Debates are often waged and conversations had surrounding major professional wrestling events and matches. What was the greatest WrestleMania? How did this year’s Tokyo Dome show compare to last? Questions of this sort will and have arisen following this year’s Tokyo Dome Show, WrestleKingdom 10. But, there is a statement that may go largely unquestioned regarding this year’s Dome show – “WrestleKingdom 10 was the most historically relevant Tokyo Dome show of the Kidani era, and more broadly, of the decade”.
There was a fair degree of controversy surrounding the 2013 Tokyo Dome classic, as Laughter 7, the hot outsider duo of Kazushi Sakuraba and Katsuyori Shibata, were defeated by Shinsuke Nakamura and Togi Makabe respectively, before word of backstage resentment surfaced but a few days later. This had longer term ramifications for the company than many may have first suspected. Bushi Road president, Takaaki Kidani, hoped to play a heel authority figure affiliated with Laughter 7, but upper management vetoed that decision. Consequently. Shibata and Sakuraba – as the outsiders who left a floundering New Japan only to return when the company began to warm up many years later – served as casualties of what could have been a far uglier situation for New Japan and Japanese pro-wrestling in general.
As important an historical note as that story was, the events surrounding WrestleKingdom 10 will be remembered as major catalysts for change in modern puroresu. These events were of course the reported signings (NOTE: It should be stated that NO official statements have yet been made by the WWE, but numerous sources have confirmed the situation to reputable media figures, including Court Bauer and Dave Meltzer.) of Karl Anderson, Doc Gallows, AJ Styles, and Shinsuke Nakamura by the WWE. Whilst many may forget Anderson’s pre-Bullet Club capacity as a main event level star, working G1 finals and IWGP Heavyweight Title matches, the loss of Guns & Gallows in 2016 is not a major one for the company, nor is it at all surprising. The acquisition of Styles and Nakamura was very much so, however – the signing of the second or third largest star in the company, Shinsuke Nakamura, in particular.
AJ Styles is a performer that has been sporadically discussed as a WWE prospect since he initially garnered significant international attention in TNA. He was as popular a modern NJPW gaijin as any, getting over faster and to a great degree than any New Japan gaijin of the last five or so years in his 2014 debut year. Even so, there is almost always a cap on just how big a foreign star can get in Japan, and two years away from 40 with discussion of retirement over the next five years at play, if Styles was to sign with the WWE, 2016 was the time to do it. This decision is particularly valid when Styles in his 2014-2016 position didn’t have a downside, and thus lost out when required to rest injuries, such as his recent herniated disks. It is for these reasons, as well as the NXT success of the likes of Devitt, Zayn, Kana, and even Hideo Itami that his suspected high-paying/high-profile offer was likely made worth while. Nakamura’s motives are less well defined, however.
From the perspective of a native Japanese star, such as Nakamura, one who has been developing in the company since the early 2000s, and was amongst the top three stars in NJPW at any given time over the last 5-7 years monetary concerns must have been less tantamount. Personal motives to leave New Japan may run far deeper for Nakamura – especially when considering the potential “job for life” that he would have likely adopted in the NJPW office or dojo over the next ten to fifteen years. From all accounts Nakamura’s motives are fuelled primarily by a KENTA-like ambition to succeed as a Japanese star on a major stage in the United States.
Nakamura has a larger upside than KENTA both locally and abroad. His work, whilst primarily in a different style, has been at the same or higher level than KENTA’s for years. He also has the innate charisma and star quality in greater quantities, and of a different sort than the stoic Hideo Itami. This will serve Nakamura well in the WWE, as barring a sudden and dramatic change in company mindset, the former IWGP Intercontinental Champion will face reprogramming.
The extent to which either Nakamura or Styles will be reprogrammed in the coming months is a decidedly difficult question to answer. For one, the signing of international talents to major contracts is a fairly new practice, and was very rare, if not unheard of, at the time of Balor’s signing in 2014. What this may imply, particularly for a man of Styles’ age, is a debut straight to the main roster. An appearance of this sort has never been seen in the modern WWE, and would indicate a major shift in mindset regarding stars from other promotions – a mindset distinct even from that of August 2015, when the Dudley Boyz returned to the company with the same gimmicks as on the day of their departure in 2005, despite evolving considerably in TNA.
With news breaking of the talent exodus but a day or so following the Tokyo Dome show, there was an air of uncertainty and excitement surrounding this year’s New Year Dash that has alluded most New Japan shows for the better part of 18 months. And it was a show that ultimately lived up to that anticipation, a show that saw Omega pin Nakamura with partner AJ Styles opposite YOSHI-HASHI & Shinsuke Nakamura. More importantly, Korakuen witnessed the post-match destruction of AJ Styles by fellow Bullet Club members Guns & Gallows, The Young Bucks, and orchestrator Kenny Omega.
It was a brilliant angle and Styles’ send-off, as he departed with tears in his eyes, legitimate or otherwise, selling his back and following Japanese wrestling tradition by bowing to all four sides of the ring. It was a memorable angle and farewell for one of the best gaijins to wrestle in New Japan this decade. But, even with Omega pushed to the top of the Intercontinental Championship queue, New Japan announced earlier this week that Nakamura would instead be stripped of the title, which will remain vacant for the time being. Potential reasons for this decision deserve considerable discussion, although it can perhaps most simply be explained by Gedo and upper management’s insistence on believability in championship matches – as fans would fully expect a title change in a Nakamura/Omega match at Korakuen Hall.
Nevertheless, Kenny Omega looks to be one of the key fixtures in post-Nakamura era New Japan. The Intercontinental Championship picture will likely centre around Omega, Tanahashi, and Tetsuya Naito for the majority of 2016. This is a strong group, but there is little doubt that the loss of four men will pose a great threat to roster depth for some time, if not at the top, then most certainly elsewhere.
New Japan is not on the precipice of major decline, as popular a narrative as this may be, they still have the likes of Ishii, Shibata, Naito, and Ibushi (should he return in good health from his recent neck injury) to fill out the upper card. But, depth has been lost as some of the former mid and upper mid card talent will be brought up to replace those who left. This is in some ways a positive, as fresher talent will be given an opportunity to revitalize a stale main event scene. But, there is no guarantee that any of the rising talent will catch on to the same extent as two of the world’s best performers, as ample time as they may be given.
Optimistically, on January 31st Takashi Sugiura will challenge Naomichi Marufuji for the GHC Heavyweight Championship with an additional stipulation that should Marufuji win, Suzuki-gun will be forced to leave Pro-Wrestling NOAH. Booking wise, it would make sense for Marufuji to come out victorious against Suzuki-gun, who have thus far failed to ignite the still financially precarious promotion, as some predicted they would. And with New Japan likely supplying funding to NOAH, a Suzuki-gun return to NJPW seems most likely, if not in February, perhaps by the end of 2016. The reintroduction of Davey Boy Smith Jr., Lance Archer, and Minoru Suzuki could be a spark for new found promotional growth. This is especially true when Sugiura, NOAH stalwart and often underrated performer, would also be forced to leave NOAH, after he aligned with Suzuki-gun in December, replenishing lost depth on the upper and mid-card.
It would be out of character for a Japanese promotion to raid the rosters of other talent-rich companies such as All Japan, Big Japan, DDT, and even Wrestle-1. It would, however, be in the best interests of smaller promotions, All Japan and Wrestle-1 in particular, to pursue inter-promotional relationships with New Japan. Booking, even for a single protected match, a Jun Akiyama, Kento Miyahara, Zack Sabre Jr., Takao Omori, Masakatsu Funaki, Daisuke Sekimoto, or HARISHIMA would greatly improve the quality of bigger shows and tours. This is especially true when Nakamura is no longer available to headline one half of the B-level tours.
The probability of New Japan beginning inter-promotional relationships outside of their preexisting ones with CMLL, NOAH, and DDT (to some extent), are comparatively small in relation to the utilisation of many other star-making avenues for the company, but may be their best possible route at this moment.
We didn’t have time to discuss everything we wanted to from a loaded couple of weeks of NJPW news and content, but will review New Year Dash and look at some of the finer WrestleKingdom 10 notes in next week’s issue.