NJPW: Replacing The Elite

Contracts are due, questions are asked but we don’t know what will really happen for a few months. The contracts in question are of course those belonging to Bullet Club Elite members: Kenny Omega, Cody, The Young Bucks, Marty Scurll and Omega’s Golden Lovers partner Kota Ibushi. This group of men have held the industry in the palm of their hands for the last twelve months from Wrestle Kingdom to Dominion and on to All In. They have become the vital players on the world stage outside of WWE. Giving platforms to get new talent over and making themselves a ton of cash in the process. The question everyone asks is what’s next? However, there is another question to ask – what happens to New Japan when and if they go? While they are by no means ubiquitous to the New Japan aesthetic, they would open up a lot of spots with which to elevate those less likely to have the same impact right now.

The issue isn’t so much replacing Kenny Omega exactly. The Best Bout Machine is a unique talent, but New Japan has plenty of main eventers: The other three of the Big Four – Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Tetsuya Naito and of course, Minoru Suzuki, any one of them could guarantee the draw and match quality that Omega produces. What they need is a breakout Gaijin Heavyweight star who can deliver and involve the crowd like Omega has these last three years.

Gedo has taken more than a personal interest in Switchblade Jay White, becoming his road manager and turning him against their former CHAOS stable and at King of Pro Wrestling, the long-term plan came to fruition. White fought Hiroshi Tanahashi for the right to face Kenny Omega at Wrestle Kingdom, Tanahashi took the win but also took one hell of a beating in the process. White looked and felt more like a star throughout this match than at any other time this year. Post-match, White and Gedo attacked Tanahashi with unbelievably Kazuchika Okada coming to make the save. Jado came down to calm things down, but it was The Bullet Club OGs who made their presence felt, laying out Okada. Gedo and Jado, in a previous life known as the World Class Tag Team delivered Switchblade to the OGs on a plate.

This development as the Ace of Firing Squad settles his long-term future and gives him momentum the same way it did for Prince Devitt five years ago. White is a long-term project, the biggest knock on him was that he didn’t look the part, now with Gedo in tow he has a swagger that makes him look like a star he needs to be. He has been fast-tracked to the top, which as Roman Reigns and John Cena will tell you isn’t the smoothest of roads, but having done it as a truly despicable heel he is taking advantage in the right way. His rise also echoes that of Kazuchika Okada; coming back from excursion he too was pushed into the main event. Gedo is hoping lightning strikes twice and while this has been a long way round to it, White has every chance of succeeding.

Juice Robinson has been given the entertainer role that Omega excels at lower down the card and the office is taking a slow and steady approach with him hoping for a big pay off. He produces pops but the telling work is in the effort he puts into looking weak. His G1 centred around his broken hand, a storytelling device used to explain his losses which Juice used to perfection. Gedo is perhaps the most knowledgeable booker in wrestling history and he knows what Giant Baba did with Kenta Kobashi. He lost long and often until the crowd poured down their empathy on him and he used that emotion to get serious and build himself into an unstoppable force of nature. When Juice gets the edge he is primed for a top spot.

Zack Sabre Jr, the crown prince of Suzuki Gun is well on his way to a permanent main event slot. Having taken wins against a lot of major players this year, his New Japan Cup performance was flawless. Capable, respected and with the ability to produce a safe and thrilling match out of anyone he can be a utility player for many years to come.

Hangman Page is also looking towards the horizon. Not on every tour due to his ROH commitments, his improvement has been palpable. He learns in every match he has and looks like a star in the process. Saddled with a gimmick that even he admits doesn’t fit his character anymore, It has taken him a while to get comfortable in his own skin, but now he has all the tools if he can be given a more pointed sense of direction. While The Elite has chosen to stick together and that may affect his time in the company if he stays put he has every chance of a major run in the company.

I would be remiss if I didn’t put Tama Tonga on this list. I would also be terrified that he would hunt me down if I didn’t. A more-than-capable wrestler, his character work is outstanding, he truly believes he has been screwed over by The Elite, and in the reality of New Japan, his character truly has. If they do leave the company, Tama is the best placed of all of the above to take advantage. “See I told you, they’d leave us in the lurch when a better offer came along.” You can write that promo in your head and swing Firing Squad straight through the roof in the process. Righteous justification would be all that mattered, and without ever having had a five-star match the Guerillas of Destiny would prove to all those Marks they were right. He has proven to be the natural heir to Karl Anderson as the enforcer of the OGs, and while he may find his role in the shadow of a Switchblade, it’s a lot better place for him than where he was last year.

Tama and Tonga Loa took the tag titles from The Young Bucks at Fighting Spirit Unleashed and still look like a badass tag team as they did two years ago when Anderson & Gallows left the building handing the keys to the castle to their young proteges. While The Bucks would be missed creatively, the tag division has been moribund in New Japan for a while. A sticking plaster run by TenKozy last year didn’t do an awful lot to excite things and a quagmire of Triple Threat matches last summer did not aid the division. Killer Elite Squad, Best Friends, Page & Chase Owens, well Chase Owens and anyone his work in tag wrestling this year has been off the hook, Evil & SANADA, they don’t lack for good teams what they lack is storytelling people can get behind. Losing the Bucks may cost them their draw in their expansion to the US to some extent, but it won’t hurt them in the long term domestically. Sometimes people are irreplaceable. Roppongi3K have already taken the Bucks offensive mantle in the Junior Division and as they are still growing it’s not insane to think that Sho and Yo could move up to Heavyweight to fill that gap if needs be.

Marty Scurll’s position as Junior Ace of Bullet Club was under threat from the very moment Tama Tonga recruited Taiji Ishimori. The Bone Soldier has a lot of upsides and hasn’t really got started yet in the Junior Division. Hiromu Takahashi’s return will give a much better view of the lay of the land in the Juniors, but they are not lacking for draws or talent. Will Ospreay continues to be committed to the company and while he is likely to drop a clanger on social media now and then, he is still an astounding talent appeals to the Western audience.

Back in the day, the territory system had some clear advantages. Every year or so, a wrestler would get a better offer, and move on. While you had your long-term mainstays, nothing got to stale. Three years ago, Karl Anderson, Doc Gallows, Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles left New Japan on the same day. It took a few months to square up the books, but look who got made since then: Omega, Naito, Ibushi, Sabre, White, Robinson, Suzuki and his Gun came back, hell, even Chuck Taylor has an NJPW main event to add to his resumé. All main event capable and the company has gone on to bigger and better shows worldwide. The Elite may be hard to replace, but they are not irreplaceable. It just makes New Japan evolve. Strong Style Evolved, if you will.