If you look out across the Japanese wrestling landscape, several promotions have been putting a lot of stock in their young(est) generations, with the likes of Kento Miyahara, Hideyoshi Kamitani, and Konosuke Takeshita all carrying the big money straps. It’s more or less a directional trend but works on a number of levels, providing fresh match-ups, attracting (or attempting to attract) new fans, and inspiring the younger guys to step up their game.

Of all these baby-faced champs, perhaps no one fits the “ace” mold better than Kento Miyahara.

The 27-year-old captured the Triple Crown in February of this year and has been consistently solid (if a bit formulaic) in his defenses. Although his matches can suffer from some of the same ace proclivities (his spot placement and convenient selling down the stretch), there’s no denying Miyahara’s infectious energy and his knack for closing big title matches in exciting fashion. What draws me to Miyahara is the frenetic way in which he works, infusing almost heel-like tendencies into his actions. He definitely benefits from having a good dance partner but he’s been carrying the weight of the promotion for a while now, and doing a pretty darn good job of it.

While AJPW continues to struggle to find a prominent place on the landscape again, Miyahara is the promotion’s bright spot. Despite his faults, he continues to develop and find confidence in his role as the company ace. Each title match is an improvement upon the last, with his latest defense against Jun Akiyama likely topping a number of Match of the Year ballots. With four title defenses under his belt and fifth scheduled against Ryouji Sai on 8/27, he’s cemented himself as one of the top champions in Japan.

In another mid-year review, let’s take a look at what I consider Kento Miyahara’s five best performances of 2016 thus far.

Triple Crown
Kento Miyahara vs. Zeus (2/12)

This was Kento Miyahara’s crowning moment and proof that he was ready to lead All Japan into the future. Zeus was fine in his powerhouse role as he tries to subdue the fiery Miyahara through the first half of the match. There was a great spot where he clotheslines the knee and suplexes Miyahara from the apron to the floor. Miyahara sold well enough, with the failed German suplex hold being an especially nice touch. There was an exciting sense of desperation in the end, as Miyahara is trying to keep the monster at bay with repeated bicycle kicks but Zeus keeps powering out. Eventually, Miyahara is able to trap the arms and hit the German suplex hold for the biggest win of his career.

Champion Carnival – Block A
Kento Miyahara vs. Naoya Nomura (4/16)

Out of all the Champion Carnival match-ups, this one really showcased Miyahara’s strengths. A fun, competitive pairing of Miyahara’s energetic aggression with the spirited “can’t die” attitude of Nomura. It’s there from the start as Nomura rushes headlong into a boot from Miyahara, who promptly dispatches him from the ring as if he can’t be bothered. But after Nomura ties him up in the ropes, he pops off an elbow as if to say “oh but you will be bothered.” Miyahara does a great job of controlling the match and neutralizing any comeback Nomura attempts. When Nomura finally hits the roll-through spear, it only seems to fuel Miyahara’s fire and we see the champ snap. After elbowing Nomura repeatedly, Miyahara stalks him for the running knee to the back of the head, leading to the finish.

Triple Crown
Kento Miyahara (c) vs. Daisuke Sekimoto (5/25)

This match was a slow build to a hot finish. They tease their big strikes early on and kill some time in and outside of the ring, with the ace managing to get some of his signature spots in. I liked his armbar counter to Sekimoto’s lariat and the improvisation on Sekimoto’s part, delivering a tiger suplex hold when the champ squirms to avoid the German. Sekimoto manages to survive a big flurry of offense near the end, hitting a nice headbutt counter to avoid the arm trap. He lays into the champ with meat cleaver chops but Miyahara explodes with back-to-back knee strikes before finishing Sekimoto off with the arm-trap German. Light on substance but heavy on fun.

Triple Crown
Kento Miyahara (c) vs. Kengo Mashimo (6/15)

This match acted as a double-edged sword for Miyahara. On the one hand, it was his strongest title defense to date but on the other hand, it exposed his lack of regard for long-term selling. Kengo Mashimo did an outstanding job of focusing on the arm and keeping it relevant throughout the course of the match, cutting off the champ with takedowns and going back to the arm-based attacks. There’s an eye-rolling sequence where Miyahara no sells the jumping armbreaker from the top to shoehorn in a back-and-forth fighting spirit rush. But like most of Miyahara’s title matches, the final act was a strong point, with Mashimo continuing to tease the submissions while Kento blows through his offense. In a way, these previous defenses served as stepping stones, with Miyahara feeling out his groove and gaining the necessary experience points for the big boss battle against Akiyama.

Triple Crown
Kento Miyahara (c) vs. Jun Akiyama (7/23)

The dynamic between these two made this match extra special, with the grizzled ace that never was love tapping Miyahara on the face like “let’s do this, kid” and the cocky company ace returning the favor like, “here we go, old man.” The danger of the front necklock was built well into the structure as Akiyama does a number on Kento’s neck in preparation, like his piledriver, a reverse DDT on the apron, and a brainbuster. I especially loved his elbow strikes to the neck. Miyahara’s selling of the neck was okay at best, but he sold in other ways that helped flesh this thing out. The aftermath of the apron spot and Miyahara just barely making it back into the ring only to be met with a running knee and deep front necklock was high drama. Akiyama brings the best out of Miyahara’s performance, and the big boss himself was near perfect here. The risky headbutt during the elbow exchange, his disbelief in Miyahara surviving the wrist-clutch Exploder and that agonizing final stand as he crawls through the knee strikes until Kento finally puts him down like a lame horse with one last shot. It was without a doubt Miyahara’s hardest fought defense of the year and his most compelling. Assuming he survives Sai, it will be interesting to see where Miyahara’s confidence level is against the former champ, Suwama, in what will certainly be a mammoth-sized hurdle in his title reign.