Is Title Unification The Right Decision For NJPW?

Progression or regression? Choose a side.

Kota Ibushi
Source: NJPW

What do you get when you take the IWGP Heavyweight Championship and add the IWGP Intercontinental Championship? The IWGP World Heavyweight Championship, of course.

Kota Ibushi’s desire for the double gold, which he currently holds, to be unified has been granted by the powers that be. With it, the lineage of the most prestigious title in wrestling history – an almost 34 year legacy – comes to an end, while the much newer Intercontinental prize ceases to exist too. The monumental announcement was made by New Japan’s Chairman, Naoki Sugabayashi, at the March 1st press conference, as he signalled the beginning of a new era for New Japan Pro Wrestling.

The decision is now set in stone, whether we as fans like it or not, the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental titles are no more and a World title has been cemented in their place. However, was this decision the correct one?

Kota Ibushi spoke of his wish to have the belts unified after he claimed, and then defended, them at Wrestle Kingdom 15. The final hurdle he had to leap over before doing so was a headline defence against Tetsuya Naito for solely the Intercontinental gold. Naito sought to keep the titles separated – wrestling for only the Intercontinental title as a way of ensuring that they lived on as two unconnected championships.

He was the one to start the double gold conversation. So he would be the one to end it.

Ultimately, this didn’t go to plan, as an exposed-knee Kamigoye crushed Naito’s campaign to separate the titles. An impromptu challenge by El Desperado for the 49th Anniversary show was made post-match, as instead of the quasi-traditional Jr. vs Heavyweight Champions non-title match, we will be getting a Double Championship defence instead.

7 years on from Desperado and Ibushi’s only one on one encounter to date, they will meet again, this being the culminating IWGP Intercontinental and Heavyweight double title match. The winner (presumably Ibushi) will go on to have the first ever World Heavyweight title defence, against the winner of New Japan Cup 2021 at Sakura Genesis (April 4th).

The alternative to this was Naito winning back the Intercontinental belt and leading it in a direction different to that of Ibushi’s Heavyweight title. This would have kept alive the historic, years old lineages of both titles, whilst simultaneously plugging the “secondary title” gap at the top of NJPW. Despite looking almost-juvenile in comparison to the Heavyweight title, the Intercontinental belt has a 10 year history attached to it.

These are the two main arguments against the title unification. Both of which deserve a spotlight of their own.

First, the issue of stopping the title’s lineages. The history attached to both titles is well worth continuing, as it brings with it prestigious and importance, which a newly invented title cannot. Both championships are already historic “world titles” in all but name, as they have each been defended outside of Japan on multiple occasions. So, scrapping them in the name of creating a “world” championship is at least a little odd. Arguments could be made that its name even signifies “world” status now, as IWGP stands for International Wrestling Grand Prix. Emphasis on the International part.

Secondly, the gaping hole of not having a substantially recognised secondary title creates an important issue for NJPW to find a solution for. This one is perhaps solvable, as the NEVER Openweight belt could slide into the secondary position, if Tanahashi can elevate the title to this level.

If anyone can raise the NEVER Championship to a near main-event level, it’s the ‘Ace’ Hiroshi Tanahashi.

With the Intercontinental title molding together with the Heavyweight at Wrestle Kingdom 14, New Japan lost the possibility of having a different title to the ultimate prize, with which to headline shows. This is certainly something we have seen ever since the double gold dash in January 2020, as NJPW haven’t been able to main event shows with the Intercontinental belt, like they did beforehand.

If the NEVER title can fill this void, then the unification may be favoured by more of the fanbase. NJPW were always going to upset a portion of their audience by the way they solved their self-created double title problem. It was a hell of a lot easier to marry the titles, than it is to divorce them. So, regardless of how the promotion proceeded, it was impossible to make everyone happy.

Now, there will be fans who love the idea of unifying the top two belts. Perhaps these are the fans who talk about the fact that New Japan has too many championships, or the fans who prefer feuds to not always have a title at stake.

With the removal of one major championship, NJPW’s bookers may loosen their reliance on titles to build storylines. Instead they may allow wrestlers to delve into “blood feuds”, for lack of a better term, which aren’t always for championships but instead exist because of a deeper, more recognisable, mutual animosity.

Depending on which side of the debate you fall, the title unification is either a progression or regression for New Japan – but either way, it is a momentous change; which affords new, previously unexplored and incredibly exciting directions for the company.

Ibushi has aimed to be a pro wrestling deity (achieving such at Wrestle Kingdom 15), and with this legacy-defining announcement, he will surely be remembered for years to come. His career has given us many great moments and matches, triumphs and tribulations, but when all is said and done, it will be clear: Ibushi giveth, and Ibushi taketh away.

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