There are times when I am glad to be proven wrong, and Wrestle Kingdom 11 made me feel silly for having such low and cynical expectations going into it. Not only was it miles better than last year’s somewhat lukewarm Wrestle Kingdom 10, but it also blew the superb Wrestle Kingdom 9 clear out of the water. Wrestle Kingdom 11 taught me to never doubt the innovation and potential of underdogs. It also helped that the English localisation was great thanks to the solid play by play commentary from Kevin Kelly and Steve Corino. A huge improvement over the disastrous English commentary panel in Wrestle Kingdom 10 which featured Yoshi Tatsu of all people.
Despite New Japan Pro Wrestling losing most of their top stars to WWE, Wrestle Kingdom 11 proved to be the best iteration yet all thanks to a fresh and unpredictable wildcard. Wrestle Kingdom 11 literally blindsided me with a main event that I am confident in calling as among the timeless classics of the modern era. The strong main event was complemented by stellar headline matches and a memorable undercard too.
Bullet Club has always made its presence known at Wrestle Kingdom and have continued to dominate New Japan Pro Wrestling despite the departure of its founding members. Kenny Omega took up the leadership mantle after AJ Styles jumped ship to the WWE, and the faction hasn’t had quite the same aura since. Still, Bullet Club was well represented in the Wrestle Kingdom 11 card, including the main event for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
Starting off the event is perhaps the most bizarre opening bout in the event’s history: a live action wrestling adaptation of an anime. Based on the Tiger Mask W anime (which you can find on Crunchyroll by the way), it had Tiger Mask W take on Tiger Mask Dark. There isn’t much to say about the match other than it being a glorified advertisement for the anime, but it did have Kotha Ibushi of all people play the role of hero. The giveaway? The Golden Tower Powerbomb finish… which was modified with a Tiger Bomb set-up of course. The match also had one of the voice actresses from the anime, Suzuko Mimori (known for her voice in the likes of Tokyo Ghoul, Love Live!, and many others) accompany Tiger Mask W himself to the ring.
The undercard this year was solid fun action, with some entertaining tag title bouts that had The Young Bucks getting up to their usual Super Kick shenanigans. The undercard was certainly a lot more enjoyable than it was in Wrestle Kingdom 10, with the standout match being Cody Rhodes versus Juice Robinson (you may know him better by his WWE name: CJ Parker). Wrestle Kingdom 11 marked the debut of The American Nightmare Cody Rhodes and I have to say I was thoroughly pleased with his showing.
The match itself was short, crisp, and hard hitting with a ton of antagonistic behaviour. Cody Rhodes displayed a mean-streak and swagger that we have never seen from him, and he certainly performed with the confidence of someone who has no doubt in their own hype. His mannerisms, ring psychology, and overall aggressive style were certainly a huge improvement over his work in WWE (which was nothing to sneeze at). The American Nightmare has arrived with a bang and as a member of the notorious Bullet Club no less, and the nightmare has only just begun.
I enjoyed the Ring of Honour Championship match between Adam Cole and Kyle O’Reily, and you couldn’t ask for a more evenly matched contest between two men going neck and neck, back and forth, with no one really dominating at any time. It was a fun and fast paced title match that did not outstay its welcome and kept the action hard hitting and engaging. The contest between Kushida and Hiromu Takahashi for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship was also a fun back and forth contest that kept the action tight and short, but in this case showcasing some fine high flying maneuvers and Kushida demonstrating how he can lock in an arm bar or a Kimura Lock from just about any angle or position.
One of the matches that I always have looked forward to is the NEVER Openweight Championship Match, a title that might as well be renamed to The King of Strong Style Championship given the brutal wars fought over it. In the last two Wrestle Kingdom events Tomohiro Ishii showcased the heart and spirit of the NEVER Openweight division, unfortunately this year he was busy representing Chaos in a match for the IWGP Tag Team Championship.
Katsuyori Shibata absolutely tore the house down with Ishii when they nearly killed each other at Wrestle Kingdom 10, and fortunately Shibata walked into Wrestle Kingdom 11 as the reigning and defending NEVER Openweight Champion. Shibata had to answer the challenge of Hirooki Goto in what was a hard hitting showcase of the Strong Style of Japanese wrestling, where kicks and punches legitimately connect without any of the theatrics or safety. This is the kind of no holds barred wrestling action that you will simply not find in any other wrestling promotion in the world. The action was stiff and brutal, and a real cringe-inducing treat.
Next up was the highly anticipated co-main event for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship between two evenly matched stars: Hiroshi Tanahashi and Tetsuya Naito. Tanashi certainly impressed in his battles for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in the last two Wrestle Kingdom events, and this time his match with champion Tetsuya Naito proved to be a solid showcase for the most part but for some reason there was just something missing. It had nothing to do with Naito though, who was voted as the best wrestler of 2016 in Japan.
The problem is Tanahashi, as despite having a new theme song, his whole character and persona has gotten kind of stale at this point. This was evident from the chorus of boos he received from the Japanese fans, who don’t normally vocalise their displeasure in such WWE Universe fashion. Tanashi looks to be suffering from the case of John Cena Syndrome, where fans have grown tired of his routine and need something new and refreshing. He is still a fine wrestler no doubt, if not among the best, but it’s clear that the Ace of New Japan needs a new ace up his sleeve. Tetsuya Naito on the other hand had the crowd behind him thanks to his edgier personality reboot and nice mix of high flying and technical wrestling.
Following the contest was the most unpredictable wildcard of a main event…
Kazuchika “Rainmaker” Okada
IWGP Heavyweight Championship
I have never been so overwhelmed by a wrestling match, to the point of struggling to even find the words to describe it, but let me start by saying that I doubted Kenny Omega going into this event and title match, and everyone in the world who didn’t take him seriously were utterly proven wrong by the end of Wrestle Kingdom 11.
I never felt so good about being wrong, as here I was thinking that this main event match would flop and Kenny Omega was nothing more than a comedic mid-carder who can put on a decent cruiser weight quality match at best. Against all odds and expectations, the unpredictable main event of Wrestle Kindgom 11 saw Kenny Omega evolve into a larger than life performer. From the ring gear, to the entrance, and to his amazing main event caliber performance, Kenny Omega shocked the world. What’s both scary and exciting is that this is only just the beginning of this newly rejuvenated mega star that is Kenny Omega.
Kenny Omega and The Rainmaker put on a grueling 46 minute match that was pure wrestling paradise. The match started with technical wrestling and showmanship that methodologically built towards some of the most heart stopping high-risk spots you will ever see in a wrestling match. The signature offence exchanged was perfectly timed and paced, as none of the moves felt overdone or overused. Despite the length of the match, not once did it struggle to keep the pace fresh, varied, and exciting with a variety of moves and an unorthodox mix of wrestling styles. Towards the end of the near hour-long odyssey the match built up to a perfect crescendo of a finale that quite literally gave me an out of body experience.
Kenny Omega was utterly flawless, and how he evolved into such greatness overnight is perhaps a miracle in its own right. I mean don’t get me wrong, he was good, but being in the main event of the biggest Japanese wrestling show unlocked something that no one could have ever imagined or expected. His ring presence and psychology ticked all the right intangible boxes, as he and Okada succeeded in turning the otherwise calm and docile crowd into a storm of energy towards the end of the match. As the match progressed I went from being a hater and naysayer to a firm believer in his future as a top main event star. Kenny Omega oozed charisma akin to Shawn Michaels, and speaking of which, I am confident in saying that this Wrestle Kingdom 11 main event was as good as the timeless classic between Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker at Wrestlemania 25 (2009).
Okada versus Omega had me emotionally captivated every second of the way, I was barely latching onto the edge of my seat. The story told was better than anything Tanahashi and Okada told in Wrestle Kingdom 10 or even their Wrestle Kingdom 9 classic. One of the main devices used in the match was the tension and anticipation surrounding Kenny Omega’s finishing move: The One Winged Angel (based on Final Fantasy VII).
Kenny Omega not only proved himself, but The Rainmaker also put on his most aggressive and innovative offense to date. Where his former rival Tanahashi is hitting a saturation point of sorts, Okada has only improved like fine wine and an opponent like Kenny Omega brought out the very best in him, rejuvenating The Rainmaker persona in the process. The chemistry between Okada and Omega surpassed anything we could have expected, and I can’t wait to see more.
I don’t know how well I described the greatness of this match, but let me sum up by saying that it was the kind of match up where you wanted both men to literally… Fight Forever!
Wrestle Kingdom 11 succeeded in so many ways, but above all it proved that New Japan Pro Wrestling could thrive in the absence of its former top stars and it accomplished this by creating a new mega star in Kenny Omega. The future is bright for Kenny Omega and New Japan Pro Wrestling.
*screenshots provided by Jeremy Peeples (@Jeremy_Peeples)