On the March 1, 2021, New Japan Pro Wrestling aimed to usher in a new era in their history by making the monumental decision to unify their two biggest titles – the IWGP Heavyweight Championship and the IWGP Intercontinental Championship. Kota Ibushi was named as the inaugural champion for this new belt, but since that moment, the title has undergone flop after flop, making it one of the most underwhelming title belts in recent memory.
The Unification Was A Booking Mess
Back at Wrestle Kingdom 14, Tetsuya Naito became the first man ever to hold both the Heavyweight and Intercontinental titles simultaneously, in a moment long in the making, creating history in the Tokyo Dome. Despite an initial intention to defend the titles separately, they were mostly defended together, marking a premature unification, though unofficial at the time. The following year at Wrestle Kingdom 15, Ibushi would win both the belts, declaring his intention to make both titles into one.
This would be halted however, with El Desperado, scheduled to face Ibushi at NJPW 49th Anniversary Show, wanting the match to be for the Double Championship. The match was set, and the winner would become the true, inaugural, Unified Champion. This whole situation in itself was a bit of a mess, with the title unification being delayed, interrupted, and rescheduled. It felt as though booking was being done on the fly, with no long-term thought put into it. If the decision to unify the belts was something thought about in advance, having that event take place at Wrestle Kingdom 15 between Ibushi and Naito would have felt much more important.
Taking nothing away from El Desperado, he didn’t feel like a big enough name to be in such a monumental match. Regardless, Ibushi would emerge victorious, being crowned the first IWGP World Heavyweight Champion, but with this match signalling the debut of a new era for the company, it was an underwhelming event.
A Poor Design And Uneventful Reign For Ibushi Marked A Rough Start For The Belt
Ibushi’s reign should have been a great opening chapter. With his talents and popularity, he had all the fundamentals to carry the belt into the future with a lengthy run. There was a roadblock into him building momentum though, and that was the unveiling of a brand-new championship belt. The design has come under a lot of criticism. In complete contrast to the old belts, which were large and grand, and looked like classic sports championships – legitimate prizes that felt special — this one looks like a toy.
The intention of the belt was supposed to call back to old designs, incorporating the previous style, as well as the old crown design (which wasn’t at all popular anyway). Instead of channelling the life and soul of NJPW, it missed every mark. It is smaller than the old belts, bright and shiny compared to the other prizes in the company, and the pointed design of the center plate has had comparisons drawn to WWE’s Divas Championship, one of the titles that is universally acknowledged as one of the worst designs in history. Whilst the belt doesn’t have a lot of fans in terms of looks, the more important thing is how its booked.
Ibushi’s job was to establish the belt, and to make it mean something, despite the poor design. After 31 days, however, he lost the belt to Will Ospreay. In what was likely intended to be a huge shock — which it was — the championship needed a long reign to establish it. A month later, Ospreay received a long-term injury, forcing him to vacate the belt. Amidst a pandemic that was hurting the wrestling world, this sequence of events hurt NJPW, and the title suffered for it.
Fans Are Already Missing The Old Belts
Another criticism when it comes to this title is the deactivation of the Intercontinental Championship. At times, the title acted as a secondary World Title, being held by top names recently such as Naito and Chris Jericho, being used as a belt to keep main eventers busy whilst they’re away from the main title scene. It felt prestigious and meant a lot to the talent and fans, despite its surprisingly short lineage, with MVP being the first champion in an uneventful birth to the title.
With memorable reigns from the likes of Shinsuke Nakakmura, Masato Tanaka, and Hiroshi Tanahashi, the belt was elevated to great heights. Whilst the company has other midcard prizes in the US Title and the NEVER Openweight belt, there is a huge gap in NJPW, with the IC belt acting as a stepping-stone to the main event scene for many.
There’s every chance that the belt recovers, with Ospreay and current champion Shingo Takagi likely to face off to determine who the ‘true’ champion is, in a wrestling trope seen time and time again, but it could surpass expectations. New Japan is unfortunately in a stagnation period, which can happen from time to time, but fans can hope that they recover momentum, with several things like more memorable reigns or even a redesign being options to fix a broken title belt.
By opening the ‘Forbidden Door’ of cross-promotion between different major wrestling promotions, AEW has truly changed the wrestling business.
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