There are times in wrestling when the booking doesn’t make something explicit and you have to connect the dots. By doing so you’re adding flavor and subtext to something that might not otherwise have it. You may also be adding a deeper layer of meaning that might help you further enjoy it as well. Well I seem to be adding an extra layer to the upcoming Tetsuya Naito/Chris Jericho IWGP Intercontinental Championship match at Wrestle Kingdom 13. You’ll have to bear with me as I explain this a bit because it’s a doozy.
Holding any one of the prestigious titles in New Japan Pro Wrestling can help further someone’s career. Since becoming the leader of Los Ingobernables de Japon he’s never really actively sought out title opportunities. They seem to seek him out. However, before becoming the leader of LIJ, he did seek out the IWGP Heavyweight Championship by winning the G1 tournament in 2013. This should have led to him being in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 8 with Kazuchika Okada and he seemed to be picked to be the next big babyface for NJPW. NJPW fans had other ideas and turned on Naito to the point where they held a vote on which match should be the main event for Wrestle Kingdom 8. Should it be Naito/Okada for the Heavyweight Championship or Hiroshi Tanahashi/Shinsuke Nakamura for the Intercontinental Championship? The fans chose Tanahashi/Nakamura and this started Naito on the path he’s on now.
After an excursion to Mexico Naito seemed to finally put together the missing piece that he needed for his persona: Tranquilo. Naito formed LIJ with the blessing of La Sombra (who currently wrestles for WWE as Andrade Cien Almas) and has been their leader ever since. What started out as a heel faction that didn’t conform to what NJPW would normally expect eventually turned into a beloved face faction propelled by Naito’s laid back attitude. This laid back attitude meant that Naito wouldn’t traditionally challenge for championships. He’d normally win a tournament, but seldom did he call out the champion. He wasn’t a fool though and knew that having a championship meant he could dictate terms on what he wanted. After winning the IWGP Heavyweight championship for the first time he threw it in the air like confetti and he nearly destroyed the Intercontinental Championship during his first reign. He managed to dent it by throwing it at ring steps and ring posts. His second reign was less destructive because he didn’t get a chance to hold it long before losing it to current champion, Chris Jericho.
After losing to Kenny Omega at Wrestle Kingdom 12 Chris Jericho chose Naito as his next target the following night. Jericho wouldn’t return to NJPW for a few months, but when he did left Naito bloody and challenged him to his recently won Intercontinental Championship. In the wild brawl that ensued at Dominion Naito came up short and lost the title to Jericho. Jericho has only defended the title once and that was against another member of LIJ, EVIL. After the match Jericho continued his attack before Naito made the save and made his intentions clear. He was going to avenge himself upon Jericho and take the Intercontinental title back.
So my “connect the dots” angle for their feud is that Chris Jericho is the physical manifestation of the Intercontinental Championship. Like I said before, it’s a doozy and sort of fits in with the sort of anime-esque world of NJPW. Now if you’re still with me, I’ll explain what I mean.
During his time with the WWE Jericho held their Intercontinental title a record 9 times. You could argue that that’s the title he’s the most associated with. Naito on the other hand has rejected being the Intercontinental champion and I think there are a few reasons for it. The first being it reminds him of his failure to connect with the fans and it being featured in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 8 instead of him. The other being that it’s the number two Heavyweight title in NJPW. By holding it he’s not the ace of the company, even though it’s a title that’s been held by the likes of Tanahashi, Nakamura, and even his mentor in Tranquilo, El Sombra. There is no shame in holding the title. Jericho attacked Naito the night after Naito was unable to capture the Heavyweight Championship and again shortly after he won the Intercontinental Championship. Both attacks could be seen as the Intercontinental Championship feeling betrayed (yes I’m ascribing emotions to a title, just go with it). The first would be anger in not being good enough for Naito because he seemed to want a rematch with Okada in the Tokyo Dome at some point. The second attack after Naito won it would be the standard “I’m too good for you” reason to lash out. With Naito finally challenging for the title directly and not just winning a tournament, it seems that he may be coming to terms with who he is and what his role can be in NJPW. By regaining the title he could elevate it like Nakamura did or he can finally destroy it once and for all. Either way, he’ll finally be able to exorcise his demons and I would not want to be Chris Jericho on January 4th.