The big storyline in New Japan right now is the return of Minoru Suzuki and his Suzuki-Gun stable. The 48-year-old wrestler and MMA fighter has spent the last two years working for NOAH in an invasion angle that saw him and his lackeys run roughshod over the entire promotion. Suzuki held NOAH’s top singles title for most of 2015, won the Global League Tournament in 2016, and was the dominant heel in the company during his entire run. His return to New Japan on the Jan. 5 New Year’s Dash show wasn’t unexpected—with the collapse of New Japan and NOAH’s working relationship, it was known that all NJPW talent would be coming back—but the extent to which he and his stable brutalized IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada and his CHAOS stablemates during a surprise run-in made it one of the best New Japan angles in a long while. It firmly established Suzuki as a legitimate menace to newer New Japan fans who might not have been watching before he left for NOAH, and set the stage for his title match against Okada at last weekend’s New Beginning in Sapporo show.
Suzuki might have come up short in that match against New Japan’s ace, but together he and Okada had a match that was almost as great as last month’s instant classic between Okada and Kenny Omega, and one that was worked in an almost completely different style. Instead of the high spots and big move kick-outs common in New Japan main events, Suzuki and Okada worked a heavily mat-based match, with Suzuki targeting Okada’s taped-up knee that he had injured during an earlier press conference brawl. Much of the match was built around Suzuki stretching and twisting that leg in various submission holds, as Okada put on a sell job for the ages. It was a brutal match without a lot of flash, but with a ton of believable grappling, reflecting Suzuki’s well-deserved rep as a real fighter and shooter. It was a fantastic contrast to the more ostentatious style of main event New Japan has seen over the last couple of years, and a reminder that, when done well, a more grounded style can get over as well as any daredevil antics.
That match against Okada should be the beginning of another fantastic run for Suzuki. The New Japan roster has changed greatly since he was last a regular, with Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles leaving for WWE, new talent filling in their slots at the top of the card, and wrestlers who have been around New Japan for a while reinventing themselves while Suzuki was gone. There’s a fertile field of first-time match-ups waiting Suzuki in New Japan, along with possible rematches so long in the making that they’ll hardly look or feel like those older battles. Here are Paste’s picks for the five singles matches we most hope to see Minoru Suzuki fight in New Japan in 2017, starting with the name that’s been on everybody’s lips the last month.
As with almost all New Japan chatter, at least in North America, we start with Kenny Omega. The two have never faced off before, which is one major reason that this tops our list. They’d complement each other almost perfectly in terms of strengths and abilities, with Suzuki’s MMA-heavy offense acting as a ground-based counter to Omega’s flashier, more high-flying work. Much like Suzuki’s tremendous match with AJ Styles a few years ago, Omega’s risk-taking and top-notch selling would add a thrilling flair to what would no doubt be a modern classic.
Suzuki has also never faced Big Mike before. Like the Omega match, it’s almost guaranteed to take place this year, assuming everybody stays healthy. If Suzuki and Elgin don’t get a high-profile match at one of New Japan’s monthly events, there’s a good chance they’ll wind up facing each other in the G1 this summer. Whenever it happens, it should be a brutal affair, with Suzuki pitting his submission skills and general lack of compassion against Elgin’s impressive power moves. It would be an atypical New Japan match for Elgin—his matches in Japan tend to see him throw his smaller, more acrobatic opponents around the ring between high spots, whereas Suzuki’s more calculating and methodical approach would probably lead to a match with a slower pace and less high spots. If you like to watch two guys just beat the hell out of each other, this would probably be pretty satisfying.
Speaking of two guys just unloading on each other, Suzuki and Shibata haven’t wrestled a singles match in over a decade. It’s well past time they square off again. Since that last match Shibata has established himself as one of New Japan’s biggest stars, and one of its most brutal. His trademark thudding headbutts might cross the line for some wrestling fans, but it’s that level of intensity and dedication to his craft that make his matches such a joy. A Shibata vs. Suzuki match would be an all-out war, and probably resemble a real fight more than anything else we’d see in New Japan this year.
Suzuki did face Tetsuya Naito in the 2013 and 2014 G1 Climax tournaments, but Naito was a very different performer at the time. While still one of the best in-ring talents in the world, his babyface persona didn’t connect with the audience. The drama and impact of the current anarchistic Naito, who’s perhaps the most beloved wrestler in New Japan as the leader of the cool heel Los Ingobernables faction, facing off against the menacing Suzuki would be far more significant than those older matches.
Suzuki wrestled Naito’s Los Ingobernables colleague multiple times in All Japan in 2010 and 2011, but SANADA was just a few years in the business at that point. He’s now a grizzled vet himself, and was a crucial injection of fresh blood into New Japan in 2016. Still in his 20s, SANADA is ready to be one of New Japan’s top stars, and Suzuki is exactly the kind of legitimate main event threat who can help somebody like SANADA reach the top of the card.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games, wrestling and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.