Review – All In

Fan Reviews, Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

For those unaware, All In, which took place at the Sears Centre Arena just outside Chicago, IL on September 1, 2018, came about because of a tweet posted on May 16, 2017 by Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer. In the tweet, Meltzer denied that an independent wrestling promotion like Ring of Honor (ROH) could ever sell out a large arena like Madison Square Garden. Former World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Superstar turned indie darling Cody Rhodes decided to prove Meltzer wrong, teaming with Matt and Nick Jackson (collectively known as The Young Bucks) to organize the biggest independent wrestling show in at least 20 years, if not more. Cody and the Bucks took a huge chance on this show, because it held the potential to be a disaster of epic proportions, especially if the trio failed to fill the venue as promised. Luckily for them, a reported 11,263 rabid wrestling fans heeded the call, filling the Sears Centre to capacity and making All In both a resounding success and a historic (not to mention potentially game-changing) event that took the professional wrestling world by storm.

As Uproxx’s Brandon Stroud pointed out, Cody and the Bucks put together a show that celebrated the past, present, and future of professional wrestling. They made sure to book matches and performers that offered a little something for everyone, from casual fans to the smarkiest of smarks to the curmudgeonly old school types who lament the death of kayfabe and feel that people like Joey Ryan (who practically stole the show with his brief appearance) are “killing the business.” Over the course of five hours, All In turned the National Wrestling Alliance’s (NWA) World’s Heavyweight Championship into the most important title in wrestling, showcased some of the best professional wrestlers in the world, provided a platform for several young up-and-coming wrestlers who deserve wider recognition, paid homage to the stars of the past, and entertained fans with some incredible wrestling. In other words, it was a great show from top to bottom, serving as a nice antidote to the homogenized—and frankly stale—product offered by WWE (though even that has its place in the world of professional wrestling).

The show itself was preceded by All In: Zero Hour, an hour-long preshow event that aired live on WGN America and kicked off with a quick but brutal match between Southern California Uncensored or SCU (comprised of Frankie Kazarian and Scorpio Sky) and The Briscoe Brothers (Jay Briscoe and Mark Briscoe). Though somewhat sloppy at times, the match was fast-paced and entertaining, and it served as a good way to start the whole event because it perfectly encapsulated the feeling of All In: exciting, fun, hard-hitting, different, and not always pretty (the Briscoes were famously deemed too ugly for WWE). SCU picked up the win after Kazarian reversed a springboard doomsday device and hit Mark Briscoe with a vicious powerslam before successfully pinning him.

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Image credit: https://www.tpww.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/all-in-zero-hour.jpg

This was followed by the Over Budget Battle Royal, which featured some of the top stars from ROH, Impact Wrestling, and the indie circuit. The match was characterized by fast and furious action, but every single participant got a spotlight thanks to some great storytelling. Indeed, the frantic and fun battle royal showcased the friendship between Chuck Taylor and Trent Barretta, the tenacity of newcomer Marko Stunt, the power of Jordynn Grace (the only woman in the match), and more. Of course, the match’s ultimate purpose was to get Flip Gordon (repeatedly excluded from participating in All In by Rhodes) onto the main show. ROH mainstay Bully Ray (aka Bubba Ray Dudley) appeared to win the match but was ultimately eliminated by Gordon, who was disguised as masked wrestler Chico El Luchador. Thus, Gordon earned a title shot against ROH champion Jay Lethal later in the night (more on that in a bit).

All In proper began with three preliminary matches, starting with a thrilling singles match between MJF and veteran indie wrestler Matt Cross, who also portrays fan-favorite character Son of Havoc on Lucha Underground. After some exciting back-and-forth action, Cross hit MJF with a pitch-perfect shooting star press and emerged victorious. After that, Arrow star Stephen Amell faced “The Fallen Angel” Christopher Daniels (the third member of SCU) in a brutal contest that saw Amell jump from the top rope only to crash through a table on the floor. Despite some minor botches here and there, Amell acquitted himself well and delivered a respectable performance. It helped that he was in the ring with a knowledgeable veteran like Daniels, one of the best wrestlers of the past 20 years. Following the table spot, Daniels rolled Amell back into the ring and nailed him with the Best Moonsault Ever to win the match. Next up, Chelsea Green, Madison Rayne, Britt Baker, and Tessa Blanchard competed in a four-corner survival match that constituted the only women’s match on the card. All four women gave it their all throughout the match, and the crowd responded to their efforts by cheering wildly and chanting “This is awesome!” more than once. Blanchard eventually won the match after hitting a hammerlock DDT on Green, and while this was the absolute right choice, the ending still felt somewhat off (it seemed like either Rayne or Baker were supposed to break up the pin but missed the cue). Nevertheless, this was a truly exhilarating match that culminated with all four women celebrating together in the ring.

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Image credit: https://statics.sportskeeda.com/editor/2018/09/05f8b-1536103448-800.jpg

The crowd was still buzzing as a video package played to set up the next contest, which saw Cody Rhodes challenge Nick Aldis for the NWA World’s Heavyweight Championship. Rhodes made his way to the ring accompanied by an entourage that included his wife Brandi, his dog Pharoah, and coaches Diamond Dallas Page, Glacier, and Tommy Dreamer. Aldis, meanwhile, walked to the ring alongside Sam Shaw, Shawn Daivari, and Jeff Jarrett (who received a cool reception from the crowd). The match felt like an extended homage to the NWA matches of the past, complete with an injury angle, a blade job by Cody, a run-in by Daivari (who ran straight into a Diamond Cutter delivered by DDP), and a lot of old school grappling from bother performers. It also featured plenty of drama and powerful storytelling. For instance, near the end of the match, Aldis climbed to the top rope to deliver a diving elbow drop on an unconscious Cody, only for Brandi to throw herself on top of her husband’s prone body and take the brunt of the move. This sacrifice allowed Cody to recover and hit Aldis with a Disaster Kick followed by a Cross Rhodes for the win. The post-match celebration was possibly the most emotionally powerful moment of the night, as a tearful Cody clutched the belt that his father, Dusty, helped make famous.

The next match wrapped up one of the longest-running storylines on the Bucks’ YouTube series Being the Elite and led to All In’s funniest (and possibly best) moment. “Hangman” Adam Page faced “Bad Boy” Joey Janela in a Chicago Street Fight that remained mostly confined to the ring and the surrounding area but still managed to be both vicious and innovative. Each man unleashed and endured brutal punishment during the encounter, though Janela absorbed most of it and was visibly bruised and battered by the end of the match. At one point, Janela’s valet, Penelope Ford, entered the ring and showed off her impressive athletic skills as she tried to save her man from Page’s devastating assault. However, even this was not enough to stop Page’s rampage as he continued to pummel Janela throughout the match, which ended when Page laid out Janela with a Rite of Passage off the top of a ladder through a table in the middle of the ring. After the match, in a moment that recalled The Undertaker’s entrance, the arena lights went out and a video of Joey Ryan, killed by Page several months earlier (watch Being the Elite for the full story), appeared on the screen. A bloody and seemingly deceased Ryan lay in a hotel bed, but then his penis started moving, indicating there was still life in the body (seriously, watch Being the Elite). At that point, a procession of men dressed in inflatable penis costumes solemnly marched to the ring followed by Ryan, who emerged to thunderous applause. Ryan performed his patented YouPorn Plex on a stunned Page, who was then carried from the arena by the Dick Druids (for lack of a better term) while the crowd cheered. Side note: Professional wrestling is amazing.

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Image credit: https://411mania.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/joey-ryan-all-in-entrance-645×366.jpg

Up next was the ROH title match between Gordon and Lethal, who wrestled as Black Machismo, a gimmick centered around Lethal’s spot-on “Macho Man” Randy Savage impersonation. Savage’s brother, Lanny Poffo (who previously wrestled for WWE as “Leapin’” Lanny Poffo and The Genius), even accompanied Lethal to the ring. The match started with Lethal and Gordon performing an extended homage to the Savage/Steamboat match from WrestleMania III via a sequence of moves that recalled that seminal match. It was an impressive performance from both men, who managed to balance the wackiness and the drama almost perfectly. About halfway through the match, Lethal “woke up” from his daze and wrestled the rest of the match as himself. From that point on, the action ramped up as both men hit big moves on their opponent and, in true ROH style, kicked out of multiple finishers. Gordon showed a lot of heart and was clearly the crowd favorite, but nonetheless he failed to earn the victory. After an intense battle, Lethal hit his signature move, the Lethal Injection, to defeat Gordon and retain the ROH title. After the match, the two competitors shook hands in a show of mutual respect but were interrupted by a returning Bully Ray who was looking for a measure of revenge against Gordon. Bully Ray beat down both men, but thankfully Chicago’s own Colt Cabana came out to make the save, teaming with Gordon and Lethal to put Bully Ray through a table via a triple powerbomb.

This triumphant moment was followed by two dream matches, starting with “The Cleaner” Kenny Omega taking on Penta El Zero M (aka AAA and Lucha Underground star, Pentagon, Jr.). Back in 2017, during a six-man tag team match that took place at PWG’s Battle of Los Angeles (BOLA), Omega squared off against Penta for the first time ever in a brief confrontation that only left fans wanting more. Thankfully, Cody and the Bucks were more than willing to give the people what they wanted, and they booked Omega vs. Penta in a singles match at All In. The two competitors faced off in a thrilling encounter marked by some truly hard-hitting action, with each man throwing their most devastating moves at the other throughout the nearly 20-minute match. Omega hit Penta with several V Triggers (one of his signature moves), while Penta retaliated with several wicked chops and a devastating package piledriver on the ring apron. Yet, despite their best efforts, neither man could put the other away. That changed, however, when Omega managed to finally hit Penta with One-Winged Angel after repeated failed attempts. This allowed Omega to come out on top, much to the delight of the fans in attendance, who remained loud and rowdy throughout the entire encounter.

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Image credit: https://lwosonprowrestling.ms.lastwordonsports.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/15/2018/08/all-in-penta-omega.jpg

The next dream match saw “The Villain” Marty Scurll battle “The Rainmaker” Kazuchika Okada one-on-one. The story of the match was that Scurll wanted to prove he was main event talent by beating one of the very best wrestlers in the entire world. Okada, meanwhile, abandoned his recent crazy gimmick (which he adopted after losing the IWGP Heavyweight Championship to Omega) in favor of his seemingly unstoppable “Rainmaker” persona for the match at All In. Even with this development, the match proved grueling for both men, who hit each other with everything they had as they struggled to pick up the win. Scurll looked like a top contender throughout the contest, holding his own against a massively overpowered opponent. At the same time, Okada demonstrated exactly why he is considered one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, appearing charismatic and tough while executing some of the most exciting moves ever seen in a professional wrestling ring. The match also featured some excellent storytelling, as each man got to strut their stuff and bust out their signature moves in some exhilarating ways. For instance, Scurll has recently been dogged by chants of “205,” a reference to WWE’s 205 Live and his less-than-heavyweight stature. At one point, Okada made “205” gestures with his right hand as a prelude to hitting Scurll with his finisher, the Rainmaker, but this momentary act of hubris allowed Scurll to grab Okada’s fingers and “break” them using one of his own signature moves. Ultimately, Okada came out on top after nailing Scurll with two consecutive Rainmakers, but Scurll left the ring looking like a main-event-caliber performer.

The show concluded with a chaotic six-man tag team match in which New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) star Kota Ibushi teamed with the Bucks against Rey Fénix, Bandido, and legendary luchador Rey Mysterio (who came to the ring dressed like Wolverine of the X-Men). Sadly, the match was pressed for time and the performers had to hurry to hit all their spots, marring the flow of the contest somewhat. Nevertheless, it was a fun encounter that featured a couple of fantastic sequences, most notably a one-on-one face-off between Ibushi and Mysterio that, like Omega/Penta at BOLA, left the crowd wanting more. Everyone else got a moment to shine, though Bandido benefited the most from the match; it was a perfect venue for him to strut his stuff and show the crowd exactly why he is currently one of the most buzzworthy wrestlers around. The match ended when the Bucks hit Bandido with the Meltzer Driver and pinned him for the win. Afterward, all the performers embraced and celebrated together while the crowd roared their approval. As the luchadors walked to the back, Cody, Brandi, Omega, and Matt and Nick’s families came to the ring. Cody and the Bucks then delivered an impassioned speech about how All In represented a revolution in professional wrestling, and they credited the massive crowd with helping to make it happen. After some concluding remarks from Omega, the performers retreated backstage to a standing ovation from the rowdy crowd.

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Image credit: https://lwosonprowrestling.ms.lastwordonsports.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/15/2018/08/all-in-penta-omega.jpg

It remains to be seen if the show is indeed the game changer that Cody and the Bucks claim, but one thing is certain: All In felt like something different, something that absolutely has the potential to alter the professional wrestling landscape, long dominated by WWE and its brand of sports entertainment. That Cody and the Bucks managed to book an independent wrestling show that sold out a large arena and attracted 11,263 people suggests that wrestling fans are hungry for a change and want something more than what they get from WWE programming. Indeed, the crowd responded enthusiastically when Matt and Nick teased the possibility of a second All In (title suggestion: “All In – Too Sweet”), suggesting that any potential follow-up show would likely draw as many people as the first. The runaway triumph of All In also demonstrates the power of social media holds over professional wrestling because Cody and the Bucks accomplished this historic feat largely due to their savvy use of platforms like YouTube and Twitter.

Ultimately, All In shined a light on the larger professional wrestling world beyond the confines of WWE, which was always at its best when facing competition from other companies (such as WCW). This is why it is ultimately pointless to compare what Cody and the Bucks did to what Vince and company do on a weekly basis (a comparison that forms the basis of many All In reviews). There is room for both because they each appeal to different audiences. In the end, All In demonstrates the need for someone that can compete with WWE rather than replace it, because healthy competition brings out the best in everyone involved, which benefits wrestling fans. Regardless of whether a second show ever materializes, All In will stand as a great independent wrestling show, as well as a historic moment in the history of the professional wrestling industry.

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.