KENTA’s February 9 challenge to Tetsuya Naito is one of many chances taken in the last eight months
From third baseline as a fan to pitcher’s mound as a competitor, on January 5 2020, Tetsuya Naito completed a 25 year long journey to the top of professional wrestling. It was impossible to imagine anybody begrudging Naito his moment in the spotlight, with over 30,000 people cheering along with him. KENTA is not just anybody. Naito’s journey had culminated at Wrestle Kingdom 14, but KENTA was just embarking on his; a journey with path lit by the bridges burned along the way.
Many a competitor is driven by the metaphorical chip on their shoulder, motivated by eyes drawn elsewhere to ensure the gaze is drawn to them and them alone. For KENTA, the chip existed at an early stage. Akira Taue, Mitsuharu Misawa, even mentor Kenta Kobashi, under whose guidance the youngster would shed his surname and capitalize his first to stand out from underneath his namesake, all represented huge hurdles to overcome and giant shoes to fill.
KENTA went about doing so by stealing the show with his brutal hard hitting performances that made him one of the most loved figures for fans and most feared and despised by opponents. When reflecting on an early career run-in with KENTA, Shingo Takagi would state ‘I took a Go2Sleep. After the match, it was Go2Hospital.’ KENTA would find himself in high demand, and with a desire to broaden his audience and the vision for ‘his’ professional wrestling. KENTA took a significant gamble on himself and relocated to America in 2014. A five year stretch in the US bore little fruit and much frustration, however. At a crossroads, he could have remained in the States, well paid but unfulfilled. Or, under the suggestion of an old friend, he could bet big on himself once more.
At Dominion 2019, Katsuyori Shibata’s music played The Wrestler to the ring. Fans in Osaka-Jo Hall sprung to their feet at the pleasant surprise, expecting a greeting from the former NEVER Openweight Champion, or perhaps for him to corner devotee Ryu Lee in his upcoming championship match with Will Ospreay. Instead, he pointed to the back, and after a pregnant pause, out walked KENTA.
The Osaka crowd, and fans around the world were ecstatic at the Takeover tandem, first formed when Katsuyori Shibata left NJPW in 2005, back together in ring. Then, KENTA invited free agent Shibata to team with him, but this was no simple returning of a favour on The Wrestler’s part. It was no small risk for KENTA to undertake; ‘I’m putting my wrestling life on the line here,’ he would state in interviews. ‘I will show the world my professional wrestling. Quite frankly, if this doesn’t pan out, I’m done.’
While his resolve was admirable, there was still hesitation from the NJPW faithful toward KENTA. Some fans weren’t sure he could compete at the level he had before heading to America. Some rejected the idea of an outsider beating out established names like Minoru Suzuki or YOSHI-HASHI to get a valued G1 Climax spot. Still others saw arrogance in KENTA’s pride in ‘his’ professional wrestling. If KENTA was looking to make friends and fans, he had a difficult opening draw in the G1 Climax. Match one, Kota Ibushi. Match two, Hiroshi Tanahashi. Good luck stealing the applause.
KENTA appeared undeterred by lukewarm to negative reactions. ‘Outsiders (in NJPW) aren’t really accepted easily, but I don’t want to pander to anybody with my style. I want to show the world what I can do in the ring. This is just the beginning. Just watch’. Ominous comments aside, KENTA found himself on a strange island during the G1. Respected by some, loathed by others, and seemingly unfocused as a strong four match opening streak gave way to a tournament collapse and a weak 4-5 record overall. On August 12, KENTA decided it was time to put his wrestling life on the line once more. Take another big bet. Burn a significant bridge.
In the midst of a six-man tag team match that pit him with Tomohiro Ishii and YOSHI-HASHI against Bad Luck Fale, Tama Tonga and Tanga Loa of BULLET CLUB, KENTA rejected a tag, hit Ishii with Go2Sleep and joined BULLET CLUB. Before he could explain his actions to the booing crowd, Katsuyori Shibata rushed to the ring, demanding answers from a man he stakes his reputation on to bring into NJPW. The two brawled as the crowd erupted, but BULLET CLUB might was too much for an inactive Shibata. A PK and a mocking cross-legged pose later, and a friendship was shattered, never to be rebuilt.
For KENTA there was to be no going back, which made the NEVER Openweight gold held by Tomohiro Ishii a poetic next target. In London, a hard hitting war with a furious Ishii ensued. Yet just as fans began to forget KENTA’s heinous actions just two weeks before, and appreciate the gutsy performance of both men, GoD intervened, and secured championship victory for KENTA as boos thundered down on the new champion.
In a G1 rematch against Ibushi in Kagoshima, he would brutally attack the Golden Star with his own ‘uncool’ G1 earned Right to Challenge briefcase. As more stepped up to challenge the new NEVER Champion, KENTA would ridicule his opponents, belittling the hard fighting, proud Ishii as a ‘cute boy band hunk’ or YOSHI-HASHI as ‘ugly’ and aimless. KENTA was using match interference and backstage insults as gasoline to light another bridge on fire, that which connected him to the last hardcore fans who applauded his take no prisoners ring style. Even as the hard hits and the vicious physicality so many had loved remained in ring, none would support him. If fans would put him on an island, it would be one of his own creation.
At Wrestle Kingdom, KENTA would face a fierce warrior who had fought for years to keep his own bridges, to the loyal public and loyal friend Shibata, intact. Hirooki Goto was driven at first by vengeance when KENTA prevented Goto from defeating IWGP Intercontinental Champion Jay White, attacking Shibata in the process. Over weeks though, with KENTA stoking bitter fires, their rivalry became deeply personal. In the Tokyo Dome, historically where Goto was at his most formidable, the Fierce Warrior felled KENTA to become NEVER Openweight Champion.
KENTA was back at square one. Yet with all the bridges he had, to former glory, to friendship, to fandom, all burned, what was there left to lose? The flames seemed to light the way to the biggest prize in all of wrestling, made bigger by a historic double title main event. By rights, KENTA, losing at Wrestle Kingdom, would be last in line for the Double IWGP Intercontinental and Heavyweight Championships. In one blow, KENTA catapulted himself to first.
‘I put my wrestling life on the line here,’ KENTA would state the next night at New Years Dash!! For all the criticisms one can level at KENTA, untruthfulness isn’t one. Exactly eight months removed from his appearance at Dominion in the same Osaka Jo Hall, KENTA will once again gamble all he has on himself, others be damned, at New Beginning in Osaka.