It was the 1st of July in 2017, when New Japan Pro Wrestling first did their G1 Special in Long Beach, California. Their two events on the 1st and 2nd respectively brought a two-night-tournament for the new IWGP United States Championship to the close, where Kenny Omega was crowned champion in a very good main event against Tomohiro Ishii. However, the thing that struck me the most on those two nights was, that Hiroshi Tanahashi – at that time IWGP Intercontinantel Champion – was challenged by 53 year old Billy Gunn. Billy Gunn is – mildly put – way past his prime and hasn’t been of any relevance for over ten years. The match that ensued was just as bad and boring as one would expect.
While the match in itself is not my problem and even an undercard appearance in a multi-man-tag by Gunn would have been fine, letting him compete for the second most valuable prize of the promotion was just a bit much for me. This was the moment when I really started to evaluate New Japan and their ambitions of a “Western expansion”.
While I think that it is not a bad idea to market to Western fans in terms of English-language announcing, having a real English web-presence or getting broadcasting deals anywhere outside of Japan, I am of the firm opinion that there shouldn’t be too much of a stray from their original product. It is not only the very best in-ring product pro wrestling has to offer at the moment but the presentation of it adds a lot to the experience. Having American style angles and feeling at times just like an Independent promotion with nice production values.
The brand of New Japan as a whole shouldn’t be defined by the North American influences but moreso by what made New Japan internationally popular in the first place.
The last couple of years a lot of foreign talent came into New Japan Pro Wrestling. When you look at the regular roster it is 50:50 ratio (19 foreigners, 19 Japanese competitors) in the Heavyweight Division and in the Junior Division it’s 3 foreigners and 16 Japanese (counting Young lions) which skews the numbers.
And while I obviously have no problem with the foreigners themselves, it is more about watching a show that happens in Japan (like 97 % of all New Japan shows do) and watching a match between two foreign competitors. And when they don’t go so far and almost kill each other (e.g. Omega – Jericho; Ospreay – Scurll), Japanese fans are just not into it. Personally, this diminishes my enjoyment of the show because there is no heat during the matches. I have been to many shows in Japan and I’m a keen observer of the crowd around me and how they actually react to certain guys.
In my experience, Tokyo’s Korakuen Hall has the most enthusiastic crowds in Japan, whereas going to the matches here in Fukuoka made me realize how everyone except Kenny Omega was just not over and got little to no reaction from the fans. There is just a certain disconnect between fans and competitors and as popular as somebody like Chuck Taylor is with the IWC (Internet Wrestling Community), I don’t see the appeal or the necessary in-ring talent to warrant a place in New Japan.
While that certainly can come off as salty and nit-picky, I think it really factors in to how successful NJPW can actually become in the future. I would say that Western fans can get into Naito, Okada, Ibushi or Tanahashi just as much as they can get into Western wrestlers . If done right, Western competitors can be an integral part of the company as a Kenny Omega for example.
Let’s go back to the Billy Gunn Conundrum. Was it a bad idea to book it like this? Absolutely. And I don’t plan to say anything more about it in itself, but I think this booking decision was very telling, concerning how the New Japan Booker Gedo and his office actually perceive the American audience.
‘Just get a WWE guy, who people recognize from WWE’s heyday, and put him against one of our two or three top guys’ they must have thought in New Japan’s Tokyo office. Billy Gunn, who never really competed in Japan and is practically retired, except for the occasional indy shot here or there, is instantly put into title contention. That’s just so flawed and really devalued a lot of guys who actually would deserve a chance for that kind of spotlight. And who wants to see Billy Gunn in a spot like this in 2018?? Anyway you spin it, the Billy Gunn booking and positioning on the card was not a good idea.
Point of the matter is: Gedo is known for his love of 80’s Memphis Wrestling and is going more and more in an American direction with the product. What does the Japanese fanbase think about the new direction? For example, talking to fans at events in Japan really made me realize the appeal of Los Ingobernables. A big reason, which is often stated by many people I talk to, is that they root for them because they are an all-Japanese group and have no foreign members. I wouldn’t call it racism at all, they are just able to connect better to Japanese performers.
Foreign competitors have a long history in Japan, from Karl Gotch or Lou Thesz, to Dynamite Kid, Abdullah the Butcher, Brody, Hansen or Steve Williams. The list goes on and on. But having your undercard full of foreigners doesn’t help, because it just doesn’t connect here in Japan. Foreign top guys are always a different story and can work very well, but having your undercard made up of all-foreign bouts hurts the shows overall, I think.
For example, a match I saw live was at the World Tag League Final 2017 in Fukuoka Kokusai Center. There was a match between Best Friends (Beretta & Chuckie T) against Death Juice (Juice Robinson & Sami Callihan). The guys did decent work, and I’d say that Beretta and Juice are definitely over in Tokyo, at least to a degree, but this was just complete silence from start to finish. At least that was my live perception.
Maybe, it is just my wish that they would give some Japanese independent wrestlers a chance here and there because I would love to see a Hideki Suzuki, Shuji Ishikawa or Yuji Okabayashi in NJPW. But yeah, I have a feeling we are not getting that anytime soon. It remains to be seen how the Western expansion will work out and how much will they gradually adapt to a growing Western fanbase. And will they be able to do it without estranging their Japanese fanbase?
Please leave a comment, if you wanna share your opinion, I would be excited to hear it!