Once A.J. Styles, Gallows and Anderson and Shinsuke Nakamura made a direct beeline from New Japan Pro Wrestling to WWE in recent months, the writing was on the wall that NJPW was due for a total American invasion. And the 45-year-old promotion will finally descend on our shores for AXS TV’s live-broadcast G1 Special in the USA event, airing from the Long Beach Convention Center in California July 1st at 8 p.m. (a second part will air pre-taped July 7th). They even christened a brand-new United States Championship title to coincide with the affair, and its first owner will be determined via tournament during G1 Special.
For those of you who are first wrapping your heads around NJPW’s legacy and what all the buzz is about, or even if you’ve been tuning in to AXS’s weekly airings for the past two years – featuring color and play-by-play by no less than Jim Ross and his colleague Josh Barnett – a brief primer on NJPW’s history and modern influence may be helpful. So in anticipation of G1 and a presumed continuing cross-continental presence, here’s 10 things you need to know about New Japan Pro Wrestling.
It’s Been Around As Long As Vince McMahon’s Lorded Over WWE
In 1972, Vince McMahon joined his father, Vince McMahon Sr. in building their Capitol Wrestling Corporation, the aegis for what was then the World Wide Wrestling Federation and eventually WWF and then WWE. That very same year, Kanji Inoki, who’d been wrestling as Antonio Inoki for the Japanese Wrestling Association (JWA), branched off and started rival promotion New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW). By 1973, JWA had shuttered, and by the late Eighties, Inoki departed NJPW for a longstanding career in politics (he would also become a Muslim convert and self-described Buddhist). The promotion he started has since experienced several changes in executive leadership, including a period in which Inoki’s son-in-law, Simon Kelly Inoki, took over as president. And it’s only fitting that, in its 45th year, while WWE continues expansion abroad, NJPW makes its first substantial footprint on the West.
Japanese AND American Megastars Made Their Names In NJPW
New Japan has a rich tradition of cross-promoting talent and titles with the likes of NWA and current reciprocator Ring of Honor. And for decades, big names from Jushin Liger to the aforementioned Shinsuke Nakamura have established themselves with New Japan before making a big splash in the U.S. But historians and purists will be quick to remind that just as many American-origin icons paid their dues duking it out with NJPW’s best – and in some cases, took a hiatus from WWE/WCW et al to rejuvenate their careers overseas – before finding their footing back home. To name a few: Big Van Vader cultivated his masked-warrior gimmick while running roughshod in NJPW during the mid-1980s; Stan Hansen famously conquered competition there for that entire decade; Brock Lesnar shored up his wrestling bona fides with a dominant mid-2000s stint; and of course A.J. Styles turned a corner with his storied run as leader of the Bullet Club and multiple-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion, New Japan’s equivalent of WWE’s Universal Championship, before finally getting lured by Vince McMahon in late-2016. Kenny Omega, your chariot awaits.
Their Title Categories Are Similar To Ours, Mostly
Along with the prized IWGP Heavyweight belt, NJPW carries an Intercontinental title (presently held by Hiroshi Tanahashi, arguably their marquee man much of this century), a Junior Heavyweight strap and tag-team gold. But they also widen the field of possible roster honors by instituting Junior Heavyweight Tag Team titles (property, as of this writing, of Ring of Honor/NJPW double-duty siblings the Young Bucks), as well as Champion and six-Man Champion (an idea Triple H and co. should really take heed of) accolades within the NEVER Openweight division, which pulls from all classes of size and experience. And as of this weekend, a first-ever NJPW U.S. Champion will join that mix. Given WWE’s emboldened efforts in India and elsewhere, it might be prudent to succeed their defunct European Championship with one representing all of Asia.
Strong Style Pre-Dated Shinsuke Nakamura
Though he is the agreed-upon, contemporary “king of strong style,” Shinsuke Nakamura is basically carrying a torch lit by NJPW founder Antonio Inoki circa the 1970s. In simplest terms, it signifies the sort of hard-striking, stiff-kicking, mixed-discipline fighting that’s become increasingly globally influential as mixed martial arts has ascended in popularity. New Japan matches generate as many oohs and ahhs from the audience via unforgiving exchanges of head butts and chest slaps as they do suicide dives and aerial acrobatics. Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens and CM Punk and even The Undertaker, among others, all adapted to a strong style-esque mode of attack over the last several years, so Nakamura’s arrival at WWE to reclaim the artform has some built-in insider juice.
Oh, But NJPW Borrows Plenty From American Promotions As Well
Four-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada, a flamboyant babyface favorite, sets up opponents for his signature Rainmaker lariat with a Tombstone piledriver. Tomihoro Ishii is one of many who’ve snapped off a Big Poppa Pump-worthy Frankensteiner in desperation. Bullet Club co-founder Bad Luck Fale (who hails from New Zealand but has called NJPW home since 2010) finishes off victims with a riff on Scott Hall’s Razor’s Edge, dubbed the Bad Luck Fall. In general, Western culture tends to permeate Japanese trends, and it’s only inevitable that today’s practitioners of strong style would occasionally tip their hat to WWE’s big-spot drama.
Their Tournaments Actually Matter
WWE does gauntlets like the Royal Rumble match or Beat-the-Clock scenarios superbly, but notwithstanding some quality NXT events, they’ve typically failed to stir interest with tournament formats. Not so in NJPW, where the entire year’s calendar revolves less around cornerstone PPVs (though Wrestle Kingdom is its crown jewel) than a series of annual tourneys. Late summer’s G1 Climax is a furious, month-long round robin of matches that awards a range of points for wins, losses and draws, until an eventual winner earns a Heavyweight Championship opportunity at Wrestle Kingdom. Best of the Super Juniors, which dangles a shot at that division’s solo champ as its bounty, puts other cruiserweight showcases to shame. (Recent victors such as Ricochet, Will Ospreay and a young gentleman named Prince Devitt aka Finn Bálor have stolen the spotlight from their upper-card counterparts time and again since.) There’s also the New Japan Cup, which has similar stakes as G1 but doubles down with a single-elimination format. Virtually every match featured in all of the above could qualify as an instant classic. Their tournaments also keep the line of title challengers moving without the worry of rushed narratives, and make the whole operation feel meritocratic despite predetermined outcomes. And it doesn’t hurt that you’ve got this guy calling one slobberknocker after the next now for American TV.
No, They Do Not Have A Women’s Division
In Japan, men and women fight in separate promotions. But female-driven companies a la the defunct All Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling and wildly popular upstart Stardom have been filling venues for half a century. Unfortunately, women in NJPW are scarcely present these days outside of token valet work, but in the ring for brands like Pro Wrestling Wave, their style is plenty strong.
NJPW Is Definitely Not PG
There’s always reason to stick around after the final bell on a contemporary NJPW broadcast, where winners and losers shoot from the hip in promos that come across more like press conferences long since unhinged. F-bombs get detonated with particular predictability from Western stars like Bad Luck Fale and Kenny Omega. And before Gallows and Anderson got muzzled on WWE TV, Gallows in particular was always good for R-rated menace that made his character pop. Even Jim Ross’s co-commentator for AXS, veteran wrestler/MMA fighter Josh Barnett, is susceptible to an, “Oh, shit” every now and again where a, “By god, almighty” would have sufficed – and his parts are recorder after tapings already occurred. It’s not akin to stumbling on vintage ECW 20 years ago, but NJPW shows are relatively, welcomingly raw.