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The “Wrestlemania of Japan”, New Japan’s annual January 4th Tokyo Dome super-show, lived up to its hype and then some more. For the first time ever a 1/4 show aired live for all of us outside of Japan on New Japan’s USTREAM channel and while the price was up from the other iPPVs at $35, it was full value for money. The PPV was about 4 1/2 hours long not including the dark matches.
Bushiroad owned New Japan really turned up the spectacle for this show with several pop culture tie-ins including musical acts and special entrances that I will go into a little more detail about below. If this was a glimpse of the New Japan to come, mixing a reasonable but not excessive amount of entertainment with the great wrestling and characters we’re used to, then I have no complaints.
New Japan claimed 29,000 paid for this show with an emphasis on “paid” which seemed to be a new standard of announcing an attendance, whether for just this show or not remains to be seen. Without doubt this looked to be the best Tokyo Dome attendance in years even though the listed attendance gave an almost opposite impression. I would guess under normal standards they would have claimed 50,000 if not more for this show. Next year 1/4 falls on a Saturday so if New Japan has another strong year it’s possible the company could edge closer to selling out the Dome again.
I missed the dark matches if they were screened at all but the show opened with an eight man tag. 9 years ago Bob Sapp vs. Akebono was watched by about 40% of Japan and was one of the biggest fights in history as Akebono the sumo legend was going up against Sapp the pop culture icon who had been a sensation that year not just as a K-1 fighter but as a celebrity in general. “Sapp Time” couldn’t be avoided, it was everywhere you looked. But many years later their star has faded, Sapp little more than a novelty act and Akebono a respectable pro wrestler who has kept his career going. They were added on to what looked a generic New Japan vs. CHAOS match to give it a little more of a “Tokyo Dome” feel. The match was lighthearted and entertaining enough for an opener. Sapp did hardly anything except take offense, he was a far cry from the invincible beast who held the IWGP Heavyweight Title many years ago and almost a self-parody. Nakanishi racked Iizuka with his Argentine backbreaker for the win.
The only major disappointment of the show was Masato Tanaka vs. Shelton Benjamin for the recently established NEVER Openweight Title. With the IWGP Intercontinental Title having an unexpected rise in status that would be accelerated further on this show, the NEVER title from New Japan’s sub-brand could be seen as a replacement for that. But what promised to be something of an ECW throwback was a basic sprint with no real excitement. A couple of nice moments but it was short and didn’t really feel like a title match. Tanaka won with his Sliding D to successfully defend the new title for the first time.
Thing started to pick up when the Killer Elite Squad defended their IWGP Tag Team Title against Goto & Anderson in a rematch of the 2012 World Tag League final. The Killer Elite Squad, comprised of Lance Archer & Davey Boy Smith Jr., appeared out of nowhere as a team late last year and won the belts off the famous Tenzan & Kojima duo before beating them again to really establish themselves. Today was their first post-TenKoji challenge against two more prolific singles wrestlers. Archer entered on a motorbike and along with his partner wore a cool mask to the ring. Goto & Anderson had a gimmicked entrance of their own as Anderson shot what looked to be t-shirts or something out of several bazookas along the Tokyo Dome rampway. The match turned out to be a good display of traditional tag wrestling with the KES coming out on top after two Killer bombs on Goto. So the Killer Elite Squad seem to have replaced Bad Intentions as the dominant foreign tag team of New Japan.
Yuji Nagata and Minoru Suzuki had their third New Japan Tokyo Dome match. It could be seen as overkill but some rivalries in pro wrestling never get old. We saw TAJIRI vs. Super Crazy what felt like 100 times on ECW TV and PPVs back in the day and never got bored of them. These two wrestle as such a high level that you’re always guaranteed something good and this was very, very good. Once again we were treated to spectacle as Ayumi Nakamura performed Suzuki’s famous “Kaze ni Nare” entrance music live on stage. The match will be remembered mostly for some entertaining slapfest where they just delivered slap after slap, Nagata occasionally interupting them to throw some stiff kicks. They were 1-1 on Dome shows before this and I’d hazard a guess that this was the decider as it probably won’t happen again at the Dome. And it was Nagata who picked up the win with his backdrop hold and continued to be relevant long after the younger generation have taken over leadership in New Japan.
New Japan has rarely ever done a good 3WAY match in my memory. The Chono vs. Fujita vs. Lesnar one from the Dome in 2005 stands out as particularly bad. So I was a little worried that today’s IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Title 3WAY match between three of the world’s most exciting juniors Prince Devitt, Low Ki, and Kota Ibushi would disappoint. My worries were unfounded as they put on one of the smoothest, slickest, and high quality junior matches I’ve seen in a long time. It was under 15 minutes long but wrestled at a great pace with many exciting moments including a couple of great dives, Ibushi’s the pick of them. Towards the end you just couldn’t guess who was winning but Devitt hit a Bloody Sunday off the top rope on Ibushi to successfully defend his title for the first time. The junior title has lacked stability since Devitt’s previous reign having gone from him to Ki to Ibushi and back to Devitt within 6 months but I get the feeling this Devitt reign may last a while again.
New Japan’s most famous tag team of the last 15 years, Hiroyoshi Tenzan & Satoshi Kojima, squared off against the legendary Keiji Muto & Shinjiro Otani in a special tag match. All four are New Japan dojo trained wrestlers with Tenzan, Kojima, and Otani from the same era, but only Tenzan and Kojima belong to New Japan now so it was a reunion. Initially designed to showcase the son of the late, great Shinya Hashimoto, Daichi, it had to be altered when Daichi broke his arm and Otani stepped in. In a match full of nostalgia and goosebump-inducing moments, Otani entered to Hashimoto’s old theme, now used by his son Daichi who seconded him. Then Muto entered to one of his famous New Japan themes and the crowd was really excited and emotional. TenKoji then entered to their remixed theme and the match began. It wasn’t one of the better matches on the show but the quality of the event was so high that it was still good with Otani showing he still has much to offer. Years pass but like Liger, Keiji Muto somehow keeps going strong despite his knees having been shot since the 90s. Despite the individual brilliance of Muto & Otani, the teamwork of Tenzan & Kojima was the difference maker as Otani succumbed to Kojima’s lariat followed by Tenzan’s moonsault. Daichi Hashimoto was irate after the match and got into a little scuffle with the winning team but it was brief and didn’t lead to anything. Hashimoto’s New Japan debut will have to wait but will definitely happen when he is healthy again.
Laughter7′s invasion of New Japan has been a great highlight of recent months. Laughter7 is comprised of Kazushi Sakuraba the pro wrestler who became a legend in MMA with his “Gracie Hunter” persona and his protégé Katsuyori Shibata, a New Japan trueborn who walked out on the company years ago just as they were pushing him to superstardom with Tanahashi and Nakamura. He embarked on a thoroughly mediocre MMA career and was largely forgotten by pro wrestling fans before his sudden return last year. The two had dominated every match for months leading to this show with Shibata the man in focus but today would be Sakuraba’s turn in the main spotlight as Shibata was placed just outside of the main event against one of New Japan’s “enforcers” Togi Makabe. This was a fight from the start and entertaining but not quite as intense as I expected. They traded offense in a good brawl but the finish was quite surprising as Makabe beat Shibata in rather dominating fashion with his King Kong kneedrop. I had expected Shibata to beat Makabe and Nakamura to beat Sakuraba to set up the big Nakamura vs. Shibata reunion match, but was wrong. My feeling that may or may not be right was that this was belated punishment for Shibata’s betrayal of a company that put so much faith in him. I really hope he sticks around as there is so much he could offer, feuds with Tanahashi, Nakamura, and Goto – all of whom he has history with – haven’t even been explored yet.
The first of the “double main event” saw Shinsuke Nakamura defend the IWGP Intercontinental Title against Kazushi Sakuraba. Nakamura is such a character who oozes charisma, style, and likeability. Even as the co-leader of New Japan’s top heel group he is just impossible to hate. After their recent awkwardness in a tag match together, there was a legitimate fear this could be a disaster though. Sakuraba has very little recent pro wrestling experience and Shibata had been doing much of the work in tags. What a surprise then this was. In the USTREAM chat people were going nuts over this match and for good reason, it is one I will remember for years and already a frontrunner for my 2013 match of the year. There was a tense and special atmosphere as they faced off just like the old New Japan vs. shoot-style outsider matches during the New Japan vs. UWF, New Japan vs. UWFi, and New Japan vs. UFO feuds. In the 2000s we had the shoot-style outsiders but it was ugly and awkward most of the time with the exception of some good matches (mostly featuring Kazuyuki Fujita), this was the opposite of that and was “shoot-style pro wrestling” rather than “a messy clusterf*ck of pro wrestling and MMA”. I was disappointed when they shook hands at the start because I thought it could lead to a boring “polite” match. After a feeling out process, Nakamura slapped Sakuraba in the face and BOOM we had lift-off. It turned into a pro wrestling masterclass with Sakuraba finally stepping out of Shibata’s shadow in this New Japan stint and coming across as a lethal, dangerous fighter who Nakamura struggled to compete with. The match had one of the most brutal knees to the face I’ve ever seen which replays showed caught Nakamura full force. I could feel my heart racing as I watched this, willing Nakamura to win but sensing it was Sakuraba’s for several reasons – Shibata having already lost, Nakamura missing the Boma Ye, and how dangerous Saku’s arm submissions came across as. The drama was immense. Nakamura escaped the chickenwing armlock but a while later was back in it, which convinced me it was game over. But somehow he escaped it and also survived a cross armbreaker and won with his Boma Ye to an enormous Tokyo Dome pop. They shook hands and hugged afterwards, showing great respect to each other. I felt this match elevated Nakamura even more than he already has been. There are almost no “New Japan vs. outsider” matches that could do this anymore but this did, while at the same time his IWGP Intercontinental Title also moved much further away from the midcard belt it originally seemed to be. An absolutely amazing match, a throwback to old times and a style Bushiroad boss Kidani seems to love and will hopefully ask to see more of in New Japan. 30 minute classics are great as we’d find out right after this but the true feel of Strong Style is in matches like Nakamura vs. Sakuraba.
New Japan went back a year to show Okada’s abysmal return from TNA Wrestling on the 1/4/12 show where he and YOSHI-HASHI (in a dark match today that highlighted their contrasting fortunes) had a real dud of a match. Okada later challenged Tanahashi to a title match and was largely laughed at or booed as no one took him seriously. What would follow would stun the Japanese wrestling scene as within a year Okada became one of the industry’s biggest stars and won the Tokyo Sports MVP award. His title reign so soon after returning could have bombed hard but he turned himself into a star with the IWGP Heavyweight Title. Since losing the title back to Tanahashi in June the build to the big rematch has been great with the two clocking up important wins as the time drew near for their clash of destiny. J-Pop band BREAKERZ performed live on the stage just before the main event as New Japan continued to crank up the spectacle value and implement pop culture into the product, which is one way of trying to get pro wrestling back into the mainstream consciousness. The band would accompany Tanahashi to the ring shortly after but Okada’s entrance was the best of the lot as he slowly descended on an elevator looking like the perfect bad boy, a new Tokyo Dome remix of his theme playing. As he hit the ring money rained down on the crowd, signalling the arrival of the new superstar, the “Rainmaker” Kazuchika Okada. The match began slowly as you could tell it was going to be long but was never anything less than great. With a double main event you expect both matches to offer something different and these were complete opposites. This was modern pro wrestling at its best and a match worthy of its hype. The last 15 or so minutes were out of this world and the Tokyo Dome crowd was red hot as you just couldn’t guess who was winning. Okada kicked out of the first High Fly Flow and survived Tana’s Texas Cloverleaf hold despite his hand flapping and coming so close to tapping out. Okada fought back but could never hit the Rainmaker, not even once, and always seemed one step behind Tanahashi to me. Tanahashi eventually won with a perfectly executed High Fly Flow and proved yet again he is the king of New Japan Pro-Wrestling. The match was almost 35 minutes long but was not boring at all. I was really disappointed Okada didn’t win, I was expecting it to catapult him to new levels, but you just can’t deny what a great champion Tanahashi is. Time and time again he delivers in these matches and wins over the crowd. And while I wanted Okada to win, I do think Tanahashi was the better performer on the day and showed his greatness. He is about 11 years older than Okada and this match established that he still has the edge but unless the rumours of Okada going to WWE are true (which I hope they are not, New Japan will cultivate his potential far better than WWE possibly could), he will be the star of New Japan in years to come.
The big surprise after the main event is that no new challenger showed his face and Tanahashi did his routine air guitar performance to send everyone home happy. No titles changed hands on the entire show and it felt much like closure for 2012. Perhaps “THE NEW BEGINNING”, New Japan’s next big show in February, is where new things may happen. Despite the lack of shake-ups this was a January 4th show for the ages and certainly one of the best I have ever seen. New Japan had a fantastic 2012 and 2013 has started even better as this year’s 1/4 show was much better than its equivalent last year. The event is available on VOD (video on demand) until 1/11 5pm JST if you want to watch it on New Japan’s USTREAM channel.
NJPW “WRESTLE KINGDOM 7 ~EVOLUTION~ IN TOKYO DOME”, 1/4/13 (WPW/PPV/iPPV)
0-1. Wataru Inoue, Tama Tonga & Captain New Japan beat Tomohiro Ishii, YOSHI-HASHI & Jado (5:58) when Tonga used the Headshrinker on Jado.
0-2. Ryusuke Taguchi, KUSHIDA & BUSHI beat Jushin Thunder Liger, Tiger Mask & Hiromu Takahashi (7:12) when BUSHI used a Firebird splash on Takahashi.
1. Special 8 Man Tag Match: Manabu Nakanishi, MVP, Strong Man & Akebono beat Toru Yano, Takashi Iizuka, Yujiro Takahashi & Bob Sapp (7:53) when Nakanishi used an Argentine backbreaker on Iizuka.
2. NEVER Openweight Title: Masato Tanaka (c) beat Shelton Benjamin (6:41) with the Sliding D (1st defense).
3. IWGP Tag Team Title: Lance Archer & Davey Boy Smith Jr. (c) beat Hirooki Goto & Karl Anderson (10:52) when Smith used the Killer bomb on Goto (2nd defense).
4. Special Singles Match: Yuji Nagata beat Minoru Suzuki (17:03) with a backdrop hold.
5. IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Title – 3WAY Match: Prince Devitt (c) beat Low Ki & Kota Ibushi (14:45) with an avalanche-style Bloody Sunday on Ibushi (1st defense).
6. Special Tag Match: Hiroyoshi Tenzan & Satoshi Kojima beat Keiji Muto & Shinjiro Otani (15:36) when Tenzan used a moonsault press on Otani.
7. Special Singles Match: Togi Makabe beat Katsuyori Shibata (8:37) with a King Kong kneedrop.
8. Double Main Event I – IWGP Intercontinental Title: Shinsuke Nakamura (c) beat Kazushi Sakuraba (11:12) with the Boma Ye (4th defense).
9. Double Main Event II – IWGP Heavyweight Title: Hiroshi Tanahashi (c) beat Kazuchika Okada (33:34) with the High Fly Flow (6th defense).