With WrestleKingdom getting ever closer, New Japan hit Korakuen Hall for the first of two year-end shows – and it’s a milestone for Okada, who finally got him some Gedo!

We’re taken inside Korakuen Hall before bell time so we can see… the Masked Horse! I have no words. After he’s done dishing out presents, we’ve got a rather more normal opening, rolling through the highlights of New Japan’s 2018. A LOT has happened… and it may well be quicker to just read through our reviews here than watch it all back! Kevin Kelly and Chris Charlton are on commentary – a Christmas wish fulfilled!

Ayato Yoshida, Yuya Uemura, Ren Narita & Toa Henare vs. KUSHIDA, Tomoaki Honma, Jushin Thunder Liger & Tiger Mask
Hmm, I wonder which team is eating the fall!

We start with Uemura and Liger on the mat, as commentary tell us that Yota Tsuji’s out with a broken nose at the hands of Minoru Suzuki. I’m just shocked it was sparring that did it, rather than Suzuki’s temper! Liger pulls Uemura into a seated surfboard, before the rookie got free and chopped Liger by the ropes, which just got the veteran mad.

In comes Honma, then Yoshida, as those two tee off on each other with forearms. Yoshida tries for a slam, but of course it’s too soon as Honma gets his off before he missed a Kokeshi. A suplex followed, as Yoshida started to trade slaps with Honma, then forearms from the guard as the pair rolled on the mat. In comes Tiger Mask, who scores with a dropkick to Narita, then a suplex as KUSHIDA came in and kept it simple with scoop slams. Liger’s back with a Romero special, then a Dragon sleeper as Narita was forced to hang on… Liger lets go and slams him so KUSHIDA could take a two-count, as the Young Lions team were really struggling.

A cartwheel dropkick from KUSHIDA finds its mark, but Narita scores with a belly-to-belly off the ropes as his team began a comeback. In comes Henare with shoulder charges, before he used KUSHIDA as the Terry Funk ladder en route to a Samoan drop for a near-fall. KUSHIDA’s back in with a DDT. Tiger Mask tags in but eats a back elbow in the corner from Uemura for just a one-count, as the Young Lions fill the ring, and score with a double-team suplex on Tiger Mask.

A Boston crab followed, but Liger eventually chops it away as Uemura came back with a dropkick to get rid of the veteran. From there though, Tiger Mask catches him in an armbar, with Yoshida barely making the save as we hit a Parade of Moves, with a spear from Henare wiping out Honma, before Narita ran into a Shotei from Liger. Uemura almost nicked the win with an O’Connor roll, but kicks from Tiger Mask, then a Kokeshi set up for a Tiger Driver as the veterans got the win. This was decent, but lacked a lot of the usual Young Lion fire. **½

Shota Umino vs. Shingo Takagi
It’s a singles debut for Shingo, and looking at the opponent… it’ll be a tough night but a valuable one for young Shota.

Umino isn’t too tentative here though, locking up with Shingo as the pair went to the mat, but Shingo came back up first… only to get taken to the ropes for a chop. He tried to return the favour, but Umino beat him to the punch as the newest member of LIJ was struggling to get out of the blocks. Takagi sidesteps a missile dropkick, and begins his comeback, clotheslining Umino to the outside, and after my feed stalls, we refresh as Umino’s trapped in leg scissors in the ring.

Takagi keeps up with a chop as Umino’s sent crashing into the ropes, before a suplex drew a near-fall. Umino thought he’d found an opening, but he has to take another chop as he stopped a Pumping Bomber with a dropkick. Forearms follow from Shingo and Umino, with the latter edging ahead as he went up top for a missile dropkick… this time finding his mark. Shingo’s quickly back though, taking Umino down for a back elbow off the top rope, before a barrage of elbows were replied to by Umino, who somehow ducked a Pumping Bomber and scored with a bridging German for a near-fall! Oh my word, that was close! In the end, Takagi just waffled Umino with a discus lariat… the Last of the Dragon nearly worked, but Takagi instead had to go for a Gory Bomb for a near-fall before the inevitable happened. PUMPING BOMBER!

Takagi wants to make an example of the Young Lion, going for the Last of the Dragon before getting the win. A dominant outing for Shingo, but Umino came a lot closer than he had any right to, given his placing. Can 2019 be the year Umino sheds the black tights? ***¼

Suzuki-gun (Minoru Suzuki & Takashi Iizuka) vs. Hirooki Goto & Rocky Romero
Yup. Jump start.

Suzuki went after Rocky while Iizuka choked out Goto at ringside. A ‘rana from Rocky took Suzuki down, but he’s quickly caught with a hanging armbar in the ropes before they headed outside into the guard rails and into the crowd. There’s some stretching in the crowd from Suzuki as Iizuka just brawled with Goto deep into the crowd, seemingly looking for a count-out as Suzuki tried to use a chair on Rocky.

Rocky has to drag himself back to beat the count-out, but he’s right into a cross armbreaker as Hirooki Goto came in to make a save… only to get caught in a leg lock for his woes as the referee lost whatever control he had. Romero’s thrown into the turnbuckles as Suzuki unmasks Iizuka… and you know what that means. Feeding time! Suzuki’s back as he invited Romero to throw his best shot, but of course that just suckered him in for some chops before a leaping knee finally caught Suzuki. As did an enziguiri, as Goto eventually tagged in… and wandered into some two-on-one offence. Goto tries to fight that off, suplexing Iizuka onto Suzuki before dishing out a back suplex to Suzuki for a two-count.

Suzuki fired back, snapmaring Goto for a PK for a near-fall, as the pair descended back into those thudding elbows. An attempted rear naked choke/Gotch piledriver combo’s stopped as Goto escaped and landed a clothesline, before both men tag out as Rocky had the unenviable task of getting past Iizuka. There’s clubbing forearms from Iizuka, but Rocky traps him into the corner for some Forever lariats, before Iizuka started to bite away again. Suzuki helps out with another PK for a near-fall for Iizuka, before Iizuka looked to use the Iron Fingers…

Goto stops him as he then dispatches of Suzuki with an ushigoroshi, before a clothesline to Iizuka took him into a roll-up from Rocky for the win. Eh, it’s the Yano finish I guess, but I guess this is to kinda set-up some possible trios for the pre-show at WrestleKingdom. This was nowhere near as bad as you’d have expected! ***

Suzuki-gun (Taichi, El Desperado & Yoshinobu Kanemaru) vs. Tomohiro Ishii & Roppongi 3K (SHO & YOH)
Taichi’s valet, Miho Abe, found her Santa robe as Taichi was a far-from-capable proxy for Zack Sabre Jr here.

There’s no jump start here, as YOH and Desperado began… but of course Kanemaru comes in to attack from behind as we got the early taste of the junior tag title match. SHO & YOH take Kanemaru outside with headscissors, before Desperado ate a low dropkick. Kanemaru’s back to stop YOH from springboarding in as the rather ragged start to the match continued, with everyone heading outside and into the guard rails.

There’s a spot of crowd brawling too… and a pretty lethargic series of stomps from Taichi too, as the Suzuki-gun trio were just having their way with YOH. Taichi chokes, before he booted YOH to the outside all while Tomohiro Ishii’s temper kept distracting the referee. YOH’s kept cornered as Suzuki-gun did the frequent tags gimmick, rotating around YOH to make sure he had no chance of escape.

Finally Desperado switches it up, but he leaps into a flying forearm from YOH… but he can’t make a tag as his apron had been cleared, so he has to shove the tag champions into each other before a pair of Dragon screws gave him enough time to tag in SHO. He scores with a leapfrog/dropkick before lifting Kanemaru to the outside, as SHO’s baseball slide dropkick took Kanemaru into the guard railings. SHO looked to follow up with a deadlift German to Desperado, but it’s escaped… SHO eventually hit it for a near-fall. Taichi’s in to charge through SHO, but a tag’s made out to Ishii, who gladly waffled Taichi with an elbow or two. Taichi tries to cut him off, but ends up running into a scoop slam before he tried to put his hand through a rather non-plussed Taichi.

Taichi manages to edge ahead somehow, clocking Ishii with a head kick in the corner… and off come the trousers! There’s an Axe Bomber too out of Taichi, as he surprised against Ishii. Kanemaru and Desperado come in to double-team Ishii as Taichi found he’d bloodied his chest, and it looked like Kanemaru was going for Deep Impact… and scored it as YOH had to dive in to make a save!

The ring fills up and clears as Kanemaru tried to spit whiskey at Ishii, before getting a near-fall from a wheelbarrow roll-up. Kanemaru manages to take Ishii off his feet with a clothesline, but the receipt from Ishii drew a near-fall before a sheer drop brainbuster got the win. This got good towards the end, but my God it took way too long to get going as the jump start and scrappy nature of the match made it hard to get into. ***

Los Ingobernables de Japon (Tetsuya Naito, EVIL, BUSHI & SANADA) vs. Bullet Club (Bad Luck Fale, Taiji Ishimori & Guerrillas of Destiny (Tama Tonga & Tanga Loa))
EVIL & SANADA had their World Tag League trophies, and yes, they look swish.

Remember when they looked to do this feud last year and it just didn’t click? At least this time we’re able to base it around the tag title match at WrestleKingdom, without the threat of some Bucks wandering in for now…

Ishimori and BUSHI get us underway with elbows, but BUSHI changes it up with a ‘rana before Naito came in. Wisely, Ishimori tagged out to Fale, as Naito looked to throw some elbows… but they barely fazed the Tongan, so Naito had to take him into the ropes and choke him with his boot as the pace was kept slow. Jado uses the Kendo stick as the Bullet Club found a lead, swatting Naito in the back before jabbing him in the throat on the outside, as it seemed that everyone but Fale went outside.

The Kendo stick stuff had Naito reeling, but he beats the count and rolled back into Fale just standing on him. Next up, the Guerrillas of Destiny double-team Naito, before we settled in with Tama suplexing Naito for a near-fall. Fale’s back with body blows to Naito, followed by Ishimori who just drives his boots in as Naito found himself in trouble. Tama returns to whip Naito into the corner, but he quickly takes an atomic drop and an enziguiri as Naito got himself a window of opportunity… that Fale slammed shut.

An attempted Grenade to Naito’s countered into a DDT as EVIL gets a tag in… and he goes straight for Tama… then Ishimori… then Tanga Loa, before some double-teaming from the tag champions backfired. SANADA tags in and scores a two-count from a back senton by EVIL, but SANADA’s offence ends when his standing moonsault was caught by Tama’s knees. He does manage to mount a comeback, including wiping out Jado with a plancha, before countering Tanga Loa’s slam into a Skull End.

That’s escaped and reversed as SANADA gets off a suplex, and things get wild as the ring fills up. It clears as BUSHI clocks Tanga Loa with a rear spin kick, before Tanga shoves him into the path of a Kendo stick shot from Jado. A clothesline nearly wins it as LIJ make a save, only for the Guerrillas to finish off BUSH with a top rope powerbomb for the win. Much like the last Suzuki-gun tag this took me a while to get into, but at least we didn’t have all the shenanigans… **¾

Gedo vs. Kazuchika Okada
Another special singles match here, but I smell a rat here as Gedo – complete with the classic Bullet Club theme – faced the music. Except Gedo claimed he’d been in a car crash, with a guy in a CHAOS t-shirt providing perfect timing.

Gedo tries to beg off, but out comes Okada to stop him from running off. Nice to see Kazu had the time to put his entrance robe on for this blood match. Okada tries to start the match as normal, saying he just wanted a match, not a “seven star classic”. Okada kicks away the crutch, and Gedo doesn’t fall down as the ruse was exposed! Except Gedo had some pepper spray that he sprayed in Okada’s face, along with the referee, before using some brass knuckles to lay out his former charge. The bell rings, and a two-count’s made, as Gedo then tosses Okada to the outside for the usual guard rail spots.

Gedo keeps up with a draping DDT off the guard rail as the one-sided nature of things continued. We’re back in the crowd as Gedo throws Okada into the crowd again, then buries him under some chairs as Gedo mouthed off to Rocky Romero, who’d joined commentary. Back in the ring, Gedo mocks the Rainmaker pose (fortunately, without the camera zoom), but that seemed to anger Okada, who finally got back in as he whipped Gedo into an exposed turnbuckle. The Okada comeback continued with a back elbow off the ropes, then another one into the corner as a DDT lands for a near-fall. Gedo tries to walk to the back, but Okada drags him back into the match, prompting Gedo to “apologise”. Yeah, it’s a ruse, and one that Okada saw through as he rocked Gedo with forearms and elbows in the corner as Jado made his way towards the ring, decked in Bullet Club garb like a superfan.

Okada clocks Jado, who tried to make it into the ring, but it’s a distraction so Gedo could fight back. We get a low blow and a Gedo clutch after Jado distracts the ref, and that almost led to the massive upset. From there, Gedo reached for the brass knuckles, but it’s another distraction as Jado came in and swung with the Kendo stick. He misses, but part of the stick flies into the crowd as we got a ref bump. Okada lands a neckbreaker slam, but the ref’s still out, prompting Jay White to come through the crowd and lay a beating to Okada. Chops have Okada reeling, as does a uranage as Rocky Romero left commentary to make a save. He catches White with a reverse spin kick before some Sliced Bread was caught and turned into a Blade Runner! Another Blade Runner looked set for Okada, but he slips out and lands a pair of dropkicks before finishing off Gedo with a tombstone!

There’s one more thing left… a Rainmaker… just as the referee returned to count the three. Very story-heavy as a match, but this was a notable slaying of a part of Okada’s past as he finally got something past the Bullet Club. ***

Post-match, Okada drew White into the ring for another brawl, but White edged out with a half-nelson suplex as as Okada’s music kept playing like we were watching a New Jack match.

Hiroshi Tanahashi, Will Ospreay, Togi Makabe & Toru Yano vs. The Elite (Golden☆Lovers (Kenny Omega & Kota Ibushi), Chase Owens & Yujiro Takahashi)
My, that is an eclectic team! Yano and Makabe throwing us back to the days of Great Bash Heel, as we mash up CHAOS and a few other faces.

The match starts with the expected staredowns ahead of the respective WrestleKingdom matches, and we start with Ibushi and Ospreay struggling with a tie-up, as Ibushi took his Tokyo Dome opponent into the ropes. Ospreay switched places, as we got a clean break before they traded off on shoulder tackles and kips ups.

Ospreay goes for a handspring off the ropes before cartwheeling out of an Ibushi headscissor… and going by that quick flurry, WrestleKingdom’s opening with a bang in three weeks’ time! Tags are made as Yano and Yujiro come in to switch up the pace, and yes, Yano removed a turnbuckle pad… allowing Yujiro to leap into the exposed corner. Chase Owens grabs the padding and uses it for, erm, a double-team clothesline on Yano as two handfuls of hair stopped the double-team.

Makabe comes in and keeps up the one-on-two motif, going into the corner for mounted punches on Yujiro. There’s a back suplex/neckbreaker from Yujiro and Owens, but they instead opt to tag in Ibushi rather than go for a pin. It kinda worked, as Ibushi kicked his way through Makabe for a near-fall as the Elite team swapped frequent tags, keeping Makabe away from anything resembling a tag out.

Yano gets involved with a boot to Yujiro in the ropes, but an errant clothesline from Makaba knocked him down before something wonky happened en route to Yano jabbing Yujiro with a chair. More tags finally got us to Omega and Tanahashi, who ran through a lightning sequence with Tanahashi slamming Omega ahead of a flip senton… but Omega stands up and stops him in his tracks. Instead, the pair tee off on each other with elbows and uppercuts, before Tanahashi “blocked” a V-Trigger, then skinned the cat… only to get lifted up into a One Winged Angel attempt that he countered out into a Twist and Shout neckbreaker.

Ibushi tries to make a save with a kick, before the Golden☆Lovers looked for a double-team… instead, Tanahashi scores with a Dragon screw then makes a tag as Ospreay springboarded into the ring for a neckbrekaer on Omega. A standing shooting star press is stopped by way of Omega’s knees, allowing Ibushi to try and take the upper hands, which he does so with a lariat after another nice flurry with Ospreay.

More tags follow as Chase Owens comes in, with the Elite absolutely smashing through Ospreay with triple-teams, including a fireman’s carry lungblower and a gutwrench powerbomb to Owens’ knees. Owens looked for a package piledriver, but Yano broke it up with a hair pull as we began a Parade of Moves, ending with a V-Trigger/head kick from the Golden☆Lovers to Tanahashi. Makabe avoids the same, landing clotheslines instead, as Ospreay wipes out Ibushi with a Sasuke special.

Back in the ring, Ospreay ate a slingshot death valley driver from Owens, who looked again for a package piledriver. Ospreay impressively flipped free of it before a Slingblade from Tanahashi left Owens open for a Storm Breaker as Ospreay picked up the win. Easily the best thing on the card, as this match more than whet your appetite for the opener and the closer of WrestleKingdom! ***½

As a show, the first half of the Road to Tokyo Dome was no great shakes. Seven matches which were perhaps highlighted by storytelling rather than in-ring action – the Gedo/Okada match ended up being more about the build to Okada/White than anything else, while we had a bunch of weird pairings to perhaps set up for that NEVER trios gauntlet. A solid show, but not a “must-see” if you’re pushed for time.