In an unconventional year (to say the least), for both the world as a whole and New Japan Pro-Wrestling specifically, there has still been plenty of exceptional wrestling from Japan’s premier wrestling promotion.
From 40,000 at the Tokyo Dome in January to 0 at a behind closed doors Korakuen Hall in July, this list runs-down the 10 best NJPW matches of 2020.
10. Minoru Suzuki vs Kota Ibushi – G1 Climax A Block (G1 Climax 30 Day 13 – Oct 10th)
This G1 Climax encounter was only the second time Minoru Suzuki faced off against Kota Ibushi, the first coming in 2013’s version of the same tournament.
Both men have extensive backgrounds in Mixed Martial Arts, especially kickboxing, which played heavily into the match as a tactical and strategic encounter unraveled in front of our eyes. The match’s MMA roots were evident in enthralling periods of groundwork, submissions and strike exchanges – giving the match the feel of a proper fight.
Traditional Suzuki was on full display in this one as the ‘Golden Star’ continued to wrestle his opponents’ style of match throughout the grueling G1 tournament. Switching from style-to-style match-by-match, he looked perhaps most at home in Suzuki’s violent and sadistic sort of wrestling.
All the expected hallmarks of a Suzuki match were showcased, with intense back and forth jaw-jacking in between multiple series of chops, kicks, forearms and headbutt exchanges.
Coming in at just over 15 minutes (the shortest bout on my list), this match impressed on a multitude of levels.
9. Tomohiro Ishii vs Jay White – G1 Climax B Block (G1 Climax 30 Day 17 – Oct 16th)
On the brink of his possible first-ever G1 Final, Jay White had to defeat Tomohiro Ishii to achieve his destiny of making the G1 the “Jay 1”. However, if he failed to win the decisive A Block match; Kota Ibushi would make it to his historic third successive G1 final.
In the thrilling encounter, the ‘Switchblade’ played dangerous mind games with Ishii. This was the backdrop for the match’s focus – which was Ishii’s taped-up right knee. White gave Ishii’s obvious weakness his attention in the match, as he looked to exploit the injury using his pragmatic approach to pro wrestling.
He used Dragon Screw Leg Whips, the TTO (Tanahashi Tap Out, or ITO – Ishii Tap Out in this instance) and numerous chop blocks to target the knee.
This main event match served as another reminder that Jay White is a master seller, but it is also evidence that when interference spots and referee bumps are used at the right moments, they can heighten the drama of an important match.
8. Jon Moxley (c) vs Minoru Suzuki – IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship (New Beginning in Osaka – Feb 9th)
This match is very different from everything else on my list, and by extension NJPW’s entire 2020 match list. It was a violent, nail-biting, sadistic affair, which started off in the most unique fashion. The bell rang as the pair battled on the rampway, chairs in hand, with Kevin Kelly summing up the bout perfectly as “mutually assured destruction” on English commentary. A dream match for many was finally happening, as we watched the tantalising action unfold in front of our very own eyes.
A heavy reliance on brutal weapon shots only made this match better in my book, with Moxley having his arm nearly broken by a Suzuki chair shot. This added to the uniqueness of the encounter, allowing it to take a well-deserved position on my list.
The GRAPPL app’s average rating doesn’t agree with me on this one as it gave the match a rating of 4.25* from 471 user ratings – making it the lowest rated match from GRAPPL that made it onto my list.
For me, the thunderous elbow strikes were a highlight as the shots got louder and louder, before the crescendo at the match’s final stretch. This match showed that variety is the key to avoiding staleness, as it stands out from the crowd even 10 months on.
7. Shingo Takagi (c) vs Tomohiro Ishii – IWGP NEVER Openweight Championship (New Japan Road – Feb 20th)
Perhaps the most under the radar pick on my list, as this took place on a Korakuen Hall “Road” show in late February. This match received 215 ratings on GRAPPL, with an impressive average of 4.38*. Despite the high average it still received less ratings than any other match on my list, so it is definitely one to check out if you didn’t see it at the time.
This bout was a classic NEVER Openweight war, which came as a delight to the packed Korakuen Hall. Shingo and Ishii’s similar styles really did create a cacophony of puroresu greatness.
The vicious side of the ‘Stone Pitbull’ was on full display here as he traded chops, kicks, strikes, headbutts and no-sells with his counterpart. However, despite the match’s violence, it was underpinned by the sportsmanship tendencies of New Japan’s traditional NEVER battles.
This stellar bout was laden with reversals and a spectacular trade of 1 counts towards the match’s climax. A match full of undeniable highlights, which certainly delivered on the lofty expectations of a gruesome NEVER Openweight clash.
6. Hiromu Takahashi vs Tomohiro Ishii – New Japan Cup QFs (New Japan Cup Day 7 – 2nd July)
My sole empty-arena entry on the list was a killer Quarter-Final from the New Japan Cup. This match was a real David vs Goliath story, as the then-reigning IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion, Hiromu Takahashi, took on Heavyweight division main-stay, Tomohiro Ishii.
The match was rated the best of the New Japan Cup by GRAPPL users, with the 253 ratings averaging out at 4.29*. I stand just above this, giving it a 4.5*, the most I gave any empty-arena match of the COVID-19 restrictions era.
Empty-arena matches aren’t easy to make brilliant, but this one achieved it, using the lack of crowd to their advantage at points, when the pairs thunderous chops and strike exchanges echoed around the famous Korakuen Hall.
Hiromu chose to fight Ishii at his own game, a brave and valiant effort that added to the immense underdog support which had risen around the ‘Time Bomb’. Takahashi was on the brink of achieving his dream of wrestling as a Jr. Heavyweight on Primetime TV in Japan, but to do so he had to defeat the ‘Stone Pitbull’. The perfect storm this built allowed the match to deliver on the sky-high expectations fans like me placed upon it.
5. Shingo Takagi vs Kazuchika Okada – G1 Climax A Block (G1 Climax 30 Day 13 – Oct 10th)
One of the G1’s standout encounters was between the ‘Rainmaker’ and ‘Dragon’, two men who have multiple entries on my list.
This match put heavy emphasis on the storytelling aspect of wrestling, taking threads from Okada’s other post-shutdown matches and sewing them together into this stunning piece of wrestling. Okada relentlessly locked in the Money Clip, which played into the storyline surrounding his refusal to use the Rainmaker as his finisher.
Shingo sold the Money Clip throughout the match, doing so better than anyone else has done when facing the 5-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion. His neck was the focus of Okada for most of the match, adding meaning to the multitude of Money Clip attempts. The L.I.J member also delivered his distinct wrestling style, with lots of strikes spread throughout the match-up.
The subtle callbacks to both men’s previous tournament matches are what set this apart from the rest of G1 Climax 30, as this subtlety of storytelling allowed the match to develop layers which reward the deeply invested and long-time fans.
4. Tetsuya Naito vs Hiroshi Tanahashi – G1 Climax B Block (G1 Climax 30 Day 2 – Sept 20th)
Another visit to G1 Climax 30, but this time to B Block’s opening night of action as the IWGP Heavyweight Champion, Tetsuya Naito, fought ‘The Ace’, Hiroshi Tanahashi. Tanahashi had a lot on the line for his B Block opener, as a win over the reigning IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Champion, Tetsuya Naito, would lead to a title shot later in the year.
Both men have problematic knees, which were brought to the forefront in both the English commentary and the crux of the in-ring action.
GRAPPL users rated this match their second best of the entire G1 Climax 30 tournament, with a superb average of 4.41* from 459 ratings (second best to Kazuchika Okada vs Shingo Takagi with a 4.52* average). This wasn’t the case for me as I placed this one above the latter encounter because of the marginally better in-ring work, in my opinion, shown in this match.
Naito and Tanahashi have great chemistry, which was clear to see in this nearly 30minute match. The clever callbacks to their IWGP Intercontinental Title encounter at 2017’s Dominion show were a big highlight of the match’s closing stretch.
3. Will Ospreay (c) vs Hiromu Takahashi – IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championship (Wrestle Kingdom 14 Day 1 – Jan 4th)
The spectacle that is New Japan’s January 4th show in the world-famous Tokyo Dome always offers up at least a few Match of the Year contenders. This year’s showpiece event was by no means an exception.
NJPW’s biggest Junior Heavyweight match of the year takes third place on my list, with Hiromu Takahashi challenging Will Ospreay in his first singles match back from a serious neck injury.
Both men were flamboyantly dressed in elaborate ring entrance gears, proving only to be a precursor for the electric style this match was wrestled in. There was incredible high-flying, superb combination attacks and crunching strikes, which lead to an outstanding GRAPPL average of 4.76* from 1101 ratings.
Hiromu’s neck served as an obvious target for Ospreay, who issued an onslaught of offence, in a match which took on a heel vs face dynamic. This added to the intense drama, as the crowd (both at home and in the Tokyo Dome) were gripped by the action of the match.
2. Kazuchika Okada (c) vs Tetsuya Naito (c) – IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Championships (Wrestle Kingdom 14 Day 2 – Jan 5th)
Climaxing the inaugural Double Gold Dash, Naito stared down the prospect of achieving his “destino” by defeating his bitter, career rival Kazuchika Okada. Two men who have a steeped history headed into their third Wrestle Kingdom main event encounter.
Naito had to write the wrongs of 2 years ago if he were to finally reach the destiny he and his fans believed in so dearly. This set the scene perfectly for a drama filled match, which delivered on the expectations of a Tokyo Dome main event.
This match had a big fight feel as it built from a calculated start to a closing stretch that was one of the best of all time. Naito was willing to return to his “rudo” past, employing moves from his back-catalogue and playing cunning mind games on Okada throughout.
The powerful callbacks to their bouts from Wrestle Kingdom’s past were reminders of how far Naito has come – from the unloved Stardust Genius to the beloved leader of Los Ingobernables De Japon.
Okada was willing to become the man disliked by the crowd if it meant he became the first ever Double Champion, but in the end the result of this match was written in the stars.
Highlights were scattered all through the 35 minutes plus of this match, coupling high-intensity wrestling with a gripping, emotional and tangible storyline which made me place this match second on my list.
1. Kazuchika Okada (c) vs Kota Ibushi – IWGP Heavyweight Championship (Wrestle Kingdom Day 1 – Jan 4th)
The first-ever two-night Wrestle Kingdom offered up the three best matches of 2020, with Night One’s main event proving the best of the lot.
In Ibushi’s first Wrestle Kingdom main event he faced the ‘Rainmaker’, who was his superior in this stat – this being the then-reigning IWGP Heavyweight Champion’s sixth main event spot on the biggest show of the Japanese wrestling calendar.
Kazuchika Okada and Kota Ibushi attempted to outdo one another with dramatic entrances, that only set the table for an even more extraordinary match, between two of the very best wrestlers on the planet.
If you want to see a perfect example of what the very best pro wrestling looks like, you should watch all 40 minutes of this epic. The build of tension – tantalising – the intense piece of storytelling – spellbinding – and the sheer match quality – wholly unbelievable, this match had it all.
Both men seem to have somewhat of an affinity for dropping the other on their head and neck, however, this only heightened the intense drama of the occasion. The violence this match brought out took it to another level, with thunderous kicks, piledrivers on the apron and German suplexes over the ropes all being highlights.
If you only have time to watch one match from NJPW in 2020, make sure it’s this one.
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