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Keiji Muto Ready to Showcase the Best of Pro Wrestling NOAH

The Week in Wrestling: Kaito Kiyomiya details his intense rivalry with Kenoh, NOAH legends taking on newcomers and more.

SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every week and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.

Keiji Muto on Sting: “It has been a long time since we last teamed together, but I wonder what sort of chemistry we would make now.”

The legendary Keiji Muto returns to the ring on Jan. 1.

Best known under the fearsome face paint as The Great Muta, Muto is now one-half of Pro Wrestling NOAH’s GHC tag team champions.

The past year has been eventful for Muto. In February, he defeated Go Shiozaki to win NOAH’s famed GHC Heavyweight Championship. He then defended the title against Kaito Kiyomiya and Masa Kitamiya before dropping it in June to Naomichi Marufuji, who is now his tag team partner. Muto and Marufuji won the tag titles last month, and they will make their first title defense at The New Year on Jan. 1 at Tokyo’s famed Nippon Budokan, an event which will be streamed live.

“As an active pro wrestler, I am privileged to be going back to the Nippon Budokan, this time as a champion,” said Muto, whose interview was translated from Japanese. “I am very proud to hold the GHC tag team championship with Marufuji.”

Muto and Marufuji defend the tag titles at The New Year against Masato Tanaka and Masaaki Mochizuki, which is a unique matchup as all four are part of M’s Alliance. Muto praised the work of Marufuji, a four-time world champ in NOAH who has had a brilliant career over the past two decades.

“Marufuji has been carrying Pro Wrestling NOAH on the front line, and I agree with people who call him a genius,” said Muto. “I count on him as a fellow member of the M’s Alliance and as my tag team partner.

“This upcoming championship bout on January 1 at Nippon Budokan will take place among the same unit, but I am sure that we will show the best of the M’s Alliance. Myself and Marufuji are looking to start the year 2022 by defending the titles and proving that we are the best tag team to represent Pro Wrestling NOAH.”

As The Great Muta, Muto had an epic feud with Sting in WCW. They wrestled one another at The Great American Bash in 1989, which was followed by a series of matches for the World Television title. Muta ultimately won the belt months later, and it was an example of a program where both wrestlers excelled and elevated their standing.

Over his career, Muto has crafted together one of the most storied careers in pro wrestling history. Now 59, his highlight reel includes four reigns as New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s IWGP heavyweight champion, three runs as All Japan Pro Wrestling’s Triple Crown heavyweight champ and one time holding Pro Wrestling NOAH’s GHC heavyweight title.

Sting is also an icon, becoming the face of WCW. He later helped define TNA, then had a few unforgettable moments in WWE despite only a short run there. The 62-year-old is now back in the ring for AEW. With both men active, Muto revealed that he would be interested in teaming together.

“It has been a long time, but I wonder what sort of chemistry we would make now,” said Muto. “If that can contribute to the future, it means something. There may be an opportunity since he made his return.”

Muto will also be part of New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s Wrestle Kingdom 16, wrestling on Jan. 8 at Yokohama Arena on a night that will pit the best of New Japan against the stars of Pro Wrestling NOAH.

The lyrics fit the melody with Muto returning to an event he helped build. He will team with rising star Kaito Kiyomiya in a tag match against Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi. And when Muto steps in the ring with Tanahashi, it will spark memories of their classic main event from Wrestle Kingdom III.

“At Wrestle Kingdom III, the match before mine was NJPW vs. NOAH, with [Mitsuharu] Misawa and [Takashi] Sugiura entering the ring of New Japan Pro-Wrestling,” said Muto. “Now I will be there in the ring of New Japan Pro-Wrestling as a wrestler of NOAH. I plan to do my best, and I hope the fans feel happy that Keiji Muto is a part of NOAH.”

Bryan Danielson on wrestling Jonathan Gresham at Final Battle: “That would have been perfect for me to come in and do that.”

Jonathan Gresham defeated Jay Lethal earlier this month at Final Battle to win the vacant Ring of Honor title.

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Originally slated to face ROH champion Bandido, the main event hit a major complication when Bandido tested positive for COVID-19 only days before the pay-per-view.

Lethal is now part of AEW, but he was allowed to return to ROH and work the match. In terms of storyline, it made sense. Gresham and Lethal share a significant amount of history. They were former ROH tag champs, wrestled a 30-minute Iron Man match against one another in 2019 and had an excellent Pure title match this past April, so bringing Lethal back to ROH for the title match against Gresham fit as a new, last-minute main event for Final Battle.

But if ROH was able to pull from AEW talent, there was someone else that would have made even more sense: former ROH champion Bryan Danielson.

During his 462-day title run, Danielson elevated the ROH belt to an entirely new level of excellence. He unified the world belt with the Pure title, a championship that was put on the shelf until 2020. That is when Gresham won it, creating a direct title lineage, 14 years apart, from Danielson in 2006 to Gresham in 2020.

After memorable matches as ROH champ against a litany of opponents that included Roderick Strong, Naomichi Marufuji, AJ Styles, Samoa Joe, and Kenta, he lost the title to Homicide at Final Battle in 2006. The idea of returning to this year’s event, not to mention wrestling for the title, certainly appealed to Danielson.

“So it’s interesting,” said Danielson, discussing how he learned Bandido was out of the Final Battle match. “I’m not on my phone, ever. It’s hard to get me to pick up my phone at any given point of the day. So I didn’t realize until Saturday morning [the day of Final Battle] that Bandido couldn’t do the show. I was like, ‘That would have been perfect for me to come in and do that.’ It would have been a lot of fun.

“I’m not sure that would have even been OK with the state my knee was in on Friday [Bryan had tweaked his knee days prior on Dynamite], but I think that’s a match that a lot of wrestling fans would want to see.”

The fate of ROH is still undetermined, and there are no guarantees that the company returns in a reimagined form this April. Even without ROH, Gresham is keeping the belt active. He defeated AJ Gray at a GCW show last Friday in Los Angeles, as well as Adam Priest at a New South Pro Wrestling event in Hartselle, Ala.

Three notable title defenses will take place next month, with the first unfolding at Impact Wrestling’s Hard to Kill pay-per-view on Jan. 8 against Chris Sabin. Gresham will also put the ROH title on the line against 2 Cold Scorpio at GCW’s event on Jan. 15, then defend it again at GCW’s highly anticipated show later this month on Jan. 23 in New York at a sold-out Hammerstein Ballroom against Blake Christian.

Gresham is on record stating he has to wrestle Danielson in an ROH title bout, which is an idea Danielson did not dispute.

“He’s one of the guys I want to wrestle,” said Danielson. “They say it’s the champions who make the championship, right? I think Jonathan Gresham is a great, great wrestler who would really make the championship. But without the platform, or if you don’t have the vehicle to show off how talented Jonathan Gresham is, it makes it very difficult.

“The title is in good hands with Jonathan Gresham, but the hard part is what happens with Ring of Honor. We’re all waiting to see what they end up doing.”

The (online) week in wrestling

  • Eric Bischoff was fantastic in his return on Raw, adding an element of intrigue that had not been part of the show for a long time (Also: Miz, Maryse and Edge all played their roles perfectly). 
  • Including some stars from the main roster, NXT 2.0 has its best card of the reboot set for next week, including a chance to see Matt Riddle go head-to-head with WALTER. 
  • Very few people have had a more unique career trajectory than Kyle O’Reilly, who made his AEW debut last week on Dynamite. 
  • With the stubble on his face, the despair, the angst, Paul Heyman was brilliant on SmackDown. 
  • For a third time, Cody Rhodes won the TNT title, defeating Sammy Guevara for the belt on the Rampage that aired on Christmas night.
  • After testing positive for COVID-19, Bandido did not defend his Ring of Honor championship at Final Battle. But he never lost the title, which he will defend at the debut show for Terminus on Jan. 16. His opponent, Baron Black, runs the promotion with Gresham, who Bandido was supposed to wrestle at Final Battle. This should build to a great champion vs. champion match where we finally see Gresham against Bandido. 
  • Following an entertaining performance on SmackDown, Sami Zayn is the top contender for Intercontinental champion Shinsuke Nakamura. If done right, can this program build all the way to WrestleMania 38? The IC title needs some serious attention, plus Zayn and Nakamura share some history. They were once partners, and Nakamura debuted in NXT against Zayn. Along with the likely match of Randy Orton vs. Matt Riddle, it would help add depth to this year’s two-night WrestleMania card. 
  • Zayn is also committed to making a difference in Syria with his mobile clinics. 

Kaito Kiyomiya: “I am really looking forward to showcasing NOAH to the world”

Only 25 years old, Kaito Kiyomiya is quickly becoming a top star for Pro Wrestling NOAH.

Kiyomiya challenges Kenoh for the GHC National Championship on Jan. 1 at NOAH’s The New Year show. A win will mean he has held all three heavyweight championships in NOAH, a remarkable achievement considering he has been with the company for only three years.

“NOAH’s heavyweight championships consist of three different titles, and the competition level is extremely high,” said Kiyomiya, whose interview was translated from Japanese. “With the enhanced reputation of the GHC national championship, which as a singles title is only second to the GHC heavyweight championship, plus the GHC heavyweight tag titles, there are many opportunities to challenge for gold. Winning the GHC national will complete the set for me and this is my goal.” 

Like AJ Styles and Samoa Joe, or Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat, Kiyomiya and Kenoh are building a history as eternal rivals. Most recently, Kenoh defeated him to claim a spot in the N-1 Victory tournament final, and this match at The New Year affords Kiyomiya a chance at revenge.

Japanese wrestlers Kenoh (left) and Kaito Kiyomiya (right) are fierce rivals.

Japanese wrestlers Kenoh (left) and Kaito Kiyomiya (right) are fierce rivals.

“Our rivalry never ends,” said Kiyomiya. “Even if I lose, I will seek revenge. If I win, I do not think it settles things between us. I think things will get even more intense between us. I have had many singles matches and title matches against Kenoh. But facing him at this special venue, Nippon Budokan, is a huge motivator for me. “

Stars from Pro Wrestling NOAH have an incredible platform on Jan. 8, when they will face off against the best of New Japan Pro-Wrestling on the historic third night of Wrestle Kingdom 16 at Yokohama Arena. Kiyomiya is teaming with the great Keiji Muto against legends Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada, a rare opportunity to see New Japan’s past, present and future share the ring.

“I want to face a man who makes it rain gold,” said Kiyomiya. “I want ‘The Rainmaker’ Kazuchika Okada.

“Many people watching this ABEMA pay-per-view may have never seen NOAH before. I am really looking forward to showcasing NOAH to the world. I think that there are some fans who do not know the name NOAH, so I would like to use this as an opportunity to bring the charm of NOAH’s professional wrestling to many people.

“2022 will be a very special year for NOAH, starting with an opening day match at the Nippon Budokan on January 1. That is a venue with many fond memories for NOAH, and I would like to mark the start of Pro Wrestling NOAH’s new era in style.”

Tweet of the Week

Dwight Schrute tweeting about Sting. What a time to be alive.

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