Today we start a new series on the blog. Our Top Five posts are usually collaborative efforts by several members of the team. However, The Five Count will see an individual writer cover five aspects of a chosen topic, in no particular order. Jamie kicks things off by looking at some matches from New Japan in 2018 to watch before Wrestle Kingdom 13 on January 4th.
Before we get started, this is not a list of my top five NJPW matches of the year. That said, there’s a couple of crackers in here. Rather, I’ve selected five matches from the past year that will help to set the scene for Wrestle Kingdom on January 4th. This show is essentially New Japan’s Wrestlemania and as such attracts a lot of interest from new and casual fans. So, to help those people who might not really know what is going on or have never seen a New Japan show before, here are five matches that will hopefully provide a little bit of context before Wrestle Kingdom.
Kenny Omega vs Tomohiro Ishii
4 August 2018: G1 Climax 28 day 14
I’ve selected this match largely because it sets the tone of what New Japan is all about. This bout occurred smack in the middle of the G1 Climax tournament. This is a huge tournament involving the top guys in New Japan, even the IWGP Champion. The prize is a title shot in the main event at Wrestle Kingdom, as well as a literal briefcase the winner carries around until then. These are all concepts that should be familiar to WWE fans, other than the champion being involved in the tournament. I still don’t understand that. Anyway, at this point Omega (the IWGP Champion) was unbeaten in the tournament while the hard-hitting Ishii came into the match needing a win. The combination of the flashy and innovative Omega against the brutally stiff and technically sound Ishii made for an instant classic and perfectly sums up the appeal of New Japan all within one match. Expect the drama from this match to be replicated in various bouts at Wrestle Kingdom.
Kenny Omega vs. Cody
7 July 2018: G1 Special in San Francisco
This match is on the list for three reasons. Casual fans will be aware of Kenny Omega, they will of course know Cody Rhodes but the primary reason for its selection is Bullet Club. Even if you don’t know anything about Bullet Club you will at least be aware of them. Heck, this time last year – and probably still – the most common t-shirt in a WWE live crowd would have been the iconic skull and machine gun insignia design. Anyway, it has been a turbulent year for the group and this match between its then leader (Kenny) and wannabe leader (Cody) captures this perfectly. Make sure to watch all of the post-match happenings as it will set the scene for what the Bullet Club dynamic is like heading into Wrestle Kingdom.
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada
23 September 2018: Destruction in Kobe
To put these guys into perspective, this is a bit like Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. The Rock or Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels. It’s The Man vs. The Man, and I don’t mean Becky Lynch vs. herself. Depending on your outlook, both can be considered the top guy in the company, as can Kenny Omega too. Tanahashi is considered one of, if not the best of all time. Okada is the guy who toppled Tanahashi a few years back and has largely dominated since. Essentially, Okada has been eclipsing the records and standards set by Tanahashi. Having won the G1 Climax tournament in August, this match sees Tanahashi defend his prize – a title shot at Wrestle Kingdom – against Okada, whom Tana wrestled to a time limit draw in his last block match to qualify for the final of the tournament. Having drawn with the eventual winner, Okada was rightly granted a shot at him and his prize here. This is an outstanding match, however make sure you watch all the post-match goings on. You see, neither Tanahashi nor Okada were unbeaten during the G1. They were both defeated by a common opponent; Okada’s then stable mate, Jay White, whom Okada just so happens to be facing at Wrestle Kingdom. By the way, keep an eye out for YOSHI-HASHI’s involvement. He had an interesting little sub-plot going with Okada and Tana, but he’s still on the shelf after his little slip-up here.
The Golden Lovers (Kenny Omega & Kota Ibushi) vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi & Will Ospreay
15 December 2018: Road to Tokyo Dome night 2
I’ve selected this largely because it’s a fantastic match, simple as that. Obviously we get a preview of the Wrestle Kingdom main event with Omega opposing Tanahashi. However, the tantalising preview of Ibushi vs. Ospreay is what tips the scales for me. This pair will open Wrestle Kingdom in a NEVER Openweight Title match and if this tag team encounter from a couple of weeks ago is anything to go by then we are in for a treat. Also, it’s interesting to see the dynamic between Ospreay (a member of CHAOS which Okada is the leader of) and Tanahashi. Just how far will the thawing of the Okada/Tanahashi relationship go in 2019?
Suzuki-gun vs Los Ingobernables de Japon
4 May 2018: Wrestling Dontaku night 2
There’s a bunch of reasons why I’ve picked this match. For starters, nine of the ten guys will feature either on the main card or the pre-show at Wrestle Kingdom. Hiromu Takahashi is the odd man out having since sustained a serious neck injury to the point that he may possibly have wrestled his last match. For reference, Hiromu was easily the most popular junior heavyweight before his injury and would certainly have either fought for or defended the IWGP Junior Heavyweight title at Wrestle Kingdom had been able to. As for those who will be appearing; EVIL and SANADA will battle for the heavyweight tag titles while BUSHI will battle for the junior heavyweight tag titles. El Desperado and Kanemaru will defend those very belts while Suzuki and K.E.S. will compete together in the six-man tag gauntlet match. That leaves LIJ’s leader; Tetsuya Naito, who will face Chris Jericho. This one has been simmering all year with Jericho turning his attention to Naito almost immediately after Y2J lost to Kenny Omega at last year’s Wrestle Kingdom. It is after the conclusion of this match when the Jericho/Naito feud really kicks up a gear with one of the best angles of the year, and I don’t just mean in New Japan.
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