Wrestle Review Wednesday: Pie-in-the-Sky Hopes for NJPW in 2019

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Just one month in, 2019 shows the potential to be the most intriguing — and perhaps most important — year for professional wrestling since 2001.

The preceding 29 days included the announced launch of All-Elite Wrestling, the most well-organized effort to build a viable No. 2 promotion in the United States since WCW folded. AEW’s highly anticipated announcement (and rather corny introductory press conference) is the centerpiece for buzz around announced WWE departures and cryptic tweets. Pro Wrestling Torch reported the impending exit of Dean Ambrose, shortly before the announced parting of Hideo Itami (a double shoutout to PW Torch is in order; Patreon subscribers know why).

Meanwhile, both Rusev and Shinsuke Nakamura each tweeted three letters that bring to mind a certain Bret Hart pantomime.

Perhaps these wrestlers are using their unfiltered access to fans via social media as a way to work the sheets, brother. But the impact AEW’s launch has already had on my favorite promotion, New Japan Pro-Wrestling, is very much real.

NJPW endured its most severe January exodus since 2016, when Nakamura, Bullet Club leader A.J. Styles, Bullet Club founding member Karl Anderson, and Anderson’s tag-team partner, Doc Gallows, all jumped ship for WWE. Gone from NJPW after this month’s outstanding Wrestle Kingdom 13 show are Cody Rhodes, the Young Bucks, Hangman Page, big-show attraction Chris Jericho, and Kenny Omega.

But with spots on the roster open as a result, NJPW has myriad exciting possibilities for the remainder of this pivotal year in wrestling history. For this edition of Wrestle Review Wednesday, The Open Man offers some of the hopes — realistic or otherwise — it has for NJPW in 2019.

Shinsuke Nakamura’s Return

Nakamura became an international sensation in the early half of this decade, evolving his character from that of a stoic, MMA-trained guardian of NJPW’s Inoki roots; to a flamboyant, occasionally sleazy life-of-the-party.

I had high hopes for him in the United States, and debuting with a 5-star against Sami Zayn set the right tone.

As he graduated from NXT to WWE, however, my concerns that he would hit a wall came to fruition. Both his character and in-ring work often struck me as watered-down impressions of NJPW Nakamura.

A return to NJPW might coax the 2013-2015 version of Nakamura back to life — and current NJPW storylines are readymade for his integration back into the lineup.

The stable Nakamura founded, CHAOS, is living up to its name. Leader Kazuchika Okada has strayed to work alongside others in the wake of Switchblade Jay White’s betrayal, taking the returning YOSHI-HASHI with him.

Nakamura’s longtime rival, Hiroshi Tanahashi, is back on top as IWGP Heavyweight Champion. One, final main-event encounter between the two aces of the company’s transition out of the Inokiism dark ages seems appropriate, if not necessary.

As for fresh matches and feuds, the IWGP Intercontinental Championship Nakamura elevated to prominence earlier this decade is now synonymous with Tetsuya Naito. A main-event IC title feud between Naito and Nakamura — who have CHAOS-related history — could be the perfect final step for Naito to replace Tanahashi as the Ace of New Japan.

A Jun Akiyama-Yuji Nagata Tag Team Run

I have faith in NJPW rebounded from this year’s January exodus stronger than ever because of how effectively it regrouped in 2016. The company’s roster is deep, and has been for a few years — so much so, in fact, that longtime main-eventer Yuji Nagata bowed out of G1 Climax competition to make way for other, younger talents.

Because Nagata was doing little more than providing veteran guidance to multi-man tag matches with Young Lions, NJPW loaned his talents to AJPW last year. AJPW paired Nagata with a fellow former World Champion and hardened veteran, Jun Akiyama. Two of the biggest stars of the 2000s coming together to form an ass-kicking, old-guy tag team that proved predictably awesome.

To reiterate, NJPW has impressive roster depth, but has been hit hard in its tag team ranks. Since 2016, the promotion lost top-level heavyweight tag teams Anderson & Gallows; War Machine (NXT’s War Raiders); and now the Young Bucks. The division currently features EVIL & SANADA, both of whom are poised for high-level singles runs in the not-distant future; Guerrillas of Destiny; and Killer Elite Squad. A reunion of former Great Bash Heel partners Togi Makabe and Toru Yano is being teased, but that still makes just four established teams in the division.

Nagata and Akiyama both showed that they have plenty left in the tank. A feud with EVIL and SANADA could produce some outstanding bouts, and give the much-deserving Nagata a last hurrah on the promotion’s main stage.

Akiyama appearing in Japan’s most popular promotion, and the world’s current No. 2 promotion, could also be a boon to AJPW. With Akiyama working behind the scenes, AJPW has enjoyed a creative resurgence in the past year-and-change. The promotion’s major shows of 2018 were outstanding, including a Champion Carnival that approached the quality of NJPW’s G1 Climax. AJPW lacks the roster depth of NJPW, but supplemented its annual tournament with stars from outside promotions, like NOAH’s Naomichi Marufuji; former Dragongate star (and new NJPW addition) Shingo Takagi; WRESTLE-1’s KAI; and Michinoku Pro’s Yuji Hino.

Bolstering AJPW’s exposure could do great things for the overall health of wrestling in Japan, as was the original intent of Wrestle Kingdom. The NJPW marquee show began in 2007 featuring cross-promotion matches, including AJPW in the inaugural event, and Pro Wrestling NOAH in 2009, when Akiyama last wrestled a singles match in a NJPW ring.

NJPW may not need to work with other promotions in 2019, but doing so could enhance the overall product. And to that end…

Outsiders in G1 Climax 29

G1 Climax has not featured talent from outside promotions (barring ROH-contracted wrestlers who double as NJPW talent) since NOAH loaned Marufuji and Katsuhiko Nakajima in 2016. Their appearances aided the tournament, as Marufuji put on some excellent matches (including a 5-star IWGP Heavyweight Championship bout with Okada, spawned out of G1 Climax 26).

Recent G1 breakout star Kenny Omega is gone, and the booking of Bullet Club members Tama Tonga and Bad Luck Fale last year could imply their exclusion this time around. Certainly NJPW has homegrown talent that could make their G1 debuts, like David Finlay and Toa Henare; former Junior Heavyweights who’ve moved up in Will Ospreay, Beretta, and Taichi; and a veteran in Satoshi Kojima back after missing last year’s event.

Integrating both worthy NJPW talent and outsiders would require expanding the field, which I can’t see happening — but, as I said, not all of these wishes are realistic.

That said, I’ll keep the suggestions realistic. AJPW is building around Kento Miyahara as its ace of the future; and while G1 Climax exposure could propel his rising star, including him would not be worth it without a guaranteed Block runner-up finish. NJPW did that with Marufuji in 2016, but that was at a time when the New Japan roster was not quite as heavy.

Main-event caliber AJPW wrestlers Jun Akiyama and Zeus, on the other hand, could enhance the G1 and All Japan’s standing without finishing in the top two of a block. Akiyama works as the grizzled veteran who has traveled the globe, facing the best of three generations and collecting multiple titles, but has never won the G1. He reached the apex in 2003 before losing to Hiroyoshi Tenzan in one of the best G1 Climax Finals ever.

Old gunslinger’s last ride provides an awesome bit of ready-made dramatics. As for Zeus, the journeyman has found a place as one of AJPW’s current cornerstones. He reached one major milestone in the last year, winning the AJPW Triple Crown. Competing in the G1 Climax would mark another milestone for the talented, and until recently, under-appreciated, Zeus.

His presence would benefit the field insomuch as he brings an entirely different style and aura than anyone in NJPW currently. Zeus is a true hoss; a powerful big man with hard-hitting offense. A matchup pitting him against Tomohiro Ishii might resemble the classic pair of bouts Ishii had against Keith Lee in November 2017 and May 2018.

Similarly, longtime deathmatch wrestling star Daisuke Sekimoto offers a look and in-ring style that contrasts the work of NJPW’s main-event talent. Sekimoto looks like he’d be a punishing fullback in an old SEC offense, but he moves deceptively fast.

Sekimoto appeared at an NJPW Lion’s Gate Project show in May 2018 and had a fun bout with Shota Umino. Sekimoto reiterated his loyalty to deathmatch promotion Big Japan in the post-match press conference, but perhaps that doesn’t mean more one-off appearances (and especially the G1) aren’t in the cards.

A Battle for Ace of the Junior Heavyweight Division

This one’s less a wish for 2019 than a necessity. Of the January departures, the most profound effect isn’t in Kenny Omega’s; it’s KUSHIDA’s.

KUSHIDA was the constant of the Junior Heavyweight division, a unique talent capable of putting on outstanding matches with any opponent. He was the division’s gatekeeper; it’s no coincidence Bushi, Hiromu Takahashi and Will Ospreay won their first IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championships against KUSHIDA. Likewise, his lengthy feud with KUSHIDA helped position Kenny Omega to make a believable and immediate transition to the heavyweight main event.

KUSHIDA was the division’s foundation, but gone too are pillars Hiromu (injury) and Ospreay (move to heavyweight). In this upheaval is opportunity to inject some needed intrigue into the Junior Heavyweights.

Current IWGP Junior Heavyweight champion Taiji Ishimori’s upcoming defenses and participation in May’s Best of the Super Juniors should function as a long-ranging storyline for the right to be called ace of the division. Realistic contenders to that spot include Shingo Takagi and…? That Marty Scurll is an ROH-contracted wrestler (and likely AEW-bound talent once his contract expires) precludes him from being any more than a transitional champion.

With all the moving parts on the current wrestling landscape, the biggest fish NJPW could nab now is Hideo Itami, KENTA, the long-reigning ace of NOAH’s Junior Heavyweights.