The rise of New Japan Pro Wrestling

In 2005, New Japan Pro Wrestling was named ‘Worst Promotion of the Year’ by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. This marked a new low point in the storied company’s history.

At the same time, World Wrestling Entertainment was crowning their two newest superstars at Wrestlemania 21 as both John Cena and Batista won world championships. New Japan Pro Wrestling just couldn’t keep up with the superstar power of WWE. Fast forward 13 years later and New Japan Pro Wrestling is putting out the most premier wrestling content in the entire world.

Since taking over for his father, Vince McMahon has been notorious for his micromanagement when it comes to the booking, the story lines, and who the biggest superstars are. It’s worked for McMahon, as he has monopolized professional wrestling with his only true competition coming from World Championship Wrestling, a company which McMahon later purchased. After finding success in the edgy “Attitude Era”, McMahon decided to go to a more “family-friendly” product in recent years that features no blood, no swearing, stricter drug testing, and an increased focus on women’s wrestling.

Buoyed by the likes of squeaky clean front man John Cena and the latest wrestler from the famous Anoa’i family, Roman Reigns, WWE has their formula down. Create their sympathetic star, give them the title, print money. It’s worked for 30 years and has shown no signs of really slowing down. McMahon has however taken an even bigger risk than abandoning the Attitude Era when he decided to end the pay-per-view system that had made him so much of his money. Instead, he created the WWE Network.

The Network is home to all live WWE pay-per-view events and even includes a library of all past pay-per-views. This allows any user, at any time, to watch all of their favorite matches from years past and it even puts out original content.

WWE has always seen criticism by fans and wrestlers alike for their “soft style” of wrestling. Look no further than an August 23rd episode of the WWE Network’s ‘Talking Smack’ where then Smackdown Live General Manager Daniel Bryan criticized Intercontinental Champion The Miz for being a coward and a prototypical WWE wrestler. Bryan, a former WWE champion and famed independent wrestler, had his career put on hold due to concussions he had suffered while working hard hitting matches.

New Japan Pro Wrestling has always favored the “strong style” of wrestling which includes heavy strikes and even more dangerous spots. If you watch a New Japan Pro Wrestling match and then a WWE match, it can sometimes seem like you are watching two different sports. Even with these preconceived ideas of being soft, WWE has always managed to not only stay relevant, but they have stayed on top.

Meanwhile, New Japan Pro Wrestling has always struggled to find mainstream appeal. Until 2017, they had never even done a live show in the United States. Since 2005, they have featured legitimate mega-star talent in the likes of Brock Lesnar, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Shinsuke Nakamura, and A.J. Styles, but still never came close to challenging the empire built by Vince McMahon. The day that changed New Japan Pro Wrestling was January 4th, 2017, when IWGP Heavyweight champion Kazuchika Okada took on Kenny Omega in what is possibly the greatest wrestling match of all time.

The Matches

Okada won the title on June 19, 2016, by defeating Tetsuya Naito at Dominion 6.19 in Osaka-jo Hall. Meanwhile, Omega became the number one contender at the Tokyo Dome by winning the 2016 G1 Climax the following August. Omega defeated Hirooki Goto in the finals to become the first foreign winner of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s premier tournament.

The two men were also the leaders of their respective stables with Okada leading Chaos and Omega leading the famed Bullet Club. Okada was flanked by his manager Geto while Omega had his Bullet Club members Matt and Nick Jackson, aka The Young Bucks, in his corner.

Both wrestlers went on to tear the house down in a 46 minute and 45 second war with their hard hitting style on full display. The crowd’s budding energy only elevated the performances. Omega had just hit his patented “V-Trigger” knee strike and sensing the end, he begun setting up for his finishing maneuver the “One Winged Angel”. Okada countered into his own finishing move, the “Rainmaker” clothesline, and pinned Kenny Omega in the middle of the ring. Okada retained his title but we were all winners that day. The only bigger winner that day was New Japan Pro Wrestling.

Dave Meltzer, founder of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, the same paper that rated New Japan Pro Wrestling as the worst promotion in 2005, did something that had never been done before. On his 0-5 star scale of wrestling matches, he gave Okada vs Omega a whopping six stars.

Not only did the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 11 draw praise from current WWE superstars like Daniel Bryan and Seth Rollins, it got praise from Attitude Era stars like Mick Foley and even Stone Cold Steve Austin. Everyone agreed, if this wasn’t the best match of all time, it was in the top few. Okada and Omega shook wrestling to its core that night. It also should be noted that Dave Meltzer doesn’t grade lightly on his star system.

Meltzer has only handed out six 5 star matches in the history of the WWF/WWE. The first being the ladder match between Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon at Wrestlemania X, Bret Hart vs Owen Hart at Summerslam 1994, Shawn Michaels and the Undertaker at Bad Blood 1997 in the first ever Hell in a Cell match, Bret Hart vs Stone Cold Steve Austin at Wrestlemania 13, John Cena vs C.M. Punk at Money in the Bank 2011, and most recently Johnny Gargano vs Andrade “Cien” Almas at NXT Takeover: Philadelphia. All of those incredible matches got a well-deserved 5 stars but Okada and Omega got a well-deserved 6 stars.

After Wrestle Kingdom 11, Omega announced that he was stepping away from New Japan Pro Wrestling to “reassess his future” which led to rampant speculation that he would be entering the 2017 Royal Rumble on January 29th, similar to how former IWGP heavyweight champion A.J. Styles did the year prior. This was speculated even harder when Seth Rollins said he wanted Omega to enter the match and also when John Cena posted a photo of Omega on his Instagram page.

Omega ultimately did not end up entering the Royal Rumble and instead resigned with New Japan Pro Wrestling. In May 2017, New Japan Pro Wrestling announced the rematch from Wrestle Kingdom 11 for their Dominion 6.11 in Osaka-jo Hall show on June 11; Kazuchika Okada versus Kenny Omega for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.

This time, much like the first, the battle was filled with power bombs, hurricanrana’s, suplex’s, and epic counters. After the one hour time limit expired, the match was ruled a draw. Okada had hit the rainmaker but time ran out before he could make the cover for the pin fall. Meltzer gave the second encounter a whopping 6.25 stars and the wrestling world was officially enamored with New Japan Pro Wrestling. Their third and final match to date came at the G1 Climax in Los Angeles, California, where Omega finally defeated Okada in a non-title match after hitting the One-Winged Angel. The trilogy was complete and both men showed why they are arguably the two best wrestlers in the world.

The Aftermath

With the hottest trilogy in the history of professional wrestling concluded, New Japan Pro Wrestling couldn’t be satisfied. For the first time ever, New Japan Pro Wrestling was the cool place to be. Kazuchika Okada went on to break the New Japan Pro Wrestling record for the longest combined reign as IWGP champion ever while Kenny Omega went on to become the first ever IWGP United States Heavyweight Champion.

On November 5 at Power Struggle, Omega defeated Trent Beretta but it’s what happened after the match that made headlines. WWE legend Chris Jericho appeared on the titantron and challenged Omega to a match at Wrestle Kingdom 12 and Omega accepted. On January 4, 2018, Omega defeated Jericho in a no disqualification match by hitting the One Winged Angel onto a steel chair.

What’s Next?

Together, Kazuchika Okada and Kenny Omega have changed the trajectories of their careers and their promotion and neither of them are done yet. Omega is currently involved in one of the top wrestling story lines in the world as the Bullet Club has become fractured as Cody (better known by WWE fans as Cody Rhodes) has broken them apart by turning the members against Omega.

The Young Bucks are at the center of this feud as the Bullet Club’s premier tag team. The brothers are being pulled apart while trying to keep the team together but at the same time they are trying to be the best that they can be. Since they have moved to the heavyweight tag team division, they now see that the biggest obstacle to get to the top comes from inside their own faction.

After Kenny Omega began teaming with his story line boyfriend Kota Ibushi and calling themselves the Golden Lovers, the Young Bucks took exception to Omega calling his new partnership with Ibushi the best tag team in the world. The two teams met at Strong Style Evolved on March 25th of this year in the main event and delivered another classic. Matt Jackson was dealing with a back injury and was clearly more dismayed with Omega than his brother Nick was. Omega even showed signs of hesitation as he did not want to hurt his friends. This culminated in an emotional V-Trigger delivered to Matt Jackson. After a One Winged Angel, Omega was then able to pin Matt Jackson.

The Golden Lovers were victorious and afterwards Omega shook hands with Nick but Matt refused to do so. Cody then came to ringside and berated the Young Bucks for losing. WWE is supposed to be the brand known for storytelling but the fraction within the Bullet Club has so many subplots and supporting characters such as Hangman Page, Tama Tonga, and Marty Scurll that WWE just can’t match it.

Can WWE keep up?

With independent wrestling seeing an uptick in popularity over the last few years, the WWE has been forced to counter. In 2010 they launched NXT and after its initial run as a reality show failed, they turned it into its own brand. NXT has poached talent from all over the world including New Japan Pro Wrestling legend Shinsuke Nakamura.

WWE’s flagship show Wrestlemania is also seeing a heavy influence from the independent seen as non-homegrown talent like WWE champion A.J. Styles, Nakamura, Daniel Bryan, Finn Balor, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Asuka, Cedric Alexander, Mustafa Ali, Bobby Roode, and Cesaro all being featured in marquee matches. The NXT Takeover: New Orleans card also heavily features wrestlers who made their names on the independent scene like NXT champion Andrade “Cien” Almas, Aleister Black, Adam Cole, EC3, Johnny Gargano, Tommaso Ciampa, and Ricochet. New Japan’s rise to prominence has forced Vince McMahon and WWE to counter with premiere matches of their own that focus more on the strong style with Nakamura even being called the “King of Strong Style”.

McMahon has always put out his best content when he had legitimate competition. During the “Monday Night Wars” with World Championship Wrestling, Vince created the “Mr. McMahon” character that went on to become one of the biggest villains in wrestling history. The hatred of McMahon helped lead to the success of WWE, along with Stone Cold, the Rock, Mankind and Degeneration X.

It was reported earlier this year that Vince McMahon was going to be relaunching the XFL, a failed football league that folded after only one season in 2001. In doing so, McMahon is trying to create competition for the National Football League. Ironically, New Japan Pro Wrestling has created the competition to Vince’s WWE much like how Vince wants the XFL to be competition to the NFL.

The Implication

New Japan has slowly made their way into America by not only doing live events, but by partnering with AXS TV. In order to connect with American wrestling fans, AXS even hired legendary WWE play by play man Jim Ross to call their contests. What’s even more significant is that Vince McMahon is now not the only American billionaire with a stake in wrestling. Dallas Mavericks owner and Shark Tank star, Mark Cuban, owns AXS TV and has is eyes set on taking over the wrestling world.

In a recent interview with Sports Illustrated, Cuban shrugged off McMahon saying, “No, he thinks we’re just little sh–. We’re not a threat because of the language. That’s the biggest challenge, the language. But if you’re a purist for wrestling, and you like the action, it’s the best promotion by far. People here aren’t going to connect as directly, but if you really love wrestling, then it’s a no-brainer.”

Cuban is attempting to take the place left by fellow billionaire and former WCW owner Ted Turner and give McMahon a run for his money.

Right now, WWE should be concerned with New Japan Pro Wrestling’s meteoric rise over the past two years. New Japan pro Wrestling has done what WCW couldn’t and that is have the ability to create stars. WCW rose to prominence by signing WWE (then WWF) wrestlers to exorbitant contracts. Guys like Lex Luger, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart, and Macho Man Randy Savage all defected from McMahon’s WWF and that’s what kick started the Monday Night Wars.

The interesting thing is that New Japan Pro Wrestling doesn’t necessarily need to do that. New Japan Pro Wrestling has created all of their biggest stars and has given them incredible storytelling to only enhance their star power. The benchmark to see if New Japan Pro Wrestling can really start to push WWE for the best promotion is if they can actually get current WWE superstars to defect to their brand long-term.

When WWE Cody Rhodes left WWE, he went to New Japan Pro Wrestling and has become one of their biggest stars, culminating in his current feud with Kenny Omega. New Japan Pro Wrestling even took former NXT wrestler C.J. Parker, repackaged him as Juice Robinson, and turned him into a respected wrestler who gets significant screen time. If New Japan Pro Wrestling can turn irrelevant WWE wrestlers into main event guys, then they can compete with any promotion.

Chris Jericho wrestling Kenny Omega inside the Tokyo Dome is a prime example of what an established WWE main eventer can do for the brand. All eyes fell on Wrestle Kingdom 12 and those eyes witnessed Kenny Omega beating Jericho by dropping him onto a steel chair. However, Jericho isn’t a defector. His contract was technically expired and he’s still in good graces with WWE, even appearing on their 25th anniversary of Raw in January. If New Japan Pro Wrestling is able to steal away an established, in their prime main event talent from WWE like how WCW did, then WWE will be staring down a second Monday Night War.

Follow Matthew on Twitter @matthewwgilpin

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(Photo Credit: AXS TV)