Welcome to TJR’s Wrestle Kingdom 17 preview. For the fourth straight year, I’ll be covering New Japan’s biggest show of the year for you, our dear readers.
New Japan has scaled things back and returned to the classic one-night structure…technically. They will be in the Tokyo Dome on January 4th, followed by their regular New Year’s Dash show the following night. There will be a second ‘Wrestle Kingdom’ show on January 21st, but that will be in the Yokohama Arena.
I think this is for the better; the previous multi-night WK events had way too much filler on their undercards and thus didn’t make the shows feel special. Too often the undercard for the first night served as nothing more than setup for the second night, which made the first night somewhat inconsequential. At least with this format it’s one big show with the most important matches.
And yet, as the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And while New Japan has changed their show’s structure, they haven’t changed their show’s story. Because once again, New Japan takes on the world in the Tokyo Dome…and this time it’s well, three companies.
While NOAH and STARDOM wrestlers have featured on Wrestle Kingdom many times before, this will be the first time AEW wrestlers feature on the card. It’ll be interesting to see whether the heavily promoted relationship between NJPW and AEW pays off for New Japan as much as it did for AEW with Forbidden Door last June.
As a final note before we get into the preview, this show is being dedicated to Antonio Inoki, who died on October 1st, 2022. Inoki was quite possibly the biggest Japanese wrestling star on an international level since Rikidozan. He’s had a monumental impact on wrestling, both in terms of the style he has presented and in terms of gimmicks like the “outside invaders” concept that made New Japan a fortune during the 1990s. You can read an extensive and detailed tribute to Inoki here.
And with that, let’s get to the matches
Match #1: Pre-show Exhibition Match: Ryohei Oiwa vs. Boltin Oleg
It’s a match between two trainees/rookies. Coin flip prediction here.
Winner: Ryohei Oiwa
Match #2: New Japan Ranbo to determine the #1 Contender for the Provisional KOPW 2023 Championship at New Year’s Dash
The Ranbo is like a Royal Rumble except falls can also come from pins and submissions. The KOPW title is very much an undercard concept but it’s filled with creativity. Matches for this title are filled with wild and unusual stipulations like a 30-count pinfall match or a ten-minute time limit match with each count providing a point and the wrestler with most points at the end wins.
As for the Ranbo itself, I’m not expecting much beyond a bog standard ‘get as many people onto the card as possible’ match. And considering there’s only one wrestler that truly defines the division, I can’t think of anyone better suited to challenge for the KOPW title on January 5th than New Japan’s resident troll.
Winner: Toru Yano
Match #3: Antonio Inoki Memorial Six-Man Tag Match: Yuji Nagata, Satoshi Kojima & Togi Makabe vs. Tatsumi Fujinami, Minoru Suzuki & Tiger Mask IV
I’m predicting a slow but emotionally charged match. One side is filled with ‘New Japan Dads’ and the other one includes a wrestler who first debuted in 1971, a yearbefore New Japan was founded. The combined age between these six wrestlers is 331, so don’t expect much athleticism or bedazzlement.
But unlike ‘normal’ New Japan Dad matches, this one will be filled with tributes to Inoki. I’m pretty sure everyone’s going to spam enzuigiris and slap the taste out of each other’s mouths. There will be lots of simple and easy moves here as all six wrestlers follow a less-is-more philosophy in line with now Inoki wrestled. And I’m sure there’s going to be some big post-match celebration not unlike with what Chono and Muto did at Wrestle Kingdom 1 when they paid tribute to their fallen comrade Shinya Hashimoto.
As for a winner, I’m going with another coin toss prediction because there would be good storytelling out of either team winning since both sides feature former students of Inoki’s.
Winners: Tatsumi Fujinami, Minoru Suzuki & Tiger Mask IV
Match #4: IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship Match: Catch 2/2 (Francesco Akira & TJP) [c] vs. LiYoh (Lio Rush & YOH)
LiYoh won the 2022 Super Junior Tag League to earn this title shot. Both teams have been impressive but overall I’m not too invested in this match…or the division, to be honest.
As much as I hate to admit it, New Japan’s junior heavyweight division has become rather stale. They’ve fully embraced the ‘everything at all times’ philosophy, leading to most if not all of their matches looking identical and therefore blending together. This will be more of the same stereotypical New Japan junior heavyweight wrestling: blistering speed, frenetic action, high-flying daredevilry and style over substance. It’ll be impressive athletically, but I doubt there will be much in terms of story.
That said, I’m predicting that the champions retain, simply because Francesco Akira has been great so far and New Japan is in desperate need of fresh outside talent to keep people interested.
Winners and STILL IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champions: Catch 2/2 (Francesco Akira & TJP)
Match #5: IWGP Women’s Championship Match: KAIRI [c] vs. Tam Nakano
For those following the Sasha Banks rumors, this is where your investment will be rewarded.
Although she won’t be wrestling here, I think she’ll either be seen in the crowd and be involved in a post-match angle, or she’ll make an official walking-down-the-ramp entrance after the match and then get involved with the winner. Either way, this will be the moment Sasha Banks (or whatever she calls herself going forward) will introduce herself to the Japanese wrestling fans.
But before we get there, there will be the actual women’s title match. For anyone that has watched STARDOM before, their style far more physically demanding than what’s seen in WWE or AEW. I’m expecting lots of stiff strikes, painful submission holds, and overall brutal offense. If you want a primer on what STARDOM matches can look like, you can read my review of a highly-praised Syuri vs. Utami match from June 2021. And while I don’t think this match will go that long, that match can give you a better understanding of what STARDOM’s wrestlers will bring to the table here.
As for a winner, I think that KAIRI retains. A title is only as prestigious and worth challenging for if it’s protected. With it being so new, changing champions so soon would devalue both the belt and the wrestler holding it. Plus, if Banks does indeed get involved post-match, then her doing so would overshadow Tam Nakano winning. A title change doesn’t make any sense at all here so it’s a safe bet that KAIRI will take this one.
Winner and STILL IWGP Women’s Champion: KAIRI
Match #6: IWGP Tag Team Championship Match: FTR (Dax Harwood & Cash Wheeler) [c] vs. Bishamon (Hirooki Goto & YOSHI-HASHI)
If you’d have asked me about this match two or three months ago, I’d have predicted that FTR retain their titles here. Back then, they looked unstoppable with all their title belts and the prospect of adding a fourth set to their collection. Then s**t hit the fan in September and FTR have gone from having all the upward momentum in the world to being stuck in slow freefall.
The highly-anticipated FTR vs. Bucks for the AEW tag titles and status as #1 tag team in the world never happened. And if you believe certain corners of the internet, FTR’s slow and gradual loss of one set of titles after another has been a sort of punishment for them supporting CM Punk following All Out.
I don’t know if I believe that, but whatever the case is, FTR are going into this match with much less interest and chance of winning. FTR have had two title defenses, but neither of which was on a major AEW show. Given the dark cloud that seems to follow these two right now, I think New Japan wants to bring all their titles back to native talent to save themselves from any more headaches.
Winners and NEW IWGP Tag Team Champions: Bishamon (Hirooki Goto & YOSHI-HASHI)
Match #7: Tournament Final to crown the inaugural IWGP World Television Champion: Zack Sabre, Jr. vs. Ren Narita
This is NJPW’s newest belt and their eleventh overall not including belts on Strong. The purpose of this belt is to commemorate the relationship between NJPW and TV Asahi, encourage growth of New Japan World, and to give younger wrestlers something to challenge for.
Matches for this title will all be available for free on New Japan World (so not part of any paid subscription) and will all have a 15-minute time limit.
Adding a time limit really helps given how NJPW title matches tend to go long. it’s also beneficial because it works for wrestlers like ZSJ, who excels in shorter matches. And because of his strengths as an evil Bryan Danielson, I think he will win the title at Wrestle Kingdom.
There’s no one better suited to putting on technical wrestling clinics in New Japan than ZSJ. He knows how to wrestle his way into the most punishing submission holds without much effort. Even though he’s small, he’ll still be considered a monumental challenge to overcome, especially since he’ll likely be defending against younger and less established wrestlers.
This is a simple but effective way of giving more attention to New Japan’s often-underwhelming undercards. The easy-to-tell story of various rookies failing to beat the established champion within the time limit is a money angle that should work without much effort.
ZSJ shouldn’t have much trouble here. Despite Narita’s strong performance in the tournament, ZSJ is on another level and I think he’ll make Narita tap out at around the ten-minute mark to send a message to Narita and anyone else interested in challenging for the title.
Winner and Inaugural NJPW World Television Champion: Zack Sabre, Jr.
Match #8: NEVER Openweight Championship Match: Karl Anderson [c] vs. Tama Tonga
Speaking of headaches for New Japan…
This should be a fairly one-sided match. Anderson caused NJPW some problems back in November when he was double-booked for a title defense and a big WWE show. NJPW was made to look foolish by not delivering on their promised match (the whole ‘card subject to change’ caveat isn’t abused or cited as often in Japan because keeping your word/promise is held in much higher regard over there) and when they didn’t vacate the title as they had in similar previous situations.
As such, I expect this to be the shortest match on the card, going about eight minutes. Tonga, who has also been in a holding pattern of sorts for some time now, needs a big win. He needs to bring the title back to New Japan and he needs to finally beat his Bullet Club mentor once and for all.
This will be a protracted squash match, so don’t expect too much drama.
Winner and NEW NEVER Openweight Champion: Tama Tonga
Match #9: Keiji Muto, Hiroshi Tanahashi & Shota Umino vs. Los Ignobernables de Japón (Tetsuya Naito, SANADA & Bushi)
This will be Keiji Muto’s last NJPW match so I expect it to be filled with as much emotion as the Inoki tribute match, if not more. Muto is a certified legend that has been wrestling for almost forty years. And while he’s definitely worn down, he still has this aura of a superstar that few people have, even in today’s world.
I don’t have high expectations for this match for the most part since half of the people involved are so worn down. Muto’s obviously slow and limited since he just turned 60 on December 23rd and has been working with bad knees for at least a decade. Tanahashi’s injuries are catching up on him. And Naito seems to be collecting more injuries than titles these days. As such, the match will have to be carried by Bushi, Umino, and SANADA.
Speaking of SANADA, there is one thing that needs to happen in this match: SANADA needs to win by either pinning or submitting Muto. He was Muto’s pupil once upon a time but he never reached his master’s level of fame or glory. SANADA was once believed to be a future main-eventer alongside or opposite Okada but that never materialized.
But at 34, he could still have one big run. He has already shown he can have great matches, as seen with his bouts with guys like Tanahashi and Okada. But to make him into a believable main-eventer, he needs to beat Muto in Muto’s last NJPW match to send a message.
And if SANADA can’t get a three-count following a moonsault onto Muto, then he can channel Inoki and his love of submission holds by making Muto tap out to his Skull End submission hold. All of these things would send a very strong message to the New Japan audience who understand all these subtleties and intricacies. The only question is whether NJPW has the guts and the forethought to pull something like this off.
Winners: Los Ignobernables de Japón (Tetsuya Naito, SANADA & Bushi)
Match #10: IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship Four-Way Match: Taiji Ishimori [c] vs. El Desperado vs. Hiromu Takahashi vs. Master Wato
All four guys in this match are talented junior heavyweights. But when it comes to a winner here, I think it should be Wato.
Simply put, NJPW needs to widen their field of believable title contenders. The division has struggled since 2018-2019 when they suffered the double whammy of Hiromu suffering a neck injury that sidelined him for over a year and Will Ospreay moving up to the heavyweight division. And building the division solely around Hiromu like they did with Jushin Liger isn’t a smart decision, especially since Hiromu has already suffered two major injuries. Wato is younger than everyone else and has been praised for his skill in the ring. I think that NJPW needs to pull the trigger on him and let him have a run with the title to see what he can do.
As for the rest of the match, I expect just under twenty minutes of typical junior heavyweight madness. Lots of headscissors, dives, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it counters, and bedazzling nonsense. That’s typical for NJPW juniors, but it still gets the desired reactions from the audience. It probably won’t set the world on fire or anything, but it’ll be a refreshing change of pace from the other slower and more serious matches beneath it.
Winner and NEW IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion: Master Wato
Match #11: IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship Match: Will Ospreay [c] vs. Kenny Omega
I’m sure there are certain corners of the wrestling fandom that are losing their minds over this. Omega and Ospreay have teased a one-on-one match for months and many fans have wanted to see them face off for far longer. I expect this match to be absolutely nuts, and I’m almost positive Dave Meltzer will give this match 6-stars or something like that. And while personally I’m a much harsher critic, I still think there will be some high-intensity craziness here. Even after slowing down a bit in AEW and being sidelined for nine months, I still think Omega will do his best to turn back time and wrestle like he did in his prime circa 2017-2018.
And while many fans are happy that “we’re finally getting New Japan Kenny again”, are we really? Omega’s best New Japan matches were against guys that tempered his worst habits and I’m not sure Ospreay is that kind of guy, especially since he has his own bad habits that make his purported big matches polarizing at best and off-putting at worst.
Still, for anyone that likes the reality-destroying, PWG-influenced Elite wrestling style, this match will be a smorgasbord of the things you enjoy the most.
In terms of winner, I’m going Ospreay since the entire story has been built on Omega coming back to save New Japan from Ospreay and whatever he’s done since Omega left for AEW. If these two are to feud for more than one match, then this should follow the Okada/Omega formula where the champion retains at first, then they draw, then the challenger wins a non-title match and then they have their fourth and final blow-off match. And considering Ospreay’s already chummy with AEW, I can see him coming over from time to time just to throw hands with Omega.
Also, just throwing this out there: if Omega wins this match and FTR lose theirs, that should tell you all you need to know about who calls the shots in AEW.
Winner and STILL IWGP United States Heavyweight Champion: Will Ospreay
Match #12: IWGP World Heavyweight Championship Match: Jay White [c] vs. Kazuchika Okada
Oh boy, here we go again.
This is Okada’s eleventh Tokyo Dome main event match and honestly I’m just not that excited for it. Okada has slowed down immensely in recent years and I’m just not that into his matches anymore. It’s like Okada is the default holding pattern, put him in there to have another 30-40-minute match in the main event without there being much progress.
Speaking of progress, the only way this match can have any is if White wins. Okada winning would be a nice little sentimental moment to tribute Inoki, but what then? If White loses to Okada yet again then it’ll do him more harm as a draw. He’s already seen by many fans as an inferior AJ Styles or an inferior Kenny Omega. If there was ever a match he needed to win, it’s here.
Okada can handle a big loss at Wrestle Kingdom. He has won so much and become such an established star that it won’t affect him as much. And if he wins again, who challenges him that he hasn’t already beaten before? NJPW is kind of cold right now and their decision to play is safe with Okada always winning is a major reason why. Sooner or later, Okada’s going to start getting older, just like Tanahashi did. With Jay White as champion, New Japan has more room to experiment with feuds and potential draws. They don’t have that with Okada since he’s already done everything there is to do.
Winner and STILL IWGP World Heavyweight Champion: Jay White
Match I’m looking forward to the most: Keiji Muto’s last match and Ospreay vs. Omega
Match I’m looking forward to the least: Karl Anderson vs. Tama Tonga
Longest Match: Jay White vs. Kazuchika Okada (35-40 minutes, because Okada)
Shortest Match: Karl Anderson vs. Tama Tonga (~8 minutes)
Overall show excitement (out of 10): 7
I think Wrestle Kingdom 17 will be good but not great. The storylines are OK at best; though going by previous shows the wrestlers have shown themselves to be talented enough to exceed expectations in the ring. Still, I’m not expecting a sold out crowd by any means; NJPW hasn’t sold out the Tokyo Dome in twenty years and I don’t know if they’ll do so again for a long time.
I think there will be more emotional matches here than before since there will be a tribute to Inoki and Muto will have his last match. Last year on WK16 Night Three, Muto was in the main event against Tanahashi and Okada and it was one of his best matches in decades. If this company books things the right way, we can have similar results here. I’m also curious how wild Ospreay and Omega get. They will definitely go all out and wrestle without limitations, which will be either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your personal taste.
This will be an interesting show in a few places and hopefully some pleasant surprises in others.