Antonio Inoki memorial spectacular card finalised
The full card is now final for Wrestle Kingdom 17, with a loaded lineup that showcases the pinnacle of professional wrestling today, while paying tribute and bidding fond farewell to the past.
Double Main event II: IWGP World Heavyweight Championship: Jay White vs Kazuchika Okada
Singles record: 4-1 White
Headlining the special Antonio Inoki memorial event will be G1 Climax winner Kazuchika Okada challenging IWGP World Heavyweight Champion Jay White. Okada has been carrying the legacy of NJPW and its founder Antonio Inoki on his shoulders as he’s battled through the 50th Anniversary year of 2022, and now will pit his fighting spirit against that of the World Heavyweight Champion.
Yet Jay White owns a 4-1 record against the Rainmaker, and odds may be long against Okada even in his de facto home territory of the biggest stage in professional wrestling. After victories over Okada led teams in New York, White stumbled somewhat at Battle Autumn November 5 before delivering a profound message to hsi challenger in Sendai. The image of Jay White standing over a fallen Okada after a Bladerunner, his boot on the throat of his challenger, is one that is hard to shake from December 14. Will it be the same image that closes January 4, as Jay White takes the microphone for a ‘1-2-3-Daa!’?
LEC Presents Double main event I: IWGP United States Championship: Will Ospreay vs Kenny Omega
Singles record: 1-0 Omega
Will Ospreay will defend the IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship against Kenny Omega. With his eye catching style in the ring, controversial character outside of it, and ruthless killer instinct, Ospreay was always bound to meet comparisons to Kenny Omega ever since ‘The Cleaner’ departed NJPW to help found All Elite Wrestling.
Some biting comments in the media only added fuel to those fires, and direct physicality would follow when the United Empire faced the Elite in AEW’s tournament to crown their first trios champions. In Ariake on November 20, a video message from Omega and a fast confirmation from Ospreay quickly laid the framework for what will doubtless be the most anticipated match on the Tokyo Dome card for many, and may be the most anticipated matchup on any card for 2023. Just who deserves the label of ‘Best Bout Machine’, and as the IWGP US title only continues to raise in status, who leaves with the belt? On a night truly worthy of having double main event status, Omega and Ospreay will both fight to be the lasting memory of this most memorable of events.
7th Match: IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship: Taiji Ishimori vs Hiromu Takahashi vs El Desperado vs Master Wato
The IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship will be on the line when Taiji Ishimori defends against Master Wato, Hiromu Takahashi and El Desperado in a four way match. After Ishimori won the junior title at Dontaku on May 1, and defended against Hiromu in Korakuen after Best of the Super Jr., the Bone Soldier appeared to set himself out as the ‘big one’ in a junior heavyweight ‘big three’ consisting of himself, Desperado and Hiromu.
Ishimori has been far from a fighting champion. After refusing to grant KUSHIDA a title shot, Master Wato stepped up to fill the void in the wake of the Timesplitter’s illness, and stunned the champ with Recientemente II at Declaration of Power in Ryogoku october 10. Now Ishimori has no choice but to defend his title against not one but three contenders, but will do so with the longest gap between title matches in the belt’s 35 year history. Ishimori may be more concerned about his champion status than he’s let on up to this point, and all three challengers are more hungry than they have ever been.
6th Match: Keiji Muto’s Last NJPW Match: Keiji Muto, Hiroshi Tanahashi & Shota Umino vs Los Ingobernables De Japon (Tetsuya Naito, SANADA & BUSHI)
As Keiji Muto brings an iconic near 40 year career to a close in February, his last match in New Japan Pro-Wrestling sees a very fitting six man tag. Muto’s influence on Hiroshi Tanahashi is impossible to deny when talking about either the Ace or the Genius, and 13 years removed from the Tokyo Dome IWGP Championship match that finally saw Tanahashi defeat Muto on the grand stage to take his place as Ace, the two team up on January 4.
As Hiroshi Tanahashi became Hiroshi Tanahashi under the spell of ‘Muto-ism’ though, it seems hard to deny that a spirit of ‘Tanahashi-ism’ beats within the Roughneck, Shota Umino. Umino’s electric charisma and presence make the young man an irresistible prospect for the future to come, and a past, present and future team that makes for an impressive trio.
Opposite them, Los Ingobernables De Japon have all had their own connections to Keiji Muto. Tetsuya Naito’s pre-LIJ years would see him earmarked the ‘Stardust Genius’, and the branding was apropros for a man who grew up buying a ticket to watch Muto thrill audiences across the country. In 2012, that led to Naito challenging Keiji Muto to a special singles match inside the Tokyo Dome; while Muto was impossible to overcome that night, he heads into 2023 with the benefit of experience, a renewed drive, and his own ungovernable charisma.
Meanwhile BUSHI and SANADA’s paths in pro-wrestling had their start in an All Japan Pro-Wrestling with Muto as president. SANADA in particular wears his Muto influence on his sleeve, his past seeing him follow Muto from AJPW into Wrestle-1 before landing in NJPW in 2017. It’s an eclectic cast of characters in this final walk down the ramp for Keiji Muto in NJPW, and one that closes a deeply significant chapter while providing a glimpse into the next.
5th Match: NEVER Openweight Championship: Karl Anderson vs Tama Tonga
Singles record: 2-0 Anderson
The lights don’t get any brighter than the Tokyo Dome, and that means that Karl Anderson will be present as he defends the NEVER Openweight Championship against Tama Tonga. After a two month delay thanks to a brazen walk out, Anderson finally defended the NEVER gold against Hikuleo December 14 in Sendai, and after a Gunstun against the run of the match, came away still with his title reign intact.
Tama Tonga would be quick to confront the champion. Hikuleo’s older brother was himself robbed of the NEVER gold back in June thanks to the presence of Doc Gallows; before he could issue a challenge to a rematch, he too would be struck with a Gunstun before Anderson left with the words ‘see you at Wrestle Kingdom’. This clash of one time mentor and protege now sees Tama tasked with the mission to bring back the gold from around the waist of a deserting Machinegunbefore he can hold it hostage any longer.
4th Match: NJPW World TV Championship- Ren Narita vs Zack Sabre Jr.
More history is made at Wrestle Kingdom 17 as the first ever NJPW World Television Champion will be crowned, Ren Narita taking on Zack Sabre Jr. As both advanced through the high pace, 15 minute time limit tournament, Narita would speak passionately about a changing of the guard in new Japan Pro-Wrestling, one that he would champion as the ‘Son of Strong Style’. Yet ZSJ has also spoken about being the true successor of that mantle. Philosophies will collide over what would be either man’s first NJPW branded singles championship, but will it be Sabre-ism or Narita-ism that defines this brand new title?
3rd Match: IWGP Tag Team Championships: FTR (Dax Harwood & Cash Wheeler) vs Bishamon (Hirooki Goto & YOSHI-HASHI)
December 14 saw Bihsamon’s Hirooki Goto and YOSHI-HASHI victorious in the most hard fought World tag League final of tournament history over Aussie Open in Sendai Sun Plaza Hall. On an event dedicated to Antonio Inoki, Bishamon certainly represent the indomitable fighting spirit and persistency that has led them to success against all odds.
For the challengers then, it is all the more important that the IWGP tag team Championships are brought back to New japan Pro-Wrestling from AEW’s FTR. Yet as the Top Guys have had to come up against some difficult results in AEW and ROH in recent weeks, they will be redoubling their efforts to retain the IWGP gold, and continue to set the standard of tag team competition into 2023.
2nd Match: IWGP Women’s Championship: KAIRI vs Tam Nakano
Historic X-Over in Ariake Arena on November 20 ended with an emotional main event war that saw KAIRI overcome Mayu Iwatani and make history as the first ever IWGP Women’s Champion. It wasn’t long however before she was confronted by her first challenger in Cosmic Angels’ Tam Nakano. Having risen to the fore in STARDOM during KAIRI’s time in WWE, Nakano had an iconic 304 day reign as Wonder of STARDOM Champion that shaped perceptions of the ‘Cutest of the Cosmos’ in the same way that KAIRI’s year with the title in 2016 had. When KAIRI did voyage back to STARDOM in 2022, it was with a respect for Nakano that saw her face Tam on her return tag match in March, and then team with her opposite Queen’s Quest two months later.
KAIRI has to acknowledge the vicious duality of Nakano, a competitor whose ‘kawaii’ aesthetic is offset with an intense predilection for violence. As Nakano promised a ‘special kind of hell’ for her opponent in the Tokyo Dome, the first Womens Championship reign may not be a long one.
1st Match: IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships: Catch 2/2 (Francesco Akira & TJP) vs CHAOS (Lio Rush & YOH)
Tag record: 1-0 Catch 2/2
The first bout of Wrestle Kingdom 17 proper sees the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships defended, Catch 2/2 putting the belts on the line against Lio Rush and YOH of CHAOS.
On November 21, Korakuen Hall saw Super Junior Tag League 2022 kick off with a loss for the new combination of YOH and Lio to TJP and Francesco Akira. As the CHAOS side showed clear potential, the sense of two individuals combining as a team for the first time was hard to shake, and Catch 2/2’s cohesiveness saw them to a relatively comfortable win.
Yet the journey for YOH and Rush was just beginning. With each bout, their in ring chemistry improved, and with a stunning hard fought victory in Sendai, the CHAOS duo won the Super Junior Tag League on their first attempt, Rush completing his Japanese debut tour with the trophies, and YOH seizing his fourth career tag league prize. Now with the team unity required to take championship gold, will we see new champions crowned, or can TJP and Akira retain to kick off a big night for the United Empire?
Antonio Inoki Memorial Match: Yuji Nagata, Satoshi Kojima & Togi Makabe vs Tatsumi Fujinami, Tiger Mask & Minoru Suzuki
After the two opening bouts, a special ceremony will celebrate Antonio Inoki, and commemorate his legacy in professional wrestling. The ceremony will be followed by a special Antonio Inoki Memorial Match that will see two teams of three men with deep ties to NJPW’s founder. The third generation members of Yuji Nagata and Satoshi Kojima would later be joined by Togi Makabe in an era when Inoki’s in ring career was winding down, but his presence on the world stage and as the Chairman of NJPW was undeniable. Inoki would have a hand in all three men’s training, and instilled the traditions of fighting spirit in each.
With Tatsumi Fujinami and Minoru Suzuki, Inoki’s interactions were more immediate. Fujinami was one of the NJPW’s first generation of young talent who spearheaded a golden age for New Japan in the prime time 1980s era; an era that would also see the meteroic rise of the original Tiger Mask. As Satoru Sayama is unable to hit the ring for this significant bout, his direct disciple in the fourth generation Tiger will take his place. Added to the mix is Minoru Suzuki, who was Inoki’s attendant as a teenager in the Noge Dojo, and who wrestled his master in a significant and controversial opening contest in 1989 that went a long way to creating the King we know today.
As Suzuki embarks on his own new era, disbanding Suzuki-Gun at the end of 2022, this memorial match is an apropos battle of Inoki contemporaries and students, and a fitting tribute to a great man.
Kickoff Match 2: KOPW 2023 Qualifier New Japan Ranbo
Nothing gets the new year started like a good old fashioned New Japan Ranbo! Since 2021, a Ranbo with random timed entries, and plenty of surprises on January 4 had determined a four way on January 5 to decide who first holds the KOPW trophy for the year. The last two years have seen Chase Owens go the distance in the Ranbo, with 2021 having him joined by Bad Luck Fale, BUSHI and Toru Yano, and 2022 bringing Yano, Minoru Suzuki and the surprise entrant CIMA to the KOPW table. This year, the number of entrants is a mystery, but we do know the final four participants will advance to a four way match at New Year dash on January 5 to determine the first KOPW 2023 holder.
Kickoff Match 1: Three Minute Exhibition- Ryohei Oiwa vs Boltin Oleg
The first of two kickoff matches will see the debut of Kazakh heavyweight prospect Boltin Oleg in a three minute exhibition with Ryohei Oiwa at 3:20PM local. 29 year old Oleg was introduced to fans before Declaration of Power back in October and is now given the chance to show himself in front of the fans for the first time. Ryohei Oiwa is a collegiate All Japanese collegiate amateur, but Oiwa was a World Championship level force on the amateur mats, and the three minute exhibition format will be in his favour. Despite Oiwa’s advantage in pro experience, might Oleg get his hand raised on his debut?