One of the top heavyweights in MMA, Josh has also wrestled with several promotions in Japan over the last six years. I talk with him about New Japan, the Inokis and more. Plus a quick rundown of the events of the last two weeks and the debut of what should be a regular feature!
Section 1- Results
Dragon Gate: Yamato & Cyber Kong retained the tag titles easily on the 11th. Mochizuki, Fujii & Magnitude retained the trios titles on the 18th. Also on that show, Real Hazard turned on Gamma and replaced him with Arai. Yamato takes over leadership of the group.
NOAH: Marufuji retained the All Japan junior title on his show. Shiozaki won his singles matches on the tour, beating Sano with a powerbomb variant, and both Honda and Rikio with lariats. Thatâ€™s got to put him in the main event of the April Budokan show.
Section 2- News
All Japan: Marufujiâ€™s next defense will be against Hayashi on the 6th. Iâ€™d say Kaz had a very good chance, except that itâ€™s at Korakuen Hall after all the other Marufuji matches were at major venues.
Dragon Gate: Shingoâ€™s new stable is named Kamikaze. Iwasa will for no apparent reason be getting a title shot against Doi on the 8th. Tomorrowâ€™s Shingo vs Yamato bout was made a No Rope match. Mochi/Fujii/Magnitide will defend the trios titles on the 15th vs Shingo, Dragon Kid & Tozawa. Also on that show will be Yamato & Cyber Kong defending against Saito & Yokosuka. In maybe the biggest news in years, CIMA hasnâ€™t surfaced since losing at the year-end event, and supposedly his contract expired. Bizarre.
New Japan: Minoru Tanaka didnâ€™t sign a contract renewal and is done with them at the end of the month. Added to the 2/15 Sumo Hall show are Chono & AKIRA vs Beer Money, a 3D vs Makabe & Yano rematch, and Tiger Mask defending against Liger. Theyâ€™ve booked a big show in Fukuoka on May 3rd, which is during â€œGolden Weekâ€. New Japan used to run dome shows that week but gave up after a very bad showing in May 2005. This wonâ€™t be in a dome, but itâ€™s a venue that promotions have avoided for a while. Iâ€™d expect the main event will be the Tanahashi/Nakamura winner against the NJ Cup winner.
Zero-One: Takaiwa left the company and has yet to receive offers from other promotions. Well, duh.
Section 2a- News from Meltzer
Hey, everyone passes around Wrestling Observer notes about WWE, why not me doing it for puro? But at least Iâ€™m paraphrasing and adding commentary so itâ€™s value-added piggybacking!
All Japan: They ran some matches in Taiwan on November 16th, in conjunction with a concert for a Taiwanese band. All Japan airs in Taiwan and has developed enough of a fanbase that they plan to run full shows there by the end of the year. There hasnâ€™t been any wrestling in Taiwan in decades.
HUSTLE: HUSTLEMANIA got crushed in the ratings, though that was really to be expected opposite big MMA shows and the annual megaconcert. Bob Sapp is done with the company after having been paid $35,000 a show. I would expect this will be his last regular wrestling gig unless he lowers his price. Nagao retired.
Inoki Genome: The last show only sold around 2000 tickets, about the same as their December 2007 event. Theyâ€™ve got to be bleeding money. They moved back their next show from this month to March.
New Japan: The Dome show did about 27,500 paid, the best number in a while. There were also plenty of young and first-time fans, a very positive signal. They want to keep bringing in Mutoh after the crowds he drew last year. They want to bring Mistico in regularly and make him a special attraction for big events.
NOAH: Shiozaki got a look from WWE and they werenâ€™t sour on him like they were with Morishima. Ricky Steamboat Jr is training in the dojo. They plan to do shorter, Tokyo-centered tours. This is in line with what All Japan did a few years ago. Taniguchi, returning from injury, is seen as a main event prospect due to his amateur credentials. The November 14th Korakuen show drew 1000, the worst for them at the venue ever.
Section 3- Shill On The Ring
Phil talks Jeff Hardy. The Reality is that for as much as Japan gets credit for pushing good workers, the number of major title champs in Japan under 230 pounds is a heck of a lot less than it is in WWE (Jeff, Rey, Shawn, Jericho, Eddie, etc).
Section 4- The Baby-Faced Assassin
Josh Barnett made his pro wrestling debut debut at the January 4th 2003 Tokyo Dome show, falling short in a good IWGP title match against Nagata. Since then heâ€™s headlined several big shows and is now one of the top names for Inoki Genome, all while maintaining his status as one of the big guns in MMA. There are plenty of interviews out there with his thoughts on MMA, so I focused on pro wrestling. My comments in parentheses.
Q: The Inokis and New Japan had a rocky relationship for several years prior to the formation of IGF. What is your take on that situation? To what extent, if any, are New Japan and IGF adversaries?
A: I know that after a certain period in NJPW’s history that Inoki-san had been more removed from the process and that his views and that of a more “entertainment” opinionated office/workers clashed. As for the IGF and NJPW being adversaries, I think most of it is from the NJPW side of the equation. Even when I was there I spoke with the office about doing things outside of New Japan but as a representative, which in my opinion would have just given the company more exposure. But one thing for sure is that they were more likely to say no to just about anything than to consider it.
Q: Have you kept in touch with any New Japan wrestlers after leaving the promotion?
A: I wish I was but have not been able to for a couple of reasons. I don’t have much contact info for the wrestlers but some like Kakihara-san emailed me before. I have kept friendships with people like Takayama-san and Suzuki-san and many other wrestlers over the years and had a great conversation with Shibata-san after a DREAMS show last year. But I haven’t been able to speak with almost any of my former New Japan workers. I see Nakamura-san around sometimes.
(Josh helped train Nakamura for his shootfights a few years back, and mentioned that he was frustrated in attempts to get Nakamura to gain weight because Nakamura filled up too much on Japanese pickles. Josh and Minoru Suzuki would often spar with New Japan wrestlers before shows.)
Q: Who would you more like to lock horns with: Arlovski or Necro Butcher?
A: I’ll likely fight Arlovksi soon enough but if it’s just wrestling over a karaoke mike or in the ring Necro Butcher a fun tussle!
(Necro has become somewhat of a regular for Inoki Genome)
Q: Do you still follow pro wrestling in Japan outside of IGF?
A: I don’t as much as I used to and some of that is because the business has fallen so much. I also don’t get over there as much as is the past either but I always have my eyes open and ears to the ground so I keep in the loop OK.
Q: Are there any trends or events in the last year or so that stand out to you?
A: A lot of “Feminine” looking male wrestlers but then that’s a fashion trend in Japan as a whole. I think it was around Final Fantasy 8 when I noticed the main character was prettier than the womenâ€¦and that wasn’t for me I guess.
Q: You had a chance to help with Hirooki Goto’s training, and now he’s become a breakout star. What was he like as a young lion?
A: He showed great talent, worked hard and I thought he had good potential. I had suggested that he be used to wrestle the “Young Lion” bouts as he had but put into a vigorous shoot training regimen and see what comes of it. Since he was just a “Young Lion” he didn’t have to worry about what would happen if he were to lose a fight and I thought he could be a decent fighter. Then later he could transition into straight working. I am glad he is having success now.
Q: Pro wrestling in Japan has suffered a serious decline in business over the course of the decade. What, if anything, do you think can be done about it?
A: That’s a really tough question. No matter what style you profess, wrestling is down no matter what so I don’t think it’s that. I would have to say that the business needs stability for one as they are too often rushing angles or rotating pushes before fans can get into a groove. I think a reduction in gimmicks and theatrics can help because it would allow more sincerity from the wrestlers and the fans would more easily identify with them. Also for some change, real change in booking. All too often they continue to do what’s expected and how it’s been done 10 times over. To truly develop new talent you have to allow them to develop. Often, that is not the case in my opinion.
Q: Can you see yourself returning to New Japan?
A: I don’t think so. Even though I am asked all the time in Japan by fans to return to New Japan things are not friendly for me there I feel. Through things I have heard and read it seems my reputation has been poisoned in New Japan. I am not sure what it was or why some of the rumors that I have been informed of had been started but I know there has been a lot of false information about me.
It could be from my supposed “Shoot” interviews like I gave after being replaced from the G1 by Kawada-san and such but the funny thing about any of that is that the office told me to say as such. Nothing I ever did while in New Japan was contrary to what the office wanted me to do. I have heard rumors saying I wouldn’t work with people or was unwilling to put people over but all of that is a lie. I put over anybody I was ever asked to and always to tried to do thing to make the match good while making us look strong as well. When I was injured I volunteered to train wrestlers in either the US or Japan since I couldn’t work. I got Nakamura-san, Nakanishi-san, Yano-san and other in great shape training with me and they knew that. I worked very hard for New Japan and did the best I could for them and in the end I got a very bitter return.
The only thing I wish is for those that have issue with me to simply say so and why. I would bet that most of it is from false information and misunderstanding but I don’t mind just not liking one another either! I don’t need the business to make friends and didn’t enter it to do so. I started fighting and wrestling to be the best. I did like some of the guys I worked with very much though so it sucks to not see them anymore.
(He brings up the G-1 Climax 2005, which he was supposed to be in but got bumped. The cover story was that Kawada, a bigger name, agreed at the last minute and stole his place. In actuality the last name announced was lowly and crappy Tatsutoshi Goto.)
Q: What are your thoughts on Lesnar winning the UFC heavyweight title?
A: By all means, with his experience he shouldn’t have been vying for the title but the way he steeped up and won the belt was great. I think he will have a hard time holding the belt as he is more susceptible to mistakes in the ring due to his lack of fights but he will be a force for as long as stays in it and I expect him to be a top 10 heavyweight until he hangs them up.
My thanks to Josh for his time.
Coming soon: Yet another feature-length interview!