Once upon a time, there was a very real, almost surreal Japanese event which saw Rob Van Dam beat Toru Yano in a hardcore match, Finn Balor beat Kota Ibushi, Ryusuke Taguchi beat Kenny Omega and Andrade Cien Almas team with Gran Metalik to face Jyushin Thunder Liger. No, it wasn’t some All Japan supershow booked by an eccentric billionaire, it was New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Wrestle Kingdom V at the Tokyo Dome in 2011.
Oh, and there was also a match which saw Jeff Hardy defend his TNA World Championship against “The Dark Ace” Tetsuya Naito, marking Hardy’s first and only ever appearance inside a NJPW ring.
Sounds like a dream match, right? Two of the best characters and in-ring workers of a generation doing battle on the biggest stage in Japanese wrestling. What could go wrong?
As it happens, a lot could go wrong. Most people know that these days, Naito’s physical condition isn’t fantastic, and people attribute this to his brutal matches with Okada, Tanahashi and Ibushi over the years. But in fact, I personally think Naito is banged up because he had to carry Jeff Hardy through this match in 2011.
We’ll get to exactly why the match sucked later, but for now, let’s have a look at the backstory between these two guys.
First of all, Tetsuya Naito. In 2020, we know him as the IC belt-destroying “Tranquilo” leader of Los Ingernobles de Japon and first-ever IWGP Double Gold Dash Champion. He’s one of NJPW’s Top Five, a constant fan-favorite and one of the most exciting performers in the ring today.
But back in 2011, Tetsuya Naito was a much different character. It would be another four years before the formation of LIJ and the “Tranquilo”personality was born. Circa 2011, he went by the nickname “The Stardust Genius,” a nod to his glittering future and aerial abilities. He bore a great resemblance to Tanahashi, both visually and in terms of in-ring style, and at the time Naito was the one poised to take over as the new Ace in the coming years. However, Okada soon showed up on the scene and took Naito’s position.
This TNA World Heavyweight Title match with Hardy was actually the beginning of Naito’s push into the NJPW main event scene, but as you’ll later see, it didn’t quite work out that way.
Next up, Jeff Hardy. Perhaps one of the most industry-changing figures in pro wrestling history. His influence on the high-flying style cannot be understated, having more or less invented most of the ladder match highspots we now see on a regular basis (more of that on next week’s TBT). He was a prominent part of the Attitude Era and has been involved in some of the most memorable WWE matches of all time, both as a singles star and alongside his brother Matt.
But anyone familiar with the dirt sheets will know that Jeff’s life has been plagued with personal problems, some of which are still going on to this day. Jeff was fired from WWE back in 2003 for excessive substance abuse, no-showing events and a significant deterioration of in-ring ability. One can argue that a career built on somersaulting off ladders isn’t really sustainable in the long-term, but Hardy has never been one to quit at the first hurdle.
Hardy worked the indies, Total Nonstop Action and Ring of Honor for a few years before returning to WWE in 2006. He was again busted for drug use in 2008, and injuries caught up with him in 2009. He then left WWE again to heal, and ending up signing again with TNA in 2010.
Jeff himself states that he had big plans for TNA during his second run. At the time, TNA and WWE were both running Monday nights in a renewed attempt at the Monday Night Wars. Hardy claimed he was going to help elevate TNA to WWE levels and beat them in the ratings, but for many reasons, that never happened.
One such reason was that Jeff had a serious drug problem. He had an addiction to the painkiller Carisoprodol, commonly known as soma. Throughout 2010, he’d often show up to TNA tripping his nuts off, but was sometimes able to conceal his inebriated state, so was able to convince TNA higher-ups to let him go out into the ring.
This behavior went right through to January 2011, where Hardy was scheduled to face Naito at the Tokyo Dome. At the time, TNA and NJPW had a working relationship where each promotion would showcase wrestlers from the other promotions on their shows, also including title matches at the big PPVs. This allowed American wrestlers to get a taste of the Japanese style to broaden their abilities, and vice versa.
When Hardy came out at the Dome, he was of course as high as a kite again. One can only speculate how Jeff managed to smuggle drugs from one side of the world to the other, but given that Jeff has made a lucrative career off of doing insane things with his body… Yeah, let’s not go there.
So, onto the match itself.
For the first few minutes, you wouldn’t guess that anything was wrong. The match opens up with a lock-up and Naito takes the advantage by controlling the wrist. Things progress, Naito keeps control, he begins to run the ropes, and then Jeff goes for his standard leap-frog spot.
But he misses, and kind of clips Naito with his leg. Jeff falls to the mat, Naito hits the ropes and then just kind of… stops. It’s at this point that some eagle-eyed viewers will notice that things aren’t quite right. Even Naito himself looks a little confused.
Naito suddenly starts a flurry of offense, as if trying to increase the pace of the match. He hits a nice standing swanton bomb then moves to the turnbuckle. Hardy interjects and then gains the upper hand. For the next 5 minutes, the pace is very, very slow. Hardy utilizes multiple submissions and grounded attacks, and it’s clear that’s Naito is trying his best to sell effectively. They go for an apron spot, which is pretty lackluster, but it adds some variety to an otherwise dull match.
From this point, Hardy may as well not be in the match. Naito could have wrestled himself and it would have been exactly the same. Naito hits a nice springboard dropkick, then a top-rope hurricanrana, then a corkscrew moonsault, all while Jeff just kind of stumbles around.
Perhaps the worst part of the match is the final thirty seconds. Jeff hits a Twist of Fate as a setup for the Swanton, but he realizes Naito isn’t positioned correctly. So he just kind of pushes Naito towards the turnbuckle in a very can’t-be-bothered-with-this-shit kind of way. He then hits a Swanton with almost zero grace, then pins Naito for the win.
And that’s the match. It’s worth a watch for the strange spectacle of seeing Hardy in a NJPW ring, and the fact that we now know that Hardy was high for the entire match.
While Hardy and Naito are both similar in terms of wrestling style and character, there are some interesting contrasts between the two. At the time of the match, Hardy was 33 years old and Naito was 28. However, Hardy’s in-ring prime was long behind him at this point. Hardy peaked during the Attitude Era and slowly declined. Naito, however, would go on to have his best years between 2016 and 2020.
This match ended up being the catalyst to NJPW ending their partnership with TNA. There had been other incidents before this, but NJPW management couldn’t excuse having an inebriated performer on their show.
Unfortunately, Hardy’s behavior continued a little longer. Two months later, he would partake in the famous match against Sting at TNA Victory Road, a match which has since become known as ‘The Jeff Hardy Incident.’ Since then, his personal issues have been up and down. He’s put on some spectacular matches in recent years, with a highlight being the Hardyz vs Young Bucks in ROH, and his recent WWE run has been very impressive.
But if you’re the kind of person who enjoys looking at car wrecks, you’ll get a lot of enjoyment out of this one.
You can watch this match exclusively on Dailymotion.com