For many of us, New Japan Pro Wrestling has only come into our lives within the last few years, thanks to the company’s global expansion and continuing efforts into making their content more accessible to fans around the world. As most Western fans only have a good grasp of recent history in the company, there may be a few faces within New Japan who have interesting pasts that you are mostly unaware of, so that’s where I come in. Here are Five NJPW Roster Backstories You Need to Know.
We all know Toru Yano as the lovable/detestable clown of CHAOS that smiles, shrugs his shoulders, and tries to bend the rules wherever he possibly can. Although he may be NJPW’s main source of comic relief, what you may not realise is that Yano used to be a vicious, violent bad guy.
Prior to the goofiness and DVD sales, Yano was not somebody to mess with. He was a champion amateur wrestler, tried his hand at MMA, savagely threw opponents into the crowd, he’d spit in people’s faces, earned himself a shot at the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, he purposely tried to injure people, he stole Rob Van Dam’s taunt from him (which he still uses to this day), and worst of all, HE TRIED TO SHAVE TANAHASHI’S HAIR! Basically, Yano was a bit of a bastard.
There was no big change for Yano or any real reason why he suddenly became the clown he is today, but personally, I’m thankful we have this version of Yano injecting entertaining shenanigans into New Japan broadcasts on a regular basis.
Milano Collection A.T.
If you choose to watch New Japan shows with the Japanese commentary, you’ll be familiar with the voice of Milano Collection A.T.. You may have also seen Tetsuya Naito interact with this commentator, and you might have heard his name being mentioned by Kevin Kelly whenever SANADA locks in the Paradise Lock. In case you’re wondering why, it’s because Milano Collection A.T. used to be one of the best junior wrestlers in New Japan before his career was sadly cut short.
Milano’s unique name came from his character, a fashionista with a love for Italian designers specifically. This wasn’t the only eccentric detail about Milano though, thanks to his lavish ring gear, his invisible dog named Mikeru that accompanied him to the ring, and wonderful signature move names which include Armani Shoe Exchange and Emporio Armani Shoe. Milano spent the majority of his career in promotions such as Dragon Gate and Toryumon before debuting in NJPW in 2007, immediately making an impact by winning the Best of Super Juniors tournament.
After just two years in the company though, Milano suffered a serious eye injury after a badly placed kick to the eye from Gedo. Despite having surgery, he could still not fully recover from his injury, and in 2010, Milano announced his retirement, where he was honoured with a major show of respect from fans in the form of red, green and white streamers. Once his in-ring career was over, Milano transitioned to the commentary table, a position he still holds to this day.
Bullet Club OG’s
New Japan fans are fully aware that Tama Tonga and Tanga Loa are both sons of the legendary Haku – but did you know that they’re related to Bad Luck Fale too? Well, up until a few years ago, they themselves weren’t even aware of it…
During the early 2010’s, Tama and Fale spent time in the New Japan dojo together, where they became close without ever having met prior to being signed by the company. After Fale posted a photo with Tama on Facebook, one of his aunties commented on the post informing him that the pair were in fact cousins that just never got a chance to interact with each other as kids. As crazy as this all seems, kayfabe plays no part in this real life blood bond. Even if Bullet Club isn’t for life, these three hold a bond that can never be broken.
When this Suzuki-Gun member enters for a match, Takashi Iizuka strides through the crowd with reckless abandon, muzzled and sometimes on a leash for the safety of the audience. In the ring, he’s an uncontrollable wild man with a fascination for biting his opponents and little traditional offence. Like a feral beast, you will never hear Iizuka give a backstage interview or execute a hold, yet things haven’t always been this way.
For many years, Takashi Iizuka was a rather unexciting member of the New Japan roster. Specialising mainly in tag team wrestling and a technical style, Iizuka was pretty much your standard NJPW wrestler for the time, debuting first in 1986 and achieving the majority of his success during the 90’s and early 2000’s, where he won the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championships, the G1 Tag League, and even once competed for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
It wasn’t until 2008, 22 years after he first appeared in New Japan, that Iizuka’s character changed. Suddenly, he became an uncontrollable madman, completely altering his look and utilising his now signature iron claw. From there, he adopted a more hardcore style, joined the then heel faction CHAOS, and went on a successful tag team run with the aforementioned Toru Yano. For the last four years, Iizuka has been a part of Suzuki-Gun, and after over thirty years of competing in the ring, it’s highly likely that this New Japan veteran will retire with the collar around his neck and the claw on his hand.
You may not realise it, but the fans that talents work in front of can potentially have a massive impact on how they work and how their persona develops. Take current main-event megastar Tetsuya Naito, leader of Los Ingobernables de Japon. From May 2009 to January 2010, Naito was on excursion with Mexican company CMLL, with his then tag team partner, Yujiro Takahashi (now known as The Tokyo Pimp).
During his time there, Naito was subjected to a lot of racially charged fan abuse whilst in the ring, regularly being told to “open his eyes” due to his Japanese ethnicity. In response, Naito began holding one of his eyes open to taunt the crowd, and learnt how to act as a heel to spark heat from the crowd. This CMLL run taught him how to work heel in front of crowds and would ultimately help develop the persona he holds today.
Yet this version of Naito didn’t surface in New Japan straight away. For many years, Naito was known as the Stardust Genius, a junior heavyweight wrestler that eventually transitioned into the heavyweight division. Naito was your typical good guy wrestler, with little actual character. New Japan higher-ups were clearly big fans of Naito, giving him more opportunities and accolades, yet fans weren’t quite getting on board as much as the company had hoped. In fact, Naito’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship match against Kazuchika Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 8 was so badly received, it was voted out of the main-event slot in favour of the Intercontinental Championship bout.
After working many years as a straight-forward babyface, Naito returned to CMLL in 2015. Fuelled by frustration, he completely overhauled his character, joined Los Ingobernables, and brought his own sub-faction back to Japan with him, which all in turn led him to being arguably the most popular wrestler in his native country right now. If it wasn’t for his time spent in another nation, Naito would have never been exposed to his adopted tranquilo ways, and New Japan would not have the global superstar they do today.
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