NJPW Sets the Stage for 2020 With Surprise-Filled Wrestle Kingdom Weekend

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Chris Jericho vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi at New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Wrestle Kingdom 14

New Japan Pro Wrestling delivered significant surprises throughout its two-night Wrestle Kingdom 14 this weekend and Monday’s “New Year Dash” show, particularly during Sunday’s Wrestle Kingdom finale.

In a surprising twist, both Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi lost on the second night of Wrestle Kingdom 14, which is the first time that has ever happened in the 12 times both have been booked on a Wrestle Kingdom card.

Chris Jericho defeated Tanahashi by submission, keeping the “forbidden door” between New Japan and All Elite Wrestling firmly shut. Though Jericho mused about the potential success of an AEW-NJPW partnership after his match, Sports Illustrated has learned that there are no ongoing discussions between the two companies for a working relationship.

New Japan officials wanted Jericho on the card, Jericho was eager for the match and Tanahashi was willing to face the fellow wrestling legend. Jericho is a tremendous ambassador for AEW, so it will be interesting if he can eventually forge a connection between AEW owner Tony Khan and New Japan president Harold Meij. It will be worth watching to see if the AEW broadcast team, or Jericho himself, acknowledges the Wrestle Kingdom win this Wednesday on Dynamite.

Okada took another step toward becoming the greatest ever in New Japan history with a win against Kota Ibushi in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom’s first night. He then lost his IWGP Heavyweight title to the charismatic Tetsuya Naito in a Double Gold Dash main event of the second night. Naito now holds the IWGP Intercontinental title and the IWGP Heavyweight championship. The move is strategic for New Japan, as Naito can defend both titles—and he will have an instant challenger for the Heavyweight belt in whomever he drops the IC belt to, plus a way to atone for that loss by winning a rematch for the Heavyweight title.

Okada remains the face of New Japan and the company’s biggest star, but putting the top belt on Naito at Wrestle Kingdom elevates his status even further. Naito is now engaged in a feud with KENTA, who attacked him at the conclusion of Wrestle Kingdom. Naito is the leader of Los Ingobernables de Japon while KENTA is a part of Bullet Club, and this program allows the feud between both factions to intensify.

Jon Moxley will also be returning to New Japan. He defeated Lance Archer in a Texas Deathmatch on the first night of Wrestle Kingdom to regain his IWGP United States title, then successfully defended the newly won belt on night two against Juice Robinson. Moxley’s next challenger in New Japan is Minoru Suzuki. Per Moxley’s agreement with the company, expect all of his New Japan dates to take place in Japan and never in the United States.

The timeless Jushin Thunder Liger finished his legendary career at Wrestle Kingdom 14, taking the loss on night two in a tag match against Hiromu Takahashi, and was honored with a retirement ceremony at New Year Dash. 

The tag match victory was the second in two nights for Takahashi after returning from a nearly career-ending neck injury to defeat Will Ospreay for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight title on the opening night. Those two wins show the amount of faith and hope that New Japan has for the 30-year-old Takahashi’s future as a star within the company.

Juice Robinson and David Finlay defeated the Guerrillas of Destiny to win the IWGP tag titles at Wrestle Kingdom, adding depth to a division that desperately needed some new blood. Their first opponents stepped up at this Monday’s New Year’s Dash show, as Finlay and Robinson will be challenged by the star-studded team of Tanahashi and Ibushi.

Despite Okada’s title loss to Naito, Sports Illustrated has learned that the current plan is for Okada to regain the belt this June at the Dominion show.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.