New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) provided three of the most shocking moments of 2020 in a span of 24 hours over the weekend when Los Ingobernables de Japon‘s EVIL not only upset 5x IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada to win the 2020 New Japan Cup, but then turned on LIJ leader Tetsuya Naito to join Bullet Club. And while the world was still reeling from those two moments, a day later at NJPW Dominion, EVIL stunned the world by defeating his Naito for both the IWGP Heavyweight Championship and IWGP Intercontinental Champion, bringing in Japanese legend Dick Togo as his new manager. The actions themselves were probably less shocking in comparison to the person who committed them – a year ago, EVIL wasn’t even considered the top contender for a singles title in his own tag team (with SANADA), let alone in LIJ. But here we are, entering the second half of 2020, and EVIL is now only the second man in NJPW history to hold both top singles titles at the same time, as well as the second-ever Triple Crown winner (Heavyweight, Intercontinental, and NEVER Openweight), and the first-ever Triple Champion, to hold three titles at the same time – he’s also currently one-third of the reigning NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Champions alongside (former) LIJ members BUSHI and Shingo Takagi (although at the NJPW Dominion One Night Dawn press conference on Tuesday, he appeared to abdicate his third of the title, saying “LIJ is rotten. I don’t need a stinking belt like that.”).
The Journey Into EVIL: A Look at New Japan’s First Triple Champion
EVIL began his career as a Young Lion in NJPW named Takaaki Watanabe in 2011, a student of Animal Hamaguchi and Hiroyoshi Tenzan at the NJPW Dojo. He made his live debut at NJPW Life Goes On! on May 13, 2011, where he faced another Young Lion and future LIJ teammate Hiromu Takahashi to open the show. That June, he would face his future manager Dick Togo on the first night of the NJPW J Sports Crown Openweight Six-Man Tag Team Tournament, where Togo emerged victorious alongside Masato Tanaka and Yujiro Takahashi against Watanabe’s team with Yuji Nagata and Tiger Mask IV. He would work the undercard for several years, including tagging with another Young Lion in current teammate Bad Luck (then King) Fale.
Following a tag team loss with his teacher, Tenzan, to Killer Elite Squad‘s Lance Archer and Davey Boy Smith Jr. at NJPW King of Pro Wrestling in October 2013, New Japan announced it was time for Watanabe’s Young Lion excursion would be in the United States, where he would make his US indie debut with four days later with NWA Houston in Texas. He would also compete with Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW), New Jersey’s Pro Wrestling Syndicate and Jersey Championship Wrestling (JCW), Anarchy Championship Wrestling (ACW) and Inspire Pro in Texas, St. Louis Anarchy, New York City’s House of Glory (HOG) and New York Wrestling Connection (NYWC), Xtreme Intense Championship (XICW) in Detroit, and in Canada with Windsor’s Border City Wrestling (BCW) and Toronto’s Smash Wrestling.
In 2014, he began appearing with Ring of Honor (ROH) through New Japan’s IWGP Conception, working a dark match for ROH TV in February, then two NJPW/ROH co-productions, Global Wars in Philadelphia and War of the Worlds in Toronto. He made his solo ROH debut at ROH Best in the World in a 6-man match to determine the #1 Contender to the ROH World Television Championship that was ultimately won by ACH. That July he would face Jay Lethal at ROH Proving Ground, and would go on to have matches with the likes of Adam Page, Dalton Castle, Tyson Dux, Donovan Dijak (NXT’s Dominik Dijakovic), ACH, and Roderick Strong.
In October of 2015, Watanabe made his return to the NJPW roster at that year’s King of Pro Wrestling, where he appeared as the new associate of Tetsuya Naito in his match against Hiroshi Tanahashi for the IWGP Heavyweight title match rights at 2016’s Wrestle Kingdom 10. Following the match, Naito renamed him to “The King of Darkness”, EVIL. The new pairing of EVIL and Naito entered the 2015 World Tag League and made it to the finals, before losing to Great Bash Heel‘s Togi Makabe and Tomoaki Honma. In May of 2016, he would enter his first singles tournament in NJPW, the New Japan Cup, followed that summer with his first G1 Climax Series. In November, he would win his first gold, defeating Katsuyori Shibata at NJPW Power Struggle to win the NEVER Openweight Championship. He would return to the World Tag League that November, but instead of Naito, teamed with SANADA. They would dominate most of their Block but were beat out of advancing by a loss to EVIL’s 2015 nemeses, Makabe and Honma. But the ground was broken on what would become one of New Japan’s most dominant tag teams of the next few years.
In early 2017, EVIL & SANADA, alongside BUSHI, would win the NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championships, which they would hold three times that year, including a 228-day run in their third reign. Following a quick first-round exit in the 2016 New Japan Cup, EVIL made up for it in 2017, knocking “The Ace of New Japan” Tanahashi in the first round and then legend Yuji Nagata in the second. He was knocked out in the semi-finals by Bad Luck Fale. His second G1 Climax was also explosive, picking up huge victories over Minoru Suzuki, Tama Tonga, and Kazuchika Okada (in what was Okada’s first singles loss in nearly a year during his record-setting 720-day fourth reign as IWGP Heavyweight Champion). EVIL & SANADA would once again enter the World Tag League in 2017, winning the entire tournament by defeating Bullet Club’s Guerrillas of Destiny (Tama Tonga & Tanga Loa).
At Wrestle Kingdom 12 in 2018, EVIL and SANADA finally won their first IWGP Tag Team titles, defeating Killer Elite Squad, holding it for 156-days. And while the tag team was flourishing, EVIL would find himself the target of Chris Jericho (EVIL had fought of Jericho following Jericho’s post-match attack on Naito at NJPW Dominion), who would attack EVIL at NJPW King of Pro Wrestling in October and then unsuccessfully challenge Jericho for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship at NJPW Power Struggle in November. EVIL & SANADA won their second straight World Tag League that fall, once again beating Guerrillas of Destiny in the finals.
EVIL & SANADA won the IWGP Tag Team titles at back-to-back Wrestle Kingdom‘s in January of 2019, beating champions Guerrillas of Destiny and The Young Bucks (Matt & Nick Jackson) at Wrestle Kingdom 13. But despite a strong year in 2017 and 2018, most people were talking about the future singles run of his partner, SANADA, more often than not. In many conversations, EVIL had become almost an afterthought. SANADA had already had an IWGP Heavyweight title match versus Okada in 2018 at New Beginning in Osaka, and in 2019 faced Okada in the finals of the New Japan Cup, and had two more challenges for Okada’s IWGP title at Wrestling Dontaku 2019 and King of Pro Wrestling. While EVIL & SANADA made the finals for the third straight World Tag League, they lost to younger stars Juice Robinson & David Finlay. But while his future seemed to dim in New Japan, in real life it couldn’t get better – it was revealed that EVIL was engaged to NXT Superstar Io Shirai.
At Wrestle Kingdom 14 this past January, the writing seemed on the wall for EVIL, as he competed in gauntlet match alongside BUSHI & Shingo for the NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team titles. While they would win the titles that night, the match itself was a dark match. But with the win, EVIL and BUSHI would set a record for being the first men to hold the 6-man tag titles four times. But their run was cut short when the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown shows in Japan that February. When NJPW resumed operations in June and EVIL was announced as a participant in this year’s New Japan Cup, it felt more obligatory than exciting. But he went on to dominate the tournament, defeating Satoshi Kojima in the opening round, then knocking out Hirooki Goto, YOSHI-HASHI, and tag team partner SANADA in an emotional semi-final. And then the big swerve in the finals. While Bullet Club came out to attack Okada, many fans took it as simply Bullet Club taking out their resentment of “The Rainmaker” more than actually trying to help EVIL. But following the Too Sweet to Naito’s LIJ Bump and the turn, it was ultimately revealed to be part of a bigger plan for Bullet Club. And he made good on his decision the following night at Dominion when he defeated Niato for both the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Championship to cement his name in the history books of New Japan Pro Wrestling.
Whether he dominates the rest of 2020 as a dual singles champion or is merely a transitional champion (perhaps in the eventual rematch against Okada), EVIL has managed to powerplay himself into the main event of the second most popular company in the world, just when the New Japan fans had seemingly written him off as a has-been at only 33-years old. And in just over a month, EVIL and fiance Io Shirai have become the world’s top power couple (Io won the NXT Women’s Championship at NXT TakeOver: In Your House in early June). But with a new stable to guide in the absence of leadership in Jay White and KENTA (both unable to travel due to COVID restrictions) and the top two singles titles across each shoulder, it’s safe to say that for now, the New Japan landscape is covered by a new kind of darkness.
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