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Wrestle Kingdom 16 continued the tradition of multi-night Wrestle Kingdoms, with this year’s event stretched out over three nights, although the third and final night might as well be a completely different show, since it is all NJPW vs Pro Wrestling NOAH matches. As in past years, while the shorter run time on each night makes each show more watchable, the thinning of the card makes large portions of the shows more skippable.
Both nights, but particularly the first night, had some filler matches that would have never made it onto a Wrestle Kingdom card if the show had been one night. Not having access to foreign talent in the same way due to the pandemic, as well as missing Kota Ibushi and Jay White, two men who were in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 15 last year, also creates depth issues with the card.
Still, Wrestle Kingdom remains a highlight of the wrestling year, and there were some great moments. Here are five takeaways from this year’s offering:
1. Okada is the GOAT
NJPW just feels right when Kazuchika Okada is the IWGP World Heavyweight Champion. Okada has been champion for the better part of the last decade, but over the last few years, he found himself outside the world title picture and has been forced to adapt to a new role in NJPW. The company is no longer all about putting the focus on him, as it has crowned different wrestlers, from Tetsuya Naito to White to Ibushi to EVIL to Will Ospreay to Shingo Takagi, all in an attempt to increase the depth of top stars in NJPW.
There have been some successes and some failures in that lot, but on January 4, the world title found its way back where it belongs; around the waist of The Rainmaker. In true Okada fashion, he didn’t just win the title in a regular match; he won it (and retained it the following night) in two of the most spectacular matches in recent memory.
His first match, defeating Takagi for the title, was a classic, puro-style match that showcased all the best of Takagi, with tremendous fire, selling and machismo that no one else can match. The second match, defending the title against Ospreay, was a spectacular match full of incredible athleticism and mind-blowing series of counters that both men performed at lightning speed, yet also never screwed up once. Take your pick on which match was better, but both were easy five-star matches.
It’s that kind of versatility where Okada’s true genius emerges. If you watch both matches, the takeaway from both is how great his respective opponents are. Much like Bret Hart, it’s not a coincidence that almost everyone has their best career matches against Okada. He may not be as explosive as Takagi, or as agile as Ospreay, but his knowledge of match structure, his ability to design and execute closing sequences, and his skill at making his opponents look amazing while also getting himself over, is what separates him from pretty much every other wrestler on planet earth.
2. House of Torture is no bueno
House of Torture, the Bullet Club spin-off group led by EVIL and utilizing Dick Togo as a manager, has been a lowlight for NJPW since it emerged last year. Each match unfolds the exact same way; with the HoT group cheating and using either a low-blow or a foreign object to steal a victory.
Both matches at Wrestle Kingdom, first Tomohiro Ishii losing the NEVER Openweight Championship to EVIL after several people interfered and led to Ishii getting hit with a wrench and pinned, and then the NEVER Openweight Six Man Tag Titles changing hands when the wrench again came into play, would have elicited groans from the crowd inside the Tokyo Dome, had they been permitted to do so.
That last bit is what makes HoT’s booking so confounding. Due to COVID-19 restrictions in Japan, the crowd is not permitted to make any vocal noise during the show. The most they can do is clap to show their support. HoT is all about getting HEAT from the audience, but it’s doing it during a time where they literally can’t get heat from the crowd. So instead, HoT cheats to complete silence from the crowd.
If the crowds were allowed to make noise, things might be different. Maybe HoT would get a ton of heat and when the babyfaces got their revenge, they would get huge pops. That isn’t the case though, which makes the crappy, interference-laced matches even more frustrating. There is no conceivable payoff in this current environment.
3. NJPW sets up anniversary year with interpromotional matches
NJPW made a big deal about 2022 being the 50th Anniversary year for the company, and as part of a year-long celebration the company has announced a series of interpromotional programs with other Japanese promotions.
The most obvious one is the show against Pro Wrestling NOAH, which had an angle at Wrestle Kingdom with all of the various warring factions within NOAH standing united against NJPW and calling them out. It remains to be seen if this is just going to be a one-off show filled with tag team matches, or if something more will come from this rivalry, but it’s an interesting concept for NJPW, which in the last few years has been pretty isolationist when it comes to working with other Japanese promotions.
In addition to the NOAH show, the company has announced another show this spring with it’s oldest rival, All-Japan Pro Wrestling. Wrestle Kingdom also saw CIMA show up in NJPW and challenge for the King of Pro Wrestling Trophy after appearing as a surprise entrant in the opening-match rumble. While CIMA is technically a free agent, it was still a good surprise to see him involved with NJPW, and I hope to see more outside talent involved later in the year.
4. Wrestle Kingdom had a lot of filler
When Wrestle Kingdom was only one night, it was full of amazing matches. Yes, the show was super long, but it always worked for me because there was never any downtime and so many of the matches were great. Now that the show is two (or technically, three) nights, it can’t possibly have that same kind of depth.
Instead the show had a lot of filler, especially on night one, which had many multi-man tag matches which you would normally see on the Road To… shows that NJPW runs leading up to a major event, not on the major event itself. Most of the filler matches were inoffensive, but it just didn’t feel like Wrestle Kingdom with those kinds of matches on the card.
The second night was a bit better. Instead of having multi-man tag matches, the company instead had more special singles matches. Jeff Cobb vs Tetsuya Naito and Great O-Khan vs SANADA were solid matches that each told a story; and had rivalries behind them so they felt like important matches, even if they were not for a title or anything like that. Still, NJPW probably could have done a better job laying out the cards so that every match felt truly important, although it’s difficult filling the two nights when you don’t have the same access to talent that they once had.
5. Katusyori Shibata returns to full strength
Katsuyori Shibata, whose career looked finished after suffering a serious brain injury sustained in a match in 2017, officially returned to the ring during a match against Ren Narita on Night One.
The angle to bring Shibata back has become fascinating; Shibata returned to action in October, coming out for a surprise UWF-rules match against Zack Sabre Jr. during the G1 Climax Final. In that match, it was made clear it would be grappling only, and Shibata didn’t take a ton of bumps and there was no striking at all, especially to the head. For Wrestle Kingdom, it was announced that Shibata would be engaging in another UWF-style match.
When Shibata came out for his match; he grabbed the microphone and announced that the match would actually be a regular wrestling match, and then he proceeded to have a normal match against Narita. While it was reported that Shibata made this move on his own; it was later stated that the move was known all along, only it was kept secret between Shibata, Narita and a few office members.
Either way, Shibata’s return to wrestling is fantastic news for fans of NJPW, because he’s a tremendous wrestler and his story is truly remarkable. As Kevin Kelly said on commentary while Shibata walked to the ring, how many times do you think Shibata has been told no? That he would never wrestle again? Yet here he is, back in action and seemingly at full strength. As good as the Okada matches were at Wrestle Kingdom, for a lot of fans the highlight was seeing Shibata back kicking the hell out of someone.
On the latest episode of the Gentlemen’s Wrestling Podcast, Jesse Collings (@JesseCollings) and Jason Ounpraseuth (@JasonOun95) look at some of the former WWE talent that have jumped to AEW in 2021 and assess how they have done in the new company. They discuss Bryan Danielson’s heel turn, how AEW has handled Adam Cole and Andrade’s slow start, while also talking about prospective moves for Kyle O’Reilly and Johnny Gargano, and wrap up by talking about Kevin Owens’ decision to stay in WWE.
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