The 2020 New Japan Cup and the following event at Dominion were a shock heard around the wrestling world. When the NJ Cup finals were decided, many were already jumping to the conclusion that Kazuchika Okada would win the cup for the second year in a row, and go on to have his second singles match with Tetsuya Naito within the calendar year. When Evil’s grand scheme was revealed and he allied himself with the Bullet Club to win the cup, my Twitter feed exploded. It did so again the next night when Evil pulled off the upset of the year and became the second double champion in New Japan history. Among the skeptics I noticed two different camps forming; the first was composed of devoted LIJ fans, who were devastated to see their favorite stable lose a member for the first time in its history. I sympathize with those fans, and won’t be focusing on them. Rather, I’d like to explore the side of the fandom that rejects Evil as a worthy champion and sees no value in his current arc.
This article cannot go further without addressing the obvious elephant in the room, that being the drastic circumstances NJPW is under. With all the gaijin gone from Japan save for ZSJ and Young Lion Gabriel Kidd, the roster is facing severe shortages. Shows feel like they’re out of Avengers: Endgame at times, with prominent characters such as Jay White and Will Ospreay gone from the scene. Bullet Club in particular has been absolutely gutted, with seven of its twelve members locked out of Japan due to the pandemic. From a pragmatic standpoint, taking a member from LIJ and sending them to Bullet Club made sense.
The question then becomes, out of all members to usurp LIJ, why Evil? Process of elimination immediately takes out Bushi and Hiromu Takahashi, who are too loyal to Naito to be believed as traitors and are so beloved in their roles as his partners (not to mention the skepticism that would come with a junior becoming the new face of Bullet Club, a majority-heavyweight faction). Takagi Shingo is the newest member of LIJ, which would make his betrayal almost too obvious. Sanada, to put it simply, is too lax to carry the fire and rage that comes with Bullet Club. So that left Evil, who has the promo skills, in-ring ability, and character history to become a top heel in NJPW.
Evil, though often glanced over as another midcarder, has notable victories over names like Okada, Hirooki Goto, and Kota Ibushi under his belt, along with tag team title reigns with Sanada. His matches emulate the infamous strong style, with lariat after lariat, and some Judo-inspired moves (most notably, his finisher, which is essentially a dramatized osoto-gari). For about a year, Evil has been distancing himself from his LIJ stablemates, declaring multiple times that he wants the IWGP championship more than anyone in the company, and even excluding himself from the sacred LIJ fist-bump on occasion. His New Japan Cup run made this incredibly clear, as he cheated against (and brutalized the crotch of) all his opponents, including his own tag team partner. Taking this into context, it makes sense for Evil to turn on LIJ in order to accomplish his own personal vendetta.
Another star who’s getting a major push out of this is Hiromu Takahashi, LIJ’s Ticking Time Bomb. He’s been adored since he debuted for both his in-ring ability and his zany personality. Love for Hiromu is at an all-time high since he returned from injury to recapture the IWGP Jr. title, and it only makes sense to keep his momentum going. Many, including myself, predicted Hiromu to win the NJ Cup and finally give fans the long-awaited singles match between Naito and his prodigy. What viewers got instead at Dominion was the scene of Hiromu screaming in pain and terror as he realized that one of his best friends had deceived him, and his beloved mentor was stripped of his career-long dream of being double champion after just two defenses. Heartbreaking as it was, it was also a sign that Hiromu was about to enter the most impactful feud of his career to date. In addition to being the crazy, lovable Time Bomb, Hiromu is now being treated as a serious babyface who’s out to avenge his mentor.
A Perfect World…
In a perfect world, Naito would’ve been given a long reign as the double champion of New Japan. In these unprecedented circumstances, though, the bookers had to make unprecedented choices. In my opinion, they handled the transition incredibly well, pushing Evil and Hiromu to the moon, and giving Evil all the gravitas necessary for a character that feels like a New Japan final boss. This is the most excited I’ve been for a wrestling storyline in a long time. The poetry of the situation should be recognized as well; how fitting is it that Naito, who’s been close with both Hiromu and Evil since their days as Young Lions, was the one to step back and launch his prodigies into stardom?
With Evil and Naito’s rematch booked for August 29th, fans are being presented with the possibility that Naito could win the belts back and reset the promotion to what it was a few weeks ago. It’d be almost like a correction of the timeline after an 80s sci-fi movie. The other possibility is that Evil will defeat Naito for a second time, and cement his place as a top guy in NJPW.