To most people, the word “wrestling” is synonymous with WWE. WWE is the biggest player in the game with the most television coverage; wrestling fans have grown up with WWE on TV for decades. Ever since the company bought WCW in 2001, various companies have tried to take their place as the world’s number two wrestling promotion. Impact Wrestling, Ring of Honor and Lucha Underground are all available on US TV, but none have reached the heights of the monolith. Recently, another player has decided to ramp up their efforts to break into the US wrestling market: New Japan Pro Wrestling. As a long time fan of New Japan I thought I’d provide you with an introduction.
New Japan Pro Wrestling was founded in 1972 by future WWE Hall of Famer Antonio Inoki. The self proclaimed “King of Sports” presented itself as a legitimate sport and Inoki was obsessed with proving that wrestling was the superior combat sport. To do that he fought a series of matches against experts in karate, Judo and boxing, including a match against boxing great Muhammad Ali. New Japan was at its peak in the 1990s, with huge attendances on their annual January 4th Tokyo Dome Shows. The company has strongly defined Heavyweight and Junior Heavyweight divisions and the current roster has a mixture of talent, from 30 year veterans to trainees known as “Young Lions”.
New Japan has undergone a renaissance of sorts and has been very highly regarded in the last few years, mostly due to the quality of its main events. While there are flaws with the promotion, such as a lackluster Tag Team division, it is always in contention when discussing the best matches and shows of the year. Their annual G1-Climax tournament, taking place in July, is arguably the best tournament in wrestling.
Interest from non-Japanese fans has grown in the last few years. While the quality of the roster and the matches is a factor, it helps that New Japan has never been more accessible. They have New Japan World, their online streaming service, which now has English language commentary for the biggest shows. New Japan Pro Wrestling currently airs on AXS TV, with new episodes every Friday at 8pm ET. The presentation focuses more on matches than storylines and 10 minute promos, with commentary provided by Jim Ross and Josh Barnett.
The last few years have seen New Japan repeatedly visit the US. In 2011 they ran shows with New Jersey-based JAPW, creating the IWGP Intercontinental Title. New Japan wrestlers also appear frequently in Ring of Honor. This year they plan to go one step further as they promote two solo shows called G1 Special in USA. These shows are at the Long Beach Convention Centre in Long Beach, California on July 1st and July 2nd and both shows are already sold out. So far four names have been announced for these shows, who just so happen to be four of the biggest names in the promotion today.
“Rainmaker” Kazuchika Okada is the top dog in New Japan. The current IWGP Heavyweight Champion has already been the Champion for over three years, spread across four title reigns. His main weapon is his athleticism: he often uses a standing dropkick on opponents sitting on the top rope and he has the prettiest and most effective dropkick in wrestling. Okada has consistently been one of the best big match wrestlers for the last three years, but this year he has added more tenacity and desperation to his arsenal. He relies on his “Rainmaker” wrist-clutch clothesline, and his unwillingness to let go of his opponent’s wrist no matter what symbolizes his determination to keep his title.
What do you do when you are booed by your own fans because they think that you’re being pushed down their throat? If your name is Roman Reigns then it’s just business as usual. Tetsuya Naito’s approach, however, was different: He went to Mexico, hung out with some new friends and came back with a new attitude and some fancy suits. Naito lives life at his own pace and by his own rules, disrespecting both his opponents and the titles that he holds. Hi matches are often full of contrast: mixing languid taunts with fast paced attacks, cockiness with desperation, aloofness with anger. Naito is also the leader of the hottest wrestling stable in Japan, Los Igobernables de Japon.
Many of you have heard of New Japan, but I expect more of you are aware of Bullet Club. Bullet Club built a reputation worldwide as a cool stable, similar to the nWo. At one time or another the group included current WWE superstars Finn Balor, AJ Styles, Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson. The current leader of Bullet Club is Kenny Omega, a former IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion who moved to heavyweight last year when AJ Styles left. As such, his style is very fast paced and full of thrilling feats of athleticism. Omega has spent the last year proving that he deserves to be in the main event. He was arguably the MVP of last years G1-Climax tournament and his match at Wrestle Kingdom 9 against Okada turned a lot of heads. Omega isn’t above having fun teaming with his buddies the Young Bucks, but when he’s in the main event he is phenomenal.
The laziest comparison you can make is that Hiroshi Tanahashi is New Japan’s John Cena. It’s lazy, but it’s also pretty accurate. Tanahashi dominated New Japan for almost a decade, holding the IWGP Heavyweight title seven times and defending it 28 times. The self proclaimed “Ace of the Universe” and “Once in a Century Masterpiece” had a significant role in bringing New Japan back to its position as the number 1 Japanese wrestling promotion. He is an extremely talented all-rounder, full of charisma and wrestling skill. His place at the top of the New Japan pyramid has been taken by Okada but the 38 year old Tanahashi is still able to show that he is one of the best big match wrestlers of the past decade.