Don’t look now, but New Japan Pro Wrestling is fun again. After a 2015 that, while good, featured stagnation top of the card, many of the same matches and feuds repeated to death, lackluster to downright disrespectful Korakuen Hall lineups and boring, all-too-samey champions, NJPW has seemingly righted the ship and for the first time in a while, seems to be firing on all creative cylinders.
One look at next week’s Wrestling Dontaku 2016 card will show you just how different (and in my mind better) NJPW is in 2016. Last year’s Dontaku card featured six tag or multi-man tag matches including an eight-man tag, two six-man tags, one six-person intergender tag, a three-way tag and two straight-up tag matches. Only two singles matches made it to last year’s annual Fukuoka event.
This year features five singles matches, three of which for titles and the other two, perhaps equally as compelling, are simply special challenge matches to help the continuation of current feuds.
More than simply the number of singles and tag matches, the importance of the matches and the new names in the mix have made 2016 NJPW a hoot thus far. The semi-main event between former IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada and recent New Japan import SANADA (Seiya Sanada) makes my eyes light up immediately. Not only is SANADA a fantastic worker who should fit well in the role, he’s a new, fresh name. After what seemed like years of the same rotation of guys, there’s finally some new blood in the mix… and that’s a great thing. Hell, take one look at the current IWGP Heavyweight Champion, Tetsuya Naito.
While Naito has been in the upper midcard mix for years, his rapid ascent has taken New Japan by storm. The look and feels of shows have changed dramatically, due in large part to him and his Los Ingobernable stablemates buzz sawing through the promotion.
Last year at Wrestling Dontaku 2015, Naito teamed with now-departed young lion Sho Tanaka in a losing effort (they lost to Kota Ibushi and also-departed young lion Yohei Komatsu). Now a year later, he’s in the main event against a familiar foe in Tomohiro Ishii, yet, the match feels fresh, new and different because this isn’t the Naito of old. This isn’t for the NEVER Title. There’s a new-ness to it, even if it features two guys who had four high-profile singles matches in the last three years.
The third match from the top features more new blood. EVIL, the former Takaaki Watanabe, is still finding his footing after returning from excursion but seems to have found a home in Naito’s Los Ingobernables stable. What’s more, his opponent, the always-familiar Hirooki Goto, has some new life to him as he transitions into a member of the CHAOS stable. Last year, Goto was in the main event of Dontaku, feuding with Shinsuke Nakamura for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship. You could argue he’s regressed in a year’s time but his “run” with the IC Title last year left a lot to be desired and once again stirred up images of Goto choking in big moments and matches. Now, he has a much-needed fresh coat of paint. Sure, the match placement may have regressed but for the first time in years, Goto finally feels new, different and fresh. A real theme of New Japan in 2016.
The departure of AJ Styles left a massive void in the once dominant Bullet Club stable. Instead of merely filling that hole, current IWGP Intercontinental Champion Kenny Omega aimed to create his own story. The Bullet Club had become stagnant after years atop of the New Japan scene. While Styles departure was of course a huge blow to New Japan, the transition away from the Bullet Club for Omega and The Young Bucks was just what the doctor ordered. The Elite has rejuvenated each of the men while breaking up the dark cloud of malaise that hung over each member of the Bullet Club.
Katsuyori Shibata’s run with the NEVER Openweight Champion has been a breath of fresh air for a title that had been suffocated by Ishii and his frequent opposition Togi Makabe. Since February of 2014, when Ishii won his first NEVER Openweight Championship, the title had been held by one of the two an insane 586 days. Looking beyond the simple fact that a new champion holds the belt, Shibata’s ongoing feuds with the Dads of New Japan Pro Wrestling (Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Satoshi Kojima and Yuji Nagata) has given each of those three a much-needed spotlight. In prior years, both Tenzan and Kojima had been relegated to meaningless NWA Title matches, endless boring tag feuds with the occasional blip during G1 Climax season.
Nagata, well, he would’ve killed to be relegated to anything over the past few years.
In 2015, Nagata had two non-tournament singles matches. Famously his disappointing New Beginning in Sendai main event against Shinsuke Nakamura in February. This was followed 10 months later by a defeat of young lion Sho Tanaka during the Road to Tokyo Dome tour. Sure, Nagata had a run in the G1 (grabbing six points along the way) and he participated in the New Japan Cup (losing to Goto in the first round) but he was… just a guy. This feud with Shibata has proved certainly the adage, what’s old is new again. Reinvigorated by the first legit feud he’s had in years, Nagata is showing much of the same fire that made him one of New Japan’s pillars nearly a decade ago.
I absolutely understand if 2015 New Japan wore you out. If you decided to take a step back from the company, let your NJPW World subscription run out and take your viewing dollars and hours elsewhere. I get it. But I’m also telling you now, to jump back on board. New Japan is as fun as it’s been in years and for the first time in those years, the matches, the shows, the cards, the wrestlers feel new, feel different and feel unique. The overexposure and uncreative booking made 2015 a good but admittedly boring, by-the-numbers year. What began as a shocking year in light of the departures of Nakamura, Styles, Karl Anderson and more has given way to a phoenix of a year, rising for the boring ashes and proving that wrestling companies are often at their best when their back is against the wall. The necessity to change things up and leave the security blankets alone has given us a tremendous 2016 in New Japan Pro Wrestling.
It’s time to get back on the bandwagon.