By: Mark Buckeldee
Welcome to this review of day 1 of Wrestle Kingdom 14, on January 4th, 2020. For the first time ever New Japan runs two full wrestling shows back to back at the Tokyo Dome. This show was performed in front of an attendance of 40,008 fans. The 2019 Wrestle Kingdom 13 event had an attendance of 38,162. Will double the shows mean double the excitement? We shall see.
The Stardom exhibition match of Arisa Hoshiki & Mayu Iwatani vs Hana Kimura & Giulia was truly a dark match since it did not air on the NJPWWORLD live stream. This was due to Stardom and New Japan having dealt with different TV networks. Iwatani pinned Kimura with a moonsault after there was a miscommunication between Kimura & Giulia.
Pre-show match 1: Yuya Uemura, Yota Tsuji, Tomoaki Honma & Togi Makabe vs Alex Coughlin, Clark Connors, Karl Fredericks & Toa Henare
The show kicked off with this eight-man tag, designed to give an opportunity to the Young Lions and a payday to the veterans. This was a Young Lions match with a sprinkling of signature spots from Makabe and Honma. It was at it’s best when the Young Lions and Henare did their thing, with an intense finishing stretch between Henare & Tsuji. Tsuji looked great with his intensity before falling to a lariat and a Toa Bottom from Henare.
This was short and to the point, punctuated by a great showing by Tsuji in the final minutes.
Pre-show match 2: Yuji Nagata & Manabu Nakanishi vs Hiroyoshi Tenzan & Satoshi Kojima
This match was both for nostalgia value and a way of getting these 3rd Generation New Japan originals on the show. In one way it’s a shame as Kojima and Nagata can still go but I like that this match was between 4 guys who all debuted in 1991/1992. The match was short, focussing on signature spots and condensing the match down to the bits that the fans wanted to see. Unfortunately, Nakanishi showed his age, and it was especially obvious after the previous match with spots like his lariats looking slower than usual. This was fairly even and everyone got a piece of the spotlight before Kojima finished Nakanishi with a Lariat.
A short dose of nostalgia but it felt more like a highlight reel than a match.
Match 1: Jushin Thunder Liger retirement match 1 – Tiger Mask, The Great Sasuke, Tatsumi Fujinami & Jushin Thunder Liger vs Ryusuke Taguchi, Tatsuhiko Takaiwa, Shinjiro Otani & Naoki Sano
After the introductory video package running down the card, the show proper kicked off with a huge dose of nostalgia as Liger had the first of his two retirement matches. This match felt even more special as the old New Japan ring announcer, Kero Tanaka, returned to handle the ring announcing for this match. The 8 wrestlers in this match had over 240 years of wrestling experience between them, and that’s not including the cornermen Kuniaki Kobayashi & El Samurai and guest referee Norio Honaga.
Sasuke wore a half Sasuke, half Liger tribute mask and Fujinami had Liger fighting a dragon on the back of his ring jacket for this match. As you would expect the crowd went crazy when Liger made his entrance. The match began with Liger and Sano, where it appeared that Sano was limited before he brought out a tope suicida to the surprise of the fans. Otani got the crowd into his signature facewash, booting El Samurai and Sasuke in the face during the move. Liger repeatedly hit Otani with shotei palm strikes, which Otani decided to counter by headbutting Liger’s hand. Everyone got a little time to shine, with Fujinami getting a hot tag to hit some dragon screws and a dragon sleeper without needing to bump. Weirdly Sasuke was the one person who looked the most out of it in this match, with a missed spin kick and a tribute to the Mickey Rourke film “The Wrestler”. Sano stood out with a double stomp attempt and a superplex. The match eventually came down to Liger vs Taguchi where Liger fell to a Dodon by Taguchi. After the match handshakes and hugs were exchanged and Liger left to Ikari no Jushin.
As you would expect, many of the participants in this match showed their age but it was a fun trip down memory lane where everyone got a little time. Liger, Otani, and Taguchi looked the best but extra credit goes to Naoki Sano who looked a lot better than I expected.
Match 2: BUSHI, Shingo Takagi, EVIL & SANADA vs El Desperado, Taichi, Minoru Suzuki & Zack Sabre Jr.
It says something about New Japan’s embarrassment of riches and priorities that this 8 man tag contains Takagi, Suzuki & Sabre Jr., all of whom could easily have a fantastic Tokyo Dome singles match. It also says something about Suzuki’s status that the emphasis on the Suzuki-Gun team was on Sabre, with the team entering to Sabre’s music instead of Kaze Ni Nare.
Suzuki only played a part in the opening beatdown and the start of the match, with an enjoyable clash with EVIL being the only time he got in the ring. While everyone got some time in the ring the other highpoints of the match were Takagi’s interactions with Taichi and Sabres interactions with SANADA and BUSHI. The latter played off of the match between the 2 on December 21st where BUSHI pinned Sabre.
This was a standard New Japan 8 man tag, building towards tomorrow’s match between Sabre & SANADA. While the match had some good points, and Takagi got a massive reaction during his part of the match, it will be ultimately remembered more as another sign that New Japan’s interest in Suzuki is waning. As such I wouldn’t be surprised if there is an angle at New Years Dash involving a mutiny in Suzuki-Gun.
Match 3: YOSHI_HASHI, Toru Yano, Tomohiro Ishii & Hirooki Goto vs Chase Owens, Yujiro Takahashi, Bad Luck Fale & KENTA
With the third 8 man tag of the show, this card felt similar to the first few Wrestle Kingdom shows back when you had stables like LEGEND-gun or 8 man tags with all of the Jr’s who didn’t have title matches. This CHAOS vs Bullet Club match also captured that filler feel, although it actually has a purpose in building up Day 2’s Goto vs KENTA match. This match didn’t bring much to the table, with the best things about it being the Goto and KENTA interactions and the brief interactions between Fale and Ishii. It says something that Ishii got the biggest pop of the match when he suplexed Fale, considering that he never actually tagged in to the match. The match ended with Goto looking strong by pinning Chase Owens with a GTR.
This was a forgettable 8 man tag with brief flourishes from Ishii, KENTA and Goto being the saving grace for what was otherwise a fairly by the numbers match.
Match 4, IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship match: Guerillas of Destiny (Tanga Loa & Tama Tonga) (c) vs David Finlay & Juice Robinson
The first title match of the show saw Finlay & Robinson cash in the title shot they earned for winning the 2019 World Tag League. Robinson’s look here was very interesting with very questionable choices when it came to facial hair and hat choices. It reminded me of a Village People member who had plastic balls glued onto his hat. The GOD have become a good, solid tag team and Tanga Loa has grown a lot over the years but they have never been a spectacular tag team.
After starting the match with a brawl on the entrance ramp this match followed a simple formula where the GOD spent most of the match isolating Finlay or Robinson. Like a lot of good tag team wrestling, this formula of heels dominating faces really helped to elevate the match beyond the sum of its parts. The GOD knows how to tell this story and the combination of Finlay and Robinson had a lot of energy and a good connection with the Tokyo Dome crowd. The match built to an exciting finish, with a big Finlay counter to a GOD super-powerbomb leading into the best stretch of the match. There it was the tenacity of Finlay and Robinson in the face of the GOD, and Gedo’s cheating, that saw them win the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Championship after Finlay hit an Acid drop on Tama Tonga.
This was a good match, with your enjoyment depending on how much you enjoy the GOD’s work. The simple, familiar layout of the match really helped it out but it won’t be anywhere near the contention for best tag team matches in 2020. It will be interesting to see how Finlay and Robinson’s title run goes, but it was needed as the GOD’s latest reign had run its course.
Match 5, IWGP US Heavyweight Championship match, Texas Death Match: Lance Archer (c) vs John Moxley
This the first Wrestle Kingdom singles match for both Archer and Moxley. Like most of Moxley’s output in 2019 outside of his G1 Climax run, we get a stipulation that allows Moxley to use plunder. The stipulations were essentially last man standing rules. For the sake of brevity Moxley entered from next to the dugouts instead of walking through the stands of the Tokyo Dome.
The match began with Moxley coming out swinging and a brief brawl on the outside before Archer dominated Moxley with a kendo stick and chair shots at a fairly pedestrian pace. After an Archer rope walk attempt failed Moxley upped the intensity with brutal kendo stick shots. From here the match picked up, with a Moxley plancha being countered into a chokeslam on the apron. Archer immediately one-upped himself by chokeslamming Young Lion Gabriel Kidd off the apron and onto Moxley. The match was then dominated by a series of big spots and counters, such as a Blackout through chairs by Archer and Moxley countering an EBD claw into a jujigatame. Moxley countered a Chokeslam into a DDT, while Archer tried to suffocate Moxley with a plastic bag assisted EBD claw. The finish came as both men fought to put their opponent through two tables outside the ring. Moxley succeeded with a Death Rider DDT off the apron and Mox managed to get back to his feet in the ring before the 10 count. After the match Moxley called out Juice Robinson for tomorrow’s Tokyo Dome show, saying that this would be the end “once and for all.”
Archer’s best work in 2019 was based on his explosive offense and big, memorable bombs and spots. Moxley’s best work involved channeling his intensity and aggression. This match had those elements and it was a very good, fun and brutal match but it was hurt by Archer relying more on weapon shots and less on his strengths, which made the first half drag. This was one of the better Moxley gimmick matches in his post WWE run but I can’t help but think that it could have been just as good, or better, without the stipulations and the weapons. Archer deserves more singles opportunities going forwards in 2020.
Match 6, IWGP Jr Heavyweight Championship match: Will Ospreay (c) vs Hiromu Takahashi
The long-awaited return of Hiromu Takahashi has been one of the few real feel-good moments of the last few months of New Japan. Both men upped their fashion game with the new ring gear, Takahashi’s jacket was particularly eclectic and colorful while Ospreay sported a White Lion’s head on one shoulder of his entrance gear.
The match started slowly with the feeling that Ospreay believed that he was superior, with cockiness permeating his mannerisms and choices. The action started to pick up and Ospreay’s strategy throughout the match was to target Takahashi’s neck, which managed to get the crowd further behind the returning Takahashi. In fact, both men’s strategies were based around their opponents’ necks. As the match went on the moves got more and more spectacular, although Ospreay would work the neck with a Koji clutch. Eventually, we came to the matches big dive sequence, which was the most spectacular and ridiculous dive sequence that I have ever seen. To describe it fails to do it justice and honestly, I think Ospreay and Takahashi may have been the only people capable of pulling that off without it falling apart or looking hokey.
The match kicked into high gear with both men pulling out bigger and bigger moves, only slightly derailed by a fight to hit a big prawn hold off the top rope. Both Ospreay and Takahashi pulled out new stuff, with Ospreay using a modified Made in Japan at one point. The crowd ate up the action as Takahashi showed no sign of the neck injury that put him on the shelf for over a year. Eventually, Takahashi had to use a new version of the Timebomb, almost like a modified Emerald Frosion, in order to beat Ospreay and win back the IWGP Jr Heavyweight Championship.
This match was ridiculous, the kind of match that only Ospreay and Takahashi would dream to have. It maintained a frantic pace for most of the match, with both men pushing themselves to the peaks of their athleticism and creativity. The dive sequence will stand out in most people’s memory in 2020 and possibly beyond that. While there were some issues with some of the execution, this was a spectacular match and showed that Takahashi has not missed a step. It was much better than I expected to go into the match, only hurt by a small lack of investment on my part. Some people’s enjoyment will depend on how much they enjoy fast-paced matches full of crazy high flying action but for most people, this is going to be one of those matches that they judge the rest of 2020 against.
Match 7, IWGP Intercontinental Championship match: Jay White (c) vs Tetsuya Naito
Naito debuted a new look with a sparkly, charcoal grey suit while White used the ring jacket that he wore when he beat Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 13. Naito came out to a hero’s welcome, showing that his recent booking hasn’t affected the fan’s love for the LIJ leader.
Both Naito and White are renowned for what can be a fairly slow pace to their matches and this was a significant feature of a match that went over 33 minutes. White spent much of the match dominating Naito, both with his standard offense, foul play and leg work designed to slow down Naito and set up the TTO submission. In many ways this match embodied the style of Naito and White, both the positives and the negatives. The leg work segment of the match was very good and there were some great touches but, as is often typical of Naito, he spent too long in the TTO and the limb work was forgotten in the finishing stretch. The other theme of the match was constant interference by Gedo, designed to get the crowd more invested in Naito. The match eventually focussed on both men countering in and out of their big moves before Naito countered a switchblade into a modified brainbuster and a destino to win the IWGP Intercontinental Championship for the 5th time, equalling Shinsuke Nakamura’s record.
As I said earlier, this match was fought at a slow pace, to the extent where it often dragged and felt dull. When it did pick up with the action it undid a lot of the good work with the leg selling. Like most of White’s work, it would have benefitted from being 10 minutes shorter and more focussed. On Naito’s part, his matches often struggle when they are focussed on an opponent working a body part. This match did succeed in its main goal of building Naito into an even bigger fan favorite and in many ways the match itself was less important than the aim of building up Naito for tomorrow’s main event. The crowd lived and died with Naito but ultimately your enjoyment of this match depends on how much you enjoy the work of White and Naito. If you are a fan then you will enjoy this match a lot although it isn’t the best match that either wrestler has had in the last 6 months. If you are a detractor of these two then it won’t do anything to change your mind.
Match 8, IWGP Heavyweight Championship match: Kazuchika Okada (c) vs Kota Ibushi
Both Ibushi and Okada had new remixes of their themes for this show. Okada’s entrance was proceeded by a big video sequence involving what I believe were Buddhist guardian deities (apologies if I offend anyone with my lack of knowledge on this).
The match started out with a slow feeling out process and followed the structure that is now very familiar with those who regularly watch Okada. The initial exchanges involved wearing each other down and looking for openings, occasionally broken up with the likes of a draping DDT on the floor or an Okada crossbody over the guardrail. As both men started using their signature offense there was a scary spot when an Ibushi Pele kick ended up with Ibushi essentially flipping back onto his head. Luckily he didn’t seem to have been hurt by this. The match then started picking up with an Ibushi Golden Triangle moonsault and some fantastic counter wrestling from both men.
The match really hit top gear when that switch flipped in Ibushi’s head and his eyes went dead. Ibushi started no selling Okada’s offense, even no selling a John Woo dropkick by rolling back to his feet. Ibushi then unloaded on Okada before repeatedly kicking and punching the prone Champion. Ibushi’s onslaught was so vicious that the crowd actually started booing him, although that subsided once he stopped. There was a flurry of counters leading into a Tombstone on the apron by Okada. From here the match was dominated by both men struggling for big moves and bigger counters. Ibushi kept countering the Rainmaker with big Lariats while Okada kicked out of a Boma Ye at 1. The action got frantic and both men nearly lost due to their hubris: Ibushi missing a Phoenix splash let Okada regain control while Okada celebrating after a desperate Rainmaker gave Ibushi enough time to nearly steal the win. Eventually, a sit-out Tombstone let Okada hit the final Rainmaker that he needed to retain the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. After the match, Naito and Okada had a staredown to build the main event for January 5th before Okada sent the fans home.
Like the last 2 matches, your enjoyment of this match depends on your enjoyment of the men involved and your feelings on the New Japan big match tropes that many fans are noticing more and more. This was a typical modern Okada formula match, just shy of 40 minutes long with a fairly inconsequential first half. However, the quality of the second half was incredible. The counters were fantastic, both men clearly know how to tell a great story with each other. There was a sense of desperation towards the end and Ibushi flipping into “Dead eyed Ibushi” mode really kicked off the best parts of this match. Okada is an expert at telling thrilling final stretches and this was a great example of that. Like the Ospreay-Takahashi match, this one will be up there on many people’s MOTYC lists although I do find the Okada formula is beginning to grate on me personally.
Overall Wrestle Kingdom 14 day 1 was a good show although a lot of the matches felt like inconsequential filler. The show felt like it would have been better if there was only one Dome show this year. For fans with a lack of free time, I would wholeheartedly recommend the Liger 8 man tag, Archer vs Moxley, Ospreay vs Takahashi and Okada vs Ibushi. It was not the strongest Wrestle Kingdom in recent years but it did provide 2 matches that will be up there in many fan’s mind at the end of the year when the subject of Match of the Year eventually comes up again. It will probably be remembered as a 2 match card, but lots of people will be very fondly remembering those 2 matches.