2016 has been a year of rebuilding for New Japan, as the days after WrestleKingdom saw the company panic as their upper mid-card plans were thrown out of the window (and ended up in Stamford, Connecticut).
Throughout the first six months, there’s been many changes in the New Japan landscape, helped in part by the company’s affiliation with Ring of Honor. Granted, the partnership may be labelled as having been (ab)used by ROH, but New Japan’s ability to book talent like reDRagon and the Young Bucks was able to bolster the company’s junior heavyweight tag team division – and that’s been a positive and a negative – but we’ll get to that.
New Japan’s primary title is arguably the IWGP Heavyweight championship, and after starting 2016 with a successful defence over Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kazuchika Okada’s next challenger came in the form of Tetsuya Naito, whose win in March’s New Japan Cup tournament gave him the title shot he so craved.
Although Naito did win the title, and enjoy a two-month run as champion, his 70-day run as champion could easily be viewed as another failure in a career which has already seen him voted out of a main event by a fanbase who preferred to see Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi for the secondary Intercontinental champion, rather than Naito vs. Okada in a main event for 2014’s WrestleKingdom.
Coming out of Dominion, we’re back at the same place we were in January, with the Rainmaker as champion, with no obvious challengers – particularly since his win over Naito was so decisive and without any storyline reason for a rematch. The upcoming G1 Climax will likely create new contenders across multiple divisions, hopefully with one eye to the future.
Speaking of, the Intercontinental championship division has undergone a transformation, thanks in part to the departure of Nakamura in January. After defending the title against fellow-departee AJ Styles, the built-up storyline between Nakamura and Kenny Omega was quickly scrapped, with the “King of Strong Style” instead stripped of the title rather than drop it on his way out. Instead, we got a match for the vacant title, with Hiroshi Tanahashi going down to Omega as the new Bullet Club leader got the gold. After just the one successful defence – against Michael Elgin in April – Omega dropped the belt to Elgin in New Japan’s first ever ladder match at Dominion. It’s safe to say that the Intercontinental title wasn’t a big priority in New Japan this year, particularly as Omega’s spent more time as one-third of another championship unit.
Ah yes, the NEVER Openweight Six-Man tag team titles. Those belts only came into existence at January’s WrestleKingdom show, with the Briscoe Brothers and Toru Yano beating the Bullet Club trio of Bad Luck Fale, Tama Tonga and Yujiro Takahashi to win the belts. Since then, there’s been five further title changes in the first half of the year, as the Bullet Club trio went back and forth with the belts, winning the belts on February 11 and dropping them back three days later to the same team. The joint-promoted ROH/New Japan shows saw Yano and the Briscoes drop the belts to the Bullet Club “Elite”, as Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks scored the titles, and a cool new jumprope. At Invasion Attack, Michael Elgin, Yoshitatsu and Hiroshi Tanahashi won the titles, but after three weeks with the belts, the Elite regained them, as July started with the Young Bucks carrying around four belts between them in New Japan. [Well, for 48 hours at least, as the Bullet Club Elite lost the six-man titles to Ricochet, Matt Sydal and Satoshi Kojima at the July 3rd show in Iwate]
In our review of Dominion, we noted how the IWGP Junior tag team titles have yet to be successfully defended in 2016: the Young Bucks won them at WrestleKingdom, then lost to Matt Sydal and Ricochet at The New Beginning. The belts then moved onto Roppongi Vice at Invasion Attack, and back to Sydal and Ricochet at Wrestling Dontaku, before the Bucks got them back at Dominion. Whilst the hot potato nature of the title changes can be a good thing, it also risks the devaluing of the belts, which have been somewhat feast-or-famine when it comes to having long-term homes.
The heavyweight version of the tag titles haven’t fared as well – even if they’ve been more stable. Karl Anderson and Doc/Luke Gallows dropped the IWGP tag team titles at WrestleKingdom to the GBH team of Tomoaki Honma and Togi Makabe – before failing to reclaim the belts as they left Japan for Stamford. In their place, the new Bullet Club tag team of the Guerrillas of Destiny – Tama Tonga and the debuting Tanga Loa – took the belts at Invasion Attack, but had a very anonymous two-month run as champions, dropping the belts to the Briscoe Brothers.
Stepping away from the “who won what in New Japan” title pictures, we’ve seen some booking decisions that at best, can be described as curious. Without the likes of Nakamura, Styles and Kota Ibushi (all three of whom ended up appearing for WWE by the summer), New Japan needed to create new headline level stars in order to take the pressure off of Hiroshi Tanahashi, whose 2016 has been severely hampered by injury. Unfortunately, the booking we have seen thus far has seen only Naito raised to that level, since Naito’s only other challenger came in the form of Tomohiro Ishii (who quickly ended up down the card after his loss at Wrestling Dontaku). Even the Intercontinental championship has suffered, as the only title feuds were between Kenny Omega and Messrs Elgin and Tanahashi – with Elgin only having been raised to that level after an injury to Tanahashi. Barring a G1 Climax that creates a bunch of new stars, New Japan runs the risk of 2017’s WrestleKingdom show being headlined by a match that the fans didn’t want in that slot three years earlier…
Whilst the company’s use of rookies (“Young Boys”) usually see the newcomers lose an awful lot of matches, and that has been the case this year too, save for a few shock wins here and there. That being said, if you didn’t know any better, you’d think that the only Young Boys that New Japan have are David Finlay and Jay White, since it feels like they’re always facing each other on every card, save for the newly-created “Lions Gate Project” events where youngsters from New Japan and Pro Wrestling NOAH take on veterans. The departure of Jay White to ROH means that Finlay will need a new opponent for the opening matches, assuming that he too isn’t about to go on a learning excursion.
Yoshitatsu’s return from almost 18 months out with a broken neck did come with some fanfare, but after his brief run as a six-man tag team champion, he found himself lost in the shuffle, with only a Triple H cosplay act as the “Bullet Club Hunter” saving him from anonymity… New Japan’s use of veterans has been nothing short of inspired this year, particularly around Katsuyori Shibata. After dethroning Ishii for the NEVER Openweight title, Shibata spent the first half of the year locked in battle with the “Third Generation” of New Japan, locking horns with Satoshi Kojima, Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Manabu Nakanishi and best of all, Yuji Nagata. That feud ultimately was won by Shibata, but the NEVER title could prove to be an albatross around his neck if he’s going to step up to either the Intercontinental or World titles.
Speaking of titles… New Japan currently has NINE titles considered as active; seven if you just count the ones that have been defended this year. That’s right up there with the volume WWE had during the WCW invasion, when they had duplicates of everything (2 x world champions, 2 x secondary champions, 2 x tag champions, 2 x cruiserweight champions, plus a Women’s and Hardcore title). By the end of it, WWE at least slimmed down their range of belts to one of each – and with New Japan splitting their roster with Pro Wrestling NOAH, they may be best served in shedding some of the peripheral titles so that the belts mean a little bit more than they do right now.
In spite of crowds being slightly lower than they were, New Japan doesn’t feel like a struggling promotion. Sure, the finals of the Best of Super Junior tournament didn’t draw well, but that was mostly down to the finals being held on a Monday and Tuesday this year, as opposed to a Friday and Sunday in 2015. All-in, considering that New Japan lost four of their biggest stars, and another has been working hurt or on the shelf for a good part of the year, things could be a whole lot worse than they are – they just need to do more refining to ensure that they don’t start to coast before the rebuilding job is complete.