Kota Ibushi Looks to Finally Capture IWGP Heavyweight Title at 'Wrestle Kingdom 15'

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In just a few days, Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi could both be world champions.

Omega is the reigning AEW World Champion, and his former Golden Lovers partner Ibushi is preparing for his IWGP Heavyweight Championship match against Tetsuya Naito on the opening night of Wrestle Kingdom 15.

“I am getting myself in good shape mentally, technically, and physically,” Ibushi told Sports Illustrated through a translator. “I’m trying to get back to the basics and get back to the roots of who I am as a wrestler.”

Kota Ibushi_courtesy NJPW

Naito is New Japan’s double champ, holding both the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental titles. He spent the majority of 2020 as the face of the company following his Wrestle Kingdom 14 main event against Kazuchika Okada, finally seizing hold of the company’s top spot. That match was so special, featuring spectacular storytelling and a relentless pace, as well as a title change, it even overshadowed the majestic in-ring display that took place between Okada and Ibushi during the opening night of last year’s Wrestle Kingdom.

Ibushi lost that bout, then went on a tear that led him to his second consecutive G1 Climax victory this fall. Following New Japan’s three-and-a-half month pause of live shows due to restrictions surrounding COVID-19, Ibushi elevated his work to another level during the G1, especially in bouts against Shingo Takagi, Minoru Suzuki, and Taichi.

“The match against Taichi was my favorite,” said Ibushi. “It was all kicks. I don’t think there’s been another match like it. I was just determined to beat him purely with kicks.”

Following his victory against Sanada in the finals, Ibushi etched his name into New Japan history by winning the G1 for a second consecutive year.

“I am proud of myself being the third wrestler to get two consecutive wins after Masahiro Chono and Hiroyoshi Tenzan, and the first wrestler in wrestling history to make three consecutive finals,” said Ibushi. “That’s something neither Naito nor Jay White can say they’ve achieved.”

Ibushi’s hot streak came to a halt this past November when he lost his Wrestle Kingdom title contract to White, who used the top rope for leverage to win the match and take possession of the title shot. But Naito, as a fighting champion—a departure from his former cold-blooded persona—is still taking on Ibushi on Jan. 4, with the winner facing White the following night.

New Japan has now put itself in a position where the main event picture is filled with Naito, Ibushi and White. And the story makes sense, with the possibility existing that Ibushi capitalizes on Naito’s benevolence and defeats him for the belt, then exacts revenge on White the following night.

More than any other performers on the entire two-night card, Ibushi and Naito have an incredible chemistry together. Both stand among the top wrestlers in the world, dedicated and devoted to the craft, but each has taken significantly different routes to the main event of Wrestle Kingdom. And Ibushi, who is known for his willingness to put his body on the line in all of his matches, takes particular joy in going to the extreme against Naito.

“I go out to have the best match possible,” said Ibushi. “So I’m going to wrestle the best match again this time.”

In order to achieve his wide-ranging goals in the industry, Ibushi needs a run with the IWGP Heavyweight Championship to cement his legacy. After two straight G1 victories, it appears now is the time for New Japan to go the distance with Ibushi.

“If a belt says IWGP on it, I want it around my waist,” said Ibushi. “The wrestler I’ll be in 10 years from now is being made here, today. That’s why being the best I can be and realizing the importance of right now is key to me.”

Ibushi can carry a match in a manner that only few others from across the entire profession can match. The major question, one that still remains unanswered, is whether he can carry a company as champion.

“I’ve spoken a lot before about broadening the possibilities for pro wrestling,” said Ibushi. “I think this is the most important opportunity in my career, and hopefully will help me achieve that goal. That’s not only a dream that I’m able to achieve through my own vision for pro wrestling, but it’s also the best way I can give back to all the fans that have supported me.”

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