Alpha to Omega: The Dawn of a New Era for NJPW

This article originally appeared in SteelChair Magazine #20 – January 2018
Read online free at https://issuu.com/steelchair/docs/steelchair-20
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Chris Jericho has a habit of showing up in unexpected places, and I should know, as he just so happened to walk into a pub in the middle of my hometown one random Saturday night, right into the middle of the annual Christmas party held by our local, small-time wrestling company. I honestly don’t know who was more surprised, the local workers at the fact a genuine superstar of their industry had materialised out of the ether (he hadn’t, obviously, as Fozzy had been playing the rock club just down the road that same night), or Jericho himself to have been thinking he was stepping into a quiet backstreet pub and instead being confronted by forty plus awestruck fans.

The feeling was similar upon first seeing the announcement that Jericho would be facing Kenny Omega at NJPW’s annual showcase event, more so that their no disqualification match for the IWGP US Championship would share main event status at Wrestle Kingdom 12 with the confrontation between Tetsuya Naito and Kazuchika Okada for the far more venerable and storied IWGP World Heavyweight Championship.

New Japan certainly wanted to create controversy with this move, even going so far as to stage physical confrontations between Jericho and Omega in the run up to the event, and having Naito (for whom this would be his first Wrestle Kingdom main event) kayfabe state that he was disappointed with the equal billing for the two matches, feeling NJPW was “pandering” to the foreigners.

But while Naito was speaking in character at the time, his words go against one of the most constant and successful elements of professional wrestling in the that part of the world, namely the creative and extremely lucrative booking of foreign talent against native workers and even against each other in front of a native audience.

© NJPW

If you want a concise history of the relationship between US and Japanese wrestling, then you’ll find one in my article on the subject a few months back, and there’s no need to recount the entire story here, save for reminding yourself that professional wrestling was imported from the United States to Japan, finding its driving force in the person of Rikidozan, who’s JWA had a close relationship with the NWA, which continued with his protégé Giant Baba and AJPW.

Baba based his own booking model on that prevalent in the US territories for most of the twentieth century, strong babyfaces involved in long-term feuds with equally formidable heels, the top talent on the roster rarely losing by pinfall and usually ending their matches with a count-out or draw, so that being pinned was a significant and decisive conclusion to a match.

Into this mix he added US talent that were available to him thanks to All Japan’s membership of the NWA, and the likes of Bruno Sammartino, Gerald Briscoe, Harley Race and many others soon discovered that the tours of Japanese venues on which Baba wanted to book them were sure to result in performing before eager crowds and for a very lucrative pay-off as well.

A shrewd businessman and a legendary performer in his own right, Baba demanded the very best from his talent, and so the gaijin he hired soon learned to give their very best in order to keep being brought back again, which of course meant that the matches they were involved in tended to be compulsive viewing for fans who appreciated the art of professional wrestling and knew the true quality of what they were seeing.

Another factor that worked in Baba’s favour was that up to the mid-eighties, US territories did not regard television as being central to their booking strategy and saw ticket sales for live events as central to their profits, so they would televise house shows and squash matches, but keep encounters between major stars and the blow-offs for storylines and feuds for live events that were not filmed, meaning that many fans could not see big names meet in the ring unless both happened to be working in a territory where they could physically travel to the appointed venue.

In All Japan there was no such arrangement, and Baba was sure to book his gaijin imports against one another, as well as against the natives on the roster in matches that were regularly taped for broadcast, not only in Japan, but also for a weekly NWA compilation show that was shown in the US as well.

Of course the result was that American fans were suddenly exposed to a television show that featured a myriad of familiar names in matches that would never have reached the small screen had they taken place on US soil, all of whom were working their socks off to impress Baba in order to be brought back and also mixed in with impressive and exotic Japanese talent that were their unquestioned equal in the ring.

© NJPW

This is at least part of what made Japanese wrestling the cult dreamland of the sport that it is to this day, the fact that it took something fans already loved and then seemed to elevate it to a higher plateau of respect and legitimacy – those fans had always wanted to believe that professional wrestling wasn’t just a hokey sideshow attraction, and the Japanese take on it made it all the more easy to buy into its tough men being truly tough and its matches gruelling competitions between rival gladiators.

In contrast, Antonio Inoki’s NJPW (All Japan’s only ever true rival), took a more nuanced approach to booking gaijin talent, using many notable names such as Tom Billington, Mark Rocco, Tiger Ali Singh and the original Sheik, but doing so in a specific role, such as to form parts of the light-heavyweight division in the case of the former pair and indulge in bloody confrontations with Inoki himself in the case of the latter.

At the same time, New Japan favoured a model of booking more based on the idea of promoting the Japanese style of pro wrestling as a worked martial art, “Strong Style” as it would become known (“King of Sports” still forms the motto used on the NJPW logo, which hardly makes any concession to the modern trend of embracing the more obviously predetermined aspects of the business), and did not follow the US style of booking so closely.

Baba’s seemingly magical formula could only work so long as there was a steady supply of gaijin talent available for his multi-week tours, and with the collapse of the territory system and the rise of the WWF in the late eighties, signing a very generous contract with Vince McMahon and working short squash matches in the US became infinitely preferable to taking months at a time in Japan, being brutalised from one end of the archipelago to the other every night and all for less money at the end of it.

Through the nineties and noughties, Japanese wrestling transitioned from being the place where major talent went to make money into the cult attraction that it mainly remains to this day, with talent-swapping relationships between US and Japanese companies lasting for wildly varying lengths of time and yielding the occasional decent run and the even rarer sensational breakout of a talent from one country in the other (such as The Great Muta in WCW, or Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero and Jericho himself in NJPW in the mid-nineties).

It was only when Inoki’s reign came to an end and the new leadership at NJPW chose to put the (at the time) unlikely duo of Jado and Gedo in the position of bookers that things began to change in terms of gaijin talent within the company, and though they also nurtured many incredible native talents, their own admitted obsession with the former US territories (such as the AWA and Nashville in particular) seemed to ground them in the art of storytelling in wrestling, rather than aping MMA, and foreign names from the New Japan dojo such as Prince Devitt (now Finn Balor) and workers with extensive experience in smaller Japanese companies like Kenny Omega began to come to the fore.

In many ways it is impossible to compare the likes of Devitt and Omega to the gaijin of the previous era, mainly because while their predecessors were already most often well-rounded performers when they arrived in Japan, this new generation came up through systems in place in the country itself, their talents, gimmicks and attitudes to the sport therefore having been shaped primarily by that style of working and the culture which surrounds it.

It’s for this reason that I believe the Jericho/Omega match at WK12 does not represent a return to the glories of the previous era, but actually the evidence of an entirely new one – Omega personifies the modern style of Japanese wrestling, the one which attracts the modern fans that many like to call “smart marks” (or “smarks”) in a derogatory manner, the guys that wear Bullet Club t-shirts, watch PWG and generally don’t appreciate whatever the WWE happens to be doing at any given time.

Jericho, in contrast, had last wrestled in Japan in 1998 and nowhere but the WWE since 1999, so who better than a former world champion and genuine stalwart of mainstream US wrestling to stand across the ring from Omega? If anyone could stand up to the swaggering confidence of the Bullet Club Elite, and personify the feelings of the old-school fan of US wrestling that finds the fuss about New Japan a bit baffling and alien, then it was Jericho.

Building the match with traditional challenges, press conference outbursts and surprise in-ring ambushes proves that booker Gedo, Jericho and New Japan know what they’re creating here, and that’s a bridge between themselves and fans in the US – not the ones that already subscribe to NJPW World and follow the product, but the ones that don’t, the ones that need a connection to help them make the leap across the continental divide to become invested in the New Japan product.

I admit to being a little puzzled by the creation of the IWGP US Heavyweight Title last year, sure it was being competed for in a tournament on American soil, but the addition of a new heavyweight belt alongside the World and Intercontinental ones seemed to crowd the title scene at the top of New Japan, rekindling memories of the execrable WWF European Title, a belt which was supposed to open doors and yet just became meaningless trash.

But if the IWGP US Title is to be used as a means to set up feuds of this kind, then it all starts to make a great deal more sense, as if Omega goes into a long-term program someone the likes of Jericho and actually drops the belt to him, the hope must be that the mainstream fans New Japan wants to attract will see this as a bloody nose for the arrogant Bullet Club Elite, and compel those same fans to tune in for the next match in the series.

On the night, Jericho/Omega arguably stole the entire show, overshadowing the Okada/Naito main event thanks to its unique composition and no DQ stipulation allowing the added element of jeopardy as both men brawled around ringside and used foreign objects to expertly conceal the fact that the veteran Jericho could not have kept up with the kind of frenetic pace that Omega managed against Okada the previous year on the same event.

This was not the comedy character that Jericho had become during his last WWE run, the grand scale of Wrestle Kingdom allowing the full range of his arrogant, egotistical rockstar persona to come out and play off against Omega’s affected, videogame-influenced hitman gimmick, and the two seemed hell-bent on proving their own unique style superior at the expense of the other man’s body.

Despite Omega claiming the victory and the claims that this was a one-time deal, reaction on the night and afterwards means that all parties involved would be foolish to keep it so, and the prospect of Jericho having a return match and even capturing the title would be enough to attract eyes to the other major NJPW shows scheduled for 2018, as would the veteran taking on other well-chosen Japanese talents as well.

If New Japan book the feuds and storylines surrounding the IWGP US Title in 2018 as well as they did the build-up to Jericho/Omega, it could well see the title established as truly important, a gateway for the return of already mainstream American talent into the upper echelons of the NJPW title scene and serve to promote names such as Omega and newcomers like “Switchblade” Jay White in return.