Katsuhiko Nakajima’s Vulnerability Makes Him the Best Wrestler of 2021

COVID-19 has been a difficult time for heels. Nowhere is this truer than in Japan, where restrictions on sporting events mean that fans have been unable to make noise since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. In New Japan Pro Wrestling, EVIL turned on his stable mates in Los Ingobernables de Japon to mixed reception from fans. The company’s premier heel Jay White lost a laborious, underwhelming title match against Kota Ibushi in January before cutting the best promo of his career and disappearing to the relative obscurity of Impact and New Japan Strong in the United States. Elsewhere, All Japan’s Jake Lee turned heel and finally won the Triple Crown Championship, but his guileful and sinister heel character has failed to connect with clap crowds, in spite of excellent in-ring work.

Still, there are always exceptions to the rule, and Katsuhiko Nakajima is one of them. Even if you don’t watch Pro Wrestling NOAH, you may have heard of him by now. With a unique style that melds karate and jiu jitsu with traditional big match wrestling and methodical heel work, the GHC Heavyweight Champion is widely being hailed across the internet as a Wrestler of the Year candidate owing to his performances against the likes of Masato Tanaka, Naomichi Marufuji and Kenou. His thunderous chest-kicks might grab your attention, but the secret to his stellar 2021 is something altogether quieter.

Instead, it is Nakajima’s focus on quiet, understated ring psychology and drawn-out character development which has made his work so rewarding, and which have rendered him seemingly impervious to many of the pitfalls of pandemic wrestling. The willingness to show physical and emotional vulnerability, too, and explore his relationships with other wrestlers, have made him a far more nuanced and sympathetic heel than we are used to. Without it, his matches would stand as an excellent body of work for a single calendar year. Put it all together and it is difficult to argue against Nakajima as one of the best in the world, let alone the best wrestler of 2021.

The Road to 2021

A child prodigy and karateka, Nakajima made his debut in 2005 at the age of 15 in Riki Choshu’s World Japan Promotion. It was here that he met Kensuke Sasaki, who together with his wife, professional wrestler Akira Hokuto, semi-adopted Nakajima and began training him as a professional wrestler. Within less than a year, Nakajima had competed against legends like Genichiro Tenryu, Jushin Thunder Liger and Ultimo Dragon, and participated in the 2004 Best of the Super Juniors. He would have a starring role in Sasaki’s own promotion, Kensuke Office, appearing in NOAH from 2005 onwards including a much-discussed feud with KENTA and a run with the GHC Junior Heavyweight Championship in 2011.

Despite promising beginnings, his career grew stagnant in the confines of an independent promotion like Kensuke Office. Nakajima would retire his mentor in 2014 and began wrestling for NOAH full-time, but it was only after a quality showing in New Japan’s G1 Climax in 2016 that the company pinned its hopes on the young wrestler and made him GHC Heavyweight Champion. Quality matches, however, could not pull NOAH out of the slump, and Nakajima failed to resonate with fans as the new ace of the promotion.

Undeterred, Nakajima reinvented himself as a sadistic lone wolf with a shaggy mop of hair and a chip on his shoulder. Aligned with Go Shiozaki as AXIZ, NOAH’s lost middle generation, the two were a staple of the tag division until Nakajima betrayed Shiozaki at the end of 2020 to join the heel unit Kongoh and challenge for the GHC Heavyweight Championship. He would lose this title match to Shiozaki, and entered 2021 involved once again in the tag division, this time with his former tag-team partner Masa Kitamiya in The Aggression.

Rage in a Cage

With Shiozaki out for surgery and the reformed Aggression breathing some life back into the Heavyweight tag division, like many Nakajima fans, I remained anxious that the company was content to let him tread water while other plans were in motion. He would put on excellent matches: the Aggression versus Takashi Sugiura and MMA legend and technical specialist Takashi Sugiura in January was predictably brilliant; but it would still feel like a waste of a wrestler of this quality entering his prime. I could not have been more wrong.

A short-lived GHC Heavyweight Tag Title run with Kitamiya was used as a springboard into a feud between the two, when Kitamiya… turned face? By betraying Nakajima? It was a turn with all the hallmarks of on-the-fly booking, but it made a strange kind of sense. Kitamiya had been subject to Nakajima’s punishing training regime in Kensuke Office and had seen him betray Go Shiozaki only recently. He was tired of sharing a faction with someone he thought had bad intentions. How could he trust a self-confessed lone wolf to have his back when it really mattered?

In April, when the two finally came to blows in a cathartic, blood-soaked cage match with a hair-vs-hair stipulation, NOAH dispensed with the crowd altogether. The void of silence that remained was filled only by the whirr of hovering camera drones and the sound of violence. After testing the mettle of his opponent in a fascinating UWFI-style grappling sequence which recalled their time training together in the Kensuke Office dojo, Nakajima enacts brutal punishment upon Kitamiya. He delivers kick after devastating kick, crushing Kitamiya’s face into the steel wiring and evading a top rope senton such that Masa lands on his back and (literally) breaks a ring board. And then, he just refuses to end it, gloating over a bloodied Kitamiya. After several long minutes, Kitamiya is suddenly able to rally enough to land a Saito Suplex for the win.

What you might expect to happen here is that Nakajima would break down or go mad with rage, to give the audience at home a sight of much-anticipated humiliation or to develop further angles. Instead, he entrusts a shocked Kenou to tenderly cut blood-soaked strands from his hair. It throws your understanding of the match in disarray: was he really gloating in the ring, or did he unconsciously lose to punish himself for his past betrayals? Whatever the case, the loss of the match and his hair began a story arc in which the lone wolf has come to begrudgingly trust and love his fellow stable-mates.

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The Lone Wolf Finds His Pack

After concluding matters in the Heavyweight Tag division, Nakajima would face Kenou in the final of the N1—NOAH’s annual round-robin tournament—in a ferocious display of strikes that were almost so stiff as to be uncomfortable viewing. Where their contest in the same tournament the previous year had been MMA-like, tentative and mistrusting, this one was about two friends relishing the thrill of combat with a worthy opponent. When Nakajima is kicked to the ground near the conclusion of the match and he grins, it isn’t gloating, and it isn’t a facade put on for the fans. It is unabashed joy. Nakajima wins and is granted a title shot at the GHC Championship, but it is the embrace shared by the two at the end of the match which really matters. It feels simultaneously fitting and yet also unexpected, an inversion of all of the dynamics we are used to seeing play out between heels.

No match, however, stands as a greater testament to Nakajima’s emotional complexity and vulnerability than his GHC Heavyweight Title match against Naomichi Marufuji, only two weeks after the N1 Final in October. The match opens slowly as Nakajima toys with Marufuji, drawing him into lock-up exchanges and hitting the ‘Shutter Chance,’ posing for ringside photographers on the ropes with his feet on Marufuji’s throat. That is, until he goes over the top rope and lands awkwardly on his arm. What follows is less a double turn than it is a mid-match role reversal, as Marufuji leans into his killer instinct, contorting the arm into all kinds of positions and wrenching it through the guardrail. Nakajima screams out in pain, past the point of even being able to hide the agony from his opponent. The closing stretch is a breathtaking exchange of power moves and ruthless, technical offence as Marufuji begins choking Nakajima with his own injured arm.

You don’t see heels in this kind of peril often, but it feels appropriate after all those years spent climbing his way to the top. When he finally wins the GHC Heavyweight Championship after a definitive stalling brainbuster, the catharsis is palpable.

As if that wasn’t enough, after almost a year of looming over the ring from the turnbuckle while the other members of Kongo did their trademark pose, he finally joins them at the conclusion of the match. It becomes clear that all this time, he wasn’t waiting for them to earn his respect, but to feel worthy in himself. And now, after winning the GHC Heavyweight Title, he does.

The GHC Heavyweight Champion

Since winning the title, Nakajima has put on stellar title matches, with each one furthering his character arc. Nakajima had tried to use his kicks to mow through Masato Tanaka during the N1, underestimating the resilience of the 48 year-old and taking his only loss of the tournament. Wise to his mistakes, he targets the arm during their title match, limiting the explosive power of Tanaka’s Sliding D clothesline and even reversing the move into an armbar. The match shows explicitly how much he has grown from the precocious young wrestler who won the GHC Heavyweight Title in 2016.

Meanwhile, his time limit-draw with Kenou may have drawn criticism from some circles for its length, but as a long-time fan of Nakajima, the finish made it all worth it. Right before the bell, Nakajima hits two picture-perfect lariats: a desperate effort and an explicit callback to his mentor Kensuke Sasaki. His history as a member of Kensuke Office was something he used to hide, part of the reason the NOAH audience rejected him in his first ace run. But now he was ready and willing to embrace it.

When Nakajima proclaims, “I am NOAH,” mimicking his former partner and rival Go Shiozaki, it means he has become that in spite of everything else. That he will be recognised as champion in spite of being a heel; in spite of his history with Kensuke Office.

Pro Wrestling NOAH

It is something of a tightrope walk, to show enough physical and emotional weakness to render a character believable and sympathetic without sacrificing the qualities that make them a heel in the first place. Nakajima does it expertly, each of his feuds feeling less like a binary bad-guy good-guy angle and more like a real-life disagreement between two individuals with nuanced, fleshed out motivations.

This nuance lends a realism to Nakajima’s character which in turn makes his matches more engaging. It never feels like you are watching a performance, and it means he succeeds in elevating almost every match he is in. A single kick exchange with DDT’s terminator-in-residence Yukio Sakaguchi during the DDT vs Kongoh 12-man at CyberFight Fest in July proved to be one of the high points of the entire show, shimmering with violent intensity. Even a calculated dissection of junior trainee Junta Miyawaki on the undercard of a NOAH B-show in January was compelling, Nakajima’s relentless offence providing the perfect opportunity for a babyface comeback in the face of inevitable defeat.

Tetsuya Naito briefly walked the same path in New Japan Pro Wrestling in 2016, as another failed ace with a chip on his shoulder and a mischievous disrespect for tradition and the old guard of the promotion. But the more acerbic elements of Naito’s character were quickly abandoned amid a groundswell of fan support, leading him to win the G1 Climax in 2017 and become the biggest star in Japanese professional wrestling. Whether or not Nakajima will follow the same path remains to be seen. Entering 2022 as the GHC Heavyweight Champion, with a heavily publicised match against Go Shiozaki on January 1st and an appearance in the New Japan vs NOAH super-show to follow shortly afterwards, he is as well-placed as any to become a leading light of Japanese professional wrestling, whether he remains a heel or not.

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