There is so much available to anybody with a NJPW World subscription is. Aside from the current events, though, where does one begin?
Thankfully, @MrLariato on Twitter put together an immense and ever-growing spreadsheet of recommended matches available on NJPW’s streaming service. With almost 2,000 matches listed in the document, how are you supposed to pick which match to watch?
With the work of these two fine individuals, I’m going to try and step into a new series where I watch a random match or two and share my thoughts.
So, let’s begin with the first random match pulled from the ridiculously stacked spreadsheet: Tetsuya Naito vs Masato Tanaka for the NEVER Openweight Title from Power Struggle on November 9, 2013.
First, let me just say how stoked I am to have the first match of this series feature Masato Tanaka. Tanaka was one of the key figures drawing me to ECW as his feud with Mike Awesome was exactly the insane, violent, high-flying nonsense I needed in my life.
The NEVER Openweight Title is very new here. Tanaka first won the championship on November 19, 2012, and held it for nearly a year before dropping it to Naito at Destruction in Kobe on September 29, 2013. In their initial meeting, Naito’s G1 Championship Certificate was also on the line.
This match at Power Struggle serves as a rematch for Tanaka who is seeking to reclaim the prize he built up for 314 days. It’s worth noting that Tanaka’s 4 successful defenses for a single reign of the NEVER Openweight Title are tied with Minoru Suzuki who matched his number in 2017 before dropping the title to Hirooki Goto at Wrestle Kingdom 12.
BABY NAITO! Naito had already been wrestling for about 7 years at this point but he still looks like a sweet baby child. He lacks the douchebag grit that he would come to embrace post-Wrestle Kingdom 8 and enters as more of the bland Stardust Genius babyface.
He’s carrying the certificate for a shot at the IWGP Heavyweight Championship earned from winning the G1. No briefcase for baby Naito.
An additional bonus before the match begins, I’m pretty sure you can spot young boy YOH in the corner of Naito.
Tanaka is still in great shape in 2013 and looks like he could run with anybody else on the roster. While not ancient by any means, Tanaka is 40 years old here and looks as ready to go as Naito who is 10 years younger.
Naito gets into a chop exchange with Tanaka early on which is just the stupidest thing any human being can do. Naito’s chops rock Tanaka, but Tanaka’s sound like gunshots echoing through the arena. I don’t know how somebody creates that much sound with a chop.
Calling out to his hardcore roots, Tanaka breaks out the kendo stick and a table after nearly caving Naito’s chest in with his chops. This leads to Tanaka absolutely destroying Naito through a table on the arena floor with a splash from the top rope. The kendo stick shot to the head didn’t bust him open, but the way Naito’s head caved in the table sliced him up across his forehead.
After being murdered with some more chops and slaps from Tanaka, Naito is able to wrestle control back from Tanaka with dropkicks, a somersault senton, and his trademark slingshot dropkick in the corner.
Tanaka may be experiencing some flashbacks to all of the head trauma he’s suffered over the years here as he looks to inflict the same types of trauma on poor baby Naito. After a modified cutter on the top rope, Tanaka clotheslines Naito on the apron causing the NEVER Openweight Champion to crumble on the back of his head and neck.
Tanaka’s head-based offense continues with a brainbuster, but Naito is once again able to fight from underneath and turn the tide with a flying forearm. Naito flies from the top rope with a sickening missile dropkick to the back of Tanaka’s head and follows with Gloria before missing the Stardust Press.
Tanaka’s lariats are absolutely brutal late in the match. He folds Naito up twice before connecting with a third as Naito is seated in the center of the ring. Naito pulls himself up with a string of blood dripping from his mouth for an intense visual.
The champion traps Tanaka in a full nelson and drops him on his noggin with a nasty Dragon suplex but only gets the two. Naito quickly makes it to the top once more to this time connect successfully with the Stardust Press for the three.
After the match, a man in a bad shirt gives Naito a trophy and poses for a photo before leaving the ring.
While not a match that will probably stick with me year after year, this was a hell of a fight between two wrestlers I grew to love at very different times in my life. My biggest exposure to Tanaka was in ECW and his pure insanity and recklessness drew me in right away.
Tanaka may also have had one of my favorite move sets as a kid. The Roaring Elbow, Diamond Dust, the tornado DDT… everything he did looked awesome and brutal, especially after somehow surviving an array of unprotected chair shots to the head.
For Naito, I think I’d like to see this style of Naito matches come back into the fold in 2019 and beyond. It seems, more and more, that we see these “Passion of Naito” matches where he’s beaten for 90% of the match before hitting a few signatures and Destino to pick up the victory.
This was a far more balanced match with the momentum swinging back and forth multiple times. Both guys looked strong and the way Naito was able to stand toe to toe with Tanaka the entire time rather than sneaking out a win right at the end helps both leave the match without losing any credibility.
Naito would go on to unsuccessfully challenge Kazuchika Okada in the semi-main event of Wrestle Kingdom 8. Naito’s stock was probably at an all-time low at this point in New Japan and the fans weren’t shy about letting him know.
In the lead-up to Wrestle Kingdom 8, NJPW held a poll to see which match fans wanted to see headline the January 4 show – Okada/Naito for the IWGP Heavyweight Title or Tanahashi/Nakamura for the IWGP Intercontinental Title. The fans voted for the IC Title and Naito lost his chance at main eventing the biggest show of the year.
Naito came up short in his quest to claim the IWGP Heavyweight Title and lost the NEVER Openweight Title to Tomohiro Ishii the next month at The New Beginning in Osaka.
After a tour with NJPW’s partner in Mexico, CMLL, Naito would return in 2015 with a new attitude as a member of Los Ingobernables. He would use the disdain he felt from the fans to fuel his newfound attitude with the returning EVIL by his side.
Unquestionably, Naito is now one of the top names in the company if not all of professional wrestling. It’s hard to go to an independent wrestling show in the US without seeing LIJ merchandise, and in Japan, it’s even more prevalent.
It’s hard to say how Naito’s career would have gone if just one thing had been done differently. If his post-G1 and lead-up to Wrestle Kingdom 8 had been more dynamic, would the fans still have voted for Tanahashi/Nakamura to main event?
If the fan support for Naito hadn’t been so low, would LIJ have ever been a thing at all?
While it’s easy to go back and see all of the places NJPW may have gone wrong with Naito at the time, it’s difficult to argue with any of it if the outcome is one of the most dynamic and popular factions in all of professional wrestling.