Tetsuya Naito: The Essence Of Cool

This article original appeared in issue #18 of SteelChair Magazine:
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As Tetsuya Naito executed the Destino on Kenny Omega on August 13th, capturing the three count to signify winning one of the best tournaments in wrestling history, G-1 Climax 27, it was impossible for the mind not to race back to four years earlier.

On August 11th, 2013, Tetsuya Naito beat Hiroshi Tanahashi in the final of G-1 Climax 23. The win, designed to launch Naito as the new babyface superstar of New Japan coming off major knee surgery, propelled him towards a showdown with IWGP World Champion Kazuchika Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 8. But as the show grew close, a twinge of resentment was bubbling underneath the surface with the passionate New Japan fanbase. Naito was too happy go lucky. He lacked edge. He didn’t look like a top guy. Simply put, Tetsuya Naito wasn’t cool. Despite being put over huge in the G-1 that year, people weren’t buying what the promotion was selling. In a public vote to determine what match should go on last in the Tokyo Dome, the World Championship match with Naito and Okada or the IWGP Intercontinental Title match with Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi, the fans spoke, and the IC Title was the main event.

From that point, you would always hear the boos for Tetsuya Naito. As his fast-paced classic babyface style played out between the ropes, it was met with resistance outside of it. The experiment was chalked up as a failure. In a company littered with incredible talent like Tomohiro Ishii, Katsuyori Shibata, Tomoaki Honma, Shinsuke Nakamura and Prince Devitt, all of whom had the people on side, the New Japan office’s vanilla choice just wouldn’t do.

So here we are in 2017, and Naito has to have more than an inkling of deja vu. He lifts the G-1 Climax trophy again, and prepares to go into Wrestle Kingdom 12 to wrestle Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP World Title in the Tokyo Dome once more.

Only this time, he’s the most popular wrestler in the company, and there is no question what the main event will be. What changed is an incredible lesson that every booker, owner, writer, creative team member, agent, producer, whatever, should take heed of.

For years, wrestling in North America has missed the boat on the ability to create genuine top babyfaces. Refusing to acknowledge the need for an organic connection between the people and the star that needs to sell tickets, WWE backed John Cena and now Roman Reigns all the way, using them to reach out to the masses while the discontent of the audience served as inconvenient background noise.

They’ve tried every trick. They attempted to manipulate. They played games. Every time, not only did it fall short, it actually seemed to make things worse. Eventually the WWE gave up, just pretending it doesn’t matter what the live crowds do, as ratings continued to fall, pay-per-view buys would dwindle, and Network subscription growth came to a screeching halt. They sell a lot of t-shirts to one segment of the crowd, and the product has enough die-hard fans to keep things ticking, so why tamper with it if that’s good enough?

Naito is the reason why. After failing as a top babyface, Tetsuya struggled to find the missing piece of the puzzle but was vigilant in his search. After a tour with CMLL in the middle of 2015, the light bulb went off. Becoming a new man, the G-1 Climax 25 saw the disinterested, unengaging, reserved Naito whip up a veritable frenzy of genuine heat. In a world where fighting spirit is king, where it means so much to the wrestlers to risk life and limb like nowhere else in the world, the man who doesn’t give a single fuck becomes the scourge of the planet. All of a sudden, by being something that nobody had seen before in New Japan, he had them in the palm of his hand.

Over time, Naito became the leader of Los Ingobernables De Japon, leading his own crew of unruly outlaws. His distinctive antics, anti-company attitude and declaration of loyalty to his own followers turned the biggest whitewash into a true rebel, capturing the essence of cool he’d lacked before.

The merchandise began flying off the shelves, quickly outselling the Bullet Club domestically. Reactions were still split, but getting noticeably louder. After listening to the people and finding a new way to dictate the story to them in line with what they wanted, they started to come around. Within a few short months, it was very clear that Tetsuya Naito was viable once more.

His popularity soon exploded, justifying the IWGP World Heavyweight Title win he was earmarked for years prior in 2016. In victory, Naito simply tossed the championship in the air, thoughtlessly disrespecting the belt he’d once longed to hold. The reign, a short-term stopgap to help with the departures of AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura, was a success, prompting the office to take note of the interest and momentum behind the dapper superstar. The boos were dissipating. Nobody could deny the magic. Everybody jumped on the bandwagon.

And so, here we are. By taking the road less travelled, the one that steps outside the comfort zone and time-tested formulas of years past, Tetsuya Naito is finally where he was supposed to be four years ago. On the road to Wrestle Kingdom, finally ready to ascend to his throne as the new top star of the company. All thanks to an organic connection with the audience.

It really does hit home what a sad the state of affairs it is with WWE to see things play out. Anybody with any measure of intelligence or ability to read the landscape of professional wrestling for the last twenty years knows the real “cycle” of the business.

A character catches on, gets some momentum based on having some merit, and gets pushed as a babyface. At a certain point, the fans resist, and don’t get with it any longer. So the character turns heel, shoving it back in the face of the audience. Eventually, if they’re talented, they’ll be so good as a heel that the people will be dying to cheer them. They go back babyface and have a great run. Eventually, it happens all over again.

It’s not a mystery. It’s rare when one character truly sticks for the long-term because everything has a shelf-life. Wrestling moved so fast between 1996 and 2001, and now, with company’s clutching to anything that works in any respect, it’s slowed to a crawl. Hogan got cold after six years on top in the eighties. Austin cooled off by turning heel before the people were ready. The Rock was a supernova and went back and forth on a dime, based on the ebb and flow of the people.

Wrestling is a fascinating game in WWE, the people in charge desperately dancing between a desire to succeed and an egotistical need to prove they know better than the audience. Had Roman Reigns turned heel when he was first rejected, odds are he’d be entering WrestleMania 34 as an enormous babyface, just as McMahon wants. Who knows what the fate of WWE would have been had John Cena taken this step if the boos were acknowledged back when they were born from real emotion in 2005, rather than a novel part of the show to sing along with in 2017.

Pro wrestling does best when the top stars are legitimately cool in the zeitgeist of their time. John Cena, good as he’s been, was never cool to a casual fan. Roman Reigns isn’t close, but could be with a different presentation. For over a decade, wrestling fans have clamored for their reactions to actually mean something. Funnily enough, after telling fans their opinions don’t matter, it’s finally blowing up in WWE’s faces, as the passionate crowd members just do whatever they want to have fun. Since the booking pays them no interest, they’re just returning the favour.

Whether it be New Japan booker Gedo or Naito himself, they figured it out. They tell the story, but it’s the will of the people that dictates success or failure. Regardless of WWE’s rigid mentality to the contrary, it’s an undeniable truth. As New Japan Pro Wrestling grows throughout the world, looking to increase its presence in the States, it enters 2018 led by the personification of properly booked pro wrestling, Tetsuya Naito.

Photos © NJPW