It was one of the most shocking talent raids in wrestling history: Less than a day after Wrestle Kingdom 10, word got out that WWE had poached AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows from New Japan Pro Wrestling, effectively taking away one of the Japanese wrestling company’s biggest homemade stars, one of the biggest gaijin draws in the promotion’s history, and two popular members of its most popular stable. The wrestling world was stunned.
What followed was a masterful series of calculations by head booker Gedo, who, seeing loads of international momentum from the previous two years slipping away, got to work on building new stars from within. AJ Styles’ role as top gaijin was replaced by Kenny Omega, who went from junior heavyweight to heavyweight in mere weeks, before winning the IWGP Intercontinental Championship and G1 Climax Tournament. Shinsuke Nakamura, a singular personality at the top of the card in New Japan, was replaced with Tetsuya Naito, a man without the flash of Nakamura but who nonetheless drew crowds thanks to his irreverent, villainous character. And while the allure of the Bullet Club may be fading after almost four years, Naito’s Los Ingobernables de Japon grew into one of the company’s biggest attractions, with merchandise flooding arenas all over Japan.
As one star moved on, another was there to take his place. As journalist Dave Meltzer recently said on his radio show, when discussing the United States and Japanese wrestling scenes: “The thing is, we got one AJ [Styles]. They got like, three or four, and they all wrestle each other when it comes to these big shows.”
Still, reshuffling all that talent could lead to some major holes, so as the Tokyo Dome show rolled around again one year later, it offered the perfect opportunity to gauge the state of New Japan. And after watching Wrestle Kingdom 11 early Wednesday morning, it’s clear that the state of New Japan is strong.
The two main threads going into Wrestle Kingdom this year were Naito vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi for Naito’s Intercontinental Championship, and G1 winner Omega vs. IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada. Naito was riding his wave of popularity into his match with Tanahashi, and looking to avenge a particular insult from 2014: A fan vote put Tanahashi in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 8 against then-IWGP Intercontinental Champion Nakamura, despite Naito battling for the company’s main title. Fast-forward three years later, and Naito is one of the most talked-about wrestlers in the world, while Tanahashi, long known as the “Ace” of New Japan, is approaching the end of his career, oft-injured in 2016 and having passed the baton to Okada. Omega, meanwhile, was riding high as the first westerner to win the G1, and looking to solidify himself as the man who can showcase New Japan on a global stage.
While the top of the card was set, Wednesday’s undercard was more questionable, but mostly reached or exceeded expectations. The Young Bucks, one of the best tag teams in the world, dropped the junior heavyweight tag titles to Roppongi Vice in a typically fun match. Cody Rhodes debuted with a victory over Juice Robinson, who came away looking great in his most high-profile match to date. Adam Cole shocked everyone by defeating Kyle O’Reilly and becoming the first-ever three-time Ring of Honor champion, leading to speculation that O’Reilly is on his way to the WWE. The tag team of Tomohiro Ishii and the returning Toru Yano upset Bullet Club tag team Guerillas of Destiny and World Tag League winners GBH to win the heavyweight tag belts. In what was the sleeper hit of Wrestle Kingdom 11, Hirooki Goto defeated Katsuyori Shibata for the NEVER Openweight Championship in a hard-hitting 16-minute match that may have finally brought Goto to the next level in NJPW.
In the IWGP Intercontinental Championship match, Naito successfully exorcised the ghosts of 2014 by defeating Tanahashi, who has become as good at passing the torch in New Japan as John Cena has in the WWE. After about 25 minutes of back and forth, and as Naito landed his final Destino to defeat Tanahashi, it had become abundantly clear that Gedo was right to strap the rocket to Naito’s back. The Tokyo fans roared as he tossed his Intercontinental strap to the side, a disrespectful habit he’d taken to ever since winning the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in the beginning of the year.
Naito wasn’t the only Los Ingobernables member to walk away victorious: Hiromu Takahashi—who recently returned from his excursion to the UK, Mexico and Ring of Honor under the name Kamaitachi—defeated junior heavyweight “ace” KUSHIDA, and instantly helped breathe new life into a stagnant division. Before that, Evil, Bushi and Sanada won the NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship. Los Ingobernables de Japon walked away three-for-three with three title victories, and every member holding a championship, solidifying themselves as the new hottest faction in New Japan.
But to absolutely no one’s surprise, it was the main event that ultimately propelled Wrestle Kingdom 11 from a good show into a great one. For more than 45 minutes, Omega and Okada traded blows and reversals, crashing through tables and diving into the crowd. Much like Omega’s final days in the G1 tournament, this match had the kind of intensity that made you believe both men were doing everything they could to win. Omega kicked out of Okada’s Rainmaker, while trying over and over again to hit his own finisher, the One-Winged Angel, to no avail. In the end, it was Okada who would walk out the victor, and the true “Ace” of New Japan. But the match also succeeded in cementing Omega’s legacy with the company, and capping off his remarkable year as one of the best wrestlers on the planet. To put it simply, the match was an instant classic.
There’s no telling what comes next for New Japan Pro Wrestling. Later tonight (or early tomorrow morning, depending on where you’re located,) the company’s New Years Dash event will start new storylines, many of which will evolve throughout the year and lead into Wrestle Kingdom 12. In July, New Japan will come to the United States for two G1 Climax Tournament dates. Naito and Omega will likely continue their rise while wrestlers like Goto and Takahashi could prove to be bigger stars.
But no matter what, New Japan Pro Wrestling proved that, with good booking, they could weather any storm.
Paul DeBenedetto is Paste’s assistant wrestling editor.