New Japan has been teasing a heel turn from Kota Ibushi for the past few weeks. Most of this has been spurred on by the loss of the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team titles by Golden Ace to Taichi and Zack Sabre Jr. Kota, who a year ago named Hiroshi Tanahashi one of the two men he admires as gods of wrestling, is seemingly growing impatient with the Ace now that they’ve become tag team partners. This frustration, paired with the offer to join Suzuki Gun, gives Kota both a strong push and pull factor into heeldom in NJPW.
However, Kota is a beloved figure among New Japan fans. He’s greatly endeared for his in-ring abilities, charm, and sincere personality. How plausible is it that Kota Ibushi could become a heel in the New Japan scene?
What Makes a Face?
The concept of faces and heels can shift depending on a promotion’s location, match style, and values. I would argue that as far as NJPW goes, Hiroshi Tanahashi is the pinnacle of a New Japan babyface. He led the company out of the dark ages, unlike wrestlers like Katsuyori Shibata who left the company and looked out for their own interests. Tanahashi became extremely popular with fans, partially for regularly proclaiming to the crowd he loves them (and in the serious form too: he doesn’t say daisuke, he says aishiteru. This is much more intimate and impactful). Even now, when he’s down on his luck, Tanahashi still makes sure to give air hugs to fans in the crowd.
So, if we accept that Tanahashi as the yardstick for faces, the next step is to see where Kota is most similar to Tanahashi, and where the two have the most differences.
Kota Dances to the Beat of his own Air Guitar:
The primary difference between Kota and Tanahashi is that Kota is not a company guy. He’s a freelancer at heart. Kota has competed with numerous companies in his career, including DDT, Big Japan Pro Wrestling, Ring of Honor, and he even had a brief stint in WWE through their Cruiserweight Classic. His resume could not be of more stark contrast to Tanahashi. Examining match styles, we also see a clear difference; much of Tanahashi’s career is defined by great in-ring moments, heartfelt promos, and classic, family-friendly, feelgood wrestling.
Much of Kota’s career, on the other hand, is defined by moments where there wasn’t a wrestling ring insight; a real highlight that comes to mind is Kota’s Apartment Complex Brawl, wherein he had to defeat a series of wrestlers in their respective apartments before advancing to a finale rooftop battle (the event saw fireworks, broken walls, smashed fruit, and a dominatrix among other oddities for a wrestling match). So, perhaps when you look at both men’s careers, combined with their personalities– Tanahashi’s polished, genial vibes compared to Kota’s aloof free spirit– perhaps the two are simply too different from each other, and Tanahashi will never be able to tame Kota into being a long-term tag partner.
Lately, NJPW has tried to rebrand Kota as more of a company guy, primarily through announcing that Kota has signed a “life-time contract” with the company, but who’s to say Kota will fully commit himself to it? At the very least, Tanahashi sets the standard for company loyalty extremely high. Perhaps it’s too high for his tag partner to follow.
The two are so different, in fact, that I’d argue the pair are natural foils. If Kota were to turn heel, I think a strong Kamigoye to Tanahashi’s face would be the perfect way to kick it off. After all, during Kota and Tanahashi’s G1 Climax 29 match, Chris Charlton pointed out that the first time Ibushi used Kamigoye to get a win was in a G1 match against Tanahashi himself; why shouldn’t Kota use the same move, whose name translates to “to surpass god,” to literally surpass one of his wrestling gods out of their partnership and into heeldom?
One of the most signatures yet overlooked features of Kota Ibushi matches is the moment where an inner demon emerges from Kota and takes over his body. In these moments, the Golden Star is no longer the bubbly, awkward guy fans know and love; he becomes something more sinister. The demon in Kota could be the most direct path to a heel turn, as it shows that there are hidden layers to Kota’s mind.
One particular instance where this state was brought out of Kota was during his match against Tanahashi of all people, in 2019’s G1 Climax. Kota had Tanahashi up and set for a powerbomb, when Tanahashi escaped, recollected himself, and gave Kota a strong slap across the cheek. The shift was immediate; Kota’s eyes seemed to lose all light in them, and his face became blank. Chris Charlton quickly noticed the shift, and told the audience, “the switch is flipped in that man.” Kevin Kelly followed up, audibly nervous, saying, “there’s a time when Ibushi gets into a zone. I don’t know what pain in his life he felt— but when he gets that look in his eye it’s very dangerous for his opponent.” Perhaps it will be this inner demon that drives Kota to turn away from the light and embrace a darker path.
Kota does have experience working with heel factions, specifically in New Japan; after the Golden Lovers reunited and the civil war in Bullet Club was resolved, Kota would often accompany Kenny Omega in 6, 8, or 10 man tag matches. While he never pledged his allegiance to Bullet Club (for example, when offered a Too Sweet, Kota would simply give a high five), he was amicable with known heels. When this is considered, the thought of him joining a heel faction, if not being a dastardly heel himself, becomes more realistic.
Between the two heel factions in 2020 groundwork of NJPW, I’d argue that Kota fits in much better with Suzuki Gun than Bullet Club. Evil and Dick Togo’s presence in Bullet Club gives the faction a very militant, ordered feeling. As discussed earlier, Kota is very much a free-spirit. It’s unlikely that he’d thrive in such a hierarchical, authoritative faction like Bullet Club. Suzuki Gun, on the other hand, could very much be Kota’s speed. Kota and Zack Sabre Jr have a history together, and I’d wager that the two are much closer in real life than they let on in kayfabe. El Desperado might be very happy to see Kota join his team as well (perhaps he’ll offer Kota another bouquet of flowers), and the pair could then reignite their tag team partnership.
Kota had a clear opportunity to turn heel during the opening round of the NEVER6-Man Tag Tournament against Suzuki Gun. He declined the offer, and is choosing to stay with Tanahashi, at least for now. It wouldn’t come as a shock, personally, if NJPW wanted to wait for a more dramatic stage for such a momentous heel turn.
It would be poetic for Kota Ibushi’s heel turn to be against Tanahashi; back in 2018, after the Golden Lovers reunited, it was Tanahashi who repeatedly warned Kota that he shouldn’t let his personal feelings for Kenny Omega to hinder his career. How ironic would it be, then, if Kota decides that he should no longer let his admiration for Tanahashi hold him back from a successful career with Suzuki Gun?