In early December 2018 news began to surface of Triple H’s interest in bringing KUSHIDA to WWE,with reports of the 35 year old who was holding the IWGP Junior Heavyweight championship for the 6th time contract with New Japan Pro was set to expire. On January 6th rumors of his departure were confirmed at the Wrestle Kingdom 13 press conference , just 2 days after a fairly one sided defeat to Taiji Ishimori losing the Junior crown in the process.
My interest in independent wrestling started to grow in the back half of 2016 with me starting to really stick my teeth in to the current ROH product and trying to watch as much PWG as possible, so when the buzz around the first Omega and Okada clash started to generate I was all in (pun slightly intended) on checking out my first New Japan Show. At this point my knowledge of anything Japanese was limited to what Bryan Danielson or Prince Devitt matches I’d managed to find hanging about online, before being exposed to the controversy surrounding the Ospreay vs Ricochet match from that years BOSJ.My introduction to KUSHIDA in NJPW came at a rather patchy time for him, with the first match I saw being his defeat at Wrestle Kingdom 11 to Hiromu Takahashi, in an albeit phenomenal encounter although I must admit it was not the time splitter I came away from the contest raving about. The Ace of the Junior division continued to stumble through early 2017 with mixed fortunes,mostly in multi man contests against Los Ingobernables de Japon,the faction that his rival at the time and reining Junior Heavyweight Champion Hiromu Takahashi belonged to before stepping up to challenge Takahashi for the championship at Sakura Genesis 2017.
It was the Sakura Genesis match that would prove a pivotal moment in 2017 and arguably the career of KUSHIDA,he was defeated in comprehensive fashion by Takahashi in under 2 minutes and sent straight to the back of the line in regards to a Junior Championship challenge. KUSHIDA would then compete as part of the ROH/NJPW War Of The Worlds Tour in early May 2017 picking up a single victory in his 3 matches by defeating Jay Lethal,however a sudden unexpected victory over “The Villain” Marty Scurll at the former ECW Arena at a Ring Of Honor TV Taping just days before the 24th Best Of The Super Juniors tournament secured KUSHIDA the ROH Television Championship. The Ace however seemingly could not ride this momentum in to the tournament with defeats in his opening contests against El Desperado and Tiger Mask,he was able to defeat BUSHI in his third outing however the success was seemingly short lived as the time splitter was knocked off in his 4th match by ACH. This again however proved to be another huge turning point for KUSHIDA as he began a 4 match winning streak in the tournament knock off Yoshinobu Kanemaru, Ryusuke Taguchi and Volador Jr. therefore clinching the B Block on the final day of block action before moving on to the final where he was able to knock off the ‘Aerial Assassin’ and defending BOSJ winner Will Ospreay in a 5 star classic.
After having my head turned by some of KUSHIDA’s performances in the BOSJ and my interest in the promotion still being in it’s infancy I began to dive back in to some of the junior divisions premier superstars back catalogue,including his tag team exploits with Alex Shelley which led to 2 Junior Tag title runs in matches against the likes of Forever Hooligans, Apollo 55 and ReDragon I also sampled matches against the likes of Kota Ibushi, Masato Tanaka a tremendous Wrestle Kingdom 10 match with Kenny Omega in which he captured his third IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship,his classic BOSJ final against Kyle O’Reilly from 2015 and his 2 2016 championship defences against Ospreay from Invasion Attack and Dominion respectively. After sampling some of KUSHIDA’s best bits he was firmly established as one of my favourite guys on the NJPW roster and looked forward to his impending clash with Hiromu Takahashi,another talent who I’d been absolutely blown away with an albeit cautious optimism following their Dominion clash earlier in the year. The contest did not disappoint and the Ace was able to clinch his 5th reign as the junior champion matching Koji Kanemoto and surpassing Minoru Tanaka.
Following this championship victory I continued to enjoy KUSHIDA outside of NJPW, with ROH Television Championship defences against the likes of former champion Marty Scurll, Jay White, Kenny King, Titan, Hiromu Takahashi and Dalton Castle for both Ring Of Honor and Rev-Pro promoted events. KUSHIDA’s television championship reign ended at 131 days after he was defeated by the aforementioned King. KUSHIDA also entered the WCPW (Now known as Defiant Wrestling) World Cup in July and August of 2017 knocking off Sho Tanaka,the soon to be Sho of Roppongi 3K, BUSHI, two current WWE NXT UK stars – Kenny Williams and Joseph Conners sandwiched a victory over Suzuki Gun’s Zack Sabre Jr, before knocking off Will Ospreay in the final in another fantastic encounter between the two staples of New Japan’s junior division. On KUSHIDA’s return to NJPW action he successfully defended the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship against Los Ingobernables de Japon’s BUSHI at a Kizuna Road event at Korakuen Hall and Suzuki Gun member El Desperado at Destruction in Hiroshima before finally being knocked off the top of the junior throne by long time rival Will Ospreay at King Of Pro Wrestling 2017,this was Ospreay’s first successful attempt at defeating the ace of the junior division. In the following month’s KUSHIDA established himself as one of three challengers to then IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion Marty Scurll at Wrestle Kingdom 12,who had knocked off Ospreay in his first defence at Power Struggle. The 4 way at New Japan’s grandest spectacle also including the man KUSHIDA had taken the championship away from,Hiromu Takahashi. The match received high praise however the Ace was unable to recapture the championship as Ospreay was successful in securing the championship for the second time.
KUSHIDA had mixed fortunes in 2018 in New Japan which would be his final full year with the promotion,mostly being confined to multi man tag matches in the early stages of the year before unsuccessfully stepping up to challenge Will Ospreay at the second night of Wrestling Dontaku. KUSHIDA then entered what we now know to be his final BOSJ of his 8 year run with the company,defeating Marty Scurll,SHO,El Desperado and Dragon Lee putting himself in contention for a spot in the final before missing out to eventual block winner and overall BOSJ winner Hiromu Takahashi and as a result of the defeat finished a very respectable second in the B Block. From here KUSHIDA returned mainly to tag action before an unfortunate injury to IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion vacated the championship and set up a tournament with the 4 previous championship holders,of which included the time splitter. KUSHIDA defeated BUSHI in a tournament semi final match at Destruction in Kobe before being victorious over
“The Villain” Marty Scurll at King Of Pro Wrestling to win his 6th championship levelling him up in number of reigns with the legendary Tiger Mask IV. KUSHIDA then entered the Super Junior Tag League alongside Chris Sabin forming a highly entertaining partnership,picking up wins over CMLL duo El Soberano jr and Volador jr,ACH and Ryusuke Taguchi and NJPW junior legends Jushin Thunder Liger and Tiger Mask. However one defeat that proved to be very costly was against the Bullet Club pairing of Robbie Eagles and Taiji Ishimori,Ishimori pinned the reigning junior champion and stepped up to be the next challenger for the championship at Wrestle Kingdom 13. KUSHIDA would find himself on the losing end of multiple multiman tag team matches against the Bullet Club and Wrestle Kingdom challenger Ishimori during the World Tag League tour and these misfortunes continued on to the final stop before the dome at the second Road To Tokyo Dome show at Korakuen Hall. At Wrestle Kingdom 13,Ishimori defeated KUSHIDA and in the process won his first IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship in a slightly disappointing match that due to time constraints on such a packed card didn’t really get the time it deserved. In the days that followed KUSHIDA’s departure from New Japan was announced and his final match was set,a special singles match against long time tag partner and friend and also current reigning IWGP Heavyweight Champion,the long time Ace of the Heavyweight division Hiroshi Tanahashi at the January 29th Road To New Beginning show at Korakuen Hall. Ultimately the Ace of the Junior division would come up short against the Heavyweight Ace in a near 25 minute contest, finally submitting to a cloverleaf. The match was a high quality emotionally charged contest which I highly recommend checking out,despite some post match villainous antics by “Switchblade” Jay White, KUSHIDA was able to say a final, emotional goodbye to New Japan Pro Wrestling after a high successful 8 year run with the promotion.
KUSHIDA’s departure leaves multiple questions unanswered, such as where will he end up? I’m not a huge fan of the current WWE product so his impending switch there doesn’t particularly excite me,however if he was to end up on the NXT brand there are plenty of intriguing match up’s on the brand with possible opponents such as Ricochet, Adam Cole, Kyle O’Reilly and Johnny Gargano being a select few of interesting encounters. Another option could be 205 Live,this admittedly is not a show I watch however with KUSHIDA’s inclusion could persuade me to do otherwise and could be the shot in the arm the brand needs to get to the next level with several interesting possibilities including a potentially mouthwatering clash between KUSHIDA and Akira Tozawa. On the New Japan side of things there is a huge hole in the Junior division that needs filling, KUSHIDA has left, Ospreay as NEVER Openweight champion looks destined for a heavyweight push. Reigning Champion Ishimori has lots of potential to carry the division, Hiromu Takahashi whenever his return is a huge star for the division but also seemingly has heavyweight aspirations,meaning the likes of El Desperado,Yoshinobu Kanemaru and newly minted junior heavyweight and one half of the junior tag team champions Shingo Takagi will need to step up and show their singles credentials among many others. The promotions relationship with ROH also poses some interesting new additions to the junior division with the impending honor rising tour such as Lifeblood faction members Bandido, Mark Haskins, Tracy Williams who will make his New Japan debut during the New Beginning in USA Tour and also arguably one over the best and most underrated junior heavyweight’s in the world Jonathan
Gresham who also debuts on the tour alongside Williams. Arguably the net could be cast further to the Rev-Pro relationship with the likes of British Junior Heavyweight Champion David Starr, El Phantasmo and many top european talents chomping at the bit to get the opportunity. Whatever the future may hold for KUSHIDA, I wish him all the best and good luck in his next venture and hope to see him in a New Japan ring again someday.