NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 15 Review: What If Kota Ibushi Was One of Us?

New Japan Pro Wrestling‘s Wrestle Kingdom 15 took place in a more subdued atmosphere than most of NJPW’s other January 4th (and 5th) Tokyo Dome shows. The crowd was smaller and quieter for coronavirus safety reasons, the possibility of another state of emergency raised questions about how much New Japan would (or should) be able to run as the month continued, and creatively, the build to the event had been more convoluted and less exciting than those of previous years. But once the wrestlers got in the ring, both nights of the event provided exciting and dramatic matches that made tuning in for WK 15 feel worthwhile, along with some that were more forgettable.

Wrestle Kingdom 15, Night 1 – January 4, 2021 – Tokyo Dome

NJPW

The Rumble returns!

The 2021 New Japan Rumble was weird, but not in the charming way past ones were. To kick things off, the first person to make an entrance on WK 15 is Chase Owens, which, post Speaking Out allegations, feels gross and serves as an immediate reminder for international fans says to decrease your expectations for and investment in this company.

He’s followed by, in fairly quick succession, the best NJPW wrestlers who aren’t otherwise occupied on January 4th and 5th – Ishii is entrant #2, Suzuki is #3, Nagata #4, and Goto, wearing a t-shirt and looking very aware of his placement on the card, at #6. These guys all get eliminated pretty early, and then they’re done at the Dome. They’re older and there are only so many places on even a two-day Wrestle Kingdom, so it’s understandable, but the memories of WK goodness from some of them are so recent that this is a bummer to see! In the longer term, at least Sho, one of the saddest entrants and eliminations in this match, gets named as Hiromu’s first challenger the following night, and Goto, Ishii, and Yoshi-Hashi still have their trios titles. But the more immediate impact of these eliminations is the match loses star power as it goes on, and becomes less engaging throughout its thirty-four-ish minutes.

The match finishes halfway strong – Toru Yano makes it to the final four without entering the ring or even putting down his accessories, and Bushi makes it by just hitting a suicide and hanging out outside the ring – and halfway very weak. Owens and Bad Luck Fale get put in the KOPW four-way too, because, I don’t know, maybe they didn’t want to make it too good or fun? NJPW sends us into the fifteen minutes of nothing before the main card starts with some laughs and some terrible vibes, and it’s a weird start to the show.

Best of the Super Jr. 27 Winner vs. Super J-Cup 2020 Winner: Hiromu Takahashi def. El Phantasmo

After an introduction from actor Noritake Kinashi as Don King that I appreciated as a source of a smiling Riki Choshu in a tux with a baby who did not want to be there, the main card begins with Hiromu Takahashi entering in octopus couture to take on El Phantasmo. It’s a match that leaves a lot to be desired. Hiromu looks good as always, but ELP, also as always, looks like a dollar store Jay White who can do some cool moves, but moves you can always think of another guy doing better. Hiromu and ELP also just don’t seem to have good chemistry – I’m clearly not an ELP enthusiast, but I can remember him doing better work with other members of the NJPW roster. Beyond the wrestlers’ control, it also probably doesn’t help that this is the match during which the offputtingly quiet Tokyo Dome atmosphere really sets in.

IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship match: Guerrillas of Destiny (Tama Tonga and Tanga Loa) def. Dangerous Tekkers (Zack Sabre Jr. and Taichi) (c)

That New Japan Rumble followed by that ELP vs. Hiromu match, followed by a heel vs. heel tag title match turns out not to be the most engaging way to start a Wrestle Kingdom.

Dangerous Tekkers vs. G.o.D. is not bad, but it’s also not easy to get into after like an hour of not-good matches. It doesn’t help that there’s a lack of tension caused by the lack of a clear team to root for, and that the wrestling style treads an unstable middle ground between a clean, competitive match and an all-out heel-on-heel shenanigans war. Zack, Taichi, and their good friend Douki are clearly the lesser of two evils, but they also lose their tag titles via the claw hand that they brought to the ring and were such dicks to Tanahashi this summer that I can’t feel too bad for them.

This match probably would come off a lot better in a vacuum or a tournament setting, but in the context in which it takes place, it mostly feels like a continuation of this show’s weird vibes.

IWGP U.S. Championship Right-to-Challenge Contract match: Kenta (c) def. Satoshi Kojima

Thankfully, up next is a challenge by a man who has only ever had good vibes, Satoshi Kojima! Especially with platonic life partner Tenzan by his side, Bread Dad is a much-needed ray of sunshine at this point in the show, and he and Kenta go on to have the best match of the night so far.

The main criticism to be had of both Kenta and Kojima’s wrestling at this point in their legendary careers is that they’re too broken down to go as hard as they used to, or to consistently keep up athletically with current top guys. This match gets around that problem because these guys can easily go at each other’s pace. Beyond that, the biggest thing this match has going for it is a clear story that’s easy to get into. Kojima is a beloved old man taking the opportunity to try and get back in the game and it’s easy to root for him as he temporarily seems to turn back the clock and move towards success. Meanwhile, Kenta is very obnoxious and it’s fun to see Kojima turn back the clock on him until he inevitably has to Go 2 Sleep. All in all, this makes Kenta vs. Kojima the first top-to-bottom entertaining, easy to swallow match of the show.

Hiroshi Tanahashi def. Great-O-Khan

I was one of the people who expected The Empire vs. Former IWGP Champions part of WK 15 to go the way of the up-and-coming heel faction, but these matches ended up re-establishing Tanahashi and Okada as wrestlers still capable of singles success, starting with the Ace. Hiroshi Tanashi, in full blonde bombshell glory, vs. Great-O-Khan is an entertaining, classic Tana vs. Bad Guy match, complete with knee-targeting and a “Can he actually hit the second High Fly Flow?” victory, and it’s a lot of fun.

It’s also a match in which Great-O-Khan proves what he can do as a supporting villain type on a major platform. From entrance to exit, it’s clear the younger performer has his whole act and wrestling style together, and it’s something creative and different than what most wrestlers are doing right now, in a way that works. Moments like that transition from the Mongolian chops to the kneebar mix cheesy and scary in a way that’s interesting and entertaining and says good things for O-Khan’s future even though he took the L. He might not get a singles win outside of a tournament over someone who isn’t a New Japan Dad or a Young Lion for quite a while, but he left the Tokyo Dome looking better than when he entered.

NJPW

Kazuchika Okada def. Will Ospreay

Okada vs. Ospreay is the longest match of the show and they wrestle it like they’re setting up a big rivalry, which Okada says very straightforwardly backstage that they are. He promotes Okada-Ospreay as NJPW’s next big Great Match Rivalry with statements like “Today is the beginning of the saga between Okada and Opsreay” and “Every battle we had before was just our prologue. It will only get better from here” and by being self-aware about how he’s now in the “Tanahashi” position in a generational feud.

I’m sure you can easily find a bunch of reviews of this match that try to be “objective” about this match or review it through the lens of some kind of star or points scale. So I’m just going to write that the most notable thing about this match and the promise of more Okada vs. Ospreay as NJPW’s next Great Rivalry to me is that it means that “smarky” wrestling environments, both physical and online, are going to be a place to hear the equivalent of “rape apologia aside, you can’t deny he’s a great wrestler/that was a great match” more than you would have already. This obviously already happens, and happens in defense of a variety of wrestlers and behavior. There are a lot of people who participate in wrestling fandom, even the ones who seem to think they’re the communities icons of normalcy and/or progressivism, who are more than willing to throw sexual assault victims under the bus for the sake of a “good match” or a wrestler they like. The apathy towards the treatment of sexual assault victims is so strong that it sometimes feels like a miracle that Speaking Out accomplished anything at all.

At a certain point, I don’t know if it’s even worthwhile to try to communicate how ghoulish this order of priorities looks, and how much worse it makes fandom spaces for the many people for whom that is not psychologically possible. I don’t know how to get this kind of point across the gap between people who see the kind of abuse that came up during Speaking Out as something that happens to others and people for whom it is something that has happened to them or someone they know, and who’ve had to alter their behavior at times to avoid it. I hope at least that people can at least understand that if someone has experienced sexual assault in their lives, they pretty much have the right to hate for the rest of their lives not just sex creeps, but people who mistreat assault victims, and being around people, whether in real life or online, who will happily write that shit off because of cartoon pretend fighting skill makes for, at best, a bad time.

Also, Okada brought back the Rainmaker for this match’s dramatic finish after Ospreay started hitting his own moves on him. The move itself looked great, but that the whole Money Clip/No Rainmaker angle was ultimately leading up to this really solidifies it as irredeemable! I’m so glad it turned out that every post-hiatus Okada singles match was that much worse in service of the feud that could potentially make the NJPW fan community extremely toxic, especially to women and/or sexual assault victims.

IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Double Championship match: Kota Ibushi def. Tetsuya Naito (c)

Naito vs. Ibushi at WK 15 is one of those special 30-minute matches that sucks the viewer in so deeply that they don’t notice how long they’ve been watching it. There’s never a time when these two are going through the motions, and they lean towards weirdness early. They’re always aggressive and competitive and don’t skimp on the insane spots that have defined their rivalry – Ibushi’s jump to hurricanrana Naito from the apron to the ground has got to be the move of the night.

Naito attempts the strategy of focusing on Ibushi’s neck that’s worked for him in the past, but it’s not enough. After each man gets some close calls, Ibushi breaks up the Valencia-to-Destino combo with a Kamigoye for the win. It’s an exciting and satisfying conclusion to a fantastic match, and the emotional aftermath, with Ibushi pinning Naito again like he can’t really believe he finally did this and Naito handing him both belts out of respect, is the icing on the cake. The only downside of this match is that the crowd couldn’t go audibly crazy for it.

Wrestle Kingdom 15, Night 2 – January 5, 2021 – Tokyo Dome

NJPW

KOPW 2021 four-way match: Toru Yano def. Bushi, Bad Luck Fale, and Chase Owens to rightfully win trophy for second year in a row

Yano, Bushi, Chase, and Fale open Night 2 with the four-way you would pretty much expect them to have. It doesn’t surpass low expectations, but at least we get a solo Bushi Tokyo Dome entrance preceded by fireworks, and a good bit with Yano and Bushi having to be lured into the ring when they decide to repeat their winning Rumble strategies. Yano becomes the provisional KOPW title-holder for the second year in a row through sneaky low blows, which makes him not only rightful the king of pro wrestling, but the low blow the rightful king of pro wrestling moves. It’s probably ideal if Yano just continues to accumulate these trophies until he retires.

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship match: El Desperado and Yoshinobu Kanemaru (c) def. Master Wato and Ryusuke Taguchi

Master Wato’s huge entrance coat and the hard cuts between his and Taguchi’s theme songs made me laugh harder than the KOPW match, but their challenge for the junior tag titles is seriously great. Taguchi, Desperado, and Kanemaru are all veteran high-level tag wrestlers, Wato has potential and some cool moves, and Tenzan is there, and that makes for a fun and well-laid-out match. All the comedy spots at the beginning work well, and things escalate from there and become more intense in a way that feels natural as the fight goes on. And although I think a lot of viewers are hoping to see more singles accomplishments for Despy in the near future, at least it’s nice to see him get a strong win in the Tokyo Dome for now.

NEVER Openweight Championship match: Shingo Takagi (c) def. Jeff Cobb

Wrestle Kingdom 15 Night 2 really pops off when Shingo Takagi takes on Jeff Cobb, the last hope of the Empire, in the match that everyone hoped they would have. Takagi vs. Cobb has the same dynamic as their previous singles matches, escalated by putting a championship and Tokyo Dome glory on the line. Every suplex and forearm is great, and Shingo busts out the rare tope con hilo that he hasn’t used since last year’s BOSJ final.

One of this match’s many upsides is watching Shingo sell for Cobb with borderline clownish shock and awe at how strong and amazing he is, including a dramatic self-yeet through the ropes after a Pumping Bomber that almost gets him counted out. Takagi eventually wins with Last of the Dragon to retain his title, but Cobb comes out of the match looking like anything but a loser. It feels like, from the G1 to now, trash faction affiliation aside, the former Olympian is finally in a place in NJPW that’s making use of his full potential.

Sanada def. Evil

Sanada vs. Evil is one of those matches that looks promising at the beginning and finishes strong, but doesn’t do that much in the middle. One positive aspect that’s visible early on is how these two have always had the kind of chemistry, whether as partners or enemies, that makes you believe they really know each other well, and that infuses a lot of tension into the beginning of the match. Another positive is the hilarious and painful-looking performances of the match’s supporting cast, with ring announcer Abe sent crashing to the ground TWICE and Dick Togo not just bumping through a table, but somehow getting knocked off the apron into a DIVING ELBOW DROP through a table.

The big downside to this match is that it’s for the most part pretty low-intensity. It’s the grudge match climax of a feud between former best friends and tag partners with no stakes other than one man beating the other, but it’s less dramatic than their G1 bout, or even the average G1 match. That being said, it does pick up after Togo goes through the table, and the nearfall-filled stretch from there to the moonsault finish is exciting and fun.

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship match: Hiromu Takahashi def. Taiji Ishimori (c)

Way more exciting is the junior title match between Hiromu Takahashi and Taiji Ishimori, who knock it out of the park like they have every time they’ve gone one-on-one. Hiromu and Ishimori have a winning formula that doesn’t look or feel like a formula. They deliver speedy, painful-looking junior heavyweight action like that of their previous matches while switching up the spots enough to keep them from getting repetitive.

One of the ways they switch things up from their BOSJ bout and add extra drama to this match is by referencing their feud last summer. Ishimori starts focusing on Hiromu’s shoulder, a strategy that helped him win the title in August, and the related Game Over sequences are the moments of this match in which Hiromu seems the most believably at risk of losing. Ishimori leaves the Dome as a former zero-defense champion, but he still looks great here, and I think actually delivers the match’s standout performance. He hasn’t looked as much like a tiny terminator as when he beats down Hiromu with elbows in a while.

One of the best matches of Wrestle Kingdom 15 also has one of the best post-match segments. Hiromu dabs Zima backstage on his bloody nose and calls it “good for my wounds,” introduces Mr. Belt to his new BOSJ trophy, names Sho, the one guy he couldn’t beat in BOSJ, as his first challenger, and talks about his goals as a wrestler and junior champion. It never really felt like Hiromu wasn’t champion for the months he was belt-less, but it’s still very nice to have him back as the actual champion again.

IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Double Championship match: Kota Ibushi (c) def. Jay White

By the time Jay White vs. Kota Ibushi 5 starts, it had everything going for it. These two have a record of mostly good matches between them, and the wrinkles in this build to this one were ironed out after the main event on January 4. It feels like Ibushi can’t just be a one-day champion, but his win the night before was such a great moment that maybe it was actually too good to last – and Jay’s beaten him the last three times they’ve gone one-on-one, and generally seems to have his number. If the Night 1 main event promised excitement, the Night 2 main promises stress!

White and Ibushi start the match playing perfectly into all the tension, and with Jay perfectly turning his annoying level up to 11. The first 15 minutes pass quickly, but then the match stretches out to eventually almost 50 minutes. The finishing stretch, from the long ITO to the kneepad-down Kamigoye, is exciting, but just about everything in between feels like it would have been better if they shaved 15-20 minutes off this bout.

The story is that Jay is consistently able to keep his opponent down while Ibushi is unable to string offense together for way longer than is typical for him, and will Ibushi be able to endure and overcome, or does Jay still have his number? But Jay doesn’t do anything for at least the first 40 minutes of this match that makes it look like he could credibly win, so the story lacks drama and tension. I described some previous WK 15 matches as examples of wrestlers successfully amping up their previous match formula for the high stakes environment. In contrast, I’d say this felt like one of the worse Jay-Ibushi matches just stretched out for no other reason than because it was happening in a Wrestle Kingdom main event without anything else about it being escalated effectively.

It’s not that the wrestling here looks bad and I wouldn’t go as far as to call this match is completely boring (The beginning! The end! There’s something to care about the whole time! Ibushi does some insane selling that looks like it would make the average person puke!) but I would never recommend Ibushi vs. White at WK 15 to anybody and have zero to desire to ever revisit it.

Normal questions for our normal champion (NJPW)

Sanada, the straps, and sympathy for the Switchblade

After the match, Ibushi declares that he’s no longer determined to become God – he’s become God! I still don’t think anyone understands how this happened except for Ibushi himself, but good for him! We see more heartwarming emotion from the new double champ and a gentlemanly challenge by Sanada, and then surprisingly, the real post-match feelings generator is Jay White’s emotional backstage promo. In a monologue delivered with non-wrestling TV-level acting, he has a breakdown about how he feels all the work he’s done over the past eight years has been for nothing. It’s a reminder of the dojo boy everyone liked before he decided to come back from excursion as a cheating edgelord, and it’s such a human display that it feels like it further pushes the door to a possible face turn that was opened by his psychological feud with Evil in the G1.

The final major post-match development is Ibushi’s declaration that he wants to unify the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Championships. On the one hand, it’s sad that the belt Nakamura and Naito did so much with would be relegated to the Inactive Titles section of NJPW history. On the other, this would be better than keeping the double title situation the way it was. It’s been clear for a while that they need to either go with Naito’s constant request for separate belt defenses, or do this. The main thing is making the top title picture less convoluted.

All in all, Wrestle Kingdom 15 probably isn’t going to go down in history as one of the better Wrestle Kingdoms, but it provided plenty of entertaining, quality wrestling and results to be happy about. It also sends fans into January 6’s New Year Dash!! with a few challenges already on the books, plus plenty of questions: What’s next for the more sympathetic than usual ZSJ, Taichi, and Jay White? What will Tanahashi and Okada do coming off their statement wins? What happens to The Empire after all those losses? Is anything going to happen with Douki’s singles match challenge to Jado? I’ll see you back here tomorrow to talk about which of these questions got answered and go over all the other developments from New Year Dash!!

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Emily Pratt

Emily Pratt is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She used to study, write about, and make theater. Now she writes a lot about pro wrestling. Pratt is a regular contributor for Fanbyte, with other bylines at Uproxx, Deadlock, Mind Games, Orange Crush, and FanSided WWE.

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