Kota Ibushi vowed to unify two iconic titles at Wrestle Kingdom 15
After the emotional high that was Wrestle Kingdom 14, where 70,000+ saw Tetsuya Naito capture double gold, the world would be plunged into a sudden darkness as a global pandemic brought everything to a standstill. Wrestle Kingdom 15 would be a symbol of humanity’s perseverance as two nights once again saw the best take center stage.
At the start of 2021, that meant three men. First was double champion Tetsuya Naito. With grand plans for a triumphant reign as double IWGP Intercontinental and Heavyweight Champion were scuppered by the pandemic, Naito nonetheless became a symbol of hope during COVID, defeating EVIL to regain his titles in the baseball ground of Jingu Stadium in August.
He would ordinarily be set to face back to back G1 winner Kota Ibushi, who defeated SANADA in a thrilling final encounter in the first ever autumn G1 Climax, but cruel fate intervened to muddy the title picture. Switchblade Jay White would face Ibushi in Osaka at Power Struggle, and with both feet on the ropes after a backslide, won Ibushi’s title match briefcase in tainted fashion. For the first time ever, the G1 winner’s number one contendership status had changed hands.
Yet White wanted the easiest path possible to the gold. Choosing not to take the traditional January 4 championship shot, the Switchblade chose to wrestle on January 5. As Naito promised to defend the title twice, the BULLET CLUB leader sat back, eager to face a weakened winner of Naito and Ibushi, who was granted a second chance by El Ingobernable.
As Naito sought to make himself as famous as possible with back to back victories, greed for glory turned out to be his hubris. Kota Ibushi would ascend to his first IWGP Heavyweight Championship reign, as well as seize Intercontinental gold on January 4. With an overwhelming sense of momentum, Ibushi was far from weakened the next night, instead able to wrestle Jay White to 48 minutes plus, and put the drained Switchblade in his place with an emphatic Kamigoye, afterwards vowing that the ‘strongest’ Intercontinental Championship, and the ‘best’ Heavyweight Championship would be fused into one World Heavyweight Championship title.
The other major story in 2020 evolved from the finals of the G1 Climax, that year being held in September and October for the first time. Will Ospreay’s final block match was against Kazuchika Okada, in what started as a CHAOS derby between two brothers from separate mothers, and ended very differently. As Okada was in control, Great-O-Khan made his first Japanese appearance, laying out Okada with the Eliminator, and sowing the first seeds of what became the United Empire.
As NJPW’s newest faction took form, they sought to come out of Wrestle Kingdom 5 with all the headlines. O-Khan targeted Hiroshi Tanahashi while his new tag team partner Jeff Cobb wanted the ‘BMF Championship’; the NEVER Openweight title that was held by Shingo Takagi. Meanwhile Ospreay sought to follow what even he himself would deem a tainted win over Okada in the G1 with a clean victory over the Rainmaker in the Tokyo Dome.
All three came up short, sending waves of frustration through the group, and starting a perceived curse that held through the next year’s Wrestle Kingdom as well. Yet the performances that ensued were blinding, and Will Ospreay vs Kazuchika Okada was top of the list. For 35 minutes and 41 seconds the two went to war both in and out of the ring, but while Okada withstood a table assault, and Ospreay’s own version of the Rainmaker, it was the original version of the move that proved stronger; still these two men were not done with one another by a long shot.