No wrestling promotion kick starts the New Year with a bang quite like New Japan Pro Wrestling with their traditional Tokyo Dome wrestling extravaganza, which has for the last decade gone by the apt Wrestle Kingdom moniker. Wrestle Kingdom is quite simply wrestling royalty, and easily the closest alternative to WWE’s Wrestlemania showcase of wrestling immortality. Last year marked the very first English localisation of Wrestle Kingdom, with Wrestle Kingdom 9 delivering an amazing night of superb wrestling action, all made accessible to fans outside Japan thanks to the great efforts of the English commentary team that comprised of Matt Striker and the legendary Jim Ross. You can of course read our full coverage of the amazing Wrestle Kingdom 9 and how much we enjoyed nearly every match on the card.
2016 started off with Wrestle Kingdom 10 on January 4th, and it was a night filled with familiar faces and champions, but more importantly the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 10 was a rematch of the unforgettable closer of Wrestle Kingdom 9: Hiroshi Tanahashi versus Kazuchika “Rainmaker” Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Last year The Rainmaker walked in as the challenger, and unfortunately came a little short. In Wrestle Kingdom 10, however, the roles reversed as this time Okada walked in as the reigning and defending champion, with Tanahashi stepping in as the challenger after winning a gruelling G1 tournament to earn the opportunity.
One thing worth noting is that New Japan Pro Wrestling English localisation is no longer a one-off affair as they have now worked out a consistent English broadcast team. English speaking fans can sign up to New Japan World streaming service to enjoy most shows with English commentary. Wrestle Kingdom 10 saw Matt Striker return to the fold, joined by Kevin Kelly and Yoshitatsu. Their presence was appreciated, although their delivery was clearly lacking as the team barely had any chemistry to engage in a back and forth discussion, nor did it seem like they were invested enough to call the action with enthusiasm. The commentary improved quite a bit towards the end of the event, particularly during the main event for the IWGP Heavyweight title. Yoshitatsu in particular broke the flow of discussions several times due to his limited English, but towards the end of the event even he started to gel a little better with Matt and Kevin. In time these guys will find the right groove, but they clearly struggled during Wrestle Kingdom 10.
Unlike like last year, where every match from top to bottom was great, the undercard was a little boring in Wrestle Kingdom 10. Most of these were tag matches for several types of tag titles, including the new 3 man tag team title. The matches weren’t terrible but they weren’t very interesting either. The Ring of Honour World Championship match featured Jay Lethal defending the strap against the formidable Michael Elgin. The match had an interesting dynamic, but like the other matches the delivery was just a little dry and unmemorable.
Things started picking up with the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship. Kenny Omega walked in as the champion with Kushida coming in as the challenger. Kushida was rocking a full Marty McFly cosplay (Back to the Future) and was even accompanied by a Japanese Doc Brown! A strange but amusing choice of pop culture tribute for sure. The match itself was a lot of fun, with Kushida locking in a deadly variation of the Kimura Lock that is almost on par with Brock Lesnar’s version of the hold. One particularly memorable moment was when Kenny Omega executed a powerbomb with just one arm.
One of the best matches of last year’s Wrestle Kingdom 9 was the NEVER Openweight Championship, and this year it proved to be the same. There is no wrestler in the world quite like Tomohiro Ishii, who walked into the match as the defending champion. He is quite literally, just as his moniker suggests, a pit bull who unleashes quite the ugly offensive flurry. In fact, the style of match Ishii works simply can’t be found in any other major wrestling promotion in the world. So every time you see Ishii in a NEVER Openweight title match, you can expect to see something unique.
His match against Katsuyori “The Wrestler” Shibata was quite simply smash mouth stiff brutality at its finest. It was a battle between two warriors trying to out do each other in terms of not only who can hit the hardest, but who can endure the most punishment. Stiff kicks, punches, and head butts dominated this match. Each blow being more stiff and unprotected that the last. Normally strikes are pretty well masked and choreographed in pro wrestling, but not in this match as every punch and every head butt was legit. There was nothing fancy or technical about the match, which was what made it refreshing. It was simply two men pounding the tar out of each other in simple but ugly ways.
The IWGP Intercontinental Championship is just as prestigious as the Heavyweight title, and no man has represented that championship better than the incomparable Shinsuke Nakamura. This spastic and utterly charismatic performer may arguably be contender for the best wrestler alive today. He went against AJ Styles in what was dubbed as a dream match. A wonderful match from start to finish, with great pacing and natural build up to a fever pitch. The only taint on the experience was that one annoying fan who kept screaming “AJ!!” every 2 seconds. It was noticeably distracting and irritating, but that aside these two veterans put on a clinic… not to mention they’re both reportedly destined to appear on WWE.
Finally, the main event for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, a direct sequel to last years amazing title match. Okada and Tanahashi have created what is arguably the most memorable and iconic rivalry in the history of New Japan Pro Wrestling. These two men started their careers at the same time, and their respective journeys ran parallel to the point where they both became the top wrestling stars of Japan. The rivalry is easily comparable to Stone Cold versus The Rock, in terms of the high stakes, big fight feel, and historical significance. Okada has suffered quite the curse, finding himself in the losing end whenever he faces Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom, and so this time The Rainmaker not only had to defend his championship, but also prove that he could best his rival at the Tokyo Dome. The match was paced and structured quite like the one at Wrestle Kingdom 9, and the lingering possibility of Okada nearing defeat always kept you on the edge of your seat.
Wrestle Kingdom 10 was far from the near perfect wrestling show that Wrestle Kingdom 9 was, but it still proved to be memorable where it mattered. Wrestle Kingdom 9 was excellent from the very first match and all the way to the main event. Wrestle Kingdom 10, however, was a bit more top heavy as the undercard proved to be unmemorable and bland, if not a little sloppy in execution. Still, the main IWGP singles championship matches, and the NEVER Openweight title match, managed to deliver remarkably well, with a heart-stopping finale to wrap up the main event title match in spectacular fashion.
*Screenshots provided by Jeremy Peeples (@Jeremy_Peeples)