For the last two years NJPW have had their ‘Big Four’ headliners who are Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kazuchika Okada, Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles. They have dominated the main events and the title pictures. With Tanahashi, Okada and Styles continuously battling over the IWGP title, while Nakamura did a sterling job in making the I-C title into something important and a title that can be used to headline major shows.
But now things have changed, AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura announced that they were leaving NJPW just before the start of this year’s Tokyo Dome and have now wrestled their final matches for NJPW at least for now. Tanahashi suffered a serious shoulder injury during a six man tag during one of the Fantastica Mania shows and really should from all accounts take time off and have surgery.
Although Hiroshi Tanahashi is continuing to wrestle and will face Kenny Omega at the New Beginnings show at Sendai this month for the vacant I-C title it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that he will have to sit out for a period of time. It would be a massive issue for NJPW if Tanahashi were to miss this year’s G1 Climax which will take place in July and August.
So 2016 could be a pivotal year in the future of NJPW as they will be forced to move away from what has been a fairly predictable series of matches although they have almost always delivered. You cannot really see the appeal of carrying on the Okada vs. Tanahashi rivalry which has main evented three of the last four Tokyo Dome shows. Especially with Okada’s victory this year seemingly ending this particular chapter and acting as a passing of the torch moment.
Risks will need to be taken and new names will need to be moved up into the main event picture not out of choice but out of necessity. So the question is, who are the best choices and what could NJPW look like for the rest of 2016. Let’s look at the four leading options.
Kenny Omega – NJPW see him as the replacement for AJ Styles as the leader of the Bullet Club, the angle at the New Year’s Dash show where the Bullet Club turned on Styles was really well done. Omega also got a major win in a tag match on that show by pinning Nakamura and a well thought out promo explaining why he attacked Styles and why he was moving up to Heavyweight made complete sense. From a size point of view, he’s not any smaller than AJ so that really shouldn’t be held against him and he’s certainly talented and charismatic.
The unknown factor though is if he can deliver in NJPW main events, he won’t get a better chance to make his case than his match against Tanahashi at New Beginnings whether he wins or loses. Although if NJPW do see him as someone who they can put in regular main events then he should really go over. What will be key for Omega is if the fan base see him as a serious player and a big star. The main criticism for Kenny Omega is that he is too wacky and over the top with his mannerisms which will need to be toned down for him to be truly effective. I don’t think Omega will have any problems slightly tweaking his style and coming across as more serious for if he does, then he could be greatly rewarded.
Tetsuya Naito – His change of persona in 2015 was a tremendous success and therefore he stands out from the rest of the NJPW roster. The ‘I Don’t Care’ gimmick is something that he completely embodies and you just want someone to badly kick his ass. The feud last autumn against Katsuyori Shibata had the potential to be fantastic but seemed to be cut short with Naito getting the win.
A surprising loss to Hirooki Goto at the Tokyo Dome didn’t seem to make much sense apart from it put Goto into the first title match against Okada after the Dome show. What it also did was to take away some steam from Naito. His character is definitely clicking with the NJPW audience and although he’s not quite as dynamic in the ring due to his new in-ring personality he can still deliver great and heated matches when giving the opportunity. I’d like to see Naito win the New Japan Cup and go on to challenge Okada at Invasion Attack for the title. I think 2016 will be a great year for Naito and I would be surprised if he didn’t win either the IWGP title or the G1 tournament this year.
Kota Ibushi – The man with the X factor was having an amazing 2015 until an injury curtailed all the fun, it’s still not clear when Ibushi will be able to return to the ring but honestly it can’t come soon enough. His biggest and most important matches of 2015 all delivered massively, the 2015 Dome match against Nakamura was widely accepted as the Match of the Year.
He was then given and went onto prove he could draw in a sold out main event masterpiece against AJ Styles in a losing IWGP title effort at Invasion Attack. The last of his key matches was against Tanahashi on the first night of the G1 tournament. Every time he held his end of the bargain was accepted by the fans as someone who should and could be mixing it up in the main events. The biggest question for NJPW is if they want to push someone who is also contracted to the DDT promotion. But for me the many benefits of a pushed Ibushi far outweighs any negatives.
Katsuyori Shibata – The man simply known as ‘The Wrestler’ is finally starting to lose his label as an outsider. Which frankly in my opinion was being held against him for far too long. Although he’s not that big, he has that real vibe of someone that can kick your ass and works generally a stiffer style than most.
It’s probably a fair point that his recent matches against Tomohiro Ishii have been too stiff, they don’t really need to do those ram style head-butts that do actually make you cringe watching them. Expect another one of those scary battles at New Beginnings Osaka show this month.
He’s also just won the NEVER title from Ishii (that’s seen as the 3rd singles title) so it might be expecting too much for Shibata to move from the NEVER title into IWGP title matches this year even though I don’t think that many people would believe he wasn’t capable of pulling it off. A lot of fans, including myself think that NJPW have been too cautious in their booking of Shibata so far but now could be the perfect time for him to take his main event spot.