2017 has raised the bar in wrestling across the world. Increased and improved streaming services have opened every promotion to a global audience, and language barriers are not nearly as big a problem as they used to be. New Japan has been at the forefront of the bar-raising this year, led by a trio of spectacular wrestlers who all deserve recognition. Tetsuya Naito, Kenny Omega, and Kazuchika Okada have all legitimate claims to being the Wrestler of the Year in 2017, but only one of them can win it.
The best character in the business
Tetsuya Naito was supposed to be the next big thing in New Japan, but it didn’t work out. He wasn’t ready. Rather than stick with it, New Japan turned Naito heel (sound familiar?), and from there he has taken off.
Naito spent time in Mexico with La Sombra, now NXT Champion Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas, prior to his push in Japan and he returned to Mexico after his failed-push to see the explosion of Los Ingobernables, The Ungovernables. He borrowed that attitude of disrespect and dissatisfaction and brought it to the respectful culture of Japan as he developed his post-push character. It was an enormous hit. The lack of effort, the disrespect to his opponent and the “fighting spirit” of New Japan made him incredibly disliked and he was soon the top heel in the company.
Naito ended up beating Okada for the IWGP heavyweight championship in June 2016, achieving his crowning moment. His response was to toss the belt in the air and walk away. While his reign was short-lived, he did soon get his hands on the intercontinental championship and the rain of belts was strong. It didn’t take fans long to get on board with Naito’s entertaining antics and brilliant wrestling, despite his piece-by-piece destruction of the IC title belt.
2017 opened up with Naito defending the Intercontinental title against the Ace of New Japan, Hiroshi Tanahashi. His disdain for the title played perfectly against Tanahashi’s whitemeat babyface character who revered fighting spirit and was an embodiment of respect.
Their trilogy worked brilliantly in concert to the Okada-Omega one at Wrestle Kingdom, Dominion, and the G1, and while he would lose the title to Tanahashi at Dominion, he ended up winning the G1 tournament in spectacular fashion against Kenny Omega in the final.
Naito’s four-year character arc from snubbed G1 winner in 2013 to wildly popular G1 winner in 2017 is a testament to his incredible character. No one has embodied their gimmick more than Naito in 2017.
The in-ring argument
It took me a while to really get into Naito’s matches. Like the Japanese fans, I found his time wasting an annoyance, but like Kevin Steen/Owens, the constant rolling out of the ring at the start of matches and playing for time was an excellent way to get heat and really sell the character. Combined with his antics in the ring, the suicide dive fake-out, the ducking of lockups, and then the flurry of fast-paced offense, Naito has blended character and ring-work brilliantly.
His matches are always well paced and build, but he doesn't take needless risks. He has registered three five-star matches with three different opponents (Michael Elgin, Tanahashi, & Omega), which is more than Okada and Omega can boast, and his G1 matches were as good as anyone's this year. His battle with Kota Ibushi on the opening night was spectacular and his recent match with Tomohiro Ishii managed to get the entire crowd buying into false finishes despite everyone knowing Naito wasn't going to lose his Tokyo Dome match.
While Naito doesn't have the otherworldly athleticism of Kenny Omega or the presence of Okada his style is uniquely his and it works brilliantly.
Why he won't win
Naito's "star power" is far less than Omega and Okada, thanks in part to being in the Intercontinental picture for most of 2017. People love him, but he isn't drawing like the other two. Still, Los Ingobernables de Japon's turn from despised heels to fan-favorites is all on the power of Naito's persona.
While his match quality has been incredibly high all year it lacks the exclamation point of Okada and Omega's time-limit draw. He has been very, very good in 2017 but I feel he hasn't reached the peaks that Okada and Omega have. It is a shame for him that Wrestle Kingdom falls in the first days of 2018, because his main event with Okada will be incredible, but for 2017 it just hasn't quite been enough for Naito.
Do you think Naito deserves to be Wrestler of the Year? Let us know in the comments below!