Ladies and gentlemen…we are just one month away from the Granddaddy of ‘Em All, the Show of Shows….no, I’m not talking about WrestleMania.
You see, over in Japan, every Jan. 4 is a holiday of sorts for the wrestling fan. IT’s the day of New Japan Professional Wrestling’s annual Tokyo Dome show, now known as Wrestle Kingdom.
We are up to the`14th installment of WrestleKingdom on the 4th in 2020, so I thought it would be as good a time as any to take a look back to last year’s event and see how everyone’s 2019 went.
For some, 2019 was a year of great success. For others, 2019 represented a downward spiral from a former place of glory.
I’m going to go match by match and break it down, as best as I can.
Let’s get started!
Preshow Gauntlet Match — Toru Yano, Togi Makabe and Ryusuke Taguchi def. Suzuki-gun (Minoru Suzuki, Lance Archer and Davey Boy Smith, Jr.), CHAOS (Hirooki Goto, Beretta and Chuckie T), Yuji Nagata, David Finlay and Jeff Cobb and The Elite (Hangman Page, Marty Scurll and Yujiro Takahashi)
New Japan threw out one of my favorite traditions, the New Japan Rumble, in favor of a gauntlet match where the winner would receive a shot at the NEVER Openweight 6-Man Titles.
I’m still bitter about it, but I digress. This match wasn’t spectacular, but it featured some fun moments, and the team of Yano, Makabe and Taguchi went on to win and then capture the NEVER belts later that month from the Bullet Club.
Let’s go team-by-team for this one.
Makabe, Yano and Taguchi — Amazingly, these three guys have been champs the entire year, never relinquishing the belts they won on Jan. 30. The NEVER 6-Man belts don’t exactly have much shine to them, however, so it’s not like these guys have been assigned immaculate places on the card.
In fact, in over 300 days they’ve only defended the belts 4 times, which is still good enough for a record-setting NEVER 6-Man reign.
Individually? Makabe was out first round of the New Japan Cup at the hands of Colt Cabana, missed out on the G1 this year and probably will be done with the tournament for good. He hasn’t done much to talk about this year, but he IS a champion, and that’s better than most.
Yano also fell to Cabana in the New Japan Cup, but had himself a nice little G1, finishing with 8 points and a signature win over Tetsuya Naito.
As for Taguchi, whom I hate with a fiery passion? He snuck his way into the New Japan Cup as a replacement for an injured David Finlay, where he lost in the second round after defeating Hiroyoshi Tenzan. He competed in the Best of the Super Juniors (finishing with 12 points, good for second in the block) as well as the Super J Cup (lost in the second round to Dragon Lee), where he was unsuccessful in his attempts to win both.
Suzuki-Gun (Lance Archer, Davey Boy Smith, Jr. and Minoru Suzuki)
The bad boys of professional wrestling each took very different paths through 2019.
Let’s get Davey Boy out of the way first, because hell, he isn’t even with the company anymore after what seemed to be a relatively messy split in June. He took on Yano in the New Japan Cup and lost, and that was really it for the son of the late, great British Bulldog. You could catch him in Major League Wrestling at the moment, where he is a one-time MLW Tag Team Champion.
Lance Archer had himself one heck of a 2019, that’s hardly even an opinion, just a cold hard truth. He was defeated by Will Ospreay in the New Japan Cup, but really began to open eyes with his star-making performance in the G1. Although he only finished with six points, Archer had great matches with the likes of Ospreay, Okada and Ibushi, and earned himself a spot higher up on the card. At Power Struggle, Archer would win his first singles gold in NJPW by defeating Juice Robinson for the IWGP United States Championship.
One would imagine that Archer would make his first scheduled defense of the belt at WrestleKingdom, so we’ll all have to stay tuned on that.
The leader of the Suzuki-gun stable, Minoru Suzuki, was part of a big storyline this summer with his exclusion from the G1. He did earn a title shot against Kazuchika Okada at Royal Quest which he lost, albeit in a fantastic match. He’ll be squaring off with Shingo Takagi on Jan. 4 (or 5th).
CHAOS (Hirooki Goto, Beretta and Chuckie T)
Well, there’s not much to say about the Best Friends, since they’ve departed for greener pastures in AEW, not too long after WrestleKingdom 13.
So let’s focus on Goto. If you go back to WK12, Goto was involved, as he seemingly always is, with the NEVER Openweight title, defeating Minoru Suzuki in a Hair vs. Hair match that was, in my opinion, the best match on that card.
From 12 to 13, it was a disappointing run for Goto, leading to him being left off the main card and on the preshow of 13.
But Goto has enjoyed a resurgent 2019, coming pretty damn close to advancing out of the B Block of the G1, feuded with Jay White over the Intercontinental Title and will square off with KENTA for the NEVER title at WrestleKingdom, a bout which I fully expect him to win.
Yuji Nagata, David Finlay and Jeff Cobb
Not a lot to say here. Nagata is one of the grumpy old dudes that New Japan fans seem to love; I get that he’s a former star and a former heavyweight champ and one of the greats, but trotting him out well past his prime doesn’t seem to do anyone any favors.
David Finlay missed a good chunk of 2019 with an injury, making his return at King of Pro Wrestling to help his good buddy Juice Robinson (more on him later). Juice and FInlay are currently entered in the World Tag League, where they are one of three teams left with a chance of winning and challenging for the IWGP Tag Titles at WrestleKingdom.
Jeff Cobb is more of a Ring of Honor competitor than a New Japan one, but he did have an eye-opening G1 Climax, including a phenomenal bout with Tomohiro Ishii that was one of the best of the whole tournament. I imagine these three will make it onto the card in a similar role this year.
The Elite (Hangman Page, Yujiro Takahashi and Marty Scurll)
Hangman’s in AEW, Marty’s in ROH but rumored to be leaving, and Yujiro is just Yujiro. Let’s move on.
Will Ospreay def. Kota Ibushi — NEVER Openweight Title
It seems impossible that two of the top stars in all of professional wrestling will actually be in better positions on the card for WrestleKingdom 14, but it’s true.
This match was arguably as valuable as it gets for the NEVER belt, a midcard belt if ever there was one. Ospreay won the belt, competed with it in the New Japan Cup, where he made quite the strong showing, defeating giants Bad Luck Fale and Lance Archer before falling to eventual winner Kazuchika Okada.
Ospreay would next tackle the Best of the Super Juniors, which he won by defeating Shingo Takagi in an absolute barn-burner of a match, one of my top two matches of the year. HE won the IWGP Junior Hwt. Title from Dragon Lee at Dominion in another classic.
But Ospreay wasn’t content with just junior heavyweight success. He wanted a bigger challenge, and entered the G1 Climax.
While he didn’t win much, he did have the Match of the Year with Okada, as well as barn-burners with KENTA and Lance Archer, and actually, everyone else he competed against.
For the rest of 2019, Ospreay and his tag partner Robbie Eagles were embroiled in a feud with Bullet Clubbers Taiji Ishimori and El Phantasmo, unsuccessfully challenging the duo for the IWGP Jr. Tag Titles. He will defend his IWGP Junior Hwt. Title against the returning Hiromu Takahashi at WrestleKingdom 14.
Ibushi missed a short stint of time after his WK13 clash with Ospreay, but was back in time for the New Japan Cup, where he lost to Zack Sabre Jr. in the second round.
But the real story of Ibushi’s 2019 stemmed from the match he won in the first round of the Cup, against Tetsuya Naito.
They would embark in a bitter, dangerous feud over Naito’s IWGP Intercontinental Championship throughout the summer, with Ibushi winning the belt at G1 Supercard only to lose it back at Dominion.
Then Ibushi took on the G1 Climax. How did he do? Oh, he only defeated Kazuchika Okada in the final night of Block A action, then knocked off Jay White to win the whole damn thing.
He’s defended the briefcase against EVIL and KENTA, and will look to become the first double champion in NJPW’s history when he takes on Okada on Night One of WK14, with the winner of that match advancing to take on the winner of Naito-White on Night Two.
Los Ingobernables de Japon (Shingo Takagi and BUSHI) def. Suzuki-gun (El Desperado and Yoshinobu Kanemaru) and Roppongi 3K (Sho and Yoh) — IWGP Junior Hwt. Tag Titles
The Ungovernable Ones took the IWGP junior tag titles from defending champs Suzuki-gun in a match that also involved Super Junior Tag Tournament winners Roppongi 3K.
The boys from Roppongi would capture the titles once again at the Mar. 6 anniversary show, dropping them to Taiji Ishimori and El Phantasmo at Kizuna Road.
They received a title shot at the Guerrillas of Destiny’s IWGP Heavyweight Tag Titles, but were unsuccessful in capturing them at Fighting Spirit Unleashed.
Sho and Yoh then went on to capture their third consecutive Super Junior tag tourney, and they’ll take on Ishimori and El Phantasmo at WK14.
El Desperado missed an extended period of time with a jaw injury, but made his return late in 2019. Kanemaru is irrelevant.
BUSHI’s had a quiet year, with one notable exception: a shot at Will Ospreay’s IWGP Junior Hwt. Title at Power Struggle, which he came up short in.
But Shingo? Shingo has opened the hell out of my eyes. After he and BUSHI dropped the tag titles to Roppongi 3K, Takagi went on an undefeated streak through the Best of the Super Juniors, winning all nine of his block matches before falling to Ospreay in the final.
He took on Satoshi Kojima at Dominion in his first taste of heavyweight action, defeating the veteran. Like Ospreay, he also declared his entrance into the G1, enjoying a great deal of success during the tournament.
Shingo is poised to take on Minoru Suzuki at WrestleKingdom 14, in what will inevitably be the biggest win of his career. (Yes, that’s a prediction.)
Zack Sabre Jr. def. Tomohiro Ishii — British Heavyweight Championship
Two of my favorite superstars clashed over one of my favorite-named championships at WrestleKingdom 13, with Sabre Jr. walking away with RevPro’s British Heavyweight title.
Sabre’s year has been up and down, dropping and regaining the British belt a couple of times, notably to Hiroshi Tanahashi at Royal Quest.
He had a disappointing G1, losing a lot of high-profile matches early before finishing on somewhat of a winning streak, although it was too little, too late.
He’s in the World Tag League at the moment for Taichi, but he’s already been eliminated. It’s tough to see where ZSJ figures into the WK14 picture. Maybe a run at the NEVER 6-Man belts with Archer and Taichi?
Ishii’s another one where I’m not exactly sure of his status heading into WK14. He’s had a hell of a 2019, impressing all over the board, especially in the G1. His match with Juice Robinson has to be the underrated match of the year, and that was just one of a few classics he had in his run. He also won the NEVER Openweight title from Taichi, and dropped it to KENTA at Royal Quest.
Just eliminated from World Tag League action alongside YOSHI-HASHI, he doesn’t have a clear path to the Tokyo Dome. But one thing’s for sure, you can’t leave the new Best Bout Machine off the card.
EVIL and SANADA def. Young Bucks and Guerrilas of Destiny — IWGP Tag Team Titles
A big night for LIJ continued when World Tag League 2018 winners EVIL and SANADA knocked off the champs G.O.D. and the Young Bucks to capture the IWGP tag titles.
EVIL and SANADA would drop the titles back to G.O.D. at Honor Rising. They both competed in the New Japan Cup, where SANADA was the runner-up. EVIL scored a huge victory over Kota Ibushi in the G1, while SANADA scored an even bigger win over Kazuchika Okada.
SANADA and EVIL would go on to lose their matches for the IWGP Heavyweight Title and G1 briefcase respectively, and are currently sitting in pole position in the World Tag League, and appear primed to head back to WrestleKingdom for a rematch with the Guerrilas.
Speaking of the Guerrilas, they had a remarkable year in tag team action, regaining the IWGP tag belts and winning the ROH tag belts at G1 Supercard. They dropped the ROH belts back to the Briscoes, but have kept a stranglehold on the IWGP tag titles, holding the belts for almost 300 days (it will be 300 assuming they don’t drop them before WK14) and defending them an impressive 7 times.
The Young Bucks work somewhere else now. Not sure where.
Juice Robinson def. Cody — IWGP United States Title
The Juice was loose on Jan. 4, 2019 as the former CJ Parker won back a belt that he should never have lost by defeating Cody despite outside interference from Brandi Rhodes to regain the IWGP US championship.
Cody exited the company not too long after to focus on his own company, All Elite Wrestling. He presumably will not be competing at WK14, but you really never know in wrestling these days.
Juice has had an intriguing year, teasing a character shift after dropping the IWGP US title to a debuting Jon Moxley at the Best of the Super Junior final in June. He would compete in the G1, having an aforementioned banger with Tomohiro Ishii, but failed to advance out of the block.
He fought Lance Archer for the US Title at King of Pro-Wrestling, but lost to the American Psycho in a hard-fought No Disqualifications match, a rarity for New Japan.
Juice and his tag partner David Finlay are currently one of three teams still hoping to win the World Tag League and advance to WrestleKingdom 14.
Taiji Ishimori def. Kushida — IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title
Ishimori won his first championship in New Japan by knocking off the Time Splitter Kushida at WrestleKingdom 13.
From there, it was a bit of a downturn for Ishimori, who would drop the belt to Dragon Lee at G1 Supercard. He spent the majority of the year competing in tag action alongside El Phantsmo, winning the Junior Tag Titles at Kizuna Road in June. They’ve held the belts ever since, turning away a challenge from the Birds of Prey. They’ll defend the belts at WK14 against Roppongi 3K.
Kushida would leave the promotion soon after, heading to NXT where he’s had high-profile matches with the likes of WALTER.
Jay White def. Kazuchika Okada
What a dastardly villain that Jay White is! With help from Gedo, the Switchblade defeated the Rainmaker at WK13 to solidify himself as a top guy in NJPW.
He would take it one step further at the New Beginning in February, defeating Hiroshi Tanahashi for the IWGP Heavyweight Champioship at the tender old age of 26. He dropped the belt to old for Okada at the G1 Supercard.
He was the runner-up in the G1, winning six matches in a row to go from worst to first in B Block. He dropped the final to Kota Ibushi before setting his sights on the Intercontinental Title, viewing it as his ticket to becoming a double champ at WK14. He defeated Tetsuya Naito for the strap at Destruction in Kobe, and defended the belt against Hirooki Goto later in the year.
Now, he’s got Naito in a rematch for the IC belt at WK14, with the winner advancing to the winner-take-all double title match on Night Two. Not bad for the young gun, eh?
Okada would rebound from his loss to White, winning the New Japan Cup and defeating White, as previously mentioned, at G1 Supercard. He came within an eyelash of advancing out of A Block at the G1, losing to Kota Ibushi on the final night of block action. He’s defended the belt against SANADA and Minoru Suzuki, as well as Chris Jericho.
He’ll also look to become a double champ at WrestleKingdom, taking on Ibushi for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
Tetsuya Naito def. Chris Jericho — IWGP Intercontinental Championship
I will never get the visual of Jericho spiking Naito on the top of his head on the announce desk out of my head. Naito won a hellacious match to regain the title he’s never cared about, yet seems to win a lot, the IWGP Intercontinental Championship.
Jericho would rebound in AEW, defeating Kenny Omega in a WK12 rematch at Double or Nothing and then winning the new company’s top prize at All Out, defeating Hangman Page. He’ll be back in New Japan on Jan. 5.
Naito dropped the belt to Kota Ibushi at G1 Supercard after losing to him at the NJ Cup, then won it back at Dominion in a match that actually frightened many viewers. He failed to advance out of B Block, then dropped the IC belt to Jay White on the Destruction tour.
He’s taking on White for the belt on Jan. 4 at the Tokyo Dome, with the goal in mind to become a double champion, same as Ibushi, Okada and White.
Hiroshi Tanahashi def. Kenny Omega — IWGP Heavyweight Championship
Kenny Omega’s reign as IWGP champ came to an end at the hands of the Ace at WK13 after Tanahashi won the G1 and a guaranteed title match.
Omega would move on, after some teasing and indecision, to AEW, where he has yet to really find the momentum that made him a major star in Japan. I actually think that there’s a chance he shows up on Jan 4., if Harold Meji’s comments about a possible working relationship between AEW and NJPW carry any weight.
Tana’s slipped down the card slowly but surely since losing the IWGP title to Jay White in February. He lost in the NJ Cup, defeated but then dropped the British Heavyweight Title to Zack Sabre Jr. and never felt like a serious contender to win the G1, especially in a block as stacked as A Block was.
Tana’s spirit still fights on, and he’s due for a match that could go either very well or very poorly — a date with Chris Jericho on Jan. 5 at WK14, Night Two. I personally have very high hopes for this match; I think it could be a storytelling masterpiece, even if the two competitors are both well past their prime. (Well, Jericho’s an interesting case. Is he past his prime? Has he just simply evolved? Too hard to tell.)
Some other superstars that weren’t here at WK13 that appear primed to figure into WK14: KENTA and Jon Moxley. KENTA is defending the NEVER belt against Hirooki Goto after winning it from Tomohiro Ishii at Royal Quest, and Moxley is, as always, a big question mark. Will he even be there? We don’t know.
We’re a month out. Strap in, ladies and gentlemen. Strap in.