WADE KELLER PODCAST - Royal Rumble preview with Sam Roberts
(Search "wade keller" to subscribe in podcast app or CLICK HERE to subscribe in Apple Podcasts.)
With so much opportunity for exposure outside of WWE in today’s professional wrestling scene, the term “betting on himself” has been used more than ever before. Wrestlers who may not work out in the NXT system or those on the main roster frustrated with creative direction now have the opportunity to take a chance, leave the biggest company on the planet, and prove themselves on the independent circuit or with promotions like New Japan Pro Wrestling, Ring of Honor, or Global Force Wrestling.
When a topic like this comes up the first name that comes to almost everyone’s mind is Cody Rhodes. A man who had a spot on the main roster of WWE took a leap of faith, left the sports entertainment powerhouse and has cemented a new legacy. He has had a tremendous first year, competing all over the world and in the main event of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s biggest international venture. While I take nothing away from Cody, he had the Rhodes legacy and the Bullet Club marketing machine behind him to increase his chances of success immensely. There is no doubt that he risked so much and has surpassed anyone’s expectations in terms of success but he most certainly had a lot of things working in his favor.
Personally, when I think of “betting on one’s self” and winning I think of Juice Robinson. Not too long ago Juice, then CJ Parker, played the role of enhancement talent for incoming stars like Kevin Owens, Solomon Crowe, Hideo Itami and Baron Corbin just as NXT started to boom. As Juice noted on Colt Cabana’s “Art of Wrestling” podcast, he was not enjoying himself anymore and asked for his release from the company.
For someone in Juice’s position at the time, within the lower card of an NXT brand that hadn’t found its footing just yet, this was a massive decision that could have led to the end of his young career. He would be entering a pool filled with thousands of wrestlers, some with WWE main roster experience to use as a draw to get booked, trying to make a name for themselves all over the world. Instead of replicating what he was doing on NXT TV and relying on his name to get booked, Juice signed a contract with New Japan Pro Wrestling after a short stint with CZW, All Star Wrestling, and a few British promotions. This would entail him entering the NJPW Dojo as a Young Lion and starting all over again. Hardly the easiest route back to a full time wrestling contract in a country where foreigners are already at a slight disadvantage.
What has happened for Juice since then has been pure magic and his successful run since late 2015 can be attributed to hard work, dedication to character and craft, as well as the way New Japan has booked and portrayed him. Unlike WWE, who has a tendency to skyrocket people to the top without ever building credibility in that person’s character, Juice started at the bottom, like all Young Lions do, and had to earn the respect of the Japanese fans and the locker room. Slowly but surely, Robinson was put in situations where he had the platform to do so and did not disappoint. His pairing with Hiroshi Tanahashi in the 2016 World Tag League certainly helped his standing with the New Japan fan base, but it was not until his matches with Hirooki Goto and Tetsuya Naito earlier this year when Juice really started to take off.
So many people say that while amazing matches are so important in professional wrestling, the business is about creating moments that will last a lifetime. On April 19, Juice shocked everyone by scoring a pinfall victory over Naito and showed the world why selling the joy of victory in professional wrestling means so much. In the minutes after the match, Robinson was overcome with emotion and collapsed into Tanahashi’s arms with tears in his eyes.
It was a truly genuine and special scene that endeared Robinson to the fan base more than a 450 Splash or a Canadian Destroyer ever would have. The crowd shared in his joy as they voiced their support for Robinson leading to his second singles title match of 2017 at Wrestling Toyonokuni against Naito for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship. Although he was unsuccessful in that match the crowd was firmly behind him while he was up against one of Japan’s biggest stars, a tribute to how much they have appreciated his efforts this far.
Since that match, Juice has built more credibility by consistently having stellar performances alongside his Taguchi Japan stable-mates. Another huge test for Robinson came in the first round of the IWGP United States Championship tournament against Zack Sabre Jr. in New Japan’s first major event in the United States. Sabre Jr. is a world-class wrestler who is extremely popular in the North American market, so Juice receiving such a positive reaction in Long Beach was a massive testament to how much of an impact he has made in New Japan thus far. Again, he was unsuccessful in the match, but the quality of his performance raised his stock leading further into the summer.
All of that momentum led him to competing in the most prestigious tournament in professional wrestling, the G1. This year, Robinson is the tournament’s youngest competitor and scored a huge victory over his Sempai, Satoshi Kojima, in his first bout. Reverting back to the special moments I referenced earlier, the emotion exuded by Juice following this victory was something that truly touched everyone who was watching. The story of the student finally beating the teacher was told as Robinson paid respects to Kojima after his hand was raised.
Since then he has come up short in hard-fought battles against some of New Japan’s elite, and was even featured in a main event match against Kazuchika Okada where he was overwhelmingly supported by the fans. His post-match promos have been brilliant, and most likely one of the main reasons fans have been so strongly behind him. Selling a knee injury suffered at the hands of Minoru Suzuki, Juice has given max effort in every contest and has been telling the story of trying hard but just barely coming up short.
It is important to note how strong he has been booked in these matches and the trust New Japan had in Juice to grant him a main event match against their long standing Champion. In possibly the most important moment in his career, and one of the highlights in the G1 tournament thus far, Juice was met with a standing ovation after his match with Tama Tonga cementing him as a top fan favorite. By far his most memorable in-ring moment to date.
Based on growing crowd reactions and match quality, there is no doubt that the future is extremely bright for Juice Robinson in New Japan Pro Wrestling. You can tell how much fun he is having each and every time he steps through that curtain while taking nothing for granted. Kazuchika Okada himself recently stated in an interview that Robinson is someone who will be a major player in the promotion for years to come. A massive compliment coming from the promotion’s top star.
Just two short years ago Robinson was yielding protest signs and getting beaten time after time in NXT. After his release, he hit the reset button on his career searching for happiness and success and found it in a foreign country with one of the most rigid and difficult training processes in professional wrestling.
Now, as a foreigner, he has worked to gain the respect and adulation of not only the Japanese audience, but fans all over the world. There was no fan-fare when he arrived in New Japan Pro Wrestling, no vignettes featuring his time in NXT, just a blank canvas that he was able to mold into what his character is today. There have been so many wrestlers that have left the WWE system to pursue opportunities elsewhere and Juice has no doubt been the greatest success story.
Juice Robinson’s journey is truly an inspirational one, and is also far from complete. Though he won’t win the G1 this year, he has proved to fans and New Japan Pro Wrestling that he is very much worthy of bigger and better things. He can stand on his own, perform stellar singles matches, sell and garner sympathy as good as anyone, and compete with the best New Japan has to offer. He has proved that he delivers some of the most genuine and emotion-inducing promos that will continue to get even better in victory or defeat. In a time where more North American wrestlers are getting a chance to showcase what they can do in New Japan, the sky is the limit for Juice Robinson and I am so excited to be along for the ride. He absolutely has a fan in me.
CHECK OUT THIS RECENT RELATED EDITORIAL: TOP FIVE: The Top Five Matches of the New Japan G1 Climax so far: Ibushi, EVIL, Michael Elgin, Kenny Omega, Okada, Juice Robinson