Last summer, New Japan Pro Wrestling held a series of events in Long Beach, California, as a prelude to its annual G1 Climax tournament. It marked a major incursion into the United States market, a shot across the bow of WWE that the world's No. 2 wrestling company might be far behind in terms of resources and market saturation but not so far behind that the hardcore pro wrestling fans weren’t up for grabs.
In a sense, last year was easy. NJPW coming to the West Coast and running full-on NJPW live shows was novel and a big deal; plenty of wrestlers from the promotion work dates for outlets like Ring of Honor (which has a very close relationship with NJPW), but the G1 Special was the first NJPW event on US soil and saw Kenny Omega win the newly minted IWGP United States championship. The two-day tournament could’ve been stacked with variations of the Mulkeys and still drawn huge buzz.
2018 is the difficult year, the one where we expect 2010s-vintage NJPW greatness at every show. While it is hardly just another wrestling promotion, it's here now, in the US and North America more widely. It has to bring more than novelty.
Strong Style Evolved was NJPW’s return to Long Beach this weekend, and it delivered. Goodness, did it deliver. But it came with an asterisk that must be resolved if New Japan is serious about overseas expansion.
First the good, which is by far the bulk of the show. The entire undercard was good to great, a testament to just how wildly talented the roster is. The show centered on a double main event of the Young Bucks vs. the Golden Lovers and a title match between US champion Switchblade Jay White and Hangman Adam Page. With the focus on those two matches—a match between White and Page, regardless of quality, wouldn’t headline a major show in Japan at this point in their careers—NJPW's most frequent main-eventers were free to work tag matches and knock off early.
This led to great midcard matches with top-drawer talent. The best of the lot was Minoru Suzuki and Zack Sabre Jr. vs. IWGP Heavyweight champion (already well into icon status) Kazuchika Okada and Tomohiro Ishii.
Okada is linked with Sabre in an intense but sure to be brief feud. They’re set to face off on April 1 at Sakura Genesis. What has made the slow intensity of their feud feel so visceral is how casually Sabre dismantles his opponents via elaborate submission holds, some of which you simply don’t see much outside old-school British wrestling.
The net effect of Sabre’s languid nature and truly painful-looking offense is that he seems like a dead-inside maniac once he has his opponents where he wants them. He won’t beat Okada for the title, but he feels credible. And scary: After the tag bout—which was most notable for Suzuki and Ishii trading some absolutely thunderous elbows in front of an audience frantically shushing one another to hear the impacts—Sabre attacked Okada and locked him into an octopus hold. Watching the proud champion immobile and screaming when he’s rarely the underdog felt great.
It’s probably a deeply personal fear, but my worry with NJPW stateside shows is that the angles will be toned down unless they center on the US title—a signal that what really matters is Japan. While it’s true that the promotion’s shows will always necessarily be Japan-centric, the willingness to keep putting important angles and segments on the US excursions tamps down that fear. We got Okada and Sabre going at it, some delightful Cody Rhodes heel work related to the ongoing nervous breakdown Bullet Club is going through, and Rey Mysterio setting up a program with Will Ospreay. Those were all good, classic character work, and their prominence made the show feel like something more than an odd appendage to the main stuff back home.
The dual main events were the real meat of the show. The US title match between Switchblade Jay White and Hangman Adam Page was a story of two wrestlers potentially heading in very different directions. White is the champion, a New Zealander who nabbed a choice gimmick in the Switchblade, a leather-clad, cold-blooded badass. It took him to a surprise win over Kenny Omega for the US title, and he’s been working on cementing his place ever since.
The problem is that White doesn’t really seem to be clicking. He looks hopelessly young for the character he’s playing, with a face so smooth it looks like hair’s never appeared on it. He’s a little too pale and his eyes a little too puppy-dog. And in the ring, he seems like an almost-man: almost hitting hard enough, seeming almost too-planned with an almost too-soon push. You really want to go all in on White, but it just hasn’t quite gelled.
By contrast, Page seems like a superstar in the making, and Strong Style Evolved felt like a coming-out party. It’s not true that he carried the match, but it wouldn’t be too much to say that his ability to dish out impactful offense while still selling like a champ for White elicited far more emotion that White’s comparatively by-the-numbers approach.
“There’s nothing better than moonsaulting off a balcony.”
Page had a spark of buzz earlier in March at Ring of Honor’s Manhattan Mayhem. He launched one of the craziest moonsaults we’ve seen in a while, jumping off a balcony in the Hammerstein Ballroom. It was the kind of spot that can turn into something bigger with the right massaging afterwards.
“There’s nothing better than moonsaulting off a balcony,” Page said in a phone interview late last week. “I kind of wanted to send a message to [Kota] Ibushi, as well. He’s kind of been getting involved in stuff going on in Bullet Club lately and, honestly, I wanted a match with Ibushi. Very badly. And I got it, because of that, largely.”
It’s always fairly clear what’s true and what’s not in phone interviews with wrestlers. Page was being very real when he told me there’s nothing better than moonsaulting from a balcony. And while our interview was brief, what came across was a supremely confident, risk-taking young wrestler who thinks his match with White (which he lost) will only lead to bigger things for him.
The match involving Ibushi is the one that will be talked about 40 years from now, though. The ongoing psychodrama in NJPW is the melodrama in Bullet Club, which seems to be falling apart as a collection of deeply egotistical characters are pitted against the flawless, complicated friendship of Ibushi and Omega, the Golden Lovers.
With the Young Bucks, the dynamic of Bullet Club’s breakdown was distilled down to a single match. Kenny Omega pissed Bullet Club off, which in turn made them pissed off at one another, and Kota Ibushi has to help his friend fend off these increasingly erratic weirdos who keep challenging them to matches.
What transpired was simply one of the most magical tag matches of all time, up there with the classics of the genre, both old and new. Just like the idea of old and new, the style of the match was a blend of old and new. There was a hint of the Andersons in the crisp tagging in and out, the New Day’s emoting, the Rock 'n' Roll Express’s ability to find sympathy from the crowd (in both teams).
I’m not sure it was the best tag-team match of all time, but I’m pretty sure it was the most emotional. There was a moment when Matt Jackson, perched on the top rope, had both Omega and Ibushi at his mercy, with Omega on a table and Ibushi in the middle of the ring. His brother and tag partner, Nick, was urging him to dive onto Omega, while Matt's own conscience and sense of fair play was telling him to go for the win over Ibushi. What was more important, revenge against Omega or winning the match?
In the end, it was neither. Just as Matt was about to jump onto Omega, Ibushi came to and interrupted the dive. This moment presaged one of the spots of the night, when Matt later put Omega through that table with an emphatic violence and palpable frustration.
The match was littered with this: calls to friendship and how far you’re willing to go for revenge, what happens when your family and friends hurt and you hurt for them. It wasn’t technically flawless, but as a story, it was mythopoeic and should be near the top of matches to show to people if they want to understand just how good NJPW is these days.
That should leave the promotion in a good spot, right? Mostly. It wasn’t all flawless. Due to the way AXS-TV’s contract with NJPW works, AXS handles production and commentary for live events like Strong Style Evolved. And production and commentary were not great.
The entire night, the camerawork was too tightly zoomed on one or another wrestler, which caused the television audience to miss out on various big moments. Nothing typified this more than when Will Ospreay did something to Jushin Thunder Liger in what was billed as a "legend vs. someday legend" match. What did Ospreay do? I still don’t know, because the camera was zoomed in on Liger’s masked face, showing only a portion of Ospreay crashing into him from some indeterminate origin. I bet it was cool, though, and I hope someone who attended live tells me sometime.
The commentary was equally off. The English announcing team of Kevin Kelly and Don Callis, a team that has seen out growing pains to become one of the best in the world, were replaced by AXS’s chosen pairing of Jim Ross and Josh Barnett.
Barnett was mostly OK, though his casually dropping "fuck" here and "goddammit" there no doubt gave someone at AXS heartburn. Ross, however, was largely a disaster. From the start, he sounded tired and listless. He didn’t call moves correctly and messed up a lot of names, never more hilariously than when he emphatically stated, “It looks like the Young Lovers may be thinking about Golden Showers.”
By the Young Lovers, he meant the Golden Lovers, who were wrestling the Young Bucks. And while one of the Golden Lovers’ classic signature moves is called the Golden Shower, its name is singular and young lovers thinking about golden showers has some decidedly non-wrestling connotations.
Funny as that was, it was also tough to hear. Ross has caught a lot of flack for his performances the past few years, but his status as a legend earns him a lot of slack. At the same time, you can’t do this on a show that means so much to NJPW and the wrestlers. It was actively detrimental to the show and changed the discourse from “this is amazing” to “this is amazing, but...”
That’s the asterisk, and both AXS and NJPW need to take a hard look at the US production of their shows. The technical stuff needs to be tightened up considerably so that it matches the quality of the wrestling. If they can do that, the summer shows should have no complaints.