Takeaways From New Japan Pro Wrestling’s ‘Wrestle Kingdom 15’

NJPW’s annual “Wrestle Kingdom” lived up to its stellar reputation with two nights of thrilling action, highlighted by the performance of Kota Ibushi in the main event.
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Wrestle Kingdom 15 will forever be defined by the performance of Kota Ibushi.

Ibushi put on a breathtaking display on back-to-back nights, defeating Tetsuya Naito for the IWGP heavyweight and intercontinental titles Monday in the Tokyo Dome, then returning the night next to successfully defend the double gold against Jay White in a 48-minute main-event thriller.

There was no shortage of highlights during the two-night affair, which provided wrestling with a tremendous boost entering the new year. Sanada wrestled the best match of his career in a victory against Evil, while Hiromu Takahashi also delivered consecutive magical nights in wins against El Phantasmo and Taiji Ishimori. Shingo Takagi defeated Jeff Cobb, taking another step toward showing the world why he is going to become an elite player in New Japan, and the Guerrillas of Destiny won the IWGP tag team championship for a record seventh time.

New Japan cornerstones Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi were both victorious, with Okada defeating Will Ospreay in an outrageously compelling bout and Tanahashi withstanding Great-O-Khan, who showed off his unique aura despite the loss. Kenta also defeated Satoshi Kojima to retain his right to challenge for the IWGP United States championship—and he was treated to a video before the match by the reigning champ, Jon Moxley, setting up an inevitable showdown between the two.

Here are the results from the two-night show:

Night 1

  • Chase Owens, Bad Luck Fale, Bushi and Toru Yano advanced from the New Japan Rambo to challenge for the King of Pro Wrestling 2021 Trophy
  • Hiromu Takahashi defeated El Phantasmo for the right to challenge for the IWGP junior heavyweight championship on night two
  • The Guerrillas of Destiny defeated Zack Sabre Jr. and Taichi to win the IWGP tag-team championship
  • Kenta defeated Satoshi Kojima to retain his right to challenge for the IWGP United States championship
  • Hiroshi Tanahashi defeated Great-O-Khan
  • Kazuchika Okada defeated Will Ospreay
  • Kota Ibushi defeated Tetsuya Naito to win the IWGP heavyweight and intercontinental championship

Night 2

  • Saya Kamitani, AZM and Utami Hayashishita defeated Maika, Natsupoi and Himeka in a dark match for women’s promotion Stardom
  • Syuri and Giulia defeated Mayu Iwatani and Tam Nakano in a dark match for Stardom
  • Toru Yano defeated Bad Luck Fale, Chase Owens and Bushi for the King of Pro Wrestling 2021 Trophy
  • El Desperado and Yoshinobu Kanemaru retained the IWGP junior heavyweight tag team championship against Ryusuke Taguchi and Master Wato
  • NEVER open-weight champion Shingo Takagi defeated Jeff Cobb
  • Sanada defeated Evil
  • Hiromu Takahashi defeated Taiji Ishimori to win the IWGP junior heavyweight championship
  • IWGP heavyweight and intercontinental champion Kota Ibushi defeated “Switchblade” Jay White

New Japan star Rocky Romero, who wrestled in the New Japan Rambo on the opening night, provided commentary for the show on the New Japan World streaming service. Romero’s journey with New Japan began 19 years ago after the promotion opened its L.A. dojo. He has built a remarkable career in the ensuing years, including a run as IWGP junior heavyweight champion, but Romero noted that he has never experienced anything like what he witnessed over a two-night span at Wrestle Kingdom.

“These were an incredible two nights, and it was even better than last year,” Romero says. “It felt more personal because of the past year and everything we went through in the world.”

Romero has known Ibushi for close to 15 years, and witnessing his trip to the top of the wrestling world has been nothing short of breathtaking.

“If you look at the résumé of Kota Ibushi, it is the most impressive résumé of anyone in New Japan,” Romero says. “He has the most accolades when it comes to championships and tournaments. He won the G1 [Climax tournament] the past two years, he’s won the New Japan Cup and Best of the Super Juniors. He was NEVER open-weight champion, junior heavyweight and heavyweight tag champ and IWGP junior heavyweight champion, and now he holds the double gold.

“Ibushi always wanted the IWGP heavyweight championship, but there was always someone in front of him. Kenny Omega was in front of him. Tetsuya Naito was, too. So were Okada and Tanahashi. But now it is Ibushi. He has finally proved to the world that he is the guy.”

Along with Kevin Kelly and Chris Charlton, Romero brought a unique perspective to his commentary. In a world of wrestling that is often criticized for its predictability and lack of genuine surprise, Ibushi’s title victory felt especially real to Romero.

“Watching Ibushi win, that was a very emotional moment,” Romero says. “There was this innocent, wholesome person rising to the very top of the industry. Ibushi came from this small fishing town outside of Tokyo. He was the only one who believed he’d make it this far. It made me think of my own journey. I didn’t start in New Japan Pro Wrestling. I was an independent wrestler, and my first match was in front of 30 people in a Mexican restaurant in Rialto, California. Professional wrestling always reflects what is happening in the world, and Ibushi winning was a glimmer of hope. This moment meant a lot to a lot of people.”

Ibushi benefited tremendously from the presence of White, who is quickly becoming one of wrestling’s premier villains. Following the loss, White cut an outrageously compelling promo on his alleged impending exit from New Japan due to frustration over getting beat.

“Jay White is only 28, but it feels like he’s been wrestling for 30 years,” Romero says. “The match between Jay and Kota was an absolute masterpiece of good versus evil. Jay is the future of New Japan. That’s how talented he is. At one point, he’s going to own it all.”

Moving forward, endless possibilities exist for Ibushi in the main event. There are inevitable rematches with Naito and White, as well as a showdown looming with Kazuchika Okada.

“Okada is the most dominant heavyweight champion of all time, but he’s never been double champ,” Romero says. “He’s never held both titles, so he’s in line for a shot. Sanada made the finals of the G1, so he’s in line, too.”

Another part of the card that particularly resonated with Romero was the Shingo Takagi–Jeff Cobb match for the NEVER open-weight championship. Cobb has long been one of wrestling’s most underrated talents, and, after delivering some of the best matches in wrestling in 2020, the versatile Takagi is poised to have a massive year in 2021.

“With Kota Ibushi saying he wants to unify the heavyweight and intercontinental titles, that means the NEVER Openweight title could suddenly become one of the top two titles in New Japan,” Romero says. “And the timing is great because Shingo Takagi is amazing at what he does, and one of the best wrestlers anywhere in the world. He defeated Jeff Cobb in a banger. That was two incredible athletes going at it. Takagi is going to be the next breakout star in wrestling.”

New Japan also had its New Year’s Dash show Wednesday, which was built around the dominance of the Empire’s Ospreay, Great-O-Khan and Cobb, who were all defeated at Wrestle Kingdom 15. The next show takes place on Jan. 17 at Tokyo’s Korakuen Hall, and Romero shared his enthusiasm for the near future of New Japan Pro Wrestling.

“This past year was different for me,” Romero says. “I was away from Japan for 10 months. I have dedicated my life, every morsel of my being, to this company and helping it grow, so I was crushed when I couldn’t be here over the past year. It felt incredible to be back and watch these matches.

“Professional wrestling is more than people say it is. This moment proved that. The whole world is down, and it was incredible to see this little golden star peak through and bring a light. It happened in Tokyo but was felt all over the world, and Kota Ibushi brought professional wrestling back to life.”

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