I refuse to hide the fact that I am a professional wrestling fan. Is it fake? Well, it is as fake as any television show anyone watches, so if anyone wants to be a jerk about it, I would like to remind you that zombies currently do not walk our planet and that there is no place known as Westeros.
With that out of that way, I am going to say that professional wrestling in the United States can be a chore. The empire known as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) dampens my excitement. The product lacks creativity and suffers from overexposure – the WWE produces 20 hours of required television viewing (RAW and Smackdown), followed with another six hours in live specials. If we include “205 Live,” “NXT TV,” “Main Event,” and “Superstars,” then we’re staring at nearly 40 hours of programming dedicated to the WWE.
I turned off the product from 2005 until 2013 with an on-again, off-again type of interest during that time. I returned to watching the WWE regularly when my friend Matt Maxson asked if I wanted to go to Wrestlemania 29. I went and stuck with the program until the amount of WWE-related programming burnt me out again, leaving me with little to no interest in the current state. I may tune in for Wrestlemania, but who knows? I’ve truly lost interest in the WWE at the moment. It’s not that I don’t like the WWE or want it to succeed. It’s just one of those things where I want to see the potential of the industry leader live up and stop writing mostly bad television.
That’s not to say, however, that I’ve lost interest in professional wrestling.
New Japan Pro Wrestling keeps my interest in the art.
I’ve always loved New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW), and my earliest memories of NJPW come from WCW in 1995. I remembered asking my dad to order Collision in Korea where Ric Flair took on Antonio Inoki in North Korea. Later that year, the World Cup of Wrestling took place at Starrcade ‘95, which happened my first exposure to Masahiro Chono – my favorite wrestler of all-time.
It was hard to keep up with NJPW as a 10-, 11-year old without having access to tape trading. Thankfully in 2001 and with the help of the internet, I found a website – Puroresufan.com – that allowed me to keep track of NJPW and surf the internet for videos of these matches. Eventually, I was able to buy tapes and DVDs of events, allowing me to fully enjoy NJPW. I never understood anything the commentators were saying, but that was the beauty of pro wrestling. It transcended language barriers. It was an example of how pro wrestling should be presented: as a sport. Stories are created by the characters, and, as writer and musician Max Landis mentioned that pro wrestling is amazing when it’s done well.
And NJPW is “f*****’ great.”
I kept up with NJPW through all of these years and finally subscribed to NJPW World (similar to the WWE Network) in August for my favorite event of the year, the G1 Climax – a month-long round robin tournament regularly featuring the best matches in the world. I stayed up late every night to watch the tournament, ruining my sleep pattern in the process.
This continued throughout the school year. For example, I woke up early to catch the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 11 on Jan. 4 and went to working, thinking “I can’t wait to get home to watch the rest of the card.” That’s my life when it comes to NJPW. I can’t miss the major shows.
This love helped me come to this conclusion: I must see NJPW show live and have to save money to go to Japan. That changed July 1 and 2. I was finally able to live out my goal of seeing a pure NJPW-run show – albeit in the United States and not in Japan.
For reference, I’ve been to two Wrestlemanias, countless Raws, Smackdowns, WWE House Shows, RoH shows, and Indie pro wrestling event. None of the events I went to prior to this weekend match it.
Everything from the meaningless multi-man tag team matches to the high-quality singles bouts kept me engaged and I was fortunate to see the best match I’ve ever seen live – a bout between Tomohiro Ishii (a stocky, ironheaded brawler) and Kenny Omega (arguably the best performer in the world). The match supplanted a Wrestlemania 29 match between the Undertaker and CM Punk and featured more moments than Money in the Bank 2016.
This weekend confirmed that I plan on going to Japan one day to get the full experience. Forget the fact that I stood in line to buy merchandise for two hours. Forget the fact that there were moments when I couldn’t see anything (the venue featured no risers to help create different eye levels). Those are small blips on ultimately one of the best weekends I’ve experienced, but the wrestling was only one part of it.
I rarely get starstruck, but I got a little starstruck meeting guys like Kenny Omega, Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Jushin Thunder Liger, and YOSHITATSU. I shared memories with Liger, telling him that my favorite era of his career was this relatively obscure timeframe where he acted like a grumpy old veteran, much to the shock of Liger himself. I was able to tell YOSHITATSU that I remember seeing him as a young lion, trying his best in the G-1 Climax tournament in 2006. While the matches were great, telling my favorite pro wrestlers about how much I enjoy their work was far more enjoyable to me.
This highlights ultimately why I love NJPW. Max Landis said in Wrestling Isn’t Wrestling, we enjoy watching people grow and change. It doesn’t matter what their disposition is, but we enjoy seeing their stories told. I know most of the NJPW roster’s story.
Ultimately, it’s entertainment; pro wrestling is easily my favorite form of entertainment.
And NJPW leads the way.
G-1 USA Quick Hits
Match of the Weekend: Kenny Omega vs. Tomohiro Ishii
The beautiful thing about tournaments is that the stakes are pretty easy to follow. In this case, the overarching story of the first-ever IWGP United States Championship is a simple one. There were multiple layers in this match from Ishii’s severely damaged arms to Omega-Cody drama to the desperation of both men near the end. There were memorable moments: Ishii biting the rope to avoid the inevitable fate of being suplexed from the apron through the table to each man hitting the opposite finisher to even the subtlety of Ishii punching Omega in the head to avoid getting hit with the One-Winged Angel and ultimately failing. This match was, as my friend Pete described, a high-quality action movie. I was captivated by this match from bell to bell and will earn a ***** rating from me.
Honorable Mention: Kenny Omega vs. Michael Elgin – These two just make it work. It was such a good match on Day 1, filled with big strikes, big moves, and false finishes. Just a good match overall.
Best Moment: The Debut of the Herbert Meltzer Driver by the Young Bucks
The Young Bucks have a connection with elite wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer. So, it was nice to see them do something so spectacular to honor Meltzer’s late father, Herbert, who recently passed away.
Honorable Mentions: RPG Vice breaks up – Most of the time tag teams break up when one guy hits the other. In this case, the two guys in Roppongi Vice just said, “We accomplished everything. It’s time to go our separate ways.”
Surprise of the Weekend: Cody holds up his end of the bargain in a match with Kazuchika Okada on Night 1.
Cody hasn’t been elite since coming into NJPW. Questions loomed on whether or not he could keep pace with Okada, as some call Okada the best in the world. Cody held his own in the 25-plus minute match, which should give Cody fans hope that he is adjusting to the NJPW style. Not everyone will be AJ Styles in their first tour with the company. It takes time to really understand what makes NJPW’s Strong Style the best style.
Honorable Mention: Jay White picking up two wins – Jay White is on his learning excursion – think of it as the leaving the nest to find yourself phase of a NJPW wrestler’s career. He picked up two pinfall victories over the weekend, which bodes well for the New Zealand native and his future with the company.
Worth Noting: Billy Gunn vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi
I will say while the match wasn’t great, it was still better than what the WWE would have produced in a similar spot.