When Zach Sabre Jr. draped his body across Tomohiro Ishii's back and wrenched Ishii's arms into a horrifying, unnatural angle, the crowd gasped and shouted and brayed. The crowd believed in what they saw.
Ishii, a bald, loveable bruiser who looks like a cross between a baby hastily woken from his nap and a cinderblock, was nominally the face. Sabre Jr., a rail-thin Brit who prefers traditional, excruciating arm locks and has a finisher named for a Mogwai song, was the heel.
This semifinal match in the inaugural tournament for New Japan Pro Wrestling's U.S. Championship needed neither storylines nor promos. The moment needed only the audience's pent-up desire to actually see it—to witness many of these wrestlers fight, sweat, and struggle in person for the first time.
The scene outside the convention center in Long Beach before the start of the second and final night of New Japan's first weekend on American soil was a study in contrast. Hundreds of wrestling die-hards in "Bullet Club" T-shirts walked in clusters, chatting about Kazuchika Okada in the previous night's main event, while roughly the same number of Jehovah's Witnesses—dressed-up families, grannies and aunties being helped into wheelchairs by teens—filed out of the assembly hall next to the one we piled into.
Inside, the hall rippled with a cultish energy. Which made sense. Major WWE events swallow metro areas for days at a time. True independent wrestling shows light up old VFW halls and come and go with barely a whisper beyond their Facebook pages. New Japan promised something different.
Since the 1970s, when Antonio Inoki founded it, New Japan and the style of wrestling it evangelized—wrestling as combat sport, not carnival act—has served as a reference point for the wrestling cognoscenti. Fans used to barter VHS tapes for glimpses of Tiger Mask, Masahiro Chono, and a young Owen Hart. NJPW was a viewing experience that one earned.
Years later, the standard "main event" style in American wrestling would be impossible to imagine without NJPW and Japanese wrestling. Big men fly, everyone can hook in at least one vicious hold, and each suplex snaps more satisfyingly than the last. The stars of today either grew up as fans of Japanese wresting or came to the U.S. fresh from NJPW, like WWE's A.J. Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura.
Sunday night didn't ripple with the expected amount of controlled violence. Many wrestlers seemed content to stick to signature high spots and mug for a crowd that was just happy to be there. But the night did have moments that felt like the Japanese wrestling championed on message boards and on DailyMotion. Ten rows away, Ishii's strikes echoed like rifle kickback. Tetsuya Naito's dropkick swung into his opponent like an ice pick.
As a fan named Gerardo Ortiz put it, "This is more of a competitive program. It feels like a combat sport where WWE feels like theater."
For those who had only seen NJPW through its New Japan World streaming service, which launched in 2014, this weekend of live events, branded as the G1 Special in USA, was a long-awaited chance to revel in something they loved.
"This is great, but I don't know if my judgment is clouded by being here live," said Kyle Kensing, another fan at the event. "I used to go to punk shows in college and the independent wrestling scene reminds me of it."
His friend Adam Marantz, who traveled to the show from Illinois, echoed Kensing's sentiment:
"This is like Comic-Con. It's like a pilgrimage. It's cool, you meet strangers and then you're all having lunch together, talking about wrestling."
The night had the vibe of a convention or a reunion. Everyone sat in folding chairs on the same level, no bleachers or risers to be found. The merchandise table was swamped, the queue doubling back on itself and filling half the floor space at the back of the hall. A Japanese detergent company offering NJPW trading cards with every purchase set up shop next to the concession stand. When legendary announcer Jim Ross—the fired-up Old Testament voice of WWE's Attitude Era, now announcing NJPW's U.S. shows—passed a cluster of fans during the intermission, they cheered with the unalloyed happiness one might have greeting a favorite uncle.
The show itself displayed the quirks of NJPW and Japanese wrestling in general. NJPW deploys six-, eight-, and ten-man tag team matches—breathless, hard-to-follow action free of storyline or consequence—to keep the crowd happy in between the major bouts. Nearly every wrestler belongs to a stable, from the Los Ingobernables de Japon, a group of Japanese wrestlers who blend Lucha Libre names and costumes with a Death Note-style Nihilism, to the Bullet Club, one of the hottest acts in wrestling at large, a group of mostly Anglophone wrestlers who do villainous things with a distinctly American bent (talk trash during matches, cut promos before and after matches, ham for the camera).
The Bullet Club's leader, Kenny Omega, wears Nintendo-themed T-shirts and blends athleticism with a hammy, meta-wrestling practice that is light years removed from his days as a WWE developmental washout. His compatriots, the Young Bucks, entertained the crowd with in-match in-jokes and fourth-wall-breaking hijinks. They have a finishing move named for the Dave Meltzer, the preeminent wrestling journalist and critic, and made sure to gratify the fans with an especially outrageous permutation during their match Sunday. Though heels in Japan, the majority of the Bullet Club wrestlers were cheered rapturously in Long Beach.
Omega won the first-ever U.S. Championship, beating Ishii in the outstanding main event. Afterward, he cut a strangely heroic promo about how everyone in the ring—the Bullet Club—and the fans in attendance were special, had fought against those who hadn't believed in them, and would lead New Japan into the future. The crowd loved it.
The immediate future for NJPW, however, is back across the Pacific. The converted fans in Long Beach got a taste of their internet heroes live. Whether the appetites of new fans were whetted remains to be seen. And after a moment of triumph and camaraderie, American fans new and old are back to watching New Japan on their computers via tape delay, their living, breathing, sweating, cult-favorite wrestlers sliding back behind the screen.