While 2015 was a good year for New Japan, there were more than a few ups and downs and not everything went to plan, nor was the praise for the top promotion in Japan quite as vociferous as it has been in previous years, but one of the biggest complaints about the NJPW product was stagnation. There were chances that could have been taken, but weren’t, and stories that the promotion was locked into and coudn’t move on from until delivering the grand finale. It’s a new year, however, and with Wrestle Kingdom 10, New Year’s Dash and the shocking news of WWE’s talent raid of some top New Japan stars, there’s definite change on the wind. It’s hard to predict what will happen next, but here’s a few things I’m looking forward to in 2016 and would like to see happen:
Best of the Super Jr’s 2016 – there’s some top talent in the NJPW Jr. Heavyweight division, but in recent years the excitement of the Best of the Super Jr’s tournament has been almost entirely focussed on who from outside of the promotion will enter. This year’s should be exceptional, with both Ricochet & Matt Sydal now regularly competing in New Japan and presumably both are set for the tournament. Also, David Finlay made his NJPW debut in last year’s BoSJ and I’d like to see him return to the field, but this time alongside fellow Young Lion Jay White who has impressed a lot over the past year. While last year’s tournament did see entries from New Japan’s foreign partners (Barbaro Cavernario & Mascara Dorada from CMLL and reDRagon of Bobby Fish & Kyle O’Reilly from ROH) this year there’s one name in particular from NJPW’s UK partner, Revolution Pro, who I would very much like to see included. That would be one Will Ospreay, who surely has to be on New Japan’s radar after a fantastic match with current IWGP Heavyweight Champion, ‘The Rainmaker’ Kazuchika Okada. Seeing young Ospreay wowing the Japanese crowd and getting to compete with some of the best high-flyers in the business today on such a grand stage would be a real treat.
The NEVER Openweight Title – while Tomohiro Ishii was a great fit for the NEVER belt, you always felt there was an upper limit to what they can do with Ishii. He’s a fantastic bruiser of a wrestler, but is rather one-dimensional in his wrestling style. He’s an absolute warrior, battling through numerous injuries over the past few years, but he’s also 40 years old and time is ever-ticking. Katsuyori Shibata, meanwhile, is the prodigal son returned. Shibata’s been back a while now and has buried the hatchet with his old rival, Hiroshi Tanahashi, which is symbolic of how Shibata has atoned for the decision to quit New Japan back in 2004. Now firmly welcomed back into the fold, Shibata has captured his first ever singles title in wrestling and (while the feud with Ishii looks set to continue) with Shibata there’s a chance for New Japan to elevate the belt further and build on all the great work guys like Ishii put in. Last year the belt got to main event a NJPW show with Makabe as champion and now Shibata’s the champion I hope to see more NEVER main events in 2016.
The G1 Climax for the twenty-sixth year of the most prestigious tournament in professional-wrestling, I’d like to see a more focused field. The 2014 tournament was the largest in history with 22 participants, while the 2015 tournament had 20 participants but was the longest ever and spanned a total of nineteen shows! Not only was this exhausting for the talent, it was at times exhausting to follow along as a fan. For 2016 New Japan have announced that the final three nights will again be in Ryogoku Kokugikan, but there’s no word yet on the size and scope of the tournament. I think cutting the size of the blocks is the answer, 8 per block seems like a good number. Also, last year’s tournament saw the block matches spread out by meaningless multi-man tags, which served to preview the next day’s G1 matches. This was a good idea in theory, but it made some of the shows more of a struggle to get through and I’d like to see a return to the traditional format, where each show is almost entirely made up of G1 block matches.
Kenny Omega – with the dramatic events at New Year’s Dash, Kenny Omega elevated himself to the top of the (now diminished) ranks of The Bullet Club. So far in his NJPW career ‘The Cleaner’ has proven to be a flamboyant character some would call cartoonish, like an anime villain come to life, and it’ll be very interesting to see how he adapts to leading the stable. Not to mention making the step up to the heavyweight division, which should be no trouble for someone with the in-ring talent of Omega. It also poses some very intriguing matches, not least the IWGP Intercontinental Title challenge Omega put out to Shinsuke Nakamura, which could prove to be ‘The King of Strong Style’s send-off from New Japan Pro-Wrestling.
The Tag Divisions – Wrestle Kingdom 10 saw new IWGP Heavyweight & IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Champions crowned, with both The Young Bucks & G.B.H. coming away from the Tokyo Dome with gold, but 2015 wasn’t the most memorable year for either division. For the Jr. Heavyweight Tag division in 2016 I’d like to see more of a focus on feuds. The past year saw the belts change hands five times and it felt a bit like a game of hot potato with the belts changing hands between similar teams in similar matches, but the one constant was The Young Bucks who recaptured the belts at Wrestle Kingdom 10 and this year will hopefully see them involved in a deeper storyline as they look set to take more prominent roles in the Bullet Club, Omega & The Bucks now calling themselves ‘The Elite’. For the Heavyweight Tag division I’d like to see more permanent tag teams established, as the newly created NEVER 6-man Tag Titles only dilute the pool of available teams. I also wouldn’t mind seeing new champions Honma & Makabe answer challenges from outside of New Japan. A G.B.H. vs Strong Big Japan match could be very interesting indeed.
YOSHI-HASHI I can’t really articulate why, but I’m a fan of YOSHI. He seems like a fairly quiet, unassuming character outside of the ring and has often struggled to make any sort of lasting impact in New Japan competition. YOSHI spends most of his year as the fall guy for CHAOS in multi-man tags and rarely wrestles in singles competition (he had just four singles matches in 2015), but when he has been given a chance (his match on the final night of the G1 vs Big Mike, for example, or his performance in the tag league this past December) YOSHI-HASHI has shown he can get the crowd behind him and has shown some good improvement along the way. At 33 and with no real accolades to his name (unless you count being married to Ayumi Kurihara) it’s difficult to envision him rising much further in the ranks of CHAOS and NJPW, but there’s definitely more to be done with the often under-appreciated ‘Monkey King’ of New Japan and I’m hoping 2016 (the year of the monkey!) is his year. First and foremost, we need to see YOSHI in more singles matches, ideally with a spot in the New Japan Cup or G1 Climax, but I wouldn’t complain if every so often they had him wrestle some of the Young Lions in singles bouts. Secondly, while pairing him with Okada has afforded YOSHI some good opportunities in tag competition, with The Rainmaker focussed on the top singles title in New Japan perhaps it would be more beneficial for YOSHI-HASHI to be paired with other CHAOS members as a more permanent tag team. Ishii, perhaps, or Toru Yano. Lastly, I’d like to see more of a chance for YOSHI to develop a character. Even an updated look would be a good step, but as it is there seems to be minimal effort to present YOSHI-HASHI in a better light, which is a shame I’d say.
Young Lions – following along with the rookies in NJPW (affectionately referred to as Young Lions) and watching their progress is always one of the highlights of the New Japan year and 2016 looks set to be a good one, as Sho Tanaka & Yohei Komatsu ready themselves for their learning excursion to CMLL two new Young Lions, Hirai Kawato & Teruaki Kanemitsu, make their debuts. Plus, new signings Kitamura (a former freestyle wrestling champion) and Tomoyuki Oka (a current national Japanese wrestling champion) also join the NJPW Dojo and may debut this year. They join the current pack of Jay White, David Finlay, Juice Robinson & Cody Hall, who all showed some great improvement last year and will be looking to make a bigger impact in 2016. With quite a few young talents now at their disposal, I would definitely like to see New Japan do more to highlight the quality their rookies currently possess. More singles matches would be a good step, but I’d personally like to see a return of the Young Lion Cup, a fairly irregular tournament in NJPW (there have only been 13 held since 1985 and the last was in 2005), but one that could definitely have some appeal, especially if New Japan’s ‘Lions Road’ sub-promotion gets off the ground.
To follow along with what’s sure to be an eventful 2016 for New Japan Pro-Wrestling, sign up to NJPW World over at: http://njpwworld.com for just ¥999 a month.