10 Best NJPW Matches Of 2018

We're spoiled for choice here...

Over the past few years, NJPW has established itself as the place to go for elite-level wrestling (pun only partially intended).

When compiling matches for this article, my initial feeling was that 2017 was a slightly stronger year. In hindsight, I think we've all just become accustomed to New Japan producing amazing matches with amazing consistency. Last year the roster set an outrageous bar, but over the past 12 months, they've continued to reach it time and time again. There may often be less fanfare when they do so, but that's because it's just the way things are now.

There was a time when a Dave Meltzer 5-star rating was a major news story. Nowadays, perfect ratings come thick and fast - the majority of them courtesy of New Japan, of course. Before big events, we predict (and expect) classic bouts ahead of time. The scale has been utterly smashed. Try not to panic when I tell you that one match this year received seven stars. It's an outrageous state of affairs.

Astonishingly, though, NJPW continues to deliver. In this list you'll find the reliable names: Okada, Omega, Tanahashi, Ishii, and so on. But 2018 also saw a few new figures come to the fore, and leave their mark on another fantastic year of wrestling.

Honourable Mentions: 
Marty Scurll vs. Will Ospreay vs. KUSHIDA vs. Hiromu Takahashi - Wrestle Kingdom 12
Minoru Suzuki vs. Hirooki Goto - Wrestle Kingdom 12
Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi - Wrestling Dontaku Day 2
Hiromu Takahashi vs. Will Ospreay - Dominion
Kota Ibushi vs. Tomohiro Ishii - G1 Climax Day 10
Kota Ibushi vs. Tetsuya Naito - G1 Climax Day 14
Kenny Omega vs. Tomohiro Ishii - Destruction in Hiroshima

10. The Golden Lovers Vs. The Young Bucks - Strong Style Evolved


Deciding whether 2017 or 2018 was a better in-ring year for NJPW is a complex debate - but there's one area that the promotion clearly improved upon this time around.

I'm talking about tag team wrestling, with New Japan's various factions clashing in a series of action-packed bouts over the course of the year. The best, however, featured four men from the same stable. Sort of.

Bullet Club's implosion dominated the early stages of 2018. Things kicked off in earnest at New Year Dash!!, where Cody finally usurped Omega and split the stable, only for Kota Ibushi to save his former friend from a beatdown.

The reformed Golden Lovers clashed with an emotionally distressed Matt and Nick Jackson in California, the Bucks still confused as to where their loyalties lay. The result was one of New Japan's cleverest matches of 2018 - particularly for a promotion that typically reserves its most layered stories for one-on-one bouts.

Best Moment: Matt Jackson going rogue mid-move, abandoning 'More Bang For Your Buck' to Elbow-Drop Omega through a table on the outside. Bonus points for Nick's horrified reaction.

9. Kenny Omega Vs. Chris Jericho - Wrestle Kingdom 12


One of 2017's biggest shocks came right at the end of the year, with Chris Jericho announcing his intention to compete at Wrestle Kingdom 12. Surreally, he did, taking on Kenny Omega for the IWGP United States Championship.

This certainly isn't the slickest match in this list - in fact it's probably the least slick - but captured the imagination in a far purer sense. As well as being a previously unthinkable dream match, it also brought an entirely different energy to New Japan's annual Tokyo Dome megashow.

Channelling Bruiser Brody, Y2J boiled down his heel persona to the brutal basics, jumping Omega before the bell, shoving down the referee, and attacking ringside trainees without a care.

Yes, there may have been one or two issues regarding the no-DQ stipulation and rope breaks, but they were easily forgotten amongst the carnage. This was proof that not only could a 47-year-old Jericho still go at the highest level - he could have one of the matches of the year in the process.

Needless to say, Kenny held up his end of the bargain too.

Best Moment: There are many to choose from, but Omega's springboard dive over the crowd barrier sticks in the memory (yes, partly because he sends Don Callis flying from his commentary position).

8. Tomohiro Ishii Vs. Hirooki Goto - G1 Climax Day 6


I'm not necessarily complaining about this, but in recent years you could say that the G1 Climax has moved further from New Japan's roots. Recent performances from the likes of Ibushi, Naito, and Omega have seen wrestling's most prestigious tournament focus on a faster pace, acrobatic displays, and an alarming number of risky high spots.

It makes for compelling action, admittedly, but one of the best things about the G1 is its range. So while some were charging all over the ring and taking spike bumps from the top rope, Ishii and Goto decided to keep things strong style on Day 6.

The CHAOS stablemates rarely ventured to the top rope or the ringside area; instead, they carried out an unspoken agreement to knock each other's head off. Yes, this was a stiff contest, full of meaty forearms and distressingly loud chops.

It may not have been the most cutting-edge of matches, but it was put together and executed impeccably. The pair did speed things down the stretch too, pulling off one of those extended finishing sequences that really define New Japan's style.

Best Moment: After a furious exchange ends in a double-down, the pair drag themselves to their feet and pick up right where they left off - charging across the ring and blasting one another with simultaneous lariats. There are also some headbutts later on, if you can stomach it.

7. Will Ospreay Vs. Marty Scurll - Sakura Genesis


When Will Ospreay snagged Marty Scurll's IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship at Wrestle Kingdom, a rematch seemed inevitable. The result, however, was far less certain.

The Aerial Assassin may have won in January, but that was a multi-man match featuring KUSHIDA and Takahashi. In their long shared history - both key players in the boom of the UK independent scene - Scurll has always had the edge in one-on-one competition. To galvanise his title reign, Ospreay would have to pull something special out of the bag.

The chemistry in their bout at Sakura Genesis was, predictably, off the charts. The pair sped through sequence after sequence of intricate counters, Osprey's high-flying heroism and Scurll's craftiness meshing perfectly.

Ultimately (and somewhat unfairly) this match is chiefly remembered for one moment, which we'll get to in a second. On the whole, however, it deserves to be recognised as a five-star display between two men who know each other's game inside out.

Best Moment: 'Best' is probably inaccurate, but the bout's signature moment sees Ospreay hurl himself and Scurll off the apron with a Spanish fly. His head catches the apron on the way down, folding up his neck and cutting him open. It certainly adds to the drama down the stretch, but remains difficult to watch.

6. Kazuchika Okada Vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi - G1 Climax Day 17


Okada and Tanahashi's best matches could fill a list of their own, and their eternal rivalry continued to produce the goods in 2018. The pair put on two excellent matches this year; we've given the nod to their G1 Climax bout, but their title match at Wrestling Dontaku was excellent as well.

One could argue, though, that the story here was more enthralling. Okada was no longer the invincible champion, and was in the midst of a strange downward spiral. He dyed his hair red, changed his gear, and developed a strange fascination with balloons. He also lost more often, but managed to claw his way back into G1 contention.

Heading into this de facto semi-final, Tanahashi was quite the opposite. It seemed as though Okada had firmly ended his foe's time at the top, defeating him back in May - but Tanahashi experienced a dramatic resurgence at the G1, and sat atop the A Block with one match left.

One criticism you could levy at this match is that the result was an obvious one. G1 Climax matches have a 30 minute time limit, and Okada vs. Tanahashi never ends that quickly. They'd also drawn in previous tournament meetings, back in 2016 and 2013.

However, the circumstances of the match (and the incredible in-ring action) more than made up for that. Tanahashi could win the A Block with a tie; a frantic Okada needed to go for the win. However, ultra-babyface Tanahashi was never going to rest on his laurels, and the result was a match where both men were desperate to hit their finisher.

Best Moment: A 41 year old Tanahashi countering the Rainmaker like a man half his age, rolling Okada into a pinning predicament for a fantastic near fall.

5. Taiji Ishimori Vs. Hiromu Takahashi - Best Of The Super Juniors Final


The 2018 Best of the Super Juniors tournament was a fun one, featuring predictably great performances from the likes of Scurll, Ospreay, and KUSHIDA - but also breakout singles matches for SHO and YOH of Roppongi 3K.

However, the man of the competition was arguably Taiji Ishimori, a former NOAH star and the Bullet Club's newest recruit. His incredible speed and aggression pointed towards a very bright future in New Japan's junior division - a roll which has admittedly slowed towards the end of 2018.

Nevertheless, his tournament was a great one. But if Best of the Super Juniors was Ishimori's platform, 2018 as a whole was shaping up to be Hiromu Takahashi's. Until his shocking injury in the summer, this was the year that Takahashi announced himself as one of the best wrestlers in New Japan - and his BOSJ final clash with Ishimori was one of many reasons why.

This bout was arguably New Japan's most frantic of 2018, with both men absolutely tearing into one another. They took to the Kourakuen Hall stands, Ishimori giving Takahashi a terrifying hurricanrana down a flight of stairs. Back in the ring, however, as the match wore on, it became clear that this was the LIJ man's moment - not the newcomer's.

Best Moment: The amount of stellar Takahashi moments in this match beggars belief - but it's hard to look past his (temporary) no-selling of a reverse 'rana, jumping up to hit one of his own. Or his seamless transition from a hurricanrana into a triangle choke. Or his jaw-dropping piledriver during the match's final stretch. Don't make us choose.

4. Kenny Omega Vs. Tomohiro Ishii - G1 Climax Day 14


Despite clashing with other rivals more regularly, Omega and Ishii have enjoyed a fantastic ongoing feud - one which bubbles under the surface most of the time, before resurfacing once or twice a year.

Omega seemed to have the upper hand before the pair met in this year's G1 Climax, having seen off Ishii to become the inaugural IWGP United States Champion in 2017. This time around, however, he met an even more stubborn Stone Pitbull than usual.

The first half of this match was a tale of two men attempting to wear each other down with sickening chops and strikes, only to find that the other had plenty more left in the tank. Things escalated into an amazing final ten minutes, with Omega's frantic energy matched by Ishii's resilience and strength.

Some of the sequences and counters in this bout were up there with any match of 2018, another shining example of the uncanny chemistry between both men. This bout also took on an even more personal tone than their previous encounters, with either wrestler attempting to steal the other's finisher on several occasions.

Best Moment: Omega drilling Ishii with his own signature Brainbuster - only for the Stone Pitbull to find another gear and kick out.

3. Hiroshi Tanahashi Vs. Kota Ibushi - G1 Climax Final


This was many people's pick for the best match of the 2018 G1 Climax - and some even consider it match of the year. It's easy to see why.

The contrast between this year's finalists made for an enthralling bout even before the opening bell. Tanahashi was experiencing an unlikely resurgence, making his way back to the top of the company after Okada had dislodged him from his perch. The fact that fans were so eager for him to do so despite so many years of dominance really speaks to Tanahashi's enduring popularity as a babyface.

On the other hand, Ibushi went into this match looking to finally fulfil his amazing potential. He's generally seen as an avant garde figure in the wrestling world, somebody who'd rather take part in outrageous DDT comedy matches than enjoy a monster push in New Japan. Now, with the ultimate opportunity to cash in on his ability, it made for an even more mouthwatering prospect.

I'll admit that on my first viewing, my enjoyment of this match was tainted by the fact I desperately wanted Ibushi to win, setting up a Wrestle Kingdom main event with Kenny Omega. However, watching it back now, it's clear that this was a classic - maybe even the best G1 final of all time.

411Mania writer Larry Csonka summarised this bout as 'In the end, Ibushi’s arms were long enough to box with God, just not powerful enough to beat him', which I think is a perfect description. It was one of those matches where Ibushi is absolutely on fire, every move containing a certain snap and intensity. Ultimately, though, he ran into a force of nature in the form of Tanahashi. The former NJPW ace wrestled like a man with destiny on his side, springing to the top rope with reckless abandon and fighting through his opponent's most brutal strikes.

Best Moment: The whole match is brilliant, but the fact that Katsuyori Shibata was ringside to support Tanahashi gives it an even more special atmosphere.

2. Kenny Omega Vs. Kota Ibushi - G1 Climax Day Day 18


I may catch a little bit of flak for placing this higher than the final, as the general consensus online seemed to indicate that people preferred the latter. In my opinion though, there was no better match in this year's G1 Climax than the B Block finale between the two Golden Lovers.

The pair last fought many years ago during their respective DDT runs, and although Omega would occasionally antagonise Ibushi when he followed him to New Japan, they never squared off in the promotion until 2018.

Any fears that the pair would tone things down as tag partners were laid to rest within seconds, and the match progressed into one of the most violent (and graceful) of the year. It may not have been a Suzuki or Ishii-esque slugfest, but the damage Omega and Ibushi dished out to one another was wince-inducing at times.

The number of dangerous-looking spots was staggering at times, from tombstone piledrivers on the apron to high-angle last ride powerbombs - with plenty of time left over for a few simple knees to the head.

It's not one for the faint of heart, but manages to be as spellbinding as it is brutal.

Best Moment: The most memorable moment of this match is clearly Ibushi's top-rope double-stomp to the back of Omega's head, but it's pretty nasty to watch. Any spot involving a big knee strike makes for a highlight too - and given both men's movesets, there are plenty of incidents to choose from.

1. Kazuchika Okada Vs. Kenny Omega - Dominion


Before we talk about Omega/Okada IV, let's address the criticism. I know some people hate on this match because of its length, and it is admittedly gruelling to get through. But I'd counter that with the point that it had to be epic.

The groundbreaking feud between the two was far too complex to blow off in 30 minutes. It wouldn't have felt like proper closure, and while many viewed the two out of three falls stipulation as overkill, I believe it was the right way to live up to the unrivalled hype.

Half of the reason this match is so phenomenal is the background; Okada and Omega built an unbelievable foundation for themselves thanks to their 2017 trilogy. Their record stood at 1-1-1, but Kenny's victory only came against a weakened Rainmaker midway through the G1 Climax. Could he end Okada's mammoth title reign with an even playing field?

Of course, even the best backstory in the world can fall flat if the match is lacklustre - but both men delivered with a titanic display. The iconic moments were numerous and fitting, playing off the tropes established by their earlier matches. Every set piece made total sense, from Omega digging deep to hit the Styles Clash, to an exhausted Okada bouncing a harmless Rainmaker off his opponent's chest, to Kenny's use of wrist control - an Okada technique that extended his title reign on numerous occasions.

It was a ridiculous match, featuring two ridiculously talented people - and while many will scoff at Dave Meltzer's 7-star rating, it's easy to see why he was quick to shower it with praise.

Best Moment: It might not be the most important moment of the bout, but I have a real soft spot for the ending of the first fall - Okada catching Omega out by trapping him in a rudimentary pinning predicament. It made the champ look unbeatable, and only served to heighten the drama with Kenny fighting from behind.

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Jack King

Written by Jack King

[email protected] Twitter: @JackTheJobber