We Need to Talk About…SANADA

SANADA
Photo: NJPW

January 28 marked the birthday of SANADA, who is always the coolest person in the room, and he knows it. Without ever seeing him wrestle, he’s that guy whom other guys want to be, and who makes people on every point of the sexual identity spectrum tingle in special places. Maybe not as much so as his Los Ingobernables de Japon stablemate, Hiromu Takahashi, but that’s neither here nor there. This week, we’ll investigate the career of Cold Skull, and ask the important questions. Why isn’t he kicking down the door of Ace-hood? What has to happen to finally propel him to the next level? Where does he buy those suits?

What does he use on that hair???

The Good:

From the moment of his startling NJPW debut on April 10 of 2016 at “Invasion Attack,” where he assisted Tetsuya Naito in defeating Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight title, SANADA has brought a veritable mountain of positives to the table.

 

SANADA’s career began under the tutelage of Keiji Mutoh in his Mutohjuku school, associated with All Japan Pro Wrestling, after (shockingly) failing the entrance test for New Japan Pro Wrestling in 2005. Mutoh and Satoshi Kojima were two of his main trainers, and their influence is clearly reflected in SANADA’s style. Officially debuting in 2007, SANADA would work for All Japan Pro Wrestling until 2013, resigning while on excursion to Canada as part of a major talent exodus due to the selection of the promotion’s new president. Canada led to Mexico, at his own expense, for further training, and then to Mutoh’s splinter promotion of Wrestle-1. An unsuccessful challenge for the TNA World Heavyweight championship to a visiting AJ Styles resulted in a connection with TNA Impact Wrestling, for whom SANADA came to work full-time in 2015. He also wrestled for Chikara and Global Force Wrestling, where he teamed with one Takaaki Watanabe (soon to be known as EVIL).

SANADA left TNA Impact Wrestling in April of 2015, and worked the American independent circuit for the next year before returning to Japan and NJPW. For a guy turned away from New Japan Pro Wrestling in the beginning, SANADA has definitely absorbed a wide range of experiences and influences to bring back to it. Almost like a Young Lion on excursion, no? His search for a professional home eventually led him back to his “first,” who had rejected him as unworthy at the time, but was quite prepared to embrace him now that he had cred.

And cred he had. SANADA’s resume boasts the first Gaora TV champion, two times as All-Asia Tag team champion, World Tag Team champion, and winner of the 2011 World’s Strongest Tag Determination League. But wait! There’s more! He has also held the TNA X-Division championship, won from Austin Aries. That’s quite a bit about which to brag. That’s also why SANADA fit in so well with the rest of Los Ingobernables de Japon, despite it seeming an odd combination at first. Everyone in the faction had been mistreated, screwed over, or in some way done wrong by their employers, colleagues, or the fans. SANADA, in particular, never even made it into the company to begin with, but now that other places had helped him to hone his skills, they wanted a piece of him. Nice.

So, then, of what exactly does this mountain of SANADA’s positives consist? Get comfy and grab some snacks, this will take a while.

SANADA’s athleticism surpasses that of almost everyone. Said to possess a vertical leap of between 44 and 52 inches (depending on the announcer and the day of the week), he’s on par with both NFL and NBA record holders. Announcer Don Callis spoke of SANADA being offered money to jump from the ground to the roof of a truck, and successfully doing so. It’s not just raw athletic power, either. Every movement is fluid, smooth, and graceful. He makes everything that he does look so easy.

                                           

The range of moves that SANADA employs is also impressive. He can fly,

Bring the power game,

And submit just about anyone.

Aside from nearly supernatural athleticism, SANADA is a stunningly handsome man. He may not be your personal cup of tea, but if statues were going to be carved of anyone on the NJPW roster, the top two choices would probably be Kota Ibushi and SANADA. The man himself is quite aware of this, and his Instagram (aka “the most unexpected thirst trap on the planet” – thanks, @BrasilianFury !) is a gold mine of examples.

SANADA
Photo: NJPW

Whether posting “voyeuristic workout porn,” images of finely dressed night life, or shopping escapades with deer (Seriously, he’s a freaking Disney prince!), SANADA maintains a strong sense of humor about the whole thing. He comes across as a guy who would be fun to hang out with in real life, and doesn’t take himself too seriously. That’s always a plus.

One rumor was that he caught some flack for his tan suit from his first G1 press conference, and that his response to it was to dress like a Miami drug lord at the next G1 press conference.

SANADA
Photo: NJPW

He sometimes wears ridiculous things, but makes it work and gets away with it because he’s SANADA.

At one point, his Wikipedia page was hacked, and “Stupid Sexy Sanada” added to his list of nicknames. It’s gone now, despite the attempt of certain circles of fans to resurrect it. No, not me. Stop looking at me like that!

                   

Whether he’s low-key funny on social media, or a stoic and cool badass in the ring, SANADA has that nebulous “star quality” that is so difficult to pin down or describe, and can’t really be taught. He carries himself like a star. He looks and acts like a star. He almost never speaks, but his type of charisma doesn’t require it. He has “it” in spades, and is one of those people who compel attention at all times. With almost every trait necessary for the highest levels of success, why is SANADA almost on the bottom rung of his own faction, let alone his company? Surely someone radiating future Ace-ness should have more impressive accomplishments during his NJPW tenure?

The Bad:

The one negative that SANADA has right now, as was repeatedly mentioned by Kevin Kelly and Don Callis during both of the “New Beginning in Sapporo” shows, is that he slacks. Since he showed up in NJPW, he hasn’t operated much past 60 or 70% of his capability. Meeting his full potential hasn’t seemed very high on Cold Skull’s priority list. Wrestling and feats of athleticism come so easily to him that he coasts by on what gets him through, as opposed to really pushing himself. He knows that his skills surpass those of his stable mates, so he feels no need to do more. He did defeat EVIL in their G1 match, after all. He scored a win over Tanahashi in the G1 before that, in the opening round, no less. He can clearly achieve when he has to. SANADA is that kid in high school whose classes didn’t challenge him enough, and he slacks through lower-level classes that he should be acing, but he can’t be bothered, and won’t sign up for Advanced Placement classes. The borderline failure who should have been a rousing success.

SANADA
Photo: NJPW

It’s not that he doesn’t want to be a wrestler, and a top one. Nobody endures his path to his current position without major drive and ambition. He clearly knows that he should be where Okada is, and resents that he isn’t. Whether that resentment has been channeled in the proper direction is a valid question. After Okada’s recent actions in Sapporo, that resentment has a clear direction. Okada certainly makes it easy to hate him, and while SANADA doesn’t need to lose control of his emotions and break the Cold Skull persona, he does need that fire to be lit inside. After the “New Beginning in Sapporo” shows, sparks may have been lit.

The Possibilities:

He just needs that one break-out moment. That one match that elevates SANADA to the point that his fans all know is within his reach. Everything about him, from his look to his quiet charisma to his supernatural athleticism screams “future babyface Ace.” It’s not a question of “Can he?” It’s a question of “When will he?” Considering the most recent developments, the answer may be “soon.”

SANADA faces IWGP Heavyweight champion Kazuchika Okada for the title on February 10 at “New Beginning in Osaka.” This match stems from SANADA choking out Okada at New Year’s Dash, after Tetsuya Naito basically threw the champion at him after a ten-man tag team match, where Okada’s CHAOS and Naito’s LIJ collided. Getting the pin at Wrestle Kingdom and winning the tag team titles after carrying the match for his team, a completely new look and wardrobe, and major focus from the English commentary team all point to SANADA getting serious attention, but no one believes that he’s going to beat Okada for the top title when Naito couldn’t do it. Will he?

No one believed that Okada was going to win the IWGP Heavyweight title the first time that he won it either. It was a shocking victory. LIJ is also the one faction in NJPW where the leader openly encourages members to challenge each other, especially for titles. Naito has said many times in interviews that this is how to improve as a wrestler, and that anyone satisfied with his position and complacent does not belong in LIJ. He wanted to face either EVIL or SANADA in the G1 finals. If SANADA wins the title, then matches with EVIL and Naito are on the table. NJPW factions don’t typically follow the rules of their western counterparts (exception: Bullet Club), and a full break-up of LIJ, or SANADA getting kicked out of the group, are far from given.

If anything, Okada would be more upset at a loss to SANADA than to Naito, because SANADA would be viewed as a less worthy, less prepared champion. Okada SHOULDN’T lose to this guy, so what happens if he does? The announce team pointed out that Okada’s toughest struggles were against superior athletes, of which SANADA is definitely one. SANADA doesn’t have to get angry. He can still be Cold Skull, and handle his business in a detached, calculating manner. He just has to care. Regardless of the result being a shocking upset victory or a loss, whether we need to continue talking about SANADA depends on what happens in Osaka on February 10. Let’s see how it plays out. After all, you could have a confused baby duck-rodent as champion, or you could have this:

 

NOTE: The “We Need to Talk About…” series of articles has nothing to do with “good” booking, ratings, draws, or other topics only of serious interest to promoters. It’s pure speculation, playing “What if,” and nothing more. Wrestlers perceived as floundering, hopelessly misused, or misunderstood are the subject, and while differing opinions are always welcomed, hateful jerkassery is not.