On the 9th of February 2020, Osaka Jo-Hall was the stage of the most anticipated wrestling bout in recent memory. ‘The Ingobernable One’ Tetsuya Naito put both his IWGP World Heavyweight championship and IWGP Intercontinental Championship on the line against the most hated man in Japan: KENTA. Why was this match so hotly anticipated by puroresu fans? Simple really: the fans of New Japan Pro Wrestling wanted to see Tetsuya Naito beat the hell out of KENTA.
The paths that have led both men to one another can be traced back to the years 2013 and 2014: one year that would hold wild success, and the other utter devastation for both men.
In 2013, Naito would win his first G1 Climax tournament and ultimately go on to challenge IWGP World champion Kazuchika Okada at Wrestle Kingdom the following January 4th, in 2014. At the time, Naito was portraying the character of the Stardust Genius, a ring technician and clean cut babyface. Following a negative fan reaction to a confrontation between Naito and Okada, the board of directors at NJPW decided to have the Intercontinental title match main event instead of Naito’s world title opportunity, as was tradition until then. This devastated Naito and some would say led to his defeat at the hands of the ‘Rainmaker’ Okada. He would go on to suffer a series of losses and a have a weak showing in the 2014 G1 Climax tournament, which soon led to Naito leaving New Japan, exiling himself to Mexico where he would discover a new side of himself.
Meanwhile, in New Japan Pro Wrestling’s main competitor Pro Wrestling NOAH, KENTA had made a name for himself as one of the world’s best, with a wildly successful GHC World Heavyweight championship reign; solidifying himself with a record breaking nine successful defences of the championship in a calendar year. Everything KENTA had spent over a decade working towards had seemingly finally come to fruition: he had achieved his destiny as the undeniable ace of Pro Wrestling NOAH. But all of that came crashing down when KENTA shockingly lost his championship at New Year Navigation to Takeshi Morishima. Shortly after, KENTA announced his resignation from Pro Wrestling NOAH. He would soon after sign a contract with WWE and be rechristened as Hideo Itami. Symbolically, as he debuted in WWE’s NXT brand, the tron displayed the name KENTA fading, the name Hideo Itami taking its place.
While in Mexico, Naito would come to work with the faction known as Los Ingobernables. Working with Los Ingobernables’ members such as La Sombra (also known now as WWE’s Andrade), RUSH, and La Máscara, Naito would carve out a new identity for himself, abandoning his persona of the Stardust Genius and learning to be ‘tranquilo’.
After time abroad he would eventually return to New Japan in 2015 and debut a new branch of the Los Ingobernables faction alongside his new look and tranquilo attitude. Despite reinventing himself in this manner, and working his way back over the course of two years to the main event of Wrestle Kingdom against perennial rival Kazuchika Okada, Naito once again failed to achieve his destino and secure the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship. What did Naito have to do? He couldn’t reach that glory as the Stardust Genius and even now, having become a new man divorced of his past self, he was still unable to reach what had always alluded him.
On the other side of the globe, KENTA (now named Hideo Itami) had been having a bit of a rough go at things in WWE. He had unfortunately failed to set the world on fire like WWE had hoped, and he was being relegated to lower card feuds, before ultimately suffering a tragic career threatening injury to his shoulder. In hindsight, it is clear that KENTA was dead on arrival in WWE, unable to use many of his signature moves; because. rather ironically. he had inspired other WWE Superstars such as CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, who had used KENTA’s moves as their finishing manoeuvre as tribute to the man. Crucially, this left KENTA with a significantly depleted arsenal of moves; it became worse once his top-rope, diving-stomp move was given instead to Finn Balor by WWE management, with KENTA becoming somewhat of a sidekick to the recently debuting Balor. Following his injury, KENTA would be irrevocably changed and eventually he was released from contract by WWE, who saw no use for the failed star.
Then came 2019. After a year which saw Naito go through many ups and downs, as the IWGP Intercontinental Champion, he proposed a rather novel idea: what if the IWGP World Heavyweight Champion and the IWGP Intercontinental Champion fought at Wrestle Kingdom to determine who was truly the best in a Double Championship match? Over the course of the year, this idea was thrown about by several wrestlers and ultimately the idea of the Double Gold Dash was approved by New Japan’s board of directors. Through many twists and turns, Naito ended up solidifying his spot in the Double Gold Dash, entering Wrestle Kingdom without any gold, but having the opportunity to leave the Tokyo Dome with it all.
2019 was an equally important year for KENTA. During the Dominion event, he shockingly made his first ever appearance in a New Japan ring, introduced by retired legend Katsuyori Shibata (who had scouted KENTA through the LA Dojo to join New Japan). Despite this endorsement by Shibata, the New Japan fans didn’t exactly take to KENTA, and it seemed as though history was set to repeat itself. KENTA followed the guidance of Shibata and did everything he could to do the right thing, but after an embarrassing performance in the G1 Climax, something snapped inside KENTA. On the night of the G1 Climax Finals, KENTA did the unthinkable, turning on his Japanese brethren, screwing his tag team partner Tomohiro Ishii, and joining the eternally villainous Bullet Club. Shibata had seen enough and made his way down to the ring but, despite getting a few choice shots in on KENTA, would ultimately succumb to the numbers of the Bullet Club and take a vicious penalty kick to the face by KENTA. Boos rang out throughout the Budokan arena that night as KENTA had not only turned his back on Shibata, but also on all of Japan.
KENTA would go on to win the NEVER Openweight championship with the help of his new found comrades in the Bullet Club. KENTA publicly stated that he had killed the man he used to be; the old KENTA was dead, Hideo Itami was dead, now in his place is this new KENTA.
As January 4th arrived, both men would be entering the Tokyo Dome as entirely different men from who they were back in 2013. Little did they know, their fates were intertwined. Both men had skyrocketed to super stardom only to have it all come crashing down. Both men left their comfort zone of Japan and ventured abroad to find the missing pieces of themselves.
At Wrestle Kingdom, the Double Gold Dash would see Naito meeting his long standing rival, Okada, in the finals of night two of the event. Naito had never beaten Okada in Wrestle Kingdom, whether it be as the Stardust Genius, or the Ingobernable One. This night was different. After an epic encounter which would see Naito reconciling his past, hitting the Stardust Press for the first time in years, symbolically accepting the man he was as an important a part of his journey to becoming the man he is today. After hitting his finishing manoeuvre, aptly named Destino, Naito finally accomplished what he had failed to do twice before: defeat Okada and stand tall on the grandest stage of all of Japanese professional wrestling: Wrestle Kingdom in the Tokyo Dome. But his moment of glory would be short lived.
Earlier that same night, KENTA would suffer defeat at the hands of Hiroki Goto and lose his NEVER Openweight championship. Bitter and spiteful, KENTA did the unthinkable, the ultimate sign of disrespect: he attacked Naito after his victory, denying him his moment in the sun. It is considered the most sacred moment in Japanese professional wrestling, the victory speech of the winner of the Tokyo Dome main event. Naito was not able to deliver his famed ‘roll call’ catch phrase, or thank the fans, as KENTA brutally assaulted him and mockingly sat on the chest of Naito, holding up both championships. The Tokyo Dome was in disarray as fans rained boos down upon the now undoubted most hated man in Japan. As Naito would go on to state, it wasn’t Naito who was robbed of that moment, it was the fans, the same fans who may never get the chance to attend the Tokyo Dome again; KENTA ruined that moment for them.
It wasn’t long after what many have come to call the Darkest Day in Tokyo Dome History that Naito would declare his intention to put both belts on the line against KENTA announcing the match to take place at The New Beginning in Osaka.
In the lead up to their destined clash, KENTA would continue to play mind games with Naito. But as the night of the match finally arrived, Naito remained tranquilo. He had just become the double champion; to lose those belts to KENTA would be the ultimate humiliation for the Ingobernable One.
Over the course of 36 minutes, KENTA and Naito would go to absolute war with one another, hold-for-hold and counter-for-counter. Despite throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Naito, KENTA just couldn’t put him down. Resorting to dirty tactics such as exposing the turnbuckle, which left Naito a bloody mess as his forehead was busted open, KENTA dug deep in desperation. Still Naito remained tranquilo. Even after referee Red Shoes had been knocked down, KENTA called for Bullet Club’s Jay White to assist him, but it was Los Ingobernables de Japon members Bushi and Hiromu who would even the odds.
Both men had over the course of eight years of ups and downs became changed men. KENTA had proverbially sold his soul to the devil that is Bullet Club and betrayed everything he stood for, all in order to reach the top of the mountain. Naito on the other hand learned to control his rage, hone it into a tranquilo state and work his way valiantly to the summit of professional wrestling.
After a painstaking half hour, KENTA fell to Naito’s Destino. Words were silently exchanged between both men in the ring and KENTA left accepting his defeat. What Naito said to KENTA is anyone’s guess. For now, their story comes to an end. Where does KENTA go from here? What does a man who has thrown away everything that defined him do when it all was for nothing? Will KENTA become a more dangerous challenger? Something tells me this isn’t the last time these two men will meet in the ring; perhaps this is only the first chapter of many to come. For now, Naito has earned his roll call he was denied at Wrestle Kingdom, and KENTA got the ass kicking that the fans so desperately longed to see and that’s about as sweet as it gets for a New Japan pro wrestling fan.