When I woke up this morning to news from NJPW Power Struggle (thanks to my main man “Showtime” Sean Rueter for covering results for me, things are still a bit all over the place here in Casa de Claire while my wife recovers from surgery and [gestures vaguely at the world around her] all this is happening) of “Switchblade” Jay White winning the G1 Climax winner’s briefcase from Kota Ibushi with a feet-on-the-ropes backslide pin, the fires were stoked on something I’ve been thinking about for a while now.
New Japan Pro Wrestling has long been hailed for its dedication to long-term, coherent booking, so why does every title switch and plot development seem to hit me with a sledgehammer dose of “What is happening?!” juice these days?
Going back to EVIL briefly winning the IWGP Heavyweight and IWGP Intercontinental Championship at Dominion this year only to lose them back at Summer Struggle in Jingu, I feel like every time I think I’ve seen the signposts to figure out what the story is, we take a sharp left turn I didn’t see coming.
Back when Kazuchika Okada’s path to upending Hiroshi Tanahashi as Ace was the main event story, it always felt like the end was clearly in sight, and every speed bump and left turn along the way, from AJ Styles injecting himself into the IWGP Heavyweight Championship scene to Okada’s devastating loss at Wrestle Kingdom 9 felt like it came naturally, a result of adapting the story to fit New Japan’s schedule and booking style.
Indeed, even after that, as long as the Rainmaker was on top it felt like we had real solid direction, through his record-setting title reign and ratings scale-bursting feud with Kenny Omega, into the Chaos split and Gedo abandoning his protege in favor of the Switchblade, and then into Naito’s challenge and climactic victory on night two of Wrestle Kingdom 14.
So what happened?
Part of it, very clearly, is simply COVID-19 throwing everyone for a loop. To take four months off, lose a bunch of shows (and the scheduled title defenses and storylines that go with them), and then come back to a partial roster due to pandemic travel restrictions, the temptation to do something Very Big has got to be strong, and EVIL turning on Naito, joining Bullet Club, and winning the double titles absolutely made sense as that thing.
But then travel restrictions loosened and uh-oh, EVIL can’t be King Shit Bullet Club Heel #1 anymore if Jay White is back, so okay, sure the King of Darkness’ reign can be a fluke. It’s not even the first time that New Japan have given The Next Big Thing little a vestigial title reign at the beginning of his push, for treat, as both Naito and White have had similar reigns in recent years, so okay, if this is way we’re doing business I can buy it, no problem.
Another part of it is that modern-day New Japan booking, outside of these big sweeping stories, has always been a bit “your turn, my turn” in terms of title reigns and wins and losses. As part of a real sports “anything can happen” vibe I don’t mind it so much, but it does rather stand out more at the top of the card, y’know?
And, as part of reminding us that anything can happen, eventually somebody was going to have to lose the G1 Climax winner’s briefcase if New Japan insisted on putting it on the line every year, so sure, in that sense it absolutely makes sense to do a change.
There’s one more structural factor are work pushing us in this direction, though, and that’s the one-two punch of a two-night Wrestle Kingdom and a double champ holding both the IWGP Heavyweight and IWGP Intercontinental Championships.
That’s the big one, if you ask me.
Part of why I didn’t write this right after the EVIL switcheroo is that it felt like the story of Naito as champion was very obviously becoming one of this beleaguered man who had to fight and scrape and bet everything he had to get to the top of the mountain only to find that his perch wasn’t nearly so stable as he might have hoped. I don’t think I personally would have shown that with a title switch, but it’s a good story in keeping with the last few years of main event stories, so sure, why not?
And indeed, Kota Ibushi’s quest to dethrone Naito and become God at Wrestle Kingdom 15 fits right into that, as the fresh-faced Best in the World on top of his game with the Stardust Genius in his sights. It feels like there’s no way Naito can beat that guy but also no way that he’d ever let himself lose, and that’s the tension that great pro wrestling is made out of.
But because we have two nights, two main events, and (functionally) only one main event level title, we have to twist things up. Now, as of right now, all we know is that Jay gets a title shot and Ibushi isn’t done with him yet. Does that mean Switchblade defends the briefcase on night one and then Naito main events night two against whoever comes out of the dust? Do we cram a briefcase defense on finals night for Best of the Super Jr. / World Tag League? And critically, if we do do another briefcase defense and Kota wins it back, what was the point of zagging like this in the first place besides simply filling time?
It’ll be clear soon enough, there’s a press conference scheduled for tomorrow that I’m sure will answer these questions, but I can’t help but sit here and think how much cleaner and easier things would be if we didn’t have two main events to make.
To be totally fair, through the process of writing this, I have to admit that I’ve come around at least a little— the briefcase swap and title hotshot still feel like too much, and I wish there was some more daylight between the moving parts, but if the story here is Naito guts it out against all odds and fends off both Ibushi and White somehow (say if a briefcase match at World Tag League Finals goes to a draw and both men get Wrestle Kingdom title shots, or some other such shenanigans), that’s a pretty good story.
There you have it, folks
Are you happy with New Japan’s direction headed into Wrestle Kingdom, Cagesiders?