As the final bell sounded at Pro Wrestling NOAH’s triumphant return to Budokan Hall, Keiji Muto was declared the GHC Heavyweight Champion for the first time in his illustrious career. He had usurped history-defining champion Go Shiozaki, and in the process created his own wave of history – becoming only the third man to complete the grand slam of Japanese wrestling (holding NJPW’s IWGP Heavyweight, AJPW’s Triple Crown, and NOAH’s GHC Heavyweight Championships). With only Kensuke Sasaki and Yoshihiro Takayama before him, Muto joined the most prized of company.
Pro wrestling is built on history, but that doesn’t make all history positive.
The ongoing GHC Heavyweight Championship reign – which I have simply christened the “Keiji Muto Experiment” – is certainly a strange avenue NOAH have decided to venture down. At 58 years old, Muto is 4 years older than the other two grand slam winners, both of whom completed their trifecta in the 2000s (2007 for Takayama, at the age of 41, and 2009 for Sasaki, at the age of 43), so even in this elite club his age makes him the outlier.
Muto has taken NOAH by storm, and now that he is firmly planted in the main event scene, it’s important to evaluate whether giving him the top championship was a wise move, or whether it was ill-judged.
After defeating NOAH’s Ace, Go Shiozaki (on February 12th), it was swiftly announced that his first title defence would take place on March 14th at the Great Voyage in Fukuoka event against prospective Ace of the company Kaito Kiyomiya. His second defence has since been lined up against current GHC Heavyweight Tag Team Champion, Masa Kitamiya, who attacked Muto after his match with Kiyomiya.
Kaito Kiyomiya has now been defeated not once, but twice, by a 58 year old, evermore aging, broken-down, struggling Muto. In the same breath, this is as much frustrating and it is deeply saddening. We all watch as a living legend pants for breath between moves, realising simultaneously that it isn’t wise to have him defeat the 24 year old future star of the promotion, nor have him wrestle at all given the troubled state his body is in.
Not only did he defeat Kiyomiya. He made him submit.
A submission victory is as decisive a result as you can get in pro wrestling, it’s not simply a defeat, it is stronger, more substantial, more weighty than that. It carries greater importance than a rudimentary 3-count (regardless of whether that finish is clean or not), so it’s use is significant. Muto tapping out Kiyomiya knocks the young man down quite a few pegs – damaging to him, more than it is valuable to Muto.
Ultimately, this is what is so frustrating to me about the “Muto Experiment”. NOAH’s booker, Nosawa Rongai, seems more than willing to feed young wrestlers – the literal future of the promotion – to a champion, who isn’t going to be wrestling for many more years.
I, nor no-one, is refuting the fact that Muto is a legend, in the strongest sense of the word too, but all that counts for naught when you consider the great damage his reign is doing to the company.
First, the momentous dip in match quality. I’m measuring this by two metrics, Cagematch (which saw his defence against Kiyomiya receive a 5.87/10.0 average rating from over 50 votes) and GRAPPL (whose users rated the match an average 2.61/5.0, again from more than 50 votes). Compare this with the highly-rated matches of Shiozaki’s reign previous to it, for example vs Sugiura or Nakajima, and you get an equation which delivers a dispiriting evaluation of the “Muto Experiment” thus far.
Whilst this may not seem so damaging to someone not as keen on star-ratings as I am, it is still important because it paints the picture of a promotion hailed just last year for its immense match quality slipping from that, with a champion incapable of reaching those same heights himself.
Secondly, the future of Pro Wrestling NOAH is being actively harmed by the prolonging of Muto’s reign. As mentioned in relation to Kiyomiya, the crushing of young talent is a decision which is not advisable to any promotion. It isn’t damaging beyond repair, but it is truly senseless and puzzling that the company is disposed to jeopardising its own future as a means of building up a wrestler like Keiji Muto further.
Muto’s second defence will take place on April 29th, in Nagoya, at “The Glory 2021” show. Defending against Masa Kitamiya, Muto (who is 26 years older than his opponent) once again faces a man who has more future than past. This scares me somewhat, as the Kongo big-man isn’t someone NOAH should see as dispensable, in the way he will be if Muto rolls through him akin to how he did Kiyomiya.
Coincidentally, I am a huge fan of Kitamiya, I don’t want to see him lose in a crushing way to the comparably old Muto. If he does, it is another damning indictment of the experiment, as the company will have once again to put Muto ahead of the promotion’s much younger top-level talent.
History is important in wrestling (much like in wider society), but it must not be seen through rose-tinted glasses, and with nostalgia in the forefront of one’s mind, then there is no room for progression or a meaningful eye to the future. Muto was once one of the best wrestlers in the world, but at 58, with an ailing body, in particular a pair of shattered knees, rather than bringing NOAH up, he is unfortunately holding it back.
A month into the “Keiji Muto Experiment”, it is imperative that it does not last for too much longer, as then the damage it has done can be mostly reversed and NOAH can begin to move forwards, not backwards.
With plenty of fresh eyes on Pro Wrestling NOAH, due in part to the great Back to Budokan! show and the recent failings of a certain NJPW, the company has a golden opportunity to elevate itself – but Keiji Muto isn’t the man to do it, not in 2021.
Whilst Muto’s slice of history is well-deserved, and in the moment wholly enjoyable, NOAH cannot meaningfully progress with a stagnant champion at the helm. The promotion must choose between this ill-fated experiment or placing investment in the stars which offer promise at the top of the card for many years to come.
It’s a critical moment for the promotion; which way will it go?