Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Ibushi went from soul-crushing crushing defeat at Wrestle Kingdom 14 to heart-lifting victory in the very same arena a year later. Triumphantly declaring “I have become God” after righting the wrongs of January 5th 2020, by defeating Jay White, he made the statement that he had now reached wrestling immortality.
Despite his victory, this is only the beginning of Ibushi’s new found deity status. With the double gold to his name, what’s next for New Japan’s ‘Golden Star’?
In Ibushi’s immediate future, he will face SANADA (whose challenge he accepted at the close of Wrestle Kingdom 15 Night 2). This was the match we saw in the G1 Climax 30 Final back in October. Therefore, it is an unexpected choice for Ibushi’s first defence post-Wrestle Kingdom, as I would have expected to see a fresh match in the early months of his reign. I wouldn’t expect anything else but a hard-fought, yet regulation victory for Ibushi.
However, the possibilities get much more exciting after we get past SANADA. One possible challenger is the ‘Rainmaker’ Kazuchika Okada. Coming off of an impressive victory against his betrayer Will Ospreay, Okada could be set for his first singles title match in NJPW since January 5th 2020 (because I refuse to count KOPW, plus it was a 4-way). This is quite a remarkable stat, as Okada has been an almost ever-present feature of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship scene since the Rainmaker Shock of 2012.
Okada has propelled himself back into contention after a somewhat lacklustre 2020, with only glimmers of his best work (notably vs Shinto Takagi in G1 Climax and both his Wrestle Kingdom 14 main events). Okada stopped Ibushi ascending to the very top of New Japan on January 4th 2020, but could he also be the one to stop the ‘Golden Star’s first IWGP Heavyweight title reign?
Whether or not Okada would be likely to defeat Ibushi in a possible title match is up for debate. But whenever you put two of the very best wrestlers in the world in the ring together, you are guaranteed a stellar match, which Ibushi and Okada have always delivered when across the ring from one another.
The ‘Rainmaker’ isn’t the only man who walks out of Wrestle Kingdom 15 with a plausible route to facing Ibushi in a double title match, because despite losing on Night 1, Will Ospreay is still a plausible challenger. At the head of the new Empire faction, attacking the IWGP Double Champion would be a great way to cement the group as a force to be reckoned with in NJPW.
Ospreay doesn’t have to win a title match between the two in order to elevate his faction, as just being at the pinnacle of New Japan (no matter win or loss) would do a great deal for the prestige of the fledgling group.
It is important to mention what Tetsuya Naito’s and Jay White’s 2021 could mean for the new champion, as I would argue both men won’t be in the title picture for at least the first half of 2020.
Firstly, the former champion Tetsuya Naito. Traditionally, you would expect the fallen champion to issue a rematch soon after their defeat, but I don’t think this will come to fruition as the symbolic gesture of Naito handing Ibushi the titles himself seemingly is him accepting he isn’t champion anymore, and won’t be for some time. This theme continued through Naito’s backstage comments, as he asked his fans to be “tranquilo” – patient until his return to the principle of pro wrestling (main eventing Tokyo Dome).
On the other hand, Jay White cut a very different figure in his backstage comments. One of distress and despair. He looked crushed after Ibushi Kamigoyed his way to victory, leaving the impression that he won’t be returning to face Ibushi for many months either. He threw everything he had at the ‘Golden Star’, but none of it was enough to push Ibushi off course.
Having touched on a few of the potential title contenders, and others I don’t see challenging, I want to shift gears and look at the future of the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Championships themselves. In a recent podcast appearance, NJPW English Language commentator, Kevin Kelly, said it was easy to marry the titles together, but difficult to split them apart again. I think this concisely sums-up the problem New Japan is facing, as finding a satisfying way of separating the two main titles is a hard puzzle to solve.
Let’s not be mistaken, this is a hole New Japan dug of its own volition, but Kota Ibushi may have posed the best solution to get out of it. He requested a unification of the two titles in his backstage comments on January 5th, perhaps foreshadowing the eventual fate of the championships.
To be realistic, this seems to be the only plausible solution to the issue, as formally marrying the titles would dispel talk among the fans of them splitting back up.
Another reason to be excited for Kota Ibushi’s title reign is the promise of the 49th Anniversary show. Usually taking place in March, convention dictates that the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight and Heavyweight Champions do battle in the main event.
One of the countless cancellations of 2020 was NJPW’s 48th Anniversary show, and with it disappeared the dreamy main event of Hiromu Takahashi vs Tetsuya Naito. However, with Hiromu once again the Jr. Heavyweight Champion, he could be set to face Kota Ibushi this time out.
You don’t need me to tell you how mouth watering an encounter between the ‘Time Bomb’ and ‘Golden Star’ is. This could be the focal point of New Japan’s spring, as it is no doubt a match fans would love to see.
With Ibushi’s perfect start to 2021, he has the undoubtable prospect of an outstanding year ahead of him. To use a cliché, the wrestling world really is Kota Ibushi’s oyster.
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