Kota Ibushi: the Golden Star, the Japanese highlight reel, and now challenger for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship?! Ibushi has slowly gained momentum over the years with jaw-dropping high spots. Whether it’s with Will Osprey, Kenny Omega, or even a blow doll, there’s nothing better than going down the YouTube rabbit hole with Ibushi highlights. Teaming with Canadian superstar Kenny Omega, former IWGP champion certainly has helped with Ibushi’s international exposure. Ibushi also appeared in 2 notable events in the United States: the WWE cruiserweight classic and the main event of All In (a PPV which I thankfully attended). Ibsuhi now finds himself in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 14 against ‘the rainmaker’ Kazuchika Okada.
When I heard Kota Ibushi won the G1 Climax this year, I was ecstatic. Yes, unfortunately, I didn’t watch the G1 Climax live this year. With the departure of the Elite, the rise of Jay White, and Hiroshi Tanahashi defeating Kenny Omega at Wrestle Kingdom earlier this year, I knew I wasn’t renewing my subscription to New Japan World. Ibushi now in the main event with Okada? I’m back in. Ibushi was a wrestler that seemed to have all the tools to be the champion. I figured with Tetsuya Naito and the Elite it wasn’t his time or I overrated him. The real problem was Ibushi didn’t make a full-time commitment to NJPW. Ibushi is now locked up and NJPW is primed to give him a legitimate shot at the Rainmaker.
This year NJPW is trying something that wrestling fans have been clamoring for with big shows: Splitting the big show into 2 days. While Wrestle Kingdom tends to have a better pace compared to the past few years of Wrestlemania, this is a welcome change with new booking options that NJPW is taking advantage of. The winner between Ibushi vs Okada will face the winner of Jay White vs Tetsuya Naito the following day on January 5th. The IWGP Heavyweight champion will face the IWGP Intercontinental champion and there will be a double champion.
My favorite aspect of NJPW is how unpredictable the winner is for the big match at Wrestle Kingdom. Gedo, the booker of NJPW, has surprised me with the winner from the past two years. There are a few exciting options they could go with this year. Naito could face off with Okada again or the possible G1 finals rematch between White vs Ibushi. Ibushi is the quintessential babyface of the four that would make a great double champion/face of the company. At the same time, Okada is one of the best champions in NJPW history, Naito continues to be over with his apathetic tweener character, and Jay White is arguably the best heel in the promotion.
Kota Ibushi is the only one of the four to have not won the IWGP Heavyweight championship. He has come a long way from his days teaming up with Kenny Omega in Dramatic Dream Team (DDT). No one can deny the success of the Golden Lovers. Ibushi was in Kenny’s corner when he finally achieved his victory over Okada for the title. Will Kenny be in Ibushi’s corner for Wrestle Kingdom? It’s difficult to tell. While AEW and NJPW don’t have a working relationship, Chris Jericho and Jon Moxley both have high-profile matches at Wrestle Kingdom. It was once plausible that Ibushi would join AEW but it looks like the Golden Lovers won’t be reunited anytime soon. Never say never in wrestling.
Kota Ibushi doesn’t necessarily need Kenny in his corner. It would certainly be a fun moment for the fans but Ibushi has gotten to this point on his own. Last year he lost to Tanahashi in the finals of the G1 Climax. This year was redemption for Ibushi by willing his way through the tournament on a bad ankle. On the way, he defeated Tanahashi which was his first victory over the former top star of NJPW. The image of Ibushi being alone was certainly highlighted in his final’s match against Jay White. The entire Bullet Club came to ringside before getting thrown out by Red Shoes.
Wrestle Kingdom is an important show for NJPW. The company took a hit with the Elite leaving and starting a new promotion. Ibushi can reign in a new era for NJPW. While Okada is one of the best champions of all time, NJPW may need to try something different to gain back the momentum they had a few years ago. NJPW isn’t going anywhere, but I love watching this company when it’s firing on all cylinders. This card at the Toyko Dome is loaded and is highly anticipated. Can Ibushi blossom in the top spot of the company? Only time will tell.