Few things in professional wrestling can compare to a perfectly executed betrayal. A moment etched in the mind as an emotional investment and storytelling come together to slap fans right in their face. On July 11th 2020, fans of Los Ingobernables De Japon were left heartbroken, mere minutes after one of their guys got their moment in the sun. EVIL, the first man to join Tetsuya Naito in a five year partnership, threw it all away in the search for personal glory and success. In hindsight the signs were there, even in the lead-up they were all acknowledged. But EVIL wouldn’t really betray Naito, would he?
Somehow, in all the warm feelings of loyalty, fans couldn’t see the forest for the trees that were literally named EVIL. Myself included.
After the incredible heights of Wrestle Kingdom 14, New Japan Pro Wrestling’s progress would be brought to a halt (along with the rest of the world) as the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone into lockdown. When the company returned in June, the first notable event would be the New Japan Cup. A thirty-two man, single elimination tournament that had become a staple of the NJPW schedule, providing an outlet for wrestlers to establish themselves as main event level performers. With the wrestling world ready for the return of New Japan, it would be the perfect chance for a hungry young star to make their mark.
One man absent from that tournament was Tetsuya Naito, the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Champion, the first person in history to hold both titles at once. He would be the ultimate reward for the winner, a chance to dethrone the fan favourite rebel who had finally realised his Destino. In an interview with NJPW.com, he put forth his slightly biased take, predicting his long term ally EVIL would win it all. He had shown hints of becoming a main event calibre wrestler, but recently had faded into the background of the faction as Naito, SANADA, and Shingo Takagi all rose through the ranks as heavyweights, while Hiromu Takahashi cemented himself as the Ace of the Junior division. But, Naito had faith and felt we would be seeing a more focused EVIL, citing how he had seemingly disappeared in order to prepare for the tournament.
From the onset of the New Japan Cup, it was clear this wasn’t the usual King of Darkness. EVIL had always been a hard hitting and aggressive wrestler, but it had seemingly ramped up during the lockdown. He was crueler, more aggressive, and made a point to pick apart his opponents, going so far as to nearly cripple YOSHI-HASHI. It was all punctuated by the debut of a new move, a brutal stomp to his opponents groin that rendered them helpless as he put the finishing touches on each match. Was it legal? No. But it helped him advance, and that was all that seemed to matter.
After using it to great effect en route to the semi finals, he found himself opposite one of his Los Ingobernables De Japon brothers: SANADA. Of everyone in the group, SANADA is the one he knows better than any of them, having become one of New Japan’s premier teams and building an impressive resume together. He was also someone who had threatened to overtake his partner, having enjoyed several big singles matches in the year prior while EVIL struggled to find success. Using such tactics against members of CHAOS or Satoshi Kojima was one thing, but against a fellow stablemate?
It wouldn’t matter to EVIL. Like all the others, he did whatever was necessary, including crushing SANADA’s crotch under his boot.
In the early rounds of the tournament, questions began to arise about what this new side of EVIL meant exactly. After his actions towards his tag partner, those voices became louder. Was EVIL turning his back on Los Ingobernables De Japon?
To the understand the full extent of this, it’s important to break down the group itself. The LiJ guys operate differently from many other stables in wrestling. As smooth and as seamless as their in-ring teamwork may be, they’ve never lost their sense of individuality. They’re misfits drawn to one another because they don’t fit in anywhere else, but they’re not really alike. In the interview from earlier, Naito stated that they “aren’t super sociable as a group, but we’ll send text messages here or there”. A bit of a contrast from the kind of antics seen by CHAOS or even Suzuki-Gun when they’re away from the ring.
This mindset is evident even now, with Shingo Takagi mentioning in an interview with NJPW.com that “We aren’t the type to go drinking together or toast one another, anything like that.” When he defeated Kazuchika Okada at Dominion to become the IWGP World Heavyweight Champion, there was no group celebration. When most new champions would be flanked by the rest of their stable in post match interviews, Shingo sat alone. They’re a group, but they’re individuals first and foremost.
Whenever a tournament rolls around, inevitably someone from Los Ingobernables De Japon begins to distance themselves from the others, punctuated by their refusal to participate in the group’s traditional fist bump. This always causes rumblings about if that member will break away, but they’re simply stepping away from the camaraderie so they can focus on their own personal goals. Once the tournament is over, they’ll go back to bumping fists and acting like nothing happened.
EVIL’s actions against SANADA might have seemed vicious, but it wasn’t totally surprising. Whatever it takes to win. They understand.
The victory meant he was now just one win away from winning the whole tournament. Awaiting him in the final: The incomparable Kazuchika Okada. His fifth reign as IWGP Heavyweight Champion had ended at that year’s Wrestle Kingdom at the hands of Tetsuya Naito, and The Rainmaker was keen to win the tournament and return to his rightful place at the top of the company. Winning his second New Japan Cup was the logical way to do so, and allow the company to ‘restart’ with one of their biggest matches – Okada vs Naito.
EVIL had managed to defeat him once before during the 2017 G1 Climax tournament, but it was his sole singles victory against the Rainmaker in four attempts. However, this time it wouldn’t strictly be a one on one match. EVIL showed much of the methodical brutality we had seen through the tournament, but as Okada began to take control, his efforts were thwarted by a surprise run-in from Bullet Club.
Not Los Ingobernables De Japon. Bullet Club.
It was shocking, but it made a certain kind of sense. Okada and Bullet Club had never been on great terms, but that was only compounded after Okada’s manager Gedo dropped him for a newer model. He aligned with Jay White after The Switchblade broke off from CHAOS in the least surprising betrayal in wrestling history. Now under the banner of Bullet Club, Gedo had made it a point to interfere with Okada’s success every chance he got. Anyone but him.
When Gedo orchestrated the attack during the match, it could just as easily have been more about denying Okada his moment in the sun as it was helping EVIL. They didn’t interact with each other during the interference and there was no clear coordination. Still, it didn’t stop EVIL from capitalising. After delivering Everything is Evil, he claimed the three count, the victory, and the trophy.
Bullet Club weren’t there to celebrate with the victor, they had scampered away to the back. The first person to join EVIL in the ring was a bemused Tetsuya Naito, with his two championships in hand. He had predicted his friend to win it all, but not how it went down. They had been together for five years, but it wasn’t necessarily five years of close brotherhood. In the months away from the ring during the pandemic, they hadn’t talked at all. How sure could Naito be of EVIL’s allegiance?
As he extended his hand in the air to offer the group’s fist bump, everyone in the arena held their breath in anticipation. EVIL stared at the hand, contemplating. If he walked away it wouldn’t be all that different from the times fellow members had done so in the past ahead of a big inter-faction matchup. They would be squaring off for two championships in just twenty four hours time, after all.
It was almost surprising to see EVIL’s fist raise up to meet Naito’s. But it did. Only at the last moment, that fist changed.
As the two connected, Naito’s fist met the ‘too sweet’ symbol of Bullet Club, a last moment change from his challenger. A crowd that was required to be silent under pandemic guidelines let forth gasps that filled the arena, and before Naito could respond EVIL planted his friend with his finishing move.
The rest of Bullet Club joined him in the ring to gloat and pose over Naito’s fallen body. It was a rare moment of solidarity that sent them scattering, as the other four members of LiJ ran out to the ring to save their leader. As a group of individuals, it took something massive to get them all rushing to the aid of a brother. Something massive like the first betrayal in their group.
EVIL had won the New Japan Cup thanks to Bullet Club, but the group benefited just as much from the defection as he did. Being a faction built around foreign talent, Bullet Club were a shell of their former self upon the company’s restart due to the travel restrictions. Most of their heavy hitters were stuck overseas, including their leader Jay White. Their strongest heavyweight representative was Yujiro Takahashi, a lower card wrestler who spends most of his time in multi-man tag matches.
Now they had a new figurehead to rally around as they waited for borders to open. Adding a de-facto leader would no doubt cause tension when Jay White could return, but that wouldn’t be until the G1 Tournament in October. EVIL was able to step in and command the group to notable success during a lean period for a faction normally bursting at the brim with talent. From across the ocean, their Kiwi leader approved, at least for now:
As EVIL walked out the next night at Dominion, the full realisation of his betrayal became clear. No longer was his arrival summoned with the ringing of church bells, but instead an apocalyptic choral cry. He was adorned in new attire, shedding the look he wore alongside his former brothers. This was not a rash decision, but instead one that was calculated and planned out over some time, all while Naito was unable to get in touch with him.
All through the New Japan Cup, there was an unmatched determination to win at all costs and an intent to injure and maim. He knew if he just made it to the Final, he could strike at the heart of Naito and leave him ill-prepared for the next night’s defence. In twenty four hours EVIL had completely shed his Los Ingobernables De Japon skin and been reborn, yet Naito had to mentally rebound from the betrayal of his oldest ally. Given a month or a week, maybe he could have steeled himself. But a single day?
Naito wouldn’t be able to recover, seemingly off his game as EVIL controlled the pace for much of the match. A shroud of darkness encased New Japan Pro Wrestling as its new Double Champion was crowned. Hiromu Takahashi would run out to demand an answer from the man he had trained alongside in the dojo. He had chosen to join LiJ because of Naito and EVIL. Yet he got no response. The new champion merely smirked and walked away.
The two titles would return to Naito a couple of months later at Jingu Stadium, but what could have been a commanding year long reign was broken into two, with neither never really reaching the heights it could have. It might not have been a long reign, but in that defection EVIL not only got out of the shadows of his brothers, but stood atop the New Japan mountain. Few get the right to say that.
Whether the EVIL/Bullet Club experiment has been a success or failure is up for debate, but the storytelling that led to his defection from Los Ingobernables De Japon was perfectly executed. Over the span of one month New Japan took five years of character development and used it to shock the wrestling world. They took a group dynamic that had been established over the course of multiple tournaments, and used it to hide their true intentions. The LiJ six were untouchable in the eyes of fans, so even when the signs were there, denial set in. Everything EVIL and Bullet Club did could be rationalised away. Yet that moment when LiJ’s fist met Too Sweet, we all had to accept the truth. EVIL wasn’t just a name anymore, it was a way of life.