#NewJapanWeek: Gaijin-tic Success in 2018

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New Japan

For anyone who follows New Japan Pro Wrestling, whether as an avid watcher or someone who tunes in only on occasion, chances are they’ve heard the word “gaijin” more than once. But if anyone isn’t familiar with the term, here’s a quick vocabulary lesson. Simply put, a gaijin is a foreigner or non-Japanese person. It comes from the Japanese words “gai” which means “outside or outsider” and “jin” which means “person.”

Gaijins have been around NJPW for decades but it’s only been recently that their popularity has skyrocketed worldwide. A lot of this is owed to Bullet Club, the formerly all-gaijin stable that was created in 2013 by Prince Devitt (WWE‘s Finn Balor) and that has featured some of the best and most well known wrestlers in the world including the Young Bucks and the three most recent leaders, Devitt, AJ Styles and Kenny Omega. It’s also featured a good deal of NJPW’s international talent as Mexico, Ireland, England, New Zealand, Tonga, Canada, the U.S. and Australia have all been represented within the group. These days, Bullet Club has abandoned some of its gaijin roots as three of the nine members are Japanese wrestlers, but that doesn’t mean that throughout the company the gaijin presence hasn’t been strong, because it has. In fact, while the history of gaijins in NJPW is rich and dates back to the company’s earliest days, 2018 saw a surge of non-Japanese wrestlers find immense and in some cases, unprecedented success, both inside and outside of Bullet Club.

It all began at the Tokyo Dome as Wrestle Kingdom 12 featured eight matches of a 10-match card with at least one gaijin in them. This topped the seven from years prior, setting a new record and doing so without matches from Ring of Honor or TNA as past cards had.

But Wrestle Kingdom was only just the beginning. In the months that followed, gaijins were at the center of many of NJPW’s top storylines and that’s not just in reference to the Bullet Club drama and civil war that dominated most of the calendar year. From Chris Jericho‘s return, to Will Ospreay and Marty Scurll‘s renewed rivalry in the junior division, from Jay White‘s ascension, to Juice Robinson‘s first major title win, from Cody starting a Civil War to the Young Bucks going heavyweight, from Zack Sabre Jr.‘s historic moment to Kenny Omega finally winning the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, there were no shortage of gaijin success stories in 2018.

The Coronation of Kenny Omega

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VV2VH1_5UrI

There has been perhaps no bigger story in NJPW over the past two years than that of Kenny Omega’s quest to capture the IWGP Heavyweight Championship from Kazuchika Okada. The two were magic together, putting on matches that broke the Dave Meltzer scale. All four of their singles matches received six stars or higher, with the most recent one receiving an astonishing seven stars. That was also the no time limit, two out of three falls match that went over one hour and that saw Omega, two falls to one, finally achieve his goal of the past two years. Omega’s journey and eventual coronation as the first Canadian-born IWGP champion was fascinating, but it wasn’t his only success or his only noteworthy moment of 2018. The gaijin face of NJPW no doubt, Omega was at the center of just about every big story in the company this year. He opened the year as the winner of the tournament to crown the inaugural IWGP United States Champion. He reunited the Golden Lovers alongside Kota Ibushi. He feuded with Chris Jericho. He was at the forefront of the Bullet Club Civil War storyline. Not to mention, he’s been front and center for NJPW’s international expansion. Omega was a star before 2018 but this was the year where he reached a whole new pinnacle of success in NJPW.

Zack Sabre Jr. Wins the New Japan Cup

In March, Zack Sabre Jr. became just the second gaijin ever and first from Europe, to win the New Japan Cup. To many the win came as a shock as Sabre had to defeat Tetsuya Naito, Kota Ibushi, SANADA and Hiroshi Tanahashi to win the prestigious trophy. That’s a who’s who of top talent in the promotion and Sabre defeated them all. For Sabre, who had been with NJPW since 2017 and a member of Suzuki-gun since then as well, this was quite the coming out party. Sabre continued his breakthrough less than a month later at Sakura Genesis when he recorded a 4.75-star match against Kazuchika Okada in his first-ever challenge for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. In July, Sabre entered his second-ever G1 Climax, picking up victories over Tomohiro Ishii, Juice Robinson, Hirooki Goto and a second win of the year over Naito. Alongside Taichi, Sabre then entered the World Tag League, finishing tied for fifth. And speaking of that World Tag League, half of the 14 teams participating this year featured at least one gaijin with five of those seven being all-gaijin teams.

Cody Instigates Bullet Club Civil War

Things were fine in Bullet Club and within the Elite until Cody decided he no longer wanted to accept his role and had no intention of shutting his mouth about it either. Effectively running Bullet Club stateside in ROH as Omega held down the fort in Japan, Cody began planting seeds of dissent within the group trying to manipulate them into distrusting Omega. All the while, Cody proclaimed to anyone who would listen that Bullet Club was fine only to add to that statement a few months later saying, “Bullet Club is fine. Bullet Club is mine.” With Cody claiming leadership, it led to a feud with Omega, after which the two made up. That war carried on for months and at its conclusion, spurred a new war which ultimately led to Cody and the rest of the Elite being kicked out of Bullet Club. In the midst of all that, Cody received several heavyweight title matches and won the U.S. title, which he’ll defend at Wrestle Kingdom 13.

Juice Robinson Captures First Belt in NJPW

When CJ Parker was released from WWE in April 2015, it didn’t take long for him to find a new home. After just five months on the indies, Parker, rechristened as Juice Robinson, made his debut in NJPW where he teamed with Tetsuya Naito on the Road to Destruction tour. Robinson went from young lion to title contender in just two years. By 2017, Robinson had challenged for the NEVER Openweight Championship, IWGP Intercontinental Championship and IWGP United States Championship. Robinson faced top competition in all three bouts and while he lost the matches, getting that experience was a big step up. Riding a wave of momentum, Robinson enjoyed his best year in NJPW yet in 2018. He took part in the New Japan Cup, G1 Climax and World Tag League. His biggest moment of the year of course came when he defeated Jay White at the G1 Special to become the first American to hold the U.S. title. While Robinson didn’t hold the title for long, just the fact that he was able to get there and do so without the backing of a faction is testament to just how much faith NJPW has in this young star.

Young Bucks Reach New Heights

The Young Bucks have been one of the most well-known and well-regarded tag teams for some time but if there was ever a complaint about the duo, it’s that they’ve done all they can do on the indies. Well, the two are now vice presidents of their own promotion so that criticism couldn’t be more wrong. However, within NJPW, Matt and Nick Jackson had definitely gotten to a point where they had reached the top of the ceiling. Having been with NJPW since 2013, the two have won a record seven IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships, which is three more than Apollo 55 (Prince Devitt and Ryusuke Taguchi) and Roppongi Vice (Beretta and Rocky Romero) who have four apiece. The Bucks, who won or held six titles in 2018 including three of which were in NJPW, had beaten everyone in the junior division and on multiple occasions. So in 2018, as part of the BC Civil War storyline, Cody teased the Bucks going heavyweight, which happened in February in order for the brothers to feud with the Golden Lovers. In June, the Bucks won their first IWGP Tag Team Championship, losing the belts to the Guerrillas of Destiny, also part of the BC Civil War storyline.

Will Ospreay Wins 2nd Junior Heavyweight Title

A member of the roster since 2016, Will Ospreay continued to show his worth as one of the aces of the juniors division in 2018. Ospreay was destined for success from the beginning, challenging for the title in his first match with the company and aligning with the CHAOS stable shortly after. In 2017, at King of Pro Wrestling, Ospreay, in his fourth attempt, defeated KUSHIDA to win the junior title for the first time. In 2018, Ospreay didn’t wait long to regain the championship, winning a four way at Wrestle Kingdom 12. Ospreay successfully defended the title three times, finally dropping the belt in June to Hiromu Takahashi. He also took part in the Best of the Super Juniors, finishing tied atop Block A with 10 points. The title win and tournament wasn’t the only thing that characterized Ospreay’s year as the long time junior found himself in position to challenge for a singles heavyweight title for the first time in his NJPW career. The match is set for Wrestle Kingdom 13 as Ospreay faces former junior Kota Ibushi for the NEVER Openweight title.

Firing Squad Takes Back Bullet Club

For months, Bad Luck Fale, Tama Tonga, Tanga Loa, Hikuleo, Chase Owens and Yujiro Takahashi had to watch as Bullet Club was falling apart at the seams. Kenny Omega and Cody were competing over leadership and in-fighting ensued throughout. When everything finally seemed to come to a peaceful resolution, with Omega and Cody having buried the hatchet, it was the newly-created Firing Squad that decided enough was enough. Bullet Club may have been fine amongst the Elite but the non-Elite members took matters into their own hands, changing the course of the BC Civil War. Owens and Takahashi chose to side with the Elite leaving the Firing Squad to find new members which included Taiji Ishimori, Robbie Eagles, and CHAOS’ Jado, Gedo and Jay White. Amidst the BC Civil War, Tonga and Fale took part in the G1, not intending to win but rather to just disrupt the tournament, much the way Bullet Club was known to do years ago. In addition, Fale, Loa and Tonga won the NEVER Openweight Six Man titles thrice and Tonga and Loa, as the Guerrillas of Destiny, won the IWGP tag team titles as well. Both of these belts, the group still holds today. GoD also finished as the runner-ups in the World Tag League.

Jay White Earns a Title and Faction Leadership

When Jay White returned from excursion in November 2017, the former young lion brought with him a new persona. Now known as “Switchblade,” White’s in-ring return saw him in a match against Hiroshi Tanahashi for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship at Wrestle Kingdom 12. Despite the loss, a day later, Kenny Omega introduced White as his handpicked new member for Bullet Club. White teased joining the faction only to betray Omega and side with CHAOS instead. This spurred a brief feud between the two which saw White defeat Omega for the U.S. title in the biggest victory of his career. White successfully defended the title three times, losing to Robinson at the G1 Special. White took part in his first G1 and did so impressively, picking up a victory over Kazuchika Okada and becoming the only person to defeat Tanahashi, the eventual winner. At Destruction, White attacked Tanahashi along with Okada, defecting from CHAOS. He joined Bullet Club shortly after and in December, Tama Tonga confirmed that White is the new leader of the group.

Chris Jericho Has a Year to Remember

People say that quality is more important than quantity and there is perhaps no better way to describe Chris Jericho’s year in NJPW. A veteran of 27 years, the 48-year-old Jericho shocked the world when he showed up in NJPW to challenge Kenny Omega to a match at Wrestle Kingdom 12. Jericho had just wrapped a run with WWE, one of his best in years, and there he was, in a NJPW ring for the first time since 1998. Jericho wrestled just three matches in NJPW this past year, all of which received four stars or higher from Meltzer. Jericho’s first match of the year, against Omega, earned him the first-ever five star match of his career and the two that followed against Tetsuya Naito (where he won the Intercontinental title) and EVIL received 4.5 and four respectively. In between these matches, Jericho returned to WWE for the Greatest Royal Rumble as well as took part in All In. Then he held his own cruise, where he teamed with the Young Bucks against Omega, Cody and Marty Scurll. That’s just five matches overall for Jericho in 2018 but there’s no denying the impact he made through each of them, especially in NJPW.

Best of the Rest

Marty Scurll – Marty Scurll entered the year as the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, losing the belt to Will Ospreay at Wrestle Kingdom 12. This wasn’t Scurll’s only title reign however as alongside the Young Bucks he won the NEVER Openweight Six Man Championship. Scurll also took part in BOSJ, finishing with eight points and reached the finals of the tournament to crown a new junior heavyweight champion after Hiromu Takahashi was forced to vacate the belt due to injury. Scurll was heavily involved in the BC Civil War storyline, one of NJPW’s top angles in 2018.

Hangman Page – Breaking out even further into NJPW, Hangman Page wrestled a career-high 54 matches with the promotion. His accomplishments include taking part in his first-ever G1 Climax (he finished with six points) and the World Tag League alongside Yujiro Takahashi (they finished with 10 points), and challenging for the U.S. title. Page, like Scurll, was also part of the BC Civil War storyline.

ACH – ACH took part in the Best of the Super Juniors and Super Junior Tag League alongside Ryusuke Taguchi. He finished with six points in both.

Best Friends (Beretta and Chuckie T) – Chuckie T took part in the New Japan Cup and both Chuckie T and Beretta competed in the World Tag League, finishing with 14 points. As a member of CHAOS, Beretta was one-third of the NEVER Openweight Six Man Champions for one day during New Year Dash!!

Dragon Lee – A member of the Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre roster, Dragon Lee wrestled for NJPW as part of the partnership. He wrestled in the finals of the CMLL Brothers tag tournament at NJPW Presents CMLL Fantastica Mania. He also took part in BOSJ, finishing with six points and unsuccessfully challenged for the junior heavyweight title at the G1 Special.

Chris Sabin – Chris Sabin wrestled more matches in NJPW this year than ever before. This included taking part in his first ever BOSJ, where he finished with six points, and the Super Junior Tag League, where he teamed with KUSHIDA. The two finished with six points but more than the standings was the significance as KUSHIDA had previously been partners in the Time Splitters with Alex Shelley, Sabin’s former partner in Motor City Machine Guns. Shelley retired this year so it was great to see Sabin fill in for him alongside KUSHIDA.

Killer Elite Squad (Davey Boy Smith Jr. and Lance Archer) – KES took part in the New Japan Cup as well as the World Tag League, where they finished with 18 points, which was tied for third. They also carried the IWGP tag titles into the year, losing them at Wrestle Kingdom 12.

David Finlay – David Finlay took part in the World Tag League alongside Juice Robinson. The pair finished with 16 points. Alongside Ryusuke Taguchi and Robinson, Finlay challenged for the NEVER Openweight Six Man Championship. He also challenged for the US title during Jay White’s reign.

Michael Elgin and Jeff Cobb – Wrestling a career-high 95 matches in NJPW in 2018, Michael Elgin took part in the World Tag League alongside Jeff Cobb where the two scored 16 points. Elgin also wrestled in the New Japan Cup and the G1 Climax, where he finished with eight points. Elgin won his first NJPW singles championship in June as he defeated Hirooki Goto and Taichi to win the NEVER Openweight title. Cobb also challenged for that title during Goto’s reign.

Chase Owens – Also involved in the BC Civil War, Chase Owens spent his year taking part in multi-man tag matches as part of the feud.

Rocky Romero – Somewhat more of a player/manager at this stage in his career, Rocky Romero, who has been with NJPW since 2002, spent most of the year teaming with SHO and YOH. Known as Roppongi 3K, the duo, managed by Romero, won the IWGP junior heavyweight tag titles on two separate occasions in 2018.

Robbie Eagles – Making his NJPW debut in 2018, Robbie Eagles wrestled just 16 matches for the promotion. After starting with the company as part of the Australian tour, Eagles was added to the full-time roster in October, where he joined Bullet Club and teamed with Taiji Ishimori in the Super Junior Tag League. The two finished with six points.

Toa Henare – A pro wrestler of just five years, Toa Henare had the best year of his career in 2018. One of the most recent Young Lion graduates, he wrestled 140 matches for NJPW, more than tripling his previous career high in a single year of 42. 139 of those matches, including challenging for the NEVER Openweight Six Man titles and teaming with Togi Makabe in World Tag League (they finished with eight points) took place in NJPW.

Volador Jr. and El Soberano Jr. – CMLL exports, Volador Jr. and El Soberano Jr., took part in the Super Junior tag tournament where they finished with four points. Volador Jr. also defended his NWA World Historic Welterweight Championship and El Soberano Jr. defeanded his Mexican National Welterweight Championship at Fantastica Mania.

Flip Gordon – In 2018, Flip Gordon made his NJPW debut as part of the NJPW/ROH Honor Rising cards. He also took part in his first BOSJ, finishing with six points.

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