Kota Ibushi is facing Shinsuke Nakamura for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship at New Japan Wrestle Kingdom 9, and he must win! New Japan’s future depends on it.
That may be slight hyperbole, but after reading what Dave Meltzer had to say about New Japan in the Nov 17th Observer Newsletter, New Japan’s future isn’t as certain as one might have thought. The problem certainly isn’t lack of talent. New Japan’s current product is arguably the best in the world. Its match quality is miles ahead of the WWE, and it is home to some of the best wrestlers in the world, both homegrown and foreign.
The problem has more to do with age. Here are the current ages of some of New Japan’s top performers:
- Hiroshi Tanahashi: 38 and hurting
- Shinsuke Nakamura: 34 and hurting
- Kazuchika Okada: 27
- Tetsuya Naito: 32
- Tomohiro Ishii: 38 and doing his best to cut his career short
- Katsuyori Shibata: 35
- Hirooki Goto: 35
- Kota Ibushi: 32
- KUSHIDA: 31
- Yuji Nagata: 46
Do you see the pattern? New Japan’s problem is age. Excluding Kazuchika Okada, New Japan’s top guys and best workers are all in their thirties, and their TOP top guys are in their thirties AND hurting. Tanahashi’s body is reportedly shot, and Nakamura is said to be hurting. Okada is the only top guy still in his twenties. Even Kota Ibushi is deceptively older than he looks, already in his early thirties.
It’s not just New Japan’s homegrown talent who are no longer spring chickens. Their top foreign stars are also in their thirties. Former IWGP Heavyweight champion AJ Styles is 37, Karl Anderson is 34 and newly signed talent Kenny Omega is 31.
Looking at the list of names I just mentioned, it’s simple to see why New Japan is so strong right now. But what thought have they put into the future. Theses are the words that Meltzer wrote that have me a tad worried:
…Aside from Sho Tanaka and Yohei Komatsu, and Komatsu is great, they’ve developed no potential great talent in years. And Tanaka and Komatsu may be too small to headline. The problem with lack of developing talent is, even if you recognize it, because it takes so long to develop talent, you can be in for lean times. For all the knocks on WWE today as compared to New Japan, and for today’s product, there is a world of difference. WWE is still far better positioned for the future besides it’s inherent advantages of being a tons bigger business and the advantage of being from North America in a worldwide economy.
For all of WWE’s faults, and all the complaints they receive about their not terribly exciting or creative television product, they’re certainly doing at least one thing right, and that’s positioning themselves for the future by making sure they always have a new crop of potential Superstars. Under the leadership of Triple H, there has been a strong focus on talent development. They’ve opened the state of the art Performance Centre, and even have a whole show devoted to the rising stars of the company. In NXT, talent can hone their craft before debuting on the main roster. Out of all of WWE’s television programming, NXT is the show I look forward to the most week in and week out. It’s because NXT is home to an awesome crew of up and coming stars, who are trying out new characters, gimmicks and ideas. Some of them have more success than others, but the ones that work are simply wonderful. The Vaudevillains, Sammi Zayn, and Tyler Breeze are just some of the talents who are making their mark down in “developmental”. Not to mention it’s also home to some of the world’s greatest independent wrestling stars such as Prince Devitt, Kevin Steen and KENTA. The future is very bright for WWE in terms of talent. It pains me that the same can’t be said right now of New Japan.
Just look at who they have. As far as I can see, the only talents New Japan are developing are the Young Lions who are thrown the occasional prelim match on an iPPV, or getting beat up by Minoru Suzuki after he loses a match. I’m sure there must be others training at the Dojo or at least on their radar, but I’m not seeing them right now. Sho Tanaka is really good, but personally I really like Yohei Komatsu. His facials and work is great. He’s got that Ishii underdoggedness (not a word and I don’t care) to him. I can’t wait to see him go from Young Lion to Regular Lion. The only problem with these guys is what Dave Meltzer mentioned in the Observer, that being their size. As much potential as they have, they’re not big guys. They look destined for the Jr. Heavyweight division. And that’s not a bad thing. But New Japan does’t just need future top workers like a Yohei Komatsu, they need future main eventers.
And with that we come full circle to the beginning of this story. All of what I just wrote is the reason as to why Kota Ibushi simply must defeat Shinsuke Nakamura at the Tokyo Dome on January 4th. New Japan needs a new, YOUNG, top guy. Okada is already established as a main eventer, but when time catches up with Nakamura and Tanahashi, who will be there at the top with Okada? They tried with Naito, who faced Okada at last year’s Wrestle Kingdom 8, but Naito didn’t have the heat needed and their match, despite being for the company’s top title, didn’t even go on last. Instead, Wrestle Kingdom 8 closed with Tanahashi vs. Nakamura for Nakamura’s IC title. No, New Japan needs a fresh, youthful face on the main event scene. While Ibushi is already in his 30s, he does give the impression of being younger, and he certainly has a lot of good years ahead of him.
On day 4 of the NJPW G1 Climax 23, Ibushi and Nakamura faced off in one of the best matches of the year. Ibushi lost, but this match really established Ibushi as a big deal. This year, Ibushi transitioned from the Jr. Heavyweight division to the Heavyweight division. His match at the G1 with Nakamura is what made that transition credible. Ibushi isn’t a big guy, and he’s known for being a great high flyer, but he’s also an excellent technical worker, and his match with Nakamura showed that he hold his own in the heavyweight division.
This year, Ibushi had more great matches with other heavyweights which helped to establish his position in the division. He showed he’s made of the right stuff in his awesome bout with Tomohiro Ishii at NJPW Back to Yokohama Arena. And he went toe to toe with then IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada in another top match. All these matches really showcased Ibushi’s amazing talent, and helped to establish his heavyweight status. The only thing is, he lost all three of those big matches. To really become a top guy, Ibushi needs a big win at a big event, and a top title wouldn’t hurt either. A win over Nakamura at New Japan’s biggest show of the year for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, a title Nakamura has built up as a top title, is just the win Ibushi needs.
A big win will certainly cement Ibushi’s spot on top. Will he also become a top draw for the company? That’s a question of another day. For now, a big win is not only what Ibushi needs, it’s what New Japan needs. Its future might just depend on it.