With New Japan Pro Wrestling programming over until January, it’s a good time to look back at what happened over in the King of Sports in 2018. As you probably guessed from the title, one way we’re doing that is by ranking every championship reign in NJPW this year. There were twenty-nine different title runs in the company between Wrestle Kingdom 12 and the present, and this article puts them in order from worst to best.
A few notes before we start: First, for championship reigns that started before January 4, 2018, this list just counts the part of them that happened from WK12 onward. Also, a variety of factors play into whether a someone’s time with a title is good or not, so don’t take it as a personal insult if your favorite wrestler is low on this list. But if you disagree or agree with a ranking or twenty, make sure to let us know in the comments!
29. Cody, IWGP United States Championship
The American Nightmare won the U.S. Championship from Juice Robinson to mixed reception at Fighting Spirit Unleashed on September 30 and hasn’t appeared on NJPW programming outside of a match for the Heavyweight Championship at King Of Pro Wrestling since. His defense against Beretta was promoted via Greg talking about how Cody beat him in under a minute on a 2011 episode of Friday Night SmackDown. Cody hadn’t interacted with almost anyone outside of the Bullet Club for the entirety of 2018, so they dug deep into another company’s archives for feud material! The match, which Cody did his part in promoting via Twitter poll, then, unfortunately, had to be canceled after the champion was injured.
So far Wrestle Kingdom 13 U.S. title feud has also consisted of a former WWE wrestler cutting promos on a champ who isn’t there to respond, although at least Robinson can draw on their previous title match and their bout at Wrestle Kingdom 11. I guess it’s good that Cody at least represented the championship in skits in Australia when he couldn’t wrestle, but now his rivals Beretta and Robinson get to cut promos on his lack of fighting spirit because they both wrestled title matches this year with a torn pec and broken hand, respectively. Overall, this weird title reign has not been a good look for Cody or the United States Championship.
28. Kenny Omega, IWGP Heavyweight Championship
Kenny Omega’s first run with NJPW’s top title has been an odd one. After winning his long-pursued belt in an epic match, breaking his tie with Okada, and proving The Power Of Love, he almost immediately squandered some of his built-up goodwill by insulting Naito and all Japanese wrestlers. He also said he didn’t feel the need to do house shows or smaller shows (unlike the previous champ), and then just… didn’t do most of them. But then he was supposed to be the babyface for his first defense against Cody in San Francisco when fan interest in Kenny vs. Cody was past its peak. His G1 run included some good matches, especially when Ishii broke his undefeated streak, but also featured odd promos that confused people as to who this guy was supposed to be now and whether or not he was supposed to be sympathetic.
Post-G1 and Omega’s defense against Ishii, this championship reign got weirder and worse. It’s been a long time since the IWGP Heavyweight Championship belt felt less important than when Omega just added his good bud Cody to his title match with Ibushi and then they all tried to sort of not wrestle each other during the first part of the match due to their inter-personal drama. At least Omega blatantly cheating to stop Ibushi from winning the triple threat and his declaration that he was a villain in his press conference with Tanahashi got the Wrestle Kingdom 13 main event feud off to a hot start. But then it had a lot of time to cool off because Omega continued to not wrestle the smaller shows and ultimately end 2018 having wrestled 54 matches for NJPW. (In comparison, according to Cagematch, his challenger Ace wrestled 107, Okada 135, and even Hiromu Takahashi worked 83 before he broke his neck in July.)
This all definitely played a role in him getting booed upon entrance when he showed up at the last show of the World Tag League tour with the belt under his t-shirt. However, though this dude might be the worst Heavyweight Champion since Brock Lesnar in kayfabe, the popularity of the Golden Lovers gets him cheered whenever he’s near Ibushi. Will this bizarre title reign end at the Tokyo Dome? Who can tell at this point!
27. Chaos (Beretta, Tomohiro Ishii, and Toru Yano), NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship
This is the first of four entries in a row that can be described as “low-level championship continues to be low-level.” The Chaos trio of Beretta, Ishii, and Yano won the NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship in the annual trios cluster-gauntlet match at Wrestle Kingdom 12, then lost it back to the same team they beat to win it at New Year Dash!! the next day. Now they’re the shortest reigning six-man champions ever, so… that’s kind of an accomplishment?
26. Michael Elgin, NEVER Openweight Championship
Michael Elgin won the NEVER Openweight Championship for the first time in a triple threat against Taichi and Goto at Dominion, and then lost it back to Goto EIGHT DAYS LATER on Kizuna Road, making him the shortest reigning NEVER champ ever. He and Goto had a Mutual Babyface Warriors Mutual Respect thing going on, and their matches were fine. This was the lowest profile weird wrinkle of the several weird wrinkles in the history of the NEVER Openweight Championship this year.
25. Super Villains (Matt Jackson, Nick Jackson, and Marty Scurll), NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship
Scurll and the Young Bucks had two solid matches involving these championships and weren’t on NJPW programming for most of their reign. Beating their Tongan faction-mates for these belts at Wrestling Dontaku seemed like a real dick move and didn’t make much sense at the time, but in retrospect seems like the last straw in turning the Bullet Club Civil War from Kenny vs. Cody to Elite vs. OG. The Super Villains losing these titles in an impromptu championship match to G.o.D. and Ishimori was also the turning point for the OGs starting to achieve things besides almost getting fired. I guess this title reign was a useful storytelling device, but we didn’t get much of it and it didn’t do much for the trios championships in themselves.
24. Bullet Club OGs (Tama Tonga, Tanga Loa, Taiji Ishimori), NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship
Like I just said in #25, the OGs winning these titles from the Super Villains turned out to be an important moment for them, the start of a streak of winning a lot of tag matches rather than just disrupting singles matches. Since then, Tonga, Loa, and Ishimori have only defended once in the comedy match that was also the debut of Taguchi’s rugby helmet powers. This championship reign is also giving us the stacked trios gauntlet match on the Wrestle Kingdom pre-show because the title holders all have higher priority things going on. These belts have largely been accessories to G.o.D. each having two belts to swing around and Ishimori having something on the road to his shot at the big [junior] one.
23. Kushida, IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship
Kushida won the then-vacant IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship for the sixth time in an enjoyable match against Marty Scurll, and is now tied with Tiger Mask IV for most reigns with this title (with only Jushin Thunder Liger ahead of them.) His win, the crowning of a babyface championship in a promotion dominated by heels at the time, was a nice moment. Since then, his title feud with Ishimori has felt overshadowed by being previewed largely in the same tag team matches as the Okada vs. Switchblade feud and the Chaos-Team New Japan alliance.
22. Taichi, NEVER Openweight Championship
The recently-heavyweight Taichi started gunning for the NEVER Openweight Championship in the spring and finally won it at Destruction in Beppu in a match with a lot of Suzukigun interference. It was a nice payoff for a performer with growing cult popularity who many fans, as well as the character, felt should have been in the G1 this year. But what seemed like it could be a different kind of NEVER championship run was derailed by a title match canceled due to Ospreay’s injury, followed by the Taichi-Goto feud being quickly revived, and Taichi losing the belt back to the Fierce Warrior. Overall, Taichi’s first singles title reign in NJPW seemed like a hint at things to come for the Holy Emperor, but in itself, was pretty short and uneventful in terms of interesting wrestling stuff happening.
21. Hirooki Goto, NEVER Openweight Championship (First In 2018)
Goto started his second run with this championship (and first of the year) by winning an epic and very rewatchable hair vs. hair match with Suzuki at Wrestle Kingdom 12. After this, he defended against Evil, ROH visitor viscerally hated by the Korakuen crowd Beer City Bruiser, and fan favorite Juice Robinson, and never reached the heights of that WK match. He wasn’t super over in any of these defenses or the triple threat in which he dropped the belt at Dominion either, making this a lackluster period for the NEVER Openweight Championship.
20. Hiroshi Tanahashi, IWGP Intercontinental Championship
19. Tetsuya Naito, IWGP Intercontinental Championship
18. Kenny Omega, IWGP United States Championship
These are all getting grouped together because they all had similar strengths/weaknesses. These reigns, or at least the portions of them in 2018, consisted of two matches, one very good and one middling. Omega started 2018 still the inaugural United States champion and successfully defended in a much-hyped and very crazy No DQ match against Chris Jericho, but then lost the title to Jay White later the same month in a match that was pretty average.
At Wrestle Kingdom 12, Tanahashi started off his 2018 (and Jay White his main roster NJPW career) with a lackluster Intercontinental Championship match, but then lost it in an awesome match against Suzuki that ended up leading to good things for both of them in the long term. Naito won the IC title a few months later in a match with Suzuki that wasn’t all that memorable. His second run with his hated white belt ended up much shorter and less fun than the first, even though he at least lost it in a really good, brutal match with Jericho.
17. Bullet Club (Bad Luck Fale, Tama Tonga, and Tanga Loa), NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship
Bad Luck Fale, Tama Tonga, and Tanga Loa won back the trios titles they lost on January 4 about twenty-four hours later and held them through Wrestling Dontaku. They had a solid low-level title reign and successfully defended in entertaining midcard comedy matches against Taguchi, Henare, and Makabe, and then Cheeseburger, Liger, and Delirious, and then Taguchi, Elgin, and Makabe, mostly because they were a more established trio and better at teamwork than their challengers. Their loss of these titles to a fellow Bullet Club team was odd at the time, but also happened in a solid match with a similar tone to the rest of their reign.
16. The Young Bucks, IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship
The Young Bucks won the Heavyweight Tag Team Championships in a good match at Dominion against Evil and Sanada, retained in a good match against Evil and Sanada in San Francisco, and then lost to G.o.D. on the next show in the U.S. The main thing that hurt this title reign was the lack of literally any activity in NJPW by this team in between these matches apart from two multi-man tag matches, one a 6-Man Tag Team Championship match, on the last two G1 shows to set up their loss of the belts.
15. The Young Bucks, IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship
The Young Bucks began their brief seventh, and presumably last, reign with these titles by winning a good match against Roppongi 3K at Wrestle Kingdom 12, the match that also started Matt Jackson’s very well done back injury subplot that played a role in matches later in the year. The brothers held the belts for twenty-four days, then lost then back to Sho and Yoh in their first defense. (Depending on what’s going on with everyone’s contracts this year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see something like this happen with the heavyweight tag belts at the beginning of 2019.)
14. Roppongi 3K, IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship
The stories of Sho and Yoh’s personal development as wrestlers and comeback from the loss of the Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship have dominated most of their steady rise in NJPW this year, but they started off 2018 with a solid, if short, run as champions. After winning back their titles from the Young Bucks at the New Beginning in Sapporo, they had a fun feud with L.I.J. (Bushi and Hiromu Takahashi) and Suzukigun (El Desperado and Kanemaru), which included the release of a diss track by manager Rocky Romero and lost the titles in a really good triple threat with these teams.
13. Hirooki Goto, NEVER Openweight Championship (Third In 2018)
Goto’s fourth run with this title, and third this year, was a short one. He stepped up to fill in for his Chaos buddy Will Ospreay in a match against his rival Taichi and quickly set about trying to convince Kota Ibushi to fight him for a title that the Golden Star did not seem to get the appeal of at all. As usual, Goto said he wanted to elevate the NEVER Openweight Championship… and then ended up actually doing that by losing it to one of the company’s biggest stars who was placed in a dream match at the Tokyo Dome immediately afterward. Such is the life of perennial NJPW bridesmaid Hirooki Goto. At least he got two solid matches and a legitimately funny comedy bit out of this though.
12. Chris Jericho, IWGP Intercontinental Championship
At this point it’s clear that Jericho’s entire IC run has been in service of building his upcoming Wrestle Kingdom 13 match with Naito. He defeated Naito in a brutal match at Dominion, immediately counted it with his WWE Intercontinental wins to declare himself a ten-time champ, and then disappeared until the fall. In a year with many absent champion angles in the company, Jericho’s sporadic appearances became frustrating. With his surprise cameos in various promotions, plus Jericho Cruise a whole thing this year, Y2J felt like more of a meme than a champion. However, when he’s shown up in NJPW, he’s really shown up, and his feud and match with Evil and following revived feud with Naito have been a lot of fun. We want you to get your ass kicked at the Dome because we love you, Jericho!
11. Guerrillas of Destiny, IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship
With their win in a tense match against the Young Bucks, another significant moment in the OG vs. Elite feud, Tama Tonga and Tanga Loa became tied for the third-most IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship reigns (with four) ever. The brothers have been extremely confident double champs this entire time, and soon gained the obnoxious help of Master Heater Jado’s kendo stick and airhorn. G.o.D. had a solid run in World Tag League that included them inheriting Gedo and Jado’s Super Powerbomb finishing move and making it to the finals for the third year in a row, only to fall short to Evil and Sanada. Their first title defense is still to come at Wrestle Kingdom 13, but the Guerrillas have been pretty fun champs so far, especially as part of the fresh Bullet Club lineup.
10. Jay White, IWGP United States Championship
Jay White became the second U.S. Champion in a shock win over Kenny Omega right after his Dome match against Tanahashi failed to make him an instant star, and then went right into a feud with Hangman Page that most people didn’t really care about. A lot of people, including me, didn’t understand why this push was happening at the time! But over the course of this championship reign, we saw the Switchblade grow into himself, with his character work and matches getting better all the time. He ascended to The Absolute Worst during his feud with former dojo pal David Finlay, and the increasingly intense build to his match with Juice saw both wrestlers go into their title bout with crazy heat and fans the most invested in a U.S. title match since Alpha vs. Omega.
9. Kota Ibushi, NEVER Openweight Championship
Kota Ibushi had to be tricked into the match that ended in him winning this title, but embraced it as soon as he did. His upcoming match with Ospreay is a highly anticipated part of Wrestle Kingdom 13 and has been previewed in very good, creative tag matches. The Golden Star’s had this belt for a very short period of time, but he’s already elevated it like stripper heels. NEVER Openweight Champion Ibushi seems to signal a new era of the belt as a true openweight title and/or a home for flippier kinds of wrestling, in contrast to its past status as the extra hard-hitting, strong style belt.
8. Juice Robinson, IWGP United States Championship
Juice Robinson winning this championship, his first in NJPW, was the culmination of years of visible hard work to improve as a wrestler and become a crowd favorite first in Japan, then in the U.S. He was a true people’s champion going into the G1 with a broken hand… which played a role in him losing six out of nine matches and racking up a long list of possible challengers. When Cody cut the line at the G1 final, it was a bad look for the title – no one who beat Robinson in the tournament even contested their possible loss of a shot at it! But Robinson again stepped up and showed why he’s one of New Japan’s rising stars by cutting fiery promos on the absent Cody all the way up to Fighting Spirit Unleashed. He performed well there and kept the audience invested, but sadly lost the belt that seemed to be made for him. Although Robinson’s first title run ultimately might have left the U.S. Championship in worse shape than when he got it, it signaled a bright future for the performer and increased interest in the belt for a while.
7. Hirooki Goto, NEVER Openweight Championship (Second In 2018)
I’m calling Goto’s second NEVER Openweight Championship reign this year his best because his really good G1 run (Remember that match with Ishii? Remember when he threw a chair at Omega???) and revived feud with Taichi made me way more interested in what would happen next with this championship than anything else in 2018 before August. His matches before this with Elgin and special guest star Jeff Cobb didn’t drive the crowds of Japan or the States wild, but were decent, and he and Cobb and some entertaining chemistry during the build to their bout. He lost the title in a match that began with Taichi knocking him unconscious before the bell and the crowd still largely supporting Taichi for a while, but his engaging old-school, tough babyface comeback against multiple opponents got the crowd on his side in time for him to lose. Hopefully now that he’s free of this belt (after another, previously listed reign), his in-ring ability and fighting spirit will be put to good use in another title picture.
6. Evil and Sanada, IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship
Evil and Sanada got their asses beat by K.E.S. for most of their match at Wrestle Kingdom 12, and made fans happy by making a comeback to win the these tag titles. The championships were then cleverly incorporated into the singles careers of the very effective team of two primarily singles wrestlers, with Evil and Sanada defending against Goto and Okada the show before Evil challenged for the NEVER belt and Sanada for The Big One. Their extended feud with Killer Elite Squad, part of the crowd-pleasing L.I.J. vs. Suzukigun war in the spring, led to an enjoyable title defense against the monsters, and their losing effort against the Bucks at Dominion was a good bout as well. The popularity of these two lovable goths as singles wresters/members of L.I.J. definitely seemed to help raise interest in these tag team championships for the first half of this year.
5. Minoru Suzuki, IWGP Intercontinental Championship
After a long, lackluster NEVER reign in 2017, Suzuki knocked it out of the park with the white belt this year. The loss of his hair seemed to put a new fire under his belly and hate in his heart for the match in which he won this championship from Tanahashi via referee stoppage (allowing the Ace to take some time off for his messed up knees.) His feud with Makabe, two veterans, the cruel King of Pro Wrestling vs. the everyman trying to revive the glory of his GBH prime, was a crowd pleaser. However, it didn’t even get close to generating the hype of the L.I.J. vs. Suzukigun feud that consumed NJPW in the spring. Though Suzuki and Naito are very fun characters to watch together and put on one of the year’s best builds, their title match ultimately didn’t live up to it, and Suzuki’s IC title reign ended more weakly than it could have.
4. Will Ospreay, IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship
Ospreay began his second reign with the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship by winning a fatal four-way that included Hiromu Takahashi, Marty Scurll, and Kushida, and proceeded to defend his title against these three men in very good matches, although the part of the one with Scurll I best remember now is that terrifying neck bump that kicked off months of scream-selling. He fit in a rad champion vs. champion match with Okada, a quickie with Liger (due to that untimely Rey Mysterio injury), and a solid Best of the Super Juniors performance during this time as well. When the time came for him to lose the title to Takahashi at Dominion, he skillfully played a much more heelish role that helped get the hot Osaka crowd even more hyped for the Ticking Time Bomb to dethrone him. There are definitely things you could criticize about Ospreay’s time with this championship, but overall, I think he crushed it and made me care about all of his title matches.
3. El Desperado and Yoshinobu Kanemaru, IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship
El Desperado and Kanemaru won these championships through dubious means on the Anniversary Show in a three-way I loved and proceded to drive the rest of the junior heavyweight division crazy for what is now the longest Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship reign in twenty years. Their obnoxious attitude, entertaining/gaslighting promos, and mix of creative cheating with good wrestling in their matches have made these guys fun to watch and root against for most of this year. Especially after their very good, cheating-filled string of matches in Super Junior Tag League, I’m ready to see this fun title reign end with a babyface win and some post-match whining by the Suzukigun goons.
2. Hiromu Takahashi, IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship
Hiromu Takahashi was set to have a legendary run with this title before his neck injury in July. He was extremely hot, maybe the hottest act in the company when he won the belt from Ospreay coming off his Best of the Super Juniors victory, and transitioned right into the escalation of his already wild feud with El Desperado for an excellent title defense on Kizuna Road.
With Hiromu Takahashi as their champion, whatever happened in the junior heavyweight division felt the main thing to watch out for on NJPW shows. He seemed to have chemistry with everyone and drive every wrestler he came in contact with to bring their A-Game. His humanizing of Mr. Belt and Mr. Trophy and weird art on social media and at press conferences kept fans engaged beyond the mat. He even got a solemn Slideshow Of Champions to play before his title defenses like they have before the Heavyweight Championship matches!
A feud with Ishimori felt inevitable after what was sure to be a good match against Dragon Lee in San Francisco… if that [good/crazy] match hadn’t included the injury from which he still has not recovered. Even with his Junior Heavyweight Championship reign cut short, Takahashi managed to do what many wrestlers only talk about, elevate his title and his division.
1. Kazuchika Okada, IWGP Heavyweight Championship
The 2018 section of Kazuchika Okada’s record-setting 720-day IWGP Heavyweight Championship run began with the Rainmaker put in a less than sympathetic position. He finally came into his own as a super dominant champ by beating Naito, the people’s choice to win at Wrestle Kingdom 12. However, he soon regained any lost goodwill by absolutely killing it for the rest of his run. After a defense against Sanada firmly established Okada as a Golden God, he had two compelling feuds that showed his versatility in the ring and in terms of his character work. Zack Sabre Jr. was perfectly built up as an unstoppable submission master with his New Japan Cup run to be defeated at Sakura Genesis. The latest chapter of his feud with Tanahashi, who challenged Okada to defend his record of eleven successful defenses when there was no one else to stand in the champion’s way, culminated in one of the year’s best matches in front of an extremely hot crowd.
When Okada finally dropped the title, it was in a match as legendary as the reign that preceded it, the athletic marvel that was the two out of three falls Omega-Okada IV, which included an incredible performance by the Rainmaker. The icing on the cake (a cake you would read about in an article called Most Expensive Deserts In The World because it has 24 karat gold in the frosting or something) for all this was that Okada even continued to make the IWGP Heavyweight Championship feel valuable after he lost it when his fall from the top spot caused him to have a months-long identity crisis.