Word on the street since Wrestle Kingdom 11, is that Kazuchika Okada might damn well be immortal. Since he beat Tetsuya Naito for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship back in June 2016 at King of Pro Wrestling, Okada has defended his belt against Naomichi Marifuji, Kenny Omega, Minoru Suzuki, Katsuyori Shibata, Bad Luck Fale, CODY, EVIL, Naito again, SANADA & Zack Sabre Jr. On Friday, at Wrestling Dontaku, he takes on Hiroshi Tanahashi, The Ace of New Japan, again. If Okada beats Tanahashi there, he won’t just have the longest reign with that big hunk o’gold but have surpassed Tana for the most title defences of it in one run. Speculating that Okada retains, we have to look to the future and think, who could actually take New Japan’s shiniest prize away from the Rainmaker?
The most obvious answers are the faction captains. While it’s unlikely that Ryusuke Taguchi makes a random move to the Heavyweight division and Naito now has the Intercontinental Championship and failed in his shot at Wrestle Kingdom 11 but even though they didn’t walk away with the title in their respective shots, we still have to consider the two of the three men Okada couldn’t beat at last year’s G1 Climax, Kenny Omega and Minoru Suzuki. Omega and Suzuki are both currently title-free and have never held the big one, which adds a certain level of prestige to the fights but also both have built up enough enemies (in Omega’s case, within his own faction) that there would be plenty of options for where to take the title after. In a way, the problem with these two is they are quite the most obvious answers and you get the feeling, they’ve built this up for so long they want the answer to matter, it’s clear whoever they pick is going to be a made man and these two have firmly already been made.
Which moves us on to the trouble-starters, the men who can’t really be defined under the normal power structure, the ones who could take the title right now and make it clear this was all some grand plan: Tama Tonga, ‘Switchblade’ Jay White, & Kota Ibushi. Tonga, while more frequently a tag than a singles performer, is still in the consideration for Captain of Bullet Club as the leader of the insular OGBC stable and what better way to cement that than destroying the man at the top of the ladder? It also works that he has the Gun Stun cutter and Dream Catcher twister finishing manoeuvres which allows him to match Okada’s Rainmaker ripcord lariat and Cobra Clutch. He’s not the most likely suspect with a weak singles record in NJPW but that was never a reason to count anyone out.
Jay White has made his intentions at taking Okada’s title very clear ever since his press conference to join CHAOS and he’s been right about everything since. He struck the first blow that shattered the Bullet Club and since he’s been in CHAOS, the previously beloved group of babyfaces have been showing more signs of corruption and poison in their heart, plus Okada took on Will Ospreay, his stablemate, at the 45th Anniversary show so it’s not beyond belief that Okada could accept a challenge from one of his own plus White is really coming into his own with his recent US Title defence against David Finlay showing how good he can be. The one major thing that stands in his way currently, a problem that affects Tama Tonga as well, is that he is currently still IWGP United States Champion and NJPW isn’t very fond of one person holding multiple belts simultaneously but just because it hasn’t happened before, doesn’t mean it never will…
Now, Ibushi earns a special place on this list as he has already competed against Okada over this title reign but under the guise of Tiger Mask W. Despite having his eyesight mildly obscured by a clumsy, giant Tiger Mask mask, they still delivered a barnstormer and there’s no reason to believe they couldn’t again, especially as Ibushi has always been good but since last year’s G1, Ibushi has barely put a foot wrong. Ibushi and Okada work similar styles, Ibushi has the Golden Star Powerbomb, Okada has the Tombstone, Ibushi has the Kamigoye wrist-trap knee, Okada has the Rainmaker, both men love dropkicks and making things fall from the ceiling, just in Okada’s case it’s money and in Ibushi’s, it’s himself in the form of a moonsault. Ibushi winning the title has the added plus that it puts Kenny Omega into the picture for the title more naturally again. I’m reticent to turn this into a fan-booking article but imagine a secretly jealous, bitter Omega challenging his tag partner for the title he could never win after he beat the man Omega never could when it matters. It writes itself, so well in fact, that I’m not going to and simply leave this here for you to mull over.
Of course, there are always the outside bets, the men who could benefit most from a big win. I would have included Katsuyura Kitamura on this list but in that he’s still not recovered from his injuries (and quite worryingly, might never), so it is with a tinge of sadness I don’t list him here. So who are the three outside bets that I think could feasibly take Okada’s title? For your consideration, I present Tomohiro Ishii, Juice Robinson & Daisuke Sekimoto. Ishii is easily among the best wrestlers never to have held a major world title (unless you count his current Revolution Pro Heavyweight Championship) but also he’s one of the two men who’ve always been circling main eventer status in CHAOS, along with Hirooki Goto, but never quite got there because they’ve not had the chance to challenge Okada. Despite having wins over Okada in two G1 Climaxes, quite frankly, I’m not going to even humour the notion of Goto winning it. If you think Goto is going to win the Heavyweight Championship, you’re high. Ishii, however, is constantly nearly there and despite his stone pitbull stature, he’s still an underdog and who better to take down Goliath than a David? On a personal note, if they could do this and then give me Ishii vs Suzuki for the belt, I would die happy.
Having mentioned underdogs, Juice Robinson. The current boy’s boy, Juice has been working on another level to pretty much any other foreign performer in New Japan, especially when it comes to impassioned performances and frequently flawless promo work yet he’s still not won a title, ever, anywhere. You might think this puts him at a disadvantage but even though Okada is a four-time Heavyweight champ, that is the only belt he has ever held. With his current run with Tanahashi, Okada has shown he can play cocky heel as well as anyone and who better to make a complete bastard out of him than the ultimate sympathy machine Juice? I can also see them stringing a fun sequence out of reversing Rainmakers into Pulp Friction unprettiers. The big question surrounding all three men in the outside bet section is are they big enough stars outside of the Japanese fanbase to really be the main representative of the company? The good news on that matter is that with Tetsuya Naito holding the IC title, in many ways the joint main title of the company, they can rely on him for mainstream star power but also, some stories are too good not to hope they could happen.
Even more so than Juice Robinson, Daisuke Sekimoto is a true outside bet because there’s half a chance if New Japan is the only non-Western wrestling you watch, you haven’t heard of him. Sekimoto is at only 37, already something of a legend having held titles in Big Japan, All Japan, Zero1, DDT Pro and wXw but also, for the first time in six years, he’s set to compete in a New Japan ring as he takes on Shota Umino at Lion’s Gate Project 12 on May 15. It’s quite possible that this is just an occasional appearance from another rostered performer as Sekimoto is still signed to Big Japan, like how Marifuji appeared in the 2016 G1 despite still being more notably a member of the Pro Wrestling Noah roster but that doesn’t mean Sekimoto should be discounted as probably the best Japanese pro not to have ever been in the IWGP Heavyweight picture. With more and more of the outside talent of New Japan getting poached by the WWE, perhaps the best thing for them to be doing is looking for more national talent to bolster their ranks. Sure, it seems unlikely that, much in the same way as the possible lockout for Ishii, his position as not a home-grown company talent will work against him but in that this article is purely hypothetical, I can say whatever I want and this is what I want to say. All this and Sekimoto has the best Burning Hammer since Kobashi himself so believe me when I say, these two would put on a clash for the ages.
Ultimately, even with all this conjecture, with the way they’ve built Okada, I’d expect even if it’s none of the men on this list that whoever gets this particular honour, will probably be the right person to take it. If there’s one thing that’s clear, it’s that there’s a plan in place and I have little doubt that whatever choice they go with, it’s going to be spectacular. Do you agree with me? Do you have your own ideas as to who it will be? Head to @NotJoeRaczka & @SteelChairMag and let me know…