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More than in years past, Wrestle Kingdom 12 was being discussed in wrestling circles around the world. While the event has been available across the globe for a couple of years now, it wasn't until this year that it began to get serious coverage, with ESPN, Sports Illustrated and other mainstream outlets giving the event press coverage in the United States. A lot of that had to do with the superb build between Kenny Omega and Chris Jericho, the latter a recognizable face the world over and a key driver of business for the WWF during its highest peak.
Due to that coverage, there was perhaps more riding on this event than any other NJPW Tokyo Dome show before, because there were going to be many more eyeballs on the product around the globe. If fans were tuning in to see Omega and Jericho and watching NJPW for the first time, they could persuaded to become significant fans of the product. A couple of well-hyped matches in the main event buyoed those expectations. Did Wrestle Kingdom 12 deliver the goods? I would say so, and I think it was arguably better than the previous year's show, which really got the ball rolling on NJPW's momentum outside of Japan. Maybe the main event was not as earth-shattering as last year's classic, but it was an extremely good match, and was supported by the heavily-promoted Jericho vs Omega match, which manged to meet its expectations and delivered an early MOTY candidate. Lost in the shuffle were excellent matches for the Jr. Heavyweight Championship and a great undercard match between Kota Ibushi and Cody Rhodes. I'm a seasoned viewer, but it seems from the feedback I have received that first-time viewers really enjoyed the show, which is crucial for the company's future growth.
Kazuchika Okada vs Tetsuya Naito: *****
This match was all about Okada's resiliency as champion. He already holds the record for longest single IWGP World Heavyweight Championship reign, as well as the most accumulated days as champion. Towards the end of his match, his grimace and sneer told the story about how deep he was going to retain the championship. At the same time, Okada was tasked with following the Omega vs Jericho match, which had already set the bar extremely high, Okada and Naito managed to surpass it, just like Omega and Okada were able to do last year following Naito vs Tanahashi.
You could make an argument that the time was right for Okada to drop the title to Naito, and I would probably side with that. Naito was really over with the fans in the Tokyo Dome and was easily the most cheered wrestler of the night, even more so than Tanahashi or Okada. Naito sells the most merchandise in the company and is an excellent wrestler to boot. However, at the same time it is hard to argue against Okada's reign as IWGP World Heavyweight Champion. Business has been the best it has been in years for NJPW and he has having some of the best matches the world has ever seen. It is possible that turning the title over to Naito would increase business more, and of course you could give the title back to Okada, and I think it is better to be proactive than reactive, because eventually Okada will not be champion, and the best way to anoint Naito as an equal would be to give him this win on the biggest stage.
The match was a little slow getting started, but also played on the previous bouts between the two, as they tried the same moves but each of them had clever counters. The match really got going when Okada nailed Naito with an absolutely sick German suplex.
That began a series of dramatic near falls and was highlighted by an amazing final five minutes, something that Okada does better than anybody else. I've seen both of these guys wrestle plenty, yet they always seem to be able to come up with a counter and a sequence I have never seen before. They stay one step ahead of the viewer by always going back to their previous match-ups and making sure to tweak things to make sure the audience is always surprised by a kick-out or a counter into a finishing move for the pinfall.
Chris Jericho vs Kenny Omega: ****3/4
The buzz over the last few days for this match was pretty incredible. It seemed to be the most anticipated non-WWE match for American fans since WCW closed down. I talked to countless people who told me they were going to watch NJPW for the first time because of this match. For NJPW, the match was a huge success before either man landed a blow, because they had managed to create interest from foreign markets in a way they had never been able to do before. Jericho and Omega during the build did mostly simple stuff, but they did the simple stuff, like the press-conference brawl and the surprise attack, very well, and played up the intrigue of a major WWE star coming to NJPW to wrestle a top NJPW star, who is THE top NJPW star when it comes to fans outside of Japan.
Not only did they generate interest in the match, but the match was also able to deliver and meet or even exceed the lofty expectations fans had for it. That is tremendously powerful for wrestling fans, to know that the brand they are watching they can trust to deliver what they are promising. I figured Omega and Jericho would have a good match, both of them are extremely creative and excellent workers to boot, but they didn't just have a good match, they had a GREAT one. If you are watching NJPW for the first time, there is a good chance that may have been one of the best matches you have seen in years.
Omega is a superstar, and he wasted little time immediately getting the crowd engaged with a crazy dive.
As great as Omega is, this was really Jericho's match. Jericho wanted to test himself outside of WWE and he passed with flying colors. Jericho in his latest WWE run continued to show a remarkable ability to get a reaction from the fans for pretty much anything he did. In Japan, he continued that trend. He wasn't like Brock Lesnar or Kurt Angle, a big name brought in to help stagnate sagging business. Jericho came here because he wanted to, and the fans remembered him from his time there in the mid-90s. The Walls of Jericho have never been as over as they were tonight, and the crowd ate up all his heel antics. My favorite was when he pushed beloved referee "Red Shoes" Ummino to the ground and put his son, Shota, a young boy in NJPW, in the Walls and screamed at Red Shoes to look at his son. He also got the fans to react to him taking photos of himself flipping the bird:
Ultimatley this couldn't have gone any better for NJPW, and who knows, maybe they haven't seen the last of Jericho.
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Jay White: ***
This was a very strange match. For starters, White getting this spot, third from the top and against the company's top star of the last decade, was odd, especially in a company like NJPW which is very conservative in how they bring their stars along. White was last seen in NJPW as a young boy, tagging with David Finlay (who was in the New Japan Rumble earlier) and all of sudden he was being pushed as a top star. There were a lot of questions about whether White was good enough for this push, even after a promising excursion in Ring of Honor. However, I'm not sure if White had wrestled a singles match in front of more than a couple thousand people, and now he was expected to work against Tanahashi in front of 40,000? White wasn't awful, but it was clear the crowd didn't buy him as a top star yet and by booking him to lose a fairly undramatic match isn't going to help him get over.
On top of that, Tanahashi has serious health issues with his bicep and his knee and it was obvious he wasn't his usual self. He did give it his all and hit all his moves and even did a dive to the outside from the top rope, but it is unclear how long he can continue to work on bad knees. Kenta Kobashi put off knee surgery for years and the result was he ended up missing years of time. I don't see a way Tanahashi can continue to defend the Intercontinental Championship without doing tremendous damage to his body. I think if he was wrestling anyone but Jay White, we would have a new champion, but NJPW began to regret pushing White so fast, so the result was an okay match with a clean and decisive finish. The match was overall pretty decent, but far below Tanahashi's lofty standards for this event.
Marty Scurll vs Will Ospreay vs Hiromu Takahashi vs KUSHIDA: ****1/2
This was an excellent match, showcasing four of the very best wrestlers in the world. Multi-man matches for singles titles are rare in NJPW so this was more of a novelty match than it would be in the US. If you are new to NJPW and haven't watched a lot of wrestling outside of WWE, this match might have blew your mind with its pacing and high-impact moves. I figured the match could steal the show and it very well might have, as it was a perfect display of athleticism and pace that is unique to the junior heavyweights, something WWE is lacking in its cruiser-weight division. There were several incredible spots that it is hard to pick out which ones were the most memorable, but one would obviously be Ospreay scaling a lighting rig and hitting a moonsault onto everybody (well not Marty Scurll):
Another would be Hiromu Takahashi's awesome comeback where he stacked Ospreay right on his head outside the ring:
At the end, Ospreay regained his championship which was the right move going forward. There isn't a more outright spectacular performer than him in all of wrestling and even working with a bunch of studs, he was still the star of the match.
During the intermission NJPW announced their major shows up through August, which features a stop in March in Los Angeles. They also announced that the last three nights of the G1 Climax will take place at Budokan Hall in August. Budokan Hall is a venue with a rich history of wrestling shows dating back to the 1960s and was the home of major shows for NJPW, All-Japan Pro Wrestling and Pro-Wrestling NOAH during their glory days, but unfortunately the 14,000 seat venue has been too big to host events as pro wrestling has been in decline in Japan. NJPW announcing that they would not only be running the venue, but running at Budokan for three consecutive nights, is a sign of the growth NJPW has had over the last couple of years.
Hirooki Goto vs Minoru Suzuki: ***1/2
From a storytelling standpoint this was a strong match. Suzuki really is brilliant in how he carries himself, that despite being nearly 50 and really never winning a ton of major championships, he still manages to come across as this incredible bad ass. Maybe it has something to do with those awesome dropkicks:
Working with someone like Suzuki can be a challenge for Goto, who doesn't have the charisma of the top guys that get the most out of Suzuki. However, with Suzuki stiffing him early and Goto firing back he gets the kind of reaction he wouldn't get with another opponent. Suzuki shaving his own head at the end was a nice touch. You could argue that Goto beating Suzuki and not getting to shave his head didn't help Goto look like a star, but I think of it as Suzuki, as maniacal as he is, respected the fact that he was beaten. Maybe he didn't get to shave his head but earning Suzuki's respect as a competitor is probably superior for Goto moving forward.
EVIL and SANADA vs Killer Elite Squad:***
This was a fine match and I thought it was building up well but was cut a little short, so I think a rematch on a show where they have time for a longer match will be pretty good. The tag team division has been dominated over the last years by foreign teams, so having a Japanese team in SANADA and EVIL was sure to get a good reaction from the crowd. SANADA has a good look, is a great athlete and is capable of being an excellent worker, but he hasn't had as many great matches in NJPW as you would think a guy of his caliber would have. I think Smith is a really underrated worker given his size and I would like to see him in more singles match, maybe in Ring of Honor?
Cody Rhodes vs Kota Ibushi: ****
This turned out to be a fantastic match. Ibushi doesn't wrestle all the time for NJPW and he has never gotten a full-blown main event push, but when he works he is every bit as good as Okada/Omega/Naito. The two things that stand out in Ibushi's matches are his tremendous selling, which may seem dramatic to some but they help tell an effective story in the ring. This is as good of a sell of a straight punch as I have seen:
The other thing that stands out is how great his offense looks, whether it is his power moves, his striking or his high spots; his combination of timing, athleticism and his knowledge of how to pace a match lead to some of the best looking moves in wrestling. To Cody's credit, it takes two to tango and this was a big opportunity to really solidify his status in NJPW. I think he really needed to have a great match to justify getting a push with so many talented wrestlers on the roster, and he stepped up to the plate on the biggest stage. His nasty Cross Rhodes off of the apron was probably the best part of the first-half of the show.
NEVER Six Man Gauntlet: **1/2
Nothing spectacular here, just your basic gauntlet match with a lot of wrestlers trying to get their stuff in during their brief time in front of the largest crowd they will see all year. The wrestling was all good and each team has some sort of gimmick that gets over with the audience, be that Yano's comedy, Taguchi's rallying spot or Iizuka's wild-man act. If you are new to NJPW you probably noticed during this show that the company has A LOT of titles, and it is a real debate whether or not the NEVER Six Man Championships are really necessary. Trent's heavyweight push continues to go well, although the highlight of the match came when he was on the receiving end of a stun gun from Tama Tonga.
The Young Bucks vs Roppongi 3K: ***1/2
One of the things I was concerned about is that NJPW typically does not open the show with title matches and instead kind of has filler for the early parts of the show before getting into the good stuff. I thought it was wise to have this match open the show, since you knew you were going to have an exciting match and not just a throw-away multi-man tag. The match was a typical solid Young Bucks match, with some comedy early, dangerous moves and some great highspots. I think maybe it could have been better as the crowd wasn't super into it, but it is always tough batting leadoff inside a dome show. The Junior Heavyweight Tag Team titles are passed around so much that they really don't matter; they are only really relevant because the matches for them are generally good.
New Japan Rumble:*1/2
The New Japan Rumble is a pretty basic battle royal type match that NJPW rolls out on the pre-show of every Wrestle Kingdom. Basically this is like the old Battle Royal WWE used to have at WrestleMania before they decided to glamorize it as the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal. They try and get everyone on the show, so the match is filled out with old stars that have been phased out of the main event, job guys, young boys and the occasional surprise return. Katsuya Kitamura is the most notable young boy and was the first entrant; he's green but has an extensive amateur background that includes collegiate championships and has a completely unique look in NJPW. Masahito Kakihara, a veteran who used to wrestle for UWFi and recently battled cancer was the surprise winner and he talked about former main event star Yoshihiro Takayama, who last year suffered a paralyzing injury on an independent show.