It may not be the most controversial statement to make, that 2021 for New Japan Pro Wrestling was a bit of a down year. I think I’m in a good position to say this, having spent an inordinate amount of time covering NJPW on my own near-daily blog. Thankfully, one wrestler managed to put the company on his back, and if not “save it,” then at the very least, do his damnedest to make it bearable.
After a hopeful beginning of the year that saw Kota Ibushi crowned Double Champion, the IWGP Championship scene got turbulent. Ibushi began talking about unifying the IWGP and Intercontinental Championships and, after a few successful defenses of his titles, did so, immediately losing it to Will Ospreay. It went over like a lead balloon in some circles, which was exacerbated by the reimplementation of a State of Emergency, eight wrestlers testing positive, and, finally, Ospreay suddenly leaving Japan for the UK, apparently to address a neck injury he suffered in a 5/4 defense of the title.
With the new State of Emergency extended beyond the original remit, NJPW’s Wrestle Grand Slam in Tokyo Dome show on 5/29/2021, headlined by Ospreay v. Kazuchika Okada, was postponed, the announced match scuppered. NJPW obviously could not be blamed for the pandemic, but their backfired creative decisions left the company with egg on its face.
Enter the Rampage Dragon, Shingo Takagi, who would suddenly be the standard-bearer for this tumultuous year for New Japan Pro Wrestling.
Enter the Dragon
Shingo Takagi joined New Japan Pro Wrestling in October 2018, after spending his whole 14-year career up to that point in Dragon Gate. During a freelance period in 2018, he also racked up owed title shots in both All Japan Pro Wrestling and Pro Wrestling Guerilla, having beaten their respective champions in tournaments during the year, but never received either. When he was introduced in NJPW as the newest member of the popular Los Ingobernables de Japon stable, it was to fill-in for the injured Hiromu Takahashi, and he would wrestle in the Hunior Heavyweight division until mid-2019 (despite being a heavyweight for much of his career), when he declared himself for G1 Climax 29.
Nearly immediately upon entering the company, he became one of the most consistently Good and Entertaining wrestlers on the roster and was rewarded with lower-tier championship reigns over the intervening couple of years. Indeed, Shingo’s 2021 started with one of the best matches of Wrestle Kingdom 15, successfully defending the NEVER Openweight Championship against Jeff Cobb on 1/5/2021.
Shingo transitioned to a feud with the perennial Ace of NJPW, Hiroshi Tanahashi, that included Tanahashi declaring his feelings for Shingo (as a wrestler, of course) in the most rom-com anime way possible, with Shingo telling Tanahashi that he just doesn’t like him the same way. Shingo lost that belt to Tanahashi on 1/30/2021, but it didn’t go downhill from there. Quite the opposite in fact.
Shingo entered the New Japan Cup 2021 in March beating the likes of Kazuchika Okada, KENTA, Hirooki Goto and EVIL along the way. He was the runner-up to Ospreay however, much as he was in Best Of The Super Juniors 27 in 2019, and was Ospreay’s only defense of the IWGP World Heavyweight title before he absconded from Japan. Shingo leveraged the fact he’d already beaten Kazuchika Okada once this year to get himself into the match to fill the vacant title, now set for a rescheduled (by one day) Dominion 6.6 in Osaka-jo Hall on 6/7/2021. After 36 minutes versus The Rainmaker, Shingo Takagi emerged as the 3rd IWGP World Heavyweight Champion in the three months the title had existed, the second time Shingo had bested Okada in 2021.
The Dragon as Champion
The postponed Wrestle Grand Slam in Tokyo Dome show was finally set for 7/25/2021, and Shingo was due to defend against the inaugural World Champion, Kota Ibushi. Fate intervened once more, as Ibushi came down with what was reported as aspiration pneumonia the week of the show, taking him out of the event. Shingo successfully defended against Hiroshi Tanahashi, getting his win back from earlier in the year. Once again, despite a lessened Tokyo Dome crowd due to the State of Emergency, fatigued by the pandemic, the match was very good, and served to legitimize Shingo as champion, whilst also, maybe, possibly, beginning to rescue the reputation of the maligned title itself.
His next defense was against EVIL, a former stablemate, a match that saw the Internet roll its collective eyes at its announcement, as EVIL’s stock had fallen significantly since his shock heel turn & shock Double Gold titles win in Summer 2020. The main event of Night 2 of Wrestle Grand Slam in MetLife Dome, on 9/5/2021 from Saitama, was indeed better than most had expected, but it was a carry-job by the champion. It was not the best match of the show, but that Shingo was able to get anything out of that pairing was a testament to not only his skill, but his commitment to his job – make your opponent look like a million bucks whilst getting over as the champion. Shingo took the role as IWGP World Heavyweight Champion seriously, even as business was down, and the new championship derided by fans.
Shingo then took part in G1 Climax 31 and was in contention to go to the Finals all the way to the last day, when a double count-out draw to Yujiro Takahashi, of all wrestlers, saw him out of the running, with Kota Ibushi advancing to the Final in Shingo’s block. Again, this year’s G1 Climax 31 had some question marks as to why certain talents were booked into the prestigious tournament, and it was not the best G1 ever, but nor was it the worst. It was marred by injuries, however, with Tetsuya Naito suffering a knee injury on the opening day, forcing his withdrawal, whilst Kota Ibushi would dislocate his shoulder in the Final against Kazuchika Okada. (To say Ibushi’s 2021 was cursed may be an understatement.) Nevertheless, Shingo delivered in his matches, as has been his story since joining NJPW. It was no failure on his part he didn’t win the tournament as reigning IWGP champion; the last time that happened was Kensuke Sasaki in 2000 (and only one previous time before that, Keiji Muto in 1995).
His final title defense of the year was on 11/6/2021 against Zack Sabre Jr., who along with Ibushi were the only ones to beat Shingo during G1 Climax 31; however, with Ibushi out of commission, Sabre got the nod. That, too, was a banger match, managing to get a 9+ score on CAGEMATCH and a ****-3/4 rating from the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. It is, indeed, worth going out of your way to see, and was a very bright light at the end of the tunnel that was NJPW in 2021.
Now, Shingo focuses on not only Kazuchika Okada in the main event of Night 1 of Wrestle Kingdom 16, on 1/4/2022, but possibly Will Ospreay (him again) the next night. Ospreay did return to action in New Japan of America in the latter half of the year, carrying an IWGP World Heavyweight Title belt, claiming to be the Real Champion. Okada, for his part, has been carrying the retired V4 IWGP Heavyweight title belt that gave way to the World Heavyweight one, as the “G1 Champion.” The subtext here, of course, is that both men don’t see Shingo as the legitimate champion. In Okada’s case, he doesn’t even recognize this title, mocking Shingo that he can’t be the torchbearer for New Japan in their 50th Anniversary year in 2022.
Shingo, for his part, has held up his end of the bargain, repaying the faith of long-term followers of his career. He was recently selected by Tokyo Sports to be their MVP for 2021 in their annual Pro Wrestling Awards. Shingo was also one of the faces of NJPW displayed when the company announced Wrestle Kingdom 16 in Yokohama Arena on 1/8/2022 would be cross promoted with Pro Wrestling NOAH, and he had a staredown at a recent press conference with NOAH’s current GHC Heavyweight Champion, Katsuhiko Nakajima. Of course, depending on how both the Tokyo Dome WK16 shows, and NOAH’s own supercard at Tokyo Nippon Budokan on New Year’s Day go, neither man may be their company’s champion when January 8throlls around. But to be part of the hype package along with Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi, still champion at this point, shows the work he’s put in, and the faith the company has in him, even in this down cycle.
It should also be noted that even as champion, whilst he is headlining Dome shows, Shingo has, more than any other main eventer in the last year, been willing to work the opening matches against rookie Young Lions. Since becoming IWGP World Heavyweight Champion, Shingo has worked matches against Yuya Uemura, Master Wato, and Ryohei Oiwa, the latter a recent match in Shingo’s home prefecture of Yamanashi; days before being crowned champion, Shingo also wrestled Yota Tsuji in the curtain-jerker on 5/26/2021. To be fair, the likes of Okada, Tanahashi, Ibushi and Naito had special matches through this year with the Young Lions too, but the Rampage Dragon had the most. That’s worth praising too, in my estimation.
It’s one thing to be the top guy in a promotion doing well. It’s another to be that guy in a company in decline. Ask Bret Hart in mid-90s WWF, or Booker T in the last years of WCW. Or, indeed, Hiroshi Tanahashi in late-2000s New Japan. NJPW this year was Not Great. Shingo Takagi did his damnedest to make it as good as he could, and most of the time, succeeded. Cheers to him, and hope he continues in NJPW’s golden anniversary year.