A week removed from New Japan Pro Wrestling's two-day Wrestle Kingdom 14 special, despite how things ended Tetsuya Naito is still riding on a career-high. The man behind the star hadn't had the best of 2019 with a stockpile of injuries and with it, depression hitting hard, but on screen, this all pulled through by the new year.
As a performer, and hopefully, as a human being, Naito is finally revitalized to make 2020 the year of the Tranquilo. His history-making main event victory brings to culmination a seven-year arc for the superstar. In 2019, it seemed very unlikely this would ever come true and head booker Gedo would face the wrath of legions of Los Ingobernables de Japon fans for failing Naito's redemption two years earlier.
Yet Gedo proved that his long game pays dividends and his Midas touch has resulted in an endgame unlike any other in the history of pro-wrestling. To fully appreciate the gravitas of this arc, one has to look back at it in its entirety as well as the nature of storytelling in pro-wrestling.
An artistic beast of its kind, pro-wrestling has been home to a myriad of characters with iconic wrestling legacies that seem fulfilled for the most part. This has transcended styles of different promotions as well as cultural specificities to different countries and eras.
Yet the fact remains that pro-wrestling is in some form a long term serialized soap opera. This is especially true of modern wrestling. What this means is that sometimes with the story continuing for years and years until and when a performer retires, it becomes difficult for the wrestler to have a real sense of closure or pay off.
The same can, of course, be said of Tetsuya Naito, who denied the LiJ roll call at the end of his Wrestle Kingdom's main event win and the continued defense of his two championships. Yet in Naito's case, his years in the making history is a full circle completion towards making him a main event statesman of NJPW much like Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi before him.
Naito's story, of course, begins in 2013, on the cusp of a big breakout after his separation from Yujiro Takahashi as part of No Limit. Then known as the 'Stardust Genius', Naito would end the year as the winner of the vaunted G1 Climax to stake his claim at a main event Heavyweight championship shot against Kazuchika Okada. The two rookies were bound to close the show at Tokyo Dome's Wrestle Kingdom 8.
Unfortunately, circumstances and fans were neither in his nor champion Okada's favor, as fans saw the Intercontinental championship bout between Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura as the bigger deal. A vote expelled him and Okada to the semi-main event, burning a furious desire inside Naito, especially after he lost the match.
This desire would become ungovernable, with Naito going off on a second excursion to Mexico and refining his character. Returning as the vicious and vindictive Tranquilo, Tetsuya Naito brought the Los Ingobernables to Japan and turned the table on fans and the company.
As Naito's stable grew so did his desire for a lot more, his goal was to secure the Heavyweight title and the Wrestle Kingdom's main event. The former goal did get accomplished but was taken away shortly. Eventually, this Naito started to win over the fans that had rejected him years prior, but more importantly, the Intercontinental title began to orbit the Tranquilo superstar.
Something he had never wanted and had been the bane of his failures last time around haunted him. In return, Naito broke the belt, mistreated it but it came back again and again. A moment of respite in 2017 finally brought Naito the big G1 Climax win and with it the main event he had sorely missed the last time.
This time around the fans were squarely in his corner and fate had decided his roadblock was once again the world champion Okada. Just two years prior, The Rainmaker had completed his meteoric arc of finally surpassing Hiroshi Tanahashi as the Ace of NJPW. Once more Okada would prove why that is, leaving Naito in the dust and heartbroken.
The main event win eluded him, but more so than that also did the main stage; Naito might have ended the night, but the Wrestle Kingdom 12 became all about the return of Chris Jericho to NJPW against its hottest star in Kenny Omega.
Chris Jericho's ills came to haunt Naito further as he stole the Intercontinental championship from him. What had once been Naito's most hated possession had now become a desperate need in the hands of a foreign man. Naito redeemed his failures against Jericho to win back his new prized possession.
While he would still treat it as he liked, Naito realized the true value of the title with the two-day Wrestle Kingdom looming. He put forth a challenge, one he felt destined to accomplish; to have the final night of Wrestle Kingdom 14 become a challenge between the two top champions of NJPW.
Naito's baby that would never leave his sight had become the ticket to his destiny (or should we say; Destino!). This baton passed from the rising Golden Star Kota Ibushi to the villainous Jay White and eventually, the stage was set. Naito's loss of the title as well as the G1 Climax saw him looking from the outside at his crumbling dreams.
It is then poetic that the fate of his call to arms for a double championship tournament was left to the very same fans, who voted him out of the main event seven years ago. By then Naito had already changed the written script, sneaking into this battle of NJPW's top four to secure his spot.
Naito walked into the Wrestle Kingdom with no championship or G1 Climax contract but yet everything to lose and win as well. Win Naito did, first vanquishing the demon of Jay White, playing into Gedo's booking of Naito threes. Tetsuya Naito always beats his man on the third attempt, a Gedo special that held on Night two as well.
Regaining his Intercontinental championship, Naito brought it face to face with Kazuchika Okada. The two men pulled all the stops, with Naito rising the crowd in his favor. He went back to his Stardust Genius form that had failed him two years earlier. He also brought back the viciousness of the old Ingobernable and the showstopper of the Tranquilo today.
In a blockbuster main event, Tetsuya Naito brought out a seven-year character arc in full force to win both championships. Tetsuya Naito had finally conquered Kazuchika Okada (Third time's the charm!) and the Wrestle Kingdom's main event.
Of course, Gedo left the door just slightly open for his dreams, with his LiJ faction role call interrupted by an ambush from KENTA.
Still, this was the completion of a full arc, something rarely if ever accomplished in pro-wrestling. It is proof that some stories need to come to an organic, poetic end and it is in that, there is a fruitful feeling of enjoyment.
Tetsuya Naito's arc stands as the greatest achievement of New Japan since Gedo took over. He has constantly evolved the tales of Okada's rise to ace and Tanahashi's slow fall from grace. It's therefore interesting to see where he takes Naito, even with this finality this year.
The closest counterpoint any modern-day wrestling arc has had to this (besides in NJPW) is with WWE's handling of Seth Rollins. His turn from being the third wheel and glue of the SHIELD, to destroying it and redeeming himself felt like perfection.
Something WWE has been shy to attempt further, in its ability to define complex characters as opposed to just faces and heels. The other one is of course of Johnny Gargano's discovery of himself in NXT, something that was marred by an unfortunate injury to Tomasso Ciampa just at its climax.
One can hope though that the long term pays off and finality to Tetsuya Naito's win, is a teaching lesson for wrestling writers, bookers, and wrestlers to inject great character into their performance. One might not want to admit it, but wrestling is performance art. Storytelling and its finality need to be a big aspect of this as well.
Hopefully, if things between AEW and NJPW come to a mutual understanding, then we may also see the completion of a saga that has transcended promotions and barriers with the Golden Lovers of Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi.
Till then Naito's victory this year in a match of the year candidate stands tall as the perfect Wrestling story.Published 13 Jan 2020, 00:48 IST