For a time during my young childhood the leading light of world soccer was, Romário. His brilliant striking ability led PSV Eindhoven and Barcelona to major titles and he was the MVP of the Brazil team that captured the 1994 FIFA World Cup. He remains one of the greatest players the game has ever seen. His long career was filled with accolades that he came to grow addicted to, unwilling to allow his declining ability to stand in the way of further glory in later years.
Towards the end of his playing career, he became increasingly nomadic, signing for clubs around the world from Miami to Adelaide. He was pursuing the rare feat of what he claimed to be 1000 career goals, something that had allegedly only previously been achieved by Pelé, Arthur Friedenreich and Ferenc Puskás.
In 2007 Romário, now in his forties and out of shape, returned to his first club, the world-renowned Vasco da Gama, for one final push at achieving his target, one that controversially included goals scored in youth, friendly and charity testimonial games. Rather than being given a hero’s welcome, his hollow and undignified pursuit was met with derision and ridicule. This prestigious club became devoted to flattering the ego of a former star. When the game in which he finally scored the milestone goal was stopped for twenty minutes to allow for celebrations, it was deemed an embarrassment to him, the club and the whole of Brazilian domestic soccer, with the country’s best players having long since been lured away by lucrative overseas contracts.
This analogy recently came to mind as I got up before 6am UK time on a Sunday morning to tune in live to Great Voyage in Fukuoka, the latest major show from Pro Wrestling NOAH.
Keiji Mutoh, one of the biggest stars in Japanese wrestling history, one of NJPW’s legendary three musketeers of the 1990s and, thanks to his time in WCW as The Great Muta, one of the most recognized among Western fans, has recently won the company’s top title.
In doing so, he ended a title reign for the ages from Go Shiozaki at the NOAH’s first Budokan Hall event since Kenta Kobashi’s retirement and became only the third man in history to have held the IWGP Heavyweight, Triple Crown and GHC Heavyweight titles after Kensuke Sasaki and Yoshihiro Takayama. He is a highly charismatic star and maintains an impressively muscular physique. The problem is that he is nearing his sixties and, after years of damage sustained to his knees and back, can barely move. This is a reign that does a disservice to him, NOAH and their talented roster.
NOAH was my favorite promotion of last year and numerous accolades and positive reviews show that I was not alone, despite us being not far removed from a time when the company’s future was in doubt. At a time when COVID hampered many, NOAH pushed forward, thanks largely to Shiozaki’s GHC reign which lasted over a year and included numerous classic defenses that each had the feel of an aggressive battle of attrition. There was an excitement about the company perhaps not seen since their 2000s heyday. This peaked in December with the announcement of their February return to Budokan and a magnificent match between Shiozaki and Takashi Sugiura.
When Mutoh emerged to declare himself as the next challenger, I initially assumed it would be a filler defense, perhaps at a Korakuen Hall show, and had no issue. When I realized that this was in fact to be the Budokan main event, I was deeply disappointed. NOAH had reached this point through the hard work of a roster in their prime and now the brightest spotlight was to be given to an old man of limited capability who was never part of the company’s story. There were two alternative candidates for the spot who seemed far more suitable. One was Katsuhiko Nakajima, Shiozaki’s former partner turned greatest rival and NOAH’s most compelling star. The other was Kaito Kiyomiya, NOAH’s young future ace who Shiozaki had first unexpectedly taken the belt from in January 2020. Kiyomiya’s previous run as champion had perhaps come a little too early and he looked like a deer in the headlights at times. Now he seems far more composed and ready to carry the company on his shoulders. Both scenarios are now, sadly, hypothetical.
There may have been some merit in putting Mutoh in this position. A familiar name to help draw a crowd and the one at Budokan was somewhat impressive for the pandemic era. But the immediate and long-term negatives far outweigh the positives. While uncertainty over the result kept the match exciting, it was deeply flawed, with a slow pace, unconvincing offense and a number of botches. The result was even worse. Shiozaki had been an excellent champion and this was a humbling way to go out as he was forced to work down to his opponent’s level. He declared himself to be NOAH and this result sent the message that NOAH was second best. An argument that ending such a popular reign would hurt Kiyomiya in the eyes of the fans can be countered with the heel Nakajima being a more suitable alternative as champion. As Mutoh held his new belt, he looked not like a triumphant new champion, but a weary old man ready for retirement. Worse still was to come.
As Kiyomiya stepped up as Mutoh’s first challenger there was hope that this might be a brief, transitional, reign. Kiyomiya had lost to Mutoh last year and this would be the perfect time for redemption, signifying the start a bold new era. NOSAWA Rongai’s booking of Mutoh’s vanity fueled, gold watch reign could be easily forgotten if the reign was to be brief. The build to Great Voyage was painful. Mutoh’s disastrous attempt at a handspring was turned into GIFs eliciting mockery and pity in equal measure.
NOAH’s graphics have gotten really hi-tech. pic.twitter.com/aUBPxx0IZa
— Andrew Rich (@AndrewTRich) March 7, 2021
Seeing Yoshiki Inamura, a future main event powerhouse, sell for and ultimately submit to Mutoh’s slow and unconvincing attacks defied any semblance of believability. Despite this and news of Mutoh’s new two-year contract, the possibility of an end was in sight.
While the 2020 Kiyomiya match was as good as we could reasonably expect of Mutoh these days, this was not to that level. Overlong, slow and devoid of either excitement or credibility. It is hard to suspend disbelief and imagine Kiyomiya’s athleticism not being a match for Mutoh’s limited capability. Not only did Kiyomiya submit to a move that wasn’t Mutoh’s finisher, he never looked like having a real chance of winning at any stage. The young star’s redemption can still happen, but the best time for it to do so may have passed and he is severely damaged by this loss. While the flash pin of a battle-weary Shiozaki stemming from a hurricarana could be presented as a fluke victory, this was decisive. With Masa Kitamiya’s declaring himself as the next challenger, there is no end in sight to Mutoh’s reign and the momentum gained from Kitamiya’s excellent recent tag team victory will be lost as well. This situation could well be replicated with the company’s secondary title if Kazuyuki Fujita defeats Kenou for the GHC National Championship this Sunday.
So where do we go from here? Kitamiya’s loss is almost certain so, we may well be looking at a long reign. Naomichi Marufuji, seemingly now happy out of the limelight, could withstand a loss, but most other conceivable challengers would be hurt by a defeat. Nakajima? Kenou? Inamura? How many must lay down for no discernible reward. June’s CyberFight Festival at Saitama Super Arena would be a suitably big stage for a title change, but a rumored champion vs champion match against DDT’s Jun Akiyama suggests it might not happen there. If we are waiting for Shiozaki’s return from injury then, at best, we can say that the company is effectively paused for six months.
While not to my taste, there are those who are enjoying Mutoh’s reign and will point to the attendances at Budokan and Fukuoka, NOAH’s highest in the city since 2016, as evidence in its defense, but how much of that can be attributed to Mutoh and how sustainable is nostalgia? Mutoh was an ace for NJPW in the 90s and a key figure for AJPW in the 2000s following the Misawa-led mass exodus to NOAH. Since then, like Romário, he has been a vain nomad. He has failed to bring lasting benefit to Wrestle-1, Kyushu Pro, Dradition and TNA, so why should NOAH, a more prestigious location, be any different? I and others have written previously of the value of older wrestlers used correctly, Jun Akiyama is still a great wrestler and his reign at the top of DDT does them no harm, but there are always limits. In 2009 an aging Mutoh lost the IWGP Title to Hiroshi Tanahashi in a well-received passing of the torch style Tokyo Dome main event. The match firmly established Mutoh’s former student as New Japan’s ace and helped steer them away from the low points of the 2000s towards their golden era of the 2010s.
That match was twelve years ago.
It is my anecdotal experience that when casual and lapsed fans of wrestling watch for the first time after a long period of absence, they are not excited to see the same faces on top. I remember laughter and ‘Fuck, is he still going?’ in response to one aging star. The names at the top of the card when fans left are unlikely to be the ones who will bring them back. This would explain why Edge’s recent Royal Rumble win has done nothing to revive interest in WWE, why Christian’s AEW Title challenge seems like folly and why AJPW has stalled with SUWAMA as champion.
For NOAH, this seems unnecessary. The momentum and goodwill of recent times was established by wrestlers in their prime. Dragongate are pushing many talented young performers and this confident strategy points to a bright future. Mutoh’s reign damages the credibility of himself, NOAH and Japanese wrestling as a whole. Playing to his ego risks turning NOAH into Romário’s Vasco da Gama.