The Keiji Muto Experiment Revisited

It was in March when I wrote about the ‘Keiji Muto Experiment’ (my term, maybe I should trademark it). Now, almost 12 months later, much of the same concerns and issues remain an overwhelming presence at the top of Pro Wrestling NOAH cards.

At 59, Keiji Muto remains a front-line star of NOAH, recently reigning as the GHC Heavyweight Tag Team Champions alongside Naomichi Marufuji, relinquishing due to injury in early February. For me, his inclusion is still a problem – much like it was in March 2021, when he defeated Go Shiozaki for the GHC Heavyweight Championship.

NOAH has a sterling plethora of young stars, who will achieve much in their careers, but their progress is being held back by the trail of older wrestlers clogging up the main event scene. Exhibit A: Keiji Muto. 

Credit: Pro Wrestling NOAH

In much the same way Cristiano Ronaldo returning to Manchester United has caused more problems that it was proposed to solve, Muto remaining a figurehead of Japanese wrestling has prompted issues to fester. Ronaldo is arguably one of the greatest footballers in the world; 5 Ballon d’Ors, 5 Champions Leagues, 7 league titles across Europe and almost impossibly over 800 goals in 1100-odd games. Yet, reunited with Old Trafford, he hasn’t been at his world-beating best. Even though Ronaldo’s history is cluttered by a sheer mass of accolades, personal and team, club and country, he isn’t what he once was. Muto is much the same. He has a history that’s near unrivalled, but its glory doesn’t last forever.

While not all ‘older’ wrestlers are a problem in NOAH, the most prominent of this class is certainly the less-able at this point. Masakatsu Funaki, Masato Tanaka, Takashi Sugiura, Masaaki Mochizuki and Yoshinari Ogawa are still all world-class wrestlers, meanwhile Muto has wilted as his lengthy career reached its fourth decade. This puts into question if he really should be in the main events of shows in 2022. 

However, I’m not arguing for Muto to be stricken from the NOAH roster. Instead, I think he should be repositioned. In the mid-card, where the tolls of a lengthy career on his ailing body can be hidden in tag matches, is the spot Muto should be in. It’s undeniable that he is worth having on the roster, he pulls in fans both in-house and online, but this can still be achieved from the mid-card.

When I wrote my original column in March, the main retort was that Muto was doing good business, and therefore it was worth him being in his position. For me, this doesn’t hold up. The effect he has on attendance and other revenues can still be reached if he was in the mid-card (not the main events), and building up young main event stars will provoke long-term revenue growth, as the promotion engineers itself towards a healthy future.

One of the most prominent issues of the ‘Muto Experiment’ is the way it prohibits the growth of younger wrestlers. Muto isn’t one to put others over, which has caused problems. We saw this in the Wrestle Kingdom 16: NOAH vs NJPW event, as Muto main evented in a tag match alongside Kaito Kiyomiya against New Japan’s Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi. Voices of Wrestling reported Muto politicked his way through the main event, refusing the plan of Tanahashi working over Muto’s knee to result in a Kiyomiya hot tag. Muto changed this to him being the one hot tagged in. Of course reports are reports, but this fits with the ego Muto supposedly possesses. 

Credit: NJPW

With such a successful and well-documented career, Muto perhaps is deserving of an ego, but his backstage manoeuvrings on the third night of Wrestling Kingdom speak to the issue of Muto holding back younger talent. Despite the obstacles, Kiyomiya was able to produce a strong, star consolidating performance, but it could’ve been much more had Muto’s ego subsided. 

Given the hammerings that his gruelling career has had on him, Muto has struggled to forge matches of renowned quality. Subsequently, more adept wrestlers in the current day have been unable to consistently wrestle in the most prominent spots on the card.

In March I wrote, “I, nor anyone, 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.” This was in regards to his history-making GHC Heavyweight Championship, the final notch on the Japanese wrestling grand slam belt (following NJPW’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship and AJPW’s Triple Crown). Muto was only the third man to reach that immense feat, which is a significant achievement speaking to the longevity of his stellar career, but the reign that followed his cheery coronation was quite the opposite. It was dreary and mostly dismal, akin to a frozen late winter’s day. 

When Muto dropped the belt to Naomichi Marufuji after 114 days and two defences, it seemed as if the ‘Experiment’ was over. How wrong I was.

Since the reign came to a close, Muto has continued to participate in overzealous matches, a good number of which overstayed their welcome. To compound this, Muto became one half of the GHC Heavyweight Tag Team Champions (alongside Naomichi Marufuji). In itself completing another grand slam – adding to his NJPW and AJPW tag team gold from much early in his career. Some would argue that Muto being moved to the heavyweight tag division is a step away from the main event, GHC Heavyweight, scene. However, I still retain that he’s in the main event scene while circling the tag titles because of where his matches have been positioned.

All of his tag team title matches have been in at least co-main billing, alongside a singles title clash, and Muto main evented the showpiece Wrestle Kingdom 16 crossover show in January. These are two examples that even though he has tag gold, rather than singles gold, Muto is a main eventer in Pro Wrestling NOAH.

Credit: Pro Wrestling NOAH

Of course, it’s unfortunate that the tag champions have been forced to relinquish their belts, due to a long-term hip injury to Keiji Muto, though it does provide gusto to the argument that he perhaps shouldn’t be in the lofty position he currently occupies. Muto is more susceptible to injury than his younger contemporaries, placing any title on him brings with it some form of risk. 

Muto has high ambitions as his career enters its twilight, whether they are for championship gold or further main event matches, but these might be more damaging than uplifting for Pro Wrestling NOAH. He’s not getting any younger!  His latest injury is disappointing; it provides an unsatisfactory end to a tag team title reign (a title which needs a mini-revival to reach its best again), and creates further worry about Muto’s overall health.

The ‘Experiment’ is almost never ending, as while Muto edges closer to 60, he has stated a wish to capture the GHC National Championship before he retires. God no, is my response to that.

Muto is a legend. There’s no disputing that. He has had a career unparalleled by almost all, at his peak being one of the best walking the earth in wrestling boots, but that peak is concretely in the distance now.

I wanted the curtains to fall on Muto’s stint in NOAH’s main-event when I wrote about this subject the first time, but no more than before the conclusion has to come soon. Repositioning the puro legend to the mid-card would be the most sensible option, allowing his positives to shine and his negatives to be disguised.

Simply, Muto isn’t capable of delivering quality main events anymore. It would be wrong to expect a 59 year old wrestler to do that, never mind someone who has had injuries and surgeries that Muto has had over the years. Injuries are always unfortunate, but given his age and condition, it might just be expected that Muto is tormented by the injury bug more and more in the coming years.

It’s an evergreen fact that Muto is a legend, a greatest of all time calibre wrestler, but no wrestler is eternally evergreen when inside the ring ropes.

Legends should be respected, but rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia is a dangerous pigment. It’s time for a legend to step aside, so that progression can take place and NOAH’s wealth of young stars can greatly develop in the grand lights of important main events.