In the beginning there was one: JWA. Money was plentiful. And it was good. Now there is more than one, and how we got to here is a long, winding journey that will requite me to do a third column just on the current situation and recent ‘backstage politics’ news.
Section 1- History, 1963-1999
Rikidozan died in 1963. Naturally this caused shockwaves, but it didn’t put JWA out of business and it didn’t immediately lead to a splintering. It took years for that to happen. In the meantime JWA’s top long-term prospects were Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki. The supposed top star, Toyonobori, was expelled in 1966. Inoki left as well, and together they formed Tokyo Pro, but by the next year it folded and Inoki returned to JWA. However, in the process a promotion called IWE formed, which went on to become a stopping point for many wrestlers (including some of the Tokyo Pro remnants). Inoki’s ambition could only be contained for so long, and in late 1971 he was kicked out of JWA for good after a failed play for power. In 1972 he formed New Japan, whose first card featured Toyonobori (briefly coming out of retirement) and a young Tatsumi Fujinami.
JWA’s woes increased quickly due to a dispute between Nippon TV and NE TV over the airing of a Giant Baba match. Baba got on Nippon TV’s good side and was able to leave JWA and form All Japan in the process. In 1973, Seiji Sakaguchi and a few remaining JWA stars joined New Japan (which got JWA’s NE TV spots as well), and other JWA stars went to IWE and All Japan. All Japan and New Japan each made a big signing of an olympic wrestler early on, All Japan getting Tomomi “Jumbo” Tsuruta and New Japan getting Mitsuo Yoshida (aka Riki Choshu). 1974 saw two big matches, one involving Inoki defeating “Strong” Kobayashi (who jumped from IWE), and the other with Giant Baba having a 2-day long NWA title reign by trading it with Jack Brisco.
1976 again saw each promotion get a significant publicity/business movement. All Japan had a cross-over feud with IWE, a very heated and highly successful one and one of the rare instances at the time of Japanese vs Japanese getting the spotlight. This set the stage for later interpromotional feuds, including New Japan vs IWE two years later. Meanwhile, in what wound up becoming Inoki’s fixation, Inoki fought outside athletes like judoist Willem Ruska (a worked win for Inoki) and Muhammed Ali (a messy, dull, non-worked draw). Inoki would go on to have a series of worked shoots, which were publicly accepted as being ‘real’ due to the sense that Inoki’s opponents were too important to agree to lay down. That wound up creating a lot of publicity and prestige for Inoki and New Japan, not to mention several big paydays.
In the late ’70s a few of the Japan vs America stereotypes partially broke down. The Funks (Terry and Dory Jr.) became wildly popular in Japan, while Tatsumi Fujinami won acclaim in Vince McMahon Sr’s WWWF. The WWWF’s relationship with New Japan was substantial for some time, and they gave Antonio Inoki his ‘martial arts title’ that wound up being used for his worked shoots in Japan. Inoki also had a brief reign as WWWF champion in 1979 with a win (later overturned) over Backlund. 1979 also featured another brief NWA title reign for Baba, and a show promoted by the Tokyo Sports newspaper with New Japan, All Japan and IWE wrestlers colliding. The main event of that card had the tag team of Baba and Inoki battling dastardly (and still wrestling…) legends Abdullah the Butcher and Tiger Jeet Singh.
In 1980, Baba got his third week-long NWA title reign. 1981 had some New Japan/All Japan crossover, and the demise of IWE (whose workers split between AJ and NJ). 1983 featured the first IWGP tournament, with Hulk Hogan beating Inoki in the final; the tournament was used to create the IWGP heavyweight title in 1987 (other New Japan belts had the IWGP designation by ’86). 1983 also had Terry Funk’s retirement match. Pardon me, I have to go laugh myself hoarse at that one. In 1984 UWF was formed, led by Akira Maeda and shortly became the first ‘shoot-style’ promotion, mostly home to wrestlers trained by New Japan. UWF had a rocky start, with leadership changes, jumps to New Japan for an ‘interpromotional feud’, and a reformation from 1988 through 1990, then again in 1991 as UWFi (without Maeda).
1984’s other big news was Riki Choshu and others leaving New Japan to form JPW, which mostly merged with All Japan. The Choshu vs All Japan (by now led by Jumbo Tsuruta) feud became All Japan’s centerpiece for several years… until Choshu went back to New Japan for another round of ‘outsider’ feuding, running a few final JPW shows in the meantime. Some of Choshu’s compatriots chose All Japan over New Japan. 1989’s big news was the formation of All Japan’s Triple Crown, the formation of FMW, and Inoki being elected to the Japanese national legislature.
The ’90s started out with a bang. Two shows at the Tokyo Dome featured both All Japan and New Japan wrestlers. Genichiro Tenryu and others left All Japan to form the short-lived SWS, which had a relationship with the WWF and later formed the core of Tenryu’s WAR promotion in 1992. WCW and New Japan shook hands in ’90 also. 1991 had Akira Maeda form RINGS due to his exclusion from the final incarnation of UWF. NJ/WCW ran a card in the Tokyo Dome, as did SWS/WWF. In 1993, New Japan and WAR began their off-again on-again relationship, one which lasted through WAR’s demise. Michinoku Pro also started (but I’ll cover their history some other time). 1995’s top news included a giant multi-promotion card (including NJ & AJ) run by Weekly Puroresu magazine, New Japan running a pair of gigantic shows in North Korea, and the start of the New Japan vs UWFi feud. UWFI closed the next year.
In 1997, the big shootfighting boom in Japan began with Takada (UWFi’s top star) headlining the PRIDE debut show in the Tokyo Dome. In 1998, Baba and Inoki ended their runs as wrestlers; Baba passed away in January 1999 before his official retirement match, while Inoki’s retirement match against Don Frye drew the biggest puro crowd ever of 70,000. Baba was replaced by Misawa, and Inoki by Fujinami as president of the respective big promotions. Choshu also retired in ’98, though only for two years. Jumbo Tsuruta retired in 1999 and died a year later. The keys to what happened in the new millennium are Baba’s death, Inoki’s shootfighting fixation, and Inoki leaving the day-to-day operation of New Japan.
Section 2- Shoots, Worked Shoots, New Japan & New Promotions
So, Inoki got over as much as he did thanks in large part to getting worked wins over shootfighters. In addition, there was a sort-of ‘normal wrestling vs shootfighters’ atmosphere in the NJ vs UWF and NJ vs UWFi feuds. Inoki’s mindset became one of “wrestling vs shootfighting is the key to success”, when in reality the UWF feuds involved life-long pro wrestlers and the Inoki worked shoots were rare happenings. None the less Inoki carried this impression into the late ’90s when PRIDE, K-1 kickboxing and other shoot promotions started to steal a lot of puroresu’s thunder. Inoki started an off-again on-again promotion called UFO in ’98, but that didn’t nearly sate his need for shoots.
Judo star Naoya Ogawa’s part-time entry to New Japan in 1997 presaged a set of ‘different style fight’ matches involving shootfighters, notably Don Frye. Inoki’s retirement match on 4/4/98 was preceded by an 8-man tournament to determine his final opponent, none of whom were standard wrestlers. Frye, Ogawa and other Inoki-linked shooters (such as recently dethroned IWGP champs Kaz Fujita and Bob Sapp) quickly came to dominate the top matches on pretty much every big New Japan show since then, with the only real respite coming in the form of interpromotional matches against All Japan and NOAH.
Inoki and his various underlings in New Japan management also pressured wrestlers into doing shoots, and in the process they nearly ruined Yuji Nagata, who lost two quick shoots to top fighters Fedor and CroCop. Most IWGP title changes in the last few years were primarily motivated by either shootfighters or wrestlers who decided to do shoots. Most of those reigns ended in vacancies or an unconvincing title change. At times there have been some very crowd-pleasing ‘wrestler beats shooter’ moments, but more often than not it has been the New Japan wrestlers who look worse for it. The main problem is that full-time shootfighters are rarely good at worked shoots, and full-time wrestlers are rarely good at shootfights. This booking philosophy led to several blows to New Japan, though some of that damage has since been repaired.
In 2001, with Inoki’s blessing, Shinya Hashimoto started Zero-One along with Naoya Ogawa and Shinjiro Ohtani (who had recently bulked up to heavyweight). Zero-One started out very shoot-oriented, and in most every way exemplified the worst elements of using shootfighters in pro wrestling. Thankfully that phase ended in 2001, and they became a more traditional federation which has produced plenty of very good matches. However, New Japan has gained nothing whatsoever from Hashimoto leaving, and while Ogawa finally became competent in the ring, New Japan had pushed him hard for several years and lost all potential gains there as well.
In 2002, Keiji Mutoh, who along with Hashimoto and Chono were the three top New Japan stars of the ’90s, bolted for All Japan. I go into detail on that below, but certainly the Inoki shoot love was part of his decision to do this. New Japan was thus down to just Chono among the big three. Since then Mutoh and New Japan have mended fences, mostly because of Mutoh and Chono being on good terms.
Also that year, Riki Choshu (who had been head booker since 1989) had his second farewell match in New Japan. This turned out to be different from his 1998 retirement, because he was just saying goodbye to New Japan. Choshu, along with New Japan late ’90s star Kensuke Sasaki, left to form World Japan, which started in March of 2003. World Japan folded a year later, and Sasaki was back in New Japan by this January. Now Choshu has returned to New Japan as well, with much of his wrestling earnings lost in World Japan. Is he back for long? How much power will he have behind the scenes? Does he have any real drawing power? Everything since his 1998 retirement has been rather lackluster, and though the crowd embraced him on Saturday it might not last.
Section 3- All Japan after Baba’s death
So in 1999 Misawa became the man in charge of All Japan. Baba’s widow (and thus All Japan’s owner) Makoto had some problems with how Misawa ran things. Misawa, being a Japanese male, wasn’t about to tolerate the complaints of a woman, so in the summer of 2000 he packed up virtually the entire All Japan roster and left to form NOAH. Makoto Baba was left with Kawada, the long-irrelevant Masa Fuchi, semi-gaijin midcarder Taiyo Kea, some gaijin and several underwhelming semi-regulars. Misawa also took the NTV contract, forcing All Japan to turn to a less-lucrative GAORA TV deal.
Makoto thus reached out to two places to save All Japan: New Japan and Genichiro Tenryu. With New Japan she was able to do high-profile crossover matches, in the process maintaining All Japan’s relevance and drawing several big payoffs. Tenryu, along with some remnants from WAR, was brought in for day-to-day operations in All Japan. January 2002 saw Makoto, through her relationship with part-timer and Japanese congressman Hiro Hase, score a big blow for All Japan’s stability when Keiji Mutoh, Satoshi Kojima and Kendo KaShin jumped from New Japan, along with behind-the-scenes man Aoki. Mutoh quickly became one of the head bookers (he’s now *the* head booker), and Kojima remains their top younger star.
Both Mutoh and Tenryu have made some very important moves, along with some very poor choices that have kept All Japan below the level it was when NOAH split off. However, as it stands All Japan arguably has the best relationship with the other major promotions, and with Kawada/Mutoh/Kojima on all major cards they’re sure to hang around, despite how grim things looked in 2000. As for NOAH, they’ve had a rather stable situation with Misawa booking, no serious jeopardy of closing, and very few departures from the core roster they had in 2000.
Section 4- Crossovers galore
Year-by-year coverage of interpromotion, along with some of the key matches.
2000: All Japan and New Japan, highlighted by October’s Tokyo Dome show (Kawada vs Sasaki) and a December show with super-duper-good Kawada/Fuchi vs Nagata/Iizuka. Shinya Hashimoto made a stop at NOAH for their first big show in December.
2001: All Japan and New Japan, highlighted by Mutoh winning the Triple Crown and an absolute ton of ‘big’ matches (Kawada vs Mutoh). NOAH helps fledgling Zero-One on its first shows and gives Zero-One’s Takaiwa the GHC junior title for a few months. Zero-One lends NOAH some of its talent as well. New Japan and NOAH hook up, with Akiyama appearing on the October dome show’s main event.
2002: The All Japan/New Japan relationship comes to a big end when Mutoh jumps, but this is replaced by a ramping up of New Japan and NOAH’s relationship, including big matches on the January and May dome shows (Akiyama vs Nagata, Misawa vs Chono, Nagata vs Takayama), the G-1 final (Chono vs Takayama), and a ton of great junior matches. NOAH and Zero-One also work together, but less than the year before, as Zero-One starts a relationship with All Japan. Zero-One and New Japan also had a brief fling, as Hashimoto and Ogawa appeared on New Japan’s May dome show.
2003: Sporadic crossovers between All Japan/New Japan and NOAH/Zero-One. All Japan/Zero-One becomes pivotal, with the Triple Crown in play (Hashimoto over Mutoh, as well as Kawada winning a tournament over Ohtani when Hashimoto vacated), and Kojima winning Zero-One’s Fire Festival. New Japan/NOAH peaks, with Kobashi defending the GHC title against Nagata and Chono, Akiyama in the G-1 tournament (lost in the final to Tenzan), Nagata/Tanahashi winning the GHC tag straps, and more big juniors matches. World Japan’s lifespan was briefly extended through work with All Japan and Zero-One.
2004: All Japan and Zero-One’s big crossovers ended abruptly with Kojima’s appearance in the Fire Festival (Kawada vs Hashimoto in February was the big one), but they replaced it with NOAH (including Misawa vs Kojima, Misawa/Ogawa vs Mutoh/Kea, and Misawa/Mutoh vs Sasaki/Hase on the 31st). All Japan resumed a regular relationship with New Japan, and New Japan’s Yuji Nagata holds the All Japan tag titles along with former New Japan wrestler Kendo KaShin. New Japan and NOAH have had their share of crossovers, with the IWGP belts defended at NOAH’s dome show and still more clashes among the juniors.
Next column: Choshu! Inoki! Chono! … Uei and Kusama? It’s the New Japan political thread that will make you LONG for Bush vs Kerry. Keep in mind both of this week’s PuroPulses when you read the third installment.