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By Farhan Daw @FarhanDaw
I think it’s safe to say there has been nobody in the wrestling business that has had the success Tetsuya Naito has had in the last year and a half.
The leader of Los Ingobernables De Japon (LIJ) has seen his profile rise to meteoric heights while becoming one of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s top stars. Following a brief excursion in CMLL, Naito returned with an egotistical rebellious attitude, turning his back on the fans and trading in his signature red and white straps for black and red ones. Growing out his sparky brown locks, scruffy facial hair sporting a black LIJ branded cap and t-shirt. With this the anarchic turn was complete. The Stardust Genius was no more and we welcomed the birth of ‘El Ingobernable’ (The Ungovernable). In order for us to fully analyse this unforeseen change we need to understand what sparked Naito’s conversion.
The issue wasn’t that Naito was not a good wrestler or respected by the fans, it was because his gimmick was largely based of the ‘Once in a Century’ superstar Hiroshi Tanahashi. His attire, personality, moveset and wrestling practice replicated Tanahashi, who is loved and adored by wrestling fanatics around the world. Tanahashi is one of the greatest wrestlers of all time. His larger than life charisma, impressive physique, presence and of course wrestling ability places him among the very best wrestlers in the world. While Naito was very much on his way to becoming a star in his own right he didn’t have the magnetic aura of the record seven time IWGP Heavyweight Champion. Nevertheless in July 2013, he was given a major push and beat Tanahashi in the finals of the G1 Climax, earing his spot at Wrestle Kingdom’s Main Event for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship against Kazuchika Okada.
During his G1 celebrations, Naito backed himself to unseat the Champion, challenged Masato Tanaka to a rematch for the NEVER Openweight Championship and declared himself the ‘Shuyaku’ (The top star) in NJPW. At NJPW’s Destruction PPV, Naito defeated Tanaka to retain his Wrestle Kingdom contract and win the NEVER Openweight title. At this point Naito was on top of the world. He had just won his first singles title in the Heavyweight division and was on his was to main event his first Wrestle Kingdom, or so we thought.
In a wicked turn of events, building up to his Wrestle Kingdom match with Okada the fans began to turn their backs on Naito. Chants were replaced by jeers and he quickly started to lose momentum.
Following a disappointing crowd reaction between the two Champions, NJPW announced they were putting the main event to a vote. Tetsuya Naito vs Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship or Shinsuke Nakamura vs Hiroshi Tanahashi for the IWGP Intercontinental title. When the results were announced, Naito and Okada received half the votes Tanahashi and Nakamura had gotten and subsequently Naito’s triumphant G1 victory was relegated to the semi finals of Wrestle Kingdom 8. Naito was devastated. His moment in the spotlight had been stolen from him.
On January 4th 2014, Naito failed in his quest to prize the IWGP Heavyweight Championship from Okada and was pinned following a brutal Rainmaker at the 30minute mark. To make matters worse, Naito lost the Never Openweight Championship to Tomohiro Ishii and within half a year he lost his Wrestle Kingdom main event spot, his Championship opportunity, the NEVER Openweight title and the admiration and respect of the fans. This sequence of events changed Naito. No more would he pander to the crowd that once chanted his name. Over the next 12 months Naito spent the year in mediocrity. Feeling furious and dejected he left to rediscover himself in Mexico.
After a successful tour with CMLL where Naito aligned himself with Los Ingobernables, he returned to NJPW with a changed look and persona. The vibrant, energetic colours of the Stardust Genius were replaced by a defiant, disobedient degenerate who declared allegiance to Mexico’s outlaw stable, Los Ingobernables. Over the next few months, Naito recruited the returning Takaaki Watanabe now dubbed ‘EVIL’ and Bushi to form Los Ingobernables De Japon.
He displayed strong performances during the 2015 G1 Climax and World Tag League, narrowly missing the final of the G1 and losing in the Finals of World Tag League to Togi Makabe and Tomoaki Honma. Naito began picking up steam and avenged his Wrestle Kingdom 10 loss by defeating Hirooki Goto in the Finals of the 2016 New Japan Cup. He then challenged Kazuchika Okada to a title match at Invasion Attack, 27 months after their Wrestle Kingdom bout. Following interference from Bushi, Evil and the debuting Sanada, Naito stunned the world and pinned Okada to win the IWGP Heavyweight Championship for the first time. The title he had since longed for, the title that represented the pinnacle of Japanese and puroresu wrestling. In typical Naito fashion, he tossed the belt in the air and walked out of the arena striking his signature eye-opening pose with his hand held high. It was at this point Naito saw his acclaim to stardom. After a two month run he dropped the championship back to Okada and turned his attention to the IWGP Intercontinental title. At Destruction, Naito won the Intercontinental Championship defeating Michael Elgin. He also won Japanese wrestling’s MVP, marking the first time since 2010 where Hiroshi Tanahashi or Kazuchika Okada had not won the award. During Naito’s reign with the Intercontinental title he repeatedly disrespected its honour, kicking, throwing and tossing it causing considerable cosmetic ruin. At one stage Naito broke the Intercontinental Championship by throwing it into the ring steps. Disgusted with the treatment and legacy of the strap, he was challenged to a match at Wrestle Kingdom by the man he once looked up to. The man he once aspired to be, Hiroshi Tanahashi.
After months of building up their anticipated clash, Naito was victorious against Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom 11 retaining the IWGP Intercontinental Championship and cementing himself as a top star in NJPW. He proved to the world he was not the second coming of Hiroshi Tanahashi but the first and only Tetsuya Naito. At this time, LIJ were joined by the returning Hiromu Takahashi who challenged and beat Kushida for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship. At the end of Wrestle Kingdom 11 each member of LIJ had gold strapped around their waist. Evil, Sanada and Bushi held the NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag titles, Takahashi the IWGP Junior Heavyweight and Naito the IWGP Intercontinental Championship. Naito’s near 9month reign concluded at Dominion 2017, where he was made to submit to Tanahashi’s Cloverleaf.
After a first round exit in the inaugural IWGP US Championship tournament, Naito competed in the 2017 G1 Climax finishing top of his block with 7 wins and 2 losses. He defeated the leader of the Bullet Club and last year’s winner Kenny Omega in a thrilling final where the match was rated 6/5 stars and is regarded as one of the greatest matches of all time. Naito stood in the very same spot he was in four years prior, only this time he was viewed by the fans as a true star. Again he made the claim he was the company’s ‘Shuyaku’ and declared his intention on regaining the World title. Naito defeated Tomohiro Ishii to retain his IWGP Heavyweight contract at King of Pro Wrestling and confirmed his spot at Wrestle Kingdom 12 to face Champion Kazuchika Okada.
Looking back, Naito’s tenure at CMLL helped him discover his true place in NJPW, which was at the top alongside Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kenny Omega as the leading pillars in New Japan. Since his heel turn the charismatic anti-hero has won the New Japan Cup, the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, IWGP Intercontinental Championship and his second G1 Climax tournament.
Tetsuya Naito vs Kazuchika Okada II
On January 4th 2018, Naito will take on Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom. This will be the second time the duo have faced each other at the Tokyo Dome but it will be a first main event for Naito. However, since their last WK contest the dynamics have changed. Naito is now undoubtedly worthy of his main event status and is arguably the favourite to prize the crown away from the unstoppable champion. The last time Okada was viewed as the anti-hero while Naito the babyface, this time the roles have been reversed. Who will come out on top? Who will be declared NJPW’s ultimate Shuyaku? The answer is waiting for us on 4th January 2018 at the Tokyo Dome.