NJPW's seasonal affective disorder
Ever since the Wrestle Kingdom contract briefcase was introduced by Kazuchika Okada in 2012, the run in to New Japan's biggest event of the year has perhaps felt more pedestrian, more by-the-numbers than in years past. While King of Pro-Wrestling often guarantees a quality main event match to pack out Sumo Hall, Power Struggle is usually more of a B-tier show and the World Tag League isn't exactly regarded as one of the top highlights of the year. From the end of the G1 Climax Tournament in August all eyes are turned firmly toward Wrestle Kingdom, a good five months away. As such, it's perhaps easy to see why some become discontent with New Japan towards the end of the year, while some have found little to enjoy in the promotion throughout 2015. Ever since Okada lost to Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom 9 it's often felt like we're treading water and the past few months since the G1 haven't helped in that regard.
In 2015 the IWGP Heavyweight Title changed hands three times between the same three men who held the title in 2014. You have to go back five years to find a IWGP Champion not named Styles, Okada or Tanahashi. The IWGP Intercontinental Title, meanwhile, has been largely affixed to the same man who has defined its rise in stature since he first won it in 2012: Shinsuke Nakamura. The IWGP Heavyweight Tag Titles were taken from Goto & Shibata without much of a fight and seem to have been in a holding pattern ever since, while the IWGP Jr. Tag Titles have been passed back-and-forth like a hot potato between the various gaijin teams that make up the bulk of NJPW's Jr. Heavyweight roster. Speaking of which, the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Title itself started the year with a new champion in Kenny Omega and looks to end the year that way as well, while the NEVER Openweight Title again rests on Tomohiro Ishii's shoulder after he struggled all year to defeat Togi Makabe and reclaim his belt.
There's been appreciable progress in a number of areas, but that progress is about as gradual as it gets. With more double-shot PPVs and little in the way of surprises in terms of who enters the title pictures where it really counts, repeat booking has been the theme for much of the year and fans, dissatisfied and contended alike, will be looking to Wrestle Kingdom 10 on January 4th to shake things up and set the tone going forward into 2016. But it's not all doom and gloom (as the tone of some of the more hyperbole-afflicted fans would suggest) and there's a lot of opportunities for appreciable change on the horizon. From Okada putting his feud with Tanahashi to rest, to Naito's new-found attitude as a member of Los Ingobernables and the re-introduction of his 'pareja' Takaaki Watanabe, as well as the growing anger of Shibata & Goto with Naito's actions. Tomoaki Honma earning a title shot at the biggest show of the year, Ishii embarking on his 4th reign as NEVER Champion, the impending return of Hiromu Takahashi/Kamaitachi and Go Shiozaki potentially becoming a member of the New Japan roster.
There's also the question of where Shinsuke Nakamura goes from here, The King of Strong Style himself seeming at a loss as to what should be done with a title he's likely taken as far as he can. Much of next year's focus will rest on the outcome of the Wrestle Kingdom 10 main event and, to my mind at least, any meaningful change in the overall direction of the promotion won't happen until Okada is cemented as the "ace" of New Japan Pro-Wrestling, freeing Hiroshi Tanahashi to look for challenges elsewhere within the roster. 2015 has been a year under the long shadow of this feud that has largely dominated New Japan since Okada's return, but the outlook for 2016 isn't quite so easy to discern (at least not at this stage) and it will be interesting to see whether Gedo & Jado can answer the concerns those dissatisfied have or whether the bloom has truly left the rose.