On Jan. 4, from the Tokyo Dome, New Japan Pro Wrestling hosts its biggest annual event of the year, Wrestle Kingdom 12. In January 2017, company ace Kazuchika Okada retained his IWGP championship in an instant classic with western star Kenny Omega, which brought the Japanese federation a newfound attention from fans overseas. After hosting its first American events this year in Long Beach, California, to sold-out crowds, Wrestle Kingdom 12 is the culmination and celebration of the best year for New Japan in almost two decades.
If you haven't watched NJPW before and still need a reason to watch the WrestleMania of Japanese pro wrestling (or want to learn more), don't worry, I've got you covered. Here are the three reasons why, even though it's the first major pro wrestling event of the new year, there might not be a show that can top it in 2018 -- sorry, Vince.
Okada vs. Naito: The most important feud in wrestling since The Rock and Stone Cold
Back in the early 2000s, fans flocked to one "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. He was the blue-collar everyman that America needed at the time. He talked back to his boss, drank tons of beer and did everything a normal teenager or adult couldn't do to the authority figures in his or her life. Steve Austin was what pro wrestling is all about -- a larger-than-life character who resonated with the people in attendance. When Vince McMahon talked down to Austin and the Texas Rattlesnake fought back against his tyrannical boss, it spoke to the disenfranchised and disgruntled fans in the North American market.
In 2017, Tetsuya Naito is to Japan what Steve Austin was to the United States back in the early 2000s. Once a shunned hero whose overly cheery character annoyed fans -- so much so that they literally voted him out of his rightfully earned main event at Wrestle Kingdom 8 -- Naito returned from an excursion in Mexico two years ago as a changed man. Instead of being the cookie-cutter hero fans didn't want to see, he became his own man. He took his time to the ring, wearing a suit he would meticulously unravel even after the bell was rung. Naito had bought into the "tranquillo" (laidback) lifestyle he learned while in Mexico, becoming a wrestler who didn't conform to the norms of Japanese society.
In Japan, when a wrestler wins a championship belt, it's usually an honorable, sacred moment. That title is the symbol of years and years of all the blood, sweat and tears the champion sacrificed to achieve, regardless of if he was a prototypical good guy or bad guy. Naito doesn't believe in that. Instead, when he wins a title, he flings it into the air, leaving it behind for one of the trainees to pick up and bring back to him in the locker room. For the people of Japan who are sick and tired of feeling trapped in a straightforward life, Naito is their cult of personality; he's charismatic without needing to try, and when everyone in the world goes one way, Naito and his band of misfits, "Los Ingobernables de Japon," go the opposite, breaking the chains of what the Japanese stereotype of being successful looks like.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Okada, the embodiment of the stereotype of what success looks like to many within Japanese culture. He's tall, rich, athletic and handsome, and is married to a beautiful TV announcer. He is currently the longest-reigning IWGP heavyweight champion in NJPW history, and no matter how high the odds are stacked against him, he prevails over and over again, slaying monster after monster in his wake.
Okada has triumphed over brawlers, technical wizards, hosses, high-flyers and even former NJPW ace, Hiroshi Tanahashi, to become the undisputed face of the company. Since returning to the company from his own excursion to America seven years ago, Okada has been positioned as the man to lead New Japan to worldwide relevance. When it comes to technical skill, there is no one better on the planet; for everything given to Okada, he has repaid the company's trust 100-fold, becoming the beacon of hope the company needed.
When Naito faces off with Okada, it's more than a battle between two of the best wrestlers on the planet. It's a match between different ideologies. You have Okada, the man fathers in Japan would dream their son could one day become, with all the talent and brains in the world. Then you have Naito, the black sheep. When he tried to conform to what he thought society wanted him to be, he was jeered. Now, as a reborn figure, he is at the charge of his own revolution, outselling every wrestler in the company in terms of merchandise and having the potential to become one of the biggest stars in New Japan's history. Like Austin back in the 2000s, the Japanese public, including a strong contingent of youngsters at shows, have attached themselves to Naito, using the anti-hero as an avatar for their own unheard desires.
Japanese wrestling needed a new hero, and with Okada and Naito, polar opposites in almost every way, they've hit the jackpot twice over.
Jericho vs. Omega: The feud that shows us what the potential of feuds of tomorrow could be
The semi-main event of the event is a battle of "Alpha vs. Omega" in which legend Chris Jericho takes on Kenny Omega in a bout for the NJPW United States championship. Where Naito and Okada is a match entrenched in Japanese culture, Jericho and Omega show the other end of what New Japan has been working on the past year: the western expansion. At the forefront of New Japan's push into the western market, there is no man better to take up that task than Omega. Following his breakout match with Okada the last Wrestle Kingdom, the 34-year-old Canadian has had the best year of his career, creating a buzz wherever he goes. When Omega makes an appearance on a show in the west, it's an event all in itself.
His opponent, Jericho, needs no introduction. Less than a year ago, the veteran was in a marquee match at WrestleMania against another upstart Canadian, Kevin Owens. When Jericho and Omega jabbed back and forth on social media leading into the announcement of their Wrestle Kingdom match, it didn't seem real. Wrestlers troll on Twitter all the time, it's one of their favorite things to do. No one really thought Jericho would come to Japan to fight Omega at the Tokyo Dome, but here we are, the two Canadian maestros ready to do battle in a match with even grander worldwide appeal than the main event of the show.
While the match doesn't have the same history behind it as Naito and Okada, it has something different by the way it all came together. Social media, if you've seen any WWE television in the past decade, has become everything in pro wrestling. What began as a beef on Twitter unveiled itself as a feud on-screen with a promo video and challenge, and then became even more after a shocking appearance and bloody attack from Jericho a few weeks ago, the crossover appeal with one of WWE's finest against NJPW's finest is a mouthwatering bout for anyone who has even a slight interest in pro wrestling. In a day and age in which combat sports have become all about the "money fight," with the Mayweather vs. McGregor spectacle actually coming to fruition, this match between Jericho and Omega could be looked back upon one day as the feud that started a change in the industry.
Jay White: The next big thing you're going to want to tell your friends about
Alright, let's be frank here. I know some of you out there like being that person who knows about the next great pro wrestler before all your friends. It always happens. You're the first person who knew who Kenny Omega was and told all your friends who exclusively watch WWE that this is the guy who is going to change the business if he ever comes in. Hey, I'm no different -- when AJ Styles was doing his thing as X-Division champion in TNA over a decade ago, I told anyone I knew who liked wrestling that this guy they had no clue about was better than all their favorites and one day would become WWE champion. It took a long time, but Styles finally did it and is no longer the next big thing -- he's one of the most important wrestlers in the WWE today.
New Zealand's Jay White, 25, is going to be the next guy everyone talks about being a future WWE champion, and you're not going to want to miss out on his (re-)debut on the big stage at Wrestle Kingdom against Tanahashi. As Naito and Okada did before him, White recently returned from his overseas excursion, during which he performed for Ring of Honor and a variety of other companies, as a new character, "Switchblade." He viciously beat up Tanahashi to set up a match between the two at Wrestle Kingdom 12. Tanahashi is often called Japan's John Cena, and over the past decade, he has not had a match at NJPW's biggest show of the year without having immense meaning behind it. When Tanahashi performs at the Tokyo Dome, especially now, in the twilight of his time as a top guy in his legendary career, the person chosen to face him has the responsibility of being someone to whom New Japan can entrust the future of the company.
That's exactly what White will have on his plate when he takes on Tanahashi. Okada and Naito were the most recent two wrestlers to face Tanahashi at the Dome, and those two are now fighting in one of the biggest main events in the history of the company. Expectations are high for White, but he has all the tools in the kit to live up to them. In front of the biggest crowd he has ever wrestled in front of, White will have a canvas -- and the perfect partner in Tanahashi -- to create a piece of art that catapults him to superstardom.
And if he nails it (which I believe he will), you'll want to be one of the first people to tell everyone about the night you saw the breakout of wrestling's next great talent.