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Tetsuya Naito: La Danza del Destino

10 months ago

Tetsuya Naito: La Danza del Destino

By: R. Faliani

The Last Dance. How many times have we heard that concept in sports? Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time, made that tagline famous as he and his team, the Chicago Bulls, were looking to win their sixth NBA championship. In 2022, the concept of “The Last Dance” was used with Lionel Messi and his World Cup campaign, who saw him reaching the peak of the sport, as he and the Argentinian team won the prestigious tournament. “The Last Dance” is a concept related to greatness, to the idea of a great athlete looking to give us magic once again, with the support of his teammates and allies..

As we reach the last months of 2023, it can help us understand the importance of Tetsuya Naito’s current run. From beating Keiji Muto at his own retirement show to winning the G1 Climax 33, Naito has been making waves in Japanese wrestling. Starting in 2016, Naito’s own “reversion” took the wrestling world by storm. The flashy, eccentric and even somewhat bilingual wrestler was becoming one of the best in the world, and he was facing the best of the best. After defeating AEW star Kenny Omega in the finals of the G1 Climax 27, Naito was destined for greatness. The crowd was behind him as he looked to reach the climax of his own redemption at Wrestle Kingdom 12 against none other than the longest-standing IWGP Heavyweight Champion in existence, Kazuchika Okada. But that match had a long backstory.

Naito’s run at that time was the result of a long redemption story. When Naito rose to the big stage, he was not the “Ingobernable.” He was the “Stardust Genius” – a generic character. The crowd didn’t care for Naito. With a new generation of wrestlers arriving to the scene, it seemed Naito was not cut from the same cloth as Okada or other young wrestlers in that time. Even when NJPW wanted him to reach his potential at all costs, Naito was not ready to bear the flag. That made him an obvious “B+ Player”, and forced everyone to share that spot with him whenever they had to face him. Even “The Rainmaker” Kazuchika Okada, who was forced to wrestle in the penultimate match of the Tokyo Dome thanks to a fan ballot, which determined the IWGP Heavyweight Championship was going to be replaced by the IWGP Intercontinental Championship in the main event.

After an excursion to Mexico and the creation of his group “Los Ingobernables de Japon”, Naito started to rise on the ranks of NJPW as a prominent player, and the crowd was in love with his “Ingobernable” attitude. In both 2016 and 2017, the popularity of Okada in Japan was threatened by Naito. LIJ’s merchandise was flying off the merch stands, and while people recognized Okada as the top guy, Naito was not far away. 2018 saw the “Ingobernable” at the peak of his career, as he was now his own man, ready to face the one at the top of the mountain. In a controversial decision that is still being argued about to this day, Okada defeated Naito in the Main Event of the Tokyo Dome, and that was a black mark on Naito for a long time. In 2020, before the pandemic era started for New Japan Pro Wrestling, the leader of “Los Ingobernables de Japon” achieved the biggest dream of his career, beating Okada for both the IWGP Intercontinental Championship and IWGP Heavyweight Championship in the Main Event of the Tokyo Dome — but he was soon after attacked by KENTA.

KENTA attacks Tetsuya Naito after his Wrestle Kingdom 14 win. c/o New Japan Pro-Wrestling

When the pandemic era began, Naito’s title reign was dead in the water, but he was still a prominent wrestler for New Japan. His “Double Champion” era saw him wrestling against former stablemate EVIL, Jay White and Kota Ibushi. Yet, he was a far cry from 2018’s Naito, and he was growing older. Many wrestlers in the company changed their wrestling style to adapt and last longer, but the “Ingobernable” was chasing the gold, and he was not going to stop even if his knees were broken in half. After years of people wondering if Naito was at the same level as Okada, 2023 brought what could be understood as Naito’s own last dance. The G1 Climax 33.

No one believed Naito could win this tournament, because he was facing a lot of new foes. You had the Reiwa Three Musketeers, Shota Umino, Ren Narita and Yota Tsuji all looking to make their names known in the company. You had Will Ospreay, the greatest non-Japanese wrestler for NJPW today. You had Okada, always young and always incredible, looking to reclaim his throne, and you even had stars from other companies like Eddie Kingston and Kaito Kiyomiya betting on themselves, and risking it all to win. And yet, against all odds and against all bad-faith predictions, as Jordan in the NBA, and as Messi in the FIFA World Cup, Naito went on a crusade, and his fate was written in the stars, as he won the G1 Climax 33 and became the top contender once again.

Tetsuya Naito celebrates with LIJ after winning the G1 Climax 33. c/o Masahiro Kubota. Copyright Monthly Puroresu, LLC

The now 41-year-old has won the G1 Climax, and the implications this has for the IWGP belt are massive. The current champion SANADA was a former member of LIJ, and he saw in Naito’s faction a way to evolve and grow as something bigger. SANADA is currently in a rivalry with EVIL, and all men have been former stablemates. They know each other pretty well, and who knows what kind of exciting things will happen in the road to the greatest stage in Japanese pro-wrestling. This scenario opens the door for the original LIJ members to claim their place as the center of the conversation in the wrestling industry. Naito, EVIL and SANADA can be the talk of the town, but only one man shall stand above them all.
After everything that has happened in his career, Naito’s own “Destino” must manifest and declare the “Ingobernable” as the protagonist of the Tokyo Dome. Time does not stop for anyone. NJPW’s current generation is a mix between the past and the future of this industry, and as a 41-year-old veteran in the late prime of his career, Naito needs to bring 100% of his current self to Wrestle Kingdom. After nine long years of dancing with his own fate, the curtain will fall on Naito’s career, and the “Danza del Destino” must end with him taking home all the gold.

Written by:

Hello, I'm from Argentina. I see wrestling with a different perspective thanks to the many content creators in my community. Everything changed when I first watched Go Shiozaki vs Kazuyuki Fujita in 2020. The unsettling nature of the match clicked with me, and it inspired my first video essay. That match made me understand something: I was a content creator –Gyro - and I want to broadcast different ideas: the battles of wrestling ideologies, the importance of Joshi & Puroresu and the dramatic stories surrounding it. I love Puroresu with such passion, I love how it gives me an empty canvas and tells me to draw my idea about it. I have not yet finished high school as a 17-year-old, but am currently preparing to venture into college. I actually learned English by watching wrestling and talking to different people over the years. I am still perfecting the language, and these experiences will help me even more.