Over the last few years, New Japan Pro Wrestling's biggest annual show, Wrestle Kingdom, has built its reputation on otherworldly performances inside of the ring and payoffs for rivalries weeks, months and often years in the making.
Wrestle Kingdom 12 had all that and then some, and despite bearing the weight of having the largest audience that any New Japan show has had in decades, the Jan. 4 supershow passed its crucial test with flying colors.
Kazuchika Okada and Tetsuya Naito pushed each other to their physical limits and built upon a decade of other conflicts in their IWGP heavyweight championship match, and produced a result that few saw coming.
Chris Jericho, a 47-year-old future WWE Hall of Famer, and 34-year-old Kenny Omega, who's in the midst of changing the wrestling business, had a match that took both of them out of their comfort zones while still allowing them to hold the audience in the palm of their hands and thrill them throughout.
An IWGP junior heavyweight championship Fatal 4-Way was a spectacle not to be missed, Japanese wrestling legend Minoru Suzuki was forced to shave his hair in disgrace after a loss and The Young Bucks once again proved their anything but one-dimensional spot monkeys in a well-executed clash against a team making its very first appearance in the bright spotlight of Wrestle Kingdom and the Tokyo Dome.
Wrestle Kingdom 12 defied expectations and preconceived notions of what this kind of show could be, yet still managed to deliver on almost every promise it made going in. It is a bittersweet exercise, with such a show now in the rear-view mirror, but there are plenty of memorable moments to take away from Thursday's effort.
- njpw_global (@njpwglobal) January 4, 2018
Okada's reign continues as Naito's redemption is derailed for the moment
The stars seemed as though they had finally aligned for Naito heading into Wrestle Kingdom 12. After pulling himself back to the top of New Japan's heavyweight division as part of Los Ingobernables de Japon, Naito's personality and character changes pushed him in a direction that fans connected with in a big way. The biggest moment of 2017 came when Naito defeated Kenny Omega in the finals of the G1 Climax tournament that earned him a main event slot at Wrestle Kingdom and a shot at the IWGP championship.
Okada's reign as champion, which had just pushed him past the all-time records for longest individual IWGP heavyweight title reign and most total days spent as champion, seemed as though it was winding towards its natural end. Throughout the early stages of their match on Thursday, and especially towards the tail end of the match, much of the crowd seemed to be all but foaming at the mouth to see Naito right the last of his wrongs by beating Okada and doing it in the Tokyo Dome with the world title on the line.
But it simply didn't play out that way.
The match itself was a brilliant study in pacing and building upon past history in order to push the match to its boundaries. While Naito played around with Okada at the beginning of the match, as has been his M.O. over the last few years, the action got serious in a hurry and Naito soon left the foolishness behind. There were huge bumps on the apron and swings in momentum, but neither Okada nor Naito could push far enough to land a finisher.
Once the finishers finally came into play, the closing stages of the match reached a dizzying and frenetic pace. Rainmaker attempts were transitioned into Destinos, and back the other way, Tombstone piledrivers and DDTs came into play, and each man took more chances as they got more and more desperate to finish the match. Ultimately, Naito's final attempt to chain together two Destinos turned into the perfect window for Okada to land a Tombstone and a Rainmaker for the victory.
It's hard to see where either Okada or Naito goes from here, and while there's precedent for difficulties in getting over that final hump at the top of the New Japan pecking order, it's easy to see why some would question what Naito has left to prove before he can be worthy of carrying the title as the clear No. 1 guy. Okada's list of future challengers, outside of Omega, with whom he might owe a return match, also seems hard to figure out in this moment.
Omega survives war of attrition against Jericho
With an announced live crowd at the Tokyo dome in excess of 35,000 and more subscribers than ever tuning into the online broadcast on New Japan World, it's clear that the short, intense build to "Alpha vs. Omega" was an undeniable success at the box office. That still left the match itself to be played out, and despite something of a choppy start, once Omega and Jericho settled into their No DQ match for the IWGP U.S. championship, there was little use in stopping them.
The match they ended up having was something of a fusion of their individual styles, which simultaneously put them out of their comfort zones and allowed them enough background to lean on. Omega went a bit crazy in the early going, as he made a lengthy leap from the top rope that destroyed the commentary table and took out commentator Don Callis instead of Jericho. While Omega was out of commission, Jericho took hold of the match and the crowd by attacking both referee "Red Shoes" Uno and his son, who is also in the New Japan system, the latter of whom received a Walls of Jericho.
The pace of the match was steady throughout, never too fast or too slow, which offered the opportunity to build to big moments and counters that turned out to be the most fun element of the match. Every time Omega was down for more than five seconds Jericho antagonized the crowd and kept them buzzing for the big things to come.
Several moments from this historic match will stand out when it's looked back upon, including a top rope V-trigger that sent Jericho through a table, Omega getting busted open once again, Jericho's transition from the Walls of Jericho into a proper liontamer and the two drastically different One-Winged Angels that Omega hit to eventually secure the victory.
Both men gave every ounce of themselves to make this match, and never was that more clear than when Jericho took that second One-Winged Angel onto a steel chair. Was this the last we'll see of Jericho in New Japan? He's been non-committal, but with the success of this show and this match, it has to be an easier leap than the first one he made, at the very least.
Tanahashi schools young upstart Jay White
Hiroshi Tanahashi, New Japan's parallel universe John Cena, gradually seems to be easing into the torch-passing stage of his career, but that wasn't the case at Wrestle Kingdom 12. After returning from his excursion and being thrust into this big-time match, White was solid, but not spectacular, in his first time out on a Wrestle Kingdom -- and that stood out quite a bit on a night where most everything else was excellently done. If they give White some time to re-acclimate, and to build up more organically, they have a star of the future on their hands. For now, Tanahashi retains.
Scurll, Ospreay, KUSHIDA and Hiromu Takahashi prove power of junior heavyweights
Most junior heavyweight matches all over the world end up, more often than not, devolving into who can do the highest, craziest flipping moves of the group. While there were plenty of acrobatics to go around in this first-ever Fatal 4-Way match for the IWGP junior heavyweight championship, it was the perfect pick-me-up match right smack in the middle of the card. Will Ospreay got his revenge on Marty Scurll and got his title back, but this match is worth revisiting simply for the spectacle.
- njpw_global (@njpwglobal) January 4, 2018
Despite Scurll taking the loss, he did have one of the most memorable entrances of the night.
Cody and Kota Ibushi help set tone for wild night
There's a certain segment of wrestling fandom that dismisses most guys who come out of the WWE system as sub-par when compared to the indie-sharpened skills they're typically attracted to. This was the case with Cody, who seemed to polarize the New Japan audience. When it became clear that Cody would face indie golden child Kota Ibushi, the complaints got louder. If Thursday's match between these two doesn't do anything to drastically alter those opinions, nothing ever will. Cody and his wife Brandi were the perfect heel tandem, even tricking Ibushi into thinking he'd hurt Brandi before springing a trap.
Ibushi pulled out moves old and new to raise the implied stakes of the match, and even pulled out a rare Phoenix Splash to finish the deal. Even in defeat, Cody had one of, if not the best spot of the night (and kudos to the craziness of Ibushi as well) as he hit a Cross-Rhodes from the apron to the ground.
Minoru Suzuki loses NEVER title and longtime signature haircut
Even at 49 years old, Minoru Suzuki exudes the most intense and frightening public persona in New Japan. He's able to draw that fear out of people, and part of his look for a long time has been the patterns he's shaved into his head and his patch of hair on the back of his head. As Hirooki Goto finally enjoyed a victory and peace of mind, taking home the NEVER Openweight title in the process, Suzuki cut acquiesced and shaved his legendary locks in the ring before walking off in a huff.
SANADA and EVIL salvage the day for LIJ
For the fifth straight year, the NJPW World Tag League winners took advantage of their title shots by going on to win at Wrestle Kingdom 12. The Los Ingobernables de Japon squad of SANADA and EVIL salvaged an otherwise disastrous day for LIJ. The Killer Elite Squad, Lance Archer and Davey Boy Smith Jr. seemingly had the match won in mere minutes, only for EVIL and SANADA got enough time in the corner to recuperate and recharge.
Young Bucks continue to extend records
Starting their seventh IWGP junior heavyweight championship run was a special moment, but the Young Bucks found their biggest win of the night in how the matched up and helped drive a new team like Roppongi3K to an entertaining opener. And to anyone who can watch Thursday's match and still say The Young Bucks can't sell, or work a body part, they're absolutely crazy.
Beretta, Toru Yano and Tomohiro Ishii survive gauntlet, win 6-man titles
There was almost too much to follow in this match, but the short version of the story is that the trio representing CHAOS entered the match third and hung on by Suzuki-gun, Taguchi Japan and finally the Bullet Club.
New Japan Rumble kicks night off with feel-good story
Masahito Kakihara, the final entrant in the New Japan Rumble, won the pre-show match by last eliminating Ring of Honor superstar and Japanese favorite Cheeseburger. Kakihara, who performed for WAR, UWF, All Japan and New Japan at various points in his career, retired in 2006 but still occasionally performed in subsequent years. Kakihara announced at the end of 2014 that he had cancer, but vowed to return to the ring and did just that inside of the Tokyo Dome to kick off the action at Wrestle Kingdom 12.
In his moment of celebration, Kakihara donned a Yoshihiro Takayama t-shirt and urged fans to support Takayama in his time of need by donating to ongoing charitable efforts. Takayama was both a wrestler and an MMA fighter, where he's most well-known for his legendary slugfest at PRIDE 21 against Don Frye. Takayama was paralyzed during a match for Japanese promotion DDT in May 2017, and while he's now breathing on his own, he's paralyzed from the shoulders down.