When New Japan Pro Wrestling lost two of its big four in Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles at the exact same time, it should have been cause for panic. Then, their legendary ace Hiroshi Tanahashi injured himself, missing time through the middle of the year. But New Japan had a couple of new aces up their sleeves. In the span of a year, Kenny Omega and Tetsuya Naito have gone from mid card toys to two of the hottest stars in the entire wrestling world. It’s an incredible turnaround, especially for Naito, who had seemed destined as nothing more than a footnote in the company.

If you had told fans of NJPW a few years ago that one of the biggest heels the company had at its disposal was Tetsuya Naito, you probably would have been laughed out of the building. Naito has always been a talented in ring performer, but outside of the ring he was the blandest of white meat babyfaces. And while comparisons to the legendary Hiroshi Tanahashi would generally be seen as a good thing, the moniker of ‘Tanahashi lite’ more or less condemned him to mediocrity. Yet here we are in 2016, and just about everything Naito does turns to gold. It’s been an incredible transformation, and it couldn’t have been timed any better for both Naito and the company.

The low point for Tetsuya Naito came at the beginning of 2014. Fresh off winning the G1 Climax in the previous year, 2014 should have been Naito’s year. He was going to the main event of Wrestle Kingdom VIII, and challenging for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship against the young megastar Kazuchika Okada on the biggest stage in Japanese wrestling. But initial fan response to the headlining show was luke warm, and when given a choice on which match should main event, Naito’s match with Okada drew half of the votes that the Nakamura/Tanahashi match for the Intercontinental Title received. He lost the main event spot and subsequently lost to Okada at the Tokyo Dome.

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New Japan didn’t lose faith in him completely, but he quickly fell back into the midcard. He lost the NEVER Openweight Title to Tomohiro Ishii, found himself in the middle of the pack in that year’s G1 tournament and came up short against AJ Styles at Wrestle Kingdom VIII. After a NJPW/ROH combined tour of America and Canada, while everyone else returned to Japan, Naito stayed back and spent some time in CMLL to try to rebuild his character. It’d be a decision that would drastically change his future.

It wasn’t his first time in Mexico. Back in 2009 Naito travelled to North America and Mexico on excursion, something many young NJPW wrestlers partake on to help define their skills and characters. It was during this first stint that he developed his signature eye taunt, bred out of the racist cries of an audience who told him to ‘open his eyes’. But it was this second excursion that would come to define him, where he paired up with La Sombra (now Andrade Cien Almas in WWE/NXT) and the stable he helped create: Los Ingobernables (which translates to The Ungovernables).

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Returning to Japan in June of 2015, Naito brought with him the same attitude he developed back in Mexico. Where as once he came out to entertain the crowd and put on a show, now he went out of his way to aggravate them. He wrestled to win and to infuriate. He would take forever to start a match, wrestle tag matches without taking his shirt off, attack referees and commentators, and utilise classic heel tactics such as spitting at his opponents and breaking the rules in order to win. He wasn’t alone either. The Los Ingobernables De Japon was born in October, with Naito allying himself with the Junior Heavyweight Bushi and the returning Takaaki Watanbe, now known as Evil. And at Invasion Attack, a fourth member arrived in a promising young star: Sanada.

While fans had quickly tired of the ‘Stardust Genius’, it didn’t take long for them to warm up to the Los Ingobernables brand. By the time Wrestle Kingdom 10 rolled around – two years after he was booted from the main event – he was getting one of the best reactions of the night, despite the fact he was well and truly playing the heel.

Now? You’re hard pressed to look anywhere at a New Japan crowd and not see Los Ingobernables merchandise. Whether it’s shirts, masks or banners, Naito’s merry band of misfits are represented everywhere. It’s telling that in a year where live attendance has dropped a bit that New Japan have recorded their most profitable year ever, thanks in part to an increase in merchandise sales. Wherever the company travels, there is Los Ingobernables merchandise in the crowd, and a palpable sense of anticipation whenever his music hits. As his entrance music plays, chants of “Na-i-to! Na-i-to!” welcome him as he struts out.

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It’s not just the fans who he’s won over, but the company as well. At Invasion Attack, with the majority of the crowd on his side, Naito defeated Kazuchika Okada to win his first IWGP Heavyweight Title, joining just Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kazuchika Okada and AJ Styles as the four guys to have held that championship in the past five years. It wasn’t a lengthy title reign, but he then went on to become the first person to ever complete a sweep of the New Japan top honours when he beat Michael Elgin at ‘Destruction in Kobe’ to win the Intercontinental Title. Nobody else has ever been crowned a New Japan Cup winner, A G1 Climax winner, NEVER Openweight, Intercontinental and IWGP Heavyweight champion. Only Naito holds that honour.

It has been how he’s handled being champion that perhaps best represented his character. Upon completing a life long goal and becoming IWGP champion he didn’t drop to his knees crying and clutching the title like Shawn Michaels did at Wrestlemania 12, but instead proceeded to chuck it twelve feet in the air, letting the prestigious title crash to the ground as he left the ring, leaving the title where it fell. It was about being the man people wanted to beat, not being the champion.

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“Tranquilo”. Relax. Naito doesn’t care about being champion, but the championship seemingly finds its way to him. The title wants to be around his waist, stuck in an abusive relationship with the Ungovernable One. He doesn’t care if people hate him for disrespecting the title and what it means, if they don’t like it they can come and try to take it from him.

And why should he care? He tried being the good guy and the fans rejected him. They denied him his spot in the main event. Now, without even trying to pander to them, they love him. In a country like Japan where respect and customs are paramount, Tetsuya Naito represents a different facet, a different rebellious attitude that is appealing to a generation yearning for respite against a culture steadfast in respect. It’s an appeal us Western Audiences might not be able to fully appreciate. It wouldn’t be crazy to compare Naito’s current character to how Stone Cold Steve Austin first came into prominence. He too represented an anti-establishment persona that went against the grain. And like with Austin, the fans are eating it up.

Tetsuya Naito ticks a lot of the boxes you’re looking for when it comes to a heel character. He generates and creates conflict just by being there. He’s doing the ‘wrong’ thing, but his reasons for doing so are somewhat justified. He has a point that can sway the audience, until they look too far into it and realise how he’s twisted the circumstances in his mind. He’ll cheat to win and use his buddies to help him out of a tight spot. He disrespects commentators, announcers and referees, and literally spits in the face of his opponents.

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The fans have chosen to follow Naito’s new path organically, and full credit to Naito and NJPW booker Gedo – they hasn’t compromised the character in an effort to pander to this newfound popularity. He’s still a bad guy, but if the fans choose to cheer him, then so be it. The face/heel dynamic over there has never been as black and white as it has in the West, and this allows someone like Naito to remain a heel, but keep fans buying the Los Ingobernables merchandise in droves.

Now, Naito is poised for the co-main event at Wrestle Kingdom 11, where he’ll defend his intercontinental title against the legendary Hiroshi Tanahashi while Kenny Omega challenges for Okada’s IWGP Heavyweight Title. It’s merely a matter of when and not if Naito will regain the IWGP Heavyweight Title, and more importantly, he’s provided New Japan Pro Wrestling with someone they can market a show around – selling out Power Struggle with weeks to spare against Jay Lethal, who while talented is far from a big name over there. This year should have been a rough one for the company when they lost Styles and Nakamura (as well as Gallows and Anderson), which cut a massive hole in their main event scene. But the company looks as strong as ever.

Tetsuya Naito has proven he belongs at the top of the pile. He became one of the most over guys in the company and built a heel faction that rivals the infamous Bullet Club. But he’s also proven that the cream will rise to the top if given the chance. He could have easily gotten lost in the pack after fans got bored with him, but he changed it up and exploded back into prominence in a big way. It’s easy to forget that he’s only been the Ingobernable Tetsuya Naito in New Japan for about a year and a half. It’s still a young stable, but one that is only going to continue to rise in value as Naito continues to hone his craft and do his thing. He’ll be IWGP Heavyweight Champion again. He doesn’t have to chase it, it’ll find its way back to him. And the crowd will love every second of it.

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