NJPW Spotlight is a series by Walter Yeates that highlights past and present members of the New Japan Pro Wrestling roster. This article highlights Tetsuya Naito. The previous article in the series on Kazuchika Okada is available here.
Tetsuya Naito’s dream as a kid was to become a wrestler for New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW). Not only has he achieved that goal, but he has also become the biggest merchandise pusher during NJPW’s current ‘Golden International Expansion’ where the company is seeing their popularity grow around the world while setting record revenue numbers. Naito also became the first-ever ‘Double Champion’ in IWGP history after winning both the IWGP Intercontinental and Heavyweight Championships at Wrestle Kingdom 14.
He began his path into professional wrestling by training at the prestigious ‘Animal Hamaguchi Dojo’ that specializes in freestyle wrestling. Hamaguchi has trained champion freestyle wrestlers including his daughter Kyoko Hamaguchi who has won two Olympic bronze medals, and a slew of medals at the Freestyle World Championships. Satoshi Kojima, Shinjiro Otani, Takao Omori, and fellow Los Ingobernables de Japon member and current NEVER Openweight Champion Shingo Takagi also trained under Hamaguchi — Shingo at the same time as Naito.
After Naito went on an excursion for approximately two years with former No Limit tag team partner, Yujiro Takahashi (now known as Yujiro) to Total Nonstop Action (TNA now known as IMPACT Wrestling) and Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL) they returned to NJPW as heavyweights at Wrestle Kingdom IV (2009), after previously being IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champions. No Limit would win the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship during the event, to begin their only reign with the titles.
After Yujiro turned on Naito in May 2011, Naito would go on to capture the NEVER Openweight Championship, but fail to truly catch on with NJPW’s live audience as a star. This was cemented during the lead up to Wrestle Kingdom 8 (2014) when fans voted for his IWGP Heavyweight Championship challenge against Kazuchika Okada to not be in the marquee (main event), but the IWGP Intercontinental Championship match between Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi to take its place.
His career would take a gigantic leap when Naito joined Los Ingobernables in CMLL during November 2015, before forming Los Igobernables de Japon (LIJ) in NJPW later that month. Since Naito has become a gigantic merchandise pusher, the most over talent in NJPW, and the driving force behind LIJ. He would win his first IWGP Heavyweight Championship in April 2016, his loss of the championship in June 2016 became the catalyst for a six-year storyline, that began at Wrestle Kingdom 8.
Naito would become a prolific IWGP Intercontinental Champion starting in September 2016 and would carry that mantle through four reigns until Wrestle Kingdom 14 when he became ‘Double Champion.’ The highs and lows Naito went through from June 2016 – January 2020 is a masterclass of long-term storytelling in professional wrestling orchestrated by creative team leaders Gedo and Jado.
LIJ fans lived and died with Naito during the pursuit of his second IWGP Heavyweight Championship reign, many of which burst into tears when he was able to regain the championship on January 5, 2020, in the Tokyo Dome.
Naito’s unique charisma and willingness to adapt has seen him become one of the most charismatic figures in professional wrestling and a legitimate bankable draw no matter where NJPW events are held. Despite some conversations over him ‘slowing down’ in the ring, that doesn’t seem to be the case when looking at his performances leading up to Wrestle Kingdom 14 and his first dual defense of the ‘Double Championship’ against KENTA at The New Beginning In Osaka in February. The event drew approximately $1,153,104.27 at the gate in ticket sales and the house of 11,411 was more than doubled the same event in 2019.
While Naito doesn’t have the IWGP Heavyweight Championship pedigree of Kazuchika Okada, he remains a significant draw and historic character in his own right. Tetsuya Naito has played a major role in the ‘Golden International Expansion’ era for NJPW.