Kota Ibushi successfully defended his IWGP Intercontinental championship at Sengoku Lord, defeating Zach Sabre Jr in a thrilling 30 minute bout. Ibushi has long been considered to be one of the best in the world. I beg to ask the question, could he be ‘the’ best in the world?
Kota Ibushi is one of the top performers in the wrestling world. His bouts are almost always in discussion for match of the night each and every time he appears on a card.
This year alone, Kota has been involved in high-profile contests with Will Ospreay, Tetsuya Naito twice and Zach Sabre Jr twice. 3 of the classics were title matches, the other two were New Japan Cup tournament bouts.
We know what this Japanese sensation is capable of in the ring. Ibushi has had multiple lengthy runs with the IWGP Junior heavyweight championship in the middle of the decade. You then may also ask, if Kota Ibushi is so good, why is this his 1st run with the IWGP Intercontinental title?
It’s simple, Kota Ibushi has been a freelancer. He has always beat to his own drum, this is why he left New Japan in 2015 and appeared in the WWE cruiserweight classic in 2016.
Going into the tournament, he was considered to be the favorite by many experts and fans. His loss to T.J. Perkins in the semifinals was shocking to the wrestling World.
The answer to why he lost is easy to point out. Perkins signed a WWE contract during the tournament, Ibushi did not.
Kota has a reputation of being a free spirit. His talent has always been undeniable, it’s why the WWE and New Japan have welcomed him in with open arms. If you are excellent at your craft and play by the rules, you will be rewarded with championships and accolades.
While Ibushi has earned praise from New Japan management and tremendous respect from the locker room, he continued to come up short in the few championship matches he received. The reason being, Kota Ibushi was not under contract with New Japan.
So in spite of being a freelance talent, Ibushi has been frequently seen in main events for New Japan. He lost to A.J. Styles at NJPW Invasion attack in 2015 in an IWGP championship match. He stole the show at Wrestle Kingdom 9 in a IWGP Intercontinental title match with Shinsuke Nakamura. The bout was of course won by Nakamura.
He has been in numerous G1 Climax tournaments and faired well. He defeated his long time ‘Golden Lovers’ tag team partner and IWGP champion at the time Kenny Omega in the show stealing, last round robin match of the 2018 G1 Climax.
So while Kota Ibushi is named on the short list of best wrestlers in the World, he doesn’t have much gold to show for it. That and his storylines are usually put in the background of wrestlers like Omega, Kazuchika Okada, Tetsuya Naito and Hiroshi Tanahashi.
Those men have been champions and have been given compelling storylines for the crowd to chew on. They were New Japan contracted performers, Ibushi was not.
A month after losing the NEVER Openweight championship to Will Ospreay at Wrestle Kingdom 13, Fightful.com reported that Kota Ibushi had signed a multi-year deal with New Japan. Known for being an enigma and enjoying being unaffiliated with any promotion, ‘The Golden Star’ finally committed to being an exclusive talent to New Japan Pro Wrestling.
What has happened since his signing should surprise no one.
Kota Ibushi has been embroiled in a feud with one of the most popular wrestlers on the roster, Tetsuya Naito. Ibushi announced that he wanted to reach levels only seen by his self proclaimed ‘Gods’. Those men being Nakamura and Tanahashi.
Both Ibushi and Naito were involved in what I, and others, felt was the match of the night on the G1 Supercard in Madison Square Garden. Ibushi finally claimed heavyweight gold by defeating Naito to become the IWGP Intercontinental champion.
Commentary has been much quicker to praise Ibushi during his matches since he signed with New Japan. They have noted that his character has adopted a mean streak, and seems to be wrestling with more of a purpose.
This is why he finally holds IWGP gold, and will now be looked at as truly one of the top guys in New Japan.
There has been no denying the talent of Kota Ibushi, it has always been there. No matter which umbrella he has wrestled under, his name is mentioned in the same breath as his peers in whichever promotion he has resided in. With a renewed focus and being a free agent now being an afterthought, the sky is indeed the limit for this amazing performer.
Which once again brings up the question, could Kota Ibushi be the best wrestler in the world?
The 2019 list of the best wrestlers in the world is very exclusive.
The IWGP champion Kazuchika Okada has been a long standing member at the top. 2 former WWE champions A.J. Styles and Daniel Bryan are also always mentioned. You have WWE Universal champion Seth Rollins who puts on tremendous performances. The NXT champion Johnny Gargano has been a 5 star wizard over the last 2 years.
Concluding this list would be former WWE United Kingdom champ Pete Dunne and AEW superstar Kenny Omega. The ‘Best Bout Machine’ is looked at as arguably the best in the World since the beginning of 2018.
Okada has just returned to the fold after a difficult stretch where he lost the IWGP championship. Styles and Bryan are men who can make any opponent look like a million dollars on a given night, yet Styles may be past his prime and Bryan is just hitting stride again after a 3 year retirement.
Rollins is just getting started as the Universal champion. This after being the guy who led RAW on television while Brock Lesnar had a fairly inactive title reign.
Gargano has been spectacular yet has his share of critics due to his character development in NXT. Pete Dunne had a near two-year run as the U.K. champion end at the recent NXT: Takeover. He is also magnificent in the ring, but may suffer from not being exposed to a larger audience.
While Kenny Omega has the equity he built up in New Japan, he has been inactive since leaving New Japan after Wrestle Kingdom 13 for AEW.
Kota Ibushi can build a case for belonging in this group sooner rather than later, if he hasn’t done that already.
The titles have been missing from his resume, yet it hasn’t seemed to matter much to Kota Ibushi. What makes him tick is something that we may never solve. The guy has been a mystery for so many years.
His lack of commitment to a single promotion has been his biggest fault during that time frame, yet it hasn’t stopped him from being one of the biggest stars in pro wrestling. With the ink of his contract now dry, you can expect to see larger character development forthcoming within New Japan storylines.
This should result in a larger focus on Kota Ibushi, the impressive in ring ability he possesses and now a character with a purpose. We know the performances he has put on, and have seen exactly what he is capable of in the squared circle, yet what we haven’t witnessed is a king sized push to the top of the New Japan mountain.
When you are the heavyweight champion of a major promotion, you are seen as one of, if not ‘the’, best wrestler in the world. Kota Ibushi is looking to be just like his ‘Gods’ and follow in their foot steps. He will look to start making those strides by defending the IWGP Intercontinental championship multiple times.
If he indeed has a successful title run, he could also take that momentum and win the G1 Climax 29 this Summer.
Even if he is unsuccessful with that task, he is bound to put on exhilarating tournament performances. It will continue to raise his stock and increase his value to New Japan management, which will ultimately lead to a larger prize down the road.
You can fully expect Kota Ibushi to firmly stamp a claim as the best wrestler in the world during the 2019 wrestling year. Momentum is firmly on his side with a title around his waist and a focused side to his character.
We as fans will be treated to a side of ‘The Golden Star’ that we haven’t seen. This side has a chip on his shoulder, Gods to chase down, plus a newfound, purpose-driven reputation to build upon.
That, in turn, can vault him to the IWGP championship and praise as the man to sit at the top of the wrestling industry.