Less than a day after NJPW double gold champion Kota Ibushi retained the IWGP Intercontinental Championship against Tetsuya Naito at Castle Attack, New Japan announced that they were doing away with both the IC and IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Instead of carrying on the lineage of both titles’ rich history, per Tokyo Sports, New Japan is planning to unveil a new IWGP World Heavyweight Championship. Ibushi’s match against El Desperado at this Friday’s 49th Anniversary show—meant to be a non-title match—will serve as the final time both titles are defended. The winner would in turn become the first IWGP World Heavyweight Champion.
With the invention of the Double Gold Dash, the unification of the Intercontinental and Heavyweight Championships had been speculated but unconfirmed as the original Double Gold winner, Naito was intent on defending both. Before and since claiming both titles from Naito at Wrestle Kingdom 15, Kota Ibushi openly discussed his plan to unify both titles. Naito—six-time title winner and long-synonymous with the title’s history—serving as the Intercontinental Title’s last sole challenger and an Ibushi victory signaled the end of undoubtedly the second-most prestigious championship in New Japan history.
Title unification and all, New Japan is not short on championships by any means, boasting eight—if you include the KOPW trophy—as of this Friday’s Anniversary Show. The NEVER Openweight Championship under Hiroshi Tanahashi’s reign should be elevated in prestige and the United States Championship had taken on the IWGP Intercontinental title’s intended purpose from its 2011 invention.
Despite its wide selection of singles belts though, unifying the IWGP Intercontinental Title with the IWGP Heavyweight Championship is a mistake.
New Japan deserves credit for how they’ve made the majority if not all of their belts mean something. NEVER Openweight Title matches meant you were going to see teeth fly. Junior Heavyweight Title matches meant you were going to see fast-paced athletic showcases, and Intercontinental Title matches meant you were going to see a masterclass on par with or sometimes outdoing the IWGP Heavyweight Title.
The Intercontinental Championship wasn’t simply a mid-card title. Former multi-time world champions, Naito, Chris Jericho, Tanahashi, and Shinsuke Nakamura all helped bring the title to greater heights. The latter two main evented the Tokyo Dome for the title at Wrestle Kingdom 8. Through a decade where the Heavyweight Title picture was thoroughly dominated by Kazuchika Okada, the Intercontinental Title offered a platform for ex-IWGP Heavyweight champions to stay relevant and rising stars to test the waters at the main event level without gunning it—look no further than Evil—too soon.
SANADA—long considered on the cusp of greatness but thus far unsuccessful in claiming the Heavyweight title—could’ve benefitted from pursuing the IWGP Intercontinental Championship exclusively. Shingo Takagi’s work in improving the prestige of the NEVER Openweight Championship could’ve seen him take the next step towards the main event by going after the IWGP Intercontinental Title. Still-newly heavyweight Will Ospreay could’ve set his sights on the title to cement his place among the division and continue his rebound from The United Empire’s uneventful Wrestle Kingdom. Even Jeff Cobb who tore the house down at the Tokyo Dome with Takagi wouldn’t have been a bad choice as a challenger.
The retiring of the Intercontinental Championship creates a wide gap that in order to not to be deemed irreparable, the NEVER Openweight and United States Championships must fill. As it stands currently, neither of those titles is at that point yet. It may take a while for the absence of throwaway-title-turned-symbol-of-excellence to not be felt.