On a seemingly normal Thursday in the midst of a seemingly normal week in the wrestling world, New Japan Pro Wrestling immediately seized headlines by announcing almost out of nowhere that IWGP World Heavyweight Champion Will Ospreay had sustained a neck injury and would be vacating the newly re-christened World Title.
The announcement literally showed up on the NJPW Global Twitter feed between promotion of a new episode of NJPW on Roku Channel and an announcement about FinJuice appearing on IMPACT Wrestling. Like it was just another bit of anodyne content, as opposed to something that could set the wrestling world on its ear. According to the news item released by NJPW, Ospreay suffered the injury on May 4, during the second night of Wrestling Dontaku – the night he made his first defense of the championship against rival Shingo Takagi. The promotion reported that Ospreay would be returning to the UK for rehabilitation and treatment for the injury, and would be forced to relinquish the title.
Normally, NJPW will not strip a champion of a title unless they miss a scheduled title defense. With Ospreay’s next likely defense not coming until Dominion on June 6 in Osaka, the announcement of his return to the UK and preemptive removal of the title may not bode well for his prognosis.
At this time, NJPW has not announced the fate of the title, nor the way in which they will crown a new champion. And that’s what has the wrestling world talking. Who will be the next IWGP World Heavyweight Champion, and how will they come into the belt? Well, let’s have some fun and speculate, shall we?
There are a number of things that NJPW can do with the title now, so let’s take a look at a few options, why they work, why they don’t, and what ultimately we as fans would like to see happen. The following are in no particular order.
A Match for the Vacant Title at Dominion
There is no shortage of great contenders. It’s also a choice that offers precedent. The last time the IWGP Heavyweight Title was vacated was in August of 2009, when then champion Hiroshi Tanahashi fractured his eye socket and was forced to relinquish the belt. A little over a month later, Shinsuke Nakamura defeated Togi Makabe at the culmination of the Circuit 2009 New Japan Generation Tour to claim the prize—his third reign with the title.
The problem here is that no one really has a lot of momentum to claim a shot at the title. Okada was in line to be the next challenger, so he would likely be one side of that match, but who would he face? Hiroshi Tanahashi just came off losing the NEVER Openweight Title to Jay White, while White himself is wrapped up in that division now, working to make that title into a viable upper mid-card secondary title in the aftermath of the Intercontinental Title and the absence of the United States Title. Shingo just lost a title challenge, and therefore has no real claim.
There are other performers in the promotion who have the credibility to step in as contenders and indeed have done so in the past, but the fact remains that few, if any, of them are on enough of a hot streak to justify a title shot. Tomohiro Ishii? EVIL? Tetsuya Naito? Minoru Suzuki? All of them are floating around the upper mid-card without much direction at this point. Plucking any of them for a shot now would make for a good match, but not necessarily a coherent story. There’s not really a reason for any of them to be airlifted into the title scene.
Dangerous Tekkers of Zack Sabre Jr. and Taichi are both having a great deal of success, but are firmly entrenched in the tag team division, and chasing the Guerrillas of Destiny for the IWGP Tag Team Titles. All that said, you could argue that the most successful singles performer on the undercard is current KOPW Provisional Champion Toru Yano, and while this author loves Yano’s act, he’s hardly a serious World Title contender. In summation, we’ll call this option “workable, but not ideal.”
Hold a Tournament
Plain, simple and to the point. You can spread it over a couple of shows, the matches can help be launching points for new stories, and you can use the undercard to swap titles as needed to free up the necessary talent to make your stories work.
There’s precedent for this choice as well. In July of 2006, Brock Lesnar was stripped of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship after refusing to return to Japan to defend the title. A tournament was held almost immediately, and two days later, Hiroshi Tanahashi had captured the title for the first time, defeating Giant Bernard (fka Albert) in a tournament final.
It’s not my favorite solution, but given the situation at hand, and NJPW’s history of rattling off quick tournaments in the past (most recently with the NEVER Openweight 6-Man Titles and the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team titles), it’s safe to say this might be the most likely solution, and one that could provide a creative jumpstart to the promotion.
Make the Title the Prize for the G1 Climax
The G1 Climax Tournament is arguably the biggest event of the year for NJPW. The format has moved back and forth over its existence from round robin, to single-elimination, to a combination of both, and back again, but since 2010 it has settled into a common format. For the uninitiated, twenty men start, divided into two blocks of ten. Over the next several weeks, members of each block compete round robin style against everyone else in their block. Two points for a win, one for a time limit draw, zero for a loss. The winners of each block meet in the finals, and the winner gets the right to challenge for the (now) IWGP World Heavyweight Championship at Wrestle Kingdom in the Tokyo Dome, NJPW’s biggest show of the year. The G1 Climax is the launching pad for stories through the second half of the year and into Wrestle Kingdom, setting up title matches, feuds, and more.
The tournament also has a history of prizes other than a Tokyo Dome heavyweight title shot. The National Wrestling Alliance stripped champion Ric Flair of the title upon his signing with the World Wrestling Federation in the fall of 1991, and the title remained vacant for nearly a year before being offered up as the prize for the 1992 G1 Tournament—held as a 16-man single-elimination format, with several WCW competitors filling out the bracket, like Arn Anderson, Steve Austin, Terry Taylor, The Barbarian, and even Tony Halme, who would go on to the WWF as Ludvig Borga. That’s right. Ludvig Borga and The Barbarian competed in a G1 Tournament, but Cesaro never has. Square that one, universe. In the finals, Masahiro Chono defeated Rick Rude in the finals, and was crowned NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion. Interestingly, Chono would go on to main event the Tokyo Dome on January 4 anyway, in an IWGP Heavyweight Title match, as he put the NWA Title on the line in a title-for-title bout.
I can’t say how likely this one is, especially with the G1 poised to take place later in the year than in years past. With the Kizuna Road tour running through the end of June and the 2021 Summer Struggle tour set to run through July and into early August, it’s possible we might not see the G1 start until late August or early September. It would be a great answer for an upper card that doesn’t have a lot of upward momentum amongst most of its top stars, but it remains to be seen if NJPW would want their top title out of the mix for long enough to see it through.
Ultimately, we don’t really know what NJPW Is going to do, but if history is any indicator, they’ll have some kind of a decision fairly quickly. The last five times the IWGP Heavyweight Title was vacated, dating back to 2002, a new champion was crowned in an average of 19.8 days, and three of those times, a new champion was crowned in ten days or less. With NJPW set to run three shows at Korakuen Hall, and no lineups posted online, it’s possible we’ll get a lot of answers in the next 72 hours or so. I’m not entirely sure how they’ll do it, but I feel pretty confident that a new IWGP World Heavyweight Champion will be crowned either at or before Dominion in Osaka-Jo Hall on June 6.
But I have no idea who it’s going to be.