Kazuchika Okada and Shingo Takagi headline the first night of this year’s WrestleKingdom, as New Japan looked to get their 2022 off to a hot start.

Quick Results
Minoru Suzuki, Chase Owens, Toru Yano & CIMA were the last four men standing in the New Japan Ranbo at 27:14 (**)
YOH pinned SHO in 12:32 (**½)
KENTA, Taiji Ishimori & El Phantasmo defeated Hiroshi Tanahashi, Rocky Romero & Rysuke Taguchi via disqualification at 8:40 (**¼)
Will Ospreay, Jeff Cobb & Great-O-Khan pinned BUSHI, SANADA & Tetsuya Naito in 9:27 (**½)
Katsuyori Shibata pinned Ren Narita in 11:46 (***½)
EVIL pinned Tomohiro Ishii in 12:10 to win the NEVER Openweight Championship (*)
YOSHI-HASHI & Hirooki Goto pinned Taichi & Zack Sabre Jr. in 15:27 to win the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship (***½)
El Desperado pinned Hiromu Takahashi in 16:18 to retain the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship (***¾)
Kazuchika Okada pinned Shingo Takagi in 35:44 to win the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship (****½)

Watching on-delay with remote English commentary from Kevin Kelly and Chris Charlton who aren’t and are in Japan respectively… we’re at the Tokyo Dome for the opening night of what’s becoming the norm for WrestleKingdoms.

New Japan Ranbo
The final four in this qualify for a four-way to crown the provisional KOPW 2022 holder…

Chase Owens and Aaron Henare were the first two out, and this year everyone’s coming from the stage rather than through the side entrance. We’re dealing with a 19-man field, as we have the Young Lions out next – first Kosei Fujita, then Yuto Nakashima, before Ryohei Oiwa completed the set. It didn’t go well for the Young Lions mind you, as they took their beating, before Master Wato and Hiroyoshi Tenzan resumed the “main roster” entrants.

Minoru Suzuki’s next as the ring continues to fill up, as he taps out the Young Lions – first Fujita, then Nakashima, before Satoshi Kojima came out… just in time for Ryohei Oiwa to get choked out. TAKA Michinoku’s sweary theme is next, but he’s quickly caught with a TenKoji Cutter as we have a surprise entrant in…

CIMA?! The StrongHearts member’s here representing the GLEAT promotion (pronounced as in “late”) and instantly pins TAKA with a Meteora. Tomoaki Honma’s next, before CIMA ducked as Master Wato just eliminated himself with an errant dropkick. DOUKI’s out next, then Yuji Nagata and Yoshinobu Kanemaru… Tenzan’s pinned by Kanemaru, while Togi Makabe’s entrance gets silence in place of an overdub track.

Kojima’s pinned via a piled-on Backdrop Hold from Nagata, as Bad Luck Fale joined the fray. Everyone jumped the big man, but Fale powers out as DOUKI, Kanemaru, Honma and Nagata are thrown out. Tatsumi Fujinami’s in next as part of his 50th anniversary in wrestling, complete with some funky disco beats as they found HIS overdub.

A Dragon screw from Fujinami has Fale down, before Makabe clotheslined the big guy out of the match. Toru Yano’s the last man in, so we’re now looking for the final four as Makabe tried to cheapshot Fujinami, only to get taken down for a Figure Four. Yano low bridges Henare out of the ring, while CIMA and Owens were pushed onto Fujinami and Makabe… and that’s a double pin… and that’s all folks! Minoru Suzuki, CIMA, Chase Owens and Toru Yano are our final four, with Yano again qualifying for the KOPW 2022 match by doing the bare minimum. He still got a kicking afterwards… **

It’s the third time in a year these two have met, after SHO turned on his former tag partner last summer… with this match being sparked by SHO trying to ruin the Best of the Super Junior finals last month.

They’re too busy showing Togi Makabe in a sports jacket I swear that my 86 year-old dad has, so we miss the opening as YOH jumped SHO before the bell… they tease a Direct Drive onto the ramp, before SHO used a ringside attendant as a human projectile on YOH. Ryohei Oiwa’s slammed onto YOH next, as SHO looked for a cheap count-out…

Of course, that didn’t happen as YOH returned to the ring and hit a Dragon screw, before a Direct Drive was blocked as SHO tries to come back with kicks. An eye rake has more luck, before SHO used the ref as a distraction ahead of a spear. Stomps looked to follow, before a powerbomb and a cross-armed piledriver drew a near-fall for SHO.

YOH floats out of a Shock Arrow and rolled through into the Star Gazer, which was the cue for Dick Togo to come down to mask SHO tapping. SHO fights back, pulling YOH into the Snake Bite, which almost caused a stoppage, but YOH got to the ropes after a struggle. Cue the spanner, but YOH ducks it and after shoving SHO into Togo, he nicks the win with a Five Star Clutch. This didn’t really have the urgency or aggression you’d expect, so you know what that likely means… this feud must continue! **½

Hiroshi Tanahashi, Ryusuke Taguchi & Rocky Romero vs. Bullet Club (KENTA, Taiji Ishimori & El Phantasmo)
I hear you like preview undercard tags on your WrestleKingdoms…

ELP and Rocky get going with headscissors and escapes, before ELP’s missed stomp to Rocky’s hands seemed to hurt himself. Taguchi tags in as Rocky pushed off him for some Sliced Bread, before Taiji Ishimori came in to confound Taguchi with some misdirection ahead of an atomic drop.

Taguchi shakes it off to hit a hip attack as the Mega Coaches pulled ahead. KENTA threatened to divert them, as Tanahashi accidentally assisted KENTA in thrusting his fingers into Taguchi’s nether regions, before things spilled outside with those two. In the ring, Taguchi’s balls are stomped on as ELP and Ishimori hit the Gas Pedal, before we got the back rakes.

An attempt to recover sees Taguchi whiff on a hip attack, before a ref bump allowed KENTA to use a Kendo stick on Tanahashi. Eventually Tanahashi kicks it away as Rocky and Taguchi wipe out ELP and Ishimori with planchas… Tanahashi grabs the Kendo stick and uses it… but the ref’s back up and sees it, and there’s your DQ. Tanahashi snapped, and that’s a match and a finish that we should have had on the pre-Christmas Korakuens. **¼

United Empire (Will Ospreay, Jeff Cobb & Great-O-Khan) vs. Los Ingobernables de Japon (Tetsuya Naito, SANADA & BUSHI)
Another warm-up of sorts, as Cobb and O-Khan take on Naito and SANADA tomorrow… and this match was witness to some questionable fashion choices, both in Will Ospreay’s dressing gown, and Tetsuya Naito’s new studded leather jacket.

We’ve a jump start as Cobb and Naito start us off… but an early Combinacion Cabron’s blocked by Cobb, who charged Naito down instead. On the outside, Naito’s taken into the rails, before O-Khan’s Mongolian chops back inside nearly put away the former double champion.

Eventually some triple-teaming manages to turn things around, as Naito takes out Cobb’s knee ahead of their match tomorrow, before O-Khan came in… and was put in a Paradise Lock by SANADA. A turnaround sees O-Khan tease a plancha to SANADA, but it’s faked out as O-Khan put the boots to SANADA, trying to pin him with almost a European clutch.

From there, a head and arm choke on the mat kept SANADA in trouble briefly, before BUSHI came in to hit a DDT. O-Khan avoids a Fisherman Screw and took down BUSHI, as Ospreay tagged in to hit a springboard forearm before a Storm Breaker drew in Naito to spark a Parade of Moves among all six men, ending with a pop-up powerbomb from Ospreay, then a Hidden Blade as Ospreay left with the win. This felt a lot like a “road to” tag, but I guess needs must when it comes to rounding out these cards. **½

Ren Narita vs. Katsuyori Shibata
Once Minoru Suzuki had come out for the Ranbo, people’s minds started racing as to who X could be… Ren Narita got the nod, coming out to the LA Dojo music, which may suggest this isn’t a permanent return.

This was Shibata’s first Tokyo Dome match since he lost the NEVER Openweight title to Hirooki Goto five years ago… but the advertised catch wrestling rules were thrown out at bell time. Understandably, this one started out a little tentatively, but a Figure Four from Shibata ends in the ropes as Narita tried to fight back, only to run into almost a STO.

Shibata digs into his old playbook for the hesitation dropkick, cracking Narita in the corner, before Narita came in with the Narita Special #3 leg lace… but of course that didn’t get the submission, as Shibata struck back, slapping Narita into position for a PK as Shibata left with the win. A solid “day one” return for Shibata, who quite honestly didn’t look like he had any of that proverbial ring rust – and with commentary playing the rule change as “Shibata going into business for himself,” the question now is how much can New Japan hold off on someone who believes he’s 100%? ***½

New Japan announced their return to AXS TV in the US from March 3…

NEVER Openweight Championship: EVIL vs. Tomohiro Ishii (c)
This was set up after the World Tag League wrapped up, as the House of Torture of course want to start 2022 the way they ended 2021.

You know the score. Dick Togo takes off the corner pad, Dick Togo gets involved, we lose our minds. EVIL joins in the party as he used the referee as a human shield, which led to Ishii accidentally clotheslining him. New Japan, everybody!

Dick’s back in to choke Ishii… Yujiro Takahashi’s in too, but he Keystone Cops himself into the exposed corner, only for SHO to come out and attack. YOH runs out to make the save, as we actually start to get the match. EVIL tries a mule kick, but Ishii avoids it, then hits a lariat for a near-fall as YOH continued to keep a tight grip on Dick at ringside.

Ishii went for the sheer drop brainbuster, but Yujiro comes in for a low blow. An EVIL belt shot’s next, then Everything is EVIL, and that’s how Ishii’s big time singles match at the Dome ends. In bullshit. And a perfect example of the sort of match that pushed me away from being a New Japan completist. *

IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship: Hirooki Goto & YOSHI-HASHI vs. Dangerous Tekkers (Zack Sabre Jr. & Taichi) (c)
Goto and YOSHI-HASHI won World Tag League – and Goto’s looking to win the IWGP tag titles for the first time in nearly seven years. Miho Abe was out with Taichi again, as she’s sticking around for the big matches…

An even start breaks as Taichi and Sabre looked for duelling submissions, before a Holy Zack Driver attempt was blocked by Goto. Instead, a double team back suplex/uranage on Goto lands for a near-fall, before YOSHI-HASHI stopped another Holy Zack Driver as Goto tried to win with a roll-up. Taichi and YOSHI-HASHI had a go, with a Dangerous backdrop nearly ending things, before YOSHI-HASHI’s snap Dragon suplex got him close.

Double-teaming leads to a superkick-assisted ushigoroshi from Goto, before a Shoto nearly put away Taichi – with ZSJ breaking up the pin. A Gedo clutch nearly nicks it for Taichi, who had to go it alone… only to take a Destroyer from YOSHI-HASHI before the Naraku double-team full nelson powerbomb gets the win as Dangerous Tekkers were blown out. Now if this means we get Sabre in a singles run after his G1 last year, I’ll not be mad, but this felt weird – especially given how dominant Dangerous Tekkers have been. ***½

Kevin Kelly’s saying the quiet part out loud about how thin the tag division is – and how we might need to have singles guys team up until borders open up…

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship: Hiromu Takahashi vs. El Desperado (c)
Time for Hiromu to save the show, eh? The junior heavyweight title matches have been a shoo-in for a title change in recent years here, and Hiromu will be hoping that continues for another year.

We’ve got a whole lotta strikes to start with, with chops and forearms being the order of the day before Desperado’s misdirection spear was caught and met with the D. Desperado got free and took things outside for a tope con giro, before a sunset bomb from Hiromu kept the high pace up.

Returning to the ring, Desperado manages to hit a spinebuster and a Guitarra de Angel in quick succession for a two-count, before a splash off the top gets another two-count. Hiromu’s pop-up powerbomb offered a response, as did a belly-to-belly into the buckles, before a Dynamite Plunger nearly got Hiromu the win.

Hiromu pushes on some more, setting up for a Time Bomb, but Desperado’s crucifix countered it ahead of a blocked Pinche Loco, so Desperado muscles his way in with Numero Dos. Hiromu escapes and hits a clothesline, before Victory Royale led to Desperado pulling out an El Es Claro for a near-fall.

Desperado continues with a Jig ‘n’ Tonic for a near-fall, before Hiromu ‘rana’d out of a Pinche Loco… only to run into a right hand. Pinche Loco followed, but Desperado rolls through to hit a second one, only for Hiromu to float out and nearly snatch the title with a Hiromu Roll. The pair trade punches as another Pinche Loco’s rolled… Desperado hits two in a row… and that’s the clean as a sheet win. Save for a spell in the middle of the match, Hiromu never really felt like he was close to a win in this wild spring – so where does he go from here in the juniors? ***¾

IWGP World Heavyweight Championship: Kazuchika Okada vs. Shingo Takagi (c)
We’ve a rematch from Dominion – the match where Shingo won the then-vacated IWGP title… as Kazuchika Okada had to win the G1 to get back here, where he was borrowing some of his new look from Antonio Inoki of old.

They keep this one on the mat to start with, as Okada looked to dictate the tempo, dropping Shingo down for an elbow drop to the back. Heading outside, Shingo looked for a Made in Japan, but ends up getting DDT’d onto the floor… only to monster up and hit a suplex on the rebound.

Back inside, Shingo keeps control, squashing Okada with a back senton before Okada hit back, dropkicking Shingo off the top rope before scoring with a leaping crossbody over the guard rails as Shingo took a nasty bump into the guard rails. Back inside, Shingo’s forced into the ropes to stop a Money Clip, before he baited Okada into a DDT.

Shingo blocks a neckbreaker slam and returns with a noshigami, then a wheelbarrow German suplex, before some Danielson elbows looked to lead to a sliding lariat… but Okada counters with another Money Clip. Okada keeps the hold on in various forms, before he hit a slam and went up top for the elbow drop.

Cue the zoom out, but Shingo wallops Okada with a lariat ahead of a Rainmaker. Shingo then mocks the Rainmaker pose for himself, but that just fires up Okada, whose shotgun dropkick was just rolled through as Shingo powered back with another clothesline. They head outside as Okada teases a tombstone on the ramp, only for Shingo to hit a death valley driver that almost led to Okada losing via count-out.

Back inside, an avalanche brainbuster dropped Okada, but Okada’s right back with a dropkick before a battle of Rainmakers ended with a backsliding one from Okada. He keeps hold of the arm to pull up Shingo for a second one, only for Shingo to respond with a pair of Made in Japans as both men were starting to swing for the fences.

A Pumping Bomber drops Okada for another near-fall, and looked to do some damage to Okada’s cheek, before Okada finally hit the Rainmaker… but he couldn’t make the cover, as the pair resort to trading forearms. Shingo looked to inch ahead, hauling Okada up top for the STAY DREAM – an avalanche Last of the Dragon – only to get DDT’d off the top instead.

Shingo’s back up to punch away a Rainmaker, then hit another wild lariat as we sailed past the 35 minute mark, with Shingo escaping a landslide tombstone, only to run into a dropkick. Second time’s the charm for the landslide tombstone, as Okada then pulled up Shingo for a big ol’ Rainmaker… and that’s enough to end the Dragon’s reign. Easily the match of the night, with this match eventually firing up into the usual Okada finishing stretch. ****½

After the match, Okada eventually accepted the “winged eagle” World Heavyweight Championship belt, after bowing to the “v4” belt he’d taken out of storage as his G1 Climax winner’s trophy… before Will Ospreay came out in jeans and a dressing gown to mock Okada as the “new interim champion.” Those two will face off tomorrow to settle this year’s title dispute, and of course Ospreay reckons he’ll leave with the belt… while Okada will leave and “be an actor.”

Sure, the top two matches were the closest to the “WrestleKingdoms of old,” but since we’ve had split WrestleKingdom cards, the overall quality has been down… even if there’s still some decent stuff on this card, if you just cherry pick. Purists will be up in arms at how we had a DQ at the Dome – in an undercard match, no less – in addition to the usual bollocks around the House of Torture. New Japan simply doesn’t have the strength in depth that they need to be able to run as often as they are with shows at the level they used to be at. It is what it is, but you can no longer be surprised if this isn’t what long-time fans want.