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In 2009, Kota Ibushi traveled to the United States and wrestled in a four-way elimination match against El Generico, Jigsaw and Nick Jackson (one half of the Young Bucks) for the CHIKARA promotion. At the time I wasn't following wrestling in Japan, and really my knowledge of the industry was limited to WWE and TNA. CHIKARA was one of the first promotions outside of WWE and TNA (not including WCW and ECW) that I began to follow.
In short, I had no idea who Ibushi was. I knew who the other three competitors were, but here was the random Japanese guy I had never heard of before. What then took place was something I will never forget; Ibushi would pull off a series of insane moves that were faster, more athletic and impactful than any other wrestler I had ever seen before. One exchange between Ibushi and Generico stands out in particular, even today it is one of the most amazing sequences I have ever seen in professional wrestling.
Who was this magical man? Fortunately, there was a lot of Ibushi matches on YouTube, including full matches between him and El Generico, and an equally talented blonde guy who reminded me a lot of Dolph Ziggler; his name was Kenny Omega. By this time Ibushi had started working for New Japan Pro Wrestling, so naturally I started to watch that product as well, which led to a whole new world of professional wrestling for me as a fan. As a wrestling fan, discovering Ibushi was like a born-again Christian reconnecting with God, except in this case God wore spandex and had a habit of trying to moonsault off of every structure he could find.
Today, Ibushi is one of the biggest stars in NJPW and with the progress NJPW has made in the United States, one of the most popular wrestlers in the world outside of WWE. It's crazy for me to watch an event like ALL IN, and see this guy who I discovered by accident when he was working independent shows in Japan, being cheered by 11,000 American fans.
Despite his obvious talent, something has prevented Ibushi from reaching his potential in the industry. In Japan, he's been a very successful draw when he's been put in the main event, and he's obviously a great performer inside the ring. However Ibushi hasn't been pushed to same degree as guys like Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Tetsuya Naito and Omega, despite being just as talented as those guys and just as over when given the chance.
Ibushi's issue is that he refuses to sign a full-time contract. Even though he is a big star for NJPW, he hasn't been a full-time contracted wrestler since 2016, and NJPW just isn't going to push someone that far if they aren't committed full-time to the company.
This is not just an issue for Ibushi and NJPW. In June 2016, Ibushi tore apart the Cruiserweight Classic for WWE, and WWE was willing to book him to win the tournament and get a push on RAW, but Ibushi refused to sign with WWE because he won't sign a full-time contract.
Why won't Ibushi sign a full-time contract? In Sept. 2015, Ibushi suffered a cervical disc herniation that put him on the shelf for six months. Following his injury, Ibushi resigned from NJPW, citing that he did not believe he could fulfill the commitments of a full-time schedule. I believe that Ibushi wanted to wrestle a specific style, which involved a lot of physical risks, a style that he could not do over a full-schedule. A lot of wrestlers would change their style, but Ibushi has elected to change his schedule instead.
As noble as that attitude is; the fact is it has limited Ibusi's career development. Here is one of the most talented wrestlers of his generation, and he has basically refused to be pushed by whatever organization he is working for. If Ibushi re-signed with NJPW full-time following his injury, it is likely he would have already become IWGP World Heavyweight Champion by now; if he signed with WWE who knows how far he could have gone.
Still, there is an element of nobility to Ibushi's sacrifice. Surely he could have made more money as a full-time wrestler than as a freelancer; but Ibushi wasn't interested in any of that; he was interested in performing at the highest level possible? How many other wrestlers are like that? Maybe he'll never get the title position that his talent deserves, but more importantly he has the type of career that he wants.
The crowd was really hot early for Trish and Lita, which was good because they were pretty rusty in the ring. In the end they were able to hit all of their trademark spots but this wasn't the smoothest match. Fox and James showed their class as veterans doing their best to make everything look good. This was the right match to open the show because it got the crowd going and they were hot all night for the action.
Women's Battle Royal: **
Battle Royal's are really tough because after the entrances you really can't tell what is happening in the ring until a bunch of people got eliminated. They built to the ending of Nia Jax and Ember Moon well, although Nia is still really green. I thought Michelle McCool looked great; out of all the former wrestlers they had on the show I think she would be the best candidate to come back and work a program; I think she could have some good matches.
This was in some ways a meaningless six-man tag match with pretty much no build, but it was well-worked and each wrestler got a chance to shine. Natalya is I believe the longest-tenured women on the roster and is the bridge between the past-era of women's wrestling in WWE, and the NXT generation that is dominating today. I'd argue that she deserved a better spot on this show than the six-man tag match.
Toni Storm vs Io Shirai: ***½
I'm not sure how many people in the audience actually watched the Mae Young Classic, but thankfully the crowd really appreciated both performers. Shirai and Storm have wrestled each other a lot in STARDOM, so they were familiar opponents for one another and while the match here was good, they are capable of greater things. Storm is a tremendous prospect for WWE; really I'm not sure there has ever been a better prospect for the women's division and there is no need for her to spend anytime in NXT, although I'm sure she will.
Kari Sane vs Shayna Baszler: ***1/4
Fun match; like almost everything else on this show the work was solid. It also had the strongest heel/face dynamic, Baszler is a great heel and Sane is a great babyface for her to work with. Baszler lacks experience, but she has a different look and she's very smart in the ring. Baszler sticks to what she knows how to do well and never gets greedy or overambitious with what she tries to do. She sticks to the fundamentals and her attitude and charisma sell the rest of the match.
Becky Lynch vs Charlotte: ****¼
The big takeaway for this match was that both women really felt like big stars throughout the match; not just stars in the women's division but stars the caliber of John Cena or Brock Lesnar, the biggest stars in the company. The intensity of the feud, the energy of the crowd, this felt like one of the biggest matches all year in WWE; and Lynch winning cleanly was a huge win for her. My only complaint is that the Last Man Standing matches tend to be very predictable. One person hits a big move, then they tease a ten count. Then the other person hits a big move and they tease another ten count. It feels very pre-planned and inorganic for a match to unfold like that.
Nikki Bella vs Ronda Rousey: ***½
I thought this match overachieved. The work was good and they did a really good job laying out the match. Rousey sold a lot, to the degree that when Nikki hit the Rack Attack 2.0 it was semi-believable that she might actually get pinned. However, she was able to sell and not lose any of her supreme aura, flipping on a switch and destroying Nikki later in the match. Moving forward with Rousey, it will be key to have her in matches where she can credbily sell for her opponents, and even do the job on a rare occasion, but still remain over as an incredible badass fighter. WWE did a great job laying out this match to follow that formula.
Catch Jesse every Thursday afternoon as part of Wrestling Inc's WINCLY podcast chatting about his latest VFTT editorial.