from the housetops to the gutters, from the ocean to the shore…
Caution: this is not your ordinary fairytale.
There’s no dashing prince, no smooth climb up the mountain, no gentle sea guiding you home.
This is a story of blood, guts, and glory, of tearing yourself apart, ripping away at your demons until finally, there is light.
For two years, from January 2015 to December 2017, Pro Wrestling NOAH was under the spell of Minoru Suzuki’s Suzuki-gun faction, an invasion orchestrated through NOAH ’s now dead and buried partnership with New Japan Pro Wrestling. For two long, excruciating years, the NOAH roster played fool to the Suzuki-gun kings, being bested at every turn on their own turf. When then-undisputed NOAH ace Naomichi Marufuji seemed to have finally taken back the wheel, winning the GHC Heavyweight title from Minoru Suzuki, the crowd received another electroshock in the form of company pillar Takashi Sugiura turning his back on them and joining Suzuki’s rogues gallery. The title went back to Suzuki-gun with him, and the storms kept arising. Even when prodigal son Go Shiozaki returned and tried his hardest to become the hero NOAH needed, his subsequent title run was also crushed under Sugiura’s heels. It wasn’t until October 2016 that NOAH seemed to be finding its way back, with local prodigy Katsuhiko Nakajima bringing the Heavyweight title back to the ship, and then expelling Suzuki-gun from NOAH when he defeated their king in December.
The king is dead.
Long live the king?
After Suzuki-gun left NOAH, and after the relationship with New Japan was severed, Nakajima found himself the captain of a wrecked ship. Suzuki-gun’s antics and dominance may have been entertaining to some, but they had also run off a large number of fans who did not find themselves drawn to that particular brand of piracy. NOAH was a desolate land, their sparse crowds becoming the laughing stock of many, and it seemed that the ark might be about to sink.
And in the midst of all that turmoil, one question had been on everyone’s minds. Who, oh, who, will be NOAH ’s savior?
Would it be Nakajima, the talented but shoehorned ace? Would it be the old timers, Marufuji, Shiozaki, maybe even Sugiura, using their experience to guide the ship to safer seas? Would Kenta ever make a miraculous return to kick the stream upwards?
January 7th, 2017, was the beginning of a new era for the promotion. Now dubbing itself “REBORN”, NOAH , under new management, refocused its efforts around its own roster, inviting a handful of outsiders to strengthen its cards. Of these outsiders, no less than four (YO-HEY, HAYATA, Tadasuke and Hi69) would later sign with the promotion – a sign of much needed growth. It gave more and more focus to its most recent dojo graduate, the fiery Kaito Kiyomiya. And it gave seemingly only one direction to everyone hitting the green mat: go as hard as you possibly can.
While people still weren’t crowding at the box office, NOAH became the talk of the town once more when it became apparent that the roster wanted to prove just how worthy they were of following. No more shenanigans, no more ruffles – NOAH became all about who could strike hardest, and who would be left standing in the end.
In that new setting, one man in particular found himself thriving.
Kenoh is not exactly what comes to mind when you imagine a fairytale hero. His permanent scowl, bleached blonde hair, foul mouth, and fondness for unfiltered violence make him more reminiscent of a stooge, a rogue, an assassin come to thwart the prince’s plans. And for the better part of the year, that’s exactly what he was.
An import from Michinoku Pro, Kenoh has an extensive background in Nippon Kempo and the unfriendliest attitude you could possibly imagine. In other words, the perfect foil for GHC champion Nakajima, known as the “Genius of the Kick” and still trying to find his footing with the crowd.
The seemingly fated duo met three times in 2017. The first was a special singles match on January 9th, with Nakajima coming out on top. The second, another singles match on September 23rd, with Nakajima once again getting the better of Kenoh. The third was part of a bigger story.
See, while Nakajima was busy trying to be the perfect prince, ace and leader NOAH needed, Kenoh was busy forging his own path, burning a bright red trail in the green canvas. He formed a seemingly unstoppable tag team with powerhouse Masa Kitamiya, winning the Heavyweight Tag Team titles, but turned on him barely a month later to join forces with Sugiura, a lone wolf aside from the united roster. Another short-lived tag reign followed, and the duo found themselves an apprentice in Kaito Kiyomiya, the promising son who wanted to show he was always more than just an excitable young boy. But even with people by his side, Kenoh was only ever writing his own story.
When Impact Wrestling import Eddie Edwards sent a shockwave through NOAH by defeating Nakajima for the GHC Heavyweight title – becoming the first foreigner to hold that belt – in late August, the question returned, with other implications.
Who will recapture the belt and bring it home?
Who will rise up and show the strength of the reborn?
Who will be NOAH ’s savior?
We often find answers in the unlikeliest of places.
See, Kenoh is not a hero, and he has never claimed to be. He’s not in this to get in people’s good graces, to shake hands with children and have a passive happy ever after.
Kenoh is the dragon. He’s fire and danger, an intensity threatening to spill out at any moment, unbridled violence at every turn. His words are harsh, poisoned, he doesn’t respect anyone but himself, and especially not the crowd, cowards and non-believers in his eyes. He doesn’t believe in upholding the past, instead wishing to tear it down and build a future in his image.
And that’s exactly why, through the spitfire and the pain, he turned out to be the person NOAH needed.
Not a, savior, per se, not a righteous hero, but someone who knows that to move forward is to create something new, that the ideals of the past will not always take you where you need to go. In the lead up to his crowning moments, Kenoh spoke of Mitsuharu Misawa’s legacy as if it was a thorn in his side, a shadow hovering over him that he wanted to rip out of the sky. His words were meant to be disrespectful, to evoke a gut reaction in the fans, many of whom wished to see Misawa’s ideals return to NOAH once more. And maybe one day, when a certain emerald is finally polished, they will.
But in these moments, when Kenoh was kicking and stomping his way through the Global League, when he went toe to toe with Nakajima for thirty minutes, refusing to waver even at the exhausted, bitter end, it was to instigate change. When he was waging war against Misawa’s protégés, defeating perhaps the most zealous of them all to win the tournament, he knew that it was time to do out with the old and in with the new.
Harsh as it may have seemed, it was always the right path to take. Not a burial at sea, but a change of course, a deviation in the route to the promised land.
Because no matter how much Kenoh claimed to want to leave Misawa’s era behind, and forge his own, there is one place he always had his sets sight on, a new castle for him to conquer. Nippon Budokan, the sacred grounds of NOAH , where the promotion hasn’t run an event since Kenta Kobashi’s retirement show in 2013, has been a seemingly impossible place to reach for NOAH in recent years. A far off land, a lost kingdom, and Kenoh’s ultimate goal.
“You bastards, follow me! I will take NOAH back to Budokan!!”
On December 22, 2017, Kenoh defeated Edwards to win the GHC Heavyweight title, and made a promise. He wrapped it in an insult, because that’s the only way he can express his true feelings, but in that moment in Korakuen Hall, Kenoh finally bared his soul to those who had, though bad blood and hard fought battles, put their faith in him anyway. He finally shed away his armor, revealed the dreamer underneath, the one who never stopped believing in the power of hard work, determination, and self-realization. He let go of his inhibitions, even for just a moment, and showed the world that he kept Misawa’s ideals closer to his heart than he’d ever let anyone know.
Kenoh has the crowd in the palm of his hand, what a great champion! pic.twitter.com/4gFFExNFGq
— HEAT UP BABY! (@Statoke) January 16, 2018
Because when desperate times call for an unlikely hero, only someone who is ready to risk it all, to forcefully turn the tides, to say and do what no one else dares, to challenge the status quo, can truly claim that title. In doing all that, Kenoh gained more than a title belt: he earned the support, love, and respect of a crowd who were waiting for someone to show them where to go.
Where Nakajima tried to be the perfect ace, a solid face of certainty, Kenoh let himself break down the glass walls, let himself be raw and angry at everything he felt was holding NOAH back. Where Nakajima strived to lead the roster in being an example of what NOAH used to be, Kenoh fought like a beast to prove he is what NOAH needs to become.
Hungry. Relentless. A renewed force to be reckoned with.
Kenoh is not NOAH ’s savior. Another will come in time, to stake that claim.
Kenoh is the sea that the ark needs to keep on sailing. Unpredictable and restless, a force of nature, and the source, in the end, of new life.