After Long Climb to the Top, Main Event Belongs to Tetsuya Naito at Wrestle Kingdom 15

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Tetsuya Naito headlines the first night of the upcoming Wrestle Kingdom 15, a two-night affair that is the crown jewel of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s slate of shows each year.

As the reigning IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Champion, Naito is the current face of the company, a spot where countless New Japan officials always believed he would find himself. But the route to the top of the New Japan hierarchy was not a linear one for Naito, who has spent the past decade-and-a-half proving that, while the opponent may change, the main event belongs to him.

Naito closed out this past January’s Wrestle Kingdom 14 with a match against Kazuchika Okada. This was a winner-take-all bout for the Heavyweight and Intercontinental titles, and one that belongs on any and every list for match of the year. Though Naito dropped the belts this past July to EVIL at Dominion, he regained the double gold 48 days later at Summer Struggle in Jingu, and now returns to the Tokyo Dome to defend what he seized control of a year ago.

But not unlike Roman Reigns in WWE, the trip to the top of the company was a long, arduous climb that appeared destined to end in defeat.

Initially designed to be New Japan’s next babyface star, the crowd balked at Naito’s promos and matches, never fully investing in the character. So Naito was sent on a talent excursion sojourn to hone his craft overseas. After a disastrous turn in Impact Wrestling, where emerging stars like Naito and Okada were jobbed out like the second comings of Barry Horowitz (which is still the cause of genuine vitriol from New Japan officials toward Impact), Naito then started working in Mexico’s historic CMLL promotion in 2009. His ensuing stretch in New Japan is where he began to find some singles success, then returned to Mexico for a run that continues to permeate throughout the industry.

Tetsuya Naito_courtesy NJPW

In 2015, Naito joined CMLL’s growing heel faction, Los Ingobernables. Led by Rush, who is currently the reigning world champion in Ring of Honor, and La Sombra, who now stars in WWE as Andrade, adding Naito to the mix was a perfect fit. He had been mocked incessantly by members of the crowd, cruelly insulting his appearance, which he turned into an opportunity that allowed him to develop a sharp, convincing and unique edge to his presentation.

“The crowd in Mexico, which is full of heels, thought all Asians had little eyes,” Naito told Sports Illustrated through a translator in 2016. “The fans at the arena would scream, ‘Open your eyes!’ at me.”

So Naito fed off the crowd, and created one of his signature Tranquilo trademarks, which is opening his eyes wide to see what is around him.

“That is why I open my eyes—to mock that crowd,” said Naito.

Naito’s gesture of defiance forever changed his future. Back in New Japan, he created Los Ingobernables de Japan, a stable that remains red-hot entering its sixth year.

Now, on the precipice of 2021, Naito has the opportunity to headline both nights of Wrestle Kingdom 15. He first wrestles the phenomenal Kota Ibushi on Jan. 4, then looks to create history on night two against “Switchblade” Jay White by becoming the first-ever IWGP Heavyweight Champion to successfully defend his titles at Wrestle Kingdom on consecutive nights.

“This is my chance to prove to the world that the very center of New Japan Pro Wrestling, its very heart, is Los Ingobernables De Japon and Tetsuya Naito,” Naito told Sports Illustrated through a translator. “That is what I want to do. That is what I will do.”

The victory over Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 14 was more than just a title win. It was overcoming one of the brightest stars throughout the industry.

“The main event of the Tokyo Dome is a spot every New Japan wrestler strives for,” said Naito, who defeated Jay White on the first night of Wrestle Kingdom, then issued the classic with Okada on night two. “Kazuchika Okada as an opponent has a special significance to me, and that was a chance to show the fans in the Dome and television and internet audience all over the world just who I really am. I was incredibly happy to be in that position, and I do not think I’ll ever forget the crowd chanting my name after I won.”

While the mere idea of delivering a better match or more magical a moment seems outlandish, the goal for Naito is to create an in-ring bout even more compelling after a year of battles as champion. And a massive advantage entering this match is his history and chemistry with Ibushi, whose reckless abandon in the ring serves as the perfect foil for Naito.

“Wrestling him is always exciting,” said Naito. “I always enjoy our matches.”

Ibushi won his second straight G1 Climax this past fall, which put him in the title match against Naito. But the title contract earned from winning the G1 is defended in New Japan, something WWE recently adopted with their Money in the Bank contract, and Ibushi lost his shot this past November in a match against White, who blocked Ibushi’s attempt at a Kamigoye and then used his feet on the ropes to score the pin. Despite that loss, Naito is still meeting Ibushi on the opening night of Wrestle Kingdom, which leads to the winner inevitably facing an even more daunting challenge against White on Jan. 5.

“Winning the G1 Climax in back-to-back years, that is an incredible achievement,” said Naito. “But unfortunately for Ibushi, he isn’t the top guy in New Japan Pro Wrestling. He is handsome, amazing body, incredible athlete, strong, a great wrestler. But for some reason, he has not made it to the very top. Until he can realize why, he will not be able to beat me.”

On a global scale, this past year has been extremely difficult. COVID-19 has inhumanely taken away lives, and a recent outbreak in Japan may force Wrestle Kingdom to severely restrict its crowd at the Tokyo Dome.

“There is a lot of uncertainty,” said Naito. “Even if we had to do it in an empty arena, I would still want to wrestle. I want to show my style of professional wrestling to the world, and maybe bring a smile to the people that are suffering because of this pandemic.

“The whole crowd chanting ‘Los Ingobernables de Japon’ with me after I win, that is something I still think about that. One day soon, everyone will be yelling it with everything they have.”

Naito continues to draw inspiration from his friend and LIJ partner Hiromu Takahashi.

Takahashi suffered what appeared to be a career-ending neck injury in the summer of 2018, yet returned to wrestling last December and, incredibly, found a way to return to his elite status in the ring.

“I thought that even if he made it back to the ring, he might not be able to compete at the top-flight anymore,” said Naito, who will make time to watch Takahashi wrestle El Phantasmo on the first night of Wrestle Kingdom 15. “But he did not give up. He never quit, and with all that effort, he is able to compete right at the top of the card. He really taught me how important it is to persevere.”

Only days away from a showdown with Ibushi, a wrestler hungry to finally claim the main event spot as his own, Naito is beginning to plan out his upcoming year, which he says will include individual title defenses for both the Heavyweight and Intercontinental titles.

“I want to defend them separately,” said Naito. “I want to show the fans every bit the wrestler I am.

“If fans are drawn to me, that means they are drawn to Los Ingobernables de Japon, and to New Japan Pro Wrestling. This is my chance for more people to get to know the New Japan Pro Wrestling that I love so much.”

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