The first week of 2017 was always going to be a big one for New Japan Pro Wrestling. It’s the time of the year where they announce to the world just how good wrestling can be, and with so many eyes on them coming into Wrestle Kingdom 11, it was a real sink or swim situation. And just like WWE, NJPW have their own version of the Post-Mania Raw in the New Years Dash. Where Wrestle Kingdom is the culmination of the previous year, New Years Dash is the beginning of the new one, with rivalries made and status quo changing moments brought to the forefront.
So let’s catch our breath after 48 hours of puroresu goodness, and make sense of what’s going on in the world of New Japan Pro Wrestling.
Okada/Omega Kill Each Other For Our Entertainment, Get 6 Stars
This was a career defining match for both Kazuchika Okada and Kenny Omega, and if we’re being honest it was also a career shortening match for both guys. There were more than a few spots that made me wince and shy away from the screen – some of which include Omega’s dropkicks to the back of Okada’s head, the table spot, the Avalanche Dragon Suplexes, Okada’s return kicks to the head. They’ll be feeling this match for weeks to come.
But damn, what a match. 2017 has an early contender for match of the year, and honestly it’s hard for me to see anything beating it. Everyone’s favourite match reviewer Dave Meltzer awarded it six stars, and while not everyone will agree I’m not going to argue, because I was on my feet for half the match. There was so much going on here, with great storytelling early on in the match which all lead into some of the bigger spots later on. Okada has always found a way to put together brilliant finishing sequences, and this was no different. Even beyond the spots mentioned above, there was so much that worked here that I can’t help but gush over their performance.
Also, kudos for protecting the One Winged Angel. It still hasn’t been kicked out of, and Okada found several cool ways to free himself from the set-up. It was a bit of a shame we didn’t see Omega throw The Ace into a Kroyt’s Wrath, but in a time where finishers are expected to be kicked out of at a show as big as this, they’ve kept the One Winged Angel up their sleeve.
If you haven’t seen this match yet, it’s time to change that.
Never 6 Man Titles Officially Have Zero Value
Nakanishi just scored a pinfall to win a title in 2017. That’s maybe even more shocking than the entirety of Wrestle Kingdom’s main event, but that’s what these belts seem to be about. Honestly it’s kind of a shame, Los Ingobernables is red hot, and not only could those belts have been used to solidify the faction’s strength as a team, but they could have brought some legitimacy to the title. But it’s clear these belts are nothing more than cheap feel good pop moments and an additional title to help sell a smaller show. If that’s what they are, then there’s no point getting upset about short title reigns.
The positives for this title change: It protects Tanahashi by giving him something to do without putting himself at further risk. The fans still get their Ace, but he won’t have to go out and have matches that put him closer and closer to retirement. And giving Nakanishi one last moment with the title isn’t a bad thing, especially given it’s not holding up a division in the process. And who knows what combo of people will hold the title next. That’s becoming part of its allure.
Poor Evil though, his two title reigns in NJPW haven’t lasted a combined two weeks.
What Next for Bullet Club?
For Los Ingobernables and CHAOS, it was a pretty successful Wrestle Kingdom. But the Bullet Club – at least the New Japan contingent – suffered greatly. Young Bucks lost their Junior Tag titles, G.O.D lost their Heavyweight tag titles, and both Kenny Omega and the combo of Yujiro Takahashi, Fale and Adam Page all lost their respective matches (and technically Bone Solider lost too, but do we really care?). Even their New Year’s Dash was uneventful at best with all their matches relegated to the first half.
This is counter-acted somewhat by Adam Cole and Cody (Rhodes) winning their matches (the former regaining the ROH World Title) but neither of them are New Japan full timers. Adam Cole too is still rumoured to leave Ring of Honour in April for the WWE, and it’s believed Cody will be coming into to lead the American side of the brand. But unless Cody becomes a regular in New Japan as well as Ring of Honour, the disparity between The Elite and the rest of New Japan’s Bullet Club is immense right now.
Kenny Omega and the Bucks will still be fine, but one has to ask just how viable the Bullet Club brand is in the long run. It’s still a merchandise seller, but Los Ingobernables have well and truly surpassed them in Japan, and Kenny and the Bucks still provide some merch value in The Elite. You even have to wonder what is next for Kenny. Presumably as we near G1 he’ll be back in the title picture, but New Year’s Dash was a very quiet one for him as new challengers emerged for Okada’s title.
Look, last time I thought Bullet Club were fading away we saw the G1 banner replaced with a Bullet Club flag when Kenny won, but the last 48 hours were not good for the NJPW side of Bullet Club. The team can still stick around and give the lower card guys something to band together with, but Omega is almost better off moving past the brand and doing his thing on the main stage. Especially because their might not be room for the Bullet Club now that…
Suzuki-Gun is Back
That’s right, this year the faction war within New Japan gets even greater. CHAOS v Los Ingobernables v Bullet Club v Suzuki-Gun oh my!
It seemed inevitable after Pro Wrestling Noah and NJPW’s alliance dissipated, and there was an expectation they might arrive at New Year’s Dash, but it was still shocking to see Suzuki-Gun return and wreak havoc. This was a mob style beatdown, complete with shrieks from the crowd. Even if you didn’t know who Suzuki-Gun was, you now know they’re a big deal.
Minoru Suzuki, the aged veteran badass that he is, has made his IWGP Heavyweight title contentions clear, challenging Okada after the beatdown. Poor Kazuchika, after losing years off of his career/life at Wrestle Kingdom, he now has to enter a program with Suzuki. Nobody said being the Ace was easy. If you’ve never seen him wrestle before, prepare yourselves.
The other clear title challenge was made by Killer Elite Squad (K.E.S), featuring two former WWE alumni in Davey Boy Smith Jnr and Lance Archer, who have their sights set on Ishii and Yano’s newly won Heavyweight Tag Titles. This is definitely going to be a CHAOS/Suzuki-Gun war to start the year off, so expect Roppongi Vice’s titles to be targeted as well. Gedo’s booking is going to be challenged here, because the arrival of another heel faction, and one with the history of Suzuki-Gun, is going to be tough to juggle.
Dragon Lee Arrives
It wasn’t just Suzuki-Gun who returned to the New Japan ring at New Year’s Dash. Naito and Takahashi looked like they were about to put away the team of Elgin and Kushida, when a masked man came and ruined all of that. That masked man is CMLL star Dragon Lee. After the match he posed with Himoru’s newly attained Jnr Heavyweight title, and then stared down the ex-champion Kushida – setting up a very juicy situation between the three of them.
If you’ve never seen Dragon Lee, you’re in for a treat. He and Himoru Takahashi have incredible chemistry. Around this time last year they put on an early contender for match of the year at Fantasticamania (with Takahashi wrestling as Kamaitachi at that time) and followed it up later in the year with another brilliant match. Seeing more from these two is always going to be exciting, but Dragon Lee and Kushida is another match that’ll be wonderful to watch. It does mean Ospreay will be away from the Jnr scene even longer, but he seems more interested in the Rev Pro title Shibata’s carrying around (brave, brave soul…). Considering the Junior division has been very up and down lately, adding someone as talented as Dragon Lee – as well as some Junior talent within Suzuki-Gun – will help solidify the division going forward.
24 Hours of Juicy Goodness
If you would have told me Juice Robinson would have ended up having one of the biggest two night stretches over Wrestle Kingdom and New Year’s Dash, I would have laughed at you squarely in the face. But after having a great showing against Cody (Rhodes), Juice followed that up by scoring a pinfall on everybody’s favourite gatekeeper, Hirooki Goto. Yes, Juice Robinson pinned Hirooki Goto.
Which is convenient, because Goto just happens to be the NEVER Openweight Champion. It felt like there were big things on the horizon for Juice just by getting the special singles match against Cody, but I wasn’t expecting it to come so quickly. He’s definitely improved a lot in recent months, and New Japan is positioning him to really showcase this growth. We know Goto can go, and a good feud here will establish him in the midcard regardless of if he wins the title. Which is important, because while the main event scene is looking incredibly strong right now (especially with Suzuki back) they can’t afford to forget about their midcard scene.
New Japan Rises to the Occasion
With all the talk of winners and losers, the undisputed winner is undoubtedly the brand of New Japan Pro Wrestling itself. They’ve done everything right. In the lead-up to Wrestle Kingdom 11, they made the previous January 4 shows free to watch, along with the big title matches from 2016. They gave people an outlet to get a taste of the brand leading into Wrestle Kingdom, and then they tore the absolute house down in an incredibly stacked show filled to the brim with quality.
Then, they made New Year’s Dash free for everyone, including the English commentary. That way those who didn’t watch Wrestle Kingdom but heard the hype surrounding the show can witness the fallout first hand. Title changes, Dragon Lee’s debut/return, and Suzuki-Gun coming back after two years and sending a message. And for those who still don’t go and subscribe, they’re hotshotting Wrestle Kingdom on AXIS in America, which will certainly create more hype in preparation for their G1 dates in America, which marks a very real expansion into the U.S.
New Japan Pro Wrestling aren’t mucking around anymore, they’re making a concentrated effort to establish themselves as the world’s #2 wrestling promotion and a real alternative to the juggernaut that is the WWE. It’s easier than ever to consume wrestling that suits you, and people are speaking with their wallets. On January 4 alone, 10 000 new subscribers signed up for NJPW World (according to Corino Kelly on the New Years Dash commentary). New Japan is on the tips of all wrestling fans tongues, and it really feels like this promotion is about to take the leap to the next level. And may I remind you this is exactly one year removed from losing their two most marketable global stars in AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura.
The first week of 2017 has been huge win for New Japan Pro Wrestling. If you’re not on the bandwagon yet, it’s time to board.