10 Best New Japan Pro Wrestling Matches Of 2017

Not just Omega and Okada (but, admittedly, a fair amount of Omega and Okada)...

2017 has been a banner year for excellent wrestling matches, and the tone was set immediately by New Japan Pro Wrestling.

On January 4, Wrestle Kingdom 11 delivered four genuine Match of the Year contenders right off the bat. Since then, NJPW hasn't just maintained its status as the world's best promotion in terms of sheer match quality - it's extended it.

This excellence was maintained through shows such as the explosive Sakura Genesis and epic Dominion, while Best of the Super Juniors featured awesome performances from the likes of Will Ospreay, KUSHIDA, Ricochet, and Marty Scurll.

August brought more unbelievable matches courtesy of the hotly-anticipated G1 Climax, a tournament later cited by Dave Meltzer as the best in New Japan history.

New Japan's story this year hasn't just been about in-ring brilliance; it's also been about global expansion, as shown by their landmark double-header in Long Beach, California, and the establishment of a new United States Heavyweight Championship.

Hopefully, these developments (as well as the shocking appearance of Chris Jericho) help bring NJPW's exemplary in-ring action to the eyes of a wider audience. For now, though, let's take a look back at their best offerings over the past 12 months.

[This list was, understandably, very hard to compile, and I've had to omit lots of matches I greatly enjoyed. If your favourite is missing, do tweet us @Cultaholic and give your opinion. We'd love to hear them!]

10. KUSHIDA Vs. Will Ospreay - King Of Pro-Wrestling

New Japan Pro Wrestling

Anyone who generalises junior or cruiserweight wrestling as "flippy s**t" should watch this match.

Yes, Will Ospreay and KUSHIDA tore into one another with the high-octane athleticism we've come to expect, but they did so without sacrificing an iota of storytelling. Since arriving in NJPW, Ospreay had failed to defeat the ace of the junior heavyweight division, often in heartbreaking fashion. He even burst into tears after losing to his foe in the final of this year's Best of the Super Juniors tournament.

King of Pro-Wrestling was Ospreay's redemption. From the intense pre-match handshake to the wild closing stretch, both wrestlers expertly told the story of a hungry youngster finally winning big. The Brit not only gained the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, but a hell of a lot of respect to boot.

9. Kenny Omega Vs. Tomohiro Ishii - G1 Special In USA Night 2

New Japan Pro Wrestling

When New Japan announced a tournament for their new IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship, an understandable fear was a seemingly-inevitable victory for Kenny Omega. Unquestionably NJPW's biggest 'gaijin', or foreign talent, putting the belt on him seemed a no-brainer in terms of global expansion.

Ultimately, Omega did win the tournament - but his matches were of such quality that no drama was lost in the process. An excellent first-round victory over Michael Elgin lit up Night 1, but the best was saved for the final.

Omega faced Tomohiro Ishii, one of New Japan's most consistent (and, arguably, underrated) main-eventers. The pair have an undeniable chemistry, evident in two other Match of the Year contenders in March and May, but things were kicked up a further notch in Long Beach.

Ishii and Omega took each other to the limit in a brutal match, including a dragon suplex from the apron through a table. The best part of the set piece wasn't the move, though - it was the set-up. In a brilliant psychological display of desperation, Ishii latched onto the top rope with his teeth in an attempt to evade the move. It was New Japan's manifesto in a nutshell: for all the eye-popping moves, the most compelling part of the action is always centred around storytelling.

8. Tetsuya Naito Vs. Kota Ibushi - G1 Climax Day 1

New Japan Pro Wrestling

I mentioned in the introduction how the 2017 G1 Climax was considered to be the best in NJPW history. Although the length of the tournament allows for weaker nights, this year's wasted no time in getting off to a hot start.

The main event of Day 1 saw a clash of two rabidly popular stars: the ever-present, antagonistic force of Tetsuya Naito, and the returning wildcard Kota Ibushi. An exciting match was predicted, but the pair surpassed the hype in a true blockbuster.

The theme of the match - perhaps not so much a theme as a wince-inducing sequence of events - saw Ibushi and Naito target one another's necks. The leader of LIJ drilled his opponent with a reverse rana, but was to suffer worse himself in the form of a terrifying top rope piledriver.

If there was to be a criticism of the match, it would be the number of shocking kick-outs - but it's hard to begrudge New Japan making Naito look strong, given his ascent to the status of Okada's main rival. When he finally downed Ibushi with multiple Destinos, the start of this rise truly began.

7. Will Ospreay Vs. Ricochet - Best Of The Super Juniors Day 2

New Japan Pro Wrestling

It's hard to think of a pair of current wrestlers with better chemistry than Ospreay and Ricochet. An argument could be made for Okada and Omega - and we'll get on to that later - but no other opponents fly around one another with such spellbinding ease and precision.

If Ospreay's cathartic triumph over KUSHIDA was the final chapter of a story, his BOSJ clash with Ricochet was more of a smoothly-rounded poem. Make no mistake about it - this match was sheer artistry.

The pair have shared several amazing bouts in recent times - the headline-grabbing fireworks display in last year's Super Juniors, the WCPW clash that snapped the top rope, and many others. Through careful planning, each managed to retain its own separate charm.

This match drew aspects from their previous battles and distilled them into a breathless half hour. Both men showcased the remarkable skill we expect, but also outrageous stamina. It deserves to be looked back upon as a landmark in their careers.

6. Kenny Omega Vs. Tetsuya Naito - G1 Climax Final

New Japan Pro Wrestling

Of all the matches on this list, Omega vs. Naito felt like a little bit of an indulgence. The G1 Climax final saw the clash of NJPW's two most popular villains, opponents who'd been carefully kept apart since the semi-final stage of last year's tournament.

The introductions saw Omega deliver his extravagant signature pose in the face of an impassive Naito, a wonderful picture of the dichotomy between the two. From there, two of New Japan's most charismatic stars beat the hell out of one another in a runaway train of a match.

The action occasionally spilled outside of the ring during the frantic opening exchanges, which escalated into a brutal piledriver on the announce table (or, rather, down the side of the announce table). Back in the ring, the pair maintained an astonishing pace for a near-35 minute match, exchanging big moves with increasing urgency.

The underlying strength of the bout was its unpredictability. Would NJPW book a Wrestle Kingdom rematch between Omega and Okada, or would Naito emerge as the Ace's new challenger? Either possibility seemed viable - and crucially, both were just as appealing too.

5. Kazuchika Okada Vs. Kenny Omega - G1 Climax Day 18

New Japan Pro Wrestling

To say the third instalment of the Okada/Omega trilogy was its least celebrated would be accurate. However, it would also do a tremendous disservice to the quality of this match, which truly stands apart as a thrilling clash in its own right.

Their first encounter was an electrifying spectacle, the second a gruelling epic - but the third, towards the end of the G1 Climax, was certainly the most brutal.

The shortest match of the three, clocking in at "only" 25 minutes, saw Omega go after Okada's head and neck like a rabid hyena. After failing to beat the IWGP Heavyweight Champion twice, Kenny's desperation manifested itself in utter ruthlessness.

Okada was clearly weakened after an exhausting tournament - including a shock loss to EVIL - and Omega took full advantage, blasting his opponent with multiple V-Trigger knees and a scarily-sold Reverse Rana on the outside. Although far from a one-sided beatdown, his victory felt like a hunter finally executing his gargantuan prey.

4. Tetsuya Naito Vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi - Wrestle Kingdom 11

New Japan Pro Wrestling

When compiling this list, Naito vs. Tanahashi was actually the last match I thought to include. That's not a knock on its quality - as its high placing here should prove - but shows just how easy it can be to forget an excellent bout, given the context in which it occurs.

In any other year, the penultimate match of Wrestle Kingdom 11 would be raved about for most of the ensuing 12 months. Unfortunately, it happened to take place immediately before Omega and Okada's outrageous main event.

Despite existing in the shadow of an all-time classic, the IWGP Intercontinental Championship match deserves its plaudits. It capped an incredible story stretching back years, when Naito - once a gifted but bland babyface - was harshly denied the spotlight by both the fans and Tanahashi himself.

Come Wrestle Kingdom 11, and the fan favourite was facing a far more complex beast. Naito was now the dead-eyed leader of LIJ we know and love - a point immediately hammered home when he denied Tanahashi a simple lock-up at the beginning of the match.

The visuals throughout were immaculate, and just as important a part of the match as the action itself. When Naito finally defeated his nemesis, and mockingly jabbed a fist into his prone chest, a compelling journey was complete.

3. Kazuchika Okada Vs. Katsuyori Shibata - Sakura Genesis

New Japan Pro Wrestling

Sometimes the best stories in wrestling are those which extend outside of kayfabe - as fans of CM Punk will be well aware. The Sakura Genesis showdown between Kazuchika Okada and Katsuyori Shibata was utterly compelling even before a strike was thrown.

In the early 2000s, Shibata was one of NJPW's three aces-in-waiting, alongside Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi. A few years later, with the promotion rapidly losing momentum, he left to wrestle for other companies, and eventually forged a less-than-stellar MMA career.

Many felt as though he'd betrayed the promotion that had invested so much in him, and his spot was taken by the unlikely figure of Okada, who rapidly became one of the world's finest wrestlers.

Come April 2017, the pair finally clashed for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. This was Shibata's shot at redemption, and he unleashed a terrifying barrage of offence - including the headbutt that would end his career.

Okada won, further solidifying his status as the sole ace of New Japan, but Shibata's rise, redemption, and heartbreaking failure remain one of the stories of the year.

2. Kazuchika Okada Vs. Kenny Omega - Dominion

New Japan Pro Wrestling

Choosing between Okada/Omega I and II for the top two places on this list was incredibly difficult, and I wouldn't blame anybody for preferring this match over the original. Indeed, many online critics rated it higher.

It's easy to see why. The pair entered this match under a ton of pressure and somehow weren't undermined by the monstrous hype their January classic caused. They waged war in a 60-minute time limit draw, the most epic match of 2017, and one of the most visually impactful wrestling matches ever contested.

The length of the match obviously prevented it from being an all-out affair for the full hour, but this was more than made up for by a series of amazing set pieces. We saw Omega drill Okada with the One-Winged Angel - a move he was unable to hit at Wrestle Kingdom - only for the champ to catch the rope with his leg at the last millisecond.

We saw Okada prepare to blast Omega with a climactic Rainmaker, only for Kenny to simply collapse from exhaustion, accidentally evading the blow in the process.

Even the appearance of the Bullet Club added to the match, rather than proving a distraction. Cody Rhodes' transparent attempt to undermine his leader reinvigorated Omega, and allowed him to survive until the 60 minutes had elapsed. Exhausting and brilliant.

1. Kazuchika Okada Vs. Kenny Omega - Wrestle Kingdom 11

New Japan Pro Wrestling

One of wrestling's rare delights is watching a classic unfold in real time. Never was this feeling more apparent to me than during the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 11, an astonishingly brilliant match between Okada and Omega.

We now think of the pair as overseers of a groundbreaking trilogy, but before that was set in stone, we saw both men elevate their careers over the course of 45 wonderful minutes.

It's hard to justify the bout in writing, but its pace is as good enough a place to start as any. It was structured immaculately, progressing from a tentative opening to a hate-filled middle sequence. Omega hit Okada with everything he had, including a vicious Missile Dropkick to the back of the head, a jaw-dropping Moonsault to the outside (over the guardrail), and a visceral stomp on an upturned table.

Okada's comeback, when it inevitably came, was glorious. The IWGP Heavyweight Champion looked every inch NJPW built him up to be, and still it wasn't enough.

Finally, after a perfect closing exchange encapsulating the New Japan style, Okada was finally able to put away his ferocious challenger. In the process, the two men didn't just launch their own careers into the stratosphere, but shifted the very landscape of pro wrestling as we know it.

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Jack King

Written by Jack King

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