Yeah, get the coffee ready. It’s TIME! (At least, we hope it is. Everyone is highly encouraged to keep an eye on Tokyo’s current lockdown status, as they may declare a state of emergency which, if it goes into effect right away, would delay Wrestle Kingdom for at least a bit of time.)
And with that cheery thought, on with the preview!
It’s somewhat comforting to know that even in the hellscape that was the year 2020, we had the first few days of January to look forward to, because for NJPW fans, that means Wrestle Kingdom! Once again spanning two nights, NJPW’s premier event of the year is set to be headlined by an IWGP title match each night.
Matches of the year happen at Wrestle Kingdom. It’s the event that defines the year to come in a lot of ways. With the advent of NJPWworld, New Japan’s streaming service, and English commentary from lead announcer Kevin Kelly and a rotating group that assist him, the interest level in NJPW in North America continues to skyrocket. No longer a domain that just appeals to tape traders and super smarks, New Japan is for everyone in a lot of ways.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at each night of the show, and perhaps if you aren’t a big New Japan fan, you may see something that trips your proverbial trigger and convinces you to join us on the blog for some late night (or early morning) wrestling’.
Wrestle Kingdom Night 1 begins in North America on Sunday night/Monday morning at:
11:00 PM – Pacific Time
12:00 AM – Mountain Time
1:00 AM – Central Time
2:00 AM – Eastern Time
Wrestle Kingdom Night 2 begins in North America on Monday night/Tuesday morning at:
12:00 AM – Pacific Time
1:00 AM – Mountain Time
2:00 AM – Central Time
3:00 AM – Eastern Time
Watch the show on NJPW World (njpwworld.com) for less than 10 bucks, and you end up getting the whole month to watch afterwards. Good times – not only do you get to watch what will almost assuredly be some of the best shows of the year, you get to check out all sorts of stuff afterwards!
Factions are important in NJPW – some are good guys, some are bad guys, but they are many and plentiful. Factions will frequently war with each other in multi-man tags and feuds, with members sometimes switching sides as part of an angle (EVIL turning on LIJ for Bullet Club being this past year’s prime example) Here’s a rundown of said factions for you:
CHAOS (faces): Kazuchika Okada (Leader), Tomohiro Ishii, Toru Yano, Hirooki Goto, YOSHI-HASHI, Rocky Romero, SHO, Yoh, Robbie Eagles
LOS INGOBERNABLES DE JAPON (faces): Tetsuya Naito (Leader), Sanada, BUSHI, Shingo Takagi, Hiromu Takahashi
BULLET CLUB (heels): Jay White (Leader), EVIL, Tama Tonga, Tonga Loa, Bad Luck Fale, Taiji Ishimori, GEDO, JADO, Dick Togo, Hikuleo, Chase Owens, El Phantasmo, KENTA, Yujiro Takahashi
SUZUKI-GUN (heels): Minoru Suzuki (Leader and Destroyer of Hopes, Dreams, and Young Lions), Zack Sabre Jr, Taichi, El Desperado, Yoshinobu Kanemaru
THE EMPIRE: (heels) Will Ospreay (Leader), The Great O-Khan, Jeff Cobb
People complain about the WWE having a lot of titles, and Japan is not an aberration in that respect. Multiple titles will be defended over the two shows, along with setups for title matches along the way. The ‘double gold’ (the combination of the IWGP heavyweight and IWGP Intercontinental titles) has been a focal point for the last year and will be defended twice, once each night. Other titles and title challenge rights will be defended, all the way down to the mostly-for-fun King of Pro-Wrestling trophy. We’ll go over those as we preview the matches.
The What: The New Japan Rando
The Who: Everyone who isn’t booked on the shows.
The Why: The New Japan Rumble is back! After a brief hiatus over the last few WKs, we’ve found our vehicle for the return of the Rumble (called the Rando this year), and it’s the King of Pro-Wrestling trophy. The King of Pro-Wrestling trophy is currently held by Toru Yano (AKA the GREATEST WRESTLER ALIVE), but a new champion will be crowned every year. For lack of a better term, the KOPW trophy is what amounts to the 24/7 title in terms of importance in NJPW – it is contested in gimmick matches primarily, normally with the stipulations named by the competitors and voted on by the fanbase (the last defense was a bodyslam challenge vs turnbuckles, if you need an indication).
The Rando is basically a Royal Rumble but in this case, it comes down to the last 4 guys who will then face off on night 2 in a fatal 4-way to determine the new trophy holder. Once we’re down to 4, the match ends. So with that in mind, you’d expect a mix of a few very different guys to make the match on night 2 as fun as possible.
The Winner(s): I’m going to pick Toru Yano, Tomohiro Ishii, Minoru Suzuki, and Yuya Uemura to be the Final 4. Uemura and Suzuki have had a bit of a thing and would be fun, Yano is the defending champ, and Ishii is, well, Ishii. If I even get two of the 4 right, I’ll happy.
The What: IWGP Junior title #1 Contender match
The Who: Hiromu Takahashi (Best of the Super Juniors Winner) vs El Phantasmo (Super J-Cup Winner)
The Why: Hiromu Takahashi, my pick for wrestler of the year in 2020, won the Best of the Super Juniors tournament in a ***** classic Final against El Desperado (yes, for those that actually read my stuff, I’ve watched the match a few times since and have decided that it’s *****, as I cannot think of a thing I would change at all) issued the challenge…..but not to IWGP Jr champion Taiji Ishimori. Instead, he wanted to ensure that he was the most deserving contender of them all and issued his challenge to the winner of the Super J-Cup, a one night tournament taking place the next day. Enter defending J-Cup champion El Phantasmo. While it would be extremely generous to say that ELP’s matches in this year’s Cup were…..well, good, he nevertheless defended his title, going back to back as the J-Cup winner and accepted Hiromu’s challenge. The victor will challenge Taiji Ishimori on Night 2 for the title.
The Winner: Hiromu Takahashi. Back at Summer Struggle in Jingu, Ishimori defeated Takahashi to win the title in what, frankly, was a relatively dominant performance and led Hiromu to question how he would come back to the title. Winning the BOSJ was the first step. To leave no stone unturned, defeating ELP will be the next. I go back and forth with ELP, because he’s crazy talented but his character requires a lot of cheating and cheap tactics, both of which will be plentiful with Bullet Club guys – I do expect that he will bring the thunder on the big stage, though. The only way I see for ELP to pull it off is if GEDO is going all the way with a Bullet Club split up and down the card, and I just don’t see that coming to pass. Hiromu is the best in the division and should have the title, hopefully so we get a Desperado rematch and an extended reign this year for the evil Mariachi.
The What: IWGP Tag Team Championship match
The Who: Dangerous Tekkers (Zack Sabre Jr/Taichi) (C) vs The Guerillas of Destiny (Tama Tonga/Tonga Loa)
The Why: I gotta say, I never thought that the saviors of the New Japan tag division would rest with Zack Sabre Jr and Taichi as a team, but 2020 has been a strange year. The two have been fantastic together, gelling more and more as a team as the months have gone on. They had a wonderful feud with the Golden Aces (Hiroshi Tanahashi/Kota Ibushi) over the summer leading into World Tag League, where I thought they really reached the pinnacle of their work for the year. But they didn’t win World Tag League – multi-time IWGP tag champs GoD did, and in the process accomplished one of the few things they had never done. And now, they’re exercising their title shot against the Tekkers at WK in what is an interesting heel/heel dynamic between Suzuki-Gun and the Bullet Club, although it seems fairly obvious that the Tekkers will be the babyfaces in the match.
The Winners: Dangerous Tekkers. This was one of the hardest matches for me to pick because I can see either outcome as possible. I can see the Guerillas taking the straps and dropping them back, I can see the Tekkers going back to singles if they lose – but the thought I have at this point is that the Tekkers right now are giving the tag titles more and more legitimacy that they haven’t had in awhile and it would be silly to have them drop the belts for the umpteenth GoD reign.
The What: IWGP US Title contract match
The Who: KENTA (current rights holder) vs Satoshi Kojima
The Why: If a belt can be snakebit, the IWGP US title is. Current champion Jon Moxley won the title from Lance Archer on Night 1 of Wrestle Kingdom last year, defended it on Night 2 against Juice Robinson, and then against Minoru Suzuki a month later. Annnndddd…..that’s it. The title has remained with Moxley since, not having been defended in more than 10 months now, due to combination of various circumstances: Moxley was the AEW World champion for a great portion of the year, and he was exclusive to AEW in North America as a result of that contract, which meant he couldn’t defend the title here. No problem, except that thanks to COVID, he couldn’t get to Japan to defend the title either. So the title has just kind of existed for the time being. KENTA won a tournament on NJPW’s Friday night show, NJPW Strong, which included a briefcase that granted a US title shot, and has been calling out Moxley ever since while also defending the briefcase as though it were a title, which it might as well be at this point. While it was speculated by many, myself included, that Moxley dropping the AEW title would lead to WK appearance to finally put this saga to rest, that isn’t the case and Jon is not there. Juice Robinson was supposed to be the challenger here, but he fractured his orbital bone and is out of the show. Enter NJPW vet Satoshi Kojima. He’s stepped up to the plate to be the challenger to keep the match on the card, so he’ll probably get hit by a bus or something. Seriously, if you get promised a push by GEDO that includes the IWGP US championship as a part of it, RUN FOR IT.
The Winner: KENTA. Kojima isn’t even a full-time wrestler anymore, and he primarily works the opening matches. He’s still really fun to watch, don’t get me wrong, but I give him about .0000000001% chance of winning here, and almost all of those chances involve KENTA accidentally KOing himself in the middle of the ring. So considering this involves the US title, maybe there IS a higher chance he wins than I initially thought. Regardless, KENTA’s wait for Moxley continues – I know that they don’t want to strip Mox after they already had to do it once last year, but it’s pretty much time to do it so we can move on.
The What: Special singles match
The Who: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs The Great O-Khan
The Why: Because GEDO hates Dave Meltzer. It’s one of the few explanations that makes sense to me at this point. O-Khan came back from excursion and aligned himself with Will Ospreay to form the Empire, before recruiting Jeff Cobb to join them. This is his biggest test since his return, as it’s Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom – a good match is all but demanded in that position. They’ve had a few interactions with each other in tags, but this isn’t a blood feud – it’s more a way to get O-Khan on the card against a great worker to show what he can do. Tanahashi didn’t have anything going on in the way of feuds going into WK this year, so he gets the honors. Much like two years ago, when he got the chance to face off against another guy making his return to NJPW after excursion with a brand new character……by the name of Jay White.
The Winner: Hiroshi Tanahashi. Unless we’re all the way to rock bottom, this is where Tanahashi starts his comeback from his hellscape year of 2020. O-Khan just needs to have a good match here, and I think Will is beating Okada, so Khan can lose here.
The What: Special singles match
The Who: Will Ospreay vs Kazuchika Okada
The Why: Ospreay returned to NJPW for the G-1 Climax and faced Okada on the final night of Block competition. While ostensibly still a member of CHAOS, Will had been acting in a much more noticeably heel fashion since his return. During the Okada match, Bea Priestly (Will’s girlfriend and STARDOM roster member) made her way to ringside and distracted the competitors, allowing the return from excursion of the Great O-Khan, who laid out Okada and enabled Will to get the pin and complete his heel turn, leaving CHAOS and forming his own faction, The Empire. Since then, Will has been cutting promos on Okada, saying that he was tired of Okada holding him down and that it’s his time now, and that will be proven when he defeats Okada on the biggest stage of the year. Okada, for his part, needs to beat Ospreay to continue trying to navigate his path back to the main event and the IWGP title.
The Winner: Will Ospreay. Look, I’m not shy about my feelings toward Ospreay and nothing has really changed on that front for me. But putting that to the side for pure analysis, I think that Ospreay is going to get a pretty big shove in 2021 to set up the ultimate push in 2022, and that’s going to start here. Okada can stand a loss here and Will absolutely needs a win to start the process of truly cementing him in the upper echelon of NJPW workers, which, like it or not, is where he’s going to end up.
And on a side note, if I absolutely had to predict right now what the Final of the 2021 G-1 is going to be, this is the match.
The What: IWGP Heavyweight/IWGP Intercontinental Double Gold title match
The Who: Tetsuya Naito (C) vs Kota Ibushi
The Why: Well, Kota Ibushi wants to ascend to Godhood, so I suppose that’s a reason? But in all seriousness, this is the culmination of a very long, slow dance around the floor for the Golden Star and the current double champion, Tetsuya Naito. I’ve got another article coming tomorrow talking about the 2019 Ibushi/Naito trilogy, so I’ll save you most of the history here. Let’s focus on this year. Kota Ibushi won the G-1 Climax tournament for the second year in a row in 2020 after losing his title match against Okada in last year’s Night 1 main event. He prepared himself for his title shot against Naito, dealing with the mere formality of defending the title shot against one of his G-1 losses, that being Jay White. But that was simple at worst, as the title shot holder had never lost before on the way to the Dome, so what was there to worry about? Turns out there was plenty to worry about, as Jay White became the first man to take away a G-1 title shot by pinning Ibushi and throwing the entire thing into chaos. With two nights of WK looming, enter Tetsuya Naito, current double champion. Naito wanted to defend his titles on both nights and with White choosing to wait until the second night to cash in his title shot, Naito named his own challenger for Night 1…..the man who won back-to-back G-1s, Kota Ibushi. To Naito, Ibushi’s back-to-back win demands that Naito defeat him to prove that Naito is the true deserving champion. And when he disposes of Ibushi, he’ll then move on to Jay White and end things exactly the same way it began, with Naito walking away as the double champion.
The Winner: Kota Ibushi. It’s time. Ibushi has been climbing a seemingly never-ending staircase over the last 3 years. Make the G-1 Final, lose to Tanahashi. Win the G-1 finally, lose to Okada at the Dome. Win the G-1 this year, lose the title shot and be forced to be at the mercy of the champion. They’ve constructed a narrative for Kota that has involved him overcoming odds every single time as the world is seemingly against him, and that necessitates him actually accomplishing it at some point. That point in time has come. Ibushi has stakes against both Naito and White, and conquering them is what needs to happen for Kota to realize his endgame. Naito has been an excellent champion in a very tough year, but if Ibushi is going to get the shot at the top, we’re here.
And that’ll do it for Night 1! Which leaves us with…..
The What: Fatal 4-Way for the King of Pro-Wrestling trophy
The Who: Who knows? We’ll find out on Night 1 after the Rando.
The Why: To see who will hold the trophy first in 2021.
The Winner: I dunno. We’ll find out. I’m sticking with Toru Yano. I don’t think he should ever lose the damn thing.
The What: The IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team title match
The Who: Suzuki-Gun (El Desperado/Yoshinobu Kanemaru) (C) vs Ryusuke Taguchi & Master Wato
The Why: Well, Taguchi and Wato have been getting pins over the tag champs in various matches leading up to this title challenge, so there’s that. But there’s also the fact that El Desperado has been absolutely eviscerating Wato in his promos for months, pretty much hammering him into little bits at every opportunity. It’s been glorious. At one point when he found out he would be wrestling Wato in the main event of one of the BOSJ shows, he bemoaned the fact that the company was ‘testing’ him, and then threatened to punch the brat in 38 seconds and take the DQ because of how much he hated Wato. I mean, yeah, the belts are also involved, so that’s cool.
The Winners: Master Wato & Ryusuke Taguchi. This is a ripe match for a title change. Gives Wato his first title, Taguchi is a respected veteran, and if they want Suzuki-Gun to get the belts back, they can get them back at the next big show, no sweat.
The What: The NEVER Openweight title match
The Who: Shingo Takagi (C) vs Jeff Cobb
The Why: Two hosses, one strap. Cobb pinned Takagi in the G-1 Climax and has laid claim to this title shot every since, also picking up a duke over Shingo in the World Tag League tournament. With Cobb joining Will Ospreay’s upstart Empire faction, he turned heel for the first time in his NJPW career. So now, he’ll seek the first gold for Ospreay’s faction and for himself, while Shingo seeks to keep Los Ingobernables in shiny belts. Takagi is on his second reign as the NEVER champ, having regained the title earlier this year from Minoru Suzuki, and he wants to avenge his G-1 loss as well as not drop his title.
The Winner: Shingo Takagi. This one was tough. On the one hand, I can see them attempting to launch Ospreay’s faction a bit with a win here to give them a belt, but Shingo has been taking a beating from Cobb for a few months now. I don’t think they’re going to continue with that here, as I expect Takagi gets his mojo back here by taking Cobb out. It could go the other way, sure, and I won’t be shocked if it does.
The What: Special singles match
The Who: SANADA vs EVIL
The Why: This one has roots in betrayal that go back far and wide over the last year. When EVIL won the New Japan Cup, he turned on Los Ingobernables de Japon, aligning himself with Bullet Club. Along the path to winning the cup, he defeated his at-the-time stablemate SANADA in the semi-finals. The former two-time tag team champions would meet again in the B Block Final of the G-1 Climax, and this time it was SANADA who came out victorious. And now we arrive at the tiebreaker in what could be arguably the match with the most emotional story at Wrestle Kingdom, as the two men who have been at the heart of the EVIL’s betrayal will dance once again.
The Winner: SANADA. Another tough one, as you can talk me into EVIL relatively easily. However, and I will preface this by saying that SANADA is not my favorite, I think that with SANADA’s finish in the G-1 Final this year it’s a clear sign that he has begun his elevation further into the main event. He’s had shots before, and now it’s time to continue strengthening him for the next year. One would think that after taking a shot with EVIL this last year, SANADA being next in line is hardly a stretch. Could EVIL win? Absolutely. I expect we’re heading for a Bullet Club civil war soon as the faction is currently far too bloated; EVIL and Jay White will, in all likelihood, be battling it out for leadership of whatever remains of the BC. Giving EVIL wins to ensure he’s strong for that wouldn’t be a shocker at all.
The What: IWGP Junior title match
The Who: Taiji Ishimori (C) vs Hiromu Takahashi/El Phantasmo
The Why: For the title, baby, but there’s a bit more buried in here. Ishimori has been playing a subtle and well-done character arc for the last several months, as he’s played second fiddle to the REAL star of the division, Hiromu Takahashi, the man who Taiji beat like a drum in Jingu to win the title. And he’s reasonably pissed off about this. Hiromu, despite not being the champion, main-evented 70% of the Best of the Super Juniors events, while Ishimori as the champion main-evented one….against Hiromu. Which he lost. So Ishimori is really quite angry about this, I’d say reasonably so. That’s one of the main reasons I expect his challenger to be Takahashi, because that’s where we’ve been heading the entire time to this point. Could it be ELP? Well, if we want the all Bullet Club title match and a way to further the inevitable split, then yeah, we could go there. But I don’t see that, to be frank. Hiromu, for better or worse, IS the biggest star in the division and needs to be in this title match.
The Winner: If it’s Hiromu as the challenger, Hiromu wins. If it’s ELP, flip a coin, because then it’s a storyline match that could go either way. My money is, as you might expect, on Hiromu walking out of the Dome with the title around his waist.
The What: IWGP Heavyweight/IWGP Intercontinental Double Gold title match
The Who: Tetsuya Naito/Kota Ibushi (C) vs Jay White
The Why: And so we come to the end. Now, there’s been quite a bit of hay given over how Jay White got to this point, and there are legitimate arguments that go both ways here. I come down on the side of ‘this is brilliant work by GEDO’ and I’ll give you my reasons:
1. If Wrestle Kingdom was always going to be two days again this year (which I think it probably was), then GEDO knew he would need challengers for both nights. This was a way to create that challenger outside of the normal box of ‘guy who beat Naito in the G-1’, which I appreciate.
2. He got rid of the briefcase defense being a fait accompli. In every previous case, the briefcase had been defended successfully. Someone had to be the first guy to lose it.
3. He picked the perfect guys on both sides of that coin. Ibushi being the big babyface being cheated out of his briefcase that he earned is spot-on for him, while Jay White shouldn’t be earning S--- – him being a weasel who came close and lost, so he then shrugged and cheated instead is perfect characterization.
4. In the course of booking, White has winning records over both of his potential opponents. Against Naito, Jay is 2-1, although Naito drew last blood on Night 1 of WK last year in winning the IC title from White on the way to unifying the straps. One would think that Jay wouldn’t mind some vengeance for that. On the flip side, Kota Ibushi hasn’t beat Jay in a year. Since winning the 2019 G-1 Climax Final against Jay, Ibushi is 0-3 against Jay, having lost to him on Night 2 of last year’s WK, in the Block portion of the G-1 this year, and in the briefcase challenge. Jay’s confidence against Kota is therefore at all-time high, which also sets him up as a perfect endboss for Ibushi.
All of the above is the main reason I suspect it’s Ibushi that will be standing across from Jay for the Night 2 main event. We’ve been building to this point since last year in a myriad of ways, and now the time has come to finish it.
The Winner: I don’t expect Jay to walk out with the titles, no matter how much I want it to happen, no matter who he ends up against. Either Naito is keeping the belts or Ibushi is walking out with everything. I think it’s going to be the latter.
THE NEXT DAY: New Year’s Dash! The Raw after Wrestle Kingdom, so to speak, Dash is the show that sets up the year in some ways, as new feuds are started and big angles kick off. It happens the day after WK ends, and I expect that something is going to happen, possibly our big Bullet Club breakup. Who knows?
THE NEXT YEAR: Will Ospreay is coming up. Kazuchika Okada is trying to regain his former glory. They will meet in the 2021 G-1 Finals. Hiroshi Tanahashi will charge back over the course of the year and have a classic title match with Ibushi at Dominion as we pay off their tag team from 2020. El Desperado will follow up on his classic with Hiromu and win his first Junior title. The Bullet Club will go to war, with Jay White leading the gaijins (White, the GoD, ELP, Fale, Owens) against EVIL’s Bullet Club natives (EVIL, Yujiro, Ishimori, KENTA, GEDO, JADO, Dick Togo) in a battle that will last months and break merchandising records. Minoru Suzuki will remain the most evil man in all of wrestling, in a gloriously fun way.
That should about do it! Tomorrow, I’ll have an article talking about the Naito/Ibushi trilogy from 2019 and how it may inform this year’s main event. But for now, I’ll bid you adieu and hope to see all of you late night watching some Japanese wrasslin’ with us! We’d love to have you!
As always, thanks for reading this thing I wrote,
@MrSoze on Twitter
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