I have so much news and info to disseminate here, I’m not sure I’ll get it down 100% right. I’ll make updates and corrections as needed in the future.
Section 1- Kusama, Choshu & Uei
In 6.2 I briefly touched on UWF/UWFi, the shoot-style federation heavily associated with New Japan. Since Inoki has a penchant for shoot-related things, he was able to get Fumihiko Uei, a UWFi management member, a position of significant influence in New Japan’s booking. This was especially important when Choshu left two years ago. Uei had several booking trademarks. Among them, a heavy use of high-priced outsiders for big shows; further emphasis on shootfighting and shootfighters; fast pushes for a trio of young heavyweights; and having ‘big’ singles matches on rather unimportant house shows.
This June, New Japan brought in a new ‘business-oriented’ President from outside the industry, Masakazu Kusama. He replaced Tatsumi Fujinami. Kusama had formerly run companies like Versace’s Japan branch, and his connections in America were considered vital. Since New Japan had already cut back on salaries and shifted several wrestlers from full-time to part-time, it wasn’t entirely clear how Kusama would do this.
Riki Choshu, former head booker of New Japan and long-time mover-and-shaker in puroresu, had his World Japan promotion fall apart as 2003 went on. Choshu settled for wrestling on Zero-One, and the associated HUSTLE shows run by PRIDE. Choshu’s personal cash was drained by the effort to sustain WJ, and Zero-One’s poor cash flow this year didn’t provide him the sort of money he received in his heyday. Although he hasn’t left Zero-One altogether, his appearance at New Japan’s 10/9 show signals a resumption of his relationship with them. He’s currently booked as Chono’s partner on the 11/3 Sumo Hall show against Tenzan & Nagata.Three men, three very different visions of pro wrestling. They collided on 10/9, and one of them was knocked out: Uei.
Uei was unable to get a satisfying finish booked for Fujita’s title loss, drawing one of the most negative crowd reactions New Japan has had in Sumo Hall in years. Choshu’s return to at least some amount of booking power, along with Masahiro Chono and Jushin Liger’s ongoing importance in matchmaking, meant there wasn’t quite enough to go around. Kusama disliked Uei’s use of pricey outsiders and constant ‘giving away’ of singles matches. As a result Uei was forced to resign his position last week.
In his place Chono and Liger continue to have their say over the heavyweight and junior divisions (respectively), but the big winner is announcer/timekeeper Hidekazu Tanaka, who officially was given Uei’s position and as such impacts both house shows and big cards. Choshu’s power is unclear, and Yuji Nagata could also be part of the picture, not to mention Shinya Makabe who is involved with the young lion program. What’s important to note about all the above is the very traditionalist nature of them. Chono, Liger, Nagata and Makabe are all New Japan born and raised, and though Liger and Nagata have both done shoots neither of them is shoot-oriented. Choshu is anti-shoot if anything. Tanaka also lean towards traditional wrestling. The end result, in theory, would be fewer shootfighters and less pressure on wrestlers to do shoots.
Section 2- Inoki, the gift that keeps on giving
For American fans, New Japan’s “main” TV show is the 2 hour long World Pro Wrestling show that airs the biggest and most of the best matches. For the Japanese, the main show is on TV-Asahi, since like most wrestling programs in Japan, WPW doesn’t air on a prime location (time/station). This year, the hour-long TV-Asahi program was knocked down to a mere half-hour. What’s more, TV-Asahi no longer pays directly for New Japan’s biggest venues (which is the norm for TV deals, as detailed in an earlier PuroPulse). Instead New Japan is given $90,000 a week to cover the building and production costs, which is less than TV-Asahi had spent for those things previously. In addition, there is less time for New Japan to promote itself. What caused TV-Asahi to do this? Let’s go to what had become an annual tradition in Japan, the New Years Eve shootfighting shows.
Recent years have seen a war on New Years Eve, as the big names in shootfighting go at it. PRIDE and K-1 is the centerpiece, of course, but Inoki is involved as well. His “Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye” shows have been run from 2000-2003 (with ’03 likely the last year). Inoki himself is linked to a small stable of fighters, including Kaz Fujita and Josh Barnett, and he also made use of New Japan wrestlers for these shows (with varying results). Bom-Ba-Ye 2003 not only was a distant third in ratings, but the big news coming out of it was a scandal involving financiers, money being misplaced, and fighters not getting paid. If only that was the end of it. Inoki’s decision to air the show on N-TV angered TV-Asahi. But he didn’t stop while he was behind, oh no.
Inoki’s ties with K-1 caused him to strike a very bad bargain for New Japan, and TV-Asahi gladly took him up on it. In exchange for some favors in regard to airing K-1 shows, they changed the arrangement with New Japan to the one described above. Yup. But it doesn’t stop there.
Now there’s word that Inoki could split off from New Japan, partially or completely, to start his own promotion along with Inoki loyalists like Uei. New Japan’s current booking staff, now leaning away from shootfighting, is a major issue in creating this situation. Inoki’s business contacts, funding sources and wrestlers would go along with it; a devastating blow to New Japan. On a product level the deepest wound would be Shinsuke Nakamura going to Inoki. Nakamura, a prodigy both in puro and shootfighting, is bound to be one of the top stars in the next 20 years. New Japan pushed him heavily, and as such I’d say there’s a strong parallel to Brock Lesnar (legit sports success, big push, lots of talent and star potential). Just how likely the Inoki/NJ split is remains to be seen.
And now Inoki has gotten New Japan to run the Osaka Dome show. How? Maybe I forgot to mention his majority stock ownership in the company.
Section 3- Osaka
Osaka, and Western Japan as a whole, are on the verge of a burn-out. New Japan and NOAH’s use of the Prefectural Gym, shootfighting shows at the Castle Hall, and assorted shows in Kobe are all combining to fray the pocketbooks and interest of wrestling/MMA fans. In past years, running the Osaka Dome show would be risky. This year it borders on suicidal. With the money for renting and running it coming out of pocket (as mentioned above), there’s more cost associated. Then there’s the booking turmoil, which has led to a lack of any big matches being announced for it yet. It had been rumored that a big title match with Fujita would headline, the idea being that one of the regular wrestlers would knock him off. Either this wasn’t the plan Uei had in mind, or Fujita shot it down.
Regardless, we’re left with Sasaki as the IWGP champion, and his only defense between now and then is 11/3 against Tanahashi. After their match, the top contenders are Tenzan and Nagata. The plain-as-day truth is that all four of these potential singles matches wouldn’t draw even a half-full crowd at the Osaka show, despite New Japan having sold thousands of seats at a discount (to then be re-sold at normal prices). Inoki’s fingerprints are everywhere, and he’s pushing for… are you ready… shootfighters and shootfights. So far the big name thrown around is Bob Sapp, who crashed and burned as a kickboxer this year and lost the majority of his appeal in the process. Riki Choshu will be on the show, but it’s doubtful any singles match he could be in will draw significantly. Talk also includes names like Kawada and UWF’s Akira Maeda, both of whom would be pricey.
What’s more, recent New Japan shows that were heavy on shoots like the 5/03 Tokyo Dome and 11/03 Yokohama Arena shows weren’t all that well received- and were incredibly expensive to run. Even worse, they lost out on a major ticket vendor in Osaka over a tiff when he and Chono tried to promote a show together a few weeks back. Even normally New Japan would have struggled to make a profit at Osaka Dome, but between Inoki wanting to use high-price (and low-value) shootfighters, no big drawing card lined up, and TV-Asahi not footing the bill, New Japan is in a position to lose millions. It doesn’t have millions to lose.
Section 4- Other business items
Kusama and his ‘Western-style’ business aren’t going over very well in a very good-ol-boy, and yes Yakuza-influenced industry. He’s upset and alienated vital regional promoters, he’s driving away some important New Japan upper management, and he hasn’t been able to get past the very Inoki influence that caused him to dump Uei. Further, under his watch they lost the Osaka ticket vendor (right before their biggest Osaka show in years), and they lost a potential windfall from IT giant Livedoor for running shows in Northern Japan. Livedoor instead went to Great Sasuke, since Michinoku Pro has long been based in the North. Kusama’s rumored ‘American ties’ aren’t leading anywhere, and the fabled ‘American expansion’ for New Japan simply isn’t happening.
Chono’s booking since the G-1 tournament has been quite striking. Last year, Uei and the shootfighting influence kept Tenzan from capitalizing quickly on his G-1 win. Chono, who views Tenzan as ‘his boy’, was powerless to do anything. Now with Uei out of power (the seeds of which were planted before Choshu’s emergence), Chono seems to be more interested in pushing himself than getting Tenzan the push he needs. Chono has beaten Tenzan twice since the tournament (albeit in screwjobs), and Tenzan keeps being brushed aside for challenging the IWGP champion. Could Chono be trying to book selfishly in order to wring what he can from a struggling New Japan? Is he just trying to set up a big match where Tenzan gets the win? Time will tell.
Choshu’s impact on New Japan is already being felt despite the uncertain nature of his booking power. As detailed here by Zach Arnold, Choshu and his connections to the media will effect how New Japan is covered. For better or worse, it’s going to be important, since the media plays such a vital role in Japanese wrestling.
Phew. I think that pretty much covers it. Again, I might do some touch-ups on certain items as new or corrected info becomes available.