Professional Wrestling is fake, let’s get that out of the way. It has its bouts of realism and unscripted, out-of-character moments called “shoots”, but it is mostly scripted and choreographed. Matches are decided days before events (sometimes even months), promos are given from a script that has been presented to the performer, etc. The giant of pro-wrestling, WWE, doesn’t even call it pro-wrestling anymore, just “sports entertainment.” Even though most fans would disagree with this, WWE is partially true, and it IS some form of entertainment.
With that in mind, allow me to take you on a journey into the whacky world of pro-wrestling. The global leader is WWE. With WCW, its main competitor folding in 2001, WWE has enjoyed many years as the leader of the industry. That is not saying that it is the only “big-leagues promotion” out there. Ring of Honor, Impact Wrestling and New Japan Pro-Wrestling have all been considered high-quality, big-league promotions with bright futures. Highlighting the third promotion, let’s take a nice trip to Japan.
New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW) is known as the “King of Sports.” Founded in 1972 by Antonio Inoki, NJPW angles and promotes professional wrestling as a sport more than a form of entertainment. There are press conferences used as a form of promoting matches for the main card at an upcoming event instead of a weekly television program that the American promotions favor (Monday Night RAW for example). In these press conferences, there are no scripts, unlike the segments found in the American promotions. The people are in character, though, and will answer questions like their character would. There is the occasional “Road to” event that takes place less than a week away from the next big event. Each event’s card is always stacked with the best talent in Japan and some of the best talent from around the world.
Before we talk about the talent, It is important to address the style. The style commonly used by most wrestlers in NJPW is known as “Strong-Style.” Strong-Style revolves around stiff shots and submission holds. In NJPW, wrestlers hit harder than wrestlers in other promotions where shots are sometimes completely missed, but sold as direct hits (cough, cough, WWE). For any MMA fan, this is the closest pro-wrestling will get to actual MMA. Back in the late 90s-mid 2000s, NJPW had an influx of talent from the MMA world to work at their dojos and train their homegrown talent as well as fight in the ring for a more “realistic” feel to the matches. In fact, most of NJPW’s biggest stars have had MMA experience and have fought on more than one occasion. Some famous MMA fighters have fought inside of a New Japan ring – Kazushi Sakuraba, Ken Shamrock and Josh Barnett to name a few.
Now that the promotion and the style has been covered, it is time to introduce the talent, specifically who to look for as well as matches that would be good introductions to NJPW. In NJPW, the championships fall under the “administration” of the IWGP (International Wrestling Grand Prix). There are five different IWGP titles (there is a tournament coming up for a sixth belt, the IWGP United States Championship, in the beginning of July) and two NEVER (open weight) titles. The main championship of NJPW is the IWGP Heavyweight title and as of right now, it is held by Kazuchika Okada. Okada is known as one of the best wrestlers in the world right now. His matches are labeled as instant classics, especially his bouts with Hiroshi Tanahashi and his current feud with Kenny Omega, which have been widely recognized as some of the greatest matches of all time. Dave Meltzer (basically the Adam Schefter of professional wrestling) has rated both of Okada’s matches with Omega as six stars out of five and six-and-a-quarter stars out of five respectively.
The IWGP Intercontinental Champion is currently Hiroshi Tanahashi. Tanahashi was the face of NJPW after the influx of MMA talent and basically put the company on his back as it transitioned to its current state. Tanahashi is known as the “ace of New-Japan” and is quite literally a once in a generation talent who can do essentially anything in the ring.
The current IWGP Junior Heavyweight champion, KUSHIDA, currently sports a 6-0-2 record. KUSHIDA’s “Back to the Future” gimmick makes him fun to watch and his record currently makes him the most successful MMA talent on the roster. He is known for his acrobatic moves and amazing submission prowess.
The IWGP Tag Team Champions, Tanga Roa and Tama Tonga, are known as the Guerillas of Destiny. They are known for their street-fight style of wrestling and also make sure to curse as much as possible in every single match, which is okay in an NJPW ring as long as it is done in English.
The IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champions are Nick and Matt Jackson, the Young Bucks. The Young Bucks are known for their tag-team prowess as well as their staggering merchandise earnings that is fueled by their consistently amazing Tag-Team matches. They have pretty much changed the landscape of the Tag-Team match in the pro-wrestling world.
The current NEVER Open Weight Champion is Minoru Suzuki. Suzuki is known for being a sadist in the ring. He always stiffs the life out of his opponents and his submission ability is second to none in his league. He also sports a 30-19 Professional MMA record. Not too bad for a “fake fighter.”
The current NEVER Open Weight Six-Man Tag-Team Champions are Los Ingobernables de Japón. The team is made up of Bushi (a Japanese Luchador), EVIL (some sort of a grim reaper), and SANADA (a biker with a bat). Los Ingobernables seriously do not care about anything at all, and they wrestle with that same kind of mindset. This rebelliousness makes them extremely popular with the audience.
For a good showcase of strong-style wrestling, I highly recommend any matches between Katsuyori Shibata and Tomohiro Ishii, the two stiffest wrestlers in the company. Their match in 2013 has been given five stars by Uncle Dave (Meltzer) and is directly responsible for getting me into NJPW. Okada’s matches against Tanahashi and Omega are great displays of professional wrestling and have always turned out to be classics.
If you want to keep up with NJPW, AXS TV conducts programs where they show matches from NJPW. NJPW also has a streaming service called NJPWorld, which only costs 999 yen (the equivalent of about $9) a month to watch any match. Of course, not every match will have English commentary, but the most recent matches do provide it. Pro-wrestling outside of WWE comes in many forms that can prove to be much more entertaining than its American counterpart.