Welcome friends and fellow fans to a special round of Geek Versus Pro-Wrestling. If you’ve read any of my previous articles about pro-wrestling, specifically my defense of wrestling fandom, you’ll be familiar with advocacy for the craft of pro-wrestling as a means of telling a story.
After watching New Japan Pro Wrestling’s “King of Pro Wrestling” event this past Sunday night/Monday morning (it was a 3am EST affair), I’m convinced we are starting to see the foundation laid for possibly one of the most fascinating pro-wrestling stories to ever be told.
Like most wrestling stories, it involves two men with a deep history whose paths have diverged while ascending the mountain of success, destined to meet again one day on their journey to the top. Yet, our tale is not simply a wrestling story. Before we even get to the wrestling part, our story begins with an anime.
In the late 1960’s/early 70’s, there was a Japanese manga series adapted into an anime about a wrestler named Tiger Mask (for obvious reasons). Although initially a villain, the character became a hero. In the 1980’s, NJPW licensed the Tiger Mask character and brought him into the real world. A wrestler has consistently played the character, (it’s currently in it’s fourth incarnation) ever since, along with an occasional villain, Black Tiger Mask, once famously played by Eddie Guerrero.
For the first time since the early 1980’s, a new Tiger Mask anime started October 1st, 2016 called Tiger Mask W. It follows the adventures of a renegade Tiger Mask as he battles the evil members of the Tiger’s Den and feature animated versions of current NJPW stars like Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and Yuji Nagata. In what seemed like benign cross-promotion for the new TV show, an advertised dark match (matches usually just for the live audience, but this one was broadcast) took place before this weekend’s King of Pro Wrestling show between Tiger Mask W and Red Death Mask, this being a new Tiger Mask modeled after the new anime versus a generic cartoonish villain. The updated Tiger Mask hit the ring as you would suspect the fantastic hero would, but there was something suspicious about him. Something familiar.
Twitter was abuzz, especially on the Japanese end. A few signature moves in and the once passive audience were suddenly in full-fledged detective mode. The masked man was no longer simply promoting a television show. That masked man had an agenda. He was now deliberately making his presence known in NJPW when he is supposed to be on the other side of the planet right now working for another company. THE other company. The one with two W’s and an E.
This is nearly Lex Luger at Mall of America level line-crossing to the Japanese audience and those of us that follow NJPW. Although he’s not signed to an exclusive contract with the WWE, it’s still a big deal. It’s a move that absolutely fits the Tiger Mask character, the character of the man behind the mask, and his story with the man to which the message is being sent.The secret should be out by now that the man that played Tiger Mask W at King of Pro Wrestling is Kota Ibushi.
Although his name was probably exclusive to the advanced class of pro-wrestling circles until this past summer when he was a favorite to win the WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic tournament, he was already at superstar status in Japan. Ibushi, along with long-time friend and former teammate Kenny Omega, were assumed to fill the void left in NJPW when stars like Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles left the company to come to the WWE in January of 2016.
The two have been linked for nearly a decade, mostly due to their past in Dramatic Dream Team (DDT) Pro Wrestling. DDT is a promotion where some pretty insane things happen. Ibushi and Omega have had matches involving wrestling 9 year old girls, tons of crazy costumes, dolls that bleed, kissing, invisible opponents, the list goes on. Keep this crazy history in mind when we come back around to Ibushi’s masked return.
It surprised many people when Ibushi also chose to leave NJPW in January rather than stick around to surely see his star continue to rise.
During this period, Ibushi’s former partner thrived. Omega immediately took control of the infamous Bullet Club from AJ Styles and won the IWGP Intercontinental Title from Shinsuke Nakamura. He became the first North American to win the prestigious G1 Climax tournament, and will face Kazuchika Okada in the main event at the Tokyo Dome for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at Wrestle Kingdom 11.
In Ibushi’s absence, Kenny Omega’s also happened to become Japan’s greatest villain. He even looks and speaks the part of an anime bad guy. How romantic would it be for his best friend to return under a mask to stop him?
Omega has alluded to Ibushi all year. He has used Ibushi’s maneuvers on multiple occasions. He’s mentioned him in interviews much more eloquently and poetically each time he brings him up. It adds just the right layer of romance for Ibushi to be the hero to his villain.
Ultimately, what’s to be gleaned here is that the Tiger Mask W character could be an amazing vehicle for the next chapter of the Ibushi/Omega story. What makes it brilliant is the subtext of Ibushi working under a mask as the Tiger Mask W character because, as the audience, we know he’s working for the WWE right now in NXT’s Dusty Rhodes Tag-team Classic. The history of the WWE not allowing their people to work for the competition, thus requiring a mask, nails the whole thing down.
It’s romantic, and certainly fitting given the history of both Ibushi and Omega. It’s an example of why pro-wrestling is such a beautiful story-telling device.