This column was originally written as part of Voices of Wrestling’s preview of Wrestle Kingdom 18. Keep an eye out for it soon!

As I reflect on my 2023, I’ve done more writing about wrestling than I ever have before. I earned two weekly gigs for F4WOnline, and I’ve upped my output here at VOW as well. Doing all of this writing and engaging with this hobby as much as I have has helped me to figure out what makes me so passionate about pro wrestling, and what particularly about wrestling excites me the most. It has helped me to understand that visible, tangible passion will attract me to just about anything. I once watched a two-and-a-half-hour YouTube video about The Vampire Diaries, an early 2010s CW show that I have never and will never watch, because the presenter – Jenny Nicholson – was very clearly passionate about the show. Passion drives my fandom, and I’m sure that I’m not alone in that regard. With that said, you would probably expect me to go on a rant about these two and their nonchalance going into one of the biggest matches of New Japan’s calendar year. And you’re half-right.

When he was 17 years old, SANADA took part in a public tryout for the New Japan Dojo on November 3, 2005. When he had a chance to sell himself to the trainers, he did a single backflip, then said so little that the man running the tryout said “That’s it? Speak up!” He didn’t get chosen for the Dojo on that day, later joining the All Japan Pro Wrestling Dojo.

SANADA’s entire career has been waiting for him to reach the unrealized potential that most people believed was there. His look and his natural athleticism screamed Ace of a Promotion, and all it took would be the right push, the right promotion, the right scenario. It didn’t work in All Japan. It didn’t work in Wrestle-1. He never got the opportunity when he tried to make it in America, peaking with an X Division Title run in TNA. Eventually, he made his way to New Japan Pro Wrestling. The machine that churned out stars at a rate almost unseen in wrestling history could surely make a star out of this guy, right? After eight years, SANADA finally got the chance. After a long cold streak, SANADA got the right push, leaving Los Ingobernables to be the head of Just 5 Guys. New Japan gave him the opportunity, having him hold Japan’s top title for nine months.

What I’ve learned over his reign as World Champion is that there is no “right” way to push him to the top. There is nothing more to be mined out of Seiya Sanada. There is no more development. There is no unrealized potential. There is no second gear. There is no next level. Either he simply lacks that intangible “it” factor it takes to become a real-deal top guy, or more damningly, he simply doesn’t have the will to find it.

In his title matches, he was outshined by a junior and a returning young lion that hadn’t wrestled a match outside of the prelims in Japan before going to Forbidden Door to have a forgettable match as a backdrop to Jack Perry’s heel turn. He felt like an afterthought in the G1 despite being undefeated in his block before having a House of Torture special against EVIL in October. A run where the promotion hoped that the title would make the man and were proven wrong. SANADA is a solid piece to have for a promotion, but this title reign has proven without a shadow of a doubt that he cannot and should not be the crown jewel of a promotion.

Tetsuya Naito’s attitude comes from a decade of character work that far surpasses anything you’ll see from most other promotions, especially those who claim to be masters of it. At the age of 23, Tetsuya Naito participated in the same public tryout for the New Japan Dojo that SANADA did on November 3, 2005. YOSHI-HASHI was there too, but he doesn’t matter. He loudly proclaimed that “nobody cares more about New Japan Pro Wrestling than I do.” He would be accepted into the dojo, and after eight years, he was set to take his throne as the ace of the new generation of New Japan. He had won the 2013 G1 Climax, beating Hiroshi Tanahashi in the final, and was set to main event Wrestle Kingdom against newcomer and generational rival Kazuchika Okada. He loudly proclaimed that he was the “shuyaku” – the main star – of New Japan. Something he cared about so much was within his grasp.

Unfortunately, it would remain out of reach. His push faltered, his popularity waned, and his main event was taken from him by the fans he had lost. He would lose to Okada in the semi-main, slide down the card, and start getting roundly booed by 2015. Everything Naito hoped for was slipping away, so he shut himself down. After a tour of Mexico, he came back as El Ingobernable, perpetually unbothered by his opponents or his surroundings. He finally won the IWGP World Title at Invasion Attack 2016 – after interference from the debuting SANADA – to cheers from the crowd that once turned his back on him, only to toss the belt in defiance. They couldn’t hurt him anymore. The man who cared so much had shut those emotions down. Nothing could phase Tetsuya Naito. He was tranquilo.

But now and again, the mask would slip. Naito would find himself taking his anger out on the Intercontinental Championship he seemed destined to be stuck with, physically destroying the belt until the plate was falling off of the leather. He would get his main event with Okada but lose after attempting the Stardust Press, trying to win the match with his old finisher and finally heal those old wounds. It almost cost him a rematch with Okada two years later, this time with both the IWGP and Intercontinental Titles on the line. Naito finally won and stood tall as the winner of the Double Gold Dash but got robbed of his roll call and his moment in the sun by KENTA.

Naito winning the World Title, an amalgamation of the two titles that defined him, in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom after winning the G1 would be a culmination of his life’s work. Getting to do the roll call that he was denied, with the crowd cheering along after two years of enforced silence due to COVID, would be a moment of catharsis for the people who have followed Naito on his journey as the red-headed stepchild of the New Japan boom period. It would allow this man who cares so deeply about New Japan to bathe in a moment that he believed he would never get and would allow him to be the shuyaku he proclaimed himself to be all those years ago.

The difference is clear, and it is stark. One of these men has what it takes to be a top guy. One of these men has what it takes to be a World Champion. One of these men has what it takes to lead a promotion. One of these men has what it takes to be in the biggest spot on the biggest show for the biggest promotion in Japan. One of these men has what it takes to be the star of New Japan Pro Wrestling. And on January 4, the star has to be Tetsuya Naito.