What’s Stopping SANADA From Becoming A Star In NJPW?

Are you cooling off on 'Cold Skull'?

Sanada
Source: NJPW

SANADA made his surprise NJPW debut in 2016 and has been a part of the popular faction L.I.J ever since, but he has so far failed to achieve singles success in the company. He is a wrestler with a complex relationship with the fans; beloved domestically but not in the foreign markets New Japan wish to expand further into.

New Japan have teased pulling the trigger – getting very close to the Heavyweight prize – but haven’t done so, at least for now. This begs the question: why? NJPW evidently see SANADA in the upper echelons of their roster, but are yet to give in to their temptations.

Why haven’t NJPW made SANADA a top star? And more to the point, what is stopping this from happening?

Since 2016, SANADA has challenged for singles titles in New Japan on 4 different occasions (all being for the top prize, with the most recent a simultaneous Intercontinental title defence). He’s reached the finals of both a New Japan Cup (2019) and G1 Climax (2020), but has always fallen at the final hurdle.

However, perhaps the most interesting element is that, for many, SANADA winning the Heavyweight Championship never entered the distinct realm of possibility. This is testament to the problems many New Japan fans see in his game: the fact that SANADA has entered multiple title matches as the challenger and yet many fans (including myself) still don’t see him as a credible option for champion is astonishing. He has proven to be the perennial bridesmaid, just never the bride.

I think most of this boils down to the character SANADA portrays. A stoic, dry, emotionless persona starves his feuds (and matches) of meaningful emotion-packed drama. A key example of this is his recent rivalry with backstabbing former tag team partner EVIL. When the ‘King of Darkness’ shockingly betrayed Tetsuya Naito after the final of NJPW’s New Japan Cup 2020, he set in motion a feud with the Los Ingobernables de Japon. This carried throughout the second half of 2020.

It culminated in what should have been a dramatic Wrestle Kingdom singles match between tag partners turned bitter rivals. Instead, we got a seemingly meaningless match between two wrestlers who didn’t manage to play into the emotion behind the feud. The stoicism, which is central to SANADA’s character, prohibits any of his matches from becoming fire-driven encounters. His match with EVIL is the most starkly visible example of his emotionless wrestling style.

Despite the undeniable variety it offers NJPW’s upper-singles division, the ‘Cold Skull’ character just isn’t compatible with exciting, dramatic main events.

However, there are positives to SANADA’s game – he wouldn’t be where he is without them. The unwavering support he receives from the Japanese fans is something to behold. The way they cheered him to triumph over Okada in the 2019 G1 Climax (I’ll come back to that match later), and the way they celebrated when he reached the G1 Climax 30 final evidenced this.

Clearly, he is a very talented wrestler, with the striking good looks to match. He has stellar fundamental qualities, which began to be moulded in All Japan Pro Wrestling under the tutelage of the legendary Keiji Muto. He subsequently began to move around the world, wrestling for numerous promotions globally. The Muto influences run deep within SANADA, seen most clearly in the Muto Moonsault he employs in big matches. This brings me to my next overarching point of his move set.

Overall, the ‘Cold Skull’ has an underwhelming move set, with the Skull Ends really summing it up. Maybe it is actually a painful hold (as Zack Sabre Jr. was trying to put over on commentary during the Kota Ibushi vs SANADA title match), but it doesn’t look like a good submission finisher. This is a real problem as it is the move he structures many of his matches and closing stretches around.

This is certainly stopping SANADA becoming a top tier talent, as to be in the company of the very best wrestlers in the world, you must have a very exciting move set – and importantly a great finisher too.

I’ve heard it said that SANADA is the best wrestler with the worst arsenal. I really do see this, as he clearly has the underpinning skills, just not the exciting catalogue of moves and holds to build on it with.

Of course, with a lacklustre move set comes matches which, for the most part, are lackluster too. I think his most recent singles match is one for this category. He unsuccessfully challenged Kota Ibushi for the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Championships at the New Beginning in Hiroshima event in a match which left a lot to be desired. It was an underwhelming main event, with SANADA not showing a single ounce of fighting spirit during it.

This is consistent with his ‘Cold Skull’ persona, however, bringing the focus back to the problems which arise from it, it limits the possibilities of babyface fire in the matches that suit it and results in no emoting coming from SANADA.

That being said, I wish to end on a positive note, with the noticeable glimmer of hope for an enthused top tier run for SANADA being his G1 Climax 29 win over long-term rival Kazuchika Okada. They fought to 12 seconds short of the 30 minute time limit, in a match which proved there is definitely something there with SANADA. He can deliver drama. He can deliver emotion. He can deliver top tier matches.

Can SANADA replicate this in future?

That’s the question which remains unanswered to this point. Even though SANADA has all the potential, with a sorry move set and hammering gimmick holding him back, will he ever be able to achieve it?

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