The Reality of Wrestling: Japanese Wrestling In The U.S. (And Vice Versa)

The Reality of Wrestling: Japanese Wrestling In The U.S. (And Vice Versa)
By Phil Clark & David Ditch

Ditch helps me analyze Puroresu’s impact in America

With ROH having their first shows in Japan ever, it seemed as good a time as any to analyze where Puro stands in America and vice versa. It seems that every big U.S. fed and Indy fed is using Japanese talent or things relating to Japanese wrestling (move sets, belts, etc.) these days. While in Japan, American talent is still being brought in more and more with old stars being brought in for marquee value and new stars being made through assimilation into the promotion via multiple tours and T.V. exposure with that promotion. While Japanese wrestling isn’t as popular in America as American wrestling can be in Japan, the two are coming closer and closer together day by day and now would be as good a time as ever to take a look at how and why this is happening.

D.D. Says: American Wrestling takes more than it gives towards Japanese wrestling

The odd thing about current US/Japan wrestling relationships is that actual strength is inversely proportional to potential strength.

WWE could snap their fingers and get whatever they want. Say for instance they want to start using Kojima on ECW; All Japan would bend over backwards to make it happen even at the expense of not having one of their top stars on hand. If WWE wanted a young heavyweight to get pushed and established in Japan, they might be able to wrangle getting someone like Chris Masters into the G-1 Climax final. New Japan was really hoping to get Benoit and/or Guerrero into the 2004 G-1; WWE could have requested having one of them win with no future “payback” loss to an IWGP champion and they probably would have been able to do so.

Yet WWE does hardly anything with Japan. I’m fairly sure the last Japanese wrestler they brought over was Kenzo Suzuki, who wasn’t around that long (and for reasons beyond my understanding is now a main-eventer in Mexico). WWF brought in Michinoku Pro’s finest, but that was a decade ago. Right now WWE’s main use for Japan is as a depository for heavyweight castoffs so they’re available on demand and maybe pick up a thing or two (see: Umaga). If they ever pull the trigger on a new brand in wrestling’s second-biggest market I can see them increasing their Japanese exposure, but otherwise it’ll continue to be a very spotty relationship.

Earlier this year there was a flurry of activity as every major Japanese promotion seemed to fall over each other in the hopes of getting in TNA’s good graces. The reasoning had nothing to do with TNA getting a time slot on Spike, or any international spread of Hoytmania. No, it was entirely a product of TNA having Kurt Angle. New Japan got him for a couple shows, and now Inoki Genome has the Olympian’s services. All Japan and NOAH have probably put in bids. TNA can get the highest bidder, demand that Angle never lose, not even promise a long-term scheduling plan and still have a surplus of demand. It’s even to the point where they send Chris Sabin to All Japan and he wins their junior tournament in his first tour, in part because All Japan wants to show their ~TNA Love~.

It seems as if Japanese promotions have battered wife syndrome in regards to WWE and TNA, and thus it’s so refreshing to see the positive give-and-take between ROH and Japan. ROH can’t offer TV exposure to Japanese stars, and Japan won’t push ROH stars as headliners, but both sides have gained from talent exchanges and the talent has gained as well. Several of ROH’s top DVDs have Japanese wrestlers as a major focal point, most notably Joe vs Kobashi, which is their all-time bestseller. During occasional talent crunches, ROH has been able to use Japanese wrestlers to fill the gaps. Most importantly, ROH secured NOAH and Dragon Gate promotional help for their shows on the 16th and 17th.

NOAH and Dragon Gate have gotten a platform to promote their talent in the US, have gotten a reliable source for fresh gaijin talent, and are able to show footage of their wrestlers getting cheered overseas. Take a look at NOAH’s July 1st Differ Ariake show to see how ROH wrestlers can lift a slumping promotion. Jack Evans has become quite popular in Dragon Gate, while Danielson and McGuinness could become vital parts of the NOAH roster. ROH has also proven itself more than willing to give Japanese talent the spotlight, notably KENTA’s win streak last year and Morishima’s title reign this year. Japanese promotions have tended to have creative control, as was regrettably demonstrated when New Japan had a thinly disguised Kendo KaShin win Best of American Super Juniors. NOAH and Dragon Gate have ventured very little and can pull the plug if things turn sour, while ROH has made the kind of profit margins most independents only dream of.

Going forward I can’t say that I see anything changing. I doubt WWE will do a Japanese expansion, I doubt TNA sees Japan as anything more than a place to pimp their wrestlers on occasion, and I fully expect ROH to continue to cultivate their cross-Pacific relationships. One out of three ain’t bad.

P.C. Says: ROH has the best relationship with Japanese Pro Wrestling as a whole

It is interesting the way that the other perceives each country’s brand of wrestling. In America, Japanese wrestlers have either been jumpy little guys or salt throwing big guys, but that’s all. However, in Japan U.S. wrestlers can help everything from ratings to attendances and can also be detrimental to them; this depends on who the wrestler is and if he’s dependable in the ring. That is a summary of the perceptions of these two countries rich with wrestling history.

Remember when it was rumored that Kenta Kobashi was going to be on the three-hour RAW back in October 2005? That was almost excruciatingly funny because can you imagine if Kobashi would’ve gone to The E for even one match? This isn’t like ROH having him there for two nights and giving him both falls. Not only that, but—no offense intended—The E’s fans wouldn’t know how to react to this guy and the whole thing would more than likely be a sad incident for a guy who’s made a pretty good legacy in the industry. Now compare that possibility with the reality of Takashi Morishima’s title reign so far in ROH where he has been made to appear as an absolute monster and already you can see why ROH has a better relationship with Japanese pro wrestling.

ROH has always been good to the wrestlers they bring over from the land of the rising sun. KENTA’s run in 2006 ended with the match of the year against Danielson as well as a number of terrific tag’s and triple threats involving Danielson and Samoa Joe, not to mention the out of nowhere MOTYC against Davey Richards that made Richards a star in that promotion overnight. But even in the past, ROH has been able to bring in Japanese stars for big cards and make them feel at home: Team Emblem made a trip to ROH in 2002 to face Corino and Low-Ki and were over from the moment they’re music hit, the All-Japan/ROH series at Final Battle ’02 did go over well with fans and insiders especially because of MUTA’s presence, KENTA & Marufuji both thrilled the crowd at Final Battle ’05, and who can forget Dragon Gate’s top stars and the impact they’ve made in the last two years thanks to ROH? With these stars, you’ve gotten numerous match of the nights, match of the year candidates, and for the first time since WCW did it in the mid-late 90’s, there’s a promotion in the U.S. that brings in International stars on a regular basis and is able to keep them around thanks to good (but not selfish or desperate) booking.

The E on the other hand has mainly used Japan as a focus group and a proverbial pawnshop for new talent. Their last tours in Japan were absolute flops eliminating any chances of a Tokyo Dome show for Vince. This was due to the fact that the novelty of Benoit, Jericho, and other stars that formerly wrestled in Japan was gone and The E really had nothing else at the time. But, they have picked up stars from Japan in recent years including Kenzo Suzuki, Umaga, and just recently Ted Dibiase Jr. from NOAH. While these aren’t the biggest stars, The E was able to get these people without problems for two reasons: the wrestlers realize that WWE is still THE name in American pro wrestling, and the promotions still realize the same thing. While The E has proven that they won’t be able to draw significant numbers in Japan again for a while, their people can still gain exposure in America whenever The E feels like it. It’s a catch-22 on both sides if you think about it: The E can’t go to Japan, but they can use Japanese wrestlers and Japanese promotions lose talent who will only be able to gain so much exposure in America with that specific audience.

In the past, TNA was able to use Japanese talent in a more effective way (I think) by going the ROH route and just having them come in and tear the house down with their matches. Wrestlers from New Japan, All-Japan, and Dragon Gate all were able to show off their talents by not having to worry about storylines or interviews. It does amaze me that TNA hasn’t done more to try and bring their product to Japan as the majority of the wrestlers on their roster have wrestled multiple tours in Japan in the past. That list includes: Samoa Joe, A.J. Styles, Christopher Daniels, Senshi, Tomko, Alex Shelley, Chris Sabin, Scott Steiner, Team 3-D (won the 2005 Real World Tag League), Elix Skipper, and Sting.

Today, TNA’s route to acknowledging Japanese pro wrestling’s presence in America is subtler, but is fun for the insiders: the little things. At Destination X, MUTA made his presence and did the mist spray, Tomko has started to appear on T.V. with his IWGP tag title belt, A-Train may be brought in for that same reason, and then there’s Kurt Angle.

As Ditch said, TNA does have a hell of a bargaining chip with the Olympic gold medallist. This year has already shown that as Angle participated for New Japan in February forming a dream team with Yuji Nagata, was in Japanese newspapers with Keiji Mutoh when the All Japan relationship was first made official, and just won the “IWGP Title” from Brock Lesnar at the first IGF show and has been appearing on T.V. with that belt as well as his TNA title belt. So in six months time, Angle has participated in two different promotions and has been basically an ambassador in forming a relationship between another Japanese promotion and his current home promotion. Despite that, if NOAH or Dragon Gate or Zero-One MAX ever got the shot to book Angle, they would bend over backwards at the opportunity. That however, won’t happen IMO as Chris Sabin’s Jr. tourney win in All-Japan recently has shown that Mutoh is looking for this relationship to stick especially with a Sumo Hall show of his own coming up in August.

The IWGP title situation is an interesting one. Angle showing up with the belt on T.V. is an interesting call on TNA’s part as New Japan still has every right to sue Lesnar, Inoki, and possibly TNA over their use of a belt that isn’t even there’s. If you remember last July when Lesnar was slated to lose the belt to Tanahashi, he left the promotion and took the belt with him forcing New Japan to bring back their second generation belt—a belt they retired the year before. Lesnar kept the belt, but since he was inactive for nearly a year, New Japan didn’t do anything legally speaking. Plus, since Yukes (the company that owns New Japan) now owns Inoki’s shares and rights to his image and name, why would they need to care when they have so much on Inoki and Lesnar legally speaking? That question still hasn’t been answered as IGF’s first show went off without a hitch, Lesnar defended New Japan’s belt, lost it to Angle, and now Angle has it on TNA T.V. here in the states. The reason I say it’s a touchy situation is that I’d be willing to bet that New Japan is still fuming over how quickly their relationship with TNA dissolved. The tag match in February was said not to have been that great (not the point of the match anyway), but could’ve been—and in all likelihood would’ve been—used as a transition to the inevitable singles match between these two (an easy Sumo Hall main-event, especially with Nagata’s title win soon after). Now, who knows? It will be interesting to see if New Japan does anything about the use of their belt by other promotions. In the end they may do nothing, because the possibility of Angle/Nagata for both IWGP titles still looms as Angle will never be tied down to one promotion and a double title dream match just screams one thing: Tokyo Dome.

So, let’s summarize things here:

Ring of Honor: fair and impartial with booking of foreign talent, has been able to make their appearances look like a big deal (in the case of one-time bookings) and have been able to use Japanese wrestlers effectively in storylines and with titles despite language impairment on both sides.

TNA: has bounced around Japan’s wrestling business in 2006 thanks mainly to Kurt Angle. They have seemed—for the moment at least—to have found a partner with All Japan as Chris Sabin and Scott Steiner have been booked for their August 26 Sumo Hall show. However, Angle does have New Japan’s third generation IWGP title belt, a belt he won wrestling on an Antonio Inoki booked show. Still up in the air where Angle will go next or if TNA will stick with Mutoh and All-Japan in the long term.

WWE: stopped going to Japan after disastrous tour in 2005 eliminated any hopes for a Tokyo Dome show (barring Wrestlemania). They continue to sign Japanese talent from all promotions at any time it seems without too much resistance from that wrestler’s promotion.

The Reality is perception is everything. Most American fans still can’t get into Japanese pro wrestling. Some because of the language factor, some because they don’t know it exists, and some just because they don’t care. Insiders and dirt sheet readers have been championing Japanese wrestling’s slow rise to acceptance in the U.S. for years, but ROH has done more for Japanese wrestling in the U.S. than any promotion because they just went to Japan for the first time, have had matches on Japanese T.V., had some of their wrestlers (Nigel McGuinness and Bryan Danielson most notably) do multiple tours with Japanese promotion Pro Wrestling NOAH, and have used Japanese wrestlers more effectively than any American promotion probably ever has (minus WCW). For the moment, Japanese wrestling remains something mainly for the insiders and ROHbots, but the last couple of years—along with the rise of the Internet’s power with wrestling fans—have given me the hope that the popularity of Puroresu is rising and that can only be good for both sides as it spells fresh matchups, better matches, and more excitement for the sport in general. In 1995, WCW’s attempt at a WCW vs. Japan feud didn’t go over as well as hoped despite being a fantastic seven match series. However, had that series happened a few years later, I guarantee it would’ve went over A LOT better as WCW proved and ROH is proving once again that American audiences will watch Japanese pro wrestling, it just takes us longer to get immersed with it.

PLUGS

If you haven’t read Ditch’s article on why so many American wrestlers have been dying young compared to Japanese wrestlers dying young, you should. Hint: He’s right.

This week’s “FUCK YOU!” goes to:

DANA WHITE
This isn’t more MMA v. Boxing shit, and this isn’t about the PRIDE deal seeming to benefit only one party so far. What this is about is the announcement last week that Jackson/Henderson would be on free T.V. instead of PPV. So, you’ve got the biggest title match in MMA history—the first unification match in MMA history—and you’re going to give it away on free T.V.? That’s downright insane. I’m not saying that the show would draw Liddell/Ortiz 2 numbers, but it would have the potential to make UFC a lot more money than it does being on free T.V. Not only that, but this just reeks of Hogan/Goldberg in ’98 where Bischoff was so obsessed with beating The E in the ratings that he gave away a world title dream match on free T.V. that could’ve earned WCW the biggest buyrate in wrestling history at the time and probably $20-30 million in revenue. I’m not saying that this show would break all records if put on PPV, but in the case of Rampage/Henderson, Dana White is giving away the biggest title match in MMA history on free T.V. because the other title has the word Pride on it. That’s my only explanation because it’s not “doing it for the fans” as you might hear leading into this match in the coming weeks. Giving away their first show in England (Arlovski/Verdum, Cro Cop/Gonzaga) for free was doing it for the fans because that was a PPV caliber card on paper and they could’ve put it on PPV, but they chose not to. In this case, they should put it on PPV if not for the fact that people don’t seem to have a problem buying UFC PPV’s, then for the fact of how big the title match is to the sport. I was perfectly willing to spend the $40 on that show just for the title match, but now that the card has taken shape and looks intriguing so far, I’d have even less of a problem shilling out the cash. I never thought I’d feel so bad about saving money, but I do. And I’m sure I’m not alone in that opinion.

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