At Ring of Honor’s recent War of the World’s PPV, New Japan Pro Wrestling unveiled their newest championship: the IWGP United States Championship.
— njpw_global (@njpwglobal) May 13, 2017
The belt is yet another sign of New Japan’s desire to make their mark in the United States, and shortly after the news broke, there was a lot of speculation on who would be the first champion. Names like “The American Nightmare” Cody, Michael Elgin and Zack Sabre Jr. were tossed around. Maybe someone from Ring of Honor. Or maybe a hot free agent like Matt Riddle. I think there’s someone better: KUSHIDA.
“But KUSHIDA’s not a westerner and he’s not a heavyweight!” I know, but stick with me.
KUSHIDA had an incredible 2016. He was the ace of the New Japan junior heavyweight division and brought the division to new heights, wrestling at or near the top of the card and most importantly, becoming a draw from a business perspective. But 2017 has been the year of the Ticking Time Bomb, Hiromu Takahashi.
Takahashi beat KUSHIDA at Wrestle Kingdom 11 to win the title and then squashed him at Sakura Genesis to secure his place as the new ace of the junior heavyweight division.
— njpw_global (@njpwglobal) April 10, 2017
KUSHIDA will get his chance at redemption after winning the Best of the Super Juniors but if he doesn’t leave next week’s Dominion as IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, what’s next?
You could move him up to heavyweight, but in a division already stacked with Kazuchika Okada, Kenny Omega, Tetsuya Naito, Hiroshi Tanahashi and many others, isn’t KUSHIDA bound to get lost in the shuffle? So what do you do with him? You send him to America.
KUSHIDA as the IWGP United States Championship has a number of benefits for both branches of New Japan. Most importantly, having KUSHIDA as the champion establishes that the “New Japan” in New Japan USA isn’t just branding. It would be very easy to hire twenty westerners, put on a “New Japan” show, and call it a day. You might draw in curious fans for a bit, but probably not for long. Fans going to a New Japan show want to see true New Japan wrestlers.
On the other hand, you have to send the right New Japan stars. Send the wrong stars, and boosting business in America comes at the expense of business in Japan. Kenny Omega would make a great US Champion, but if he misses dates in Japan defending his title, it’s a zero sum game. Which is why KUSHIDA is perfect. For western fans, he carries the credibility of “New Japan star”, but with another title match or big feud not in the cards for the near future, now is the perfect time to let him go. He won’t be called on to draw in Japan in the near future, so send him to America.
There have also been rumblings that KUSHIDA is looking to move up to the heavyweight division. But as I said before, is that the wisest idea at a time when the heavyweight division is so packed? Furthermore, under the New Japan microscope, there’s a chance that he moves up and the idea doesn’t take. At that point, he may be damaged goods and his drawing ability may be affected. It’s a risky move, so why not test in out in America first before you go all the way with it? The line between heavyweight and junior heavyweight is almost non-existent in the United States, and I’m positive that most fans would have no issue accepting KUSHIDA as a heavyweight champion. Let him establish heavyweight credibility at the top of an American heavyweight division rather than having him as just another guy in the Japanese heavyweight division. In fact, if the American audiences react positively to KUSHIDA as a heavyweight, it may help influence the type of reaction KUSHIDA gets back in Japan. Warming the audience up to the idea without needing him to be a draw right away.
You could also use KUSHIDA’s journey to America to develop a story that would span both promotions. KUSHIDA has been in a funk lately – he lost to Hiromu twice and just lost in the first night of Best of the Super Juniors to El Desperado. The story could be that KUSHIDA has lost his mojo and the only place to find it is outside Japan. He can travel to the US, string some wins together, win the title, prove he’s still got what it takes and return to New Japan as a confident star rather than an unsure wrestler facing a growing pile of losses. This cross promotional storytelling would emphasize to the fans the unity between the promotions and would make both promotions essential. Just like in comic books, cross promotional storytelling can be used to bolster two brands at once by creating can’t miss storytelling in multiple places.
Finally, KUSHIDA has the talent. New Japan has built a reputation on stellar in-ring wrestling and KUSHIDA has been a big part of helping that reputation grow. It is so important that New Japan USA have the same commitment to stellar in-ring product, and I have no doubt that KUSHIDA would provide that in spades. He has proven in the past that he can have great matches against Japanese and western wrestlers alike, and his steady hand at the top of the card is exactly what a fledgling idea like New Japan USA needs.
The relationship between New Japan and New Japan USA has to be symbiotic in order for both the companies to succeed and grow. KUSHIDA as IWGP United States Champion achieves that goal by providing the United States with a bonafide Japanese superstar that will draw in fans while also giving the New Japan flagship a place to send a wrestler who doesn’t currently have a strong sense of direction within the company at the moment. Regardless of whether KUSHIDA does win the United States Championship or not, it will certainly be interesting to see how the relationship will grow and evolve as New Japan hopefully gains a foothold in the United States.