As New Japan Pro Wrestling enters the G1 Climax for 2022, I can’t help but look back onto how much better the promotion was just five years ago.
Bullet Club shirts had gotten so ubiquitous that they were showing up at actual punk shows and even in normie-spaces. Being The Elite gave fans an exclusive behind-the-curtain view of events from the perspective of The Young Bucks and Kenny Omega, and the recent influx of wrestling YouTube channels like RealNeatPuro and ShowBuckle were out there giving fans a crash course on why the best wrestling was all happening in the cerulean ring. Most notably though, I can never forget how great of a G1 Climax tournament they had that year.
Kenny Omega entered as a heavy favorite carrying the newly-minted IWGP United States title, putting on 5-star matches with just about everyone in his block, finally getting that elusive win over IWGP Heavyweight champion, Kazuchika Okada, and even dropping a career-making loss to Juice Robinson.
Meanwhile, the hottest homegrown talents, Los Ingobernables de Japon, a ragtag band of lucha-loving misfits won the hearts of the Japanese fans. BUSHI masks seemingly outnumbered the surgical masks in the crowd. Hiromu Takahashi completely shifted the paradigm of NJPW’s vaunted Junior Heavyweight division with his bombastic and borderline dangerous style. EVIL picked up a shocking win over Okada, and SANADA, was also part of the group. Most inspiring though, was the meteoric rise of the leader, Tetsuya Naito, who won the G1 tournament, and seemed poised to take over as NJPW’s top-star.
What made Naito’s tournament run such a great moment was everything, literally everything, that led up to it from the moment that Naito had entered the company. After having some success as a tag-team wrestler, Naito took an excursion to Mexico where he learned to blend hard hitting and technical Japanese wrestling with high energy and athletic lucha-libre, leading to many Mexican fans acknowledging that the kid was blessed with El Polvo De Estrella.
Naito returned to NJPW as The Stardust Genius, a wrestling prodigy who synthesized styles in a way that is only seen through generational talents like Eddie Guerrero or Shawn Michaels. While he had enough knee problems to make Rey Mysterio say “damn” Naito eventually found his groove long enough to win his first G1 Climax tournament in 2013, setting himself up for a main-event Heavyweight title-bout against the young upstart champion, Kazuchika Okada.
Everything was coming up green for Naito, but then something changed when he came to Osaka, home of the most contrarian residents of Japan, the Kansai, a group of people so depraved, so degenerate, that they ride the escalators on the right side rather than the left!
It could have been Naito’s lack of presence on the mic. It could have been the fact that he carried the contract for his title match on a clipboard rather than the authoritative briefcase it’s now stored in. It could have been the fact that he held the NEVER Openweight Championship belt close to his chest like it was some type of teddy bear. It could have been that he didn’t even look that good in his last few singles matches. Whatever it was, the Osaka crowd hated what they saw when they looked at Naito.
Rejection of anointed stars is nothing new in wrestling. The moment John Cena started headlining Raw, fans booed him so hard you’d think he entered a haunted house. Roman Reigns has only just recently gotten the intended reaction out of fans after years of hearing choruses of jeers. Hell, Lex Luger couldn’t even get the fans to cheer for the American flag. What was unprecedented though, was the way that NJPW rolled with the fan backlash. They could have changed the main event of that year’s Tokyo Dome show themselves, or just gone ahead with it, but instead they put it to a vote, and a had a measurable indicator that the fans hated Naito, as they disproportionately called out for the Dome to instead be headlined by Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi fighting for the IWGP Intercontinental championship.
Disgruntled, Naito took another excursion to Mexico, this time embracing more of a frustrated and embittered persona. He would wrestle more of a reserved style, often deliberately depriving fans of flashy moves so he could take a rest outside the ring or on the mat. When Naito brought this edgy style back to Japan with him, fans naturally rejected it, but it struck a nerve. They reacted with vigor rather than apathy.
As he gained disciples to his new faction like BUSHI, SANADA, and EVIL, his aesthetic began hitting a chord with Japanese counterculture, the gyarus, and the yanki’s. He showed a remarkable irreverence for what his company valued. He would lazily trudge to the ring, riding out every note of his ironically fast paced entrance music. Once he got in the ring, his actual gear, the shorts he would wrestle in, were buried under elaborate three-piece suits that he would take his sweet time getting out of before the match would start. Even the title belts that he fought to hold, he never carried them with pride, instead dragging them along the floor, and sometimes even deliberately damaging them. Still though, the fans were identifying with this irreverence, as if he was showing them something they wish they had in themselves. Tokyo Sports even gave him their Pro-Wrestler of The Year Award during this run. Those same fans that booed him in Osaka suddenly became his strongest supporters, and with all that support mounting, and the in-ring momentum rising with win-after-win, 2018’s Wrestle Kingdom show seemed like the perfect time for Naito’s true coronation as the people’s champion. After all, he was facing Kazuchika Okada again, whose whole aesthetic is based around monetary success and corporate favoritism. The man who runs the shows, Gedo, literally escorts Okada to the ring. If ever there was a perfect villain for Naito to dethrone, it was him, and if ever there was a day for it, it was January 4th, 2018.
But NJPW didn’t let that happen.
No, for some reason, Naito was booked to just unceremoniously lose. His faction, Los Ingobernables de Japon lost their momentum as they all sleep-walked through 2018. After getting upset in the New Japan Cup, he would later challenge for the Intercontinental championship, which was literally the belt he spent 2016 and 17 trying to destroy. After winning the belt he lost it to Chris Jericho before fumbling his way through the 2018 G1 Climax and eventually winning the Intercontinental title belt back from Jericho at the following year’s Tokyo Dome show.
NJPW tried the Naito project again that year, putting him in a hard hitting feud against another hopeful top-star in Kota Ibushi, but none of the things that Naito did were as new and exciting as it was the first time he did it. There was no belt-throwing. Everyone knew where each member of LIJ’s ceilings were. The group even had to add Shingo Takagi to make up for Takahashi’s absence due to injury.
Despite not winning the G1 Climax, Naito weaseled his way into the main event of the second night of the 2020 Wrestle Kingdom by again winning the Intercontinental title and challenging for the Heavyweight championship, coming out of the Dome with both titles in his hands, and ready to lead NJPW into his new era. Then an international pandemic took away everyone’s wrasslin’.
Timing as they say, is everything, and NJPW showed just how much their lauded “long-term booking” can really work against them. Sure, it benefits storytellers to have a plan, but in a live-action area like pro-wrestling, where so much of momentum is obtained organically, bookers still have to know when the iron is hot and strike when they see red. Gedo booked Naito’s triumph like he was thinking that iron would be hot for another full year, and while I’m not an expert in thermodynamics, be it physical or metaphorical heat, I do at least know that nothing stays that hot for that without the proper attention.
The other thing about long-term-booking is that most of the major players should at least come out better for it in the long run, and when turning attention to what Okada gained through the whole thing, it’s not like trusting the process got him much further than where he was already at. As a result of holding the title for another six months, Okada tied, and then set the record for the most title defenses by an IWGP Heavyweight champion, before losing the belt to foreign star, Kenny Omega. After losing the belt, Okada went a little crazy and started substituting his iconic confetti dollars in his entrance for a crappy balloon show. He dyed his hair red, and started wearing long pants, insisting that this was the “Summer of Smiles” and overall just creeping fans out, before eventually just going back to normal. The fans never got to enjoy the Naito run they wanted, and when it finally did happen, none of the talent really grew or became more complex. All of the main players in this angle are still basically the same as they were.
**So here’s how I would have booked it better.**
First off, have Naito win the 2018 main event, and just give him the belt. Let him do his big LIJ roll-call in the Tokyo Dome and proclaim himself as the top star as the show closes out. Let him walk into New Year’s Dash wearing the belt on his shoulder, like he finally has everything he’s ever wanted.
Meanwhile, by contrast, make sure Okada looks dejected after the loss. Have him cover up his now bare midriff with his coat, like he’s hiding the fact that belt isn’t there anymore. Make the newley debuted Jay White join Okada’s faction, CHAOS, out of a sense of opportunity rather than ambition, thinking to himself, “Well, this crew doesn’t have any real champions. It should be much easier for me to stand out here.” Most importantly though, Naito needs a series of fun defenses with the belt now that he’s the champion to finally let fans enjoy him in that role, and nobody would make a better first challenger than Tomohiro Ishii, who is an expert at putting on outstanding matches he’s never expected to actually win.
As Naito gets set to defend the Heavyweight belt, have Okada take an interest in Hiroshi Tanahashi’s Intercontinental Championship. Have him insist that the belt is greater than the Heavyweight title because it represents the world rather than the heavyweight class of wrestlers, and that it was a belt that took precedence over him all those years ago. For good measure, even have the match mirror Naito’s initial Intercontinental championship, where Tanahashi’s neck is mercilessly targeted before Okada debuts his new finishing move, The Money Clip, an unbearable headlock that can choke someone out or snap their neck.
With Okada becoming the new Intercontinental champion, have him do the exact opposite that Naito did with the belt, have him act overly reverent to it, always going on tangents about what an honor it is to hold the belt, what it represents, and how much it means. He should act like a jealous ex who is constantly hyping up their rebound. Also, he ought to use the belt to still retain dominance as the leader of CHAOS even though Jay White now has the IWGP United States belt.
As the New Japan Cup approaches, the bookers can have the same finish with Zack Sabre Jr. That run established him, as a tangible threat to any title, which he still is today. Just sub out his win against Naito in the opening round for one against EVIL. As the build for this match is going on, Fighting Spirit Evolved 2018 is still headlined by the Golden Lovers vs The Young Bucks with a mid-card match featuring all the members of LIJ vs Suzuki-Gun’s best.
Naito has a successful defense at Sakura Genesis, but then gets a challenge from The King himself, Minoru Suzuki, continuing the gang war between LIJ and Suzuki-Gun. Now while I spent a chunk of this article hating everything Naito’s 2018, one of the fun aspects of it was the faction feud that those two groups had. EVIL and SANADA had fun hard-hitting matches with Killer Elite Squad while Takahashi and BUSHI served as perpetual thorns in the side Kanemaru and El Desperado, blocking them from getting the IWGP Junior Tag Titles. Naito and Suzuki’s match can also be as it good as the real version should have been, because this time it’s for the belt that Naito actually cares about.
After defense number 3, this should be the iconic moment for a faction where they hit a peak, and every member has some gold, with all four of LIJ’s supporting members holding IWGP tag titles, with Naito still retaining the crown jewel of pro wrestling. Naito grabs the mic, tells the crowd buenas noches, and he states that he does have a point to make. “I said when I won the G1 that I was the top star of this company. I said it the first time, but I proved it my second time. But, if I’m the top star, I should be in the main event shouldn’t I? In Los Angeles, someone took my main event from me. That someone is who I want to challenge for my title next.” And he calls out Kenny Omega, because if ever there is time to have matches that subvert the landscape of NJPW’s title scene, it’s Dominion.
Now while many international fans might have popped to see Chris Jericho at that event, I would like to remind those fans, that the match sucked and it led to basically nothing. He also held the IWGP Intercontinental title hostage for the 2018 G1 Climax. If Jericho really must be involved in Dominion in some capacity, have him put on a match against Rey Mysterio. Yeah, he was at Dominion that year. I forgot about that too.
Instead, Kenny and Naito headline Osaka-Jo Hall, while right below them, Kota Ibushi and Okada slug it out for the Intercontinental title, leading to the Golden Elite having an All-The-Gold picture of their own.
I always felt like Ibushi was left out whenever those pictures of him with Kenny’s friends were taken. I think Gedo even felt the same way and put the NEVER title on him just to give him a belt to hold.
While I would have loved to have given Naito a full year with the belt, the fact is that Naito makes a better challenger than a champion. He still deserves to have reigns every now and them, but his character, and the character of most underdog heroes, is always more compelling when there’s something he’s trying to obtain, rather than simply defending his territory.
This leaves Naito and Okada without belts as they enter the G1. At the press conference Okada and Jay White get to bickering about who the real leader of CHAOS is, since now they stand on equal footing. Naito plays it cool, asserting he knows how to get his belt back whether it’s pinning the champion in a match then challenging during the destruction tour, or simply winning the whole tournament. Meanwhile though, Kenny excitedly blathers on about how if he or Ibushi win, they’ll simply pick the other as their Wrestle Kingdom challenger, making the main even a Double-Gold Dash.
Naito is intrigued by this.
The G1 progresses as everyone would expect, with Dave Meltzer throwing out enough stars for a Van Gogh painting. On the advice of The Offspring, Ibushi and Omega are in separate blocks Jay White has his coming-out party with a series of matches showing off his crowd-work ability. Kenny takes a few key losses to line up his opponent’s for Destruction and King Of Pro Wrestling (Ishii and Tanahashi). Juice Robinson DOESN’T have a momentum-breaking and heat-destroying losing streak, since he’s just going to drop the belt to Cody anyway. Naito comes up short on points, and Ibushi keeps the dream of the Double-Gold-Dash alive with an undefeated streak, but in the finals, just can’t beat out a reinvigorated Rainmaker. Jay White comes out to congratulate him, only to begin his turn and start his whole Bullet Club leader gimmick.
Kenny agrees to the challenge that Okada earned, but brings up the issue of the time limit, how he doesn’t want to defend his belt that way, knowing how much those two have to give, so they agree to a 2-out-of-3 falls match with no time limit for the dome. (See, even Meltzer still gets his 7-star match in this headcanon.)
As Okada does the usual “G1 Winner Routine” of defending the rights to his title match, Naito becomes more and more infatuated with the concept that Kenny kept bringing up, the idea of challenging for the Heavyweight championship, while holding the IC title, potentially having the Heavyweight title absorb the IC title if one can obtain both. So Naito makes it his mission through the winter to obtain Intercontinental Championship, all for the purpose of being the man to unify the title at next year’s Wrestle Kingdom, which is announced to be a two-night event that year anyway.
The man who made the title relevant by smashing it against the guard rails, can be the same man to retire it.
This solves the underlying issue of Naito in 2018 which was his relationship with the IC belt. It became an albatross for him, and for something he spent all that time doing irreparable damage to, all of the sudden he was there defending it again, like it was something he cared about. The thing is too, that was all NJPW was willing to give him at that time, and once Chris Jericho took it with him on vacation, it hurt the belt’s reputation and presence, being entirely invisible for the G1. Plus, this booking is just about giving the fans what they want, to see Naito succeed, have him defend his belt in actual arenas full of fans that are allowed to cheer, unlike his last main event run. Seriously, the guy can’t catch a break.
I also understand that there was a major ripple effect to redoing Naito’s year. That sort of thing is bound to happen with a smaller roster, but 2018 was itself a very interesting year for NJPW as they enjoyed more exposure in America, but the constant reliance on foreign involvement led to them hot-shotting a lot of their booking in ways that Gedo wasn’t known for doing at that time.
ForrestSowa, a wrestling and MMA podcaster had even called this period The Elite Epidemic, as the members of NJPW faction The Elite were at the center of many of these decisions, such as Kenny’s sudden title shot, The Young Bucks simply announcing that they would challenge for the tag titles despite not being in the G1 Tag League, and everything involving Chris Jericho. Even more unfortunate for NJPW was that everyone that benefited from that booking would leave the company the very day after 2019’s Wrestle Kingdom to join AEW.
While many can still contest that Naito had his day in 2020, and everything benefited from the Long-Term-Booking, something that happened around March of that year always makes me wish that 2018 turned out just a little different.