NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 15 Preview by Alex Podgorski

NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 15 Preview by Alex Podgorski

Welcome to TJRWrestling’s preview for New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW)’s premier event, Wrestle Kingdom. This will be the 30th annual NJPW January 4 Dome show, and the second event to take place over two nights. It’s the Japanese version of WrestleMania, so you know it’s going to be a high-standards show.

This year, however, things will be very different. The global coronavirus pandemic has Goldberged its way around the world, destroying one industry after another. And now Japan is in the midst of a potential second wave of infections, which puts major shows in jeopardy. There was a previous hope that NJPW could get around 15-20% capacity in the Tokyo Dome per night, which would translate into 15,000-20,000 people. Now, they’ll be lucky if they can even get 5,000 people into the venue. Then again, any company would love to have that many fans appearing live, especially in North America. And yet, I still think NJPW will make the best of things and will put on the best show they can.

And with that, let’s get into our previews for each match.

Wrestle Kingdom Night 1, January 4th, 2021

Pre-Show match: New Japan Rumble

This isn’t going to be a normal battle royal with one winner. Instead, this match will have four winners. Twenty-two wrestlers will participate in this pre-show Royal Rumble-style match. Eliminations will be determined by pinfall or submission, not by throwing people over the top rope. Once the final four remaining wrestlers are determined, those four will take part in a fatal-4-way match on night two to determine the provisional KOPW 2021 champion.

The KOPW title was first won in 2020 by Toru Yano, NJPW’s resident troll and comedy wrestling expert. Naturally, as the inaugural winner, you can be sure he’ll be one of four wrestlers to be declared co-winners.  As for the rest, well, it won’t be that hard to predict. Normally, this pre-show rumble match allows for surprise entrants, some cases local to Japan and some cases foreign. But with the covid-19 pandemic, many foreigners typically affiliated with New Japan won’t be able to make it. So that narrows the field down to a smaller group to choose from.

So with that, I’m predicting the other three winners based on their position on NJPW’s card and whether they would benefit from such a match. I’ve narrowed it down to three people:

  • Minoru Suzuki: he doesn’t have a match on the main card, he can still wrestle well for a guy in his early fifties, and he has an extensive history with Toru Yano. People will want to see him and Yano face off again and see if Yano can survive NJPW’s resident murder grandpa once again.
  • Hirooki Goto: for me, Goto is an incredibly talented wrestler with a glass ceiling. Goto has always impressed me as a wrestler because he wrestles very well and comes across as a badass warrior. I genuinely want to see this guy succeed; and since a world title shot is all but impossible at this point, I guess this is the best he can hope for.
  • Karl Fredericks: Fredericks is a graduate of NJPW’s LA dojo, and has been featured prominently in recent months as a rising foreign star in the company. So much time and energy is devoted to NJPW’s native rookie talent, but not as much is given to the gaijins. I think this will be an opportunity for Fredericks to represent the LA Dojo on the biggest stage and bring more attention to NJPW’s newest crew of foreign stars.

Winners: Tory Yano, Minoru Suzuki, Hirooki Goto and Karl Fredericks

Main Show

Hiromu Takahashi vs. El Phantasmo – singles match for the #1 Contender’s spot for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship

Hiromu won the 2020 Best of Super Juniors (BOSJ) tournament and ELP won the 2020 Super J Cup tournament. The former is the G1-style round robin tournament while the latter is the KOTR-style single-elimination tournament. In other words, this match will feature two of NJPW’s top junior heavyweight wrestlers. There are high expectations for this match, and I think these two men will exceed them and then some. Hiromu has proven himself to be an unchained daredevil in the ring, and seems more than comfortable putting himself in high-risk positions whenever possible. As for ELP, I’ve heard great things about him as a pro wrestler, especially about how quickly he moves.

But I think this match will be Hiromu’s to win. There’s a deeper inner story I think NJPW wants to tell, and it involves Hiromu and someone else in his Los Ignobernables de Japón stable. And to make that story work, Hiromu has to, at the very least, advance to the actual title challenge match on the second night of Wrestle Kingdom.

Winner and #1 Contender for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship: Hiromu Takahashi

Dangerous Tekkers (Taichi & Zack Sabre, Jr.) [c] vs. Guerillas of Destiny (Tama Tonga & Tanga Loa) – tag team match for the IWGP Tag Team Championships

This is just my opinion, but I’m getting a bit tired of seeing GoD challenging for the titles so often. Tama Tonga in particular has been involved in a Wrestle Kingdom tag title match in one way or another every year since Wrestle Kingdom 8 six years ago. And to be honest, I really think that GoD would benefit from splitting to some degree from Bullet Club. They’re stale and not really setting the world on fire, especially since NJPW appears to focus on singles feuds much more than on tag teams. Because of that, I see the champions retaining. Taichi is a guy that getting better and better despite having a silly gimmick and ZSJ is a grappling machine. I think both of them have much brighter futures in New Japan, and will be featured much more prominently in the company’s bigger feuds going into 2021.

Winners and STILL IWGP Tag Team Champions: Dangerous Tekkers (Taichi & Zack Sabre, Jr.)

KENTA [c] vs. Satoshi Kojima – singles match for the IWGP United States Championship Challenge Rights Certificate

Boy did New Japan ever shoot themselves in the foot here.

Jon Moxley won the IWGP United States Championship at least year’s Wrestle Kingdom event and has held it ever since. But you wouldn’t know that from Moxley because, a) it’s never mentioned on AEW programming or by Moxley himself; b) Moxley can’t defend it in the US because it’s a NJPW belt and AEW has exclusive rights to any Moxley match to take place on US soil; and c) Moxley can’t travel to Japan to defend it, especially since AEW recently announced he’s returning to Dynamite soon. And since NJPW don’t want to have another Brock Lesnar situation and end up with two versions of the same title existing simultaneously, KENTA is stuck defending a briefcase that he has no idea when he’ll get to use.

On the bright side, it’s pretty much guaranteed that KENTA will retain his briefcase here, since his opponent is 50-year old Satoshi Kojima. Last year, Kojima was involved in a substandard tag team match with three other 50-plus-year-olds. Him challenging for a title, or in this case, the right to challenge for a title, seems completely out of place. But NJPW has to make do with their available roster since so many people can’t make it to Japan because of travel restrictions.

Hopefully KENTA can finally get some kind of upward momentum going into 2021 since he spent so much of 2020 treading water.

Winner and STILL IWGP United States Championship Challenge Rights Certificate holder: KENTA

Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. The Great O’Khan

I have no idea why this match is taking place because no matter what happens someone won’t look good here. During the G1 Climax tournament, O’Khan returned and attacked Okada. Then at Power Struggle, Okada beat O’Khan. And now O’Khan’s facing the legendary Hiroshi Tanahashi and…finds himself in a lose-lose situation.

Since O’Khan lost his first big match back to Okada, a big win here against Tanahashi would feel less like an upset for O’Khan and more of an embarrassment for Tanahashi. Had O’Khan won against Okada and then lost to Tanahashi here, it would’ve made more sense since he’d come into this match with some kind of momentum. And if O’Khan loses to Tanahashi here (which would be an even less sensible decision), then he’ll have a monumental if not impossible task of building himself up as a credible wrestler.

The only thing that would make sense here would be for O’Khan to completely squash Tanahashi in less than five minutes. He’d have to win so decisively that it would completely erase his loss to Okada from Power Struggle from peoples’ minds. But I doubt that even Gedo would book such a direction, especially since Tanahashi is still a huge draw for NJPW while O’Khan is a gimmick with a limited shelf-life, at best.

That said, I would still welcome a surprise win for O’Khan, and it would definitely get people talking.

Winner: The Great O’Khan

Kazuchika Okada vs. Will Ospreay

This is a dream match many fans have been looking forward to for a long time. Okada has lots of pull in NJPW and wanted this match himself. He has praised Ospreay many times in the past, and even once said that Ospreay will become better than him. That is why I think Ospreay will win here. He promised not only to beat Okada at WK15, but wants to end his career. And while I doubt Ospreay will manage that (because, Okada), I think he’ll come close. Okada will sell and bump like crazy for Ospreay in this match. He’ll take an absolutely monstrous beating and will be hurt to the point of having to be stretchered out of the arena. This’ll give Ospreay some much-needed momentum to give his new stable The Empire credibility. And I think it’ll lead to Ospreay challenging for the world title at some point in 2021.

As a pure wrestling match, this will probably be the best match of the entire two-day event. Okada is an amazing wrestler and Ospreay is the closest thing wrestling has to a child prodigy since Rey Mysterio, Jr. And while Ospreay’s overly-choreographed and speedy style isn’t my personal favorite, I still think they’ll put on an absolutely intense wrestling match that’ll set the bar very high for 2021.

Winner: Will Ospreay

Tetsuya Naito [c] vs. Kota Ibushi- singles match for the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Championship match

Tetsuya Naito is not going to retain his titles at WK15, and the reason for that is these two words: Murder Ibushi.

For those that don’t know, Ibushi has this ‘phase’ or ‘persona’ that has appeared in his past matches that makes him become the most dangerous wrestler in New Japan. It appears rarely, but when it does, Ibushi becomes someone entirely different. His expression goes completely cold and blank, as if all emotion leaves his body. Then he turns into a remorseless killing machine that beats the holy shit out of his opponents. He hits his opponents so disgustingly hard that he looks like he’s genuinely trying to hurt them. If you’ve seen his match against Okada from WK14, you know what I’m referring to. And poor Naito has no way of countering or defending against this. I think Ibushi will overcome Naito and just destroy him with one vicious head-spiking move after another. And if Naito tries to mount a comeback, Ibushi will just ignore it completely and respond with even more viciousness. Ibushi lost both matches at Wrestle Kingdom last year and was embarrassed at Power Struggle a few months ago. There is no reason for Ibushi to play nice anymore. There’s too much for him at stake for him to bother playing to the crowd or soaking up the adulation. He wants to win, and at this point will go to whatever lengths necessary to do that.

In the end, Ibushi will have his hand raised and will be awarded the titles, but he’ll be too entranced by the idea of cold-blooded murder to notice.

Winner and NEW IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Champion: Kota Ibushi

 

Wrestle Kingdom Night 2, January 5th, 2021

Pre-show Stardom six woman tag team match: Queen’s Quest (Saya Kamitani, Azumi and Utami Hayashishita) vs. Donna Del Mundo (Maika, Natupio and Himeka)

Two of the three women comprising Queen’s Quest, Kamitami and Hayashishita, lost the Goddess of Stardom Championships (their main tag team titles) on December 26th, 2020, and Hayashishita is the reigning, defending World of Stardom Champion, a.k.a. the promotion’s world champion. And since Wrestle Kingdom will bring a much larger crowd and a higher number of outside viewers, you can be sure Stardom will want its champions to look as strong as possible. To that end, expect the side with the world champion to win in this match,

Winners: Queen’s Quest (Saya Kamitani, Azumi and Utami Hayashishita)

Pre-show match: Mayu Iwatani and Tam Nakano vs. Donna Del Mundo (Syuri and Giulia)

Like the above match, this match involved Stardom wrestlers. And like the above match, one of the teams is composed of defending champions. In this case, Syuri and Giulia are SWA World Champion and Wonder of Stardom Champion, respectively. And that latter belt is a more historically-significant title since it was designed specifically to replicate the original AJW Championship, a title from joshi’s 1990s golden age.

I expect both this and the match before it to be crazy competitive, with all wrestlers performing at a blistering speed that would make even Will Ospreay ask them to slow down. These will definitely be exciting pre-show matches, much better than what’s usually put on pre-show segments in North American companies.

While it might be the most obvious of result predictions, it also makes the most sense. Champions should win as often as possible and only lose to setup big title future title challenges. And since this match is happening on a pre-show and not on a pure Stardom show, having that upset take place in the Japanese equivalent of a ‘go get your drinks’ match would be simply asinine.

Winners: Donna Del Mundo (Syuri and Giulia)

Main Show

Provisional King of Pro Wrestling 2021 Trophy: Tory Yano vs. Minoru Suzuki vs. Hirooki Goto vs. Karl Fredericks

There will be multiple storylines taking place in this match. Suzuki will try to murder Yano to get revenge for his past trolling and will also get a sick pleasure out of torturing Fredericks because that’s what Suzuki does. Yano will do what Yano does best and do comedy while trying to beg for mercy. Fredericks will try and survive as a small fish surrounded by hungry sharks, and will do his best as a Young Lion to find a way into an opportunistic pin.

And Goto will win.

At this point, Goto has won every championship and tournament possible for a heavyweight in New Japan except for the world title. And while he might not figure into immediate world title plans, I think he’ll get his chance not in 2021 but in 2022. I predict Goto will do the opposite of Yano and will take the KOPW as a serious title. He’ll go on a major winning streak that will see him win lots of high-profile matches. Eventually, he’ll parlay that into a New Japan Cup win and eventually a world title win.

It may not be the most realistic prediction but, hey, weirder things have come true in pro wrestling.

Winner and Provisional KOPW 2021 champion: Hirooki Goto

Suzuki-gun (El Desperado and Yoshinobu Kanemaru) [c] vs. One or Eight (Ryusuke Taguchi & Master Wato) for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships

One of the things NJPW is generally very good at is planning for the future. Instead of focusing on stars of the past, they do what they can do build up stars for the future. And that’s what we have here. We have one team that is composed of a guy in his forties who is also a producer in New Japan (Kanemaru) and a guy that’s at the bottom of his stable’s pecking order (Desperado). On the other side there is a cruiserweight veteran (Taguchi) and a 23-year-old rising star named Master Wato. Wato is Hirai Kawato, a former Young Lion that was routinely praised for his work ethic and conditioning when he was still training. There have been and still are high hopes for him to become a star in the future. But instead of throwing him to the wolves like they did with Okada, NJPW are taking baby steps with Wato to make sure he’s going in the right direction. I think that’s a wise decision, and I think having a title run with a veteran like Taguchi will allow Wato to understand what it means to be a champion. Probably because they’re planning more of those championship runs in his future, and with more important titles.

Winners and NEW IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champions: One or Eight (Ryusuke Taguchi & Master Wato)

Shingo Takagi [c] vs. Jeff Cobb – singles match for the NEVER Openweight Championship

This will be the token stiff hoss fight that has come to define the NEVER Openweight title picture. Takagi is one of the best wrestlers on NJPW’s roster and has an uncanny ability to pull off convincing offense as a stiff striker without having a martial arts background. But he’s going to have his hands full with Cobb, a man that outweighs him by 50 pounds. Cobb is deceptively quick for his size, and has no problem throwing smaller guys around like ragdolls. This will prove to be a problem for Takagi, too big of a problem for him to overcome at Wrestle Kingdom. I think that the size advantage will work in Cobb’s favor, leading him to a huge win over Takagi. This win would bring even more credibility to The Empire, the stable that Cobb joined back in November. In New Japan, the rivalries between entire stables are just as important as the rivalries between individual wrestlers. And since The Empire has just risen, it only makes sense for them to score as many wins as possible.

Winner and NEW NEVER Openweight Champion: Jeff Cobb

EVIL vs. SANADA

This match is centered on EVIL’s betrayal. He stabbed Naito in the back and joined the Bullet Club. He beat Naito to win Naito’s titles, and turned his back on LIJ. And all that was for a flash-in-the-pan moment of glory that will probably go down in history as one of the biggest missteps in modern NJPW history. EVIL just wasn’t convincing as a top guy and still isn’t. And while many people have already forgotten about his reign, they haven’t forgotten how he got there in the first place. And one man that hasn’t forgotten is SANADA, who teamed with EVIL probably more than anyone else in LIJ. Needless to say he’ll be out for revenge and is going to brutalize EVIL at every opportunity. I also think that SANADA has a bright future as a world champion in NJPW, and this is but a stepping stone to get there. It would be a huge feather in SANADA’s cap to pin a former world champion on the biggest NJPW show of the year. Hopefully he can take that win and turn it into an even bigger match sometime in 2021.

Winner: SANADA

Taiji Ishimori vs. Hiromu Takahashi – singles match for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship

Remember when I said that Hiromu will be involved in a story with another LIJ member? Well that story will begin here.

I predict that Hiromu will manage to out-cruiserweight Ishimori in this match. Hiromu will go to higher heights, land crazier moves, and simply out-speed Ishimori to become IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion once again. From a pure wrestling perspective, this will be the best match on the second night of Wrestle Kingdom.

And in doing so, Hiromu will become the only LIJ wrestler with a title. Because of this, there will be problems with LIJ leader Naito and the rest of his stable. He will become conflicted and will question both his ability to wrestle and his ability to lead. He’ll become angry at his friends, especially Hiromu, that will try to support him and he will lash out at them over his own failures. This will lead to a non-title match between Hiromu and Naito at some point, which will decide the future of the LIJ stable.

This will give NJPW’s audience something new to sink their teeth into. Naito has spent all this time being cool and laidback, but things are starting to crumble for him. He was already betrayed by EVIL, and who’s to say something similar won’t happen again? How can Naito possibly stay tranquilo when the seeds of betrayal have already spread in his group and he no longer has the confidence and control brought about by being the company’s champion? And how will Hiromu, perhaps the closest to Naito from a friendship perspective, react to a sudden surge in jealousy from Naito when he’s the only champion in the group? These questions will probably lead LIJ to a very interesting direction into 2021.

Winner and NEW IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion: Hiromu Takahashi

Kota Ibushi vs. Jay White – singles match for the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Championship

Oh boy, is there ever history between these two. Ibushi beat White in the finals of the 2019 G1 Climax tournament to earn the right to face Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 14 last year. But Ibushi lost to Okada on night one and then to White on night two. Then in August 2020, Ibushi won the G1 Climax a second time in a row, but lost the challenge right certificate to White at Power Struggle. Then, I guess, Naito decided he wanted to throw Ibushi a bone and announced he’d face two of them. Now, earlier I predicted that Ibushi would beat Naito on night one. And for night two, I think that Ibushi will narrowly beat White. Ibushi knows what to expect in terms of interference and other shenanigans from White’s manager Gedo. And to that end, I think Ibushi will brutalize White just like he will Naito on night one by summoning Murder Ibushi to cave White’s skull in. in other words, we will get two straight nights of Ibushi going all Mr. Hyde on his opponents, which will be awesome.

Winner and STILL IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Champion: Kota Ibushi

 

The Match I’m looking forward to the MOST: Either Okada/Ospreay or Ibushi/White. Come for the great wrestling, stay for the murder.

The Match I’m looking forward to the LEAST (excluding pre-show matches): Dangerous Tekkers vs. Guerillas of Destiny. I’ve seen GoD involved in tag title matches too often for too long. I’d rather see some new challengers.

Longest Match: Naito vs. Ibushi. Naito has a deliberately slower wrestling pace compared to most other NJPW guys, and Ibushi will pad out the match when he introduces his homicidal alter ego. This will probably go thirty-five to forty minutes.

Shortest Match (excluding pre-show matches):   The KOPW fatal-4-way. NJPW doesn’t treat non-traditional matches with as much respect as straight singles matches, so they’re often chaotic and overbooked. I think this match will take full advantage of that expectation and will go around twelve minutes max.

Overall interest (on a scale of 1-10): 8.5

I’m not as excited for this show as last year’s event. A big part of that is due to the lack of foreign stars that can’t make it to Japan because of Covid-19. I was especially disappointed that KENTA won’t face Jon Moxley once again, even though he has more than earned a run with Moxley’s title. The rest of the card feels a bit underwhelming for a Wrestle Kingdom show, especially since there’s a lack of semi-regular legends or guests to come in to build up the show. And yet, this show will still feature several big matches that will all get lots of time since there are fewer matches overall on each show. Both of the show-closing matches have the potential to be MOTYCs and a few on the undercard do as well. So this will likely be a very exciting show that’ll be worth getting up early or staying up late to watch.