Vundacast's Top Ten NJPW Matches of 2019-2020
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I know we're a little bit late in getting this up but life has been kinda crazy lately--lots happening in all our worlds lately, especially mine. I also wanted to try something a little different: I know traditionally these kinds of lists tend to be confined to a single calendar year but I feel like it splits things up a little awkwardly when each calendar year begins with Wrestle Kingdom which is, much like WrestleMania, essentially NJPW's season finale. So I thought I would make my list with that in mind: spanning from January 5th, 2019 (the day after Wrestle Kingdom 13) to January 5th, 2020 (day two of Wrestle Kingdom 14). It feels so much more appropriate to the way the NJPW calendar is structured instead of discussing Wrestle Kingdom 13 matches when Wrestle Kingdom 14 has already happened and that's what the wrestling world is more focused on. So...without further ado...
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10. Kazuchika Okada (c) vs. Kota Ibushi -- IWGP Heavyweight Championship -- Wrestle Kingdom 14 -- ★★★★¾
I guess I should preface this because most people liked this match WAY (WAY) more than I did and I acknowledge that this is largely because I want different things out of wrestling than a lot of other people do. If you care primarily about hard-hitting, visually impressive pure wrestling then this was probably like a 7-star match for you and I don't want to yuck anybody's yum so I'll just agree to disagree. (Can you tell I wrote this on a different day than #4? Must have been in a bad mood that day. :X) For me, it was fun and impressive to watch but not very much of it moved me and I felt like there were just a small handful of inconsistencies that took me out of the moment, even if only for a split second. I didn't see or feel that much of a coherent narrative or psychology--at least not enough to set it apart from most other NJPW main event style matches. It was a very "King of Sports" match and that's a huge part of what NJPW is all about so it's probably best not to complain too much about it (at least not any more than I already do) when I still thoroughly enjoyed the match.
For what it was, this was excellent. There were some very impressive moments and sequences--Ibushi's early Golden Triangle and Last Ride which were both beautiful, the dramatic apron sequence ending with an Okada tombstone and Ibushi barely beating the 20 count, Ibushi catching Okada's top rope dropkick into a Last Ride--but I felt like they were somewhat undercut by no-selling and pacing issues. I think it was mostly because of the ending which felt too fast-paced considering what preceded it. The match gets really good when Okada flips Ibushi's switch with an uppercut, especially when Ibushi just starts potatoing Okada when he's down drawing boos from the crowd. That's incredibly compelling. Everything from that point up to and including Okada kicking out of Bomaye at 1 was excellent but that moment should have been given more time and weight. Okada just kicked out of Bomaye at 1, that needs some storytelling attached to it--some reaction shots by both guys--but Ibushi follows it up immediately with a Bomaye to the back of the head and a nearfall without reacting at all. Yeah, it's smart (and logical) to stay on top of your opponent so it's hard for me to complain too much about it but kicking out at 1 is a moment--it's a message to your opponent: I am not even close to done yet. The gravity of that moment shouldn't be glossed over, in my opinion. It's a minor complaint but it could have added a lot to the match.
Ibushi follows up with a headkick and a Kamigoye and Okada, somewhat predictably, kicks out--but it's still a great moment and I love Ibushi setting up for another Kamigoye but Okada exploding out with a dropkick. This is followed by another sequence that kinda took me out of the moment: both guys are on the ground, barely anything left, they get up to their knees for a strike battle, rise to their feet, Okada hits several hard forearm shots and then Ibushi goes off on his lightning quick flurry of palm strikes punctuated with the spin kick and like...should he really be moving like that at this stage of the match? After the slow-rising knees-to-feet strike battle? That's the "both men are running on fumes" moment of a NJPW main event style match and suddenly Ibushi is back at full speed again. Not my favorite.
After a nice top rope sequence ending with Ibushi catching Okada's dropkick in a Last Ride (and in the interest of saying something positive, let me reiterate: god DAMN that was pretty), Ibushi goes for Phoenix Splash and Okada moves, hits a spinning Rainmaker, hits a full Rainmaker, folds Ibushi up in a matchbook cover and Ibushi kicks out. That was a hell of a moment (that's a lot to kick out of, to be honest, but hell, I popped for it) but then Okada hits two more short-arm Rainmakers and when he goes for the full version, Ibushi ducks and, once again at full speed, hits a head kick and a V-trigger and that's just a bit over the top for me--like at what point does Ibushi get tired and beaten enough to stop being able to go full speed? Finally Ibushi goes for Kamigoye but gets caught in a brand new move (I loved that Okada had to pull out something new to seal this match, btw), a sort of sit-out tombstone, followed by a Rainmaker for the win.
Yeah, honestly, this match was really, really, really good and if it hadn't gotten lost in its own hubris, it would probably be higher on this list. The fact that it still made the list at all is a testament to just how good it was (and how good it could have been). (Also I forgot to say this earlier but shoutout to Okada's AMAZING Rainmaker entrance cuz holy sh*t that was glorious.)
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9. Kazuchika Okada vs. SANADA -- New Japan Cup -- ★★★★★
The year-plus saga of Okada and SANADA has been, for my money, one of the most compelling stories in NJPW of 2019 and this is an exemplary entry in the series. The story is simple but elegant: SANADA is one of the most complete talents in NJPW but has yet to put together all the tools he possesses with the intangibles necessary to truly break out and become a star and the biggest barometer has been his performances against Okada--every time they face off he gets closer and closer to beating him. This match, appropriately, is the closest SANADA ever comes without beating him (more on that later).
The chemistry between these two is obvious from the opening bell as well. Both men are such complete, well-rounded competitors--both phenomenal grapplers, both possessing elite speed and quickness as well as exceptional strength (SANADA holding a small edge in speed/quickness and Okada in strength) and they just fit together like two puzzle pieces. Both wisely play to their strengths--SANADA starts out methodically using his phenomenal mat skills but Okada is just as good at mat wrestling and stronger so he gains an advantage. SANADA realizes this and tries to quicken the pace which works mostly to his advantage but Okada has plenty of speed and quickness to spare and is able to keep pace with SANADA to gain the advantage once again, at which point he slows things down again, knowing he can't keep up with SANADA for too long at this fast pace. Every time SANADA fights back, he looks to quicken the pace as much as he can while Okada fights to slow things down but once SANADA has broken Okada's advantage, he does his best to keep the pace up. That's largely the story of this match and it's not only logical but a lot of fun to watch.
Midway through the match, the two men meet in the middle for a strike battle which seems like a bad idea for SANADA and Okada appears to gain the advantage until SANADA unleashes a devastating uppercut that floors Okada, a perfect little nod to the idea that SANADA, while not quite as powerful as Okada, is actually deceptively strong. The rest of the match is full of excellent drama and beautiful back-and-forth. When SANADA reverses Okada's tombstone into one of his own, you really start getting the sense for perhaps the first time ever that SANADA really is on the same level as Okada or at least very close. He's |this| close to hitting the Muto moonsault and winning the match but Okada just barely gets the knees up, leading to a finish full of amazing counters and high drama that sees SANADA finally cinch in Skull End. SANADA is so close to victory he can smell it and so can the crowd. SANADA tries to seize the moment by releasing Skull End and going for a pin and Okada BARELY rolls out of the cover. SANADA goes for the moonsault again and Okada BARELY rolls out of the way. Both men struggle to their feet simultaneously. The two trade moves and SANADA hits a TKO for a 2.99. SANADA tries to go for another moonsault but Okada clings desperately to his foot, knowing that will be it for him. SANADA moonsaults into Skull End instead but Okada reverses it into a tombstone. Okada goes for Rainmaker but SANADA fights out, goes for Skull End, Okada reverses into a spinning lariat and finally hits Rainmaker for the win. WHEW! Bravo.
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8. Jon Moxley vs. Tomohiro Ishii -- G1 Climax 29 -- ★★★★★
The first moment these men step in the ring together sets the tone for everything else here, which is phenomenal: Ishii immediately and aggressively gets right up in Moxley's face and when the bell rings the two waste no time in battering each other. Moxley almost immediately taking Ishii to the outside after Ishii stated prior to the match that he wanted to have a death match with Moxley is also excellent although the claustrophobic setup of the venue isn't very conducive to this so it does come off a little half-hearted and contrived. Once the match returns to the ring, Moxley takes a somewhat unusual approach, grounding Ishii with mat wrestling for a minute before the two trade some stiff strikes. Ishii gets the better of that exchange, taunting Moxley and then taking the match back to the outside where Moxley regains the advantage during a really fun chair duel (which is good storytelling; Ishii is still bent on making this a "death match" but Moxley obviously should logically have the advantage on the outside).
Moxley brings out a table and there's a phenomenal sequence of teased table spots before the match moves away from the table (always good psychology to let the crowd forget about Chekhov's table for a while before the table spot). The two trade some brutal chair shots and Red Shoes lets it go and then finally Ishii sets up Moxley on the table and splashes him from the top rope--an incredibly uncharacteristic move for Ishii which makes for an amazing moment. Back in the ring, the two go back and forth with some brilliant reversals and some brutal tit-for-tat--the sequence of both men reversing each other's sliding lariats was particularly entertaining and the headbutt battle was absolutely sickening. By the end these two are just murdering each other and it is glorious. Moxley hits the Regal Knee and Ishii barely kicks outs. Moxley hits Death Rider and Ishii barely kicks out. Finally, Moxley realizes he needs to destroy this man to beat him so he pulls the knee pad down for an exposed Regal Knee and hits a high angle Death Rider for the win.
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7. Chris Jericho vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi -- Wrestle Kingdom 14 -- ★★★★★
This match is an absolute clinic and the perfect match for these two guys to have on this stage. The beauty of it is in the simplicity. It's not flashy like so many other NJPW matches--in fact, it's closer to the kind of 80s NWA style that Cody Rhodes has been doing masterfully in AEW: no bells and whistles, no frills, no flips (ok one flip, technically), just pitch perfect old-school-meets-new-school wrestling that is heavy on drama and beautifully-executed basic, fundamental wrestling. The extent of what these two guys are able to put together with such simple ingredients is breathtaking. I mean, just listen to the Tokyo Dome by the end of this match. They're losing their minds over this basic-ass match. That is such a huge testament to both the skills and the wrestling IQ and instincts of both Jericho and Tanahashi. This absolutely belongs in the conversation of the best matches of both men's respective careers. Also: that f*cking opening video package was brilliant and I gotta give a shoutout to Jericho for "F*CKAHASHI." We don't deserve this man. Frankly, we don't deserve either of these men.
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I've always had a little bit of a love/hate relationship with these bull vs. bull hossfests in NJPW because as much as I love a good hossfest, the ones in NJPW can get a little overblown at times for my tastes, becoming a little too choreographed and a little too reliant on no-selling. But when they're done right, they are absolutely phenomenal. It helps when Okada is involved because his understanding of psychology and drama and everything that goes into a good wrestling match is so sophisticated and all that comes through here. From the outset of the match where both men set the tone by purposely provoking each other and testing each other's mettle with some heavy lumber (that sequence of chops by Ishii is nasty, leaving Okada's chest battered and bruised), this match is so well-orchestrated. It kicks into a different gear when both men step into each other's forearms followed by a sequence of rapid-fire reversals midway through the match that gives way to a brutal tit-for-tat with both men absolutely punishing each other, throwing everything they can at each other, culminating with a brilliant extended sequence to finish the match involving countless amazing counters and reversals by both men. Just a symphony of brutality and fighting spirit and amazing chain wrestling.
|image courtesy of FanSided.com|
This, for my money, was one of the best feuds in all of wrestling in 2019. Throughout the Destruction tour, White and Naito were engaged in this battle of mind games that, to me at least, was very reminiscent of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight and specifically the relationship between Christian Bale's Batman and Heath Ledger's Joker. Just the way both guys were talking about how much fun they were having "playing" with each other and especially the fact that Jay White started telling Naito "you're my Destino," echoing Ledger's "destined to do this forever" line.
The match definitely echoes and follows through on so much of the build. I especially loved the callbacks to Jay trying to force Naito's eye open earlier in the tour, with Naito first getting his revenge spot and then Jay doing it again later, yelling in Naito's face "Can you see?!" This asshole. At one point he also fish hooks the corners of Naito's mouth, yelling "Show them the smile!" ("Let's put a smile on that face!") and at another point he starts taunting Naito and letting him recover, yelling "Come on, Naito! Where's that life, Naito?!" ("HIT ME!") and maybe I'm reading too far into this but the parallels with Heath's Joker, for me, are impossible to ignore.
Furthermore, the chemistry between these two in the ring is unbelievable as they chain reversals and counters so quickly and fluidly it's hard to keep up. It's almost as though this connection they've been sharing throughout the Destruction tour is even deeper than it seems, like they're yin and yang to each other, predicting what the other will do even before he does it. And the incredible drama of some of these sequences--like the one on the apron that ends with Jay powerbombing Naito or the one where Gedo interferes only to be caught with a kick as part of a beautiful tornado DDT by Naito--will have you on the edge of your seat. Jay White picking up the victory was definitely unexpected considering Naito's quest for double gold had been going on for some time but it was a good call to put the belt on the guy who's likely going to be your top heel for years to come. Not to mention it led to the double gold dash at Wrestle Kingdom which gave us three match of the year candidates, including the rematch of this match...
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This match is so good, in large part because it not only works as a logical progression from their previous match but also because of one significant departure from that match: this is a different Tetsuya Naito. I absolutely loved the transformation of Naito in both his matches at Wrestle Kingdom 14 and throughout the Road to Tokyo Dome tour. Absent is the lovable jokester asshole we all know and love--Naito at Wrestle Kingdom 14 is all business. Look at his face in the moments before the bell of both matches and even during those matches. He has never been so focused. This means everything to him. He's been fighting his entire career to prove he can be The Man and these two nights are the culmination of all of it.
His focus shows not only in his body language but his preparation. This match is such a great sequel to its predecessor because both men know each other even better now but also because Naito appears to have pretty clearly out-prepared Jay White for this match. His strategy at the beginning is pitch perfect--using Gedo to bait Jay in, using mind games to force him into mistakes, knowing what to expect and when--but Jay is able to equalize by distracting the referee long enough for Gedo to smash Naito's knee with a chair--once again using his shrewdness and opportunism to tip the match in his favor. Naito sells the knee beautifully, too, especially on the "botched" tornado DDT spot.
I've read a lot of nonsense on the interwebs about this match being "slow" and "boring" and I swear to god NJPW (especially the junior heavyweight division) has given wrestling fans ADD and it's infuriating. Like god forbid wrestlers don't spend 20-30 minutes just spamming moves on each other and shrugging everything off because "workrate" or whatever. This match is a prime example of that. It's not paced like freaking Rise of Skywalker and it makes everything so much more meaningful to the point where I was biting down hard on the most obvious nearfalls ever. This match was brilliant and I will fight anyone who disagrees. (Yeah, I was definitely in a bad mood that day. Possibly because of Star Wars? Sorry...)
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First of all, everything before the bell is great. Jay White brings out all of Bullet Club (including KENTA, who had just joined that same night) to the ring, knowing he's right on the doorstep of winning the G1 and not wanting to take any chances but Red Shoes Umino is having none of it and wisely sends them all to the back. It seems gratuitous but it makes a lot of sense and leads to BC being hoist by their own petard when Red Shoes catches Gedo interfering early on and, already fed up with their nonsense, sends him to the back as well. This is so important for Jay White's character because it's the first time since he and Gedo joined BC that we've really gotten a chance to see what Jay White is capable of all on his own--i.e. win or lose, we learn something about the Jay White character in this match and that's huge.
Our first glimpse of this is telling as Jay White gains the advantage by playing to his greatest strengths--picking his spots and exploiting weakness--by cutting off the triangle moonsault and viciously attacking Ibushi's injured ankle--the same ankle he and Gedo aggravated the day before. That's largely the story of this match--Jay White knows his best chance of winning is taking out Ibushi's injured leg and Ibushi knows he'll lose if Jay succeeds with this strategy. It's incredibly simple but clear, evocative, and compelling as hell. The drama in this match is so intense and Jay White deserves a lot of credit--his feel for the rise and fall of the drama in his matches is uncanny and he doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves for that. When he pieces together these amazing chains of reversals, it's not just the wrestling that's impressive, it's that he and his opponents sense the right time for those dramatic moments.
Here the drama reaches a fever pitch when Jay pushes Ibushi into Red Shoes and Gedo comes out to help Jay smash Ibushi's ankle with a chair but somehow Ibushi is able to fire up a comeback. Jay is desperately fighting for his life sensing Ibushi could be on the verge of victory but he makes a crucial error: he slaps Ibushi across the face, flipping the switch and sending him to that place. Ibushi fires up and goes into murder mode. Jay White--who I still insist is a total masochist and loves the pain but I digress--actually gets up and challenges Ibushi but gets DROPPED. Jay fights back with a dragon screw leg whip but Ibushi hits the Last Ride and Jay BARELY gets the shoulder up which is just beautiful. Ibushi goes for Bomaye but Jay pancakes out of it and grins. Ibushi tries to attack but Jay pulls Red Shoes in, distracting him as Gedo attempts to interfere but catches a roundhouse to the face. Jay uses the distraction to hit a nasty sleeper suplex but Ibushi gets to his feet and hits a Bomaye to the back of Jay's head. Rocky Romero climbs out from the announce table to dispense with Gedo and Ibushi struggles to his feet and hits another Bomaye straight to the face but Jay once again BARELY kicks out of the matchbook cover. Ibushi sets up for Kamigoye but Jay goes after the leg. Ibushi fights him off but Jay reverses another Kamigoye into Bladerunner. Jay is too out of it to go for the cover right away so he goes for a cross-arm brainbuster but Ibushi headbutts out of it, hits a straight-jacket suplex, maintains wrist control, goes for Kamigoye but Jay reverses it into a snap sleeper suplex, then another, then the cross-arm brainbuster, THEN tries to follow up with Bladerunner but Ibushi knees him in the face, tries for Kamigoye, Jay tries to reverse it into Bladerunner but Ibushi counters out into a standing Kamigoye, drags Jay up, FINALLY hits Kamigoye AND JAY WHITE BY GOD KICKS OUT AT TWO. I ABSOLUTELY CANNOT WITH THIS MATCH. The crowd is losing their SH*T. Ibushi doesn't hesitate--he hits one more Kamigoye for good measure and gets the pinfall. Jesus I'm, like, sweating. Wow. Unbelievable performance by both men and Jay White even gets to look as strong as he ever has in defeat. Instant classic.
|image courtesy of FanSided.com|
This couldn't be a more perfect progression from the match these two had in the finals of the New Japan Cup--and really, to all the matches between these two. The incredible chemistry these two have is once again obvious from the get-go but even more so this time--as it should be; they know each other even better than the last time they faced each other. That's really the story of this match. Back and forth, counter for counter, these two know each other so well and have so much history that they often know what the other is going to do before he does it. They run each other so ragged that halfway through the match, they're both scraping and clawing just to stay in this--and that's when pride kicks in.
During a strike battle in the middle of the ring, SANADA absolutely blasts Okada with three vicious uppercuts--the same uppercut that put Okada on the mat in the NJC final--but Okada refuses to go down, only falling to one knee. From there SANADA begins to take control and it's beginning to become clear that SANADA is once again just an inch better than he was last time these two met. He goes for the Muto moonsault but Okada moves--this time, however, SANADA lands on his feet, catching Okada in Skull End but Okada reverses into a short Rainmaker. Okada goes for a Rainmaker but SANADA knows it's coming and hits one of his own. SANADA catches Okada in Skull End again and clasps the legs this time. Okada fights tooth and nail to power out but SANADA is absolutely relentless.
As Okada struggles and screams, the three minute call sounds over the PA. This one is going down to the wire. Okada starts to go limp. Kevin Kelly says SANADA is closer to beating Okada than he's ever been. SANADA releases the hold and instead of just trying to pin him right out of Skull End, this time he goes straight for the Muto moonsault but Okada still barely gets the knees up. 90 seconds left. 60 seconds. Chain reversals, Okada goes for Rainmaker but SANADA reverses it into a TKO. 30 seconds. SANADA hits a Muto moonsault to Okada's back. 20 seconds. SANADA hits a second Muto moonsault. One...Two...THREE!!! SANADA HAS DONE IT! Wow. Incredible drama, incredible wrestling, incredible everything. Just absolutely brilliant. This 1000% would have been match of the year any other year.
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I don't think I can do any better than what I wrote in my review of this for FightBoothPW (plug) so I'll just copy and paste that here (with a few minor edits):
This was an out-of-body experience. Hands down one of the greatest wrestling matches I’ve ever seen in my life. The journey it takes you on and the story it tells, so full of history and drama and emotion, is so beautiful. It starts with Naito (who is once again all business) breaking tendency and starting out tentative—perhaps a mind game, perhaps merely a strategy—so Okada breaks tendency in kind, catching Naito off guard by quickening the pace (quickness and speed is usually Naito's game while Okada's is slow and methodical) to gain control so he can then slow things down. Naito sees what’s happening and abandons the methodical approach to quicken the pace again bringing the advantage back to him. That’s largely how the match plays out as a whole: Both guys seem very cognizant that they cannot afford to get too far in a hole to where they have to fight from behind and are desperate to break any momentum the other man starts to build which is just excellent storytelling.Then, about halfway through the match, Okada starts seeing his title reign flashing before his eyes and goes after Naito’s knee. This is significant. Okada is not really a guy who goes after an injury very often, especially not this tenaciously. As a result, you get a sense that at this point in the match he is already beginning to sense that this is a different Tetsuya Naito and he needs to do whatever it takes to hold onto his title. The announce team, meanwhile, does an incredible job of laying out the stakes for Naito: this match is all about whether or not he believes in himself; when the moment of truth arrives, will he hesitate (as he did at WK12), or will he act swiftly and confidently?By the end of the match, Naito is desperately summoning every scrap of confidence he can to match Okada’s towering bravado. Both men are fighting like their careers are on the line because, in some important way, they are—especially for Naito. The drama is at a fever pitch. Naito goes for Destino but Okada reverses it into a tombstone and hits Rainmaker and Naito barely kicks out. Okada tries to finish Naito off but Naito spits in his face—more defiant than ever after kicking out of one of wrestling's most protected finishers—and Okada just destroys Naito’s leg. It’s so out of character and so antithetical to the spirit of this epic battle that the crowd actually boos Okada which never happens. Naito finally hits Destino but there’s a slight hesitation—not due to confidence but due to the leg injury—and Okada kicks out. Naito goes up top for the Stardust Press and the announce team is begging him not to do it (going for this move and missing it is a big part of what cost him the match at WK12) but the key difference this time is that there’s no hesitation in Naito. He is swift and confident and he hits it but Okada kicks out at the very last moment. Okada blocks another Destino but Naito immediately (again with zero hesitation) hits him with Valencia and then nails Destino for the win.What else can I say about this? A legendary performance by two all-time greats with an endlessly captivating story that leads to the perfect ending that is not only incredibly dramatic but brings the entire story full circle. Wrestling perfection.And as if that weren’t enough, KENTA—this unbelievable asshole—interrupts Naito’s celebration at the end with a GTS, unceremoniously and unambiguously declaring his intentions to be Naito’s first challenger. ::chef kiss:: C’est magnifique!