January 4 is almost here, and for fans of New Japan Pro Wrestling, it's a wonderful day, indeed. That's the annual date of Wrestle Kingdom, NJPW's biggest event each year—it's equivalent to WrestleMania.
While New Japan's streaming service NJPW World makes it easier to follow the promotion than ever before, many American fans may be unfamiliar with the product. Well, Wrestle Kingdom is the perfect time to give the New Japan product a try. It represents the culmination of a year's worth of feuds. Every title is usually on the line—and that's the case this year. Plus, generally speaking, the wrestlers in the marquee matches all bring their 'A' game.
The wrestling world also takes notice of what happens in NJPW. Last year, right after Wrestle Kingdom, WWE signed four New Japan mainstays: Shinsuke Nakamura, the current NXT Champion; AJ Styles, the reigning WWE World Heavyweight Champion; Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows.
Wrestle Kingdom 11 airs live on NJPW World, starting at 3 a.m. Eastern time on January 4, but it also should be available live at any point during the broadcast (which will be lengthy... at least five hours) or on demand after completion.
Let's take a look at the card from top to bottom.
New Japan Rumble: This will be the pre-show match, a 20-man battle royal with eliminations by pin, submission or being thrown over the top rope. Just like the Royal Rumble, entry will be staggered. Several current NJPW wrestlers will be involved. The name most American fans will know is Jushin Liger. The field also includes three former IWGP Heavyweight Champions—Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Yuji Nagata, and Manabu Nakanishi. NJPW always has some surprises cooked up, though. Last year, the field included the 67-year-old Great Kabuki and former WWE/WCW star Haku, who was wrestling for the first time since 2012. This is never much of a match but the surprises make it entertaining.
Tiger Mask W vs. Tiger Mask Dark: Named after the lead character in the latest Tiger Mask anime series, Tiger Mask W made his NJPW debut back in October at King of Pro Wrestling. At that event, Kota Ibushi (who most U.S. fans probably know from his stellar run in the WWE Cruiserweight Classic) was under the mask. Tiger Mask Dark is Tiger Mask W's nemesis on the anime series, and approximates to Black Tiger, who, like Tiger Mask, has been played by a variety of different wrestlers through the years—including Eddy Guerrero. With Ibushi involved, this match should at least have some nifty feats of high-flying to entrance even the casual fan. You'll recognize Tiger Mask Dark as ACH.
NEVER Openweight Six Man Tag Title Gauntlet Match: Four teams are involved here. Two trios start out, and when their match is over, a new team immediately enters the fray. The match continues until just one team is left standing. The champions are Satoshi Kojima, Ricochet, and David Finlay, Jr. Kojima is a New Japan mainstay. Finlay is the son of former WWE star/agent, Fit Finlay, and only recently graduated from being a “young boy” (the name for wrestlers who train at the NJPW Dojo and consistently lose matches) to a greater role. Of all the guys on this card, Ricochet may be the most likely to jump to WWE soon. Also known as Prince Puma in Lucha Underground, Ricochet and Will Ospreay had a fantastic match during New Japan's Best of the Super Juniors tournament that went viral on even mainstream sites. He recently spoke openly about wanting to go to NXT in 2017, which could mean a likely title change here. The challengers break down as follows, with each trio representing a faction: Chaos (Ospreay, Yoshi-Hashi, and NJPW co-booker Jado), Bullet Club (Bad Luck Fale, Adam Page and Yujiro), and Los Ingobernables de Japon (BUSHI, EVIL and Sanada).
Cody Rhodes vs. Juice Robinson: For American fans, this match definitely has the highest “recognition” factor. Billed simply as Cody to avoid any potential legal land mines with WWE, Rhodes will have appeared at WrestleMania, TNA's Bound For Glory, ROH's Final Battle, PWG's Battle of Los Angeles, and now Wrestle Kingdom—all within the same calendar year. Rhodes was announced in December as the newest member of Bullet Club, the NJPW faction whose list of alumni include Styles, Balor, Anderson, and Gallows. His opponent, Robinson, also is a former WWE roster member but never advanced past NXT, where he was C.J. Parker. After his release, Robinson went to Japan, entered the NJPW dojo, and now prepares for the biggest match of his career. No doubt Cody wins, but Robinson progressed mightily in 2016 so this could end up being one of the better matches on the card.
IWGP Junior Hvwt Tag Titles-Young Bucks defend vs. Roppongi Vice: After having four-way matches for these titles at the previous three Wrestle Kingdoms, NJPW changed it up and is having a more traditional tag team matchup this year. The Young Bucks currently hold the ROH World Tag Titles as well and recently re-signed with both Ring Of Honor and New Japan. Roppongi Vice consists of Rocky Romero and another former WWE worker, Trent Baretta, who earned their shot by winning New Japan's most recent juniors tag tournament. These four have wrestled frequently in recent years. Expect an abundance of high-flying and innovative double teams in this match.
ROH World Title-Kyle O'Reilly defends vs. Adam Cole: O'Reilly and Cole bring their rivalry from Ring of Honor to New Japan. Where their contest at Final Battle was a blood-soaked war involving thumbtacks and tables, this should be a more traditional match. It's the second time the ROH title has been on the line at Wrestle Kingdom; Jay Lethal retained over Michael Elgin last year. The big question right now regards the status of O'Reilly, who still has not agreed to a new contract with ROH despite holding the championship. If O'Reilly is indeed leaving the company, Cole might become the first three-time ROH World Champion in Tokyo.
IWGP Tag Titles-Guerrilas of Destiny defend vs. Tomoaki Honma & Togi Makabe and Tomohiro Ishii and Toru Yano: The Guerrillas, who are part of Bullet Club, are Haku's sons, Tama Tonga and Tanga Loa (Loa had prior stints in WWE as Camacho and TNA as Micah). Makabe and Honma won NJPW's annual World Tag League tournament back in December to earn this title shot. Then, in December, Ishii and Yano threw their team into the mix. The Guerrillas got off to a rough start when they started teaming together in 2016, but closed out the year with several good-to-great matches, including a fantastic battle with Makabe and Honma in the Tag League finals. Throwing Ishii and Yano into the mix feels like overbooking, to be honest, but American fans who aren't familiar will love Ishii's extremely hard-hitting style.
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title-KUSHIDA defends vs. Hiromu Takahashi: KUSHIDA has been positioned as “the man” in IWGP's juniors division, having spent the majority of 2016 as the champion. Takahashi returned to his home promotion after excursions to CMLL and ROH under the name of Kamaitachi, and has jointed Tetsuya Naito and company in the Los Ingobernables faction. That group arguably has the most buzz in the promotion right now, and a title change here would keep that faction looking strong. KUSHIDA and Kenny Omega had a fantastic title match at Wrestle Kingdom last year. Expect this match to be on a similar level, or maybe even better.
NEVER Openweight Title-Katsuyori Shibata defends vs. Hirooki Goto: A battle here between two former classmates, turned rivals, who then became tag partners and now are enemies once more. Shibata spent several years in New Japan, then bolted the company for an MMA career, before returning to NJPW in 2012. He has a no-nonsense, hard-hitting style but also spent a good part of 2016 battling injuries. Goto has been a tag champion with both Shibata and Anderson and had a lengthy rivalry with Nakamura over the IWGP Intercontinental Title but has failed to break through as a reliable main eventer for the promotion. This won't be a spectacle of stiff strikes like Shibata's match with Ishii last year at Wrestle Kingdom, which was simultaneously both fantastic and uncomfortable to watch at times, but it still should be a memorable matchup—and one that should see Goto become champion so Shibata can move up the ladder.
IWGP Intercontinental Title-Tetsuya Naito defends vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi: Tanahashi is the NJPW equivalent of John Cena: a perennial good guy who has spent more than a decade at the top of the card. Also like Cena, Tanahashi looked to be slowing down in 2016, spending the year either sidelined or coming up short in big matches, aside from his excellent time-limit draw with Kazuchika Okada in the G1 Climax. Tanahashi will debut new music and a new look at this event. Naito, meanwhile, leads Los Ingobernables de Japon. When fans didn't embrace him as a top-of-the-card babyface, he embraced an indifferent heelish persona that now has him more popular than ever. The company MVP in 2016, Naito can legitimize himself as a main eventer by defeating New Japan's perennial “ace.” On the other hand, Tanahashi is Tanahashi. Prior to this, he had headlined Wrestle Kingdom six straight times. It would be no shock to see him win here, and Naito still would remain a top act for New Japan even in defeat.
IWGP Heavyweight Title-Kazuchika Okada defends vs. Kenny Omega: Okada has been a fixture at the top of the card in NJPW for several years now but legitimized himself as the company's new “ace” by finally beating Tanahashi last year at Wrestle Kingdom in their third meeting in the Tokyo Dome. Now in his fourth reign as IWGP Champion, he is, without question, the current face of the promotion. On the other side is Omega, who steadily emerged as a main event competitor over the past year. In 2016, Omega announced his move from the junior division to the heavyweight ranks, then ousted Styles to become the new leader of Bullet Club. In August, Omega became the first foreign-born wrestler to win the G1 Climax, NJPW's annual round-robin tournament featuring all the top heavyweights in the promotion. If there is anyone on this card who needs a win, it is Omega. Beating Okada would legitimize Omega as a headliner. Also, considering Omega has shown little to no interest in joining WWE, he is a safe bet for NJPW to hitch its wagon to, long term. Regardless of the victor, both Okada and Omega are known for being tremendous “big-match” performers, leading to a potential match of the year candidate.
Remember, you can follow all the action at Wrestle Kingdom 11 right here at the Fightful.com live viewing party, beginning at 3 a.m. Eastern on Wednesday, January 4!