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Heading into an uncertain wrestling future, the momentum for New Japan Pro Wrestling is in a questionable place. The company, which has gained so much ground in the West over the last couple of years, is at a cross-road. While business success continues to climb, especially in the United States, the talk among fans and pundits seems to be trending in a negative direction.
Heading into Wrestle Kingdom 13, a common sentiment that I heard among fans was that this year's show did not have the same hype as last year's show. While most fans would agree that on paper the matches looked to be as good as ever, the overall sense was that the show didn't feel as important as it did a year ago.
I think there are a number of reasons why fans seem down on the show. The first is that last year had Kenny Omega vs Chris Jericho, which remains by far the Japanese match that garnered the most attention in America. While Omega vs Tanahashi and Jericho vs Naito are still big matches, the novelty of seeing Jericho wrestle outside of WWE against a top name has worn off. Omega and Tanhashi had an interesting build, one that I personally really enjoyed but I understand if not all fans, especially more recent fans who were not following the product during the dark days before Tanahashi saved the company, are really engrossed by it.
The second reason is that All Elite Wrestling has come along and been the major talking point for wrestling fans. Last year leading up to Wrestle Kingdom the biggest story in wrestling outside of WWE was Jericho vs Omega, but this year all anyone really wants to talk about is AEW. It's unfortunate for NJPW that their biggest show of the year ended up taking place three days after AEW was formally announced, and that announcement has certainly sucked some of the momentum out of Wrestle Kingdom, especially amongst American fans.
That isn't to say that Wrestle Kingdom wasn't a success. In Japan, it drew the largest crowd to the Tokyo Dome to see a NJPW show in more than a decade, and the show was filled with top matches up and down the card. The show may have lacked the same buzz on social media that last year's show had, but it was still a very big, successful show. I do think though, that NJPW potentially has a rough patch to go through in 2019, particularly when it comes to their ambitions in the US market.
The expected losses of The Young Bucks, Adam Page and Cody Rhodes, all of whom have been instrumental in NJPW's expansion in the West, is going to be a significant problem for NJPW. There is no denying that The Elite are NJPW's top act in the United States and Canada, you only have to look at the top of every card the company has run in North America to see that. But with most of The Elite likely gone (and Kenny Omega may be on the way out as well) from NJPW, the company's expansion plans in the United States have taken a step-back.
That pessimism may not turn out to be warranted. NJPW still has their biggest US show in history, a sell-out of Madison Square Garden during WrestleMania weekend, on the calendar for 2019. In addition, the company has found some success in promoting smaller shows in the US, particularly the New Beginning Shows that will take place in Los Angeles and North Carolina later this month. Unlike past shows in the US, the New Beginning Shows have been advertised as smaller shows; ones that will feature a few recognizable NJPW names but will mostly be filled with young talent that have been training in NJPW's American dojo in California. Still, the events in North Carolina and Los Angeles sold out almost instantly, and while they are in significantly smaller buildings than previous American NJPW shows, it does show that the NJPW brand alone has some drawing in the US, even without advertising its top stars.
There is no doubt that losing most of The Elite hampers NJPW's expansion plans in the US, but that still shouldn't deter the company too much. While some fans admittedly only followed the company due to The Elite, the rest of the roster has found success in America as well, and talent like Okada, Tanahashi and Naito are still relevant draws in the US.
If the company is able to retain Omega, or better yet, establish a working relationship with All Elite Wrestling, the company should still be a viable draw in the United States.
At Wrestle Kindgom 13 the company announced two more major shows for the Western market. The first was that the first night of the G1 Climax this July will take place in Dallas, at American Airlines Arena. This is a big move for NJPW; the first night of the G1 is one of their biggest shows of the year and they will be holding it in a major American arena (the arena can hold over 20,000 people) in a city they have never toured in before. The second major show outside of Japan will actually be in London at the Copper Box Arena. This is a no-brainer for NJPW, they've grown a ton in the UK over the last several years and they shouldn't have any problem selling out the 7,000 seat arena.
I think these events are very positive developments for NJPW. I think the criticism from their tours in the US last year was that they ran shows too close to each other, and they ran them in the same market. By sticking to a limited amount of shows, but making them a big deal and putting them in major arenas in new markets, I think the outlook for the promotion remains sunny despite the loss of some talent and the emergence of AEW.
Wrestle Kingdom 13 Review
Kenny Omega vs Hiroshi Tanahashi: *****
In a career full of greatest hits, Tanahashi may have delivered his masterpiece in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 13. Tanahashi is not the most athletic wrestler in NJPW, or the one that takes the most risks, but his mastering of the fundamentals and ability to connect with the live audience is second to none. The story of the match was that as athletic as Omega is, the older Tanahashi simply willed himself to defeat his opponent.
While the main story of the match was the legend Tanahashi rising to the top once more; I was equally entertained by the storyline surrounding Omega. The announces noted before the match that Omega, despite rebuilding the relationships with his friends and capturing the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship, he didn't seem particularly happy. In the build-up to the match Omega was arrogant in his promos, practically burying Tanahashi for being delusional in thinking he could still be the champion. In the end, Omega was defeated by his own hubris as much as he was defeated by Tanahashi. It will be interesting to see how that plays out in storyline now that Omega has lost the title.
Chris Jericho vs Testuya Naito: ****1/2
Chris Jericho probably could work a more traditional, NJPW match because he's still a pretty good athlete and has experience. Jericho however, isn't as good as he is because he tries to do what others do best, his greatest skill is being able to work a different style that suits his skill-set the best. On a show that featured plenty of athletic, traditional-style matches, Jericho's brawl with Testuya Naito stood out for its unique brawling style (that DDT onto the table was SICK) and use of foreign objects. If every match featured those elements, this match wouldn't have worked so well. It's the diversity in each match that makes a show great.
The match may have ended the program between Jericho and Naito, and while some fans may have considered 2018 a lost year for Naito, I think the program with Jericho served it's purpose. Naito had to go through this ugly war with Jericho in order to regain the momentum he lost last year at the Tokyo Dome. With Jericho in his rear view, I think the road is clear for Naito to get back into rhythm and he may end up being a bigger star because he chased Jericho for six months.
Jay White vs Kazuchika Okada: ****1/2
Despite the fact that White picked up the victory, Okada remained the real star of the match and cemented his case as the greatest performer in the history of wrestling at the Tokyo Dome. White has been a polarizing figure to NJPW fans, but he delivered a great performance today, no doubt aided by the fact that he was working with Okada. The finishing sequence of this match; with Okada and White teasing a dozen big moves before White caught him with a surprise Blade Runner for the clean victory, was an outstanding combination of storytelling and perfect coordination.
I really liked the commentary throughout the show, as Kevin Kelly, Don Callis and Chris Charlton work really well together. Following White's victory, Callis did a great job putting White over and praised Gedo's decision to ditch Okada in favor of White. The commentary's job is to sell the product to the viewer and help get the talent over, and this team does a better job than anybody else at doing that.
Will Ospreay vs Kota Ibushi: ****1/4
Expectations were extremely high for this match, and while it's not fair to say it was a disappointment, but Ibushi's injury did detract a bit from the match. There were certain portions of the match, such as the upside-down slap battle, that were tremendous and it was clear that both these performers had a lot of creative ideas for the match. The athleticism and coordination is off the charts, and I really hope Ibushi is okay and we can see more of these two in 2019.
Taiji Ishimori vs KUSHIDA: ****
This was a very well-wrestled match between two veterans. Ishimori is really well-rounded but he hadn't done a ton after making it to the Best of the Super Juniors final last spring. Defeating KUSHIDA at Wrestle Kingdom puts the focus on the Jr. Heavyweight division on his shoulders, and he should be able to carry it; especially because as a new face in the division, matches against guys like Marty Scurll, Ryusuke Taguchi, BUSHI, Shingo Takagi and others will be fresh programs. The announcers made it seem like this might be some sort of end for KUSHIDA; whose contract is up and has been rumored to have interest from WWE.
Tomohiro Ishii vs Zack Sabre Jr.: ***3/4
When it came to the singles matches on the undercard, it did seem like NJPW was trying to get over the foreign wrestlers that are going to be with the company in 2019. Obviously White's victory was a big one, but Ospreay and Sabre picked up big wins as well. Sabre defeating Ishii for the British Heavyweight Championship is a pretty big deal, Ishii is firmly in the tier below the very top stars in the company and Sabre submitting him at the Tokyo Dome is a big vote of confidence from NJPW officials that they believe in Sabre's ability to be a major player in the company.
The Guerrillas of Destiny vs EVIL and SANADA vs The Young Bucks: ***3/4
A fun and fast-paced match; I liked the character work done by Bullet Club here with Tama Tonga trying to pass off his nice guy act. He remained committed to it throughout the match but it still came off as so insincere. The star of the match ended up being SANADA, who had the highlight of the match by doing a half-dozen flying body presses to the outside. EVIL and SANADA are a really good team, but this division is going to need more depth, especially if The Young Bucks are gone.
Juice Robinson vs Cody Rhodes: ***
The work in this match was fine, but was definitely more of an American-style match, with Brandi constantly interfering and Cody working as the obvious heel and Juice as the babyface. I think the problem in the match is that Cody, as much as he's done in the US, just isn't that over in Japan and his act didn't get much of a reaction from the crowd. If the match took place in the US it would have had a lot more heat.
El Desperado and Yoshinobu Kanemaru vs BUSHI and Shingo Takagi vs Roppongi 3K: ***1/4
El Desperado and Kanemaru held the Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Championships since March, and they didn't really bring much to the titles. They are both fine workers but lack charisma and especially with The Young Bucks out of the division the titles haven't really felt that important. In this match it was clear that the Los Ingobernables team and Roppongi 3K are the top teams in the division and bring more to the table. Takagi has been a great wrestler for years, but it's nice to see him doing more on a bigger stage.
NEVER 6 Man Tag Team Championship Gauntlet: ***
This match replaced the traditional New Japan Rumble as the pre-show match that is used to get everyone on the card. The rumble is kind of fun because they always have some surprise entrants that are cool to see, but this was a much better wrestled match. Nothing was outstanding, but the roster is so deep with dependable talent that this kind of a match is easy to watch. As for the 6 Man titles, NJPW has too many title belts but the 6 Man titles at least give some added value to the multi-man tag matches that NJPW has on every show.