NJPW WrestleKingdom 15 HOT TAKE
For many wrestling fans, the biggest event of the year is WrestleMania, where World Wrestling Entertainment's characters, storylines and legends all converge in a pop culture feeding frenzy. However, for the more discerning professional wrestling fan, the most important weekend of the year is New Japan Pro Wrestling's Wrestle Kingdom, a two-day event that spotlights the greatest athletes as they compete to achieve the ultimate accomplishment, breathing the rarified air that creates history.
After a year that has seen the very world trapped in a vortex, New Japan Pro Wrestling will proudly return to the Tokyo Dome. While international travelers will not be able to enter Japan this year to attend the event, fans across the globe can still intimately witness Wrestle Kingdom as it streams live globally on Fite.TV! As we come ever close to all the colossal confrontations that will explode before our eyes, setting the stage for the entirety of 2021, here are the stars and moments that will define the event and what they are fighting for!
THE IWGP HEAVYWEIGHT & INTERCONTINENTAL CHAMPIONSHIPS
For the first time in the history of Wrestle Kingdom, the most prestigious titles in New Japan Pro Wrestling will be defended together, at the time same time, twice in two days! Tetsuya Naito may think he has the world fooled into thinking he cares about nothing and no one, but the leader of Los Ingobernables De Japon really, truly cares about remaining the IWGP Double Champion.
On January 4th, he'll be defending against Kota Ibushi, who this year became one of only three men to ever win two G1 Climax tournaments to stake his claim at Wrestle Kingdom. Unfortunately for Ibushi, he lost that claim at NJPW's Power Struggle to obnoxious New Zealand star Jay White, earning White his Championship match on Wrestle Kingdom Night Two on January 5th.
Naito, however, acknowledging that his previous loss to Ibushi during the G1 Climax must be avenged, demanded that he face Ibushi for the Championships on Night One, January 4th. New Japan officials obliged the request, effectively reinstating Ibushi's dreams of finally ascending to the top of the mountain in the process.
The winner of night one will earn the championship in what is guaranteed to be a grueling, physical contest, but will Jay White play the vulture picking off the bones of the victor, or will history be made when someone achieves ultimate victory two nights in a row?
Truly, the entire power structure of New Japan Pro Wrestling hangs in the balance.
THE LEGACY OF LIGER LIVES ON
One year ago, the greatest New Japan Pro Wrestling Junior Heavyweight star of this or any era, Jyushin "Thunder" Liger stepped into his much-earned retirement. This year, the top Junior Heavyweight stars collide with glory and championship gold at stake, truly continuing the tremendous legacy of Jushin Liger.
El Phantasmo is one of the most abrasive, arrogant stars to have ever stepped into the New Japan ring, but he's also one of the most successful Junior Heavyweights of the modern era. The Bullet Club member proved that yet again when he went through three rounds of competition on FITE.TV to capture the 2020 Super J-Cup. Not happy with just having his name enshrined among the greatest legends of the IWGP Junior Heavyweight division, Phantasmo called out anyone and everyone he could, challenging Best of Super Juniors tournament victor Hiromu Takahashi.
Takahashi, who just a year ago returned from rehabilitating a major neck injury, shocking the world with an incredible performance against Will Ospreay. After a year of showing the world that he is perhaps the best pound for pound competitor anywhere in the sport, he steps forth to defend not just his honor but the honor of Jushin Liger and all Junior Heavyweights from the anarchist of the division. To the victor truly go the spoils this time around, as the winner will go on to challenge Taiji Ishimori for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Crown on Night Two, January 5th.
A GRUDGE FORGED IN CHAOS
Perhaps the greatest professional wrestler living today is Kazuchika Okada, who has awed and entertained fans across every continent with his incredible in-ring prowess and fighting spirit. However, Okada isn't seeking another championship notch in his belt or even the ability to boast at being the best performer inside the squared circle. He is seeking vengeance.
Once upon a time, British star Will Ospreay was a proud member of Okada's CHAOS faction in New Japan Pro Wrestling, pushing the boundaries of what great professional wrestling was in the Junior Heavyweight division. Since making the decision to bulk up and shift to the Heavyweight division, Ospreay attacked his mentor after defeating him in the G1 Climax tournament with the help of his girlfriend, Bea Priestley.
One could argue that before that fateful night, Ospreay may have been without peer when it comes to innovative, awe-inspiring stratosphere-breaking flying maneuvers, but add in that extra level of arrogance and defiance that has risen out of him since leaving Okada laying, and there is a mean streak unlike any that has been seen before.
With their showdown on January 4th set, Okada will have to dig deep, because for once, this is not about who is the better wrestler or the more accomplished technician, but who is the grittier, dirtier fighter. In order to redeem his honor, Okada will have to put down one of the most celebrated, evolutionary fliers of this era. Will Okada be able to overcome Ospreay and his minions? The only way to know, live as it happens, is FITE.TV.
TANAHASHI VS. GREAT-O-KHAN
If there is one fighter who epitomizes what New Japan Pro Wrestling means to the larger tapestry in the pro wrestling galaxy, it is Hiroshi Tanahashi, who has fearlessly earned the the "Ace" status countless times over the years, helping to bring NJPW to untold heights in the process.
One of the most charismatic and versatile fighters, Tanahashi has stood as the MVP of New Japan for years, a traditionalist who stands for the core tenets of NJPW's fighting spirit and seeks to not only prove himself as the best wrestler in the world, but the flagbearer for New Japan's global expansion. Tanahashi has been the rock of New Japan, holding its borders against all comers and standing tall as one of the true flag bearers of the promotion.
This year, with New Japan under siege from The Empire, Tanahashi clashes in combat with The Great O-Khan, who returned to the promotion this past October during the G1 Climax. Having soundly aligned himself with Will Ospreay, Great-O-Khan has returned from his global excursion and now seeks to take down the greats of NJPW to forge his own greatness, seeking to start with the biggest target of them all, Hiroshi Tanahashi.
Tanahashi is a grizzled veteran, well schooled in all forms of combat, but will the brash fierceness of Great-O-Khan overpower the former IWGP Heavyweight Champion? Does Tanahashi fall to the might of this new Empire or does the king remain on his throne?
IWGP TAG TEAM CHAMPIONSHIP
If you see the Guerrillas of Destiny coming your way, RUN. That is the unspoken rule in professional wrestling and bar fights alike, but the IWGP Tag Team Champions Taichi and Zack Sabre Jr. have no choice but to fight. After all, it's far more than pride on the line inside the Tokyo Dome.
Sabre Jr. is not only one of the most proficient technical grapplers in the world, following the likes of Billy Robinson and Dean Malenko into immortality as a fighter who will be studied for generations after his career is complete, but he's also one of the most dangerous men on Planet Earth, someone who can, with each, manipulate joints, shred muscle and break bones. Sabre's Championship partner and fellow Suzuki-Gun member Taichi is a well traveled veteran, himself a two-time NEVER Openweight Champion. The duo have dominated the tag team ranks since achieving championship gold at Dominion this past July, but the Guerrillas of Destiny, are certainly the most dangerous opposition they have taken on to date.
After all, the G.O.D. are not just the 2020 World Tag League victors, but six-time IWGP Tag Team Champions. The sons of Haku remain the toughest, most vicious team there is and certainly hold the size advantage leading into the Tokyo Dome, but can the Bullet Club's finest topple champions forged under the great Minoru Suzuki? History would say yes as the G.O.D. have never ever scored a victory inside the Tokyo Dome, but if they are able to break that curse, they would also score a second seven Championship wins, becoming the first team in New Japan Pro Wrestling history to do so.
Who wins? The clock is ticking on the answer being revealed.
KENTA DEFENDS HIS CLAIM
Since coming to New Japan Pro Wrestling and joining Bullet Club, KENTA has maintained a mean streak forged out of his discontent during his time with WWE. He has beaten and destroyed many opponents, as FITE.TV viewers have been weekly on NJPW Strong, and in doing so, captured the next IWGP United States Championship title opportunity.
With Champion Jon Moxley trapped in the United States, unable to compete due to the COVID-19 pandemic, KENTA has had to take his aggression out on everyone else who could potentially contend for the title, defending his guaranteed title shot over and over, proving he is the next in line.
At Wrestle Kingdom, KENTA will again defend his position, taking on former IWGP, All Japan Triple Crown and MLW Champion Satoshi Kojima. A venerated competitor who has seen and done it all, Kojima will be a tough competitor for KENTA and it will come down to two factors - whether KENTA's ever-burning rage will continue to incinerate all in his path or whether Kojima, the studied, disciplined veteran will be able to chop KENTA down and earn his own shot at Moxley.
EVIL and SANADA were, at one point, the united force that helped keep Los Ingobernables de Japon together as a unified front. That all ended when EVIL turned his back on LIJ during the New Japan Cup, leading to several matches between the two, including a victory for SANADA during the G1 Climax.
Since then, the tensions between the two partners have only continued to explode, setting the stage for this showdown. It was only several weeks ago that SANADA snapped, refusing to relinquish the Skull End on EVIL until well after the match had ended. A darker, more violent side of SANADA has been unleashed, but will he be EVIL's reckoning or simply SANADA's own path to doom?
COBB VS. TAKAGI
Move over Gojira vs. King Ghidorah, the Never Openweight Championship is on the line in a brutal battle that may shake the Tokyo Dome to its foundations and topple Korakuen Hall next door!
Olympian Jeff Cobb is an all out monstrous beast of a man, able to destroy opponents with his power and finesse in frightening fashion. If there is one competitor who may be able to match this raging but with ferocity, it's NEVER Openweight Champion Shingo Takagi.
These two fighters are literally going to beat the hide off each other to prove they are the supreme fighting machine inside the ring. This will not be for the faint of heart, but for those who love destruction and chaos, this will be a definitive battle that helps kick off 2021.
BUT THAT'S NOT ALL
Over the course of the two-day Wrestle Kingdom festivities, New Japan will present even more attractions:
-The King of Pro Wrestling 2021 begins!
-The 22 Man New Japan Rumble!
-The IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships will be on the line as El Desperado and Yoshinobu Kanemaru defend against Master Wato and Ryusuke Taguchi!
All of New Japan Pro Wrestling's greatest stars will be in action, ringing in the New Year with the most festive, athletic, violent and dramatic Wrestle Kingdom of all time, bringing the fury, the fire and the fighting spirit that is the essence of puroresu, direct from Tokyo to your homes through FITE.TV!
Mike Johnson is the lead reporter for PWInsider.com and has been writing about professional wrestling since 1996. He can be found on Twitter @MikePWInsider and MikeJohnsonWrites.com.