We are one day away from January 4th, the day of Japan’s WrestleMania; they call it Wrestle Kingdom. Japan’s greatest event of the wrestling year comes but four days into the new year. The hype behind this year’s event is unreal. New Japan is at its peak level of popularity around the world and with so many eyes on them they will look to put on a show you’ll be talking about 361 days later. Let’s summarize a little bit of the background of all ten matches set to take place at New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s Wrestle Kingdom 12.
The New Japan Rumble
The annual pre-show rumble. This match will be full of surprise entrants. Anyone on the roster who was unable to make the card gets a place here along with some legends of wrestling’s past will be making appearances. Over the last few years the winner has gotten shot at the Intercontinental Championshp in February.
Prediction: Tomoaki Honma. This crowd favorite suffered a neck injury in early March of 2017 and has yet to see any in-ring action. If Honma makes his return, count on him winning this match for a nice feel-good kickoff to the show.
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship Match
Roppongi 3K (c) vs The Young Bucks
Returning young lions, Sho Tanaka and Yohei Komatsu, made their presence known immediately by winning these titles on their first attempt at King of Pro-Wrestling in October when they defeated Funky Future. The two are managed by Rocky Romero, former member of Roppongi Vice, and therefore Sho and Yoh took the name Roppongi 3K. Following up on the championship win, 3K went on to claim the Super Junior Tag Team Tournament trophies the next month when they beat Super 69 in the finals. Now enter The Young Bucks. The ROH stars are known in New Japan as the most successful junior heavyweight team in the company’s history. They hold the record of six total reigns with these titles and they’re returning in hopes to extend their lead to seven.
Prediction: The Young Bucks. 3K have made quite the impact since coming back from excursion but that all must come to an end. They’ve made quick work of every other junior team NJPW has to offer but they won’t find the same success against the YBs.
NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship Gauntlet Match
Bullet Club (Bad Luck Fale, Tama Tonga & Tanga Loa) (c) vs Taguchi-Japan (Ryusuke Taguchi, Togi Makabe & Juice Robinson) vs Chaos (Tomohiro Ishii, Toru Yano & Beretta) vs Suzuki-Gun (Zack Sabre Jr., Takashi Iizuka & Taichi) vs War Machine & Michael Elgin
Just like the New Japan Rumble, this serves as a match to get a lot of the roster without stories on the card. Expect a lot of light-hearted comedy, quick pins and nothing you’ll remember by the end of the night. That’s not to say it won’t be fun but this match isn’t the reason anyone (aside from the wrestler’s moms) is watching the show.
Prediction: Chaos (Tomohiro Ishii, Toru Yano & Beretta). These titles have a tendency to bounce around a lot and with four potential teams to beat the champions, it’s a safe bet the trend continues.
Special Singles Match
Cody vs Kota Ibushi
This is the only match on the main card that will not have a title on the line. With Cody losing the ROH Championship in December, this match became non-tile and that makes the outcome less predictable. Kota Ibushi is determined to beat Cody in order to prove him wrong. Cody had been picking on Ibushi, saying that he was unmotivated. His words woke Ibushi up and that’s basically the entire build for this match.
Prediction: Kota Ibushi. I believe Cody dropped the ROH Championship so that he could be defeated by Ibushi while keeping the title in the U.S. Where this leads, we all can hope, but it all remains to be seen.
IWGP Tag Team Championship Match
Killer Elite Squad (c) vs EVIL & SANADA
A step up for both EVIL and SANADA, who both were in last year’s gauntlet match for the 6-man titles. They face off against Suzuki-Gun’s Killer Elite Squad. Most of the focus for these titles goes to foreign teams that the native crowds care very little about. With EVIL and SANADA, now the crowd will have vested interest. As much as the tag division needs some revitalization, K.E.S. are an established team in Japan who don’t lose often.
Prediction: Killer Elite Squad. I think most people want to see the titles change hands here, myself included, but it’s not New Japan’s way to book. Yes, it happened with Ishii & Yano last year so it’s not impossible, there is just too much previous history you’d be betting if you chose EVIL & SANADA.
NEVER Openweight Championship Match – Hair versus Hair, Suzuki-Gun Barred from Ringside
Minoru Suzuki (c) vs Hirooki Goto
When Suzuki returned to NJPW on January 5th, 2017, he immediately targeted Chaos. He was unsuccessful in his attempt to dethrone Okada so he did the next best thing, he dethroned Goto. Since then, Chaos has been unable to capture the title back from Suzuki. When Goto demanded another chance, Suzuki turned down the challenge, telling Goto he himself gains nothing from beating Goto again. This prompted the wager of hair which caught Suzuki’s attention. Not only did he accept, Suzuki decided to wager his own hair as well as the championship.
Prediction: Minoru Suzuki. Hirooki Goto needs change in his character. He’s been beaten up so badly throughout his career and no title seems to fit him. Reinvention will hopefully fall onto Goto and we’ll see greater things from him in 2018.
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship Match
Marty Scurll (c) vs Hiromu Takahashi vs Will Ospreay vs KUSHIDA
There are a vast amount of stories between each of these wrestlers in this match. Both Scurll and Ospreay go back years in the British wrestling scene and now find themselves wrestling each other all over the world. Ospreay was finally able to beat KUSHIDA at King of Pro-Wrestling, something he’d failed at three times previous, only to lose to Scurll on his first defense. Hiromu defeated KUSHIDA on his first attempt, swiftly beat him in four minutes in the rematch, but was overcome in the third meeting. Scurll has the least amount of experience in a New Japan ring yet he’s the one walking in as the champion. I think many people are looking for these guys to steal the show. They definitely have the potential to make a valiant attempt.
Prediction: Will Ospreay. With Scurll probably being more valuable to ROH and Ospreay being able to finally defeat KUSHIDA, I think Ospreay is the right choice here. I’m sure most people would like to see Hiromu take this one but I’d be willing to guess both he and Ospreay will be having a singles match or three very soon after this one.
IWGP Intercontinental Championship: Hiroshi Tanahashi (c) vs Jay White
Making his return from excursion in November, Jay White made his intentions clear by attacking Tanahashi after his successful defense against Ibushi at Power Struggle. He’s looking to make an impact early and what better way to do that than to beat the ace of New Japan in his first match back with the company? Despite being the New Japan ace, Tanahashi has lost at the last two Wrestle Kingdoms. He unsuccessfully challenged Okada for the heavyweight title at WK10 and suffered the same fate the next year against Naito for the IC title. Now, as a title holder, is it possible Tanahashi loses yet again at Wrestle Kingdom, this time against someone making their excursion return? Well, yes. Unfortunately Tanahashi is extremely banged up and has been for the better part of the last several years. Popular belief is that it’s time for him to take a break and heal. Will he is the big unknown.
Prediction: Hiroshi Tanahashi. It’s too early and too big of a stage for Jay White to be successful on his first swing. Tanahashi needs a break and there is no doubt that this win would skyrocket White but being in this match already does a tremendous amount for him. This is too big of a stage for Tanahashi to lose for a third year in a row.
IWGP US Heavyweight Championship Match – No DQ
Kenny Omega (c) vs Chris Jericho
If you’d have said two months ago that this match would be happening, no one would believe you. Yet here we sit, January 4th, Wrestle Kingdom 12, Chris Jericho will be in a New Japan ring facing Kenny Omega at the Tokyo Dome in the semi-main event. Incredible. For many, this match will overshadow anything else that happens during the show. They managed to turn what was simply a special attraction match into a blood feud in just a matter of two months. This is bound to be absolutely crazy, thanks in part to the no disqualification stipulation that’s been added. Two men from Winnipeg battling it out in hopes of supremacy. Two different paths that meet together on January 4th and two paths which may lead in the same direction afterwards. Crazy, crazy match which came out of seemingly nowhere and generated much of the buzz for the event in the western hemisphere.
Prediction: Kenny Omega. It’d be tough to pick the outsider winning in the semi-main event of the company’s biggest show of the year. The main event will have a lot to live up to after this one ends. Fortunately, they have just the match that can succeed.
IWGP Heavyweight Championship Match
Kazuchika Okada (c) vs Tetsuya Naito
Same men, same title, same location as Wrestle Kingdom 8. This time it will be thirty minutes later in the night, the main event. When Okada and Naito faced off at WK8, a fan vote demoted them from the main event, to the semi-main event. The fans didn’t believe that the young wrestlers deserved the spot on top of the card. This time around, every New Japan fans is clamoring for the match. June 2016 was the last time these two met in a singles bout and Okada walked out victorious, defeating heavyweight champion, Naito. The roles are reversed from that meeting as it’s Okada walking in as champion, just as he has at Wrestle Kingdom 8, 10 and 11. The fans are pleading for Naito to force change within the company. The storytelling has been largely the same for the last several years and Naito represents change. He’s chaotic, unpredictable and cool, everything Okada is not. What Okada represents is perseverance. His heart doesn’t allow him to quit. Either his body fails him or his heart finds a way to gut out the victory. Since June 19, 2016 Okada has become the longest reigning IWGP Heavyweight Champion in NJPW’s history, has held championship for the most combined days and his singles record stands at 21-5-3. Good luck to Naito, he will need all of it he can get.
Prediction: Tetsuya Naito. 2018 will be the year of change in New Japan and that era will be led by none other than Naito. Okada’s historic run as champion will come to an end and we will be blessed with new opportunities heading into the new year.