History of the legendary faction
On May 3 at Dontaku 2023, BULLET CLUB marks a full decade as a force in New Japan Pro-Wrestling. As the group continues into its eleventh year, a look back at the origins and evolutions of one of the most influential factions in wrestling history.
Any thoughts of an immediate bounce back for BULLET CLUB after KENTA’s defeat to Tetsuya Naito, and Guerrillas of Destiny’s IWGP Tag Team Championship loss to Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kota Ibushi in February 2020 would be put on hold by the COVID-19 pandemic. With a four month freeze on live events, the deck would be reshuffled, and the question would be who hit the ground running as soon as the green light was given to resume competition.
It came as little surprise that BULLET CLUB would be at the forefront once the flag finally dropped in June and July; the shock was just who would be leading that BC charge. Travel restrictions would see the NJPW roster effectively split in half between domestic talents who competed in the New Japan Cup, and America based wrestlers who joined the launch of the NJPW STRONG brand. In the US, KENTA was victorious in the first New Japan Cup USA, earning the right to challenge the IWGP United States Champion at the time in Jon Moxley. In Japan, the cup trophy, and subsequently IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental gold, went to BULLET CLUB’s newest member.
Over four years removed from being inducted as Tetsuya Naito’s first ‘pareja’ in what became Los Ingobernables De Japon, and motivated by Tetsuya Naito’s scalding comments that he was at risk of becoming the fourth string heavyweight in LIJ, few were surprised when EVIL went on a tear in the empty arena New Japan Cup. He would carry with him a new disregard for the rules and his opponents however, acting even more dastardly than his name suggested. Even his partner SANADA felt the sting of chair shots and low blows as EVIL went to the final and was victorious over Kazuchika Okada. That victory came with the aid of Yujiro Takahashi and Gedo; EVIL’s new attitude was cemented with a fist bump to double IWGP Champion Tetsuya Naito after the match that turned into a Too Sweet and a quick attack.
The next night, with the aid of Dick Togo, who appeared in the ring wearing a BUSHI mask to throw Naito off before breaking out his now trademark steel choking wire, EVIL became the second IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Champion. If the crowd, just returning to the arenas that weekend, was allowed to boo they would have, but instead, it was silence that was deafening in disapproval. LIJ’s EVIL was not afraid to don a black hat, but BULLET CLUB’s EVIL was evil, capitalised, emboldened and underlined; his matches a parade of interference and sneaky tactics that felt like a physical embodiment of the frustration that pervaded daily life in the heart of the pandemic.
To build on that success, Taiji Ishimori took advantage of a rash challenge from Hiromu Takahashi to former friend EVIL, challenging a damaged IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion and dominating as he put Hiromu away in Jingu Stadium after a sustained shoulder attack. EVIL was double IWGP Champion, Ishimori the junior heavyweight title holder and KENTA a number one contender to the US title (a right he would defend so often as to make his rights briefcase an interim title unto itself). String puller Switchblade Jay White was on track to return to Japan in time for G1 Climax 30. BULLET CLUB were splintered but successful, and it would take unity and concerted effort to slow their advance.
That’s exactly what they met. Normally resistent to having teammates fight on an individuals behalf, Los Ingobernables De Japon would rally in the face of EVIL in the months to come. The oppressive summer heat would be paired with the ever frustrating presence of EVIL’s cohorts at Summer Struggle in Jingu, but thanks to BUSHI and SANADA evening the odds, Tetsuya Naito would regain the double IWGP gold and celebrated with an iconic backdrop of fireworks to lead NJPW into its first autumn G1 Climax.
There, Hiromu Takahashi would help ensure that EVIL didn’t make the finals, SANADA instead clinching the spot in the last two with an O’Connor Bridge. As for Jay White, a dominant performance through the majority of A Block saw him victorious over Shingo Takagi, Kota Ibushi and Kazuchika Okada in his first three matches alone, but he would crash out to Tomohiro Ishii on the last night of block action. Frustration at last minute defeat after sacrifices made to travel to Japan, quarantine and compete in the peak of COVID restrictions saw a rare moment of fragility from the Switchblade, who picked himself up and headed into the end of the year with a deeper chip on his shoulder.
By the end of 2020, it felt as if EVIL’s wing of BULLET CLUB had served its purpose, at least for the time being. The King of Darkness would fail in another challenge to Tetsuya Naito at Power Struggle despite Jay White’s somewhat backhanded form of support, and the fading of EVIL from the main event scene was the sole bleak spot in a strong close to the year.
While EVIL fell short in his challenge to Naito at Power Struggle, Jay White made history in the same Osaka spot where he won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship a year earlier. Feet on ropes notwithstanding, the Switchblade defeated Kota Ibushi, becoming the first ever to relieve a G1 Climax winner of their right to challenge the top champion at the Tokyo Dome. White would relish in his achievement, electing to save his title match for the second night of the two night Tokyo Dome event, leaving Ibushi and Naito to battle on January 4.
While White’s hubris would bite both him and the Club in the weeks to come, everything was coming up BULLET CLUB before January 4 2021. Taiji Ishimori was still the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, El Phantasmo returned to US action to win Super J-Cup 2020, smashing the winner’s trophy for the second year in a row, and the Guerrillas of Destiny, with the aid of KENTA, broke a long standing World Tag League duck, the first part of a curse on Tama Tonga and Tanga Loa being broken. At Wrestle Kingdom 15, the second part of that curse was broken as well, as the brothers seized their record setting seventh IWGP Tag Team Championship reign and scored their first ever Tokyo Dome victory.
The rest of Wrestle Kingdom was not in the Club’s favour. BULLET CLUB would enter 2021, champions or not, in a state of malaise. G.o.D’s IWGP Tag title victory carried a steep price, as Tama Tonga swiped Taichi’s Iron Fingers From Hell to seize victory, and would gradually be driven insane as a result. Taiji Ishimori would be relieved of the IWGP Junior Heavyweight title by Hiromu Takahashi, and though he and El Phantasmo would find tag success, much of that would come as a result of Phantasmo’s metal insole adding greater lethality to Sudden Death.
KENTA, having pursued IWGP US Champion Jon Moxley for months would finally get his wish, but didn’t seize the title, leaving STRONG without the US gold which still lay with the AEW representative. Yet the greatest malaise circled Switchblade Jay White. Despite his historical achievement at Kota Ibushi’s expense landing him in the main event on January 5 2021, the result was defeat after a 48 minute epic. The frustration, and emotional and physical toll evident on White in exasperated backstage comments, the frustration echoed and amplified that felt at the hands of Tomohiro Ishii at the G1; Ishii’s rare humanity in backstage comments at New Year Dash designed to encourage the Switchblade would only rub salt in the wound.
Momentarily walking away from NJPW, White returned specifically to get violent revenge on Ishii, finally pinning the Stone Pitbull for the first time in his career with no small assist from Gedo in Osaka Jo Hall. With BULLET CLUB in need of reinvigoration, White pivoted on a New Japan Cup loss to a familiar rival, and the NEVER Openweight Championship that sat round his waist, on the group’s eighth birthday.