wrestling / Columns

Top 10 NJPW Matches of the Decade

January 8, 2020 | Posted by TJ Hawke
AJ Styles Minoru Suzuki Image Credit: NJPW

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10. Kazuchika Okada vs. Tomorhiro Ishii – 8/16/2016


This was a 2016 G1 Climax match.

Wow. Obviously, this was a great match and oodles of fun. It’s amazing though that performers like these two and the powers that be in NJPW don’t look at this match and then immediately understand how superior this was compared to the usual effort in major NJPW singles matches.

A dynamic relationship between the characters was immediately established. Okada was being a condescending prick to a veteran. The veteran did not take kindly to this and tried to hurt and finish Okada right away.

This led to Okada developing a sense of urgency for the first time in his career, and he actually tried to finish Ishii right away in turn. It was such a refreshing change to see Okada actually look like he wanted to win and displaying concern that he needed to act quickly or he might not pull this one out. )There is a fine line between acting confident as a character and looking bored as a performer, and Okada has struggled to be on the right side of that for far too long.)

With that tone quickly established, both guys worked to keep it consistent all the way throughout the contest. Ishii threw everything he had at Okada, and Okada relied on his trademarked offensive repertoire to keep him at bay. It was exciting and created a rabid atmosphere.

Both guys tried to be as violent and viscous as possible, and both guys conveyed a true sense of wanting to win. These are elements that Okada and NJPW in general need a hell of a lot more of going forward. This match was excellent, and Ishii going over cleanly felt important. Great job. (****1/4)


9. Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Katsuyori Shibata – 7/15/2015


Sakuraba just dominated Shiabata with submissions and strikes. He even mostly focused on going after Shibata’s arms. Shibata knew he was in trouble and relied on throwing the PK to slow down Sakuraba and then later finished Sakuraba with one more PK. GREAT match. (****1/4)


8. Jon Moxley vs. Toru Yano – 8/1/2019

This was a 2019 G1 Climax match.

Match of the tournament. Match of the year? (****1/2)


7. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Kota Ibushi – 8/4/2013

This was a 2013 G1 Climax match.

The structure of this match was very standard, but the charisma of the performers and the freshness of the matchup made it easy to ignore. They just traded periods of control and then both tried to put each other away in the final third. It was incredibly fun, as the action was cool and the biggest spots were spaced out and timed well.

The other key was how well they elevated the stakes of the match by upping the intensity and physicality by several levels in the final minutes. Everything about the match seemed infinitely more important because it genuinely felt like they were going to have to kill one another in order to win.

It all built to this incredible moment where Nakamura hit three Boma Ye in a row only for Kota to kick out at one. Kota was completely punch drunk though and one final Boma Ye finished him for good. GREAT match. (****1/2)


6. Minoru Suzuki vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi – 10/8/2012


This was for Tanahashi’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship.

If my memory serves me well, this was the the first main event in the NJPW iPPV era. Regardless, it was a very celebrated match that no doubt played a role in getting people invested in NJPW who had previously did not watch (including myself!). This was my first time watching it back all these years (holy shit) later.

The story of the match is brilliantly simple. After some unnecessary feeling-out process shit, MiSu starts going after Tana’s injured left arm. The work was great, and Tanahashi was selling it fairly well. It seemed like MiSu had this match well in control. However, Tanahashi finally got the smallest of openings and connected on the dragon screw.


After that, the match became about MiSu going back after the arm while Tana tried to keep the match competitive (by going back after the newly injured leg of MiSu) long enough in order to connect on the High Fly Flow. That strategy eventually paid off, and Tana went after the leg enough to leave MiSu prone for the High Fly Flow.

This was a fantastic match, and one of the best NJPW main events in the past five years. (****1/2)


5. Katsuyori Shibata vs. Hirooki Goto – 1/4/2017


This was for Shibata’s NEVER Openweight Championship.

The broad story of this match was that Goto ain’t fucking shit compared to the far superior Shibata. That was an awesome story to tell and a major improvement for these two when they work each other in the ring. It paid off hugely too and became one of the best matches in NJPW history.

Don’t get me wrong, they lost the thread a couple of times and drifted back into some bad habits. A couple of sequences had gratuitous “tough guy” spots and no-selling spots that only distracted from this story’s human core.

They far from overwhelmed the match though. Instead, they easily recovered those mental lapses and let the broader story carry them through to the end.

Shibata is fucking great, and Goto ain’t shit. Shibata was always a step ahead of him and tougher than Goto. Goto seemingly was a dead fucking duck.

Goto got crazy though. He took brutal shots at Shibata’s injured neck and was throwing crazy strikes and headbutts. Shibata’s neck took so much damage that Goto was able to connect with a (somehow) brutal Final Cut to end things.

This was one of the best matches in NJPW history. These crazy physical matches get upgraded so much when there is a larger story to play into. This match should serve as a template for wrestlers looking to get crazy in the ring with each other.  (****3/4)



4. Kota Ibushi vs. Shinsuke Nakamura – 1/4/2015

Media preview

This was for Nakamura’s IWGP Intercontinental Championship.

Originally reviewed here.

The story of this match to me was the elevation of Kota Ibushi. Despite always being a big fan of his, I never really saw him as a future NJPW main eventer. This match saw him step up his game to a whole new level as an overall performer; he carried himself like a star here in a manner that I did not know was possible. When you combine that with his (still) incredible athletic ability, you have all the makings of a future IWGP Heavyweight Champion. That is never something that I would have dreamed to be remotely possible before. Now, I am going to be very disappointed if he does not end up there within the next two years.

Despite all of that, Ibushi was clearly the second best professional wrestler in this match. Shinsuke Nakamura, the 2014 Wrestler of the Year (as far as I am concerned), showed in this match why he has a legitimate case for being the most talented wrestler in the world. Every single thing he did in this match helped to make Ibushi seem that much better and that bigger of a star.

The thing with Nakamura is that he can go months at a time without having a genuinely great match. He’ll have plenty of good matches mind you. There can be huge gaps between the great ones though. Then he’ll bust out a performance like this one (similar to his performance in the G1 Finals last year) and put the rest of the business on notice that he’s the standard for professional wrestling. We will be very lucky fans if we can get a few more performances like this out of him this year. (****3/4)


3. Kazuchika Okada vs. Satoshi Kojima – 7/27/2017

This was a 2017 G1 Climax match.

One of the frustrating aspects of WWE’s presentation of characters is that the wrestlers rarely ever feel like human beings. They always just exist on one end of a good/evil spectrum, and the shifts from one to another never feel organic.

The first memorable introduction for me to a Better Way of presenting characters was in 2007 ROH. Bryan Danielson was still being a dick heel in his feud with Nigel McGuinness but he was being a valiant and ferocious babyface in his feud with Takeshi Morishima. The feuds were happening simultaneously, but it never felt weird that Bryan was behaving differently around other people. It just humanized him more and made him a more fully realized character on screen.

All of that was a long way of saying, i appreciate the fact that Okada should not be a total brat heel in *every* single match (despite the objective fact that almost all of his matches would benefit from it). To be a more fully realized character, different opponents need to bring something different out of Okada.


How could anyone watch this match with Kojima and not realize that Okada’s default personality should be a brat heel? Okada may be a goofy nerd in real life who loves ice cream, awkward tourist photos, and fishing, but in the ring, he never looks more comfortable that when he is a privileged brat who was given so much compared to others.

It has always matched perfectly with his terrible hair, his ridiculous entrance attire, and the fact that the booker of the company is his permanent ringside cheerleader. The brat heel is simply the role Okada was born to play.

And he plays it so goddamn well.

Okada was embracing it from the very start here. He tried to punk Kojima from the beginning and was being “respectful” in the most condescending manner possible. It set the perfect tone for the match, and it gave Kojima an opening to rally the crowd (who was already predisposed to back him) behind him from the jump. He did not back down in the slightest and took the fight right to Okada, and it was on.

Okada was mostly ahead early on, and then they threw in a twist to make Okada even more hated. Okada started jawing with Hiroyoshi Tenzan and even threw him into the ring. Okada then essentially hid behind the referee and the rules so that Tenzan could not do anything. The crowd desperately wanted Tenzan to take Okada’s head off.

This was not merely just a great use of Tenzan’s charm and the nostalgia of veterans to make Okada more hated. It was a great way to tugging at fans’ hearstrings because of the previous year’s G1. In 2016, Kojima gave up his spot in the G1 so that Tenzan could have one last shot in the tournament. Tenzan fought valiantly but ultimately failed to build any real momentum in the tournament.

Now, it’s Kojima’s last shot in the G1. Tenzan is standing by his side right to whatever end. He got to stand up for Kojima’s dignity here, and it was just so beautiful.

At that point, the stage was really set to get down to in-ring business. Okada kept working on top but Kojima was fighting back valiantly time and time again. Okada tried to use speed and youth advantage to stay ahead. Kojima’s physicality and sheer grit kept things competitive though, and Okada never seemed like he was in full control.

It all built to this wonderful closing sequence where Kojima desperately tried to avoid the Rainmaker and just threw everything he had at Okada. It seemed like Kojima was going to pull off a miracle, but Okada *just* managed to stay alive long enough to connect on a(n admittedly weak-looking) Raimaker and pull off the victory.

This was masterclass work on how the NJPW main event formula can be a set of guidelines instead of a solved equation. This match was not about rejecting NJPW main event tropes but instead a lesson on how to do it to make everything truly meaningful.

When you seriously commit to genuine character work that put both wrestlers in a position to succeed, you can establish an electric dynamic and an explosive environment. From there, you can do just about anything, and it’s gonna be magic. They did that here, and it led to some of the most beautiful pro wrestling NJPW has produced in quite some time. (****3/4)



2. Golden Lovers. vs. The Young Bucks – 3/25/2018

The Young Bucks vs. the Golden Lovers is one of those matches that has always been destined to happen. It was well known that it was a match that the wrestlers wanted (and promotions such as PWG hoped to put on), and the fans of both teams certainly seemed to hope to have it happen sooner rather than later.

With such hype though, it would be easy for the actual match to be a victim of the expectation game. You could even easily envision wrestlers such as these four trying to overcompensate too and then do wayyyyy too much in the match as a result.

Thankfully, the match went in a far more satisfying direction, as they actually decided to emphasize character work and emotion instead of just putting all of the emphasis on the action.

It was clearly the right decision.

Things started out simply enough. The Bucks came in with a bit of a chip on their shoulder. It would not be hard to see why given that they have been one of the most beloved teams in wrestling for years, but they have clearly been eclipsed in the attention department by the reunited Golden Lovers in recent months. Given that the Bucks were the actual people to instigate the match, it’s not hard to conclude that they needed this match more than the Lovers.

And they wrestled like it early on.

The Bucks were more cunning and ruthless with their tactics from the jump. The results paid off, as they got control first and did a lot of damage along the way. It seemed clear that if they stayed on that track and kept their eye on the true prizing of winning, they would be well on their way to victory despite any setbacks they may have encountered during the contest.

The first time they were truly tested in that way though, they failed. And that probably sealed their fate.

Matt had Kota down in the ring. He was all set to deliver a top rope dive onto him. Something stopped him though. You see, Omega was left prone nearby on a table propped up between the apron and the guardrail, and Nick was loudly encouraging his older brother to listen to the devil on his shoulder and dive onto Omega instead.

It was a moment in time that revealed a weakness in the Bucks on this night. Matt’s hesitation over this moment led to Kota having enough time to recover and save his lover. While that moment did not kill the Bucks’ chances, it became clear that they had an Achilles Heel at this moment in time.

Later in the match, a similar situation arose that revealed that the Bucks were not ready to win on this night. They had the clear path victory laid before their feet late. The Bucks had the momentum, and they were getting ready to finish Kota off with a More Bang for Your Buck.

Matt could have completed the sequence that had finished countless wrestlers in the past…but Matt did not do it. He was at the top rope, ready for the moonsault. The moment came and went though; with a moment’s pause to readjust himself, Matt opted out of near-certain victory and dove to the outside to put Omega through the table. Matt ignored his better angels and gave in to the feelings of frustration that he had for Omega.

That gave the Lovers just enough room to stay alive and keep it competitive. Sure, Kenny took a ton of damage on that one. But it was not the knockout blow that More Bang for Your Buck would have likely been.

That room was all the Lovers needed to stay alive and get the momentum back on their side.

It all built to this finishing sequence that was nothing short of beautiful. Kenny was struggling to go through with the One Winged Angel on Matt. Kenny was still full of love for his friends. It seemed like he was not going to go through with it, but Matt, having given in fully to hate on this night, told Kenny to just go ahead and do it. Omega delivered his finisher only for Nick to fly in out of nowhere to save the match.

Matt was down though and not likely to get back up. Nick made one last hopeless comeback. There was a fatalistic tone to what he was doing though. He had to fight back despite knowing defeat would soon follow. And follow it did. As Nick was dispatched of shortly after this moment and then Matt ate the Golden Trigger for the three. The Golden Lovers were victorious in their first match outside of Japan.

After a brief scuffle with Cody Rhodes after the match, Kenny got back into the ring to shake hands with the Bucks. Nick accepted.

But Matt refused and then walked out.

A lesser story would have had Matt turn cartoonishly evil in this moment. Instead, it was more nuanced. Sure, maybe Matt was angry with Kenny, but there was a hint of something else. Perhaps he was disgusted with himself? Not for asking for the One Winged Angel, but instead for not going for the best chance of victory twice in major moments.

Like almost all great first time matches, that post-match sequence made clear how much room there is for these two teams to continue their story. The rematch has an obvious hook and setup: can the Bucks focus enough and not be so up in their feelings? If they really want to prove they’re the best instead of proving something to Kenny, they are going to have to prioritize ruthlessness instead of the bitterness.

What else can there be said about this match that the story does not tell you already? Could the match have been tightened up a little? Probably. But that did not really matter. Yes, this was a match about two teams out to prove which was the better team. They just did so much more with it than almost any other attempt at this type of match ever.

This match redefined creative ambition. This match set the new bar for character development throughout a match. This matched proved that state-of-the-art physical action can simply be a complimentary feature of a match instead of its defining one.

This match was a labor of love. A match that proved bitterness is shortsighted that gets you nowhere. Sometimes hate can feel right in the moment, but it does not lead you to victory. This match was a beautiful reminder for everyone that in the end, Love Wins. (*****)


1. AJ Styles vs. Minoru Suzuki – 8/1/2014


This was a 2014 G1 Climax match.

When it comes to matches that just keep getting better and better, this is the new standard. Every time I watch this one, I come away with an even great appreciation for it.

The greatness starts with MiSu’s entrance, The intensity is off the charts, and then it leads to a pre-match staredown that will go down as one of the most genuinely chill-inducing that I have ever seen. Things like that can be inconsequential for so many other matches, but they both helped to set the tone for this one.

The match itself then largely excels due to great pacing and ability to deftly move from sequence to sequence in an exciting manner without sacrificing selling. Instead of focusing in on one limb or something like that for the match, we get both guys trying out difference strategies as they didn’t know which one would really work. This was great to see and far superior to the far more cliche and common “feeling-out-process” approach to big first-time matches.

By the time the match ends with AJ connecting on a Styles Clash, you truly feel like the better man won this particular match which makes it satisfying. Yet at the exact same time, you feel like there could have been a million other directions for them to go in for a rematch if they so chose. Masterful stuff. Combine all of that with a hot Korakuen crowd, and you have got yourself an all-time classic. (*****)


My list of 5-Star Matches

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NJPW, TJ Hawke