In the early days of his career, Tetsuya Naito was a cheerful and sparkly high-flyer, nicknamed “Stardust Genius.” Having come up through the New Japan Pro Wrestling Dojo as a Young Lion, he had the world laid out in front of him. When he reached the G1 Climax final for the first time in 2011, it felt as if, even in defeat, the fans had a new “shuyaku” (or top guy) to join the ranks of Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi, who he spent most of the prior year feuding with. Naito seemed assured to someday take his place in the Ace’s spotlight.
Yet in 2012, injury struck, and in the months away from the ring until his return in the 2013 G1 Climax, reactions cooled. He would win the tournament, beating Tanahashi, and earned an IWGP Championship match with Kazuchika Okada at the main event of Wrestle Kingdom, but he couldn’t convince the fans. The phrase “deafening silence” could be applied to the crowd reaction when the two came face to face at Power Struggle in 2013. That is, until the Osaka crowd started booing Stardust Genius. When he told them again he was “shuyaku” the reaction was a demoralizing mixture of boos, laughter and jeers.
With a hotly anticipated Intercontinental Championship match also set for the Tokyo Dome, NJPW let fans vote on Wrestle Kingdom 8’s main event—Okada vs. Naito for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, or Tanahashi vs. Shinsuke Nakamura for the Intercontinental. To Naito, the very idea of a fan vote felt like an abandonment by the NJPW institution. His match was for the most prestigious championship in the world; of course it should be on top of the card! When the results came in, it wasn’t even close. Nakamura and Tanahashi won by a landslide, and headlined Wrestle Kingdom 8 in January 2014, while Naito failed to successfully challenge Okada underneath.
Naito kept struggling, and tried to bring the fans back to his side. One tactic? Teaming up with another sparkly high-flyer with ‘star’ in his nickname: the Golden Star, Kota Ibushi. Ibushi and Naito were friends, of the same age and with similar competitive drive. In ring, these were two of the most dynamic performers the NJPW audience had ever seen. Yet, the cheers still didn’t come Naito’s way. Instead of helping the crowd warm up to him, Ibushi seemed like the effortlessly cool embodiment of everything Naito had tried and failed to be. When Ibushi beat Naito in the New Japan Cup, the point was forced home to Naito; he needed a change.
Naito went to Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL) in Mexico to find himself. While he was there, he fell in with Los Ingobernables, a stable of anti-authority rule-breakers. Here was a group that truly didn’t care what others thought of them: a revelation for Naito. When El Ingobernable came back to NJPW in Stardust Genius’s place, no one quite knew what to do with him. Los Ingobernables de Japón was still far from its formation, so initially, Naito went right back to where he’d been before he left: tagging with Kota Ibushi.
To the press, Naito would say he was going his own way, that he would welcome fans’ adoration but was no longer actively seeking it. Ibushi had a head start in that regard; Naito hadn’t forgotten the times when effortless Ibushi got cheers while hard as he struggled, he couldn’t get the crowd on his side. El Ingobernable took these tag matches as opportunities to punish Ibushi for the fans who’d loved the Golden Star, but not Stardust Genius. He ignored Ibushi’s tag attempts, disrespected him, even attacked him. In the G1 Climax, Naito would viciously assault his former friend en route to a victory that was far less sportsmanlike than their recent New Japan Cup affair.
By the end of that year, it was a mentally and physically burned out Ibushi’s turn to travel the world in search of direction. While he was gone, Naito formed Los Ingobernables de Japón, and won himself a reign as IWGP Heavyweight Champion. In his corner, Naito now had a stable of misfits he’d saved from the same sting of rejection he once felt—and whatever Naito did, the fans loved LIJ. When Ibushi returned to NJPW in summer 2017, he arrived to see Naito at heights he had never before reached.
Both men had done a lot of growing up, but anytime they saw each other, it all melted away. Yet they kept meeting, and in high-stakes situations.
Their first meeting of 2019 had more direct tournament consequences: whoever lost was out of the 2019 New Japan Cup in the very first round. This time, something was different; by the end of this match, it seemed like they’d found their way back to a kind of friendship, or at least respect. Maybe they’d finally both let the past go. After all, they both said they relished facing each other, and couldn’t wait to do it again. They didn’t have to wait long; Ibushi got his title shot in April at Madison Square Garden, which he won.
For Ibushi, the IWGP Intercontinental Championship is a precious prize; two of its most prominent past champions—Nakamura and Tanahashi—are wrestlers Ibushi holds in highest esteem. Those names mean something to Naito as well: he has never forgotten who won the Wrestle Kingdom 8 fan vote. To Naito, the Intercontinental Championship represents yet another symbol of the fans’ rejection; it’s why he practically destroyed it during his first reign, and rarely brought it to the ring during his second. Even now, he can’t resist needling Ibushi about the belt that means everything to Ibushi. To Naito it’s merely a stepping stone to his larger goal of being the first to hold the Intercontinental and Heavyweight championships at the same time.
The IWGP Intercontinental Championship.
All three, in their own ways, represent the Tetsuya Naito’s troubled past, and all three are in his future at Dominion this Sunday.