’s Week in Wrestling is published every week and provides beneath-the-surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.

Tetsuya Naito headlines Night 2 of Wrestle Kingdom 17

WrestleMania 39 is nearly three months away. At the center of that grand display of pro wrestling will be Roman Reigns, WWE’s brightest star and one of the most talented performers.

If you’d rather not wait that long, you’re in luck. Tetsuya Naito, a true master of the craft, will headline Night 2 of New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s Wrestle Kingdom 17 on Saturday. The show will run live on the New Japan World streaming service, and English commentary will be included.

Naito is a name that every avid wrestling fan should be intimately familiar with. He captures the timeless spirit of pro wrestling, carrying a must-see attitude, demeanor and in-ring style.

While Kazuchika Okada stands atop the New Japan hierarchy, you can make a convincing argument that Naito is even better. A key ingredient to his charisma is a healthy combination of indifference and relaxation. Naito does not pander to the crowd or fight for its attention. He moves at his own particular pace, an empowering result from a failed attempt to make him the next major babyface. The crowd never invested in Naito during that push, and a long memory has allowed him to make magic.

The ability to transform negative events into iconic moments is a Naito trademark. Long before he set the industry aflame in NJPW as the leader of Los Ingobernables de Japon, Naito was mocked by crowds in Mexico.

In 2009, Naito felt a chilling sensation when a number of fans shouted a racist taunt: “Open your eyes!” He still hears their cackles, even if the sound is largely muffled by the cheers. That moment fueled Naito and inspired him to hold his eyes open wide, a gesture that has become his trademark—and now symbolizes how everyone can see his talent.

The beauty of Naito’s work will be on full display when he meets Kenoh in the main event of Wrestle Kingdom, which will run in front of a packed house at Yokohama Arena. In an era of forbidden doors and dream matches, this is a remarkable encounter pitting stars from two competing companies. Kenoh is a staple and star for Pro Wrestling NOAH, and the head of his own faction, Kongo. The battle between the two stables will make up the core of the show, featuring members of LIJ against Kongo in a best-of-five series of singles matches. The showdown will conclude in the main event where Naito and Kenoh meet in a singles match for the first time.

“I will enjoy beating Kenoh,” says Naito, speaking through a translator. “The world is going to see the power of Los Ingobernables de Japon and why we are such a big unit around the globe.”

The slate of matches at Wrestle Kingdom is outstanding. Hiromu Takahashi against Hajime Ohara could be spectacular. And somehow, Shingo Takagi remains a hidden secret despite his brilliance over the course of a career that has spanned nearly two decades. Takagi will wrestle NOAH superstar Katsuhiko Nakajima in another matchup that will be a candidate for match of the night.

The best-of-five is a continuation of the LIJ-Kongo 10-man tag match from the third night of last year’s Wrestle Kingdom. LIJ was victorious in that match, and that triumph has led to a year’s worth of bitterness from Kongo. The brawl between the two factions during the Wrestle Kingdom 17 press conference was extremely compelling, and the scene painted the picture of the violence that is bound to ensue.

While there are similarities between LIJ and Kongo, Naito shares the greatest difference.

“LIJ is a unit that constantly competes with each other while stimulating each other, even though they each have their own opinions,” says Naito. “Kongo has a strong unity, but they don’t have their own opinions. Which one is better? That is up to you, but that’s the big difference.”

Naito’s association with Los Ingobernables has become a defining characteristic of his career. He possesses the rare skill of making viewers emotionally invested whenever he steps in the ring, and feels it is his responsibility to champion the group around the world.

“That is the best way to repay my benefactors, Sombra and Rush, who led me to Los Ingobernables,” says Naito, referring to La Sombra—best known now as Andrade—and fellow group founder Rush. “I want to spread the name of Tetsuya Naito and Los Ingobernables de Japon to more and more people.”

Naito also wrestled with his LIJ brethren on the first night of Wrestle Kingdom on Jan. 4 at the Tokyo Dome, but it ended in defeat. Teaming with Bushi and Sanada, the group lost to Hiroshi Tanahashi, Keiji Mutoh and budding star Shota Umino. Naito is among those who sees greatness in Umino’s future, but he wants him to earn it by going through him.

“I think Shota is a great wrestler, and it’s very possible he’ll be a star in a few years,” says Naito. “That is why I want to make him realize the difference with the current top players in New Japan Pro-Wrestling, and then let him down. I think that is absolutely necessary for the future of New Japan.”

The battles against Umino will come, but for now, the focus is on Kenoh. A natural rival for Naito and LIJ, Kenoh claims that Kongo is about to disrupt the wrestling world by destroying one of New Japan’s most distinguished factions. Naito envisions the second night of Wrestle Kingdom 17 unfolding far differently.

“Last year’s Wrestle Kingdom at Yokohama Arena was a very memorable day, and now I am going to continue that at Wrestle Kingdom 17,” says Naito. “Defeating Kenoh in the main event, it is becoming a tradition. That is the best way to start the new year.”

The (online) week in wrestling

  • Tragedy struck wrestling yesterday, as Jay Briscoe was killed in a car crash at the age of only 38. The longtime Ring of Honor star was mourned by fans and friends, and my deepest condolences go to his family.
  • The outpouring of grief for Briscoe’s life and impact was both heartbreaking and inspiring. In lieu of any other news story, here are some of the ways he left a lasting impact on the wrestling world.

There will be a piece dedicated to Briscoe posted later this week.

Will Cody Rhodes return and win the Royal Rumble?

WWE made it official on Raw: Cody Rhodes will be back for the Royal Rumble.

Rhodes makes an outstanding choice to win the men’s Rumble. If the company decides to put all its resources behind him, there is every reason to believe that Rhodes’s challenging Roman Reigns in the main event of WrestleMania 39 would be a significant moment.

Rhodes’s story is very real. While he can never recreate his father’s legacy—this is the great Dusty Rhodes, after all, a true icon—Rhodes would instead create his own destiny by winning the title that has forever eluded his family. He is attempting to reach the promised land. Before taking time off on the injured list earlier last June, Rhodes was performing at his absolute best. Considering his skill on the microphone and confidence in the ring, he could absolutely be the one to dethrone Reigns.

But so could Seth Rollins.

The Rollins-Rhodes feud has played out wonderfully since last year’s WrestleMania. Though it has been one-sided in terms of victories (Rhodes won all three of their singles matches), it will suddenly even out if Rollins eliminates Rhodes and wins the Rumble. A Rollins-Reigns title bout at WrestleMania is the biggest possible match WWE can offer, and Rhodes could be waiting in the wings for the winner.

Tweet of the Week

Paul Heyman was right on the money with Brock Purdy, who threw for three touchdowns and ran for another as he led the 49ers to a blowout victory against the Seahawks in the opening round of the NFL playoffs.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.