Cody Rhodes said something relatively inane some time ago, perhaps about a year or two ago. He said the ideas of “face” and “heel” were antiquated relics of wrestling’s past. He’s right, and he isn’t.
Perhaps in one sense professional wrestling in an effort to become more relatable in the social media age has veered toward humanizing itself via the actions of the wrestlers themselves and how they both interact on social platforms and how they portray themselves on television. Rhodes, since leaving WWE in 2016, has scarcely truly been a face; he was a complete dick as ROH champion. He briefly flipped prior to All In and his NWA title win, yet by the time he won the IWGP U.S. title he’d veered back towards the middle ground between his two personas. It’s a spot he occupied on his spectrum even leading into his clash with his brother at Double or Nothing 2019. Yet even now and throughout his TNT title wars, every so often, you see that glimpse of the egomaniac that cares only about himself.
The point of what he was getting at, especially in AEW right now is this notion that in the humanization of pro wrestling that wrestlers amorally operate inside grey areas: Kenny Omega isn’t a bad guy, he’s just an egomaniac. Jon Moxley isn’t a good guy, he rakes people’s faces with barbed wire; I’m certain that’s some sort of felony. You see it in WWE too, with some exceptions as you’d also find in AEW. Yet, the more you think about wrestling in the abstract, the more you see he’s right. For example, if you look at Roman Reigns in the classic paradigm he’s a heel. But is he more or less of an egomaniac like Omega, rather than a bad guy outright? They occupy the same headspace, really.
Conversely, this paradigm shift away from the face-heel dynamics older fans grew up on makes the culmination of the year-long story between Kota Ibushi and Bullet Club’s “Switchblade” Jay White at Wrestle Kingdom 15 that much more compelling.
Ibushi and the Switchblade: A Primer
White and Ibushi first met in 2019 during NJPW’s G1 Climax tournament to crown a number one contender for the main event of Wrestle Kingdom the following January. During the tournament Ibushi defeated White to claim the briefcase and contract (very similar to MITB in WWE), punching his ticket to Wrestle Kingdom and a date with Okada. As fall wore on, White claimed the company’s Intercontinental championship from Tetsuya Naito. This set the stage for the two feuds to pay off at Wrestle Kingdom 14.
In the weeks leading up to the event, White, being the self-centred, smarmy, egocentric, slimy prick that he is, decided he wasn’t happy with just having the IC title. He wanted the IWGP title again as well. Naito wanted White. Ibushi wanted Okada, and Okada was, well, Okada — he just didn’t care. This resulted in a “double dash” for gold to crown the first ever dual champion in NJPW where Okada/Ibushi and Naito/White fought on night one of Wrestle Kingdom 14, with the winners and losers fighting each other the next day. Summarily Ibushi lost in his quest to become the IWGP champion. So did White.
Naito would claim both belts on night 2 in January 2020. Earlier in the night, however, White and Ibushi squared off. White aimed to prove a point and make an example of Ibushi to begin 2020, while a dejected Kota could only apologize to fans for his failure the night before and pledged to fight on. In their second match, they battled for a half hour and with Ibushi on the cusp of winning, the tide shifted; White got the advantage (with a little help) and a Bladerunner later it’s 1-2-3. Bad guy wins, and the utterly embarrassed Golden Star hero goes home to pick up the pieces.
Bad Meets Evil: The Villain of the Story
When I talk about Jay White I compare him to a less-than-classic comic book villain like Ozymandias from Watchmen.
Pure ability only gets you so far in wrestling, but what makes wrestlers into characters you can either love or hate is their ability to work you into believing that they believe themselves as their characters. To that end, Jay White is the Ozymandias-type villain whereby he tells you what he’s going to do, when he’s going to do it and he believes what he tells you to be fact; he’s moreover comfortable telling his opponents what his plan is because deep down he believes there isn’t anything you can do about it. It’s written, prognosticated and executed all at once.
What makes a villain even more compelling is the air of superiority and invincibility they obtain from not just saying they’re going to accomplish their objective, but in actually doing it. And continuing to do it. So it isn’t enough to just cut a good promo or be great in the ring and have great psychology, the characters wrestlers portray meld it all together. In this case, Jay White (at 28) has become the most complete heel in wrestling over the last three years.
The Golden Star Shines Ever So Briefly
As the annual G1 Climax tournament approached in 2020, White and his foil (Ibushi) re-entered NJPW’s marquee tournament once again to claim their spot in Wrestle Kingdom 15’s main event. Ibushi resumed his quest to become double champion, as did Switchblade, who also rechristened the event as the “Jay-1” tournament because he believed it was his time and his era to reign. As the tournament wore on, he even defeated Ibushi once again to lead their Block as they edged toward the finals. Ibushi rebounded and drew a tie with White, who himself lost his final match in the Block to give Ibushi a berth in the finals via needlessly complex tiebreakers. He later defeated former IWGP tag team champion Sanada to claim the G1 Climax tournament contract and repeated as champion.
No sooner did he win, though, did White get in his face, drudge up the old insecurities stemming from Ibushi’s previous losses to White and proclaimed outright that he did not earn the title. He did not beat him. He was not the champion of the tournament.
In a sequence we’re all too familiar with by now, White and Ibushi later clashed over the contract in November. They battled back and forth with Ibushi hellbent on finally defeating White in 2020. With Ibushi on the cusp of the win, White rolled him up, put his feet on the ropes, and stole the briefcase from Ibushi; his dreams of becoming world champion were seemingly dashed once more.
The villain wins again.
Don’t Call It Comeback
The greatest of stories in pop culture is when the hero of a story finally topples the albatross of their journey, that antagonist that exists only to contradict, contrast and disturb every step of their path. It’s like any great comic book maxi-series where the villains strike early and hard, gain an advantage and continue to defeat the hero until finally, exhausted from the journey, they psychologically collapse in victory as their foe lays flattened on the ground in the arc’s final moments.
Kota Ibushi and Jay White met once more last week on Night 2 of Wrestle Kingdom 15, Ibushi having won his “gifted” title match from ex-champion Naito the night before. For 48 minutes the two wrestlers grappled, slugged, connived or stood their ground as they waged war over the soul of New Japan Pro Wrestling. The match shifted from moment to moment, with White beginning in control early on as the fresher man. It continued from there as Ibushi gained control when White started complaining to the referee. Back and forth they struggled until they settled into a violently calm battle of mutually assured destruction. Yet as the match wore on, White — who through much of his career has worked from a place of resolute belief in himself that he would always prevail — began to falter. He became beaten down and deflated, and despite putting on the match of his life it turned out to not be enough for the Bullet Club leader. On this night Ibushi, after two consecutive knee strikes to back of the head and to the face, at 48:05 of the contest he finally defeated the Switchblade.
The day before, he finally became the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental champion. But on this day, the perfect ending to his story was written. He completed his comeback from doubt, from the lowness that comes with repeated failure and more importantly, through what became an awful year, showed that heroes can rise and inspire despite the darkest of times. And so the Golden Star shines on as a beacon in the new year from the depths of 2020.
Oftentimes despite doing our best, we still fail. It’s natural that even at our best, we can still lose, which is what makes White’s loss and post-match interview all the more interesting. Running back everything we’ve noted about White’s character, defeat is unacceptable and unexpected. However in a unique twist of fate, we find Ibushi and White have flipped roles in the story. In the wake of Ibushi’s title win, White is now the one who is deflated, beaten, destroyed and questioning their own ability to come back from a loss that cracks the foundation of everything they believed to be true about themselves. Where a does a villain go next when they are a “believer” who has been completely devalued?
The reaction can vary, but what we received as fans is a 9 minute monologue/promo that featured White by himself in the middle of a breakdown. Crying for help. Hoping for sympathy. Questioning whether or not competing was worth it anymore. Then he fell out of his chair (the exact moment he cracked). Laying on the floor, laughing at the absurdity of his career, he proclaimed he was done and was going home. He’d “fulfill his contract” and compete the next night, but that was it. He “quit” and may be best served to live out his days in Arkham.
You see, while this story told over the last year isn’t particularly original it’s a perfect story in execution; it was allowed to breathe and it blossomed into an epic. Upon its conclusion the wrestling world was left with a shining hero and a broken villain at wit’s end. However, tying back to what Cody said, we’re never that simple or straight-forward. Our personal stories are much more complicated than that. We succeed and fail, and in between those highs and lows we evolve or wither under the weight of our decisions — or even our indecisions — over what’s to come over the horizon.
What makes a story perfect in its design is its ability to compare and contrast two forces opposite each other, detail their collision course with the reality of their experiences, chronicle their highs and lows and in the end how they respond to adversity. What makes this a classic arc is it was the story wrestling needed coming out of 2020 as it showed us that heroes exist, good people can prevail over darkness and that hard work inevitably pays off. For the moment, coming out of 2020, Kota Ibushi, much like Drew McIntyre, is the champion we needed as fans to show what is still possible. Conversely, while hard work pays off and dreams do come true, to further paraphrase Scott Hall, bad times don’t last, but bad guys do.
If there’s one thing we can take away from comic books, or pop culture at large, it’s that villains never rest, never let up and rest assured as certain as the sun rises for Ibushi, McIntyre or Reigns, the same is true for their opposites. As the Joker, Lex Luthor or whomever always rise stronger than before, the same is true of wrestling’s top villain.
For now, Ibushi’s triumph and White’s downfall is the culmination of everything White’s done with his character to this point; it’s his upending and comeuppance. It’s the culmination of disrespecting Tanahashi; crossing Bullet Club and defeating Omega. It’s about turning on Okada — his own stablemate — to later join Bullet Club despite telling Okada outright upon joining him that the day would come where their paths would cross and they’d battle over the IWGP title. It’s the story of a brash, calculating, conniving heel with a dearth of respect for his opponents who achieves everything they say they’ll do by all means necessary. However, when it matters most they nonetheless fail. It’s a classic tale of the antagonist dominating and doing everything right only to be defeated.
The only question remaining is: what does Act 2 hold for Jay White?