2019 was certainly an interesting year in the world of New Japan Pro Wrestling. We had shocking moments like Jay White beating Hiroshi Tanahashi at the end of January to become IWGP Heavyweight Champion, the debut of KENTA on the cerulean blue mat in June, and the return of former IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion Hiromu Takahashi in November. We’ve also had a great deal of wrestlers breaking out into higher positions on the card, including El Phantasmo and EVIL. Out of all the wrestlers to move further up the card, SANADA has to be (unfortunately) seen as the least successful.
While consistently being put into high stakes matches and having all the tools to succeed, Cold Skull has fallen at the last hurdle, not really learning from past mistakes and losing constantly on the big stages. This year alone, he has lost 3 times out of 4 in singles competition against Kazuchika Okada, with his sole win coming in G1 Climax 29 where he handed the Rainmaker his first loss in that year’s block competition. While that was an excellent way to redeem SANADA, who had lost to Will Ospreay, EVIL, Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kota Ibushi; it set up for another inevitable loss at King of Pro Wrestling, another loss against Okada, and another failed attempt to win the top prize in New Japan.
When Wrestle Kingdom approached and a match for the RevPro British Heavyweight Championship against Zack Sabre Jr (against whom SANADA has an excellent track record) being made official for night 2, SANADA had the best opportunity yet to win a singles championship, after nearly 4 years under the New Japan banner. But again, he lost. Where does he go from there?
He hasn’t signed a contract (at time of writing), has lost nearly all momentum, and is lacking a visible drive that would make a main eventer seem like a threat, one that distinguishes the likes of Tetsuya Naito, Kota Ibushi, Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada as guys to carry the company. SANADA seems very nonchalant about losing big matches, and this could be the barrier between him and superstardom. If something doesn’t change, the current 6-month singles slump will continue for much longer.
The seeds for a drastic change in SANADA’s character to come to fruition have already been planted, through video vignettes, press conferences and even matches themselves. Wrestlers who have defeated SANADA (or even those who haven’t) can see his potential and have offered insight or criticism which could make Cold Skull question his mindset. A loss to tag partner EVIL, a wrestler who used to be seen by many as the ‘Janetty’ of the team, in the block stages of G1 Climax 29 may have sowed the seeds of doubt.
G1 Climax winner Kota Ibushi also said in an interview that he could see SANADA thriving as one the top stars in the business, but not with a name stylised in all caps – as Seiya Sanada; while Wrestle Kingdom opponent Zack Sabre Jr leapt upon the potential self-doubt, saying that SANADA was ‘Mr Olympia’ and saying that he should’ve done something big but instead lost out on winning 2019’s World Tag League.
“You’re blessed with the best physique in professional wrestling and you’ve done nothing with it. I’m basically a wet noodle, and look what I’ve done. I’m a noodle man, and yet I’ve achieved all I have as one noodle strand. You, you should be Mr. f***ing Olympia and yet you’re losing the World Tag League.”Zack Sabre Jr on SANADA
How could SANADA realise his potential?
A plausible conclusion (in my opinion, at least) is for SANADA to follow a series of events similar to Kota Ibushi post-Wrestle Kingdom 13. He takes some time away – to re-evaluate, look at where he has gone wrong, where he can improve. Of course, COVID-19 gave us that in a way.
The New Japan Cup brackets are eventually revealed. The man that sent him packing at the Tokyo Dome, Zack Sabre Jr, is announced for the tournament. He is put into the same half of the bracket as SANADA – who now has a refreshed mentality. It is announced that he has signed a long term contract.
Much like last year, SANADA makes it to the finals. He beats Ryusuke Taguchi in the first round, SHO (who has pulled off a shock win in the first round over Shingo Takagi) in the second round. He gets to the quarter finals, where he meets the man who bested him on the biggest stage possible. Zack Sabre Jr. SANADA wins and advances to the semi finals – winning via submission.
This gives him a monumental boost of confidence as tag-team partner EVIL awaits in the semi-finals. After a back and forth match, SANADA eeks out the win via roll-up. It’s not as dominant as the win over ZSJ, but its a win. He’s redeemed his loss from the G1 Climax, and that’s all that matters.
He finds himself in the finals once again, this time opposite Taiji Ishimori, who has defeated some major names on his way – Yoshinobu Kanemaru (for the first time in his entire career), Kazuchika Okada and Hiromu Takahashi. Both men have so much riding on this.
For Ishimori, it’s a chance to elevate the Junior division to unprecedented heights and establish himself as Bullet Club’s Jr ace. For SANADA, it’s about proving himself. It’s about redemption. It’s about another shot at the top prize. He needs this.
The match finally arrives, and SANADA decides to make yet another change, looking to his past. He returns with the blonde Mohawk, the old mask and ring attire, signalling a return to a previous incarnation. He stares Ishimori down from across the ring.
The match begins and SANADA is relentless. He attacks the midsection, reducing Ishimori’s ability to breathe – making it much easier to get the upper hand as the match goes on, as well as increasing the potential impact of the Moonsault. Everything is done in a calculated manner.
Ishimori gets in some major offence himself, locking in the LeBell Lock and getting some amazingly close near-falls. But he eventually falters as a result of SANADA’s earlier offence. He briefly stumbles as the pain sets in, giving the opportunity for his opponent to hit a pop-up TKO before connecting with the moonsault and winning the New Japan Cup.
SANADA rectifies all of these past losses and silences his previous critics before choosing to challenge for the Intercontinental Championship instead of the Heavyweight Championship. He sees the prestige that the belt possesses, and how he can elevate himself and other wrestlers in the position of champion. In a match against Tetsuya Naito, SANADA finally proves he is at the top of his game, defeating a man he has never been able to defeat. This redemption ends entirely with a brilliant visual of the new intercontinental champion standing in the middle of the ring before extending the fist bump to Naito, who remains heavyweight champion.
While this is not a particularly long redemption story, I feel it could be a way of restoring SANADA’s credibility without the meteoric push to the top championship, especially with Tetsuya Naito seemingly set to finally have a dominant year (or longer) as the IWGP Heavyweight Champion which would surely result in yet another failed challenge for the top title.
It offers a tournament win, a championship win which (on paper) would be better than the way that the IC title has been treated since the first half of 2018, keeps all the major singles titles under the banner of Los Ingobernables de Japon and could elevate the rest of the roster before they could challenge for Naito’s championship. It could also offer a wide variety of brilliant matches alongside the likes of Jay White, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Tomohiro Ishii, EVIL, Hirooki Goto, Chase Owens, Shingo Takagi, KENTA and so many more – a true revival of a division that has arguably lost a lot of its prestige.