In 2016, Wrestle Kingdom 10 set the tone for a tremendous year in the world of wrestling. Within a few months, New Japan Pro Wrestling had lost two of the biggest stars of that show -- Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles -- along with two of the anchors of their incredibly popular Bullet Club faction as they departed for the WWE.
With the loss of all that star power, and their undeniable in-ring presence, you might have expected the NJPW renaissance to slow down and even stall. But Wrestle Kingdom 11, which took place Wednesday in Tokyo, showed just how well the company has built new stars and maximized the potential of their homegrown talent in yet another industry-defining night of in-ring action.
From the opening matches to the stunning title bouts that closed the show, the card was remarkably well-paced, and while it wasn't a flawless show, it was laid out in such a way that the traditionally reserved Japanese crowd at the Tokyo Dome channeled their inner New York or Philadelphia wrestling crowds with a fever-pitch atmosphere in the final hour of action. Kenny Omega proved worthy of his star turn against Kazuchika Okada, and Tetsuya Naito brushed away any lingering doubts about his standing in the NJPW pecking order.
But before we dig into the meatiest parts of this card, including eight title matches over the final 10 bouts and a pair of matches that will go down in Wrestle Kingdom history as true classics, let's start at the beginning.
Michael Elgin wins 14-man New Japan Rumble
For those enjoying their first Wrestle Kingdom show, it had something of a familiar feel to a modern WrestleMania, complete with a preshow featuring a battle royal. It was a mix of Japanese wrestling legends, older gaijin and a few active wrestlers. Michael Elgin, who was returning from a shattered orbital bone, got the victory in a match that was a serious downgrade from the ROH world championship match he was booked in the previous year at Wrestle Kingdom 10. (Although, if Wednesday's postshow press conference is any indication, he won't be in show-openers for long.) While this match was not a classic, it was a fine warmup and nostalgic trip for fans still filing into the Tokyo Dome.
Tiger Mask W def. Tiger the Dark
Versatile aerial artist Kota Ibushi, a semifinalist in WWE's Cruiserweight Classic tournament, and ACH competed under masks as part of a cross-promotion for an NJPW-based anime show called "Tiger Mask W," although it wasn't acknowledged who they really were. It was a good, short match that did very little that will impact anything in the future.
IWGP junior heavyweight tag team championship: Roppongi Vice def. The Young Bucks (c)
This title bout set the stage for the last four matches of the evening -- even more so than the four matches that immediately followed. The familiarity and history between the two teams allowed Matt Jackson, Nick Jackson, Beretta and Rocky Romero to tell a rich story without getting too bogged down in laying out the groundwork. In the start of a trend, the challengers walked away with the titles, giving Romero a record-breaking seventh reign with the tag team belts.
NEVER openweight 6-man tag team championship: Los Ingobernables de Japon def. the Bullet Club, Chaos and David Finlay, Ricochet and Satoshi Kojima (c) in a gauntlet match
The gauntlet match that followed may have been the one true low point on the card. It's not an indictment of the participants but rather of the format -- itself designed to include as many worthy wrestlers as possible on the Wrestle Kingdom card. That two of the most promising young wrestlers in the world, Ricochet and Will Ospreay, only received a brief amount of time to showcase their abilities was the most unfortunate part. The over-the-top entrances took a little too much time between falls as well, but the end result -- the start of a clean sweep on the night for the incredibly popular Los Ingobernables de Japon stable -- filled its purpose.
Cody def. Juice Robinson
The final nontitle match of the night featured the NJPW debut of Cody (Rhodes, though for legal purposes he's currently promoted only by his first name) against Robinson (former NXT superstar CJ Parker) in a solid match that would've been one of the better matches on an average NJPW card had the rest of the show not dwarfed it. Cody seemed to do just fine for himself in the merchandise department, however, and his ties to the Bullet Club seem to have set him up for bigger things in the future.
ROH world championship: Adam Cole def. Kyle O'Reilly (c)
After a couple of good, if not spectacular, matches, the Ring of Honor world championship match between new champion O'Reilly and former two-time title-holder Cole had lofty expectations. The execution, however, was surprisingly short at just over 10 minutes, and the result was surprisingly one-sided in Cole's favor. O'Reilly had his moments, but Cole closed out the match on an absolute tear with four consecutive superkicks into his Last Shot finisher to become the first three-time ROH world champion. Cole's victory adds fuel to the fire of a potential ROH departure for O'Reilly.
IWGP tag team championship: Chaos def. Guerrillas of Destiny (c) and G.B.H. in three-way match
The heavyweight tag team match saw late additions Tomohiro Ishii and Toru Yano steal the titles with a double low-blow and roll-up victory after 12 minutes, unseating reigning champions (and Bullet Club members) Tanga Roa and Tama Tonga. From there on out, in the final four matches of the evening, the atmosphere inside the Tokyo Dome went from that of a strong wrestling card to a truly appropriate Wrestle Kingdom crowd -- thanks to some truly spectacular performances.
IWGP junior heavyweight championship: Hiromu Takahashi def. Kushida (c)
While most expected a series of ridiculous high spots -- and Takahashi's death-defying efforts made sure there were a few -- this match was a traditional strong-style heavyweight match that leaned heavily on big strikes and submissions. Takahashi, who wowed during his time away from NJPW as "Kamaitachi" in a couple of matches against Dragon Lee, helped LIJ to their second title win of the night and made it five straight title changes to open WK 11.
NEVER openweight championship: Hirooki Goto def. Katsuyori Shibata (c)
Shibata, the reigning champion, has a reputation for having some of the stiffest (and quite possibly most painful) matches in the entire world. This meeting against Goto, the perpetual runner-up and also-ran, was more of the same as each wrestler appeared, on several occasions, to have legitimately knocked out the other. After falling short so many times in big matches -- and in particular at Wrestle Kingdom events -- Goto recorded one of the biggest wins of his career.
IWGP Intercontinental championship: Tetsuya Naito (c) def. Hiroshi Tanahashi
In just over two years, Naito evolved from a pushed-to-the-moon character (think Roman Reigns) who lost his main event spot via fan vote into a devil-may-care rule-breaker and fan favorite who truly came into his own as the cool bad guy. Tanahashi, the biggest John Cena parallel you're ever likely to see, has gone from main-eventing almost every year on Jan. 4 to a disappointing losing streak in big matches that continued in this one.
Both guys came with their A-games, with Tanahashi putting it all on the line numerous times and Naito matching him every step of the way. As is customary in the NJPW main-event booking style, each guy looked as if he had the victory locked up multiple times, only to have their opponent kick out at the last possible second. The finale saw Naito hit a top rope version of his Destino finisher and a second immediately following it to send Tanahashi to yet another big loss. The match also marked the first successful title defense of the evening.
IWGP heavyweight championship: Kazuchika Okada (c) def. Kenny Omega
Naito and Tanahashi left a lot for Okada and Omega to live up to in the main event, and they came through in the most dramatic of ways. A slower start gave way to moment after moment where each competitor took turns sacrificing his body and well-being for the entertainment of the fans.
Omega did a springboard moonsault to Okada while he was standing in the crowd and hit a dropkick from the top rope onto Okada's head that looked like it may have knocked him out cold. Okada later tossed a flying Omega over the top rope through a table lying on the floor as both competitors delivered constant damage throughout.
- njpw_global (@njpwglobal) January 4, 2017
While some purists thought the final 10 minutes got to be a little too over-the-top with the multiple finisher attempts and counters, the audience channeled the feelings of most of the audience at home as it became a truly captivating back-and-forth that is a credit to both men.
Omega became one of just a few to ever to kick out of Okada's Rainmaker finisher, and he did it multiple times. While Omega was able to hit just about every other signature move he had in his arsenal, he was denied every time he set up his "One-Winged Angel" on every occasion. Eventually, Okada held on to Omega's arm despite seven or eight kicks to the face and neck, and went on to hit a spinning Tombstone piledriver and a couple of Rainmakers to finally finish off his nemesis in a card to remember.
To put the level of this match into perspective, longtime pro wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer broke free from his standard five-star rating system to award it six stars, saying, "Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada may have put on the greatest match in pro wrestling history." Despite the loss, Omega completed his one-year journey to the main event and is now undeniably one of the top two superstars in NJPW.
Despite having had to live up to the seemingly impossible expectations of the previous year, Wrestle Kingdom 11 excited fans around the world -- and the timing couldn't have been better. During the show, New Japan announced that their prestigious G-1 Climax tournament will have two non-tournament special events in Los Angeles at the beginning of July. The move is a big step in the company's attempt to expand its reach further into the United States.
If NJPW continues to put on shows like Wrestle Kingdom 11, WWE may truly find itself an international adversary capable of standing on its own feet to provide the kind of competition that has been sorely lacking since the fall of WCW.