Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from our NJPW 48th Anniversary Show preview & prediction but we felt John’s preview of Hiromu vs. Naito was worthy of its own breakout column, with John expanding a little on the original. You can read the full preview coming soon!
Hiromu Takahashi vs. Tetsuya Naito is one of those matches where I’m going to have a hard time putting into words just how excited I am for it. Quite simply put these are two of my absolute favorite wrestlers, not just currently but of all time, meeting in a singles match for the first time ever, headlining New Japan’s Anniversary Show at a sold out Ota Ward Gymnasium.
It’s a gigantic spot for both guys but especially Hiromu, as the special singles match main event of an Anniversary Show at Ota Ward Gym has become an annual tradition that has not just produced some outstanding matches, but has been a springboard to New Japan superstardom.
Look at the main events since this tradition really started in 2012: When Kazuchika Okada beat Naito to retain the IWGP Heavyweight Title (the only one of these matches we’ll talk about that was for a championship) at Korakuen Hall it turned out to be the beginning of a rivalry that’s eight years long and counting.
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Prince Devitt in 2013 began the modern tradition of the heavyweight vs. junior heavyweight champion that we see reflected this year, which has happened off and on to this day. 2014 moved from Korakuen to Ota Ward Gym for the first time—also the place where NJPW’s very first show took place as well, making it a very fitting home—and featured another heavyweight vs. junior champion match with Kazuchika Okada vs. Kota Ibushi, signaling the imminent rise of Kota to the heavyweight ranks with an instant classic.
The anniversary show weirdly disappeared for the next two years, but when it returned in 2017 the main event was Okada vs. the very mysterious Tiger Mask W in another highly promoted “dream match”, based on what the Tiger Mask character has meant to NJPW’s history (and the fact that the character was back on the air in a contemporary anime program).
2018 saw a return to the IWGP Heavyweight vs. Junior champion theme as Okada faced Will Ospreay, a match that once again signaled a future heavyweight star.
And finally, last year’s anniversary show changed the theme around a little with the first-ever IWGP Heavyweight vs. NEVER Openweight champion main event, but produced a match many people loved in Jay White vs. Will Ospreay.
So when you look at that collection of names and memorable matches, you should know immediately that: a) They have big future plans for Hiromu Takahashi, bigger even than his current role as the anchor of the junior division and b) This could very well be a match that we remember for years to come as the start of a classic rivalry.
But let’s talk specifically about Naito and Hiromu for a second.
As the story goes, Hiromu Takahashi was a wrestler who was, charitably, struggling with his craft in the New Japan Dojo. Naito saw this kid clearly having trouble figuring it out and, for whatever reason, walked up to him one day and said something akin to “If you don’t mind, I’d like to teach you how to wrestle now.” While there are certainly better things for your long-term health than Tetsuya Naito taking you under his wing and teaching you his wrestling, it’s clear that Naito’s influence eventually helped Hiromu tap into his considerable natural talent and charisma.
When Hiromu was leaving for what would turn out to be one of the most critically acclaimed excursions in NJPW history in mid-2013, Naito apparently told him “let’s have a match when you get back.” He’s said repeatedly throughout this build that this quasi-challenge was as much about pushing himself to be a top guy worthy of facing him when he returned as it was anything else—and as Hiromu left for what turned out to be a very memorable excursion, Naito would set off on his own roller coaster ride. He would win the G1 Climax later that summer, lose his main event spot at Wrestle Kingdom 8 to the infamous fan vote, struggle mightily and eventually circle the drain as a top babyface, and finally reinvent himself as a lucha-inspired rudo forming his own unit in mid-2015 (ironically becoming widely beloved almost immediately in the process).
At the same time Naito was struggling to find himself at home, Hiromu was killing it in Mexico. Taking on the name of Kamaitachi (and initially before losing it, a mask as well) he and Dragon Lee had a series of matches that caused a stir across the pro wrestling internet, with many fans who did not typically watch lucha tuning into CMLL to check these matches out. He even made a rare appearance back in Japan while still technically on excursion during the NJPW/CMLL Fantasticamania tour, as Kamaitachi vs. Dragon Lee came to Korakuen Hall for the first time and absolutely tore the house down. A move over to the US and Ring of Honor was much less successful, but it at least kept his name in the headlines a bit as he bided time for his return.
By the time Hiromu finally did return to Japan it was November 2016, LIJ was in full swing as the most popular unit in the company, and putting Hiromu in with the group was just too perfect for New Japan to pass up. Naito had gone from a struggling babyface NJPW was desperately trying to make happen when Hiromu left to an overwhelming merchandise seller and the unquestionable most popular wrestler in the company, so it would seem that, despite taking a rather large detour, he had succeeded in his quest to become good enough for a match with Hiromu upon his return.
But the Naito-Hiromu match that was promised never materialized, as Hiromu fell in line behind his mentor, went on to huge success in the junior heavyweight division, suffered a career-threatening neck injury and finally made his grand return after missing nearly 18 months. Naito too faced a career-threatening injury as we learned after he had actually gone through it, suffering from double-vision throughout most of 2019 that was eventually fixed via surgery toward the very end of the year. He brought up both of their injuries throughout the buildup, pointing out that they’ve both learned recently just how suddenly a wrestler’s career could come to an end, so it’s important to have this match while they still can. They’ve both looked over the edge and started into a possible abyss, so they know this can’t be put off any longer. Nearly seven years after Naito first told Hiromu that they’d fight upon his return to Japan, it’s finally time for that match to take place.
Their build over the last four Korakuen shows has only added to my already considerable excitement, with both wrestlers playing cryptic mind games and Hiromu generally being out of his mind (as he normally is anyway) in various memorable post-match promos. Hiromu even almost gave Naito the Time Bomb following their last tag match together, leading to a super fast-paced exchange of almost-moves before the two of them just started laughing (and Naito signaled for Hiromu to put his hat back on his head, which he obliged).
At the end of the day it comes down to this: Tetsuya Naito and Hiromu Takahashi, two of the greatest wrestlers I’ve ever seen in my entire life, are finally going to face each other in a singles match. As mentioned earlier, there was a time when we all wondered if Hiromu would be able to wrestle anyone at all. In many ways, these two facing off- Naito as the first double Heavyweight & Intercontinental Champion ever after finally, finally (finally) reaching the mountain top at the Tokyo Dome in a moment that very nearly didn’t even happen if not for a Japanese eye surgeon and Hiromu as the Junior Champion who survived a neck injury that could have easily ended his career- just feels like a fantasy. It was a long and extremely winding road to get here, but I have a very strong feeling that the match next Tuesday will be more than worth the wait.
Finally, it’s time for Tetsuya Naito and Hiromu Takahashi to have a match.