FIVE COUNT: Five Lessons Wrestling Bookers Can Learn from New Japan from Roster Hierarchy to Purpose of Veterans

By Matt Seabridge, PWTorch Specialist

NJPW Dominion matches announced
PHOTO CREDIT: Tokyo Sports


I’m not the biggest New Japan Pro Wrestling fan in the world but there are plenty of positive lessons that other wrestling bookers all over the world can learn from Jado & Gedo’s booking. In a promotion that has been getting hotter and hotter over recent years and genuinely making their acts bigger attractions than they started off as, it’s not a surprise that they’re doing plenty of things right.

I have my qualms with the in ring product side but there are absolutely many positive lessons that can be learned from the approach to their booking, five of which we’re going to look at throughout this article. These are lessons that wrestling bookers all over the world can learn from. These are in no way specific to the Japanese culture and are 100 percent lessons that English speaking promotions can incorporate into their booking styles to get the most out of their talent and out of the shows that they run.

(1) Roster Hierarchy

So often these days I’ll see wrestling fans thinking that anyone and everyone deserves to be a main eventer. Of that if they don’t have that level of potential then what’s the use of them. If someone isn’t getting much of a push and isn’t winning a whole lot then automatically it’s “well Booker ABC doesn’t care about that act” or even better that they’re being punished by being forced to lose.

That’s one of the big problems that WWE have with their current roster. Everyone has to start off as a someone from the day they start on the main roster. Mike Kanellis loses at Battleground and immediately everyone is proclaiming that the act is already dead on arrival because he lost a match. Tye Dillinger doesn’t debut automatically with a big purpose and just like that he has no future.

I wish Sami Zayn was doing more right now than he is. I’m fine with him losing more than he wins but I wish his losses were in more prominent programs and meant more to the people he lost to. I wish he was doing more programs like the one with Braun Strowman than the one with Mike Kanellis. But despite that I’m actually more pleased with how WWE are treating (mistreating?) him in this first eighteen months on the main roster than how Bayley has been utilised.

As a performer I’d much rather be in Sami Zayn’s position than in Bayley’s. She debuted straight away as a major player and then won and lost the title within her first year on the roster. That moment when she did win was cool but it was nothing compared to when she won the belt in NXT. And that’s because there wasn’t a journey for us as viewers to go on. She didn’t overcome any adversity. She just debuted and before we knew it she was the champion. Compare that to what it will mean if Sami Zayn wins a world title. It’s going to mean more on an emotional level to his fans, and not just the fans who have followed him his entire career. If you’ve only been a Bayley fan since she debuted on Raw (which by the way still makes up the majority of the “WWE Universe”), her title win probably didn’t feel like a whole lot of anything to you. She won it in the way that a dominant force in the division would come in and march straight to the top. Does “dominant force taking what’s theirs” sound like Bayley?

Getting back on track to New Japan. It’s important to have wrestlers who have a glass ceiling relating to their position on the roster. Glass ceilings are good because they give acts an achievement that means something if can break through that glass ceiling. Guys like Tomohiro Ishii and Tomoaki Honma wouldn’t be as over as they are if they were just picking up wins here and there. Instead they were guys whose job it was to lose.

WWE have plenty of them guys but the difference that makes them an asset you can cash in on later is that New Japan always treats them guys as though they matter. Sure they don’t win but they would always let Ishii go out and have a great match if he could produce one. And then over time as the wrestler gets over, just winning a match becomes a big achievement that becomes a great moment when it happens. “Winning a wrestling match” in most cases isn’t an achievement to leap out of your seat to celebrate but when those guys got a rare win that’s exactly what it was. Tomoaki Honma winning a wrestling match at a certain point in time meant more than most guys in WWE winning the world title. The kayfabe accomplishment in itself is obviously nowhere near as great but that’s the beauty of professional wrestling, you can make anything mean something. You just need to build to it in the correct manner.

Juice Robinson is currently playing that role of the guy getting over having good matches but picking up wins very sparingly. And shockingly it’s a formula that’s working again. Obviously there’s the prerequisite of the guy needing to have a natural likeability and the ability to have really strong matches working as the underdog. But if the act has them qualities then booking them at the bottom of the roster (with the opportunities to get themselves over in defeat) can actually give them a better chance of getting over to a level that they can become a money drawing asset for the promotion. If nearly everyone on the roster is more or less at the same level, how can anyone be an underdog?

Go down another step on the ladder to the young boys. There’s so much great stuff that you can do (and has been done) with young boys. Fans like to go on journeys with a wrestler throughout their careers. That’s a big reason why guys like Daniel Bryan, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn are so popular with fans who saw them before they got to WWE. It’s why Bayley winning the NXT Womens Championship meant so much more than when Asuka did. And it’s something that people who only watch Raw and Smackdown are constantly being robbed of when all these acts debut and are major players essentially from the moment they debut.

That’s the big picture effect of building wrestlers up from the very bottom. In the short term there is so much fun that you can have with “rookie wrestlers” on your show. Anytime throughout the history of Japanese wrestling that you get the young boys paired up with the established names in tag matches it’s always fun when you would have guys like Kawada, Hansen and Tenryu just destroying these poor scrawny looking kids. And then you get such easy pops when the little dog starts firing back against the big dog only to eventually get knocked back down again. Matches like that can’t happen when everyone is on an even playing field though. Look at the WWE roster and create a scenario like that. You really can’t. As a result the vast majority of the audience end up missing out on key progression stages in the development of a wrestler up the card and those moments are so pivotal to them getting over.

There’s always the argument about not bringing wrestlers up before they’re ready. I’d actually love to see someone like Liv Morgan who has an affectionate personality be put on Raw and Smackdown and be presented as someone who isn’t ready to compete with the main players in the Womens division but is there to grow and develop as a wrestler. Make her someone’s protégé for instance and just have her get her ass kicked in every match. Give her enough hope spots to fire back in and over time build up to that moment where she finally fights back and comes out on top. I can pretty much guarantee that by that stage she’d be more over than if you keep her in NXT while she gets better in the ring away from the eyes of the bulk of your audience and debuts as a possible title contender.

And no, you don’t want to do this with everyone, but with wrestlers who already show a natural fire in their comebacks and some personality, it can absolutely work. The trouble is when there’s no hierarchy and everyone is either at the midcard or the main event level, none of these benefits are even possible to be obtained.

(2) The Titles Have Equity

Since I started writing these articles, I’ve wrote plenty about WWE’s issues with their titles not having any equity stored in them and thus when someone wins one it doesn’t mean anything. Comparatively, New Japan have done an excellent job building and maintaining equity in their titles.

Becoming IWGP Heavyweight Champion is a genuine accomplishment. You don’t get it because you’re really good or because you’ve been around for a long time or because the promotion suddenly wants people to start taking you seriously. If you’ve got that title then you’re genuinely the number one guy. No questions asked. Sure guys like A.J. Styles and Tetsuya Naito may get more transitional reigns in between the dominance of Hiroshi Tanahashi and now Kazuchika Okada but when they’ve got that belt they’re THE guy. If Okada loses the title, whatever he does next isn’t main eventing over the guy he lost the title to. He loses that right when he loses the title because that’s what the title represents.

And that’s what titles are all about, what they represent. If they don’t represent anything then what they are? Nothing more than a prop that someone carries around. In order for them to represent anything and to provide any sort of rub to the guy holding it, equity has to be built up within them first. You build equity up in title belts by carefully selecting who you allow to hold them and then protecting whoever does hold them. Go back to 2011 and look at who has held the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kazuchika Okada, A.J. Styles and Tetsuya Naito. In six and a half years. That’s what prestige looks like. Compare that to WWE who have had 22 different wrestlers hold one of their two world titles in the same time period. Even someone like Shinsuke Nakamura who truly was one of the top players in New Japan didn’t get to hold the belt at any point during his last five years in the company. There’s no let’s give Minoru Suzuki a world title run to try and get this new angle over. There’s no let’s give Katsuyori Shibata a reign because he’s “due a run”. There’s no let’s give Tomohiro Ishii the belt for a bit as good will gesture for all his hard work.

When A.J. Styles was given the belt it was a huge rub to his standing on the New Japan roster and how the fans reacted to him. Getting that belt solidified him as legitimately being one of the top players in the promotion. Compare it to what the same thing has done for Jinder Mahal. Nobody started taking him seriously just because he became the champion.

It’s not just the main title that New Japan have invested a great amount of equity in that allows them to reap the benefits when they do choose to put the belt on someone new. When Hiromu Takahashi returned from his excursion in CMLL and won the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championship, it cemented his status as one of the leading players in the Junior Heavyweight division. It wasn’t a case of (in essence) a new wrestler debuting and the promotion using the title to attempt to con the audience into thinking he’s a bigger deal than he really is. It meant that along with KUSHIDA, he was the leading player in that division. And because winning that belt means something, when he won that’s how everyone started reacting to him. Even winning their Intercontinental Championship is a big factor in who the fans perceive as being the top stars in the promotion because they protect who gets to hold it and they don’t let everyone and their niece have a run holding it.

The proof is in the pudding when it comes to showcasing the importance of building equity in your championships. Look at what it means to hold any of the major titles in New Japan, how the promotion treats their champions and how the fans then react to them. Look at how they treat the G1 Climax and the winner of it. The winner of that main events the biggest show of the year. That’s not a marketing line, that’s a fact (with the exception of Naito winning in 2013 but that was a unique anomaly). If you win the G1 then you’re a big deal from that point on in New Japan. Compare winning the G1 to winning the Royal Rumble. I honest to god had to google the event just to remember who won this year. Winning the Rumble these days only means that you’re getting a title shot at WrestleMania and nothing more. It’s a rub with no meaning that gives you the chance to wrestle for a title that also has no meaning.

If you build equity in titles by protecting who you give them to and then presenting the holders as big stars, when you put them on someone new it means something to how your audience perceives them.

(3) The Veterans Have Purpose

Wrestlers wrestling past their prime in major promotions in the U.S. just isn’t a thing. Once wrestlers start to lose the ability to go at the level fans are accustomed to seeing them at, it’s almost as if they get a red mark stamped next to their name and that’s the end of them being an asset of any kind on a wrestling show. That’s just not the case.

The Japanese pro wrestling culture has always respected their former stars turned veterans by allowing them to maintain their spot on the card, just at a different level. Which is really logical. A guy like Jushin Liger probably can’t hang with the stars of today but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have anything left to offer on these shows though. He may have lost a step athletically but he’s still an attraction for any show he’s on and he still has bags of experience and wisdom.

Intangibles like that are an invaluable a part of any wrestling roster. Guys like Liger, Nagata and Tenzan that can get a reaction from crowds without even doing anything are golden to have on the undercard to ensure that crowds aren’t dead for the parts of the show involving developing projects. Their value increases tenfold when you also factor in how much they can help inexperienced wrestlers on the undercard of shows fulfil their potential.

Sure they might be able to go at the same pace they did in their prime or do some of the big spots they used to but they know when to do the right things at the right time and how to work a crowd. Experience based factors like that are golden to young wrestlers who simply can’t get that kind of learning from working against other inexperienced wrestlers in the same boat that they are. We’re not just talking in ring experience either. There’s so much wisdom and advice that they can pass down to younger wrestlers about how to behave in the public eye, how to be around management and so on.

They’re fantastic for putting exposure on up and coming acts too. A tag match between four wrestlers you’ve barely heard of on the undercard is a pretty easy match for most fans to skip. Put two of them in a tag match with two veterans from a previous era who are still over in their own way and it’s suddenly a match that people are a lot less likely to either skip over or just not pay a lot of attention to. That doesn’t do any good for these new up and coming wrestlers trying to get over in front a new audience. Plus every now and again you can give them something a bit more important to do in an attempt to ignite a fire under a new prospect you want to start making more money with. Sure a guy like Nagata might not be able to go at a high level week in week out anymore but he can still light it up every once in a while in order to have a great match with someone to help get them over.

Promotions in the U.S. just don’t use veteran wrestlers in that way. The Independents are very much a young wrestlers scene (obviously with the odd exceptions) and TNA would always go to the other end of the scale and present them as the top stars ahead of the younger more talented wrestlers because TNA had to TNA. A promotion like EVOLVE for instance could probably really benefit from having an experienced hand to work with some of the greener talent they have on their undercards. Guys like Too Cold Scorpio, Shane Helms or Nick Dinsmore might not be the most attractive names to see on an Indy show but they could be great additions to undercards to work with raw acts and share some of their experience to enhance their progression.

In WWE it would benefit them so much, especially now with the expansion of their developmental system. NXT is great and all from a fan perspective but from the standpoint of actually developing the talent that need development the most, it falls way too short of where it should be. The main reason for that is NXT being used as a vanity project for Hunter’s image but it’s also not exactly helping Performance Centre recruits when they only have each other to wrestle. Yes there’s coaches with infinite experience but it’s not the same as working matches in front of live crowds with wrestlers who can pass on their wisdom and experience while they’re in the ring.

It’s an absolutely mystery to me how they have a guy like Goldust and he isn’t working NXT shows with the lesser experienced wrestlers. He could be doing great work working with them guys to help speed up their progression and allow them to fulfil their potential, along with being a recognised name that can easily get fans into whatever match he’s in on the NXT Florida tour. Instead he’s pretty much doing nothing of any significance on Raw working house show matches with other experienced wrestlers who don’t really gain anything from working with him.

(4) Shows Don’t Need Fillers Between Main Events

This has been a long running myth which has annoyed me for the best part of a decade now. I think it started around the time of Undertaker’s WrestleMania epics with Shawn and Hunter when everyone decided that you need a filler match between big matches because otherwise the crowd is too burned out from the previous match. That’s just not true, and once again New Japan are the proof of it.

The issue isn’t following one big main event with another one. The issue is following a big match that has the crowd red hot with something that doesn’t get them hot. The blame for that may be on the wrestlers in the match not delivering in a way that maintains the momentum created from the previous match. However, a lot of the time the blame is simply on a poor show layout. So often WWE will have the match that the crowd want to see the most and the match that is likely to and does end up producing the best match go on before the final match on the show. So naturally when something has to follow up what the crowds perceive as being the real main event and produces the best match on the card, whatever follows it is going to suffer.

That’s yet another thing that New Japan do really well. The biggest stars that have the best matches ARE the main event. You don’t have to worry about needing to follow an epic classic from Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi. So often the best match on the card from a crowd investment standpoint is the one that goes on last. And it’s not like the guys in the main event ever worry about having to follow guys like KUSHIDA and Tomohiro Ishii having fantastic battles before them because they know that they’ll have the crowd invested in their own match regardless.

If you’re producing something hot that the crowd want to see then they’ll get hot for it. “The audience only has so many pops” mentality really isn’t the case. Sure it is to a certain extent but not to the extent that you need to ensure nobody else on the card has the opportunity to have a great match or to the extent that they can only get really invested in one match per hour.

It’s not like New Japan are alone in this respect either. UFC put on marathon shows but if the main event is a fight the people want to be into and allows them to be into, they’ll be hot for it. UFC 214 this past weekend had a lot of fights that the crowd got into and even had an absolute stinker of a five round fight right before the main event. So with that show you actually get to not only dispel the myth that crowds only have so many pops but also that if you bring a crowd down you can’t get them back up.

If you’ve got a product that will get the crowd invested then they’ll get hot. Ring of Honor in their glory years of the mid 2000’s had some long ass shows with really long main events but they never lost their audience as the show came to a close because they were red hot to see a great product. You can even go through WWE’s own history and pick out loads of shows with great matches up and down the card where the crowds didn’t “run out of pops”. Canadian Stampede and Money In The Bank 2011 were both one great match after another but because the audience were hot for the main event before the show, they were hot when it happened.

If you’ve got a main event that people are excited for going into the show, they’ll be hot for when it happens, regardless of what comes before it. New Japan are taking it to the borderline extreme with these long Okada main events going into the fifth hour of the show, yet the crowds are still at their hottest for them matches, despite getting super hot for epic battles earlier in the show. The reason why crowds didn’t get hot for Cena vs Edge vs Big Show and Hunter vs Orton following Undertaker vs HBK at Mania 25 isn’t because Taker and Shawn burned the crowd out, it’s because what followed weren’t matches that they were excited for.

(5) The Junior Heavyweights Matter

The difference between New Japan’s Junior Heavyweight division and WWE’s Cruiserweight division is night and day. In New Japan they can be one of the highest featured matches on the card and get main event reactions that warrant such a high standing. Whereas in WWE despite there not being a lack of talent, they continually struggle to get much of any reaction at all. But why? It all boils down to one word; respect. New Japan’s booking treats the division with respect and in turn the crowds respect the division as well. WWE don’t treat their division with respect so shockingly neither does the bulk of their audience.

In comparison to New Japan’s Junior Heavyweight division, WWE’s Cruiserweight division definitely comes up short in terms of talent. With the possible exception of Neville, nobody can compare to the likes of KUSHIDA, Hiromu Takahashi, Will Ospreay and Ricochet. However, it’s not as if guys like Cedric Alexander, Rich Swann, Jack Gallagher and Gran Metalik (remember that guy!) don’t have a heck of a lot of talent capable of producing great matches that can get crowds invested in what they’re doing.

But when you only give them a handful of minutes and greatly limit the spots they can do, even super talented workers like them are going to massively struggle. I’m pretty confident that if you told most of the New Japan guys that they have four minutes to work with and you’re only allowed one highspot each that they’d likely struggle as well. If you’re going to sign these great wrestlers to contracts then show them some respect and actually let them do what they’re good at! It’s all well and good saying that they get time to have longer matches on 205 Live, but why would anyone be watching that show when you’re telling your biggest audience on Raw that these guys have four minute below average matches, tune into see more straight after you’ve watched two hours of Smackdown!

That’s the down and dirty basics of the why people care about and react to New Japan’s Junior Heavyweight division. There’s a lot more to it than just let great wrestlers have great matches though (even though there almost doesn’t need to be). Going back to the respect point, they also treat them with respect when it comes to their place on the show. If you’re at the top of the division then you’re at the top of the cards and you don’t get your match potential limited with undercard time restrictions. You’re allowed to go out and get as over as your potential allows you to get.

And they don’t treat the division like their illegitimate child that they’re giving the least amount of attention to before they get accused of neglect. The fact that the Cruiserweight division has always been a purple roped island to itself does the division no favours at all. It makes them look inferior to the other stars on the show, especially when you have guys like Finn Balor “above the division”.

There’s no rub for them to gain from working with the higher level talent either. It’s constantly undercard wrestlers working with other undercard wrestlers. Just having Neville beat a guy like Jeff Hardy or Cedric Alexander pulling off an upset against someone at the level of a Cesaro would do them and the division as a whole so much good. It’d show the fans that while they’re a separate division to everyone else on the show, it’s not because they’re inferior or less important. Have Jack Gallagher team with a guy like Seth Rollins or Dean Ambrose on an episode of Raw. It’s nice that they haven’t gone down the route of Braun Strowman destroying all the little guys but there is a middle ground between that and zero crossover at all.

New Japan’s Junior Heavyweight division benefits so much from getting ring time working with the very top attractions in the promotion. If KUSHIDA is good enough to team with Hiroshi Tanahashi then that does a world of good for the reputation of the entire division. It allows a guy like Will Ospreay to get a rub from some of Kazuchika Okada’s star power, likewise for The Young Bucks working against him. And it gives them main event matches without having to be the main attraction on the show. Anytime you get a chance to be working in the ring with guys at the level of Okada and Tanahashi it can only do good for your own standing.

WWE have the talent in their Cruiserweight division for them to be featuring in one of the four biggest matches on a PPV, especially the single brand shows. That’s never going to happen, or at least get over in such a placement, until they start giving respect to the division and presenting it as a division for fans to care about as a genuine attraction for the shows that they’re on.

NOW CHECK OUT LAST WEEK’S COLUMN: FIVE COUNT: Five Lessons for WWE to learn from a fan who is done watching these Smackdown PPVs

1 Comment on FIVE COUNT: Five Lessons Wrestling Bookers Can Learn from New Japan from Roster Hierarchy to Purpose of Veterans

  1. Great article, yours is the column I look forward to every week.

    One minor quibble with the formatting: I think somehow “find/replace” was used, and awkwardly changed several pronouns from whatever they were supposed to be to “them”. Otherwise, keep up the amazing work!


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