A Junior’s Guide To Heavyweight Gold In New Japan Pro Wrestling

Hiromu Takahashi is one of the most interesting men in professional wrestling and my personal favorite wrestler in New Japan Pro Wrestling today. The man who returned from a 3-year excursion and completely demolished KUSHIDA back in 2017 has had a tight grasp on the junior heavyweight division for the past few years. Even during his time healing from a broken neck, the focus continued to be more on when the ‘Time Bomb’ would return more than it was on the reigning champion — Hiromu is kind of a big deal. His 3 reigns with the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title have made him the chaotic “ace” of the junior division with the departure of KUSHIDA and retirement of Jushin Thunder Liger.

But Hiromu’s mind is set on more than just junior gold.

The prideful junior heavyweight has frequently stated his intentions to win the IWGP World Championship whilst still representing the junior division and holding its top prize. Many wrestlers tried to become multi-division champions in New Japan, with names like Prince Devitt in 2013 and The Young Bucks in 2016, but none have been able to do so. Now that Hiromu’s first attempt at heavyweight gold is just days away, I feel like it’s as good a time as any to talk about what a junior heavyweight such as Hiromu must do to walk away victorious against someone like EVIL when they meet in Nagoya.

To start with some background, winning the IWGP Heavyweight Championship after having held the IWGP Jr Heavyweight Championship previously is already an extremely difficult task that only two men have achieved. Back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Nobuhiko Takada became the first man to win both championships, claiming the Jr Title in 1986 and the Heavyweight Title in 1996, respectively. Takada was best known for his shoot-style wrestling, being a recurring roster member in UWF, UWF Newborn, and UWFI throughout his various stints in New Japan. This heavy focus on technique made his weight of 96 kilos a nonissue when it came to defeating then-champion, The Great Muta.

Experiencing success due to incredible technical skills despite weighing less than their competition is not a new concept to modern-day New Japan fans; Zack Sabre Jr., while still being unable to claim a singles IWGP title, has had a lot of success as a heavyweight since his NJPW debut in 2017. The 85kg ‘Technical Wizard’ skipped the junior division entirely, using his unique skills to win both the 2018 New Japan Cup and, more recently, the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Titles alongside former junior heavyweight Taichi at Dominion 2020. Furthermore, ZSJ’s high profile amongst heavyweights on the roster speaks for itself, making the technical path a very strong one for a junior trying to succeed against heavyweight champions. The only problem here is I don’t think Hiromu would be able to cram 16 years of technical wrestling knowledge into his brain by next week, so that is likely a no-go for our Jr. Champion’s crusade to the top of the company.

Don’t sweat the technique, right? Hiromu can 100% find another way to victory against EVIL at Sengoku Lord. Looking at the aforementioned 2nd man to hold both junior and heavyweight belts in NJPW, Kenny Omega’s source of victory came via a massive growth in mass between his reigns — though this physical growth is neither realistic nor something Hiromu is looking for. The goal is to win the big belt as a junior, so moving up to heavyweight kinda defeats the purpose. Let’s take a step outside of our New Japan bubble (don’t worry, we’ll be back shortly) and look at some other junior champions who have been able to claim the top belt in their companies while staying at a smaller stature.

Looking at the WWE is more or less out of the question, as there has been very little overlap between cruiserweight champions and world champions (besides someone as once-in-a-lifetime as Rey Mysterio) in the company’s history. In fact, I don’t think any western wrestling company can truly compare to NJPW in terms of the stature and importance of their junior division. Instead, let’s take a look at Pro Wrestling NOAH, where the likes of Naomichi Marufuji and KENTA both held GHC Jr Heavyweight and GHC World Heavyweight Championships at some point in their careers. Even more interesting, there is a very specific strategy that each man used to win the world title against their bigger opponents that Hiromu may be able to learn from.

KENTA’s strategy for winning the world title was similar to the strategy that Hiromu himself used to win the 2018 Best of the Super Juniors — craft a new submission to put away your enemies. In KENTA’s case, the ‘Game Over’ crossface was highly effective against bigger opponents during his time in the Heavyweight Division. Most impressively, the ‘Game Over’ was what won KENTA the GHC Heavyweight Title against Takeshi Morishima, who had a 45 Kilo weight advantage going into the match. On the other hand, Hiromu Takahashi’s triangle choke entitled ‘D’ has been highly effective against other juniors over the years but has proven to be ineffective against members of the Heavyweight Division. Throughout the New Japan Cup, Hiromu has typically been overpowered when attempting to apply the ‘D’ to his heavyweight opponents, making it a less than stellar path to victory in his upcoming matchup.

As for Marufuji, he used a tactic that is likely the most foolproof for juniors to use today — a good ol’ rollup pin. Marufuji’s use of the ‘Perfect Inside Cradle’ to win his first heavyweight title from the fifth pillar Jun Akiyama led to a common puroresu trope of juniors, rookies, and other underdogs of the business to adopt flash pins as finishing maneuvers. This consistently gives them an ace up their sleeves against a threat that seems undefeatable. Nowadays, these can be seen very commonly in Stardom’s High-Speed Division as well as current NJPW wrestlers like Yoh and Toru Yano continuing to take advantage of the beautiful art of the flash pin. As for Hiromu, this is likely the best chance he’s got to defeat EVIL and be the first-ever multi-division champion in New Japan history, but I don’t see him taking this route either.

While the use of a strong rollup could possibly lead to a Hiromu win, I don’t think that victory is what Hiromu wants when he faces EVIL for the heavyweight belts in his upcoming challenge. In fact, I think Hiromu will take a page out of his longtime rival Will Ospreay’s book, and simply concuss his heavyweight opponent to obtain the victory.

While Will Ospreay’s Wrestle Kingdom 13 victory over Kota Ibushi didn’t technically win him a heavyweight title, dethroning the NEVER Openweight Champion as a junior has to count for something. When you look at how Ospreay won that title, it is even more remarkable when talking about his winning strategy within the match. Instead of using better technique, better movements, or even better athleticism, Ospreay won the belt after concussing his opponent with reckless abandon in the final act of the match. From repeated kicks to the head to Ospreay’s ruthless ‘Hidden Blade’ maneuver, the Golden Star was briefly extinguished by the young brit. While Ospreay and Ibushi were far closer in weight than Hiromu and EVIL are today, I can still see the ‘Time Bomb’ using an ultra-reckless approach to put an end to his former friend and becoming the first multi-division champion in history. At the end of the day, that would be pretty fun right?