At NJPW Dominion on June 8, Tetsuya Naito will be facing IWGP Intercontinental Champion Kota Ibushi with the title on the line. But this match goes much deeper than a title that Naito has shown little regard for in three previous reigns with it. It’s another battle between two former friends and tag team partners, a story that developed in the midst of one of wrestling greatest stories of friendship, the tale of the Golden Lovers, and that left Naito a bitter, yet better man.
The two men are near identical in age and experience. Ibushi is one year older (37 to Naito’s 36) and began his career in 2004, two years before Naito entered the NJPW Dojo. While “The Golden Star” Kota Ibushi was often present at New Japan events, he spent the bulk of his first decade working with DDT Pro, where he would develop a feud with and ultimately partner with, a Canadian in exile named Kenny Omega. In 2009, the two formed The Golden Lovers, one of the game’s best tag teams. But in 2014, the Golden Lovers collapsed when Omega signed exclusive with NJPW and joined Bullet Club as “The Cleaner”.
Tetsuya Naito was a work in progress in New Japan for much of his early career. The “Stardust Genius” had early success in tag teams, winning the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag titles in 2009 alongside Yujiro Takahashi in NO LIMIT, and then a year later went heavyweight to win the IWGP Tag Team Championships together. But by 2014, NO LIMIT was ancient history, and Naito’s former tag partner was now “The Tokyo Pimp”, also running with Bullet Club. Naito was once again adrift as a singles wrestler and scrambling for acceptance, despite still winning big achievements.
In 2013, Naito returned from injury to win the 2013 G1 Climax, going on to face IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazichika Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 8. But the New Japan crowd wasn’t sold on Naito at all. There was silence when he wrestled, an apathy that carried through to head office. Prior to Wrestle Kingdom 8 in January of 2014, NJPW held a fan vote to determine the main event, and in a resounding vote of non-confidence in Naito being in the main event, fans voted for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship match featuring reigning champ Shinsuke Nakamura facing Hiroshi Tanahashi to be the events main event. The following year, he lost in the New Japan Cup semi-finals to Kota Ibushi, watching the now focused Ibushi win the entire tournament.
In the coming months, Naito would form a new alliance with Kota Ibushi, as both their former partners were now with Bullet Club. The duo would briefly team together to take on Bullet Club at multiple events before Naito would decide it was time to clear his head and refocus on who he was as a wrestler. To do that, he would need to return to Mexico, where he’d been on previous excursions to Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL). He entered quietly, but by the end of his near two months run back in CMLL, he had not only found a new tranquilo way of life, but had been taken in by CMLL’s most dangerous stable, Los Ingobernables. Los Ingobernables had been formed the previous year by Rush, La Sombra (WWE’s Andrade) and La Máscara. With a new attitude and confidence, Naito returned to Japan.
At first Naito came back as Japan’s sole member of Los Ingobernables and initially reformed his partnership with Ibushi. But after Naito defeated Ibushi in the 2015 G1 Climax that August, it became apparent that Naito and Ibushi were no longer on the same wavelength. And Naito needed to surround himself with more like-minded soldiers. That November, he would form the New Japan chapter of Los Ingobernables, Los Ingobernales de Japon, originally with BUSHI and EVIL, although the stable was joined several months later by SANADA, and then in the fall of 2016 by Hiromu Takahashi.
Tetsuya Naito would defeat Ibushi once again at the 2017 G1 Climax, but then the course of nature would twist once again. In 2018, Ibushi reteamed with Kenny Omega and the Golden Lovers were reunited. That year, Ibushi finally beat Naito at the 2018 G1 Climax and earlier this year knocked Naito out of the 2019 New Japan Cup in the first round. To add insult to injury, at the NJPW/ROH G1 Supercard at Madison Square Garden over WrestleMania weekend, Ibushi beat Naito for the IWGP Intercontinental title.
Former friends who helped each other find their footing after losing previous tag partners, Naito has once again fallen into Ibushi’s shadow, as “The Golden Star” has bested him at nearly every turn since last year’s G1 Climax. Going in for his rematch at Dominion, this will more than Naito looking to regain a piece of hardware – this is about respect, honor, and proving that Tetsuya Naito is still a threat in an increasingly crowded landscape in New Japan.
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