Welcome back y’all to our second chapter of The Lion’s Vault: Return to NEVERland, where we take a trip down memory lane and explore the Bushiroad era of New Japan through the lens of the NEVER Openweight Title. If you missed it, I advise checking out our critically acclaimed (not really) first chapter, that included background on the launch of the NEVER brand and championship, as well as reviews for the first four NEVER title bouts.

As a reminder, the last time we visited NEVERland, Masato Tanaka was reigning supreme after winning the initial sixteen man tournament and then dispatching Shelton Benjamin, Tomohiro Ishii, and Tomoaki Honma in his first three title defenses. During these early matches, we have already seen the “division” take on some of the traits that it would become known for, most notably the featuring of hard-hitting bouts (with the Tanaka vs. Ishii match being the high point so far). Now our next chapter starts with Tanaka taking on a new challenger, in the form of the “Stardust Genius” Tetsuya Naito.

Masato Tanaka © vs. Tetsuya Naito (4th Defense)
July 20, 2013
Kizuna Road
Akita – Akita Municipal Gymnasium 

Watch: https://njpwworld.com/p/s_series_00210_1_3

After having to withdraw from the NEVER Openweight Championship Tournament last November due to a knee injury, Naito finally returned to the ring at the June 22nd Dominion show where he defeated former partner, and current Tanaka running mate, Yujiro Takahashi in decisive fashion. Feeling confident after his successful return from injury, Naito quickly declared that he had unfinished business with the NEVER championship, and challenged Tanaka to put the title on the line the following month at Kizuna Road.

In something that will be fun to pay attention to during his involvement in the NEVER title scene, Naito receives a pretty good reaction from the fans during his entrance. The match itself begins with Tanaka trying to land a cheapshot before the bell, but Naito dodges and uses his speed to quickly send Tanaka to the outside. Constantly being outmaneuvered in the opening moments, Tanaka decides to slow things down by rolling outside (you could say in an almost ‘tranquilo fashion’)…which aggravates Naito who chases after him and receives a kendo stick shot to the face for his troubles, as well as Tanaka’s big splash through a table on the outside.

Back in the ring, and Tanaka just starts knocking the snot out of Naito with hard-hitting strikes, including a good spot where Naito tries to fire back just for Tanaka to immediately shut him down. Crowd starts to rally around Naito, who quickly figures out he better get back to relying on his speed advantage if he is to turn the tide…and now both men are taking turns hitting big moves with the crowd popping for everything. Both men dodge each other’s finishers before Tanaka lands an early Sliding D….for just two! Naito trying to regain his senses, but Tanaka removes the elbow pad, and quickly hits a second Sliding D for the victory!

Damn, now that was a fun sprint! The match was just a shade under twelve minutes, as both men just went all out for the entirety of their encounter. Really enjoyed how the match presented Naito in particular, as he looked good on his surgically repaired knee…but still wasn’t quite back to his full potential yet after missing most of the previous year. Definitely worth watching, and I would say our second great match of this journey. ****

Masato Tanaka © vs. Tetsuya Naito (5th Defense)
September 29, 2013
NJPW Destruction 2013
Kobe – World Hall

Watch: https://njpwworld.com/p/s_series_00212_1_6

Two months after our previous bout and we are presented with a rematch, though the context has changed significantly for one of our competitors. Rebounding from his July loss to Tanaka, Naito overcame a slow start (including a loss to the ever-present Yujiro Takahashi), to win the 2013 G1 by defeating Hiroshi Tanahashi in the finals. Post G1, Naito made it clear that he wanted revenge on Tanaka before challenging for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship…and consequently we ended up with a #TwoBeltsNaito storyline six years prior to the much more famous version. For Tanaka’s part, he was more than happy to give Naito a rematch at his NEVER title, but only if Naito was willing to put up his Wrestle Kingdom title shot.

On his way to the ring Naito once again received a nice, but not a superstar level reaction. As opposed to their previous match we surprisingly begin with some mat wrestling. Soon enough though things return to normal, and stop me if you have heard this before, because we head to the outside where Tanaka uses his kendo stick and set-ups a table for an imminent big splash spot. Both men are now flying around the ring and I am just loving how Tanaka is able to bring a good amount of physical intensity from babyface Naito. Finally Tanaka gets Naito set-up on the table…and hits an absolutely huge splash this time! Tanaka dominating now while working over Naito’s head and neck. Sliding D attempt countered into a crucifix cradle for a fun flash pin tease, and now both men are landing big moves. 

A second Sliding D attempt lands and gets two. And then just like last time Tanaka removes the elbow pad and goes for the immediate follow-up Sliding D, only for it to be reversed into the Pluma Blanca…which doesn’t get much of a reaction at first, but surprisingly the crowd starts to buy-in that it might be the finish during Tanaka’s struggle to escape.

Both men are looking exhausted now as we get a strike exchange that unfortunately includes some really awkward headbutts. Naito shows a toughness that he didn’t have in their previous encounter though and manages to follow-up with a string of big moves that all look great, before landing the Stardust Press for the pin, a good pop from the crowd, and our second ever NEVER champion. Great match that really did a good job building on their previous encounter. ****¼ And now with the NEVER title around his waist, and a Wrestle Kingdom main event on the horizon, I am sure we are positioned for some truly epic NEVER matches from Naito over the next three months…

Tetsuya Naito © vs. Yujiro Takahashi (1st Defense)
October 14, 2013
King of Pro Wrestling
Tokyo – Ryogoku Sumo Hall

Watch: https://njpwworld.com/p/s_series_00213_1_7

….Or we could get a match against Yujiro instead. And it should be said, from a pure storyline perspective a match against Yujiro made sense. The two had a long history together that has already been covered at a high level in these commons, and additionally, Yujiro was coming off a victory over during the G1. But at a time when Naito was struggling to get over as a superstar to the fans, another match with Yujiro was the last thing he needed at the time, as it just reinforced the notion that Naito was still a distinct step below the true top tier stars of New Japan despite his G1 victory (especially when contrasting this match with other “big” matches on the same card, such as Okada vs. Tanahashi, Nakamura vs. Marufuji, or even Shibata vs. Ishii). 

The action starts with Yujiro cheap shotting Naito’s previously injured knee before the bell, but an attempt to introduce chairs costs him as Naito dropkicks one back into his face. Crowd is relatively quiet for most of this, and especially are not reacting to anything that Yujiro does. Finally, Yujiro goes back to the knee and Naito starts to get some sympathetic face heat from the crowd. Unfortunately, Naito undercuts this work moments later when he starts literally running through his offense with zero ill effect from the knee work. Trying to redeem himself, Naito follows this up by taking a huge bump from the apron to the guardrail off a Yujiro Yakuza kick. Back in the ring and Naito is able to secure his Pluma Blanca to…no reaction. Luckily, from there the match actually picks up and both men start unloading with high impact moves. The crowd even starts to come alive as they begin to bite on a series of near falls. The ending is a bit of a surprise as Naito hits the Startdust Press, but then immediately transitions into the Pluma Blanca for the submission victory…perhaps in one last attempt to get the move over. In a vacuum, this was a good match, but it was the opposite of what Naito needed at this point.***½ Still, with Yujiro dispatched at least now the slate was clean for Naito to have a fresh, impactful title defense to give him much needed momentum going into Wrestle Kingdom. 




Tetsuya Naito © vs. Masato Tanaka (2nd Defense)
November 9, 2013
Power Struggle 2013
Osaka – Bodymaker Colosseum 

Watch – https://njpwworld.com/p/s_series_00214_1_5

Alright, here me out. How about instead of putting Naito into a fresh match-up with someone perceived as a star by the fans…we have him wrestle Masato Tanaka again? Again, similar to the previous Yujiro match, the match kind of makes storyline sense (they had split their previous two matches), but again in practice was not a match-up that could help Naito with the upward momentum that he desperately needed at the time. Even New Japan seemed unenthused about how to present this match, as Naito basically said during an interview that he wanted to defend the title one more time on his way to Wrestle Kingdom, and since no one else was challenging him how about one last match with Tanaka. And just to make this a further dead end of a match, Naito’s WK title shot is once again up for grabs, thus telling the crowd that Tanaka has essentially zero chance of winning heading in.

Short version for this match is that we essentially get a similar match to the previous encounter, except with Tanaka taking more on offense. Now that isn’t necessarily a bad thing since I thought that match was great…but unfortunately with crowds becoming more disenchanted with Naito, there just felt like there was less energy this time around. That said, there were still multiple great moments sprinkled throughout the match, and Naito did earn some crowd sympathy after getting cut open from a nasty bump through a table and then later getting his mouth busted up. I also enjoyed that the Tanaka control period wasn’t simply Tanaka running through his offense, but that Naito was constantly trying to comeback just to be cut-off by a Tanaka reversal right at a pivotal moment.  

As you ould expect with Naito in a big match, he keeps bumping like crazy for Tanaka…which helps lead to a couple of nearfalls that the crowd actually bites on. The end is interesting, as it comes off like Tanaka spent himself failing to put Naito away after controlling most of the match, which allows Naito to finally get a sustained upperhand and the Stardust press for the successful title defense. Post-match the crowd is relatively quiet for Naito outside of a couple of hecklers, which is a shame because no matter what you think of him, he put in a hell of a performance here. Not as good as their King of Pro Wrestling match, but still rock solid. **** 

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And so we end our second chapter of Return to NEVERland with Naito reigning supreme after dispensing of the Complete Players. With an upcoming IWGP Heavyweight Championship shot, and the NEVER championship, Naito should feel like he is on the precipice of superstardom…but instead he feels as cold as ice. While we all know what lays ahead for Naito over the next couple of months, it will be interesting to take a closer look at what happens with his journey and the NEVER championship in our next installment.

Ranking the NEVER Openweight Title Matches (as of November 9, 2013):

  1. Masato Tanaka © d. Tomohiro Ishii (February 3, 2013) ****¼
  2. Tetsuya Naito d. Masato Tanaka © (September 29, 2013) ****¼
  3. Masato Tanaka © d. Tetsuya Naito (July 20, 2013) ****
  4. Tetsuya Naito © d. Masato Tanaka (November 9, 2013) ****
  5. Tetsuya Naito © d. Yujiro Takahashi (October 14, 2013) ***½
  6. Masato Tanaka © d. Shelton Benjamin (January 4, 2013) ***
  7. Masato Tanaka d. Karl Anderson (November 19, 2012) **¾
  8. Masato Tanaka © d. Tomoaki Honma (May 3, 2013) **½