New Japan returned for day two of their annual extravaganza, having already beaten expectation on Day One, they set about establishing the direction of the company for foreseeable future. Having sent the fans home happy, they needed to send them home breathless. No pressure then.
King of Pro Wrestling 2021 Provisional Championship Match – Bad Luck Fale vs Chase Owens vs Bushi vs Toru Yano
In many ways, this match shows off all the fun New Japan can be and how problematic it’s staff can be. Chase Owens had his own #MeToo reckoning last year but has carried on unaffected since coming back to New Japan and landed his marquee matchup here by winning the New Japan Rambo on night one. Bad Luck Fale ran his full big man form, though slightly trimmer than previous years, and got to the four-way one pin final. Bushi ran interference of sorts, staying on the outside and feeding the Bullet Club pairing rookies until everyone was eliminated, meaning they were left when the reigning 2020 King of Pro Wrestling Toru Yano turned up.
They proceeded to have a particularly competent match, full of the fun stuff and action as any Wrestle Kingdom opener should have. Though nothing to write home about, Yano continues his streak for a title made for the Sublime Master Thief. This division is a fun distraction, like the NEVER Openweight 6 Man Championships, until they took a serious turn last year and this was as fun as it could be.
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champions – Yoshinobu Kanemaru & El Desperado (c) vs Master Wato & Ryusuke Taguchi
The Suzuki Gun pairing have come to be the dominant tag team in NJPW’s Junior Division and their workman-like dominance of the division recalls the Horsemen in their heyday. However, Tully and Arn couldn’t weave the rich tapestry of stories Despy & Nobu put together. Big match Taguchi was due his annual outing having had a lacklustre, by his standards, Best of Super Juniors. Master Wato is still a wrestler in search of a haircut, so hopes were not high. Desperado was the focal point throughout the match as Kanemura hammered Taguchi’s knee setting up for Desperado to destroy what was left of it. A simple and well-defined strategy. Wato was better than could have been expected really his Dome debut and Taguchi held his team together. While it wasn’t as memorable as the heavyweight epic on night one, it was a fun match but left you thinking what’s next for El Desperado after his career-defining match in the Best of Super Juniors final rather than what’s going to happen with the tag titles.
NEVER Openweight Championship – Shingo Takagi (c) vs Jeff Cobb
Very often in wrestling, the irresistible force meets the immovable object. Except that Cobb is 300lbs and anything but immovable. Shingo was on an uphill battle all the way, and this was Big Lads wrestling as it could get. Dominant for the first half of the match, Takagi took the desperation route and went for a knee. No knee, no Tour of the Islands. Cobb managed to hit it but then got distracted in pain. What followed was indicative of what the NEVER title has been all about, hard-hitting determination. Takagi’s Pumpin Bomber Lariat saved the day time and again. The match broke down to them just hurling each other all over the ring.
Shingo retained with Last of the Dragon after an exhausting match. The bigger question goes towards The Empire who lost all of their matches on Wrestle Kingdom weekend. Billy No Mates’ crew needs some momentum and will have to wait until New Year’s Dash to build something from three heavy emotional defeats. Shingo moves on, with a championship that he continues to define as his own.
Special Singles Match – Evil vs SANADA
SANADA has been slow to anger. About seven months. However, having considered his feelings he got angry enough to pick a fight with his former tag team partner and LIJ stablemate EVIL. The knock-on SANADA has been that as he has gotten closer and closer to the main event, he has gone soft, relying on fan approval and it is a sly comment that back’s up EVIL’s belief that LIJ could no longer serve his needs. The Ungovernables are awfully susceptible to fan support these days. Which on the whole is correct, only Bushi is a true heel in the group, much like CHAOS before them, they’ve become too popular to be truly over as dirty players. However, both of them needed to turn it on in this match. EVIL has been intentionally underwhelming as he shifted to full heel. Trying to gain heat by reducing work rate and that has worked for the Japanese audience, but perhaps not for the Western fans who watch NJPW for match quality, not interference finishes which is Bullet Club’s MO. On the whole, they did. After a steady start, they got going and they manufactured some fire into a bout that has lacked heat somewhat. The crowd did rally behind SANADA in the end when EVIL was truly in the driving seat at the fifteen-minute mark. Dick Togo made his presence felt, of course, showing after twenty-five years he is still one of the most vital men in Japanese wrestling. While this built to drama nicely, it did take a long time to get going and perhaps could have done to have a brisker pace, but it was the best match both of them have had in twelve months. A clever-closing run leaving Togo prone through a table, SANADA took the win with the crowd behind him and suddenly he looks like a player again.
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship – Taiji Ishimori (c) vs Hiromu Takahashi
Takahashi lost the title to Ishimori last summer, and Ishimori has been complaining ever since that he has been ignored while the Timebomb gets the all-star treatment. Which is pretty much true. Takahashi is the most charismatic Junior heavyweight to come along since Jushin Liger. While Ishimori isn’t the character that Hiromu is, he is a world-class Junior Heavyweight. They’ve both produced classic after classic with this belt, but are never better than when facing each other. Incredibly fast-paced, they started off big, with powerbombs on the floor and rampway running dropkicks and did not let up.
Mimicking the NEVER Openweight Championship, it got brutal. Smooth moves and high octane offence gave way to big strikes from the champion. Ishimori venting frustration on his main foe. A breathtaking series of elbows to the face of Hiromu really gave a passionate heat to the match. Calling back to their meeting from the summer, Ishimori had Takahashi where he wanted him, on his knees with a bloody nose. Taking Takahashi into the Yes Lock he looked to have his defence all tied up, but Takahashi is built of something else entirely and made the big come back. He would take the title with Timebomb II.
In two days, he beat the Super J-Cup Champion and the IWGP Heavyweight Champion, as Chris Charlton pointed out on commentary, it makes him the best Junior Heavyweight in the world. Ishimori had a good reign in a Covid affected world, but Takahashi is meant for Mr Belt, the face of the division worldwide.
IWGP Heavyweight Championship – Kota Ibushi (c) vs Jay White
The big one. Jay White looks resplendent, the biggest heel in pro wrestling, walked in like he owned the place. Making the Tokyo Dome look like his front room, but could he unseat Ibushi who looks undeniable? This one would be slow burn all the way. White never wants to hook up as if he wants to out slow pace his long time nemesis Okada who is a notoriously slow starter. However, it builds tension and brings the fans into the match. When it finally got going it was a back and forth affair until White took control with a Back Drop Driver on the apron which pulled all the momentum his way. Targeting the back and ribs was a smart, logical decision, he hadn’t gone 35 minutes with Naito the night before, then it was White grafting his way through the champion. Jay jaw hacked with Red Shoes Uno through the whole match and it gave Ibushi and opening to start some graft of his own. Working through his picture-perfect offence.
This match was a study in contrasts, the night before was about the high-risk offence, and this was about who made the biggest mistakes. White is the master-counter heavyweight, it is what has made him so dislikable, taking out New Japan’s big starts against the momentum and being just that good. Ibushi’s big moves were countered time and time again as White tried to drag him down to his level.
Jay White in many ways is the perfect opponent for Ibushi, the counter puncher matched up with the offensive force, and when Ibushi got going he was on top of his game. The big strikes landed and he got back into the match. A neat call back to the loss of the title match briefcase at Power Struggle which led to this title match started the big sequences of moves for Ibushi. It was interrupted by Gedo as could be expected and once again White took the offensive this time on Ibushi’s leg. There was nothing left for Ibushi to do, time to surpass God. A series of hideous-looking strikes that White sold perfectly set up a stunning finish. White’s by any means necessary offence took it to the floor once again for the umpteenth time in this match. The pace finally quickened at the thirty-five-minute mark, but again it was big moves for Ibushi being disrupted by Jay. It took three Kamigoye knees to get rid of Naito the night before, and Phoenix Splash was interrupted by Gedo but closing in on forty-five minutes we started to hit the home stretch. Kicking out of each other’s finishers, Ibushi survived a Blade Runner, a New Japan first. Then they got going again, this match was so breathless and beyond human endurance. Finally, and emphatically at forty-eight minutes and five seconds, Ibushi landed a Reverse Kamigoye then one last Kamigoye to make sure with an exposed knee. White’s prediction did not come to fruition. Ibushi is the King of the Hill, or as he put it in the post-match interview, he has become God.
Expectations for this year’s Wrestle Kingdom were low, in a COVID-affected year and a split roster, the matches didn’t have the heat. They were playing to their home audience and the crowds were quiet thanks to the lack of verbal support. On the other hand, they learned how to present this style of wrestling better than any other company on earth. If anything on the night, the matches were overlong, that has partly become the NJPW style, and partly because less matches mean more space, but you can have too much of a good thing and for some, it is uncomfortable viewing with problematic employees in full view. Numbers at the Tokyo Dome were down for safety more than anything else, but they delivered a world-class main event, and as SANADA came down to challenge Ibushi the next chapter was already being laid.
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