10. Tomoaki Honma
If you don’t watch New Japan Pro Wrestling and you just looked at the results, you’d question this selection. Tomoaki Honma has a horrible win/loss record. Why does he make the cut you ask? It all started in 2014. He entered the G1 Climax as a replacement for the injured Kota Ibushi. He proceeded to lose every single one of his matches, finishing in dead last. However, the G1 style worked to his strengths and he became the perfect underdog. He kept losing and losing but the crowd reactions got louder and louder. Honma got a pinfall win in a tag at Wrestle Kingdom 9 to the crowd’s joy before having several match of the year candidates with Tomohiro Ishii. Honma finally beat Ishii to win his first G1 match later in the year and the reaction was insane. Honma has developed into the best underdog in all of wrestling. Not many guys can constantly lose, over and over, and be among the most popular guys on the roster. There’s something about Tomoaki Honma that is just infectious. Earlier this year he finally got to win some gold with partner Togi Makabe and remains a vital part of the NJPW roster. I wonder if he’ll get more than one G1 win this time around.
9. Kenny Omega
Over and over, I’ve mentioned that I’m not a fan of Kenny Omega. For the most part, that remains true. His runs as the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion were pretty lackluster in several ways. He’s also far too much of an over actor. However, 2016 has been a pretty great year for him so far. As part of one of the best angles all year, Omega turned on AJ Styles and became the leader of the Bullet Club shortly after pinning Shinsuke Nakamura. He topped that by besting Hiroshi Tanahashi in a really good match to win the vacant Intercontinental Title. Adding on, he and the Young Bucks, who are my least favorite act in wrestling, won the NEVER Openweight Six Man Tag Team Titles. The man has not only managed to find tons of success in 2016 but it looks like he’s headed for even more. I expected a spirited run in the G1 Climax this year. While I still dislike his tendency to overact and put on strange facial expressions, his in ring work so far this year has been pretty strong. Last year, he wouldn’t have even smelled this list. Now though, he makes it on.
8. Michael Elgin
When Michael Elgin was announced as a participant in the G1 Climax 25, the wrestling world mostly groaned. He had more than worn out his welcome in the United States across most independent promotions. The thing is, Elgin loves Japan and working there had been his lifelong dream. Well, he certainly made the best of it. Elgin won over the Japan crowd with his incredible array of power based offense and brought something different to the table from the rest of the G1 field. It also helped that the G1 style plays to his strength. Instead of having to try and work 30 minute “classics”, he was able to stick to what he’s good at in the compact 10-15 minute window. Since then, he’s entered a fun tag team with Hiroshi Tanahashi and earned himself a multi-year deal with NJPW. It’s literally a dream come true. With several high profile gaijins gone, the door is now open for Elgin to move into the top gaijin spot. I expect to see him get a great showing in the G1 this year and hell, he and Tanahashi could even get a short Tag Team Title run. The fans love him, Gedo loves him and Elgin loves it in Japan. That’s a combination for success.
7. Hirooki Goto
Hirooki Goto’s booking has been a sore point for plenty of New Japan fans over the past few years. For a very long time, Goto has consistently been one of the best wrestlers and most popular talents in NJPW. Truthfully, he’s done a fair amount. He’s won the G1 Climax in the past, held the Tag Team Titles, the Intercontinental Title and won several New Japan Cup Tournaments. The issue is that Goto has never been given the big one. Goto currently stands at 0-8 in shots at the IWGP Heavyweight Title. Hell, even when he was the Intercontinental Champion last year, they cut him off at the legs. He beat Shinsuke Nakamura twice and even pinned Kazuchika Okada cleanly in the G1. All of that was wasted when he dropped the belt back to Nakamura in September and ended up in the only Wrestle Kingdom match not to be contested for a championship. Despite the lame booking, Goto has indeed remained very popular. He consistently puts on good to great matches with a variety of opponents. There is still some hope that he can win the big one but even if he doesn’t, there aren’t many better in NJPW.
6. Kazuchika Okada
Here’s where I could see some controversy with this placement. Kazuchika Okada is not only the IWGP Heavyweight Champion, but he’s been handpicked to be the “ace” of New Japan Pro Wrestling going forward. He has put on several fantastic matches, including one at King of Pro Wrestling 2013 that might be the best I’ve ever watched. So why does he only rank sixth? Well for one thing, I personally enjoy the five guys ahead of him more. Also, I have some issues with Okada matches. For example, if he’s leading the way, his matches leave something to be desired. While he’ll have classics with Shinsuke Nakamura, Hiroshi Tanahashi and AJ Styles, it’s usually those guys setting the tone. Take Wrestle Kingdom 10. Some people gave his match with Tanahashi five stars. I found it to be their worst match ever. You could cut the first 15 minutes and not miss anything. His title defense against Goto in February also left a lot to be desired. There are too many times when he sleepwalks through the first half of a match before picking it up in a big way down the stretch. That out of the way, Okada is a prodigy. He’s still very good despite being just 28 years old. Even if I have some issues with him, he’s as good a choice as any to be the top star, seems to be loyal to the company and has a very long future ahead of him.
Yes, I put the Jr. Heavyweight Champion above the Heavyweight Champion. Maybe Kazuchika Okada is a better wrestler than KUSHIDA but man, I love me some KUSHIDA. For too long the New Japan Junior divisions have been stale and stagnant. Everyone is kind of similar and since Prince Devitt left and Kota Ibushi became a heavyweight, the title hasn’t seemed very important. Ryusuke Taguchi was a lame choice for champion and Kenny Omega was highly disappointing in the role. KUSHIDA changes all of that. He breaks up the monotony of the division and can have great matches with just about anyone. If he’s wrestling in ROH, he can have awesome matches. If he’s working with heavyweights, he’s great. If he’s in tag matches, he rules. Whatever you give KUSHIDA, he’ll kill it. In my “Top 100 Matches of 2015” last year, KUSHIDA appeared in every junior heavyweight match to make the list along with some others. He’s versatile, consistent and is someone that I truly look forward to seeing each time I watch New Japan. KUSHIDA needs to be the guy they build and fix the division around.
4. Tomohiro Ishii
The first NJPW, it was for Wrestle Kingdom 9. Tomohiro Ishii had a really good match with Togi Makabe but for some reason, something about him didn’t click for me. For the next few months, I was disinterested in a lot of what he did. That all eventually changed. From watching him in the G1 Climax 25 as well as going back and reviewing the G1 Climax 24, I began to have a fond appreciation for Ishii. It’s actually more than that because his style of wrestling is something I’ve grown to love. Ishii is awesome and, with Nakamura gone, is my favorite member of the Chaos stable. I know that Makabe had a fair amount of success with the NEVER Title, but for me, it was Ishii that kind of put it on the map and really got going with it. Going back and watching things, Ishii has grown from underdog into a very valuable asset for the company even though he’s already in the later stage of his career. Now the reigning ROH Television Champion, Ishii should have more dates in the States, which will only help raise his profile. Some of my favorite matches (namely the G1 Climax 23 bout with Shibata) have involved Ishii. Honestly, there aren’t many better wrestlers in the world right now.
3. Katsuyori Shibata
I love Katsuyori Shibata. I really, really do. His style isn’t for everyone as, similar to Tomohiro Ishii, I’ve heard complaints about the stiff work and things like the headbutts done in his matches. I understand that, I truly do. It works for me though. I like all kinds of wrestling and lately, the style that speaks to me the most is Shibata’s. Sometimes I just want to watch two guys enter a ring and beat the shit out of each other. When Shibata enters a ring, you truly feel like you’re watching a fight. I don’t want an entire card of those matches, but seeing Shibata is such a nice change from the rest of the NJPW roster, outside of a select few. Shibata has also grown to become one of the more popular guys on the roster and has had big moments at the last two Wrestle Kingdoms (Tag Title win at 9 and NEVER Title win at 10). There is always the worry that he won’t move up any higher due to him walking out of the company back when they needed him, but I could see that changing due to how damn good he’s been. In recent G1 Climaxes and recent shows in general, Shibata has delivered nearly every single time out there. Shibata is the baddest dude in New Japan and it’s glorious.
2. Tetsuya Naito
Outside of the New Day, I can’t remember a recent heel turn that worked to fix somebody’s career so well. When I first watched New Japan Pro Wrestling, Tetsuya Naito didn’t stand out. He was the whitest of white meat babyfaces. Sure he could do some athletic stuff and have good matches but he felt so hollow and bland. Fast forward a few months, after a tour with CMLL, and heel Tetsuya Naito was born. He teamed with La Sombra while in CMLL and joined the Los Ingobernables stable. Now he had some personality. Naito began to show a severe lack of care towards anything. Even while in the G1 Climax, he just had an attitude that showed nothing mattered to him. He’s managed to take that character and continue to put on good to great matches. There aren’t many characters in wrestling that I enjoy more than Naito. He’s added EVIL and BUSHI to Los Ingobernables de Japon, forming a little stable that has found some success. Naito is currently set to face Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Title and, in my opinion, should absolutely win it. He’d be the first man not named Tanahashi, Okada or Styles to hold it since 2010. In terms of pure character work, Naito has no peer in NJPW.
1. Hiroshi Tanahashi
The years continue to pass, but one thing remains the same. Hiroshi Tanahashi is the best in New Japan Pro Wrestling. He may have finally officially passed the proverbial torch to Kazuchika Okada at this year’s Wrestle Kingdom, but make no mistake; Tanahashi is still the man. There is so much he can do for the company in so many different ways. He’s been IWGP Heavyweight Champion time after time after time and now, he’s moved into a different faze of his illustrious career. When Shinsuke Nakamura left and the company needed someone to put over Kenny Omega and solidify him as a heavyweight star, they turned to Tanahashi, who did a great job. As noted earlier, he and Michael Elgin could give it a run in the tag division and win those titles. With Tanahashi involved, the Tag Titles could rise in prominence and even headline some events. There is nobody better at telling a story in the ring right now than Tanahashi. He almost always has great matches, the fans absolutely adore him and he can do just about anything they’ll need him to do. Until he retires, I can’t see anyone overtaking Tanahashi in this spot.