Wrestle Kingdom is well and truly the biggest show of the year for NJPW, but in many ways it’s a culmination of the previous year, rather than the beginning of a new one. New Years Dash saw a shuffling of the deck, and the first storylines of 2017 come together in two shows – one in Sapporo, one in Osaka – under the aptly titled ‘New Beginnings’ headline. This PPV will shape the company’s direction moving forward into 2017, so naturally there are a lot of questions to ask. Here’s just some of the big ones for the two shows.
Is Suzuki-Gun really Ichiban (Number One)?
Obviously the big news of New Years Dash was the grand return of the viscous stable Suzuki-Gun. They came back and sent an immediate message, laying out CHAOS and having their leader challenge for Okada’s IWGP title. After two years away in NOAH the stable brings with it a host of fresh matches, and a returning name like Minoru Suzuki gives them such valuable firepower in the main event scene.
The first night, New Beginning in Sapporo, is essentially a giant Suzuki-Gun v CHAOS show, and expect the villianous faction to pick up a couple of titles to help re-establish themselves, with both tag titles on the line, and Suzuki warning they want all the gold. The match with the most implications though is Minoru Suzuki v Kazuchika Okada. Minoru is yet to win the big one in New Japan, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see The Rainmaker lose the title in the north of Japan. Not only is Suzuki exactly the type of guy that would feed a redemption story for Okada, he could also serve as a valuable transitional champion if they want to get the title on Kenny Omega prior to the American shows without wasting the highly valuable Okada/Omega rematch.
The other good news, Minoru Suzuki is still as brilliantly unsettling as ever.
What’s going on with the Heavyweight Tag Titles?
Ah the NJPW tag title scene continues to confuse. In an unusual move, the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Titles will be the only titles defended at both Sapporo and Osaka shows. In an even weirder development, the title will be defended in the exact same three way match. Great Bash Heel versus Killer Elite Squad versus Ishii and Yano.
Don’t be surprised to see Killer Elite Squad leaving with the titles at the end of it all. Yano and Ishii with the titles feels like a necessary move to build the CHAOS/Suzuki-Gun war, with GBH there to add to the mayhem and to give the crowd some chances to pop for a Kokeshi. So presuming Killer Elite Squad walk away with the titles, will they win them in Sapporo or Osaka? There has to be some kind of plan here as to why the titles would be defended at both shows – New Japan tend to avoid repeating themselves on big shows – but given the talent that are involved your guess is as good as mine as to how everything will actually unfold.
Is Osaka really Naito territory?
Just like how Sapporo is Suzuki-Gun v CHAOS, the following Osaka show is more or less all about Los Ingobernables De Japon. Three of the five Title matches features the faction in action, with the two big matches – Dragon Lee v Himoru Takahashi and Michael Elgin v Tetsuya Naito – headed up by the growing faction.
It’s been long noted that Osaka has history with the LIJ leader Naito. Not only do they love to hate him ever since he encouraged them to boo him if he returned without the title (which they happily did), but they’ve proven to come out in droves whenever he’s around. Osaka is the bigger of the two venues, yet they chose to headline Sapporo with the IWGP Heavyweight Title. New Japan knew what they were doing though, the Osaka show sold out well ahead of time, just like it did last time, Naito headlined there against Jay Lethal to close out 2016
It just continues to build up proof that Naito has well and truly taken the empty ‘Nakamura’ spot for the company, capable of headlining and selling out shows without the primary title, instead lifting up the prestige of the Intercontinental Title bringing in the money for New Japan. If he can put on a great match with the talented Michael Elgin, it’ll be a great reward for a city that has become intertwined with Naito’s story.
Where’s Bullet Club?
I’m sure you’re all sick of the ‘Will Kenny Omega leave New Japan’ discussion that dominated much of January, but now that we’ve seemingly moved on from that the question still remains, where’s Bullet Club? They’ve been conspicuously absent after a nondescript showing at New Years Dash. Not just Kenny Omega mind you, but the entire group. No Fale, no Young Bucks, no Tokyo Pimp. Will we see them return at one of these shows? Or will we not hear from them at all for a while longer perhaps?
It’s not the worst move. Kenny needed a break, and the Bullet Club is very top heavy right now. Nobody really wants to see Bone Soldier waddling around while The Elite are away, and with Suzuki-Gun returning they can’t afford to be only half-there. They’d run the risk of becoming irrelevant with CHAOS, LIJ and Suzuki-Gun all busy at the top of the card, so a brief hiatus with a grand return could spark some life into the faction.
Considering New Japan made the Omega/Okada WK11 match free to watch through this week, just prior to the first New Beginnings show, might we see Bullet Club come back with a vengeance and insert themselves back into the discussion?
Are we going to witness the death of Will Ospreay?
This is one of the Osaka title matches that doesn’t feature Los Ingobernables, but it might just feature a murder. Will Ospreay had a mixed 2016 in New Japan, but this is a big step forward for the youngster, even if it’s not for a NJPW title. Shibata’s British Heavyweight title is on the line, but young Will is still a Junior in New Japan, so scoring a win over a strong Heavyweight in Shibata would be a seriously big deal.
Of course, there’s also the infidelity scandal looming for ‘The Wrestler’. It seems Shibata has come out of that relatively unscathed, which is lucky considering other wrestlers in Japan have found themselves in similar situations and taken a bad hit in the public eye. But it’ll be interesting to see if the issue affects how the match goes down in Osaka. Keep in mind Shibata losing here doesn’t signify a loss of faith in him – it’s RPW’s decision and not New Japan’s as to who they want as champion, and putting the British Heavyweight Title on a British wrestler makes sense. But it is happening in Japan, and after working so hard to redeem himself after leaving years ago, the last thing Shibata will want to do is to start from square one again.
And if he’s frustrated with the whole ordeal of his mistress going public after being dumped, he might want to take it out on the unlucky Will Ospreay that finds himself in the ring with him. Given how normal Shibata matches go, we might be collecting Ospreay’s head from the seventh row.
Is Juice Robinson ready to take the next step?
2017 could low-key be the year of Juice. After toiling away through 2016 in a weird position of being used like a Young Lion but not being presented as such, it seems New Japan like how he’s been developing. He was given the spotlight at Wrestle Kingdom, wrestling a singles match against the debuting Cody (Rhodes), and after a strong showing scored a massive and surprising pinfall over the newly crowned NEVER Openweight Champion Hirooki Goto the very next night.
This is his proving ground. I wouldn’t expect him to win – though with Gatekeeper Goto anything is possible – but this is very much his chance to show the faith the company have in him is justified. Another strong showing here and his legitimacy is firmly established, allowing him to become a valuable addition to the G1 Tournament and occupy the underdog position Yoshi-Hashi was seemingly fitting into last year. Full credit to the guy, I never thought much of him, but he’s stepped up his game and deserves the chance to show what he’s got. This could be the start of a productive year for the Juice, and with a fantastic worker in Hirooki Goto standing opposite, this match might turn a lot of heads.