For several years now January 4th has been an emphatic statement on how damn good wrestling can be. It’s not unusual to have several legitimate match of the year candidates before the year is a week old, and looking at the card for Wrestle Kingdom 11 we know 2017 should be no different. But what is even more interesting than the potential 5 star matches are the stories. We have the fractured friendship of Shibata and Goto on the line along with the NEVER Openweight Title, Naito is looking to prove he’s overtaken the aging legend he was once compared to in Tanahashi, and of course the arrival of ‘The American Nightmare’ Cody Rhodes and the return of Himoru Takahashi.
The story with the biggest implications though, both in kayfabe and out, is the main event. On one side, we have the rising star and leader of the Bullet Club: Kenny Omega. And in the other corner, the IWGP Heavyweight Champion and the man the company has put forth as their leader: Kazuchika Okada. This might not be a feud with years of battles behind it like we saw with Okada’s match last year, but it is a story that carries the weight of Okada’s past and future on its shoulders.
Kazuchika Okada has been declared the new Ace of New Japan, and the story of his ascension to that role more or less ended at last year’s Wrestle Kingdom, when he finally conquered the previous Ace Hiroshi Tanahashi on his third attempt at the Tokyo Dome. One year on and what has changed? Okada left Wrestle Kingdom as the IWGP Heavyweight Champion, and he returns the champion. He left as the Ace and he returns as the Ace. He’s still one of the smoothest wrestlers in the industry, with a look that screams wrestling megastar.
But the story seemingly isn’t about Okada. People aren’t talking about the Ace of New Japan. After earning the right to be the man, everyone’s focus has been on the emergent outlaws of the company – his opponent Kenny Omega, and Intercontinental Champion Tetsuya Naito. Everyone was talking about those two being NJPW’s wrestler of the year, but Kazuchika Okada arguably had a better in ring year than either one of them, with a horde of match of the year candidates (vs Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom and the G1, vs Marufugi at King of Pro Wrestling and the G1, versus Ishii at the G1 to name a few). You wouldn’t know it though based on the online discussion.
That’s not to say people don’t want Okada as the Ace. This isn’t a Roman Reigns situation, despite what a small portion of the foreign fanbase might have you believe. When comparing attendances between 2015 and 2016, the shows where Okada have headlined in 2016 have generally shown a positive upswing. You still see plenty of Rainmaker merchandise and he still gets strong cheers upon his arrival to the ring.
But he’s in a weird situation. He’s not yet thirty, but he’s already at the top of the mountain, and has been for a few years now. Come Wrestle Kingdom 11 he will have headlined four of the last five Wrestle Kingdoms, and the one year he didn’t he was still the IWGP Heavyweight Champion, defending it against Naito after the match was voted out of the main event in favour of the Intercontinental Title match between Tanahashi and Nakamura. He’s going to be headlining a lot of Wrestle Kingdoms in the coming years, not to mention the various other big shows throughout the year.
The masses aren’t tired of him, but Gedo and New Japan will have to be careful not to have Okada overstay his welcome at the top. At 29 he’s going to be New Japan’s ace for a long time, but he’s going to have to continually prove himself worthy of the spot, otherwise the crowd might stop caring. He’s certainly talented enough to do so having gone from strength to strength over the last few years, but if the name at the top is always Okada, then people will start being more interested in the man opposing him.
New Japan is moving in a new direction too. There is a clear shift in the company’s strategy that has them targeting the Western Audience more and more. Over the past couple of years their relationship with Ring of Honour has allowed them to build a presence in America, but it seems 2017 marks their first serious push into winning over that market. If they do host a couple of G1 Tournament shows in the U.S as rumoured, we’ll know just how serious they are, given the event is second only to Wrestle Kingdom itself in importance, and those first few nights are notorious for big matches and upsets.
The company has invested in Kazuchika Okada, but the company is also heavily investing in their Western star Kenny Omega. He’s been given the honour of the first gaijin to win the G1 Climax, he’s headlining Wrestle Kingdom, and none of this is an accident. There’s been plenty of talk about The Cleaner going to the WWE, and while he’s made it clear he intends to continue with New Japan for the foreseeable future, it’s also clear he expects to be there one day.
Kenny isn’t stupid, he’s seen how AJ Styles has been treated since arriving in the WWE. He went straight to the main roster, retained what made him so popular and had won the WWE Heavyweight Championship in his first year. Kenny seems intent on making the ‘Omega’ brand so valuable that when he does step inside a WWE ring, he does so with the same kind of aura that The Phenomenal One did. But the better New Japan treat him, the more likely he is to stay longer and continue to build up the company that made him a star, and the longer New Japan can benefit from his unique appeal.
That’s what makes the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 11 so fascinating. If you had asked fans on January 5 2016 who would win this upcoming match, the consensus would have been overwhelmingly on The Rainmaker’s side. He’s the Ace, while Omega was fresh off a Junior Heavyweight title loss to Kushida. But Kenny Omega has taken his chance to shine with both hands, and now it’s feasible either man could leave champion. The main advantage for Okada is he’s the face, and it’d make sense to send the fans home with the face on top.
But would Omega not send the fans home happy? He might be the evil foreigner in charge of the longstanding heel faction Bullet Club, but given how they respond to him you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s not beloved by the audience. All he’d have to do is burst out into another Japanese spoken promo like he did after winning the G1 Climax and the fans will be all over him in joy.
If Okada loses come January 4, his story becomes more interesting. Back at Wrestle Kingdom VII, he failed to claim the title of The Ace and lost to Tanahashi. At Wrestle Kingdom VIII he entered as champion, but got voted out of the main event, and then the following year again fell short to Tanahashi. Imagine for him to finally have earned the spot as the company’s ‘Ace’ on his third attempt, only to then lose to the dastardly heel at the very next Wrestle Kingdom. Suddenly Kazuchika Okada is left to search within himself and prove he can carry this company forward as it expands.
Meanwhile, the faction he leads – Chaos – is encircled on both sides by Bullet Club and Los Ingobernables. An Okada loss at Wrestle Kingdom means the title is in the hands of the foreign heels. The second most important title, the Intercontinental title, might stay with the Ingobernables leader Naito. Though both are incredibly popular with the fans, in kayfabe the company is essentially shrouded by these two evil forces, with the crowned protector unable to defend New Japan’s prestigious title on the most important night of the year.
Whatever path New Japan goes down in 2017, it’s going to shape the company’s future. If they’re seriously going to try to make some inroads in America, they need to be firing on all cylinders if they are going to establish themselves. Hardcore fans will deal with the language barriers presented by a predominantly Japanese roster, but casuals will need more convincing. That’s why Kenny Omega is so important for the company moving forward, but as New Japan’s ‘Ace’, Kazuchika Okada also needs to be able to lead them into foreign territory and win over the fans. That’s why when the main event for Wrestle Kingdom 11 begins, it’s about more than just the title. It’s about Okada proving that he’s the man for the company, both in Japan and abroad.