Welcome back to Champions’ Corner. In this series, we take a look at the reign of a current (or past) champion from somewhere in the wrestling world. We look at the defences that have been made, before breaking down the good and bad aspects of the championship run. This week, we’re taking a look at the current NEVER Openweight Champion, Shingo Takagi.
Before we dive in though, feel free to check out the previous instalments in the series using the links below:
After a stellar 2019 that put him amongst the best wrestlers of the year, Shingo kicked off 2020 with the goal of re-establishing the NEVER divisions. He saw himself as neither junior heavyweight nor heavyweight – he was an openweight wrestler. The NEVER division, which is home to New Japan’s openweight championships, was naturally seen as a fit.
He took the first step towards his goal on January 5th; where he, EVIL and BUSHI won the 6-man tag team championships. He immediately decided to take things one step further, pinning Hirooki Goto on January 6th and staking his claim to the Openweight championship. The record between the two in singles competition was 1-1, so there was more to be decided than the championship.
The victory over one of the title’s two “ace” figures in Goto quickly brought out the other NEVER ace. Goto’s CHAOS stablemate, Tomohiro Ishii. After their instant classic in G1 Climax 29, fans were clamouring for the rematch. The match was set for New Japan Road on February 20.
This first defence was an extremely important one for Takagi. By defeating the two biggest flagbearers of the NEVER division within the space of three weeks, he would instantly be legitimised as champion, which would be instrumental in the work towards his goal of re-establishing both titles after a string of reigns with no successful defences.
Defence 1: Tomohiro Ishii – New Japan Road (Tag 1) – 20/2/20
Matchtime – 27:04
Takagi and Ishii went to war for just over 25 minutes in a straight-up hoss fight that truly encapsulated the essence of the NEVER championship. Shoulder tackles, lariats, back and forth striking and kickouts at 1. It was similar to the match we got in G1 Climax 29, yet everything felt fresh. There was a level of intensity that really reflected what was at stake.
Ishii’s trash talking to Shingo while working him in the corner proved how much the title meant. “What’s wrong, champion?” was heard from Ishii. He didn’t see Shingo as someone who could carry the NEVER title.
It felt like both men would be willing to sacrifice their careers to hold the championship. Kickout after kick out. Big move after big move. Chops to the throat and big moves on the apron. The champion could’ve got the count-out victory at one point, but instead chose to bring his challenger back into the ring. He understood that he had to beat Ishii to cement his position as the new ace of the NEVER division.
Shingo eventually got the win, hitting Last of the Dragon after Ishii kicked out of the Pumping Bomber lariat.
The intensity didn’t die down there, though. The men continued to brawl after the match, eventually being pulled apart. Ishii staggered to the back after picking up a chair, presumably looking to start another fight. But his body was exhausted. Shingo had more than proved his worth here.
Defence 2: SHO – Dominion 7.12 in Osaka-Jo Hall
Matchtime – 20:07
This was probably the best build for a NEVER title match since Hirooki Goto vs Minoru Suzuki at Wrestle Kingdom 12.
Shingo and SHO had their first singles encounter on night 1 of Best of the Super Juniors 26 after feuding over the IWGP Junior Tag Championships for the first half of the year. Takagi won that match, continuing his (at the time) 7 month undefeated streak.
The two men had a brief confrontation at the New Beginning in Sapporo, with SHO (who was on commentary for Shingo’s match with Goto) making it clear that he wanted a shot at the new champion. Shingo seemingly blew him off, saying he hadn’t earned it yet.
Then, of course, COVID-19 happened, causing a complete shakeup of the New Japan Cup. A new tournament bracket was announced, with the two rivals put against each other in the first round. SHO picked up the win, which gave his challenge to Shingo some validity, as he’d pinned the champion. The rematch was set for the grand stage of Dominion.
For the remainder of the tour, things got increasingly heated. Shingo was still reluctant to give SHO his title match, likening himself to the final boss in a video game – one that you had to beat more than once. This was a great callback to the BOSJ match where the commentary team said that SHO was facing the final boss at the first level.
The actual match
For just over 20 minutes, the two men went to war. SHO tried to beat Takagi at his own game. He hit countless forearm strikes. He hit lariats of his own. He cleverly focused on the champion’s arm, in an attempt to nullify one of Shingo’s biggest weapons; the Pumping Bomber.
The challenger got heart-wrenchingly close to winning, getting a near fall after hitting the Shock Arrow and locking in multiple submissions that targeted the arm. SHO outsmarted Shingo in a lot of ways, but his smaller size meant he was facing an uphill battle from the start.
Both men looked absolutely fantastic in the end, with multiple kickouts at 1 and some near falls from the Shock Arrow and ‘Made in Japan’. SHO more than proved himself here, building on his value as a singles star – something which will be needed moving forward, with tag partner YOH out injured.
Shingo also came out looking strong, taking another step in his journey to make the NEVER title a properly openweight belt. This was taken further in the post-match, with Suzuki-Gun’s El Desperado laying out the champion and absconding with the belt.
Everything was done near-perfectly here, elevating the NEVER title further.
What’s gone well?
So far, Takagi’s reign has been near flawless. Every defence he has made has had a strong build, a valid and logical opponent and excellent in-ring matches. He’s managed to elevate the championship in a way that hardly anyone has been able to before, explicitly stating his desire to face wrestlers from both weight classes.
In the space of just five months, Shingo has made the championship a prize for both Juniors and Heavyweights to pursue. He’s put his own twist on the title’s standing as “the tough guy belt”, encouraging the smaller wrestlers to challenge and allowing them to prove that they’re just as good as the heavyweights.
A comparison to Shinsuke Nakamura’s time as Intercontinental Champion could easily be made. Both men had stellar title defences, elevated younger talent (when applicable) and raised the value of the championship they hold – something drastically needed after a string of disappointing NEVER title reigns. It’s been a stellar reign for The Dragon so far.
What hasn’t gone well?
I don’t feel there are any major criticisms to be made about Shingo’s reign. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic brought events to a grinding halt for a number of months which prevented Shingo from making title defences. Having only two defences in a five-month reign is slightly disappointing, but can be excused in this case, considering the circumstances.
Other than that, there aren’t any major issues with Shingo’s run so far. The title defences have been stellar, with strong builds that have built emotional investment extremely well.
Predictions for the rest of the reign
I can say with near full confidence that Takagi will close 2020 as champion. In just two defences, he has increased the value of the championship in a way that nobody else has managed to do. It would be silly to end the reign before the end of the year, and I’m inclined to believe that New Japan understands this despite some truly questionable booking decisions in recent times.
In terms of individual defences, I predict that Shingo will face the following people:
El Desperado – this defence is already confirmed. Despy staked his claim to the title after Shingo’s match at Dominion, attacking the champion after the match and absconding with the championship belt.
Who ends the title reign?
In terms of who brings the reign to an end, only one name sticks out. EVIL. After his victory over Tetsuya Naito, EVIL dismissed the value of the NEVER 6-Man titles, saying he only cares about the Heavyweight and IC titles. This could sow the seeds for a title match down the line, most likely at Wrestle Kingdom or New Beginning
By this point, Shingo would’ve built up a strong amount of defences and enjoyed one of the longest reigns in the title’s history (338 days if beaten at Wrestle Kingdom). He’d be ready to drop the title and move onto something else, which gives the opportunity for EVIL to beat his former LIJ stablemate and carry the title for the second time in his career. It’d be beneficial for both the title and for EVIL, who would be a much bigger name after winning the double title and the New Japan Cup.
What do you think of Shingo’s reign so far? Let us know! And be sure to follow us on Twitter @CKNearfalls!