The top of New Japan Pro-Wrestling is crowded—and clouded with uncertainty.
Kazuchika Okada is carrying around a title after bringing back the IWGP heavyweight championship in October, a title that previously had been unified under the banner of the IWGP world heavyweight championship.
Will Ospreay claims he is the rightful owner of that world heavyweight championship. He defeated Kota Ibushi for the unified title in April and then outlasted Shingo Takagi in a 44-minute classic the following month. Ospreay later was stripped of the title due to injury, but he is back and making noise.
Yet there is only one man who carried New Japan through the past six months as its champion, delivering standout bouts and a legitimate claim to best wrestler in the world, and that is reigning IWGP world heavyweight champion Shingo Takagi.
After the title was taken away from Ospreay, Takagi defeated Okada last June at New Japan’s heralded Dominion show to win the vacant title. With the championship belt firmly around his waist, the 39-year-old Takagi crafted the most spectacular stretch of his career.
“This is still a new belt, but there is no doubt that it represents the very best in New Japan Pro-Wrestling,” says Takagi, speaking to Sports Illustrated through a translator. “It is only right that everyone wants to be the best. And this title is not just about being the face of the company, it is about knowing you are the best in New Japan Pro-Wrestling, and that means you are the best in the world. And I am willing to do whatever it takes to keep that position.”
Takagi has had an array of spectacular matches as champion. The most noteworthy took place last month, when he outwrestled Zack Sabre Jr.
“That match against Zack was very tough,” Takagi says. “Not just in terms of having a different style, but also physicality. I have always thought Zack was the hardest possible opponent to deal with.”
As for his signature moment in the ring in 2021, Takagi points to his match with Ospreay in April.
“In terms of meeting head on and throwing all we had at one another, that Ospreay match was my toughest all year,” Takagi says. “I do not remember all that much of the second half of that match, which speaks to how hard we were going.”
Takagi lost that match against Ospreay, but he will have a chance for redemption at the three-night Wrestle Kingdom 16 event, which airs live on FITE TV. In order to get another crack at Ospreay on Jan. 5, Takagi first has the Herculean task of defeating Okada in the main event on Jan. 4.
“There are a lot of belts involved with the three of us, and that means fans are not able to focus directly on the matches,” Takagi says. “Okada brought back an extinct title, and Ospreay had one made for himself. It is one thing to try and elevate your own ego, but to bring forgeries into the mix is another.”
Wrestle Kingdom represents a chance for Takagi to defeat both Okada and Ospreay, which would elevate him to a new tier of greatness.
“That’s what I intend to do,” Takagi says. “Start the New Year by once again proving who the real deal is, tidying up this whole situation once and for all.”
The finale of Wrestle Kingdom 16 will be held on Jan. 8 at Yokohama Arena. That night will pit New Japan stars against the best from Pro Wrestling NOAH. Takagi aims to wield the IWGP world heavyweight championship when he teams up with the members of Los Ingobernables de Japón against Pro Wrestling NOAH’s fearsome Kongo, which features current GHC heavyweight champion Katsuhiko Nakajima.
“I have wrestled Katsuhiko Nakajima before, and I am definitely looking forward to facing him again,” Takagi says. “I am also interested in facing other icons of NOAH. And I have to say, I would be dishonest if I said I was not also interested in the GHC Heavyweight title.”
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