Inside Pulse 12

Metalhead’s Riff: What’s Next For NJPW?

What a start of the year it has been for NJPW. After the critically acclaimed Wrestle Kingdom 10, it seemed all was firmly in place for yet another successful year, and then, only 24 hours later, the bombshell news came. Shinsuke Nakamura, AJ Styles, Karl Anderson and DOC Gallows were all, reportedly, leaving fo WWE. Add to that the insistent rumors about Rocky Romero, one half of the former IWGP Jr heavyweight Tag team Champions Roppongi Vice, also being on his way to NXT (as trainer apparently) and that WWE is also interested in Bad Luck Fale and Tama Tonga and you can easily see why the NJPW office would be in uproar. Now enough will be written about the impact the signing of Nakamura, Styles and the Bullet Club members will have on NXT and/or WWE in the coming weeks (if it indeed happens of course), but I thought it best to take a step back from the WWE point of view for a little while and take a look at how this will affect NJPW. In other words let’s take an in-depth look at NJPW’s roster and how this will affect the various divisions, what could be in store for said divisions and for whom this could be a major opportunity to rise up the cards.

Let’s start with the Jr Heavyweight scenes. At first sight nothing changes for the Jr Heavyweight tag team scene, expect for the probable disappearance of RPG Vice, who were only enjoying caretaker reigns and used as the team to be pinned in multi-team tag matches so that reDragon could lose the belts without actually be pinned anyway. Ironically, the fact nothing changes is part of the problem for this division. ReDragon and The Young Bucks are still dominating the scene outrageously and have been doing so for the past year-and-a -half. The appearance of tag teams like RPG Vice, as good as they were, can not disguise the fact that scene has become stale. Of course the answer might lie in the newly formed team of Matt Sydal and Ricochet, who haven’t even come close to achieve their potential as a team yet, but here the problem is Ricochet’s contract with Lucha Underground. For now, it seems they don’t seem to mind that Ricochet is having fun in NJPW but that might change once the second season of LU starts and the Prince Puma character reappears on our screens. Other than that, the promising Young Lions team of Jay White and David Finlay Jr has received some screen time recently, but they are still at least one year away from receiving a major push, that just the way the Young Lion system works. So, new teams have to be created and reDragons and The Young Bucks’ stronghold on the titles has to be broken. Time will tell how much attention Gedo and Jado are willing to give this division, otherwise 2016 will look pretty much like 2015 for the Jr Heavyweight tag teams, entertaining opening matches and not much else.

Fortunately for NJPW, their Junior Heavyweight Division is still brimming with talent. Current champion KUSHIDA already enjoyed  a test-run reign last year before receiving his big moment against Kenny Omega at Wrestle Kingdom 10. The “promotion” of Omega towards the heavyweight ranks is by no means a drama for that particular scene. On the contrary, Omega had been dominating the scene for a while now, so a new, popular champion automatically brings a breath of fresh air to the division. As for KUSHIDA’s future opponents, there is no lack of candidates there. Amusingly, some of those challengers might come out of the tag teams discussed above. Both Matt Sydal and Ricochet have battled KUSHIDA already last year, but those matches only left fans begging for more, so a repeat would be welcomed here. Both Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly have been pursuing singles glory in ROH lately and have had a quality run in last year’s Best Of Super Juniors Tournament. While reDragon ostensibly remains their priority in New Japan, this might change rather quickly and they could provide interesting challenges for KUSHIDA. Los Ingobernables’ BUSHI has recently returned and almost immediately challenged Mascara Dorada for the CMLL World Welterweight Championship (which he won). No doubt a championship match against KUSHIDA is on BUSHI’s 2016 to do list. Speaking of Mascara Dorada, it is not known at times of writing if he will stay with NJPW for another year or return to CMLL. Rather under-utilized last year, the amazing high-flyer would certainly deserve a shot at the title. If he stays of course. Baretta might also be pushed as a singles wrestler, now that RPG Vice’s run has seemingly come to an end. Taichi and El Desperado are still down in Pro Wrestling NOAH, but could eventually be recalled if the need arises. And then there are Young Lions like Komatsu who has been teasing joining Los Ingobernables lately. This might be the signal the YL is ready to graduate but he will be behind everyone else in Los Ingobernables’ pecking order. At first at least.

There is one interesting possibility here though. With Omega now an heavyweight, Bullet Club is without representative in the Light heavyweight Division. Therfore about the best NJPW could do is have KUSHIDA Time Splitters’ teammate Alex Shelley turn and become part of BC. Fans have been demanding a KUSHIDA/Shelley match ever since Kushida won his first Jr heavyweight title, that way such a match would have a logical reason for happening and the heat on Shelley would be off the charts. If I was NJPW, I wouldn’t hesitate for an instant, their matches would become instant classics and give the division the boost it needs.

The Heavyweight Tag team Division suffers from much the same problems as the jr heavyweight tag team Division. Those being a lack of regular tag team. With Anderson and Gallows leaving that leaves current champions Tomoaki Honma and Togi Makabe with just one other semi-regular tag team, veterans Tencozy (Tenzan and Kojima). Luckily for NJPW, they can always count on ROH for such situations. With Bennett and Maria now in TNA, Japanese crowds could discover a new version of the Kingdom with Taven and Adam Cole. Furthermore, The Addiction is said to be in line for another tour of Japan while The Briscoes are already there. Both of those team would be a very credible challenge to the champions. And if they really want to up the ante, they can always book a GBH vs War Machine match. That should be loads of fun. Then again all of this cannot really hide the fact New Japan Bookers have been neglecting this scene for far too long, NJPW needs 3 or 4 more regular tag teams and they need them ASAP. One possibility would be the creation of a new Bullet Club tag team. The problem is, that only works if Tama Tonga sticks around. A Tama Tonga/Bad Luck Fale team, for example, would make perfect sense considering the two are real life cousins. Tonga could also do for Fale what Anderson did for Gallows and that is covering for his weaknesses. The team would be an instant threat to the champions, certainly if they add Tonga’s adoptive father (former WWE/WCW alumni Haku/Meng) to the mix. Another option is a Tonga/Cody Hall team that would then be part of Hall’s learning process. At 6 foot eight and 270 pounds, NJPW must realize that the promising, 24 year old Hall has the kind of look WWE is very interested in. The fact that he is Scott Hall’s son will probably only heighten that interest. So, while Hall still have a lot to learn, the current situation might force NJPW’s hand and prompt them to do something with Cody sooner than anticipated. A run as part of a successful tag team is then the safest option for them.

The NEVER scene has been the playground of Tomohiro Ishii and Togi Makabe, with help from Tomohaki Honma, for some time now. With Makabe and Honma as tag team champion and with Shibata dethroning Ishii at WK 10, now is the perfect time for NJPW to completely refresh that scene. Well, once Shibata’s inevitable rematch with Ishii is out of the way of course. This is actually Shibata first proper singles reign since he first joined the promotion way back in 1999. Since his return in 2012, Shibata’s record has been rather mixed, partly due to the NJPW office questioning his loyalty to the promotion. One thing has remained constant thought, and that his The Wrestler’s in-ring quality. Most of his matches have been top-notch and his popularity with the crowds has only grown since his return. I would therefore expect him to keep the NEVER title for a while. But who can give him proper challenges in 2016? Shibata has been feuding with Los Ingobernables lately so I would expect some challenges to come from there. Given the probable departures of Styles and Nakamura, Naito will be needed in the main event scene so that leaves EVIL, who is still relatively unproven as singles wrestler. Then again, a series of matches against someone as talented as Shibata might be exactly what the Grim Reaper wannabe needs to give his career a boost. Beyond that, the waters are a bit murky for this scene. Traditionally, NJPW always point 2 or three wrestlers in the direction of this particular scene and, eventually refreshes things once Wrestle Kingdom  is over. So The New beginning shows in February will probably reveal who Shibata’s dancing partners are going to be for the rest of 2016. Former tag team partner Goto is definitely a possibility as is hard-hitting veteran Satoshi Kojima. There is also Michael Elgin, but Elgin’s problem is that he is so popular in NJPW, he would fit into any scene. Lastly, Minoru Suzuki is still having fun with his stable in Pro Wrestling NOAH  but once he returns, he might want to show Shibata who is the boss when it comes to MMA. Regardless of who his next opponents are going to be, this might be a pivotal year for the 36 year old Shibata. If his reign is a success, the NJPW office might finally relent and allow him a run with one of the two main titles.

The IWGP Intercontinental title started life as a mid-card title in 2011. But that would soon change as Nakamura decided to make the elevation of that particular scene his own personal project. Nowadays the title is almost on par with NJPW’s biggest prize, the IWGP World Heavyweight title. It’s therefore no surprise that Nakamura’s departure will have a huge impact on the scene he helped created. It seems that the new Bullet Club leader, Kenny Omega, will be the one to relieve Nakamura of the title and carry the scene into a new era. There is no doubt that Omega is charismatic and talented, but he will need some major help to make people forget Nakamura isn’t there anymore. The most likely choice for me would then be to have him battle that other NJPW Ace, Hiroshi Tanahashi, for most of 2016. A successful run against Tanahashi would be ideal for Omega, as it would help him establish himself as a major player and keep the IC belt on the level Nakamura has brought it to. Besides, Tanahashi needs something to do now that Okada has been established as the clear Number 1 of the promotion. Beyond that there is also Ishii who might want to avenge  his real life friend and CHAOS leader Nakamura, once Omega beats him. Finally, there are the usual suspects like Elgin and Goto, who, as noted before, can be thrown into any scene without too much trouble.

It is a bit difficult to say how much Nakamura and Styles’ departure will affect Okada’s reign. Styles had already been beaten by Okada for the title, so that chapter was closed anyway. As for nakamura, and eventual showdown between the two CHAOS leader might have been NJPW’s plan for WK 11, but, as things stands now, we’ll probably never know. The best thing NJPW can do here is throw new challenges in the direction of Okada. As great as his run with Tanahashi was, their match at WK 10 was the best possible conclusion. Extending that feud now, would only serve to dilute that fantastic match, unless they have Tanahashi win the Supe J Cup in march so he can have “one last shot”. One thing is clear, the first challenger for Okada will be Hirooki Goto which is fine since Goto always delivers on the big stages. But after that, they will need a clear and viable threat to Okada’s reign and then everyone will start looking at Tetsuya Naito. After a difficult start, Naito completely re-invented himself in 2015, to the point he is now NJPW’s most popular heel. Two extremely popular and talented athletes who also benefit from a very clear face/heel characterization, what more can one ask for? I would say NJPW is set for the time being when it comes to their Heavyweight title. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing more to do for them.

One man who must be very frustrated with the current situation is Kota Ibushi. The talented 33 year old is currently sidelined with injuries which must annoy him to no end as the departure of Styles and Nakamura would have been the perfect opportunity for him to finally take his rightful place as one of NJPW’s established main-eventers. Nothing is lost, of course, once he returns Ibushi will no doubt play a major role, but he might also have to tone down his ring-style a bit. The fearless risk-taker has been plagued by injuries lately and if he wants to have a long career at the top of NJPW, I think he would be well advised to ditch the more spectacular (and dangerous) moves of his repertoire and adopt a more ground-based approach a la Nakamura.

Finally, when a promotion loses several talents in such a short time, it will often try to absorb that loss with an influx of new talent. That is even more the case when said promotion’s president just happens to be a multi-millionaire. So I would expect some new faces to come join the NJPW ranks in the coming weeks. As things happens, Go Shiozaki (one of the biggest remaining AWJP names) and Zach Sabre Jr (one of the most exiting high-fliers in the world) have recently become free-lancers. Something tells me they won’t remain free-lancers for very long.

While the departure of so many talents is always a blow to a promotion, NJPW’s roster is rich enough for them to overcome that particular setback. Ironically, those departure might also end up being a blessing in disguise for NJPW, as it will force them to renew their roster a bit, push new faces to the main event scenes and, hopefully, pay more attention to their mid-card scenes. After 3 very successful years, 2016 will be a challenge for the promotion, but one I believe they can take without too much troubles.

That’s all from me this week, see you all next week and have fun!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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