By: Karen Peterson
Before you get started here, check out the Wrestle Kingdom Night 1 Review by Mark Buckeldee!
No Sanctions/Penalties for Katsuyori Shibata
When Katsuyori Shibata announced his Tokyo Dome match, fans around the world were a flurry of emotions from elated to concerned. The Wrestler was back, but in what fashion? The WK16 Press Conference afforded Shibata time to parse the rigid match structure that he would participate underneath: Catch as Catch Can Rules. His opponent remained
However, prior to his match with LA Dojo Young Lion, Ren Narita, Shibata scrapped the carefully outlined CaCC Guidelines set in place at the press conference. After an emotionally riveting match between Shibata & Narita, The Wrestler was back… but at what cost?!
“I know that match was different from what I promised the company. I’ll accept any penalties or sanctions as a result of my own actions.” – Katsuyori Shibata (2022.01.04; Backstage Comments)
NJPW President Takami Ohbari reassured both Shibata and the fans that The Wrestler would not be punished for the unexpected change to the stipulations of the match against Narita.
— 大張高己/Takami Ohbari (@TAKAMIOHBARI) January 4, 2022
Ambitious 11-Match Card? Mini New Year’s Dash!
After the books were closed on Wrestle Kingdom Night One, Present Takami Ohbari announced that not one, but three opening tag matches would be added. The start time was previously announced for 4 PM local time. Each 6-man tag match was given a twenty-minute time limit and one fall. This was a great way for those previously in the KOPW Rumble and fallen champions/challengers from the night before to be included on the card for the fans. Without the immediate, annual Wrestle Kingdom fallout that is normally New Year’s Dash, these three matches reminded me of the fan service multi-man tags which usually kick off the post-WK fallout, officially moving forward into the new year.
- Hontai (Tomoaki Honma, Yuji Nagata & Togi Makabe) vs. Bullet Club (Jado, Gedo & Bad Luck Fale)
- Hontai (Master Wato, Satoshi Kojima & Hiroyoshi Tenzan) vs. Suzuki-gun (TAKA Michinoku, Yoshinobu Kanemaru & El Desperado ©Jr.)
- LIJ (BUSHI, Hiromu Takahashi & Shingo Takagi) vs. Suzuki-gun (DOUKI, Zack Sabre, Jr. & Taichi)
Pre-show Address by TV Asashi’s Tsumugi Mitani
The special NJPW TV (“Shinnichi Champion” FKA “ShinnnichiChan) variety program host addressed the crowd, campaigning for the semi-annual TV Asahi Variety TV Elections. The winning program receives the funding and airtime for a special episode. You might have seen promotional tweets/videos featuring Tanahashi, Taichi, Yano, El Desperado, Yoshinobu Kanemaru, and others encouraging fans to vote. NJPW Global also previously released voting instructions, encouraging foreign fans to unite and help bring it home for Shinnichi Champion.
Bring more fans to NJPW in just three clicks!
Vote for variety show "Shinnichi Champion" in TV Asahi's poll for it to get a broadcast special!
(and perhaps to see English episodes in the future!)
— NJPW Global (@njpwglobal) December 20, 2021
When NJPW TV (seasons one and two currently available on NJPW World), launched, Mitani joined as someone completely new to wrestling and has quickly created a program that makes NJPW fun and accessible for casual fans. The variety TV program has guests from nearly every faction (yes, including Bullet Club and LIJ), and while it is without subtitles currently, it’s light and relatively fun because fans get to see many wrestlers out of character.
Every vote counts, so Mitani addressed the crowd before both shows, in a final effort to collect votes prior to the polls closing on January 10th.
- Opener 1: Hontai vs. Bullet Club – Bonus match 1; watch at your leisure
- Opener 2: Hontai vs. Suzuki-gun – Bonus match 2; Complete New Year’s Dash Vibes
- Opener 3: LIJ vs. Suzuki-gun – Bonus match 3; LIJ/SZG fan service match – Recommended
- IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships: Flying Tigers © vs. Mega Coaches vs. BC’s Cutest Tag Team – a nonstop, Three-Way to see who is going to be Sixty-Ninth. Respectfully. – Recommended
- STARDOM Special Showcase: Mayu Iwatani & Starlight Kid vs. Tam Nakano & Saya Kamitani – The histories of these four are heavily intertwined. – Highly Recommended
- KPOW 2022 4-Way Match – Toru Yano vs. Minoru Suzuki vs. CIMA vs. Chase Owens – A very complicated combination set on ruining Yano’s 2022.
- NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championships: House of Torture © vs. CHAOS – Go in with very tempered expectations
- Singles Match: SANADA vs. Great O-Khan – Not your average handsome battle – Recommended
- Singles Match: Tetsuya Naito vs. Jeff Cobb – Whose ‘Destino’ gets fulfilled? – Highly Recommended
- IWGP US Heavyweight Championship – KENTA © vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi – Will a No DQ stipulation result in The Ace’s spiral to the dark side? – Highly Recommended
- IWGP World Heavyweight Championship – Kazuchika Okada © vs. Will Ospreay Fake© – Who will be NJPW’s 50th Anniversary Golden Boy? – Highly Recommended
Announcements During Night Two
The big matches for the first half of the year were announced through June 12th (likely Dominion at Osaka-jo Hall). The locations and dates were announced, but not all the tour themes/names. No confirmation if Best of The Super Juniors 29 is moving to the spring or remaining at year’s end again in 2022.
Opening Match 1: Hontai (Tomoaki Honma, Yuji Nagata & Togi Makabe) defeats Bullet Club (Jado, Gedo & Bad Luck Fale) (6:40)
A short match. Nothing too fancy. The entrances felt as long as the match. Honma pins Gedo.
Opening Match 2: Hontai (Master Wato, Satoshi Kojima & Hiroyoshi Tenzan) defeats Suzuki-gun (TAKA Michinoku, Yoshinobu Kanemaru & El Desperado ©Jr.) (9:23)
Another great opener featuring fan favorites not previously included on the day two card. Wato shocks the New Japan World as he taps out Desperado with a new submission move. (It was initially called Reciemente II on NJPW social media, but was later announced as Vendebar* on the final match report).
After his all-out war with Hiromu the night before, El Desperado hadn’t named a challenger, so Wato wasted no time motioning to his waist, casually declaring his intent to challenge. In the backstage comments, Wato officially challenged, citing it’s his mission to be the future of the Junior division. I don’t know if 2022 will be The Year of Wato, but at least they are making strides to build up additional Jr. Heavyweight babyfaces.
Opening Match 3: LIJ (BUSHI, Hiromu Takahashi & Shingo Takagi) defeats Suzuki-gun (DOUKI, Zack Sabre, Jr. & Taichi) (10:28)
Worth the watch, if only for a light appetizer for the future of LIJ vs. Suzuki-gun. High-speed, feel-good matchup for the fallen champions from the previous night. Takagi pins DOUKI with Last of The Dragon.
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships: Flying Tigers (Robbie Eagles & Tiger Mask) © defeat Mega Coaches (Ryusuke Taguchi & Rocky Romero) and BC’s Cutest Tag Team (Taiji Ishimori & El Phantasmo) (12:07)
With the apparently highly coveted 69th IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champions slot up for grabs between The Mega Coaches and BC’s Cutest Tag Team, Flying Tigers had a tall order ahead of them in order to hang onto their championships. Although the Jr TT were at stake, this was a fast-paced, lighthearted match. Knowing how frequently the juniors work together, they can always be depended upon to put together an entertaining yet thrilling match. If you love the NJPW Juniors like I do, you’re in for an absolute treat. The only challenge that happens when there is so much chaos (lower case “c”) going on in the ring is that not everything can be enjoyed concurrently.
Tiger Mask nailing Robbie with a kick to the head hit me straight in the heart. I can’t say enough wonderful things about them or any of the others in the match. The frenzied pace kept the suspense going, and uncertainty reigned as any one team could have won it. Instead of a pin attempt at the prone ELP, the Mega Coaches and Flying Tigers hold him down and finally manage to reveal the secret to Sudden Death. After countless attempts coming up empty-handed, a rogue implement was finally removed from his boot! Finally! After what feels like an eternity, not only is the mystery weapon revealed but repercussions for its usage are finally levied, as Referee Kenta Sato ejects ELP & Ishimori from the match. I can’t remember the last time BC really got caught with their hand in the cookie jar, so it felt deliciously satisfying. Sweet, delicious officiating.
A defiant ELP was dragged from ringside as the remaining participants tore into one another. I’m still waiting for the day I see Tiger Mask hit Taguchi with a Hip Attack, but that Tope Suicida was still very rad. Robbie taps out Rocky with The Ron Miller Special. Flying Tigers remain the 68th Champions, meaning there is still a possibility for Taguchi to achieve his goal of becoming the 69th Champion as he has another tag partner on standby in Master Wato as Six and Nine, should their rematch request be denied or unsuccessful.
Backstage, Robbie would savor their successful defense with a victory shoey out of ELP’s boot with some Sapporo Dark Beer. Interestingly, Robbie comments that if ELP/Ishimori wants another go, it’ll have to be two on two, so who will actually challenge next remains to be seen.
“It’s probably the most disgusting shoe I’ve ever seen because it’s come from El Phantasmo…here’s to you Tokyo Dome!” – Robbie “It’s Australian Tradition” Eagles (2022.01.05; Backstage Comments)
I understood why this match opened the show, much like the SHO vs. YOH grudge match the night before: the fast-paced, high intensity of the Juniors is always a great way to warm up the crowd. However, as the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships have a much longer, deeper, and storied history over the King of Pro-Wrestling Award, I honestly feel that this match should have been slotted into the card after the Stardom exhibition match and the KOPW open the show.
STARDOM Special Showcase: MK☆Sisters (Mayu Iwatani (STARS) & Starlight Kid (SLK; OET) © High-Speed) vs. Dream★Dome (Tam Nakano (Cosmic Angels) & Saya Kamitani (Queen’s Quest) © Wonder) (9:14)
With copyright issues, both Tam and Mayu’s themes were muted, so I wish they could have played Saya and SLK’s instead (at least for the broadcast streams). It doesn’t detract from the pageantry, but it made me worry that I was having audio issues.
Starlight Kid’s mantle is a little heavier after Ryogoku Stardom Dream Queendom, having added masks from her dual defense against AZM and Koguma. As the only masked wrestler in Stardom, her finally participating in a match instead of seconding Mayu is a massive stride for the young wrestler. As ever, Mayu Iwatani isn’t just Stardom’s Icon, but the mountain that every other woman in the promotion wishes to topple. Fresh off their battle over the Wonder of Stardom Championship last week, Saya Kamitani and Tam Nakano worked rather smoothly as a tandem, calling back to their time in STARS together… when they were together with both Iwatani and SLK.
Stardom provided fans with an authentic Stardom show experience, complete with ring announcer Ando, Referee Maruyama, and seconds from every faction pounding the mat to rally the crowd. As expected, there were high spots for everyone, including a rare Ryusei (a sky-high splash) combo between Iwatani and Starlight Kid, Tam with a dive to the outside, and of course, Kamitani hitting her third Phoenix Splash in a New Japan ring. Every woman is not just highlighted, but showcased in this match.
Kamitani pins SLK after a Phoenix Splash, securing the win for Dream★Dome and payback for Momo Watanabe’s defection from Queen’s Quest to OedoTai. Unlike previous NJPW showcase matches, it seems Stardom might seize the opportunity to tie this into the QQ/OET battle ahead. If this is the direction the sibling partnership between Stardom and NJPW are taking moving forward, I hope future matches in a New Japan ring can also weave into the ever-growing tapestry of Stardom’s brilliant future.
Afterward, SLK cites that she intentionally used the Momoracchi in honor of Momoe Nakanishi from when she wrestled in the Tokyo Dome, and was able to accomplish a Ryusei because she had Mayu (her former tag partner) alongside her. Iwatani was happy to perform in the Dome for the third time. Kamitani and Nakano were also interviewed about their victory, but what stood out was an outlandish confession from Saya.
“One of my dreams is to have a singles match against… Kota Ibushi. Ibushi-san, let’s see whose Phoenix Splash is the best!” – Saya Kamitani, Wonder of Stardom Champion (2022.01.05; Backstage Comments)
It was also noted that when Stardom initially had their match in 2020, it was met with a lot of pushback from the fans. I believe with every match, they are winning over hearts, and while they may not be able to capture every single one, those will be the fans who truly miss out on something special.
KPOW 2022 4-Way Match – Minoru Suzuki defeats Toru Yano, Chase Owens, and & CIMA (6:08)
I found the intentional teaming up of Suzuki and CIMA against Yano, even though CIMA just kept getting chopped like trees for firewood, rather entertaining use of “work smarter, not harder” because CIMA did most of the work for Suzuki when it came to wrenching Yano’s knee.
In a surprise upset, Suzuki becomes the first KOPW holder, driving Yano into the ground with a Gotch-style Piledriver. Yano already poised himself to challenge to “get his baby back” by handcuffing Suzuki to the ropes before escaping. If you enjoyed Mr. Yano’s Wild KOPW Ride, strap in because it’s about to get dangerously bumpy with The Actual King in the driver’s seat. Glad it didn’t run very long, but it could have been easily fused together at the end of the Rumble on yesterday’s card.
“A dark match is for useless bums who can’t make the main card or a title match.” – Minoru Suzuki, 2022 Provisional KOPW Champion (2022.01.05 Backstage Comments)
NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championships: House of Torture (EVIL, Yujiro Takahashi, & SHO) defeat CHAOS (Hirooki Goto, YOSHI-HASHI & YOH). (9:37)
Ishii seconds CHAOS as an equalizer against Dock Togo, meeting Goto, YOSHI-HASHI & YOH at ringside. There were the usual HoT shenanigans: chairs, garottes, and wrenches! Oh My! It was the ringside camera folk who were in the way. After getting pinned cleanly last night, SHO pins YOH, very much not cleanly as promised in his press conference comments. House of Torture has their first successful defense. If you’re a diehard CHAOS and/or House of Torture fan, you’ll likely enjoy it for what it was: getting popular guys on the card with some stakes to help move onto new things for everyone in 2022. However, I am sure there will be plenty of folks who will not like it.
With Goto/YOSHI-HASHI winning the Tag Titles and EVIL winning the NEVER Openweight the night prior, the options of who would be the one to take the fall were seemingly limited. Even with Ishii and Togo at ringside to even the odds and likely protect the remaining members from a clean defeat. With SHO as one of the N6 Champs, having lost the night before to YOH and having one of the only singles matches on the NJPW x NOAH card– it really only left YOH or Yujiro to be the fall guy– and of the two– YOH was the only non-champion that was a legal man in the match. Too many people needed to be protected if any of them were to move beyond this SHO Betrayal Arc, but my only hope is that it didn’t just detail the momentum YOH finally got in the last month, since his return last spring.
I would have rather nixed the LIJ x United Empire match from the night before and made that the NEVER 6-Man match, so it didn’t feel like that and the Tanahashi/Mega Coaches vs. Bullet Club were padding the undercard night one. Personally, those two 6-man matches could have been main events on the Road to Tokyo Dome shows, to slowly close out the storylines for the time being. However, I understand the necessity of the United Empire singles’ matches on night two due to their omission from the Yokohama card on Saturday. I’m just not a fan of double and triple championship situations because it often ties up too many belts, excluding too many capable individuals. It’s a distribution of wealth for success model.
After cheating to win, HoT has the audacity to demand an IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship during their celebration. Pinning the one junior on the team doesn’t afford that luxury. Goto apologizes backstage, but it’s YH who shuts down HoT’s request, unless they’re willing to give back the NEVER 6-Man Championship. A rare Ishii cites embarrassment and decides to challenge EVIL again, stating that “the only way to end this is via knockout,” so there could be a last man standing match on the horizon. YOH was nowhere to be seen after the match.
“…Listen up, we’re going to surround the ring so you can’t get away. Lumberjack Style, Bastard.” – EVIL (responding to Ishii’s rematch request; 2022.01.05; Backstage Comments)
Yujiro tries flipping the narrative, insisting Ishii is the interfering party responsible for making their lives difficult. The caveat is that if CHAOS wants the NEVER 6 rematch, the price for admission is allowing himself and EVIL to have a crack at the IWGP Heavyweight Championships. Speaking of controlling one’s narrative, SHO declares that YOH not only lost today, but also lost yesterday (don’t question Murder Machine Logic™, just go with it.). Out of an abundance of kindness in their great, big hearts, SHO extends the offer for a rematch, if YOH has anything left in the tank.
An Unexpected Noah Roster Invasion?!
As WK16 started, NOAH was next door at Korakuen Hall finishing up their REBOOT 2022 show. What fans hoped for, but didn’t expect became a reality when Keiji Mutoh’s music hit and he led nearly the entire NOAH roster out of the dugout, slowly and intentionally stalking their way to the ring. I never thought we’d get this sort of payback for the invasion of Suzuki-gun years ago, but the visual of NOAH and KONGO jerseys packing the ring sent chills down my spine. Both Kaito Kiyomiya and his rival KENOH addressed the fans, with KENOH taking particular interest in getting a couple of final jabs at LIJ.
“On January 8th at Yokohama Arena, Pro Wrestling NOAH intends to bring the fight to New Japan Pro-Wrestling.” – The Supernova, Kaito Kiyomiya
Unclear if the match order for Saturday’s show will shift now that Kazuchika Okada is the IWGP World Heavyweight Champion and Tanahashi the IWGP US Heavyweight Champion or if the 10-Man Tag featuring LIJ vs KONGO will close the show as it was Hiromi Takahashi, BUSHI, and Shingo Takagi who came to ringside to address a very saucy KENOH.
Special Singles Match: SANADA defeats Great O-Khan (13:01)
Sanada’s New Costume is worth the cost of admission alone. He took his Disney Pirate Prince Seiya SANADA gear from two years back, and said, “I’m going full Takagi Meets Goto” with a Rock ‘n’ Roll Japanese Demon Samurai vibe. Long Live NJPW’s Most Handsome Fashionista! Truly A Gift. The design and build for this match were simple: affording the UE singles spotlights against wildly popular LIJ members. While the Handsome/Unhandsome Battle felt like very low-hanging fruit initially, the match itself was technically solid, but I did like the mention that O-Khan’s arsenal includes intentionally smashing in people’s faces, and one “can’t train their face” to take a bump. O’Khan’s diverse background shines as he gets creative while trying to break down SANADA.
After his hard work in the G1, rocking people in World Tag League, and pretty much holding the United Empire together since the summer in Ospreay’s absence, O-Khan deserved this opportunity for a singles match in the Dome. SANADA had a bit more fight in him during the match, I don’t know if it was the new gear or the new year, but I was feeling New Japan Cup/G1 Season SANADA. He wasn’t checked out. He was zeroed in.
SANADA eventually sneaks into the O’Connor Roll after a surprise move by O-Khan. Though defeated, he still looked strong because he was able to have this match on his own in the Tokyo Dome. Also, I love the care Aaron Henare takes as a second. He often dresses accordingly, but also remains uninvolved, trusting his colleagues to hold their own.
“Maybe you don’t know, but I’m hyped because I have a connection with some of those guys…” – SANADA (on 1.8 WK16 Yokohama Arena 10-Man LIJ vs. KONGO)
Special Singles Match: Tetsuya Naito defeats Jeff Cobb (15:34)
Everyone knows Tetsuya Naito is a star. I hope after tonight, the world realizes what an absolute rock star, Jeff Cobb is (if they didn’t already know based on the Jeff-1 Climax 31). I loved the Frenemeny dynamic both had going into the match.l While they were teasing one another in the lead-up to the match, there was also a substantial mutual respect and overarching Tranquilo, even at the press conference. Even as Naito intentionally took his time undressing, Jeff patiently waited, even folding some of the discarded articles of clothing pitched his way.
No sooner was the last article off, Jeff throttled Naito in the corner, starting the match quickly. Naito quickly took to attacking Jeff’s knees, in an attempt to weaken the base of The Imperial Unit. Throwing aside his usual showboating, Naito tries to break apart Jeff but get caught. Cobb raises him up and slams him into the ring post (the actual hardest part of the ring) twice before dropping him onto his back on the outside of the ring.
The absolute, undeniable power of Jeff Cobb is breathtaking if I am perfectly honest. He might be built like a tank, but his wrestling is pure art. Not just power and strength, but speed, agility and (my personal favorite) safety. Naito’s change up on the Combinacion Cabron, opting to kick Jeff’s knee, before tying him in a submission, something we don’t see all that often from Naito. I do love it when Naito makes it a formal occasion by offering his opponent a cravate to go with their outfit.
Destino in the Dome after an absolute battle between both Naito and Cobb led to the win for The Stardust Genius. As far as I could tell, there was zero unfinished business remaining between the pair as they left everything and then some in the ring. Jeff, bloodied mouth and tender knee, put on a clinic and I feel many people will be watching his 2022 in New Japan all the more closely as he edges closer and closer to the main event scene. I want nothing but the utmost health and success for both of them, but Cobb in particular. He played a key role in Japan during the absence of Ospreay and I sincerely hope the company not just recognizes that but capitalizes on it, even though Ospreay has returned. Jeff deserves all the accolades and praise in the world for the 2021 he had and his fiery start to 2022.
“Today’s only January 5th. Did they get the date wrong? …They had better be TRANQUILO!” – Tetsuya Naito (on the NOAH Invasion midway through the show; 2022.0105 Backstage Comments)
IWGP US Heavyweight Championship NO DQ Match: Hiroshi Tanahashi defeats KENTA (22:40)
I marveled the night before on the arrival of 2022 Wrestle Kingdom Gear Tanahashi, but man oh man, when KENTA stalked out to his theme in all-white gear, I was over the moon. I love it when a heel elects to ditch the black hat for a nice and make a declaration of war in all-white gear. It’s crisp and refreshing like Florida winter. There weren’t any major costume design changes, he simply hit the switch, flip-flopping his monochromatic palette. However, where there is white and a No DQ match sometimes there is unintentional (or very intentional) color added later.
An old friend came to town when KENTA resurrected his old IWGP US Heavyweight Challenger’s briefcase. Still battered with a gaping hole and the tape that reads “TANAHASHI” with an arrow to assess the blame for the damage. Tanahashi provided a long, overdue receipt when he sculpted KENTA a hat out of an acoustic guitar. Being accustomed to breakaway, gimmicked particle board guitars, I gasped when Tanahashi clocked him with the backside of the guitar and it just sat there as if it were made out of Japanese table materials.
Kendo sticks. Piles of chairs. A garbage can to wreck a face on. Not one, but two of those blasted office tables. The ladder. That terrifyingly rickety ladder. KENTA made a point to berate Red Shoes into helping him secure the bolt supports on the ladder, out of an abundance of caution. I understand why the referee refused, but if anything I wish he would have dragged a Young Lion or two into the ring to help at least hold it steady, especially when Tanahashi shook KENTA off and then later scaled it himself for the Highest-Most-Flyest-Flow EVER. It swayed entirely too much for my liking, and I am relieved that the physical damage was somewhat controlled. When KENTA toppled from the ladder and smashed his face on the garbage can, he seemed to bust his nose open, and there was so much blood.
They went harder, longer and higher than they needed to. I don’t want to see either of them do that ever again. I know they are trained professionals, but if KENTA busting open his nose and slashed back is any indication, I would rather not see a repeat performance. As a title match, I understand the desire for it to have a suggested minimum time limit, but I wouldn’t have minded cutting a few spots out to shave off some of the time in exchange for some additional safety.
After breaking KENTA through the table and getting the three count to regain the UCS Championship, Tanahashi looked almost despondent, seeing what he had done to his opponent. He seemed genuinely conflicted. He wanted the title back, but it certainly didn’t feel like he could celebrate afterward. The Ace watched a bloodied KENTA walk on his own, masking his bloodied face with a towel, but the victory felt bittersweet. Understandably, KENTA headed to medical instead of the backstage press area.
“Happiness. Sadness. Frustration. None of those emotions are within me now. All I feel is emptiness…” – Hiroshi Tanahashi, 11th IWGP US Heavyweight Champion (2022.01.05 Backstage Comments)
Afterward, KENTA took to Twitter, responding “Don’t say such sad things. We went in together, prepared to fight as wrestlers. The Tanahashi I fought today was THE BEST. Be proud.”
— KENTA aka Lil’K (@KENTAG2S) January 5, 2022
IWGP World Heavyweight Championship – Kazuchika Okada © defeats Will Ospreay (32:52)
Personally, the “real” world champion situation should have been remedied on night one in a Takagi/Ospreay match to ‘unify’ the two World Championships, so the winner would face the G1 Winner on night two. It shouldn’t have been an issue to begin with as when the company vacated the championship with Ospreay’s injury in the summer, that should have been the end of it. When Hiromu got injured both times, he surrendered the Jr. Heavyweight Championship. When YOH blew out his knee in the NJC 2020, SHO shouldered the responsibility of vacating it on his behalf. At NJPW Showdown, Ren Narita succinctly summarized what many felt about the situation:
“You were on the bench and you had to vacate, right？ So be a man and vacate the title. Don’t run around with a fake (like a child).” – Ren Narita (November 7, 2021)
I am certain that it was likely due to medical clearance timing, but Ospreay should have participated in the G1, alongside Okada (and possibly instead of Takagi), to earn his ticket to Wrestle Kingdom. I felt there was a disparity in challengers while Takagi was defending against Tanahashi, EVIL, and Zack “Throw Your Brackets in the Bin With Naito’s Knees” Sabre Jr.– alongside competing in the G1 Climax 31 Tournament. While I love the quality of wrestlers Katsuyori Shibata is churning out in the LA Dojo, without competing in a comparable tournament to the G1, Ospreay simply defended his carbon copy against Karl Fredericks at Autumn Attack and Ren Narita at Battle in the Valley and minus grueling month of G1 single’s competition. Not to diminish the accomplishments of LA Dojo because they have been amazing in the last two years, but there was a visible imbalance on defense opponents.
As someone who begrudgingly accepted the first Double Gold Dash going into WK 14 (January 2020), by the time this arc came about, I was completely burned out on the Double Champion situation. I found it to be exclusionary for many other talented individuals, especially with the loss of the Intercontinental Championship when it was merged with V4 to make the current World Heavyweight Championship. It became a pattern alongside the booking of the Juniors titles and the NEVER titles, so by summer 2021, the last thing I wanted was another Gold Dash with the indeed flavor of resurrecting a Ghost of Titles Past to further complicate things.
After back-to-back United Empire losses, my faith in Okada keeping the championship for longer than twenty-four hours genuinely got shaken. From a wrestling perspective, an Ospreay/Okada matchup is one that can turn a lot of heads, especially casual fans of wrestling. After the terrifying final ladder moments of Tanahashi/KENTA, I felt nauseated watching Ospreay climb the scaffolding. Yes, I know he’s done it before, but after the close calls in the match prior, I wasn’t comfortable watching it, especially after it looked like Okada tweaked his knee in the moments prior.
To his credit, if Ospreay was going to lose he was going to do so by absolutely emptying his entire bag of tricks all over the Tokyo Dome, daring Okada to outclass him. He threw literally every single thing possible at Okada, flipping a switch I hadn’t seen go off in The Rainmaker in some time. Not that I enjoy making such comparisons, but it did have shades of Okada/Omega, especially as the longer the match went, the harder both fought to hang onto the spotlight. For those able to watch the match purely from a technical and performance standpoint (compartmentalizing personal and professional), it’ll definitely rank high on many people’s Of The Year Awards come December. It was riveting in the sense that I wanted nothing more for Ospreay to be served a giant, honking slice of humble pie and after everything he did to Okada, I am glad Chef Kazu was the one in the kitchen stirring the pot. More than anything else, I am glad this arc finally has definitive closure with a singular World Heavyweight Champion in Kazuchika Okada. Okada successfully defends his newly won IWGP World Heavyweight Championship, and it’s back of the line for Ospreay.
“Ospreay, I am the real champion, but your strength is the real deal.” – Kazuchika Okada, 4th IWGP World Heavyweight Champion (2022.01.05; In Ring Address)
While many anticipated Ibushi Watch, it would be Tetsuya Naito who would finally make his way to the ring to challenge Okada. Many were left wondering when Naito was taken out on night one of the G1 if he could have not only won A-Block instead of Ibushi but won the 31st G1 Climax altogether. Many thought (myself included) that the 2021 G1 was to be a Naito Year as his magical number four rolled around. However, moving into 2022, Naito certainly sits in that rarified air of suitable challengers to kick off the Golden Anniversary. I found Okada’s formal in-ring send-off to V4, particularly touching, before his acceptance of the World Heavyweight Championship. His wish that Inoki is healthy enough to join everyone in the ring for part of the 50th Celebration was a beautiful touch, too.
Looking Forward to NJPW vs. NOAH in Yokohama (2022.01.08)
At its heart, I think the Yokohama show is designed as a sportsmanship showcase between the two companies in honor of NJPW’s 50th year, much like the All Together shows the companies held alongside All Japan Pro-Wrestling in 2011-2012 in the wake of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. The stakes are bragging rights, cashing those checks everyone’s mouths are writing in the last few months, and giving fans a crossover event that could grow fan populations and camaraderie for both companies. Approaching it as a celebration of wrestling between the companies for the charity that helped rebuild a region of the country after a catastrophic natural disaster and not a “no stakes, throwaway card,” might provide the perspective shift necessary for some to enjoy this card. Who are the winners? We, as fans of pro-wrestling, will be.
I know that many fans of the United Empire and other foreign talent are frustrated by the omissions of everyone save Zack Sabre, Jr. Of the remaining participants in Japan, SZJ is the only one with any real history with NOAH talent inside a NOAH ring. He graduated from their dojo system, racked up over 270 matches in NOAH between 2008-2015, and was GHC Junior Tag Team Champions twice with Yoshinari Ogawa. If fans around the world are to celebrate the homecomings of storied NOAH Champions like KENTA, Taiji Ishimori, and Yoshinobu Kanemaru, let SZJ have his homecoming as well.
The only thing I would have changed about this event is the naming. While it is part of the growth of Wrestle Kingdom and New Japan as a whole, I would have preferred a neutral event title to set it apart. With a neutral streaming service in Abema and neutral venue in the Yokohama Arena, taking it one step further and giving it a stand-alone title could have made it feel that more special, instead of leaving many wondering “how does this fit into future story arcs of the company.” If there are to be more cross-company dream cards in the future, make that the series name. Just not Dream Kingdom– Stardom nailed that one down in December with Dream Queendom.
…and maybe swapped out Master Wato for either YOH or Rocky Romero since both have previous NOAH match experience (YOH as Young Lion Yohei Komatsu). Romero had 40+ matches in a NOAH ring between 2007-2008.
- Kota Ibushi – No Update
- KENTA – Possible broken nose/lacerations to back; waiting for official announcement/update from the company
As a personal aside, thank you to Kevin Kelly for kudos on my Stardom reports at POST after the Stardom match. It meant the world to me to have it mentioned on air, making up for the fact that I couldn’t be at the Tokyo Dome due to international travel restrictions. NJPW, Stardom & Wrestle Kingdom hold a special place in my heart, and I am floored that I was made part of it tonight.
For those curious to join me on my Stardom journey here at POST or hear the times I cut it up with WH Park on his podcasts, just drop by here! Thank you to everyone who takes the time to read my very extensive reviews. It means the world. Honest.