Tetsuya Naito makes his War of the Worlds entrance on Wednesday (Mark Whited)

The State Of New Japan

As WWE stocks up on puroresu stars, NJPW has begun to figure out its new place in the wrestling world.

It was news that shook the wrestling world: just after New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Wrestle Kingdom 10, NJPW’s biggest show of the year, four major talents announced they would no longer compete in the company.

Shinsuke Nakamura, Karl Anderson, Doc Gallows, and AJ Styles dropped the bombshell that they weren’t going to renew their contracts.

Styles is now the number one contender for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, Nakamura is beginning what will be a hugely successful run in NXT, and Gallows and Anderson destroyed The Usos on last night’s episode of Raw.

And then there was the news of Kota Ibushi going freelance this February, he himself stopping by Dallas for WrestleMania weekend.

Suffice to say, a product that some Western fans had been calling stale in recent months had no choice but to adapt.

I’m not mentioning Prince Devitt’s transition from New Japan to stardom as Finn Balor because the international accessibility and subsequent surge of foreign New Japan spectators happened partly without him, and to some extent, because of his WWE signing.

Balor’s exit brought more attention to New Japan, along with AJ Styles coming in to fill his shoes as the leader of the Bullet Club.

The launching of the streaming service NJPW World and the inclusion of English commentary for Wrestle Kingdom 9 kept the perked ears listening to what the company was offering.

As time went on, it became obvious that beyond AJ Styles’ stint as IWGP Heavyweight Champion in mid 2014, the company was all about the longstanding rivalry between “Ace of the Universe” Hiroshi Tanahashi and “Rainmaker” Kazuchika Okada.

After over a decade with the company, including being the youngest IWGP Heavyweight Champion at 23 years old, but never quite getting it, Nakamura really found his ticket to superstardom with the King of Strong Style character we love.

Unfortunately it came at the expense of Okada and Tanahashi already being the main direction New Japan wanted to go. Nakamura had his occasional chances—back-to-back G1 Climax appearances rings a bell—but he fell to the two top guys each time.

And so Nakamura made the IWGP Intercontinental Championship the Nakamura belt. Where it went, the swagtastic one was sure to follow.

Similarly, Anderson and Gallows practically owned the IWGP Tag Championships since 2014. Maybe a World Tag League winning team would get their Wrestle Kingdom moment here and there, but the belts would end up back in the Bullet Club right after.

AJ Styles, Karl Anderson, and Doc Gallows have all left NJPW for WWE in recent months / Photo Credit: Wikimedia.org

AJ Styles, Karl Anderson, and Doc Gallows have all left NJPW for WWE in recent months / Photo Credit: Wikimedia.org

As much as fans wanted something new to change up how NJPW booked shows, the departures were staggering to process. Where would the Bullet Club go without its core? Who would fill the gaps? How would the company adapt?

Enter Tetsuya Naito, who throughout this entire timeline has made some significant career moves.

Back in 2013, Naito was the winner of one of the highest calibre G1 Climax tournaments in recent history, getting a shot at Okada’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship at Wrestle Kingdom 8.

The match and his contendership played second fiddle. To everything. Okada’s entrance included animatronic dinosaurs, and the main event of the show was actually the IWGP Intercontinental Championship match between Nakamura and Tanahashi.

It bears repeating: Okada had animatronic dinosaurs.

Naito is an incredibly gifted wrestler. He has always been a dynamic in-ring performer. A character that turned heads, however, was somewhat lacking, and he wallowed in a mid-card, generic babyface position.

This fact was none the more evident at Global Wars 2015, when Naito had a match against Jay Lethal as well as a Tag Team match with Tanahashi against ACH and Matt Sydal.

The tag match was an aerial wonder, but the bout against Lethal didn’t wow the Toronto audience as it could have.

After NJPW’s visit to ROH, Naito remained on the continent to work in CMLL.

The experience was much like Moses returning from Mount Sinai after an encounter with God.

It changed everything.

Naito returned from his excursion as a member of heel faction Los Ingobernables, and his new apathetic, “I’m so over everything, God, just make this stop” attitude was such a far cry from what fans were used to that it commanded attention.

He then had another fantastic run in 2015’s G1 Climax tournament. While he didn’t make it to the finals, he had some of the best matches of the tournament with the likes of Styles, Tanahashi, and others.

As the stars New Japan had relied on were leaving, Naito’s star was rising, and with the addition of EVIL (the former Takaaki Watanabe) and the returning BUSHI (a Junior Heavyweight with the same generic high-flying babyface problem), NJPW now had a believable Japanese heel faction for the first time since CHAOS was actually a heel faction.

The surge culminated in Naito’s New Japan Cup win and eventual victory over Okada at Invasion Attack, getting him his first IWGP Heavyweight Championship.

The victory also included the debut of Seiya Sanada (known stateside for a stint in TNA as Sanada) joining forces with Los Ingobernables de Japon, further strengthening the faction.

With the events at Invasion Attack, the IWGP Heavyweight title picture just got interesting, and the rest of Los Ingobernables will sprinkle some new matchups throughout future New Japan shows.

The Young Bucks remain a top draw for NJPW / Photo Credit: Wikimedia.org

The Young Bucks remain a top draw for NJPW / Photo Credit: Wikimedia.org

Beyond the top spots, the Bullet Club will still remain a force despite losing its senior members and former leader. Kenny Omega now has a stronghold on the group, and in turn, the IWGP Intercontinental Championship.

He was also co-NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Champion with the Young Bucks.

Tama Tonga has now been joined by his brother Tanga Roa (better known as Camacho back in WWE) and are the new IWGP Tag Team Champions.

In the Junior Heavyweight division, Kushida has been dominating as champion, stealing the first half of the show, where IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship matches often sit. He just had a noteworthy match with the visiting Will Ospreay and could benefit from more guest appearances of wrestlers from around the world. Time will tell whether the WWE’s Cruiserweight tournament will deplete the supply of wrestlers New Japan can bring in.

In any case, there’s still a strong partnership between New Japan and Ring of Honor which has benefitted both sides. Appearances by known western wrestlers and the continued inclusion of English play-by-play for major New Japan events is no doubt an effort to make sure international fans keep paying attention.

There’s only one word to explain the state of New Japan and what’s to come… Tranquilo.

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