At this point the shocking conclusion of January 5th’s Tokyo Dome show has worn off… Or for some of us rabid Naito fans perhaps it hasn’t. For years we’ve been waiting for that moment where Naito stands atop the biggest stage with the grandest prize under the brightest spotlight. Having just bested Okada in a hard-fought match that capped off a hellish weekend, Naito had earned that spot. We all waited, eagerly anticipating the loudest LIJ roll call yet. We’re forced to continue waiting as that moment was stolen from us from an overzealous challenger looking to steal some shine. But, this is pro-wrestling, so that’s okay. However, while many of us do feel spurned, there is another way to look at the outcome of that night; that the Tokyo Dome was never the right stage for this Tetsuya Naito, just the one of the past. The appropriate stage for the ungovernable one is in fact Osaka-Jo Hall.
I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that some of us have waited years for this moment. For many, it was the Wrestle Kingdom 12 main event in 2018, which also saw Naito challenge for Okada’s IWGP Heavyweight championship. This was Naito as hot as we’ve ever seen him, as he had reached peak ungovernableness. His swagger was untouchable and his heart seemed determined. Finally, he had the persona to match his great in-ring ability. Many felt this was to be his crowning moment, especially considering that Okada was in the midst of what was an already impressively long IWGP title reign. As someone who considers Okada to be the finest performing champion I’ve ever witnessed, even I was resolved to believe he wouldn’t be able to suppress the white-not Naito. However, in what would be one of the biggest, purest, non-shocking shocks of recent memory, Naito was unsuccessful.
There is a great deal of poetry in how Naito lost that match. The fact that he reached into his past repertoire, perhaps mistakenly attempting a Stardust Press to try to finish off Okada, a move that was the trademark of the ‘old Naito’. Let’s go back even further, to 2014’s Wrestle Kingdom 8. This would be the first grand stage meeting between Okada and Naito, but under very different circumstances. I’ll disclose, this is where I began following New Japan, so many of my feelings here only come after the fact and through research. But the Naito of this era was a stark contrast from the brash, black-clad, Spanish speaking Naito we know today. Instead, he was the prototypical ‘good guy’, a determined and proud lion mark-wearing spirit with tons of potential. This determination led Naito to his first G1 victory, the first step towards fulfilling many wrestler’s dream of main-eventing the Tokyo Dome and challenging for the IWGP Heavyweight title. Unfortunately, the story did not unfold the way Naito hoped. The fans didn’t buy into his ascension and were not drawn to his character (or lack there-of). With more intriguing personalities (Tanahashi and Nakamura) squaring off for the ‘lesser’ Intercontinental title, Naito and Okada’s match was forced to play second fiddle. Controversy in the form of a fan vote flipped the Tokyo Dome card, pushing Naito into the semi-main event, where he was dealt his first loss to Okada on the Dome stage.
What occurred between Wrestle Kingdom 8 and 12 is perhaps one of the most intriguing and successful rebirths in pro-wrestling history. Naito ventured off to Mexico and returned with a new edge. A disdain for the for the fans and their lack of conviction in him gave Naito reason to turn his back on them. It was in Osaka Jo-Hall at the Dominion show (2015) where Naito finally took the biggest step towards full ‘Tranquilo’. In front of some of Japan’s most vocal fans, the very ones who turned on him the loudest, Naito returned the sentiment. His disinterest in the match he was placed in and the people he was partnered with was a direct slap in the face to a Japanese fan-base (and culture) that above all expects (and demands) you always give it your all.
But the one thing you can never write-off in pro-wrestling is just how damn far being cool will get you. New Japan always has had some of the very best talent and performers in the world. Being new to the scene, I picked up on that point right away. What I was missing was the kind of bad-ass over-the-top charisma I had only witnessed with previous American wrestling favorites (CM Punk, The Rock, Austin). Naito was that, and then some. Even with a language barrier, his bravado was enough to win me and many other foreign fans over. And, for me especially, it all goes back to that day in Osaka Jo-Hall. I was actually in attendance that day, so I freely admit that perhaps the affect was heightened for myself. But hearing the storm of boos rain down on Naito, and hearing them turn to cheers just a year later, was truly a special thing to see, first-hand.
All this being said, I do believe Naito’s struggles are not the fault of the company or fans (as Naito would sometimes like you to believe). Most of his follies are his own doing. At times it’s his obsession to staying ‘Tranquilo’ when he should be picking up the pace. Other times it’s his lack of focus, creating a blind spot for a Taichi to take advantage of. Occasionally, it’s the ghost of his past, where an ill-timed ‘Stardust Press’ attempt leads to failure. This is all on Naito. Say what you will about Jay White’s tactics, but the man does everything in his power to give himself the best chance of success.
But at Wrestle Kingdom 14 Naito finally did bury the past. He bested the man he never could, overcame the curse of the white belt, and finally won on the biggest stage. And at the moment when everything seemed to be right with the world, he (and we) were robbed of what we felt was the story-book ending. An advantageous KENTA struck at the most opportune time for himself, cutting off Naito mid roll call. Most of us were livid, and with good reason, but here is where I offer a different point of view: The Tokyo Dome victory was not the end of ‘this’ Naito’s story, it was the end of the ‘old’ Naito’s story. To main event the Tokyo Dome was a child-hood dream. The dream of the man who first won G1 in 2013. The dream of the ‘Stardust Genius’. Therein lies the beauty of Naito finally achieving this goal through the use of his ‘Stardust Press’.
But the grandest LIJ roll call? Well, that just has Osaka-Jo Hall written all over it. And Naito will have that chance when he faces KENTA there on February 9th. If there is ever a time for him deliver on his word, this is it.