Match Point is an on-going series at Last Word on Pro Wrestling, where we look at intriguing matchups in indie wrestling and beyond. They may be dream matches, first-time matchups, or hotly anticipated rematches. In this edition of Match Point, we will take the very personal story that heads into the huge double championship match on Saturday in NJPW, where EVIL defends both IWGP Heavyweight & IWGP Intercontinental Championship against former friend Hiromu Takahashi at Sengoku Lord on Saturday, July 25.
It was one of the most shocking turns in recent New Japan history. EVIL, who had been Tetsuya Naito‘s most loyal foot soldier in Los Ingobernables de Japon, turned his back on his longtime friend and leader to join (and take leadership of) Bullet Club and then defeat Naito to become both the IWGP Heavyweight and IWGP Intercontinental Champion in the process. But it was LIJ’s Junior Heavyweight ace “The Timebomb” Hiromu Takahashi who too EVIL’s defection the worst. The video of him screaming as EVIL walked away from him with his new Bullet Club allies, leading into Hiromu’s breakdown in the back press area was chilling and emotional. But that’s because EVIL was arguably not only Hiromu’s best friend in LIJ, but in the entire New Japan locker room.
“Hiromu Takahashi…saw the destruction of a long held bond with EVIL,” it wrote on New Japan’s website, “one that stretches long before fans came to know who the Time Bomb and King of Darkness were. EVIL’s betrayal cut Takahashi the deepest.” To understand why their bond was so strong, you have to go back to 2011 when both were Young Lions in New Japan. Takahashi had joined the NJPW Dojo in 2009, while EVIL – then just simply Takaaki Watanabe – joined in 2011. The two became close friends as they undertook their Young Lion training in preparation for heading to NJPW’s main roster.
While Takashi would make it to the main roster first, Watanabe would have his first-ever New Japan match at NJPW Life Goes On! on May 13, 2011. At that year’s Best of the Super Juniors XVIII, both men fought each other in two dark matches. Their chemistry became apparent early on. The two competed in singles matches against each other for nearly a solid year, either in dark matches or opening contests, but the two became friendly rivals in the ring, with their respect growing behind the scenes even more. Allies more than anything, they also competed often together as a tag team, until Takahashi went on his New Japan excursion, heading to Mexico’s Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL) in 2014 until 2016, while Watanabe headed to the US to compete for Ring of Honor (ROH).
But it was Watanabe who got recalled back to New Japan first, returning to the company in October of 2015, where he helped Naito and became the first soldier in LIJ. It was then that Naito gave him his new moniker, “The King of Darkness, EVIL”. The unit was soon joined by BUSHI in November, and in April of 2016, SANADA joined. In December of 2016, Takahashi finally returned from Mexico and soon rejoined Watanabe – now EVIL – in LIJ. The unit was so tight it became New Japan’s most static group. It wasn’t until October of 2018 when they would recruit again, adding Shingo Takagi, and they haven’t recruited again since. They were without a doubt New Japan’s most stable and loyal faction.
But while Takahashi rose quickly in the Junior Heavyweight division, “The Time Bomb” found singles success quicker than EVIL. He’s become a 3x IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion (including his current 202-day reign) and continuously stolen the show on multiple events. While EVIL started off promising – he won the NEVER Openweight Championship late 2016 (for a measly 10 days) – he would soon become more of a tag team specialist. While he’d be quite successful in his own right, becoming a 2x IWGP Tag Team Champion with SANADA, and a record-tying 4x NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Champion with various LIJ running mates, he never quite got back into singles contention within his own group, let alone in New Japan. Which made his victory at New Japan Cup this year, followed by the explosive turn that resulted in him winning the top two titles in New Japan so shocking. He was arguably the last person you would expect from LIJ to climb that mountain.
But it wasn’t just that he’d defeated Naito for both belts that had Takahashi so emotionally broken – under the right circumstances, Hiromu would probably be very proud of his friend. But in leaving LIJ, turning his back on Hiromu to join Bullet Club, EVIL has done something of great dishonor to Takahashi – the erasing of their brotherhood, now all for naught and simply the stepping stones to EVIL’s ascension to the throne. With the emotional backstory of these two wrestler’s journey through NJPW together, there’s no way this match can not tell another powerful story and arguably both men’s best one yet.
Stay tuned to the Last Word on Pro Wrestling for more on this and other stories from around the world of wrestling, as they develop. You can always count on LWOPW to be on top of the major news in the wrestling world, as well as to provide you with analysis, previews, videos, interviews, and editorials on the wrestling world. You can catch NJPW Sengoku Lord on Saturday, July 25, at 5am EST live and on replay at NJPW World.