(Warning – this post is going to be 2,282 words of me just geeking out about wrestling – again. Initially, I was going to tie it into something I would love to see in MMO storytelling, using real time and longer-developed character arcs as means to make more compelling lore and worldbuilding, but if I’m being honest, I can make that point better without 2,000 words gushing about Japanese wrestling, so hey, full disclosure – read on, but that is what you are getting! Also, if you plan to watch Wrestle Kingdom 14 later, be warned that there are spoilers in this post for both nights.)
Over the last two nights in Tokyo, the biggest event in the year for Japanese pro wrestling took place – New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Wrestle Kingdom. This year, the 14th iteration of the Wrestle Kingdom-branded event, but the 29th year NJPW has run a 1/4 show at the Tokyo Dome.
This year brought a substantial number of interesting changes in the industry and to the show itself. With 1/4 being Saturday, NJPW booked the first ever two-night Tokyo Dome show, running both 1/4 and 1/5, allowing them to split the gargantuan event (past years with only one night have traditionally run close to 8 hours in a single sitting, with matches rapidly progressing and feeling rushed) into two fairly large nights, with around 6 hours each of wrestling action.
The two night format was also used for a pair of interesting ideas – the first, out of scope today, was the retirement of famous NJPW star Jushin Thunder Liger, with his last two matches taking place at the Tokyo Dome and featuring a mix of stars from his early career 30 years ago and then also featuring newer stars in the NJPW Junior Heavyweight division.
The other, more central piece of the show, was the “Double-Gold Dash” – the first night featuring the traditional main event of the current IWGP Heavyweight Champion (the top title in NJPW) against the winner of the G1 Climax tournament (their biggest annual tournament, held in the summer each year, where the winner gains a shot at the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at the Tokyo Dome show), which this year pitted champion Kazuchika Okada, easily one of the best wrestlers around, against Kota Ibushi, an extremely talented and death-defying performer (not in a deathmatch style, no, Ibushi just seems to have an extreme fondness for landing on his neck in awful ways and surviving unscathed). The sub-main event was for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, featuring champion Jay White against longtime NJPW star Tetsuya Naito. The winners of these matches would then go into night two of the show, have a match, with the winner of that match walking out a dual champion for the first time in the promotion’s history.
Now, all of the setup and storytelling on all sides of this idea are pretty great. Okada, the dominant champion, having finally hit his stride and being hailed as the ace of NJPW; Ibushi, the exciting young face off an 11 win streak but with a more devilish, pain-loving side being teased; White, the leader of the gaijin Bullet Club faction (a big chunk of NJPWs non-Japanese talent that work fulltime with the company end up in Bullet Club, although there are also some Japanese wrestlers in the faction) who is coming off of a banner year, having main evented the first NJPW show in Madison Square Garden in April 2019 against Okada (and losing, but still); and Naito. Naito’s story is, especially in retrospect, the more obviously interesting one going into the Dome shows this year.
Tetsuya Naito’s whole history with NJPW is rather fascinating. Rising through the Dojo, trained within NJPW, he was initially cast as a plucky face character with the moniker the “Stardust Genius.” When he went through his initial run out of the dojo system and foreign excursion, this is what he returned as. It wasn’t a bad gimmick or idea, all told – a bit basic, perhaps, but you could see a path to refine and develop the character over the years. However, something interesting happened – as Naito was pushed up the card by NJPW, fans were rejecting him, and when he finally got a chance to challenge for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at the Tokyo Dome in 2014, something strange happened – the fan reaction prompted a poll from NJPW to see if that match would be the main event of the Dome or if an Intercontinental title match would take that place instead, as that match featured top-card NJPW stars Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi.
His match was voted by fans out of the main event role that year. This obviously stung – both in an in-character way and also in a real-life way. As a character, Naito was directionless, unable to win the big Dome match and pushed down from the main event, and in real life, his performances as the Stardust Genius failing to bring fans to his side – criteria which, in wrestling, can be the kiss of death for a career.
In 2015, when NJPW went to North America to tour with their partner promotions, Naito stayed when the other talent returned, going on what was effectively a second foreign excursion to CMLL in Mexico. There, he joined the group Los Ingobernables (the ungovernables) and sharpened his character work. He became the current iteration of his character – an aloof, above-it-all fighter working for his own ends, focused on the ideal of “tranquilo” – he’d taunt opponents by laying down in the ring in a Burt Reynolds’-like pose and would not get flustered. When he returned to NJPW in this new mindset, something interesting happened – it worked and sparked a career resurgence for Naito. He formed “Los Ingobernables de Japon” and brought in a few wrestlers around him – crucial since NJPW is built on factions and conflict and nearly every major main-eventer in the promotion in modern times except Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kota Ibushi is part of (usually leader of) a faction.
He won the Intercontinental Championship back then, and it being the symbol of his failure to be in the main event he earned at the Tokyo Dome, became the means by which he let out that aggression in character. He’d toss the belt high into the air and let it smack into the ring (to be fair, wrestling championships weigh around 20 pounds, so I wouldn’t try catching one falling at high speed either!). He’d put the belt face down on the ring steps and stomp on it. Unlike most of NJPW’s champions, he would not wear the belt – he carried it at his side, dragging the end along the ground. He was a champion, but he clearly resented the title and treated it as a (sometimes literal) stepping stone to where he wanted to be – the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
This all made Naito a complete, interesting character. He had a new, retooled character with layers and continuity – something that American promotions and especially WWE often do poorly if at all. Naito was not a new man or anything of sort, but a person shaped by the experiences and failures that led him to Mexico, and took growth from all of it to come back to Japan and immediately begin pushing towards his goals.
This story moves forward in two interesting ways – firstly, in 2016, Naito did finally capture the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, but for a short reign – winning it from Okada on 4/10/16 and losing it barely over two months later on 6/19/2016, back to Okada.
Then, in 2017, Naito won the G1 Climax again, receiving the right to once again challenge for the title in the main event of the Tokyo Dome, but this time, with fans on his side and the match going on last as the rightful main event of the show. However, no matter his growth and development since that snub in 2014, Okada still came out on top. He had finally made it, but couldn’t make the last few steps to the top of the mountain in the company, and he spent most of 2018 and the 1/4/2019 Wrestle Kingdom 13 event feuding with international superstar Chris Jericho over, once again, the IWGP Intercontinental Championship.
2019 saw Naito firmly in the Intercontinental Title picture, and while he lost it during the year, by year end, he had earned a shot at the title at the Tokyo Dome, and was the one (in storyline) to propose the Double-Gold Dash.
Naito, however, had a tremendous hill to climb. At 37, while not old, in main-event wrestler terms, he was growing older, especially as two of the three in the series of matches are much younger. Naito also has been plagued with knee problems, and the story going into the Tokyo Dome was clear – Naito, wanting his moment to close out the Dome show on top, with the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at last, had a steep hill to climb – the current Intercontinental Champion Jay White, with a 10 year advantage and who had an incredible 2019 in his own right, and then either Okada or Ibushi – Ibushi who he had lost to in April at Madison Square Garden, or Okada, who he had a long and storied history with at the Tokyo Dome and had yet to win out over.
The first night’s matches were fantastic, and saw Naito win over White, reclaiming the Intercontinental Title and securing a main event the next night, while Okada also won, perhaps dooming Naito to repeat his fate from his prior IWGP Heavyweight Championship matches at Tokyo Dome.
Night two of the first two-night Wrestle Kingdom carried a lot of tension, then. Would Naito be able to win, or would Okada once again best Naito? From a real life perspective, fans of NJPW have a joke about how hope for Naito always fails to materialize in a victory, and so while the story seemed to be a fairly obvious coronation for Naito, there was enough doubt to build intrigue in the match.
As with all of NJPW’s marquee title matches, the contest between these storied rivals went nearly 40 minutes, with a traditional Japanese match pacing – a slow start with nearly two minutes of non-contact to start, building speed and risk throughout the match, before culminating in a flurry of finishers and near-fall pin attempts before one man gains the decisive advantage due to strategy and wins. All the stories were woven in via commentary and the physical action in the ring – callbacks to prior matches between the two, commentary calling out the Naito knee problems and highlighting when he would sell the knee, Okada at the zenith of the industry with an aura of supreme confidence but seriousness, Naito calm and collected but also visibly nervous, shorter than usual on taunts and mannerisms. If I may diverge from the main match story for a moment, I have to say – this is the stuff I love about wrestling. When two performers and the other presentation elements (commentary, announcing, production, etc) are at the top of their game, you get an art form (yes, art) that is so layered and nuance and effectively communicates the overarching story and theme on every level.
As the match draws to the end, Okada counters several of Naito’s finisher – the Destino, hitting Naito with his own finisher, the Rainmaker. As a storytelling device, finishers in NJPW are very protected traditionally, so through most of the calendar year, you won’t see guys use a finisher that doesn’t work – if Naito puts on a Destino or Okada a Rainmaker, it is the ending of the match. That makes it so that, when we get to a show like Wrestle Kingdom (or a few other larger scale events NJPW has on their calendar), the kickouts and near-falls to the finishers are effective – they build dramatic tension and suspense in the match. The two spend a lot of time jockeying for control, trying to setup their finishers and being dodged or countered, hitting sloppy versions of them and then immediately picking up the other to go for the more structured and full-effectiveness versions, and then failing to win.
However, something becomes clear as this unfolds – Okada is starting to panic, because he has not yet put Naito down, and Naito has successfully countered most of his attempts at the Rainmaker, making the few he has hit unusually loose and ineffective. Meanwhile, due to his knee, Naito has only landed one barely-clean Destino, and is trying to push to put a proper one on to win the match. Naito finally does a few things he hasn’t at the Dome before – he hits the Stardust Press, his old finisher as the Stardust Genius, which he never hit successfully at the Dome, and then he finally catches Okada with a proper Destino, and he wins the match.
Finally, after 6 years of effort to climb the mountain and end up at the conclusion of the Tokyo Dome annual show as the IWGP Heavyweight Champion, Naito has done it. He has both belts, and no longer seems to feel a need to abuse the Intercontinental title – it was, after all, his ticket to his destiny. NJPW shows tend to be very wrestling focused, so there is usually only one live promo of any length during the show – the ending, where the winner of the main event takes to the microphone, thanks the crowd (it is very seldom a heel who arrives in this spot!), does their signature catchphrases, and closes the show.
Naito gets a moment to do his, very briefly saying that he’d like to main event the Dome again, finally getting a fist raise of respect from Okada, and posing with his two belts, doing his signature eye-open taunt he developed in response to racist fans in Mexico who told him his eyes are too narrow, but in a shocking turn of events (only the second time such a thing has happened, and both of which happened within the last year), KENTA, one of the top wrestlers in the Bullet Club, ambushes Naito, sits on him with both belts in a pose meant to mock a wrestler KENTA betrayed in the past, and the show closes with Naito recovering from the attack, 30,000 people booing.
Wrestling, after all, has no offseason, and now if Naito does main event the Dome again, he has a goal – to finish the end of show promo successfully!