2020 in Wrestling: Tetsuya Naito Is NJPW’s Wrestler of the Year

Naito became NJPW's double champion at the beginning of a terrible year, but he still managed to be the company's MVP

New Japan Pro Wrestling‘s Tetsuya Naito kicked off 2020 with the biggest accomplishment of his career, then got handed some of the worst possible circumstances in which to follow it up. He became the first person to hold the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Championships simultaneously, then was tasked with being the face of NJPW in the year of a global pandemic. Wrestling shows were much riskier, audience sizes and behavior were limited, and the company’s touring (and storyline) schedule was derailed. But despite an abundance of setbacks, 2020 was still the year Naito successfully showed what he could do as a top babyface champion, and ultimately had the best year of anyone in NJPW.

Naito kicked off 2020 with a match so great it has its own Fanfyte end-of-the-year article, the conclusion of a months-long storyline about becoming the Heavyweight-IC double champion and a years-long story about his agonizing journey to become NJPW’s top guy as a babyface. At Wrestle Kingdom 14 on January 4-5, he defeated Jay White to win the IWGP Intercontinental Championship on Night 1, then won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship from Kazuchika Okada in the main event on Night 2. It’s hard to imagine how Naito and New Japan’s year could have gotten off to a better start (except for if the double championship situation made more sense, but it seemed like they might work that out later.)

Naito’s only pre-pandemic feud, with Kenta, was more of a mixed bag. The setup for Naito vs. Kenta was one of the more egregious versions of the classic NJPW move of “guy who just lost a lower-level title goes right into a higher title picture:” Kenta lost the NEVER Openweight Championship on January 5, then jumped Naito hours later and was awarded a shot at both titles for revenge reasons. The build to their match at The New Beginning in Osaka was fun, but the 35-minute, interference-laden title bout was easier to criticize. However, it was undeniable that the audience was invested in the outcome. Looking back at this feud now, after how Naito vs. Evil played out and the weird setup for the double championship matches at Wrestle Kingdom 15, it feels like Naito-Kenta set the tone for this title(s) picture much more than Naito-Okada.

The double champ’s next big match seemed sure to be a more universal hit, and maybe even a classic. There was all the hype in the world for Tetsuya Naito vs. Hiromu Takahashi at NJPW’s 48th Anniversary Show in March – champion vs. champion, mentor vs. mentee, and two great wrestlers in a first-time-ever singles match. Then the real world got in the way. COVID-19 was spreading more and more worldwide, and New Japan responded more responsibly than any other major wrestling company by canceling shows and going on hiatus. Their break lasted for over 100 days, starting in late February, about a month before Japan’s national state of emergency began, and ending with the no-audience NJPW Together Project Special event on June 15, announced soon after the state of emergency ended. Hiromu vs. Naito was scrapped, and fans can only hope it happens sometime in the future.

Naito’s first post-hiatus feud was emotional, contentious, and soundtracked by organ. Evil won the New Japan Cup (yay!), then joined the Bullet Club (no!), then beat Naito (Dick Togo???) to become the second-ever double champion. Hiromu lost his mind and made an unsuccessful challenge, and Naito challenged Evil for a rematch at Summer Struggle in Jingu, telling his former stablemate that his belt rental period was over. I’d say their main event was the worst match of that (very good) show, but the aftermath, Naito regaining his belts and posing in front of the fireworks, was one of wrestling’s best moments of the year.

The similarity to the two previous years’ betrayals-to-Bullet Club and the amount of interference shenanigans that now filled Evil’s matches were fair reasons to dislike or criticize this turn and the feud that followed. But NJPW still clearly struck emotional gold with this angle. It appealed to fans’ years-long investment in L.I.J., and in Evil, Hiromu, and Naito as characters. New Japan pulled the trigger on the Evil vs. Sanada post-betrayal feud later in the fall, and now these former partners have probably the best angle going into Wrestle Kingdom 15.

But in contrast to the successful slow-burn of the Evil vs. Sanada beef, the emotional impact of Evil vs. Naito burned out before it was over. After singles matches at Dominion and Jingu and in the G1, all within such a short period of time and with a bunch of tag matches in between, it didn’t inspire enthusiasm that the main event of Power Struggle in November was Naito vs. Evil for the double titles again. There was no reason to get excited for it at all, even for comeuppance’s sake when Naito already got his Jingu revenge and Evil had just gotten his ass kicked by Sanada in the G1.

Naito’s list of title matches in 2020 ended up being Okada, Kenta, Evil, Evil, Evil, and after re-watching all of these for this article, I don’t think any are worth revisiting except the first. The main appeal of the others, which are about half an hour long, is the anticipation of the result, and while that’s a really valuable thing for a wrestling match to have going for it, great matches and feuds have more to offer (if you want a good Naito vs. Evil, their non-title match from October is your best bet.)

It’s a testament to the strong foundation on which Naito’s popularity was built that he was able to remain such an appealing champion with such a lackluster feud schedule. His journey to crowd-endorsed babyface Heavyweight Champion was a compelling and partly-unintentional journey that inspired the kind of dedication to the character and performer that doesn’t fizzle out with months of iffy booking (especially in a year when extenuating circumstances made creative iffy-ness more understandable.) Also countering other issues: Naito is still great at absolutely everything about pro wrestling! Throughout 2020 he continued to have one of the best personas in the business and to display unimpeachable in-ring skills, especially after the forced hiatus seemed to rejuvenate this man who in the past had refused to take days off even when he was seeing double.

This fall’s G1 Climax 30 was the part of 2020 that really showcased Naito’s skills as a top-tier in-ring wrestler. Along with Tanahashi (the other guy constantly on the verge, in kayfabe, of being too banged-up to function), Naito had one of the best runs in B Block and in the tournament as a whole. His G1 included a fantastic main event against the Ace, very good showings against Zack Sabre Jr., Sanada, Juice Robinson, and Evil, and one of the funnier Yano matches. And appropriately for his champion status, Naito stayed in the running for the final until the last night of B block action, and each of his three losses (to Sanada, Evil, and Kenta) were important to the trajectory of the block.

After the G1, there was more non-wrestling stuff about Naito’s reign that was easy to criticize. Along with the aforementioned fourth Evil singles match, there was G1 winner Kota Ibushi losing the right to challenge Naito in the main event of WK 15 to Jay White, then Naito pointing out hey, you guys actually only planned a main event for one night of WK, so why don’t me and Ibushi just main event the other night, which is far from the most exciting way to set up one of the biggest matches on your biggest show of the year. On top of all this, there was the weirdness of the double titles never being either combined or defended separately, and a continued lack of clarity about how NJPW intends to handle them. But despite a lot of weirdness in the main event picture, the guy dominating the top title scene was never the issue. Naito’s charisma, relationship with the fans, and abilities as a performer clearly helped rather than hindered the company throughout a year that was difficult and confusing in so many ways.

In an entirely real-world way, Naito is probably the best hard times champion NJPW could have right now. Tanahashi, with his narrative of carrying the company on his back through years of financial struggle and eventually winning them a wider audience, might be the only other roster member who could currently fill that role. Though he stayed far from singles title pictures this year, Tana was still the most appropriate wrestler-face of the company for things like the video announcing NJPW’s return from hiatus and the speech at the beginning of their comeback special, since L.I.J. are still nominally heels. But while NJPW still maintains some separation between Naito and the kayfabe version of itself to maintain his anti-establishment image, it’s clear the real company knows the power of Naito as an inspiring top babyface.

The Stardust Genius couldn’t succeed Tanahashi as the guy who could inspire crowds after main events, but the Naito of Los Ingobernables, relatably always exhausted and aspirationally able to not give a fuck, could, even in response to real-life disasters. He’d shown this quality in 2018 at Wrestling Hi No Kuni, when he pulled off a speech about courage the audience in Kumamoto, referencing the earthquakes that had devastated the area two years earlier. Similarly, Naito’s story of perseverance and success in the face of total failure made him a fitting figure to root for in this terrible year, and an encouraging one to see succeed.

Between Naito’s loss at Wrestle Kingdom 12 and win at Wrestle Kingdom 14, there were discussions (some in fan communities, some in kayfabe) about whether he was really still capable of an IWGP Heavyweight Championship run. In 2020, he proved he was capable of that and more. This year handed wrestlers some of the worst possible circumstances in which to show their potential, but despite these circumstances and sometimes even because of them, it was still the year in which Naito showed how brightly he could shine as NJPW’s top guy.

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Emily Pratt

Emily Pratt is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She used to study, write about, and make theater. Now she writes a lot about pro wrestling. Pratt is a regular contributor for Fanbyte, with other bylines at Uproxx, Deadlock, Mind Games, Orange Crush, and FanSided WWE.

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