Tetsuya Naito: You’re Gonna Carry That Weight

On January 21 2023, Tetsuya Naito walks into Yokohama Arena to main event NJPW’s flagship show, Wrestle Kingdom, for the fourth time in his career.

Except it isn’t the main event of Wrestle Kingdom. Not the one that Naito wanted.

Throughout the past year, the leader of Los Ingobernables de Japon made it abundantly clear that his goal was to headline the first night of Wrestle Kingdom 17 on January 4, held inside the legendary Tokyo Dome. This date is widely regarded as the biggest in the Japanese wrestling calendar, becoming something of an obsession for Naito as 2022 went on.

His first step towards the Dome was to challenge Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship back in February, but Naito would fail to recapture the belt from the man he’d dethroned back in 2020. He then roll-upped his way into the final of the New Japan Cup, where he was bested by perennial rival Zack Sabre Jr. After failing once again to defeat Okada and stumbling into a potentially disastrous 0-2 start to the G1 Climax, Naito rode a winning streak to the semi-finals, only to fall victim to the ascent of Will Ospreay on his own path to the final.

His aspirations now in critical condition, Naito clawed his way into a US title shot at Battle Autumn, where he came out all guns blazing in a last-ditch effort to reach January 4th with a singles title and a chance at headlining the Tokyo Dome.

And he lost. Again.

From a certain point of view, Naito’s year was one of failure. He lost every title he contested for and failed in every tournament he partook in, and instead of finding himself in the Tokyo Dome main event on January 4 he found himself on the losing end of a six-man tag in the undercard (in full T-shirt mode, no less). Off the back of an already lacklustre 2021, and with the commentary team always keen to remind you of his advanced years, one could be forgiven for thinking that Naito’s dreams of once again main eventing the Dome are nothing more than delusions, the empty words of a man fighting against his inevitable twilight into New Japan’s gallery of mid-card dads.

To view his future in such a cynical light, however, is to misunderstand what makes Naito such a compelling character. This is a man whose journey is defined by his failures more than his successes. The scars of his past are what motivates his future.

The root of Naito’s drive for the Tokyo Dome main event stems from one night in Osaka, at Power Struggle in late-2013. The young Stardust Genius had just won that year’s G1 Climax and was set to face then-champion Kazuchika Okada in what was to be Naito’s first shot at headlining Wrestle Kingdom and the Tokyo Dome. After Okada had defended his championship against Karl Anderson in the main event, Naito walked out to the ring and confronted the Rainmaker, boldly declaring himself the “shuyaku” (the top star) of New Japan Pro Wrestling.

The response? Silence. Bemusement. The Osaka crowd could not have cared less about Tetsuya Naito that night.

Credit: NJPW

In truth the man that fans really wanted to see in the main event on January 4 was Hiroshi Tanahashi, the man that Naito had been groomed to succeed as the Ace. This became abundantly clear when NJPW ran a fan vote gauging which match the fans wanted to see headline Wrestle Kingdom; Tanahashi’s IWGP Intercontinental Championship bout against Shinsuke Nakamura the clear winner.

With that vote, Tetsuya Naito saw his first ever Tokyo Dome main event fade into stardust. His bout against Okada was relegated to the semi-main, and though the match was positively received it was clear that irreparable damage had been done to Naito’s fledgling run at the top. The “shuyaku” had been overshadowed by the Ace.

To any other wrestler, this turn of events might’ve been career-killing. To Tetsuya Naito, it was career-defining.

Every single element of Naito’s story can be traced back to that night. Every single move he has made has been towards healing that wound, whether it be reinventing himself into the brash, disaffected El Ingobernable audiences know and love today, or whether it be his long and complex relationship with the IWGP Intercontinental Championship. Naito is a figure who is driven by a need to atone for his past, it’s this need for atonement that makes his relationship with the Tokyo Dome so compelling.

It would take four more years for Naito to finally headline the Dome, when he walked into Wrestle Kingdom 12 to face off against Kazuchika Okada once again. This Naito was a radically changed man from the one who fought the Rainmaker back in 2014; he was at the absolute peak of his popularity, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single soul in Tokyo that night who was rooting against him. At last, it seemed, Naito’s destiny had led him to the promised land.

Destiny, however, would have to wait. A failed Stardust Press, an ode to his past-self, would ultimately cost Naito the match. He found himself in the same position he was in four years ago: facing the lights, leaving the Tokyo Dome empty-handed.

Over the next few years Naito would work towards putting some more old wounds to bed. His resentment towards the IWGP Intercontinental Championship became acceptance, poetically using the belt as a weapon en-route to defeating Chris Jericho for the title at Wrestle Kingdom 13. His character also seemed to mature, his tranquil self-acceptance a far cry from the insecure, doubtful figure that he had been in years prior.

Going into the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 14 Tetsuya Naito had never been a more self-assured character. He would face off against the Rainmaker once again in the “double-gold dash”, with Naito pitting his IWGP Intercontinental Championship against Okada’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship. This was the culmination of Naito’s journey; this was the place where Naito’s heart would either heal or shatter irrevocably.

Credit: NJPW

As the closing bell reverberated through the Tokyo Dome that night it seemed like everything was perfect. Naito had finally overcome his greatest rival on the grandest stage, in the biggest spot, and now stood before the Tokyo Dome as the dual IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Champion. His past had been redeemed, his destiny fulfilled. For a brief, triumphant moment Tetsuya Naito’s heart was whole.

Until it was shattered, once again, by a blindside attack from KENTA. The lasting visual from that show was not to be the newly-crowned Naito triumphantly holding up the two belts. The image that was forever scarred into the minds of both Naito and his fans was that of KENTA mockingly sat atop the fallen body of the champion.

What should’ve been the defining moment of Naito’s career turned into yet another wound for the champion to heal, and throughout the next year his run at the top was plagued by issues far beyond the world of wrestling.

At Wrestle Kingdom 15, to this day Naito’s most recent main event at Tokyo Dome, it seemed as though his destiny had finally arrived yet again. Tetsuya Naito was the defending champion at the absolute peak of his powers, arriving into his third Tokyo Dome main event as the undisputed top star of New Japan Pro Wrestling. Finally he could call himself the “shuyaku” and walk out to a crowd that not only believed him, but embraced him.

Except the crowd that night, just like the crowd in Osaka that had haunted Naito for so many years, was silent. A once in a generation pandemic had rendered the Tokyo Dome audience mute; Naito’s grand moment had been undercut by fate once again. He left the Tokyo Dome just as he had the first time he headlined the venue: title-less and unfulfilled.

Naito’s obsession with the Tokyo Dome main event is not just a dying star’s desperate attempt at relevancy. It stems from a burning desire to patch a hole in his heart, to weave the missing thread in the imperfect tapestry of a legendary career. Naito has long since put to bed his demons surrounding Osaka, the fans and the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, but his destiny won’t truly be fulfilled until he stands before a packed Tokyo Dome and hears 40,000 fans bellow “DE JA-PON!” alongside their shuyaku.

Until then, Tetsuya Naito will do what he always does. He’ll carry the weight. He’ll walk into a future that promises him nothing, but he’ll promise us. When he says he’ll main event the Tokyo Dome next year we’ll follow him every step of the way. Not because we believe him, but because we believe in him.

That’s the magic of the Stardust Genius.