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Earlier this month, one of the great upsets in wrestling history took place in Japan; Jay White, only a couple of years removed from being a young boy, had beaten Hiroshi Tanahashi, the eternal ace of NJPW, for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
The reactions to White's victory were mixed. Some fans were excited that NJPW and head booker Gedo were taking a bold step in trying to accelerate White onto a path toward superstardom. Other fans were appalled that White had been given such a rapid push, not buying White as a top performer; it was unbelievable that NJPW would give him the top title in the company.
The IWGP Heavyweight Championship has become so distinguished because over the years NJPW has become very protective over who holds the title. Since Tanahashi defeated Satoshi Kojima for the title in 2011, only six wrestlers have held the title: Tanahashi, Kazuchika Okada, AJ Styles, Tetsuya Naito, Kenny Omega and now White. Obviously right now White sticks out on that list like a sore thumb; the other five are Hall-of-Fame-level talents, arguably the five best wrestlers of the decade, and White isn't far removed from jobbing in the opening matches. To some fans, it feels wrong that White hasn't earned the title, one that only a select few have gotten the chance to hold.
The hope for NJPW is that White will grow into the role. When Okada first got the title, he had only returned to the company two months before from a learning excursion. A lot of people questioned why Gedo had rushed this young boy into the world title, but it turned out that Gedo knew what he was doing.
When Okada was elevated to that status, NJPW was in need of younger, fresher top stars. Outside of Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura, the company lacked major drawing cards who were in the prime of their career. The company needed to create a young, instant star to represent the company and it struck gold with Okada. In 2019 the company faces a similar situation; Okada, Naito and Tanahashi are the main drawing cards following the loss of Omega. The company needs another star in that role and it selected White.
After the runaway success Gedo has had as booker of NJPW, he deserves some benefit of the doubt.
That being said, it's unfair to believe that White is going to be as successful as Okada. Okada is one of the best wrestlers who has ever lived; expecting White to be the next Okada is like strumming a few chords on a guitar and expecting to be the next Jimi Hendrix. Even though White has shown some promise in his role, it is extremely unlikely to believe he is going to be as good as Okada, or even Omega.
As a worker White is pretty good, and his match with Tanahashi I thought was excellent. But NJPW has a lot of good workers that can have great matches; to reach the status that Omega was at White really has to be one of the best workers in the world and also display more charisma than he has up to this point. It's a tough spot to be in and only the best-of-the-best are qualified to reach it.
I think White struggles in his promos; he doesn't have a distinct promo style like Omega and he's trying to do a very serious, tough guy gimmick, and it's tough to pull off. A guy like Minoru Suzuki is the master of that gimmick, and his delivery and fire is perfect for that; to me White is often low-energy. He's very calm but he doesn't seem very confident; it's hard to think that he really believes what he is saying.
White's biggest problem is that I don't think he is the right guy to play the Switchblade character. On paper I think the Switchblade character is pretty cool; I can see why NJPW thought it was a good idea to give it to someone they had high hopes for. However, White just doesn't physically embody the character. He's very pale and he doesn't have the right face for the role. I know that is very subjective, but to me the role seems designed for a person with different features; someone who is tanner, with a smaller forehead and isn't clean shaven.
I hate to break it down into aesthetics like that but I think it's part of the reason White hasn't connected with everyone. The jacket is cool, but you can't just dye your hair black and take on that role. In that regard, it does kind of feel like White is dressing up for Halloween; the Switchblade feels like a costume, not an extension of his own personality. In time I hope he can develop it more and find a way to utilize the character in a way that works better for him.
I think a big question a lot of fans have is why Jay White? NJPW has a deep and talented roster, so why does White get to fill in the void left by Omega? When AJ Styles debuted, I think it was widely accepted that he deserved a prime position in NJPW based on his previous accomplishments. Omega earned that position by having the best matches on the card and having an insane G1 tournament in 2016. What does White bring to the table that other guys on the roster don't? What makes him worthy?
NJPW has always relied on a foreigner being a top heel in the company. Whether it was Tiger Jeet Singh, Hulk Hogan, Vader, Scott Norton, Brock Lesnar or Styles, NJPW has always had that top foreign heel. With Omega out of the picture, NJPW pegged White as the guy that could replace him.
I think a problem is that Omega was very popular outside of Japan, and was a key cog in NJPW's growth in the United States. Even if White becomes very popular in Japan, it's unlikely he will ever become as popular as Omega was in the United States. That is a problem since White is now going to main event NJPW's Madison Square Garden show in April, and fans originally bought tickets to that show expecting Omega in the main event. Losing Omega definitely hurt NJPW in Japan because he was a big name, but losing Omega will really hurt the company in the American market, since Omega was a transcendent star for NJPW in the U.S.
Lastly, if NJPW really needed a foreign wrestler to replace Omega, they had two, very good, proven wrestlers on their roster to do that. Will Ospreay and Zack Sabre Jr. have each been getting bigger pushes in NJPW over the last year, and both of them on paper, have better resumes than White. Both men have proven to be drawing cards outside of Japan, something White hasn't been able to do, and both men are more experienced. The company still has big plans for both of them; but I can't help but think if NJPW would be better off if they strapped a rocket to Ospreay or Sabre Jr. instead of White.
At the end of the day, Gedo has become successful in NJPW not by just making the safe and obvious choices. His outside-of-the-box ideas have connected his product with fans both in Japan and around the world in a way that had been missing in wrestling for some time. I'm not completely sold on White as being a major star for NJPW, but Gedo deserves some time to prove critics that they are wrong.