There are few things in wrestling as satisfying as the payoff match for a well executed feud. Sometimes it’s the culmination of years worth of story telling requiring a fair bit of patience and trust from both the fans to commit to a drawn-out narrative. The path to the finale is often filled with twists and turns, many of which can be downright infuriating. But when done correctly, the impending payoff match can be immensely gratifying.
This is what we have coming up in New Japan. The main event of Wrestle Kingdom 12, the biggest show of the year, pits 2 of the biggest names in the company against each other. The marquee states that the prize is the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, but there really is much more on the line. In many ways, this match serves as a validation of both men, the past, present and future.
The champion, Kazuchika Okada, is in top form, having defeated all recent challengers. Going in to the Tokyo Dome, he will have held the belt for about 550 days, the longest ever in the title’s history. While this in itself is am impressive feat, a long reign loses its luster if its not memorable. Okada surely avoids that, by having one of the most impressive championship runs in pro wrestling history. In this calendar year, alone, he successfully defended his title against a dangerous Minoru Suzuki, a fearless Katsuyori Shibata, an imposing Bad Luck Fale, an outside threat in Cody, and a surging EVIL. In any year, this would be more than enough to cement Okada’s legacy, but throw the classic trilogy with Kenny Omega, and this reign enters into in a new realm. Okada faced every challenger head-on, even though he was often overpowered. His defenses gave even more credibility to the title, which has paid him back in spades. He has become a quintessential champion, walking with confidence and determination. All the while, his skills have become sharper. Factor in his relative young age and leading role looks, and you have this generation’s Ric Flair.
But across the ring…
Stands the challenger, Tetsuya Naito. Here we have a man representing a puzzling dichotomy. One one hand, by all appearances and actions, Naito simply doesn’t give a damn. He spits on his opponents, insulting the values of honor associated with Japanese sports. He casually strolls to the ring, paying no mind to the disruption he is causing or the patience he is testing. He constantly berates management and questions the standards of New Japan. He has even gone as far as to destroy a title belt, because he felt it was beneath him. While these actions might lead us to believe he doesn’t care, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Naito does care, immensely. He’s just been insulted so much that he has resorted to lashing out. We have to roll back the clock, at least 4 years. Naito had all the makings of a future top babyface. He was clean cut, wrestled smartly, and said all the right things. He followed the predestined path to success, winning the G1 tournament, giving him an opportunity to main event the biggest show of the year. But it wouldn’t be. The fans didn’t buy it. While he did everything the right way, he failed to prove his value. For all intents and purposes, he was simply a Diet Tanahashi. The fans turned, booing him, and worse, giving him no reaction at all. The company panicked, calling on a fan vote to determine Naito’s fate. The people spoke, and Naito lost his main event spot on the card. While he still faced the champion (who, poetically enough, was Okada), he failed to get the top billing he was promised. Naito was burned. He felt betrayed by the company and fans. He found exile in Mexico, where new friends gave him another lease on life. Naito returned a different man. Initially, this heel persona put people off. But his confidence and charisma would not be constrained by traditional wrestling roles. He once again won the fans over, but this time, he would become more popular than ever.
You could not ask for a better scenario heading in to Wrestle Kingdom. Conflicts, be they in sports or dramas, are at their best when both parties have something on the line. This is very true here, as one man is fighting preserve his god-like status, while another tries to finalize his rebirth. This match is not simply for the title, but an affirmation of their careers. I believe this to be the case in the ring, and out of it. What an awesome moment awaits.
It is the very fact that these men both have a legitimate claim to the title, that actually causes me some stress. Simply put, I don’t know who to root for. Usually, with a big show like this, the company has some responsibility to provide some sort of closure, usually in the form of a feel-good conclusion. The last good example that comes to mind is Daniel Bryan’s triumph at WrestleMania XXX (a character’s rise that very much mirrors Naitos’). Batista tapping out while Randy Orton lay slumped was extremely cathartic, even though it seemed like the only end that seemed fitting. But in this case, who do I cheer on? Who do I get behind? Okada is currently my favorite wrestler in the world, his run has convinced me that he is the most complete champion I have witnessed. This reign is epic, and seeing it come to an end, I will confess, may be heart-breaking. But Naito is an unstoppable force. His charisma breaks the barriers of language, culture, status quo, whatever. He is immensely entertaining and is always must-see. His victory in the Tokyo Dome is the only fitting end to this story arc.
As of this moment, I’m not sure how to feel about this match. I plan on going in to it backing Okada, but I also appreciate what may be inevitably coming to Naito. I’m a bit sad about the whole thing, believe it or not. This may be a moment where at the end of the night, I’ll be happy for what I’ve watched, but melancholy with the result.
If there is a silver lining in all of this, perhaps it is in the hope that is is not the payoff or conclusion, but merely the beginning. Perhaps and even greater story awaits. If so, then the future of New Japan Pro Wrestling looks extremely bright.