Wrestle Kingdom sets the tone for the wrestling year. New Japan’s biggest stars and angles come together on January the 4th every year to lay out their stall for the next twelve months. Here is a rundown of all the matches and the big angles for that night, but also don’t forget New Year’s Dash on January the 5th where a lot of new doors will open, last year Jericho started his feud with Naito. The year before Suzuki-Gun returned from NOAH based exile. Basically, anything can happen in the next two weeks, but this will get you started.
IWGP Heavyweight Championship: Kenny Omega (c) vs Hiroshi Tanahashi
There is a big legacy to this match, the main event at Wrestle Kingdom sets the standard for the wrestling year, and this is the first match in the immediate post Okada era. He has been involved in the main event more or less for the last six years and this bout takes an unexpected turn with the resurgent Tanahashi shining throughout last summer’s G1. Omega has been a great champion in his handful of defences since winning the title, but has yet to have a truly defining match of this reign which New Japan fans believe this could be, however the big cloud looms over what will happen with Omega. Apparently out of contract by the time Wrestle Kingdom rolls around, no one knows here he or The Elite stand and that puts a big question mark over this whole event. It could be outstanding and more than likely will be, but until every knows where Omega is at, it looks like an obvious Tana win. New Japan are good at keeping the rumour mill closed but as with the big talent jump of 2016, that kick started Omega’s ascendancy, no one is quite sure what will happen.
What’s of secondary interest is who will corner Kenny in this match up. His usual corner men The Young Bucks are in a contract dispute and didn’t sign on for The World Tag League this year, Kota Ibushi is the other obvious choice. His partnership with Kenny has been the story in New Japan this year. Tanahashi surprised everyone by picking life long and very real rival Katsuyori Shibata at the G1, but could it be Okada that carries the towel? A definite poke in the eye to have the man who beat Omega twice giving Tana advice would make for an incredible pop, and the pair are the same page in storyline terms. So many questions, but this year’s main event has made intrigue the drawing card.
IWGP Intercontinental Championship: Chris Jericho (c) vs Tetsuya Naito
It’s easy to forget about this title with Jericho being the ultimate part time player this year. When he has been in New Japan though he has made things happen. Elevating Evil above and beyond all hopes at Power Struggle but still taking an emphatic victory, New Japan have used him to raise talent up. In many ways Naito is the perfect foil. Raised in the New Japan tradition but with an deep understanding of how to make any angle work to his advantage this rivalry began at New Years Dash last year but has been kept on the boil since Naito lost the title to Jericho at Dominion. Naito doesn’t want the belt, he hates the title and was utterly disrespectful of it in his first reign, he wants Jericho in the worst way and as Jerry Jarrett once said, many, many times; personal issues make money.
Grudge Match: Kazuchika Okada vs Jay White.
The most personal of personal issues. What’s at stake is the long term future of New Japan and the making of Jay White as heir apparent to the crown of Top Gaijin should Cody and Kenny leave. They shouldn’t have that problem with White who is a good loyal soldier in real life, but a hated heel inside the ring. Okada has the task of putting him over the edge as a draw and cementing him as a real threat. They’ve taken their time with White and unlike last year where he didn’t look quite right going into his IC title match with Tanahashi, he now looks the part and has been getting the rub from Okada and Tanahashi. Okada meanwhile is on a long term project to get his mojo back. He is selling it as his need to win to bury Bullet Club before it grows to prominence again under this new star. He was there when BC was united and driven darkly before and has no intention of letting it happen again. This will be a barn burner, but the question mark remains can White consolidate his position?
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship: KUSHIDA (c) vs Taiji Ishimori
This division feels like it’s spinning its wheels till Hiromu Takahashi gets back. KUSHIDA is a great champion but as long-term Ace of the division over the last decade we have seen pretty much everything he’s had to offer. Ishimori offers him hope of something different at least in the short term. Ishimori has not been consistent since he jumped ship from NOAH in the Spring and that’s not been his fault. An outstanding Best of Super Juniors saw him in a match of the year contender with Takahashi, but then he became a bit part player in the Bullet Club break up and was shipped off to Impact before reappearing to fake injury and blindside KUSHIDA at Power Struggle to claim his challenger’s slot. Takahashi looms large over what might have been. He will return, the weird little sociopath has an outsized personality in this division and things won’t be the same till he is back. Ishimori could win this and set up new feuds, though the big money would be Takahashi coming back for rival KUSHIDA.
IWGP US Heavyweight Championship: Juice Robinson vs Cody (c)
This is a rematch for the former Champion who has been one of the most enjoyable things about NJPW this year. Juice’s growth has gone under the radar partly because of his underdog gimmick, but he is a workhorse. His storytelling and selling have reached another level this year. The same could be said for Cody who took a while to settle into the NJPW style, and now it seems he has mastered it and he is done with it. That casts a shadow over this match, one it is over it will say a lot about the future direction of this and anything The Elite are planning in the next twelve months. Cody already dropped the NWA title back to Nick Aldis as he moved onto different projects. Losing this title would be predictable in the same context, but whatever The Elite are planning, it may involve New Japan to some extent. Having said that, Juice seems like the obvious choice for a winner, he is popular dependable and needs the redemption story.
IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship: Los Ingobernables de Japon (EVIL & SANADA) vs Young Bucks (Matt & Nick Jackson) vs Guerillas of Destiny (Tama Tonga & Tanga Loa) (c)
Sanada and Evil win back to back World Tag Leagues and get conned into a three-way dance. *Sigh*. Look, I love the Bucks as much as the next guy, but three-way bouts for these titles have historically been awful and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. You do have six of the most athletic wrestlers on the card which does help, but in my personal opinion the story didn’t need the Bucks who we know are leaving, but that is just me. GOD need to solidify their position after missing out on the Tag League title that would see them dominate the division. Sanada and Evil are the ultimate utility players and look set for headlining runs in 2019 as room opens up at the top of the card. The Bucks are done regardless, so I will just give this to Tama Tonga and Tanga Loa bless their foul-mouthed little hearts.
Revolution Pro Undisputed British Heavyweight Championship: Zack Sabre Jr vs Tomohiro Ishii (c)
While Ishii’s feud with Minoru Suzuki has been exemplary this year, he really has the chance to shine against Sabre. They bring out the worst in each other in the best possible way. Sabre made him tap a few times in tag matches these past two years and the story they offer is fascinating. The stand there and take it Stone Pitbull vs the technical mastery of Sabre. It will also set up what’s going to happen in Rev Pro in the next twelve months as they have a TV Slot to build upon and need a champion to be there more regularly. They are going to have to break stars as the WWE contract situation ties up a lot of big-name talent to other UK promotions the chance to weather younger talent gets smaller and the only way to mitigate that is to get people over now. Sabre or Ishii can do that, but who is going to be the flag bearer with a high profile victory on one of the marquee events of the year? I’d take Sabre. Just.
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship: Roppongi 3K (Sho and Yoh) vs Los Ingobernables de Japon (Bushi and Shingo Takagi) vs Suzuki-Gun (El Desperado & Yoshinobu Kanemaru) (c)
A re-run of their Super Juniors Tag League final from Power Struggle which seems fair as all of these teams have had a strong presence in the last 12 months, Shingo and Bushi especially making it good in their recent appearances. It marks a return of the traditional show opener; the Junior Tag Titles in a 3 way, that was the hallmark of the show in recent years. It is where The Young Bucks, Roppongi Vice, reDRagon, Forever Hooligans and various Suzuki Gun teams have made their name, and this should be a proving ground. Suzuki-Gun have a good run, Kanemura especially found a new gear in their Junior Tag League run after seemingly taking a while to find his feet, but all good things must come to an end.
NEVER Openweight Championship: Will Ospreay vs Kota Ibushi (c)
With Ibushi picking up the title from Goto at World Tag League Finals and Ospreay taking the number one contender spot from Taichi, the whole complexion of this division changes face. Long associated with bruisers like Goto, Ishii and Makabe, this title now can go back to its original intent of being an Openweight title. Each long-term champion casts their shadow over this belt. Under Ishii, it took on a King’s Road Style reboot that left fans gasping with hard-hitting matches. Minoru Suzuki reinvented it in his title reign as a Deathmatch title. Ibushi and Ospreay will change the tone once again. A feud they have teased since last summer when Ospreay desperately wanted Ibushi in CHAOS/Bullet Club multi-man tags and Ibushi was reciprocal it pits two of the best aerial wrestlers in the world against each other and should be spectacular. A winner is difficult to pick: if Ibushi is staying put I see a long reign for him, if he goes off with his Elite friends, Ospreay will benefit. Either way, this frees up a log jammed Junior Division.
Six Man NEVER Openweight 6 Man Championship Number One Contender’s Gauntlet: Michael Elgin, Jeff Cobb and David Finlay vs The Elite (Hangman Page, Yujiro Takahashi and Marty Scurll) vs CHAOS (Hirooki Goto, Beretta and Chuckie T) vs Suzuki-gun (Minoru Suzuki, Lance Archer and Davey Boy Smith Jr.) vs Ryusuke Taguchi and Most Violent Players (Togi Makabe and Toru Yano
This will set up a championship match against Bullet Club OGs Guerillas of Destiny and Taiji Ishimori, possibly the next night at New Year’s Dash. It’s a fun way of giving something of meaning to everyone who hasn’t been booked on the card and as this is a hot potato championship a likely title run going into the New Beginning series. First up is Michael Elgin, David Finlay and Jeff Cobb. Dave looks like a bit dropped off compared to other two but is a former champion in this division as is Elgin. The man to watch is Cobb who NJPW clearly have designs on showcasing this year. The Elite Trio of Hangman Page, Marty Scurll and Yujiro Takahashi will be fun while they last, but with no certainty of where Page is going seem the team least likely. Murder will be in the air as Suzuki Gun put together the all-star line up of Minoru Suzuki, and Killer Elite Squad. Archer and Smith have been angry ever since they came back off of the injury list because they keep getting tangled up with Best Friends, Chuck Taylor and Trent Baretta and not getting any forward motion. Suzuki is always angry. Given some of the teams in this line-up, they will be even angrier. CHAOS put forward Hirooki Goto and the aforementioned Taylor and Beretta, always fun to watch Best Friends have been a joy in the tag division and Goto could do with a laugh, he’s out the title picture for the first time in a long time. Ryusuke Taguchi teams up with further proof of the CHAOS/Regular Army thaw in relations as Togi Makabe has seemingly forgiven Toru Yano for his betrayal of GBH all those years ago when CHAOS was formed and they reform their Most Violent Players tag team. Taguchi, the sport’s obsessed ass attack master will no doubt be in resplendent form and possibly on a large plastic horse. Really who could ask for more?
I honestly haven’t a clue who could win this but if form is anything to go by, I’m going to say Yano sneaks a pin on Suzuki as he has been doing for the last few years because the best Suzuki is one with murder on his mind.