After IWGP United States champion Kenny Omega dispatched with challenger Beretta in the semi-main event at New Japan Pro Wrestling’s “Power Struggle” event on Sunday in Osaka, the Edion Arena darkened and the venue’s big video screen lit up. On that screen, Omega and the fans in attendance saw a video sent in by Chris Jericho challenging him to a match on January 4th at Wrestle Kingdom, NJPW’s equivalent to WrestleMania, at the Tokyo Dome. This wasn’t exactly a surprise, as Jericho had been throwing social media jabs by way of promoting a wrestling fan cruise featuring talent from NJPW’s U.S. affiliate Ring of Honor. A match of some kind seemed inevitable, although it seemed likelier to be something scaled for the cruise. Jericho wrestling at NJPW’s biggest show of the year is a much different matter.
Jericho has not wrestled outside of WWE since his first stint in the company began way back in 1999, but he had extensive experience in Japan before that, usually for the now-defunct WAR (“Wrestle and Romance” or “Wrestle Association R”) promotion. He moved to NJPW in 1996 after signing with WCW, which was then their American affiliate, but his only previous Tokyo Dome match was an utter disaster. The Omega match will come on the 21st anniversary of Jericho, dressed up in a Jushin Thunder Liger outfit as the debuting “Super Liger,” missing moves and repeatedly being out of position throughout a disastrous match with Koji Kanemoto. After WCW started to withhold notable names from NJPW, Jericho only went back a few times. He’s a staple of WWE trips to Japan, usually having a showcase match with someone he thinks he can tear down the house with, but otherwise that’s it.
Like Jericho, Omega is originally from Winnipeg and made his name in Japan, so there’s a kinship and mutual friendships; one important one is NJPW English announcer Don Callis, who likely helped facilitate the Wrestle Kingdom match. While Omega had largely been expected to face former partner Kota Ibushi, the Jericho opportunity is one that can’t be passed up, especially as NJPW slowly attempts to expand into the U.S. In August, the promotion ran in the States on their own for the first time. The first of those back to back nights in Long Beach, California aired live on AXS TV, and the second was broadcast several days later. The promotion is set to return in March, but that’s the extent of it for now, other than the company opening a U.S.-based dojo run by Rocky Romero. The Jericho match, though, recontextualizes what has otherwise been an exceedingly patient campaign.
Thanks in part to extensive Google ad buys on wrestling sites, the last subscriber number announced for the NJPW World streaming service, just after this year’s Wrestle Kingdom, was 60,000, with 25% being outside of Japan. Between the demand for NJPW talent on independent shows and Omega’s appearance for ROH being the fastest selling ticket in company history, it’s clear that NJPW has something that people want; how quickly the Long Beach shows sold out is further proof of that. Jericho, with his popular podcast and ability to get media attention from outlets that don’t normally cover wrestling, offers NJPW a much greater chance at expanding its footprint than just about anyone else they could realistically feature. Past efforts using Jim Ross worked thanks to how respected he is in sports broadcasting and sports media circles, but there are limits to building a promotion around an announcer, even one with the appeal to push 2015’s Wrestle Kingdom net over 10,000 buys on traditional pay-per-view in the U.S. For NJPW, featuring Jericho in one of the top matches is the closest they can come to the mid-’90s shows (and a 2003 show) in which Hulk Hogan appeared as guest talent. But those shows were never marketed in the west.
There are very different expectations for Jericho in that role, though. He’s not universally admired, but Omega is widely considered to have had an otherworldly year of in-ring performances, a year that includes more than one candidate for the new best match ever. Jericho, though not bad by any stretch, turns 47 this week. He’s impressively limber for his age, but his recent WWE matches make clear that he clearly can’t keep up physically with faster, more explosive younger wrestlers, even if he thinks he can. Omega’s trademark, as it happens, is how fast he moves, how fast-paced his matches are, and how explosive he is. Nobody is better at having a go-go-go sprint of a match than Omega is right now, but that is categorically not what Jericho is good at as he approaches 50. Even in his youth Jericho was kind of clumsy, at least relative to what he was trying to do and by the standards of high level pro wrestling. There will be extremely high expectations for this match, but Omega will most likely need to work against type to come close to reaching them.
Still, to the larger audience, that won’t really matter. Omega is probably the hottest act in wrestling, even if he’s outside WWE and barely ever wrestles at home in the west. And Chris Jericho is the biggest star he can face. There’s probably a ceiling to how well this match can boost streaming business: NJPW World’s website is in Japanese with a Google Translate drop-down box, making it tricky to use if you’re not a super hardcore fan willing to look for help signing up. We also don’t know how many people actually watch AXS TV’s weekly NJPW show, as the network doesn’t subscribe to the Nielsen ratings and or share the viewership information they’ve obtained from Rentrak, a firm that measures via set-top boxes. Obviously it’s enough to get the show repeatedly renewed, but that’s about all anyone knows for sure. Jericho vs. Omega is the biggest test yet of how many fans NJPW can amass abroad without a 100 percent English push. We probably won’t be able to ascertain the answer until it’s already behind us.