I’ve always been a fan of New Japan Pro Wrestling, even if I never watched it. Sure I had seen matches and clips here and there, and I knew of the stars who had made a name for themselves in North America and vice versa, but if you asked me about the company history or their current stars, I wouldn’t know Inoki from Ibushi; so as a casual fan who knew practically nothing of the product, it was difficult to get hyped for Wrestle Kingdom 9 outside the fact that it was something new, and it certainly felt important among other fans, so why not give it a shot?
New Japan and Global Force Wrestling made a very smart decision in working together on this project. Having NJPW associated with a North American company, and a face North American wrestling fans recognize (Jeff Jarrett) allowed unfamiliar fans a sense of comfort. Adding to the comfort was the most trusted voice in all of professional wrestling, Jim Ross. Having Ross on board ensured that fans tuning in would have a guide whom they could rely on to be their avatar during the show. Pairing him up with the wrestling encyclopedia that is Matt Striker was a way of letting fans know that even if they weren’t familiar with the product, their favorite teacher would be there to educate them.
There was no reason for wrestling fans not to give this show a chance, and I was no exception. I might not have witnessed the action when it aired live, but I did manage to catch a replay. It’s often hard for many of us at Last Word on Sports Wrestling to relate to the casual fan, so I thought it would be an interesting experiment to write a review of Wrestle Kingdom 9 from the perspective of a guy watching his first NJPW show. No longer on the outside looking in, I am through the looking glass, and here is how things looked from my new perspective.
In the opening contest it was a four corners tag match for the IWGP Jr. Tag Team Championship with the champions Red Dragon defending against The Time Splitters, Forever Hooligans, and the Young Bucks. I was lucky enough to be familiar with all four teams so I had an idea of what to expect, which was exactly what I got. Although the match had some pacing issues that comes with a spot heavy, multi man match, and the lack of psychology caused me to go numb halfway through the contest, all 8 men were able to showcase some innovative offense and it made for a solid opener. Ross and Striker demonstrated a professional chemistry here that allowed me as a fan to relax, knowing I was in good hands.
We then got another multi man match in the form of a six man tag with Team New Japan (Hiroyoshi Tenzen, Satoshi Kojima, and Tomoaki Honma) taking on the Bullet Club (Jeff Jarrett, Bad Luck Fale, and Yujiro Takahashi). There was lots of combined years of experience in this match and it showed with some great selling and storytelling given the amount of time these six men were in the ring. During the match it was easy to see how Honma had won the hearts of New Japan fans, as he demonstrated a lot of charisma during the contest. I actually wish this match had been swapped with the four way tag team match as I think it would have made a better opener, and it could’ve benefited from more time, while the four way tag felt a little longer than needed.
Yet another multi man match was next, this time pitting Takashi Iizuka, Shelton “X” Benjamin, Lance Archer and Davey Boy Smith Jr. against Iizuka’s former tag team partner Toru Yano and a contingency of Pro Wrestling Noah performers including Naomichi Marufiju and TMDK. I was glad to have Striker and Ross here to give some back story, as it made the match more intriguing and having some cross promotion in this match gave it a more important feel. I was really impressed with what I saw from TMDK and I feel like they have all the tools needed to be stars anywhere they choose to go. The mixture of styles here kept the match fresh and exciting but again I felt like it ended prematurely.
It was at this point we got our first singles match and the first contest in which I didn’t know anyone involved. The match of Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Minoru Suzuki had a lot of history behind it, and was contested under UWFi rules. Although I appreciated the story they were trying to tell here and the effort to do something different, this match was a dud in my opinion. I just couldn’t buy into the worked shoot aspect of the match and it did nothing for me. Ross and Striker did a great job telling the back story, but in the end it just couldn’t live up to the hype.
The next match wasn’t much better. A championship contest featuring NEVER Openweight Champion Tomohiro Ishi vs. Togi Makabe. Although both competitors demonstrated an ability to take punishment and showed off some impressive powerhouse moves, this match was plodding, sloppy, and resembled a bar fight more than a wrestling match. Now I’m not saying that those matches don’t have a place in pro wrestling, because they certainly do, and admittedly, this match did get more entertaining as it went on, but it failed to capture my imagination the way it did the Tokyo Dome crowd.
A match that did capture my imagination was the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship match between Champion Ryusuke Taguchi and Kenny Omega. I was already a big fan of Kenny Omega going into this match, so I expected to be pulling for my fellow Canadian. I found out quickly that would not be the case as I found myself cheering on Taguchi, who proved to me that appearances can be deceiving.
The ‘Funky Weapon’ as he’s known comes off as a bit goofy when you first see him, but once in the ring, you begin to understand the tremendous charisma, athletic ability, and sympathy he has. He reminds me quite a bit of the late Eddie Guerrero, and not just because he did a spot on triple suplex either. I was actually sad to see Kenny capture the title, which meant the match had successfully made me invested in the talent on screen.
I knew it would be a difficult match to top, and yet the IWGP Tag Team Championship match did just that. Once again we had the Bullet Club, represented by DOC Gallows and ‘Machine Gun’ Karl Anderson defending against Hirooki Goto and Katsuyori Shibata. Ross and Striker did a great job setting up this story, and the four competitors did an even better job at telling it. It was a classic Davis vs. Goliath showdown and once again I felt a genuine desire for the baby face duo to overcome the odds, which they did much to my delight. The Bullet Club looked dominant, but unable to outlast their opponents when it came to their ‘fighting spirit’. Tag team wrestling done big and done right.
That’s a hard match to follow for any two athletes, even Tetsuya Naito and AJ Styles. Both men put on a very good performance, but they didn’t do anything to wow me. That isn’t to say they weren’t impressive, but after watching the Tag Team Championship match, it just came off as very good, not great. I must admit Jim Ross did make me chuckle at one point speculating if either Styles or Naito could show up at the Royal Rumble.
Which brings me to the incredible Intercontinental Championship match between Shinsuke Nakamura and Kota Ibushi. I was familiar with Ibushi’s work in Chikara and DDT, but not with Nakamura. By the time this match was over, I was a huge fan of both men. I wish there had been English subtitles during the video package that hyped this match, but the fact that it even had one suggested it was important.
I absolutely loved Nakamura’s entrance and from that moment on, I was unable to keep my eyes off of him. The man oozes charisma from his pores and makes you watch him. Both men were extremely impressive in the ring and even without the help of Striker and JR on commentary, these two told a story using their bodies alone, an art that few these days are capable of. A simply stunning match that left me smiling from ear to ear.
Finally we have the main event for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in which champion Hiroshi Tanahashi faced off against long-time rival Kazuchika Okada. There were many memorable moments in this contest, including a brutal Death Valley driver on the ramp way that left me wincing, a cross body block to the outside that had me breathless, and a series of Rainmaker clothesline and German suplex reversals that left my eyes glued to the screen.
After nearly four hours of action, I think I might have become burned out, because I don’t think I enjoyed this match as much as the Intercontinental Championship contest, but it was still a very good match to close out the show.
Overall I felt like New Japan Pro Wrestling and Global Force Entertainment made all the right moves with this event, and overall I had a good time watching it, although I don’t think it converted me to a full-fledged NJPW follower. Watching this pay per view did help me learn something about myself, which is that I prefer a little more sizzle with my steak than some. I see why so many fans are nuts about the NJPW product, and I hope this event leads to more people discovering NJPW and supporting it. At the very least I became a fan of some talent that until now I really wasn’t familiar with at all. So did Wrestle Kingdom 9 complete blow me away? No, but it did make me a bigger fan of NJPW and you can bet the next time they air a pay per view, myself, and a lot of other people, will be watching.
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