NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 17 Event Report: Antonio Inoki Memorial Show

Originally published at NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 17 Event Report: Antonio Inoki Memorial Show

Happy Dome Day! Finally, New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s biggest show of the year arrived and was live from the Tokyo Dome with live English led by Kevin Kelly and joined by Chris Charlton, Gino Gambino, Rocky Romero, and eventually Don Callis. For the first time in a long time 26,085 people packed into the Tokyo Dome and live vocal cheering (with limitations) for an over six-hour spectacle celebrating the life and legacy of Antonio Inoki as well as the closing of the 50th Golden Anniversary of NJPW. 

Spoiler-Free Synopsis

  • 0-1 Exhibition Match: Oleg just making his pro debut at the Dome – Worth a Watch 
  • 0-2 KOPW 2023 Qualifier New Japan Rumble: Finalists compete at New Year Dash tomorrow – Worth a Watch
  • Antonio Inoki Memorial 6-Man Tag Match: Fighting Spirit Forever and Ever. (1/30) – Recommended
  • 1: IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship (1/60): A hot open to the biggest show of the year – Recommended
  • 2: IWGP Women’s Championship (1/60): White Knights meet on Hallowed Ground – Recommended
  • 3: IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship (1/60): Clean, pure tag team wrestling – Recommended
  • 4: NJPW World Television Championship Tournament Final (1/15): Shibata’s Favorite Sons Battle – Highly Recommended
  • 5: NEVER Openweight Championship (1/60): Closure for the Half of the Core Four – Recommended 
  • 6: Keiji Muto’s Last NJPW Match (1/30): Ghosts of WK Past, Present & Future Converge – Recommended
  • 7: IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championship 4-Way: Could have been a Triple Main Event – Recommended
  • Double Main Event 1: IWGP US Heavyweight Championship: Easily a MOTY Contender… four days into 2023 – Highly Recommended
  • Double Main Event 2: IWGP World Heavyweight Championship: Black Hat, Jay White Hat – Highly Recommended

Opening Match 1 Exhibition Match: Ryohei Oiwa vs. Boltin Oleg (3:00) – Time Limit Draw

It’s been a while since we’ve had an in-ring debut where the Young Lion in question wasn’t in the signature black trunks and boots a la The Young Lion Starter Pack. Oleg came out in his Team NJPW wrestling singlet, which is fantastic given how highly decorated he was as an amateur wrestler. He and Oiwa have a great, three-minute exhibition, and since he didn’t lose in his debut, it might mean big plans in store for him in the future. 

What’s Next

  • Ryohei Oiwa TBA
  • Boltin Oleg begins his Young Lion journey. Still unsure if he’ll be keeping his Team NJPW singlet or moving into the traditional YL design scheme.  

Opening Match 2 KOPW 2023 Qualifier New Japan Rumble (30:37) – SHO, Shingo Takagi, Toru Yano, and The Great O’Khan all qualified for the 2023 KOPW Finals at New Year Dash (1/5/23) by being the final four.

Other participants included Aaron Henare, DOUKI, El Phantasmo, EVIL, Hikuleo, Jeff Cobb, KENTA, Mikey Nicholls, Rocky Romero, Ryusuke Taguchi, Shane Haste, Taichi, Tomohiro Ishii, Yoshinobu Kanemaru and Yujiro Takahashi 

This match was a whos who of folks who could or should have had matches on this Wrestle Kingdom but also were ones who are likely going to become the central focus of the next Wrestle Kingdom 17 show in Yokohama in a few week’s time as well as the upcoming United States and Oceania tour dates. 

What’s Next

  • KOPW 2023 Finalists will participate in the KOPW match tomorrow at New Year’s Dash for the newly minted KOPW Championship belt. I liked the goofy little trophy and all the weird gimmick and stipulation matches that accompanied it. Making a proper championship belt just feels like overkill.  
  • Everybody else… maybe a NEVER 6-Man Gauntlet, Tag Team Championship Challenges, and Jr. Heavyweight Challenges could be on the horizon. The variety of talent in this KOPW pool was mind-blowing, but it felt like they just wanted to give everyone a lighthearted, Dome payday as thanks for a schedule heavy 2022.

Antonio Inoki Memorial 6-Man Tag Match: Yuji Nagata, Satoshi Kojima & Togi Makabe defeated Tatsumi Fujinami, Minoru Suzuki & Tiger Mask IV with Special Guest Referee Tiger Hattori (9:10) – with Makabe pinning Tiger Mask IV

This match was simply a celebration of Antonio Inoki and those who knew him well. Fujinami is still out there reminding everyone that he’s out there still wrestling at the spry age of 69. I loved seeing everyone with the red Inoki homage towels and I was thrilled that Tiger Hattori came out of retirement for one night only to officiate this match. There were lots of intentional spots in the match, but it was a great way to close out the nearly two-hour pre-show. After the match, Tatsumi Fujinami had some remarks and led the entire venue with rousing “1,2,3, DAAAA!”

What’s Next

  • Minoru Suzuki: We’re all waiting with bated breath to see where The King himself will crop up next now that Suzuki-gun is disbanded. I hope he continues his extended American and international tours as well as just showing up wherever MiSu feels like because who is going to tell him to hit the bricks without fighting him first?
  • Yuji Nagata will continue all his work with Team NJPW Amateur wrestling, Third Generation Club, and general NJPW Hontai duties. 
  • Satoshi Kojima will continue his residence in Pro-Wrestling NOAH by competing in the NOAH x KONGO Scramble Shuffle Tournament this coming weekend (see my NOAH THE NEW YEAR report for details). He’s also one-half of the GHC Heavyweight Tag Team Champions. 
  • Tiger Mask IV with Flying Tigers’ partner Robbie Eagles currently in Australia, I’m waiting to see if he’ll be making singles’ championship moves while the Sniper of the Skies is at home preparing for the next Oceania tour. 
  • Togi Makabe between his busy variety TV program engagements and working with the dojo, it feels like I haven’t seen him in a while. He also has been keeping busy with his YouTube channel.
  • Tatsumi Fujinami: I hope he just keeps Dradition going and comes by The Cerulean Blue again soon.

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship: Catch 2/2 (TJP & Francesco Akira) © defeated CHAOS (YOH & Lio Rush; 2022 SJTL Winners) (10:29) – with TJP pinning YOH; 70th Champion’s 3rd Defense 

When LiYOH came together and won the Super Junior Tag League, I worried that this alliance was purely about acclimating him to NJPW and providing him an avenue to the Tokyo Dome. You can’t argue the growth of Francesca Akira since joining United Empire last year, but I was genuinely surprised that LiYOH weren’t the ones to dethrone Catch 2/2. When I first started watching NJPW, and Wrestle Kingdom, in particular, I used to get frustrated seeing the juniors open the show because I loved them so much, and seeing how off the wall they tended to go during their matches always made me wonder why. I think it took the return of a packed Dome with vocal cheering to make me realize how important they were to warm up the crowd after some of the slower and longer opening matches. The broadcast gaps between the opening matches and the formal start of the show felt longer than I remembered, so his heated rivalry at 3 AM shocked me awake as I started drowsing off. 

Lio ate a gnarly double team on the ramp that busted his face open in multiple places and he began bleeding heavily. It was easily an accident, but it helped soften the blow of the 2022 Super Junior Tag League winners losing after fighting so hard throughout November and December. Their pairing together really awakened something YOH. I haven’t seen this YOH in a long time. He felt bold and even gritty like he used to be prior to his injury, especially when he would feud with Desperado and Hiromu. I was happy to see that version of YOH again. I hope that Lio got properly patched up, checked out by the doctor, and got the sushi he was craving after the match (as mentioned in the backstage comments).

TJP and Francesco leaned a bit deeper into their Public Enemy and Fireball monikers, and really dug deep. It’s been a while since I’ve been this fired up over the Junior Tag championships. I understand why Catch 2/2 retained, but it makes me wonder what is next for LiYOH. 

What’s Next

  • Catch 2/2 (TJP & Francesco Akira) start 2023 on a high by retaining the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championships. No new challengers came forward, but with the mystery card at New Year’s Dash, there could easily be a defense or at least a challenging team arriving.
  • YOH: Why does it always feel that once YOH is getting momentum, the continued story is that he can’t make it count when it matters the most? After being the one to lose in the match, I feel like he’s destined for a NEVER 6-Man challenge with Yano and Ishii and back out of the potential conversation for an IWGP Jr. Heavyweight singles opportunity. Maybe he’ll win Best of the Super Juniors this year… It just feels like history repeating itself, especially after he returned from surgery in 2021. 
  • Lio Rush: I’ve enjoyed seeing Lio in a NJPW ring, and I truly like him and YOH tagging together. I hope he heals up quickly and he and YOH figure out what they’re going to do next, after going to the hospital and getting sushi for dessert.

IWGP Women’s Championship (1/60): KAIRI © defeated Tam Nakano (STARDOM) (5:47) – Diving Elbow Drop/Pin; Inaugural Champion’s 1st Defense

Before I go into this exceptionally short match, I won’t hide how frustrated I have been about the discourse surrounding the plans of Mercedes Varnado being leaked a month prior, almost immediately after KAIRI main-evented Historic X-Over to become the inaugural champion. The conversation, especially by those who don’t regularly watch STARDOM or NJPW, focused entirely on the “will she or won’t Mercedes show up at the Tokyo Dome, and by doing so completely sabotaged interest in the match.   

As someone who has been heavily invested in the growth of STARDOM and the evolution of the IWGP Women’s Championship, I have to openly admit that I was disappointed. Not in the match, but by the amount of time they were given to have it. When a match is given a sixty-minute time limit, it should not include the entrances or the post-match events. After a 25-minute showstopper of a match against Mayu Iwatani at Historic X-Over, giving the champion and the challenger, who previously tagged together and are known for longer championship title defenses… SIX minutes for a squash match is criminal. Looking back at the matches with STARDOM representation on NJPW since their acquisition in late 2019, this was the shortest match and it was the company’s inaugural defense of their newly minted Women’s Champion. 

STARDOM x NJPW Match Stats (January 2020-Present)

Wrestle Kingdom 14 (2020.01.04) – Tokyo Dome

  • STARDOM Dark Match: Mayu Iwatani/Arisa Hoshiki vs. Giulia/Hana Kimura (9:04)

Wrestle Kingdom 15 Night 2 (2021.01.05) – Tokyo Dome

  • 6-Woman Tag Match: Queen’s Quest (AZM, Saya Kamitani & Utami Hayashishita) vs. Donna del Mondo (Himeka, Maika & Natsupoi) (9:48)
  • Tag Match: Syuri/Giulia vs. Mayu Iwatani/Tam Nakano (12:49)

Wrestle Grand Slam (2021.09.04-05) – MetLife Dome

  • Night 1: STARDOM Dark Match: Momo Watanabe/Saya Kamitani vs. Maika/Lady C (12:02)
  • Night 2: STARDOM Dark Match: Syuri/Giulia vs. Momo Watanabe/Saya Kamitani (11:31)

Wrestle Kingdom 16 Night 2 (2022.01.05) – Tokyo Dome

  • STARDOM Tag Match: Mayu Iwatani/Starlight Kid vs. Tam Nakano/Saya Kamitani (9:14)

IWGP Women’s Championship Tournament (2022.10.01-23) – Various Locations

  • Royal Quest 2 Night 2: IWGP Women’s Championship Tournament (10/02): Jazzy “Alpha Female” Gabert vs. Ava White (10:34)
  • IWGP Women’s Championship Tournament (10/22): Mayu Iwatani defeated vs Momo Watanabe (12:35)
  • IWGP Women’s Championship Tournament (10/22): Utami Hayashishita vs Himeka (11:41)
  • IWGP Women’s Championship Tournament (10/23): Utami Hayashishita vs Mayu Iwatani (14:51)
  • IWGP Women’s Championship Tournament (10/23): KAIRI vs. Jazzy Gabert (12:24)

NJPW Rumble on 44th Street (2022.10.28) – Palladium Times Square

  • STARDOM Dark Match: Mina Shirakawa/Waka Tsukiyama vs. Kylie Rae/Tiara James (12:08)
  • SWA Women’s Championship Match: Mayu Iwatani vs. KiLynn King (11:47)

Historic X-Over (2022.11.20) – Ariake Arena

  • STARDOM Rumble (23:06)
  • 6-Woman Tag Match (9:20)
  • Mixed Tag Lawlor/Syuri v Giulia/SZJ (10:29)
  • 8-Person Mixed Tag (12:01)
  • Mixed Tag Tanahashi/Utami v. Goto/Maika (9:36)
  • IWGP Women’s Tournament Final/Main Event: KAIRI vs. Mayu Iwatani (25:28)

KAIRI and Tam Nakano did everything possible with the time they were given, but knowing that dark matches and tournament matches which were nearly double that, and a final that was nearly five times that in length makes me feel disappointed. They deserved more time in the ring with wrestling because they have so much to offer, especially if they point of having STARDOM being so integral in the IWGP Women’s Championship presentation since its inception. The multiple Cutlasses. The Violet Screwdriver and the Diving Elbow Drop were fantastic, but they’re both so much more than that. 

Now, onto the arrival of Ms. Mercedes Moné, the worst-kept secret since the hints of Ospreay/Omega and the arrival of CM Punk in AEW. Japan has always been a dream of hers, and I still remember when she went to train at the Sendai Girls’ dojo with Meiko Satomura and company several years back. I love that she loves Japan. I love that she is excited to be in Japan. I love that she and KAIRI are finally going to rekindle their rivalry from another time as “other people.”

There is one teachable moment in her arrival, and I am not talking about the post-comment attack on KAIRI or her WWE-esque promo (which I wish they had someone translate for the arena audience). Her message was clear: KAIRI versus Mercedes Moné at Battle in the Valley in San Jose, California on February 18, 2023. Between her new music, the long walk down the ramp, and the ring promo… was longer than the actual match itself. At Historic X-Over, Will Ospreay and Shota Umino went  23:30 and the match finished before a short (less than three minute) video of Kenny Omega aired, so I don’t understand how they couldn’t have done a similar thing or at least give the actual match a full quarter of the hour it was allotted.   

IT’S MERCEDES MONÉ!@mercedesvarnado is in the Tokyo Dome!!!#wk17 #njpw pic.twitter.com/PD54lqLr1L

— njpwworld (@njpwworld) January 4, 2023

Mercedes looked incredible and I know how much she loves Japanese culture, anime, and fashion. However, as someone who has studied kimono for over twenty years and knows the exceptionally fine line between cultural appreciation and appropriation, when it comes to kimono culture and cosplay, I was a little frustrated by the sexy kimono with the Japanese flag design/Statue of Liberty fusion of her entrance gown. It immediately reminded me of when Katy Perry performed at the Super Bowl. I am confident that it wasn’t Mercedes’ intention to present that way, yet I would be remiss if I didn’t address it, especially when I so openly talk about costuming, imagery, and how to bridge the cultural and communication gaps. She’s also going to need to change the katakana on the back of the gown from “Banks” to “Moné.”

What’s Next

  • KAIRI: The IWGP Women’s Champion is now slated to meet Moné at Battle in the Valley in San Jose, CA on February 18.  
  • Tam Nakano will continue in the Triangle Derby (STARDOM’s new trios tournament) with Natsupoi and SAKI (Girls’ Pro-Wrestling Unit COLOR’S). The company will hold a homecoming show in Anjo, Aichi Prefecture, where both Nakano and Kazuchika Okada hail from on Monday, January 9th. 
  • Mercedes Moné will challenge for the IWGP Women’s Championship at Battle in the Valley. She name-dropped several high-profile names including STARDOM’s current High-Speed Champion AZM as someone she’s interested in challenging within the sibling promotion. Now that she’s a free agent, we’ll all have to hop on board and see where her journey takes her next.

IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship: Bishamon (Hirooki Goto & YOSHI-HASHI; 2022 WTL Winners) defeated FTR (Dax Harwood & Cash Wheeler) © (10:10) – with YOSHI-HASHI pinning Dax Harwood after Lights Out (Shoto); 96th Champions’ 3rd Defense

If you love no-nonsense, pure, unadulterated tag team wrestling (minus the accidental blood that happened in the junior’s match), this one’s for you. When it comes to tag teams in AEW, FTR is hands down my favorite. In NJPW, I have been a long-time CHAOS fan as well as a staunch Bishamon supporter, so I was happy that this match came together after World Tag League. My biggest gripe when it comes to wrestlers contracted in other companies or those with multiple championships concurrently, is that it makes it frustrating to see the wrestlers in the promotion grinding day-in and day-out without ample opportunities to reclaim the title for the company and make it visible in the company it originates in. Like other champions in AEW who have held NJPW titles, at times it felt like the belts were being shelved or held hostage when there were plenty of other worthy options available inside the company to shoulder the championships. 

Honestly, I didn’t want to get my hopes up, despite all the rumors surrounding the potential departure of FTR from AEW, which was leading to their dropping their multiple championships. I simply watched this match and honed in on the wrestling and tuned everything else out. I loved the back-and-forth between the two teams, but while FTR had a handful of defenses on NJPW programming, I felt like the reaction of the audience didn’t come through on audio. I don’t know how many of the fans in attendance regularly watch AEW (or watched them as The Revival in NXT/WWE) and are familiar with FTR’s work outside of their NJPW matches. I’m glad that FTR got to make their Japan and Tokyo Dome debuts in the last six months. I genuinely wished they could have been in World Tag League to maximize their opportunity and help the fans become more familiar with them. 

The match was another short one but packed with emotion and sportsmanship. Ten minutes just felt too short.

What’s Next

  • Bishamon – The next challengers could show up as early as tomorrow at New Year Dash. With a secret card that will be announced the day of, and this is possible. However, my only hope is that it isn’t a transitional title change. They just got the titles back, let them have some fun with them first. 
  • FTR – I’ve loved the matches they had in NJPW in the last year, but I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that I would have loved to see far more of them, especially as the IWGP Heavyweight Champions. They were one of my favorite NXT Tag Teams and I loved the work they’ve done since leaving WWE. Dax’s match against Rocky Romero last summer and their Royal Quest 2 match against Aussie Open were definitely two of the ones that could easily make new fans at the drop of a hat. Whatever is in store for them I hope wherever they wind up, they are happy. 

NJPW World Television Championship Tournament Final (1/15): Zack Sabre, Jr. defeated Ren Narita (10:32) – via submission

Unlike most of the championship matches on the card, this one specifically has a 15-minute time limit, so I didn’t feel the least bit cheated that the entire match was just over ten and a half minutes. I love a time limit because it adds the extra pressure of defeating one’s opponent as soon as possible. This match was the outrageous technical battle of Katsuyori Shibata’s favorite children. Zack was his return exhibition match once he was finally cleared to wrestle once more and Ren stood opposite him at last year’s Wrestle Kingdom 16, in a grappling match turned impromptu proper pro-wrestling at Shibata’s demand. 

This match had all the hits of Saberism, The Son of Strong Style, and Shibata-ism all rolled up into one tight, vicious battle. I loved how both Ren and Zack insisted on one-upping one another, especially with Shibata sitting there and watching while on Japanese commentary. I was disappointed to know that the time-limit draw coin toss was replaced with an automatic rematch clause because I liked that little bit of chaos lingering on the horizon honestly. 

After Zack won, Mikey Nicholls and Shane Haste joined him in the ring. At first, I thought they were going to send the new champ straight to Australia with a Thunder Valley Driver, but instead, they held out a TMDK shirt. For those who don’t know, they were all in Pro Wrestling NOAH together with Zack joining the company in 2012. Haste and Nicholls started there in 2011. Zack made it look like he was going to fling the shirt outside the ring, but then put it on. With JONAH returning to WWE recently, there was a gaping hole in TMDK, but they seemingly found the perfect puzzle piece to fill in the gap. On NJPW1972, Mikey is no longer listed as a Member of CHAOS, just TMDK alongside Shane, Bad Dude Tito and now Zack.  

What’s Next

  • SZJ joining TMDK makes my NOAH Loving Heart rejoice, especially since they were all in the Noah Dojo together. From what I remember TMDK is more of a “band of brothers” format, instead of a “singular leader/frontman” format, but that could have changed. I hope he has a long reign with the NJPW World TV Championship and a YouTube Series that accompanies it.  
  • Ren Narita has been back from excursion since the fall, and it seems like he can’t rack up wins when it matters. I would hate to see all the momentum he gathered during his time in LA DOJO, especially fighting his way to a STRONG Openweight Championship match.

NEVER Openweight Championship: Tama Tonga defeated Karl Anderson © (9:39) – with Tama pinning Karl after a Gun Stun; 37th Champion’s 3rd Defense

The complicated nature of Karl Anderson winning the NEVER Openweight Championship from Tama back at Dominion in Osaka (06.12.22) during his free agency, getting re-signed by WWE, missing his contracted title defense against Hikuleo due to a WWE commitment show in the Middle East, and somehow it all leading to a rematch with Tama at the Tokyo Dome really blurred the lines of what was real, what was the story, and what was covering up the disconnects in between. When Tama lost back in June, I was exceptionally frustrated largely due to Bullet Club Burnout, and I felt it completely sabotaged Tama’s first reign as champion. This match was good. It accomplished what it needed to, which was bringing the NEVER Championship back home. Now that Tama is starting his second reign, I sincerely hope the plan is at least two solid defenses and not automatically against guys from Bullet Club. I need other people to seek him out, and put OGBC further away in his rearview mirror. I know this was big for Karl to put Tama over, especially in the Dome, but I felt like it could have been handled a bit differently. I am just glad this loose end is finally wrapped up. 

Backstage, Tama celebrated with his son, Hikuleo and Jado… and Karl joined them. The best friends very much had a pulling back of the curtain moment, toasting beers together, Karl raising Tama’s hand, Tama’s son cutting a promo on Karl, and wishing one another well. 

What’s Next

  • Tama Tonga doesn’t have any immediate challengers for the NEVER Openweight after his match, but with New Year’s Dash tomorrow, a challenger or defense could be as early as tomorrow. 
  • Karl Anderson completes his outstanding obligation to NJPW and will return to WWE where he is contracted and working with Doc Gallows, Michim (Mia Yim) and AJ Styles as the OC.

Keiji Muto’s Last NJPW Match: Keiji Muto, Hiroshi Tanahashi & Shota Umino defeated Tetsuya Naito, SANADA & BUSHI (9:20) – with Shota Umino pinning BUSHI after a Deathrider

While this was Muto’s final match in NJPW, his comments after his NOAH THE NEW YEAR match with Shinsuke Namakura, all my interest in his participation evaporated. I did like that SANADA made a point to be one to challenge his former mentor at the start of the match. What I liked about the match the most was that it centered around Shota Umino, who has been thrust into the spotlight since he’s return from his excursion. With his Historic X-Over semi-main event match against Ospreay and now being included as ‘The Future’ of NJPW in Muto’s retirement is rather significant. He used the Deathrider and pinned BUSHI, but his attention is still squarely on his dream match with Naito.

'Let's figure out who's best, one on one!'

Tetsuya Naito was not done after Keiji Muto's last NJPW match tonight, as he and LIJ were confronted by Kenoh and KONGO of @noahglobal!

Report: https://t.co/xBeeqCU1sA

Watch the #wk17 replay!https://t.co/5w0YCDdaGc#njpw pic.twitter.com/nNLk5zUJER

— NJPW Global (@njpwglobal) January 4, 2023

I’m thrilled that KENOH and KONGO have decided to open up old wounds and revisit their rivalry with LIJ from last year’s NJPW vs. NOAH Wrestle Kingdom 16 in Yokohama Arena, I wish the reveal would have been saved for the break between the double main events (as clean up time was required). This became the conversation topic during the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship 4-Way, and I found it distracting. 

What’s Next

  • Keiji Muto will continue his journey toward his retirement in February 2023. Full details are in my NOAH THE NEW YEAR event report from Sunday
  • Hiroshi Tanahashi & Shota Umino’s paths are currently unclear, but Umino isn’t letting up on his pursuit of Naito, and the Ace is already being used in the advertisement graphics for the upcoming Capital Collision pair of shows on the US East Coast in April.
  • Tetsuya Naito, SANADA & BUSHI may find themselves with a full dance card when it comes to KONGO because while their initial meeting was a ten-person tag, this time around, it could be a group of singles matches or a best-of series. We’ll have to stay tuned to find out the time and the place. 

7: IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship 4-Way: Hiromu Takahashi defeated Taiji Ishimori ©, El Desperado, and Master Wato – by pinning Wato after a Time Bomb II; 92nd Champion’s 2nd defense

As mentioned above, one of my biggest frustrations is when the commentary of the match doesn’t match the events happening in the ring. If it’s between the matches or during an intermission, that’s perfectly fine, but with the volume of work and heart that the four performers put into this match and the conversation of LIJ being confronted by NOAH’s KONGO in the backstage area started to telegraph the potential winner of the match, but at the expense of the other competitors just felt really unfair. It felt like a departure from a usually laser-focused commentary flow about the ongoings on in the ring. Plus, reception inside the Dome can be spotty at times, so the *newsflash* took me out of the viewing of the match briefly.

I genuinely thought this was Wato’s Year. He’s the one guy who could have used the win more than Ishimori, Desperado, and Hiromu. While this match was over the arena in the best possible ways with everyone fighting with everyone, making it almost difficult to keep up. However, putting the championship on Hiromu felt like an “old reliable” move and the commentary touching on Wato stepping up to fill in when KUSHIDA was sick, started to make him feel like a placeholder in the match and not a contender. Ishimori pleaded that the match should have been the third main event, and I would agree as that has been the rallying cry that Hiromu has had since his return from Neck Injury in 2019. 

To the credit of Ishimori, Desperado, and Hiromu, they made Wato look like a star. I just don’t understand why NJPW won’t take risks on their younger talents. Hiromu will likely carry the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championship through this year’s Best of Super Juniors. 

What’s Next

  • Hiromu Takahashi starts his fifth reign as the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion. I feel that with all the discussion about how KUSHIDA missed his opportunity due to illness and his returning to NJPW as the missing puzzle piece of the Jr. Division, it’s probably revisiting their rivalry when he came back from an international excursion.
  • El Desperado I am sincerely hoping he’s going to continue fighting as a singles star as well as openweight. I loved seeing him in the US, so maybe he could work more of those dates since Suzuki-gun has scattered to the wind.
  • Taiji Ishimori Whatever is next just not another tag team run. Let him fight openweight or do more US dates. I need him to feel fresh. 
  • Master Wato will likely reunite with Ryusuke Taguchi as Six Or Nine as well as tagging with the rest of Hontai. I genuinely thought it was his time, but they went with Old Faithful.

Double Main Event 1: IWGP US Heavyweight Championship: Kenny Omega defeated Will Ospreay © (34:38) – with a One Winged Angel/pin combo; 16th Champion’s 5th Defense

I didn’t want to believe this match was really real until the contracts were signed at the press conference. It’s been the match that people around the world have waited years for, but we received teases of it earlier in the summer during the AEW Trios Tournament between The Elite and United Empire. It’s been one of the longer stories told in NJPW since Ospreay’s arrival in NJPW. With the departure of Omega in January 2019 to launch AEW, there was a discussion of his successors, and alongside Jay White, Zack Sabre, Jr, Will Ospreay was one of the of foreign talents entrusted with the foreign wrestler legacy within the company. Following similar origins and trajectories: high-flying junior heavyweights who racked up lots of attention and accolades and eventually moved to heavyweight and continue catching fire. 

This match was heavily layered with many small touches in the years of Kenny’s absence, largely with regard to Ospreay’s rivalry with Kota Ibushi, with the 2020 Double Gold Dash Hidden Blade and later his IWGP World Heavyweight Championship reign. The comparisons between Ospreay and Omega kept Ospreay in Omega’s shadow while they were in NJPW together. However, with Kenny gone, Will’s slowly starting figuring things out. 

From start to finish the pair of them were dead set on stealing the show and making sure the spotlight on Double Main Event… was stolen. Without a doubt, this was the match of the night. Both competitors turned their dials up to fifteen and just WENT. They brought out the table, removed turnbuckle pads, and then there was blood. Lots of blood. This match was outstanding, but it wasn’t for the squeamish, especially in the second half. Trying to describe all the incredible things they did, I’d be here for another week trying to finish this report. Make time to watch it. Heck, go out of your way to seek this match out. I don’t say that about Omega or Ospreay matches often, largely because their matches go SO long at times. 

Omega returning to NJPW had a strange, nostalgic feeling. Maybe it’s just been so long since I’ve seen an NJPW Era Omega match. My only concern about Kenny as IWGP US Heavyweight Championship is how long is he going to be champion, and where he will defend the championship because the US Championship needs to be defended in NJPW of America shows in the US. Not just on AEW or in Japan. It would defeat the point otherwise. This is easily going to be the match that set the bar exceptionally high for the remaining 361 days of 2023.  

After the year Ospreay had with the raging success of the United Empire, interesting matches during his championship reign, and even hitting some speed bumps along the way, he earned some downtime. His promos before and after the match were emotional, almost to the point they were too raw and resonated too closely with anyone else who struggled emotionally during the pandemic. 

What’s Next

  • Will Ospreay: Hopefully, a proper vacation. He’s done a lot in the last year, and if you watch his post-match promo backstage, this is the time when I’d like to see him take a few weeks to heal up, reset and come back refreshed. Whenever mental health gets brought up in promos and it’s so heavy that I can’t tell if it’s real, fake or life experience being channeled into art, I just want someone to step in and be a friend. 
  • Kenny Omega: It’s unclear if the new champion will be defending the belt only in Japan and not in the US as was the situation when Jon Moxley was champion unless it was on AEW television and the rare NJPW live event (provided he’s guaranteed to win). With 2023 and international travel open, the US Championship should be defended at more US shows to further continue the international expansion plans for the US branch.

Double Main Event 2: IWGP World Heavyweight Championship: Kazuchika Okada (2022 G1 Winner) defeated Jay White © (33:03) – with a Rainmaker/pin combo; Fifth Champion’s 3rd Defense

After the emotional exhaustion and spectacle of Ospreay/Omega, I didn’t know after nearly six hours of the Kingdom of the Wrestlings, if I could handle a long, intentionally slow-placed Okada/White match. (Full disclosure, I did nod off during the entrances and watched later in the morning after a couple of cups of coffee.) My only frustration with Jay being the World Heavyweight Champion going into the Dome was the lack of title defenses in the second half of the year. With the G1 determining who would be locked in as his opponent and dropping only a single loss in the G1, and defending it in a four-way at Forbidden Door back in June, I just wanted more from Jay as a champion in the consecutive defenses department, even if it meant defending it on NJPW Strong or even at Royal Quest, instead of the constant flow of massive multi-man matches. 

The arrival in the upgraded 2023 Okada-Channeling-Antonio-Inoki in his gear hit a new level this year with an Okada Currency print reflective robe, red Inoki signature towel, and all-black gear, including black boots with white laces. Not Young Lion Kazuchika Okada, but an homage to the Lifetime Chairman who passed last year, just prior to the announcement of the title being bestowed upon him. Conversely, Jay strolled in with the big match whites with all-black slash markings. It really gave me Spy vs. Spy vibes, but I also love it when a heel strolls in with the big match white gear. Jay only cycles through three colors with a matching biker jacket, but for some reason, it doesn’t feel stale. Maybe it’s the lighter hair. He had to wear the black hat as always, but for Jay was also mourning the loss of Inoki in his own way. 

This year’s Wrestle Kingdom main event, was very much like last year’s it was about not only honoring the 50th anniversary but the legacy and passing of Antonio Inoki, so the best way to send the folks home happy after six and a half-hours of wrestle spectacle, including a dizzying, emotionally exhausting final hour two main events each clocking in at over thirty minutes a piece, was strap the rocket back onto Okada, back-to-back G1 Winner. Thinking back to the various singles matches between Jay and Okada, I think this one might be my favorite purely because it helped to even the score between the pair of them. The desperation and hunger Jay showed in this match, especially when he felt it all slipping away like sand through his fingers, he started doing everything he could possibly think of to stop Okada from taking away his precious. 

There were lots of teases of Bladerunners and Rainmakers with lots of wrist control, but I felt Omega/Ospreay was the full-throttle main event, Okada/Jay was equally compelling, but at a mercifully slower pace and grounded nature. Okada finally put Jay away, getting his redemption for losing the title and fighting his way back to it. They shared a moment and words were exchanged post-match that will likely forever remain between the two of them. No sooner did Jay leave with Gedo in tow, a wild 2023 KOPW Finalist and former IWGP World Heavyweight Champion, Shingo Takagi appeared, to challenge Okada. Okada nonchalantly accepted and told Takagi to kick rocks so he could close the show. I loved the closing remarks, including the appeal to Inoki watching from above. A final ‘ichi… ni… san…. daaaaa!’ on the ramp led by Okada closed the show. 

Note to Red Shoes, he’s far too lenient with Gedo. Start throwing him (and Dick Togo) out of matches they aren’t legally participating in or threatening to disqualify Jay and Bullet Club. I need the training wheels to come off Jay. While it was great there to have an extra body to catch Okada with that massive flipping senton to the outside of the ring, that’s nothing a couple of Young Lions at ringside or an Ishimori couldn’t handle. 

What’s Next

  • Kazuchika Okada’s first challenger will be former IWGP World Heavyweight Champion, Shingo Takagi. The time and location are to be finalized and announced soon (announcement likely at New Year’s Dash or if there is a post-Dome press conference/victory address for Okada).
  • Jay White seems to be turning his attention from Okada and Tama, and honing in on Hikuleo turning his back on Bullet Club to align with his family. Let him go after EVIL and House of Torture for a while, too. Definitely check out his backstage promo, I can’t tell if he’s turning face or just have an emotional moment… or preparing to go after Kenny Omega as he is also a former IWGP US Heavyweight Champion.  

Closing Thoughts

Wrestle Kingdom 17 felt like it did in January 2020, truly alive and back to how it used to feel. Drawing the numbers they did on the first business weekday of 2023 (in Japan, where folks typically don’t use their paid time off), it was great to see the attendance number that high. Next year, if I am not at the Tokyo Dome for Wrestle Kingdom 18, I am definitely taking the day off, so I can enjoy it and then enjoy sleeping it off as it’ll be a Thursday. Would like to hear a little more diversity in the commentary booth in the future, too. I love how Japanese wrestlers join commentary for the big matches (after their own), so barring any injuries, I hope that English commentary would consider doing the same thing. Also, a woman’s voice for IWGP Women’s matches or STARDOM matches in 2023 is a massive wish list item. 

Upcoming NJPW Events

  • Wrestle Kingdom 17 (1/21/23) – Yokohama Arena 
  • Battle in the Valley (2/18/23) – San Jose Civic Center, San Jose, California USA will be available for purchase on FITE TV ($19.99 USD)
  • Capitol Collision (4/15/23) – Entertainment & Sports Arena, Washington, DC, USA 
  • Capitol Collision (4/16/23) – 2300 Arena, Philadelphia, PA, USA 
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