New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW)’s version of WrestleMania comes January 4th from the Tokyo Dome. Below we break down all of the key matches and provide some context to ongoing angles and storylines.
IWGP Heavyweight Championship Match
Kazuchika Okada (c) (CHAOS) vs. Kenny Omega (Bullet Club)
This August, Bullet Club’s Kenny Omega shocked NJPW by becoming the first ever non-Japanese wrestler to win the G1, sort of anyway. 5-time tournament winner Masahiro Chono was actually born in Seattle, Washington, but he is billed as being a homegrown talent in Japan. So Kenny Omega is technically just the first wrestler billed as a foreigner to win the tournament, but that is still a significant accomplishment.
Omega had been competing as a junior heavyweight in 2015, trading the jr. heavyweight title back and forth with current champion Kushida. When AJ Styles left NJPW after the Tokyo Dome show last year however, it opened the door for Omega to slide into the Bullet Club’s top spot.
He feuded over the Intercontinental Championship with Nakamura (before he left as well), Hiroshi Tanahashi, and Michael Elgin before entering into the G1 tournament this summer. While he was having great matches, it still seemed as though the Bullet Club had been bumped out of the main event picture by a surging Los InGobernables stable. The win in the G1 tournament changed that however.
Tokyo Dome Title Shot
For those new to NJPW, the winner of the G1 tournament is awarded a briefcase (that looks quite a bit like the Money in the Bank version) which contains a contract for an IWGP Heavyweight Championship match at Wrestle Kingdom. Usually the winner of the G1 has to defend the briefcase before January 4th however. This year Omega successfully defended the briefcase against both Hirooki Goto and Yoshi-Hashi.
Omega stated in an interview with Tokyo Sports recently, that his plan is to win the title and then defend it internationally in order to compete with what some refer to as WWE’s current global takeover strategy.
As for Kazuchika Okada however, this match will play an important role in his legacy. Okada finally beat Tanahashi in the Tokyo Dome at last year’s event, his third try at doing so. He also lost, but then regained, his championship to Tetsuya Naito earlier this year. Losing the title again in such a short time period might hurt Okada’s standing as the new face of NJPW.
Intercontinental Championship Match
Tetsuya Naito (c) (Los InGobernables) vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi
If you are new to NJPW, one thing you pick-up on pretty quickly is that championships are treated quite differently in this promotion than they are in WWE. The IWGP Intercontinental Championship is not competed for by the mid-carders, it is a legit secondary title that for a brief period was arguably on-par with the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
The Intercontinental Championship match actually once was the main event of a Wrestle Kingdom show, even though the heavyweight title was also on the line that night.
It was the 8th Wrestle Kingdom, and Naito had earned the right to challenge for the heavyweight title against Okada. Only that year NJPW held a fan vote as to which match should main event the show. The fans voted that the Intercontinental championship match between Nakamura and Tanahashi should be the main event, and Naito has never forgiven the fans for it. The only other time the promotion held a vote as to which match should main event the show was this year, when the fans once again voted against Naito being in the main event. This year the fans voted for Okada vs Omega to close the show.
Natio: Voted Out of the Main Event Again
Being voted out of the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 8 after winning the G1 was essentially the fans voting against Naito as a top good guy in the company. After turning heel last year, Naito’s career has skyrocketed since he joined Los InGobernables in Mexico, and then created a Japanese version of the group in NJPW. Ironically, the very fans who rejected him are now embracing him as he rejects them.
Now Naito gets a chance to defeat Hiroshi Tanahashi at this year’s event, one of the men the fans voted for over him at Wrestle Kingdom 8.
As for Tanahashi, his career trajectory seems to be mirroring John Cena’s quite a bit. Much like Cena, now in his late 30s, is starting to drop out of the main event picture, Tanahashi, also in his late 30s, is starting to do the same. After losing to Okada in last year’s Wrestle Kingdom main event, another loss could solidify that Tanahashi’s time on-top is coming to an end.
NEVER Openweight Championship
Katsuyori Shibata (c) vs. Hirooki Goto (CHAOS)
Shibata and Goto went to high school together, trained together, and began their careers in NJPW together. But then Shibata left to pursue a career in MMA. His 4W-11L record in MMA didn’t really cut it, and Shibata came back to the promotion in 2012 after an 8 year absence.
Almost immediately after Shibata returned he and Goto entered into a program together, but then became a very successful tag team together.
In 2014 Goto and Shibata won the World Tag League, and then went on to defeat Karl Anderson and Doc (Luke) Gallows for the tag titles in the Tokyo Dome. Their alliance would split when Goto joined the Chaos stable earlier this year.
The big stat on Goto is that he has challenged for the IWGP heavyweight championship on 8 occasions, and failed each time. Now he is in a stable with the current champion Kazuchika Okada. You have to wonder if Goto has some bitter feelings brewing beneath the surface.
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship
Kushida (c) vs. Hiromu Takahashi
This is the era of Kushida in the junior heavyweight division. Formerly one-half of “the Time Splitters” with Alex Shelley, he won the 2015 Best of the Super Juniors tournament and then went on to defeat Kenny Omega for the junior heavyweight title afterwards. He would drop and regain the belt to Omega, and do the same thing in a program with Bushi from Los InGobernables. He also defeated the winner of the 2016 Best of the Super Juniors, Will Ospreay, earlier this year.
You might be more familiar with Hiromu Takahashi by the ring name Kamaitachi. Trained in the NJPW dojo, Kamataichi was sent to Mexico to enhance his skills. And man did those skill ever enhance! Dragon Lee and Kamataichi matches from CMLL have been widely regarded as some of the best of the year.
Earlier this year Kamataichi debuted in Ring of Honor, aligning with Chris Daniels and Kazarian.
He would then return to NJPW on November 5th this year, challenging Kushida after the champion had just defeated Bushi.
For Kamataichi to be sent away to learn his craft and then return to fairly big fanfare represents a big achievement for NJPW’s international wrestler-loaning strategy.
IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Title Match
Guerrillas of Destiny (c) (Bullet Club) vs. Yano and Ishii (CHAOS) vs. Honma and Makabe (GBH)
Current champions, the Guerrillas of Destiny, are both the sons of legendary wrestler Haku (aka Meng, King Haku, Islander Haku). That fact alone makes them worth cheering for.
They are currently in their second reign as champions, having won the titles originally from Makabe & Honma in April. They then dropped the belts to the Briscoes but regained them shortly afterwards.
As for Makabe & Honma, they won the World Tag League tournament for the second year in a row in December. At last year’s Tokyo Dome show they defeated Anderson and Gallows to win the tag titles for the first time. The stable they represent, Great Bash Heel (GBH), used to be much larger before most of the group’s members turned on their leader, Togi Makabe. Now it’s just Honma and Makabe, rocking it out in the tag division.
Toru Yano & Tomohiro Ishii were a late addition to this match, in part because NJPW recently pulled all of their wrestlers from competing with Pro Wrestling Noah. Seeing as Yano won NOAH’s 2016 tag league (along with his partner, Marufuji) it makes sense that he would be put immediately into the tag title picture upon his return to NJPW. I’m not sure if that is the reasoning NJPW has given for Yano and Ishii’s inclusion in this match, but it would make sense for it to be.
Ring of Honor Championship
Kyle O’Reilly (c) vs. Adam Cole (Bullet Club)
2016 saw Ring of Honor bring in their own Bullet Club stable, led by new member Adam Cole. Rumors are that NJPW match-makers were high on Cole, and encouraged ROH to push him as the head of ROH’s Bullet Club so that they could include him in bigger matches on their shows as well. This is no surprise of course, Adam Cole is really good. So is Kyle O’Reilly for that matter.
O’Reilly defeated his former tag partner at ROH’s year-end event “Final Battle”. Now the rematch will be on the biggest non-WWE wrestling show of the year.
Not much is known about the futures of either Kyle O’Reilly or Adam Cole after this match. Some websites are stating that O’Reilly is not currently under contract with either ROH or NJPW, and many reports have stated that Adam Cole could be WWE bound. That is all internet speculation however. It could just as easily be the case that neither of the two will be leaving ROH/NJPW.
Cody (Rhodes) vs. Juice Robinson
Vignettes that play up Cody’s history have now aired on NJPW programming, introducing him to the NJPW audience as “the American Nightmare”. This, of course, is a play on his father’s “American Dream” nickname.
This match will serve as Cody’s in-ring introduction to the Japanese audience, but there is a backstory to this match as well. Juice Robinson is the former “CJ Parker” in NXT, and as such was trained by Dusty Rhodes. After getting stuck with a difficult gimmick in NXT, Juice arranged through NXT head trainer/former NJPW star Giant Bernard to leave WWE and sign with NJPW. It’s possible that Cody requested to work with one of his father’s former students, but that is just speculation.
Over the last few months, Juice has moved up the rankings from an opening match guy to a lower mid-card guy. This will be a good opportunity for him to showcase his growth over the last year.
NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship Gauntlet Match
David Finlay, Satoshi Kojima and Ricochet © vs. Bad Luck Fale, Takahashi, Hangman Page (Bullet Club) vs. Jado, Will Ospreay, Yoshi-Hashi (Chaos) vs. Bushi, Sanada, EVIL (Los InGobernables)
The first ever match for the 6-Man Tag Team Championships occurred at last year’s Tokyo Dome show. Since that time the title has changed hands 7 times. That’s more than most NJPW titles even get defended in a year!
Even though these titles have changed hands at an Attitude era pace, they still make for some pretty fun matches, and this should be no different. The dynamic to this match is you have the champions defending the titles against the 3 top stables in the company. CHAOS, Bullet Club and now Los InGobernables are always in a race to be the stable with the most titles, so you know one of them would like to walk away with the belts from this match.
Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships
The Young Bucks (c) (Bullet Club) vs. Roppongi Vice (CHAOS)
This is a battle between two teams that have been at the top of the heap in this division for the last few years. The Bucks are currently in their 5th reign as champions, while Roppongi Vice has held the same titles twice.
Roppongi Vice won this year’s junior heavyweight tag team tournament, which is a single elimination tournament akin to the New Japan Cup as opposed to the World Tag League. But there may be some subtle dissension brewing within the team. Berretta seems to be growing frustrated with his partner Rocky Romero. I’m sure they’ve worked it all out though…
With Steve Corino heading to the WWE, this could be the last time we hear him call a series of Young Buck superkicks. All good things must come to an end sometime.
Tiger Mask W vs. Tiger the Dark
In October a Tiger Mask anime series debuted, and this match will involve real versions of the anime characters. Kota Ibushi will play the role of Tiger Mask W, and ACH will play the role of Tiger the Dark. So even if you know nothing about the anime, you’ll still be entertained by an ACH vs Kota Ibushi match.
The two characters are apparently friends in the series at the moment. If Tiger the Dark is based off of the old “Black Tiger” character however, then the two should be rivals. Maybe they are about to become rivals on the show. I don’t know, hey its ACH vs Kota Ibushi, it’ll be just fine.
The anime series also involves character based off of real NJPW stars such as Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi.
New Japan Rumble Match
This Royal Rumble-inspired match will take place on the pre-show, and should include some fun surprises.
Last year Haku, Cheeseburger, and the Great Kabuki were the surprise entrants.
The winner isn’t technically guaranteed anything. Most years the winner receives a chance at a secondary title however.
Written by Ian Carey,
Originally posted on CagesideSeats.com