A Modest Response: Special Puro Edition

In honor of David Ditch’s Four Years on Pulse Wrestling, I’ve decided to do a Puro retrospective, looking at the state of Puro today and how we ended up here, focussing on the Big 3 companies. This is the Monday entry into Glazer week, during which I’ll have a column up daily, so be sure to check back again tomorrow for more!

All Japan (AJPW) and New Japan (NJPW) were both originally built on national stars beating invading (usually American) talent. Antonio Inoki, Giant Baba and Jumbo Tsuruta battling Tiger Jeet Singh, Vader, Stan Hansen, the Funks and so on are examples of this. This drew great during the territory period of American wrestling. With no binding contracts, top American wrestlers were able to go to Japan on tours. Everyone from NWA Champions Harley Race and Ric Flair on down to the best juniors like Dynamite Kid and Owen Hart had great, credible runs as guys for top native talent to destroy. WWF going national with iron clad contracts slowly ended this. Puroresu fans knew top talent was no longer available by and large, so both companies eventually took to having their guys face different kinds invading outsiders.

Antonio Inoki, the New Japan ace and chief, did this by having his guys go over invading companies and styles, like the UWF and UWFi feuds. UWF and its successor, UWFi were worked shoot federations, which presented a far more hard hitting, realistic, almost MMA (before that term existed) based form of combat. New Japan drew huge numbers in both the 1980s and 1990s going against UWF and UWFi, respectively.

AJPW had a short period of the national invader with a different style, but instead of worked shoot, they based this around Riki Choshu jumping from NJPW. Sadly, this didn’t last, but Giant Baba (the All Japan owner, but not the ace by this point) eventually settled into an ace system, where the ace (Jumbo Tsuruta then Mitsuharu Misawa eventually Kenta Kobashi) was the man of the fans, constantly turning back all upstarts to the throne. Of course, since it takes years in Japan to build a proper upstart draw, well, things ran short. When Misawa left AJPW to start NOAH, Kobashi ended up the Ace. This was surprising since Jun Akiyama seemed to make more sense due to health, as well as being a NOAH booker, but still… Kobashi was a major draw in huge matches and likely the best wrestler in the world, so it was hard to argue with his role. When it came time for Kobashi’s title run to end, however, Akiyama apparently still didn’t want the top slot and no one else was ready, so they went with the hugely under prepared Takeshi Rikio.

This left a huge hole where the ace wasn’t the top guy, which became gaping when Kobashi got cancer and obviously missed much more time. Misawa was eventually forced to try to take the belt back as former ace in order to draw, but since Kobashi was seen as the ace, only a series with him could really anoint the successor and make fans care. Takeshi Morishima was given this honor of being the next ace, but the booking for it was, by Puro standards, hasty, and without that big Kobashi fans he was unable to draw as intended, likely because he was seen to have only beaten an over the hill Misawa. It’s a shame NOAH decided to pull the plug recently, having Morishima lose to Kensuke Sasaki, but Kensuke has been an Ace in AJ and NJ so ideally, beating him, since he tackled Kobashi in his prime, will give either Marufuji or Morishima the final bump they need to draw. Ideally, NOAH knows this and doesn’t go with Rikio or Akiyama, both of whose ships have sailed. Go is a possibility, but needs a lot more time and build, which hopefully he’ll get since just an American trip won’t do it, as Morishima showed.

Back to NJPW. Inoki, seeing how well the MMA stuff drew, and having put himself over several other different sport stars to huge success, fell in love with works and instead of his guys repelling the invaders, began having the invaders draw or win, beginning with Naoya Ogawa on the ridiculously over Shinya Hashimoto, arguably the greatest draw in wrestling history. This worked short term, but vacated the Ace spot and began a downward spiral of the outsiders (MMA guys) controlling the company’s fate as top guys. Essentially, the outsiders winning worked for a bit but the fans wanted better matches (MMA guys mostly sucked as wrestlers) and a return of the Ace. For years that was presumed to be Hiroshi Tenzan, Yugi Nagata, or Satoshi Kojima. Kojima jumped to All Japan with Keiji Mutoh. Nagata lost to Cro Cop and Fedor in MMA fight (and really, what the hell was he doing against those two), which Inoki pressured him into and became damaged, a step below true ace (but he could still draw reasonably, a testament to his skill). Tenzan was at the cusp numerous times, but instead of going over in the big matches kept losing or getting weak wins over the invading MMA stars until he was damaged. This left NJPW rushing the new guys, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Shinsuke Nakamura and Shibata. Shibata left when Inoki was finally ousted, but Tanahashi and Nakamura have proven they can rise to the occasion. With the MMA guys finally gone, there are new champions at the top…. but they didn’t convincingly beat the MMA guys and now there’s no outsider draw for them to test themselves against. Kurt Angle was tried out in the outsider role and helped Nakamura a bit, but not enough (remember all of this playing out in one year is very rushed for Japan). Along came Mutoh who betrayed NJ for AJ and provides the perfect opponent for Tanahashi, his protégé, to defeat and ascend. Of course, giving Nakamura back the belt is another option, but risks the Misawa to Morishima issue where its seen as an old guy giving the rub to a guy they recently defeated.

All Japan was screwed until Mutoh came along. This allowed them to build around Mutoh’s NJPW outsiders against the loyal Toshiaki Kawada, defending the last bit of AJPW pride. This drew pretty well… until Kawada suddenly went freelance. AJPW was left without an Ace, so they turned to Kensuke Sasaki, who drew okay business as a Kojima match was built. Stunningly the outsider Kensuke went against not young new ace Kojima, but rather a Voodoo Murders heel Kojima (why he was heel for this match is just beyond me). This drew, but left fans without something to latch onto fitting the usual paradigm after…and Kensuke actually won. Suwama, a guy patterned after Jumbo who isn’t nearly there yet (hint-send him to Dory Funk, Jr.), got to beat Kensuke, but, again, it was rushed… and he hasn’t looked strong as champion. Looks like Kojima, now turned face again, will get another shot. As a top worker in Japan, he’d have a shot, but he may have been mishandled for too long. Beating Mutoh (who dethroned Suwama in the same panic move both over companies recently made), however, might just do it.

There we have it, the current state of the big three in Japan and how they got into this situation. Join me tomorrow for The Wrestling Analyst and check back for something new from me every day this week!

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