Kota Ibushi’s Long Road to Becoming First IWGP World Heavyweight Champion

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Kota Ibushi celebrates in the ring at Wrestle Kingdom

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Kota Ibushi: “The possibilities are limitless with pro wrestling”

At the age of 11, Kota Ibushi made a promise to dedicate himself to a life in pro wrestling.

Nearly three decades later, Ibushi is the premier star of New Japan Pro-Wrestling.

His journey began in the Japanese fishing town of Kagoshima. Ibushi would watch as much wrestling as his parents allowed, relishing the chance to see junior heavyweights like The Great Sasuke and Jushin Thunder Liger. He still remembers the way his heart beat as Shinya Hashimoto wrestled Nobuhiko Takada in 1996, providing further inspiration to work his own magic on the mat.

“I was so happy with the moment Hashimoto regained the title,” Ibushi says through a translator, referencing the match from April 29, 1996, when Hashimoto started a year-plus title reign as IWGP heavyweight champion. “Takada was working for another company at the time, but he’d taken the IWGP heavyweight championship. When Hashimoto won, I cried tears of joy. That’s how seriously I watched wrestling.”

This week in Japan, amid much discussion of the look of the new belt, Ibushi was crowned the first IWGP world heavyweight champion. He won both the IWGP heavyweight and intercontinental championships on Jan. 4 in the Tokyo Dome on the first night of Wrestle Kingdom, then defeated “Switchblade” Jay White in his maiden defense in the main event of the two-night event.

Following Wrestle Kingdom, New Japan Pro-Wrestling unified the two titles, and the new IWGP world heavyweight championship was unveiled Tuesday at Korakuen Hall in Tokyo. For Ibushi, the moment brought back memories from life before fame, during a time when his father was still alive, when he embarked on a journey to become the golden star of New Japan Pro-Wrestling.

“When I held those belts for the first time at Wrestle Kingdom, I thought about all of that experience that got me to this point, both the good and the bad,” Ibushi says. “Most of all, I thought about my dad. He was my biggest fan, before he passed away in 2013.”

Ibushi’s father made his son vow that, if he was going to pursue this professional wrestling dream, then he needed to put his entire body and soul into the mission. So he left home in Kagoshima for what he then believed to be the opportunity of a lifetime: setting the plane interiors between flights at Narita International Airport.

“This brought me to be closer to Tokyo,” says Ibushi, who knew he needed to reach the epicenter of Japanese wrestling in order to achieve his dream. “I have fond memories from that. I used to hang out with my co-workers, and I’m still in touch with a lot of them.”

Despite being 38 years old, there is a boyish charm to Ibushi. This is visible in his work in the ring, a part of his personality that has helped him create a fan base around the globe.

And while fate seemingly brought Ibushi to pro wrestling, that does not mean this was his only option for success. One sport that nearly claimed Ibushi was kickboxing, where he was set to debut for the K-1 martial arts organization.

“At first, I only started kickboxing to help me become a pro wrestler,” says Ibushi, who was only two years into his wrestling career at that point. “I kept with it to the point I was set to make my debut in 2006 at K-1 World Max, but my opponent pulled out and the match was called off. So that was the end of my kickboxing career.”

Ibushi began his wrestling career in 2004, starting with DDT in Japan. His journey with New Japan began part-time in 2009, then full-time in 2013. He was always viewed as one of the most talented wrestlers on the roster, but there were internal concerns about how he would handle the responsibilities as IWGP heavyweight champion. Considering the elite nature of that title, which only nine different men have worn over the past 10 years, it is extraordinarily difficult to break through as champ. Yet WWE star AJ Styles, who is a proud two-time IWGP heavyweight champion, always believed that Ibushi would eventually hold the title.

“New Japan was waiting for Ibushi to be part of the team,” Styles says, referring to Ibushi’s brief sojourn away from the company—which even included a run in WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic tournament—from 2016 to 2018. “I could be wrong, but I think they wanted to do something permanently with him years ago. But he was so dedicated to his work for other companies, and he wouldn’t leave them hanging.”

Styles touched on what Ibushi needs to do in order to establish himself among the greats that have held New Japan’s most prestigious title.

“Everybody sees the talent, so all he needs to do now is keep being who he is,” Styles says. “That same guy that I was able to compete against a couple years ago, he’s still that same guy. He’s a hard worker, a great guy, and I’m happy to see him as the champ.”

Ibushi next defends his belt on Sunday at the Sakura Genesis show against New Japan Cup winner Will Ospreay, who is absurdly talented in the ring and plays the role of villain hauntingly well.

The role of hero is not one that Ibushi fixates on. Too much time playing a character, he noted, takes away from the essence of a performer. He prefers his style to be organic, like it was for the men he admired as champions.

“I don’t go into my matches thinking that I’m a hero or a villain,” says Ibushi. “I guess the way I wrestle, my style makes people believe in me as a good guy. Guys like Liger, Sasuke, Hayabusa were the same.”

Every wrestler in the world must thread a difficult needle. In order to succeed all performers need to somehow balance the desire to wrestle the way they want, while still satisfying the expectations and pressures of those who demand they work differently. Remaining authentic to your work is a critical piece of success in all walks of life, wrestling included.

This is especially relevant for Ibushi, who will need to be careful not to stray too far from the course that brought him to stardom. And it is an area that another former IWGP heavyweight champion, AEW superstar Kenny Omega, believes will define Ibushi as champion.

“For me, I learned there are three places of expectations as champion,” says Omega, who teamed with Ibushi throughout their careers as the Golden Lovers. “There is the expectation of what the fans want from you, there is the expectation of what you want for yourself, and then there is the expectation of what the company wants you to be. I always found that, when I was wrestling for myself, I was able to take things to a certain point. When I was wrestling for the company, I barely made any headway at all. I lost myself. I never found out who I was.

“It wasn’t until I tuned into what it was the fans were looking for—there is always something the fans are left wanting. If you can satisfy the hunger that hasn’t been satiated by the fans, and give them what they hunger for, or do it better than the person before you, that’s where you find your most success. That’s where you’ll find the passion, and then you can project that in your own performances.”

Omega is the current AEW champion. He is also AAA’s mega champion, and there is plenty of reason to believe he will also be the Impact Wrestling champion within the next month. Now that New Japan and AEW are beginning a working relationship, as evidenced by Kenta appearing on Dynamite, the prospect of a champion vs. champion meeting pitting Omega against Ibushi would headline a super card anywhere in the world.

Omega was asked what advice he would offer to Ibushi. Choosing his words carefully, from one champion to another, the former IWGP heavyweight champion offered some wisdom to the current IWGP world heavyweight champion.

“I don’t mean this in an offensive way, but what I would say to Ibushi is, he’s done a great job of delivering everything that the company has asked him to be,” Omega says. “He became, on the exterior, everything that they’d asked him, everything they’d wanted him to be from the beginning, everything that [Hiroshi] Tanahashi wanted him to be.

“I think that, if he wants to ascend to another level, he has to leave that behind and become the person he was destined to become. Company man Ibushi is not what makes him special, and that’s not the reason he’s champion.”

Ibushi, who chose not to answer questions about Omega directly, believes this run as champ will be successful for all the right reasons. And given all the success he has built, dating back to his roots in Kagoshima, there is no reason to doubt him. From working at the airport to headlining the Tokyo Dome, there is no one in pro wrestling who has created such a masterpiece from the ground up.

Over the past 17 years, Ibushi has given a whole new meaning to the idea of having the conviction to follow a dream, overcoming obstacles and hurdles every step of the way. The pride of Kagoshima’s next goal is to craft a run as IWGP world heavyweight champion that will resonate throughout the wrestling world, from Japan to any other continent with an interest in the industry.

“The possibilities are limitless with pro wrestling,” Ibushi says. “I always talk about broadening the horizons of pro wrestling. There’s no other form, no other sport that lets us fight so freely.

“I’ve gained a lot of courage, and achieved a lot of dreams with pro wrestling, and my goal from here on out is to bring pro wrestling to as many people as possible.”

Drew McIntyre on Sheamus: “He makes it feel like a real athletic contest rather than a performance”

As a whole, Monday’s Raw did not live up to the standard of a show that is only weeks away from WrestleMania. Yet that does not mean there were not bright spots. In fact, over the past month, the work of Sheamus has been a key factor in bringing some life to the show.

Whether he has been working against WWE champion Bobby Lashley or adding layers to his story with Drew McIntyre, the physical tone set by Sheamus has added a compelling nature to Monday nights.

Sheamus defeated United States champion Matt Riddle on this week’s Raw in a nontitle match, which allows their program to continue. At the age of 43, the product of Dublin is so crisp and effective in the ring, offering a pace and presence that he has developed to perfection over the last 19 years in pro wrestling.

McIntyre, who also had some highlights on Raw, especially with the intensity he is bringing to the world title picture in his program with Lashley, developed a bond with Sheamus even before they started together in WWE. McIntyre knows the type of dedication, conditioning and pride Sheamus places into every piece of his on-screen performances, and he is thrilled that the wrestling world continues to recognize his talent.

“There is one thing that makes him so special, and what it comes down to is his realism,” McIntyre says. “Not everybody on the roster loves it, but he’s not going to compromise his style. He’s going to bring it, and he brings an aggressive side out of everybody.”

McIntyre shares a similar approach to Sheamus in the ring, with a heavy emphasis on physicality. And though that is not every performer’s preferred approach, McIntyre noted that the locker room respects the manner in which Sheamus treats his work.

“Afterward, every single person says, ‘That was a hell of a match,’ ” McIntyre says. “For the fans, it feels very different. He makes it feel like a real athletic contest rather than a performance.”

The (online) week in wrestling

  • For the first time in seven years, Daniel Bryan is back in the main event of WrestleMania.
  • Breaking up as entertaining and compelling a faction as the Hurt Business seems like an incredibly shortsighted decision. 
  • John Silver and Darby Allin were fantastic in their main-event match last week on Dynamite, delivering in a big spot. Silver was hurt, but fortunately, the injury is not as damaging as initially feared.
  • Impact Wrestling is moving Impact! (which previously aired on Tuesdays) to Thursday evenings.
  • Listening to John Cena analyze an AEW match is a bit surreal, but Cena handled a potentially difficult situation with ease. 
  • Best wishes for a speedy recovery to the Road Dogg. 
  • Raw needs an infusion of life from different talent, including far more time from the women talent. And by this point, especially considering how much momentum she had following SummerSlam, how is Mandy Rose not positioned as one of the company’s biggest stars? 
  • This reunion was a highlight of Tuesday night’s Impact
  • The Ring of Honor talent delivered an outstanding Anniversary Show pay-per-view on Friday, which ended on a high note with a new faction of Brody King, Chris Dickinson, Homicide and Tony Deppen. 
  • Bandido also delivered last week for both ROH and CMLL, where his match against Volador Jr. belongs among the discussion for match of the year. 
  • To those editing WWE content for Peacock … good luck. 
  • Something we need more of: Twitter exchanges between CM Punk, Danhausen and Kenta. 

Daivari ready for MLW showdown against Myron Reed

MLW's Daivari poses in the ring

Major League Wrestling presents its biggest card of the year on Wednesday night with Never Say Never, which is headlined by Jacob Fatu defending the MLW championship against emerging star Calvin Tankman.

The card also features one of wrestling’s underrated stars in Shawn Daivari, who has starred for nearly every major promotion in the industry. Daivari meets the supremely talented Myron Reed in a match that has been developing for the past two months, providing Reed with a seasoned opponent and platform to showcase the reasons why he is a must-see talent in the ring.

“Myron Reed is going to be a big deal for a long time,” Daivari says. “He’s the type of talent that makes MLW so special.”

Wrestling fans may recall Daivari working with Muhammad Hassan in WWE, which included a spot with Hulk Hogan and Eugene at WrestleMania 21, but the 22-year veteran has also had runs with Impact Wrestling, Ring of Honor and Lucha Underground. He brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to his work in MLW, serving as both a talent and a backstage producer.

“This is what I’d been doing for 18 months in WWE before the COVID cuts,” Daivari says. “[MLW CEO] Court Bauer allowed me an opportunity, and I’m here to help the younger talent any way I can.”

As a producer, Daivari has also advocated for a more diverse representation of talent.

“Representation has changed so much in wrestling,” Daivari says. “The women are more involved; there are more people of color in major roles. The audience is asking for it, so it’s cool that the wrestling industry is listening.”

Only 36, Daivari can also still work at the highest level in the ring. He has a flair for getting an audience, even virtually, to respond to his in-ring performances, and a style both fluid and crisp, a byproduct of his experience. He has taken lessons from a myriad of stars, which is remarkable considering he has shared the ring with the likes of Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker, Kurt Angle, Samoa Joe, Booker T, Scott Steiner and AJ Styles.

“Early in my career, I thought it was so cool that guys like William Regal, Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero and Tajiri all knew each other from WCW, Mexico, ECW and Japan,” Daivari says. “I only knew people from WWE. Now I’ve become who I always wanted to be, working with almost everyone you can think of and defining my work.

“I am confident and cool in the ring, and I am comfortable I can succeed in every situation. I’ve always felt I provide totality to a show. I pride myself on filling any hole on a show, and that’s where I am going to keep showing my value.”

Daivari is excited for fans to see the match with Reed, which he believes will further highlight why MLW is a product worth watching every week.

“This isn’t the same wrestling show every Wednesday,” Daivari says. “You see crisp technical action from Lio Rush or lucha libre from Laredo Kid or Contra breaking tables, crushing people. MLW embraces that variety-show format, and I’m thrilled to be part of it.”

Tweet of the Week

I’ll be surprised if there isn’t a Being the Elite skit already in progress.

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