On January 4th and 5th 2020, Tokyo will once host one of the biggest shows on the annual wrestling calendar: NJPW (New Japan Pro Wrestling) Wrestle Kingdom 14. Now in its 14th edition, although NJPW has run a major Tokyo dome show on January 4th on every year since 1992, Wrestle Kingdom has come over time to be seen as the Japanese equivalent of WrestleMania. It’s THAT important.
The headline match of the first day is the defence of the IWGP World Heavyweight title by champion Kazuchika Okada, one of the great champions and a man considered to be one of the best in the world. Against Kota Ibushi, a man who is looked at as someone who will be one of the leading faces of NJPW long-term in the future.
This is not the first time the two have wrestled against each other; however, there have only been three previous singles matches between the two. Two of which were back in 2013 and 2014 respectively, meaning the match itself has not been overdone and feels relatively fresh. Not only that but the last match they had, as part of the famous G1-Climax tournament last year, was a scorcher, whetting appetites for the main event of the biggest Japanese card of the year. Expectations, accordingly, are sky-high.
What makes this match even more interesting is the respective positions and stature of both men in terms of the company.
Okada is starting to find himself, I believe, in a similar position to that which Hiroshi Tanahashi finds himself in now. Both men are credited with being a big part of the reason for NJPW’s renaissance after a difficult early-to-mid noughties period. Tanahashi made his debut with NJPW in 1999, eight years before Okada in 2007. However, the two appear to be intricately linked.
During the rejuvenation of NJPW in the earlier parts of the last decade, Tanahashi and Okada led the charge, with Okada winning his first two IWGP world heavyweight championships from Tanahashi. The two have made history, with Tanahashi having had the most IWGP world heavyweight title reigns, and Okada having the longest overall reign (720 days from June 2016 to June 2018).
The point is because they made so much history and were major players during a specific period of time, both Tanahashi and Okada are associated with a particular era in NJPW’s history. Indeed, Tanahashi’s booking over since the G1-Climax of summer 2018 has been that of an elder statesman, staring fate in the face as he pushes for one last ride in the sun before his body gives out for good.
Okada is not quite in the same position as Tanahashi. Indeed, Tanahashi is 43 years old compared to Okada’s 32. Tanahashi also won his first IWGP world heavyweight title in 2006, as compared to Okada in 2012. But wrestling has always had an awkward relationship with age, as well as a concern of over-exposing its stars. It’s true that the body cannot do what it used to as easily the older you get. But since the last years of WCW when certain ageing stars were very much past their best (Hogan, Flair, Luger, Piper) but would not move out of the main event scene for younger wrestlers, and those who were much better in the ring at that time were very much over with the fans (Guerrero, Benoit, Jericho, Raven), wrestlers seem to be under much more scrutiny for their age, in case they stagnate the main event in the same way the ‘Millionaire’s Club’ of WCW did.
Also, it seems to be more and more the case, certainly with WWE fans, that over-familiarity breeds contempt. The longer a wrestler goes (and especially if they keep having title reigns during their time), the more resentment they seem to accrue from the fan base, who have the feeling of ‘seen this already, next!’ Part of this, of course, is down to bad booking, but you only have to look at reactions to John Cena, Brock Lesnar and Randy Orton to see this attitude in action.
While NJPW fans tend to have a less fickle attitude in this respect, a paying crowd will eventually tire of paying over and over to see the same champion and potentially that same champion in the same matches over and over. It happened to Hogan, it happened to Savage in ’99, it happened to the NWO, it happened to Cena, and it’s happening to Lesnar and Triple H now, whenever they appear.
Has this happened to Okada? Not yet, but what happens on the 4th January will be crucial to how Okada is seen moving forward.
Because, for many people (myself included), Kota Ibushi is the next in line, the new golden boy, the man to take NJPW into the future. His popularity has never been higher than it is now. His push this year—with an incredible win in the G1 Climax—has sprung him to the forefront of the company, a possible reward for committing once more to NJPW at the start of 2019 when many thought he would follow his close friend and Golden Lovers tag team partner Kenny Omega across to AEW. But it also feels a little like Ibushi’s last shot. If they don’t pull the trigger on Ibushi now, will New Japan be in a position to do so later? I’m really not sure.
See, for all his boyish, Hollywood good looks, Ibushi is actually older than Okada. Ibushi is 37, and one wonders how much longer he can go on for, with the abuse his body receives in particular. In terms of familiarity, he has been on the NJPW for roughly as long as Okada, debuting in 2009. If he doesn’t make the most of his popularity and win the big one now, will he still be held in the same regard, or will he be seen as a choker? He lost his other big IWGP world heavyweight title shot against AJ Styles in 2015. He also looked to strike big in the 2018 G1 Climax but fell at the last hurdle to Tanahashi. A big loss to Okada at Wrestle Kingdom could deflate the fan’s enthusiasm for Ibushi, something which could impact on his potential for future title shots and headline slots.
I believe, though, that an Okada win would be a mistake. If Okada does retain the title against Ibushi, and he wins the Double Dash the next day, where does he go from there? I assume he would lose the Intercontinental title quick enough, but then what big matches are there left for him? Okada has faced most everyone in the company at some point or other. To build fresh matches, New Japan would have to build new main event stars or elevate someone to that position pretty quickly. But isn’t that what they’ve already done with Ibushi?
Okada is a five-time heavyweight champion. He doesn’t need the title as much as Ibushi does. Okada could soak up the loss and still have a lot to offer to the main event/upper mid-card scene. He doesn’t need the title to elevate him anymore. For Ibushi, however, it would cement him as a legitimate main event star. A new man at the top to provide new exciting main event scenarios.
Throwing things into further disarray is the Double Dash match on the 5th of January. The winners of the two big title matches on the 4th, the world heavyweight title match and intercontinental title match, will meet in a ‘decider’ match as it were, where the winner takes all. The expectation is that Tetsuya Naito, the wildly popular leader of the ‘Los Ingobernables de Japon’ stable, will win the Intercontinental bout. There is a lot of talk that Japanese fans actually want Naito to win the Double Dash, making him the new figurehead of the company.
Again, I think this would be a mistake. Naito, though a massive fan favourite, is another wrestler who has been a face of New Japan for a substantial period of time (he made his debut in 2006) and has won many of the company’s titles, including the IWGP world heavyweight title. While a Naito win would satisfy the fans in the short term, I don’t believe it would benefit the company in the long run, like having a fresh heavyweight figurehead in Ibushi would. And let’s not forget that NJPW is striving to make more and more inroads into the US market. Having a world champion that has links to Kenny Omega won’t harm the deal.
What do you think, dear readers? Should Ibushi win? Or am I undervaluing Okada’s current position? Maybe you believe Naito is the man to lead the company onwards. Let me know your opinion in the comments.
Roll on Wrestle Kingdom!