Wrestle Kingdom, New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s annual flagship event, always falls at a slightly unsettling time of year. The promotion insists on Wrestle Kingdom running on January 4th, leaving it in a strange sort of limbo world: it could make more money if it were on a weekend, and sometimes it is (except it usually isn’t), plus it’s the ending of their storyline year, but it’s right after New Year’s and isn’t a new year about a new beginning? Well it is also a little bit about that, since it kicks off the next year of storylines and feuds in a way Wrestlemania itself doesn’t always do.
It’s a massive event regardless, and the 2018 version comes at the end of one of the most remarkable years in pro wrestling history. New Japan essentially didn’t have any clunker events on its calendar last year, starting with 2017’s Wrestle Kingdom 11. That card featured the match that grabbed the world and shook it; Kazuchika Okada versus Kenny Omega was all anyone could talk about for weeks after. Then they did it two more times.
It wasn’t just that, of course. There was Tetsuya Naito in the Omega spot, a strangely under-appreciated pro wrestler who’s built up a head of steam heading into a clash with perennial champion Okada, who had the best year of any pro wrestler ever. Hiroshi Tanahashi continued his aging great champion gimmick with fire matches against all comers. Katsuyori Shibata never should’ve delivered the headbutt which has probably ended his career, not least because it was so thoroughly unnecessary in a match with Okada which was nearly the equal of the Omega-Okada feud. There were the Young Bucks bringing a mainstream American buzz to the proceedings, Will Ospreay inventing new ways to simulate flying in the ring, the first serious excursion into the United States with full NJPW live events, and it simply goes on and on.
Yet for all that 2017 held for New Japan, it’s Thursday’s Wrestle Kingdom 12 which feels like the most portentous event of all. There’s a barely perceptible yet very real sense that a shift is occurring in pro wrestling. Wrestlers are casting glances at paychecks from places other than WWE, fans are more tuned in, and even Vince McMahon seems to be getting bored with the whole thing, as the XFL rumblings indicate. WWE is too big to fail in almost every conceivable sense, yet for the first time in decades it seems possible for another promotion to thrive globally in the number two slot. It’s there for New Japan and all they have to do is grasp it.
This is not to say that NJPW is going to dethrone WWE or cause some sort of spiral where everyone from wrestlers to viewers to toy companies flee the scene. As Chris Harrington, co-host of the Wrestlenomics podcast, points out, WWE brings in 20 times more yearly revenue than New Japan. They’re not going anywhere. But pro wrestling is a business built on buzz, and the slow chipping away of WWE’s monopoly on cool is clearly afoot. New Japan is hip in a way the manufactured sneer of Roman Reigns or the 20 year old McMahon sibling rivalry simply aren’t.
That’s not nothing, and the success of Cody Rhodes—who’s proven to be a surprisingly polarizing figure after his departure from WWE—cements the notion that there’s something else out there besides the WWE grind. New Japan feels vigorous and alive, for both wrestlers and fans.
This is personified in Chris Jericho’s match with Kenny Omega on Thursday, something which is still difficult to process. Jericho claims that Vince McMahon gave his blessing to the Wrestle Kingdom 12 co-main event, with the telling line “I think, obviously, his mission is to seek and destroy and kill every other company, but I think he secretly likes it when other companies do good, because it just makes it better for his company."
There’s a whiff of the old WWE/ECW relationship to Jericho’s presence, if McMahon is not so secretly cheering Jericho on. Back in the 1990s, the scrappy Philadelphia-based ECW would host WWE wrestlers for both angles and a sort of training league; Al Snow famously found a gimmick which finally worked for him there, Jerry Lawler would show up on ECW shows to talk down to the hardcore audience, and the WWE-employed Tazz won the ECW title from Mike Awesome, a WCW employee.
But all of that was WWE working with the famously screwed up financial atmosphere of ECW in the face of WCW trying to bigfoot the entire pro wrestling industry out of business (not unlike the until-very-recently current-day WWE). McMahon giving a little extra oomph to New Japan when he doesn’t have to by sanctioning Jericho’s match with Omega—a match which has been impeccably built—seems downright weird.
Regardless of the motivations, it’s more grist for the “something’s happening here” mill. Yet it seems precarious. New Japan has to build on the foundation this singularly amazing year and Thursday’s Wrestle Kingdom provide. This is arguably the first truly global New Japan event: it’s streaming on NJPW’s subscription site and, in the United States, AXS TV is showing the biggest matches in their entirety on January 6, with the rest of the show aired in the following days.
The delay points to the real hurdle for NJPW. It’s not the language barrier or the style; pro wrestling is remarkably universal in its physical language, and anyone old enough to remember how undeniably cool the Great Muta’s late 80s run in WCW was can attest to how little talking is needed when pro wrestling is set up properly.
The problem is that pro wrestling is fundamentally a live experience. Not necessarily in the actual arena, although that’s awesome, but the discussion around a pro wrestling event is and must be live. That discussion might happen sotto voce on a couch with friends or screaming in unison for your favorites in the local VFW hall, but once an event is over it passes into the realm of history. The terms of discourse shifts to remembrances of discussions just passed, the vitality sapped.
For New Japan to truly go global, it’s not enough to just be the best wrestling promotion in the world; they’re already that. They have to navigate access and time in a way only WWE has been able to do. Wrestle Kingdom 12 offers their best chance yet at doing that.