Hiroshi Tanahashi started 2019 back at the top of the mountain
<– 2018: Rough Naito 2020: Double Gold Dash–>
One year after Kazuchika Okada defeated Tetsuya Naito in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 12, the big surprise on January 4 2019 was that neither man was in the main event at the Tokyo Dome. Okada ended a four year streak of main events, and six year streak of IWGP Heavyweight Championship matches, instead falling to Jay White in his lowest position on the Wrestle Kingdom card since 2012.
The main event went to Kenny Omega, who had taken the IWGP Heavyweight Championship from Okada the prior June, taking on Hiroshi Tanahashi. For Tanahashi, entering the 20th year of his career and with injuries mounting, a victory in the 2018 G1 Climax was a key moment of pride for the Ace, and the continuing strength of his own professional wrestling philosophy. The classical Tanahashi did battle with the athletic and vicious Omega in the Dome.
The contrasting philosophies of both men came through in a match that saw Tanahashi try and succeed with a scientific approach and his oft seen Dragon Screws; when the Ace tried to play Omega at his own game, a High Fly Flow through a table saw him crash and burn on the floor. As Omega took advantage with a brutal Dragon Suplex off the top rope, Tanahashi clung to life, and had a counter ready for the One Winged Angel, following up with a High Fly Flow to secure his eighth IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
As for Okada, he would be opposite the emergent Switchblade Jay White. Making his return from excursion in November 2017, White was ultimately defeated in his first match back by Tanahashi for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship at Wrestle Kingdom 12. Yet his potential attracted a lot of suitors, including Kenny Omega and BULLET CLUB, whom he turned down to join CHAOS.
Jay White would quickly capture the IWGP United States Championship, finding success under the CHAOS banner, but it was clear he didn’t endear himself to his teammates as he craved success and power. Turning on Okada that September, he and Gedo split from their group and joined BULLET CLUB under their own volition at King of Pro-Wrestling. Okada was consumed with anger toward a one time father figure in Gedo, and a turncoat in Jay White leading to a memorable singles encounter between the two, one which saw White defeat Okada in convincing fashion, starting a trend of success over the Rainmaker in Japan that was only brought to an end in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 17 four years later.
One year after himself coming up short against Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, Tetsuya Naito found himself competing for the IWGP Intercontinental gold- by Destino if not by design. Naito’s reigns with the Intercontinental Championship had been marked with disdain for the white and gold belt, a disdain that had seen him destroy the title beyond recognition before Tanahashi restored the title in the summer of 2017. Yet as that belt found its way back to its fated holder, Chris Jericho would see to it that El Ingobernable’s reign was brief.
Jericho’s violent victory over Naito at Dominion in 2018 was a dominant statement of intent, but one that Naito took relatively in his stride. Indeed, Naito would taunt the new champion for weeks with video messages before a violent press conference attack led to their championship rematch being designated a no DQ war. The match started as the two men intended to go on, Naito jumping Jericho before the bell and delivering a piledriver on the entrance ramp, while the champion responded with a DDT to make a neat round Naito head shaped hole on the timekeeper’s table. Yet Naito’s Destino would see him be the IC Champion at the end of the night, eventually leading to a declaration that saw a massive shift in NJPW.
On a bad night for the incumbent champions, every title changed hands at Wrestle Kingdom 13. That included the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, held by KUSHIDA at the end of 2018. Hiromu Takahashi had looked to be in shape for a legendary run with the junior gold, having defeated then new BULLET CLUB member Taiji Ishimori in the Best of the Super Jr. final and then beating Will Ospreay at Dominion to lift the gold. But disaster struck when his neck was seriously injured a month later in San Francisco. KUSHIDA would win a tournament to lift the vacated title, but was confronted by the BOSJ runner-up.
It was a match between two master of limb manipulation, with Ishimori working toward a LeBell Lock as KUSHIDA tried to navigate the Hoverboard Lock. Ishimori was in danger when KUSHIDA nearly had the hold in, but Ishimori had too much strength in his left arm and worked free again and again before rolling into Bloody Cross and securing the IWGP Junior heavyweight title in convincing fashion. KUSHIDA would leave NJPW later the next month always wanting another go around with Ishimori- he wouldn’t get it until Best of the Super Jr. in 2023, where Ishimori once again had the upper hand.