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Can NJPW Repeat Its Past Success With Their New Wave of Stars?

5 months ago Masahiro Kubota, Taiga | Monthly Puroresu

Masahiro Kubota, Taiga | Monthly Puroresu

Can NJPW Repeat Its Past Success With Their New Wave of Stars?

By: Julia Drusilla

The beginning of the year symbolizes many things, such as rebirth and renewal. The Romans coined the name January by turning to their god Janus, a being with two faces: one looking forward and one looking back. No wrestling promotion in Japan embraces this idea more than New Japan Pro Wrestling. With one eye always turned toward the future (their new streaming app, mobile games, partnership with other Japanese promotions) they have tended to keep the other rigidly fixed on the past (a reliance on older, proven talent to be the backbone of the company).

But 2024 threatens to shake things up and shove New Japan into uncharted territory. The top of the card, NJPW’s famous heavyweight main event division, for once has many more questions than immediate answers. 

SANADA’s record-breaking longest-ever hold on the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship, a title that itself is still in the process of gaining prestige due to several reigns cut short and a design that divided fans, ended in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 18. SANADA had been an inspired choice to shock the world in 2023 when he dethroned the face of New Japan, Kazuchika Okada at that year’s Sakura Genesis event. It was easy to see this as a move for the promotion to fast-track his name to the very top and begin to sow the seeds of a division. 

What followed was less clear: a championship reign that broke records for its length with this iteration of the belt, yet that included programs that sometimes missed the mark for New Japan’s fans. Defenses against Hiromu Takahashi and Yota Tsuji were very well received by hardcore fans, while the opposite could be said about SANADA’s program with House of Torture’s controversial EVIL.

Even more of a head-scratcher was the much-maligned match against All Elite Wrestling’s Jack Perry, a short battle at AEW and NJPW’s joint show Forbidden Door that is most memorable for how odd and unsatisfying it was. Meanwhile, Jack Perry’s post-match angle had a domino effect that is still moving through the wrestling world today. To be certain, the quiet efficient demeanor of SANADA and his (at times) puzzling booking led some fans to call for a change. They got their wish when Tetsuya Naito capped off his long-awaited destino at Wrestle Kingdom 18 and got his roll call.

Beyond their rematch upcoming on February 24’s The New Beginning in Sapporo event, it is fair to wonder just which direction the company will go in next. 

It’s Time for NJPW Stars to Step Up, or Step Out

Many of New Japan’s stalwarts are either leaving the company soon or have already left, adding even more intrigue to the most exciting wrestling free agent class since the pandemic. To kick things off, Will Ospreay, arguably the best all-around talent in the company and the most consistently incredible performer of 2023 on the world stage, is calling it quits after his faction’s big blowout finale at February 11’s New Beginnings in Osaka show, where his United Empire will face off with Bullet Club War Dogs in the first steel cage match on a New Japan main card in two decades. Ospreay has already publicly signed with All Elite Wrestling, where he will be reunited with other former top dogs of NJPW like Kenny Omega and Switchblade Jay White. This was a major get for Tony Khan’s American promotion, and New Japan will sorely miss his penchant for giving it all in his biggest matches.  

Tama Tonga has also recently wrestled his final match in New Japan, dropping his NEVER Openweight Championship to EVIL after a flurry of the usual House of Torture tricks. Tonga was a founding member of BULLET CLUB and stuck with the famous faction until departing in 2022. While he was never a consistent main event level guy, he was more akin to a long relief baseball pitcher who could jump in at any time and work with anyone. 

Tama Tonga makes his entrance at the Tokyo Dome.

There was no bigger bombshell than the announcement from New Japan Pro Wrestling’s office that Kazuchika Okada was leaving the company, to work in the United States where he has begun to amass a large following with western fans with his appearances with AEW and TNA. This move shakes the very foundation of professional wrestling in Japan and elsewhere; it is as if Hulk Hogan had left WWE after WrestleMania VI and gone to Japan. Okada’s many accomplishments at the top of the card (five IWGP Heavyweight reigns, a record two IWGP World Heavyweight reigns, four G1 Climax wins and two New Japan Cup wins) certainly speak for themselves. He has long been considered the face of New Japan, and Japanese professional wrestling in general. His presence is not easily replaceable, if at all.  

While things may seem grim, there is certainly no shortage of attractive options that could be elevated to take up Okada’s mantle. Japanese and American fans alike would be thrilled to see Zack Sabre Jr. find his way to the summit. Widely regarded as one of the best technical wrestlers on the planet, ZSJ’s presence in the main event scene would elevate New Japan because of his brash promo work and ability to pull a five-star match out of thin air with any man you put him in the squared circle with. The IWGP World Heavyweight Championship on his shoulder would lead to the belt being firmly established as a true workman’s belt that would attract challengers from all over the world. Tickets for a defense against Bryan Danielson in the American Dragon’s final match would be like a license to print money. 

Of course, we must also consider the Reiwa Three Musketeers: the trio of Ren Narita, Shota Umino, and Yota Tsuji. They are, as their title indicates, three stars who are very clearly important to New Japan’s brass and represent their future. However, that future is looking closer and closer. Tsuji appears to be the readiest to become the potential quarterback of the company, with a combination of athleticism, a great smile, and endless charisma. Narita began as someone who closely resembled Katsuyori Shibata but has begun to grow into himself with his new mean character and is certainly one to watch. Umino has the highest ceiling of any of these three, with his glamor, aura, and easy to understand appeal to an international audience. It will be fascinating to see if he can truly figure out how to harness the bits of his presentation that are owed to Hiroshi Tanahashi, and the parts that are due to his fascinating relationship with his senpai Jon Moxley. While Tsuji may be the most ready-made product now, Umino really could become the ace if all the pieces fall into place. 

All of this is to say that New Japan finds itself in an interesting, exciting position. It has a wealth of young talent, plus guys in their prime who could slide into the increasingly open space at the top of the mountain. The surefire ways for a competitor to reach the top of the heavyweight division; a New Japan Cup win, a G1 Climax victory, a critically acclaimed series of matches with other top talent— all these things should weigh heavily in the minds of NJPW’s heavyweight roster. With Wrestle Kingdom already behind us, the New Japan booking committee needs to take a hard look at all its options.

The main event for Wrestle Kingdom 19 truly could be anyone’s guess, and New Japan has a terrific opportunity to prove to everyone why it is still the King of Sports. 

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I'm a former culture critic and meme fiend with an interest in A-player wrestling, including all the amazing matches coming out of Japan. Sometimes, I write about those for Monthly Puroresu.