Since New Japan Pro Wrestling has started trying to appeal to a larger audience, the process hasn’t always been very successful. While it is hard to say New Japan is failing to expand, there are some issues to fix on various sides, from the product the company brings, to things that are not specifically related to Wrestling. Today, let’s see how the symbol of the expansion, the IWGP US Heavyweight Championship, can make a difference in that aspect among others.
The first thing we need to ask ourselves is this : What’s the exact purpose of the IWGP US Heavyweight Championship ?
It is still hard to figure out how New Japan sees this championship. Is it for upcoming talents ? Top stars ? Mid carders ? Since the creation of the championship in the summer of 2017, different types of wrestlers have held it, and the company tended to put that new title on the side. The championship felt quite important thanks to Kenny Omega holding it and defending it regularly, but since then, it has felt more like a mid-card championship more than anything. Therefore, if a wrestling company wants to expand globally and creates a championship based on that idea, one would think that this championship to be regarded as very important, in one way or another. I personally would argue that the NEVER Openweight Championship means more than the US championship, to try and compare with another title which suffered similar issues.
Now, to give a potential answer to the question initially asked, let’s say New Japan pushes the idea that this championship will mainly be held by non-Japanese wrestlers.They want to keep reaching to a more global audience, meaning there is a need for foreigners to be highly featured, without putting aside the core of the roster, which appeals to the core audience. This is where the idea of creating a sort of “Gaijin big four” comes in. The goal isn’t exactly to replicate what has been done with the main event stars in Okada, Tanahashi, Naito and White, but it is to have more than one foreigner being a pillar of the company, and the other being on a lower level. Jay White, a former US champion, is ultimately taking that spot of Gaijin pillar, but he can also make the bridge between main eventing against Okada and Naito in the future, as well as elevating the US championship in a second reign later on.
Let’s now bring up which other three foreigners, since we’ll still take the “big four” model for this example, could be featured alongside the Switchblade, as the main guys to work on elevating the US championship.
The first man seems quite obvious, as he is the current IWGP US Heavyweight Champion, Juice Robinson. Already in his second reign as champion, Juice has been portrayed as the next big Gaijin babyface, and he got that big win against Cody for the US title at Wrestle Kingdom. Since it is hard to consider Jay White as an actual “Gaijin Ace” as he doesn’t fit the mold, Juice however fits in as he’s globally popular. Last point, Juice and Jay have had an intense rivalry over the US championship last year, so there is a something to keep building here over time.
The second man has already said he would take the US championship one day, that man is Zack Sabre Jr. The Suzuki-Gun member has yet to win any gold in New Japan, but he made his presence felt near the main event scene, winning the New Japan Cup, being a real challenge for the top stars and having an impressive G1 Climax last year. Zack has already told Juice he would take the title on US soil as well. There will be a handful of opportunities to build up to that match, and ZSJ can also bring legitimacy to the championship, looking at his past accomplishments, in only two years as part of the New Japan roster.
The last man to feature in this “big four” would be Will Ospreay. Will is an upcoming heavyweight and the current NEVER Openweight Champion, and while he will possibly stick around this title for a while, ultimately, he is a well known foreign figure in New Japan, and a constantly improving wrestler. In the long run, Ospreay as a heavyweight offers a lot of possibilities for really good matches, and it would be a shame not to use it to elevate a championship, in both the literal and more symbolic way.
Let’s say these four wrestlers are the guys New Japan builds its expansion around. The oldest of the four is ZSJ, being 31 years old. Juice is 29, Jay is 26 and Will is 25, which leaves a lot of time to build each of these guys as top figures in New Japan, without necessarily having them always hang around the Heavyweight or IC title picture. Also, you get to represent four different factions, which fits within the New Japan landscape.
Now, elevating the US championship will not only revolve around these four young guys. As the goal can ultimately be to put the belt at a similar level the Intercontinental Championship now reached, top Japanese talents will also have to compete for it, at least. I am not asking for Kazuchika Okada to face whoever will be the US champion in seven months, but the US championship, as much as it is linked to New Japan’s expansion, also needs to be built up in Japan. Therefore, I want to see Minoru Suzuki, Tomohiro Ishii, Kota Ibushi, SANADA, or Hirooki Goto challenge for this title in the future. I want to see the US championship headline shows in Japan as well as in the US, and I want it to grow as a prize where big rivalries can revolve around.
New Japan will need another method than “Use one or two popular foreigners to make us go global” to keep the expansion going. Think long term. To go global, relying on the usual big four concept and hoping the foreigner being in that category works in front of non-Japanese audiences may not cut it.
Tell me, what do you think of raising the legitimacy of the IWGP US Heavyweight Championship by creating a core of Gaijins to revolve around it ?