Section 1- Results
New Japan: A dismal crowd of 15-25 thousand (most live reports have it at the smaller end of that range) showed up for the start of the Brock Lesnar era. Lesnar won the IWGP title in what was shockingly enough a complete squash of Fujita and Chono, with the pin happening on Chono to set up Lesnar vs Fujita on the 1/4/06 dome show. Lesnar has been given the full Inoki seal of approval. Other results: Black Tiger pinned Tiger Mask for the juniors title; Matt Morgan got a clean pin on Yuji Nagata; Nakamura & Tanahashi beat Anjo & Kawada; Nakanishi & Kashin beat Haas & Jindrak; New Japan’s heavyweights beat the Zero-One squad (NJ young lion Yamamoto stunningly wasn’t beaten), while Zero-One’s juniors beat their Shin Nihon counterparts; Fujinami & Nishimura beat Choshu & ishii; Minoru & Hirooki Goto retained the junior tag titles.
Section 2- News
All Japan: At first I thought this was a work, but apparently it isn’t. Last June, Nagata & Kashin won the All Japan double tag titles. They never defended and were stripped of the belts. However, they didn’t give the belts back, and now All Japan is suing in court to get the belts back. There are issues involving Kashin not wanting to remove his mask in court. Only in Japan folks. Well, maybe Mexico.
Dragon Gate: They announced a full-roster (26 man) tournament called ‘King of Gate’ running from 12/23 to 12/27. Some of the pairings and bye choices are extremely odd, such as Magum vs Mochizuki in the first round with the winner facing newly debuted Katsuo. Final two nights in Korakuen.
New Japan: The biggest news coming out of the Tokyo Dome weekend was the return of Riki Choshu as New Japan’s head booker. Rumors pegged him as being a co-booker last year, but this time it’s 100% and approved by the Inokis. Some wrestlers voiced their approval, while others were outraged (mainly Tenzan). However that outrage could be a work, I mean we are talking about pro wrestling here.
Plans are being set up to have Lesnar on big shows between now and 1/4/06, but it looks like he won’t become a full tour worker at this point. In addition to Lesnar vs Fujita, New Japan is attempting to set up a ‘homecoming’-themed show with lots of New Japan trained wrestlers being brought back. Literally dozens of names could potentially be involved, from old legends to current big names to semi-obscure outcasts. Who they can actually get remains to be seen, though Shibata seems very likely. Other likely ones include Zero-One wrestlers Otani, Takaiwa and Yasuda, along with Naoya Ogawa. New Japan management met for nearly 5 hours after this dome show to plan for the next, with the general consensus that attendance as low as they just had is unacceptable. Lastly, Kawada is calling out Fujita for a match.
NOAH: There’s heavy speculation that Kobashi vs Sapp will happen on one of their next two Budokan cards, with Akiyama currently acting as Kobashi’s cheerleader. If it’s me, I’d save that for the dome.
Section 3- Reset button blues
Two years ago you had two main storylines in New Japan. One was IWGP champion Takayama against Tenzan and Chono, while the other was New Japan versus the Makai Club. Both of those were put aside for a Dome match pitting New Japan against hastily-constructed Team Inoki of Sapp, Nakamura, Fujita, Minoru Suzuki (beginning his pro wrestling return) and Takayama. Takayama vs Tenzan waited for nearly three months after Tenzan’s G-1 win, at a card marred by numerous crappy K-1 matches. Tenzan’s IWGP reign was discarded for Nakamura, who was in turn injured and forced to vacate the title. 2004 began with the return of Kensuke Sasaki, who ended Tenzan’s second title reign, and Tenryu. Tenzan’s first two reigns lasted two months combined. Sasaki formed a ‘Pirates’ heel stable with Chono, Nakanishi and Tenryu that spring.
The Makai Club was going to be given a shot in the arm with the addition of Bob Sapp (the Inoki army having been discarded), but Sapp turned K-1, even though he was the only K-1 affiliated person in New Japan. The May 2004 dome show was headlined by New Japan vs K-1, most of which is best left forgotten. Sapp lost a shootfight to Fujita, and soon enough Fujita was IWGP champion. The Pirates and Makai stables sorta stopped existing, so the drive behind the 2004 G-1 was who would win and get a title shot on Fujita. But right after the G-1, things shifted to a focus on Chono’s new ‘Black Hole/Black New Japan’ stable. Chono beat G-1 winner Tenzan twice in interference-laden matches, while Fujita dropped the title to Sasaki in screwy fashion because Fujita didn’t feel like jobbing. Choshu and Don Frye came and left Chono’s stable.
And then came the 11/13/04 Osaka Dome show. Wow. Looking at the card again today is painful. Nagata pins Chono and Choshu in one match, leading to Nagata jobbing to Chono a month later while Chono and Choshu had a 3-way with Tenzan. Team Hustle, Kawada & Naoya Ogawa, beat Tenzan & Tanahashi. Ogawa hasn’t been seen since, while Kawada returned for the G-1 in his straight All Japan persona. In the main event Fujita & Kashin came out of nowhere to beat Nakanishi & Nakamura, then left for over six months until the start of the Team Japan stable.
1/4/05 was little better. Nakamura beat Tanahashi in the main event, only to have fans prefer Tanahashi down the stretch. The Tenzan/Chono/Choshu ‘dogfight’ was pitiful and buried Tenzan just after the start of his third title reign. Ron Waterman won the even worse Ultimate Royal, then promptly did jack-all before putting over Mutoh a few months later. Things shifted to Kojima vs New Japan along with the ongoing presence of Chono’s heel stable. Tanahashi won the ‘Spring G-1’, earning a title shot that has since been forgotten. Fujita again came out of nowhere and beat Tenzan for the title after Tenzan beat quad-crown champ Kojima at the May dome show. Less than a month after Fujita won the title he put over Chono in the G-1 final. Fujita and Chono both capped their wins by saying they did it for Hashimoto.
Black New Japan slowly and quietly collapsed, while Team Japan became the new heel stable. Then suddenly Team Japan is the one fending off the challenge of the monster gaijin at Saturday’s show.
Follow all that? In two years the main storyline New Japan was based around shifted that many times. Five of the last ten title changes have had some sort of taint. Twelve title changes in two years, and zero meaningful title reigns. Six major heel stables, four ‘enemy promotions’ (K-1, AJ, Zero-One, Hustle), four evil outsider champs, several dome shows being dubbed starting-over points, and now they’ve already confirmed yet another paradigm shift for the ‘New Japan Homecoming’ show. President Kusama comes and gets replaced, Uei is the booker- no it’s a committee- now it’s Choshu, Antonio Inoki hogs the dome show bookings and renders tour after tour meaningless with a wave of his toukon hand.
It’s one thing when a promotion’s failings are the result of the guy in charge; it’s another when power keeps changing and the promotion lacks focus. It’s the difference between WCW, run by a cobbling of network executives and wrestlers and writers, and WWF/WWE, run by Vince McMahon and whoever has ideas he likes. It’s the difference between New Japan, whose disfunctions cataloged above are only a portion of what’s taken place in the last few years, and NOAH, run by Misawa. All four made and lost money at various times, but those with the smallest losses and biggest gains had enough internal stability to present a reasonably consistent product.
The WWF/WWE yearly formula, especially the big title chase climaxing at Wrestlemania, has made millions more than it’s lost a penny. Sometimes the wrestling sucks but you can only argue so much with profits. NOAH’s payroll and overall expenses are smaller than New Japan’s, but by giving the fans the kind of big match payoffs they enjoy more often than not they sell out big shows rather consistently. Misawa pushed Yoshinari Ogawa rather stupidly, and his booking of Rikio leaves much to be desired, but NOAH has never had a huge letdown like the last four New Japan dome shows.
WCW and New Japan bring in big names from the outside for a lot of money, only to get bad matches and headaches in return. WCW lost tens of millions in its final years. New Japan isn’t nearly so bad off, but neither can it afford to have its dome attendance dwindle any further. Brock Lesnar could theoretically lead to big crowds, but they didn’t show up on Saturday and New Japan might not wait long enough for him to become the Next Big Gaijin. Meanwhile he’ll be another pricy absentee champion. Don’t worry, though, I’m sure in six months when the May 2006 dome show rolls around they’ll have another big idea. And what a shock it’ll be when less than ten thousand tickets are sold. Again.