When our editor suggested the story, “What do New Japan do now?” I was tempted to follow the path of an esteemed colleague, Ted Macauley at Motor Cycle News, who wrote about Mike Hailwood’s Return to the Isle of Man TT in 1978. Facing a headline of “Hailwood signs for the TT!” his copy read “And he will win.”. You see Mike The Bike was the most talented motorcycle racer of his generation and 11 years after leaving bike racing to become a racing car driver, winning a George Cross for his heroic efforts in saving other drivers at Monza no less, he fancied another crack at his spiritual home, on an untested Ducati, having had to relearn how to ride after smashing his leg in a racing car accident. The writer still had that level of belief.
So my initial thought to my headline was “Exactly what they have planned.” Not as snappy I’ll grant you. Unlike my predecessor though, like a good GCSE Maths student that I am, I shall show my working out.
While Gedo has nothing in common with Mike Hailwood, as a booker he relies on God-given talent to write extensive, well planned long-term storylines. As Dave Meltzer noted recently he is looking two years down the road at everyone in the company. The company’s growth has been in part to star power, but Gedo’s ability to think ahead is the company’s greatest asset. New Japan is resetting for sure but none of what has happened in the last month will come as much of a shock to Bullet Club’s new svengali.
Remember, we’ve been talking about Kenny Omega jumping to pastures new for two years. When you see what has gone on with All Elite Wrestling it’s as if all of this happened within the last six weeks but the plans for the Elite’s departure most surely were set in motion from the time they thought about All In. In the end, it was a clean break, everyone associated with The Elite, except noticeably Chase Owens & Yujiro Takahashi who we now know is staying put, did clean jobs at Wrestle Kingdom or New Year’s Dash. KUSHIDA, not an Elite member but seems likely to sign for WWE and shaky about his future with NJPW since November, also lost clean twice in two days. All the titles changed hands. It was a stellar event with its biggest crowd in years, but it made a statement, once again everything changes.
Kenny Omega losing the title wasn’t a shock, but the delivery and narrative of the match with Hiroshi Tanahashi was different. It was presented as a battle of philosophy, the student of the Strong Style game who wants to bring Pure New Japan to the masses against the aerial genius who sites Manami Toyota as an influence just as much as he swoons about Tatsumi Fujinami. Omega’s wider influences led to a more entertainment based approach which didn’t always sit well with the New Japan faithful, with the Ace back in Championship position it is an opportunity to reset what the IWGP title means and what it can mean to the companies ever-growing audience.
The number one contender grew out of another beat down by Bullet Club’s newly acclaimed leader Jay White, a young man with a ton of upside. Rolling into Wrestle Kingdom, he had developed his manipulative knife-obsessed character to a T. The story emerged through commentary that Jay had been recruited by Prince Devitt and groomed by Bad Luck Fale to be the heir apparent when the time came, they just had to clear out the dead wood. While it is a storyline, it is a commentary on how NJPW feel about The Elite; useful, but their purpose has been served. In Jay White they have a homegrown talent who has been through the system and I believe will get a host of new followers as the company swings through the Southeastern United States.
The tag division will surely miss the Young Bucks just as the Junior division did when they moved up to Heavyweight, however not by much. The first feud for the new champs Sanada and Evil is Suzuki Gun’s Minoru Suzuki and Zack Sabre Jr, already having a run with the RevPro Tag titles, a tried and tested team. When they are done with them there are Guerillas of Destiny, Best Friends, Killer Elite Squad and even Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi. Tana has been vocal about taking this team further. The tag division is as healthy as it has been in over a decade.
KUSHIDA leaving the juniors division is also not an issue. Taiji Ishimori had an exceptional 2018 even if he did get shipped off to Impact halfway through the year. Hiromu Takahashi awaits his return, Desperado has grown in his role and was ready to take a swing at Takahashi when he was champ, his parting words for Hiromu’s recovery were “I’ll wait for you.”. There are plenty of issues to go around and always the chance to crown a new star in June with Best of Super Juniors.
Tetsuya Naito continues to build as IWGP Intercontinental Champion also facing Suzuki Gun competition from the slimeball Taichi, he has been New Japan’s man most likely for a while now and surely must get back to the top spot sooner rather than later. He will undoubtedly have an interesting G1, because that is where all eyes point too; who will be the next star to be made in the summer’s crucible of projection?
Juice Robinson is another nailed on winner of the Elite departure, a white meat babyface gaijin who has chosen NJPW despite interest from WWE. Given the opportunity within his limited role, he has shone. Now given more opportunity he should really stretch his legs. Will Ospreay is another changing of the guard when it comes to the NEVER Openweight title. This will reboot the title once again, long the home of grinders and smash mouth brawlers, it now has a more aerial bent, and the initial challengers to the title can come from either the crowded Jr Division or the oversaturated heavyweight division.
One of the biggest stories coming out of 2018 was that Madison Square Garden the symbolic home of the WWE in New York its home territory would play host to an ROH/NJPW Supercard during Wrestlemania Weekend. It was an audacious move and was initially blocked by the WWE, but even they realised they had new neighbours to contend with. They knew that since the day they tapped up Gallows, Anderson, Styles and Nakamura to come to what they perceive to be the big dance. How New Japan builds up to this event is vital and some have claimed the loss of The Elite will hurt them in this most daunting of all buildings, but I’d argue that they’ve had too much faith in the Elite’s drawing power.
Fans watch New Japan for the whole package, from Yano spitting water to, well, Lance Hoyt spitting water. The opportunity to see Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada make their MSG debuts will be draw enough, the quality, however, can not disappoint. New Japan, for now, has chosen to stick with ROH for the foreseeable future when it comes to working partners, and ROH has probably had more to deal with when losing The Elite as they’ve also lost SCU. Eight of their star names in one go is a big ask to fill, but they’ve started up new factions, built around the existing stars they have and it is now time to push the younger talent just as New Japan will be doing. What is noticeable however is how ROH was more or less missed out of the Wrestle Kingdom publicity for the MSG event. While it is probably just the brand focusing on its Japanese market to a casual observer it may seem odd. The future collaborations of the company may well involve AEW eventually but for now, they are leaving them well alone and I truly don’t blame them. They need distance to create their own narrative, it also gives AEW time to grow and be more useful partners down the line.
The difference between New Japan and the WWE are more than just about superficial presentation, it is about an entire philosophy of wrestling. Vince McMahon is constantly chasing the mainstream crossover moment instead of letting it come to him. While New Japan goes out to claim mainstream territory of its own. It has an agenda as a company it wants to set. The next stage of the wrestling chess game that has been laid out between promoters over the last 150 years is a now played on a worldwide board. It has been brewing since the early nineties when WWE started working with All Japan and indirectly New Japan, thirty years later this could make the Monday Night Wars seem like a storm in a teacup and I like Gedo’s chances.
By the way, Hailwood won.