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Looking at NJPW in 2015




This week, New Japan Pro Wrestling presented Wrestle Kingdom 10, the promotion’s version of WrestleMania and thus it’s biggest show of the year. Last year, an entirely new audience was introduced to the Tokyo Dome tradition when WK 9 was broadcast in the United States for the first time ever through a partnership with Global Force Wrestling. As 2016 begins, there’s always some discussion and analysis of the previous year, which was mostly good for the industry on a variety of levels. That being said, New Japan Pro Wrestling has to be considered the promotion of the year for 2015, as it continued to expand the promotion and it’s really a remarkable accomplishment, especially when you take into account the state of Japan’s biggest promotion just a decade ago.


Over 40 years ago, Antonio Inoki, one of the star pupils of the legendary Rikiodozan, founded New Japan Pro Wrestling and the company ascended to become the top organization in the country. Rikidozan’s other top student, Giant Baba formed All Japan the same year and while it remained respectful, an intense rivalry developed during the next two decades as each group tried to claim the top spot. New Japan produced legends like The Great Muta, Masahiro Chono, and Hashimoto. All Japan introduced its share of legends such as Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi, and Jun Akiyama. There were also several “gaijin” or foreign wrestlers used throughout the years for each company, including Terry Funk, Dory Funk Jr., Bruiser Brody, Stan Hansen, Dusty Rhodes, and many others.

The entire Japanese landscape would begin to change with the death of Giant Baba in 1999 and the exit of Misawa (along with the majority of the AJPW roster) to start Pro Wrestling NOAH the following year. By 2002, the trend of performers leaving well established promotions due to political disputes continued and the Japanese scene was completely over saturated with a wave of alphabet soup companies. Instead of stacked rosters for a few groups, an organization would have a few well known stars with an under card of mostly unknown wrestlers. With All Japan a shell of its former self, only propped up by Muta’s jump to the company, New Japan began to struggle as well when the somewhat eccentric Inoki implemented a change in philosophy. Looking to capitalize on the popularity of Pride, Inoki started booking more mixed martial arts type angles and most of them fell flat in the pro wrestling environment.

While there’s a similar demographic, pro wrestling and MMA are different genres, and it’s somewhat difficult to expect an MMA fighter to transition to taking bumps. The Japanese style is based on in ring action and precise skill, but NJPW featured sloppy worked MMA based matches that soured many fans of traditional pro wrestling. The low point of this and probably the best example was when former football player and current combat fighter, Bob Sapp won the IWGP Heavyweight title in 2004. Sapp was clumsy and sluggish in the ring, and the attendance reflected that, as Inoki’s MMA experiment fell flat. In 2005, Inoki’s empire was on the brink of bankruptcy after decades of success previously and he was forced to sell the organization to the Yuke’s video game company. To add to the uncertainty of the organization, Brock Lesnar, who was looking for anywhere to jump start his career after a failed bid to join the Minnesota Vikings, refused to drop the IWGP belt in 2006 after a six month reign as champion. Lesnar took the title to Inoki Genome Federation’s debut show and had a match with Kurt Angle, but that left New Japan without a credible heavyweight champion. A tournament was booked and a new champion was named, but it took several years and several impressive matches to rebuilt the credibility of the championship.


Fast forward to 2012 and NJPW still hadn’t become a profitable for Yuke’s and they sold to Bushiroad, a popular trading card company. Naoki Sugabayashi was declared President of the new group and the combination wrestling veterans, Jado and Gedo became the booker. Within a few years, the booking ideology of establishing younger New Japan stars and the debut of new foreign talent, many of whom were among the best workers on the independent scene in the United States, fueled a resurgence for the company. Before Finn Balor was receiving rave reviews for his matches on the WWE Network, Prince Devitt worked extensively in Japan and started what would become the most popular stable in the world in 2013. The Bullet Club, a throw back to the New World Order, (an angle that was originally used in the UWFI in Japan) consisted of a group of mostly “gaijin” wrestlers looking to take over New Japan. Karl Anderson, Doc Gallows, The Young Bucks, AJ Styles, and others that are a part of the stable have helped make New Japan more well known outside of its home country. The Bullet Club t-shirt became the most in demand wrestling apparel in years and a working agreement with the Chicago based Pro Wrestling Tees website allowed fans in North America the chance to order a licensed t-shirt. As far as the native stars, Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada, both of whom wrestled around the globe to sharpening their skills with different styles, had a classic series of matches that elevated the New Japan brand.


When Bushiroad purchased NJPW, one of the upgrades to the league was the expansion of internet pay-per-view events, which is more common in Japan than in the United States and it created another revenue stream for it. In 2015, New Japan inked a deal with Axis, the former HD Net channel, to air a TV show, NJPW’s first TV deal in the US, which must be considered a major accomplishment for the organization. Along with American television, New Japan launched the “New Japan World” streaming service, which is similar to the WWE Network.

The past year featured the debut of American PPV, a US cable deal, one of the most popular stables in the world, and a great talent roster to compliment the launch of an online service. It’s even more remarkable, considering that a decade ago the promotion almost collapsed, but WK 10 had an attendance of around 60,000 so it’s certainly an impressive accomplishment. Where New Japan goes from here remains to be seen, but it’s good to see that the storied history of the company will continue as the organization is stable and it’s showcases some great events.

-Jim LaMotta