Week in Wrestling: Tetsuya Naito discusses WWE; CM Punk's wrestling future and Jinder Mahal's rise to stardom

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NJPW looks to make history with "G1 Special In USA"
Wednesday May 24th, 2017

Will Tetsuya Naito wrestle John Cena or Brock Lesnar?

Tetsuya Naito is IWGP Intercontinental champion, as well as a former IWGP heavyweight champion in New Japan Pro Wrestling. Naito is the head of the villainous Los Ingobernables de Japon, which is a group designed to wreak chaos and havoc. Naito defends his Intercontinental title against New Japan “Ace” Hiroshi Tanahashi at the upcoming Dominion show on June 11, and he spoke with Sports Illustrated about top stars in WWE, his superiority over IWGP heavyweight champion Kazuchika Okada, and his issues with Bullet Club leader Kenny Omega.

Professional wrestling is a cutthroat, competitive industry, both in the United States and around the world.

IWGP Intercontinental champion Tetsuya Naito was asked if he ever compares himself to the elite talent from WWE, and, more specifically, how he would match up with John Cena and Brock Lesnar.

“Of course, I know of them, but, unfortunately, I have no interest,” said Naito. “To me, New Japan is the foremost pro wrestling in the world. Entering the ring here means you are the world’s best, so to be a New Japan wrestler speaks for itself.”

Courtesy of NJPW

New Japan Pro Wrestling arrives in the United States this summer in California on July 1 for a live show on AXS TV. Audiences have grown familiar with WWE’s version of wrestling, which is sports entertainment. Yet the physically demanding, realistic “strong style” of New Japan is a unique alternative for wrestling fans.

“New Japan Pro Wrestling, but more specifically, Los Ingobernables de Japon, will show American wrestling fans a truly electric experience in the ring,” said Naito. “The matches are going to captivate and excite like no other, good luck trying to blink.”

Naito runs Los Ingobernables de Japon, which translates to “The Ungovernables”, and he was asked to describe his LIJ faction to the North American audience.

“Even though the matches coming up will be in America, what we’ll show everyone is the exact same thing we show here,” said Naito. “So I want everyone in America to make sure their eyes are open and on us when we are in the ring. I want you all to enjoy what Los Ingobernables de Japon are all about.”

Although Naito believes he is the most talented wrestler in New Japan Pro Wrestling, it is Kazuchika Okada who wears the coveted IWGP title.

“Okada and I walk along different paths,” said Naito. “Mine is a path he could never tread, it’s a much longer and steeper journey than his. I feel like this is a path that only I am able to take.”

Naito soundly defeated New Japan “Ace” Hiroshi Tanahashi in January at Wrestle Kingdom, and their rematch is set for the Dominion show on June 11, which will air live on New Japan World.

“I really don’t have much motivation going into this match with him,” admitted Naito. The match was in doubt due to Tanahashi suffering a ruptured bicep tendon, but he is scheduled to return to action two nights beforehand, on June 9, to test his physical limits. “Tanahashi is the one who has to make sure he’s in shape and puts in the effort. I didn’t even want to accept his challenge this time. I don’t know what gives him the right to challenge again. But you know New Japan, this crazy ass company, they’ll bend over backwards for Tanahashi.”

Naito’s rivals are not limited to Okada and Tanahashi. Revenge against Bullet Club leader Kenny Omega is also on Naito’s itinerary. His loss to Omega in last summer’s 26th Annual G1 Climax, Naito explained, was nothing more than a fluke.

“Kenny ought to thank me,” noted Naito, who only needed a time-limit draw in the match with Omega but instead chose to fight nobly in the contest. Omega won the match with only 108 seconds left before a time-limit draw. “If I had played for time more and went for the draw, he wouldn’t have won the G1.”

Naito was also asked how the wildly popular Bullet Club compares with his LIJ. The juxtaposition, he noted, is not favorable for Omega and company.

“Trying to compare us?” asked an incredulous Naito, whose LIJ consists of himself, Evil, Sanada, Bushi and IWGP junior heavyweight champion Hiromu Takahashi. “Both in terms of strength as individuals and as a unit, you can’t compare us with them. Bullet Club is way past their prime, whereas we are still growing stronger and developing.”

Courtesy of NJPW

Naito is a firm believer that he will, once again, win the IWGP championship belt, and he has no doubts that LIJ will continue to dominate New Japan Pro Wrestling both in Japan and abroad.

“Sooner or later, the IWGP championship will cross my path again,” said Naito. “Perhaps sooner, rather than later. It’ll feel good to toss that thing around again.

“You asked me why Los Ingobernables de Japon is the most dominant group in the world? Maybe you can already guess my answer to that. You could worry all you want about how, or why we’re the best. In the meantime, I’ll be over here, tranquilo as ever.”

Could CM Punk’s return to pro wrestling be imminent?

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5 Star Wrestling founder Daniel Hinkles is making a million dollar offer for Punk to return to the ring.

“5 Star Wrestling is having a 128-man tournament over the next 30 weeks to determine our champion,” said Hinkles. “There has never been a tournament this big, and we’re going to bring in every top-tier wrestler that we can. We all know there is one number-one free agent in the world, and that is CM Punk.

“We want to create the best shows and best moments in the world. We’re going to be live on national TV, and we’re offering $1 million to CM Punk to be part of this tournament. His return to wrestling will be a moment that is absolutely memorable, and every fan would love to see it.”

The 31-year-old Hinkles is the creator and co-owner of 5 Star Wrestling, which actually began in 2011 as a video game development company.

“We made a video game called Wrestling Manager,” said Hinkles. “You put on the shows, book talent, sign TV deals, and we launched it on the iPhone and it topped the charts. Then we made a game on Playstation 3 and PlayStation 4 called 5 Star Wrestling. In order to start promoting the video game, we started promoting shows.”

5 Star Wrestling had its first show in 2015, featuring a main event of John Morrison vs. Ricochet.

“That was our starter show, and that’s when we made the announcement that AJ Styles would be coming to 5 Star Wrestling,” said Hinkles. “Last year, in January, we did a three-day tour, and we had Rey Mysterio vs. A.J. Styles, which was incredible. We also crowned the first-ever 5 Star champion in a match between John Morrison and A.J. Styles in another dream match of sorts. Morrison won and is still champion.

“The lineups for those shows were the who’s who of independent wrestling. Mysterio, Styles, Morrison, PJ Black, Colt Cabana, Carlito, and Jay Lethal all flew in from the U.S., as well the best up-and-coming British stars at the time–guys like Will Ospreay before he’d gone to New Japan, Jimmy Havoc, who signed with TNA for a brief time shortly after the tour, Big Damo before he went to NXT, Zack Sabre Jr. before he entered WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic, and Marty Scurll before he won the Battle of Los Angeles. We also had Joe Coffey, who’s now the ICW champ, and Zack Gibson, who recently appeared on ITV’s World of Sport revival with Grado, who was also on the tour. The roster was stacked, and all those guys went on to have banner years, including Styles, who left our show and turned up in WWE two weeks later.”

5 Star’s most recent show was held this past January and aired live on Spike TV, marking the first-ever British wrestling show to air live in primetime on a Sunday night.

“We’ve only run five shows, but at the end of our last show, 5 Star Wrestling champion John Morrison grabbed the mic and said to the world, ‘I’m going to do something no one else has ever done. I’m going to defend this title against 128 guys over 30 weeks.’ That tournament kicks off on June 10, and it will run all across the U.K. until the finals at Manchester Arena on December 30.”

CM Punk would generate major headlines for 5 Star, especially since the promotion lost top performer Drew Galloway to NXT.

“We want to create moments,” said Hinkles. “Moments that have never before happened in wrestling.”

Hinkles admitted that he has yet to speak with Punk directly, but that the time will arrive–and soon–when they connect.                                                             

“I want to hear from the man,” said Hinkles. “There is a huge opportunity to be worked out here, one that could be much bigger than the $1 million offer on the table. If after he’s heard what we have to offer and he’s not interested, then fair play to him. At least we’ll know we gave it a shot and he knew fully what he was turning down.”

In other news…

• For the first time in wrestling history, one man has truly transcended the business. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson hosted Saturday Night Live for the fifth time this past Saturday, and there is no other star that has shined brighter after a career in wrestling. Most wrestlers angle for the opportunity to return to WWE, while The Rock is treated with kid gloves–let’s not forget, he called CM Punk on speaker phone from inside a WWE ring and the incident was immediately forgiven–as his star power is even greater than WWE’s.

• Evidenced by his work in building Jinder Mahal into a main eventer, Vince McMahon is clearly still throwing his fast ball. Mahal’s Punjabi celebration added a unique flavor to SmackDown, and reminds me in some ways of the way built Yokozuna as world champ. Unlike Yoko, who was built off size, Mahal has the ability to deliver a compelling interview. He needs a lengthy run of at least six months as champ to appropriately cement himself as a legitimate player in WWE.

Goldust stated on Raw that he is back in the director’s chair, and watching how the character develops is an interesting plot in the 2017 wrestling scene. Will Goldust be given the freedom needed to allow his eccentric character to succeed? In even more important news, Dustin Runnels–who is the man beneath the gold face paint–just announced this past weekend that he is now nine years clean and sober.

• Lucha Underground returns with new episodes from season three next Wednesday on El Rey Network. El Rey president Daniel Tibbets spoke with Sports Illustrated to discuss the possibility of a fourth season of Lucha Underground:

“We are committed to the series as much as we always have been,” said Tibbets. “This is a wonderful, major brand for El Rey Network. We are in the middle of season three, and that is where our focus is currently. From a timing issue, this just is not the time to speak about season four. We are really focused on season three.”

Tibbets has produced thousands of episodes of television, which includes developing one of the biggest series in TV history in Rome, and has created tens of thousands of hours of original digital content. He knows the subtleties and nuances of television, and revealed that he believes Lucha Underground is an incredibly compelling show:

“I love this series,” said Tibbets. “I am actual fan. It’s a wonderful feeling to go to work every day to work on something you really love. It’s special for El Rey because it’s not just a wrestling show. It’s mixing AAA Wrestling with [El Rey owner] Robert Rodriguez’s cinematic storytelling. Lucha Underground is not just a wrestling show. It’s heroes and villains, it’s storytelling, and the dramatic storytelling creates a very heightened experience to make the wrestling even bigger. For me, a pure-play wrestling series doesn’t quite hit the layers and the complexities of Lucha Underground. It’s absolutely, perfectly right for El Rey and its audience.”

Jim Cornette joked that hell would freeze over during his return to the WWE Hall of Ceremony during WrestleMania 33 weekend, but he shared with SI that he experienced a warm homecoming during his trip back with Vince McMahon and Co. in Orlando.

“I had a great time,” said Cornette. “I saw a bunch of people that I really like and enjoyed working with, people I haven’t seen in 20 years. The guys in the production crew, the people that are still there, the lifers that are still there from when I was there. I also enjoyed seeing some of the boys who I never run across any more. I enjoyed seeing JBL. I never see him and I love him to death. I hadn’t seen John Cena in 15 years. That was nice, and I was treated very well and given every courtesy. The guests, they treat them wonderfully. It’s when you’re there for a while that things start to go south. I kid, I jest, I had a great time and it was for a great purpose. Not only did we put Ricky and Robert in the Hall of Fame, but we also called more attention to 80’s NWA Wrestling. That’s, to me, the bottom line.

“We all prosper when folks are more appraised of how great those matches were and how great those talents were from all of the guys who populated the NWA in the 80’s. We got shorted when it comes to recognition for the 80’s war. Everybody talks about the ‘Monday Night Wars’ and the ‘Attitude Era’, but it was neck and neck in the 80’s.”

Cornette, who can be heard every week on his Jim Cornette Experience podcast, returns to the Week in Wrestling notes section next week to discuss the Rock ‘N’ Roll Express and his “Dinner for Three” episode on the WWE Network with Michael P.S. Hayes and Eric Bischoff.

• New Japan Pro Wrestling is coming to the United States this summer, and AXS TV is set to live broadcast New Japan’s “G1 Special in the USA” on Saturday, July 1 at 8pm. The Saturday, July 2 show will air live on New Japan World, as well as on AXS the following Friday, July 7. The shows will be called by the AXS broadcast team of Jim Ross and Josh Barnett.

“This is going to be one of the most eagerly anticipated events that I have broadcast in my 40-plus year career,” said Ross, who is currently working for both AXS and WWE. “Restaurant-quality slobberknockers will be abundant during this historic weekend of pro wrestling excellence.”

In other major news, AXS will be airing more current content on their weekly New Japan show, starting with the Best of the Super Juniors and the G1 Climax 27 tournament.

• Cody Rhodes is hungry for the chance to fight Tetsuya Naito when New Japan comes to California in July:

“I don’t even know if it is contrasts, or just that it’s chaotic and abstract, but Naito is somebody I want to wrestle,” said Rhodes. “I kind of came in a little ignorant to his brilliance, and he’s one of those people who makes you know who he is right out of the gate, especially watching his tale with Tanahashi told right in front of me at Wrestle Kingdom. That’s one man in particular that I’d really like to stand across the ring from. He has that connection, that elusive connection. Some guys have it, some don’t, and he obviously really has it.”

Triple H’s conference call with assorted media members this past Friday also touched on the upcoming Mae Young Classic women’s tournament. The event, which will have commentary from Jim Ross, will take place at Full Sail Live in Orlando on July 13 and 14, then stream at a yet-to-be announced date on the WWE Network:

“Sometimes opportunities happen and doors open, and as the women’s tournament is evolving and growing, I cannot tell you how many women–from the past and current–are asking every day if they can be a part of this,” said Triple H, who also noted that WWE Hall of Famer Madusa will be a guest trainer at the Performance Center this week. “I feel this tournament is going to be a cultural event. I can’t wait to give these women the opportunity.”

Chris Jericho revealed last week during an interview on SiriusXM’s Busted Open Nation that the original plans pitched by Vince McMahon for WrestleMania 33 included a Universal title match between Jericho and Kevin Owens:

“Vince called me in [in December], he had a big idea,” explained Jericho. “I can probably say this now. The original idea… was for me and Kevin Owens to work at WrestleMania, for me to win the title, and then to lose it to Brock in Sacramento at the next pay per view, which was April 30… Then, as things go, the Goldberg factor started and things changed his mind.”

• Coming attractions: Rey Mysterio will be featured in next Wednesday’s Week in Wrestling, and SI.com will continue to run the “Five Questions with…” section next Monday with Neville.

Something to Wrestle with Conrad Thompson

Conrad Thompson and Bruce Prichard return to the MLW airwaves this Friday at noon for the “Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard” podcast to discuss Eric Bischoff’s run in WWE beginning in 2002.

Bischoff debuted in 2002 as the surprise reveal of Raw’s new general manager. Though the role suited him well, there were arguably better opportunities for Bischoff to first appear, whether that would have been during the 2001 “Invasion” angle or when the WWE delivered the return of Hulk Hogan, Scott Hall, and Kevin Nash as the NWO in WWE in 2002.

“I would have liked to have had Bischoff debut during the Invasion angle in 2001,” said Thompson. “That would have been the most opportune time, have Eric Bischoff carrying the banner of WCW and trying to bury WWE, but it didn’t happen there. It also didn’t happen a year later in the WWE's NWO.”

Thompson explained that his line of questioning to Prichard will touch on Bischoff's now-famous audition with Titan in the late 80s before he ended up with World Championship Wrestling as a television announcer.

“We’ll also discuss how WWE's feelings changed toward Bischoff when he brought WCW to Disney and started Nitro, as well as the way he raised their ire by giving out Raw results and all the craziness that happened during the ‘Monday Night Wars’,” said Thompson. “And who the hell thought of the crazy idea to bring Bischoff into WWE? We'll hear who was for it and who was against it, and of course we’ll hit the high points like hot lesbian action, Three Minute Warning, the Billy and Chuck wedding, and everything in-between.”

Bischoff and Prichard, explained Thompson, became very close with each other in the WWE. Even if Bischoff had bought WCW and kept the company alive in 2001 instead of Vince McMahon, Thompson believes WCW would have ultimately suffered the same fate.

“What would have happened?” asked Thompson. “The same thing would have happened that happened every time, with World Class Championship Wrestling, the AWA, ECW, or WCW. It seems to me this is a one-horse race with WWE, inevitably, always owning everything.”

Thompson was then asked if WWE's history of buying their competition meant that he and Prichard will one day be running their show on a WWE-owned podcast network.

“They own everything else, so it’s hard to argue anything else,” said Thompson. “There will probably be an audio solution with WWE, so it’s not crazy to think that may exist. But, of course, WWE would want the best, and that’s Brother Love and the Mortgage Guy.”

Thompson is gearing up for his next live show with Prichard, which is on the precipice of selling out, and is on June 4 in Baltimore, Maryland.

“We’ve booked our surprise guest,” confirmed Thompson. “It’s a blast from the past and we’re very excited. We were able to have a really good time with our guests at the live show in Orlando, and I’m looking forward to what we have planned there. This will be my first visit to Jimmy’s Famous Seafood, and it feels like I’ve found my new favorite restaurant already with the hospitality they’ve shown. I’m looking forward to smashing some of these crab cakes.”

The Nitro Files: May 26, 1997

The Nitro Files with Eric Bischoff will delve into a moment from WCW’s Monday Nitro era. Bischoff–who was the president of WCW during the company’s most successful years–also hosts his weekly Bischoff on Wrestling” podcast with 120 Sports’ Nick Hausman, and has also created the IRW Network, which is currently highlighting over 1,500 hours of independent wrestling, and officially launches on June 1. Bischoff plans to prove every week in the Nitro Files that the truth is out there.

The May 26, 1997 Nitro was live from Nashville, Tennessee. After three weeks of one-hour shows due to the NBA playoffs on TNT, Nitro returned to its two-hour format–and the show featured two of wrestling’s greatest international stars of all time in Hulk Hogan and the Great Muta.

The Great Muta, who is one of the biggest stars of all time in Japan, appeared on Nitro as a surprise from Sonny Onoo to challenge Masahira Chono. Muta, who was known for his green mist, ended the night by turning on Onoo and donning the black and white of the NWO.

“The decision for Muta to join the NWO was as strategic a decision as it was creative,” said Bischoff, whose IRW Network launches on June 1. “It was important to me to bring in Mexican wrestlers, I wanted that Hispanic flavor and tone and presentation within our show. I wanted to have a Japanese influence and presence on our show, and I wanted Nitro to have an international appeal, much like WWE recently did with Jinder Mahal.

“It just made a tremendous amount of sense to bring Muta into the NWO and have him be part of the most important thing we were doing. That gave us the ability to expand our content into Japan, which we did successfully. A year later, I walked around a big shopping area in Shinjuku in Japan and saw people wearing NWO t-shirts. This was not only a good creative decision, it was an excellent strategic t-shirt that presented new opportunities in merchandising we otherwise wouldn’t have had.”

WCW champion “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan also returned to Nitro, and he taunted Sting throughout the program.

“Hulk got very comfortable in that heel role, but initially, it was very hard for him,” explained Bischoff. “He was so unsure how the fans would react after being so familiar seeing him as a babyface for so long. There was a big part of Hulk Hogan that loved being a heel, and once he connected to that character, and once the audience connected to that character, he thoroughly enjoyed it.”

Bischoff noted that Hogan offered a unique perspective of what characteristics worked best for a heel, as he spent two decades either watching, working, or searching for the perfect heel opponent.

“Hulk, as a top babyface for nearly 15 years, had the opportunity to work with some of the greatest heels in the business,” said Bischoff. “He saw a lot of things that he filed into his ‘heel folder’, and that included drawing from ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham, Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura, and Roddy Piper. He’d had the opportunity to work with some of the best heels in the business, and he filed a lot of that away. There was also a part of Terry Bollea’s real personality that he brought to the table that allowed him to let loose.”

Nitro ended with Sting physically confronting Bischoff, yet he was unable to reach Hogan. By this point, in May of 1997, Hogan knew the long-plan was for a main event with Sting at Starrcade in December and he was fully engaged in the process.

“Hulk was very comfortable with the character, with the direction of the NWO, and he was certainly comfortable with where the story was going,” said Bischoff. “He knew the story was working. He could imagine, based on the heel reactions he was getting, where the story would be in five months when the hottest babyface–who hadn’t worked in a long time–was going to be in the ring with him and that it was going to be successful.”

Tweet of the Week

Neville has returned to Twitter after five-month hiatus. He will also be appearing on SI.com next Monday for a Q&A.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.

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