The match the world has been waiting for is now merely hours away! Tonight, New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW) Strong airs what is arguably its biggest match to date. Jon Moxley will defend his IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship against the number one contender, KENTA. TWM has touched on this “dream match” becoming reality, but what does this match actually mean? For New Japan Pro-Wresting of America (NJoA); for NJPW Strong; for Moxley and KENTA; and (perhaps most importantly) for the IWGP US Heavyweight Championship?
For those unfamiliar with NJPW, let’s have a look – starting with the two competitors.
Jon Moxley enters tonight’s match on day 419 of his reign as IWGP United States Heavyweight Champion, having beaten Lance Archer in a brutal Texas Deathmatch on January 4, 2020, at Wrestle Kingdom 14. This is Moxley’s second reign as champion – his first lasted 130 days before he had to vacate the title due to travel issues. However, the coronavirus pandemic has meant that Moxley has only two title defences in this reign – against the only other two-time champion Juice Robinson, and the legendary Minoru Suzuki. In fact, Moxley hasn’t defended the championship in over a year, with the match against Suzuki taking place on February 9, 2020, at The New Beginning in Osaka.
Despite not being able to work for NJPW, and defend the IWGP US Heavyweight Championship, Moxley has had success in the last twelve months with a ten-month reign as the All Elite Wrestling World Champion. Since losing that title, Moxley has had an eventful time. On January 29, 2021, Moxley made his first appearance on NJPW Strong – attacking Bullet Club (KENTA, El Phantasmo, and Hikuleo) after their match – an act which KENTA returned in kind the following Wednesday after Moxley had teamed with PAC and Rey Fenix against the “Bootleg Bullet Club” of Kenny Omega, Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows. This led, after a fashion, to Omega and KENTA taking on Moxley and Lance Archer – where, for the second week in a row, Moxley took a Go To Sleep to be left lying in the middle of the ring.
Jon may have bounced back from this with some dominating displays in recent weeks on AEW, but KENTA is a different prospect. Tonight, Moxley is out of his comfort zone. He’s in an unfamiliar arena, which crucially cannot host the fans Moxley thrives on. He’s facing an opponent he has only wrestled once before (and lost to), and cannot forget the possibility of having to deal with KENTA’s Bullet Club stablemates.
A win tonight will cement Moxley’s championship reign, and increase the size of the target on his back. This won’t bother him, though, as he has proven he can overcome insurmountable odds throughout his career. It will also mean Moxley’s relationship with NJPW will continue to flourish, although whether this will be in Japan or NJoA remains to be seen. Moxley brings an intensity, focus, and a strong desire to win at all costs – especially when defending his title. His straight-forward, smash-mouth style has served him well against people who are better wrestlers than him. But, will that be enough against KENTA?
KENTA enters tonight’s match having held the IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship Challenger Briefcase for 189 days. KENTA earned the right to challenge for the title on September 11, 2020, by winning the New Japan Cup 2020 USA tournament on episode 3 of NJPW Strong – defeating David Finlay in the final. Since then, he has defended the briefcase against Jeff Cobb, Hiroshi Tanahashi, David Finlay, Brody King, and Satoshi Kojima. In fact, KENTA has successfully defended the Challenger Briefcase more than anyone has successfully defended the US Heavyweight Championship (Kenny Omega had four defences before losing to Jay White).
KENTA has had a more active year than Moxley, with regular appearances on NJPW Strong as well as in Japan, including the 2020 G1 Climax (finishing fourth in Block B). He’s become an integral part of Bullet Club, being involved in multiple six-man tag matches on both continents.
KENTA fell victim to Moxley’s Death Rider DDT on episode 25 of Strong, but showed up four days later on AEW Dynamite, laying out Moxley with a Go To Sleep. He even teamed with AEW World Champion Kenny Omega in a falls count anywhere match, despite the tensions between the current Bullet Club and former members. KENTA ended both of his AEW appearances standing over a prone Jon Moxley having delivered the GTS.
KENTA has been chasing Moxley for six months and has shown the heart of a champion by fending off everyone coming for his briefcase. In his mind, he is the real IWGP United States Heavyweight Champion and just needs the belt to prove it. KENTA has vowed to be the first Japanese holder of the title, and do what Moxley has been unable to do – bring it back to Japan. KENTA is the better technical wrestler and has just as much intensity as his opponent tonight. If this stays on the mat, KENTA will fancy his chances. But even if this becomes a brawl, KENTA will still be considered by some to be in the driving seat, with Bullet Club never too far away.
The IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship
The IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship was announced in May 2017, during the New Japan Pro-Wrestling Vs Ring of Honor War of The Worlds pay-per-view. It is a second-tier championship within New Japan Pro-Wrestling, alongside the NEVER Openweight Championship and the IWGP Intercontinental Championship. It holds the acronym IWGP instead of NJPW in reference to New Japan’s governing body – the International Wrestling Grand Prix.
Kenny Omega was the first Champion, crowned in a two-night tournament at the G1 Special in the USA on July 1 & 2, 2017, defeating Michael Elgin, Jay Lethal, and Tomohiro Ishii to start his 210-day reign. Since then, the championship has been held by Jay White, Juice Robinson (twice), Cody Rhodes, Lance Archer, and the current champion, Jon Moxley (now in his second reign).
Moxley’s run so far has been record-breaking but set against a backdrop of a global pandemic and travel restrictions. Add in Moxley’s other commitments, and the IWGP US Heavyweight Championship was effectively inactive until KENTA won the opportunity to challenge. KENTA, despite not being officially recognised as an “interim champion”, has brought a sense of legitimacy to a title that has only been competed for in 22 matches across a four-and-a-half-year history.
A victory for Moxley tonight brings with it an opportunity for the championship to continue to gain its status outside of NJPW. He has already elevated the title in some eyes by carrying the title belt and being announced as the champion, on AEW. Moxley’s star power will allow that momentum to continue if he retains.
On the other hand, a KENTA win will arguably reignite the interest of the Japanese audience. A Japanese wrestler holding an American title, especially one only held by gaijin so far, will be a huge step towards raising the status of the championship with die-hard NJPW fans – similar to what Shinsuke Nakamura managed with the IWGP Intercontinental Championship.
New Japan Pro-Wrestling of America (NJoA) / NJPW Strong
New Japan Pro-Wrestling of America had an interesting 2020 but saw it out in good order with the start of NJPW Strong in August. The weekly television show airs on NJPW World and Fite.TV, and is a showcase of the NJoA roster. NJPW Strong provides some great in-ring action, but the lack of anything for the stars to aim for (other than personal rivalries) has led to some comments about it being more of a developmental show.
The IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship was announced as part of NJPW’s expansion into the United States. So, when NJoA was announced a few years later, many fans expected the US Heavyweight Championship to be the main title for the American arm of the company. However, since the formation of NJoA, the championship has only been defended four times – with only one of those on US soil. The start of NJPW Strong as a television show brought further expectations of the championship being something for the stars to aim for – but Moxley’s attack on KENTA on episode 25 was the first (and so far, only) time the championship has appeared on the show.
Moxley Vs KENTA is arguably the highest-profile match on NJPW Strong since it started, and should bring a healthy number of new viewers to the show – especially among those who already subscribe to Fite.TV. This reach will ultimately be a good thing for NJoA, as there are two other matches included tonight – with ten-men getting a chance to show off their skills and ability for this potentially fresh audience. We have eight-man tag action as The DKC, Kevin Knight, Clark Connors, and TJP team up to face Brody King, ACH, and The Riegel Twins. We also have Ren Narita going one-on-one with Chris Dickinson following the aftermath of their tag-team collision on Episode 27. If you want to know more about these athletes, you can check out our roster review (part 1 | part 2).
The outcome of tonight’s main event answers one question – who is the true champion, Moxley or KENTA? But, more importantly, it creates more. Regardless of the winner, does this mark the start of the IWGP US Heavyweight Championship appearing regularly on NJPW Strong? Does it become the focal point for the NJoA roster? When shows can go back to “normal” in front of an audience, will having a recognised title around help elevate the show itself? Will we eventually see the return of NJoA pay-per-views, headlined by IWGP US Heavyweight Championship matches? Will we see the creation of other United States Championships for the Junior Heavyweights, and tag teams?
The biggest question of all though will no doubt remain unanswered for a while. No matter who wins, will this be the end of Moxley Vs KENTA? I doubt it.
Jon Moxley Vs KENTA for the IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship. New Japan Pro-Wrestling Strong. Tonight (February 26, 2020) – 10 pm ET, 9 pm CT, 7 pm PT) in America / Saturday morning (3 am GMT) in the UK / Saturday lunchtime (12 noon JST) in Japan. It is available on New Japan World and Fite.TV.