Wrestle Kingdom is New Japan’s premier event and has increasingly become a can’t miss event even for western fans that don’t usually follow NJPW or Japanese wrestling in general.
The fifteenth incarnation of the event is being held in its usual home of the Tokyo Dome over two days, Monday 4th and Tuesday 5th January and both nights will be headlined by bouts for the combined IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental ’Double’ champonship.
This year especially, what better way to banish the bad taste of 2020 than with two days of top notch puroresu?
The card as currently announced looks like this.
Day One, Monday, January 4th
- New Japan Rambo – (Royal Rumble style match) final four competitors go forward to the KOPW match on Day Two.
- Hiromu Takahashi vs. El Phantasmo – winner goes on to challenge for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight title on Day Two.
- IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship: Dangerous Tekkers (Zack Sabre Jr. & Taichi) © vs. Guerillas of Destiny (Tama Tonga & Tanga Loa)
- IWGP United States Championship Right to Challenge Contract: KENTA © vs. Satoshi Kojima
- Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Great O-Khan
- Kazuchika Okada vs. Will Ospreay
- IWGP Heavyweight & Intercontinental Double Championship: Tetsuya Naito © vs. Kota Ibushi
Day Two, Tuesday, January 5th
- Stardom Exhibition Match: AZM, Saya Kamitani & Utami Hayashishita vs. Natsupoi, Himeka & Maika
- Stardom Exhibition Match: Tam Nakano & Mayu Iwatani vs. Syuri & Giulia
- KOPW 2021 Four Way Match
- IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship: Yoshinobu Kanemaru & El Desperado © vs. Master Wato & Ryusuke Taguchi
- NEVER Openweight Championship Match: Shingo Takagi © vs. Jeff Cobb
- SANADA vs. EVIL
- IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship: Taiji Ishimorii © vs. Winner of Takahashi vs. Phantasmo on Day One
- IWGP Heavyweight & intercontinental Double Championship: Winner of Naito vs. Ibushi on Day One © vs. Jay White
Highlights on Monday 4th look like Hiromu Takahashi vs. El Phantasmo, Kazuchika Okada vs. Will Ospreay and the main event between Tetsuya Naito and Kota Ibushi.
Elsewhere, Hiroshi Tanahashi seems wasted opposite the Great 0-Khan, and the heel vs. heel Tag Title match between Taichi & Sabre and the Guerillas of Destiny feels a little lacking.
While the plan for the US title shot briefcase (as Jon Moxley retains the belt but is staying in the US for now) was originally for Juice Robinson to challenge KENTA an injury to Juice sees old guard Satoshi Kojima get an unexpected chance at another marquee match and this could end up being far better than it has any right to be.
Hiromu vs. Phantasmo is just a potentially excellent junior heavyweight match and the promise of getting the title shot the next day just adds to the cache of the bout. It might seem that a Hiromu win is a foregone conclusion, but the possibility of two Bullet Club members competing on the second day could lead to a breakout weekend for Phantasmo if New Japan chooses to play it that way.
Okada vs. Ospreay was set up on the last day of the G-1 with Ospreay turning heel on his former Chaos leader and gradually building his Empire faction with Great O-Khan and Jeff Cobb. Ospreay is apparently well thought of in New Japan and I can see Okada giving him a lot in this.
Naito and Ibushi are simply two of the best pro wrestlers on the planet, combining athleticism, stiffness, timing and a genuine connection with the audience. It feels like Ibushi was lost in the shuffle last year after his first G-1 victory and I think a lot of people would be disappointed if he didn’t make good this year.
That said, Naito’s reign has been affected by both the pandemic and an interminable feud with EVIL so it hasn’t felt as glorious as might have been originally hoped. It could be that the wisdom is that Naito retaining through Wrestle Kingdom is the best course of action and Kota has to wait, again.
However it ends, I can virtually guarantee that these two will hit each other very hard and drop each other on their heads for half an hour plus and it will be amazing.
Tuesday 5th promises big lad awesomeness between Shingo Takagi and Jeff Cobb plus the finals of the two mini-tournaments for the Junior Heavyweight Championship and IWGP & Intercontinental Double championship.
I don’t know enough about the Stardom exhibition matches to comment and like last year, NJPW seems intent on keeping them as dark matches which feels a bit disappointing and counterproductive. How do we get invested in your newly purchased women’s promotion if you don’t show us the matches?
The KOPW (King of Pro Wrestling) match is an absolute roll of the dice, seeing as we don’t even know who’ll be involved. The title didn’t exactly set the world on fire as Toru Yano defended the initial version from Summer Struggle at Jingu Stadium through until the final match against Bad Luck Fale in December, but it’s early days for the belt.
The Junior Heavyweight Tag Team title match shows how shallow that division has become, having lost both the Young Bucks to AEW and Roppongi 3k to injury. Kanemaru & Desperado are solid champs but Wato & Taguchi feel very much like challengers of the moment.
SANADA vs. EVIL is a grudge match that’s been in the making ever since EVIL turned on his long term tag team partner and Los Ingobernables de Japon teammate in the New Japan Cup. This could be a really good match, or it could be a plodding affair blighted by Bullet Club interference.
Shingo Takagi is exactly the kind of uncompromising proponent of strong style that the NEVER title was always intended to showcase. His bouts with Minoru Suzuki were some of New Japan’s highlights in 2020 and he’s been provided with a big hoss fresh off a heel turn and everything to prove in the shape of Jeff Cobb. Expect a hard-hitting match with neither man taking a step back.
The Junior Heavyweight title match between Taiji ishimori and either Hiromu Takahashi or El Phantasmo promises to be excellent, either playing off of Hiromu wanting to win back the belt he lost of Ishimimori in August or Phantasmo looking to dethrone his Bullet Club compatriot.
The final Double championship match will pit a tired and hurt Naito or Ibushi against Jay White – who is for my money one of the best heels in wrestling. The deck is clearly stacked against either of the fan favourites and there is a concern that the interference laden Bullet Club antics of White might bring this match down. New Japan usually keep that stuff to a relative minimum in their main events and White can certainly go, so this should be an awesome match.
The fact that a compelling story can be told whoever eventually walks out with the belt means I couldn’t pick a winner, even if I’m hoping for an Ibushi coronation.
It could be argued that Wrestle Kingdom 15 could be a much tighter one-day card, but the tournament aspect and getting as many of a stacked roster on the card* makes it a compelling two-day event. We’re even getting double duty out of workers like Hiromu Takhashi/El Phantasmo and Tetsuya Naito/Kota Ibushi and more of their work is never a bad thing.
Even so there is still there is no announced place for Tomohiro Ishii, Minoru Suzuki, Hirooki Goto or Sho but I expect they’ll show up in the New Japan Rambo and potentially move into the KOPW match.
So, how can I watch?
Wrestle Kingdom 15 starts at 7am GMT (2am EST) on Monday 4th January and 8am GMT (3am EST) on Tuesday 5th January and can be streamed from https://njpwworld.com