On Sunday in Japan, Pro Wrestling NOAH presents the most important stop on their Great Voyage in Fukuoka. GHC champion Keiji Muto will defend his title against the presumptive future ace, Kaito Kiyomiya.
The championship event is a return from a match that occurred last August when Muto first arrived in NOAH and defeated Kiyomiya. In 2018, at only 22, Kiyomiya won the GHC title and spent 384 days on top of the company. The push may have come too early for Kiyomiya, who never seemed comfortable as the centerpiece of NOAH. Muto’s win over Kiyomiya seemed surprising at the time. When Muto ended Go Shiozaki’s career-defining championship run this February, Kiyomiya immediately challenged the new champion. On paper, the match-up between one of Japan’s most-legendary performers and the man positioned to be the next top-guy seems like a foregone conclusion towards the challenger. However, when looking at the situation more carefully, this isn’t such a clear-cut case.
CyberAgent, the parent company of NOAH, recently signed Muto to a long-term contract. The decision to make the former Great Muta the focal point of a promotion on the rise has been controversial. In the West, fans have criticized the decision to push a champion who’s long past his prime. While in Japan, the move seems to have drawn more positive attention.
Muto’s Budokan victory over Shiozaki is viewed as a success from a business perspective, supposedly drawing strong numbers on ABEMA TV in Japan and FITE.tv pay-per-view. The country’s COVID-19 restrictions have placed a hard cap on the number of spectators allowed inside venues; NOAH’s Budokan show drew 4,200, seating a thousand more fans than both NJPW and Stardom. Muto is drawing eyes to the product.
However, the champion’s in-ring performance has left a bit to be desired. While the championship match with Shiozaki at Budokan was well received, fans have also noticed that Muto’s recent outings have not been as stellar.
At NOAH’s recent Yokohama show, Muto teamed Naomichi Marufuji and Masato Tanaka against Kiyomiya, Shiozaki, and Yoshiki Inamura. Muto spent most of the match working with Inamura, a young performer who has shown great promise. Unfortunately, Inamura doesn’t have the level of experience needed to carry a physically-limited performer like Muto. At one point, the champion tried to hit a back handspring elbow, a move he made famous more than thirty years ago, and completely missed falling a good five feet short. The miss put Inamura in an awkward position not to make the champion and legend like Muto look bad but wound up making everything much worse. The performance encouraged Muto’s detractors.
The potential for disaster looms over this important championship match and a cornerstone of NOAH’s rebuilding process. Despite their last match being surprisingly good, the pressure is on 24-year-old Kiyomiya to live up to his billing as a future ace and carry this match with a Keiji Muto that’s clearly not at 100% anymore.
Pro Wrestling NOAH presents Great Voyage live on FITE.tv (3:00 p.m. JST/10:00 p.m. PT/1:00 a.m. ET)