On Saturday, January 8, 2022, New Japan Pro Wrestling ran the third night of Wrestle Kingdom 16. After two fair-to-middling nights in the Tokyo Dome earlier in the week, two things made this particular show stand out. First, this was the first time a Wrestle Kingdom event happened outside of the Tokyo Dome, as this one took place in Yokohama Arena. Second, this was a joint-produced show, with New Japan talents wrestling against those from competing promotion Pro Wrestling NOAH.
When the event was announced, a lot of fantasy booking took place within Japanese wrestling fandom. Once the card was actually announced, two matches stood out in particular: the 10-man tag match between popular stables Los Ingobernables de Japon and Kongo, and the match that ended up being the main event of the whole affair.
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Whole five-hour wrestling events can be considered memorable or important on the basis of one or two matches. One that immediately comes to mind is WrestleMania 13 from 1997; the card as a whole was rightly derided as being utter dreck, but for one of the greatest matches in the history of WWF/WWE, the submission match between Bret Hart vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin that, like the main event at WCW’s Bash At The Beach 1996, would change the course of the entire wrestling business.
The Best Match of the Best Wrestle Kingdom 16 Show
Of course, it helps if the match(es) in question are actually good, in an event that is also actually good. Thankfully, Wrestle Kingdom 16 in Yokohama Arena was the best of the three WK16 events. The main event, which put the newly-minted IWGP World Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada & the perennial Ace of New Japan, Hiroshi Tanahashi (also once again IWGP US Heavyweight Champion), against the NOAH tandem of the legendary veteran (and current GHC Heavyweight Tag Team co-champion) Keiji Muto and that company’s brightest young star Kaito Kiyomiya, was the entire event in a nutshell.
The match was steeped in established storylines. Kazuchika Okada proclaims NJPW’s dominance in pro wrestling every chance he gets. Kaito Kiyomiya has been calling for a match against the Rainmaker since just before the pandemic hit. For a while, Okada’s call for a pro wrestling summit show to happen during the Olympic period in 2020 was gaining traction, with Kiyomiya loudly championing such a thing, also supported by All Japan Pro Wrestling’s own young ace Kento Miyahara, until the pandemic put paid to that idea for the time being. Still, the desire from Kiyomiya was definitely there, and at the initial press conference announcing this event, Kiyomiya relished the chance to go against Okada or Tanahashi, and would end up against both.
Hiroshi Tanahashi and Keiji Muto have a long, storied history. Muto was one of Tanahashi’s trainers and mentors, and indeed, had asked Tanahashi to come with him to All Japan when he & Satoshi Kojima made the jump from New Japan in January 2002. Tanahashi declined, deciding to stay loyal to NJPW, a move which more or less worked out for him. Muto and Tanahashi would cross paths infrequently during the 2000s, including a 30-minute time limit draw between the two during the 2008 AJPW Champion Carnival tournament on 4/7/2008. Their last singles meeting was on 1/4/2009, the main event of Wrestle Kingdom III in the Tokyo Dome, where Tanahashi ended Muto’s final reign as IWGP Heavyweight Champion.
In the end, the main event would have four different generations of Japanese wrestlers, all champions of their companies at one time or another, wrestling not only for the pride of their promotions, but personal pride as well, especially for Kaito Kiyomiya, who ached to prove himself against the top guys in the so-called top company.
The match began with Okada squaring up to Kiyomiya, and really, there couldn’t have been a better way to start this main event, the two primary drivers of promotions coming together. The 25-year-old Kiyomiya held his own, and indeed had the upper hand on the Rainmaker in the earliest parts of the match, leading Okada to tag out. Kiyomiya then got his first taste of Tanahashi, which lead to Kiyomiya leaving the ring. Muto and Tanahashi then met in the ring for the first time in 13 years, until Tanahashi also tagged out. This brought about the first-ever meeting of any kind between Okada and Muto, two different generations of IWGP champions facing off, something that seemed inconceivable even a few years ago.
The match continued, and every man got involved with the others to great approval from the crowd at Yokohama Arena, still prevented from doing much more than clapping applause due to COVID-19 restrictions. Kiyomiya fought his heart out, Okada and Tanahashi showed why they are still the top men in their company, Muto dropped “Motherfucker!”s—it was a very fun tag team contest.
Ultimately, the IWGP World Heavyweight Champion got the better of young Kiyomiya. One Landslide and one Rainmaker later, and New Japan Pro Wrestling won the evening’s series 6 matches to 4 over Pro Wrestling NOAH, with an initial 10-minute time limit draw between rookies Kosei Fujita and Yasutaka Yano being the only even result. Like the rest of the show, the end result of the main event was perhaps no surprise; every match on the show had a predictable end result, if you read the booking, and fair enough. This was meant to be a fun celebratory event, the first of many for New Japan’s 50th Anniversary, one done via ABEMA PPV instead of from NJPWWorld and/or Wrestle Universe for fundraising for Japan’s Red Cross Association (the show will be on those services within a week). Sure, pride was on the line for both companies, but NOAH was hardly squashed either.
It was also inevitable, as this year also marks the 10th Anniversary of Kazuchika Okada’s Rainmaker persona. His entrance garb this year, a gilded-trim robe and scarf, is quite purposefully a homage to NJPW’s founder Antonio Inoki in this anniversary year. Okada’s 2022 so far has said “This is MY year.” This year is also NJPW’s. Kiyomiya wept in the end, inconsolable in his loss to Okada (Muto tried to console him), much as Okada tearfully rued his loss to Hiroshi Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom 9 in 2015.
Ultimately, neither Kiyomiya, nor Pro Wrestling NOAH, had anything to be ashamed of. The show was symbolic of the relationship between NJPW and NOAH – Okada overcame Kiyomiya, as NJPW is the top company over NOAH in Japan, but neither went down without a fight. Kiyomiya and NOAH held their own, but weren’t able to overcome Okada and NJPW, at least, not yet, not RIGHT NOW. If this show was any indication, there will be more interaction between the two promotions, and fans will be better off for it.
If a show is judged by its top match, then this one, with four generations of wrestlers in one ring, is a pretty good indication of what the future holds. The past, present and future of Japanese wrestling met on a Saturday night, and the real winners were fans of wrestling all over the world.