Part Two: The Protagonist of Pro Wrestling
After reaching a level of prominence deeming him undeniable in NOAH, the winds of change would take Kenoh beyond the ark itself. Through opposing bigger names and brands, while continuing on “internal” growth through more familiar opposition, Kenoh would go on a path to become the protagonist of pro wrestling, getting his promotion, his unit onto the biggest stage.
2021-2023: Changing the pecking order.
Let’s tackle this last part by doing a quick rewind, towards the end of August 2020, as AXIZ were trying to claim back the Heavyweight tag titles, following their loss to El Hijo del Dr. Wagner Jr and Rene Dupree. The latter being forced to vacate the titles, the former champions were set to collide against another Sugiura-Gun pairing: Kazushi Sakuraba and Takashi Sugiura himself. Shiozaki and Nakajima lost, and that loss led to one of the biggest moments of 2020 with Nakajima hitting the Vertical Spike on Shiozaki. Not only that, but as Kenoh approached and stood on the apron, Nakajima fist bumped him. Katsuhiko Nakajima, the eventual N-1 Victory 2020 winner and longtime enemy of Kenoh had joined Kongo.
While Nakajima tried to reclaim the Heavyweight title following his N-1 tournament win, Kenoh started a campaign, defending the National title against opponents of a particular kind: Hard hitters, well-versed in grappling techniques. Also, they all happened to be “old heads” and most of them had joined, or ended up joining, NOAH as part of Sugiura-Gun; Kazushi Sakuraba; Kendo Kashin; Kazunari Murakami; and the man Kenoh would ultimately lose the title to, Kazuyuki Fujita. The only exception to this rule was Masakatsu Funaki, who surprisingly aligned himself with Kongo following his loss to Kenoh.
By the time Kenoh lost the National title, his reign had lasted 229 days, which remains one of two National title reigns to go over 200 days. In his vendetta against Sugiura-Gun, Kenoh helped initiate this “new NOAH” and its audience to another kind of wrestling, a different take on the medium. This was Kenoh showing how versatile he can be in a ring, elevating the new title to a new standard, and in the process, elevating himself. This was Kenoh continuing to show that there is no challenge he fears, and no role he will not take if that means ultimately elevating NOAH, Kongo and himself.
The summer of 2021 allows us to quickly look back on another event from the previous year: Kongo clashing against DDT at Wrestle Peter Pan. The match, which had been a one-off confrontation, saw its fire reignite as the very first Cyberfight Festival event rolled around in 2021. DDT President Sanshiro Takagi declared war on Kongo, and ultimately forced Kenoh’s hand in participating in the event, believing no one in DDT was a match for him, not just in terms of ability, but style as well. Or so it seemed until Yukio Sakaguchi confronted him. That led to a 6 vs 6 tag team match at Cyberfight Festival 2021: Kongo vs DDT. The DDT side won the match, taking revenge for the Peter Pan loss the previous year, and the pattern we had first witnessed within NOAH expanded to a larger scale: It is in defeat which Kenoh takes the biggest steps. For himself in a sense, but also for NOAH. The confrontation against not only a new authority figure in Takagi (who had become NOAH president when DDT owners of Cyber Agent bought NOAH), but also an entire promotion bigger than NOAH at this stage, was very meaningful in all this development.
Let’s not forget that, in his quest to bring change and a different flavor to NOAH, Kenoh fought against The Great Muta on June 26th, lighting his kickpad on fire and taking part in yet another unique sort of match within the NOAH landscape.
Following on with our chronology, the second half of the year would see Kongo reach the top of NOAH. Kenoh would reclaim the National title from Masaaki Mochizuki in November. Prior to that, Katsuhiko Nakajima went back-to-back and won the N-1 Victory for the second time in a row, then winning the GHC Heavyweight title from Naomichi Marufuji to start his second reign, and incarnate NOAH in a way of his own. Nakajima proclaimed the same words rival Go Shiozaki had made his own: “I am NOAH”, but said them in Japanese: “Ore ga, NOAH da.” While in Shiozaki’s voice, those words sounded as those of an ace, concluding his journey back on top after tumultuous years in and out of NOAH. In Nakajima’s, the words sounded different, as if Nakajima used these words to assert himself further, something he could not quite do the last time he was Heavyweight champion. Nakajima was champion, yet the chip on his shoulder remained and using the same words as his rival may not have been out of pure malice and mockery.
And once again, seeing the opportunity to make history following his National title win, Kenoh challenged the Heavyweight champion to a double title match. Nakajima accepted, and November 28th would see the two hard kicking rivals now on the same side, fight again. Their own rivalry escalated all the way to the pinnacle of NOAH, and carrying the name of Kongo with them.
Kongo had reached the firmament, and both Kenoh and Nakajima were eager to show who was the strongest GHC champion. Ultimately, this match once again resulted in a 60 minutes draw, and both men walked out with their respective titles, just like the year prior when Kenoh fought Shiozaki.
As 2021 ended, Kenoh, with the help of one of his long-time rivals, had brought Kongo to the very top of NOAH, and continued to bring NOAH to the forefront of pro wrestling.
Both entities would only continue on making strides towards the biggest stage very quickly. On the second night of New Japan’s Wrestle Kingdom 16 in the Tokyo Dome, the NOAH roster, led by Keiji Muto, walked onto the biggest stage in Japan to confront the biggest wrestling entity in the country. Shingo Takagi, Hiromu Takahashi and BUSHI acting as the (un)welcoming committee, as both side confronted each other. As anybody knowing Kenoh would expect, he was quick to talk and act as the voice of not only Kongo, but all of NOAH at this moment.
That historical moment quickly led to a pay-off, as on January 8th, at Wrestle Kingdom in Yokohama Arena, both New Japan and NOAH collided. From the rookies to the top stars and a multitude of interpromotional matches, both sides fought. The match we will focus on is none other than Los Ingobernables de Japon, all five of them, versus the Kongo quintet of Katsuhiko Nakajima, Manabu Soya, Tadasuke, Aleja, and of course, Kenoh.
It was a match which Kongo lost, as most of the NOAH side did on that night. But as you know at this point, the loss is fairly anecdotic in the grand scheme of things. Losing is only but a hurdle to overcome, and a reason to eventually return the favor.
As we remain on the topic of interpromotional battles, Kenoh later took part in the now annual Cyberfight Festival, defeating Damnation T.A leader Daisuke Sasaki in a hardcore match, cementing himself further as the man NOAH could count on when it comes to represent the promotion in interpromotional battles, again no matter the stipulation or opponent. As Kenoh is determined to prove that NOAH are the best, that he is the best.
Back to NOAH affairs, Kenoh quickly lost the National title to Masakatsu Funaki in early January, though not before first beating Kaito Kiyomiya in Nippon Budokan and then Daisuke Harada in his last two defenses.
Throughout the year, Kenoh tried to win the tag team titles, and failed on every occasion. First teaming up with Manabu Soya and losing to Keiji Muto and Naomichi Marufuji in January. Then taking part in a tournament to crown new champions alongside Masakatsu Funaki, and losing to eventual champions Takashi Sugiura and Hideki Suzuki. Kenoh would challenge the Sugiura-Gun pairing again, teaming with Katsuhiko Nakajima this time. A pairing which may now suit both men, growing from fierce rivals to stablemates, to now tag team partners since 2020 and Nakajima joining Kongo. Sugiura was still holding the titles, but his partner was quite unlikely, being New Japan’s Satoshi Kojima.
Speaking of Kojima, Kenoh knew him fairly well by the time this tag match took place. Two months prior, in July in Nippon Budokan, Kenoh challenged then Heavyweight champion Kojima, and brought the title back to Kongo and back on his waist after almost five years. By that point, NOAH had been ‘back to Budokan’ for a while, and even though Kenoh largely contributed to that, this was the first time he got to close the show, bringing Kongo to the forefront once again. More undeniable than ever.
The time on top was not meant to last, as after two years of hurdles and attempts at forging an identity while contributing to NOAH’s growth, Kaito Kiyomiya was back in the fold and seemingly ready to fulfill his role of ace. Kiyomiya won the 2022 N-1 Victory, acting as Kenoh’s first defense of his second reign. The defense was another measuring stick moment for Kenoh, as the Muto-influenced Kiyomiya had to prove he was ready for the spot he aimed to claim back. Ready he was, as Kiyomiya prevailed and became the Heavyweight champion, ending Kenoh’s reign with zero defenses.
It was not the end between the two men however, as Kenoh would come back and challenge Kiyomiya for the title again, this time in Budokan on January 1st, 2023. The two had already fought in the venue, but never for the Heavyweight title. While the main event still eluded them, as The Great Muta vs Shinsuke Nakamura closed the show, that hiderance didn’t take away from the grandeur of this Heavyweight title rematch. Kiyomiya had successfully defended the title against Timothy Thatcher and Kazuyuki Fujita to finish 2022, and in a sense, Kenoh acted as a measuring stick for Kiyomiya once again here. Beyond that, this match was the one where both men, for the first time, were as close to complete as they have ever been. Kiyomiya was settling in as his new self and found quick success, so, in the end, winning this rematch was a way to definitively assert himself. As for Kenoh, his goals were either accomplished or he was set on the path to do so.
As the dust settled, the same man who stood tall in all their previous Heavyweight title matches ever since Kiyomiya first won the title was the one with his hand raised. Kaito Kiyomiya retained, cementing himself further at his rival’s expense. The entire dynamic became even more interesting as Kenoh, who up to this point served as the measuring stick to Kiyomiya’s progress, may have fully taken a seat back to the latter. For the first time, it seemed as if Kenoh now was the one having to “catch up” on the other in order to reach the next level and to break whatever ceiling remains.
Just as Kiyomiya seemingly is on the right path to become who he is bound to be, Kenoh has to find his way towards further elevation. A way to not get completely passed by.
Once again, it would not take long for Kenoh to take the next step forward, as early January coincides with Wrestle Kingdom season. Once more, Kongo would show up at New Japan’s biggest show of the year, this time directly confronting Los Ingobernables de Japon backstage, following the unit’s loss in Keiji Muto’s last NJPW match. Both sides agreed on one thing: no 5 on 5 tag match; the next confrontation should be composed of singles matches.
Therefore, on January 21st, at Wrestle Kingdom in Yokohama Arena, NJPW vs Pro Wrestling NOAH, Kongo and L.I.J would collide in five different matches: Tadasuke vs BUSHI; Hajime Ohara vs Hiromu Takahashi; Manabu Soya vs SANADA; Katsuhiko Nakajima vs Shingo Takagi; and finally: Kenoh vs Tetsuya Naito.
The stakes could not be higher, as this series of matches, and this entire show not only was about “brand supremacy”, but more importantly relevancy. This was the biggest opportunity for Kenoh, and his Kongo comrades, to become a more important piece of the entire structure of pro wrestling. And there is no better, more straightforward way to do it than by confronting the biggest unit in the entire scene.
As per usual however, once the fateful day came, Kenoh did not stand tall at the end, and nor did Kongo. L.I.J won the series 3-2, and Naito won the main event. Beyond this already hurtful loss, someone else decided to make this show about him. Earlier on the night, Kaito Kiyomiya kicked Kazuchika Okada in the face during the tag match they were involved in, ensuing a brawl leading to a no-contest, and an enraged Okada walking backstage. Kiyomiya, who had been wishing for a singles match against the ace of New Japan for a long time now, took matters in his own hands and went straight at the man he wanted to fight.
As their match quickly was made official and the dust settled, while this event took a lot of the spotlight, it did not take away from the advancements Kenoh had made up to this point. The results in the ring matter, but the overall consequences of those recurrent negative results again are where the positive outlook lies. The biggest stage had opened its doors to Kenoh by him willing himself to global undeniability and by instigating the biggest faction feud in wrestling. By embracing the role of protagonist on the biggest stage, taking his unit and promotion with him.
This is where this chapter of our story ends, as the pro wrestling world waits to see in which direction the winds of change will take Kenoh, as Kongo became a prominent unit on a scale larger than NOAH’s, and the ark itself grew global once again, confidently aiming to rival the biggest company around for years to come. With none other than Kenoh often leading the charge, as his role is to make sure the ship keeps on sailing, moving forward towards a better horizon.
Images in this article are sourced from @pkdx, with the exception of Kenoh at Cyberfight Festival 2022, which comes from noah.co.jp.