Why you should care
Because it’s time your wide world of wrestling got a bit more global.
New Japan Pro Wrestling is on the verge of an international breakthrough. The second-largest (and, according to many, the best) purveyor of choreographed grappling on the planet recently launched NJPW World, a Netflix-like service that gives subscribers access to live events and archival content alike. As of this year, AXS TV delivered the promotion to millions of stateside living rooms on a weekly basis, including its first-ever equivalent of a worldwide Super Bowl.
Wrestle Kingdom 9, which was technically the company’s 24th annual Tokyo Dome show, took place in front of some 36,000 people on Jan. 4. It had been hyped to fans in the United States for months, thanks to the newly launched Global Force Wrestling, the entity behind its first English-language broadcast, led by vaunted commentator Jim Ross, aka Good Ol’ J.R. The event was deemed the “WrestleMania of wrestling” by participating talent, a not-so-subtle jab at WWE head honcho Vince McMahon’s insistence on referring to his brand as “sports entertainment” and all but avoiding the W-word. There’s less pageantry in NJPW, and fewer overdramatized soap opera storylines; Japan’s tendency toward a stiffer, “strong style” of wrestling leads to its events being billed more like other sports, with several belligerents boasting the MMA bona fides to match that categorization.
Fans sit in hushed reverence for the majority of the show, gasping and clapping for only the most impressive spots.
Rich Kraetsch, a New Japan aficionado who oversees the blog Voices of Wrestling, says a “perfect storm” is brewing for fans who have even a passing interest in NJPW. “Everything that’s been a roadblock has been knocked down over the last four years, most notably accessibility and familiarity with the product,” he says.
During my first real exposure to NJPW, I couldn’t help but notice a difference in the crowd. First, the audience members don’t seek to involve themselves in the action to nearly the same extent as their U.S. counterparts: There are no chants; no attention-grabbing signs; no fans decked out in costumes. Instead, for the majority of the show, they sit in hushed reverence, gasping and clapping for only the most impressive spots. The crowds are the same size as in those in the U.S., but the Japanese arena is lit in such a way that only the first few rows are especially visible. The respectful silence allows those of us who are viewing from home to hear the performers’ strained groans, just like we would if we were watching a tennis match.
A number of matches and competitors stood out. Kenny Omega — a wonderfully over-the-top villain who oozes bad-guy charm — is a rising star with a litany of impressive moves. Shinsuke Nakamura, who successfully defended his Intercontinental Championship in the penultimate bout of the evening (which garnered a rare five-star rating from Dave Meltzer), is one of the most latently charismatic performers in this or any other promotion. His ring entrance alone felt like an event, to say nothing of the aerial maneuvers and false finishes that defined the show-stealing match that followed. It was one for the ages: not quite a passing of the torch, but a sign that this on-the-rise competitor will be one to watch in the years to come — a fitting metaphor for New Japan itself.