New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Dallas show on Saturday was another step in its attempt at international expansion, but it carried a particular significance: It was the opening night of the promotion’s 29th annual G1 Climax round robin tournament, where some of the finest wrestlers in the world try to outshine each other night after night. This very site called the tournament “the best wrestling event in the world.” On that level, the show was a home run—Almost all of the tournament matches were, at worst, very good, and they were all distinct from each other. Lance Archer vs. Will Ospreay was a very athletic big man vs. small(er) man match; Zack Sabre Jr. vs. SANADA was a closely contested technical match; Kota Ibushi vs. KENTA was a brutal fight between strikers; and the main event of Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi was another epic in the defining in-ring feud of the 2010s. It was just about everything that the American NJPW fanbase could have asked for, but in the latest in a pattern of missteps on the international stage, the promotion didn’t do a great job getting them in the building.
Outside of the ring, the show wasn’t necessarily as impressive as it was bell to bell. The announced attendance was 4,846 fans, which seems accurate enough to be in line with the current ownership’s stated policy of not inflating numbers. For a Japanese company whose only American broadcast partner is AXS TV, with an unknown audience (they don’t subscribe to Nielsen ratings) and whose streaming service’s English website is literally a Google Translate drop-down box, that’s certainly not bad. But when it comes to appearances, it looked really bad in an NBA-sized arena. And that’s before you even take into consideration that NJPW’s only previous major arena American show, April’s G1 Supercard in conjunction with Ring of Honor, sold out Madison Square Garden. At that show, coupons were being given out for discounted Dallas tickets, even three months out.
Just how much better the Dallas show could have done is a difficult question to answer. This summer is densely packed with destination wrestling shows that appeal to traveling fans, from SummerSlam week to AEW All Out to Pro Wrestling Guerrilla’s Battle of Los Angeles to NJPW’s own Super J-Cup to those who will fly all the way to Japan for the closing nights of the G1 Climax. Fans have to pick and choose, even if they have the disposable income for wrestling vacations. And NJPW did not exactly do the best job promoting the opening night of the G1.
NJPW tends to announce lineups for its shows fairly late in the game, trying to keep things rooted in realism with matches being made for tangible reasons coming out of events that precede them. (For example, the Madison Square Garden lineup couldn’t be announced until all scheduled title matches on preceding shows had taken place, which meant that they couldn’t announce the full card until just two weeks beforehand.) In the case of the Dallas event, the actual card was announced three weeks out. That doesn’t really work in the United States, especially for a singular destination show as opposed to a multi-night event (like Battle of Los Angeles) or a major show augmented by official and unofficial auxiliary events (like WrestleMania or SummerSlam). This means that even with the headliner, Okada vs. Tanahashi, being the biggest and best possible match NJPW could put on, with the company’s two signature stars doing battle in the Western Hemisphere for the first time, it wasn’t going to mean much in the way of ticket sales. Fans within driving distance would most likely already be going, but for most long-distance travelers, it’s too late.
The worst part, though? As noted above, and definitionally, this was the opening night of a round robin tournament, and it’s one that NJPW’s world champion—in this case Okada—enters every year. There was no good reason not to announce his match with Tanahashi much further in advance, ideally no later than two months out, when Tanahashi announced his return from elbow surgery. But this also isn’t really a surprise when you consider how NJPW has handled the expansion.
It’s only the last few months that there’s been any indication that NJPW management understands that American fans want the authentic Japanese product. The first NJPW-branded live shows (as opposed to NJPW talent being sent to ROH) in the current expansion, back to back nights in Long Beach, California, in 2017, were a mixed bag. On one hand, the matches you’d expect to deliver big absolutely did, with Kenny Omega and Tomohiro Ishii in particular having a great weekend. But across 18 matches in two nights, there was only one Japanese vs. Japanese singles match (Ishii vs. Tetsuya Naito) and significant portions of both cards felt like glorified ROH shows. To make matters worse, the co-headliner for the second night saw Tanahashi defend his Intercontinental Championship against 53 year old former WWE star Billy Gunn, who had never worked for NJPW before [Correction: in a singles match] and was never that good in the first place.
The message seemed clear: In spite of these shows being catalyzed by western consumption of NJPW’s Japanese product, NJPW management thought it needed a random American ex-WWE star to appeal to American fans. It didn’t matter that he wouldn’t be able to deliver close to the standard expected of a Tanahashi title defense. That’s the thinking of a random independent promotion and not the number-two pro wrestling company on the planet.
The “Americans want Americans” attitude appeared to extend long past those first shows: In January, for example, NJPW’s New Beginning in USA tour was devastated by visa issues—it was during the government shutdown—resulting in zero Japanese talent being on the shows. Fans would have understood under the circumstances, but NJPW made the worst of a bad situation by not saying anything until they released the lineups less than a week out. Even then, the company didn’t immediately explain themselves, waiting a day to put out a statement, thus letting resentment build up. Fans didn’t pay for what amounted to ROH shows, they were paying for New Japan Pro Wrestling shows with Japanese talent, and NJPW delaying the announcements made it look like it was trying to pull a fast one.
NJPW has also done nothing to make it easier for fans who want to fly to Japan to get tickets to its regular shows. Not only are there no official travel packages, but the best tickets go to members of the promotion’s official fan club, which requires a Japanese mailing address. Fans outside of Japan have been enterprising enough to find workarounds; a company that normally deals in sumo tickets let them use its company address for a nominal fee. That worked for a while. Then tickets for the 2020 iteration of Wrestle Kingdom, NJPW’s equivalent to WrestleMania, went on sale in June ... and everyone who used that service’s address to sign up for the fan club found themselves unable to buy the best seats. A separate “international” presale was held this week and there were some floor seats available, though customers were plagued with payment processing issues, including double charges.
NJPW is always going to be a Japanese company first. American fans understand that, and to an extent, it’s what they like about the promotion. But as the company continues to attempt to service its international fanbase—one that makes up a significant portion of the subscribers to its NJPW World streaming service—it needs to come to terms with who that fanbase is. These are people willing to to navigate and put their credit card information into a crudely machine-translated website to watch wrestling all the time, do whatever it takes to order tickets, use proxy buyer services to get merchandise, and so on. They’re hardcore fans of the authentic product, but NJPW often treats them as lesser fans deserving a lesser product. That feels like it’s finally changing, but NJPW clearly has a lot of work in the States to do if it wants to be more than just a boutique Japanese export.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. He writes the Babyface v. Heelsubscription blog/newsletter and co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com/everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.