Sometimes the things you think wouldn’t go together so well ends up being a fantastic fit that feels entirely like an experience. Nelly & Tim McGraw’s “Over and Over”, Disney & Final Fantasy coalescing into Kingdom Hearts, or me & you on a romantic walk down the beach.
That’s Shinsuke Nakamura vs Kota Ibushi at Wrestle Kingdom 9 for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, a title that Nakamura brought to prestige the same way he brought himself to prestige. Presentation.
See, Shinsuka Nakamura in the 2000s had the machine behind him and training in mixed-martial arts, going so far as to become the IWGP Heavyweight Champion at the young age of 23. Still, it wasn’t enough. He needed something more. Something everyone could sink their teeth into.
In the early 2010’s, Nakamura would find that thing when he embraced his true self and emerged as The King of Strong Style. This iteration of the Mineyama, Kyoto native made him an incredible wrestler in the Japanese scene – maybe in the industry in general.
This Nakamura was like an intergalactic superstar, moving in erratic yet goofy ways, dressing flamboyantly and displaying a taunting demeanor; someone you’d think isn’t taking any of this seriously and is just living it up. And he is, but let that guard down for that, for even a second, and you’ll be in for the roughest fight of your life. Shinsuke Nakamura is someone who would bully the hell out of you and demand you get on his level.
On this January Tokyo night, The King’s opponent would be a Golden Star in Kota Ibushi. Formerly a freelancer, notably having wrestled in DDT and having a memorable tag team with Kenny Omega – The Golden Lovers, Ibushi became a full-time NJPW wrestler, and soon graduated from the Junior Heavyweight Division to the Heavyweights. He wrestles in a style that is very talented, but there’s a certain apprehensiveness to it, and to see his full potential, it must be unlocked. Like a treasure hidden in a chest.
With this mixture, the prospect of these two matching up makes for something compelling. Upon first watch, I didn’t know the story going in, and I didn’t care. I’ve enjoyed both men’s journeys, and I was ready to go, many years after this match happened. My first watch last year felt magical. Seeing other fans of NJPW confess to this match being their first, and the match that got them into Japanese wrestling, it’s easy to see why this match is beloved.
Jim Ross on commentary, a man with heavy history in his voice, calling a match with a couple of top level talents, elevates this for me.
After the bell, the men are hesitant for contact, save for some kicks until Shinsuke mocks Ibushi in a Shinsuke way. Kota has none of this, and pushes him away. A bad decision, for Nakamura doesn’t like his art to be vandalized.
Kota survives this offense, and mocks The King by stealing his Good Vibrations, rattling his opponent and outright pissing him off. There’s no cocky grin, but an outright snarl, as he hurls stiffness and his one true Good Vibrations before unleashing hell.
This typical Kota Ibushi isn’t enough for the monarch, but he can’t just outright go to that level. And Nakamura is the type of person who could unwrap that secret.
Ibushi puts up a good fight, but Nakamura is just callous and mean. As Ross on commentary puts it: “He loves the punishment, but he loves to dish out those receipts!”
Finally, a bit of offense gives Ibushi a chance, but only a fleeting one. Swift as he is, airless as he is, he’s unfitting in this current state. Nakamura is all too happy to take advantage of Ibushi’s history of concussions. His kicks say it, whooshing towards his head in a way that would wreck anyone’s cranium.
Ibushi fights out once again, for the final time as this version of Kota with more swiftness, dealt stiffly, given desperately, and for a flittering moment, Nakamura’s crown seems to show a hint of a crack. Only his fighting spirit keeps it resting tightly on his head. Countering a Shooting Star Press with the deathly knees of his Bomaye and callously kicks Ibushi’s head on the ropes, crushing it to the mat.
The mist in the air, hanging above the ring in a darkness lit up by a cerulean mat paints a scene in transition. Like the South Korean film, Parasite, this shift changes the foundation of the match.
There’s a stare that happens in the eyes of Kota Ibushi. It’s seen in much of his work. That high-flyer with the quickness is no longer there. No thoughts, just a rage that should let anyone know that this beast is no longer man, no longer human.
Nakamura struggles to keep up, because he’s dealing with an outright brawl of an uncaring Ibushi. On this level, Ibushi is Nakamura’s equal, and he can’t afford to hide his power, he can ill afford to taunt.
Ibushi’s level of violence sees him stealing a Bomaye and kicks Nakamura the same way he kicked him. For someone not watching, this is true catharsis. The camp is gone from Shinsuke and the hesitation is lost on Ibushi.
The slaps pierce the ears louder, the kicks thud to bone-crunching levels, and breath leaves them like a room in absence of light.
There’s reckless abandon in every movement. Total disregard for safety and may Lord have mercy on anyone in the midst of the crossfire.
Even the worst of what Nakamura has to offer gives a grin to the face of Kota. Now he doesn’t take Shinsuke seriously, and the body language of the king reeks of panic.
Every drop of sweat from Shinsuke’s body, every quiver in his leather pants, every rushed thought has to be collected in an instant. His place is threatened, so he must strike swift and true, he’s now in the place he held Ibushi in.
With a quick Bomaye, he strikes Ibushi from behind, as he revels in his brutality and carnage. This knee fells Ibushi with unexpected impact. A three-count encapsulates the climax of a war and ends certain death before it can happen.
Laying on the mat, Shinsuke collects himself in a state of shock as he regains breath. Bewildered at the intense match and the newfound respect he has for Ibushi, Nakamura is stunned. Though he’s the winner, he is stunned. He didn’t just win, he survived and for that, he is relieved.
The monster inside Ibushi is conquered and vanquished; man exists once more. With a reassuring pressing of the heads and a fist bump, respect and admiration for each other is established.
The otherworldly rockstar has defeated a golden star, and that young Ibushi cemented himself as someone who could be Intercontinental Champion, as well as Heavyweight Champion. Time and time again in his career, Ibushi shows that he’s someone who will always change the world of professional wrestling.
I wish we could get Nakamura on this level again, as we’ve seen of him at Pro Wrestling NOAH’s The New Year, preferably in WWE so the world sees how great he is on a big level, but in moments of the past, matches like this one against Ibushi are the ones to always look forward to.
On that January 4 night, the world got a collision of stars, and we in turn received a supernova.