For the first time in history, New Japan Pro Wrestling decided to split its annual Wrestle Kingdom event over two nights this year.
The annual extravaganza commenced with the traditional January 4 date at the famous Tokyo Dome and concluded the next day in the same venue.
The decision proved to be a huge success with NJPW drawing a near-sellout 40,000 fans on night one, followed by another 30,000 for night two’s festivities.
Our Japanese wrestling expert, Mo Chatra, sat through the combined 10 hours of wrestling and presents his thoughts and star ratings on every televised contest.
Each match is rated out of six, with any match rated five stars or more generally considered to be an all-time classic.
Night One (January 4)
Mayu Iwatani and Arisa Hoshiki defeated Hana Kimura and Giulia (from the STARDOM promotion, recently taken over by New Japan’s parent company, Bushiroad) in a non-televised women’s match.
Toa Henara, Karl Fredericks, Clark Connors and Alex Coughlin defeated Togi Makabe, Tamoaki Honma, Yota Tsuji and Yuyi Uemura – Solid if unspectacular eight-man match that featured a number of NJPW’s Young Lions **1/2
Hiroyoshi Tenzan & Satoshi Kojima defeated Yuji Nagata & Manabu Nakanishi – Four of the company’s most experienced veterans laid into one another in a short, passable contest **
Naoki Sano, Shinjiro Ohtani, Tatsuhito Takaiwa and Ryusuke Taguchi vs. Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger, Tatsumi Fujinami, The Great Sasuke and Tiger Mask – A number of NJPW’s most decorated junior heavyweights came together to honour the retiring Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger in his penultimate match.
Enjoyable during its nine-minutes duration with returning alumni pulling out their trademark moves of old ***
Zack Sabre Jr., Minoru Suzuki, Taichi and El Desperado defeated Sanada, Evil, Shingo Takagi and Bushi – Another eight-man tag saw the Suzuki-gun stable defeat four representatives from Los Ingobernables de Japon in a heated, energetic brawl****1/4
Hirooki Goto, Tomohiro Ishii, Toru Yano & Yoshi-Hashi defeated Kenta, Bad Luck Fale, Yujiro Takahashi and Chase Owens – The night’s fourth eight-man tag was the worst of the bunch; a forgettable contest between the victorious Chaos stable and the Bullet Club **
Juice Robinson and David Finlay defeated Guerrillas of Destiny – In the night’s first title bout, former NXT superstar Juice Robinson combined with Fit Finlay’s son David to best Tama Tonga and Tanga Loa for the IWGP tag team titles in the best match of the night thus far ***1/2
Jon Moxley defeated Lance Archer – In a Texas Death Match, Archer defended his IWGP US title against AEW’s Jon Moxley. Though the match saw some sloppiness between the two, Archer and Moxley still fought an entertaining brawl that saw Moxley regain the US belt ***1/2
Hiromu Takahashi defeated Will Ospreay – Takahashi, competing in his first singles bout in 18 months following a serious neck injury, fought for the IWGP junior heavyweight title. In one of the all-time classic matches, Takahashi put in the performance of his career to regain the junior heavyweight strap for a third time *****1/4
Tetsuya Naito defeated Jay White – In the nights’ penultimate match, Jay White defended his IWGP Intercontinental title against record four-time former champ, Tetsuya Naito. This bout had little chance of topping the magnificence of the previous outing, and so it proved.
Naito and White plodded their way through a largely boring match that only really picked up in the last 10 minutes of this 34-minute effort. Pretty good in the end, but it could have been so much better ***1/2
Kazuchika Okada defeated Kota Ibushi – In night one’s main event, five-time IWGP heavyweight champion Okada defended his belt against the sensational high-flyer, Kota Ibushi.
Following the earlier Takahashi versus Ospreay bout, it seemed a massive ask for anyone to top that contest – but Okada and Ibushi did. Going nearly 40 minutes, the pair sewed an amazing tapestry of breathtaking moves, counters and near falls.
This was a stunning spectacle that has already set a very high marker for match of the year contenders *****1/2
Night Two (January 5)
Evil, Shingo Takagi & Bushi won the NEVER Openweight Six-Man Tag Team Titles – In a five-team gauntlet match, the Los Ingobernables de Japon trio of Evil, Takagi and Bushi defeated four other teams, including reigning champs Togi Makabe, Toru Yano and Taguchi, in a reasonable opener **3/4
Hiromu Takahashi and Ryu Lee defeated Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger and Naoki Sano – In the final match of the career of wrestling’s greatest ever junior heavyweight, Jushin Liger combined with his main adversary from 30 years ago, Naoki Sano, to take on two of this generation’s finest junior heavies in Hiromu Takahashi and Ryu Lee.
In a fine final outing, Liger was pinned by Takahashi following a spirited display. So ended the career of one of wrestling’s most influential ever performers ***1/2
Roppongi 3K defeated Taiji Ishimori and El Phantasmo – In night two’s first title contest, Bullet Club duo Taiji Ishimori and El Phantasmo defended their IWGP junior heavyweight tag team belts against SHO and YOH.
Lasting a little over 14 minutes, this turned into a great match with Roppongi 3K capturing the titles for a fourth time ****
Zack Sabre Jr. defeated Sanada – ZSJ defended his Revolution Pro Wrestling British Heavyweight Championship against Sanada in a cracking technical wrestling clinic. Both broke out a wide assortment of mat-based holds and counter-holds which ended with Sabre Jr. retaining his belt via pinfall ****
Jon Moxley defeated Juice Robinson – Defending the title he captured the previous night, Jon Moxley defended the US belt against former champ, Juice Robinson.
This was a fine match that saw Moxley retain his title by pinfall in 13 minutes ***1/2
Hirooki Goto defeated Kenta – The NEVER Openweight title was on the line with champion Kenta defending the strap against Hirooki Goto.
In a match that started slowly but really picked up towards the end, Goto defeated Kenta to win the title for a record-equalling fifth time ***3/4
Jay White defeated Kota Ibushi – In a match pitting the losers of night one’s final two matches, Jay White overcame Kota Ibushi in the night’s worst match. This interference-laden bout was too long, never got going and for the second successive night, Jay White entered a disappointing performance **
Chris Jericho defeated Hiroshi Tanahashi – The current AEW World Champion, Chris Jericho, contested a singles bout with fellow legend Hiroshi Tanahashi for the first time.
This 22-minute affair, much like the Goto vs. Kenta contest, started slowly before developing into a great, back-and-forth duel between two of the greats of the last two decades. Jericho won it with a Liontamer submission ****1/4
Tetsuya Naito defeated Kazuchika Okada – The main event pitted champion versus champion as IWGP Intercontinental titleholder Naito collided with IWGP Heavyweight Champion Okada.
In an epic, 36-minute tussle, Naito finally scored a major Wrestle Kingdom victory by defeating Okada to become a double champion. Like with the previous night’s main event, this was a classic contest; though not quite hitting the peaks of Okada vs. Ibushi, night two’s main event was still magnificent *****
It isn’t clear if New Japan will look to run Wrestle Kingdom over two nights next year, but between some amazing matches and memorable moments (Jushin Liger’s final matches in particular), Japan’s biggest wrestling promotion once again hit home runs.