Talk about making the most of an opportunity.
With more North American buzz, significantly greater media attention, and an estimated 34-percent spike in attendance, New Japan Pro-Wrestling delivered one of the best top-to-bottom cards in memory with Wrestle Kingdom 12.
It will take some time to know exactly what the results were in terms of new subscriptions, live or late viewers, and fans who stick around. But in the interim, New Japan Wrestling can rest easy knowing it would have been hard pressed to turn in a better six hours at a time when the best wrestling promotion in the world looks to gain more mainstream notoriety.
Jericho and Omega Deliver on the Hype
New Japan had garnered a lot of this increasing attention thanks to a piping-hot feud between long-time WWE stalwart Chris Jericho and Kenny Omega, a top-three wrestler in the world and the best import in Japan. Jericho had once again completely reinvented himself to make the unexpected jump to New Japan, while Omega had long ago tasked himself with putting the global expansion on his shoulders. Their story—brought to the attention of more casual or WWE-centric fans through GIFs and highlight packages from surprise run-ins and press conferences in Japan—drummed up plenty of press, and both worked the interview circuit tirelessly to make sure a host of new eyes fell on the product for their highly-anticipated match.
How the match turned out almost felt secondary given how well the story had been built. Jericho, 20 years removed from his last stint in Japan and unrelentingly petulant about anyone else, anywhere, calling themselves the best in the world, flipped a switch to a profane, unhinged version of himself that could never fly in the PG-era of WWE. Omega, suddenly not only the face of New Japan in the United States but also now its defender, responded in kind, eventually making clear in no uncertain terms that Jericho would have to kill him to beat him.
A no-disqualifications stipulation really opened things up for what turned out to be a brutal, hard-hitting affair. Omega would ultimately retain his IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship by delivering his One-Winged Angel finisher onto a chair that Jericho had introduced earlier, a poetic ending after Jericho grew increasingly violent, unable to keep Omega down.
To get to that point, Omega had to withstand a missed splash through an announcer's table (with a monitor still in the way), a litany of chair shots, and multiple attempts at Jericho's signature Walls of Jericho. In a terrific call-back to Jericho's earlier "Lion Do" days, Jericho even tried the more deadly Lion Tamer version of the move, only to see Omega fight his way out of the ring once and reach the ropes after a long battle (Jericho could not be disqualified for ignoring the rope break, but a tap-out wouldn't count; Jericho similarly used the rope-break to break up an earlier pin off the One-Winged Angel, which is almost never kicked out of).
Jericho's intensity from the build-up played well here, his indignation apparent from the outset as he shoved respected official Red Shoes, locked his son in a Lion Tamer, and used a four-letter word gratuitously in all directions. Opposite him, Omega did the things that make Omega one of the best in the world, pulling out some truly remarkable sequences, flying around outside the ring, and selling like few others can, aided by a bloody face for most of the match. Both wrestlers looked like the mega-stars they are, and even though both admitted the goal wasn't star ratings so much as telling a good story, they delivered something close to the 100th-percentile outcome here.
For Jericho to do this—the story, the hype, the buzz—at 47 is another solid argument in his case for Greatest Of All Time, and far more people now know just how special a talent Omega is.
Okada Retains Belt in Title Fight vs. Naito
Jericho and Omega was branded as the co-main event, more or less a fact given the attention it was getting despite being the second last match of the card. The main event slot was reserved for Kazuchika Okada defending his IWGP Heavyweight Championship against Tetsuya Naito, who had earned the right by winning this summer's G1 Climax tournament.
This should not have been Naito's first Wrestle Kingdom main event. He won the G1 Climax tournament in 2014, too, only for fans to vote that a match between Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship should go on last. This started one of the most nuanced and incredible four-year character arcs ever, with Naito losing the title match against Okada, becoming engulfed by bitterness at his lost opportunity, heading to Mexico and then eventually returning as the leader of Los Ingobernables de Japon. Not only have LIJ been a tremendous stable for the last two-plus years, Naito's emerged as one of the best all-around wrestlers and characters in the world.
Thursday was supposed to be His Moment. Four years after losing the opportunity, the circuitous road back that included a 70-day title reign was set to conclude with his coronation. After the two stars traded finishers and counters back and forth with a number of breathless false finishes, Naito appeared to have done it—he'd survived a Tombstone Piledriver and reversed Okada's Rainmaker lariat into his Destino finisher, and the champion looked out. Naito kept his clutch on the wrist, though. Whether too much bitterness and resentment still remained or a modicum of self-doubt crept in that Okada would stay down, Naito lifted Okada and attempted a second Destino. Okada reversed it into a spinning Tombstone, then hit a devastating Rainmaker to retain.
Naito and Okada took their time getting going, laying out a more methodical story filled with call-backs and layered psychology early on. The final third of the match was about the best you’ll see, and this will probably receive at least the vaunted five-star rating from Dave Meltzer. The finishing sequence was incredibly high drama, and Naito’s performance—from his mix of dismissive gust and tranquillo as Okada made his elaborate entrance (in pants no less!) to his subtle half-smirk looking back to the ring as he exited up the ramp—had the crowd eating out of their hands.
That the crowd was so hot for a Naito victory will be one of the more talked-about elements of the show, at least among hardcores who care to analyze the business/long-term side as much as the stories themselves. Naito's story arc was at a logical conclusion with a redemptive victory here, and it's unlikely he—or anyone, really—will ever be this hot in this big a moment again. There are interesting questions and paths for Naito from here, though, and as Okada's title reign pushes to its record 565th day—he's also held the title more combined days than anyone in history now—his character's shades of arrogance can only grow. This would have felt more special with Naito going over. Only where they go from here and how it's received will determine whether that was the best decision.
Undercard Goes Nearly Flawless
New Japan has a way of building throughout the event to these dramatic crescendos late, and a big part of that is laying out a card with few down spots. That's no easy task, especially with eight title matches to fit in, but most of the undercard met or exceeded expectations.
- The main show opened with The Young Bucks defeating Roppongi 3K for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship in a match that should put to rest any criticism that the Bucks can't actually tell stories in the ring. There was a ton of psychology at play here, from the Bucks taking out their young opponent's manager early to put them at a disadvantage, to both sides targeting the back of an opponent and that playing into the late sequences, and to the Bucks trying to defeat a team they'd dismissively referred to as "young boys" with simpler moves. It's the Bucks' seventh run with the titles, but it was YOH of R3K who maybe came out looking the best here.
- New Japan will often go with a multi-team gauntlet match for the NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship, a sort of way to get more faces on the biggest show of the year and also push all of the company's stables, a big strength. The match itself here wasn't anything spectacular, with CHAOS (Beretta, Tomohiro Ishii, and Toru Yano) coming out on top. NJPW's slow build-up of Beretta continued here with the winning pinfall. Ishii is just the best.
- Kota Ibushi defeated Cody Rhodes in a Handsome Battle that was very likely the best match of Rhodes' career. Ibushi has literally had good matches with inanimate objects, but Rhodes deserves a ton of credit here as well. The highlight may have been Rhodes yelling that Omega, who has a very storied past with Ibushi, doesn't love Ibushi like Rhodes does. That, or a ridiculous Cross Rhodes off of the apron. Really, really good work here.
- Naito's stablemates in EVIL and SANADA won the IWGP Tag Team Championship from Killer Elite Squad (Davey Boy Smith Jr., Lance Archer, and Archer's 400 bandanas) in a bit of a slug-fest that worked as a payoff for some terrific work from all of LIJ the last year. KES are unspectacular. This was still pretty good. Stupid sexy SANADA.
- Minoru Suzuki grabbed a buzzer from Hirooki Goto and shaved his own head, his punishment for losing a hair vs. hair NEVER Openweight Championship match. This one was just brutal, as most matches involving one or both of these two tend to be, and Goto got to display his all-world selling ability.
- Will Ospreay won a four-way match to become the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, defeating champion Marty Scurll, Hiromu Takahashi, and KUSHIDA. This was the most fast-paced match on the card, and it was a good one. Ospreay really stood out here, and the payoff with him pinning Scurll plays on their very long history together. If there's a complaint here, it's that KUSHIDA wasn't completely unleashed (but that's probably nitpicking). Scurll's entrance earned best of the night.
- In the only real disappointment on the show, Hiroshi Tanahashi retained his IWGP Intercontinental Championship against Jay White in a 20-minute match that fell kind of flat and didn't do a ton for White. Tanahashi, the company's ace, told the story of his injured knee as only Tanahashi can before overcoming the odds for the victory. It was a fine Tanahashi match. The issue here is that the company had made a huge deal of White in his new "Switchblade" character after a year-and-a-half away from the company on foreign excursion. White's promo and character work had been excellent, and his entrance gave him a star feel. The match really didn't do much for him, though, and while going over Tanahashi was always probably unlikely, they could have done a lot more for him here.
Having one complaint about a six-hour show would seem to be a pretty good success. Faced with a massive opportunity, New Japan left little on the table. The fallout for the company from a business perspective and from a sustained interest angle is unknowable for the time being. The company gets right back to work trying to build on Wrestle Kingdom and answer some of the more pressing storyline questions—How does the loss effect Naito? Who's next for Okada? Is Jericho done for now? What becomes of Jay White?—on Friday with New Year Dash, which should set the table for the next few months.
If Wrestle Kingdom was received as well and by as many as New Japan hopes, there could be a lot more new fans looking for those answers.