Tetsuya Naito should already be in the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame.
I don’t think he will get in this year, just from conversations I’ve had with voters and public ballots I’ve seen already, and that’s a shame. But for anyone out there who still has a ballot, I want to make one last little effort to convince you to vote for him. His case is strong, and I think even stronger than people realize.
So let’s go through some of it here:
1. Tetsuya Naito has sold more merchandise than virtually any other New Japan wrestler of this era
This is a little hard to quantify since I’m not working with raw numbers here, but anyone who pays attention to the New Japan Toukon Shop rankings can tell you that Tetsuya Naito/LIJ merch doesn’t just usually top the rankings, it absolutely dominates them. And we’re not talking about over a period of a few months- I’m talking for over six years, basically, since Naito joined Los Ingobernables back in Mexico (maybe give or take a few months for it to really catch on). Below you can find a screenshot of the current rankings that I took from today, November 4th, at 2:56 pm eastern time.
Of the top nine, Naito and his unit have five of the spots. And keep in mind this is after Naito has been out for nearly two months now with a knee injury! Not even being completely off of all New Japan events can stop his merch sales domination. Frankly, this isn’t even one of his best rankings- I’ve seen merch rankings where he has 7 out of 9, 8 out of 9 spots. It’s just all the more impressive given that, again, he hasn’t even been on any shows lately.
Anecdotally as someone who attended a number of NJPW events in Japan in three different years (2016, 2017 and 2019) I can also tell you that Naito’s merchandise absolutely dominated with the fans in attendance as well. It was quite literally a sea of Naito/LIJ merch, with only Kenny Omega/BULLET CLUB merchandise at the 2017 G1 final in Tokyo really standing out as anything else significant (even then, I’d estimate it was about 60/40 Naito). Kenny, of course, already went into the Hall last year.
2. Naito drew a ton of money at the live gate, especially in his signature run at the top.
The culmination of Naito’s quest to hold both IWGP titles drew an amazing 70,000 fans over the course of two nights in January 2020. Naito’s first defense of those belts against KENTA at New Beginning in Osaka drew a sellout crowd of 11,411- maybe an even more impressive number given the lack of undercard support (only Moxley/Suzuki stands out) and the fact that NJPW had never really done that strong of a number for a “B-show” before, at least not in this era. Even when the COVID-19 pandemic seemingly ruined his title reign, Naito winning the double belts back from EVIL at Meiji Jingu Stadium last August still drew a strong crowd of 4,710- a number that many of the recent NJPW stadium shows during the pandemic, apparently with the same 5k cap, struggled greatly to reach (for example- this past August’s Wrestle Grand Slam in Metlife Dome drew tepid crowds of 2,095 and 2,780). Pandemic-era Dominion was also stronger with Naito as champion- 3,898 for last year’s Naito title defense, even though his opponent wasn’t even decided until the NJC finals the day before the show (it ended up being EVIL of course) vs. 3,045 for this year’s show headlined by Okada vs. Shingo for the vacant World title.
I bring up these pandemic-era numbers specifically because I’ve seen people say they view what was clearly always meant to be Naito’s signature run in 2020 being ruined by the pandemic as some kind of slight against him- or at least a lingering disappointment. I don’t think it makes much sense to essentially ding his Hall of Fame candidacy due to a once in a century pandemic, and I wanted to point out that if you dig deep into some of these numbers, you can actually make even the pandemic portions of his title reign stand out as a positive. Of course, he drew many other strong numbers over the years, both as a main eventer himself or as a strong secondary draw with the Intercontinental title on many other shows that did great numbers.
3. Naito is literally famous.
This is the part that I think is least understood among Western puro fans- Tetsuya Naito is an even bigger star in Japan than you probably think he is. A professional baseball team (still the most popular sport in Japan pretty easily) sings Naito’s theme song as part of their rally, since he’s considered their most beloved celebrity fan.
Naito’s signature “open your eyes” taunt (which amazingly began in response to racist taunts he received while wrestling in Mexico) has been copied by everyone from professional baseball players on other teams to music idols and beyond. Naito is the main character of a manga (comic) series in Japan. He’s appeared on variety shows and commercials for fried chicken. Simply put, he’s one of the most famous wrestlers of this era, and it’s not particularly close. And this is once again anecdotal on my part, but Naito/LIJ merchandise is the only New Japan merch I’ve ever seen someone wear outside of a wrestling show or other wrestling venue (meaning a wrestling-specific store or bar, of which there are several) while in Japan, and I saw it multiple times.
4. It’s almost impossible to imagine New Japan without Naito.
To me, one of the true marks of a Hall of Famer is “can you imagine what their promotion would be like if this person hadn’t been around for the last X amount of years”. With all due respect to Tomohiro Ishii, who is also on the ballot this year and has put on some absolutely incredible matches (perhaps more than anyone), I don’t think Ishii suddenly retiring or jumping to another promotion would have had much of an effect on how the last six years of NJPW have gone. Sure, we would have been out some incredible matches and great moments, like when Ishii beat Jay White to take him out of the running in the G1 last year (among others), but the overall course of the promotion probably would not have changed much.
That isn’t the case for Tetsuya Naito. An NJPW without Naito and without his unit and brainchild, Los Ingobernables de Japon, just looks completely different. There is no way to replace him in the last six years without drastically altering the course of not just his own career, but the careers of many others. He’s an irreplaceable figure in this extremely successful era of New Japan, and maybe more than anything else that makes him a Hall of Famer.
5. He’s had a positive influence on others in the company.
Finally, as a bit of a cherry on top of his case here, it’s worth mentioning his positive influence as a mentor in the company. Hiromu Takahashi, a hugely popular rising star in his own right, basically credits Naito with saving his career while he was struggling in the New Japan dojo (his exact quote basically translates as Naito walking up to him one day while he was struggling and saying “If it’s okay with you, I’m going to teach you to wrestle.”- see here). There’s been reports over the years of Naito having mentored other young wrestlers, most notably YOH among others. And his friendship with Shingo Takagi helped bring him into NJPW back in 2018, which has gone better than even many of Shingo’s biggest fans could have imagined at the time.
Note that in making this argument I stayed completely away from more subjective elements of Naito’s career- namely, his in-ring workrate. I happen to think he’s one of the best in-ring wrestlers of all time, which obviously greatly strengthens his case for me, but I honestly think that even if you stick to the factual elements of his case- his overwhelming popularity, his fame in Japan, his money drawn at the gate, his incredible merchandise sales and his positive influence in New Japan- he’s more than worthy of going into the Observer HOF even if you happen to be one of these folks who finds his in ring wrestling to be overrated. When you add it all up, I think Tetsuya Naito is pretty much a slam dunk Hall of Famer. NO TRANQUILO- it’s time to put him in the WON Hall of Fame.