2016 has been an impressive year for New Japan Pro Wrestling. Despite losing some of their top-tier talent early on to the juggernaut that is the WWE, they rebounded surprisingly well, and managed to put on an array of incredible matches and shows. As a company NJPW seem ready to expand upon this success and make 2017 an even more prolific one. The Wrestle Kingdom card on January 4 looks fantastic, and there are heavy rumours of the G1 tournament taking place party in the USA for the first time ever, marking a clear attempt to become more known, popular and relevant in the West than ever before.
This means big things for the company, and so heading into 2017, there are five questions that have to be asked.
Los Ingobernables or Bullet Club?
New Japan have something of an interesting dilemma facing them. For the past few years the Bullet Club have been wreaking havoc on the company. The faction of mostly foreigners have been a cash cow for the company and helped bring in a lot of viewers from the West. For a while it felt like the Bullet Club was dying off, especially as Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks had essentially split off into their own more interesting mini-group of The Elite. But as we move forward into Wrestle Kingdom 10 that no longer seems the case.
Meanwhile, the past year has seen the continued rise of Los Ingobernables De Japon. The team of Naito, Bushi, Evil, Sanada and new recruit Takahashi have become a dominant force that has controlled much of the upper-midcard and main event of late. Unlike Bullet Club it’s a far smaller and more insular group, so while Bullet Club are everywhere on the card, including bottom feeder matches, it always feel like an LIJ match matters. And while Bullet Club is still bigger internationally, LIJ seems to be the money making brand within Japan.
At Wrestle Kingdom, every title match has one of these two factions involved. Both groups can definitely exist alongside one another, but they’re going to get in each others way of. Their respective leaders, Kenny Omega and Tetsuya Naito, are both poised for massive years in 2017 with their fingers constantly in the main event jar – but as the two biggest heels in the company they’ll likely have to take turns at the top. And if their two leaders start coming to blows, it only makes sense the rest of their factions go to war as well. It’s only a matter of time before one becomes the clear #1 heel faction in New Japan.
Will the tag division find its groove?
As great as New Japan has been, their biggest flaw is their tag division. The World Tag League has long lost its luster, and both the Heavyweight and Junior divisions haven’t really given us much to write home about. That’s not to say we haven’t had good matches – we have – but the feuds have failed to inspire and more often than not the matches feel like filler. Part of it might be on their reliance of international talent. Both divisions have been dominated by Western talent, which isn’t in of itself a bad thing, but it would be nice to see more permanent tag teams being made up of native talent. And as a rule the Japanese crowd tend to be more invested in one of their own.
There’s also the NEVER 6-man titles, which have basically been a fun punchline that nobody seems to take too seriously. It can easily stay that way, but it could be worth trying to legitimise the title even a little bit to add some drama when they’re defended. Otherwise they should just go the other way and just make it a full on comedy title. The titles are there to bolster the smaller shows, but most of the time the champions don’t even bother bringing the title out unless it’s actually on the line. If the champions don’t care, why should we?
Who do New Japan Bring in?
Every year tends to see a few guys either making short runs within the company (Naomichi Marufugi) or joining long term (Will Ospreay). It’s a good way to keep things fresh and crowds excited, and the more top tier talent they can bring in the better. There’s plenty of guys whose names have been on the rumour mill surrounding New Japan lately. Guys like Minoru Suzuki, Cody Rhodes, Ryback and the Golden Independent himself Kota Ibushi have constantly popped up in news reports and rumour mills. We know Cody’s involved, but even in a company as stacked as New Japan there’s going to be room for one more big name.
Kota Ibushi especially seems to be the toughest to predict, mainly because nobody ever really knows what Ibushi’s going to do next. WWE couldn’t pin him down to a contract despite their best efforts, and the only time we saw Kota in a New Japan ring in 2016 was while he cosplayed as Tiger Mask W. But we know he wants to build up Japanese wrestling, and we also know his other half is at the top of the company in Kenny Omega.
There’s never been more money in a match between the two of them than right now, and a high profile match against the Cleaner might just get him away from wrestling on bicycles and against blow up dolls long enough to get some measure of commitment from him. Obviously if Kota’s not willing to commit longterm to the company there’s only so much we’ll get from him, but any Ibushi is good Ibushi. And that’s a match New Japan could draw a lot of attention with, especially with Omega so high on the card right now.
Who takes the next big step?
2016 saw two guys makes the leap into the main event with great success. After a misfire earlier in his career, Tetsuya Naito cemented himself as a big name with Los Ingobernables behind him. And Kenny Omega made the jump from Junior to Heavyweight, and after becoming the first gaijin to win the G1 Climax is positioned in the main event of the biggest show of the New Japan calander.
It was a good year, but New Japan would be hoping they can get at least another one of their upper midcarders established as a main event mainstay and ensure the IWGP Heavyweight scene is deep. Tanahashi, as great as he is, isn’t getting any younger and can’t be expected to sustain a main event level performance through the whole year, so they’d be well served to build one of their faces up to compliment Okada. This is especially if they don’t want to overexpose the Rainmaker, who despite being at the top of the New Japan pile for a fair few years now is still only 29, which is incredible given his talent.
The obvious choice is Katsuyori Shibata, the current NEVER Openweight champion who has looked poised to make the jump for a while now. It’s hard to say if there’s any unresolved resentment still lingering over him leaving the company a while ago, but for the most part it feels like they have put that behind them. Once he relinquishes the NEVER title, it makes sense to move him into the Heavyweight picture. He doesn’t need to win it yet, but they can easily sell a Naito/Shibata or Omega/Shibata match and draw good numbers at one of their shows. Why not Okada? Because it feels like they’ve intentionally kept them apart. They’ve wrestled against each other exactly once, so it feels like when they finally do go head to head, it needs to be at a Wrestle Kingdom level show.
Outside of Shibata, New Japan have a few others who have flirted with their main event scene. Hirooki Goto is always an easy choice to throw into the title picture, but they can only have him lose the big one so many times until people stop watching. Tomohiro Ishii is also the kind of guy who can be thrown into the title picture here or there, but he might be better suited to have a run as Intercontinental Champion for a while before being seriously considered for a run with the big one. Also, it might not be next year, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Michael Elgin and Sanada find themselves ready for main event runs by the end of 2017. New Japan have options, which is exactly what they need. But they can’t afford to get complacent, and the smart booking would see some of these guys make clear steps forward in the new year.
Is Kenny Omega the Key to Unlocking the West?
New Japan Pro wrestling has been enjoying a gradual growth in exposure out West over the past few years, and while there are plenty of factors at play (globalisation, product quality, ease of access, desire for something outside of the WWE product, Nakamura) it’s hard to argue that their use of top tier Western talent hasn’t been a factor. The Bullet Club became the hottest thing in wrestling, and part of its allure was the rise of the charismatic and incredibly talented leader Prince Devitt. This interest only grew when AJ Styles joined, who is the kind of talent that will draw in eyes specifically for him and him alone.
Now Kenny Omega is posed to eclipse all of them within the boundaries of the company. Do you know how many gaijin have closed out Wrestle Kingdom? Precisely zero (though it’s worth noting that Brock Lesnar and Josh Barnett have both been in the final match of the January 4th Tokyo Dome show when it was held under a different name). Between this and claiming the G1, Gedo is putting an awful lot of eggs in the Kenny Omega basket.
And it’s easy to understand why, he’s basically the best of both worlds. His name carries value out in the West, and while he’s not quite on the name recognition levels of AJ he’s arguably the biggest Western talent not signed to the WWE right now. People will watch because of him, and he gives foreign fans a valuable point of entry. Meanwhile, he is fluent in Japanese and has lived there long enough that he can also connect and relate with the native audience in a way most Western imports simply can’t. So they can use Omega to gain Western fans without risking their primary audience.
Guys like Jay Lethal and The Briscoes (and possibly Cody Rhodes…remains to be seen) might catch the ear of Western fans, but those experiments haven’t really work with the Japanese audience. Michael Elgin has succeeded in Japan, but he’s not a big name back home, so he won’t necessarily bring in foreign fans. And although they might want to expand out West, they can’t sacrifice the primary audience to try and win over a secondary one.
Kenny Omega might be the best way to appeal to both sides, and so expect New Japan to do everything to keep him there. Like letting him win the G1. Like main eventing Wrestle Kingdom. Like becoming IWGP Heavyweight Champion. There’s no one left on the American independent scene that can draw a new audience quite like AJ Styles did, but if they continue to properly use the talent they do have, they’re in a good spot. Omega and The Bucks have an appeal, and guys like Ricochet and Will Ospreay have already caught the world’s attention once before, they could do it again. These guys will be instrumental to continuing their growth in the Western markets. Which is something New Japan president Kidani has made crystal clear.