Alpha Vs Omega

Fan Reviews, Wrestler Studies

Alpha_Omega_1Wrestle Kingdom 12 has come and gone, and New Japan Pro Wrestling picked up some new fans along the way.  This was largely due to interest in the Alpha Vs Omega dream match between Chris Jericho (Alpha) and Kenny Omega (Omega, obviously).

The build for this match was beautifully done with the rivalry starting on Twitter. I honestly thought they might have a match or interaction on Jericho’s cruise that he has planned for later this year. Like many others, I was proven wrong when a video aired of Jericho challenging Omega to a match. Jericho’s been quoted on several occasions as saying that he would only wrestle in WWE, so the moment this happened was very surreal.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WiV4Mwfp24w

I was proven wrong again when Jericho showed up in Japan to attack Omega after one of his matches. The attack left Omega a bloody mess and showed a different side to Jericho.  They clashed again at a press conference, which saw Jericho toss a table at Omega. The match was announced to be a No-Disqualification match, which meant that this wasn’t going to be the usual Kenny Omega match. Omega’s matches can range from comedic to very serious athletic affairs. Rarely does he find himself in these No-DQ types of matches, and it’s been a very long time since New Japan had a match that could get this violent.

The No-DQ stipulation would seem to benefit Jericho since he was the older of the two and not quite as spry as he used to be. Before the match even started, the two had to be pulled apart so the bell could ring and the match would start. Most of the early portion of the match took place outside of the ring. Omega went for a dive onto Jericho when Jericho was laid out on the announce table. Jericho got out of the way at the last minute and Omega crashed. Jericho played the heel throughout the match with various tactics, like attacking the referee and the referee’s son, who is a “Young Lion” — basically a wrestler-in-training. Jericho even grabbed a camera and filmed himself flipping off the crowd.

All of the screencaps below are from NJPWWorld.Com.

Omega would get in a little bit of offense, but Jericho always seemed to have a counter. Eventually Jericho wedged a chair in one of the corners of the ring and proceeded to throw Omega face first into it. After three attempts, Omega was cut open.

The way Jericho wrestled the match seemed similar to how the Great Muta would try to injure or maim his opponents instead of getting a victory. Jericho wanted the win, but he wanted to inflict as much punishment as he could on Omega. Jericho applied the Walls of Jericho numerous times in the match, but Omega managed to get out of it each time. Jericho had set up a table outside of the ring earlier in the match, but would eventually get put through it himself after Omega did a jumping knee strike that would knock Jericho off the top rope and through the table. The end of the match saw Omega throw a chair at Jericho when he was going for a Lionsault. Omega then grabbed the dazed Jericho, moved the chair that he just threw at him, and hit the One-Winged Angel on the chair.

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Did this dream match live up to the hype?

In my opinion it definitely did and I had a blast watching it. Omega and Jericho really did a great job of selling that they hated each other. Omega is generally great in his singles matches, but I was most impressed with Jericho. I’ve been a dyed in the wool Jerichoholic for years, but the energy he brought to this match did not feel like that of someone who is 47 years old. It felt like someone who was much younger and had a lot to prove.

Maybe it was the change of scenery, maybe it was how good of an opponent Omega was, but this newly reinvented version of Jericho is one I hope sticks around for a while.

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The match wasn’t perfect though. There were a few moments that took me out of it.

Early on the referee started to count Jericho and Omega out when they were outside too long. No-DQ typically means anything goes as long as a pin takes place in the ring. They could’ve brawled outside for over half the match and there should’ve been no count.

There was also a spot where Omega broke out of the Walls of Jericho by using some cold spray that was under the ring. After blinding Jericho with it, he sprayed himself with it and also sprayed it down his pants. I’m all for comedy spots in matches, but it felt really out of place in this particular match. Finally, there was another bit of a botch in the officiating when near the end of the match, Omega used a rope break to get out of the Walls of Jericho, but earlier in the match Jericho refused to release the hold since it was No-DQ. I know these are general nitpicks, but they did take me out of the match briefly.

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So where do Jericho and Omega go from here?

In the press conference after the event, Jericho said that he was done in Japan. This of course was a lie and the next night he would attack Tetsuya Naito, who is another top New Japan star coming off a loss from the night before. At the same event Omega would offer rising star Jay White a spot in the Bullet Club, but White declined by hitting his Blade Runner finisher on Omega.

Even though it seems like both men are going in separate directions, I would not be against seeing Alpha vs Omega 2 sometime in the future.

Wrestle Kingdom 12 Review

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

Wrestle Kingdom is New Japan Pro Wrestling’s biggest event of the year, their “WrestleMania,” if you will (the similar name is surely no coincidence). Held every year on January 4 at the Tokyo Dome, the event dates back to a 1992 card headlined by New Japan legends Riki Choshu and Tatsumi Fujinami. In 2007, the event was re-branded as “Wrestle Kingdom,” and the name has been used ever since, following WWE’s pattern of sequential numbering for WrestleMania.

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Image Credit: https://www.hisgo.com/us/Contents/Package/DetailPackage.aspx?PkgNo=US1700090

As with WrestleMania, New Japan’s showcase event features matches that are the culmination of year(s)-long angles and builds, and often determines the direction of main-event and other storylines throughout the year. Wrestle Kingdom 12 is heavily built around its “co-main events”: the IWGP (International Wrestling Grand Prix, New Japan’s “governing body”) Heavyweight championship match between champion Kazuchika Okada and challenger Tetsuya Naito, leader of the popular Los Ingobernables de Japon faction; and the “dream match” between New Japan’s top gaijin star Kenny Omega and Chris Jericho (dubbed “Alpha vs. Omega,” based on Jericho’s assertion that he was the Alpha to Kenny’s “Omega”), who hasn’t wrestled a match outside the WWF/WWE since 1999.

The first-ever meeting between Omega and Jericho has drawn a tremendous amount of interest from Western pro wrestling fans, and has been well-received in Japan as well. Jericho is not unfamiliar to Japanese fans; he wrestled there regularly from 1994-1998, first for the defunct WAR (legend Genichiro Tenryu’s oddly-named “Wrestling and Romance,” then “Wrestle Association R” promotion) and later for New Japan as part of WCW’s talent exchange agreement with the company. Omega has been widely lauded as one of the top wrestlers in the world, partly due to his stellar trilogy of matches with Okada in 2017. Omega is also leader of the Bullet Club, a “cool heel” faction (strongly reminiscent of the nWo) whose merchandise can regularly be seen among fans at wrestling shows around the world, including in the crowd on RAW and other WWE events.

On the other hand, the IWGP heavyweight title match is the culmination of developments dating back to Wrestle Kingdom 8 in 2014, when Okada successfully defended the IWGP heavyweight championship against Naito in another “co-main event” in which fans voted to have the IWGP intercontinental championship match between Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi be the last match on the card, demoting Okada-Naito to semi-main status. Naito and Jericho have been bickering back-and-forth about whose match is the “true” main event, recalling the events of 2014. Indeed, Naito’s “cool heel” persona has been largely built around the popular perception that he, as a babyface poised for star status, could never “win the big one” and reach the level of top stars Nakamura, Tanahashi, and Okada.

His push over the past two years came after an excursion to CMLL in Mexico that saw him join that promotion’s Los Ingobernables heel faction and go on to establish a Japanese version, with himself as leader. Like Rocky Maivia’s heel turn in the mid-1990s, the somewhat bland babyface Naito was no longer lost in the shuffle. As a calm and disillusioned heel (for example, he would often wear suits to the ring, then take an inordinate amount of time to remove them, with a bored look on his face throughout), Naito reached new heights of popularity while achieving his full potential as a performer.

His opponent, IWGP champion Okada, is regarded by many, including myself, as the absolute best wrestler on the planet at the moment. Only thirty years old, Okada has been IWGP heavyweight champion for 564 days as of January 4, 2018, the longest-ever reign for that title. Dave Meltzer gave his Wrestle Kingdom 11 match against Omega an unprecedented six-star rating, followed by six-and-a-quarter stars for their April 2017 rematch, an hour-long draw. Okada consistently has excellent matches with opponents of various skills and styles, from the shoot-style Minoru Suzuki to “big man” wrestler Bad Luck Fale, and many others in between. The co-main events have dominated fan and journalist conversations leading into Wrestle Kingdom 12, though, as we will see, the card features a number of other interesting matches as well.

On New Japan World (the company’s streaming service), the link to the English-language version of Wrestle Kingdom 12 featured the Omega-Jericho match, while the Japanese-language version had Okada-Naito, a clear indication of the promotion’s understanding of each match’s market appeal. I usually watch the Japanese-language versions, partly because I thoroughly enjoy the seemingly endless enthusiasm of the commentators, and partly to maintain some semblance of my rusty Japanese skills. I first began watching puroresu in the late 1990s, still the era of tape-trading; I became fully accustomed to the Japanese commentary, and still prefer it even when there’s an option for English.

Pre-show: New Japan Rumble

Much like pre-WrestleMania battle royals (and, more recently, the Andre the Giant Memorial version), the New Japan Rumble is a way to fit more wrestlers onto the biggest card of the year. Like the Royal Rumble, the match begins with two wrestlers, and more (usually around 20; there were 21 this year) enter every minute or so (I used a stopwatch several times, and intervals ranged from 50 to 80 seconds). Unlike the WWE Rumble, wrestlers can be eliminated via pinfall or submission, as well as being thrown over the top.

Usually, this match features a mix of young and veteran talent (along with a few surprise entrants), and typically allows for each wrestler to get a few nice spots in before elimination. As an aside, I appreciate that wrestlers in the ring continue to battle as new wrestlers enter the match; one of my major pet peeves with modern WWE Royal Rumbles is that, especially later in the match, most of the guys in the ring lay around like they’re incapacitated when a new entrant arrives, so that the new wrestler can have a one-on-one confrontation with whoever they’re feuding with, only for those 8-10 comatose wrestlers to miraculously recover and start fighting each other again as soon as the new entry finishes their preordained spots. I’m not a big stickler for 100% realism in wrestling, but it comes across as incredibly staged and even silly when all but one or two guys suddenly collapse around the edges of the ring every two minutes or so.

I’m not going to cover every entry or elimination in this match, but there were several fun moments throughout the match. Former dojo mates Yuji Nagata and Manabu Nakanishi, both in the twilight of their careers, entered consecutively and got big reactions with a nice exchange of stiff strikes. Nagata submitted Nakanishi with an MMA-style neck crack, only for the other wrestlers to roll him over and pile on to pin him, using Nakanishi’s body to hold him down. Young Lions (New Japan’s “rookies,” usually trained in the company dojo) Kitsuya Kitamura and David Finlay (son of David “Fit” Finlay of WCW/WWF/WWE fame) were allowed to shine. Kitamura, who entered first, seems destined for stardom, with a heavily-muscled physique rarely seen among Japanese wrestlers. Perennial Ring of Honor underdog Cheeseburger got a huge pop when he entered at #18, probably due to his appearance in this match last year. The final entrant, former New Japan and UWFi (a short-lived but incredibly popular shoot-style promotion in the mid-90s) wrestler Masahito Kakihara actually won the match; after he and Cheeseburger eliminated NJPW legends (and frequent tag partners) Satoshi Kojima and Hiroyoshi Tenzan, he pinned the lovable RoH underdog for the somewhat surprising win. Imagine Sgt. Slaughter entering this year’s Royal Rumble at #30, then winning it. Of course, the stakes are a bit lower in the New Japan Rumble, with no title shot on the line, but surprise nostalgia entrants rarely win such matches, in WWE or elsewhere.

Match #1, IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship: Roppongi 3K (champions) vs. The Young Bucks

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Image Credit: http://www.adventuresinpoortaste.com/2017/12/28/njpw-wrestle-kingdom-12-preview/

Roppongi 3K is a “new” version of Roppongi Vice, the popular junior heavyweight team of Rocky Romero and Trent Barreta. When the latter split, Romero announced the impending arrival of Roppongi 3K, which turned out to be former rookies Sho (Sho Tanaka) and Yo (Yohei Komatsu), who had been wrestling in Ring of Honor as the questionably-named Tempura Boyz until their re-debut in October 2017, winning the junior tag titles in the process. The duo are managed by Romero, whose in-ring career appears mostly over.

The Young Bucks need no introduction to most modern pro wrestling fans; Matt and Nick Jackson have become two of the hottest non-WWE talents in the world, and have masterfully marketed themselves, profiting tremendously via merchandise sales and bookings in multiple promotions, including Ring of Honor, New Japan, Pro Wrestling Guerilla, and various other random shows. The Bucks are most definitely talented, even if they rely too heavily on highspots for my taste. At the risk of sounding too much like Jim Cornette, I think they would benefit from slowing down a bit. More than anything they do in the ring, I’m impressed by the fact that the Bucks have managed to build a decent degree of financial independence, allowing them to choose their own bookings and control their own image and merchandising, a rarity in a world dominated by the WWE machine. Sho and Yo are no slouches, either; I’ve watched them transform from (by design; Young Lions wear simple black trunks and boots, and are only allowed to perform fundamental maneuvers and holds) bland opening-match wrestlers to colorful (both have wildly-dyed hair: blond, blue, and purple), flashy (shiny silver and gold tights), and entertaining stars in the promotion.

Bucks matches typically abandon any semblance of a traditional tag bout, with all four men brawling and hitting spots in and around the ring throughout. This match was no exception. There were plenty of the expected dives and a few comedy spots (at one point, the Bucks were both trapped in half-crabs, facing each other, and one held the other’s wrist to prevent him from tapping), as well as a powerbomb delivered to Romero on the entrance ramp. The Bucks won the match and titles with the Meltzer Driver, a spiked tombstone piledriver, followed by a sharpshooter/scorpion death lock. It was all very entertaining, but I always feel like I’ve seen it all before (to be fair, I saw these four in an RoH tag title match at a TV taping in Atlanta last January).

Match #2, NEVER Six-Man Tag Team Championship Gauntlet Match: Taichi, Takashi Iizuka & Zack Sabre Jr. vs. War Machine (Raymond Rowe & Hanson) & Michael Elgin vs. CHAOS (Trent Barreta, Tomohiro Ishii, & Toru Yano) vs. Togi Makabe, Ryusuke Taguchi & Juice Robinson vs. Bad Luck Fale, Tama Tonga & Tonga Loa (champions)

Much like the New Japan Rumble, this match is designed to get as many guys on the card as possible. Each time one team is eliminated, another enters to take their place; the last team remaining win the titles. One could rightly argue that New Japan has too many titles, but many promotions are guilty of this trend. At least titles like these give more wrestlers something to fight over, especially important in a promotion like New Japan, where most feuds and matches are built around a more realistic semblance of athletic competition than one might find in many WWE angles.

There were the usual power spots from (soon to be WWE-bound, if rumors are to be believed) War Machine and Elgin (whose recent issues in the States seemingly have not affected his standing in New Japan). Hanson moves as well as any big man in the business, performing moonsaults and cartwheels with ease, and it’s unsurprising that WWE would be interested in him and partner Rowe. Sabre is always impressive, and I thoroughly enjoy his mat- and submission-based style.

The early phase of the match featured Sabre attempting to out-wrestle the much-larger War Machine, resulting in Rowe submitting to a triangle choke. The CHAOS faction team of Trent Barreta, “Stone Pitbull” Tomohiro Ishii, and comedy wrestler Toru Yano replaced War Machine and Elgin. Many “smart” fans are critical of Yano, as his performance usually consists of blatant, comedic cheating (removing the corner pads, pulling tights, tying up opponents, etc.), but I find him entertaining most of the time. He’s not going to win any “wrestler of the year” awards, but I appreciate some variety in my wrestling. The fourth team consisted of Togi Makabe, Ryusuke Taguchi, and Juice Robinson, who appears to be heading up the card of late, especially after his pinfall victory over Kenny Omega in the G1 Climax tournament.

The champions, Bad Luck Fale and the Guerillas of Destiny, entered last. Ishii and Fale had a nice power clash, with each fighting the other’s attempts to perform moves. These sorts of sequences are common and popular in Japanese pro wrestling, with guys no-selling each other’s stiff strikes and deadweighting attempts to perform suplexes and other moves. I believe such sequences add a greater sense of realism to matches, though the strikes carry the potential for injury, such as Katsuyori Shibata’s career-ending, near-fatal brain hemorrhaging following a stiff headbutt on Okada in their April 9, 2017 IWGP title match. In the end, Barreta (who also appears poised for a significant singles push) secured the victory and titles for his team, the second title change of the card, with several more surely to follow.

Match 3: Cody vs. Kota Ibushi

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Image Credit: https://www.cagesideseats.com/2017/11/6/16613432/njpw-wrestle-kingdom-12-matches-cody-rhodes-kota-ibushi-tanahashi-white-omega-jericho

As with the Young Bucks, I’m impressed with Cody (Rhodes)’s career trajectory since his voluntary departure from WWE. He has shown more personality in his persona and promos than the “creative team” scripts would ever allow, and has become one of the hottest performers in pro wrestling. His in-ring abilities are certainly limited compared to an Omega or Okada, but he’s a good worker and has drawn consistently good reactions from crowds in both North America and Japan. Ibushi is a great worker, though one who seems to have peaked at the upper mid-card level. He’s excellent in the ring, but just hasn’t quite broken through to true “main event” status.

Cody, sporting bleached-blond hair reminiscent of his father Dusty, is accompanied by his wife Brandi, leading to an American-style spot early in the match that saw Ibushi accidentally collide with her and attempt to carry her to safety, only for Cody to capitalize and attack him. It faintly reminded me of the classic Megapowers breakup angle on Saturday Night’s Main Event in 1989, when Hulk Hogan accidentally ran into Elizabeth and carried her backstage, though Ibushi’s demonstration of concern for Brandi was far less hammy than the Hulkster’s overacting. Cody played the heel throughout the match, methodically punishing the high-flying Ibushi, which I think suits his skillset better. Ibushi triumphed with a nice 450 splash. I wonder how this might have been booked had Cody still been RoH champion, as this was originally scheduled to be for that title.

Match 4, IWGP Tag Team Championship: Killer Elite Squad (Lance Archer & Davey Boy Smith Jr., champions) vs. EVIL & Sanada

Like Juice Robinson, EVIL appeared poised for a major push after pulling off a major upset in the G1, pinning Okada. That set up a match for Okada’s title in October, which EVIL unsurprisingly lost. I love his grim reaper scythe, mask, and robe, and the gimmick is certainly colorful. I’m also a big fan of his finisher, the STO, a judo-inspired slam first made popular in pro wrestling by New Japan, PRIDE, and Hustle alum Naoya Ogawa. Like the Diamond Cutter/RKO, the STO (a front leg-sweep slam) can be applied at any time, giving it an element of surprise and excitement. Indeed, EVIL defeated Okada by using the STO to reverse the latter’s attempt at his Rainmaker finisher in the G1. Davey Boy Smith Jr. looks every bit his father’s son, down to his ring gear of boots and jeans, a look sported by the British Bulldog in his late 1990s WWF run.

I wouldn’t call the Killer Elite Squad “exciting,” but they certainly fit the typical role of the muscular, power-move gaijin tag team. In puroresu, foreigners, and Americans (and Canadians, to a lesser extent) in particular, are usually expected to be big and powerful, relying heavily on brawn over finesse. In a match like this, it means that EVIL and Sanada (of heel faction Los Ingobernables) are the de facto babyfaces, giving up a size and strength advantage to their opponents. The formula here dates back to Japan’s original pro wrestling superstar, Rikidozan, who drew massive crowds and TV ratings for his bouts against (usually larger) American heels such as Lou Thesz and “Classy” Freddie Blassie.

Accordingly, much of this match consisted of the gaijin bullying their opponents and posturing for the crowd, who responded with some rare catcalls and boos. This worked perfectly, as every hope spot for the Japanese team drew nice pops, accentuated by the Japanese commentators’ emotional responses. As tag matches often do, the bout’s climax featured a rapid-fire sequence of moves, resulting in EVIL hitting the STO on Archer and a Sanada moonsault on Smith for the win and titles. Three title matches, three title changes so far on this show. Will any champions retain at Wrestle Kingdom 12?

Match 5, NEVER Open Weight Championship, hair vs. hair: Minoru Suzuki (champion) vs. Hirooki Goto

I love Minoru Suzuki. Maybe it’s my preference for catch/shoot style wrestlers, but he does such a fantastic job of embodying the “grizzled” old shooter gimmick that it’s impossible for me not to like him. Suzuki was, along with Masakatsu Funaki, the co-founder of Pancrase, the world’s first major MMA promotion, in 1993, the same year the first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) event took place. Pancrase had more limitations than UFC, such as open-palm (rather than closed-fist) strikes and rope breaks a la pro wrestling. I mention this only to note that Suzuki, like Ken Shamrock and Brock Lesnar in the WWF or Dan Severn in various promotions, is a wrestler who could legitimately defeat 99% of his pro wrestling opponents. The fact that he can perform believable worked matches is therefore impressive to me. As an aside, I was very impressed with Shayna Baszler in the Mae Young Classic, and am curious to see how Ronda Rousey performs in her rumored WrestleMania bout, opponent TBA.

Goto is, like Ibushi, a solid upper mid-card wrestler who fans generally adore as a loveable, determined, “never say die” underdog, but who has never really been given a signature win that would establish him as a true main eventer. Even at 49 years old, Suzuki comes across as more credible than most wrestlers, and plays the bullying heel role exceptionally well. He’s slowed down a bit from his prime, meaning he resorts more regularly to classic heel tactics including regular outside interference from his Suzuki-gun lackeys. My only major complaint with Suzuki is the overabundance of run-ins in his matches, a rarity in puroresu but an apparent concession to his age and heel persona. Much like a Ric Flair, Japanese fans generally cheer him despite his dastardly behavior, as his legendary status as both a worker and a shooter trumps almost anything he might do to draw heel heat.

As usual, this match saw attempted run-ins from the Suzuki-gun guys, though the ringside “young boys” (who are present for every match as ring attendants) and likeable mid-carder Yoshi-Hashi (who appeared in the Rumble earlier) heroically prevented them from reaching the ring. There were several spots built around Suzuki fighting to land his cradle piledriver finisher, a move first utilized by catch wrestling legend Karl Gotch, who main-evented the first-ever New Japan show against Antonio Inoki in 1972 and helped train Suzuki and various other Japanese shooters in the 1970s and 80s. Goto picked up the win and title here, which I think was the right move. Suzuki will remain over regardless of wins and losses, and Goto, whose career has been heavily defined by his usual failure to “win the big one,” could use a major title victory, with the hair stipulation as a bonus. Of course, Suzuki already sported a stylized buzzcut on most of his head, but hair stipulations continue to carry more cultural weight in Mexico and Japan than in the United States, adding additional gravity to Goto’s victory here.

Match 6, IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship: Marty Scurll (champion) vs. Hiromu Takahashi vs. Will Ospreay vs. KUSHIDA

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Image Credit: https://www.njpw1972.com/16956

This match featured four of the top junior heavyweights in the world, and it did not disappoint. Scurll, from the UK, has made a splash with his “Villain” gimmick, which saw him enter with mechanized black-feathered wings at this show. Takahasi has become increasingly popular with the aid of Darryl, the stuffed cat that usually accompanies him to the ring. Will Ospreay has been a consistently excellent performer in junior matches in New Japan, and KUSHIDA has, more often than not, been the top star in the division.

This match was a fast-paced affair that featured numerous (seemingly requisite) dives and Scurll’s always-gut-wrenching finger-breaking spot. There isn’t much else to say here, really; all four are great wrestlers who consistently deliver, though the four-way nature of the match was a bit hectic and didn’t allow much time for any single spots to register before the next one. Ospreay won the match and title by pinning Scurll after the latter tried and ultimately failed to clean house with his umbrella. This is the fifth title change in five title matches on this card; I’m beginning to think this is all in preparation for a main-event surprise in which Okada retains his belt.

Match 7, IWGP Intercontinental Championship: Hiroshi Tanahashi (champion) vs. Jay White

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Image Credit: https://www.njpw1972.com/16956

Tanahashi appears to be in the waning years of his lengthy run as a top star in New Japan, while “Switchblade” Jay White is getting a surprisingly rapid push. White, from New Zealand and a product of the New Japan dojo, spent his overseas excursion in Ring of Honor, making a surprise return in October as “Switchblade” to attack Tanahashi and set up this match. Tanahashi is an excellent performer, but is desperately in need of an elbow surgery he’s delayed for nearly all of 2017. To make matters worse, Tanahashi injured his knee in late 2017, further limiting his mobility. In December, White attacked him again, partly to help establish that the veteran would not be 100% at Wrestle Kindom. Conventional wisdom would indicate that White will go over here, but never underestimate the stubborn, perhaps even vainglorious, determination of a top star to extend their run. I’m reminded of Paul Orndorff’s decision to delay neck surgery in 1986, when he was in a hot feud with Hogan, a decision that led to permanent nerve damage and atrophy in his left arm. I sincerely hope Tanahashi finally takes the time off to address his injury issues after this match, but I have my doubts.

The match’s narrative was well-done, as the ailing veteran desperately tried to fend off his young and hungry opponent. Much of the bout’s psychology was built around White working over Tanahashi’s injured knee, but the latter still managed to pull out several high spots, including a dive from the top rope to White on the outside. In the end, Tanahashi retained after hitting White with his High Fly Flow frog splash finisher, becoming the first champion to successfully defend their title on this show. And I am left wondering if he will attempt to continue wrestling through injuries, causing further damage to himself in the process.

Match 8, IWGP United States Championship, No Disqualifiaction: Kenny Omega (champion) vs. Chris Jericho

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Image Credit: https://www.f4wonline.com/japan/njpw-wrestle-kingdom-12-live-results-okada-naito-omega-jericho-249171

The build for this match was very American, in the sense that it featured the two trading out-of-ring assaults, amplifying the perceived animosity and resulting in a “no disqualification” stipulation. Beginning with their seemingly “real” feud on social media, the two have done an excellent job of building interest for this match, and it has seemingly paid dividends for New Japan in the form of increasing attention and interest in the United States and elsewhere. Dave Meltzer recently reported that this year’s Wrestle Kingdom sold more tickets outside Japan than any previous Tokyo Dome show.

Jericho entered first, with his light-ridden jacket and scarf, to a huge pop from the crowd. Conventional wisdom (which didn’t work in the last match) would suggest Omega goes over, as this is reportedly a one-shot deal for Jericho. If, however, he wins, it may indicate plans for a series of matches, which is not impossible given that he has no current WWE return date. The match was a fun brawl in the beginning, with lots of fighting around the announcers’ tables, complete with Jericho dropping several “f-bombs” that would most definitely not have been well received on a WWE show. The two utilized lots of props throughout, including several chairs and a table, items that rarely feature in typical New Japan matches.

The climax of the match featured an exciting series of near-falls, including Jericho escaping Omega’s One-Winged Angel finisher via rope break. I thought the finish was clever, with Jericho going for the Lionsault, only for Omega to throw a chair at his back, then catch him with a second One-Winged Angel for the pinfall. That’s two champions retaining their titles, and I suspect Jericho’s next appearance will be back in a WWE ring, whenever that may be. This match may not have been as technically sound as Omega’s trilogy with Okada, but it delivered on its “dream match” expectations, putting New Japan’s top gaijin over a future WWE Hall of Famer.

Match 9, IWGP Heavyweight Championship: Kazuchika Okada (champion) vs. Tetsuya Naito

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Image Credit: http://www.voicesofwrestling.com/2018/01/03/njpw-wrestle-kingdom-12-preview-predictions/

And now, New Japan’s current top two native stars will attempt to prove that their match is the show’s true main event, despite all the hype for Omega-Jericho. It may not be quite the spectacle of the previous match, but this should be the most technically sound of the show.

The pre-match psychology is interesting, as Naito kept staring off into space, intentionally looking away from Okada as the latter posed on the turnbuckle. As expected, the two put on a fantastic match, full of drama, reversals, and near-falls. I was fully expecting Naito to win this match, given his rise as the clear number two star in the company and the fact that Okada’s title reign has already broken every record there is to break in New Japan.

Instead of kicking out of finishers, a common dramatic element in American pro wrestling, match psychology in New Japan builds around avoiding or reversing an opponent’s attempts to use their finishing move, and there was plenty of that in this match. Late in the match, Okada kicked out of Naito’s Destino finisher, a rarity in a promotion where finishers are heavily protected. This usually only happens at the biggest shows, and it greatly adds to a match’s drama, because fans are conditioned to expect that a finishing move is the finale. When Okada hit Naito with a full-on Rainmaker (short-arm clothesline that opponents usually sell with a flip), I thought this would be a rare occasion in which someone would kick out of it, but I was wrong (and gasped audibly at the three-count!).

With the slew of title changes earlier on the card, I had a sneaking suspicion that there would be some retentions in the feature matches, but I was still surprised by this. We American fans have been conditioned to expect that the heavily-pushed championship challenger (Naito won the G1 tournament to earn this title shot, a la the Royal Rumble winner getting the WrestleMania championship match) will win at the biggest show of the year, but historically, top Japanese stars have been far more protected, more akin to Hulk Hogan’s push in the mid-1980s that saw him retain at WrestleManias 2 and III. Accordingly, Naito’s push was sacrificed to the greater objective of furthering Okada’s likely legacy as one of the greatest wrestlers of all time. I don’t think a loss would have hurt him here, but booker Gedo’s number one goal is to ensure Okada has an epic run (nearly) unmatched in the history of Japanese pro wrestling, and he’s certainly well on his way to that.

Conclusion

While this show didn’t live up to the high standards of last year’s event, and some of the booking decisions were surprising, I enjoyed it overall. Omega and Jericho delivered a wild brawl, and Omega got a win over one of the biggest names in wrestling. Okada and Naito had an excellent match, though I’m still not sure if Okada going over was the right call; some in the crowd seemed deflated after the pinfall, as expectations of a Naito victory had seemingly reached their zenith. The undercard was full of good matches, though in my opinion there were too many title changes, and too many titles, period.

Still, I’m eager to see where New Japan goes from here: Okada’s next challenger, the (still unlikely, in my opinion) possibility of a Jericho-Naito match (the two have had a recent “Twitter war”), and whether young talent such as Roppongi 3K and Jay White will continue their pushes into the new year. This year’s Wrestle Kingdom was more continuation that culmination, and in that sense, New Japan has succeeded in maintaining my interest in what happens next.

SummerSlam Part One: Preparations

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

This SummerSlam article got away from me. It’s about eight times longer than I intended, so I’m releasing it in two parts.

Part One is about my pre-SummerSlam preparations, including my reengagement with WWE after many years away. Part Two has my actual SummerSlam review, including my grades for each match, which, when tallied, will yield SummerSlam’s cumulative G.P.A.

Before I get going, I need to confess that, prior to writing it, I didn’t know what kind of review this (now) two-part article was going be. I didn’t know what tone I was shooting for, nor what voice I was writing in – in other words, what side of the “acafan” continuum I’d be leaning toward. Now that it’s all written, let me warn you that it leans sharply toward the fan side than it does the aca side. Or more precisely, it leans sharply toward the 1980s-era-smark-fan side.

Part One: Preparations (Or: I’m Writing a SummerSlam Review? Remind me: What’s SummerSlam again?)

summerslam2017

Just kidding! I know what SummerSlam is…it’s just that I don’t watch WWE all that much anymore. In fact, I haven’t seriously watched WWE since before SummerSlam even existed!

Now, if I’m channel surfing on a Monday night, and I happen to land on the USA Network, I’ll pause to see what’s going on, hoping to take in some good in-ring action – something that will remind me why WWE is the flagship company, why every wrestler in the universe hopes to make it there.

Here’s how my experience checking in with WWE inevitably goes (or, at least, this is what it feels like):

  • 5 minutes in – Lots of talking, no wrestling.
  • 10 minutes in – More talking, no wrestling.
  • 15 minutes in – Yay! Wrestling! FINALLY!
  • 15 minutes and 30 seconds in – They’re cutting to commercial in the middle of the match? WTF???

Back to channel surfing.

I used to be a fan of the WWE. Actually, let me be more precise: I used to be a fan of the WWF. I mean, a huge fan. I collected WWF trading cards and action figures; I watched Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling on Saturday mornings; I could sing the lyrics to every song on The Wrestling Album, which I owned on vinyl; I watched the first WrestleMania, via closed-circuit TV at the Toronto International Centre; and I even remember somehow scoring tickets to the Toronto premiere of that gawd-awful Hulk Hogan movie No Holds Barred, which played in the teeniest, tiniest of the Eaton Centre’s mind-blowingly huge (at the time) 18 screens.

Hulk_Hogan's_Rock_'n'_Wrestling

And I watched a ton of wrestling. It came on TV three or four times per week, as far as I remember. We’d get Stu Hart’s Calgary Stampede Wrestling and Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association. From time to time we’d also get Jim Crockett Jr.’s Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling. But above all else, we’d get a healthy dosage of Maple Leaf Wrestling. Back in the day, MLW was my home territory with weekly TV tapings shot in the old Maple Leaf Gardens, which wrestling buffs will remember for having that giant ramp that led from the backstage area up to the ring apron.

Iron-SheikVince McMahon took over MLW in the mid-1980s, so I watched the WWF Golden Age superstars during my pre-teen years – Hulk Hogan, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Junkyard Dog, Captain Lou Albano, Andre the Giant, “The Macho Man” Randy Savage, The Hart Foundation, and so forth. My favorites were always the wrestlers with the goofiest gimmicks: George “The Animal” Steele, The Missing Link, The Moondogs, and especially, The Iron Sheik, who, even though he “borrowed” his gimmick from the original Sheik, he played it with such over the top virtuosity that he remains my favorite wrestler of all time.

IronMikeMLW also featured a local jobber I really, really liked: “Iron” Mike Sharpe, who was always introduced as “Canada’s greatest athlete.” He never won a match, but he was a jobber with an actual gimmick: an old forearm injury that forced him to wear a protective leather sleeve…which was rumored to be loaded with a metal plate, thus making his forearm smash lethal.

Yes, Iron Mike Sharpe had a lethal forearm smash. No wonder he was Canada’s greatest athlete.

Long story short: as the WWF’s Golden Age morphed into the Monday Night Wars and the Attitude Era, I grew a little bit older and little bit less interested – not overnight, but gradually, over time. Stone Cold and The Rock were interesting enough, and the Hardy Boyz did some crazy stuff in the ring – and I really did get a kick out of Goldust – but the new WWE didn’t have a place for the “Iron” Mike Sharpes and George “The Animal” Steeles of my childhood. And I definitely couldn’t stand the new backstage “unscripted” stuff, which I found to be forced and annoying – and falling well short of the Shakespearian heights of Piper’s Pit and The Brother Love Show.

Eventually, probably in the late 1990s, I pretty much dropped out of wrestling fandom. I mean, I was vaguely aware of who the big stars were at any given moment, but I didn’t really watch the WWF/E on TV. And though I would gleefully reminisce with anyone about the old WWF – especially about “Iron” Mike Sharpe, if anyone could remember him – my wrestling days felt like they were behind me.

But then, in 2007, I moved to Charlotte NC and discovered the glorious world of southern indie wrestling, and that old wrestling spark reignited! If you’re interested, you can read about some of my forays into indie wrestling here. Suffice it to say, I’m now plugged into the indie scene in the Piedmont region of the Carolinas in a more personal, intimate way than I ever was with the Golden Age of the WWF.

Let me put this a different way to give you get a sense for where my wrestling fandom is now located. Here is a list, as best I can reconstruct it, of all of the local indie promotions whose shows I’ve attended since I last watched a WWF/E show in its entirety:

I’ve also seen Big Time Wrestling shows that have come to the region, as well as a couple of TNA (now Global Force Wrestling) shows – and I think one Ring of Honor show (though I can’t remember if I actually went to their Charlotte show a few years back, or if I tried to go but couldn’t for some reason).

What do I like about the indies so much? I like the gritty, old school feel. I like the small, intimate settings that allow for a much more immediate back and forth between fans and wrestlers. It’s pro wrestling stripped of all the WWE’s glitz and glamour – kind of like DIY kayfabe: nothing flashy, but totally authentic. Southern indie wrestling, in other words, is a throwback to the late Territory Era, right when a handful southern promoters – Bill Watts, Jerry Jarrett, Jim Crockett Jr., Vince McMahon – began thinking about taking their territories national. So, maybe like late 1970s to early 1980s professional wrestling, which, probably not coincidentally, corresponds to my earliest wrestling memories.

APWI admit it: southern indie wrestling tugs my nostalgia heartstrings.

All of this now brings me now to SummerSlam – or at least to my decision to write a review of SummerSlam for PWSA, even though I’m much more up to speed on Premiere Wrestling Xperience’s “Man Scout” Jake Manning (suspended!) than I am with WWE’s current champion, Jindar Mahal – whom I know more from the New York Times feature on him than I do from actually watching him in the ring.

(Aside: praise wrestling Jeebus that the phrase “Indian wrestler” no longer conjures memories of the most cringe-worthy wrestler of all time, The Great Khali!)

SummerSlam will be my first intentional reengagement with the WWE for a long, long time. I will admit that I’m quite looking forward to it! 

Getting Ready for SummerSlam

WWEnetworkStep 1: Sign up for a free month-long trial of the WWE Network.

Step 2: Set a calendar reminder for 30 days hence to cancel the WWE Network.

Step 3: Download the WWE Network on all my devices and login to see if it works.

It does.

But what’s this? A video is automatically loading? Whatever could this be?

“The Top Ten WWE Comebacks.”

Huh. I wonder what the top ten comebacks could possibly be? Maybe I’ll watch for a couple of minutes before I get back to work on that academic article that’s been kicking my butt this summer.

Okay, they’re counting down from number 10…

#10 Bret “The Hitman” Hart

Bret_Hart“How’d you know I’d be watching this?”, I ask the WWE auto-loading video? Not only does it start with a WWF Golden Age icon, it starts with a WWF Golden Age icon who is also bona fide Canadian wrestling royalty! I remember watching Bret Hart on Calgary Stampede Wrestling before he was “The Hitman,” before the Hart Foundation, before he rocked the coolest sunglasses in the history of professional wrestling.

The Hitman’s exit from the WWF, following the infamous Montreal Screwjob, is the stuff of legend: legit backstage heat between Hart and Shawn Michaels; the two squaring off at Survivor Series in Montreal for Hart’s heavyweight championship; Michaels putting Hart in Hart’s own sharpshooter; referee Earl Hebner surprising Hart with a really quick bell; a stunned Hart hocking a giant loogie at McMahon (and, given the distance, impressively hitting him in the ear); Hart decking McMahon in the locker room afterwards; Hart gone from the WWE, his hatred of Michaels, McMahon, and the entire company simmering for over a decade…until his shocking return in 2005, burying the hatchet with Michaels, and getting inducted, rightfully, into the Hall of Fame.

There are nine better comebacks than this? How is this possible?

I must keep watching.

#9: Chris Jericho

Y2J’s comeback was better than Hart’s? Impossible. I mean, Jericho was a great worker…but how is this comeback remotely comparable to the Montreal Screwjob and a 13-year hate-filled exile and Prodigal Son-esque return?

Well, at least Jericho is also Canadian. I’ll give you a pass this once, WWE auto-loading video. But you better come through with #8, or I’m logging off and getting back to that academic article you’re distracting me from.

#8: Hulk Hogan

Touché, WWE auto-loading video. You have identified the comeback that just might be as great as Hart’s, even though the Hulkster wasn’t a quarter of the in-ring worker as Hart, and even though Hogan owned what is unquestionably the lamest finishing move in the history of the WWF/E. None of that matters because during the Golden Age, Hulk Hogan was the WWF.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yt6Sh0k2TaA

Everyone knows the story of Hogan’s exit and return: Monday Night Wars; mass defections to WCW; Hollywood Hulk and nWo; WWF on life support. And then, out of nowhere, Vince miraculously acquires WCW and Mr. Golden Age returns (but with a weird painted-on black beard).

Now that’s a comeback!

RockHoganOh wow, auto-loading video just reminded me that Hogan battled The Rock in WrestleMania 18. We’ll call that the matchup between the lamest finishing move in the history of professional wrestling (double leg drop) against the second lamest finishing move in the history of professional wrestling (the people’s elbow).

There are 7 better comebacks than Hogan’s? How is this possible? I’ll watch one more…then back to work.

#7: Sting

Huh? Sting?

Is there a glitch in the WWE app? Did the video switch to “top-ten face paint”?

Sting1Sting2I’m not even sure Sting ever actually left WCW. Now, granted I was beginning to lose interest in wrestling by the mid-1990s, so my memory is a little hazy here…and I never knew the WCW like I did the WWF anyway…but didn’t Sting merely change his makeup and wrestling outfit? He went from colorful and happy to dark and brooding?

AdonisHow does a character flip count as a comeback? You are drunk, WWE auto-loading video. By this standard Adrian Adonis should be #1.

I’ll give you one more chance to prove yourself – and then I’m going back to work.

#6: Shawn Michaels

Okay, this was a good comeback. I’ll admit it.

But on behalf of Bret “The Hitman” Hart (circa. 1997-2005) and all Canadian wrestling fans everywhere, I hereby announce my objection to Michaels’ comeback listed ahead of Hart’s.

And Hogan’s for that matter.

But Michaels definitely deserves to be above Sting. But not Jericho (because of the whole Canadian thing).

#5: Edge

EdgeEdge? Edge???

Raise your hand if give a sh!t about Edge.

Even if you just raised your hand, how was his comeback better than that of Canadian wrestling royalty? Or that of the most recognizable professional wrestler in the history of professional wrestling?

Reeeeeeeeedunculous.

Oh wait. Edge is Canadian too, right? (Wikipedia confirms.) Okay, I’ll give him a pass…even though he’s not Canadian wrestling loyalty.

He also came back from a ruptured Achilles in 8 months. I ruptured mine right around the same time as he ruptured his (must be a structural flaw in the Canadian anatomy) and it took me a solid year to come back. Props to him. He can stay on the list.

#4: Brock Lesnar

Dumb. Whoever voted on this stuff has no historical perspective.

Oh wait. Lesnar is semi-Canadian. I guess I’m forced to give this a semi-pass.

Before I go on: What’s the deal with Canadian comebacks? Is this some kind of standard wrestling angle I wasn’t aware of? The American hero who fights off the foreign threat. Best friends competing for the love of the same woman. The evil boss who jerks around the fan favorite. The Canadian who’s gone for a while then comes back?

I don’t know: that last one just doesn’t seem to have the same je ne sais quoi. (Thought I’d write that last phrase in Canadian.)

#3: Undertaker

Wait…what’s this, WWE auto-loading video? Undertaker isn’t actually #3? This is just a gratuitous addition to the list of ten for the simple reason that Undertaker keeps “dying” and then coming back?

But that’s his whole gimmick! He’s the dead man. He dies and he comes back! Isn’t this supposed to be a shoot list, not a work list?

I am going to make an executive decision here and declare all worked comebacks ineligible for this list. Undertaker, your special category is hereby vacated. Sting, you are also disqualified.

In the slot vacated by Sting, I am officially inserting Jake “The Snake” Roberts. He left a maleficent keeper of gigantic snakes with names like Damian and Lucifer; he came back a Bible quoting, born-again Christian — with a gigantic snake named Revelations.

Now that’s a comeback!

Real #3: Triple H

Better than Hart? Better than Hogan? Better than Michaels?

Nope.

I’m suspicious of you, WWE auto-loading video. How did you put this list together?

What’s that, you say? Fans voted?

Ah, this is starting to make sense. Edge, Undertaker, Jericho, both halves of D-Generation X: 80% of the votes were cast by fans who were 10 years old during the Attitude Era. Who’s next on the list? The Rock?

#2: The Rock

Thanks, millennials. You ruin everything. Retirement funds, napkins, golf, dinner dates, department stores, churchgoing, home-owning, Applebee’s, and now WWE Network auto-loading top-10 lists.

But I will give you this: The Rock had mic skills! The footage in the auto-loading video of him trash talking John Cena, mocking his bland wrestling outfit and his face-wavey thing, is pure wrestling gold!

#1: John Cena

Of course millennials vote Cena #1. They have no respect (please speak this in your head with your best Iron Sheik accent).

John Cena: the Wonder Bread face of the WWE. Suffice it to say, in the battle between “Let’s go Cena” and “Cena sucks,” I’m firmly with the latter.

But I do think his entrance music is kind of great. The jorts…not so much.

 

Finally, the WWE auto-loading video is over, and I’ve just lost a good hour of work on that article I’m supposed to be writing. But before I get back to it, I absolutely must take a quick peek at the WWE Network’s much ballyhooed vault. How best to test its capacity?

IronMikeI know: I’ll run a search for my favorite Canadian jobber, “Iron” Mike Sharpe.

You gotta be kidding me! 19 pages of results! 190 “Iron” Mike Sharpe matches to watch!

I bow to you, WWE vault.

For nostalgia’s sake, I need to watch one. The first page has an “Iron” Mike vs. S.D. “Special Delivery” Jones match in a rare jobber vs. jobber match.

Oh yeah, I’m definitely watching this. Maybe I can dig up “Iron” Mike vs. Barry Horowitz or “Iron” Mike vs. Barry O match after.

The match loads and plays, and there he is: the “Iron” Mike of my childhood, grunting his way around the ring, protective shield around his “injured” right forearm…when out of nowhere, he crushes S.D. Jones with a lethal forearm smash…S.D. goes down, “Iron” Mike goes for the pin…one…two…three!

WHAAAATTT??? “Iron” Mike actually won a match during his career?

(I just checked Wikipedia: “Iron” Mike got a brief push during his WWF career. I have no memory of this.)

Now, you may be asking yourself: Dan, why do you bash Hulk Hogan’s and The Rock’s ridiculous finishing moves, but not “Iron” Mike’s? Why are a double leg drop and an elbow smash lame finishers, but a forearm smash a fantastic one?

Isn’t the difference obvious? “Iron” Mike wore a leather sleeve over his forearm to protect an old “injury,” and said protective sleeve was long rumored to conceal some sort of unauthorized metal plate. When the forearm-sleeve-plate connects with the side of an opponent’s head – especially when that the blow is delivered by “Canada’s Greatest Athlete”– well, that obviously knocks his opponent out. One, two, three, “Iron” Mike for the win.

MissingLinkOkay, I really must turn off the WWE Network. If I let myself, I’d be watching it for the next three days straight – chasing down old Missing Link matches, and such.

Let me end this section by saying this: the WWE Network is really cool. Supremely disruptive of my summer research plans…but cool nonetheless.

Next up: Part Two.