SPOTLIGHTED PODCAST ALERT (YOUR ARTICLE BEGINS A FEW INCHES DOWN)...
As New Japan Pro Wrestling’s popularity has grown in the U.S. over the last four years, collectors have been pining for NJPW trading cards. With 2018 Legends of Wrestling due in the first half of January 2019, Leaf Trading Cards is providing autographs of some of NJPW’s top stars – and so much more.
Leaf has announced some autographs for 2018 Legends, including Jesse Ventura, Kenny Omega, Penta El Zero M (Pentagon Jr.), Cody, Dynamite Kid, Larry Hennig and Rey Mysterio. While the full checklist hasn’t been publicly disclosed, Leaf Trading Cards CEO Brian Gray shared some details of the new cards exclusively with the Torch. Many of the wrestlers in the top matches at Wrestle Kingdom 13 will have autographs in 2018 Legends, including Kota Ibushi and Will Ospreay. The set also will include autographs from current stars like PCO and Ricochet, along with legends like Dick Beyer (the Destroyer) and Jim Brunzell, just to name a few. There will also be plenty of unique dual autographs, including the first certified dual autograph trading card of Edge and Christian.
“This isn’t a checklist where I think, ‘This guy is the best and everyone else sucks,’” Gray said. “Sometimes that happens in a wrestling set, where you’ll get three great names and a bunch of commons or filler. I think this set is just steady across the board.”
Gray and company entered the wrestling card market about six years ago with 2012 Leaf Originals Wrestling, a nostalgia product made up mostly of stars from previous eras. Gray grew up a wrestling fan in Dallas watching the WWF and World Class Championship Wrestling, and used to read the newsstand magazines like Pro Wrestling Illustrated to find out what was going on in regions that he couldn’t see on TV. His fandom at a young age helped shape Leaf’s initial wrestling product.
“I wanted to create a product that reflected what I watched on television as a kid growing up,” Gray said. “And yes there would be a few newer guys in there, but I wanted the set to have such a great feel of names that I remembered.”
The 2012 Leaf Originals Wrestling product was followed by 2014 Leaf Originals Wrestling, 2016 Leaf Signature Series Wrestling and 2017 Leaf Buyback Wrestling. Each product added signatures from legends who weren’t in the previous sets. With 2016 Signature Series, Leaf shook things up by also including autographs from modern day independent stars like the Young Bucks, Christopher Daniels, Mike Bennett and others.
Leaf surprised collectors in 2017 by including autographs from Kenny Omega, Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Tetsuya Naito and Rocky Romero in its multi-sport Leaf Metal Sports Heroes product. The Omega autograph was arguably the hottest wrestling card of 2017.
“When we introduced Omega cards last year, everyone went crazy for them,” Gray said. “He’s the biggest name on the planet in wrestling right now, so that was huge.”
With 2018 Legends of Wrestling, Leaf is providing a deep mix of autographs from new legends, independent wrestling stars and top talent from NJPW.
“This is really the culmination,” Gray said. “We threw in everything and the kitchen sink that we had at our disposal.”
About 2018 Leaf Legends of Wrestling
Each box of 2018 Leaf Legends of Wrestling will include eight signed cards at a cost of about $135 per box. Leaf is producing just 125 cases with 12 boxes per case, or 1,500 total boxes.
“The negative to that is it might get bid up in the marketplace because there just isn’t much,” Gray said. “But at the same time, we see what happens in the marketplace when a product is overproduced. We don’t want a situation where customers invest their hard-earned money into our products and because there’s so much printed, the value is depleted. We don’t want that.”
For Gray personally, Ventura brings the greatest appeal to the new product. He has signed for only a couple sets before, including 2005 Donruss Baseball Fans of the Game and 2009 Topps American Heritage. But this will be Ventura’s first certified autograph in an actual wrestling product, and securing his signature wasn’t easy.
“He is a headline name and for three or four sets in a row, every time we thought we had him, it just never seemed to work,” Gray recalled. “At the last second the deal would fall apart or he would be in Mexico or whatever.”
Gray recognizes that for current wrestling fans, wrestlers like Omega, Pentagon and the stars of NJPW may be the biggest draws.
“We added more Japanese names because that segment is picking up steam; there’s no doubt about it,” Gray set. “But the legends aspect of this product is huge as well. Being able to bring in Ventura was huge, and having what could be some of the last certified autos of some legends that passed away recently in Dynamite and Hennig is huge as well. We just ended up being very fortunate in getting some names that could end up being one and done.”
According to Gray, Ventura autographs will fall two or more per case, on average. Pentagon will fall about one per case, and an estimated 80% of cases will have an Omega auto. Each box of cards is hand-packed by “a wrestling guy on staff who knows the sport well, and he organizes the collation,” Gray said.
“We recognize that wrestling is a sport that people truly collect,” he explained. “Some people open it just to flip it and make money, but there are a lot more true collectors. When you have true collectors, you’ve got to make these good cards attainable. You can’t make them impossible.”
In addition to the wrestlers in the set, 2018 Leaf Legends of Wrestling also includes autographs from four mixed martial arts stars: Fedor Emelianenko, Paige VanZant, Royce Gracie and Kazushi Sakuraba.
“We felt like it’s a value add,” Gray said of the MMA autos. “Even if you’re not a fan of them, if you’re more wrestling than MMA, it gives you cards you can sell to buy more wrestling. Fedor is huge, Royce Gracie is huge, Paige is huge because she’s gorgeous, and Sakuraba, you have a nice wrestling tie-in also.
“I’m very interested to see how wrestling collectors deal with the MMA cards. I’m very interested to see if they’re going to collect those, if they’re going to sell those. The MMA market is dying for more unique stuff. Wrestling fans aren’t necessarily the same as MMA fans, but there is enough of a crossover.”
Gray said he hopes that wrestling collectors will understand that the MMA autos are more of a bonus and not simply filler cards.
“It’s not like we replaced Kenny Omega with a weaker MMA guy,” he said. “We’re putting in great MMA names that are not even replacing a wrestler; it’s just more value. On average, those cards cost us more per autograph than most of the wrestlers did. My mindset on it was that even if people don’t care for MMA that much and Fedor’s not their guy, Fedor is still a value add that enough people will want.”
The Future of Leaf Wrestling Cards
Gray’s formative years as a wrestling fan helped shape wrestling trading cards from Leaf. He recalled one experience as a preteen at a WWF event in the 1980s when he mouthed off to Greg “the Hammer” Valentine, who has since appeared in multiple Leaf products.
“I remember mouthing off to him and him hauling back like he was gonna hit me; I remember just sinking down in my seat just scared shitless,” Gray said with a laugh. “So my whole life I’ve remembered Greg Valentine scaring the crap out of me, and every time I see him it brings back memories.
“That’s the thing about wrestling. You see these guys and you remember those interactions and it’s different from other sports. It’s different than watching Mike Trout hit a home run. It’s different than watching Barry Sanders score a touchdown. The wrestlers have always been far more interactive with fans in the midst of doing what they do, and there’s a different feeling that comes from that.”
Gray has been open on social media that 2018 Leaf Legends of Wrestling could be the company’s last wrestling product, depending on collectors’ interest.
“We’re not saying this is definitely our last wrestling product,” Gray explained. “We roll with demand. If people want it, we make it. If they’re not passionate about it, we don’t. This will be an interesting test to see if the market really wants another product besides the WWE products that are out there.”
But even if the 2018 product turns out to be Leaf’s final foray into wrestling sets, Gray emphasized that wrestlers will continue to appear in other Leaf products, such as Pop Century and Sports Heroes.
“Wrestlers will always be a piece of our multisport portfolio,” Gray said. “It’s just a function of figuring out how deep in wrestling should Leaf really be. If fans on this product go crazy and really support it like mad, that’s going to send a message to us that we can’t leave that category. If fans are ho-hum about it, which you never know, then we’ll make a different decision.
“But in the interim, I can tell you because of my love for the sport, especially the old school part of it, I don’t see a situation where we wouldn’t include the best names in another product. Wrestling is such a big part of the sports culture, and so it needs to be represented the same way boxing, soccer, tennis, hockey and other sports are represented in Leaf products.”
More information on Leaf Trading cards and 2018 Leaf Legends of Wrestling can be found online atleaftradingcards.com. Follow Leaf on Twitter @Leaf_Cards.
NOW CHECK OUT THE PRIOR COLUMN: COLLECTIBLES COLUMN: Top Wrestling Figures of 2018
Michael Moore is a writer and collector living in Casper, WY. He has been a collector of sports cards and wrestling memorabilia since 1985. He has contributed articles on pro wrestling collectibles to PWTorch.com since 2011, and his work has also appeared in Pro Wrestling Illustrated, Tuff Stuff Sports Collectibles, Beckett sports publications and more. Follow him on Twitter @MMooreWriter, or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.