For more than a decade, New Japan Pro Wrestling has been the number one promotion in its native country. NJPW has been on an extraordinary creative and financial run. When Tokyo Sports announced its year-end awards, New Japan dominated most of the accolades. IWGP World & Intercontinental Champion Tetsuya Naito named Most Valuable Player for 2020. Meanwhile, the Outstanding Performer award went outside Japan’s top promotion, to Global Honored Crown Champion, Go Shiozaki. For the man whose “I am NOAH” battle cry has been echoed in arenas throughout the country, the award represents more than a media honor. It’s the very summation of both his career and Pro Wrestling NOAH’s existence.
Since the death of company founder Mitsuharu Misawa in 2009, Pro Wrestling NOAH has struggled to find its identity. Early on in the promotion’s history, with New Japan entrenched in the murk of Inokism and All Japan still reeling from the great exodus that led to NOAH’s creation, the company with the green ring was the talk of Japan. When Go Shiozaki entered the NOAH dojo in 2003, the promotion was riding high, with Kenta Kobashi holding the GHC title. Shiozaki emerged from his training as the youngest wrestler on the roster and became Kobashi’s protege. Together the two teamed against another legend and his disciple in Kensuke Sasaki and Katsuhiko Nakajima. The latter would become a significant player in Shiozaki’s outstanding performance this year.
In the first few years of his career, Shiozaki was an up-and-comer following the path laid out by Naomichi Marufuji and KENTA. In 2009, Shiozaki got the first big push of his career when tagging with Misawa. In the six years between Shiozaki’s debut and his first GHC title match, cracks emerged in NOAH’s visage.
When Kobashi temporarily left the sport after a kidney cancer diagnosis, the promotion struggled to find its next Ace. Takeshi Rikio, Takeshi Morishima, and Marufuji all had opportunities to emerge as the company’s top player, but none really met fans’ expectations. NOAH chose to lean on veterans like Sasaki, Akira Taue, and Jun Akiyama, but they also fell short with Kobashi and Misawa. Without its two top performers, NOAH would struggle to find its identity.
Shortly after Misawa’s death in 2009, an injury to Champion Akiyama forced NOAH to again change direction. Shiozaki, who had been tabbed Misawa’s latest project, faced former champion, Rikio for the vacant title. Shiozaki won his first GHC crown but unfortunately befell the same fate as the previous champions. Shiozaki’s reign ended five months later at the hands of long-time rival, Takashi Sugiura.
Shiozaki would regain the GHC from Sugiura eighteen months later, but by this time, NOAH was a different promotion. Shiozaki appeared on many New Japan programs as the GHC Champion, teaming with Marufuji against Shinsuke Nakamura and Toru Yano at WrestleKingdom VI. However, neither Shiozaki nor NOAH’s top title felt like they were on the same plain as Hiroshi Tanahashi and the IWGP championship.
This was an era where New Japan was helping NOAH essentially stay relevant. NOAH’s stars didn’t feel like they were on the same level as their New Japan counterparts. Much like the company, Shiozaki seemed lost in the shuffle. Along with Jun Akiyama and a host of other performers, Shiozaki left NOAH for All Japan, where he joined a new stable called Burning.
Though positioned as Burning’s top star, Shiozaki was defeated by the likes of Suwama, Joe Doering (recently seen with IMPACT), and former Sumo star Akebono in his failed attempts to win the Triple Crown Championship. Though Shiozaki did finally beat Doering for the Triple Crown, he was already defined by his multiple career letdowns. Shiozaki would spend the rest of his time in AJPW building up current ace Kento Miyahara, forming a tag team called Xceed before departing in 2015.
When Shiozaki returned to NOAH, he offered to help Marufuji in its war with the invading Minoru Suzuki and his Suzuki-gun. Upon returning, he defeated his rival Sugiura for his third GHC but lost the belt back to him two months later. After a short but triumphant return, Shiozaki faded into a mid-card position, until he began teaming with Katsuhiko Nakajima.
In Nakajima, Shiozaki found a kindred spirit: A competitor with an excellent pedigree who many felt fell short of his potential. Nakajima reinvented himself with a sardonic edge. Together they became AXIZ, and Nakajima’s new attitude breathed life in Shiozaki. He dyed his hair blonde and adopted a similar swagger. The two dominated the GHC tag team division, becoming a main event act together.
In 2020, Go Shiozaki’s rise to prominence echoed the company’s resurgence.
In 2019, Pro Wrestling NOAH was a promotion with a great history but an uncertain future. The once innovative company apparently decided to emulate the market leader, New Japan. It renamed its Global League round-robin tournament the N-1 Victory to sound more like the prestigious G1: Climax. The GHC belt was redesigned to have more than a passing resemblance to the IWGP title. NOAH presented twenty-three-year-old Kaito Kiyomiya as its own youthful champion in the main event scene. Similar to how New Japan pushed Kazchika Okada earlier in the decade. NOAH had become New Japan-lite.
When CyberAgent, owner of DDT Pro Wrestling, purchased Pro Wrestling NOAH in January 2020, the company made an immediate shift. The famed green ring was gone, but so was the concern of whether or not the doors would stay open. In their first event of the year, Kiyomiya lost the GHC to Shiozaki. The move made outsiders question booker NOSAWA Rongai, as many felt Shiozaki was past his prime. However, in 2020, the veteran Shiozaki made subtle changes to his appearance, like embracing green ring attire, the color most associated with Misawa and the promotion.
In his fourth reign as GHC Champion, Shiozaki has found a confidence and championship presence that eluded him early in his career. However, at the same time, his body has started to fail. As the year progressed, Shiozaki’s challenges have gotten tougher and more demanding. He has faced legends like the aforementioned Marufuji and Kazuyuki Fujita, modern stars like Kiyomiya and KENOH, his rival, Sugiura, but no battle was more physically or emotionally taxing as his war with former partner-turned-enemy, Nakajima. With each fight, his arms and shoulders fall further into agony, which longtime NOAH fans recognize, which has helped his connection to the fans grow stronger. The “clap crowds” have gasped and marveled at his performances this year. Cagematch has averaged his GHC title matches at an 8.85 rating out of 10.
When Shiozaki cries out the phrase “I Am NOAH,” he’s speaking the truth. Both he and the company had great promise early on but seemed to lose their purpose later on. In 2020, Go Shiozaki’s rise to prominence echoed the company’s resurgence. They’ve grown stronger together.
Pro Wrestling NOAH returns to the famed Nippon Budokan in 2021 with Shiozaki as champion. The way it should be. Pro Wrestling NOAH is a promotion on the rise, and Go Shiozaki is Tokyo Sports Outstanding Performer for 2020.