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KUSHIDA: Back to the Future in Japan

2 years ago

KUSHIDA: Back to the Future in Japan

By: Carlos Toro

April 5, 2019. On that day, KUSHIDA, one of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s top junior heavyweights joined WWE, after carrying the division for the better part of a decade. Appearing in front of nearly 16,000 raucous fans at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center for one of the company’s NXT TakeOver events, it seemed like the start of something great for one of the world’s best wrestlers.

A likable, world-class wrestler sporting Marty McFly attire getting to wrestle on American television? KUSHIDA and NXT seemed to fit like a glove.

However, just three years later, his time with the American promotion was done and not much to show for it. It was a run that had its ups-and-downs, but its ups were few and far between and the totality was not what fans who knew of his exploits in Japan were expecting to see. By April 2022, KUSHIDA had left WWE and became a free agent.

Yet, the 39-year-old didn’t stay out of wrestling for too long. In the hallowed walls of Tokyo’s Korakuen Hall on June 21, KUSHIDA made his return to the promotion he left his biggest mark on. But instead of simply showing that he’s back, he immediately staked his claim to challenge Taiji Ishimori to become a seven-time IWGP Jr. Heavyweight champion.

KUSHIDA’s return adds a much-needed boost to NJPW. As a result of the pandemic, Japan had to close its borders, which resulted in plenty of wrestlers, including a few from the junior heavyweight division, being unable to go back there. The roster has felt barebones at times, with feuds being regurgitated every few months. Adding to the maelstrom of misfortune are injuries to its roster, making the current NJPW product – by no fault of the company – feel a little hollow.

But as Japan continues to ease up a bit on what NJPW can and cannot do, we are slowly starting to see shades of the promotion that dominated the wrestling landscape for years. KUSHIDA was one of several high-caliber wrestlers whose ring skills created a massive international boom in popularity.

Returning to face Ishimori, the man who ended his last title reign in Japan back at Wrestle Kingdom 13 in 2019, is a great reintroduction for him as the summer months roll on and fall fast approaches. The two produced a solid yet relatively brief match and Ishimori’s growth into one of the promotion’s most accomplished junior heavyweights in recent years does set the stage for what should be phenomenal.

It was a familiar and welcome sight to see KUSHIDA treated as a top name (albeit just in the junior heavyweight division) the moment he’s back in Japan. It was a reminder that the last three years of his career were lackluster, filled with several memorable matches, but without one thing to truly distinguish his run with WWE’s black and gold brand.

KUSHIDA’s time in NXT certainly had its fair share of fantastic matches. From Johnny Gargano to Pete Dunne to Kyle O’Reilly and Santos Escobar. However, his booking with the company was inconsistent. WWE seemed gun-shy to elevate him to NXT’s main event scene on a consistent basis. During his three years in NXT, not once did KUSHIDA wrestle for the NXT Championship on television.

Instead, KUSHIDA was seemingly left to his own devices, having him challenge for the NXT Cruiserweight title on several occasions with only one title victory. Outside of that, there isn’t a whole lot to remember from his time there. It’s a somewhat strange thing to witness for three years, especially given the fact that KUSHIDA was announced as one of the major signings for WWE during WrestleMania Week in 2019.

Although New Japan has its roster divided between the heavyweights and junior heavyweights, the heavyweights typically take precedence as to what New Japan focuses on for the majority of the year. That typically presents a ceiling of how big a star KUSHIDA and the other junior heavyweights can be in New Japan. Yet, they aren’t treated as some stepping stool for the heavyweights as a rule and KUSHIDA still thrived in an otherwise great division for NJPW that has, on occasion, been given its due respect. Even as a junior heavyweight, KUSHIDA was booked as one of the many top faces of New Japan, combining excellent wrestling ability with his now-iconic Back to the Future look.

Part of the main issue with WWE is how it books talent versus how NXT books talent. The respective philosophies focus on what’s valued.

In NXT pre-2.0, workrate and wrestling ability were more valuable than Raw and SmackDown’s emphasis on “sports entertainment.” KUSHIDA, like many indie wrestling and international stars, was a perfect fit in NXT, but beyond that, it’s hard to bank on WWE’s ability to properly book him as the talented wrestler that he is had he gone to the main roster. Now, no one is saying KUSHIDA should be world champion in WWE from day one. But the way he was treated and booked in New Japan and the way he was treated in WWE/ NXT is night and day. The same could be said for many wrestlers who excelled in NXT, but floundered once they got called up to the main roster. New Japan’s Juice Robinson is a perfect example. In NXT, Robinson was stuck with a hippie gimmick and it was hard to tell how good he truly is. Once he left WWE and was released of his metaphorical shackles, his career took on a second life of its own after signing with NJPW. No doubt KUSHIDA played a big role in cementing the junior heavyweight division as an elite wrestling roster in the past decade. But in the three years that have passed, some of the aforementioned wrestlers took up what KUSHIDA started and continued it. Now gunning for the title, it almost seems like KUSHIDA is out to make up for lost time, as three years away from his wrestling home may seem like an eternity.








Written by:

I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and happy to have found a niche in America as a multimedia journalist. My contributions to Monthly Puroresu started with Issue #1, following time at Fightful reporting on combat sports. I'm also a broadcaster and former Trenton Thunder beat writer and Rider Baseball radio man.