On January 4, New Japan Pro Wrestling brought forth its first, and biggest show of the year. Just as NASCAR leads off with Daytona, NJPW always kicks off the year with Wrestle Kingdom, its version of WrestleMania, the Super Bowl, or the World Series. Unlike those events, it always takes place on the fourth of January, and professional wrestling fans all across the world look forward to it all year long. The major reason why is because it generally always delivers, particularly in recent years as the crop of homegrown and foreign stars have elevated themselves to a position of international prominence.
But, if you compare the well over one million WWE Network subscribers to the numbers for NJPW World, the promotion’s own streaming service, there’s a wide gap. Wrestling Observer editor Dave Meltzer has said in the past, and as recently as this week, that Japan has not embraced the paid streaming model as of yet, which has surprised everyone from journalists to economic analysts. We’ve always known that part of the world to be at the forefront of technological advances, particularly in electronics, but NJPW world still can’t claim 100,000 as a number.
However, in the lead-up to Wrestle Kingdom 12, the number jumped nearly 20,000, representing a major spike in interest for that card. Or, more accurately, for one match. It’s not every day, it’s not every year, it’s not every decade that you see a superstar the caliber of Chris Jericho agree to a “dream match” with the It guy of the moment, Kenny Omega. Omega, who has been a mainstay in Japan for a while, has been the subject of WWE speculation, even though at one point he was a part of their developmental territory.
His work in Japan improved mightily, buttressed by major feuds with the likes of Japan’s respected junior heavyweight, KUSHIDA. In 2016, Omega became the first North American (he’s Canadian, which some might not know) to win the annual G1 Tournament, which is best approximated to be the NJPW equivalent of the WWE Royal Rumble. The winner of the G1 gets the main event spot at the following Wrestle Kingdom, and as the tournament takes place during the summer, it leads to months of anticipation for that bout.
Omega faced Kazuchika Okada at last year’s edition in a 45 minute classic that left virtually every hardcore wrestling enthusiast and media member in shock at the level of quality. It was widely regarded as the Match of the Year in the industry, perhaps only topped by its sequel during the summer, which went 60 minutes. Although Okada won both, and has in fact been NJPW World Champion for over 500 days, it was Omega’s star that rose from the encounters. His work in G1, as well as earlier in the year with the aforementioned KUSHIDA as well as Hiroshi Tanahashi, one of the greatest pro wrestlers of the past several decades, had put him on the map. The G1 final featured Omega vs. Tetsuya Naito, who incidentally won the 2017 tournament and main evented against Okada on Wednesday.
So, with that as background for those unaware of New Japan and the ridiculous level of quality the promotion brings to its in-ring action, booking, and match structure, what could WWE learn from the company?
Despite the financial success of WWE, there are indicators that trouble could be on the horizon. The stock number is good, but the product is inconsistent and ratings numbers are generally stagnant and uninspiring. Keep this in mind if you think the promotion is on solid ground. At the height of the “Attitude Era,” as both WWE and the now extinct World Championship Wrestling (WCW) companies battled for supremacy, the television numbers were staggering. During the Monday Night War, it was not at all odd to see either RAW or Nitro well above a 5, sometimes above a 6. Both shows at one point were combining for over a 10, and there were even more insane numbers on certain nights. RAW actually broke a NINE for a Steve Austin vs. Undertaker WWE Championship main event match. What that means is over ten million viewers were watching that portion of the show.
Compare that to today, where WWE does a number in the high 2’s or low 3’s, and where there is no competition. The shows are too long, they’re too plentiful, and they’re too VANILLA.
Here’s where Vince needs to look to New Japan for the example, because if there’s one overwhelming reaction to Wrestle Kingdom 12, it’s this. Even if every match wasn’t your style or didn’t work for you as a fan, almost every bout was markedly different from those that preceded it. The opening IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship match told a wonderful story of two men dealing with self-inflicted back injuries and being carried by their tag partner. We saw a bout between Minoru Suzuki and Hirooki Goto that was flat out brutal, as the NEVERweight division always is. It wasn’t a match. It was guys beating the living hell out of each other.
More storytelling and psychology could be found between Kota Ibushi and Cody (Dusty Rhodes’ son couldn’t take the fictional last name due to trademarks) as the latter used his wife, Brandi, on numerous occasions to gain an advantage. While he relied on mat technique and a few well-placed big spots, his opponent flew all over the place, as is his trademark, and won with a corkscrew phoenix splash. Later in the evening, Marty Scurll, Will Ospreay, Hiromu Takahashi, and KUSHIDA engaged in a four way for the Light Heavyweight Title that included somewhere around 500 high spots and where storytelling meant nothing. It was a showcase and a spectacle, but it was wildly entertaining. It was a tremendous match.
There were tall and strong workers to be found in a few of the other matches during the night, which permitted power displays from the likes of Michael Elgin, Raymond Rowe, and Lance Archer. And then we got to Chris Jericho and Kenny Omega, which was a 35 minute war that took as casualties color announcer Don Callis, multiple tables, a steel chair that detonated as Omega’s head was thrown into it, television monitors, a photographer’s camera, and both the referee and his son. Both men were bleeding by the end of the bout, with Omega’s forehead the proverbial crimson mask and Jericho lacerated on his right leg, and later above his eye.
These two walked into the Tokyo Dome understanding the hype on their match. NJPW billed the show as a double main event, with the Naito-Okada title match as the other headliner. They knew that it was Jericho’s name and Omega’s meteoric rise that sold the show on the global scale. People that had never cared or even known what New Japan Pro Wrestling was before that match was announced were taking notice.
At Jericho’s age of 47, his body isn’t what it once was, and he doesn’t move quite as smoothly as he used to, but he’s smarter than ever. After a few lackluster returns, Jericho reinvented himself, with help from Jimmy Jacobs, and didn’t just get himself over, he got a CLIPBOARD over with the fans. His new catchphrases resonated, and a long-term friend, then foe angle with Kevin Owens did great business for WWE in 2016 and 2017. When he arrived in Japan, after playing a largely comedic, lighter figure, Jericho was a completely different person.
Gone were the jokes and the goofiness that made him endearing in the previous WWE run. In its place was a mean, sociopathic Jericho that had heard enough of people calling Kenny Omega the greatest wrestler in the world. Jericho called himself the “Alpha,” and thus Alpha vs. Omega was born. He viciously attacked Omega, busting him open before taking some of Kenny’s blood and smearing it on his own face and body. The two fought during press conferences, as Jericho shouted expletives and again left Omega laying in a heap before storming out. The build was so simple, so crisp, and so old school, and that’s why it worked. It wasn’t overdone or comical. It was Wrestler X is jealous of Wrestler Y’s newfound popularity and fame, wants to take him down a peg, and is willing to end his career to stop his ascent.
Yet, on January 4, the match itself somehow lived up to the hype for the most part. With bells and whistles, hard work, a plethora of false finishes, and emotion oozing from every corner of the Tokyo Dome, the two performers put on one hell of a show.
Then, in the main event, Kazuchika Okada and Tetsuya Naito, by my estimation two of the five best wrestlers alive (along with Omega, Tanahashi, and AJ Styles), tore the house down in a wonderful main event. It wasn’t up to the level of Okada-Omega, nor was it quite as long, but it was still an outstanding match. Wrestle Kingdom 12 started hot and it finished red hot, this despite the fact that on paper, it wasn’t the strongest lineup, especially when compared to the previous few.
Conversely, there’s WWE, as RAW this week contained multiple LONG wrestling matches that bored the crowd to tears. There were creative missteps within them, particularly Alexa Bliss and Asuka’s first meeting, but the biggest issue with WWE as a “wrestling” company is that the wrestling is always the same. WWE bouts all work within the confines of a defined pattern, taught and ingrained at the WWE Performance Center as well as on the road. Once you know the pattern, it’s impossible not to notice that virtually every match Vince McMahon promotes follows it. The changes usually come due to gimmick bouts and stipulations, not differing styles.
If you want to know one of the reasons for the failings of the WWE Cruiserweight Division, the key component is that the performers aren’t allowed to do all they’re capable of doing. Watching the four way at Wrestle Kingdom, you saw things no one else on that roster could do. In WWE, very little that the cruiserweights do is in any way novel. Kevin Owens, AJ Styles, Seth Rollins, Sami Zayn, Cesaro, heck even Roman Reigns also fly to the floor all the time. The lighter guys work exactly the same pattern as their larger counterparts. So why would we watch small competitors do the same thing the bigger names and the bigger bodies can do?
Further, the WWE ring, a 20 x 20 structure, is too big for the smaller workers. They’re having to take extra steps they aren’t used to, as most have spent most of their careers in 16 x 16 or the occasional 18 x 18 stage.
But the cruiserweight matches are the same as the main events, which are at least in formula the same as the tag matches. WWE doesn’t endorse blood anymore, so unless it’s Brock Lesnar, a few others that can get away with it, or an accident, it doesn’t happen. Thus, all the chair shots and faces slammed into tables lose their effects. Generally, WWE style dictates if you’ve seen one match, you’ve seen most matches. Why else would we see SO MANY useless, overwrought stipulation matches? It’s the only way to try and do something new…
…without really changing anything at all.
Therein lies the problem. Whereas Wrestle Kingdom 12 was a nearly six hour show, the variety kept it fresh and kept the audience interested. When WWE does the six hour super show, we’re always exhausted when its over, because we just watched the same movie several times with different actors performing the roles every 20 minutes or so. That’s where WWE can learn from NJPW, as the talent is allowed to do all possible to make a match special. The “sports entertainment” doesn’t really exist, and there aren’t McMahon family members burying the talent on screen every week on television, ensuring the number of stars will be capped at…well…probably less than five.
And that’s being generous.
I’m not trying to insinuate that comparing this week’s RAW to Wrestle Kingdom 12 is a fair exercise, but it is inarguable that New Japan’s big shows all year long dwarf WWE shows when it comes to great pro wrestling matches. Even the best WWE bouts still fall prey to the same traps, the same formulas, and the same structures. From one month to the next, the victors might change, maybe a few of the moves, but not that basic rubric. Yes, a pro wrestling match is historically built on a five part system, and WWE utilizes it, but innovation and variety have changed the game.
With Vince McMahon potentially banking on erasing the XFL’s original legacy with a second attempt at his own professional football league, he had better not take his eyes off the real ball in his life. New Japan will never surpass WWE for supremacy, because of global reach and many other factors, but if Vince’s business is to thrive or ever return to the days of the late 1990s and early 2000s, his stubbornness has to change. He has to realize that the “safe” WWE structure is leaving many fans searching for more in their wrestling matches.
It’s why I now hope performers like the Young Bucks (Matt and Nick Jackson), Kenny Omega, and Will Ospreay NEVER go to WWE (or even NXT, although that would be far better for match quality purposes). Once they do, they must fit within a pattern that will take from them much of what makes them special. They’d still be fantastic, but no longer would we be seeing consistent Match of the Year contenders and bouts that all feel so different and so breathtaking. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to see the Young Bucks in an eight minute TV match, broken up by a commercial, against Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows, where the announcers can’t get it over, and the workers are handicapped by the people signing their paycheck. Now if WWE evolves a bit? Then we can talk. But there’s no indication that’s on the horizon, or that it ever will be.
2017 may have been the greatest year in history for great bouts across the world. I could list at least 20 New Japan matches, perhaps 30, that were absolutely spectacular. Ring of Honor had its share of highlights last year, and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla (PWG) put forth some of the most stellar stuff imaginable with every show they ran. Overseas, Progress and Revolution Pro Wrestling shined, among others. That’s just a few of many organizations that were rolling last year.
Meanwhile, WWE was still WWE. I enjoy the shows, there are some awesome matches and segments, but every time I watch something like Wrestle Kingdom or one of these big New Japan events, I realize just how sanitized and uninteresting 85% of a WWE event is inside the ring. I’d love to be surprised with unpredictability on a regular basis from Vince McMahon and his promotion. I’d love to see a show that didn’t feel the same from start to finish. Whereas Wrestle Kingdom 12 was an outstanding wrestling show, WWE programming too often feels like a late season television show, where they’ve run out of ideas and the characters are playing the hits or going through the motions.
But, that’s not the case. The ideas are everywhere. It’s actually employing them, applying them, and just TRYING them that determines whether WWE still feels like the same old WWE in the future.
Keep your sports entertainment however you like it, I enjoy it quite a bit as well, but give me better, more varied actual wrestling shows.
That’s my rallying cry.
(Incidentally, AXS TV is running a three hour special tomorrow night featuring the key matches from Wrestle Kingdom 12. It’s airing just two days after the event, and I HIGHLY recommend you watch it if you missed the show and consider yourself even a casual pro wrestling fan.)