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NJPW Wrestling Dontaku 2022 and the Resurgence of Bullet Club

Bullet Club (BC) has been one of New Japan’s top heel faction since its inception in 2013. Yet for the past year, the organization’s standard for bad behavior has come off as, well . . . bumblers.

When Jay White and other foreign stars stayed away, partially to avoid the long quarantine restrictions in Japan, BC was left with a depleted unit. EVIL became the top singles heavyweight in the group. With Dick Togo, SHO and Yujiro Takahashi doing mind-numbing levels of interference as the “House of Torture” subset of BC, they became part of the card to put up with rather than anticipate.

Sometimes they won, sometimes they didn’t. They weren’t dominant, but in the mix just enough to make their over-choreographed officials bumps and run-ins frustrating.¬† Some shows, they almost descended to being comedy heels. But students of Gedo’s booking of New Japan know it’s darkest before the dawn: BC came back strong at the May 1 Dontaku show looking cruel, vicious and ready to make a run at nearly every major championship.

One of Gedo’s favorite stories involves taking a faction or a singular wrestler and tearing them down until fans may think it’s just about over for them on top, before having them rally and explode back to the main events. He’d done it with Hiroshi Tanahashi, beating him until he was an almost pitiful figure, leaving partner Kota Ibushi shaking his head in disgust before rising again to win the G1 in 2018. He’d done it with Kazuchika Okada, having him lose and come to the ring with balloons acting goofy, before another rally put him back as an iconic New Japan talent. Wrestling Dontaku 2022 saw a heel twist on this story, with BC putting itself back together again.

It began with the babyface turn of Tanga Loa and Tama Tonga, the Guerillas of Destiny. White turned on them at an IMPACT taping and declared they’d been kicked out of BC, while bringing founding member Karl Anderson and his partner, Doc Gallows, back into the fold. They teased a BC split, with the Bad Luck Fale and Chase Owens on the fence, but in the end the G.O.D. and Jado were the only ones booted out, dished out with proper cruelty by Fale, Owens and the rest. Even the longtime team of Gedo and Jado was tossed aside for the sake of White’s vision for the Club, which reinforced the group’s ruthlessness.

The group burst back to prominence at Wrestling Dontaku 2022, with Taiji Ishimori winning the Jr. Heavyweight title from El Desperado, while Owens and Fale captured the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team titles. EVIL may have lost the NEVER Openweight title to Tama Tonga, but Anderson and Gallows attacked Tonga afterwards, making Anderson the de facto top challenger. To top it all off, Jay White reappeared, his first time in Japan in a year, and assaulted IWGP World Heavyweight Champion Kazuchuka Okada after his successful IWGP World Heavyweight Championship match against Tetsuya Naito.

BC also unveiled a new member: Juice Robinson.¬†Robinson had convinced people he’d lost his urge to wrestle and would be leaving NJPW after his contract expired. Instead, he and BC attacked IWGP US Champion Hiroshi Tanahashi, and he declared that he was now going after Tana’s title.

While it’s only been one night, Robinson’s demeanor was far darker than the fun-loving babyface we’re used to. This heel run feels well-timed and could provide him with a chance to show fans a new dimension in his work.

With Taiji Ishimori defeating El Desperado at Dontaku this weekend as well, BC now has the Junior Heavyweight title in its stable going into the Best of the Super Juniors tournament. BC also controls the IWGP Tag Team titles (Bad Luck Fale & Chase Owens) and the NEVER Openweight Six-Man titles (EVIL, SHO and Takahashi). Anderson will challenge Tama Tonga for the NEVER championship soon, and Robinson for the US title at Capital Collision in Philadelphia, with White vying for the top prize, the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship. Ishimori. Bullet Club: Bumblers no more.

It’s a healthy change for BC because they hold a unique place in the company. They’re the only faction to remain a purely heel group, for example. Various alliances began as heel groups, but drifted toward the babyface side of things as time went on. CHAOS and Los Ingobernables de Japon slowly grew on NJPW fans with many of those wrestlers becoming fan-favorites. Even Suzuki-gun has expressed a modicum of respectability and sometimes leans toward the babyface side. But Bullet Club has never wavered; it’s a heel group, and remains one today.

Gedo spent most of the past year building the United Empire into a heel threat. The work put in by Will Ospreay, Great O-Khan, Aaron Henare, Jeff Cobb and others has been effective. With that job done, it was time again to re-establish BC since Suzuki-gun’s recent attitude changes have made the company feel lopsided on the babyface side. While Suzuki-gun aren’t fully babyfaces yet, but Taichi and Zach Sabre Jr. have become more sympathetic figures. El Desperado’s work has won him more fans, as well, plus he does less pure heel work compared with SG cohort Yoshinobu Kanemaru.

Having a group to “boo” comes at the right time. The hope is that fans will be able to cheer and boo again in the future, so having heat magnets like Jay White will help with big shows such as Dominion on the horizon. White has become one of the best heels in the business, someone who can get an unmitigated negative reaction from a crowd, or the type of character Gedo can use to get the crowd behind any babyface.

BC’s high membership provides plenty of creative options for NJPW. With working agreements in place with AEW/ROH and CMLL, plus friendly relations with IMPACT, BC could work on multiple continents and for multiple organizations.

EVIL’s House of Torture subset even allows for the group to split down the road and feud, although a BC babyface run seems like a long way away. White is over enough as a heel to make a babyface run one day. The further the pendulum of fans’ emotions swings to the heel side, the further it can one day swing to the babyface side. But that’s for another day. For now, the days of a pure heel group for NJPW fans to detest is back and strong again. As international travel becomes easier, fans have reason to feel optimistic that they’ll see a wide variety of New Japan heroes to clash with these BC villains.

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