This countdown isn’t in any order or declaring the definitive best, we’re just selecting ten that we Vultures loved. Find out more here.
If you’re a mainstream wrestling fan, there’s a good chance the first time you heard of New Japan Pro Wrestling was this January. While WWE was still knee deep in building Roman Reigns as their next top star, four indie wrestling superstars signed on the dotted line and likely made big fat cheques courtesy of Vince McMahon. AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows were coming.
Styles and Nakamura were (and still are) blue chip superstars, in the conversation for best in the world. In New Japan they left behind long shadows. The biggest wrestling promotion outside WWE was in trouble. They needed new stars fast. And they found them.
A New Hope
Canadian Kenny Omega, once a hired gun, toppled Styles to become the new leader of Bullet Club. Revitalising the biggest faction in wrestling, Omega made himself the super villain of New Japan – an anime bad guy come to life. His work this year has been outstanding, in particular as part of The Elite alongside The Young Bucks.
In place of Nakamura, New Japan gave us Tetsuya Naito. A perennial upper midcard face unable to win over the crowd, Naito transformed himself in 2015. Several months at Mexican promotion CMLL made the clean cut hero into a rebellious mastermind. Naito became the leader of Los Ingobernables De Japon, a Scarface inspired heel faction which landed right on the nose of Japanese counter culture. They’re even hotter than Bullet Club right now.
To bring them both together for one of the best matches of 2016 New Japan waited until its second biggest event of the year: the G1 Climax. Imagine King of the Ring, but with a round robin format and lasting four weeks. Also, the G1 is known for having it’s performers go all out and deliver pay-per-view calibre matches every night. Heading into the penultimate night, Omega trailed Naito by one win. To make it to the final – and earn a world title shot at Wrestle Kingdom 11 – Naito didn’t even have to win. If he took Omega to the match’s time limit it would be declared a draw. Omega needed a victory, and he didn’t have Bullet Club with him to shorten the odds.
Five Star Match
What followed was the best heel versus heel match in recent history. One of the rarest things in wrestling is a performer who not only has mastery of in ring psychology and outside the ring character work, but one who has the skills to blend them together seamlessly. Omega and Naito offered a clinic on that in Tokyo. Naito was the cocky but unusually focused heel, Omega the maniacal foreign monster with a chip on his shoulder
What do you want from a great wrestling match? Good pacing? Dramatic spots spaced through the bout? Shocking counters that redefine what a human body can do? All here. Hell, Omega even did a springboard dive to the outside that nearly landed in the audience.
Throughout the fight, Naito targeted Omega’s right leg, giving the match a compelling subplot and offering an organic reason for momentum to switch back and forth. As for big moves, Naito twice reversed maneuvers into his backflip DDT finisher Destino, and Omega actually delivered a Styles Clash near the end before finishing his opponent with the One Winged Angel.
Those are just the moves. though. To understand why this match is great we have to go back to pacing, psychology and the physical twists and turns which made up its story.
For one night, both guys reigned in their sometimes overshadowing personalities to deliver an all out classic. And for that one night, they were the two best wrestlers in the world.