Nothing could have prepared us for the incredible show that was Wrestle Kingdom 9 by New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW). The first real localization of this Japanese pop culture phenomenon courtesy of Jeff Jarret and Global Force Wrestling. On ringside you had Jim Ross and Matt Striker calling the action for English speaking audiences, doing their very best to tell the stories and break down the language barrier. On 4 January 2015, NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom 9 kick started the year with what is already the best show of 2015. Although that obviously doesn’t mean much at this point, which is why it pleases me to say that Wrestle Kindgom 9 is among the finest wrestling shows in recent memory, if not in the history of this global industry itself.
Wrestle Kingdom 9 had the glitz, glamour, and production values of a star-studded Wrestlemania, and that’s no light analogy. But this was no Wrestlemania look-alike, because Wrestle Kingdom 9 embodies the sheer uniqueness and richness of Japanese wrestling, and this groundbreaking event at Tokyo Dome epitomizes everything that is great about the craft. It doesn’t take a pro wrestling connoisseur to pick up on the differences between NJPW and WWE in terms of how they put together a show.
There are so many nuances about Japanese wrestling that makes it worlds apart from the more mainstream American product. The first thing you’re going to notice is that Japanese performers are all about clean, simple, and hard hitting strikes. Brainbusters, splashes, stiff palm strikes, super kicks, and above all clotheslines/lariats. It’s all about high impact blows, with some elements of North American theatrics as well as the high flying sensibilities of Mexican wrestling. Above all, NJPW is quite literally all about total nonstop wrestling action with all the storytelling and drama confined within the squared circle and done through masterful performances. Another standout aspect of Japanese wrestling are its passionate fans who have tremendous respect for what the wrestlers do, and the Tokyo Dome was jam packed with this amazing fanbase that really know how to enjoy and absorb what’s presented to them.
What really stood out about Wreslte Kingdom 9 early on was how entertaining the various opening tag team contests were. It’s something that is so underwhelming in the North American product these days. The back to back team matches varied things up with the action, rules, and number of people involved. It was a great way to get the audience excited, especially the orchestra of super kicks we saw from the up and coming tag team, The Young Bucks. The IWGP tag team title match, which was placed later on, impressed with its array of counters and false finishes, all leading up to a feel good moment that announcer Jim Ross really amplified.
Right after some fun spirited action, fans were treated to what was one of the most intense and dramatic bouts of the night– and easily my favorite match of the night too– the dream match between Suzuki and Sakuraba. The first of many unforgettable headline matches, this match was unlike anything on the card and the furthest thing from a typical wrestling match. Suzuki vs Sakuraba displayed a marriage of mixed martial arts and shoot-style wrestling that even post-UFC Brock Lesnar couldn’t bring into the WWE ring. Hard shots and deadly submission holds intent on tearing a limb, this match told an amazing story between two men who were destined to make history together. Emotionally charged and yet so far removed from the usual elaborations and drama of wrestling, Suzuki vs Sakuraba is a martial arts epic you could watch over and over.
As stiff and brutal as that match was, things got even uglier in Takabe vs Ishii for the NEVER Openweight Championship. A match that at times was even difficult to watch, with two of the toughest dudes intent on just hurting each other without holding back. Putting themselves and each other in harms way. They were hurting, and yet the pain only seemed to make them go even further with their stiff offence. This was pure smash mouth wrestling at its finest, a match that will make you think twice before calling pro wrestling fake.
Before all main championships were defended, Kenny Omega and Taguchi put on an entertaining performance for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight belt, with Kenny Omega exuding quirks and charm that put him almost halfway between Shawn Michaels and Brian Pillman, despite his obvious Razor Ramon (Scott Hall) influences. In a battle between heroes and villains, Kenny Omega succeeded using every underhanded tactic he could muster up, but at least he looked good doing it.
A grudge match followed between The Phenomenal AJ Styles and Naito, which changed the pace up and was played out as a traditional North American match with varied pace, and slower moments building up to bigger spots. It was a nice break from the fast paced action in prior matches, and it told a good story. AJ Styles has really embraced his role as the new bad guy of professional wrestling, and after years of being the humble hero, he now looks to conquer NJPW with a new attitude and persona. While other headline bouts may have overshadowed this otherwise excellent match, but that only goes to show how brilliant Wrestle Kingdom 9 was match for match.
Ah Shinsuke Nakamura… if you were to ask who my absolute favorite Japanese wrestler is right now, then I won’t hesitate to say that it’s The King of Strong Style without a doubt. Nakamura exudes the kind of personality and charisma that you rarely see in Japanese wrestling, and he carries himself with the same style and confidence as the best in the industry. It’s no wonder than fans voted him to defend the IWGP Intercontinental Championship in the main event of last year’s Wrestle Kingdom 8, a match that took place after the heavyweight title match even. This year however, the Intercontinental Championship took the second last spot of the card, but that didn’t change the prestige surrounding the championship and the champion. Nakamura has one of the best entrances going, and this year he came out looking like a King quite literally, all clad in leather and ready to steal the show and the support of the fans.
In this title defense he went up against the young and hungry Ibushi, a talented wrestler who obviously didn’t have the same presence and persona as the defending champion, but that didn’t stop him from bringing the fight. Nakamura like always was absolutely intoxicating and entrancing in his subtle movements and mannerisms during the match, and it’s really all these little things that helped legends like Shawn Michaels get a major edge over their competition. What was cool about the match was that all of Shinsuke’s confidence and charisma was almost rubbing off Ibushi, who at times almost focused on outperforming and outclassing the champion instead of focusing on a decisive win. In his effort to outdo Nakamura in showmanship, he managed to earn the respect of the champion and the fans at least.
I started this article by saying that nothing could have prepared myself or anyone for Wrestle Kingdom 9, and that statement rings truest in the main event IWGP Heavyweight Championship match. Okada vs Tanahashi was all about being the best in the world, and sometimes that’s the best story you can tell in wrestling. It had all the staples of a headline heavyweight title bout: the big fight atmosphere, an invested crowd, tremendous egos, never before seen moments, and an air of unprecedented unpredictability and emotion. Unlike most matches on the card, Okada vs Tanahashi had a prodding and methodological pace that beautifully built up to some breathtaking moments and an epic climax. A fitting pace and build for the battle over the second most prestigious championship in wrestling today.
Throughout the match the challenger Okada behaved more like the defending champion than Tanahashi himself, exuding a rare kind of confidence and surety that almost made it seem like he had already won the belt. Okada may have appeared more larger than life than the defending champion, but Tanahashi would turn things around and justify his place as the best in the world with his proud fighting spirit. Tanahashi performed a cross body from the top turnbuckle to the outside of the ring, and covered what was really a theoretically and physically impossible distance. And yet, he did he unthinkable and gracefully flew through the atmosphere with ease, putting his body at great risk. The champion flew as if gravity forgot he existed, raining down on the challenger with an onslaught of top rope body splashes (dubbed as The High Fly Flow), while also painfully dissecting Okada’s knees. Everything about the match, from the structure to the body language to the heart stopping near falls, echoed the vibes of the legendary encounter between The Ultimate Warrior and Macho King at Wrestlemania VII. The ending and aftermath of the main event put the finishing touches to what was one of the best wrestling shows you will ever see, hardcore wrestling fan or casual viewer.
Wrestle Kingdom 9 was a success in every sense, and the localization of it made it even more of a landmark event than it already was. The presence of Jim Ross was so important. He is unarguably the best storyteller in the business… past , present, or future. Having him break down the language barrier and tell the stories that were taking place in the ring was a huge service to the event. Thanks to Jim Ross ,wrestling fans and newcomers all over the globe will never forget the likes of The Rainmaker Kazuchika Okada, Minoru Suzuki, Kenny Omega, Shinsuke Nakamura, and of course the man who is on top of the world, Hiroshi Tanahashi. Thanks to the legendary color commentator, Wrestle Kingdom 9 will be an event many will recall with the same fondness as any of the best Wrestlemanias. All that said, when you think about all the heart, soul, and emotion that was reverberating inside the iconic Tokyo Dome venue… maybe there wasn’t a language barrier to begin with…
*screenshots provided by Jeremy Peeples (@Jeremy_Peeples)