(NOAH) Looking back on Kenoh's reformation of the ark

From the March 28, 2018 issue of Weekly Pro Wrestling (No. 1948)

Translated by Dino (@purodino)

Noah's first big match of the year, March 11 at Yokohama Cultural Gymnasium. In the main event, Kenoh, who as GHC heavyweight champion appealed for change in the company, took on a challenge from "the symbol of the ark's strength," Takashi Sugiura. In the end, Sugiura triumphed, taking the title for the fourth time, a year and a half after his last reign, and setting a record for the greatest number of runs with the belt. Though Kenoh was dethroned while his reformation was just getting underway, he gained fans' trust in his three month reign as champion, and his achievements were by no means small. (By Weekly Pro Wrestling Editor in Chief Naoya Yuzawa).

Ark Improvement 1

"More people came this time than to the show where a lot of foreigners were invited. So things were progressing a little bit."

In December of last year, Kenoh defeated Eddie Edwards, and the 30th GHC heavyweight champion took the helm with the goal of bringing NOAH into a new era in the true sense. The GHC heavyweight title has the pedigree of history-making, as the belt of NOAH's founder and first champion, Mitsuharu Misawa. Those who wear it naturally reign at the top of NOAH, and bear responsibility for driving the promotion.

Kenoh didn't just maintain this resolve in the ring during matches, it also permeated his statements outside the ring and promotional activities, and he moved vigorously. And one thing that came of it was a defense, this time in a big match in Yokohama, against Takashi Sugiura.

After becoming GHC heavyweight champion, Kenoh vowed to change the firmly-rooted, lingering image that "NOAH = Marufuji, Sugiura." In order to make it so that "NOAH = Kenoh," he charged it was necessary to defeat the two of them directly, on a title match stage.

Though the two at the top of the ark would not be easily moved, on February 2 at Korakuen, after Kenoh defeated Yuko Miyamoto in a second successful defense, Sugiura stirred. Though he was Kenoh's tag partner, Kenoh kept provoking him with his words, and finally Sugiura declared his challenge. The title match Kenoh had long been waiting for came to be, but in the end, Kenoh was unseated by Sugiura.

Kenoh's blueprint for the future had been to defeat Sugiura in Yokohama, then call on Marufuji to challenge. He planned to beat Marufuji and, having defeated the two people who symbolize NOAH one after the other, he'd have climbed to the top of the ark in both name and substance. Though this plan came to an end as he attempted the first step, after only three months, the serious "reformation of the ark" that Kenoh strove for as champion deserves to be properly assessed.

Until the year before last, Suzuki-gun was laying waste to NOAH's ring, and when there were big matches, many of New Japan's forces took part. To put it frankly, in terms of image, NOAH undeniably felt like it had transformed into a New Japan umbrella company. But the year before last, the participation of New Japan's forces in NOAH, including Suzuki-gun, came to an end. Last year, NOAH took up the banner of "NOAH the REBORN," and in the ring, the members of the regular roster mainly fought each other.

Kenoh, who transitioned to being a heavyweight at the start of last year, was working to seriously change NOAH. When he participated in the Zero 1 "Fire Festival" singles match tournament last summer, even though it was his goal to "aim for Masato Tanaka's neck," the things he accomplished on the outside were also accomplishments that brought him toward challenging for the GHC heavyweight title inside.

And so in the fall, back in NOAH's ring for the "Global League" tournament, he won for the first time. Since that time, NOAH fans have rated Kenoh quite highly, and with these fair winds, he took the GHC heavyweight title at the end of the year.

Now as champion, Kenoh adopted the goal of returning to the place where NOAH once appeared regularly, the Nippon Budokan. Articulating this easily understood, concrete goal, Kenoh's support from the NOAH fans, whom he calls "bastards," grew. And the man himself really felt it, too.

"Though I was like that, too, the bastards, who were coming to watch more than before, were starting, first of all, to look ahead. For NOAH up to now, I think a lot of regular fans had a feeling like 'hopeless again today, huh?' Now, looking ahead a bit, the number of return visitors was increasing. Though we'd become 'NOAH the REBORN' last year, just saying it doesn't change anything, and I thought nothing much had changed as of October of last year. We weren't 'reborn,' and since I thought it would be better to say something concrete, I just put it into words. And as a result that path was laid for fans."

Though it probably isn't wrong to talk about a vague dream, NOAH needed concrete goals right then. Because Kenoh understood that, he came out with "overthrow Marufuji and Sugiura" and "return to the Nippon Budokan" as his two clear, major goals. And so for NOAH's "rebirth," this had a bigger effect than a slogan that left it unclear what had changed.
To lend these goals some weight, Kenoh wanted the top belt. Though Kenoh's appeal as a wrestler remains, whether or not he has the belt, the power of your statements changes as GHC heavyweight champion, as the top wrestler in the promotion. And while Kenoh of course understood that reviving the company wouldn't be an easy thing, little by little the fruits of his labor emerged.

"Though I didn't think that the crowds would immediately increase, little by little, maybe there would be an uptick, and that was coming out in the actual numbers. For example, last time (Oct. 1 last year) in Yokohama, was a fucking boring show. To that extent, more people came this time than to the show where a lot of foreigners were invited. So things were progressing a little bit. Compared to last year, we're getting considerable results."

The last time Kenoh was talking about, on October 1 of last year at Yokohama Cultural Gymnasium, the main event was a GHC heavyweight title match, <champion> Eddie Edwards VS <challenger> Naomichi Marufuji. At that time, 2,274 people were in the audience; this time, 2,412 people. Though neither one hit the sell-out mark, and numerically it might not be a great advance, as proof of how Kenoh made NOAH evolve as champion, it's no small thing. Attendance numbers for promotions are a delicate "result," and it's been rare for wrestlers to stick their noses in the matter in NOAH. But Kenoh has shown the resolve to be able to wade into it.

Ark Improvement 2

"In NOAH, the lid has been kept too much on the difficult things. We have to open it up and solve the problem."

"In essence, NOAH, up to now, has been completely dependent on what Misawa made. Because I came from the outside, I could understand that. If you don't have some way of fitting with the times, it's not going to work in the modern era. Though in wrestling, it's important to put on good matches, it's important to express things in words, too. NOAH's character is an unpleasant topic, and I think the lid has been on this difficult thing since the old days. Rather, the lid has been too closed. We have to solve it or this fallen NOAH won't be able to ascend. Though I think it will make some people uncomfortable for me to make this kind of observation about an internal matter, having said this much, there are lots of things I have to do."

Kenoh understands the greatness of NOAH's founder, Misawa, and has a feeling of respect for him. For that very reason, in order to preserve NOAH, he believes strongly that the company needs to change and evolve.

"Though I understand myself that Misawa was a great man, in some respects we depend too much on the great Misawa. The company's way of operating from when Misawa was there, working behind the scenes during matches, too. Coming from the outside, I thought if you do things this way, one of these days it's not going to work anymore. Other veteran promotions seem to have had a number of rebirths -- New Japan and All Japan. If you keep doing things the old way, I think there will be nothing left in the present. Though NOAH may have been reborn last year (wry laugh), its character didn't change. In that regard, from now on there's no choice but to keep changing, even little by little."

It had a certain effect on Kenoh, who lost the title match he had been hoping for, when the power of Takashi Sugiura, the symbol of NOAH's strength, exploded on the big stage for the first time in a while. In February, when Sugiura announced his challenge in front of Kenoh, he said, self-deprecatingly, "I have not yet built my era." Sugiura holds the record for the greatest number of successive GHC title defenses, reaching V14, and now, he's won the belt for the fourth time. This was also a new record -- the greatest number of GHC title runs.

After the match, Sugiura took the mic and made reference to the Great East Japan Earthquake that occurred on March 11, 7 years before. He said that "naturally" he is grateful to be able to wrestle, and, of Kenoh who was once again backstage, he said he valued his abilities highly. With that, he said "I will build my new era," and smiled. The era turned. And in turning around, the era goes on being built. Sugiura, who had worn the GHC heavyweight belt a year and a half earlier, likely has a different method of leading NOAH than Kenoh. Though that method is of course of note, I'd like to pay attention to how Kenoh, who lost the belt, will continue on in the future. But the NOAH heavyweight war didn't just revolve around those two. In Yokohama, Atsushi Kotoge immediately challenged Sugiura, but the response inside the hall was mixed. Kenoh has harsh words to pour on these wrestlers.

"I was moved to act because I think heavyweight wrestlers like that who've been in NOAH for a while are half-assed. And whatever I might say to that extent, though as a heavyweight, I'm junior when it comes to career, no one said anything. Those kinds of guys just kept on being there. With that intention, I kept making so many self-important remarks. Whether they come bite on that, whether they don't, each wrestler has their own individual values. In that regard, in the ring I'm asking the bastard fans and the half-assed NOAH wrestlers a question at the same time. I think it's also my duty."

Kenoh, who will continue to provoke in all directions, is doing it all for the good of NOAH. Though he's lost the belt, Kenoh's reformation of the ark isn't over.