The January 4th Tokyo Dome show always ensures that the wrestling year starts off with a bang, and this year’s highly anticipated event was no different. Wrestle Kingdom 11 saw no less than six title changes, two title defences and one intense, exciting, dramatic and highly divisive main event that has set the wrestling world abuzz with discussion in the post-show aftermath. But now the dust from Wrestle Kingdom (and the accompanying New Year Dash from Korakuen Hall yesterday) is finally starting to settle, who were the big winners and losers and where do they go from here?
The Bullet Club
Of all the factions competing at Wrestle Kingdom this year, none fared quite as badly as The Bullet Club. The much maligned stable of gaijin invaders lost both sets of IWGP tag titles, failed to capture the NEVER Openweight Six-Man titles and their leader, Kenny Omega, failed to realise his destiny and defeat Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight title in the main event. What’s more, Omega (the fourth leader of the group) has since announced that he will be “stepping away” to “reassess” his future, leaving The Bullet Club rudderless heading into a year that looks set to be even more chaotic than the last. But there was a few positives for the faction at Wrestle Kingdom: Adam Cole becoming the first ever three-time ROH World Heavyweight Champion and the successful debut of ‘The American Nightmare’ Cody Rhodes, who introduced himself to the New Japan fans by picking up a cheap win over Juice Robinson, which won’t have endeared him to anyone except perhaps his new stable-mates. Where The Bullet Club go from here and how Cody figures into things is anyone’s guess, but it’ll be interesting to see how the faction fares throughout 2017 and who steps into Omega’s role. When (and if) Kenny returns to New Japan he may find that the Club has undergone some changes, but then Omega (and to a lesser extent, The Young Bucks) has always seemed slightly at odds with The Bullet Club, something of an uneasy participant, and this could perhaps be a chance for him to distance himself from the group for good.
Los Ingobernables de Japon
Amidst all the fanfare and hubbub surrounding the main event, what Tetsuya Naito achieved in the penultimate match has been somewhat overlooked. Not only did he defend his IWGP Intercontinental Title (a title, I might add, that he has no obvious desire or concern for), but he also defeated Hiroshi Tanahashi – “hammering in the nail” that Okada had placed, as Naito put it. All the momentum was behind Tanahashi coming into Wrestle Kingdom, it was to be his redemption after a generally terrible 2016, a new era of Tanahashi, new costume, new music. But Naito turned the tide of expectation and showed just how far he’s come since their last encounter. Naito defending his title meant that all of the Los Ingobernables left Wrestle Kingdom as title holders, as earlier in the show EVIL, BUSHI & SANADA had won the NEVER Openweight Six-Man belts and Hiromu Takahashi defeated KUSHIDA for the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Title. All in all, a great night for Los Ingobernables, but less than twenty four hours later and only Naito & Hiromu would be left holding a title. The theme of 2016 for Los Ingobernables was winning gold and then failing to hold onto it, and it looks like (for some members at least) that trend is set to continue in 2017. This is something Los Ingobernables are going to have to overcome, to prove themselves as a faction and to prove themselves to Naito. Meanwhile, Naito will once again have to overcome a reinvigorated Michael Elgin, angry at Naito for breaking his eye socket with an errant kick and determined to regain his IWGP Intercontinental Title. Also, Dragon Lee returning to attack Hiromu and renew their CMLL rivalry presents a big problem early into Takahashi’s new Jr. Heavyweight title reign. Three big challenges early on in 2017 for Los Ingobernables to face, but whether they are up to the task as a faction at large remains to be seen.
It was a night of successes for CHAOS, the oldest and perhaps most long-in-the-tooth stable in New Japan Pro-Wrestling. RPG Vice were able to put aside their recent disagreements and recapture the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Titles, the impromptu team of Toru Yano and Tomohiro Ishii defeated G.O.D. for the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Titles (making a mockery of World Tag League winners Makabe & Honma and the World Tag League itself in the process), Hirooki Goto defeated his long time friend and rival Katsuyori Shibata for the NEVER Openweight Title, and ‘The Rainmaker’ Kazuchika Okada defended his IWGP Heavyweight Title in a match of a lifetime against Kenny Omega to close out Wrestle Kingdom 11 in spectacular fashion. But at New Year Dash things went a bit pear shaped for CHAOS with the shock return of Minoru Suzuki and his Suzuki-gun stable, who were in full force as they laid waste to everyone they could get their hands on and set about putting every faction in New Japan on firm notice. Suzuki, unsurprisingly, has his eyes set firmly on Okada’s IWGP Heavyweight Title. The two have faced off before and the uncompromisingly determined Minoru Suzuki has always presented something of a problem for Okada, but one he has previously been able to overcome (denying Suzuki his goal of winning all three major titles in Japan). Meanwhile, ‘Stone Pitbull’ Tomohiro Ishii and the ‘Sublime Master Thief’ Toru Yano will have their work cut out for them if they want to keep their newly won IWGP Heavyweight Tag Titles from the hands of the Killer Elite Squad. Similarly, new IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Champions RPG Vice could now potentially face challenges from two Suzuki-gun teams in the form of either TAKA Michinoku & Taichi or Yoshinobu Kanemaru & El Desperado. Suffice to say, 2017’s off to a tumultuous start for the members of CHAOS and Suzuki-gun have them firmly in their sights.
Elsewhere, Juice Robinson picked up the biggest win of his young career when he pinned Hirooki Goto at New Year Dash. Presumably he’ll now be challenging for Goto’s newly acquired NEVER Openweight Title, which will be a great opportunity for Juice, who’s improved steadily over the past year or so and is becoming a real favourite with the fans. Also, young Will Ospreay decided (perhaps unwisely) to make an enemy of Katsuyori Shibata, who still holds the Revolution Pro Undisputed British Heavyweight Title. Ospreay wants to win the title back Britain, but also to prove that he’s equal to Shibata. Not quite sure Will realises what he’s getting himself in for, but if anyone can surprise us and overcome a striker as fearsome as Shibata it’s the immensely talented Aerial Assassin. Meanwhile, Tanahashi may have failed to redeem himself at Wrestle Kingdom, but in capturing the NEVER Openweight Six-Man titles with Manabu Nakanishi & Ryusuke Taguchi he has some renewed hope for 2017, and it’ll be interesting to see if this new trio can hold onto the belts for any meaningful length of time (the trios titles have changed hands 10 times since debuting at Wrestle Kingdom 10!).
The events of the past few days have certainly paved the way for an exciting year in New Japan Pro-Wrestling. The introduction of the returning Suzuki-gun faction poses many questions, as does the recent unexpected news of Kenny Omega’s mysterious sabbatical from Japan. Suzuki, Iizuka, Archer, Davey Boy, TAKA, Taichi, Kanemaru & El Desperado add a lot of additional bodies to an already heavy roster, and with three other active factions in CHAOS, Bullet Club and Los Ingobernables de Japon it’s obvious there’s going to be a strugle for dominance, which points towards a very chaotic 2017, especially if Suzuki-gun demonstrate the same kind of behaviour that saw them wreak havoc on Pro-Wrestling NOAH over the past two years. Factor in the confusion over Kenny Omega’s NJPW future, a seemingly leaderless Bullet Club, Tanahashi’s ongoing strugle to reclaim his former glories and remain relevant, Los Ingobernables and their continued provocation of NJPW management, how Naito’s group will react to Suzuki-gun (a faction more similar to Los Ingobernables than they are not), the uncertain path of Katsuyori Shibata and Okada’s seemingly uphill battle to keep hold of his IWGP Heavyweight title for the year to come, and all signs point to an exciting 2017 for New Japan fans.
New Japan returns to iPPV on NJPW World with the final three nights of the annual CMLL FantasticaMania tour on January 20th to 22nd, then next month features New Beginning from Sapporo & Osaka on February 5th & 11th and the ROH Honor Rising tour on February 26th & 27th! Sign up now for just ¥999 a month!