I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. The city has had its share of (well known) ups and downs, but in my twenty plus years living there, the city was always bonded together by love of Cleveland sports teams.
One of my earliest memories is watching the Cleveland Cavaliers at the old Richfield Coliseum and my early years are littered with wonderful sports memories. However, as wonderful as the memories were, a championship was elusive. For over fifty years, Cleveland teams seemed to excel at just falling short. There came a time where I wondered if a championship would ever happen.
Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be. Maybe the teams I loved would do well. Maybe they would give me great memories. They would just never be champions. But what did that mean for the players I followed? Were they somehow lesser because they never got to the top of mountain? How are we supposed to view players and teams that don’t achieve the ultimate goal of any sport, a championship?
By this point, I’m sure you’re asking what this has to do with wrestling. At New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Dominion 6.11 event, these questions of the past arose again. This time it wasn’t about a sports team or player, but a wrestler: Hirooki Goto.
As Goto walked out of Osaka-Jo Hall on the losing end of yet another title match, I realized that Hirooki Goto is just like those sports teams I loved that never won it all.
Don’t get me wrong, Goto has had a solid 14 year career: two-time IWGP Intercontinental champion, NEVER Openweight champion, IWGP Tag Team champion, and the list goes on and on. By the failings are well known: 0-8 in IWGP Heavyweight Championship matches and now staring down back to back defeats for the NEVER Openweight Title.
Which raised a question in my mind. “Is Hirooki Goto a great wrestler?”
I can hear you now; of course he’s a great wrestler. I know that. But when I say great, I mean GREAT. After all, he’s unlikely to get into the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame, one of the very few concrete ways wrestling fans determine the truly great. But is there another barometer of success? In twenty years, do people still talk about Hirooki Goto or is his talent lost to time?
The fact of the matter is that there are a lot of Hirooki Gotos. The past is littered with wrestlers who never made it to the very top and are still considered great. But now we live in an age where wrestling content has become more and more easily available and the number of wrestlers the average fan will watch in their lifetime has increased exponentially. In an increasingly crowded landscape, it seems only natural that fans might use the marker of a title as a barometer of greatness.
Modern crowds have become notorious for chanting “You deserve it!” at each wrestler who wins their first title. The chant can come off as forced, but for some it may be a way to finally confirm what they’ve thought all along: the wrestler I like IS really great and now I know because they are champion. On the other hand, there are clear examples of wrestlers who were great without ANY titles. Zack Sabre Jr. is great as #Zacky3Belts, but if he doesn’t win any of those three belts, do people think less of him? I doubt it.
So, it goes both ways.
How do we sort this all out? Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer. Like much in wrestling, it will mostly come down to personal opinion. We’ll debate and argue like wrestling fans do about most things. We’ll never come to a consensus, and that’s OK. Even if Hirooki Goto never wins the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, there are still many who will consider him great. Just like I consider those Cleveland teams who never won it all great.
In the summer of 2016, the Cleveland Cavaliers won an NBA Championship. All of my questions of greatness faded away as I celebrated. But there are many NBA players who didn’t win it all: Charles Barkley, Elgin Baylor, Patrick Ewing, Reggie Miller, and on and on. NBA history has come to recognize these and many other players as greats even though they didn’t achieve the ultimate goal.
I can only hope that wrestling history has an equal place for those like Hirooki Goto and many others who never reached the top of the mountain but are still pretty great.