If you've been paying attention to commentary on Raw, SmackDown Live and NXT over the past year, you've inevitably heard Mauro Ranallo, Michael Cole or Tom Phillips hype guys like AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura as former IWGP heavyweight champions, or occasionally mention New Japan Pro Wrestling.
NJPW (and it's governing body, the International Wrestling Grand Prix) was founded in 1972 by wrestling legend and WWE Hall of Famer Antonio Inoki, and a modern resurgence has made the company the de facto No. 2 wrestling brand in the world. In addition to Styles and Nakamura, Brock Lesnar was also an IWGP heavyweight champion; Finn Bálor, Luke Gallows, Karl Anderson and Andrade "Cien" Almas also spent significant time wrestling for the company.
Their biggest show of the year, Wrestle Kingdom, has served as a showcase for many of those aforementioned stars to prove their in-ring prowess, and it has helped them gain international appeal, making them undeniable targets in the eyes of the WWE. It takes place every year on Jan. 4 inside the hallowed halls of the Tokyo Dome, with previous Wrestle Kingdom shows drawing in excess of 40,000 fans.
Wrestle Kingdom 11 is set for Wednesday, and here are all the matches that you can look forward to seeing if you tune in.
Wrestle Kingdom 11 card
New Japan Rumble
Tiger Mask W vs. Tiger the Dark
Cody (Rhodes) vs. Juice Robinson
IWGP junior heavyweight tag team championships: The Young Bucks (Matt & Nick Jackson) (c) vs. Roppongi Vice (Beretta & Rocky Romero)
NEVER openweight 6-Man tag team championships: (Gauntlet match) -- David Finlay, Ricochet & Satoshi Kojima (c) vs. Bullet Club (Bad Luck Fale, Hangman Page and Yujiro Takahashi) vs. Chaos (Jado, Will Ospreay & Yoshi-Hashi) vs. Los Ingobernables de Japon (Bushi, Evil & Sanada)
Ring of Honor world championship: Kyle O'Reilly (c) vs. Adam Cole
IWGP heavyweight tag team championships: Guerrillas of Destiny (Tama Tonga & Tanga Roa) (c) vs. Chaos (Tomohiro Ishii & Toru Yano) vs. G.B.H. (Togi Makabe & Tomoaki Honma)
IWGP junior heavyweight championship: Kushida (c) vs. Hiromu Takahashi
NEVER openweight championship: Katsuyori Shibata (c) vs. Hirooki Goto
IWGP Intercontinental championship: Tetsuya Naito (c) vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi
IWGP heavyweight championship: Kazuchika Okada (c) vs. Kenny Omega
(c) - Indicates defending champion(s)
Because the broadcast airs live in Tokyo, the timing for North American fans (and East Coast viewers in particular) is far from ideal. Pre-show coverage on NJPW World (the league's video-streaming service) begins at approximately 2 a.m. ET, with the main card scheduled to start an hour later. The good news is, even if you don't have a few post-New Year's days off, the show will be archived for on-demand viewing at a more reasonable hour.
The main event of the show pits reigning IWGP heavyweight champion Kazuchika Okada against Kenny Omega. This opportunity for Omega is a result of his victory in NJPW's yearly G-1 Climax tournament -- the first ever for a North American in the event's 26-year history. Entering this title match, Omega had five matches that received 4.75 out of five stars or better, according to legendary wrestling writer and critic Dave Meltzer, including one of only four five-star matches in 2016 in a match against Tetsuya Naito that qualified him for the G-1 final. As the fourth leader of the the ever-popular Bullet Club, he has steadied the ship after Styles' departure and helped it grow to include a few new big names.
Okada is no slouch, either, as he was involved in two of those five-star matches; one came against longtime rival Hiroshi Tanahashi in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 10 last January, and the other in his own G-1 run. This main event is a big deal for a great number of reasons, not the least of which is that only four different men have held the IWGP heavyweight championship in the past six years: Okada, Tanahashi, Naito and Styles. Neither Okada nor Omega seems likely to head to the WWE anytime soon; Omega had a brief WWE developmental run that soured him on the idea, and he has expressed with vigor that he won't be leaving, while Okada had an equally terrible time in the States during a brief spell with TNA Wrestling. But their résumés speak for themselves: The main event should be one for the ages.
In the co-main event, Naito and Tanahashi face off for Naito's IWGP Intercontinental championship. While this title is only five years old (with former WWE superstar MVP the inaugural champion), Nakamura's five reigns and his battles with Tanahashi, Almas (in his time as La Sombra) and others helped make this championship a prestigious one in its own right.
To draw a crude comparison (and this will certainly be scrutinized by some), Tanahashi is essentially NJPW's John Cena. For most of his main event career, Tanahashi won virtually all of his big matches, becoming the company's top face in a time when he, Okada and Nakamura helped drive NJPW's resurgence. Recently, also like Cena, he's helped to drive interest while away from the world title by having big matches like the one he had against Omega in February 2016, when Omega made a big leap in winning the Intercontinental title.
Naito, on the other hand, started his main event run as a clean-cut babyface who never really connected with the fans in the same way as Tanahashi. During a stint in Mexico's CMLL, Naito joined Los Ingobernables (The Ungovernables), a group that ultimately launched Naito and Los Ingobernables de Japon into the stratosphere. He's not exactly the kind of anti-authority character akin to a Stone Cold Steve Austin or CM Punk, but there are some similar elements in play in his tranquilo approach. Naito has blindsided other wrestlers and officials, paused in the middle of matches to lay down and relax, and just generally been a nuisance to all who have crossed his path.
There are six other title matches on tap, as you might expect in a WrestleMania-level show, as well as the debut of former WWE superstar Cody Rhodes (who's also the newest member of The Bullet Club). While the whole show is worth watching from start to finish, here are a few more highlights to look out for:
Cody, as he's now mononymously known, faces off with Juice Robinson -- formerly known as CJ Parker in NXT. While this angle hasn't been hyped much, and is simply an entry point for Cody's run in NJPW, Robinson was one of "Dusty's kids" during his time in NXT. Robinson, although he was in NXT and not the main roster, similarly left the WWE under his own volition to wrestle internationally and gain experience.
The Young Bucks, who currently hold the Ring of Honor and IWGP junior heavyweight championships, defend the latter against Roppongi Vice, the duo of Beretta (formerly known as WWE superstar Trent Baretta) and long-time independent wrestler Rocky Romero. At Wrestle Kingdom 10, the Young Bucks won a four-way match to win these titles, though they lost them in the interim before regaining them in June.
Katsuyori Shibata, widely regarded as one of the sharpest strikers in all of wrestling today, defends the NEVER openweight championship against Hirooki Goto, who was the runner-up in the G-1 Climax. Shibata spent parts of his career fighting in MMA and kickboxing, but he has hit his stride since returning to NJPW in 2012.
Kushida and Hiromu Takahashi (formerly known as Kamaitachi) have both spent significant time in ROH, and they face one another for Kushida's IWGP junior heavyweight championship. Takahashi is an incredibly talented up-and-comer, and this opportunity against a veteran in Kushida is the biggest of his career by a wide stretch.
In a gauntlet match featuring all three of NJPW's most prominent factions: The Bullet Club, Los Ingobernables de Japon and Chaos -- the NEVER openweight six-man tag team championships are on the line. The champions, Ricochet, David Finlay (son of Fit Finlay) and Satoshi Kojima defend against teams representing all three of those groups, including a Chaos trio that includes Will Ospreay.
The IWGP heavyweight tag team championships will be on the line as champions (and Bullet Club members) the Guerillas of Destiny defend against Tomohiro Ishii and Toru Yano, and two-time defending World Tag League winners Togi Makabe Tomoaki Honma. Tama Tonga and Tonga Roa are the sons of wrestling legend Haku, and Roa spent time in the WWE as Camacho.
International superstar Kota Ibushi, who featured prominently in this summer's WWE Cruiserweight Classic, will wrestle an early match at WK 11 portraying the masked character "Tiger Mask W," based on the Japanese anime series of the same name.