As the new year rolled around, Wrestle Kingdom 11 was the show everyone wanted to talk about. On the day of the show, New Japan Pro Wrestling saw 10,000 new subscribers, more than half of whom came from the United States. And the show didn’t disappoint: After kicking off 2016 with uncertainty, New Japan came back strong, and Wrestle Kingdom 11 was the culmination of an impressive rebuilding year. Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega was the highlight of the show—sure to be a match of the year contender, despite airing on just the fourth day of the year—but there was plenty more to celebrate on that card, including arguably the greatest IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship match in Tokyo Dome history.
But now that you’ve subscribed, what’s next? It can be daunting to dive into a new promotion, especially when there might be a language barrier. This past two weeks, New Japan had its second big show(s) of the year, New Beginning. Taking place on Feb. 5 and Feb. 11, the New Beginning in Sapporo and the New Beginning in Osaka tied together storylines that began after Wrestle Kingdom and at the company’s follow-up show, New Year Dash. If you want to follow along with what’s going on in New Japan, here are four must-watch matches from those two days—including two more contenders for match of the year.
Okada followed a near-perfect match at Wrestle Kingdom with yet another near-perfect match against rival and Suzuki-gun leader, Minoru Suzuki, in a match that was so different than his battle with Omega that it just goes to show what a versatile wrestler he truly is. At New Year Dash, after a multi-man tag match, Suzuki and his army of former Pro Wrestling NOAH talent invaded New Japan in a surprise appearance and ransacked Okada’s stable Chaos. The battle set up a larger feud between Chaos and Suzuki-gun, but also a New Beginning IWGP Heavyweight Championship match against Suzuki himself, who, at the match contract signing, targeted Okada’s knee. The match was a pro wrestling master class, with Suzuki attacking the leg and Okada selling the knee like it was about to snap off. Okada’s manager (and New japan booker) Gedo worked magic outside the ring as well, almost throwing in the towel, in a scene reminiscent of Bret Hart vs. Bob Backlund in 1994. Over 40 minutes, you’re sure the match will go one way, then another. The final moments truly build Okada’s character, and show why he’s the guy at the top of the card.
Another one sure to be on everyone’s lists at the end of the year, IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion Hiromu Takahashi and Dragon Lee showed why it’s time to care about the company’s junior heavyweights again. The two men have put their style of match on around the world, in Mexico and the United States before heading to New Japan, and the match was as good as any they’ve had in the past. Takahashi defeated junior heavyweight “Ace” KUSHIDA at Wrestle Kingdom, and was poised to sit pretty at the top of the division before his old rival Lee showed up on New Japan soil for a title shot. When the two finally did go at it in Osaka, they left nothing on the field. Takahashi, the former New Japan Young Lion trainee, and Lee, with little more than three years experience, stole the show, putting on a clinic for a crowd that might not be as used to their high-flying style. Inevitably, KUSHIDA will be back in the picture to fight for his title sooner than later. But in the meantime, the division is in good hands.
Despite both being New Japan-contracted talents, the prize for this fight was for another promotion: Katsuyori Shibata defeated Zack Sabre Jr. for the Revolution Pro Wrestling British Heavyweight Championship in January, and Will Ospreay vowed to bring it back with him to the U.K. But beyond being a prize- and pride-fight, the match was also a way to show Ospreay was a major talent in New Japan. Throughout the match he took devastating strike after strike from one of the toughest pro wrestlers in the world, selling them to death and holding his own. He was also able to incorporate some of his own style in this match against Shibata, who is notably not a high-flyer. In the end, it worked: Ospreay proved he could hang, with an assist from a game Shibata, and both men walked away looking better than they did before.
The story for this match began months ago, when in September, Michael Elgin lost the IWGP Intercontinental Championship to Tetsuya Naito, and subsequently got put on the shelf with a real-life injury after a Naito dropkick to the eye socket in October, derailing a rematch. In a press conference after Wrestle Kingdom 11, where Elgin returned to action in a battle royal and Naito retained his belt, the former champion laid down the challenge, demanding his rematch in Osaka. The two men work extremely well together, as they proved in September at Destruction in Kobe, and earlier, in the G1 Climax Tournament. And while Naito has (rightfully) become everyone’s favorite wrestler, don’t forget that Elgin is one of the best big men working in pro wrestling today. The match played to his strengths, with Elgin using that power to at times dominate Naito. During one especially strong spot, he caught the champion during an outside dive and dropped him onto the entrance ramp with a suplex. Some false finishes toward the end helped to ramp up the drama. It was a match that, on any other card, would have been the match of the night. It’s a testament to New Japan that, on this night, it wasn’t.
Paul DeBenedetto is Paste’s assistant wrestling editor.