Monday, January 5, 2015

Hitting the Ground Running: NJPW WrestleKingdom 9 Review

Tanahashi was the victor, Okada left crying
Photo Credit:
In the TH Style. Check your local PPV provider or get the NJPW World or Flipps App for a replay. You are going to want to get this show, whether your first or 101st exposure to New Japan Pro Wrestling.

  • reDRagon retained the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships in a four-way scramble against Forever Hooligans, the Young Bucks, and the Time Splitters by hitting Alex Kozlov with Chasing the Dragon (kick-assisted brainbuster).
  • In trios action, Tomoaki Honma, Hiroyoshi Tenzan, and Satoshi Kojima defeated Jeff Jarrett, Bad Luck Fale, and Yujiro Takahashi when Honma finished Takahashi off with a diving headbutt from the top.
  • Toru Yano and a contingent of three wrestlers from Pro Wrestling NOAH (the Australian tag team The Mighty Don't Kneel and GHC Champion Naomichi Marafuji) defeated Takashi Iizuka, Shelton X Benjamin, Lance Hoyt, and Davey Boy Smith, Jr. when Marafuji pinned Iizuka with the Tiger Uppercut knee strike.
  • In a match with UWFi (read, shoot-fight) rules, Minoru Suzuki made Kazushi Sakuraba pass out with the rear naked choke.
  • Togi Makabe won the NEVER Openweight Championship from Tomohiro Ishii with the King Kong knee drop from the top rope.
  • Kenny Omega won the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship from Ryusuke Taguchi with the One-Winged Angel (electric chair into Death Valley Driver).
  • Hirooki Goto and Katsuyori Shibata claimed the IWGP Tag Team Championships from Doc Gallows and Karl Anderson of the Bullet Club after Shibata pinned Gallows following the Penalty Kick.
  • AJ Styles bested Tetsuya Naito with an avalanche Styles Clash.
  • Kota Ibushi pulled out all the stops, but he could not claim the IWGP Intercontinental Championship from Shinsuke Nakamura, who bested his foe with a top rope Boma Ye (knee strike).
  • In the main event, Hiroshi Tanahashi retained the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship with three High Fly Flows (frogsplash) and several dragon screw leg whips on challenger Kazuchika Okada.

General Observations:
  • Jim Ross opened the broadcast by calling WrestleKingdom the "WrestleMania of Japan." I thought it tacky at first, but on second thought, he was brought in to relate to a generally unfamiliar audience, so I was okay with it.
  • I will never not mark out for Alex Kozlov's Russian hat dance kicks. However, the usual Forever Hooligans feigned breakup-and-makeup spot didn't happen in this match, which was kind of a bummer.
  • In fact, most of the match was really hard to take notes for because it was such a car-crash. Bodies flying everywhere, tags made at whims, dives to the outside for everyone. All of those statements are not complaints.
  • Matt Striker trying to get Ross to call the Meltzer Driver (springboard flip assist tombstone piledriver) by that name was the best thing on commentary all night long. I do give credit to Ross actually asking "Are we gonna have a superkick party right now? though."
  • I know that Jeff Jarrett being part of the Bullet Club has to do with him partnering with NJPW and having his Global Force Wrestling distribute the PPV to America, but Scott D'Amore? Really? Next thing you know they're gonna start recruiting the kids of wrestlers from the nWo... oh wait.
  • The first I've ever seen of Tomoaki Honma was in the trios match, and holy shit, he was JACKED. He also looked like he could be an elseworlds version of Akira Tozawa that's been fed a Mario mushroom...
  • Ross described Satoshi Kojima's Ace Crusher as a "modified version of a Stone Cold Stunner," to which Striker replied "What?" It was the only time I ever popped for that execution on the word/phrasing.
  • Honma selling his headbutts, even the ones he successfully hit, had me all:😍
  • Jarrett hitting his own teammate with the El Kabong? It's like he never left TNA!
  • The way that crowd popped for Honma hitting the top rope headbutt sounded like he'd just bodyslammed Andre the Giant in front of 93 million people at the Silverdome, brother.
  • Seeing the Pro Wrestling NOAH GHC Champion come out during a low-card match felt weird in that Naomichi Marafuji could have been implemented for a match with more cache. It was also weird because I'm used to the American mainstream model where top-flight companies hurl feces at each other rather than work together. I guess in Japan it's more common? Or maybe NOAH isn't that big of a deal anymore.
  • The ring in New Japan is set up so that it has one large, vertical pad that covers all three turnbuckles rather than having an individual one for each, and Striker informed everyone that those pads had metal bars in them. So when Toru Yano removed one of them and Takashi Iizuka used it as a SERIOUS weapon, it not only provided some visual levity, but it had something behind it as well.
  • Kazushi Sakuraba came to the ring in flip-flops. I would've marked out if he actually wrestled in them, but they were there just to protect the bottoms of his taped feet upon entrance.
  • I have to admit that I checked out of most of the commentary for the Sakuraba/Minoru Suzuki match because of how heavy on MMA background and story it was. The match itself was probably fine for fans of the shoot-hybrid/MMA style, but I just didn't "get" it if that makes sense.
  • Tomohiro Ishii and Togi Makabe began their match by ramming into each other as hard as they could, and I fucking loved it. Few things in wrestling make me happier than when two big hoss types ram into each other like elephant seals.
  • After the initial sequence, Makabe started to grate on me. His movements around the ring reminded me a lot of Michael Elgin, which is not a prime comparison. He looked like a bad robot.
  • Ishii, however, he had my heart from the moment he dropped Makabe with a fucking EVEREST superplex.
  • I did appreciate that Makabe made attempts to block some moves, especially the gamengiri attempt towards the end of the match.
  • Neckbreaker lariat. Do not click this Vine if you're faint of heart. DON'T. Ishii was alright afterwards because I'm not sure he's human.
  • Strike name-dropped Pegasus Kid, aka [REDACTED]'s name back in the '90s. It made my heart sad.
  • I remember seeing Kenny Omega in Pro Wrestling Guerrilla as this clean-cut but nerdy and weird babyface type, so seeing him walk out with full-on salt-and-pepper hair sleazing it up like he was the villain in a film noir was a bit jarring. He was totally into it, of course.
  • Omega whipped Ryusuke Taguchi into the corner and then lightly double slapped his chest as if to mock him. Taguchi responded by going completely apeshit, which was the appropriate response.
  • Taguchi would later hit Omega with a butt-butt to the face and do a twerk-esque wiggle. Thankfully, JBL wasn't there to shout TWERKIN' for the rest of the match.
  • The Young Bucks accompanied Omega to the ring and ran a bunch of interference, at one point allowing Omega to spray Taguchi with the cooling mist that the wrestlers get after especially brutal matches.
  • Omega tried giving Taguchi a running buckle bomb, but Taguchi countered it with a rana at such high speed that I thought Omega died. Seriously, he bumped like he was shot out of a cannon.
  • Amber O'Neal, known only as the "Bullet Babe" to the announce team (ugh), made her debut as her real life husband Doc Gallows' valet. She did the full Melina-split on the apron entrance and held it for at least a minute if not longer. That feat was probably top five in terms of physical strain on the show.
  • Katsuyori Shibata and Hirooki Goto kept going for the "one guy holds the opponent and the other guy attacks" spot during the match and failing, the first coming early on. It was an example of a spot that they kept teasing and teasing until they successfully hit it, which the crowd rewarded with some noise.
  • Gallows at one point tried to fishhook Goto, which earned him my heart.
  • Ross really wanted everyone to know that Goto and Shibata were on the same high school wrestling team, as he mentioned it every other minute during the match and again afterwards. It didn't really enhance the match, but I now oddly want to see a coming of age comedy starring the two.
  • Ross and Striker talked about the real life controversy surrounding AJ Styles' finisher, the Styles Clash, before his match with Tetsuya Naito. I guess Ol' Horb was right and they want Styles to be the new Ox Baker.
  • Styles started working the leg on Naito early on in the match, and Naito barely sold it until right before, towards the end, when Styles put him in the Calf-Cutter. That's not fighting spirit (because Kazuchika Okada would sell his leg extensively in the main), that's garbage wrestling.
  • Styles broke out a Bloody Sunday (single arm Impaler DDT), which makes sense since when he kicked Prince Devitt out of Bullet Club, he absorbed all his finishers to go with it.
  • The recap reel for the Shinsuke Nakamura/Kota Ibushi match was in Japanese so I had no idea what was being said. However, it was notable for two things. First, DUBSTEP! Second, the reel actually showed clips from Ibushi's run in DDT wrestling blow-up dolls and outside in "fight anywhere" situations.
  • The entrances for WrestleKingdom this year were a bit tame compared to the ones I saw from last year's event except for one. Nakamura owned that shit again. Seriously. People do not call him Swagsuke for nothing.
  • Most absurd moment of the night came when Nakamura was entering the ring, completing his peacocking Michael Jackson entrance and Ross started going on about his MMA and kickboxing training. I understand the desire to put everyone over as this macho, aggro badass, but c'mon, at least have a little self-awareness, Jimmy.
  • Ibushi got Nakamura in the corner early on in the match and scraped his face with his boot. As pointed out by the commentators, that was one of Nakamura's spots, and he didn't take too kindly to it. Good way to kick a blood feud match into high gear.
  • At one point, Nakamura had Ibushi laying on the mat with his head over the apron, and he just battered him with knees of all shapes and sizes. If Ross wanted a point to remind people that Nakamura had all that shoot-fighting training, it would have been that spot.
  • In the jaw-dropping moves of athleticism department, Ibushi took the opportunity to attack a dazed Nakamura on the outside of the ring by leaping up onto the support bar between the ringpost and turnbuckle and seamlessly jump into a springboard moonsault.
  • NJPW really needs to invest in picture-in-picture technology, because the replays taking up the whole screen got old after the first couple in the opening match. By the time Ibushi/Nakamura rolled around, it was downright distracting.
  • Nakamura was rolling around the apron, and Ibushi just grabbed the coif on top of his head like he was in Super Mario Bros. 2 picking a turnip out of the ground. What followed was perhaps the most vicious yet graceful things I've ever seen. Ibushi basically grabbed Nakamura, springboarded off the top rope, and hit him with a German suplex. If your jaw wasn't on the floor after seeing that, I'd have to check you for signs of life.
  • Ross announced that the main event would be Hiroshi Tanahashi's ninth at the Tokyo Dome, which was the most ever for a NJPW wrestler. Basically, Ross confirmed that Tanahashi was Japanese John Cena.
  • I haven't watched too much Tanahashi in the past, but seeing him brawl around with Okada on the outside, put him on his ass while on the ramp, and then prance up and down the ramp playing air guitar until Okada caught him with the Heavy Rain (basically, a modified Attitude Adjustment) signals that he's kind of a dork, right?
  • Okada can be added to the list of people who have a better top rope elbow drop than CM Punk, which right now is everyone else whom I've seen do a top rope elbow drop except for CM Punk.
  • Okada and Tanahashi brawled to the outside again, with Tanahashi sending Okada over the barricade into the "no-man's land" between the crowd and the ring. He then went to the top and hit a cross-body variant of his High Fly Flow on Tanahashi OVER the barricade. It was a simple spot that just required a far jump, but it looked damn impressive.
  • The counterwrestling in this match was superb, especially towards the end. Okada at one point rolled through a High Fly Flow attempt to get Tanahashi in position for a tombstone, which Tanahashi himself reversed. These guys wrestled like it was their seventh or eighth time in the ring together.
  • Ross spent the entire match putting over Okada's dropkick that I thought he was going to have an embolism when he finally hit it. To Ross' credit, Okada does have a fucking fly-ass dropkick.
  • After the match, Tanahashi got on the mic to seemingly call out to a dejected and sobbing Okada as he was limping towards the back. Striker confirmed a translation later, saying that Tanahashi said that Okada was a long way from being the ace of New Japan and that he was happy he was still said ace. I have no idea the nooks and crannies of NJPW booking, and this show was my first full exposure, but having no other context to go by, I'd have thought that Tanahashi just turned heel.

Match of the Night: Shinsuke Nakamura (c) vs. Kota Ibushi, IWGP Intercontinental Championship Match - A great match can let one know its story without the benefit of a single recap package, without an announcer telling the audience explicitly why the two are fighting, without anything but the action in the ring. Nakamura and Ibushi had all the hallmarks of a tremendous big-time fight just from spots alone. But why their match was the absolute best on the card was how they were able to tell a complete, actualized story without speaking a word. Nakamura was the unquestioned King of Strong Style, a flamboyant yet completely proficient wrestling machine with lethal knees and inimitable flair. Ibushi was the contender to the throne, the mad, pain-craving upstart whose plan was to usurp Nakamura's position by getting inside his head and overthrowing him from within. The match's narrative was established within minutes when Ibushi scraped his boot across Nakamura's face, and it was built upon slowly but steadily until the rocket-powered finish. It was a side of Ibushi I had never seen before, but it was a welcomed evolution for his character.

OF course, Ibushi's patented aerial pyrotechnics were still present. The man can do amazing things with his body, like his seamless running shooting star press or a running springboard moonsault to the outside where he balanced himself on the turnbuckle support bar, which is way thinner and more narrow than the turnbuckles guys use in America. Even on moves he missed, he set himself up as fodder for Nakamura to be brilliant, like when he missed the Phoenix splash that went right into Nakamura's desperation enzu Boma Ye. Nakamura was nearly flawless as well through everything he did in the match, but most notably were his facial expressions and body language. Jim Ross spent so much of the match trying to put over his "legit" bona fides that he missed out on what seems to make him special. He can kick your ass and do it like a veritable peacock, but his facial expressions sell the situations he's in just as much.

But the best facial expression he had led into the biggest spot of the night and one of the most insane spots I've ever seen in a wrestling show. The look of utter horror when Ibushi grabbed the tuft of hair on the top of his head perfectly foreshadowed the destruction he was about to absorb in the form of a springboard German superplex. Yet, that move wasn't enough to put away the King of Strong-Style. The old adage from The Wire says "If you come at the King, you best not miss," but for Ibushi, even if you don't miss, you may not be able to take him out anyway. That's why, after all, he IS the King.

Overall Thoughts: I went into the show knowing a little bit about New Japan Pro Wrestling, as any good dorky wrestling writer-slash-fan would. I knew some of the beats, most of the names, and the reputation it had for its in-ring quality but also how it has informed the American indies, which could have been a blessing or curse. I didn't expect to get the full immersion in one show; expecting to become a full fan with great knowledge after one show would be ludicrous. However, the broadcast presented a familiar, easy-to-pick up wrestling promotion that had enough of a learning curve for first-timers with what I imagine must have been fulfillment for people who have been following the promotion for months if not years, given the wide praise I've been seeing around the familiar corners of the 'Net. That ersatz familiarity started with the announce team.

Jim Ross was supposed to be the draw as an announcer, but it was his colleague Matt Striker who shone brightest from the booth. His ebullient, fact-font style of color commentary didn't work after he left WWE's version of ECW, but his game fit perfectly in a more sports-oriented broadcast. Pro wrestling seems to be treated more as legitimate competition in Japan and less as spectacle (which I guess is why Minoru Suzuki and Kazushi Sakuraba could have a worked shoot fight in the middle of the card and no one batted an eyelash), and Striker's skillset was better suited for that environment. He was informative and engaging, and he actually picked up for Ross when he struggled. For some, imagining the greatest play-by-play announcer they've ever heard struggling is a reach, but Ross didn't have his A-game here, and he needed someone like Striker to get him comfortable with the wrestlers and the traditions. He knew what to say and when to say it.

Even though Ross did struggle at times remembering names or hitting on certain beats, he was a million times better than the last time I heard him do play-by-play in WWE. He may have lost his fastball when it comes to the "put over the story" type of commentating that made him a legend in the late '90s, but he adapted to this broadcast partially by calling the action as if it was a sport and partially by acting as a hybridized color commentator. Granted, Ross had a few cringeworthy lines during the broadcast that either stemmed from his "get off my dang lawn" old man tendencies (like when he snarked the line about Champions entering last like they should as if it was the one problem plaguing every wrestling promotion in existence) or from a seeming agenda to convince people that wrestling wasn't fake or that it was a legit sport with no sense of irony. Seriously, one does not promote Shinsuke Nakamura by pretending he's Suzuki and downplaying his Michael Jackson homage act. And when he described Kazuchika Okada as a "nice, polite young man," I laughed at either the blatant disregard for kayfabe or the complete nearsightedness of describing the strip club dollar guy as anything demure. Still, regardless of his flubs, he was a steady voice for the show who knew how to get the action over in the ring for the most part.

But that action in the ring wasn't nearly as foreign as one might imagine going in. Perhaps opening the show with no fewer than five wrestlers who should be familiar to American audiences (and another two who have worked dates for Ring of Honor and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla) was to remind people that the American indie scene has borrowed extensively from puroresu for a long time. Maybe wrestling itself doesn't have a language barrier and that styles in each country aren't so different from each other after all. Or maybe these guys are really the best in the world at what they do and can get their points across easily to any audience. I have no real answer for why the show came across as accessibly as it did, but the fact remains that the important beats were hit in the best matches.

It wasn't a perfect show by any means, however. The period between the tag team opener and the bell on Tomohiro Ishii and Togi Makabe felt disjointed and a bit slow. Outside of Tomoaki Honma, who grabbed my attention starting with his ring entrance, I didn't find a whole lot to love in matches two through four. I am willing to admit that I might have an inherent, institutional bias against a worked MMA match, which is why I wasn't feeling Suzuki and Sakuraba, but the beauty of the show was that it was only one match out of ten. But then once the NEVER Championship match started, the show started to build and build. A four hour show can be a tricky gambit to ask someone to sit through, but rather than front-load the show, the doldrums got out of the way early, the action demanded one's attention as the telecast progressed, and the use of strategically placed vignettes, whether it was to announce the future schedule or to set up for the two big matches, were able to refresh better than any cooldown match ever could.

That atmosphere speaks to the wrestlers as much as it does the format. Nakamura and Kota Ibushi wrestled maybe the finest match in all pro wrestling for the last 12 months, and no one in their right minds would want to follow them. But Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi, who've done the thing before, went out, told their story, and kept people invested. The main wrestlers weren't the only ones who kept the flow moving at a crisp pace. Honma was a highlight during the slow early portion of the show. Ishii dished out and took some of the most vicious shots anyone could ever see. Kenny Omega showed what it would be like if Cosmo Kramer fused with Brian Pillman and became an evil wrestler. Both tag matches had fire, and the opening tag match was the perfect contest to open the telecast. Not everything seemed to fit, but enough was in place to make WrestleKingdom 9 a marquee event for people of every experience level. All anyone could want in a wrestling show is to be able to sit down and be satisfied. I'm not sure how the longtime fans were satisfied with the booking - I still need to pick up some nuance in that department - but as a rookie NJPW viewer, I couldn't be happier with the show, and I will be back again in the future.