|Where have you gone, Shinjiro Otani?|
Photo via Japanese Class
To be clear, before I explain this, understand that I don't mean the Junior Tag division. reDRagon, The Young Bucks, The Time Splitters, and the Forever Hooligans are all drastically interesting, although it should go without saying that the Forever Hooligans are now off this list due to Alex Koslov's sabbatical. But what I mean here is the top singles title. This is a bit like saying "Yeah, the WWE Championship is a massive black hole of MEH but the tag scene is awesome." You'd want them to fix the former, and leave the latter alone as quickly as they could do both.
The singles division, on the other hand, is something far less than that. Taking off the tag team guys who are here, we're left with guys who aren't in the company because they are on excursions (Takaaki Watanabe in the United States, and Hiromu Takahashi in CMLL), the always-underwhelming Tiger Mask IV who is in no way a worthy successor to the lineage of the hood, old men hanging on to past glory like TAKA Michinoku, Jado and Gedo and, as much as it pains me to say this, Jushin "Thunder" Liger, and the mid-card guys like Taichi, El Desperado, Ryusuke Taguchi, and Sho Tanaka.
But before we talk about how to remedy the future, a look back at the past might be the best idea. Instructively, the Juniors division for New Japan can be best compared to the heavyweight class for All Japan. They shared similar match tropes (Liger vs Shinjiro Otani from Feburary 2nd, 1997 is the jr. version of the best Mitsuharu Misawa vs Kenta Kobashi matches), the same hierarchical structures (Liger/Misawa as Ace, Kobashi/Otani as fiery young challenger, Koji Kanemoto/Toshiaki Kawada as stoic 2nd-in-command who would later become challenger to the throne, Steve Williams/ChrisBenoit as the dominant and powerful gaijin), and even a style that would simply become known by the division (King's Road for All Japan, and "Japanese Jr. Heavyweight" for New Japan.) And from the mid-80's through to the year 2000, the New Japan juniors were critically acclaimed. Some of the best matches of the time period, and some of the best shows, happened because of the good works of the Japanese juniors and their American, European, and Mexican counterparts.
But in 2000, the higher-ups decided to de-emphasize the division. Specifically, Riki Choshu decided that he wanted to push Kensuke Sasaki as apart from everyone else so he downgraded the division to be jobbers for the heavyweights. The one man who protested, Otani, was sent abroad to bulk up and turn himself into a heavyweight. Ever since that day, the division has never been as vital as it was before. The question is not how to fix it, but instead whether this is something the higher-ups should even be worried about.
The answer to that is simple. YES. The goal of any wrestling promotion should be to entertain every paying customer from the start of the show to the end. And right now, for a title that has a lineage dating back to before I was even born, that's not what is happening with the singles title.
How to fix it is a different matter. The NOAH merger is a good start, and so maybe is something simpler: Allowing Jr. Title matches to main event smaller shows. As much as we all enjoy Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Kazuchika Okada or any of the other heavyweight-centric main events, it might be nice to see the Jr. Title at the very top of the ticket as it were.
In conclusion, whatever needs to be done to bring this once-shining light back to its previous prominence, should be done. I miss the division mattering, and i miss one more reason to care about New Japan.