Earlier this year, at Wrestle Kingdom 15, Kota Ibushi finally fulfilled his destiny and won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship and the IWGP Intercontinental Championship. Even though Ibushi had been a main event star for quite a while, it took him 16 years of his career to achieve the accolade he had always strived for. He had finally overcome all odds and become the face of the company. With all the fan support and love he has received ever since, you might be a bit confused by the title of this article.
The “heel turn” itself was a bit different and transcended the events that took place in his NJPW journey. Not only was it just a heel turn, instead it was quite possibly a double turn. Before we delve into the subject matter, a disclaimer must be set in place. The purpose of the article is to present a different view of the events that have transpired in the last seven months. The perspective is just one of many ways to look at things. In the end, the decision is yours.
It all began at Wrestle Kingdom, the biggest show of the year with two of the company’s biggest titles on the line. Ibushi beats Tetsuya Naito and Jay White back to back on two consecutive nights to win the titles. At the time, Ibushi was arguably the biggest babyface in wrestling. Confetti drops and Koti Ibushi is draped in gold. An amazing conclusion to a years-long story, right? Well, not quite. That’s just one way to look at it.
On the other side of things is a battered and defeated Jay White. For 8 years of his career, White struggled to get to the top, albeit with means not recommended. Still, White thrived in an environment that was not the best fit for the likes of him; a gaijin burdened with the pressure of filling the shoes of AJ Styles and Kenny Omega, two of the biggest names in professional wrestling. White abandoned his family in New Zealand, shifted to Japan with little to no hope of succeeding and made it work somehow, yet he was consistently booed and hated for achieving his dream. He, like Ibushi, was willing to give anything to be on the summit of the mountain for once and when he was, it didn’t last long.
White’s approach was just different, yet after all he put into wrestling, it didn’t reciprocate White’s love and affection for the sport. His loss at the Tokyo Dome was as big a tragedy as Ibushi’s win was a success. White had treated the belts like they meant something. Even the Intercontinental Championship held glory for White. He wore it with honour around his waist. It was clear that White never intended to unify the titles.
In a rare instance, White was actually supporting the fans’ opinion to keep the belts as two separate awards. His loss at the Dome was a loss for fans but it was not clear at the time. Just because White’s ways weren’t aligned with that of the fans didn’t make him the “villain” of the story. In the end, if White had won, the belts would have stayed as separate entities and glories.
How Does It Make Kota Ibushi a Heel?
By this point, the narrative of the article might be beginning to gain shape. The crux of the argument lies fully around the belts and what they mean for the wrestling industry. The Intercontinental Championship was slowly on its way to becoming as important as the heavyweight belt. At one point, when Shinsuke Nakamura challenged for the Intercontinental title instead of the heavyweight, the two belts had almost become equals. Despite all the glory, the prestige, the history and most importantly, the fan support, the “fan favourite” Kota Ibushi decided to unify the two belts. He stated: “The Intercontinental Championship is the greatest belt there is. The Heavyweight Championship is the strongest belt there is. I want the unified titles to be both the strongest and the greatest. I want to make my ultimate dreams come true by unifying the titles.”
Eventually, it came down to Ibushi wanting to fulfil his own dream even if it meant going against the fans’ wishes. This was the moment Ibushi turned on his fans and even the wishes of other top members of the roster, including Kazuchika Okada, who went on record to say that it was the second biggest mistake NJPW had ever made in its history. Where does that leave Ibushi on the heel/face alignment then? Following the backlash he received for unifying the belts, Ibushi had this to say:
I think from fans and wrestlers alike, I’d say 99 percent were against it. But that was a river we had to cross, I think. Just something I had to take and move on.
Now, it can be argued that this has nothing to do with the events that take place within on-screen storylines. But, in today’s world of wrestling, the line between reality and fiction is so blurred that the two often bleed into each other. Such is the case here. Two championships that represented prestige and honour within the realm of fiction and reality were both taken and morphed into one, regardless of the fans’ opinions. Fans have lost two of the most esteemed titles in the history of professional wrestling.
What now exists is a gap that would take a very long time to fill. The Intercontinental Championship was a unique title. It was much more than a mid-card championship. Nonetheless, it was too different in its own right to be called a world championship. Over the years, the Intercontinental Championship became a host for various angles to be explored. It was a haven for certified main event stars who had to be away from the Heavyweight championship for some time. However, they were still supposed to remain relevant and were hence given the Intercontinental championship. Not only that, but the belt also became something to look forward to for upcoming stars.
The NEVER Openweight Championship is being pushed to reach that level but it has yet to garner the popularity of the Intercontinental title. It will be years before NJPW can ever recuperate from the loss of the Intercontinental Championship. And that’s why Kota Ibushi is currently the biggest heel in wrestling.
At the end of this write-up, it is necessary to reiterate that this is only one way of looking at things. Pro Wrestling is a form of art and should be open to interpretation. The goal of this article was to explore different avenues of the same story to appreciate the art of wrestling. What’s your take on the Ibushi situation? Let us know in the comments below!