At Dominion this past sunday, Kota Ibushi was facing Tetsuya Naito for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, in a battle where both men once again threw it all on the line. But this time, it was Naito who prevailed and recaptured the championship, for the 4th time.
For Ibushi however, now that he lost the championship which meant so much to him and the G1 Climax coming up, does he come in as the favourite to win it all and headline Wrestle Kingdom ?
A few months ago, I wrote about Kota Ibushi after he announced he signed a full-time contract with New Japan Pro Wrestling, mainly stating that the Golden Star was looking to win championships to cement himself as one of New Japan’s top stars, starting 2019. At G1 Supercard last April, Ibushi claimed the Intercontinental Championship from Tetsuya Naito, thus winning his second title as a Heavyweight in the company. Here we are past Dominion and Ibushi is now, surprisingly or not, left without the championship he won not so long ago… Again. For a good amount of fans, this loss confirms Ibushi’s status of favourite to win the G1 Climax this year, which to be fair, is a solid point in itself. After all, in both 2016 and 2017, Kenny Omega and Tetsuya Naito did lose the Intercontinental championship in Osaka-Jo Hall and went on to win the tournament.
However, I would like to ask : Is it the right time to write what would be the last chapter of Ibushi’s story ?
I will start things off by stating the overall reason this thought came up first. Kota Ibushi lacks the build and credibility to not only win the G1 Climax, but also to eventually become IWGP Heavyweight Champion.
Let’s not kid ourselves. If Ibushi is indeed winning the G1 this year, most people will expect him to defeat Kazuchika Okada at Wrestle Kingdom. Now, think about this : Since claiming his first championship as a Heavyweight in New Japan last December, Kota Ibushi only had once successful title defense. The point with this is, besides winning the New Japan Cup four years ago, besides performing very well in previous G1’s, even making it to the finals last year, and adding some gold to his waist, Ibushi is still a bit unproven compared to both Okada and Naito. He is unproven because he has yet to cement himself as a defending champion within the Heavyweight ranks. Becoming IC champion was a big step in the right direction, but not managing to hold on to the title for longer than two months did not put him in the most favorable position to ultimately claim the Heavyweight Championship. Now, winning the G1 would also be a step forward, but this is where I remind you of Kenny Omega, who won the G1 after a fairly short IC title run in the first year of his Heavyweight stint, in a context where New Japan badly needed new stars, and someone to fill in for AJ Styles. As we all know, he ultimately lost to Okada in the Tokyo Dome and their rivalry grew from there.
The current context however is quite different when looking at Ibushi’s case. New Japan doesn’t desperately need to elevate people like it was in 2016, but they need to build these already elevated people up more than they currently are, so the responsibility of carrying the IWGP Heavyweight Championship doesn’t solely revolve around Okada and possibly Naito for the next couple of years. In that regard, when it comes to Ibushi, what he needs first and foremost is a decently long, as well as meaningful, championship run.
Let’s now take a moment to look at Ibushi’s inability to defend championships from the opposite perspective. Let’s assume the Golden Star manages to win the G1, how can anyone be certain he makes it to Wrestle Kingdom with the G1 contract ? Granted, since the tournament winner has to defend his rights to main event the Tokyo Dome, no one actually lost them. Yet again, Ibushi has barely managed to defend anything he has held in New Japan since becoming a Heavyweight. Lastly, in such a context, as most will be expecting Ibushi’s G1 win to result in him becoming IWGP Heavyweight Champion because this actually makes perfect sense from a storytelling standpoint, having him lose at the Dome is out of the question.
While I could go on with the different scenarios concerning Ibushi, let’s wrap things up by slightly touching on the new Intercontinental Champion, Tetsuya Naito. Naito has spent most of the year focusing on his new goal of becoming the first man to hold the Heavyweight and IC Championships at the same time. Now that he once again is in position to achieve this goal, we can wonder what this means for him, as well. One thing we can be sure of, though, is that if there is any other big favourite to ultimately main event Wrestle Kingdom for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at the moment, it probably is the leader of L.I.J.