The Reality of Wrestling: Brock Lesnar
By Phil Clark & Mike Campbell
This past Saturday Brock Lesnar was kicked out of New Japan Pro Wrestling and stripped of his IWGP Title. The company cited “Visa issues” as their reason, but most saw past that and to the real reason: Lesnar didn’t want to drop the belt to young star Hiroshi Tanahashi at the company’s Green Dome show this past Monday. A mini-tournament was held and to no one’s surprise, Tanahashi won the title and rose to the top of New Japan. Lesnar is set to possibly debut in MMA at Antonio Inoki’s September 1st Budokan Hall show and another interesting item comes into play: he still has New Japan’s third generation IWGP Title belt. The belt Tanahashi wore after his title win was the second generation belt that was retired after Kazuyuki Fujita’s title win over Hiroyoshi Tenzan last July. And, it is being reported in Japan that instead of MMA, Lesnar may defend “his” IWGP Title at Inoki’s 9/1 show! Will wonders ever cease?
P.C. Says: I’m done with Brock Lesnar
Like Randy Orton, there is a time when my patience in a wrestler has worn thin and I have to cut them off completely. By that I mean there’s a point where I stop caring what happens to a wrestler in or out of the ring. Randy Orton became one after Wrestlemania and on Saturday Brock Lesnar became another. It does sadden me to say that considering both men had extraordinary promise at the beginnings of their careers and showed signs of becoming stars, but blew it for one reason or another (sometimes their fault, sometimes not). Now they’ve chosen to act like selfish pricks thinking only of themselves and not of the business as well.
In an article I wrote with Mike earlier this year, I noted that the majority of New Japan’s success in drawing for their shows depended on Lesnar. In terms of the big shows, I was correct as Lesnar was promoted as the main-event for every big show New Japan has had this year. When it came to tours, I couldn’t have been more wrong. And that’s the reason why the Lesnar experiment was a failed one in New Japan: no touring. Fans won’t stand by someone full-time if they’re not there full-time. Yeah, Lesnar turned out to be a decent attraction for the big shows being an outsider and former WWE superstar (like A-Train), but that’s just not enough these days and New Japan should’ve known that.
To say this is 100% New Japan’s fault wouldn’t be fair to them. Granted they don’t really deserve fair treatment when it comes to critiquing their booking decisions, but this wasn’t 100% their fault. Yes, they put the belt on Lesnar. Yes, it was another desperate attempt to get an outsider over as the king of the promotion. Yes, it was half-baked all the way because of the legal matters with The E and Lesnar’s own lack of motivation. But in the end, they did build to something; that something being the coronation of Hiroshi Tanahashi as the new ace of New Japan Pro Wrestling. Unfortunately, that never happened.
Now most are thinking, “but Phil, Tanahashi won the title on Monday in a mini-tournament and is the ace now.” This I would dispute until proven otherwise. Some may see Tanahashi as the ace right now, but just having the belt doesn’t make you the ace. Tanahashi didn’t beat Lesnar, he hasn’t beaten Tenzan or Nagata or Nakanishi or Nakamura in title matches. A person’s first title reign (even if it’s their only) is the one that usually establishes someone as the ace of a promotion in Japan; Misawa’s first Triple Crown Title reign and Muta’s first IWGP title reign are probably the best examples of this. Tanahashi still has to prove that he’s the man for this promotion and he can do that by taking down some of the biggest names left in the promotion at Sumo Hall or (if they do it) The Dome on January 4th.
There’s no doubt in my mind that this should be the last straw when it comes to the Inoki’s. What the hell is this promotion thinking? Sure, Antonio’s out, but Simon’s still in and he probably acts as Antonio’s mouthpiece more than half the time. With all the decisions that have gone up in flames since the turn of the century, it still amazes me that New Japan hasn’t cut ties with the Inoki family; it’s almost like a battered woman unwilling to leave her abusive husband due to some kind of misplaced loyalty. That’s an accurate metaphor for what the Inoki’s have done to this promotion over the last six years and Lesnar is just another addition to the long list. The heinous booking of Sapp, Fujita, and Yasuda as IWGP champions, the fact that those three even got title reign, the fact that Fujita kept being welcomed back, the disastrous Osaka Dome show last year, and the almost total annihilation of the pushes of Nagata, Tenzan, and Nakanishi thanks to Vale Tudo matches, the Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye shows and the rest of Inoki’s MMA dominated booking that the fans didn’t want to see and expressed with diminishing ticket sales make up the list. Yukes has the right idea when it comes to the Inoki’s as they bought Antonio’s 51% share of the company and showed him the door. They also want nothing to do with Inoki’s September 1 Budokan Hall show, which should’ve been a signal to New Japan who of course is more than willing to contribute talent. Right when Simon Inoki brought Lesnar in and it was announced that Inoki, New Japan, owned his contract, they should’ve been weary and maybe not have even put the belt on Lesnar. Instead, they got burned once again.
People caught onto this story right away and the reaction was mostly anti-Lesnar. People denouncing him and talking about wanting his head to drink out of, etc. I’m for the anti-Lesnar crowd, just not to that extreme. Right now Lesnar’s last few years of unmotivated and selfish decisions has really left him with one alternative: MMA. If that fails, Japan is dead to him, as I doubt any promotion will hire him unless it’s for a one-shot appearance after this fiasco. So if Lesnar gets wasted in his first MMA outing, he may have to go back to Vince with his head between his legs because what else would there be for the next big thing? If that would happen, it would be a fitting irony for someone with so much wasted promise.
M.C. Says: The show will go on without Lesnar
About six months or so ago, Phil asked to make a contribution to his column, and share my thoughts of New Japan and where they’d end up and their outlook for 2006. I basically gave my honest thoughts on how things came to pass and made the following statement at the end. “All that can be said for now is to keep an eye on NJPW in the next few months, if nothing else, it’s sure to be interesting.” And you can’t really say that I was wrong. Following the trials and tribulations of New Japan has been fairly interesting, just look at some of the stuff that’s happened this year. Giant Bernard has *not* been a total waste of space, a young lion named Naofumi Yamamoto (who looks like a pirate, right Ditch?) has been making waves. A wrestler I love to hate named Yuji Nagata has been putting on the work boots lately, and another one I love hate named Yutaka Yoshie left the company. Masahiro Chono got hurt for the millionth time, and since he’s half the IWGP Tag Champions, the obvious thing to do is run a tournament to crown “provisional” tag champions.
But Phil didn’t give me this space to randomly talk about the little things going on in New Japan, that make me scratch my head. It’s about one thing in particular: Brock Lesnar. When I last spoke about NJPW I took the position that Lesnar holding the IWGP Title was yet another gamble that they were taking, especially with the IWGP Title being a big reason they were in such bad shape. That said, Brock with the title had a much better upside than his preceding outsider/gaijin IWGP Champions Bob Sapp and Kazuyuki Fujita, and considering what damage had been done to the wrestlers who should be leading the company right now (namely Nagata and Tenzan), it was the obvious choice to make. However, Brock had to go and make me look bad by not doing the things that would have contributed to the upside, and the result is another addition to the already long list of reasons why NJPW is in the state they’re in and why the IWGP Title is lack in credibility.
The first problem was that Brock’s matches weren’t very good. Now over a year away from the ring will cause some ring rust of course, and looking at Brock’s WWE career he was pretty damn good when he was on. One of Brock’s big gripes with the WWE was the constant travel, but the way the Japanese touring system works would be much easier on Brock. After all Japan is only about the size of the state of California, and the tours only last a couple of weeks and then he’d get time to rest. But Brock didn’t tour with New Japan. Lots of outsider champions don’t tour with the promotion, because of dealings with their home promotion (such as Lyger’s run with the GHC Jr. Title) and shoot fighting commitments (such as with Kazuyuki Fujita). Brock’s reason for not touring? He wanted upwards of thirty grand per show, and at a time when business is down everywhere in Japan, it’s not possible to pay him that kind of money for working a full tour. In effect Brock was no different than Sapp or Fujita when it came to making appearances, only he didn’t have a real excuse. Now I’m not saying that Brock shouldn’t try to make lots of money, wrestling is a business and that’s what it’s supposed to do at the end of the day. But considering NJPW more or less bet the farm on him, he could have been more lenient when push came to shove. So instead of working several nights a week to improve himself in the ring, NJPW fans were treated to mediocre matches like Brock vs. Akebono (the sumo who fought Big Show at WrestleMania 21) and Lesnar vs. Giant Bernard. It wasn’t just ring rust either; it was also because Brock was simply lazy and unmotivated to really put on a good show.
The Giant Bernard defense made for some interesting discussion as well, because there was a very real sense of excitement/fear (the latter in my case) that Bernard was going to win the title. Bernard’s title shot came to pass simply enough. Bernard beat Yuji Nagata in the finals of the “New Japan Cup” (an annual spring tournament) to earn a title shot. But things got interesting because only a few days prior to the match Brock had announced his intentions/ambitions to participate in K-1. The IWGP Title had already seen damage come from the champion working in a shoot fight and getting roughed up, and there seemed to be no way that NJPW would allow it to happen again. On the other side of the coin though, there was a possibility of The Hip Hop Hippo winning one of the biggest titles in Japan. Lesnar retained the title and there has since been no announcement of his K1 participation, but after that it seemed safe to assume that Lesnar wouldn’t last much longer.
The final straw came over the weekend though. For the last month the big story in NJPW is that Lesnar has gone through all the main contenders to the title except for two. Hiroshi Tanahashi and Hiroyoshi Tenzan. Tenzan is probably the biggest victim of the current state of NJPW, he’s been booked so erratically as being a top guy in the company one tour, to being Chono’s flunky the next. He’s got four IWGP Title reigns under his belt. The longest of which lasted for two months, and has only ever had two successful title defenses. So the odds of him being the one that dethrone Brock seemed to be slim to none. Hiroshi Tanahashi was one of the younger guys in NJPW who seemed destined for stardom and to lead the company, position wise he’s a Japanese equivalent to Chris Jericho. Very popular, pretty talented, can convincingly go over just about anyone without it being seen as a huge upset, and only in need of a tiny push to get him all the way over the hump. He’s not totally ready to carry the flag, but he’ll be able to grow into the position. On Monday July 17, 2006 Brock was scheduled to return to NJPW and defend against Tanahashi. Only Brock pulled out at the last minute with “visa problems” being the official excuse.
So in a nutshell, what NJPW gained from Brock holding the title was a champion who was barely ever around, and when he did show up, he put on mediocre performances. A champion who made it clear while he was champion that he wanted to do shoots (kinda like how he sprung the NFL dreams on the WWE), and then bailed on them without losing the title. It’s not all Brock’s fault, wrestling is worked and it was their choice to make him champion and shell out the money he was asking for. But it’s hard for even the most jaded fan (like myself) to not feel sorry for them. I’m not going to be all melodramatic and make disparaging comments about Lesnar and demand that someone bring me his head so that I can drink beer out it, and have a skull keg party at my apartment (twisted, no?). The only thing I have to say to Mr. Lesnar is ‘good luck’ with his shoot-fighting career. Wrestling fans have seen how Mr. Lesnar reacts when he doesn’t get his way, as well as how often his hopes and dreams seem to change. If his wrestling career was any indication, after his first fight that doesn’t go his way, he’ll probably quit that too and then where’s going to go?
Life went on for New Japan though. They scrambled and came up with a six-man tournament to crown a new champion; the field consisted of Nagata, Tanahashi, Bernard, Travis Tomko (you may know him as The Problem Solver), Tenzan, and Akebono. Tanahashi and Bernard got semi final byes due to being the current and most recent #1 contender. As far as quick fix solutions go, they could have done worse. The field was a bit on the predictable side as far as the outcome, with only Nagata and Tanahashi being the only possible winners. But a somewhat predictable tournament to crown a stable and dependable champion is much better than a big swerve being thrown and seeing Akebono get the title. Nagata and Tanahashi (former GHC Tag Team Champions) squared off in the semi finals with Tanahashi getting the win, and setting up the finals of Tanahashi vs. Giant Bernard. The #1 contender vs. The #1 gaijin, and not surprisingly Tanahashi downed him as well, to take the title. While it lacked the excitement of unpredictability, beating the top gaijin and the arguably the top native in the company back to back isn’t a bad way at all for Tanahashi to start off his title reign, and probably better for him than coming out on top in what would have been another mediocre match with a lazy and unmotivated Lesnar.
The Reality is…New Japan has a history of f*cking up. This isn’t the first time and won’t be the last time. All wrestling companies have f*ck up’s, it’s just a matter of how many and how big they are. In New Japan’s case they just seem to get bigger each time with a combination of poor booking, bad timing, and the wrong people. If the Lesnar situation has taught me anything about the state of Japanese pro wrestling it’s that foreigners can’t be trusted in big roles anymore. The feeling of selflessness that such foreign stars as Vader, Stan Hansen, and Scott Norton possessed just isn’t there anymore. Also, the star power of such people and stars like Hulk Hogan isn’t there meaning that the increased money spent on foreign wrestlers isn’t worth the likelihood that they won’t draw big money for the promotion. At this point New Japan’s best option is to build from within. They still have Nakamura and Tanahashi as the future, Nagata, Tenzan, and Nakanishi are still fan favorites and will act as the veterans to get the two young bloods ready for the big stage. Also, with Kojima in this year’s G-1, the possibility of another New Japan/All Japan working relationship seems like a possibility. One thing is for sure: both companies would need it.