Wrestling Review: NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 17 (2023)

We are back to just one huge night of wrestling action as New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) presents its annual January 4th event, Wrestle Kingdom 17. In the main event, the top prize in all of NJPW is on the line, as the champion, the leader of the Bullet Club, Jay White defends against the winner of the G1 Climax 32, Kazuchika Okada. Okada has held the history of 50 years of legacy on his back through the pandemic, but will he leave the Antonio Inoki memorial Wrestle Kingdom with the championship in his possession, or does Jay White have one more trick up his sleeve? In the co-main event, a certified dream match as Will Ospreay defends the IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship against the first ever man to hold that title, Kenny Omega. The IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship will also be defended in a match that is uncommon in NJPW, as Taiji Ishimori faces not only Master Wato, but also Hiromu Takahashi and El Desperado in a four way match.

The first ever IWGP Television Championship will be crowned, as the two tournament finalists, Ren Narita and Zack Sabre Jr. face off in a match with only a 15 minute time limit. The pace wil be fast and furious, as the “Submission Master” Sabre clashes styles with the strike heavy protégé of Katsuyori Shibata himself, Ren Narita. In an unprecedented move, WWE Superstar Karl Anderson returns to New Japan Pro Wrestling to defend his NEVER Openweight title against former Bullet Club companion, Tama Tonga. It is the first time ever that a contracted WWE Superstar will compete at Wrestle Kingdom, let alone defend a championship, and there is no telling how far either man will go to leave the Dome with a title around their waist. The legend Keiji Muto will compete in his final match in New Japan Pro Wrestling, when he teams with “The Ace” Hiroshi Tanahashi and “Roughneck” Shota Umino when they battle the Los Ingobernables de Japon trio of Tetsuya Naito, BUSHI, and Muto’s own student, SANADA.

Also on the show, the IWGP Tag Team Champions defend their gold at the Tokyo Dome when AEW stars Dax Harwood and Cash Wheeler battle the winners of the World Tag League, Hirooki Goto and YOSHI-HASHI. The new first ever IWGP Women’s Champion Kairi will face Tam Nakano for the title, in the first one on one women’s match inside the Tokyo Dome since 1994. However, for whoever comes out on top, there is speculation there is someone backstage looking to prove she is the boss with a big money statement. Kicking off the main show, the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champions, Catch 2/2 of Francesco Akira and TJP defends their titles against the winners of the Super Jr Tag League, the unlikely duo of YOH and Lio Rush. The pre-show will see the annual Ranbo, with the final four moving to a match tomorrow night for the inaugural 2023 King of Pro Wrestling championship, and a special attraction will see Ryohei Oiwa face the debuting Boltin Oleg in a three minute exhibition.

+ the crowd was allowed to cheer and holler, and it made every single thing better in every way. Whether it was cheering or booing, or even a few chants, this was the best NJPW has sounded in years
+ Jay White (c) vs Kazuchika Okada (IWGP World Heavyweight Championship): it was impossible for these two to try and top Omega/Ospreay before them, so it was clever the way they went. Jay White is the best wrestler in the world, and I’ll continue to say it until everyone else can see what I see. Of course Okada is fantastic, especially when he gets these big matches, so there was no way this would be a bad match, no matter what it followed
+ Will Ospreay (c) vs Kenny Omega (IWGP US Heavyweight Championship): I genuinely don’t even know where to begin here. Both of their entrances; both of their offense; the ebbs and flows of the match – this whole thing was just as good as Omega/Okada a few years ago, and I hope it is remembered as such
+ Taiji Ishimori (c) vs Hiromu Takahashi vs El Desperado vs Master Wato (IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship): this was insane. Master Wato impressed beyond my wildest expectations, matching himself with my boys Despy and Ishimori and even the presumed favourite Hiromu in all aspects. I’m usually down on multi-man matches in NJPW< but this more than delivered
+ Karl Anderson (c) vs Tama Tonga (NEVER Openweight Championship): I really liked this, and it goes to show just how much some people are hampered when they work in WWE (see also: Nakamura’s banger against Great Muta in NOAH). Anderson was at his bad guy best, and Tama Tonga earned his stripes as the fan favourite, leading to a satisfying, back and forth match
+ Ren Narita vs Zack Sabre Jr. (IWGP World Television Championship Tournament Final): the opening to this was fantastic, and it didn’t let up, all the way to an incredibly satisfying ending. I can understand why some may not have liked this one, but I really enjoyed it
+ FTR (Dax Harwood & Cash Wheeler) vs Bishamon (Hirooki Goto & YOSHI-HASHI) (IWGP Tag Team Championships): I’m truly surprised at how little fanfare FTR received, but I guess it shows how little the Japanese audiences care for western wrestling. The match did eventually get the crowd roaring, with work from all four men earning applause and cheers. Goto versus Dax was my personal highlight, but all four guys were at their best and it made for a great Tokyo Dome debut for FTR
+ Catch 2/2 (TJP & Francesco Akira) vs Lio Rush & YOH (IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships): I really like the team of TJP and Akira, and frankly I don’t know why Lio Rush is here; YOH is fine. One guy here was bleeding early which felt unnatural, but I really liked the match overall. I think Akira has a really strong upside

Keiji Muto, Hiroshi Tanahashi & Shota Umino vs Los Ingobernables de Japon (Tetsuya Naito, SANADA & BUSHI): holy smokes, Shota Umino is a cannot miss Tokyo Dome main eventer. The match was overall serviceable but nothing special, but the ending will remain in memory for a long time
KAIRI (c) vs Tam Nakano (IWGP Women’s Championship): Kairi was clearly a great choice for inaugural champion, but there is nothing certain about a match inside the Tokyo Dome. Nakano hit some incredible offence that you will rarely see any woman use, and Kairi was at her best as well, leading to a match that I liked but would have loved even more if it went for longer. It’s short length means I just can’t call it a positive, nor was the aftermath anything special
Yuji Nagata, Satoshi Kojima & Togi Makabe vs Tatsumi Fujinami Minoru Suzuki & Tiger Mask: holy smokes, this was rough. Even the guys who you might expect to do well were off their game. This was more about the experience, and it was a good experience, but the match absolutely sucked
New Japan Ranbo: this was not good, but I can admit there were still a few shocking moments. The final four here could be a good match tomorrow, but frankly multi-man matches in NJPW rarely are
Ryohei Oiwa vs Boltin Oleg: for a three minute exhibition, this was great. Oiwa is really impressive, and this newcomer — making is DEBUT in the Tokyo Dome! — is a beast in that ring. I expect good things from both of these guys

> the phrase ‘history making’ is thrown around a lot, but I don’t know of a single other event that had a contracted NJPW, Stardom, NOAH, WWE and AEW wrestler all perform on it

Should you watch this event: Of all the matches above, the only one that needs a caveat is that Kairi and Tam Nakano deserved significantly more time than they got. Otherwise, you need to sell your soul to see Ospreay/Omega, and you can’t go wrong with the Junior four way, the main event, or even the Heavyweight Tag title match. I have missed vocal NJPW crowds so much, and they were back in force for this.


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