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NJPW Wrestle Kingdom VII

Arnold Furious: 4.1.13. The first major Japanese show of the year is also the biggest. Wrestle Kingdom has become New Japan’s flagship PPV event. Held in the Tokyo Dome, also known as the “Big Egg” on account of its appearance, it routinely outdraws every other Japanese show by a mile. The 2012 attendance was a whopping 43,000 fans. 2013 was down to 29,000. New Japan remains the top Japanese promotion so it’s only appropriate to start 2013 with them and their biggest show. There may be a few new names here but there will be familiar ones too. I’ll try to keep you abreast of who’s who in case you’re new to Japanese wrestling.

 

Dark Match
Wataru Inoue, Tama Tonga & Captain New Japan vs. Tomohiro Ishii, YOSHI-HASHI & Jado
The first thing you may notice is the capitalisation of YOSHI-HASHI. This stems from a long running Japanese habit of putting bad guys names in all capital letters. That said there are is generally less heel/face alignment in Japanese wrestling and the fans tend to support whoever they like rather than a babyface good guy. Wrestling is also treated far more like a sport. So the fan reactions are somewhat unusual. That said a popular star in Japanese wrestling will get every bit the pop of a popular American worker.

Captain New Japan is one of the goofiest characters working for NJPW. He used to wrestle under the name Hideo Saito in the CHAOS faction but he was considered unpredictable and got kicked out. This sent him a bit loopy and he started wearing a modified Captain America costume. These things happen…in Japan. Tama Tonga is one of the lesser known members of the Islanders family. He was adopted by Haku. He’s worked in Puerto Rico, Mexico and has carved out a niche for himself in New Japan. Wataru Inoue is a grizzled veteran who worked his way up through the Indy circuit to earn a spot with New Japan. Often Japanese workers come through schools belonging to different federations. So NJPW’s new talent is usually brought through their dojo’s. Inoue busted his ass to get above those people and the crowd tend to respond to him because of it. He’s a loveable loser and perennial underdog. On the other side we have Tomohiro Ishii. He’s a thick set midcard journeyman who plied his trade in WAR, Michi-Pro, World Japan and Riki Pro before making it to New Japan in 2006. YOSHI-HASHI is one of the New Japan dojo trainees. He came through in 2008 and jobbed around the undercard before being farmed out to CMLL, which is often what happens to young Japanese talent. They’re sent away to discover themselves. When he came back he was initially jobbed out before joining CHAOS and switching gears somewhat. CHAOS is a scuzzy heel group with the likes of Jado, Gedo, Iizuka, Yano and Nakamura. Jado rounds out the CHAOS team. With his tag team partner Gedo he’s been hanging around the Japanese scene for my entire tape trading history dating back to the mid 90s. Initially both he and Gedo were roundly hated on by reviewers but experience has made them both better.

The match is a dark match in front of half the audience and Jado’s Flair-esque WHOOO’s echo around the empty arena. You’d think it’d be a no-brainer for CHAOS to use their experience and continuity as a unit to overcome the weird combination across the ring from them. This is wrong. Japanese booking sometimes makes sense like that, as it’s treated like a sport, but like a sport strange things happen. Ishii looks like someone shat in his cereal as he sells NOTHING. Jado tries to orchestrate some Dragon Gate no tag double teaming, which is a mess. Tonga finally gets the crowd buzzing by hitting Jimmy Snuka spots. Oh shit, this guy is going to sign for the WWE in the next 3-4 years. Guaranteed. CHAOS stink up the joint with more dreadful double teaming. This is like the nWo B-Team of CHAOS though. Tonga finishes with a bodyscissors DDT, which I believe he calls the Headshrinker. The match never had time to develop but frankly I’m glad they kept it short as the heel team had such terrible continuity they couldn’t carry the match against the misfits opposing them. Tonga looked every inch the star of this one and an easy pick to advance up the card.
Final Rating: ½*

 

Dark Match
Ryusuke Taguchi, KUSHIDA & BUSHI vs. Jushin Thunder Liger, Tiger Mask & Hiromu Takahashi
A second dark match featuring one of Japan’s most enduring and enigmatic stars; the evergreen Jushin Liger. Now 48 years old Liger has been one of wrestling’s best high fliers and cruiserweight technicians since 1986. Initially considered “too small” to be a star in New Japan he was farmed out to England (All Star) and Canada (Stampede) before a staggering run of excellence in NJPW rings from 1989 onwards. Liger has, during that time, been consistently one of the best wrestlers anywhere in the world. He has about seven finishers, all lethal, and invented the shooting star press. Tiger Mask is not the same one who faced off against Dynamite Kid in the 80s. This Tiger Mask has as much claim on the name as anyone though as he’s used it since 1995. He’s nowhere near as good as any of the other previous three TM’s but is a capable flier. Takahashi is only a few years out of the New Japan dojo and has yet to develop much of a personality. On the other side we have “Funky Weapon” Ryu Taguchi. His nickname stemming from his dance moves. He’s been paired with Irish wrestler Price Devitt as Apollo 55 for the past 4 years. They’ve had good matches as a team and against each other. Without Devitt Taguchi is less interesting. KUSHIDA may look like a punk but he’s a former shootfighter with a 6-2 record. He currently teams with former ROH and TNA star Alex Shelley as Time Splitters. Another fine team. BUSHI is another Japanese guy who got farmed out to Mexico. He came back as a luchadore. He came through the All Japan dojo however and was poached by NJPW last year.

Liger is the biggest star on show thus far and gets a nice reaction. Takahashi starts out, to no one’s excitement, so he can do pretty reversals with KUSHIDA. At least it looks vaguely like a struggle. Liger then tags in so he can demonstrate the mechanics of selling, bumping and such to a guy who thinks he’s a luchadore. BUSHI’s first mistake is a ridiculous Irish whip where Liger has to run under his own steam across more than half the ring. Taguchi tags in so Liger powerbombs him into the Mexican surfboard. Because he can. Liger’s execution is still flawless despite his advanced years. I think he may have aged better than any other wrestler, ever. He wrestles like a man 20 years younger. He lets Taguchi run his usual new age spot monkey nonsense and makes it look good. BUSHI then gets an almighty shoeing from all of Team Liger including a swank Tiger Driver from Tiger Mask. When the kids take over the match falls apart in spectacular fashion as they try for a tonne of Dragon Gate stuff without the execution and BUSHI finishes scrub Takahashi with a 450 splash. Good when Liger was in there, worthless when he wasn’t.
Final Rating: *

 

Tangent: A Japanese announce team has to be seen to be believed. Not content with a 2 or 3 man team New Japan, the most serious and revered of all promotions, has a six man team. Five guys in tuxedos and an excitable schoolgirl in a short skirt. This may be some sort of Japanese gag as the Japanese sense of humour can be a bit unpredictable. This point marks the actual start of the show as all the pre-show antics are over.

 

Manabu Nakanishi, Akebono, Strong Man & MVP vs. Bob Sapp, Toru Yano, Takashi Iizuka & Yujiro Takahashi
A bizarre combination of wrestlers for this one. We’ll start with MVP because he was in the WWE. MVP signed a big money deal with New Japan after being released by the WWE in late 2010. He’s had a decent two year run but this is his last big match for NJPW. At least for the time being. His departure may have had something to do with his tweet after this match:

“I have never been paid so much to do so little. #ILoveJapan.”

Akebono has also appeared in a WWE ring against the Big Show in a sumo match at Wrestlemania 21. He’s better known as a sumo wrestler, and a much beloved one at that. He ventured into MMA after retiring with injuries from sumo but had a poor record at MMA and kickboxing. Bob Sapp actually knocked him out on Akebono’s K-1 debut. Akebono has worked for AJPW and NJPW. Strong Man is a jacked up muscleman who competed in strongman competitions before working for CMLL. New Japan have a strange fascination with his physique but aren’t quite sure how to push him. Nakanishi is a big man with power moves. A New Japan regular. On the CHAOS side we have former shootfighter Bob Sapp. A former IWGP champion Sapp freaked out all of Japan with his MMA fights to the point where he had Nippon at his feet. Until he lost. Yano and Iizuka are both bruisers. Yano a creative cheat while Iizuka favours an iron glove. Takahashi is a plucky and capable undercard worker who’s on the lightweight side. He’s turned to the dark side of late. On the upside New Japan has a pleasant habit of getting all the crap out of the way before we get down to business. Unlike All Japan who put their Triple Crown on Ryoto Hama. I love Sapp’s insistence at coming out here in a white fur coat and getting pyro. Like he belongs to a different universe. Takahashi’s personality has come along a lot in the last two years. Being a bad guy suits him. Even if most of his mannerisms are lifted from The Rock.

Akebono and Sapp instigate a slack brawl in the aisle before we get underway. The commentators get disproportionately excited by it. MVP breaks out the BALLIN’ elbow drop on two opponents before Akebono and Sapp square off again. I realise that’s the selling point of this match but watching two fat people fight isn’t my bag. Especially when one is as utterly worthless as a wrestler as Akebono is. They decide the match would be better positioned as a goofy comedy match with Nakanishi freaking people out by getting SAPP up in the torture rack. All that beef breaks his spine so they work heat on Nakanishi. Including a dubious double chair lock instigated by the nefarious cheat Yano. If there’s cheating to be done, Yano will do it. Sapp then blows his interference so badly that he has to step back out of the ring, after standing around looking confused for a while. The secret to good wrestling is timing. Everyone stands around looking a bit confused about what went wrong before they start running Dragon Gate multiple man spots that are totally out of place. After a brief comeback Nakanishi finishes Iizuka with the rack. So many booking mistakes. Where to begin? No hot tag. The guy with the injured back finished with a move that uses the back primarily. I have no idea who was legal. I had no reason to care. Akebono and Sapp did nothing and were the focus of the match. Yujiro’s pre-match rant lead to him doing virtually nothing throughout the entire bout. Strong Man still moves in slow motion. Nobody cared here. Nobody at all.
Final Rating: ¼*

 

NEVER Openweight Title
Masato Tanaka (c) vs. Shelton Benjamin
Tanaka is a name most people recognise thanks to his run in ECW in the late 90s. His insane tactics involving ridiculous chair spots and taking blows to the head that would kill a normal man. Tanaka has bounced around numerous Japanese federations since his American run but settled in New Japan in 2009. Like half the roster he’s in the CHAOS stable. NEVER is a little side project of New Japan to inject new blood into the company. In fact the N part of NEVER stands for New Blood. The rest? Evolution. Valiantly. Eternal. Radical. So naturally their first champion is a 40 year old. I don’t really get Japanese booking sometimes. Tanaka won a 16 man tournament back in November 2012 to claim the belt but this is his first title defence. Shelton Benjamin should be another familiar name considering his 8 year stint with the WWE and subsequent run of awesomeness on the Indies including 3 years with ROH. He’s been working for New Japan on and off over the last year or so.

Tanaka shows he means business by bringing a kendo stick with him. Shelton responds by popping off a few suplexes and wowing the crowd by flipping over Tanaka and landing on his feet. Tanaka takes a powder so Shelton wipes him out with a tope. Benjamin’s risk taking doesn’t always come off. While the tope connects a follow up corner splash misses leaving him open for an elbow assault. Tanaka slows things down with a sloppy chinlock. It’s a 1.2 Sags, frankly. Tanaka was never a big technical guy. He just likes to wail on people. He demonstrates this technical failure further with a series of awful Irish whips. Oh, it’s like being back in FMW. Benjamin ducks under Sliding D and hits the Shell Shocka. When they go to the high spots the match comes to life. Shelton gets a blockbuster and a superkick for near falls. Considering we’re only five minutes into this we’re already at the match’s climax. Tanaka’s cornerman begins a campaign of massive interference culminating in a kendo stick shot for a near fall. Tanaka goes for his patented tornado DDT only for Shelton to counter into the ankle lock. Tanaka’s cornerman, which I’m fairly sure is Yujiro Takahashi because of Tanaka’s CHAOS links, tries something off the top allowing Shelton to vertical jump up there and suplex him off. Always impressive. On landing Shelton eats the Sliding D for the pin though. The actual wrestling was shit but the big spots were delightful. The counters and so forth. Superbly well executed. Which is an issue in modern wrestling. Some guys can hit a perfect release German suplex but can’t do a chinlock.
Final Rating: **1/4

 

IWGP Tag Team Titles
Killer Elite Squad (c) vs. Sword and Guns
Killer Elite Squad is WWE alumnus Harry Smith, now competing as Davey Boy Smith Jr, and “American Psycho” Lance Archer; the former Lance Hoyt in TNA and Vance Archer in the WWE’s version of ECW. Sword, of Sword and Guns, is Hirooki Goto, who also worked in TNA for a while but has been knocking around NJPW’s undercard for years after graduating from their dojo. The Guns part is Karl “Machine Gun” Anderson, formally one half of former tag champions Bad Intentions with Giant Bernard who is better known as Albert, A-Train or Lord Tensai. He’s been working in New Japan since 2009 and has gained quite a following. I personally dig when he fires an invisible machine gun. Goto getting in on the act by bringing a samurai sword to demonstrate the differences between American and Japanese society. Killer Elite Squad come out wearing masks and Archer on a motorbike. As if to say; symbolism is good but bikes and masks are cool. They also have a much better name. This is their second title defence. They’re cornered by TAKA Michinoku (a fellow Suzukigun member) who shouts “LET’S GET CRAZY” into the mic pre-match. I love Japan.

Goto looks like a child compared to the enormous Archer. The “American Psycho” has what we in the business call “the look”. In terms of work…he looks like a clumsy version of the Undertaker. He even does the Ropewalk. Badly. Smith isn’t much better. He’s a big guy and he’s solid but how long is he going to coast by on his father’s reputation? Anderson, who’s far less talented, shows much more in this match. He’s got guts, personality and creativity. Archer continues his Undertaker love with a chokeslam. Is he angling for an Undertaker II job in the WWE or something? He goes to do the Ropewalk again and thankfully Anderson cuts him off and hits the GUN STUN off the top rope. Archer has the temerity to kick out of that and kill Anderson’s finisher forever. I wouldn’t be able to look at myself in the mirror if I kicked out of someone’s finisher off the top. Goto gets himself isolated but escapes the Killer Bomb by kicking Davey off. The tag rules go out of the window as both teams just hit a bunch of spots, Anderson’s Gun Stun getting the biggest pop despite Archer’s best efforts. Goto actually tries to do some wrestling for which he’s punished by the Killer Bomb. Anderson breaks up the pin so he gets a Killer Bomb too. All four guys have now been in the ring for about 3 minutes. Goto attempts a comeback and the champs hit the Killer Bomb AGAIN for the win. I might be getting a bit old when I consider a match like this to be a total mess without any structure. The idea, chaps, is to build to a big finish. And that doesn’t mean ignoring the rules for the entire second half of the match because you can’t get your shit in otherwise. Hey, it works for teams like the Motor City Machine Guns or the Briscoe Brothers because their stuff is hugely inventive. These guys only had one double team move and did it three times. Why? What’s the point?
Final Rating: *

 

Yuji Nagata vs. Minoru Suzuki
Now we’re talking. Nagata is a surly old man who likes to beat the crap out of people. He’s been in New Japan since 1992, a year or so in WCW in the late 90s aside, and is the head of the Blue Justice Army, a babyface stable. Suzuki is also a surly old man, perhaps the surliest ever seen, and is a former MMA fighter. He also spent about 6 years in All Japan perfecting the strongstyle that company is so famous for. While both competitors are into their 40’s I still anticipate a good contest. Mainly because they’re not going to do all the bullshit that made the last match so insufferable. Suzuki is so awesome that Ayumi Nakamura is on hand to sing him to the ring. Suzuki gets impatient waiting for the bell and shoves one of Nagata’s young boy minions off the apron to my amusement.

Suzuki starts with elbows AND LAUGHING. Which is awesome. Then they start wailing away at each other, neither man backing down, neither man even flinching as they raise the stakes on strikes. Because they’re getting tired they switch gears and try to break each others arms to stop the striking. The seconds get involved and Suzuki has Taichi (fellow member of  Suzukigun) out there wailing on Nagata’s young boys with a chair. The ref tries to remove him, which just allows Suzuki the opportunity to park a chair on Nagata’s throat and attempt to murder him. As Nagata starts to redden up in the face department I think about matches between 40-something wrestlers in the US. They don’t have this intensity. Suzuki, ever the shooter, tries for a knee bar when Nagata recovers his pallor. Suzuki then switches to a choke, which Nagata, the expert grappler, EXPLODER suplexes out of. Nagata with kicks to set up another Exploder, which Suzuki blocks with a choke! Genius. Nagata switches to a belly to belly and hooks the Nagatalock II, which is a crossface basically, only for Suzuki to counter out into a knee bar again. I love wrestling. Nagata brings a bit of comedy by zombie sitting up as Suzuki tries to get a cocky pin. Not sure how productive that is but the crowd pop, so what do I know? They run more comedy as Suzuki slaps away at Nagata and as Yuji drops down Suzuki pulls him back up for more slapping. Suzuki puts a sleeper on the worn down Nagata only for Yuji to twice wrestle out of it. The second time his face is purple. He’s running the ‘rainbow’ of selling. Seeing as he won’t quit and is incapable of passing out because he’s too manly, Suzuki switches to the Gotch Piledriver, which Nagata successfully wrestles out of. Nagata goes back to the arm, which brings Taichi’s big blond ass onto the apron. Nagata kicks him square in the face. You, you’re too fucking BLOND. Back to the slapping until Nagata kicks Suzuki in his now bad arm. Suzuki tries to instigate a slapfest only for Nagata to kick the absolute crap out of him and just destroy that arm. Nagata’s eyes roll back into his head as he cranks on the arm in a fantastic visual. Suzuki won’t quit either. You’d have to tear his arm off. So Nagata slaps him across the chops and hits the Backdrop Driver for the hard earned win. This match was right up my alley. A beautiful combination of hard strikes and earnest grappling. I could have lived without the interference, the comedy and some of the looseness in the early going but otherwise it was bang on.
Final Rating: ****

 

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title
Prince Devitt (c) vs. Low Ki vs. Kota Ibushi
The term “junior” isn’t a derogatory one, as the WWE would never use it, but rather a remark on the size of the participants. Juniors are generally the smaller workers. Unlike in TNA where they had the X division where anyone could compete as long as they wrestled a cruiserweight style. Junior heavyweights are all small. This particular title has existed since 1986. Liger has held it 11 times. This is Devitt’s third title run and his first defence since winning it from Ki in November. Ki incidentally won it from Ibushi. Who won it from Ki. Who won it from Devitt. We’ve come full circle, again. Devitt is Irish and got his break on a surprise invitation to join the New Japan dojo in 2006. He’s been one of their mainstays ever since. Ki is a former star for ROH, TNA and the WWE. He’s changed his image slightly and tonight wrestles in a full dress suit, complete with tie and driving gloves. Not sure I get that. He looks like a limo driver. Ibushi has been around the Indies for a while before officially settling in New Japan in 2009.

Ki and Devitt start at frightening speed before Ibushi gets involved and we get a 3-way stand off that reminds me of TNA’s threeway stuff with Joe, Daniels and AJ. Like most cruiserweight threeways the action is fast and hard to call. Suffice to say to they nail a lot of difficult spots, which must have taken many planning sessions to figure out. I appreciate the effort and preparation. An early favourite is Ki going for the Tidal Krush only for Ibushi to jump him with a rana in mid run. Ki seems to single out Ibushi for abuse after that, kicking him at unusual angles. However all I can think is; why is he wrestling in a suit? According to Wikipedia it was a tribute to the Hitman video game series. O….k. The idea behind the match is far easier to understand; it’s here to establish Devitt as the leading light in the junior heavyweight scene. He gets the better of both opponents when the odds are even. It’s only when he’s unsighted that Ki is able to clock him with a koppou kick. The other, less thrilling, aspect is to throw out silly high spots. Like Ibushi hitting a twisty dive onto the other two while they just stand there like idiots admiring how much he can twist in mid air. They work in a nice spot after that where Devitt rolls away from a moonsault only for Ibushi to see, land on his feet and hit a standing moonsault instead. That was cool. Ibushi does a mean Last Ride too and the execution of the big spots have been good. Ibushi tries for something stylish on Ki, a release half nelson suplex, only for Ki to land on his feet and stomp him. KI KRUSHA follows and Devitt is slow breaking up the pin with a stomp off the top. Ki finally ditching his jacket before the sequence. Ki sets up his corner stomp off the top only for Ibushi to sneak up and springboard rana Ki off the top rope. That was awesome sauce. The spots have gotten better as the match goes on, which is promising. Ki is looking increasingly dishevelled. Shame, he wore that suit like a boss. Ki goes for the super Ki Krusha only for Ibushi to dropkick him to the floor. Devitt sees the opening as Ibushi mounts the buckles and KILLS HIM with a Bloody Sunday off the top rope. See, Vance Archer, that’s a finish! The match started badly but got progressively better including spots that made sense and several thrilling high spots. Not on a par with the better threeways from TNA or ROH but an entertaining contest and not the disaster it could have been.
Final Rating: ***1/2

 

Tangent: I love how they take a break at this point so the fans can process what they’ve seen and properly prepare for the run of main events. This also allows New Japan the chance to flog a few DVD’s including what looks like a career retrospective of Shinya Hashimoto, a thing where Yuji Nagata dances with a video game character and Takashi Iizuka attacks commentators. 2 hours into the show and four main event matches remain. Like Wrestlemania this is a bum-number and no mistake.

 

Keiji Mutoh & Shinjiro Otani vs. Hiroyoshi Tenzan & Satoshi Kojima
Otani is one of my favourite wrestlers. He used to be a big star in the junior division until their booking went awful around the turn of the century (when NOAH was crushing everyone for good shows) and Otani got so frustrated he jumped ship with Shinya Hashimoto and formed Zero-One. He’s been one of their top guys ever since and rarely ever sets foot in another company. He’s a late substitute for Daichi Hashimoto; Shinya’s son, who unfortunately broke his arm a few weeks before the show. Mutoh has a long history with Shinya dating back to their early years in wrestling. Mutoh is known to North American audiences as the Great Muta and he blew a few minds with his flying antics in the NWA in the late 80s. He jumped to All Japan back in 2002 to help fill the void left by Misawa. On the other side of the ring Tenzan has been with New Japan since his wrestling debut in 1991. He’s a company man. Kojima is another that’s been elsewhere as he jumped to All Japan with Mutoh back in 2002 but a few years ago he jumped back to New Japan. So Mutoh has issues with him over that defection, which happened under Mutoh’s watch as head booker in AJPW.

Otani takes Hashimoto’s headgear to the ring with him to symbolise how he’s fighting on behalf of his old friend and colleague. Tenzan still has awesome hair. Kojima still looks like Bill Hicks. Given how immobile Muta is the pacing on this is gentle. Kojima and Tenzan are more of a team and work better as a unit. Old man Otani is tough as day old steak and actually leans into Tenzan’s chops as if to criticise their power. Shame he’s so immobile too because everything creeps along slowly. A marked contrast to the earlier matches. Even the Suzuki-Nagata bout. Muta sneaks in a few trademarks like the Muta Elbow and the STF. Muta has Tenzan’s leg but Otani is unable to subdue the lively Kojima allowing him to break any submission attempts. Kojima chop rushes Muta to set up the Savage Elbow. Muta nonchalantly kicking out. The babyface side of things in this match have seen better days. Muta can still forward roll like a Conquistador but that’s an exception to his general mobility. I’m sad that Otani is so inert compared to the last time I saw him in a New Japan ring. Although to be fair that was a long time ago. He can still boot scrap Kojima’s face off. I do love a good BOOOOOOT SCRAAAAAAPE. Kojima and Otani manage to figure out some tidy counters ahead of a hot tag with Muta hitting the Shining Wizard and the Hash team slap on stereo Figure Fours. Muta looks in agony applying his, which shows the condition of his knees. Otani stumbles into the Koji Cutter and the match slides back into mediocrity. Otani unresponsive to Tenzan’s slow motion chops. Muta running in and signalling where he wants Kojima to be is a bit embarrassing. Not that Muta ever cared about stuff like that. Muta connects with a pair of Shining Wizards before hitting Tenzan in the back of the head with another. Tenzan not bothering to sell it because a) it’s the Shining Wizard and b) Muta hits a dozen of them every match. Otani busts out the far more awesome SPIRAL BOMB only for Kojima to recover from his Shining Wizard to save. Otani does a bit of work on Kojima’s lariat arm only to run into the 3-D. Kojima ignores the arm work and immediately hits the lariat before Tenzan finishes with the moonsault. Tenzan got his lip busted by one of the many times Muta stuck his knee in Tenzan’s face. The match suffered from issues relating to Muta and Otani’s old age. They weren’t surly enough to compensate. Tenzan and Kojima aren’t great technically and didn’t bring enough intensity to match Otani’s heart and soul approach. Daichi tries to make things interesting by slapping Tenzan afterwards. I bet Tenzan armbars the hell out of him in that eventual match.
Final Rating: **

 

Togi Makabe vs. Katsuyori Shibata
Shibata is Kazu Sakuraba’s mate. They’ve both returned to New Japan after a spell in MMA. Shibata came through the New Japan dojo in the late 90s but left to pursue a career in MMA back in 2006. Makabe has spent his entire career in New Japan and worked his way through the ranks to become a heavyweight star. While known more as a deathmatch wrestler who carries chains around his neck he has been the IWGP champion. He’s a solid wrestler but a better brawler. I’ve not seen Shibata wrestle in a decade so it should be interesting to see what he brings to this.

Shibata works a shoot style, which leads to a lot of takedowns and short shoot-style strikes. He’s definitely going for realism, which makes it all the more annoying when he throws in an Irish whip into the guardrail. Urgh. That’s a Togi spot. When they stay in the ring and stick to the striking Shibata absolutely dominates. Makabe getting crushed by big kicks, short knees and headbutts. Makabe’s attempts to turn it back into a wrestling match are met by a combination of scorn and no selling. Also kicks to the face. So many facial kicks that Makabe resorts to lying on the mat as a form of defence because that makes it harder to kick his face. Makabe has to change the game on Shibata and turns it into a hardcore match. First running Shibata into a ring post then powerbombing him through a ringside table. Makabe could probably win it on count out and has to drag Shibata back inside. Shibata swiftly returns to his no selling ways, kicking out of a German suplex at one and not flinching on a series of follow up assaults. Togi serves up a lariat to stop that shit and hits the King Kong kneedrop for a shockingly quick victory in under 10 minutes. Shibata looks rusty but his strikes are hugely effective. I’d question him getting jobbed out here but he did dominate proceedings until Makabe went all Sportz Entertainment on him. Shibata certainly needs to fine tune his style if he wants to stay in the upper echelons of New Japan.
Final Rating: **1/2

 

IWGP Intercontinental Title
Shinsuke Nakamura (c) vs. Kazushi Sakuraba
The IWGP IC title came about in 2011 when New Japan started running shows elsewhere. MVP was the inaugural champion. Nakamura won the belt from  Hirooki Goto last summer. This is a particularly big match as Sakuraba is a huge name in the wrestling world courtesy of his MMA career. He was known as the Gracie Hunter and had a phenomenal MMA record until 2005 or so. With his shoot career winding down he signed, along with Shibata, for NJPW in late 2012. Nakamura meanwhile has been at the top of his game in recent years, making huge improvements and being a high card star in a company full of potential superstars. Nakamura initially reminded me of Kevin Nash in his mannerisms and style but he’s like that aggressive 1994 Nash. The one who actually gave a shit. Since becoming leader of CHAOS he’s changed his image somewhat and has a posing emo vibe about him. He’s extremely hard to get a read on.

Sakuraba is at a size disadvantage against the gangly Nakamura and so uses his speed to get into technically strong positions. Nakamura is deceptively fast though and in the early going deliberately shoots for a single leg leaving Sakuraba sprawling into the ropes. Noticeable that Sakuraba immediately gets a single leg himself as if to assert his wrestling superiority. Nakamura’s initial gameplan seems to be one of containment. Minimalising the threat. He leaves his head exposed and if it were a shootfight Sakuraba would win on chokeout. Which is a logic hole for me because there shouldn’t be a huge difference in techniques. He should go for it and have Nakamura use the ropes to get out. Instead they get stood back up where Nakamura dances around trying to land a kick. Sakuraba takes offence and slaps him. A resultant slapfest is like a kinetic version of the earlier one between Suzuki and Nagata. The problem with that being that it looks like two girls fighting over a lipstick at 3am outside a pub. Sakuraba cleverly baits Nakamura into one of his daft trademark spots, the corner stomach punt, only to slip out and apply a choke. Nakamura comes flying after him and runs straight into a knee, which knocks him out, LEGIT. The ref stops the match to revive him and Sakuraba mounts, attempts to choke Nakamura with his own arm (quit hitting yourself) and lands a few punches before switching to a triangle choke. Nakamura steps on his head, using his gangly limbs to his advantage, before kneeing Sakuraba in the back of the head. Wonderful spot. Sakuraba is into his rhythm though and goes after an armbar only for Nakamura to return to defensive tactics. They roll around looking for an armbar until Sakuraba mounts again and they’re doing a decent job of making it look like a shoot on the mat. Nakamura escapes by powering up and hitting a Michinoku Driver but Sakuraba slaps him in a keylock to escape a follow up. Nakamura again uses his legs, this time knee strikes, to escape. Sakuraba gets another armbar so Nakamura stamps on his face and hits the BOMA YE to win. I’m not keen on that finish either. A far better finish would have been him pinning Sakuraba while Kazu tried desperately for a submission hold. A’la Steve Austin & Bret Hart at Survivor Series ’96. Otherwise this was a great storyline and a frantically paced match up. Nakamura is a strange beast. He struts around like a peacock on ecstasy but somehow manages to incorporate every bit of his weirdness into a new kind of shootesque wrestling. He’s a goddamn weirdo and obviously one of New Japan’s biggest stars. Match of the night.
Final Rating: ****1/4

 

Tangent: I don’t agree with the booking there. I’d have put Sakuraba over and had Nakamura win the IWGP title sometime soon to set up a re-match for the companies biggest title. But hey, it’s not my company. The rumour has it that not everyone agrees with Sakuraba being hired and thrown into a high profile feud, hence the loss to Nakamura, but the problem New Japan face as their domination of Japan continues is creating new legitimate main event stars. Speaking of which…

 

IWGP Title
Hiroshi Tanahashi (c) vs. Kazuchika Okada
Both these guys have something in common. They were both farmed out to, and misused by, TNA. Tanahashi, on his return to New Japan, became their ace overnight. TNA used him in multiple person spotfests. Okada didn’t get even that and barely appeared on TV during his year in America. Rumours persist that the WWE is interested in him, largely due to his muscle gain during the last year or so. This seems to be Okada’s time. He won the 2012 G-1 Climax and defeated Tanahashi for the IWGP title last year. Tanahashi reclaimed the title in June and now has record setting six title reigns. His combined days as champion are more than anyone else in history bar Muta. He’s also defended the title more than anyone else in history. This is the rubber match with Okada though. Whoever wins here is officially top dog in New Japan.

They exchange cleans breaks and Rainmaker poses to begin. I should probably add that Okada’s nickname is “The Rainmaker”. Incidentally he’s also in CHAOS. Given this is a massive main event they start slow and deliberate. I wouldn’t call it boring but the pacing is very deliberate compared to how hasty everything else on the card has felt. As if they’re living off the build in the opening minutes. Business picks up as Okada gets a DDT off the top rope. Look, I hate it when Randy Orton does it, I can’t say I like it appearing as the FIRST SPOT of a title match. At least Tanahashi rolls to the floor so it isn’t a near fall but even so. It takes the wind out of Tanahashi’s sails and slows up a slow match even more. Tanahashi starts with the Shawn love and skins the cat ahead of huge flapjack from Okada. Tanahashi’s bumping isn’t as extravagant as Shawn Michaels’ but some would agree that’s not such a bad thing. I know overselling is an issue sometimes but so is overacting and I love Christopher Walken, Nicolas Cage and Alan Rickman. Okada’s pacing isn’t his only issue. His tactics throw in the occasional risky spot he doesn’t need to do. As if he felt he shouldn’t be too dull or the fans would hate on him. But throwing in a senton, which misses, for no reason doesn’t make you look like a genius. Tanahashi switches gears and wipes out Okada’s knee. When Okada attempts a big boot to stop him it sets up the dragon screw. Okada bails and Tanahashi hits an amazing High Fly Flow to the floor. The way he changes direction in mid-air is absolutely freakish. It might have been easier to roll Okada back in and try for the submission though, eh? Okada replies with his own dragon screw, which is the old mirroring psychology but it also should slow down those rope moves. Weak DDT sets up the Deep in Debt; Okada’s submission hold. Unfortunately it’s more of a choke than a leg hold. Okada then does another dumb thing; he goes up top, again taking needless risks, and his elbow drop finds Tanahashi’s knees. That dragon screw from Okada really meant nothing didn’t it? Tanahashi using the injured body part as a weapon moments later. They head out to the ramp, as is customary during big Japanese matches, where Tanahashi hits the Sling Blade. Tanahashi has constantly found a way to out perform Okada during the match. Tanahashi completely no sells Okada’s comeback spot; Heavy Rain. He heads up for the frogsplash only for Okada to get knees up and FINALLY busts out the psychology by hurting himself in the process. Okada hits an Air Raid Crash over his injured knee, which naturally just injures it further. He might be bringing the selling but never in this match has he brought the brains. RAINMAKER POSE! Tanahashi ducks it and hits a Straightjacket suplex before rolling into a dragon suplex for a near fall. Sling Blade sets up the High Fly Flow and Okada KICKS OUT! Tanahashi is stunned but quickly recomposes himself and works over Okada’s knee some more. Okada comes very close to tapping in the Texas Cloverleaf, which would make perfect sense but deflate the crowd. He makes the ropes instead and somehow manages a dropkick right afterwards. The inconsistency in the selling has been hugely frustrating in this match. They do manage a nice spot where they have to hold onto each other to get back up, exhausted. Tanahashi again ducks the Rainmaker only to eat a Tombstone. Tanahashi counters another Rainmaker this time into the Sling Blade. Business has picked up. Tanahashi escapes another Tombstone by dropkicking the injured knee. Tanahashi with his OWN Tombstone. Okada barely gets back up and Tanahashi hits a pair of High Fly Flows to retain. The match is hard to rate as the building blocks in the early going were poorly executed but the last third of the match was much better. The psychology never quite clicked and yet the match was really enjoyable and popped the Dome hard.
Final Rating: ***3/4

 

Summary: The main event was overly long for what they had planned. They shot for epic and fell a little short. It’s still a good match but it’s not the great match they probably wanted. Nakamura and Sakuraba stole the show with one spot; a stunning knee to the face to block a single leg. It will be my favourite memory of the show, by far. That match over achieved big time. In 11 minutes they had a kinetic battle. Non-stop switching and countering. Suzuki-Nagata also delivered and was the match I’d been most looking forward to. For the biggest show of the year it didn’t quite live up to the hype but for a PPV you’d be happy with four of the big matches hitting ***1/2+. If you ignore the two dark matches, which are filler, and all the yapping between bouts this wouldn’t be the five hour show I just watched and it’d be far more enjoyable. Try to skip over the filler when you watch this but definitely watch it.
Verdict: 64

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