At Destination 2021 this Friday, and for the first time since 2017, Pro Wrestling NOAH will return to the renowned Nippon Budokan Hall. Budokan is not only a famous Japanese arena; it’s also a venue of significance in NOAH’s lore. In March 2013, at Final Burning, in his final match, the legendary Kenta Kobashi teamed with Jun Akiyama, Kensuke Sasaki, and Keiji Muto to take on KENTA, Yoshinobu Kanemaru, Maybach Taniguchi, and Go Shiozaki. Seven years later, the implications of that card have come home, as two members of those opposing teams will face off in the main event at Destination 2021: Back to Budokan, where Go Shiozaki will defend the Global Honored Crown Championship title against one of the greatest stars in wrestling history, Keiji Muto.
The Great Keiji
Though he’s most associated with New Japan, Keiji Muto has left an indelible footprint across wrestling’s landscape. A graduate and top student of the Inoki dojo in the 1980s, the “Space Lone Wolf” traveled to the US and became a star for WCW as The Great Muta. Working with Ric Flair and Sting helped elevate Muta’s stock back home, and when he returned to Japan, it was under the Muta gimmick. Under his real name and as Muta, Muto became a top star in New Japan in the ’90s, helping sellout multiple Tokyo Dome events. During his time with New Japan, Muto won both the NWA World Heavyweight Title and the IWGP Championship four times.
When Muto’s box office rival, Mitsuharu Misawa, left All Japan, the company needed new leadership. Giant Baba’s widow, Motoka, reached out to Muto to lead the company into a new era. Keiji Muto took over as President of All Japan, reinventing his character with a new look and debuting a new finisher, the Shining Wizard. Muto’s arrival in All Japan opened the company to new working relationships with the rest of the country, creating several dream cards and matches with New Japan. During his time with AJPW, Muto won the Triple Crown title three times.
Go Shiozaki: Cultivating emerald
While Muto was reshaping All Japan, Misawa created Pro Wrestling NOAH. The majority of AJPW talent followed Misawa to the new company and its new dojo, and one of that dojo’s first students was Go Shiozaki.
Early on, Shiozaki was labeled a protegé of both Misawa and Kobashi; he even tagged with Misawa the night he died in the ring. With had three previous GHC title reigns, Shiozaki’s career primarily came off as a miss. Like so many other stars NOAH promoted early on, like Takeshi Morishima or Takeshi Rikio, it was thought that Shiozaki had failed to live up to his potential.
In 2020, NOAH, which had been on shaky financial ground even before Misawa died, finally found stable ownership. CyberAgent, who also own DDT and Tokyo Joshi Pro, purchased the company and completely revamped its visual presentation, both for live events and on digital TV. Under the direction of booker Nowsawa Rongi, the company surprisingly took the GHC title off of the young Kaito Kiyomiya and put it back on Shiozaki. This surprised fans in both Japan and the West, as Shiozaki had settled into a tag team position seemingly away from the top prize. But when Shiozaki claimed his fourth GHC belt, he was reborn. Much like Muto in All Japan, Shiozaki reinvented his look and style. Finally, Shiozaki reached his untapped potential, having two top ten matches according to Voices of Wrestling Match of the Year voting. 2020 was the best year of Go Shiozaki’s career. His rise has coincided with NOAH’s return to prestige.
Back to Budokan
After leaving All Japan in 2013, Muto founded his own promotion, Wrestle-1. However, that company would not survive past the pandemic, shutting its doors last April. Muto resurfaced in NOAH during the summer, scoring a surprise victory over Kiyomiya. After Shiozaki’s incredible title defense against Takeshi Sugiura in December, Muto challenged the champion to headline the company’s return to Budokan Hall.
NOAH returns to the Budokan for the first time since 2017 with a title match years in the making. For the 58-year-old Muto, he’s trying to become the first man to hold the titles in the NWA, New Japan, All Japan, and NOAH, cementing his legacy as possibly the greatest talent of his generation. Go Shiozaki represents the generation that followed and failed to hold the stature gained by their predecessors until now. For Shoizaki, it’s taken a full career to become one of Japan’s elite players. When he shouts “I AM NOAH!” to the crowd, he means it; he is the very soul of the company. His career trajectory runs a through-line with NOAH. Something that started with so much potential but fell under its weight finally found prominence after so many had written them off.
Pro Wrestling NOAH Destination 2021: Back to Budokan from Nippon Budokan Hall Friday, February 12, live on FITE.tv