The following is an excerpt from our NJPW 2020 Year-in-Review eBook– John’s profile of Tetsuya Naito, reprinted here as a column in hopes that a few more people will read it. Please check out the Yearbook, which features a lot more writing from them and also many other writers as well!
I’ve been doing profiles of Tetsuya Naito for the Yearbook for several years now, which means I can now go back and read each one before I write the next. At the end of 2018 I was angry. It felt like New Japan had completely wasted his year, starting with that stunning loss to Kazuchika Okada in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 12 and then picking up many more Ls along the way. He felt as far away from the IWGP Heavyweight Title as he ever had, after he spent the whole year pretty much getting his ass kicked and losing almost every single big match he wrestled. His match for the then-upcoming WK13 was for that “white belt” that he had repeatedly claimed to despise, leaving Naito fans everywhere wondering if he was destined to be the “new Shinsuke Nakamura” and just never get a run at the true top of the company (Nakamura himself had gotten several before he first won the Intercontinental in 2012, but then remained chained to that belt for the rest of his New Japan career, and fans wondered if Naito was simply moved into that role as permanent secondary champion after Nak departed). But of course, we had no idea what Naito planned to do when he got the Intercontinental title back from Jericho.
At the end of 2019, I was hopeful. Naito still hadn’t gotten his hands on the IWGP Heavyweight Title for the first time since his short 70-day reign in 2016, but everything that went wrong and felt hopeless a year earlier now felt completely different. After winning back the Intercontinental belt at the beginning of the year he declared that he wanted to be the first person to hold both the IC and Heavyweight titles at the same time, and immediately everything made sense. No, Naito was not “the new Nakamura” or “the new Chono” (another extremely popular wrestler who never got any kind of true run with the top title)—they were just setting up the end of his story arc to be far more spectacular than winning back an IWGP Heavyweight title he had already technically held. Throughout the year I kept the faith (okay, I wavered in the moment when Jay White beat him to eliminate Naito from a G1 I thought he was a lock to win, but it all worked out in the end!), and it helped greatly that Naito just had a way more fun year than he did in 2018. Those Kota Ibushi matches over the IC were an absolute blast, and he felt like a far bigger focal point than he ever did in that previous downer of a year.
(As a total aside, I must also note that, when describing the set-up for what would come to be known as the “double Dome dash”, I said Naito’s original idea to hold both belts at once was “spreading like a virus” to the rest of New Japan’s top stars, a metaphor that reading back here at the end of 2020 actually made me physically wince. Think that one will take a while to come back as a casual turn of phrase!)
Anyway. All of this begs the question of how I feel as a Tetsuya Naito superfan (you can call me a Naito stan if you want, I guess if the shoe fits) at the end of 2020. The short answer is: mixed. The longer answer is: I don’t know, it’s complicated. Let’s try to unpack some of it here.
The year started off with Naito’s biggest achievement of his career. On January 4 he defeated Jay White to win the IWGP Intercontinental Title for the fifth time in his career, tying Shinsuke Nakamura for the most reigns in history (he’d go on to break the record when he beat EVIL in August). On January 5 he faced Kazuchika Okada in the Tokyo Dome main event for the second time, this time with both the Heavyweight & Intercontinental titles on the line. I would have been more than satisfied if Naito had defeated Okada in an average or even poor match—their match at Invasion Attack 2016 had been far from a classic, and it remains one of my favorite memories as a fan (helped greatly by being in the building)—but instead, they went out there and had a match that received nearly universal acclaim. I truly believe it is one of the greatest wrestling matches I’ve ever seen. It was a spectacle, an old-school classic, and the most satisfying payoff I had ever experienced as a wrestling fan, all at once. Gedo made me wait so long that by midway through 2018 I was openly skeptical that any payoff could ever be worth it—and after waiting nearly 18 months more after that, I felt stupid for ever questioning it. It was worth it, every second. I wouldn’t change a thing.
And then KENTA attacked Naito before he could finish the LIJ roll call.
At the time, this didn’t really bother me. Some Naito fans seemed furious because they had waited so long for the moment and part of it had been yanked away from them yet again, but I was far too euphoric from the victory to get upset about it at all. It led to a lot of great promos, an excellent match, and perhaps most importantly it drew an incredibly impressive crowd of 11,411 to Osaka Jo-Hall, the most NJPW had ever done in this era for a “B” show like New Beginning in Osaka by far. Can’t argue with that success, right? There’s one big problem though when looking back on this now, and its name is COVID-19. And that specter hangs over both this one moment and also Naito’s entire year, just as it did for almost anything in 2020.
Before I go any further I need to say a few things that are hopefully obvious anyway—yes, of course, a global pandemic caused much more important problems than anything it did to New Japan Pro Wrestling, or any other wrestling company for that matter. That goes without saying. My heart goes out to anyone who lost a loved one, or even just a job or something, due to this terrible disease. But since this is a column on a wrestling website about my favorite New Japan wrestler, I’m now going to complain about the effect it had on him. So if you don’t want to read that, please feel free to stop reading.
When KENTA attacked Naito at the end of Wrestle Kingdom 14, there was no way for anyone in New Japan to know what was coming. What was coming was, indeed, a horrible pandemic that would upend everyone’s lives in countless ways. One of the biggest ways it affected New Japan, besides of course the shutdown (and we’ll get to that in a second), was the restrictions placed on live crowds once they were finally able to return. Not allowing fans to yell, scream, chant, or indeed use any raised voices at all makes tons of sense in the midst of a repository pandemic—scientific studies have been done proving such activities by an infected person spreads more virus into the air, even with the use of a face mask. But what that also means is that one of the major reasons why I think New Japan did this attack was completely negated for the foreseeable future.
This may sound silly if you’re not a Naito fan, but when it came to his goals of the past few years, it wasn’t just “win the IWGP Heavyweight title” or “win in the main event of the Tokyo Dome”, but just as important was “do the LIJ roll call together to close out the show at the Tokyo Dome”, a great example of his close connection with his fans. NJPW found a clever way to give him the first and second without giving him the third, essentially giving Naito fans a reason to be super invested the next time he went to a Tokyo Dome main event—we’re still waiting to scream out “DE JAPON” with him! In normal times, this all made a ton of sense. But now that we’re all living in the time of COVID and the associated New Japan restrictions, it’s no longer clear when that goal will even be attainable again. It certainly won’t be at Wrestle Kingdom 15. This left Naito in the awkward position of having to state that his goal heading into his next Tokyo Dome (and possibly two of them, should he get past Ibushi) was to experience “walking back up that ramp as the champion after the main event” after KENTA took that away from him. It’s not nothing I guess, but there’s no doubt in my mind that in normal times he would be talking about finally getting to do that LIJ roll call that was taken away from him a year earlier. It leaves everything feeling a little flatter than it should.
Again, there are certainly worse issues in the world related to a pandemic than what it did to a wrestler’s title reign. I keep having to repeat that because it needs to be repeated. And I don’t blame you if you think the roll call thing is silly. But as a Naito fan, it’s impossible not to feel disappointed that his big year, his signature run, ran into a once-in-a-century catastrophe. It’s impossible not to lament what we lost out on at the Anniversary Show, where Naito vs. Hiromu Takahashi in a battle of mentor vs. student more than 11 years in the making was the first NJPW main event taken away from us by the pandemic. It’s impossible not to wonder if the Naito vs. EVIL feud and EVIL turning on his LIJ leader and friend, a momentous event (the first time anyone ever left the unit since it was formed all the way back in late 2015!), wouldn’t have come off better and received a better reception from fans if it had happened in front of normal crowds that could properly react (and if the matches had been more spread out in a normal NJPW calendar year as well). It’s impossible, in short, not to be just a little sad about how everything turned out.
But at the end of the day, it’s not like Naito’s 2020 was some kind of lost year. He still had everything that we talked about at the start of it before the pandemic shutdown—one of the greatest matches of all time and then a super hot feud. After NJPW’s return he got an iconic moment when he won back the double titles in the middle of an outdoor stadium—a stadium that NJPW had last run all the way back in 1999, when Naito had attended as a 17-year-old fan—and laid across the middle of the ring with his two belts, fireworks exploding in the sky far in the background. His G1 Climax run was great, featuring a legitimate MOTY contender with Hiroshi Tanahashi that felt like a throwback to better days (not just for either guy or the company, but just for the world by that point) among other standout matches with the likes of Zack Sabre Jr, SANADA, Juice Robinson and more. And Naito seemed to take a certain amount of pride in being asked to carry the company through what has turned out to be an incredibly turbulent period; in many interviews, he would admit that the year did not go even close to according to plan, but smile and state that it somehow seems fitting, given that little in his entire career had either. It’s not hard to see his point.
Tetsuya Naito has never done anything the easy way. He was a man earmarked for greatness virtually from day one—termed the ‘Stardust Genius’ not just as a marketing gimmick, but because his wrestling mind was considered to be nearly unmatched, especially for someone of his age and experience at the time. But when it was time to truly elevate him to the top, many of the fans rejected him. It took a total reinvention and a complete detour before he became what he was always supposed to be—one of the biggest stars in New Japan Pro Wrestling history. So yes, I can certainly see why he might think it’s fitting that his big run on top, the one his fans waited for all this time, suffered through a bit of a detour as well.
No one is a Tetsuya Naito fan because they like that things always go smoothly or easily; those people are called Kazuchika Okada fans. So at the end of the day, all I can really do is smile and appreciate what we got out of 2020. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but as we’ve been through, nothing this past year was. By the time it was over he still piled up accolades, winning the Tokyo Sports MVP award for the third time (his first since 2017), the Best Bout award for the first time in his career (for his match with Okada), and currently leads the Weekly Pro Wrestling fan poll for both the Grand Prix (MVP) award and Best Bout (for his match with Tanahashi, with his match with Okada also making the top 3) as I write this.
Perhaps more importantly, there’s a certain kind of justice, a certain karma of sorts, in having the man whose entire ethos has seemed to be something along the lines of “nothing matters, don’t bother trying, just tranquilo and relax and don’t worry about it” also be the one now leading us through this period. He almost seemed to deliver the opposite side of the same coin throughout 2020, as he told us repeatedly that things were going to be okay and we’d all come out on the other side of this with happier days ahead.
“Due to the current situation, there’s still a lot that we have to endure.” Naito said after winning back the IWGP Heavyweight & Intercontinental titles from EVIL at Jingu Stadium. “But I do believe that there’s a bright light waiting for us at the end of this tunnel. ¡ESPERAMOS JUNTOS! (We wait together!) Let’s get through this together!”
It’s a message that would have sounded, frankly, more than a little corny and fake coming from Okada. Tanahashi probably could have pulled it off, but with a slightly different tone. But I firmly believe, in my heart, that Tetsuya Naito was the perfect person to deliver this message. At the end of the day, it’s really no different from what he’s been saying for the better part of the last half-decade—TRANQUILO.
Download the VOW 2020 NJPW Year-in-Review eBook!
- Profiles of each and every wrestler, tag team and trio that wrestled for NJPW in 2020
- Long-form essays on various NJPW-specific topics
- Detailed statistics including win-loss records, pinfalls, fall differential, match times and more from SportofProWrestling.com’s Chris Samsa.
- Championship recaps, results and history.
- Tournament recaps, results and history.
- Detailed profiles of each NJPW unit.
- Every NJPW show review that appeared on VoicesofWrestling.com in 2020.
- A list of the 25 best NJPW matches of 2020.
- Year-End NJPW Power Rankings.
- NJPW Official Hunk Ratings
- & more!
Last but not least, a foreword by NJPW wrestler and current IWGP United States Heavyweight Champion Jon Moxley!
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