2020 may be over, but the new year won’t really begin for New Japan Pro Wrestling until after January 4-5, when NJPW will put on some of its most high-stakes matches and biggest angles of the year at Wrestle Kingdom 15.
The Wrestle Kingdom card includes title matches, grudge matches, and a few matches with competitors still TBD. In this preview, we’ll break down what those matches are and why they’re happening, as well as how you can watch this year’s Wrestle Kingdom and how it’s been impacted by real-life events. Hopefully, this will get you up to speed whether you’re a regular NJPW viewer looking to get refreshed on storylines, or if you’re a more casual fan just stopping by for WK.
How you can watch Wrestle Kingdom and how it’s been impacted by real-life events
New Japan has been running shows at the Tokyo Dome on January 4 every year since 1992, and 2021 is the second year that the company has made this a two-night event. The broadcast of Night 1 starts on January 4 at 4 PM JST (which is 2 AM ET, or January 3 at 11 PM PT) and Night 2 starts on January 5 at 5 PM JST (3 AM ET and midnight PT.) Both shows will be available to watch live and on-demand with a subscription to NJPW World or as pay-per-views on Fite.
The other way this year’s Wrestle Kingdom is different from most is, of course, that it takes place during a pandemic. Japan has had far fewer COVID-19 infections and deaths than a lot of other countries, but they’ve seen a surge in infections over the past two months, recently with thousands of new cases reported per day. Part of the government response has been increased restrictions on event capacity, which for NJPW so far means that Wrestle Kingdom ticket sales ended early and there are no same-day ticket sales allowed. The situation is still evolving, though, with some prefectural governments recently asking the central Japanese government to declare another state of emergency. So far, it seems like this won’t prevent Wrestle Kingdom from going forward, but it’s possible it could impact NJPW shows in the near future.
Anti-coronavirus safety measures mean the Tokyo Dome atmosphere will be very different from that of WK’s past. On top of the cap on audience size, NJPW’s event guidelines in the pandemic era include temperature checks, socially distance seating, mask-wearing requirements, and no cheering or booing allowed, just clapping. According to NJPW, there have been no COVID cases traced to their events so far.
WK 15 references current events in a few other ways too. The shows are sponsored by Varsan Plus, “a disinfectant for removing virus and bacteria,” and the Wrestle Kingdom slogan “Go To New Japan!” references the widely parodied and criticized Go To Travel campaign, a government program meant to promote domestic tourism during the pandemic, which was recently suspended because of the rise in COVID cases.
With that real-life information out of the way, let’s get to the wrestling.
Wrestle Kingdom 15 Night 1 – January 4, 2021
Pre-show: The New Japan Rumble returns
After a few years’ absence, Wrestle Kingdom 15 includes the return of the New Japan Rumble, now with a smidge more stakes. This match is a battle royal with the type of elimination rules normally used by Japanese promotions: wrestlers can be defeated by pinfall, submission, or being thrown over the top rope. The new addition to the Rumble this time around is that the last four wrestlers remaining will be part of a four-way match on Night 2 that will determine the KOPW 2021 title-holder.
None of this match’s 22 entrants have been announced yet, and there are a lot of significant NJPW players who still have their WK free, including Tomohiro Ishii, Hirooki Goto, Minoru Suzuki, Bushi, Yuji Nagata, KOPW 2020 winner Toru Yano, and more. So this match and the four-way have the potential to go pretty hard, actually.
1) Best of the Super Jr. 27 Winner vs. Super J-Cup 2020 Winner: Hiromu Takahashi vs. El Phantasmo
Last month, Hiromu Takahashi won the Best of the Super Juniors tournament, earning a shot at the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship held by Taiji Ishimori, who had won the title from him back in August. After this win, Takahashi said there was another guy he wanted to beat before his title shot: whoever won the Super J-Cup in America that would be broadcast less than 24 hours later. The Super J-Cup winner ended up being El Phantasmo, so now Hiromu vs. ELP on January 4 is happening as a number one contender’s match for Ishimori’s title defense on the 5th.
Because of travel restrictions, El Phantasmo has been away from his home promotions in the UK and Japan for most of the year and he and Hiromu couldn’t face off in-person ahead of Wrestle Kingdom. They adapted to the circumstances by needling each other on social media and by Hiromu showing up to the WK press conference with “ELP” written on his chest and an ELP mask on to cut a promo about how Hiromu is the best. Aside from the trolling, Hiromu’s promos on ELP have been along the lines of “let’s have a great match together,” so expect these two to try to heat up the crowd with crazy spots in the show’s opener more than anything else.
2) IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship match: Dangerous Tekkers (Zack Sabre Jr. and Taichi) (c) vs. Guerrillas of Destiny (Tama Tonga and Tanga Loa)
Zack Sabre Jr. and Taichi won the IWGP Heavyweight tag titles from Golden Ace (Ibushi and Tanahashi) at Dominion, menaced them throughout the summer, then feuded with more babyfaces this fall. They’ve been tried and true bad guys, but on the NJPW scale of faction morality it’s a rule that Bullet Club is always eviler than Suzukigun, so Dangerous Tekkers’ feud with the Guerrillas of Destiny since G.o.D. won World Tag League has seen Zack and Taichi not really turn face, but become babyfaces by default. But really, this a rare heel vs. heel matchup at Wrestle Kingdom.
Winning this match would mean different things for each team, aside from the part where it would make them tag champions. This would be the first tag title win for the Guerrillas at the Tokyo Dome (they’ve lost them there three times) and it would make them the team with the most heavyweight tag title reigns in NJPW history (they’re currently tied with TenCozy at 6.) Winning World Tag League was already a first for them, so getting the W at WK would make this a very accomplished few months for Haku’s kids.
Dangerous Tekkers has a shorter resume as a duo and wouldn’t be setting any records, but they’ve said a few times that they have big plans for 2021, and retaining the tag titles is part of those. Whether they win or lose, Zack and Taichi are two to keep an eye on at New Year’s Dash.
3) IWGP U.S. Championship Right-to-Challenge Contract match: Kenta (c) vs. Satoshi Kojima
Kenta won the right to challenge Jon Moxley for the IWGP United States Championship back in August, but various factors (travel restrictions, Moxley being AEW Champion, etc.) have since prevented that challenge from going forward. At this point, Kenta’s defended the contract for his title match more times than Mox has defended the U.S. title. Kenta’s fifth defense, the one at WK 15, was initially supposed to be against Juice Robinson, the climax of a feud that stemmed from Kenta’s interference costing Juice and David Finlay the World Tag League final, but Robinson was injured on NJPW’s second-to-last show of 2020 and will be kept out of Wrestle Kingdom because of a broken orbital bone.
On NJPW’s last show of 2020, beloved, super-accomplished veteran Satoshi Kojima took advantage of the opening on the WK card. He and Kenta were on opposite sides of a tag match, he challenged Kenta, and Kenta was cool with it. Kojima is a perfect last-minute replacement pick because everyone loves him, but, on the cusp of his 30th wrestling anniversary, he doesn’t really have feuds anymore and I don’t think anyone expects him to win, so his involvement probably won’t throw off pre-existing U.S. title plans. Kojima and Kenta are both kind of battered guys with top notch wrestling resumes and oodles of charisma, and their match should be fun.
4) Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Great-O-Khan
Tomoyuki Oka returned from his excursion in the UK to cost Okada a match against Will Ospreay on the last night of their G1 block and announce that there’s a new faction in town called The Empire. Oka, still using the Great-O-Khan gimmick he’d taken up in RevPro, a mix of Chinese and Mongolian cultural references and of modern and old time-y wrestling moves, was quickly established as Ospreay’s heavy. O-Khan’s first post-excursion NJPW singles match was a losing effort to Okada, who was fighting him to get a shot at Ospreay. It seems like he has a much better chance of winning his second.
O-Khan targeted Hiroshi Tanahashi during World Tag League, targeting his knee and calling him old and broken down – if you’ve seen a few Ace feuds over the past several years, you know what the deal is here. Tanahashi is fighting to prove he’s still got it (which he absolutely does as a performer, but his character’s been struggling a lot lately) in what’s probably the least auspicious Wrestle Kingdom match he’s ever had. Still, I wouldn’t write it off ahead of time based on only O-Khan’s gimmick or first few appearances; he came into his own a lot during tag league. Tanahashi vs. O-Khan could bring a crowd-pleasing win for Tana, but more likely the Ace will put over the younger talent.
5) Kazuchika Okada vs. Will Ospreay
Will Ospreay became so hated as a real person this summer that he deleted his Twitter account and some of his NJPW co-workers took shots at him on social media when they had no storyline connection. Then New Japan brought him back for the G1 (travel restrictions had kept him in the UK since March), turned him heel, and gave him his own faction. The Empire now contains Ospreay, Great-O-Khan, Jeff Cobb, and Ospreay’s girlfriend Bea Priestly (who wrestles for Stardom and now also hangs out ringside at most NJPW shows.) Yes, it is a British Empire-themed faction that is only half British people, and yes, some people are into it to the point of leaving comments along the lines of “sun never sets” on various corporate posts.
The Okada-Ospreay feud is basically the Jay-Okada feud from two years ago but with less heat even though this one’s supposed to be a falling out of brothers rather than just stablemates. Some of Ospreay’s better matches (even if you’re not into his wrestling) in the past have been with Okada, but nothing about this overcomes the real-life grossness and creative staleness surrounding it.
NJPW has started to set up Okada getting back into the IWGP title picture, but don’t be surprised to see an Ospreay win here, to see The Empire introduce a new member or two between January 4-6, or even to see the emerging faction make a clean sweep of their WK matches. NJPW has so far leaned into pushing this new group and they probably won’t turn back now, when the issues part of the non-Japanese fan base has with it aren’t really present for the Japanese fan base. If you care about this, it makes NJPW’s 2021 look a lot less appealing, but at least, if you want Japanese wrestling in your life, there are a bunch of other promotions doing as well or better than New Japan in terms of wrestling quality and creative material.
6) IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Double Championship match: Tetsuya Naito (c) vs. Kota Ibushi
Kota Ibushi became the only three time-consecutive G1 finalist and one of the few two-time consecutive G1 winners this year, and then he lost his contract to the IWGP title match in the main event of the Tokyo Dome to Jay White. But then the champ (and NJPW’s wrestler of the year, according to me) Tetsuya Naito pointed out that there are two nights of Wrestle Kingdom and two main events and only plans for one of them (the one with Jay White on January 5) so he could ask Ibushi to challenge him on January 4. So weirdly, Ibushi both feels like he deserves this title match more than anybody, but also like he doesn’t. It’s been one of the wonkier Wrestle Kingdom main event builds.
Ibushi and Naito have a long friendship/rivalry that resurfaced for an Intercontinental Championship feud last year. The Golden Star and the former Stardust Genius put on matches that were exciting, aggressive, and included some head and neck bumps crazy enough to turn some people completely off. Their tag matches ahead of WK 15 have shown that they haven’t lost a step, so unless you find this pairing is too stressful, Naito vs. Ibushi will probably be the best match of the night. It’s a bummer that what would be an extremely hyped main event in normal circumstances has to happen in front of fans restricted from going crazy, but it should be fun anyway.
Wrestle Kingdom 15 Night 2 – January 5, 2021
Stardom exhibition dark match #1: AZM, Saya Kamitani, and Utami Hayashishita vs. Natsupoi, Himeka, and Maika
Stardom exhibition dark match #2: Tam Nakano and Mayu Iwatani vs. Syuri and Giulia
For the second year in a row, one night of Wrestle Kingdom will open with tag team action from women’s wrestling promotion World Wonder Ring Stardom, but you won’t be able to see it unless you’re in the Tokyo Dome. That’s because though Stardom and NJPW both are owned by game company Bushiroad, they’re broadcast on different TV channels. These matches – both babyface teams (one a team of rivals) taking on ascendant heel faction Donna Del Mondo – look good though, and if you’re curious about Stardom but don’t really watch it, they at least give you some names to look up. (Especially Mayu. Honestly, they should just find a way to shotgun Mayu into the double title picture.)
1) KOPW 2021 Four-Way match
KOPW was introduced this summer as the brainchild of Kazuchika Okada and a different type of title for New Japan. The way it works is that the trophy-holder is crowned via fatal four-way, then has to defend his title for the rest of the year in matches with stipulations determined by fan polls. Whoever holds the title at the end of the year is forever KOPW Of That Year, then a new champ is crowned at the beginning of the next year and the defense cycle begins again.
Toru Yano became KOPW 2020 in August and successfully defended his title on NJPW’s last show of 2020, defeating Bad Luck Fale in a comedic match that involved a large bag of sand as a weapon. Whoever wins the WK 15 KOPW four-way will have huge clown shoes to fill. Depending on how the Rumble plays out, it could be Yano again.
2) IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship match: El Desperado and Yoshinobu Kanemaru (c) vs. Master Wato and Ryusuke Taguchi
The feud for the Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship was set in motion during Best of the Super Juniors, with the groundwork laid earlier in the year. Master Wato (fka Hirai Kawato) has been feuding with Suzukigun since he came back from excursion this summer, first in singles feuds with Douki and Kanemaru, then by Taguchi and Wato defeating Desperado and Kanemaru in the tournament for the then-vacant tag titles. They never cashed in on that potential title shot, but reunited to go for tag gold after both Taguchi and Wato beat eventual finalist Despy in BOSJ.
While this does feel a little like a step down for El Desperado after his amazing performance in the BOSJ final, this should be an entertaining match. Desperado and Kanemaru are a very good tag team, you can’t go wrong with Taguchi, and while Wato’s post-excursion career hasn’t been amazing, his kicks are cool and it seems like he’s found his groove as basically the baby of the main roster, with Tenzan supporting him as his manager/”diva.”
3) NEVER Openweight Championship match: Shingo Takagi (c) vs. Jeff Cobb
Shingo Takagi’s mission for 2020 was elevating the NEVER Openweight Championship, and he was pretty successful! After defenses against Ishii, Sho, and Desperado, he lost and won the title back from Suzuki, then encountered another serious threat to his champ status in the form of Jeff Cobb. Cobb isn’t the most accomplished guy in NJPW, but Shingo’s basically allergic to him, and any time they’re in the ring together it’s the former Dragon Gate wrestler who takes the L. He lost to Cobb in World Tag League (which led to this title match), in this year’s G1, in last year’s G1, and when they first met in the 2018 PWG BOLA final (since incorporated into NJPW canon by commentary and wrestlers.)
While Takagi’s looking to keep his title in the face of a guy he’s never been able to beat, Cobb is trying to not only regain the NEVER title (Remember when he was NEVER champion for a second? Remember when he was in ROH?) but to steer his career in a new direction. He’s stated in promos that he joined The Empire because he didn’t find success in NJPW as a nice guy, and winning at WK would be his first big post-heel-turn accomplishment.
Takagi vs. Cobb is a match that could really go either way, with a win for the new heel faction or with a strong moment for Shingo. What’s for sure is that it’ll feature both wrestlers going hard in a way that befits the NEVER title picture.
4) Evil vs. Sanada
Evil and Sanada used to be New Japan’s most popular tag team of recent years, and one of its most accomplished. They won the tag titles and World Tag League twice, and, most importantly, they got Changing Sequins t-shirts as team merch last summer. When Evil turned on L.I.J., it took a while for the stoic Sanada to react beyond a blog post, but the wait was worth it when he finally snapped.
Evil and Sanada clashed on the last night of the G1’s B Block in a singles match that would send one of them to the final. Sanada got a hero’s win there, but Evil got a revenge pin over him in World Tag League soon after. On the night of the tag league final, their teams met again in non-tourney action. After some illegal activity by Bullet Club, Sanada started beating up Evil outside of the confines of their match, leading to this battle at Wrestle Kingdom. This grudge match between former partners has had the most aggressive and emotionally-charged build for any match on January 4-5, and its only downside is that the crowd can’t yell for it.
5) IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship match: Taiji Ishimori (c) vs. the winner of Hiromu vs. ELP
Is NJPW going to put a friendly match between Bullet Club tag partners in the semi-main event at the Tokyo Dome, or are they going to do the BOSJ winner and ace of the junior division vs. the guy who took his title? I mean, who’s to say, but if this does end up being Hiromu vs. Ishimori it should be very fast and aggressive and one of the best, if not the best, match of the show.
6) IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Double Championship match: Jay White vs. the winner of Naito vs. Ibushi
Jay White has beef with both of his potential January 5 opponents. Ibushi beat White to win the 2019 G1, White beat him in a non-title match at WK 14, and then beat him again in the 2020 G1 and to take his briefcase at Power Struggle and earn this title match. Naito and White clashed in the 2019 G1 and feuded for the IC title, with White temporarily blocking Naito from WK by taking the belt, then Naito taking it back on his way to becoming double champion. Whether any of this makes the January 5 main event being appealing depends on your tolerance for the Switchblade character and Bullet Club shenanigans in big matches, with the aforementioned wonky build not doing things any favors.
Depending on the outcome of this match, NJPW could kick off 2021 with:
- Naito’s double title reign continuing, maybe leading to that Naito vs. Hiromu anniversary show match the pandemic denied us last year
- Ibushi finally winning the one major title he hasn’t won in NJPW, the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, (which is also a step on his path to becoming God according to logic only he can understand), and while the circumstances for that wouldn’t be ideal, a lot of people would be happy for him
- White starting his second Heavyweight title reign and NJPW’s babyfaces racing to get the belt off a heel champion
For creative and real-world reasons, there’s a lot less hype surrounding Wrestle Kingdom than there has been in a while, and what New Japan does afterward may not be entirely in their hands. However, there are still some very promising matches on these cards, and the potential for NJPW to start some fun feuds for the future.