As a lifelong wrestling fan who lives in the United States…it can be exhausting. If you’re following WWE, who do you get behind? Where are your top babyfaces? We almost had one in Finn Balor but he’s hurt. All of those cool Shield guys are faces now but each one is harder to get behind than the last. The potentially greatest babyface on Earth, Bayley, participated in a five-on-one beatdown on TV recently. So you might be asking yourself, where have all the good guys gone? Where are all the Gods? Where’s the streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds?
Oh that’s right, Japan.
Japan in 2016 has seen a surge of young, top wrestling talents whose respective companies have given them the ball to run with. Some have performed better than others, but nonetheless it’s made wrestling in 2016 Japan a lot of fun to watch.
Few things are more exciting in wrestling than a fresh new young champion. Japan’s seen many this year. If you don’t follow these companies, now would be an excellent time to start. The future is now.
All Japan Pro Wrestling
Finisher: Shut Down German Suplex Hold
Watch For: Blackout knee strikes
Winning the vacant Triple Crown title for the first time against Zeus in February 2016, Kento Miyahara has been the revelation AJPW has needed. It had been predicted for years that Miyahara would someday ascend to the position of Ace in AJPW, but his ascension hit a speed bump, in the form of injury to Suwama. AJPW’s Ace going into the end of last year, Suwama, seemed primed to drop the title to Miyahara early this year and crown him. Unfortunately he got injured, and Miyahara’s first big title win came in a solid match against Zeus but without the proper build or fanfare.
Miyahara did not let this deter him though, as he spent 2016 sweeping through the roster in brilliant fashion. Whether it was against veterans like Takao Omori, Ryouji Sai or Jun Akiyama; or against outsiders such as Kengo Mashimo or Champion Carnival winner Daisuke Sekimoto, Miyahara has produced matches ranging from great to MOTY contenders. I especially suggest seeking out his defenses against Akiyama and Mashimo, as well as his 30 minute draw with Mashimo from the Carnival. Performances like these have led to AJPW’s 2016 resurgence, as the man has basically had the company on his back all year.
He recently overcame his greatest threat: the man he had never beaten, the returning Suwama, in the main event of the biggest AJPW show in years. This cements Miyahara as the Ace of AJPW and the protagonist of the company moving forward. There is speculation as to where Miyahara goes from here, as he has run through most credible contenders on the roster. Wherever he goes, I’ll be watching, and bobbing my head to his kickass entrance music too.
Pro Wrestling NOAH
Finisher: Vertical Spike (Brainbuster)
Watch For: Those kicks!
It was this man’s speech that actually gave me the idea to write this column to begin with.
Nakajima, who used to train with Miyahara, called out not only him but NJPW Ace Kazuchika Okada. All three world champions are under the age of 30. Nakajima won his title last, and one can argue it should have happened a lot sooner.
Nakajima is one of the youngest veterans you’ll find. When he broke into the business in 2002, former DDT champion Konosuke Takeshita was 8 years old (I’ll get to him later). Now Nakajima is the GHC heavyweight champion and he’s only 28.
The Suzuki-Gun storyline in NOAH will not be remembered fondly but it appears we are at the light at the end of the tunnel, and that light is Nakajima’s first GHC heavyweight title reign. It’s been a long road. After feuding with Suzuki-Gun monster Shelton Benjamin (that’s right, that’s how he was pushed) and eventually overcoming him, Nakajima got the biggest win of his career by pinning Minoru Suzuki in the main event of a February Korakuen Hall show. Then he had his match with Takashi Sugiura and failed. Because…reasons.
After an impressive showing in NJPW’s G1 Climax, Nakajima seemed more credible and focused than ever and came back to NOAH with an enhanced fire and edge. Finally pinning Takashi Suguira’s shoulders to the mat on October 23rd, Nakajima not only claimed his first world title, but became the savior that NOAH needs.
Nakajima recently overcame the other major threat in Suzuki-Gun, Minoru Suzuki himself. Unlike AJPW, It is too soon to tell how positively Nakajima on top will affect business. However, like AJPW, with the title on Nakajima, NOAH feels fresh again. Much like with AJPW, now would be a good time to get into this promotion, with Nakajima as its protagonist.
Finisher: Backdrop Driver
Watch For: Beefy Offense
Big Japan’s main event scene is half deathmatches and half beefy men hitting each other hard. I follow the latter. Hideyoshi Kamitani is the heir apparent to the style the likes of Yuji Okabayashi, Daisuke Sekimoto and Shuji Ishikawa have made famous there: Beefy strong style.
Earlier this spring BJW had their semi-annual Strong Climb tournament, a tournament which tends to fly under the radar of ones such as the G1 Climax or Champion’s Carnival. This year’s was a joy to watch, and the finals were comprised of men from different generations: 24 year old Hideyoshi Kamitani and 40 year old Shuji Ishikawa. I highly suggest watching this match, it is truly great. In the end Kamitani was defeated but came out of it looking like a million bucks.
Ishikawa would fail to defeat resident BJW Hoss Kingpin Yuji Okabayashi for the BJW Strong World Heavyweight Championship. In July, Kamitani would get his chance at BJW Ryogokutan, on the big stage in Tokyo in front of over 3000 fans. A year prior to this Okabayashi had defeated his mentor Daisuke Sekimoto at the same show to claim the title. Kamitani rose to the occasion and both men delivered a heated MOTY contender level bout, and in the end the torch was passed as it was a year ago, this time from the 33 year old Okabayashi to the 24 year old Kamitani.
The kid’s 24 years old. I can’t stress that enough. Been in the game for 4 years and already has ascended to such prominence in a division that is quite literally stacked. I feel fine in saying that Okabayashi, Sekimoto and ishikawa are 3 of the top 25 wrestlers in the world today. And kamitani is the champion, the young stud. I would keep my eye on Kamitani as he will be a big part of Japanese Strong Style in the coming years.
Finisher: German Suplex Hold
Watch For: Amateur Background
Watch yourself, Matt Riddle. This girls is a rookie too! And she’s already ascended to the throne that is Sendai Girls’ World Champion. In less than a year! Talk about a super rookie. And who did she defeat to win that title? The woman that brought her into wrestling, arguably the best women’s wrestler on earth: Meiko Satomura.
Satomura went 10 months without being pinned, beating the likes of Io Shirai and Aja Kong along the way. She was everything you want in a champion and company Ace, and also happens to be office in Sendai Girls. And who did she handpick to pass the torch to? Chihiro Hashimoto.
And Chihiro is undoubtedly deserving of the honor. She is the future of joshi wrestling. The first match of hers I saw was Meiko’s title defense against her, and I remember thinking to myself, “Who’s this chick? She’s very good. Too bad she has no chance against the badass that is Meiko Satomu…what!?” Apparently, even closer followers of Sendai Girls’ were shocked as well, and the crowd erupted when she got the 3 count.
This super rookie is one to keep your eye on and one to follow if you love joshi wrestling as much as I do.
Finisher: Arms Trapped German Suplex
Watch For: Explosive German Suplex and Lariat variations
Alas, we get to the first name on this list who isn’t currently the world champion of their promotion.
Konosuke Takeshita, the heir apparent of DDT for some time now, won his first KO-D Openweight title this year on his 21st birthday. He won it from the dastardly Daisuke Sasaki, mastermind of the fresh and exciting heel stable DAMNATION. He became the youngest KO-D champion in history.
This occurred after Takeshita and his partner Endo had dropped the tag titles to Sasaki and his partner Shuji Ishikawa earlier in the year. What sweet, sweet, revenge.
Takeshita then defended the KO-D title against his tag partner, Tetsuya Endo, successfully. After the match Endo turned on Takeshita and joined DAMNATION. What sweet, sweet, betrayal.
Takeshita would defend the title successfully twice more before dropping it in the main event of DDT’s biggest show of the year: Ryogoku Peter Pan 2016, to the powerhouse of DAMNATION, Shuji Ishikawa.
Did I mention that he’s only 21 years old? Takeshita will win this title again and he will find a way to overcome Shuji Ishikawa at some point, as he is the man who seems destined to ultimately replace HARASHIMA as the ace of DDT.
Or maybe not…? Perhaps it’ll be super rookie Kazusada Higuchi who had a MOTY level bout with Ishikawa for the title this year. Maybe babyfaces aren’t your thing, maybe you’re a Tetsuya Endo guy? There are many young, fresh faces to follow in DDT, and any number of them could be the hero you’re looking for.
The Stardom Girls: Io Shirai, Kairi Hojo and Mayu Iwatani
Ages: 26, 28 & 23, respectively
That’s right I’m lumping them all together! If Lucha Underground can do it then so can I. I’m not a huge fan of LU’s men vs women matches, but these three had my favorite one to date when they had their gauntlet against Pentagon Dark.
Of course, they make much better opponents for each other. Meltzer called these women three of the best wrestlers in the world, and I agree with the man. Watch any match between two of these three and it will be as good as the top tier work of the NXT horsewomen. What’s cool about them is that they’re all so different. Shirai is the babyface ace (or was, I’ll get to that in a moment), Hojo is the weird and dangerous one, and Iwatani is the talented kid sister who is struggling to keep up with her two older counterparts. They’re all basically the aces of Stardom. They’ve all had a stranglehold on the major titles for a couple of years now. At one point this year Shirai was the Stardom World champion, while being the tag champion with Iwatani, and the trios champion with Iwatani and Hojo (while Iwatani held the midcard singles title). Iwatani has not claimed the top singles Stardom title, as of yet.
They had the whole world in their hands. But now it’s looking as if Shirai (and maybe Hojo) will be going to NXT. Shirai has even turned heel, now. I have mixed feelings about this, because I enjoy Stardom so much. I feel these women as well as Chihiro and Satomura make up the heart of joshi wrestling at the moment and I would hate to lose that.
So maybe I should’ve titled this section ‘Mayu Iwatani’, as I know that she is the young, roller-skate skinny heroine who will be sticking around for the time being. Stardom does have a plethora of young talent, but none are as close to “there” yet as Mayu Iwatani.
Stardom is my favorite women’s promotion and I suggest checking out their streaming service as well.
New Japan Pro Wrestling
Finisher: The Rainmaker
Watch For: The best dropkick in the world…and also THE RAINMAKER
Come on now, you didn’t think I’d leave this guy off the list, did you? Ok so maybe he isn’t the prototypical babyface the other names on here are. But this man is still only 29 years old and has accomplished so much already. If you’re reading this, I’m pretty sure you know about this guy.
So why include him? Well, he’s a world champion under 30. And right now, for my money, he is THE GUY in pro wrestling today. The Ace of Aces. I know Tanahashi had his whole “Ace Of The Universe” thing and that’s all well and good, he is a legendary worker and draw. But Okada, for my money, is The Man. Not just in NJPW, but the world. If I had to start a promotion from scratch, and I could have anyone in the world, my #1 draft pick would be Kazuchika Okada. And there’s no one close. He’s young, he’s got a great look, a great gimmick, and he’s an incredible worker. Not a good worker, not great, INCREDIBLE. I think he’s already done enough to be in the conversation for best of this era, and possibly one of the best of all time.
If anyone in wrestling is worth following, it’s this man, Kazuchika Okada. In four and a half years he’s been a huge part of NJPW’s resurgence. He’s why I started watching NJPW. This is his era. This is his company (even if I hope he loses to Kenny Omega at Wrestle Kingdom 11).