As we bid goodbye to the 2010s and usher in a new decade, wrestling fans can look forward to another ten years of thrills and spills in the squared circle. While there were highs and lows, wrestling remains a compelling art form. But what gives such a sense of longevity to the top tier performers? Having said goodbye to Jushin Thunder Liger, one of the most enduring characters in Japanese wrestling and, perhaps, Japanese pop culture, 2019 saw the conclusion of several character arcs for Liger, most notably his open-ended feud with Minoru Suzuki. But why is a character-based approach so successful and how can long-form storytelling endure in professional wrestling?

A case in point of the benefits of well-planned character arcs is that of New Japan’s Tetsuya Naito, winner of the Double Gold Dash at Wrestle Kingdom 14 and first-ever dual IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Champion.

Whether by design or not, the payoff of Naito’s win was monumental. Los Ingobernable has long been the most over guy in New Japan despite the fact that it wasn’t always this way. It has been well documented that Naito’s lowest ebb was being pushed out of the main event slot at the Tokyo Dome several years ago after a fan vote meant that Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi would headline the Dome. To rub salt in the wound, Naito was fighting for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, New Japan’s most important title and was still bumped to the semi-final match while the main event was for the inferior Intercontinental title. Ouch.

But whether by design or no, Naito adopted this resentment towards the Intercontinental title as an enduring character trait. Naito’s own runs with the belt he despised so much were characterised by him dragging it around and generally mashing the belt up to a point where it needed repairs. Rather than brushing it under the carpet, Naito owned his past. You only need to look at the finish to Wrestle Kingdom 14 and Naito employing the use of his old finisher, the Stardust Press, to see the callbacks to a past that Naito spent years trying to escape.

This long term view of Naito’s character and the road to redemption in the main event at the Tokyo Dome led to a massive payoff for the fans. The announce teams and video packages preceding Wrestle Kingdom 14 ramped up the idea that victory would be the ultimate catharsis for Naito. And the concept is so simple. Wrestler gets screwed out of his main event by the fans and spends several years getting over and then going on to win in the main event. There are no soap opera storylines or convoluted motivations, just a simple story with a massive payoff at the end. And the best thing? The end of Naito’s redemption arc paved the way for the beginning of KENTA’s revenge arc. Spurned by the fans on his ignominious return from the USA and WWE, the overentitled KENTA ruined Naito’s celebratory moment after winning in the Dome. Again, simple, yet highly effective in terms of giving KENTA what can only be described as thermonuclear levels of heat with the fans and building him into the heel that New Japan so desperately needs.

This isn’t to knock Jay White, whose astronomical rise to the main event scene has seen him come on leaps and bounds but there is no comparison between White and KENTA in terms of the level of heat that KENTA has. You only need to look back at Atsushi Onita’s invasion of New Japan and the reception he received at the Tokyo Dome against Chono to understand that the NJPW audience does not take well to outsiders from rival promotions. Another clever way of manipulating the crowd against KENTA and building him up.

In terms of the future of long-form, character-based approaches to wrestling storylines, the seeds of this have already been planted in AEW. This probably comes as no surprise, given the history of Executive Vice Presidents Cody, Kenny Omega and Matt and Nick Jackson with New Japan.

With a TV deal that’s been renewed for several years, AEW got off to a hot start in 2019 despite a few initial missteps, some more significant than others. AEW’s strong point, though, is its central investment in allowing its performers to develop their own characters. The lows of the Elite’s first several months, with the Young Bucks crashing out of the Tag Team Championship tournament early and Kenny Omega desperately scratching out his first singles win to finding success with Hangman Page in the tag team division are evidence of this.

For me, though, the standout example for AEW was in the Cody vs. Dustin Rhodes match. AEW’s use of video packages to build to big matches has been inconsistent and there is more to be done on that front but the sit-down interviews with Cody and Dustin were brilliant in giving a sense of the professional and family history of the two. I’m not ashamed to say I was in absolute bits by the end of their match which was a bloody, brutal affair.

Kenny Omega and Hangman Page are other cases in point. The fact that the Elite have suffered a treacherous string of big match defeats during AEW’s short history came as a surprise to many. While trying not to monopolise the top spots in the company, they were almost too generous with putting over the other talents. The ill-fated spot with the Dark Order tearing through every babyface on the roster was a prime example of this. However, the role of the babyface in any match is usually to fight back from behind and overcome the odds. In a stacked tag team division, Omega and Page have done just that, fighting against the Inner Circle to win the tag team titles.

The crowning of Chris Jericho as the AEW World Champion was also symbolic of the company’s investment in a wrestler who has changed and developed from his days as the Lionheart to now being Le Champion. As Jericho is built as a dominant force in the company, it’s a matter of time before he is toppled by the likes of Jon Moxley or Kenny Omega.

While the more contrived backstage skits on AEW Dynamite haven’t always hit the mark, the baton is there for AEW to pick up from New Japan in terms of the importance of developing solid characters. This can only come with time, though, but the groundwork is there for AEW to do so.

The longevity of a more character-based approach rather than over the top storylines comes from having compelling, well-rounded performers. These can certainly be over the top extensions of the wrestlers’ ‘real’ personalities but the point stands that such an approach only serves to complement what happens in the ring. AEW’s EVPs will no doubt continue to take from their time in New Japan and use that experience to push forward in their own unique way in 2020.

Images and videos courtesy of NJPW and AEW

By Stephen Goodman

Wrestling journalist based in south London. I like New Japan, Rev Pro, SOUL and lots more.

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