With New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Wrestle Kingdom 10 behind us—which featured a new Ace, new titles, the confirmation of two top stars heading West and Jado winning the Rambo—many NJPW fans were looking forward to 2016, yet carried worries when looking into the company’s future. Some would argue NJPW’s vision became repetitive while producing touches of magic here and there, while others are content with watching the madness unfold before their eyes, good or bad. For a promotion that usually has a standout match on every card it produces, it’s not like NJPW is alienating its fans or coincidentally plans to do so any time soon.
To say the company didn’t need an overhaul would be foolish. Kazuchika Okada became the guy, while the 39-year-old Hiroshi Tanahashi, who performs as if he’s good for another decade, is expected to slowly start winding down. NJPW’s coveted jewel, Shinsuke Nakamura, who arguably was the force that made NJPW’s global exposure possible (especially in the U.S., alongside three Bullet Club members), gave his notice and began to march in unfamiliar territory known as the WWE. AJ Styles, his 2016 Tokyo Dome opponent, would also follow suit, alongside Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows. It wasn’t quite an exodus, because the company had some big pieces to fall back on, but it surely wasn’t far from being one.
After notable happenings took place at New Year Dash and Road to the New Beginning, including a giant back-stab and crowning of a new boss, followed by the emotional farewell to one of NJPW’s most charismatic and legendary performers, the stage was set for the string of New Beginning events which served as the precursor to the next few tournaments and tours, including New Japan Cup, G1 Climax 26, and a number of yearly PPV events. Could NJPW convince the masses that progression would be reached, and that its new top stars would be able to fill the void?
Follow Your Leader
It was pretty clear the Niigata show had more riding on it than the Osaka event. The IWGP Intercontinental Championship overshadowed Okada and Hirooki Goto’s encounter, and when it was all said and done, the second event surpassed the first by a country mile (minus the whole story of Goto’s loss eating him up inside).
Maybe because Kenny Omega, new leader of Bullet Club, reached superstar status by defeating Hiroshi Tanahashi, taking home the vacant IWGP Intercontinental strap.
Looking more like a combination of The Punisher and Lt. Pete Mitchell upon his arrival, Omega certainly fit the role, bulking up in weight and wowing everyone with his newly acquired ring attire. Win or lose, this seemed like the first night of the rest of his life. In the match itself, Omega did everything from dismissing his peers because of backlash from the smart marks to nonchalantly putting on a Los Ingobernables mask and selling the limb work so well you had to wonder if he was really hurting.
The win, marred by “controversy” (explained further below), established Omega as a top star in New Japan, and one that will deliver on a nightly basis due to the sheer nature of his stature. He came out looking perfectly fitted for the role of a top guy, even though he thought it was a good idea to sing Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.” Even at that, he was so good on Valentine’s Day that it just felt right.
If They Only Knew
Mostly everyone is fond of Katsuyori Shibata, the sort of wrestler who can do no wrong and enters the room with great expectations, even though his adoring supporters aren’t exactly realistic when it comes to his chances. On the other hand, he has now defeated Tomohiro Ishii twice in two jaw-dropping affairs, ones you look back on in 10 years from now and reminisce about the NEVER days.
But can we talk about the Stone Pitbull for a minute? Here’s a guy who’s been a regular for New Japan for about a decade now, rarely ventures outside of the country to compete and steals the show more often than not on almost every card he competes on. During his NEVER Openweight title run, Ishii, more or less a chiropractor’s nightmare at this point, had lengthy wars against Tetsuya Naito, Togi Makabe, Tomoaki Honma and most recently Shibata. He stood toe-to-toe against Goto, Honma and Michael Elgin in hard-hitting brawls in last year’s G1 Climax. He comes to ring looking like he just woke up 25 minutes prior and is ready to murder someone. He’s 40 years old, and yes, he doesn’t feel a thing.
Hopefully, the ROH exposure (which starts this weekend against Roderick Strong) helps Ishii grow a bigger fan base outside of his hardcore following. Maybe then wrestling fans will dive into his career and begin to realize he’s not only criminally underrated, but also one of the all-time greats when it comes to match performance.
It’s safe to say that without Styles, the Young Bucks and maybe Karl Anderson, nobody would be rushing to buy those Bullet Club tees (even the limited run of black market ones that were sold by a wrestler at one point). Gallows, as talented as he is, would fit better as a monster heel running through the South in the mid-1980s. Bad Luck Fale is a towering presence that is extremely limited in movement, and some might even say talent. Yujiro Takahashi, a favourite among users of the Internet, is also just there. Cody Hall has a long way to go, and half the people reading this may not even know who Chase Owens is.
Tama Tonga, on the other hand, shows promise. Usually the one to take the fall in tag matches, we see glimpses of what the Tongan can do, and for the most part, his work is exceptional. The biggest letdown thus far is seeing Tonga being excluded from tournaments, with no opportunities in the singles department either.
In Osaka, part of that changed. Tonga, for one night only, was a champion. The following night, upon seeing his brethren down for the count, Tonga challenged Great Bash Heel for the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship, promising to bring for a mystery partner, and coincidentally, a new Bullet Club family member.
This is by no means a resurgence, but the slight push Tonga needed into the spotlight to show everyone he’s still there, and for good reason. With room to grow in the faction, this could be Tonga’s time to shine and prove he wasn’t just playing backseat as a BC OG all along.
A lot of New Japan aficionados took to message boards, podcasts and social media to express their disgust in the praise for Niigata’s main event, because of the constant interference. Some didn’t have too much of an issue with it, seeing Omega finish Tanahashi without resorting to exterior forces during the finish. While many thought it tarnished Omega’s win, the issue itself may be New Japan adopting outside interference in the past few years, led by Bullet Club, but this is nothing new when you’re dealing with villain stables. Plus, had Omega gone over clean, wouldn’t it have hurt Tanahashi, especially since he was recently crushed by Okada on January 4?
The question is does it belong in a promotion like the one we’re discussing? Every time the young Cody made his presence felt on the outside, the boos sounded more like the crowd was just growing tired of the whole shtick, more so in Niigata than Osaka. Despite these interactions being easy heat for the heels, one would think there’s a time and place for outside interference, and not just in every contest.
Are frequent title changes good or bad? You decide. It’s a matter of opinion, like a lot of things in pro wrestling. In terms of the IWGP Jr. Tag Team Championship, it’s seen a lot of homes. The hopes for Matt Sydal and Ricochet to have a strong run with the titles are high, considering the possibility of having great two-on-two encounters with the tag teams that await them in NJPW. Why they didn’t win at Wrestle Kingdom 10, though, after triumphing the Super Junior Tag Tournament, is beyond a mystery. There are many possibilities, but it would have been an obvious yet perfect ending to the story.
Then again, those titles are becoming what the NEVER Six-Man Openweight Championship is resembling, which is disorder on any given night. It surely keeps the ideas fresh and if what’s about to occur is unexpected, it’s usually not a bad thing.
Maybe this shouldn’t be said here, since it fits into the bigger picture and not an event column, but the promotion is going to have a really hard time adjusting to the departure of the King of Strong Style. Omega has become the replacement for Styles, even though he’s still going to have to live up to the latter’s success to truly be the heir. As for Nakamura, New Japan has a couple of guys that could fill the gap. The problem is there isn’t anyone else that completely stands out. Nakamura was unique in a sense that when the first half of the card was completed, his co-main event matches were as important as the main events he didn’t participate in. When involved in multiple-man tag matches, he brought a little more flair to the duel. This isn’t to say New Japan will never find a replacement to Nakamura or at least someone that could draw as well as he did. For now, though, it’s best to move on without him and hope that something happens organically, rather than try to force someone’s hand into the position they won’t be able to fill.