Imp’s NJPW Adventure
If Kazuchika Okada’s story tells you anything, it’s that in New Japan, success has to be earnt. It’s strongly linked with respect. You’re not suddenly made if you manage to win the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, all that’s actually been made is a statement. To be the man you have to prove yourself, again and again and again. Respect is earned, and there’s no doubt that over the course of the past 6 years Okada has done just that.
Earning respect is also a strong theme within the story his Wrestle Kingdom opponent. A man who was deemed to have not earnt enough said respect to main event NJPW’s biggest show of the year. A man who then turned his back on the company and carved his own path. A path which led him to be regarded as just as, if not more, popular than the champion himself. With a faction of like-minded companions and fans that adore him, his time to win a Wrestle Kingdom main event may have just come.
So, now the story of the tranquilo one, the challenger for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship…
For our challenger, 2013 was very different. In the main event of Wrestle Kingdom Okada faced the ‘Ace’ of the company for the greatest prize in New Japan Pro Wrestling, whilst Naito was out on the bench. Taken out by his former tag team partner Yujiro Takahashi (now the Tokyo Pimp in the Bullet Club stable, time’s a funny thing, ey?), Naito wouldn’t be seen until half way through the year. He had started to receive some success as a solo wrestler, including a one on one Wrestle Kingdom match against The Great Muta himself in 2012. You can call it jealousy, but Takahashi took a Wrestle Kingdom away from his enemy. Something that will come to mean so much to Naito over the years.
June 22nd Naito got an opportunity to exact revenge, he returned and beat Takahashi in a Grudge Match to walk into the G1 Climax tournament with all the momentum. The ground work had been layed for a big singles push, however events wouldn’t exactly go according to plan. One thing to keep in mind was Naito’s gimmick at the time, his nickname was ‘Stardust Genius’ and he was the cleanest of babyfaces. His finisher was the flashy Stardust Press, like if John Morrison jumped off the top rope for his Starship Pain. He was regarded as a talented wrestler, but just like Morrison in WWE, his character didn’t really have much more than that. He was a good guy that fought honourably and overcame the odds.
And overcome the odds he did, as 2013’s G1 Climax tournament came down to the final of Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Tetsuya Naito. This was at the height of the Tanahashi vs Okada rivalry, a time where both men were tearing the roof down every time they were anywhere near each other. Fans were understandably thirsty for their next barn storm encounter. In spite of this, Naito was given the nod! He shockingly beat Tanahashi in front of a crowd that was behind him enough to be happy with his success. But then came Naito’s post-match victory speech (a tradition in NJPW) and he did something that would come back to bite him in the arse. He called himself the ‘Shuyaku’ of New Japan Pro Wrestling. Which translates as the leading actor or top star. Naito was calling himself the THE top guy in NJPW. In a time where Tanahashi had had one of the greatest years of any wrestler, and both Nakamura and Okada were at super popular heights.
Over the course of the next few months, New Japan fans slowly started to lose faith in the Stardust Genius as his momentum slowed. His reactions got worse and worse, culminating with the Power Struggle show in November. Since his G1 crowning, Naito had been in a sort of limbo. Just treading water, floating in place until it was his moment to spring into action. At Power Struggle he defended his Wrestle Kingdom main event contract (another tradition of sorts) against Masato Tanaka and Yujiro Takahashi in a Triple Threat. Two wrestlers with which he had genuine ties, however both were never going to main event Wrestle Kingdom. They were lower mid-carders and Naito only just beating them made him look weak. He could only just beat lower mid-carders, why were fans to believe he was capable of beating the IWGP Heavyweight Champion?
In the main event Kazuchika Okada defended his title against Karl Anderson (yes, Chad 2 Bad himself), then came the post-match set up for the Wrestle Kingdom main event. Out came Naito, to a whimper of a murmur. The most awkward big match build I have ever seen. This is when Naito hit the final nail into his own coffin. He repeated the statement he made back in August after his G1 victory, once again calling himself the ‘Shuyaku’ of NJPW. Within the confines of the awkward silence, both he and that statement felt like a joke. He was calling himself THE top star when the crowd couldn’t have given less of a shit. At that very moment, Naito stopped treading water, for he had well and truly sunk.
New Japan officials panicked, their main event was failing HARD. However, they found a chance of redemption in the white hot names of Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura. So in response to the increasingly negative recpetion, they set up a poll, who did the fans want to see main event Wrestle Kingdom? Okada vs Naito for the Heavyweight Championship, or the dream match of Tanahashi vs Nakamura for the Intercontinental Championship?
An important note, during December NJPW have their annual World Tag League tournament, with the winner receiving an IWGP Tag Team Championship match at Wrestle Kingdom. Whilst waiting for the results of the poll, Naito formed an important friendship with La Sombra from the Mexican promotion CMLL, as they teamed together during the tournament.
The fan vote was in, they of course voted in favour of the two Japanese megastars. Tanahashi and Nakamura were the two most popular men in New Japan at the time, saying no to that would be like voting against The Rock vs Stone Cold. And just like that, Naito’s main event opportunity was gone.
January 4th 2014, Wrestle Kingdom 8, Okada successfully defended the IWGP Heavyweight Championship against Naito in the penultimate match of the night. It was a decent match with a nice build of momentum, but it was too late, Naito’s main event chance was dead. In his moment to sink or swim, he’d drowned.
Over the course of the rest of the year, Naito seemed to gradually become more and more frustrated with the fans. The jeering, the heckling, the odd crowd deafeningly booing, it all started to get him. Things weren’t helped with mediocre showings in both the New Japan Cup and G1 Climax, during which time he’d become increasingly negative during his matches. After an unspectacular year, he yet again teamed with La Sombra in the World Tag League. A man who had that year turned his back on the CMLL fans and formed the Los Ingobernables faction with friends Rush and La Mascara.
Naito’s friendship with that man would become very important in 2015.
At Wrestle Kingdom 9 Naito faced Bullet Club leader AJ Styles and lost, AJ would go on to become a two time IWGP Heavyweight Champion and the match helped keep his momentum whilst Tanahashi and Okada were in the spotlight. After the defeat, Naito treaded water in early card tag matches before leaving to join his friends in Mexico. In CMLL he was welcomed with open arms into the Los Ingobernables family. He became strong friends with both Rush and La Mascara, but bonded strongest of all with La Sombra. Who’s teachings of tranquilo would resonate strongly with the man lookingto vent his frustrations of failing as the Stardust Genius. La Sombra is man who you might recognise by the way, he’s your current NXT Champion.
June 2015, Naito returned to New Japan in a tag match and he was a little… different. Wearing a Los Ingobernables t-shirt and cap to the ring, he left the fans in confusion. Refusing to have his hand raised after the victory and making a quick exit to the back. He then had a tag match in Osaka at Dominion, a crowd that had reacted mercilessly towards him the year prior. He teamed with fan favourite Tomoaki Honma against the Bullet Club’s Bad Luck Fale & Yujiro Takahashi. However, he let Honma get the holy crap beaten out of him before tagging in, to only then piss about and not care about the match at all. His team was victorious, but he again refused to have his hand raised and was more concerned with getting his Los Ingobernables cap back to return backstage.
By G1 Climax 25, Naito had gone full Ingobernable, walking to the ring wearing a silver mask and full black suit. He had emotionally distanced himself from the fans, took an absolute age to dress down to his standard ring gear and then proceeded to take things extremely slowly. Extremely, slowly. He was displaying what he had learnt from his friends in Mexico, he was now tranquilo. Show no emotion and keep calm. He was able to stick with this tact faithfully, until he came up against Hiroshi Tanahashi. The man he saw as the one responsible for his downfall after replacing him in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 8. Naito was unable to temper his anger towards the ‘Ace’, things seemed as if he was headed straight into a loss via not being able to focus on the match. However, he was able to compose enough of the ‘tranquilo’ to confuse Tanahashi and hit his new finisher, the Destino.
After the match he declared his allegiance to Los Ingobernables and for the rest of the tournament he would be continuously tranquilo, trying everything he could to get the crowd to boo him. His entrances became almost Undertaker levels of time consuming, walking slowly, teasing stepping through the ropes, taking an age to get down to his ring gear. However something strange happened, some of the fans started to get behind his shenanigans. The tranquilo character was gaining respect and getting over, he was becoming an anti-hero.
In October, at the King of Pro Wrestling show, Naito got a match with the G1 Climax winner Hiroshi Tanahashi. In the press conference leading to the event, Naito had promised that he would be bringing some friends. And as promised, during his entrance Naito came out in his black suit and silver mask, only to be followed by a second person, donning an identical black suit and silver mask. This second person would ultimately attack Tanahashi before removing his mask, revealing the identity of former Young Lion, Watanabe. Now called, EVIL, he was the first person in the formation of Naito’s stable, Los Ingobernables de Japon.
During the World Tag League he’d add BUSHI, turning the stable into a trio, something they’d stay as for a full half year. Los Ingobernables was continuing to build steam, which was when Naito was challenged by the honourable Hirooki Goto to a match at Wrestle Kingdom. Naito accepted, but with the stipulation that it be a No Disqualification match.
Naito vs Goto, the most memorable thing about this match being the entrance of the Los Ingobernables de Japon trio, there was this sense of unpredictability to them. With the aid of his faction he defeated Goto and was victorious at New Japan’s grandest stage, his momentum was picking up fast. 2016 would be a big year for Naito and Los Ingobernables de Japon.
New Japan Cup 2016, Naito once again faced Hirooki Goto in the final. Fighting off the Los Ingobernables allies, Goto did everything he could, however he couldn’t defeat a clearly motivated Naito. Fighting against both the faction and a leader putting on a great performance was too much, Naito had earnt his first Heavyweight Championship match. This time it wasn’t because of the fans, it had nothing to do with climbing New Japan’s ladder of success. He did it for Los Ingobernables and himself, he wanted to prove everyone wrong.
Invasion Attack, April 10th 2016, Naito got his match against Okada. In front of a crowd that was strongly behind him and aided by his Los Ingobernables brothers EVIL & BUSHI. Okada encountered the same issues Goto did, fighting off both the man and faction appears to be too big of a hurdle. However, Okada managed to take out both EVIL & BUSHI, Naito was down and it looked like the now ‘Ace’ of NJPW had beaten the odds. Which was when SANADA made his NJPW debut and attacked the champion, making him vulnerable for the Naito win!
Los Ingobernables was now 4 men strong, but more importantly, Naito was now the IWGP Heavyweight Champion. But the belt was meaningless to him, he threw it into air and left it where it lay in the ring. He didn’t care for NJPW’s crowning, he was now the Shuyaku whether they liked it or not. But it wouldn’t last for long, in June Okada came into the rematch at Dominion in Osaka prepared and won back his title. The Osaka crowd were extremely pro Okada, however, Naito was met with cheers and chants. Naito may have lost, but he’d earnt the respect of the fans. That said, Okada had won back his championship, now Naito would have to go through the G1 Climax to prove his status as the top star.
The G1 Climax tournament is split into a two block point based league system, in which each wrestler faces everyone in their Block. The wrestler with the most points at the end wins their Block and faces the winner of the other block in the G1 Climax Final. In 2016’s G1 tournament, the winner for Naito’s block came down to the final match, Tetsuya Naito vs Kenny Omega. One of the best matches of the year, the respective leaders of Los Ingobernables de Japon and Bullet Club threw everything at each other! However, in the end Omega was able to best Naito and subsequently went on to beat Hirooki Goto in the final. Naito would not be main eventing Wrestle Kingdom, but he knew there was another way.
At the Destruction in Kobe event in September, Naito set his sights on Michael Elgin and his IWGP Intercontinental Championship. The same title that had replaced him as the main event back in 2014. Naito once again had help from his Los Ingobernables friends and was victorious, but once again, he didn’t care for the title. This was worse though, the IWGP Intercontinental Championship was a physical representation of all his failures. Over the coming months Naito would treat the title with utter disrespect. He’d launch the championship into the air, drop it on the ramp, pelt it into the metal ring steps and all that damage took its toll. The belt began to break, the metal plates were bending, bits were falling off and the strap was deteriorating. It was as if Naito was destroying the belt as a way of destroying the last remnants of his previous failures as the Stardust Genius.
Which brings us to Power Struggle, the show that confirms the matches for Wrestle Kingdom. Who would step up to challenge for Naito’s Intercontinental Championship? None other than Hiroshi Tanahashi, the former ‘Ace’ had had enough of Naito’s disrespect to both the title and the company. He was crapping all over New Japan’s legacy and Tanahashi planned to teach him some respect. However Naito had Tanahashi in a trap, the former ‘Ace’ proposed the idea of a poll to decide Wrestle Kingdom 11’s main event. Omega was yet to be a proven main event star and Tanahashi had become synonymous with the closing match of Wrestle Kingdom. Naito flat out refused, intentionally robbing Tanahashi and ending his 6 year run of Wrestle Kingdom main events.
He was out to make a point, Tanahashi was no longer the Ace, Naito was now the shuyaku.
Wrestle Kingdom 11, the penultimate match of the night for the Intercontinental Championship, Naito and Tanahashi put on a MOTY contender. In the end Naito was able to best his long term rival, putting to bed his hatred towards the man that stole his Wrestle Kingdom moment 3 years earlier.
However, Naito wasn’t the top star of the show. In order to become the shuyaku, he needed to main event Wrestle Kingdom. Which meant one of two things needed to happen, he’d need to either become IWGP Heavyweight Champion, or win the G1 Climax. However the first opportunity flew past, Katsuyori Shibata won the New Japan Cup and failed to beat Kazuchika Okada for the title. Kenny Omega also failed as his second match for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship ended in a time limit draw.
Kazuchika Okada walked into G1 Climax 27 as champion, and due to his already lengthy reign, all things were pointing towards him still being so come Wrestle Kingdom 12. The question was, who would be facing him? The G1 Climax Final, the more things change, the more they stay the same, Tetsuya Naito vs Kenny Omega. In 2016’s G1 Naito lost his place in the final after failing to beat Kenny Omega, in 2017 he had to overcome the very same man to achieve his goal of main eventing Wrestle Kingdom.
In yet another incredible match, the faction leaders threw everything at each other. Omega was fighting for the 3rd Championship match between he and Okada, whilst Naito was fighting to become THE guy. In the end Naito was able to hit some brutal Destinos and won the 2017 G1 Climax! It was finally time, he’d finally earnt a Wrestle Kingdom rematch against Okada. However, unlike 5 years ago, this time he would be the main event, he now had the opportunity to close Wrestle Kingdom holding the IWGP Heavyweight Championship high above his head. In his post victory speech he repeated the same exact thing he said all those years ago, he called himself the Shuyaku of NJPW. This time the crowd applauded.
Now this all comes down to one last moment, he needs to defeat Okada at Wrestle Kingdom to truly become New Japan Pro Wrestling’s top star. To prove to everyone that they were wrong to doubt him, to prove he really is worthy of such a moniker, he cannot lose on January 4th. Everything he’s been working towards over the past 5 years has all been building to this. Ever since losing his Wrestle Kingdom 8 main event thanks to the fans, he’s had one goal in mind, prove all of them wrong. Wrestle Kingdom 12 is the final step in his redemption.
Naito is main eventing Wrestle Kingdom for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, if he wins there will be no doubt. He will be the Shuyaku of New Japan Pro Wrestling.
And that’s it! The story of Tetsuya Naito in NJPW. A story of respect, redemption and a man carving his own path to the top. When put together with Okada’s story, I’ve truly realised how difficult this match is to predict. Great storytelling and character arcs at their best, both men must win, who do you pick?
Subscribe to NJPW World, enjoy Wrestle Kingdom 12 and don’t forget, this match may just be the beginning of an even greater story.
Follow Imp on Twitter: @TheDamnImplicat