How Japanese Wrestling Is Body Slamming the American Mainstream

New Japan Pro Wrestling has been Japan's leading pro wrestling company for over 40 years, but its overseas reach has been limited until recently. Now, the promotion is selling out massive shows in NYC and elevating the art to a new level of intensity.

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Jul 3 2016, 4:00am

Kazhuchika Okada in action. Photo by Scott Finkelstein, courtesy of Ring of Honor.

Sitting in the balcony of New York's Terminal 5 in early May, you could see a line forming below that snaked around the entire building. This wasn't a group of kids waiting to get in to see Tame Impala or At The Drive In—although, based on their appearance, they could easily be mistaken as such. They were in line to meet Hiroshi Tanahashi, Tetsuya Naito, Matt & Nick Jackson, and a fedora-clad Kazuchika "The Rainmaker" Okada, the stars of New Japan Pro Wrestling, the country's biggest professional wrestling company. It was the last night of Ring of Honor's sold out "War of the Worlds," an international tour bringing Japanese stars together with their American counterparts. The tour also marked the latest successful manifestation of a blossoming Trans-Pacific wrestling market: With a crowd of over 3,000 fans, the audience was rabid to connect with their heroes hours before they hit the ring.

Since the dawn of the web, there has been a perceived schism between mainstream professional wrestling fans and the "internet wrestling community" (often dubbed in shorthand as the IWC). While mainstream professional wrestling is generally associated with the SuperStars and Divas anointed by Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), the IWC—an informal community of underground wrestling fans communicating on the internet—scours the globe for alternatives, trading VHS tapes (and, in more recent times, BitTorrent files) depicting everything from barbed-wire strewn hardcore wrestling in the Kentucky's VFW halls to the high-flying luchadores of Tijuana.

The IWC was once a small cult following who knew where to dig for the best footage of wrestlers faux-pummeling the shit out of each other, but the modern age's abundance of options for content distribution means that it's easier than ever to follow the exploits of niche wrestling promotion companies. As a result, the IWC—as well as the wrestling communities it follows—has become a large, vocal contingent publicly acknowledged and adored by Hollywood stars and famous rappers.

In recent years, the IWC has turned its attention to Japanese wrestling (or puroresu,often pronounced pro-wres)—specifically, New Japan Pro Wrestling, who have been elevating the art to a new level of intensity.

Kazuchika Okada entering the ring. Photo by Scott Finkelstein, courtesy of Ring of Honor

Founded in 1972 by Antonio Inoki (the same wrestler who battled Muhammad Ali in what's now considered the birth of Mixed Martial Arts), New Japan Pro Wrestling has been Japan's leading professional wrestling company for almost 45 years—but its overseas reach has been limited until recently. New Japan's long been a haven for American wrestlers looking to make money and learn a little before trying to strike it big back home, a breeding ground for stars such as Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Eddie Guerrero, and Chris Benoit.

New Japan's staying power owes largely to the way its matches are presented. Rather than taking on the form of "sports entertainment"—a term coined by WWE's McMahon to underscore the importance of fun above all else—matches are presented as real-deal competitions, where wins and losses matter. Stories are told in the ring instead of during staged backstage segments, and the action is grueling, bloody, high-flying, and hard-hitting; "match of the year" arguments consistently dominate message board conversations and year-end Best Of lists.

Take Ring of Honor tag-team The Young Bucks: the brothers Nick and Matt Jackson will often capitalize on this dichotomy and mimic the tactics of classic US pro-wrestling acts, such as the crotch chop made infamous by WWE's DX. To Americans, it's maximalist parody. For some Japanese wrestling fans, the origination is less transparent. When asked if New Japan fans understood where certain references were originating from, The Bucks' Nick Jackson excitedly told me, "No! And that's what funny about it. It's tongue-in-cheek because some people think we created 'suck it,' or whatever. And I'm not gonna tell them we didn't." Rather than being lost in translation, these idiosyncrasies resonate cross-culturally for very different reasons.

Matt Jackson of The Young Bucks. Photo by Scott Finkelstein, courtesy of Ring of Honor

After enduring a sleepy period in the 2000s of low attendance and limited television presence in its native land, New Japan rebounded thanks much in part to the success of three major stars: Hiroshi Tanahashi, a heart throb with a John Cena-like physique and Ric Flair-level performances, Shinsuke Nakamura, arguably the most charismatic wrestler in the world (imagine the lovechild of Oldboy's Oh Dae-Su and Prince); and Kazuchika Okada, a pro wrestling prodigy and the promotion's youngest ever International World Grand Prix Heavyweight Champion at 24. In 2012, the company was acquired for $6.5 million by Bushiroad, a major Japanese producer of collectible card games and manga serializations.

Along with with the help of some world class international talent such as American AJ Styles and Irishman Prince Devitt (now known as Finn Balor in WWE's development system, NXT), by 2013 New Japan was once again filling the Tokyo Dome, drawing over 40,000 fans to its annual Wrestle Kingdom mega-show. Riding high on this success, New Japan began to market directly for the first time to its adoring public in the United States.

In the world of professional wrestling, wrestling companies exist in their own "universe"—not dissimilar to Marvel or DC Comics. New Japan, however, has brilliantly crafted a ubiquitous presence by sharing talent and crafting business relationships with US promotion companies. In February 2014, New Japan formed a partnership with Ring of Honor, the second largest professional wrestling promotion in the US. Talent from ROH soon became New Japan regulars in Asia, and in return New Japan's top stars regularly tour with ROH in the United States.

"We're not in the wrestling business—we're in business, and our business is wrestling," Joe Koff, ROH's COO, states. "What New Japan wrestlers have shown me is something that we hope advertisers use television for, which is to be known before they're needed. New Japan wrestlers were known here—they were known before they were needed. And we brought 'em here, and people got to see them. When Okada goes into the ring, the dollar bills start flowing down."

Hiroshi Tanahashi ducks a spin kick from Matt Sydal. Photo by Scott Finkelstein, courtesy of Ring of Honor.

Some ROH wrestlers have seen their popularity rise from their work overseas. Michael Elgin, a former ROH World Champion and a current full-timer in both New Japan and ROH, has especially reaped the benefits.

"New Japan sets the tone for a lot of stuff in the States now," Elgin claims. "People started calling me Big Mike while I was in over in Japan—then the first show I did Stateside after being in Japan, there were 'Big Mike' chants. My success over there has definitely carried over to home."

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, New Japan's ace Kazuchika Okada—known for his devastating Rainmaker lariat—further elaborated on how beneficial the partnership with ROH has been for business. "I really appreciate ROH for letting me wrestle in the United States," later throwing his arms wide and telling the reporter, "When I do the Rainmaker pose, the crowd does it with me. I love that. The crowds don't do that in Japan. They respond a lot more in America."

In December, 2014, NJPW launched New Japan World, its answer to the WWE Network streaming service, which means any wrestling fan with $8 a month and access to Google Translate can now treat themselves to countless hours of the promotion's matches online. In early 2015, Mark Cuban's AXS TV Network signed a deal to broadcast New Japan Pro Wrestling throughout the US on Friday nights; the show (still called New Japan Pro Wrestling) was an immediate hit, drawing over 200,000 weekly viewers and leading to a multi-year deal with TV Asahi (New Japan's Japanese distributor) to rebroadcast major cards and matches. AXS also signed wrestling legend Jim Ross, widely recognized as the voice of the WWE, as the program's English language commentator.

Kazuchika Okada in action. Photo by Scott Finkelstein, courtesy of Ring of Honor

New Japan's success in the US hasn't been without setbacks. This past January, the WWE raided the company's roster a day after the annual Wrestle KingDom event at the Tokyo Dome, poaching top stars Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles as well as its tag-team champions Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows. In early July, WWE will tour Japan, showcasing Nakamura as a co-headliner.

This offensive tactic on WWE's part has forced New Japan to scramble for new stars, with charismatic young grapplers such as Tetsuya Naito and Kenny Omega stepping up in top-tier bookings from Osaka to Tokyo. But no one's made more of an impact in spreading the popularity of New Japan in recent times than the young, foreign Junior heavyweight stars Ricochet and Will Ospreay.

At their face-off during this year's Best of the Super Juniors Tournament, the pair fought with a dizzying blend of acrobatics and brutality, and the Japanese event transcended pro wrestling fandom to become a viral sensation. New Japan capitalized on this debate by making the match free for viewing online. At the top of June, the New Japan wrestlers' match was featured on ESPN's "Highly Questionable."

So over the past several years, New Japan has gone from an undergound darling to a hot topic on mainstream American sports television. Only time will tell whether the momentum will fade, or if this success is an enduring result of the new sports media landscape.

New Japan's annual G-1 Climax Tournament begins on July 18th and can be streamed on New Japan World at njpwworld.com

Ring of Honor's next Pay-Per-View, DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR XIV debuts on PPV on Friday, August 19 at 9:00 PM EST.

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