The single best moment of Friday's Wrestle Kingdom 13 wasn’t from any of the matches. It was just before one, when maybe the best pro wrestler of his generation, Kazuchika Okada, took off the garish sequined pants he wore for his entrance to reveal his wrestling trunks. The crowd shrieked with delight while Okada limbered up, one of the biggest pops of the night.
Okada’s story is that he’d been caught in a crisis of confidence since losing the IWGP Heavyweight title to Kenny Omega. To represent this, he started wearing long pants in the ring (supposedly made for him by his mother), went on losing streaks, and generally seemed off. Until that moment he showed up in his trunks, with his older theme song, it had not been Okada’s year, and it did take most of a year to tell the story.
This is the sort of thing New Japan Pro Wrestling does best. The promotion’s storytelling zooms in on visual and symbolic details to a degree nobody else does, and it does so with a subtle (for pro wrestling touch). Where WWE’s comparable moments—think Shawn Michaels mouthing “I’m sorry, I love you” before pinning Ric Flair in the latter’s “retirement” match—are done with an exaggerated effect to make absolutely certain you get it, all Okada had to do was just calmly remove his warm up pants to make it one of the big talking points of the evening.
Usually we talk about the cool touches during entrances and warmups in NJPW as secondary to the wrestling. NJPW has, for four years, put on the best pro wrestling in the world. You talk about the wrestling when you come away from one of the promotion’s shows, followed by all the extra stuff between bells second.
That isn’t the case this year. There was something disjointed about Wrestle Kingdom 13 and the fact that the biggest talking point is Okada’s pants is testament to that fact. The timing of matches seemed slightly off and everyone seemed to wrestle as if the air was heavy around them. The only way to put it is that things seemed off: matches were a little too short or a little too long, the crowd seemed a little less excited than in years past, and most of the winners had the thud of predictability.
It was a good show. Part of the hesitation is that we’re spoiled by NJPW, which seems incapable of putting on a dog show like just about everyone else can. The past two years haven’t just seen the best wrestling in the promotion’s history, but some of the best pro wrestling ever. When the show is just “really good” instead of “amazing with things I’ve never seen before,” we stifle a yawn. And it’s been with a cast of big names leaving for WWE: AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Luke Gallows, and Karl Anderson all left and all were key players. That exodus was years ago, but it forced NJPW to get better by investing in younger, less likely stars to pair with Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and Tetsuya Naito.
The problem with Wrestle Kingdom is that NJPW is facing another exodus, this one much more severe. As this column went over late in 2018, the Young Bucks, Cody Rhodes, and Adam Page are all leaving New Japan (and their stateside commitments in Ring of Honor) to form All Elite Wrestling, a new promotion with the backing of the Khan family, of Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham FC fame. Over the holidays, more details were released and it’s clear that AEW is something big, with rumors that the contracts they’re offering top indie stars are comparable to WWE.
This meant that we knew who was winning the matches those wrestlers were involved in. There was no way Cody was hanging onto the US title against Juice Robinson and he didn’t. The Young Bucks weren’t going to win their tag match and The Elite weren’t going to win their six man. We knew the outcome a month in advance, and that’s never good.
As it turns out, Kenny Omega and top junior heavyweight, Kushida, are leaving, too. The former was always 50-50, meaning that we knew how the biggest match on the card (Omega vs. Tanahashi for the IWGP Heavyweight title) was going to turn out, but it still has to sting. Omega seems custom made for Japanese wrestling and in love with it in a way that Styles, his nearest analogue, never seemed to be. Omega’s entire career trajectory is entwined with Japanese wrestling culture in a way few other gaijin wrestlers’ careers have ever been.
Predictability in pro wrestling isn’t always, or even often, bad. Pro wrestling is art of a sort, but it’s not a high end novel of intrigue or anything. It’s closer to a comic book, where the good guys always win but not without cost and always in slightly different ways. You watch pro wrestling because it follows the familiar beats, not despite that fact.
Where predictability in pro wrestling sucks is when it’s due to known departures. That’s what happened at Wrestle Kingdom 13. The action was the same as it always is, but when you know how the entire card is turning out because of whose contracts run out and when, it’s a bit of a letdown. Hence the slight sense of unease and gloom over the proceedings, right down to the way the live crowd sounded slightly more tired than usual.
The coverage gets swallowed up, too, including here, obviously. Every year, we enthuse over pro wrestling’s best show and only that. This year, we can’t avoid the asterisks: yes, Kenny Omega had a spectacular match with Tanahashi, suffused with subtle storytelling touches about whose pro wrestling style is the best, but Omega’s leaving, we don’t know where, and what does it all mean?
It means that NJPW will be fine, even thrive, but that their overseas expansion, so attached to The Elite (especially Omega) as the faces of the effort, is going to be blunted. And what does it mean for Wrestle Kingdom 13? A show laden with portent which was as good as most years, not as good as the best, paradoxically made fascinating and a touch boring by the backstage dealings at NJPW.