With the annual spectacular of NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom less than twenty four hours away, a quick glance at the typically staked card on offer for the eleventh outing of Japanese wrestling’s answer to Wrestlemania reveals that, once again, the matches for the IWGP Intercontinental and World Heavyweight Championships are hard to distinguish as the true main event of the show.
While the white-hot Kenny Omega challenging the assured brilliance of Kazuchika Okada for the latter title is the main event on paper, anyone who has watched Tetsuya Naito’s performances throughout 2016 surely can’t be so easily convinced that he and Hiroshi Tanahashi are not in with a very good chance of stealing the show as they contest the Intercontinental strap.
But just who is the arrogant and unconventional leader of the Los Ingobernables de Japon, and where did his irreverent streak of in-ring charisma come from?
Starting from the Bottom
Though he first began his training in 2000, it was in 2004 that Naito came to the attention of NJPW scouts, winning the Takeda Dojo Submission Tournament and earning the right to train at the legendary NJPW Dojo. A whole year later in 2005, he passed a public audition at the Korukean Hall, marking his graduation to the main NJPW roster, though he would not formally debut until March of 2006.
Typically of a rookie in a Japanese company, Naito waited six months for his first victory, and his initial two years saw some wins and many losses to more established names, paying his dues and slowly earning credibility and experience. But in February of 2008, he formed the team “No Limit” with fellow rookie Yujiro Takahashi, a partnership that would define his career for many years to come.
No Limit’s first year together was marked by a similar pattern of promising losses and infrequent wins, until they defeated Prince Devitt (now Finn Balor) and Minoru Tanaka for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship, though they then dropped the Alex Shelley and Chris Sabin at Wrestle Kingdom III the following January.
A Touch of Seasoning
Dispatched to TNA in 2009 for the traditional overseas tour in order to gain experience and grow as talents, No Limit’s meagre two months there ended with a humiliating defeat in a handicap match against a worn-down Kevin Nash. From there, they headed on to Mexico and a longer stint in CMLL, which laid the foundations for much of the character Naito portrays to this day.
Booked as heels and part of the “La Ola Amarilla” faction (which translates as the rather un-PC “The Yellow Wave”) alongside established Japanese veteran Shigeo Okamura, they clashed with the likes of Ultimo Guerrero, Atlantis and La Sombra. No limits remained in CMLL for six months, becoming embroiled in traditional Lucha Libre styles of feud, such as hair vs hair matches, and the influence of the unique Mexican style made a deep and lasting impression upon them.
Upon their return to Japan, No Limit won their first IWGP Tag Team Championship at Wrestle Kingdom IV in January 2010, defeating Team 3D and Bad Intentions (Giant Bernard and Carl Anderson) in a three-way hardcore match. They dropped the titles to Yugi Nagata and Watarou Inoue in May, after which Naito had a short run of strong singles matches against the likes of Togi Makabe and Hiroshi Tanahashi.
This miniature singles push and repeated defeats for No Limit into 2011 signaled the end for the team, with Tanahashi turning on Naito in May. Through the rest of that year and most of 2012, Naito came close to greatness in the G1 Climax Tournament and in title matches, but ultimately lost out to more established singles stars such as Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura.
It was only when he set his sights on the NEVER Openweight Championship in 2013 that his fortunes began to change, failing to dethrone Masato Tanaka in July, but then going on to win the G1 Climax and a contract to face the IWGP Heavyweight Champion at Wrestle Kingdom. Instantly demanding a rematch with Tanaka, Naito dangled the contract before his opponent as a sweetener, secured the match and subsequently won the title in September at the Destruction show.
Despite contesting the supposed to belt in NJPW at the number one show, luke-warm reactions to Naito and Okada’s clash lead management to hold a vote among fans to decide whether their match or Tanahashi versus Nakamura for the IWGP Intercontinental Title would headline. Naito and Okada received less than half the votes that Tanahashi and Nakamura polled, and so it was no surprise when 2014 began with Naito’s loss at Wrestle Kingdom VIII and the loss of his NEVER title to Tomohiro Ishii a month later at New Beginning.
Back to Mexico
Naito kicked his heels for the rest of 2014 and a good deal of 2015, achieving little more than losses to those making the big waves, and remained mired in the mid-card until he returned to CMLL once more in May. Teaming with La Sombra and joining his “Los Ingobernables” stable, there was no gold in the picture, but rubbing shoulders with such world-class heels as Rush, something clicked for Naito and the swaggering, arrogant character of today finally began to crystalise.
Back in NJPW, Naito formed “Los Ingobernables de Japon” and transplanted his new heel gimmick from CMLL, being joined by Evil (Takaaki Watanabe), Bushi and eventually Seiya Sanada. To begin with, the stable were engaged in fairly average feuds with the likes of Hirooki Goto and Katsuyori Shibata. But the change came in early 2016, when the attention garnered by NJPW in the West resulted in a WWE talent grab.
At a stroke, top gaijins AJ Styles, Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows were gone, soon after Prince Devitt left to become NXT’s Finn Balor. But perhaps more damaging in the long-term for NJPW, was the fact that the uniquely talented and bafflingly charismatic Shinsuke Nakamura had also followed them and signed a WWE contract.
Los Ingobernables on the Rise
With so many holes left in the main event picture, NJPW was forced to rethink its attitude to capable talent like Naito that would have been kept in mid-card positions under normal circumstances. This began in March, as Naito defeated former rival Goto to win the NJPW Cup tournament. Then, in April 2016, at Invasion Attack, with the help of his Los Ingobernables cronies, Naito finally succeeded in relieving Okada of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, enjoying a two month reign before losing it back to the Rainmaker in June.
That Naito won the title at all is testament to how far he has come, and that he won it via outside interference (far rarer in Japanese than Western wrestling) shows the willingness of NJPW management to embrace his character and style. His brief reign served as a shot in the arm to Okada, making him the wronged hero out to set things straight while the fans got to boo and hiss at Naito’s despicable actions at the same time.
From there it was on to the G1 Climax from July to August, teasing a tense clash with Kenny Omega by actually falling asleep during his speech at the press conference. Their eventual meeting had all the technical excellence and speed of Ricochet versus Will Ospreay from the Best of Super Juniors tournament earlier in the year. But this showed the quantum leap forwards which occurs when storytelling and expert selling are added to the mix, making it a match of the year contender. So when Omega won the tournament and the contract to face the IWGP Heavyweight Champion at Wrestle Kingdom XI, it was Naito who very much put the shine on it for him.
Relieving Michael Elgin of the IWGP Intercontinental strap on September 25th meant that the challenge of the flagging Hiroshi Tanahashi could be met by the hottest heel in the company, potentially loading both sides of the traditional Wrestle Kingdom battle for the status of true main event with equal chances of stealing the show.
Wrestle Kingdom XI and Beyond
The natural assumption would be to assume that Tanahashi will take the win on January 4th, using the heat of Naito’s villainy to reignite his appeal and get back on course in 2017, and it’s also arguable that such a loss would not seriously dent the reputation of a cheating heel. But if the match goes the other way, heaven alone knows what NJPW management may have in store for Naito over the course of the next twelve months.
It’s worth noting, that in December of 2016, Tokyo Sports magazine voted Naito overall MVP of Japanese wrestling for the year, taking 18 out of the 21 votes available. What’s even more striking is the fact that, since 2010, no other wrestler has come close to winning other than Tanahashi and Okada.
Naito Moments to Savor Before WKXI
Even though he drops the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in this match, you’d be hard pressed to find a better showcase of the manner in which Naito’s heat works, as well as the ease with which he is able to mix it up with a talent the likes of Okada.
Simply for the speed, skill and storytelling shown by Naito and Omega in this encounter, it truly has to be a contender for match of the year in 2016 for any promotion in any part of the world.