Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015 Year in Review/2016 Year in Preview: New Japan Pro Wrestling

Okada began the year by falling oh so short
Photo via Cewsh Reviews/Rajah
Promotion: New Japan Pro Wrestling

What Happened in 2015: January 4 brought us Wrestle Kingdom 9, the promotion's equivalent of Wrestlemania. They go all out by putting it in the Tokyo Dome and making the entrances as grand of a spectacle as they wish. Wrestle Kingdom 9 was arguably the turning point at which Americans started paying attention to NJPW, myself included, partially because it had English commentary from Matt Striker and good ol' Jim Ross. Though Striker proved himself to be knowledgeable of the product, and Jim Ross will always be Jim Ross, all we really gained from their commentary was learning that JR had lunch with Shinsuke Nakamura and thinks he's pretty awesome. What really mattered was the wrestling itself, and WK9 contained two possible Match of the Year candidates. Nakamura retained his IWGP Intercontinental Championship by defeating Kota Ibushi in a match where the word "stiff" doesn't accurately describe what happened. Go watch that one right away. The main event saw Hiroshi Tanahashi retain his IWGP Heavyweight Championship in a classic against Kazuchika Okada. After the match, The Rainmaker made it rain with his own tears, in utter disbelief that for the second time in a main event at Wrestle Kingdom, he fell short and felt defeat at the hands of NJPW's "Ace," "The 1 in 100 Years," the supposed John Cena of New Japan, Tanahashi. Remember this, as it will be important later.

One month later at The New Beginning, Tanahashi and his partial cornrows were no match for the nine-man interference team of Bullet Club, and AJ Styles captured the IGWP belt for the second time. Styles' only big win in a title defense came against New Japan Cup winner Kota Ibushi at Invasion Attack, and from then it was on to July’s Dominion event, facing off against Okada. Riding high on their unstoppable freight train of success, Bullet Club got so careless with their interference in this match that all nine members got the ol’ heave-ho from Red Shoes the referee. Slightly thrown off his game, Styles still found it in him to fight hard for his belt, but Okada took it from him after one of the most beautifully constructed final minutes of a match you will see all year. To those who complain about guys planning out matches backstage, watch that last minute and tell me it’s a bad thing and not a ridiculously good thing.

The G1 winner is familiar
Photo Credit: David Enemy
The G1 Climax started July 20 and ended August 16. For those unfamiliar, that’s a 27-day round robin-style tournament in which 16 wrestlers are split into two separate “blocks,” they wrestle everyone in their block once, and then the two wrestlers from each block with the most wins face each other in a final match, with the winner getting a guaranteed shot at the IWGP Heavyweight Title at the next Wrestle Kingdom. Confusing? Nope? Good! After weeks of decent-to-incredible matches from all competitors, the finals came down to Tanahashi and Nakamura. Common wisdom dictated that Nakamura, without his Intercontinental Belt, and riding his wave of worldwide popularity, was a shoe-in for the victory. But as the lazy John Cena comparison foretold, “Tanahashi wins lol.”

The championship re-match between Okada and Styles came at King of Pro Wrestling in October, but with Tanahashi’s WK10 title shot looming, and the loaded history between him and the current champion, the re-match’s outcome seemed all but settled. And indeed, it was. Okada hit Styles with three Rainmakers to win. After the match, Tanahashi entered the ring with his G1 Title Shot briefcase, which is just the Money in the Bank briefcase with different lettering. He reminded Okada that he is the “Ace” of the company and declared the IWGP Heavyweight Championship to be within his reach. Thus, the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 10 was set.

Since then, Tanahashi and Okada have seen their long-term feud become more bitter and physical, with a six-man tag at Power Struggle devolving into an extended, vicious pull-apart brawl between the two, sort of like that Brock Lesnar/Undertaker pull-apart but with less members of The Ascension.

Previously mentioned Most Popular Wrestler in the World (unofficial title) Shinsuke Nakamura found his IWGP Intercontinental Championship under attack from the sorta-Samurai, Hirooki Goto. Though it feels like Nakamura should just never lose a match on account of his effervescent greatness, he showed his mortality at Wrestling Dontaku in May when he lost his title to Goto. The bookers presumably gave Goto the ball so he could run with it, but this is where NJPW’s hazy face/heel alignments get problematic. Goto being set up as a crowd favorite can only work if he is up against a heel who can overcompensate for Goto’s lacking personality. Shinsuke Nakamura is not that opponent. So their entire feud, while containing three excellent matches, still felt like an exercise in biding time until Nakamura just got his belt back and completed his fashionable ensemble with a little more gold.

Will Styles bring home more gold?
Photo Credit: Scott Finkelstein
Nakamura’s next challenge was at Power Struggle, facing Machine Gun Karl Anderson. It had been a while since Anderson had broken away from Doc Gallows to go for a singles belt, and admittedly this match headlining the event seemed less than special. The match was good, but our run-up to this match paid off with the post-match happenings, as Bullet Club leader AJ Styles sauntered into the ring and casually made it known that he would love a crack at Nakamura’s title. The match was set simply by the two placing their heads against one another and staring into each other’s eyes. Fitting, as these two will make romantically beautiful pro wrestling together at WK10.

On another note for the uninitiated, NJPW has a Heavyweight division and a Junior Heavyweight division. Think of the latter as WCW’s old Light Heavyweight division where Brian Pillman and Jushin Liger flipped around and killed themselves. The Juniors have their yearly version of the G1 Climax, the Best of the Super Juniors, and the A and B blocks were won by Kushida and Kyle O’Reilly. This is another one you need to seek out and watch. For 30 minutes, Kushida and O’Reilly made a compelling case that the absolute best big-stage wrestling in the world is going down in NJPW, by wrestling an exhausting, breathtaking match where the outcome didn’t just mean a shot at Kenny Omega’s Junior Heavyweight Title, but felt like the difference between life or death.

Kushida won the Junior Heavyweight belt from Omega at Dominion, but lost it back to Omega two months later. The rug was seemingly pulled out from under Kushida, who went back to teaming with Alex Shelley. Why would they give a guy such a big push, only to so quickly take it away from him? This question was answered, sort of, after Omega’s successful defense against Matt Sydal at King of Pro Wrestling when NJPW simply announced that Kushida would be once again challenging Omega for the title at WK10. They really could have done more to give those two a new reason to fight each other, but when we remember that their match will be one of the night’s best, we should probably just back away from the keyboard and stop complaining.

The aforementioned tag team of Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows, Guns and Gallows, held the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Titles for most of the year, with the one blip coming during their feud with The Kingdom. Anderson became obsessed with Maria Kanellis, frequently losing multi-man tag matches when she hopped up on the apron and knowingly shook her stuff at him, causing him to smile and tango in her general direction, only to lose the match for his team. Guns and Gallows enlisted the help of Gallows’s wife Amber, and with a bit more focus from Anderson and a bit less giving in to his primal urges, they got the belts back. Since then they have been dominant, with Gallows finding more and more opportunities to swing his belt at the crowd as if it were his penis, a joke which literally never gets old.

At WK10, Guns and Gallows will face the winners of the World Tag League, Togi Makabe and Tomoaki Honma. This was another round-robin tournament that happened toward the end of the year, but with much less compelling results. The tournament is poorly placed being so close to Wrestle Kingdom season, as the wrestlers are clearly saving themselves for the big show, which makes for a bunch of 2 ½ to 3 star matches, but nothing more. Makabe and Honma triumphed in the end, though it remains to be seen if those two teaming together will last very long.

Honma was fresh off his loss to Tomohiro Ishii, current NEVER Openweight Champion. As the name describes, that’s a belt for literally anyone, regardless of their size. Makabe and Ishii had several matches throughout the year for the belt, each one bruising and ruthless, but none of them compare to the match between Ishii and Honma at Power Struggle. You might not see a match all year with more believable false finishes, nor might you see a match with two guys doing a better job of knocking the ever-loving shit out of each other.

The scene surrounding the Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Titles has been too frenzied to accurately recap. At various times, the belts have been held by Roppongi Vice (Rocky Romero and Trent Baretta), reDRagon (Kyle O’Reilly and Bobby Fish), and those damn Young Bucks. They often have had three-team matches that might make old-timer purists like Jim Cornette slam their armchair due to a lack of “psychology,” but the Junior Tag Division is not necessarily concerned with psychology. They just want to put on baller matches with insane spots, and at that pursuit they have succeeded. Now, a new team has been added to the mix: Ricochet and Matt Sydal. They won the Super Junior Tag Tournament, which guaranteed them a title shot at WK10. But in a confusing segment, all of the aforementioned teams came down to the ring, argued with each other in English (to the confusion of the entire audience), and basically agreed to have a four-way tag match at Wrestle Kingdom. Again, this will not be a match that makes Bruno Sammartino stand up and applaud, but it should, ya know?

Swagsuke is your NJPW MVP
Photo via 411Mania.com
2015 MVP: I feel terrible that this can only go to one guy. New Japan Pro Wrestling would not be what it is without contributions from so many. Tanahashi in particular had a great year simply by being so ridiculously capable for a 38-year old, and for being so versatile in his matches. But the MVP award has to go to Shinsuke Nakamura, right? At least to American eyes, he’s the absolute top guy. No wrestler in the world can match his charisma and ability to capture an audience’s affection by barely lifting a finger or raising an eyebrow. When NJPW and Ring of Honor did their East Coast crossover matches in May and August, all of the NJPW guys were loved, but none more so than Nakamura. If NJPW continues its global success, he will be the main reason. He inspires a crazed affection among American audiences, and you see pretty much the same in Japan. During his incredible G1 Climax Finals match with Tanahashi, the crowd hung on every move Nakamura made. Yes, Tanahashi won and the crowd exploded, but you knew that if Nakamura had won, they’d have exploded even harder.

What's Going to Happen in 2016: Okada and Tanahashi have had an off-and-on three-year battle, essentially over the rights to be the “Ace” of NJPW. Tanahashi’s grip on that position has been Cena-like, with the same possibly fake deference and respect to his challengers. But now that Tanahashi is losing his cool a bit, it’s clear that Okada has gotten to him. Okada should get his first WK10 win over Tanahashi and successfully defend his title. I say should because it’s the logical end to their story. There’s always a chance that Tanahashi will just win anyway, but I think reasonable heads will prevail. From there, Okada has wide range of possible challengers, the most likely of which could be Tetsuya Naito.

Speaking of that guy, his Los Ingobernobles stable will continue to add members and just generally wreck shit. Along with the former Watanabe now known as EVIL and the newly heel BUSHI, they have been assaulting referees, ring announcers and even cameramen. Why? Because they feel like it. It has been a little scary, but the thought that they could grow in size and recklessness is even scarier. Every event at which they appear will carry the possible threat of Los Ingobernables doing something dangerous. That’s pretty fun.

The Junior Heavyweight Division, both in singles and tag, saw a 2015 that didn’t have a whole lot of variety. It was a moving carousel, but the same three guys or teams moved through that carousel. Because of that, it felt like the Juniors lost some of their mojo. The NJPW crowd sometimes had a hard time connecting with those matches, partially because the matches sometimes felt slapped together. But with increased focus on the red-hot Young Bucks, and hopefully more faith in Kushida, the Juniors could bring in new competitors and new possibilities for quality pro wrestling.

The partnership with ROH appears to be going strong, so much so that WK10 is featuring a Michael Elgin and Jay Lethal ROH World Title match, along with the Briscoes making their debut for NJPW. These are big strides toward entrenching ROH in the minds of NJPW’s fans and getting them to accept even more gaijin into the family. They’ve already accepted AJ Styles as one of the top guys there, and Michael Elgin has made incredible waves this year. All of that will likely continue, but NJPW needs to make sure that they maintain their identity without becoming too…I don’t know…American. Eww.

Five Wrestlers to Watch in 2016: AJ Styles – How many wrestlers in the world can even touch Styles? Like, two or three, maybe? Even at age 38, he continues to move around the ring like a guy ten years his junior. Despite a recent back injury, he put on a solid match at ROH’s Final Battle, and appears to be all systems go to head into the Dome and face Nakamura. The outcome of that match might be quite telling as we try to predict what Styles will do in 2016. He is still not under contract with NJPW, and after almost two years of that arrangement, he might be anxious to change it. Signing with NJPW full-time means being away from his family, and he's nothing if not a good Christian family man. So does that mean he stays in America and does ROH and all the indies? Or does he take the leap and sign with WWE? I think there is still a lot of story left for him to tell in NJPW, but it would have to involve something happening with the Bullet Club other than the static in which they’ve been frozen for the last year.

Tomoaki Honma – As if I didn’t already love him enough, Honma’s match with Ishii at Power Struggle made me absolutely nuts for the guy. How could you not root for him? Well, in December we got the answer to that question when Honma’s girlfriend, retired wrestler Kiyoko Ichiki, made allegations of Honma being physically abusive to her during their relationship. Her statements described actions that no man should ever inflict on a woman. Honma flatly denied abusing Ichiki, and actually claimed that any violence that has occurred between them has been himself acting in self-defense. Ugh. In America, a guy gets hit with these allegations and immediately finds himself under fire from his employer and his supporters. In Japan, apparently domestic abuse just doesn’t carry the same social stigma as it does here. He probably won’t even be suspended by NJPW. If nothing else happens with the allegations, it’s possible that Honma will carry on as he already was, he and Makabe will win the Heavyweight Tag Championships, and the Japanese crowd will cheer him just the same. As for me, I want to love him as a character, but if the man behind the character might be awful, that becomes a tough proposition.

Photo Credit: NJPWEurope.com
Tetsuya Naito – Despite being presented for years as Tanahashi-lite, Naito never could quite get over the hump in NJPW. His solution? Go to Mexico and join an evil stable of wrestlers, and bring that stable to Japan. Start wearing a full suit to the ring, walking incredibly slowly. Demand that a ring boy holds the ropes open for you, and then don’t get in the ring. Walk around. Take forever. Then get in the ring, and before you even look at your opponent, take an eternity to remove your suit. Naito has become one of the most brilliantly-working heels in the world, simply by channeling the inner petulant jerk we all wish we could be. NJPW is putting a good amount of faith in Naito’s heel turn, giving him a match with Goto at WK10 in the only non-title match on the whole card. I would not be surprised if Naito and his Ingobernables become so power-hungry in 2016 that he claws his way up to the Heavyweight Championship title picture. Would Okada be able to fend off an army of Naito’s brainwashed followers and keep his title belt? Or would insanity prevail over CHAOS?

Michael Elgin – To see the ultimate example of someone making the most of an opportunity, look no further than Elgin’s work during the G1 Climax. By sheer will and force, Elgin got himself over with the NJPW audience in no time. When he performed his delayed suplexes and squats, the awed crowd responded with the appreciative “OOOHHHHHHH” we love so much. Elgin is in a spot similar to AJ Styles as he could likely sign a nice contract with NJPW, but he also has a new baby at home that might keep him mostly in America. Sure, he could sign with NXT and have matches against Bull Dempsey or whatever, but when you’ve got Tanahashi giving you his official endorsement and there are spots for the taking, it seems like NJPW would be his best bet. Wherever he goes, hopefully his successful run in Japan will reinvigorate his career and keep him busting heads in 2016.

Tama Tonga – Bullet Club really needs to shake things up this year. They haven’t done much and they have a group of guys who are just kind of there. Bad Luck Fale, Yujiro Takahashi and Cody Hall are bit players for a reason, but the one guy who shouldn’t be relegated to bit player status is Tama Tonga. In every one of his matches, the guy shows personality and a sharpness for match psychology. He’s also the adopted son of Haku, so he probably knows how to rip off a guy’s jaw or something. My hope is that in the next year Tama Tonga can have a major run in the Juniors division, maybe even taking that title into the Bullet Club. If he’s the Junior Heavyweight Champion at the same time as Styles being the Intercontinental Champion, then we’d see a Bullet Club with actual prestige, and not just guys claiming to be “too sweet” without ever backing it up.

What I Want to See in 2016: 1. Shinsuke conquers the world - Nakamura could keep his Intercontinental Title at WK10, but he really could lose it depending on AJ Styles’s future (more on that later). If he is freed up and roaming the New Japan wilderness, could 2016 be the year that Nakamura once again goes after the Heavyweight Title? He hasn’t held that for almost six years now, and as established, he’s basically the best. Thinking about a title program between him and Okada gets me hot and bothered.

Get well soon!
Photo via @rixiashin
2. Kota Ibushi’s neck gets all better - Ibushi is a bonafide superstar, and I won’t hear anything otherwise. That man has it all as a pro wrestler: looks, personality and ability. That’s why it broke my heart when it was announced in November that Ibushi has a herniated disc in his neck and is indefinitely out of action. We might miss a full year of the amazing Ibushi doing amazing things and making the ladies scream. NJPW fans all over the world should keep their fingers permanently crossed in hopes that Ibushi can heal up and get back into the ring this year, of course without putting himself in grave danger. It would be a real shame if he never gets another run with the company. He has limitless potential.

3. The Six-Man Tag Championship actually means something - WWE gets a lot of flack for constantly putting on six-man matches with random combinations of wrestlers fighting for seemingly no reason, but NJPW does this as much as WWE, if not even more. It can get a little stale. But in a surprise announcement made just days ago, NJPW is upping the stakes at WK10 by crowning the very first NEVER Openweight Six-Man Tag Team Champions. The match will feature Bad Luck Fale, Tama Tonga and Yujiro Takahashi taking on Toru Yano and the Briscoe Brothers. Since the Briscoes likely won’t hold a title in NJPW, Bullet Club should be walking away with those belts. As the year goes on and each big event sees another six-man tag match, it would be great if those belts could be hotly contested, with certain teams getting together for the sole purpose of taking them from Bullet Club. Suddenly, matches that previously felt like an excuse to throw as many guys on a card can now have gravity and meaning, rather than mere “wrestling for the sake of wrestling,” right, McMahon?