As fans of Professional Wrestling, we do a lot of things well. We exhibit unfettered loyalty, we come up with the best crowd chants in all of sports, and we argue our thoughts and decisions about our beloved sport with the same vigor of a seasoned lawyer trying to get his best friend acquitted of murder. There is one thing, however, that we do best: nitpick. And that, my friends, is pretty much what this article will be.
The final bell of Wrestle Kingdom 12 rang 11 days ago, bringing an end to a great match between IWGP Heavyweight Champion, Kazuchika Okada, and Tetsuya Naito, and yet another wholly great show put on by the top promotion in the Eastern Hemisphere. With the exceptions of the New Japan Rumble, the Gauntlet Trios Match, and Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Jay White, every match on the card was rated at least 4 stars by Dave Meltzer. Of course, Meltzer’s word should not be taken as Gospel as this business is entirely subjective, but it’s hard to disagree with him that, as an entire show, Wrestle Kingdom 12 was extremely entertaining and enjoyable.
With about a week and a half passed since the final bell, every praise, criticism, analysis, and fantasy booking of Wrestle Kingdom 12 has been made by the IWC. However, I’ve yet to see the following point argued: has the main event picture of NJPW began to resemble that of WWE? Let me explain…
Perhaps the biggest collective problem fans have with WWE is that the main event picture features staple stars and over-protected champions and contenders. We all remember the Roman Reigns debacle. The pure hatred of him has subsided compared to a year or two ago, but there was a time when he was the most hated man in wrestling purely because of his booking. We seem to be going through the same thing, albeit with less hatred, now with Brock Lesnar as Universal Champion. Even back in the 2000’s we experienced this with guys like John Cena and HHH. They would hold on to the belt seemingly forever and only drop it at big shows for the pop and the “moment.” Then, without fail, they would recapture it some months later. These guys are/were protected ad nauseum with the problem being that guys like Chris Benoit or Eddie Guerrero in the past and Rusev or Cesaro in the present not being able to break through that glass ceiling.
NJPW, on the other hand, has a reputation for appreciating talent over anything else. If a wrestler had the talent in the eyes of the bookers, they would at least get their shots to “grab the brass ring.” Match quality is heralded over the big “moments” that WWE likes to use to pop the crowd. The New Japan formula has been steadily gaining steam in the world of professional wrestling with fans appreciating a wrestler’s work rate more than his/her character more than ever before. For reference, a good example is Roderick Strong in NXT. He’s still appreciated by fans as an upper echelon talent despite not having much of a gimmick.
Now then, how does this all relate to the headline and topic of this article? Wrestle Kingdom 12 saw IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada retain his championship in the main event for the third year in a row. Wrestle Kingdom 10 saw him defeat Hiroshi Tanahashi (the Hulk Hogan/JohnCena of NJPW), Wrestle Kingdom 11 saw him defeat Kenny Omega in the famed Six Star Match, and we just saw him defeat Tetsuya Naito in another great match. Plain and simple, when it really matters, Okada does not lose these days.
Obviously, the difference between this and the WWE booking is that Okada is arguably the best wrestler in the world. Without the presence of AJ Styles and Kenny Omega in his generation, there wouldn’t even be an argument. John Cena, Brock Lesnar, HHH, even Roman Reigns have never been the best wrestler in the world. If anything, Okada is deserving of his tenure as Champion.
The thought has to come sooner or later, though, of “when is it time for Okada to lose?” Many people thought it should have been against Kenny Omega at Wrestle Kingdom 11. Even more thought he should have dropped it to Omega at Dominion. And perhaps even more wanted to see Tetsuya Naito win the strap on January 4. But, alas, the Rainmaker came out with his Championship every time.
This isn’t to say that people want to see Okada lose. But, with the culture of having a great appreciation for in-ring work, people would have loved to see Kenny Omega as IWGP Heavyweight Champion and, with the resurgence of Naito and his over-ness with the crowd finally being on par with his in-ring skill, fans seemed ready and willing to accept a new IWGP Heavyweight Champion. However, the company remains with Okada as their guy.
As long as NJPW has the likes of Kenny Omega, Tetsuya Naito, the Junior Heavyweights, and the G1 Climax, Okada can remain champion and the “moments” will come elsewhere. However, the second that Okada shows any signs of slowing down (which shouldn’t be any time soon) the booking decisions of NJPW will be under extreme scrutiny by its fans. And, perhaps, the matches Okada has had in the past 24 months has built up an insurmountable expectation for him, thus making that “slow down point” (i.e. anything less than 4.5 stars) may come sooner than later.
The fact of the matter is, we’re in territory where me may have been in only once before. The (arguably) best wrestler in the world is Heavyweight Champion for a legitimate company and the (arguably) second-best in the world works for the same company. We saw it with Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, and we all know how that turned out. Kenny Omega has expressed that his biggest goal now is to expand NJPW to the rest of the world and I believe the higher-ups have that goal too. Keeping the belt on Okada, as we have seen WWE do with John Cena, HHH, Brock Lesnar, etc., could hinder that.
I began this article with the fact that I’m being super nitpicky, and I want to reiterate that here. Wrestle Kingdom 12 was a GREAT show. The New Japan roster might be the best in the world. And their Top Guy is the best wrestler in the world. I’m 100% more a WWE guy than NJPW guy, but I know the best in the world when I see it…Okada is it. As long as that remains the same, there will be nothing wrong with keeping Okada as Champion. However, it’s an interesting thought to parse out. With all the flak WWE gets for uncreative booking, NJPW barely gets that flak when it’s had the same headliner for its top show for 3 years straight going in and coming out as Champion.
Thoughts? Comments? Let me know below. I’m aware this may be a stretch and a pretty hot take, but nobody makes headlines writing about how sliced bread used to be the best invention ever.
*EDITOR’S NOTE* For the record, my ranking of best wrestlers in the world is as follows: (1) Kenny Omega; (Uno) AJ Styles; (1 Uno) Kazuchika Okada…my point is I can’t decide.