Kazuchika Okada Vs. Shingo Takagi At NJPW Dominion - Who Should Win?
Who should leave Osaka-Jo Hall with the gold?
It's fair to say the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship has had a difficult start to life.
The decision to unify the IWGP Heavyweight and IWGP Intercontinental titles was largely met with derision from New Japan Pro-Wrestling fans and that ill-feeling only increased once the belt was unveiled.
Some of that negative feeling then dissipated slightly after Will Ospreay captured the gold from Kota Ibushi at Sakura Genesis, but The Commonwealth Kingpin's title reign came to an abrupt end at 46 days after NJPW vacated the title due to injury.
So, a championship that has been in existence for 77 days has had two champions and one vacation, and a third champion will be crowned on Monday, June 7 at Dominion when Kazuchika Okada goes one on one with Shingo Takagi.
The question is, who should leave Osaka-Jo Hall with the gold?
First, we have Shingo Takagi.
The Dragon has been in and around the IWGP World Heavyweight Title scene since he was the runner-up in this year's New Japan Cup. He went on to challenge the winner of the tournament and then IWGP World Heavyweight Champion Will Ospreay for the title at Wrestling Dontaku, but he ultimately came up short after a 44-minute battle.
Now he finds himself facing off against Kazuchika Okada on June 7, seemingly by way of him having defeated The Rainmaker in the first round of the aforementioned New Japan Cup.
There would be many positives to a Shingo Takagi title reign. He is without a doubt one of the best wrestlers in the world today and can be trusted to deliver quality matches. In 2021 alone, the LIJ man has produced three match of the year contenders against Ospreay, Jeff Cobb and Hiroshi Tanahashi.
There are also multiple interesting roads a Takagi title reign could take. New Japan could decide to bring tensions within Los Ingobernables de Japon to the fore and have him battle Tetsuya Naito or SANADA in a rivalry that would begin as competitive, but could quickly become personal over the months ahead.
NJPW could also revisit his respectful programme with Hiroshi Tanahashi and tell a story of Shingo trying to defeat the man who took the NEVER Openweight Title from him earlier this year, while The Ace tries to reach the top of the mountain one more time.
The Dragon also has experience of being the top guy in a company, having enjoyed four reigns as Open The Dream Gate Champion during his 14-year run with Dragon Gate. This included a very successful third reign which finally cemented Shingo as a top star after two somewhat awkward runs with the gold.
Despite his past world title reigns, though, that success hasn't quite translated over to NJPW so far. Yes, Takagi has found himself in main events and world title matches, but few expected him to defeat Ospreay at Wrestling Dontaku. Shingo has instead been presented as more of a SANADA-like figure. Somebody who can be slotted into world championship matches, but may never actually get the run with the gold.
If Takagi was to win on June 7, it would also be his first run at the top in New Japan, and doing so would pose an inherent risk to the company at a time when they can scarcely afford it. Revenue is way down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the company can't even sell out the tickets they can put on sale. This is partly because of fan burnout, with so many shows having taken place at Korakuen Hall, but the company's own booking has hardly been inspiring over the last year and the product is nowhere near as hot as it was just a couple of years ago.
Could a Shingo Takagi title reign provide New Japan with the spark that it needs to see the company through the rest of the pandemic?
Possibly, but there is ultimately a safer pair of hands opposite The Dragon on June 7.
One of, if not arguably NJPW's top star, Kazuchika Okada has proven he can be the top guy in New Japan. He was the IWGP Heavyweight Champion for a combined 994 days from June 2016 until January 2020 and was at the top of the card during the company's incredibly successful years in the 2010s.
He hasn't even had a sniff of a world title since dropping the IWGP Heavyweight Title to Tetsuya Naito at Wrestle Kingdom 14, though, and many would argue now is the time to put the belt back on The Rainmaker.
An Okada title reign would benefit New Japan in more ways than one.
First, he could serve as a reset point for the IWGP World Heavyweight Title and help legitimise the title with an audience who felt the title was forced upon them. Okada has the credibility to do so from his five reigns as IWGP Heavyweight Champion - something none of the previous World Heavyweight Champions nor Shingo Takagi can boast. An Okada title reign is almost guaranteed to boost interest in NJPW at home and abroad too and recover some of the fans that have tuned out of NJPW in recent months, something which is possible but not close to a sure thing with Shingo.
Drawing in a potential lapsed audience would ultimately help NJPW financially at a time when the company has suffered because of its own booking decisions and COVID-19. That reset point for the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship would also provide long-term stability for the championship and New Japan as a whole as the company looks to promote the winged belt as its top title in years to come.
Similar to Takagi too, plenty of interesting matches would be on the horizon during an Okada title reign, including matchups against old rivals like Kota Ibushi and Jay White. His drawing power when combined with the opening of the forbidden door also could provide mouth-watering matches, including against Jon Moxley and, of course, Kenny Omega, this time against The Cleaner's Belt Collector persona.
This isn't to say that an Okada title reign would be all plain sailing, though. The Rainmaker has reportedly been wrestling with two slipped discs in his back, an injury that has been described as "legitimately crippling." Should the injury worsen, NJPW would simply find themselves back in this position, scrambling to crown a new champion following a vacation.
The company has worked to manage the injury so far, though, and while it will continue to worsen, Okada has shown he can put together entertaining matches against the likes of EVIL, Will Ospreay and, of course, Shingo Takagi in 2021, despite the pain. Of course, this course of action can't go on forever without Okada risking his long-term health, but if he is prepared to fight on and New Japan are willing to let him, he could carry the company through this difficult period and out onto the other side.
With all of this in mind, Kazuchika Okada should be the man to walk away with the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship on June 7. Shingo Takagi could have an incredible title reign if it is booked correctly and he would undoubtedly continue to deliver in the ring. New Japan Pro-Wrestling needs stability right now, though, and Kazuchika Okada is the better option to provide it, even with his back injury.
The Rainmaker has arguably been the company's top star in recent years and he has already proven he can be the top guy. He would also provide the new IWGP World Heavyweight Title with legitimacy, something that the title has lacked so far because of its brief turbulent history - especially in the minds of fans who loved the IWGP Heavyweight Championship - and that would ultimately be invaluable to NJPW in the months and years ahead.
That doesn't mean Shingo Takagi shouldn't be IWGP World Heavyweight Champion in the future, though. The Dragon should hold the gold at least once before he hangs up his boots, and a loss to Okada could even add to his eventual win and allow Gedo to book one of his favourite things, a redemption story after years of toil.