Friday, August 25, 2017

The Redemption of Tetsuya Naito: A Tale of Three G1s

The G1 Climax 2017: The Redemption of Tetsuya Naito

New Japan's stream did not provide a good opportunity to screenshot Naito posing with the trophy so enjoy this gif of his antics

The G1 Climax 27 is over and Tetsuya Naito has emerged victorious.  This year, he accepted the trophy to the roars of an adoring crowd.  In doing so he brought some closure to a story arc that has unfolded over the course of four years.  It is a story that began right around the time I started watching New Japan and it has turned Tetsuya Naito into my favorite wrestler.  This is the story of a failed push and how Tetsuya Naito used it to revamp his character and become the hottest wrestler in Japan.  But to understand why an overhaul was necessary, you must understand who Naito was before he became El Ingobernable.  

The Early Years

Tetsuya Naito's early years look broadly similar to that of many modern New Japan Wrestlers. Having made his way through the New Japan dojo and served as a young lion, Naito debuted as a junior participating in the 2007 Best of the Super Juniors just a bit over a year after his debut match. He soon formed a a tag team with current Bullet Club member Yujiro Takahashi called No Limit. They would win the IWGP junior heavyweight tag team championship in October of 2008 before losing it in January at Wrestle Kingdom III.  Shortly after their loss at WKIII, No limit was sent on excursion where they spent two months with Total Nonstop Action before settling in with Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL).  No Limit's run in CMLL was fairly unremarkable. However, it is where he picked up his signature eye taunt.  

This one

The Mexican fans would taunt him with the stereotype of the squinty eyed Asian saying things like "Are your eyes open? Can you see?", so in response Naito would prop his eye open.  As it seemed to get a rise out of the crowd, it quickly became a signature part of his character.

No Limit would return to New Japan for Wrestle Kingdom IV in January of 2010 where they would signal their arrival in the heavyweight division by winning the IWGP Tag Team Championship. Shortly after they would join the CHAOS faction (led at the time by Shinsuke Nakamura).  They would remain a team until May of 2011 when Yujiro would turn on Naito in May of 2011 resulting in the break up of No Limit and Naito leaving CHAOS.  As a singles competitor, Naito initially floated just outside the main event scene.  He won his block in the 2011 G1, but would lose in the finals to Shinsuke Nakamura.  He would receive two shots at the IWGP Heavyweight Championship during this time, but would not capture any singles gold for a long while.  Naito would suffer a knee injury during the 2012 G1 Climax.  While he would finish the tournament, he underwent a knee surgery shortly after that would keep him out of action until June of 2013.  Upon his return, the push that would come to define his career, initially for the worse and then eventually for the better, would begin.

The Failed Push

Before we get to what happened with the push though, it behooves me to talk about who Naito was when he was the "Stardust Genius".  The easiest way to sum it up though is that he was a lot like the company's ace at the time Hiroshi Tanahashi, but with a lucha influence and also people didn't like him as much.  He was a white meat babyface like Tanahashi.  He even had his own crowd pleasing top rope finisher like Tanahashi's High Fly Flow, the Stardust Press

This one

The problem was he just didn't connect with the fans as well as The Ace.  Sure people liked him well enough, but were they ready for him to stand at the top?

Naito returned to the ring in time for the 2013 G1 Climax and it appeared New Japan was ready to find out if Naito was ready for a top spot.  He would win the tournament defeating Tanahashi in the final.  Along with the trophy, Naito won the chance to face the IWGP Heavyweight champion at Wrestle Kingdom. However, as New Japan began to build towards Naito's Tokyo Dome (presumed to be) headlining match against the reigning IWGP Heavyweight champion Kazuchika Okada, they were disappointed in the crowd response.  New Japan announced they would hold a fan vote on what the true main event should be Naito/Okada for the heavyweight title or Nakamura/Tanahashi for the Intercontinental title.  Naito and Okada received only about one third of the vote which meant their match was moved to the semi-main slot.  This is the only time in the past decade that the IWGP Heavyweight title match did not headline the dome.  This was largely considered a repudiation of New Japan's attempt to establish Naito as a main event star and he would indeed take a smaller role for the rest of 2014.  After a largely unremarkable 2014 G1, Naito would lose to AJ Styles in a match with no titles on the line for Wrestle Kingdom 9.

Becoming Ingobernable 

With little direction for the near future, it was announced that Naito would return to CMLL for another tour in May/June 2015.  There he would be reunited with La Sombra (now known as Andrade 'Cien' Almas in NXT) who he had teamed with for the previous two world tag leagues.  La Sombra was a member of the CMLL stable Los Ingobernables 

These guys

When he would return to Japan shortly before the 2015 G1, it was with a new look and a new attitude.  In his first match back, he appeared to be in no hurry to get to the ring as his Bullet Club opponents beat up his partner before the match started and once he got in the match he couldn't be bothered to stay on the apron, resulting in him missing a tag from his desperate partner.  When he eventually did take a tag, he seemed determined to move only as quickly as he needed to to maintain control.  Laying around the rest of the time and taunting his opponents/the fans.  In a promotion where effort is expected and fighting spirit praised, Naito's decision to stop giving a shit started to earn him the ire of the fans and yet Naito's full intentions did not become clear until the G1

Three G1s to Redemption

Year One: Infuriating the Crowd.

On the first night of the G125, Tetsuya Naito walked out in an outfit that clearly signaled his intentions.

Naito spent his off time that G1 plotting to attack Castle Greyskull

Though he was still announced as the "Stardust Genius" and had the same upbeat theme music he'd been given as a fan favorite (which he continues to use to this day), this Naito was clearly done playing to the fans who had voted him out of the main event.  In fact he seemed happy to antagonize them. He didn't gesture to the fans (or even at all really) as he walked to the ring.  He no longer did his eye taunt.  Instead, he simply raised his fist as he had with his Ingobernable brothers in CMLL. Even if he came out first he would not even begin to remove his suit (and reveal his new Ingobernable ring gear) so the match could begin until his opponent was completely ready to wrestle.  
Once he started, he was not quick about it

Some like Katsuyori Shibata would not wait for him to disrobe completely and would attack him before he finished. But against Tanahashi, the man whose match was voted above his Wrestle Kingdome 8, Naito took two minutes and five seconds from the time Tanahashi was ready until he was ready and the match could begin.  His antics were not over once the bell rung either. It became common practice for Naito to roll out of the ring early in the match and walk around the ring to gather himself, rolling in just long enough to break the referees count so he could take more time. He also started faking a suicide dive at his opponent on the outside only to roll into the center of the ring and taunt instead.

Like so

Not all of his antagonism was routine either. In a notable example from his match with Tanahashi, after Naito rolled out of the ring Tanahashi climbed to the top rope to deliver a high fly flow to the outside.  Naito simply laid down on the entrance ramp and waited for Tanahashi to give him space.

Naito (left) pictured here having none of it

In addition, to the taunts and time wasting there were some notable changes to Naito's moveset.  Most important to his character, was that Naito replaced the Stardust Press as his finisher.  Naito's old top rope finisher was a mirror of Tanashashi's, a big flashy dive meant to please the fans.  Even those who rejected his main event push were likely impressed by the move.  Naito was no longer willing to push his body with a big dive to impress the fans that had turned on him, so he introduced his new finisher Destino.

Performed here on Katsuhiko Nakajima

The fan's hated Naito's new attitude and the boos came quickly.  In just his fourth match of G125, Naito faced (then leader of the Bullet Club) AJ Styles.  As the leader of the foreign bad guy stable, the New Japan fans almost never cheered AJ, but against Naito the crowd was fully behind him by the end of the match.  Naito would finish the G1 tied for 3rd in his block with 5 wins and 4 losses, but he had firmly established his new identity.  The Stardust Genius was dead and El Ingobernable was here to stay.

Interlude 1:  Building Los Ingobernables de Japon and a World Championship Reign

At King of Pro Wrestling in October 2015,  Takaaki Watanabe would return from excursion with Ring of Honor to interfere on Naito's behalf in his match with Tanahashi.  Watanabe would be rechristened as EVIL and would join Naito as his partner.  On the opening night of the 2015 World Tag League, the junior heavyweight BUSHI returned from injury to join the group that would soon be named Los Ingobernables de Japon.  The three man unit gelled quickly and would quickly become one of the best tag acts in the company.  By early 2016 it was clear that New Japan had struck gold with LIJ and in March, Naito won the New Japan Cup and with it the chance to challenge any New Japan champion of his choosing. 

Naito would choose to face the IWGP Heavyweight champion Kazuchika Okada. Naito would defeat Okada with he help of the debuting SANADA.  As legendary referee Red Shoes Unno went to present the belt to Naito he quickly signaled his reign would be a bit different than Okada's 

The smile of a man who's about to have a lot more fun
I will rewatch this first belt flip on New Japan World for the crowd noise alone.  It's like a collective gasp crossed with outrage and disappointment.

It is worth noting that by this point, Naito and LIJ were winning some of the crowd over already. Naito's heel shenanigans were entertaining, his interviews now had personality, and LIJ was one of the sharpest tag team units around.  While there were still plenty of boos to be heard, there were significant cheers for Naito as well and plenty of people joined in as shouted his catchphrases and the names of his LIJ compatriots at the end of a show.

Naito would only hold the belt for two months, but he used his time well.  With Naito as champion using the belt in order to taunt the former champion Okada, LIJ vs CHAOS tag matches were a highlight of the 2016 Best of the Super Juniors undercards. He would lose the title back to Okada right before the 2016 G1, but Naito had been established as a bona fide main eventer

Year Two: Bringing the crowd along
Naito's 2016 G1 signaled an end to direct fan antagonism.  At this point they were clapping along with his entrance music.  Entering with a more exciting mask, Naito would actually remove this suit before his opponent even entered the ring. While he would still taunt his opponents and would occasionally refuse to engage at the start of the match to build some frustration, the long stretches of time killing were gone.  

This picture does not show it well but the mask has Tranquilo written on one side and Destino on the other

Freed up to enjoy the quality of Naito's in ring work and enjoy the way he antagonized his opponents, the cheers for Naito would grow louder and louder as this G1 went on.  The camera seemed to have no trouble finding fans dressed in full LIJ gear.  Some of his younger fans would even seek the camera out 

Kid hitting that pose like a pro

Naito would finish this G1 with 6 wins and 3 losses.  He was tied for first in his block on points, but his loss to Kenny Omega on the last day of their block also lost him the tiebreak.  Still, if his IWGP title run proved the Naito could be part of the main event scene, this G1 proved that he would be a part of it for the foreseeable future. 

Interlude 2:  The Intercontinental Champion and Wrestle Kingdom Revenge
In September of 2016, Naito defeated Michael Elgin to win the IWGP Intercontinental Championship.  However, Naito did not seem to hold the belt itself in high regard.  If he had occasionally mistreated the IWGP Heavyweight title during his brief reign, his treatment of the Intercontinental belt during his 10 months with it could only be described as abuse.  At one point he smashed it into the ring post and cracked the faceplate of the belt.
Apropos of nothing, Naito is actually a big baseball fan.

The fans were eating this up by the way.  The clapping during his entrances only grew louder and it was now sometimes accompanied by the crowd chanting his name.  While some of his more ingobernable moments could still draw gasps and/or boos it was clear most fans were along for the ride at this point. 

Naito was enjoying his new status as well.  As the holder of the Intercontinental title, he would get some say in who his challenger was for the presumptive semi-main event match at Wrestle Kingdom 11. Naito made a big show out of making Tanahashi, the old ace whose previous challenge for the IC title had been voted above Naito's world title shot at Wrestle Kingdom 8, ask him publicly for the match.  Tanahashi was going through a bit of a rough patch and would not have had a major match at Wrestle Kingdom otherwise. In the lead-up to the match, Naito repeatedly taunted Tanahashi saying he was past his prime and that it was LIJ's time. When the bell rung for their match, Tanahashi seemed dismayed that the cheers for Naito seemed to rival his own.  The action was back and forth, but in the end the old ace could not keep up the ascendant Naito. At the end of a fantastic match, Naito pinned Tanahashi in the center of the ring.  A small measure of revenge for the opportunity taken from him so long ago.  As the crowd cheered his victory, Naito did the usual belt toss.  However as he posed over his fallen rival, Naito seemed to pause to consider him and then dropped his fist to Tanahashi's heart in a gesture of respect.
I mean not a ton of respect, but respect

During this title reign, LIJ (with new member Hiromu Takahashi) would get frequent opportunities to show off their phenomenal chemistry in multi-man tags. As become the hottest stable in New Japan, Naito was quickly becoming its hottest wrestler.  He would lose the IC title to Hiroshi Tanahashi in June of 2017. Still, Naito entered this year's G1 more popular than at any stage in his career.

Year Three: Embracing the Crowd

This year Naito regularly entered to a crowd chanting his name.  For his part, Naito no longer entered with a mask and in addition to raising his fist in the LIJ gesture, his eye taunt was back.
Plus that Sweet Suit

In his first match, he was matched against Kota Ibushi.  Kota was making his return to the G1 after some time away from New Japan.  When the participants were first announced for this year's G1, it was Kota's name (as he does not have a full-time New Japan contract, he was somewhat of a surprise entrant) that drew the most cheers and applause.  Yet in his first match back, it quickly became clear that most of the crowd was behind Naito. Whenever a rogue fan tried to start a chant for Naito's opponent they were quickly drowned out by supporters of El Ingobernable.  This pattern continued for the rest of the tournament.  Goto, Ishii, Makabe, and even Yuji Nagata competing in his final G1 all found their support seemed to dissappear against Naito.

Naito had a strong tournament and he entered the last night of his block set for a winner-advances-to-the-final showdown with (who else?) Hiroshi Tanahashi.  As the two man faced off in the ring, it was no longer a contest whose cheers were louder Tanahashi's fans were loundly drowned out by the Naito contingent.  Tanahashi who had shown a ruthless streak throughout this G1 as he nursed a torn bicep fought viciously.  Happy to accept the boos he received if it meant another shot at a Tokyo Dome main event.  Naito fought through Tanahashi's desperation and had the crowd screaming for him when fighting through a lengthy Texas Cloverleaf.  In his post-match speech, Naito thanked the fans for their support throughout the G1 and in that match particularly.  It was a long road, but Tetsuya Naito was not just a main eventer, but a top fan favorite.  

The final match of this year's G1 is really one you should see for yourself. Omega vs. Naito. Naito had not been to a G1 final since his humiliation after winning in 2013.  This would be his chance to win agaim the opportunity that had been taken from him.  And with the fans behind him this time there would be no one to take it away.  Continuing on from the match with Tanahashi two nights before, Naito worked to the fans, feeding off of them.  Kenny Omega was a tough opponent, but with the crowd behind him Naito would not be denied.  To show how much he was feeding off the fans, he brought back an old favorite just for the occasion, The Stardust Press.

Pictured: The Return of Full Face Naito. (I mean yeah he misses, but its the principle)

Naito would win the match and the response to his win this time was everything New Japan surely hoped for from his first win.  As the crowd cheered the name of Naito and chanted along with his post match speech, it was clear there will be no fan vote for the main event of this year's Wrestle Kingdom.  

Naito will still have to defend his opportunity in the ring at least once, but at this point it seems a formality. The smallest of bumps on they way to Okada vs Naito.  On January 4th at the Tokyo Dome, Tetsuya Naito will face the IWGP Heavyweight Champion. Win or lose, when the bell rings to start the match Naito's redemption will be complete.  Having already defeated one of the men who took his opportunity years before, he will have found his way back.  Not as a pale imitation of that man, but as a star of his own making. At the end of that match, Naito may or may not be the Heavyweight Champion, but either way he will have a bright future and that future will be written on his terms.

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