It's the most wonderful time of the year! No it's not Christmas time, it's Wrestle Kingdom time! I don't know if I've ever said it on this blog before, but if it wasn't for Wrestle Kingdom, and Jeff Jarrett, I wouldn't be a pro wrestling fan today. 2015's Wrestle Kingdom 9 was the first Japanese wrestling event I ever watched, and not only does it remain my favorite wrestling show of all time, it's one of the most things I've ever watched in my life.
A lot has happened since that show, especially when it comes to New Japan, but while many of the names and faces have changed, my anticipation for this annual landmark show hasn't at all. In fact, I'd dare say that my excitement for Wrestle Kingdom 17 is at the highest it's been since Chris Jericho invaded New Japan and fought Kenny Omega at Wrestle Kingdom 12. A lot of that has to do with the fact that for the first time since Wrestle Kingdom 14, there will only be one night of Wrestle Kingdom. Sure, they'll be another Wrestle Kingdom branded event later this month, but gone are the two-day dome show, which makes me very happy.
Now, Wrestle Kingdom 17 is going to be an incredibly long show, so in an effort to limit the length of this post ever so slightly, I'm only going to talk about the major matches on this card. I won't be talking about the young lion match featuring the in-ring Japanese debut of Oleg Bottin, the New Japan Rambo, and the Antonio Inoki Memorial Tag, but here are my thoughts:
Ryohei Oiwa will beat Oleg Bottin, but I wouldn't be surprised if the opposite happens
KENTA, Taichi, Shingo Takgi, and Tomohiro Ishii will be the final four of the NJ Rambo and compete at New Year Dash for the KOPW Title, which will be won by Shingo Takagi
Minoru Suzuki, Tatsumi Fujinami, & Tiger Mask will beat Satoshi Kojima, Togi Makabe, & Yuji Nagata. What an incredible lineup, by the way.
So without further ado, let's dive into my predictions for what will surely be an exciting Wrestle Kingdom 17.
IWGP JUNIOR HEAVYWEIGHT TAG TEAM CHAMPIONSHIPS
Catch 22 (Francesco Akira & TJP) (c) vs. CHAOS (Lio Rush & YOH)
I can't think of a better place to start than the first title match of this event which will see Francesco Akira and TJP, collectively known as "Catch 22", attempt to defend their IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team titles against the 2022 Super Junior Tag League winners, Lio Rush and YOH. This match might not be at the top of every fan's watch list, especially those who don't watch New Japan on the regular, but for those of us who have watched both of these teams compete, we know that these dudes are capable of stealing the show.
On one side there's the newest CHAOS Junior Tag Team made up of Lio Rush, and five-time Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champion, YOH. Many will know Lio Rush as the wickedly talented cruiserweight who has worked for both WWE and AEW in the past, so I'm sure no one will be surprised to know that he's been one of the best Juniors to join NJPW's ranks since the times of ACH, Ricochet, and Will Ospreay. His tag team partner is another pretty memorable face, YOH, who was for a very long time one half of the beloved Roppongi 3K tag team along with SHO. After SHO turned on his friend, YOH kind of became just another guy, but his new partnership with Lio has reminded a lot of fans, not least of which being me, that he's a supremely talented tag team specialist.
On the other side we have Catch 22, the team that I thought had the best Super Junior Tag League after having incredible bouts against SAUCEHEARTS (Alex Zayne & El Lindaman), LIJ (BUSHI & Titan), Kevin Knight & KUSHIDA, and most notably for this blog, against Lio Rush and YOH, whom they beat on the first night of the tournament. Most fans will know TJP as he has wrestled everywhere except for maybe the Moon, but maybe won't know his partner Francesco Akira, who came up on my radar in 2021 when he was my favorite wrestler in All Japan's Junior division. He might speak like a heel, but he's as white meat babyface as it comes. Think of him like Robbie Eagles except he's Italian and a little smaller.
Expect this match to be filled to the brim with leaps, dives, lucha, and high speed. It's a coin flip as to who will win in the end, but I'm going to go with momentum and say that Lio Rush and YOH will win in the end and YOH will become the eighth wrestler in New Japan history to reach six reigns with the belts and tying legends Jushin "Thunder" Liger, Prince "Finn Balor" Devitt, and Yoshinobu Kanemaru.
Prediction: CHAOS (Lio Rush & YOH)
I was WRONG (0-1)
IWGP WOMEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP
KAIRI (c) vs. Tam Nakano
Moving on, we have one of the most talked about matches of the entire night, but not for the match itself. KAIRI will attempt to defend her IWGP Women's Championship for the first time as she takes on one of Stardom's brightest stars, the leader of Cosmic Angels, Tam Nakano. This will surely be another fantastic match, as both competitors are among the best in entire business today, and for the first ever women's singles match in Wrestle Kingdom history, and every previous January 4th Tokyo Dome show, they couldn't have done much better than go with these two.
KAIRI will be familiar to most fans as she spent a number of years with WWE, where she was a former NXT Women's Champion and one half of the WWE Women's Tag Team Champions alongside Asuka. She's known for being one of the hardest hitters in all of women's wrestling, let alone Joshi, as well as having the best elbow drop in the sport's history. She returned to Stardom, New Japan's sister company in early 2022, and had some excellent matches against some of Stardom's best including Starlight Kid, Mayu Iwatani, and most recently, Utami Hayashishita.
If she hopes to retain her newly won IWGP Women's Title, she'll have to do so against a woman who has steadily developed into a world class competitor in her own right. Tam Nakano started in Stardom around the time KAIRI left in 2016/17, and she's built herself up as one of the faces of the promotion. She's a leader of what's become the largest faction in Stardom, Cosmic Angels. She's fought, and beat, practically everyone on the roster. And in 2021, she had one of the greatest Wonder of Stardom Championship reigns, the same belt KAIRI made prominent during. her run. And while KAIRI has her strikes and elbow drop, Tam Nakano has a great grasp of grappling and kicks that will make her a tough out for KAIRI.
Nevertheless, I see this match as KAIRI's to lose. She's right at the start of her reign as IWGP Women's Champion, a title that just got introduced in November, so I can't see her losing this. Not only does she deserve to have a long and distinguished reign, but she should be the woman to defend the belt against Sasha Banks, who will reportedly be at Wrestle Kingdom. If New Japan is serious about making this belt a distinguished one, as well as helping Stardom grow, then that's the match I'd do. And besides, Tam Nakano should set her sights on an even greater prize, the World of Stardom Championship.
I was RIGHT (1-1)
IWGP TAG TEAM CHAMPIONSHIPS
FTR (Cash Wheeler & Dax Harwood) (c) vs. Bishamon (Hirooki Goto & Yoshi-Hashi)
In my experience as a New Japan fan, the IWGP Tag Team Championship match has historically been one of the lesser matches on most Wrestle Kingdom cards. Sure, we've had some exceptions, like when Hirooki Goto and Katsuyori Shibata beat the Good Brothers in 2016 or last year's affair between Bishamon and Danergous Tekkers, but most other years have had passable clashes at best, and forgettable ones at worst.
Luckily, this year's IWGP Tag Team title match appears on the surface to be a great match. Why is that exactly? Well, just look at who we're dealing with here. Bishamon have been one of the most reliably good heavyweight tag teams in New Japan over the years. Hirooki Goto and Yoshi-Hashi made history a couple months ago when they became only the fifth tag team in New Japan history to win the World Tag League two years in a row. These two have the massive experience edge when it comes to working the Tokyo Dome, as Goto has wrestled in every single Wrestle Kingdom since Wrestle Kingdom 2, and Yoshi-Hashi has wrestled in several shows as well.
Nevertheless, Bishamon will have a tough challenge ahead, as they'll attempt to take the IWGP Tag Team Championships from the best tag team in the entire world, FTR. Dax and Cash have been New Japan's heavyweight tag champs ever since June 26th, when they beat United Empire's Great-O-Khan and Jeff Cobb, and Roppongi Vice's Rocky Romero and Trent Beretta at Forbidden Door. They've since successfully defended the straps against Aussie Open and Khan and Cobb. They're not only a pair of technical wizards in the ring, they might have the best synergy wrestling in the world today.
The one thing that gives Bishamon a chance to win this match is that FTR, no matter how amazing they are, have been on a wild losing streak recently. It all started on December 7th, when they lost a match for the AEW Tag Team Championships against The Acclaimed. Then it got worse when they finally fell to the Briscoe Brothers on December 10th, and subsequently lost their Ring of Honor Tag belts. They reached three loses in a row on December 21st with an upset loss to The Gunns. And finally, they notched their fourth consecutive loss on December 28th when they lost their AAA Tag Team titles to Dragon Lee and Dralistico. It's not been since November 2019 since they've lost more than four matches in a row, so a fifth loss feels inconceivable.
So against my better judgement, I think that FTR will survive to hold gold another day after they beat Bishamon in what will end up being a return to normalcy for the best tag team in the world.
Prediction: FTR (Cash Wheeler & Dax Harwood)
I was WRONG (1-2)
IWGP WORLD TELEVISION CHAMPIONSHIP TOURNAMENT FINAL
Ren Narita vs. Zack Sabre Jr.
While the belt might look putrid and the need for another singles belt is almost laughable at this point, I absolutely love that New Japan is putting on this match. Here we have two of the best pure grapplers in the sport, Zack Sabre Jr. and Ren Narita. There's no doubt that no matter what the result of this match will be, the action in this match will be unlike any other on this card.
Zack Sabre Jr. has long been one of the most celebrated figures in the sport of wrestling, but he saw his stock rise up exponentially when he joined the Suzuki-gun faction back in March 2017. In the six year since that move, he's won the IWGP Tag Team titles three times, all with Taichi in Dangerous Tekkers, and the New Japan Cup in 2018 and 2022. He's competed for most of the highest prizes in NJPW, but he's yet to earn singles gold.
On the other side we have Ren Narita, a man who might not be that well known to casual fans on NJPW. He actually just came back from his lengthy learning excursion over in Los Angeles where he trained under the legend himself, Katsuyori Shibata. Nicknamed the "Son of Strong Style", Narita has pretty much become the 2020's version of Shibata, right down to the all-black trunks and no-frills entrance. It's so nice to have a young wrestler in New Japan continue the style made famous by guys like Shibata and Tomohiro Ishii, so he's quickly become one of my favorites in the promotion.
While I'd love to see Narita come out of the Dome with a massive upset over the much more experienced ZSJ, I don't think that it's time yet to give him some gold. Maybe he can win this belt later this year, but the first champion for this new title should be awarded to the single best technician on the planet, Zack Sabre Jr.
Prediction: Zack Sabre Jr.
I was RIGHT (2-2)
NEVER OPENWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP
Karl Anderson (c) vs. Tama Tonga
For the first time in Wrestle Kingdom history, a wrestler signed to WWE will defend his belt at the biggest party of the New Year. Karl Anderson, one quarter of The OC stable along with AJ Styles, Luke Gallows, and Mia Yim, will defend his NEVER Openweight Championship against the now total babyface and hero to New Japan fans everywhere, Tama Tonga. And while most people are commenting on the sheer insanity of seeing this match even happen, I'd like to highlight one quick thing before I make my prediction.
2023 marks 10 years of the creation of one of the most important factions in pro wrestling history, the BULLET CLUB. Since 2013, the group has dominated over most of the pro wrestling landscape, and helped catapult New Japan to a level of popularity it never had before in the United States. Who can remember when Hot Topic started selling Biz Cliz shirts at all their stores? I bring this up because, both Karl Anderson and Tama Tonga have something in common, they were both founding members of the BULLET CLUB 10 years ago. Anderson was an up and coming gaijin wrestler, much like the crew's first leader Prince Devitt. And Tama was the group's first rookie.
Over their time together in the BC, both Anderson and Tonga developed into exceptional wrestlers. Both of them had success in singles action, however they both earned their keep within the BULLET CLUB as tag team wrestlers. Anderson was a three-time IWGP Tag Team Champ with the group along with Gallows while Tama was a seven-time champ with brother Tanga Loa, which is actually a record for a tag team.
Never the less, it seems that no "forbidden door" could stop destiny from making this match. And while there's no doubt that Tama Tonga will win this match and become the new NEVER Openweight Champion, I for one am optimistic that this will be a solid match.
Prediction: Tama Tonga
I was RIGHT (3-2)
KEIJI MUTO'S FINAL NJPW MATCH
Hiroshi Tanahashi, Keiji Muto, & Shota Umino vs. Los Ingobernables de Japon (BUSHI, SANADA, & Tetsuya Naito)
While most of the major matches on this card on January 4th will be fought for titles, there will be two special multi-man bouts contested that celebrate the legacy of New Japan Pro Wrestling. As mentioned in my introduction, the first of these will see Minoru Suzuki team with Tatsumi Fujinami and Tiger Mask against Satoshi Kojima, Togi Makabe, and Yuji Nagata in a match to honor the late, great founder of New Japan, Antonio Inoki, who sadly passed away last year.
The other one of these matches will see Keiji Muto, one of the most celebrated Japanese wrestlers of all time, and vessel to the demonic Great Muta, team up with my favorite wrestler of all time Hiroshi Tanahashi and the wunderkind Shota Umino in what will be Muto's final match in a New Japan ring. The trio with the honor to see the former IWGP, GHC, and Triple Crown Champion out of the promotion he began his career at are LIJ's BUSHI, SANADA, and Tetsuya Naito.
There's not doubt in my mind that Muto's team will win here. LIJ don't need to rub of beating Muto, and who am I kidding? When was the last time Muto lost two matches in a row. All jokes aside, I think watching Muto pin BUSHI (probably) after hitting one more Shining Wizard would be a suitable end for one of the greatest to ever do it.
Prediction: Hiroshi Tanahashi, Keiji Muto, & Shota Umino
I was RIGHT (4-2)
IWGP JUNIOR HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP
Taiji Ishimori (c) vs. El Desperado vs. Hiromu Takahashi vs. Master Wato
I can't think of a better match to follow up what will surely be an emotional retirement match than this fatal-four-way clash for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship. All four of the guys in this give something unique to this clash. The champion, Taiji Ishimori, brings the power, both as the reigning IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, but as arguably the strongest competitor in this contest. He's a predator who knows how to pick apart any opponent at will, meaning he'll be a tough guy to beat.
Next up we have Hiromu Takahashi, the de facto ace of New Japan's Junior Heavyweight division. He's the most decorated player in this match, as he's a four time Junior champion and the only wrestler in history to win the Best of the Super Juniors tournament three times in a row, but he hasn't held the top prize in the division in two years. He not only brings the accolades, but an element of insanity to the match.
Moving on we have Master Wato, who is not only the youngest and most inexperienced competitor in this match, but he's the one with arguably the most positive momentum coming into 1/4. He actually beat Taiji Ishimori in a stunning upset back in October, and he got the winning fall in the acclaimed tag team match which featured all the guys in this match late last year. If he wins, it'll be because of this momentum. And on a side note, it would be nice to see a totally new guy win the belt.
And last but not least, we have my favorite to win this match, albeit because he's my favorite in this field, El Desperado. The two-time IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion had an excellent 2022, just as he did in 2021, but he will have to continue his career starting in 2023 without the support of his Suzuki-gun friends, as the faction ended in December. If he wants to prove that he's the top dog in this division in this "Post Suzuki-gun" era, there's no better way to do so than with a win here.
Call it favoritism or picking a name from the hat, but I think that Despy will stake his claim as the true Junior ace when he beats Ishimori, Takahashi, and Wato to start his third reign with the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship.
Prediction: El Desperado
I was WRONG (4-3)
IWGP UNITED STATES CHAMPIONSHIP
Will Ospreay (c) vs. Kenny Omega
The last time a Wrestle Kingdom match was as highly anticipated as this one happened back in 2017 when Chris Jericho took on Kenny Omega at Wrestle Kingdom 12 in a match that was so important it directly helped spark the idea for what we now call All Elite Wrestling. And while I'm confident that this match won't be integral in the creation of the second-largest wrestling company in the world, I do think that Kenny Omega's return bout against Will Ospreay for the IWGP United States Championship will certainly bring more eyes to New Japan, thus helping the promotion regain some lost ground in foreign markets.
Kenny Omega may have started his career in DDT, but it was in New Japan where he became one of the biggest stars in all of wrestling. His series of matches with guys like KUSHIDA, Kazuchika Okada, Tomohiro Ishii, and Hiroshi Tanahashi were filled to the brim with more classics than I can count, and the time he served as leader of BULLET CLUB not only helped the faction reach heights of popularity no other Japanese faction had ever sniffed, but also help make NJPW their primary promotion in place of WWE.
After Omega left NJPW in 2019 to help start AEW, Will Ospreay, along with Jay White, stepped into the role of the next top gaijin performers of the company. Yet while White has spent long stints working in the states since then, Ospreay has more or less stayed in Japan, especially during the height of the pandemic. He was rewarded for his loyalty with a number of accolades, including the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship and more recently the IWGP United States Championship. Ospreay has responded in turn by putting on an almost inconceivable number of classic matches, en route to leading the way as my in-ring wrestler of the year by a country mile.
Picking a winner for this match is a coin flip for me, but because Ospreay doesn't seem to be going anywhere at this time, I can't see him losing the title to Omega. If he does end up retaining the title, Ospreay will tie Omega and Jon Moxley for the most successful defenses in a single reign with five and extend his run to the second longest reign in the belt's history. I think it'll be close, but he will beat the "Best Bout Machine" in a certified banger.
Prediction: Will Ospreay
I was WRONG (4-4)
IWGP WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP
Jay White (c) vs. Kazuchika Okada
Wrestle Kingdom 17 will conclude with a main event of the ages as the leader of BULLET CLUB and reigning IWGP World Heavyweight Champion, Jay White, will defend his title against the true king of pro wrestling and the best wrestler of God's green Earth, Kazuchika Okada. Okada earned his opportunity to compete in this year's main event after he beat Will Ospreay to win the 2022 G1 Climax. The 35-year-old, who donned robes all throughout 2022 to honor the late, great Antonio Inoki, is no stranger to the bright lights of the Big Egg as this year's Wrestle Kingdom will be the 11th time Okada has main event this annual event.
That's not to say Jay White is doomed to be dominated by the "Rainmaker". Aside from being one of the best members BULLET CLUB has ever had, White is an incredible wrestler. And this might surprise some of you, but the 30-year-old White has had Okada's number. In the five singles matches they've had since 2018, White sports a 4-1 record. However, I'm positive that Okada will everything he can in his soul to ensure that White won't bump that record up to 5-1.
If you ask me, Kazuchika Okada is destined to win back his IWGP World Heavyweight Championship, thus becoming a seven time world champion and the first to ever hold the new belt. And then he'll conclude his second consecutive Wrestle Kingdom with the microphone in his hands, bidding the New Japan fans a good night.
Prediction: Kazuchika Okada
I was RIGHT (5-4)
Featured Image Credit - NJPW
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