New Year, New Japan, New Look?

As January 4th bled into January 5th at the beginning of this year, the buzz and excitement over the excellent final three matches at WrestleKingdom 10 was gone almost as quickly as it came. After all, a bigger news story was at hand.

With the WWE signings of Shinsuke Nakamura, AJ Styles, Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows, talk quickly turned to the fantasy booking of men whose presence on an episode of Monday Night Raw, not too long ago, seemed utterly unfathomable. Years of anticipation of hoping AJ could get to the big dance close to realisation. The man many believe to be the best all-around wrestler in the entire business, Shinsuke Nakamura, is coming to our screens in something completely unprecedented. Will the Bullet Club reform? What are the chances for their success?

But for longtime fans of New Japan Pro Wrestling, a tsunami of questions flood their minds, ranging from pondering life without two of the established big four, to who could fill their spots, what it means for Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada, and if New Japan was in a position to take such a hit and continue to thrive.

In some respects, the forced destruction of the Bullet Club in its current form is a blessing. I’ve never been a big fan of the group or the concept in itself, and have maintained that almost everybody hoping and praying for the Bullet Club to loom large in WWE couldn’t have possibly watched New Japan consistently. Their existence was very quickly a blight on the product as I’ve discussed elsewhere on this site. And before people think it’s a personal disposition to not gravitate to an act consisting of the often disappointing Doc Gallows, the Under-par Underboss Bad Luck Fale, the charisma vacuum Yujiro Takahashi, the marmite tag team of the Young Bucks screaming “Suck It!” like 12 year olds, Kenny Omega who has completely fallen short of expectations over the last year, and AJ Styles and Karl Anderson at the helm, consider the fact that the numbers bear out that this act has worn out its welcome.

New Japan’s pattern of returning to Bullet Club dominance post-Wrestle Kingdom to tide things over through the course of the summer before G-1 season comes around was done one time too many last year, and for the first time in the past four years, New Japan was having trouble selling tickets in its strong markets. The Bullet Club isn’t entirely to blame. As previous articles have noted, the general booking malaise is as much at fault. But the big news on January 5th will test the theory that every problem is its own possibility.

Kenny Omega was pushed to the head of the Bullet Club and looks to get a renewed role as a primary heavyweight. While Omega is a talented athlete without question, he’s struggled to adapt to the New Japan system as well as his former partner Kota Ibushi did, and despite a strong push as the key Junior Heavyweight player, seemed to have problems finding himself. The goofy gimmick, the stupid overacting – instead of finding a presentation that enhanced the overall package, he’d found one that detracted.

But the more serious Omega that cut that hot promo on AJ Styles at New Years Dash has promise. Now is the time for him to grow into himself, develop a bit more poise and present himself like a star, instead of “playing” a pro wrestling character, which his days as The Cleaner screamed of.

But what of the rest of the crew? Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi are the top two names in the company, but no doubt the prompt exit of Nakamura and Styles left them up shit creek. Wrestle Kingdom 10 was the definitive end to their rivalry, one that many would argue was also played out, even if the match itself was breathtaking. With them not really able to work together anymore, and without the other two top guys around, it’s time to make some changes.

Okada has wrestled Hirooki Goto and Tetsuya Naito constantly in his prior title reigns, usually around this time of year, and reliving them isn’t going to project the company image that it’s a whole new world after Okada beat the Ace at the Tokyo Dome. Goto being set-up as the first challenger was surprising, particularly since it came at the expense of Naito, who has been on fire with his new “I don’t give a shit” persona, and seems to be a far better choice out of the two. Perhaps New Japan deserves some grace on that, and have higher hopes for Naito that require him to not be first in line to take the Rainmaker from the champion. Fingers crossed.

What is stunning to me is, after all this time, neither Katsuyori Shibata or Tomohiro Ishii have had a crack at the IWGP World Championship on a major show. That appalls me on general principle, and there is absolutely no excuse for this now. If the company didn’t think either man was right to be the champion, that’s one thing, and a debate in itself. But for them not to even be in the mix speaks to the problems they’ve had keeping things fresh.

As much as WWE catches flak (and rightfully so) for taking genuine talents and making them “just another guy” in record time, with Kevin Owens being a recent shining example, New Japan has been extremely guilty of the same thing with Katsuyori Shibata. After coming in alongside Kazushi Sakuraba as part of a pseudo-MMA double-act the fans didn’t really want on their wrestling show (and we’ll ignore that brief appearance from the Gracies), Shibata quickly went from despised heel to a man held in high regard for having ridiculously exciting matches with brutal exchanges galore. And yet, as time has gone on, as entertaining as he is, his potential value on top has meant less and less.

In the 2013 G-1, when Tomohiro Ishii pinned Hiroshi Tanahashi, it felt like a career maker. Unfortunately, despite a catalogue of great work, he hasn’t hit that height again. Much like Shibata, the company willingness to not progress him, but feature him in the same spot, has hurt him. When a shark stops swimming, it dies. Ishii and Shibata were and are potential sharks, and their great match at Wrestle Kingdom showed that not all hope is lost. The fact it was over the NEVER Championship illustrates the problem perfectly. But the time to fix it is now. Not one year, now.

The smart money says that Hiroshi Tanahashi is going to gravitate towards the IWGP Intercontinental Title and follow the same path as Nakamura did – maintaining the IC Championship as a main event belt. It’s a good move, although it does continue to anchor the promotion around Tanahashi and Okada without truly developing new blood, and the constant talk of Tanahashi’s injuries put into question how wise it is to burden him further with high-pressure situations, but as a stop-gap to develop the right man to take it off him, it’s the best case scenario. Whoever beats Tanahashi for the belt has instant credibility. If he totally assumes the Shinsuke position and gets it back from everybody that beats him for it, that’s another issue. Ishii and Shibata working with Okada and Tanahashi has to be a main direction.

This isn’t even taking into account the possibilities with Tomoaki Honma, or what could be done with Yohei Komatsu and Sho Tanaka, who are too good to be wasting away in prelims.

But it’s a new year, and a new look New Japan. By force, not by design. But this will go one of two ways – they will stick with the status quo and do their best to maintain the strength of their big three acts (Okada, Tanahashi, and the brand name of the Bullet Club), feeding everybody else in and out as they have for much of the past three years. Or they will use this as the perfect opportunity to deal with the problems of 2014 and 2015. Stale top talent is a tale as old as the wrestling business itself. One of the many benefits of professional wrestling is that it has a lifespan that will never relinquish itself – the revolving door can always be moving. But sometimes, things going well makes the bookers do their hardest to make time stand still in an effort to keep that moment lasting forever. New Japan have proven as guilty as any of their predecessors in that regard.

2016 is their chance to prove how much better they really are.

Words by Liam O’Rourke