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10 Best NJPW Wrestle Kingdom Matches Of All Time

The best of the best on January 4...

So there we have it - the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 13 is set in stone, and if previous form is anything to go by, it should be an incredible bout. That's even without considering the fact that Kenny Omega and Hiroshi Tanahashi are two of the very best in the world.

Last January's main event of Kazuchika Okada vs. Tetsuya Naito was overshadowed by several other matches on the card, but it was still an excellent contest by any normal standards. That alone should explain the outrageously high bar New Japan sets for itself every January - a bar which is met (or surpassed) more often than not.

So we've tried to do the impossible, narrowing down the very best of NJPW's biggest annual show into just 10 matches. There's definitely a modern slant here, but that's down to the fact that Wrestle Kingdom has only grown to represent the very peak of pro wrestling over the last half-decade or so. As New Japan emerged from the dark ages into a blistering purple patch, so too did its January 4th super show.

Again, by the very nature of this list, we've been forced to cut a huge number of potential matches - bouts which would be worthy of topping the bill on any major pay per view in any promotion. So please try not to get too angry.

We've also tried to keep this a little balanced, with a variety of styles thrown in - although all can be loosely united under New Japan's signature 'strong style' banner.

So without any further ado, let's take a look at the 10 best matches in Wrestle Kingdom history.

10. Marty Scurll (c) Vs. Will Ospreay Vs. KUSHIDA Vs. Hiromu Takahashi - Wrestle Kingdom 12


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Wrestle Kingdom has seen some undeniably thrilling Junior Heavyweight bouts over the past few years, including KUSHIDA's battles with Kenny Omega and Hiromu Takahashi, and a 2013 triple threat featuring Prince Devitt, Kota Ibushi, and Low Ki.

However, in 2018 we may have seen the division's peak at the Tokyo Dome so far. Tag bouts aside, Japanese wrestling is far less enamoured with multi-man matches - at least compared to Western promotions.

Tradition was temporarily put aside in this match, a blistering four-way between reigning champion Marty Scurll, his long-term nemesis Will Ospreay, divisional ace KUSHIDA, and genuine loose-cannon Takahashi.

Don't let our choice of image fool you. Although Ospreay's beautiful Moonsault from a nearby scaffold was one of the bout's set-piece moments, this was far more than a premeditated spotfest. The atmosphere was relentless and dangerous, with all four men throwing caution to the wind at every opportunity (while still remaining faithful to the story of the match). Ospreay eventually vanquished Scurll, the Raven to his Dreamer, beginning his second reign as IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion.


9. Kenny Omega (c) Vs. Chris Jericho - Wrestle Kingdom 12


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Another match from 2018's show, and another that threatened to overshadow Okada and Naito in the main event.

Chris Jericho's shocking invasion of New Japan was both a throwback and a modern masterstroke. The appearance of an all-time WWE legend threatened to blow the borders of the wrestling world wide open, but at the same time, Y2J's behaviour harked back to a simpler time.

In NJPW, storylines often emphasise shades of grey - and while this tends to compel and reward audiences more often than not, it was still refreshing to see Jericho rampage into the company like a mini Bruiser Brody.

He was met by IWGP United States Champion Kenny Omega, taking a slight step back from the main event scene after failing to wrench the Heavyweight title from Okada. The pair delivered a violent five-star classic, fought under a rare no DQ stipulation. It not only reaffirmed Omega's elite status, but also proved that at the age of 47, Jericho could still put on a match of the very highest calibre.

8. Hiroshi Tanahashi (c) Vs. Kazuchika Okada - Wrestle Kingdom 7


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If you know anything about NJPW's modern history, you'll have expected this match-up to feature on this list a number of times.

Here's the first, a match which is actually quite strange to watch in hindsight. It may have felt like the pinnacle of their rivalry at the time, but we now know that Okada and Tanahashi's feud had several more gears left to shift into.

Still, that shouldn't take away from the excellence of this match. Although champion Tanahashi was still very much the undisputed Ace of New Japan at this time, Okada's star was rising at a terrifying rate. It took everything the fan favourite had to withstand The Rainmaker's challenge on not only his title, but his lonely perch atop the promotion too.

The pair had already dealt losses to one another previously, but Okada's previous weapon had been the element of surprise. Tanahashi came fully prepared at Wrestle Kingdom 7, winning an epic main event by first kicking away Okada's injured leg, then drilling him with his own Tombstone Piledriver. A climactic High Fly Flow followed, as did the pinfall.

7. Tomohiro Ishii (c) Vs. Katsuyori Shibata - Wrestle Kingdom 10


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Sometimes wrestling is simple. It doesn't have to be about slick reversals or jaw-dropping acrobatics. A match can be just as brilliant by simply having two terrifying men beat the hell out of one another.

Okay, to brand this bout 'simple' is probably a huge disservice. Ishii and Shibata didn't just wail on each other with terrifying ferocity; they also told a story of resilience and warrior spirit.

This bout can be seen as particularly significant for Shibata, who finally won his first singles title in New Japan despite being earmarked for success at a young age. The reason for his late bloom? He had walked out of the promotion during the dark ages, wrestling elsewhere and forging an underwhelming MMA career.

When he returned, he was very much a figure of betrayal and arrogance - and his opportunities suffered because of that. This was a key stepping stone on the path to redemption, one fittingly packed full of punishment courtesy of the Stone Pitbull.

To Shibata's credit, he gave as good as he got - if not moreso - en route to a huge victory. The most memorable moment is surely the exchange of kicks to the spine, with both men voluntarily sitting down to invite another devastating blow. I can't say I'd have done the same...


6. Tetsuya Naito (c) Vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi - Wrestle Kingdom 11


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Despite making this list, Tanahashi vs. Naito from Wrestle Kingdom 11 may be the most underrated bout in Tokyo Dome history. Not because its quality was in any way overlooked, but simply because it was followed by one of the best pro wrestling matches ever seen. But we'll get to that later...

This bout - for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship - saw a real clash of mentalities. Tanahashi is often compared to John Cena for his proud babyface demeanour and company-man status. Naito, on the other hand, is the ultimate rebel.

An unpopular babyface on the end of an ill-timed Roman Reigns push, Naito blew his big shot at the main event and went off to in Mexico in disgrace. There he fell in with Los Ingobernables, a stable of apathetic heels, and promptly set up the Japanese branch when he returned home.

LIJ (Los Ingobernables de Japon) transformed Naito's fortunes overnight. Fans quickly fell in love with his aloof attitude, as he fully embraced the anti-hero role without ever pandering to the audience.

Given such a background, this match had a sizeable head start in terms of drama - but managed to be excellent in the ring too. Beyond any doubt, Naito proved that he could hang with the company Ace - a man who hadn't been shy of criticising the rule-breaker during his failed babyface push.

Wrestle Kingdom is often used to blow off feuds and pave the way for new storylines, but this rivalry continued deep into 2017. Seek out their later matches too - they're all of a similarly excellent quality.

5. Hiroshi Tanahashi (c) Vs. Kazuchika Okada - Wrestle Kingdom 9


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Time for our second instalment of Tanahashi vs. Okada. The pair actually met in several more significant matches between Wrestle Kingdom 7 and 9, with Okada finally managing to raise his game to the level of his foe again.

Unfortunately, AJ Styles managed to interfere in their business and win the title for himself on a couple of occasions. When Okada was finally able to carry the gold into Wrestle Kingdom, the unpopularity of his opponent (a still-babyface Naito) meant that Tananashi was voted into the main event ahead of him. Despite competing for a secondary title, the Ace had somehow managed to hold onto his traditional spot!

This all led to Wrestle Kingdom 9, where Tanahashi again found himself champion, after dethroning Styles. He again faced The Rainmaker, who was his usual ultra-confident self - perhaps even more so than usual. This very much felt like his time.

However, after coming up short on the biggest platform of his career (in another five-star epic), Okada's post-match reaction betrayed a different emotion entirely. Walking up the ramp away from the title - and his destiny as the new Ace - the younger man burst into floods of tears. It was one of the rawest (and most effective) displays of emotion in modern wrestling, and a fitting conclusion to a similarly wonderful match.

4. Shinsuke Nakamura (c) Vs. AJ Styles - Wrestle Kingdom 10


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You know a match is good when WWE uses it as the foundation for a WrestleMania title match.

Styles and Nakamura's New Orleans showdown divided opinion, but the most vocally disappointed were those who had witnessed this bonafide classic from 2016. Although hardly a bad match, the sequel lacked many ingredients that made the first so special.

AJ and Shinsuke absolutely oozed charisma here, and the wrestling wasn't half bad either. Everybody remembers Styles throwing up his signature Bullet Club taunt, only for Nakamura to 'eat' the imaginary bullet. It was a charming moment for sure, but the match is so much more than that.

This bout is a particular masterpiece in terms of momentum and may be one of the most unpredictable bouts on this list. Of course, both men would be out of the company and on their way to WWE within days, a rather outside-of-the-box twist in all honesty.

Another great moment came after the bell, where the pair shared a respectful fist bump while kneeling exhausted on the canvas. The match was good enough that it transcended Nakamura's killer instinct and Styles' heelish tendencies, providing us with something all the more satisfying in the process.


3. Shinsuke Nakamura (c) Vs. Kota Ibushi - Wrestle Kingdom 9


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Ishii and Shibata bludgeoned their way onto this list thanks in part to their sheer brutality, and the same could perhaps be said of this match. It's brutality of a different flavour, though.

While Shibata and Ishii literally ground their match to a halt in order to trade kicks to the spine and gunshot chops, Nakamura and Ibushi flew at each other at 100 miles per hour. There were a number of terrifying blows dealt in this one, including a brutal sequence of Bomaye knees from the reigning Intercontinental Champion.

Despite this bout's clear brilliance, I'm hesitant to call it a star-making performance for Ibushi for two reasons. Firstly, until recently, Ibushi has always been very reluctant to tie himself down to a regular NJPW schedule, making his progress rather difficult and haphazard. Secondly, his incredible in-ring ability wasn't exactly a secret before he met Nakamura here.

Still, it must go down as one of the best matches of either man's enviable careers - a bout Ibushi still carries echoes of to this day, having incorporated the Bomaye into his own moveset.

2. Kazuchika Okada (c) Vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi - Wrestle Kingdom 10


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Okada vs. Tanahashi again, but I promise this is the last one. The pair's latest Wrestle Kingdom main event also happens to be their greatest - although maybe it's not such a coincidence, given the way each previous contest has provided further layers to weave their story with.

Although part of the entire feud as a whole, Wrestle Kingdom 10 can be seen as a direct sequel to the match at Wrestle Kingdom 9. In 2015, Okada left the ring a broken man, openly weeping as he trudged to the back. In 2016 he returned - this time as champion, having liberated the title from AJ Styles many months prior. As he would go on to prove during the match, Okada wasn't just the champion in name this time around; it was part of his fibre now.

This match is probably best remembered for an exhausted Okada maintaining wrist control after hitting his finisher, allowing him to drag Tanahashi back to his feet for additional Rainmakers.

This simple image encapsulated everything about Okada's rise so far - as well as his sheer unwillingness to let destiny slip away for the second year in a row. Thankfully, for his sake, it didn't.

1. Kazuchika Okada (c) Vs. Kenny Omega - Wrestle Kingdom 11


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Kazuchika Okada is guaranteed to go down in history as one of the greatest wrestlers of all time. A huge reason for that is the fact that he followed up one of the best feuds ever with...another of the best feuds ever.

Although the Okada/Tanahashi conflict still rumbles on from time to time, there's no doubting the identity of his new overarching foe: Kenny Omega.

It all began here, at Wrestle Kingdom 11 - for our money, the greatest match in the event's history. With little to build on other than their respective cockiness, Okada and Omega tore the Tokyo Dome down around them - breaking Dave Meltzer's star rating system for the first time in decades.

Actually, the story could be a little more complex than that. Here, ironically, Omega found himself in the Okada role - an upstart trying to become the face of the promotion.

Words can't really do justice to the match itself - and it's personally one of my favourites of all time - but one aspect I particularly enjoy is the contrast between both men. Omega is all limbs, frantically charging around the ring after his opponent. Okada, now the established Ace of New Japan, is smoothness and composure personified.

Of course, that composure cracks as the match wears on, but the same could be said of everybody watching live at the time. This was a nail-biting affair, but a thoroughly enjoyable one at the same time. Go and watch it; see for yourself.

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Jack G. King

Written by Jack G. King

Head of News at Cultaholic.com | [email protected]