AJ Styles and the Semi-Main Event of the Tokyo Dome
With the 2016 edition of wrestling’s second largest annual event on the horizon, the 2016 Tokyo Dome show, discussion of a co-main-event threatening injury has been surprisingly sparse. AJ Styles, who is set to challenge Shinsuke Nakamura for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship in one of the company’s few remaining first time marquee matches, was forced to forfeit his 2015 World Tag League campaign with Yujiro Takahashi and fly back to the United States due to what is reportedly a herniated disk in his lower back. The extent of the injury still remains unknown, but injuries of this sort are generally cumulative, and require prolonged rest in order to heal.
Styles, unfortunately, does not seem to have, at least for the next several months, major rest opportunities. He is scheduled to appear not only on January 4th, but also at ROH TV tapings and their biggest show of the year, Final Battle, on December 19th and 18th respectively, in addition to a 2CW show in Rochester, New York on December 20th. This gives Styles two weeks to recuperate before working not only the Tokyo Dome show, but also the January 5th show at Korakuen Hall, a major 5 Star Wrestling and Rev Pro series on January 14 through to January 17th, as well as various other indie dates and ROH TV tapings scattered throughout January and early February.
With the Dome show less than a month away, however, Styles probably believes he is strong enough to work, or would have pulled out by now. And this is good news for WrestleKingdom, as booking an alternative match as high-profile as Nakamura/Styles would be a sizable task on such short notice. Optimistically, perhaps the injury may not require as dramatic a lay-off as prior discussion eluded. Styles is an elite professional, and so may very well be working through the injury, but at the same time, is also an intelligent business man, and wishes to make the most of however many years he has left in the business, which I can’t imagine him jeopardizing for a handful of dates.
The dilemma of finding a replacement challenger for Nakamura of the same or greater calibre as Styles is thankfully no longer a serious concern. However, had the worse case scenario unfolded, and Styles been rendered unable to compete for the next several months, who could have been brought in to replace him? Shibata, who has subsequently been paired with Tomohiro Ishii as the 01/04 NEVER match could have been a viable option, although had it not completely disrupted NOAH and its booking, bringing Suzuki in after a nearly year-long hiatus would have succeeded to a greater extent. Less realistically, Go Shiozaki, who recently returned to NOAH could have also been a somewhat viable option, although I am unsure of just how much traction he could have gathered with the New Japan fan base in but a few weeks.
With the short term questions rendered all but moot, perhaps the more poignant question pertains to Bullet Club leadership heading out of the Dome. Should Styles take a several month long leave of absence, group founder, Karl Anderson, could always be pushed to the front, but placing a man who is now essentially a mid-carder in the top position would serve to devalue what would already, without Styles, be a mid-card stable. What this would open an opportunity for, however, is the debut of someone like a Roderick Strong, who could help spice up a main event scene that is by no means stale, but certainly far from fresh. And with Styles as a performer that the crowds naturally cheer, if he does go on hiatus, should he return as a heel at all?
Tomoaki Honma & Togi Makabe Win World Tag League Despite Domestic Violence Allegations
Fantasy booking aside, in another important Tokyo Dome development this week, Tomoaki Honma and Togi Makabe won the World Tag League after defeating EVIL & Tetsuya Naito. Honestly speaking, I am not at all fit to discuss the tournament in great detail, as it is a tour that I may sample on occasion, but generally skip if I can help it. Disinterest on my part comes as a result of poor tag team booking across the board from New Japan over the last several years — 2014 and 2015 in particular.
The Gedo and Jado period hasn’t been a good one for tag team wrestling by any stretch, but with Gallows, Anderson, and The Kingdom dominating the division in 2015, it is in need of serious rehabilitation. Whether Makabe and Honma can be used as a tool for resuscitate is yet to be seen, but a victory at the Dome, and more fulfilling reign than Goto and Shibata’s earlier this year (a promising team that was severely underutilized) may help restore some interest within the fanbase for what has largely been a dry scene.
One of the louder statements the Honma victory makes about New Japan and its management, is their minimal concern for the domestic abuse allegations brought forth against Honma by his current and longtime girlfriend, Kiyoko Ichiki. As far as coverage in the foreign wrestling media is concerned, this story has been far and away the most broadly covered of Honma’s career — Yakuza rumours included. Japan, however, is far more reserved about the topic, with little credence granted to Ichiki’s claims by those in the sporting and traditional media. Whether this is a consequence of the “cult of celebrity”, or general distrust of Ichiki is not entirely clear, although I would suspect some elements of both are at play.
Without looking to pass judgment on either Honma or Ichiki, statements made in the public eye act as telling signs of what is, at the very least, a strained relationship. It would seem that Honma’s non-NJPW talk show crush, 90s pop star Tomomi Kahla, caused Ichiki to slip into an apparent depression leading to a recent post-dinner fight, after which Ichiki apparently dropped to her knees pleading forgiveness, as is tradition, before being kicked in the face in front of her mother.
The majority of arguments I have encountered explaining New Japan’s trepidatious stance as a consequence of “cultural differences”, implicitly stating that Japanese culture is somehow more lenient towards domestic violence than Western cultures, read to me as ill-conceived. A recent strong counter example can be found in New Japan’s suspension of Taichi following a cheating scandal involving an AKB48 member. In fact, Taichi has made very few appearances for NJPW since, and has by all accounts lost respect from the locker-room. If such harsh actions were taken against a then contracted employee for cheating, logically, should NJPW have believed the Honma allegations, harsher action would have been taken against Honma, a freelancer for domestic abuse. What is more, is that Honma was released in 2012 shortly following an amazing match with Tanaka after Yakuza allegations arose. He is by no means untouchable, and was barely featured for months after being resigned, only truly catching fire after a chance replacement G1 decision in 2014 when Ibushi went down with an injury. I can’t believe that NJPW, nor a roster with a traditional promotional loyalty, would act out of character to such a degree for a beloved cult performer, but cult performer nonetheless.
Regardless of personal drama, Honma & Makabe look to be the Guns & Swords or Goto & Shibata of 2016, hoping to topple the overplayed tag champions, commencing the resuscitation of a strained division, before, one defence later, dropping the belts back to whomever they won them from. This is not a definite, but merely the analysis of an unfortunate, albeit very real, yearly pattern in the tag team division. For as many complaints as the “stale” roster gets there are still the Yuji Nagata types and junior analogues who remain underutilised, and who would be more valuable in a newer, stronger tag division.