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As someone on Twitter pointed out earlier this week, professional wrestling is the only industry where someone could be named EVIL and when they turn out to be a bad guy, everyone is surprised. EVIL turning on his Los Ingobernables de Japon teammates and defeating Tetsuya Naito for both the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship and the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, will probably be one of the most shocking developments of the year in wrestling.
The decision to go all the way with EVIL, and to launch a major angle with him and the revamped Bullet Club at the center of it, managed to draw a lot of criticism from hardcore NJPW fans, who are typically very supportive of the company. Anytime a promotion takes a plunge like this, it has a significant chance at not working, and there are plenty of question marks fans have about the decision.
The developments over the weekend, with EVIL winning the New Japan Cup over Kazuchika Okada and joining Bullet Club on Saturday, and then defeating Naito to become dual champion at Dominion on Sunday, were probably not done as smoothly as possible. A major issue is that both matches were not very good, particularly the match at Dominion which dragged on for 38 minutes and involved a ton of outside interference, something NJPW relies on too heavily and has been a criticism for years. I gave it **½ stars, which by NJPW big show main event standards, is a disaster.
I think for most fans, EVIL is seen as a talented guy but not someone at the main event level, like Naito, Okada, Ibushi and Tanahashi. He has never really gotten a push at that level, so clearly this is his chance to break out and be seen as that kind of star. I think Jay White was put into a similar position where he was given a surprising run with the world title, and I don't know how well that has worked out for him. He has the title run on his resume, but I don't think he feels like a true NJPW main event star, only someone who has masquerading as one at times.
For some fans, Naito has been the biggest star in the company for some time, and LIJ merchandise is by far the biggest seller in NJPW. There is an idea that Naito deserved a proper run with the (two) titles and to lose it in his second defense feels anti-climatic after making such a big deal about his conquest at Wrestle Kingdom earlier this year.
The other elephant in the room is EVIL taking over leadership of the Bullet Club from Jay White. White, like many foreigners, can't work for NJPW right now due to the pandemic which restricts international travel, and it is unclear when he will be able to return to NJPW, and what his storyline status will be.
Bullet Club was once an innovative idea for a stable, led by Prince Devitt, it banded together foriegn talent and pitted them against the NJPW roster. It managed to not only survive several changes in leadership, from Devitt to AJ Styles to Kenny Omega, but it ended up thriving and becoming an international phenomenon in wrestling. However, when Omega and The Young Bucks left Japan, and White took over the group, the stable was nearing its expiration date. Now, with a Japanese wrestler leading a group of all-Japanese wrestlers (for the time being, as the foriegn wrestlers can't get into the company) the group feels outdated. A ballooning membership of seemingly everyone (Dick Togo, who I know hardcore Japanese indie fans really like, but is 50 and past his prime, being the latest edition) who wants to join, gives it very late-era-NWO vibe.
So why would NJPW go in this direction? A big part of it certainly has to do with the pandemic and the depleted roster. Without being able to bring in key foriegn talent like White, NJPW was probably looking for a new way to do a big angle and decided to give the push to EVIL. All promotions that are still running during the pandemic are getting creative and trying new ideas, and NJPW is no exception.
Another factor is that for a long time, LIJ have been the most popular group in the company and yet have mostly been positioned as antagonists. By having one of their own betray the leader and join Bullet Club, it firmly plants LIJ in the babyface camp and gives them a natural rival to chase. A similar strategy when CHOAS, with Okada and Shinsuke Nakamura, turned babyface after being the dominant heel group, and feuding with Bullet Club several years ago.
There is also the benefit that every once and while, a wrestling promotion has to throw in a curveball to keep people guessing. Part of NJPW's charm is that its storytelling is simple and effective, it is easy to follow even if you don't speak the language and the slow burn helps make the results of major matches really mean something. That is partially why fans expected Naito to have a long run with the title before dropping it. However, in order to remain fresh and to avoid getting too predictable, you occasionally need to surprise fans with a sudden and swift change in direction.
Ultimately, while I really wasn't a fan of the results or the main matches from this past weekend, the overall quality of NJPW under Gedo has established an amount of trust in the fanbase that fans can be optimistic about the product even when usual circumstances arise. I'm willing to be optimistic that the plans with EVIL, Naito and The Bullet Club will lead to an entertaining angle and a satisfying climax, even if it got off to a rocky start at Dominion.
Must Watch Matches
Shingo Takagi vs SHO: **** - NJPW Dominion