From the moment that New Japan Pro Wrestling first ran a show at the Tokyo Dome in 1989, a few patterns quickly emerged:
1. Fans get thrown off by how sound “disappears” in the cavernous baseball stadium, so there’s an adjustment period before the fans can really make noise as a group.
2. To make matters worse, the more casual-fan-heavy crowd doesn’t react as much to the earlier matches, due to the lack of familiarity with the undercard wrestlers.
3. The junior heavyweight title matches, thanks to the above as well as the casual fans’ heavyweight bias, routinely don’t get over well.
Taken together, this meant that few, if any, really classic junior heavyweight title matches ever took place at the dome. Jushin Liger had some standout matches over the years with Akira Nogami, Koji Kanemoto and The Great Sasuke, but they weren’t at the level of the era’s best arena junior heavyweight bouts and were routinely outshone by the dome shows’ heavyweight matches.
In the modern era, one problem was solved, as the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title match is usually in the top part of the card. But even then, thanks to various factors, whether they’re Kenny Omega doing too much comedy, Ryusuke Taguchi’s relative mediocrity, or Low-Ki confusing the crowd (and getting fired) by working in Agent 47’s suit from Hitman, there still hadn’t been a classic. At least there wasn’t until KUSHIDA vs. Hiromu Takahashi (the former Kamaitachi) at Wrestle Kingdom 11 on Tuesday.
There are several different reasons for this. First and foremost, KUSHIDA is absolutely fantastic. He’s versatile, his in-ring style is unique, he has personality, and he embodies all of the best things about NJPW. Until recently, there had never been a full-on torch passing from Liger to one of the younger native junior heavyweight stars, and it was the right call for KUSHIDA to be the guy who Liger put over in that scenario. Takahashi, athletic as hell with tons of charisma on top of being a fresh face, became a perfect foil for him in the ring. Working together, they had an absolutely fantastic match full of creative new highspots that made total sense while building drama to a finish.
But this was in the Tokyo Dome. The crowd is a huge part of the match, adding excitement when they’re reacting and making the proceedings dull when they’re not. This time, thanks to the placement of the match in the bout order, the personalities involved, and the high-energy match full of impressive athleticism that made sense in a “pro wrestling context,” the crowd was with them at every turn
The match also signified that, once and for all, the worst trappings of the Liger era were dead and buried. As brilliant as Liger and his peers could be, they were sometimes prone to long stretches of mat wrestling that would be forgotten as soon as they moved to the next phase of the match. That sense of killing time always hurt the juniors at the dome, but it’s become less and less of a factor over the years, and now, with KUSHIDA and Takahashi at the forefront of the divison, it’s finally gone.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix as well.