recent matches, but he has never sold better than he does here, taking a backbreaker knee from Nakamura that leaves him unable to pick up his opponent for a slam. Later, Styles goes for a suplex but drops Nakamura and clutches his back, then converts to a lower center of gravity and less strain with a snap suplex that sends Nakamura into the corner. The American darling has arguably seen the peak of his career in Japan over the last two years, but this immediately slots to the top of his work. And Nakamura, well, he’s Nakamura. The man is only 6’2” but he seems to have 8 feet of limbs. He can get a hold on a guy from impossibly far away, and one armbar he hits on Styles is magnificently shot by the camera crew in a top-down medium shot cropped in such a way that Nakamura extends Styles’s arm across the entire diagonal length of the frame. And those legs? Forget about it; guy could hit a kick on you from Alpha Centauri. Nakamura goes for his Boma Ye finisher throughout, and when he coils his knee, it resembles one of those spring loaded boxing gloves, compressing a dangerous amount of tension that makes a basic running strike lethal.


Near the end of the match, the two trade all manner of finishers, and the interplay becomes nearly balletic. Styles grabs a Boma Ye attempt and converts into a Calf Killer submission. Styles later hits a Pele kick without warning, but Nakamura rolls out and springs back into a sick Boma Ye that gets a hair-raising near-fall. Another Boma Ye is expertly scouted by Styles, who rises just over Nakamura’s knee and pops his own knee into the champion’s face before hitting a perfect 450 off the top top. Nakamura hits a ridiculous rolling armbar, rolls it into a triangle hold when it seems Styles might get out of it, but then Styles manages to stand and deliver a one-armed Styles Clash that sends the crowd into rapture. The two Boma Ye knees that end the match look like they could take off Styles’s head, and whatever drawbacks existed to building this match before the fact are obliterated by the sheer perfection of the ring work. It may not equal the all-around beauty of Nakamura’s match last year, but it comes within a hair of it. With news that both men are apparently now headed to WWE, the respectful fist bump they share at the end of it all may not only be acknowledgment of a job well done but the beginning of a beautiful friendship.


Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi
Singles Match for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship
Rating: *****


After Okada was left beaten and sobbing his way backstage at the end of Wrestle Kingdom 9 as retaining champ Tanahashi mocked him in the ring, any idiot could have predicted how their telegraphed rematch at the following year’s main event would go. But this also set expectations astronomically high for the presumed passing of the baton from the elder ace to his clearest successor, yet the two performers deliver in spades. From the outset, the movement of the match is markedly different from the pair’s bout at last year’s Wrestle Kingdom. That matched started deliberately slow to chill the crowd and get them focused before Okada, playing up the hungry challenger, snapped and went wild.


But Okada this time around is the champion, so his approach is focused solely on defeating his nemesis, not also winning the belt. This time, Okada is no less ferocious, but he scouts his opponent and makes cautious moves designed to goad Tanahashi into losing his cool instead of rushing headlong into battle. Okada set last year’s match into high gear when he abruptly violated a clean break with a challenging slap, and he references that in a wry move at the top of the match when he and Tanahashi lock up and go to the ropes and Okada teases a massive slap before stopping and giving the ace a playful, teasing clap on the shoulders that prompts Tanahashi to take a sloppy, easily countered swing.


The match builds much faster than its predecessor, albeit in such a way that both fighters look smarter than they did before. To cancel out Okada’s Rainmaker finisher, Tanahashi bashes not his opponent’s arm but the dominant leg, sapping the sprint that gives the clothesline its power. People have already complained of Okada inconsistently selling the innumerable kicks and dragon screw whips that Tanahashi performs on his leg, but far from it, Okada comes off like someone who reserves his strength, gingerly putting weight on the limb throughout but exploding in moments of dropkick fury when his adrenaline gets up. Okada is more patient this time around, more willing to take some abuse to make sure he saves up the energy for his assaults.


If the final stretch of WK9’s main event was a devastating series of traded finishers, Wrestle Kingdom 10 sometimes makes that conclusion feel quaint. There’s nothing as jaw-dropping as Tanahashi’s sick frog splash from a corner turnbuckle over a barricade (something that is replicated on a smaller, less dangerous and more comic scale here), but the drama here is vastly superior. Watch Okada rally, hit a series of vicious dropkicks on Tanahashi but then be so depleted that he cannot stand on his spent leg to go for a cover. Listen for the crowd reaction when Tanahashi kills Okada’s momentum with another savage blow to the leg that leaves the champ too weak to land a Tombstone Piledriver. The final minutes, in which both fighters steal each other’s finishers and kick out of each other’s covers, then dance around Okada’s Rainmaker as Tanahashi desperately prolongs the inevitable with a few ducks and counters, is as thrilling as professional wrestling gets. It’s the culmination of psychology developed within the ring and outside it, and the fact that a brief rundown and the simple ring awareness of the performers is enough to communicate everything to English-speaking audiences only makes WWE’s current creative failures all the more pronounced.

Bottom Line: This was a great event, with a solid undercard marred by only one bad match and one too many gimmick interferences, topped by what is almost certain to be the main card of the year, with three matches that each mark a different kind of showcase. Shibata/Ishii is just about the stiffest match you can see without heading into full MMA fighting; Nakamura/Styles is a masterclass of mat dynamics and in-ring psychology; and the main event sold a narrative so well it announced a changing of the guard for New Japan to a roaring crowd. The main event announced the PPV as the end of an era from the outset, but news that New Japan Pro Wrestling just lost a number of its top names, including both Nakamura and Styles, to WWE only further marks the show as a dividing line between the promotion’s recent golden run and an uncertain new age fortuitously timed to a drop in attendance numbers.

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