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31 Days of Wrestling (12/22/19): Biting the Bullet (KENTA joins the Bullet Club, G1 Climax 29)


Welcome to the 31 Days of Wrestling, ladies, and gentlemen. Once again, we're at that point where we take a look back at the past 11 months of pro wrestling (and as much as possible, the last month as well) and cherry-pick one match for each day of December from a list of bouts that defined the year in our beloved sport. Most matches will be good, while some may not be; what matters is that they helped build the perception and reputation of the kind of wrestling 2019 produced for us.

We all probably saw it coming.

The boos at the Nippon Budokan were there, but almost eerily silent, as KENTA sat cross-legged on the chest of a fallen Katsuyori Shibata. It wasn't the typical politeness of the Japanese puroresu fanbase, or the shock that comes with a man betraying his best friend before thousands of pro wrestling fans. Looking back, it was the twist none of us wanted, but we all somehow expected.




The Hideo Itami experiment was over for Kenta Kobayashi: after five years of toiling—and spoiling—in the WWE, the former GHC Heavyweight Champion and pillar of Japanese professional wrestling requested his release and went back to his roots in Japan. As respected and talented as he was, Itami was relegated to the could-have-been stories of WWE: maybe the world's biggest wrestling company didn't know how to use him, or maybe that his true destiny can be found elsewhere. In the heyday of Pro Wrestling NOAH, he was seen as the best professional wrestler in the world. To see him flounder and struggle for space in the WWE was, in a way, to cast doubt on that legacy acknowledged by smart wrestling fans.

On the flipside, there was Katsuyori Shibata, whose own experiment was over before this year even started. Just two years earlier, Shibata's in-ring career was ended by a debilitating injury. The man known as "The Wrestler"—a consummate professional whose wrestling journey was built around his reputation as a skilled fighter and his redemption in the eyes of a Japanese fanbase that once questioned his loyalty—couldn't wrestle anymore. Yet unlike KENTA, Shibata's legacy rang true despite forced retirement. Unlike KENTA, there was no doubting the greatness of Shibata.

Midway this year, at Dominion 6.9 in Osaka, one of the most amazing scenes in wrestling took place, as Shibata and KENTA shared the ring together once more. It was more than just two best friends making a return together: it was Shibata managing and guiding KENTA back to greatness. Yet despite a spotless record since his return, the fans couldn't rally behind KENTA. Maybe the wrestling didn't match the stellar performances that he had in years past, like he did with matches against the likes of Naomichi Marufuji or the late great Mitsuharu Misawa. Maybe it was that cool attitude: that KENTA wasn't as intense or as focused as he was just ten or so years ago when NOAH was still thriving. Maybe it was fans wanting Shibata—not KENTA—back in the ring.

Or maybe, just maybe, KENTA was over the hill as far as the eyes of wrestling fans were concerned.

And so it happened: after weeks of teasing and a rather middling performance at G1 Climax 29, KENTA joined the Bullet Club in the most Biz-Cliz way possible. After running in to stop the mugging and literally beat some sense into KENTA, Shibata ultimately got the message. The PK from KENTA rang true: years of welled-up frustration and anger. Perhaps it was just as well that the claim of "the best wrestler" should go to a guy who was healthy enough to actually wrestle.

As expected and obvious as it seemed, there was merit to the whole angle. While KENTA is no stranger to the heel role, it was that semblance of personality that was missing from him in his stint in the WWE. It just wasn't enough to be a technically proficient wrestler who can fly and brawl, but anyone who wanted KENTA to succeed needed that aspect to shine through. That we didn't get to see that reality in KENTA's excursion to the WWE was disappointing, but to see that come through with such high stakes when he returned to his homeland was somewhat relieving.

That yes, this was the KENTA we needed: not to be just another feel-good story for the international audience, but the idea of just how good heels can be in the ring. Surely he could have come back as a conquering hero, but there was no conquest to speak of: just frustration, resentment, and perhaps disdain. And this was the necessary—if not perfect—way to bring KENTA back to an audience that maybe has forgotten about him.

One would expect more than just the smattering of boos, as far as KENTA doing the "Takeover" pose on Shibata was concerned. At that point, KENTA should have been the most hated wrestler on the planet. But cutting through the silence, it was all but expected, perhaps welcomed. KENTA has since then claimed the NEVER Openweight championship, and embraced his villainous role. In betraying Shibata, KENTA reached success that he would not have otherwise achieved had he stayed in the what-if limbo of 205 Live. KENTA bit the bullet, and with that nearly evil grin that comes with magicians successfully pulling off the trick, showed us who he really was. And who he can really be.

*****

31 Days of Wrestling is Smark Henry's way of celebrating the matches that helped define wrestling in 2019. Read our previous entries:

1. The Man Stands Tall at WrestleMania (Becky Lynch vs. Charlotte Flair vs. Ronda Rousey, WrestleMania 35)
2. The Game Changes (Chris Jericho vs. Kenny Omega, AEW Double or Nothing)
3. Still the Ace (Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kenny Omega, Wrestle Kingdom 13)
4. #KofiMania (Kofi Kingston vs. Daniel Bryan, WrestleMania 35)
5. Starting With A Bang (The Premiere of AEW Dynamite)
6. Let's Start A War (The Premiere of NXT On The USA Network)
7. For You And Me! For All Of Us! (Jake De Leon vs. TJP, PWR Homecoming)
8. It Takes a Bird and a Villain (G1 Climax Finals: Kota Ibushi vs. Jay White)
9. The Fall of Bray Wyatt and the Rise of the Fiend
10. Johnny Champion (Adam Cole vs. Johnny Gargano, NXT TakeOver: New York)
11. Do You Wanna Yeet a Four-Man? (QUATRO vs. Chris Panzer vs. Jeff Cobb, PWR Homecoming)
12. From Purveyor Of Violence To Death Rider (Jon Moxley in NJPW)
13. We Will Rock You! (Crystal vs. Emi Sakura, PWR Path of Gold 2019)
14. Revolutionary (QUATRO vs. IMABAYASHI, PWR Wrevolution X 2019)
15. Manila Has Fallen (Ho Ho Lun vs. Robin Sane, MWF 10: Republika)

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