2017 is here. Wrestle Kingdom has passed. The last year’s worth of storylines and build up has come to a climax. As we look towards New Year’s Dash to establish new contenders and new main events, I wanted to reflect upon 2016, a year that will undoubtedly be looked back upon in the history books as a landmark year, due to the bounce back that the promotion did after several stars departed, as well as the real beginning of New Japan expanding their reach beyond their locale. With all this in mind, let’s get going with some of these superlatives.

Most Improved

2016 has been a year of opportunity for New Japan. The exodus of talent, rather than leave the promotion in bad shape, left a significant part of their roster with a real chance to reveal their true potential. With that in mind, one of the people who has taken this chance and just ran seven laps with it is YOSHI-HASHI.

As someone who has spent the 2010s in relative obscurity, filling out eight man tags, taking pins, with very little to show for it except a “LOOSE EXPLOSION” on his bahookie, YOSHI-HASHI likely felt that he really needed to step up this year, and it’s exactly what he did. When L.I.J began feuding with CHAOS, YOSHI asserted himself as more than a hanger-on.

He established his beef with SANADA, based off of his own persistence in the face of failing New Japan’s introductory test, compared to SANADA quitting the Dojo to go to All Japan. It was real, and he did everything to combine what was real with what was storyline, which resulted in various tag matches which had a great atmosphere with a lot of heat, culminating at Dominion, where he tapped SANADA out with the Butterfly Lock, in what was personally one of my favourite moments of the year.

This is but one example of YOSHI-HASHI making the most of the opportunities given to him. Many have cited his performances in the G1, his Destruction main event with Kenny Omega, and to a lesser extent, his performance as a tag team with Ishii, as his real coming out moment, but I feel that his rise up the ranks has been the result of a lot of hard work put in over the entire year. Watch this space, because with the way things are going, I think YOSHI-HASHI is going to improve a lot more in 2017.

Most Outstanding

The distinction made between Wrestler of the year and most outstanding, at least in my book, is that the former is someone who formed a vital part of the company’s business throughout the year, someone who could be considered a significant draw. Meanwhile, the latter is a spoke on the wheel, something that the machine could survive without, but whose performance is of such high quality that it behoves you to recognise them. It’s comparing The Rock to someone like Kurt Angle. In this way, the most outstanding wrestler in New Japan this year was easily Tomohiro Ishii.

You could point to the several examples that everyone and their great-aunt have been raving about all this time. The Wrestle Kingdom 10 match against Shibata, the rematch at New Beginning, the Naito match at Dontaku, his five star-studded run in the G1, but rather than go through stuff you’ve likely read before, I’ll simply say this:
Within Ishii’s workrate, his stiffness, his exquisite approach to selling, lies anger, lies animus. When you look at the past of New Japan, one of the gems you’ll likely find is the feud between Shinya Hashimoto and Naoya Ogawa.

While I would not recommend every feud should involve one of the guys shooting and legitimately knocking the other guy out, I would recommend that more feuds should convey the sheer hatred both men felt towards each other, from the press conferences, to the entrances, to the match, all the way to the floor in the post-match brawl. Ishii is the guy who, in modern New Japan, keeps that sort of energy alive. If you step into the ring against him, he hates you, and he will not allow himself to stop beating you up until you damn near kill him. It is this foundation of hostility and resilience that ties together all the aspects of Ishii mentioned above, and what makes him one of the greatest workers not only in New Japan, but across the entire wrestling scene today.

Feud Of The Year

It would be easy to give this to the stable wars we’ve seen this year, which have given us various great, energetic matches, but a stable-based feud is something that can be summoned at a moment’s notice. AJ Styles Vs. Minoru Suzuki from G1 24 literally had the story of “We are both stable leaders and so now we must fight.” It’s something that you can rely on, but in saying that, it’s also something that you can come back to anytime you want to, that doesn’t require much development beforehand.

A feud like Shibata/Nagata, is something that entirely hinges upon such development.
When Shibata initially talked of the veterans in NJPW as old men, running their mouths, it seemed as though we were set for a couple easy months where the veterans would put over Shibata in matches where Shibata would be miles ahead of them. It would be another step in taking guys like Kojima and Nagata, who can still reliably go without risking various injuries, and using them as if they were like a Nakanishi, someone whose only use is to put others over.

We saw Kojima go down, (on a Road To Invasion Attack, instead of on the Invasion Attack show, which I’m still confused about) we saw Tenzan go down, and the post-match confrontation between Nagata and Shibata seemed like just going through the motions of building up the next Shibata victory.

But I’ll be, Nagata walked into the Fukuoka Kokusai Center, with the crowd as on his side as they would be as if he was back struggling against Takayama for the IWGP belt at the Tokyo Dome, with commentator Nogami cheering him on as he always has, and he beat Shibata. Clean in the middle. And in the middle he stood, as the new NEVER Openweight Champion.

For those of us who got into New Japan in just the last five years, who know of guys like Tenzan and Kojima as the old veterans and nothing more, it was a glimpse, but for those who were in the crowd, it was a reaffirmation of Yuji Nagata as “Mr. IWGP”, the man who defended the IWGP title 10 times consecutively, who lead the promotion in its darker days, who in a sense was New Japan.

It instantly added more gravity to the inevitable rematch. It wasn’t a basic story going through the motions anymore, it wasn’t simply the old guys thinking the new generation was disrespectful, it became a thing of whether or not Shibata could take up the mantle of “Mr. IWGP”, if he could successfully follow in the footsteps of his elders. And in the hard-hitting, teeth-gritting, and ultimately emotional rematch at Dominion where Shibata regained the title, that, in Nagata’s eyes, was proven. We were left with a very meaningful scene, one that we may look back to as the real start of something if Shibata gets pushed to the main event, as the climax to a simple, yet very effective feud.

 

Tag Team Of The Year

On this one, I’m feeling Roppongi Vice. In a Jr. Tag division where their spotlight on the biggest show, a 4-way with half-assed build up, basically became a joke, even amongst the talent, Rocky Romero and Beretta getting past dissention between themselves to become a stronger unit, as well as to win the Super Jr. Tag Tournament was able to garner real interest in the Jr. Tag Title scene.

The main complaint to be had about the booking go-to for Jr. teams being “Uh, I dunno, how about another 4-way” is that the contestants are capable of so much more. Kyle O’ Reilly, when he was a Jr., was capable of a lot more than a speedy spotfest. The same goes for guys like KUSHIDA, Alex Shelley, Matt Sydal, Rocky Romero. What was great about the Jr. Tag tournament, especially the finals at Power Struggle, where Taiji Ishimori and ACH put on a clinic with the Vice, is that it showcased that very capability. It appealed to the crowd for investment beyond going “oooh” at a dive.

Romero and Beretta overcoming their differences felt like an accomplishment, and them challenging the Young Bucks for a straight 2-on-2 match at Wrestle Kingdom felt like the natural conclusion to their storyline. Their match at the Tokyo Dome, like the build-up, felt similarly natural, and simple, and I hope that their reign establishes a new approach to booking Junior tag teams.

Most Underrated

I think when people talk about Hirooki Goto, they look at his choke artistry, the eternal bridesmaid status, and look at it as just him being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Gedo would give him the title, but Okada needs to look strong. Gedo would give him the New Japan Cup, but Naito was just too hot.

I think of it differently, I think of Goto as this very interesting character who shows a lot of vulnerability. In that eight-man tag match he participated in at New Beginning in Niigata, after he lost to Okada, he conveyed a post-failure funk better than I’ve ever seen anyone do it. His head down, not wanting to look at Okada in the face, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else, getting kicked by Shibata for not doing well, it was legitimately compelling to see someone act in such a way.

Even after he got out of the rut and joined CHAOS, my interest remained. I found in him someone racked with self-doubt, as well as someone who shares inspirational success quotes on his Facebook, judging by him featuring his ass getting kicked on his entrance video. I could see self-doubt in his eyes as he wrestled in high-stakes situations.

His matches weren’t just pure workrate, it was a man grappling with self-doubt, and having his hopes crushed by those who won those psychological battles long ago. In 2017, part of me wants Goto to win his battle too, to finally get a reign with the IWGP belt. Another part of me wants his suffering to continue, for his entrance music to become the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” theme, interspersed with Gedo laughing. With his 1st NEVER title reign beginning, I still am not sure which part of me will get what they want.

Match Of The Year

I mentioned the concept of “Stable wars” earlier, but another nice thing that the G1 can serve up on short notice is civil wars within stables. On night 14 of the G1 26, we saw a sterling example of that with EVIL taking on his fellow Ingobernable, Naito. The only real buildup was EVIL being a bit reluctant to join in on a fist bump on the previous show, but the match itself more than made up for the minimal promotion.
Much like how SANADA used his matches in the G1 to establish his viability as a future ace, EVIL used this match to put the idea into peoples’ minds of him as an individual star.

Just a feeler, not going to happen for a long while, but something to consider. And, boy, did the Hamamatsu crowd consider that idea. Both competitors played beautifully into EVIL’s newfound popularity. EVIL himself had an extra pep, an extra intensity to everything he did, and Naito fully assumed the role of heel in the match, by working over the knee, and spitting into the crowd at “EVIL” chants. Both men held nothing back, and when you combine the physicality of both guys at their best, with the atmosphere of a crowd who’s rabid to see some dissention within a big stable, you get what was my favourite New Japan match of 2016. A perfect showcase of what the G1 is meant to do, both for established stars, and up-and-comers.

Most Overrated

There exist various great mysteries in life. We may never find out who Jack the Ripper was. We may never find out how those who sail into the Bermuda Triangle disappear, or where they go to. We may also never find out why the hell Jado books himself to wrestle for longer than 2 minutes when he is a pretty bad wrestler, in all honesty.

Wrestler Of The Year

It would be pointlessly contrarian of me to not pick Tetsuya Naito for this distinction.
When you look at Naito’s body of work, you see someone who truly gets it. Everything he does, the way he walks, how he paces everything, how he carries himself, is how a real star would do it. When you watch something like Wrestling With Shadows, you see Bret Hart focus on and scrutinise the details. He doesn’t want to say a certain city is where you’d put the enema in America, because he doesn’t think it fits his character. It’s something that not many would think about, let alone care about, but it is these minutiae that separate a good wrestler from a great wrestler, and it is these minutiae that make Tetsuya Naito New Japan’s most valuable worker in 2016.
I do not see any hyperbole in comparing this guy to the likes of Bret Hart, or Steve Austin. I see him as someone who, in a time where WWE has failed to really create a new anti-authority babyface, has hit it out of the park in a promotion where most never thought authority would even come into play. Much like Austin, as well, you would have to mess up on such a baffling scale for him to fail. In 2017, expect Naito to continue improving as both a character, and ultimately as a draw.