SPOTLIGHTED PODCAST ALERT (YOUR ARTICLE BEGINS A FEW INCHES DOWN)...
My pro wrestling fandom goes back to my earliest memory of it at four years old at the 1993 King of the Ring in Dayton, Ohio Nutter Center. That night Bret Hart made a lifelong fan winning that tournament. Twenty-six years later and I still enjoy it as much, or maybe more, than I did in my younger years of watching wrestling.
In the early WCW/NWA days, I was introduced to wrestlers such as Ric Flair, Great Muta, Sting, Dusty Rhodes , and the Road Warriors among others before Hulk Hogan arrived in 1994. On the WWF side there was Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, and the Undertaker whom I enjoyed watching most in those times. Pro wrestling was doing unbelievable from a business and fan standpoint. It was buried in the very fabric of America in the latter years of the 1990s. Fast-forward to the purchase and the end of WCW (in March of 2001), and the WWF (now WWE) is now the monopoly in pro wrestling.
As the years went by, all the wrestlers who captivated me and grabbed my attention were now either slowing down or long retired. With WWE too consumed in creating this public world-wide entertainment company, they drifted away from what I always loved, and that was pro wrestling.
Yes, granted you have your wrestling matches but the WWE goes out of their way to make themselves perceived as entertainment and not “rasslin’.” Well, guess what? I love “rasslin.” I will not spend any time complaining about the current WWE product because it has long turned me away with politically-driven shows and years of eye-rolling storylines. The goodwill from me towards WWE stopped in 2014. Why? Insulting fan intelligence, lazy creative direction, and sloppy and repetitive matches. Not to mention the lack of management’s (primarily Vince McMahon’s) willingness to put any stock or push of any kind into anyone who does not have the McMahon stamp of approval. It seemed that, just out of loyalty and passion, I kept watching WWE until all patience was gone.
Enter New Japan Pro Wrestling. When I was a kid, I was already familiar with guys like Tatsumi Fujinami, The Great Muta, Jushin Thunder Liger, Ultimo Dragon, Riki Chosu, Antonio Inoki, Masahiro Chono, Yuji Nagata, and Shinya Hashimoto through WCW’s relationship with them through the years and reading online. I obviously knew these guys were talented, but I just wasn’t smart enough then to comprehend how Japan treated wrestling and how it’s literally built into their culture or I would have been following them more closely. I always read the Wrestling Observer Newsletter and other sites, so I knew there were other good pro wrestling companies. Overall interest was down for wrestling and it had no longer become the cool thing to watch. I had to find my wrestling satisfaction elsewhere because WWE was slowly killing my love and interest for pro wrestling.
I had kept tabs on NJPW and other companies like AJPW, TNA, and ROH, but one guy who really drew my ire was a guy in New Japan named Shinsuke Nakamura, and man he oozed charisma. Obviously, I had read about him and heard that he was this “super rookie.” Although it took him a while to find his identity, he was really taking off. So I’m thinking to myself, “How much charisma can this guy have that Americans are talking about him.” So I looked into him and New Japan and was immediately captivated by his movements and his psychology in-ring, not to mention his unique look. Obviously, in venturing into NJPW, I found all the other great wrestlers such as Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kazuchika Okada, Tetsuya Naito, and Kota Ibushi. While I was introduced to one of my favorite wrestlers in Shinsuke Nakamura, I was fully introduced to New Japan Pro Wrestling. I quickly took to the way they respected it and it was ingrained into the Japan culture.
After being completely flabbergasted with the highly intense, high-standard of matches that New Japan presents on a constant basis, I decided to do some research on Japanese wrestling. By research, I mean a deep study on it to where I like to think I know a thing or two. I’m not going to act like I’m any sort of historian of pro wrestling, but I’m also not your casual and easy-to-please fan. The history and the prestige that is in NJPW, and AJPW for that matter, can only be understood by watching and studying the history of Japanese wrestling (or puroresu) and clearly it needs to be respected for its place in professional wrestling history. They also were a big reason MMA became so popular.
I know a lot of people who just cannot get past the fact that most of the promotion is Japanese and therefore speak mostly Japanese, which turns off some fans. With NJPW World now having English commentary, NJPW is becoming more accessible to the Western audience. The effort in the ring and story-telling is what I yearn for most out of pro wrestling. New Japan has a great Young Lion program that trains all their up-and-coming, home-grown talent, so these young guys start with a solid fundamental foundation. The incredibly high standard that is expected of the high-profile New Japan main events is something that sets them apart from every promotion in the world in my opinion.
NJPW’s angles or storyline style is also unique in the sense that, if something happens, it happens for a reason and there is a payoff or endgame of a feud. Wrestlers, especially top guys, only lose if there is something to come of it. In fact, NJPW storylines are not storylines per say. They are usually driven by history between the wrestlers, wins and losses, and post-show interview segments, all of which is perceived as close to a real sport as any promotion in the world other than UFC or legitimate sports. That would be because in Japan, it is looked at like a sport, so much so that a New Japan moniker is “King of Sports.”
New Japan has tournaments (G1 Climax, New Japan Cup) to decide challengers for the companies top championship titles. They also highlight their own Junior Heavyweight division, with a tournament to determine a number one contender to their Jr Heavyweight championship (Best of the Super Juniors). I clearly remember as a kid watching Jushin Liger and Ultimo Dragon, who are Japanese wrestling legends, in WCW having these incredible matches with moves I had never seen before. I immediately was drawn to these types of wrestlers as well as Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, and Eddie Guererro, all of whom had worked in Japan. A lot of my favorite matches from 1990s WCW featured the Japanese, Mexican, and these “cruiserweights” that WCW had become famous for.
In 2019, the wrestling landscape has changed, with the new company in America that is All Elite Wrestling. With a lot of disgruntled fans able to voice their opinion on today’s product, it seemed there was no better time to start a company than now and develop a fan base. Backed by the wealthy Tony Kahn, they signed one of NJPW’s top wrestlers Kenny Omega, who had just been dubbed the best wrestler in the world. They also were able to get NJPW hottest tag team at that time, and Omega’s friend, The Young Bucks (Matt & Nick Jackson). All Elite Wrestling was also able to sign former wwe stars Chris Jericho (who works New Japan dates) and Jon Moxley (f/k/a Dean Ambrose) and he also recently worked NJPW and is currently the IWGP U.S. Champion. However, this will be short lived because Moxley is exclusive to AEW once the TNT TV deal starts.
With NJPW trying to gain a foothold in America, AEW seemingly undermined that process by not only securing top talent, but competing for the same fans who are screaming for an alternative. Some said that NJPW was in trouble, but a mere six months later, they have created a lot of buzz in America and have the top rated and top ranked wrestlers in the world. An expansion into America is something that is important to me for the simple fact that I want more eyes on these incredible pro wrestlers and on a company that strives to bring the best and proving they are the best.
The next couple of years will be very interesting when it comes to pro wrestling in America, with AEW having weekly TV starting in the fall of this year. While they promise the best in-ring action in the world, their debut show Double Or Nothing proved to me that New Japan is still head and shoulders above everyone else in presenting the most compelling and consistent top notch wrestling at its highest level.
One of the things I appreciate about following New Japan is that I feel vindicated and rewarded for paying attention to the details within the story arc. When I am watching a IWGP Heavyweight Championship match, it genuinely feels like winning that title is the most important thing in the world to the wrestlers that are competing. They protect who they make champion. This brings value and prestige to the title, making it feel important. If everyone can become champion, then it inherently is not very special or rare. I am of the ideology and belief that pro wrestling draws the most interest and money when it is presented as a serious athletic sporting event. It does not get any closer to real sport than it does with NJPW. They have a little bit of levity and comedy, but it is in small doses. Of course, NJPW is not without its flaws, but with so many great matches and memories, you look past the small things sometimes.
Another important aspect of NJPW, and Japanese wrestling companies as a whole, is that they are not as socially or politically influenced as American promotions are. They cater to the hardcore Japanese fan and reward them for their dedication and passion. There is a respect shown by the Japanese fans that is only commonplace for Japan and eastern promotions. In contrast, in America, you have chants and people yelling throughout a show, whereas in Japan they will make noise and chant when the match or the wrestlers create the opportunity or the moment. Just a different culture and how they view it. The media treats it no different than covering a legit sport. This only legitimizes New Japan and makes them more credible and real. I have nothing but respect for that. Reward your loyal fans. Geesh, what a concept, huh? Right now pro wrestling is creating some buzz. You have companies like WWE, ROH, MLW, and now AEW, and all I know is New Japan has a strong following in America and I want nothing more than for NJPW to grow and expand their worldwide popularity.
Pro wrestling enjoyment is subjective, and there is a kind of wrestling for everyone. I have been called “old school” or “out of touch” for wanting to suspend my disbelief while watching pro wrestling and for it to be serious at times when it’s important. Every other company does too much comedy for my liking. New Japan does the best job at captivating me during their important shows like Dominion and Wrestle Kingdom. This year, when the G1 blocks were announced, I literally laughed out loud with pure joy because of the dream matches that are in this years G1 Climax. Tell me that is not excitement for wrestling.
Once again, there are a lot of promotions out there that provides different forms of pro wrestling. If you like wrestling that looks real and credible and gives you vindication for watching it, I suggest you give NJPW a try. The action is so good that when I first started watching NJPW, they only had Japanese commentary, and yet it didn’t matter or mean a thing to me. In fact you get all the same emotion by just listening to the crowd and by watching the in-ring phycology. There is no other company (or country) that treats it with such honor and respect like the Japanese do. Maybe I am old school for wanting pro wrestling to be held in a serious light. For my money, there is no other company that provides the type of intense and athletic pro wrestling matches that New Japan presents consistently. I’m glad there is some NJPW interest growing over here in America in 2019, because it deserves to be seen and respected worldwide. Simply put, NJPW is the best damn pro wrestling on the planet period.