Right after Takashi Sugiura retained the GHC National Championship against Minoru Tanaka, Katsuhiko Nakajima came to the ring and layed a challenge to Sugiura, who accepted.
Today, I suggest we look at this match and what it means, both regarding the National title, and the challenger Nakajima himself.
Sugiura and Nakajima. Ask any fan of Pro Wrestling NOAH about them and they will surely manage to associate something with those two names. The last few years, both men have clashed a lot of times whether it was in singles or in tag team matches. Many will remember last year’s AXIZ vs Sugiura-Gun battles during Global Tag League and for the GHC Tag Team titles, or their match two years ago during Sugiura’s stratospheric GHC Heavyweight title reign. However, the feud between these two men is far from ending there. In terms of singles competition, outside of one meeting during the 2012 Global League, their first singles match, all their one on one matches so far happened for the Heavyweight title. They did also have a few encounters during consecutive Global Tag Leagues, when Sugiura teamed alongside Kenoh and Nakajima was paired with Masa Kitamiya.
The point being that this match-up is heavily protected and holds a LOT of meaning in more aspects than one. First of all, this is a generationnal battle between the old guard in Sugiura and the young generation in Nakajima, but for the latter specifically, the battles against the Killing Machine are a good emphasis of Nakajima’s growth. From his first Global League appearance, to Sugiura being the first big obstacle he had to face while being pushed as the man who would end the Suzuki-Gun invasion, when Nakajima won the Heavyweight title for the first and only time in his career. All the way to 2018 where a way more heelish Nakajima had what may be the match which is the most synonymous with the current type of character he has been portraying the last few years, leading to the man we know now. Needless to say, Nakajima has been one of, if not Sugiura’s main rival / antagonist the last few years.
Going back to this match being very protected, it, for one, didn’t happen very often and two, only did for NOAH’s biggest prize since Nakajima’s rise as a main event figure, means even more once you see they will now clash for a title in need of establishment, in the National title. So far, Sugiura defeated Michael Elgin, Shuhei Taniguchi, Masa Kitamiya, Kaito Kiyomiya and Minoru Tanaka to first win and then defend the championship. All these names have value of their own and showcase two aspects surrounding Sugiura’s reign : The physicality surrounding the title matches, as well as the champion’s will to let Junior Heavyweights and outsiders coming for the belt he holds, in order to elevate it and give it prestige. That last part is exactly why Nakajima being the next challenger means so much. Given their storied past of great and meaningful battles, this upcoming title defence is by far the biggest, and chances are it will be Sugiura’s most important once his reign eventually comes to an end. You can also expect the physicality to be there as well, since the match will feature two violent strikers.
Now, while this match means quite a lot for Sugiura and more specifically his reign, when it comes to Nakajima, this match goes even further, as this isn’t just « another » championship match for him.
Looking at Nakajima’s past with Sugiura, surely this match should end up meaning and showcasing something relatively new about Nakajima, especially since their last singles match. The « Mad Wolf » hasn’t changed all that much since then, but he did go through a bit of an evolution, especially since forming AXIZ alongside generationnal friend and rival Go Shiozaki. After coming to Wrestle-1 and enjoying a run as the villainous outsider champion to defeat, which was sadly cut short due to the promotion closing doors, Nakajima, who excelled in that role, is once again coming for NOAH gold with some momentum on his side. To add a bit more context, the current record between Sugiura and Nakajima sits at 3-2 in Sugiura’s advantage, with Nakajima’s last singles win over him happening in January 2017, more than three years ago. Both men gave each other two losses in a row, so looking at that pattern, it would be easy to assume Sugiura will retain and defeat Nakajima, but in the meantime, with the latter coming very close to beating Sugiura two years ago and having more than enough time to learn he should finish the Killing Machine when the opportunity arises, this match becomes pretty even and harder to predict.
This match also reinforces the idea of AXIZ being at the center of NOAH, as Nakajima and Shiozaki claimed this would be their goal when they revelead the meaning behind their team name. There is a real chance than we end up looking at both members of AXIZ as NOAH’s two main champions in a not so distant future.
Lastly, assuming we do see Katsuhiko Nakajima becoming the second ever GHC National champion, there are stories to tell if NOAH decides to take that direction, especially once looking at Nakajima’s former tag team partner who has yet to win any singles title within the company, Masa Kitamiya.