Wrestle Kingdom 15 should have been the start of a new era for NJPW. After the stop and start nature of 2020 caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, it felt like Wrestle Kingdom 15 was NJPW’s opportunity to start again with a blank slate. Yes, restrictions were still in place but the company had finally decided to strap the rockets to the enigmatic “Golden Star” Kota Ibushi and make him the absolute man.
After coming up short in the previous year’s Double Gold Dash we saw Kota Ibushi win his second straight G1 Climax in 2020 booking his place, again, in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom. On January 4 we would see Ibushi finally win the double championship (the IWGP Heavyweight and IWGP Intercontinental titles) in a thrilling match with old rival Tetsuya Naito. The following night we would see him defend his newly won titles against Jay White in an incredible match that went almost 50 minutes. We were officially in the Kota Ibushi era.
For much of his career, the “Golden Star” had led a nomadic existence, never really making one of the major promotions his home for long. Much of his career was spent in Japan’s DDT promotion while making short cross-over stints in NJPW and other promotions throughout the world. He was a massively sort-after talent, even turning down WWE after a brief foray in the Cruiserweight Classic back in 2016.
His appearances in NJPW, although frequent, were strictly on a freelance basis. Despite that, he would be involved in major angles and title matches including classic bouts with Prince Devitt and Shinsuke Nakamura as well as playing a major factor in the Bullet Club civil war when he came to the rescue of his Golden Lovers tag team partner Kenny Omega in 2018. In 2019 however, he announced his decision to settle down full-time in New Japan.
Fast forward to the start of 2021 it was now finally Kota Ibushi’s moment but things were not quite right. After his incredible match with Jay White at the Tokyo Dome he was met with his first challenger; SANADA. Echoes of the previous year where newly crowned champion Tetsuya Naito was immediately met by his first challenger, KENTA, stopped and ended there. No attack, no brawl though. Just a polite request for a title shot which was also politely given.
Now, I love SANADA. An incredibly talented in-ring performer of course but one who has lost on the big stage so often I really struggle to consider him a legitimate threat anymore. Regardless, Ibushi and SANADA would face off at The New Beginning in Hiroshima and have a great match like they always do but at the same time, no one was actually expecting Ibushi to drop the two titles so early, least of all to “Cold Skull”.
With his second successful title defense out of the way, it would be the man he beat for the titles, Tetsuya Naito, who would be his next challenger. After winning both titles back at Wrestle Kingdom 14, Naito had been open about wanting to defend the Heavyweight and Intercontinental titles separately but that had never happened. Ibushi on the other hand had made his intentions on unifying the titles since winning them from Naito public.
In an attempt to prevent this Naito made the challenge for Castle Attack but only for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship. At Osaka-jo Hall on February 28 Ibushi would successfully defend the IWGP Intercontinental Championship for the final time as a separate title. After the match, he was challenged by newly crowned IWGP Junior Heavyweight champion, El Desperado, for a title match at the 49th Anniversary Show in the Nippon Budokan which Ibushi quickly accepted.
Now, this is where the problems really started to show. Ibushi’s promise to unify the titles afterward was already unpopular. Add in the first defence of the new IWGP World Heavyweight Championship was going to be in a match with no build against a man who no one thought had a chance of beating Ibushi and things were not looking great for Ibushi’s first run at the top.
I was personally excited for the match on the basis that El Desperado is one of my personal favourites in NJPW but clearly the crowd were not. With no shows between Castle Attack and the Anniversary Show to build the match it would draw a lower gate than the previous night’s Stardom show also at the Nippon Budokan, All-Star Dream Cinderella, headlined by Tam Nakano’s victory in a Hair vs. Hair match over Giulia.
After his successful defence against El Desperado we would have to wait until the end of March to see the brand new title belt signifying the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship. Although the new belt has grown on me personally, it’s fair to say the reception for the new title was not kind. The bad taste left from getting rid of two iconic titles was compounded by a new belt design that was compared, derisively, to the old WWE Diva’s Championship did the title and Ibushi no favors.
Despite that, there was still an opportunity to turn things around. Ibushi was scheduled to defend the brand new belt for the first time at Sakura Genesis against the winner of the 2021 New Japan Cup. Will Ospreay would defeat Shingo Takagi in a thrilling final to book the shot against the “Golden Star” at Ryokoku Sumo Hall in Tokyo.
This would be the end of the road for Kota Ibushi’s reign, however. Will Ospreay would win the match and the title meaning Kota Ibushi’s run at the top had lasted only 3 months. Sadly, his disappointing title run would be the least of Ibushi’s problems in 2021, the second half of the year would be significantly worse.
After defeating Jeff Cobb at Dominion Kota Ibushi would be sworn in as the first challenger to the new IWGP World Heavyweight Champion; Shingo Takagi. Will Ospreay had injured his neck in his first title defense against Takagi resulting in the title being vacated. Shingo Takagi then beat Kazuchika Okada for the vacant title at Dominion.
The “Golden Star” and the “Dragon” were scheduled to have their title match at the delayed Wrestle Grand Slam in Tokyo Dome event in July but mere days before the title match Kota Ibushi was out of the match having been taken down by a case of aspiration pneumonia resulting in Hiroshi Tanahashi subbing for him at the last minute.
Aspiration pneumonia is a nasty business and not something common in younger people. It would require Ibushi to take several months off before finally returning for the Wrestle Grand Slam in MetLife Dome show in September. Brand new IWGP United States Heavyweight Champion, Hiroshi Tanahashi, made the challenge to his former tag team championship partner, for his return match.
The two would have a good match but it was clear that Ibushi was far from 100% upon his return. He lost the match but he had also lost muscle mass as a result of the severe lung infection and, unsurprisingly, was not fit enough wrestle the usual NJPW length main event.
It was good to see the “Golden Star” back however and on the road to recovery. The next step was a big one though; the G1 Climax 31 tournament. He was drawn into A Block and would go on to win the block despite an opening night shock defeat to Yujiro Takahashi and a submission loss to Zack Sabre Jr. on night five.
Despite looking off a step still at the beginning of the G1 Climax we would see Kota Ibushi slowly get back to his normal self. By the final night of block action and his victory over KENTA it would seem things were looking good for the “Golden Star” and his road to recovery, and redemption were almost complete.
At the Nippon Budokan, he was set to face off again the B Block winner, Kazuchika Okada. For Ibushi, this was history. He was the first man ever to make four straight G1 Climax finals and had the opportunity to be the only man to win three straight titles.
The match was going as you would normally expect with the two going back and forth until around 25 minutes in. As the match was slowly building to a climactic last 10-15 minutes Kota Ibushi climbed to the top rope with Okada prone on the canvas. He went for his signature Phoenix Splash, a move he has executed hundreds of times before, but Okada rolled out of the way.
It was clear from how Ibushi landed that something was off. He landed very heavily, without the usual grace that Ibushi usually does even when he misses something. He was obviously hurt and even Okada could tell something was wrong. The referee, Red Shoes Unno, quickly took a look at Ibushi and called for the bell giving Okada the match and the G1 Climax 31 title.
An injury to Ibushi’s right arm was apparent and, despite initial fears, it wasn’t a break. When hitting the mat his right arm had collapsed under him resulting in him dislocating his right shoulder forcing the it to be popped back into place in the middle of the ring. For Ibushi though this meant the match ending and probably his year.
NJPW announced a two-month recovery layoff for Kota Ibushi ruling him out now until at least January. A return for Wrestle Kingdom 16 does look like a possibility. Here’s hoping that Kota Ibushi can recover quickly and have a much better 2022. Unfortunately, 2021 was a creative and injury disaster for the “Golden Star” when it should have been his biggest year ever.