For New Japan Pro-Wrestling, much of 2017 was spent laying the groundwork for a major expansion into English-speaking markets like the United States. If the first week of 2018 was any indication, following a buzzworthy pay-per-view that prominently showcased American-made stars and had optional English commentary, the Eastern Hemisphere's biggest pro wrestling company has the tools it needs to embark West.
New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW) had been building to one of the most anticipated pro wrestling matches in recent memory since early November when ex-WWE legend Chris Jericho challenged IWGP United States Champion Kenny Omega for a match at Wrestle Kingdom 12, the company's biggest show of the year which took place Thursday. In December, Jericho told Rolling Stone Thursday's matchup was a "worldwide phenomenon" that was "one of the few true dream matches that exist in this day and age." Omega defeated Jericho in a brutal, blood-spilling fight in front of more than 40,000 fans at the Tokyo Dome (the largest live NJPW audience since 2005), while a worldwide audience live streamed the event and clamored over the nail-biting finish in online forums. Then, on Friday night at New Japan's next live event, Jericho surprised the audience by returning to set up another feud with crowd favorite Tetsuya Naito, proving his tenure in NJPW will last longer than what was thought to be a one-off match with Omega.
With a hall-of-fame name such as Jericho sticking around for more matches, the Japanese wrestling company's push to grow its English-speaking fanbase has gotten even more aggressive, following a year that saw NJPW put on its first live events in the United States, with broadcasting support from American entertainment mogul Mark Cuban and his AXS television network (where NJPW currently airs Friday nights at 8 p.m. ET). But more noteworthy than the company's business strategy, NJPW has captured the eyes – and the heart – of professional wrestling fans across the globe through competitive and unpredictable entertainment.
Throughout the past 12 months, the growing popularity of NJPW in the United States was fueled in part by Omega – Jericho's opponent at Wrestle Kingdom and the prized leader of the "Bullet Club" faction. The self-proclaimed "cleaner" put on an unblemished trio of matches with NJPW's top star, IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada, that were instantaneously stamped as legendary bouts by wrestling critics and fans across the world.
The international buzz surrounding the three fights was paired impeccably with the company's efforts in recent years to make its product more accessible to English-speaking viewers, providing English commentary for its events from familiar announcers like WWE Hall of Famer Jim "JR" Ross and Kevin Kelly, who was the voice of Baltimore-based Ring of Honor until he joined NJPW in early 2017. In early July, NJPW also took a physical step westward, hosting live events in the United States for the first time in its company’s history. Fittingly, NJPW crowned its first IWGP United States Champion at the debuting "G1 Special in USA" event: Kenny Omega.
Omega's Japanese-based Bullet Club has taken over professional wrestling in recent years, taking NJPW with it. Featuring a rotating cast of members and leaders (Omega is the group's fourth frontman), the no-boundaries group has expanded through promotions across the world – including the WWE, where current club member Cody Rhodes defected from in a real-life grievance with the company in 2016 and where former Bullet Club leader AJ Styles is the current WWE Champion. The NJPW-based faction even found itself trending within American retail in 2017 when teen counterculture clothing store Hot Topic began selling the Bullet Club's shirts.
"The shirt blew up all over again and got even bigger," Bullet Club member and NJPW tag champion Matt Jackson told Rolling Stone last year, during an interview about the shirt's growing popularity. "When the shirt was available online, the hardcore fans would buy it but now it's in a retail shop and anyone can walk into a mall and buy it. It's available at every single Hot Topic in North America, which means every shop in Canada and America."
Whether it's NJPW's T-shirts on display next to the WWE's in North American clothing stores, the growing ability to watch its events as an American viewer, or popular stars like Chris Jericho doing high-profile runs with the Japanese promotion, the New Japan crossover has successfully made its hard-hitting, strong style brand of wrestling into a bubbling topic of conversation among stateside fans. And as it's often explained among them, novelty and style has made NJPW a reliable alternative to the WWE.
New Japan Pro-Wrestling's "Wrestle Kingdom 12" event will rebroadcast on AXS TV Saturday at 8 pm ET.