Jake Lee; GHC
It is sometimes said that a wrestler can make a championship. The refrain that it is the responsibility of a champion to ‘dye the belt in their own colours’ reaches across promotions. The inverse is also true, as a wrestler can come into their own as champion, finding new depths of personality or expression as they try to live up to expectations and legacy. Occasionally, both are true.
Jake Lee entered NOAH on 1st January 2023 an outsider, entering in the same costume and to the same entrance theme he used just weeks before in AJPW. Those elements haven’t changed but Jake’s hands (or at least his gloves) are now, quite literally, dyed the same green as the company whose highest belt he now holds.
While his reign is doubtless the story of Jake rising – taking a risk in leaving AJPW and betting on himself – it is also the story of Jake being drawn into a story bigger than himself: NOAH’s story. Jake’s reign has consisted entirely of defences over the central characters of NOAH. In those matches he has explicitly sought to absorb the experience of his opponents to further his own championship reign. Whether intentionally or otherwise, those matches and the lessons he has learned from them are shaping who he is as a champion and a wrestler. They have also proved powerful catalysts for those he has faced. Jake may have professed no particular loyalty to NOAH, but he is nonetheless absorbing its colour.
Dethroning the prince/Kaito Kiyomiya 19 March 2023
When Jake made his dramatic entrance to NOAH, his only act that day was to secure himself an alliance with future ‘Good Looking Guys’ stablemate, Jack Morris. Jake’s first match a week later was against the only person to show a strong interest in him as an opponent: the talented but perpetually overlooked Inamura. It wasn’t quite starting at the bottom, but it was also not seemingly the invader aiming for the top.
Three months passed, with Jake expressing only a vague intellectual curiosity in the GHC title. He queried whether Kiyomiya was truly able to hold such a heavy burden. He spoke of an interest in one Katsuhiko Nakajima. He stood ringside while teammate Jack Morris made his own title challenge against Kaito. He waited.
When he chose his moment, it was dramatic and brutal. At Keiji Mutoh’s retirement show on February 21st 2023, Kaito had a long-awaited match against NJPW’s star, Kazuchika Okada. Kaito lost. The match was not without merit. Although clearly outmatched, Kaito showed heart befitting a young ace and this was as much about recognition for Kaito as it was about winning. But there was more than Kaito’s journey to consider; this was not just Kaito’s loss but the loss of one company’s champion to another’s. Jake saw a weakness, and an opportunity. He found the defeated champion backstage and delivered a message: Kaito should rest now. There were people better prepared to shoulder the weight of the GHC.
Throughout the build up to the match Jake delivered his message of ‘Kaito should rest’ with a sinister benevolence, mixing supposed concern for the wellbeing of the future ace with his cutting assessment that Kaito did not currently have the capabilities to hold the GHC. The ambiguity and duality in his statements have been a regular feature of Jake’s character work as he plays with expectations of his audience, revealing just enough to raise questions. Is he motivated by a genuine concern for the future of NOAH, or his personal ambition? This duality is also present in how Jake spoke about his personal interest in the GHC, describing it as a ‘symbol of freedom’ for him – a physical manifestation of his ability to conquer new challenges. Although this could show a disregard for the weight of legacy and responsibility that comes with the belt, it is also a parallel with the journey of Misawa and even NOAH itself in emerging from AJPW in search of new challenges and freedom. Is Jake then a worthy heir to the crown, or a usurper who will endanger the Ark?
The title match was as dramatic and brutal as Jake’s first approach and, like Jake’s argument that Kaito needed to rest, what begins as a relatively gentle lesson turns into a cruel disassembly of Kaito’s abilities. Jake’s size and physicality play a role in him being able to dominate Kaito, but this is not just a physical mismatch. Kaito also has to defeat Jake’s argument that it would be better for someone else to lead NOAH.
Throughout the match Jake appeared like a man carrying out a necessary task, almost bored by the inevitability of the result. Even his moments of frustration appeared more fueled by Kaito ignoring the lesson Jake was trying to teach, rather than any concern for the outcome. Kaito, by contrast, showed determination but not certainty. He demonstrated a willingness to destroy himself to retain his grip on the title but it did not feel like part of any plan.
Jake’s offence became increasingly cruel in a show of dominance over the young champion. The crowd responded as the stakes kept getting higher. A somersault from Kaito, over the corner ring post onto Jake on the outside, sent them both sprawling and the crowd into a frenzy but it still seemed like Jake was guiding the direction of the match. Even without a mocking wave of his hands, Jake appeared to be conducting the audience as they shouted for Kaito to find a way.
Kaito started a concerted attack on Jake’s legs. He kicked out of positions that would and have destroyed other wrestlers. None of it was enough. He could hurt Jake, but he could not even scratch Jake’s confidence.
Kaito drew on the gifts that Mutoh gave him to try to turn things to his advantage. He opted for his modified Shining Wizard. The first was not enough. The second Jake caught firmly, stopping Kaito in his tracks. The front kick that would come to be named the FBS ‘Face Break Shot’ put an end to Kaito’s protests. Jake won both the argument and the GHC Heavyweight Championship. Kaito was left to find a new way forward.
Jake was handed the belt. He stared at it, longer than is needed, contemplating it like seeing it for the first time. He settled it on his shoulder.
It was barely there an instant before there was a wolf at the gate.
NOAH’s Strength/Katsuhiko Nakajima 16 April 2023
Jake’s first celebration was interrupted with a smile, an offer, and a threat. Katsuhiko Nakajima, the man who has earned the right to say ‘ore ga NOAH’, came to the ring with a suggestion that he could show Jake what NOAH truly is. Jake accepted immediately.
The show was billed as ‘The Lunatic Gate’, perhaps because both wrestlers hide a weight of meaning behind their threatening smiles and laughter. But if there was madness, there was also method in the clear and pointed challenges they made to each other.
Nakajima contested Jake’s right to lead NOAH after only three months in the company, highlighting Jake’s lack of understanding of NOAH’s history and struggles. It was a fair challenge given Nakajima’s experience of striving to be at the very centre of NOAH and Jake’s very recent history, joining NOAH in a period of big budget shows driven by Mutoh’s retirement. What could Jake understand about NOAH’s struggles? Jake didn’t directly address Nakajima’s criticism but he did hint at a deeper understanding of NOAH than he had perhaps been given credit for. Although Jake was a newcomer, he showed he was not without insight. He noted in interviews that leading in NOAH is not about being the best individually but showing that the company is strong. He referred to the GHC belt as ‘heavy, but comfortable’, seemingly acknowledging that it was more than just his ticket to gaining new and more interesting opponents.
Jake, mostly sidestepping the question of his validity as champion, focused his challenge on his own curiosity about the threat Nakajima represented as a man able to end a match with one shot. Jake’s comments were an unsubtle reference to incidents in Nakajima’s recent past where unfortunately-landed shots resulted in injuries to his opponents and sometimes criticism of Nakajima himself – first Tetsuya Endo of DDT and later NOAH’s Kinya Okada. It’s a provocation he perhaps regretted when, at the press conference, a single slap from Nakajima knocked Jake to the floor.
Jake also stated that he wanted to learn Nakajima’s history (though not explicitly NOAH’s) through their fight. It seems unfeasible that Jake might not already have known a little of that history himself second-hand, having been rival and teammate to Kento Miyahara, but his curiosity seemed about more than just fleshing out an impression. He seemed to genuinely want to absorb some deeper understanding of Nakajima. And Nakajima IS NOAH.
Jake vs Nakajima was entirely different to Jake vs Kaito. Gone was Jake’s bored certainty, replaced with the tension of a spring, ready to uncoil. His gestures at the start were much the same but, as Jake conducted the audience this time, there was audible support for him.
Both men appeared full of violence and frustration. Jake’s curiosity about Nakajima’s skills did not extend to him wanting to be on the receiving end of them for any length of time. It took only two of Nakajima’s kicks before Jake was trying to throw Nakajima around as he did Kaito. It was not so successful this time. Although Jake was able to use his size to control Nakajima at points, it was not consistent. Nakajima was able to show Jake that this was his match too. And Jake was clear that he did not like it. His frustration whenever he hit the mat was immediate, unguarded and did not serve him. He lost his composure. Repeatedly. Nakajima’s cruelty, not Jake’s, was on display here. Nakajima crouched over the fallen Jake to deliver a series of brutal punches, then elbows.
In the end, it was over in one shot as advertised, except it was Jake’s, not Nakajima’s. Again, the high front kick to the face ended the fight of his opponent. This time it was delivered with the desperation of a man who looked like he needed to destroy something.
As Nakajima exited the ring, he looked weaker than he had done in months. Jake had taken everything. Before the match, Jake had suggested that it might serve as Nakajima’s turning point. It did.
NOAH’s History/Naomichi Marufuji 4 May 2023
Jake got more than a moment with his title in the ring this time, though he did not leave it without a challenger. After a brief lull, the man who is almost synonymous with NOAH made his way to the ring to stand in front of the champion. Naomichi Marufuji came to challenge, not because he is NOAH, but because he is Naomichi Marufuji.
If Jake’s first title challenge was Nakajima’s turning point, this second challenge was his own. Even before the match Jake suggested that what was truly interesting about this match was that he could not go through it unchanged, stating “What I have to care about now, it will change entirely”. By the conclusion to this match, Jake’s relationship to NOAH had undergone an important shift.
Although Marufuji did not make his challenge, as Nakajima had, to defend NOAH specifically, the connection was obvious. In his own words, Marufuji is ‘real NOAH’. It was not something he downplayed in his challenge, he just didn’t need to say it. Jake, on the other hand, made a point of saying it. He went as far as to suggest that it would be beneficial for the future of the company for two of them to lessen the connection in people’s minds between Marufuji and NOAH. Marufuji’s defeat might just be a way to do that and usher in a new era. In Jake’s narrative he, the outsider, was a collaborator with one of NOAH’s most established leaders, securing the future of the company. He was shedding his outsider position.
Jake and Marufuji approached this match with a mix of ego and humility; Marufuji acknowledged he was not the wrestler he once was, now celebrating his 25th year in wrestling; Jake made frequent reference to Marufuji’s capabilities, both in a physical and mental sense. Jake had previously spoken about having to rely on his intellectual capacities, rather than his physical gifts, to outperform his opponents. This was exactly the challenge that Marufuji, known as ‘the genius of the Ark’, was supposedly facing in Jake. Marufuji spoke about now being the same age as his teacher, Misawa, when Misawa had beaten him for the GHC Championship. The current position was a role reversal, with the younger wrestler now more steeped in AJPW and the older one in NOAH. As well as a physical clash, the symmetry and intellectual challenge made this both similar and different to Jake’s previous GHC matches.
Before the bell had even rung, the symbolism was on display. As Jake removed the red leather gloves he always wore to the ring, he revealed that the red inlay in his hand and wrist guards had been replaced with a bright and obvious green. Just as the man in the opposite corner, he was a man who blended something of NOAH and of All Japan in his history and, now, in his presentation. Marufuji, no stranger to symbolism himself, was wearing the green wristbands he had worn in the past to honour his mentor, Misawa. The battle for control of the Ark had begun.
The match was precisely the mental and physical battle that the build-up promised, with Marufuji almost always coming out on top. Marufuji started with a clear strategy of attacking Jake’s left arm, preparation for the Perfect Keylock, but it was his rapid hook kicks and knee strikes that turned the tide his way. He repeatedly kept Jake off-balance, slipping out of holds that would enable Jake to use his physical advantage and running through the deep arsenal of moves that had earned him his ‘genius of the Ark’ moniker. An avalanche Shiranui and another onto the apron showed that his age was not a hinderance to him delivering significant damage. Jake’s successful attacks were more damaging but they came too far apart to shift things his way.
Jake’s supporters were visible, carrying support signs and GLG merchandise, but they were increasingly drowned out by the vocal support for Marufuji. Two years previously Marufuji and Mutoh had put on an unfeasibly athletic and dramatic title match that had seen Marufuji wrest the title from Mutoh’s iron grip. The crowd knew that where Marufuji and the title were concerned, the impossible was possible.
As Marufuji calls flowed around the hall, Jake looked shaken, unable to match Marufuji’s timing. Almost every pin or likely submission had been Marufuji’s. Although not in the same physical danger he had been in with Nakajima, unless Jake could figure out how to stop Marufuji’s offence and land his own, he had no way to win.
He figured it out. Or perhaps Marufuji slowed enough to create an opening. Either way, the length of time from Jake finally finding an opportunity to him ending the match was mere moments. A Giant Killing knee and, yet again, the Face Break Shot, had Marufuji down for the pin. A clean, but hard won victory.
There was no challenger this time. Instead there was space for Jake to acknowledge Marufuji and for him to end the show like an established champion, secure in his position at the helm of the Ark. Any future challenger would be challenging NOAH’s champion, not an outside upstart with no understanding of the belt he held.
NOAH’s Power/Takashi Sugiura 17 June 2023
Some saw the returned Shiozaki as the inevitable next challenger for Jake. Who better than ‘I am NOAH’ himself to continue Jake’s run of challenging NOAH’s legends? But Shiozaki’s first match back was far from a return to his previous form and had taken a rather different path, reuniting him with his AXIZ tag partner, Katsuhiko Nakajima. Instead, Jake himself found the man he wanted: Takashi Sugiura.
Sugiura is NOAH in a way he does not need to claim. He does not have the simple lineage of Marufuji or Shiozaki or Kaito, but he has been at the heart of NOAH’s story for almost the whole of its history. It is only in recent years that his record of GHC Heavyweight title reigns has been beaten by Shiozaki and matched by Marufuji. To prove yourself a worthy NOAH champion, sooner or later, one must pass through Sugiura.
Jake’s choice of Sugiura emphasises how much he understands about NOAH and what it means to be worthy as its champion. There are easier ways to prove yourself as a fighting champion but Jake chose a path that took him again to NOAH’s heart. He made clear that the choice was deliberate; it needed to be Sugiura.
Sugiura stated, with his usual humour, that he was grateful for the match, but made it clear that he didn’t see himself as NOAH’s last resort. Sugiura’s aim was to beat Jake, but not on behalf of NOAH. He wanted to put on a match that he and his supporters, in the form of his daughter and the injured Shinjiro Otani, could be proud of. It was an emotional and meaningful goal. Otani had sustained a cervical spine injury in a match with Sugiura in April 2022, resulting in paralysis from the neck downwards. Otani’s recovery had been slight and slow, though nonetheless impressive for his resolve and progression. In the aftermath, Sugiura had seemed like a shadow of his former self, struggling with his role in Otani’s injury. Sugiura’s turning point had occurred some time before, having had successful tag title reigns with Satoshi Kojima and Shuhei Taniguchi, but receiving a message from Otani ahead of this match made it a significant challenge for him, even beyond the title and Jake himself.
This was a match about NOAH, but it was also very much a match about Sugiura. As with Nakajima, Jake did not shy away from talking about the threat that Sugiura represented to his physical health, but stated that he wanted to live for now and face that challenge. In a way, he represented the same message that Otani had delivered in relation to Sugiura’s role in his injury – it was better to live a pro wrestling life fully and to fight with all their strength.
They did not hold back.
Despite the emotional weight, this match did not receive quite the same fanfare as Jake’s previous defences. It drew a smaller crowd and, unlike all Jake’s other title matches in NOAH, did not have the pre-match videos translated into English. It did, however, still have a heated build-up as Jake discovered, like many before him, that Takashi Sugiura’s strength defies all logic. He also discovered that Takashi Sugiura can be incredibly annoying if he wants to be. Sugiura mimicked Jake’s gentlemanly mannerisms, taunting him with his own belt and starting fights outside the ring. Jake was hardly better behaved, his frustration evident in each encounter. By the time they met in the ring in Nagoya, it was clear this would not be an easy victory for either of them.
It was apparent from the start that Jake and Sugiura are well matched. Both have a background in MMA and a deep stubborn streak. Unlike Jake’s other defences, there was no obvious leader for much of this match. They traded back and forth, mixing heavy slams and strikes with vicious submissions. Their styles may differ – Sugiura’s strength and power pitted against Jake’s physicality and cunning – but the outcome was the same with both spending time collapsed on the mat or reaching desperately for the ropes. It took nearly 20 minutes before either seemed to take a significant lead.
A turning point came as Sugiura held Jake down in the corner, landing strike after strike, much to the frustration of referee Suichi Nishinaga. It seemed that Sugiura’s violence might have worn Jake down, but Jake’s stubborn streak surfaced. He leaned into the strikes, forcing Sugiura backwards as he stood. His eyes dead, he stared at Sugiura, forcing his gaze back after every blow. Sugiura did not stop but an uppercut from Jake opened an opportunity for an attack. Unfortunately for Jake, it was Sugiura that took that opportunity, catching Jake in a front headlock choke. The next few moments seemed like a battle of will, finally ending in Jake somehow lifting Sugiura to slam him down. It was a microcosm of the rest of the match as both the violence and the impossibility of their responses to it escalated. In this, it was very much a Sugiura match. Jake got the trial he requested.
Sugiura became the first of NOAH’s leaders to walk away from a direct FBS with barely a stagger, almost immediately throwing Jake with an Olympic Slam. The shouts for Sugiura were loud and consistent. By this stage, Jake was far from unpopular among the NOAH fanbase, but his title matches still brought out the love of NOAH fans for its established heroes.
Somehow, they lasted another five minutes more, sweat flying from their kicks and punches. The near falls were the sort that make you scream inadvertently, shocked that more is possible. The FBS ended it again, finally, though Jake looked more relieved than triumphant as the GHC belt was pressed into his hands.
NOAH’s Jake Lee?
In the opening video for the Jake vs Sugiura match, Jake is pictured ordering a bright green cream soda. It sits by his side until the end of the interview, when he is pictured taking a deep sip, green liquid flowing up the straw between his lips. It’s the perfect symbolism for a man desperate to consume the best of what NOAH has to offer. Or maybe it is just a good cream soda.
Jake’s reign has been much more than these matches alone but, for a champion, they are the markers of his progression and right to hold his belt. First he only sought his freedom; then understanding, first in body and then in mind, taught by NOAH’s leaders; and finally the experience of what it means to be a NOAH champion. He is inducted now. Outside of his title challenges, he can continue to walk the narrow line of belonging and not belonging he appears to have set for himself. Once called upon as champion however, he has to accept the realities of fighting for and with NOAH, something he seems to have done over the course of his reign thus far. More than that, he has also, through his defences, put the spotlight on NOAH’s existing legends as still worthy defenders of the Ark. Each defence match could have gone differently and, even in defeat, there has been something for each of them to take away. Nakajima found he needed a new direction (or rather, an old one), Marufuji’s challenge showed he is still a force to be reckoned with in his 25th year of wrestling, and Sugiura reminded everyone that he is not only an excellent tag champion but still the killing machine in singles competition. Everyone is able to look forward. Although he may not make the claims of other champions that he is NOAH, his own success and NOAH’s are interdependent now. What he has to care about has changed.
Ruth is @ruthisanotter on twitter. Say hi!
Images used here are sourced from @pkdx puro coverage