Monday, February 25, 2019

Kenny Omega vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi 1/4/19 – IWGP Heavyweight Championship – Wrestle Kingdom 13

Has a wrestling match ever made you cry?

I'm sure there are plenty of examples of storyline beats before and after matches that have triggered the waterworks – watch the crowd shots when Randy Savage and Elizabeth reunited after Macho Man vs. Ultimate Warrior at WrestleMania VII, or when the Golden Lovers reunited at the New Beginning in Sapporo in 2018. When Daniel Bryan returned to the ring at WrestleMania 34, I was practically sobbing during his entrance, and don't even get me started on the video package that played before Sasha Banks vs. Bayley at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn. But when's the last time the actual in-ring action brought you to tears? I'm not sure when it was for me, but I know I got damn close at the conclusion of the main event of this year's Wrestle Kingdom 13.

Over 30-some-odd years, I have been fortunate to meet fellow fans across the spectrum of wrestling fandom. Marks who stick to kayfabe, smart marks who follow every dirt sheet or blog. Jaded wrestlers who like to work every fan they meet, and cordial grapplers who are fans themselves, just as eager to mark out over the classics. Fans of Southern wrestling, Lucha Libre, “sports entertainment,” puroresu, hardcore, and “the flippy shit.” Young fans who love it all, and old timers who think that today's matches are more about spotfests than storytelling. No matter what they're into, if they go into their wrestling shows looking for some sort of emotional connection with the art unfolding in front of them, I am their kindred. Like a great song or film, if a match moves me, i'm it's slave.

There are those among my fellow old-timers who would argue that today's popular wrestling matches are more about spectacle than story; more car crash than ballet. And sometimes they're right. But some of those car crashes can tell thrilling stories in and of themselves—maybe not in the same way a classic old-school match may work a body part, but there's more than one way to spin an effective yarn.

The generational debate between old-timer and today's fan framed the main event of this year's Wrestle Kingdom, as a defender of the old guard, Hiroshi Tanahashi, the “once in a century” Ace of New Japan Pro Wrestling, challenged IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kenny Omega for the gold that Tana had worn seven times before, while simultaneously defending his concept of tradition and old school pro wrestling against Omega's desire to “change the world.” To many, the clash seemed a bit like inside baseball, an esoteric debate too cerebral to be worthy of the main event of New Japan's marquee annual event. How could a debate about wrestling philosophy sell tickets, much less get a crowd invested? Well, when the two combatants involved are a living legend and Japan's hottest gaijin wrestler, the match sells itself. It's up to them to figure out what the hook's going to be.

As it turned out, the debate about how best to tell an in-ring story ended up putting my friends and I through the emotional wringer. But interestingly, it's not the story some of New Japan's American audience wanted to see—and maybe that was part of why it was such a roller coaster .

2018 had been a career year for Kenny Omega, having started the year with a five-star classic by defending his United States title against WWE legend Chris Jericho at Wrestle Kingdom 12. Jericho's crossover from his former home of almost 19 years brought thousands of new eyes onto New Japan Pro Wrestling, and after Omega emerged victorious in a brutal no-DQ weapon fest, all eyes were on what Omega would do next. What was next happened to be a landmark moment in New Japan history, as on the New Beginning tour, Omega would drop the US Title in a shocking upset to young New Zealand upstart Jay White, only to end the night reunited with his partner in the Golden Lovers tag team, Kota Ibushi.

It was a reunion that captured the imagination of American and Japanese audiences, and breathed new life into Omega's New Japan career. Kenny had spent 2017 chasing IWGP Heavyweight Champ Kazuchika Okada with his Bullet Club stablemates the Young Bucks in his corner, but he constantly came up short, losing in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 11 and working Okada to a one-hour draw at that year's Dominion show in June. But reunited with Ibushi, a man whose bond with Omega goes beyond tag team partners and friends into love story territory, Kenny was rejuvenated. With Kota in his corner, 2018's Dominion ended with Omega victorious in possibly the best wrestling match anyone's ever seen, a 65-minute best-of-three-falls epic that finally delivered the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, ending Okada's incredible two-year reign. With his Golden Lover by his side, Omega was on top of the wrestling world.

So many of New Japan's new American viewers, this humble narrator included, thought that the rest of the year would be spent building slyly toward a Wrestle Kingdom championship showdown between the Golden Lovers. After all, the few times that Omega and Ibushi faced each other one-on-one, Kota emerged victorious each time. Ibushi is the only wrestler to have ever kicked out of Omega's finisher, the One-Winged Angel (Okada once survived a pin attempt after a One-Winged Angel thanks to the ropes). So it seemed natural that the tale of the reunited Golden Lovers may climax with Omega validating his championship reign by trying to finally best his friend in the ring, or Kota assuming his place atop NJPW as Omega's better half.

As it happened, the hotly anticipated Omega/Ibushi match happened during the G1 Climax Tournament, with Ibushi winning his B block by once again pinning Omega. Surely this was the setup for the Wrestle Kingdom main event! Kota would take down the A block winner, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and take the guaranteed title shot all the way to the Tokyo Dome to face Kenny for the title. But what some people (like me) failed to realize is how revered Tanahashi is in Japan. The Ace is practically deified by NJPW's fan base—Ibushi included—worshipping him for pulling the company out of a dark period through his charisma, talent, and multiple title reigns. So when Tanahashi ended up being the one to claim the briefcase after the G1 Climax finals, American audiences may have been bummed, but the Japanese were ecstatic. Yes, Kota Ibushi fell to the Ace, and many of his fans wept openly at his loss (the ladies in Japan looove Ibushi). But Kota's redemption against Tanahashi would have to wait for another year. The showdown between Japan's hero and its top gaijin champion was on, as was Tana's quest to prove that at 42 years old, he still had what it takes to headline.

Did Omega resent Tanahashi for defeating his partner and denying him the chance to finally beat Ibushi, in the main event at the Tokyo Dome, no less? It's hard to say—heck, during the build to WK13, Tana implied that Omega was holding Ibushi back, fearful of how Ibushi's talent could eventually supplant Omega's spot atop New Japan. But while that could be debated, what was clear was that Omega resented how much the Japanese audience worshipped Tana, leading him to dismiss Tana as a broken down old man with damaged knees. Tanahashi responded in kind, mocking Omega's more “flashy” car-crash style of high impact sports entertainment and his willingness to face his friends in the ring. A late year triple threat for the title between Omega, Ibushi, and Cody was criticized by the Ace for being a spotfest between three friends. “Where's the story?” he asked.

Omega sees his brand of wrestling storytelling as the future; Tanahashi appreciates what's worked for him for 20 years. And while one segment of fans (or maybe just me, who knows) wanted a more “modern” love story to headline Wrestle Kingdom, a more traditional tale closed the night. Who knew a wrestling match could have so many layers?

* * *

As my crew of friends watched Wrestle Kingdom 13 unfold, we sensed disaster for Kenny during the opening match, as “The Arial Assassin” Will Ospreay defeated Ibushi for the NEVER Openweight Title in a brutal, bonkers affair that resulted in Kota being carted from the ring on a stretcher, having suffered a concussion—guaranteeing Ibushi wouldn't be in Omega's corner during the main event. Regardless of any teasing of or speculation that Omega was trying to hod Kota back, the fact was that having his Golden Lover corner man made Kenny a better wrestler and pushed him to the IWGP title. The sight of Kota being carried to the back with his neck in a brace was a harbinger of certain doom. But still, the match had to be fought in the ring to make sure.

As Kenny made his way to the ring, dressed in one-winged gamer armor, a specialized entrance video played, a collaboration between Omega and Toby Fox, the creator of the hit underground video game Undertale. “Kenny's Quest' put Omega and Tanahashi into a version of the game, casting Kenny as the hero and Tana as the final boss of the game, mocking his nagging injuries and deriding his “egotistical” quest to change the world. Video Kenny responds to the belittling by selecting “Mercy” instead of “Fight,” an option in Undertale that can affect the eventual outcome of the game when the player decides which enemies to fight and which to spare (I'm told – I haven't played it, so feel free to set me straight in the comments). But 8-bit Tana isn't having it. “I'M the hero of this story,” he says, callously throwing his IWGP Title Shot briefcase into the “Mercy” button. “And for HEELS like you, there is NO MERCY!” It's a cute video, but it's on the nose: both of these men see themselves as the hero of New Japan, casting the other as the villain.

English commentator Chris Charlton points out that Tanahashi's ring jacket has an opening in the waist where there's no material. “That hole is shaped like the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. That belt completes that man. It's not the means to an end; it's the end itself for Hiroshi Tanahashi.” The implication is that Omega sees the belt as a means to an end; a greater goal of changing the world of professional wrestling and moving it into the future. Does this make Omega the villain in the eyes of New Japan? It seems that way, as when the bell sounds, Kenny immediately assumes the heel role in the match, working an arrogant, almost snotty character opposite Tanahashi's stern resolution. The early lockup is tentative, deliberately paced, and frustrating for the high-octane Omega, who breaks away, petulantly shrugging at the crowd, impatient and itching for action. Still, for all Omega's petulance, it's Tana who delivers the first real insult of the match, slapping Kenny across the face after another lockup attempt. They tie themselves up, collar and elbow, into the ropes, and when referee Red Shoes Unno calls for the break, Omega separates with a gentle, almost sarcastic tap of his palm on Tanahashi's cheek – to which the Ace responds with a second hard slap that finally sets Kenny off and starts the fists flying. Is Tanahashi the hero of New Japan here? If he is, he's not holding back any of his disdain for Kenny Omega and his wish for the Tana-led “old guard” to step aside.

As the two combatants continue to trade slaps, the commentary team of Charlton, Kevin Kelly, and Don Callis enhance the in-ring action by debating Omega's behavior and demeanor since winning the IWGP Title, claiming that he's become “embittered” since winning the belt, and that despite repairing his relationship with Ibushi, he was happier chasing the title than holding it. It's certainly not the disposition of someone for whom the championship is the end goal; perhaps Kenny really does want the title to lead him and the company to places where New Japan is not yet ready to go. Kenny forces a rope break, ending Tanahashi's leglock and the slap-fight that had ensued from it.

As the discussion continues on commentary (and it can't be stressed enough how excellent the broadcast team is with explaining the nuances of the ideological war being acted out in the ring, at one point calling out a crisp Omega elbow drop as reminiscent of Keiji Mutoh, one of the New Japan legends that Tanahashi fights to honor), the action eventually spills out of the ring after a wicked backbreaker by Omega, one that he punctuates by blowing a kiss to the crowd as Tana rolls out to the floor. Omega takes this opportunity to start working over Tana's back with the “car crash” offense he loves so dearly, including a stiff backdrop onto the ring apron. He may work a more “modern” style, but Kenny Omega still knows the value of working a body part to tell a story. He whips Tanahashi into the ringside barrier, but as he charges in, the Ace catches him with a picturesque dropkick that
halts Omega's momentum, but also exacerbates Tana's back issues when he accidentally lands with his back against the ringpost. But Omega's momentum isn't disrupted for long, as he picks up the challenger and bodyslams him into the commentary tables at ringside, smirking with an impish “oops!” expression as he laughs at his own work. The audience gasps as they realize that one of the Japanese announcers, Milano, was knocked over during the slam, a lack of respect from Omega that nets him even more heat when, after a sick moonsault off the railing onto Tanahashi, he picks up Milano, raises his hand, and like a classic douchebag bully, sarcastically tells the crowd to give it up for “this guy! This guy, everybody!” Omega is really playing up his role here as the heel, even if he maintains that he's the hero in this story.

Well, the “hero” now has pulled a table from under the ring and set it up at ringside, which  never is actually used in the moment – this table will come into play later on in the match. And that's because Tanahashi catches Omega while he's setting it up—notably gaining an advantage while Omega is playing at orchestrating another car crash. Tana pauses and stares meaningfully at the table while Charlton, on commentary, reminds us that Tanahashi disdains hardcore wrestling. “A match should be decided in the ring, not with tables and chairs on the outside,” according to Charlton's take on Tana's philosophy. And to more effectively make his point, Tana grabs Kenny and makes like he's going to slam Kenny's head into the table, only to fake out the crowd and toss Omega back into the ring, leaving the table set up to be likely used later. Foreshadowing is fun!

With both men back in the ring, the advantage quickly shifting back and forth, we finally, around 15 minutes into the match, hit the first big momentum swing for the challenger, as Tanahashi catches a running kick attempt from Omega and twists it into one of the most vicious Dragon Screw legwhips I've ever seen. It's hard not to wince as Omega collapses, clutching his leg, and just like that, moments after Kenny cockily pointed to his own brain after ducking a slap from Tanahashi...we have established the Ace's target. It's time to work that knee. (Ironic, since the 42-year-old Tanahashi's knees are practically cartilage-free, something that is worked into almost all of his matches, making his knees the nominal target instead of those of his foes.) Tana strings together a dropkick and a summersault senton from the second rope before Omega rebounds with a Kitaro Crusher legdrop (with his good leg, mind you) that sends Tana back to the floor. The Young Bucks at ringside slap the apron in a Terminator-theme drum beat as Omega strikes his Terminator pose mid-ring, preparing for another dive out of the ring. But before Omega can crash his way to the outside, Tana rushes back into the ring and dropkicks the kneeling, preening Omega, only to be rewarded with a hurricanrana that sends him back to the floor. The Terminator finally rises, and Omega connects with an electrifying dive onto Tana while also landing hard onto his back on the walkway. High risk, high reward, high damage car crash offense.

With both men back in the ring, Omega takes control, going after Tana's neck with two Snapdragon suplexes before connecting with the first V-Trigger knee strike of the match. Kenny goes for the One-Winged Angel, but can't get Tana up, so he shifts and put the challenger on his shoulders for his “You Can't Escape” fireman's carry drop/moonsault combination. But as Kenny lands the fireman's carry drop and tries to reset for the moonsault, his knee buckles, still smarting from the Dragon Screw, selling the knee at a critical juncture. Tana pounces, grabbing the knee and delivering a second gnarly legwhip that explodes the crowd. Kenny is in agony.

Tanahashi follows up with a cloverleaf submission that Omega eventually twists out of, but then Tana delivers another message to Omega, center ring, in the form of a brutal Styles Clash, the legendary and controversial finishing move of Kenny's former Bullet Club stablemate, AJ Styles. It was Omega who orchestrated AJ's ejection from Bullet Club, deposing him as leader and putting Omega in charge, and Tanahashi knows what buttons to psychologically push. He heads to the top rope and launches off for his High Fly Flow top rope splash, only to crash down onto Omega's knees, sending the Ace rolling away in pain as Omega clutches his knees. They bailed him out but they're on fire, and perhaps Tana's finisher wasn't a total miscue. Kenny's stubborn, though—as Tana slumps into the blue corner, Omega charges at him for another V-Trigger knee strike, and Tana moves at the last second, while Kenny's injured knee crashes into the turnbuckle padding. No matter the damage being done, Kenny refuses to abandon his signature strikes, and it's causing him even more pain. Tana reaches through the ropes and delivers a third Dragon Screw, and can someone explain to me how Kenny's shin is still attached to the rest of his leg? With each legwhip, the crew I have assembled in my living room absolutely recoils. We're still rooting for Omega, and we feel every twist of his knee. The pain is shooting through the tv and jabbing us directly in our legs and our hearts.

And as we begin to fear the worst for Kenny, it happens. Tana hits him with a sling blade on the apron, and instead of throwing him back into the ring...this time, Tana fakes out the throw into the ring and slams Kenny down onto the table at ringside. We gasp. This is the exact sort of offense Tanahashi despises. Just twenty minutes earlier, he gave that table the stinkeye and purposely avoided it. Now, late in the match, smelling Kenny's blood, he decides to embarrass the champion by beating him with his own car crash offense. Our eyes widen as Tanahashi climbs the turnbuckle and prepares for what could be a match-ender: a High Fly Flow through the table. He aims. He leaps.

Kenny Omega rolls out of the way. Tanahashi crashes through the table. In embracing Omega's style, even for a second, the Ace has betrayed himself, and paid the price.

In my living room, we're shaking in our seats. Omega, refusing to take a countout victory, hauls Tana back into the ring and delivers a vicious power bomb, scoring the longest of two counts as Tana barely rolls his shoulder up. A second power bomb. Another two-count. A third. Another two-count. The Tokyo Dome crowd is white-hot as Kenny claws at his own face in disbelief. Tanahashi is barely conscious after his crash landing through Omega's ideology, but pure instinct is keeping him in the match. In my living room, we groan with each kickout. Our eyes are glued to the screen, our muscles tense with anticipation for what comes next. Every minute this match continues is another one where Kenny hasn't retained his title, and Ibushi hasn't made a miraculous return to ringside. The Tokyo Dome is nuclear, and our nerves are at DEFCON 1.  Kenny goes for a V-Trigger, and Tanahashi desperately turns it into a sling blade. “NO!” we scream.

Both men trade shots, slapping each other until there's another run to the ropes, where Kenny shocks the crowd and Tanahashi, felling the Ace with a sling blade of his own. There's an evil glint in Omega's eye as he decides to follow it up with his own insult, climbing the ropes and landing hard onto Tana's prone body with a High Fly Flow splash of his own! Red Shoes goes to count. Tanahashi kicks out at one.

I love the late-match one-count kickout. It's the ultimate crowd-popper, the ultimate show of an adrenaline rush from the wrestler about to mount a comeback on their third or fourth wind. And in this case, it's the ultimate fuck you to Kenny Omega, who just tried to beat the Ace of New Japan with his own finishing move. Kenny hits a sickening V-Trigger and both men are on their knees, sucking in air. At home, we're going absolutely mental. Kenny gets to his feet as Tana collapses. Kenny pulls him up. Tana slaps Omega, hard. Omega connects with another knee. He measures the challenger. Another knee. A third knee—no. Tana catches it, measures his shot, and dropkicks Omega's support knee, sending him to the mat. Omega jumps back up, tries for a Snapdragon, doesn't get it, but then stuns the Ace with a reverse-'rana, spiking Tana's head into the mat. Omega clutches his knee, still on fire.

Don Callis is screaming. “He needs the One-Winged Angel now! Line it up and hit it!” “Can he get him up with that knee?” Asks Charlton. Omega goes for one more V-Trigger and connects hard. But all those V-Triggers are hurting Kenny too. He gets Tana up on his shoulders for the One-Winged Angel, but before he can steady himself, Tana leans back and spikes Kenny with a reverse-'rana of his own! Omega is glassy-eyed, and the Tokyo Dome is unglued as dread sinks into us at home. Tanahashi tries to hop over the ropes, finally launching himself over to the apron to climb the turnbuckle, and his connects on a standing, staggering Omega with a High Fly Flow. Tanahashi immediately gets up, signaling to the fans, who cheer him on as he climbs the turnbuckle one more time. “The Bucks need to get him out of there!” Callis is screaming. “Get him out!” Tanahashi launches and lands yet another High Fly Flow. One, two...kickout! Omega's not done yet! I'm holding my head in my arms.

Tana climbs the turnbuckle a third time, but with his back turned to the ring, Omega strikes with a V-Trigger that barely has anything on it, but is enough to stun a gassed Ace. Omega slowly climbs the turnbuckle and wrenches Tanahashi into position...then Dragon Suplexes him to the mat from the top rope. It's a sickening landing, as Tanahashi turns all the way over and lands on his stomach and face, while Omega simply drops to the mat, landing hard on his back and sending shockwaves into his damaged knee. Tana is prone and reeling.

Eventually Kenny makes it to his feet, and with Tana slumped in the ropes, he winds up for one last V-Trigger. He cocks his fingers, makes the “bang!” motion at Tana's head, runs the ropes, and connects. It's vicious. He hoists Tana up onto his shoulders for the One-Winged Angel yet again. Yes. He sets. He spins Tana. Tana shifts his weight and collapses onto Omega, turning the One-Winged Angel into a makeshift Kitaro Crusher legdrop. Tana's immediately up and connects with a sling blade. Dammit.

When Tanahashi springs to life and hops to the top rope, vaulting back down onto Kenny's body, Omega almost sits up a little, arms out as if he's trying to catch the Ace. In reality, he probably is, and is probably trying to break his dance partner's fall. But in the moment of the match, as we're reeling from a roller coaster of back-and-forth emotion, it's almost as if Kenny is welcoming the end. Tana lands, and it's devastating. One. Two. Three.

All the tension rushes out of my body as the disappointment sets in and I sink back into the couch. But in Tokyo, both men lie on the mat, spent. The young lions rush in to apply ice packs to the backs of their heads. Omega looks exhausted, expressionless. But on the face of Hiroshi Tanahashi, now an eight-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion, there's a faint, satisfied smile underneath the closed eyes and bloodied nose. I did it. I did it.

In retrospect, it's the only outcome that could have happened. Knowing a little about the backstage politics at play, there was no way Kota Ibushi was ever going to be in this main event. Ibushi, famously averse to signing exclusive contracts, has kept himself out of regular title contention by not committing full-time to NJPW. And during the buildup to Wrestle Kingdom, the impending departure of the rest of Omega's friends in the Elite—The Young Bucks and Cody—to start a new American wrestling company, All Elite Wrestling, was well-known. The rest of the Elite was swept at WK, all losing their matches on their way out the door. But Omega's status wasn't as clear. Omega loves Japan. He's a Japanese citizen, and speaks the language fluently.

But after Wrestle Kingdom, he declared that he needed to leave New Japan for a while. After losing to the standard bearer of the old guard, perhaps NJPW wasn't the place for him right now. New Japan's not ready for Omega to change the world yet. Omega's contract expired at the end of January, and shortly thereafter, he was debuting in AEW—perhaps to change the world with a new promotion.

Kota Ibushi, however, stayed in New Japan, letting his Golden Lover go while finally signing that exclusive contract. So perhaps the IWGP Heavyweight title, and a Wrestle Kingdom main event, are finally in the future of the Golden Star.

But for now, while I ponder the excitement of the unknown future, I also mourn the loss of Kenny Omega in New Japan (for now). And when I think back to that WK13 main event, I think about how all the backstage speculation went out the window, as we lost ourselves in one of the most emotional, gripping main events I've ever witnessed. After over 30 years of wrestling fandom, I'm still able to lose myself in the moment and get wrapped up in the story, in the dance, in the thrill ride. This match moved me, almost to tears, and by god, I was its slave. And going back to re-watch it, I still get lost in it. That's the beauty of professional wrestling at its finest. When it's clicking, it doesn't matter what kind of fan you are—you're a kid again, and the story is real. That's worth a good cry.

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