Japan's Version Of WrestleMania Is Striving For A U.S. Audience Tonight

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The second-biggest pro wrestling event of the calendar year is already upon us, and you should probably brew a pot of coffee. At 3 a.m. ET on Wednesday night/Thursday morning, New Japan Pro Wrestling’s 12th annual Wrestle Kingdom supershow will air live from the Tokyo Dome on their NJPW World streaming service; the pre-show starts an hour earlier. Built around a trio of main event matches, it’s on pace to be the most attended show since NJPW’s 2012 business revival. This year’s model also features a major push for western fans with Chris Jericho getting a shot at IWGP U.S. Champion Kenny Omega as one of the headliners. That match and the other top bouts, IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada vs. Tetsuya Naito and IWGP Intercontinental Champion Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. “Switchblade” Jay White, will air in the United States on AXS TV on Saturday night at 8 p.m. ET. The undercard will follow over the next five weeks in the usual NJPW on AXS time slot of Fridays at 8 p.m. ET.

Given Jericho’s popularity among the type of mainstream wrestling fans who might not normally go out of their way to subscribe to a Japanese streaming service, this is a major moment in the company’s westward expansion. When, as has become tradition, NJPW announces the latest streaming subscriber count (both inside and outside of Japan) within the next week or so, the wrestling world will have a much better idea of what kind of ceiling NJPW’s product has abroad. Much better, but not perfect: given that same-week screening on AXS, any assessment should end with a question mark. That’s because AXS does not subscribe to Nielsen ratings, instead relying on data from Rentrak, which collects viewership data from set top boxes. Rentrak data isn’t public, so we won’t truly know how well the Saturday night broadcast does relative to the usual beyond whatever AXS says in press releases.

Jericho and Omega have both made clear, through their story beats and how they’ve spoken to the media, that this won’t be the usual Omega match. He’s become the hottest non-WWE star in wrestling thanks in large part to his very fast-paced, high-impact, up-and-down style of match, but the issue with Jericho is being pushed as a blood feud. Their match will have “relaxed rules” of some kind, not that such a designation matters much in NJPW. While Japanese wrestling—especially in NJPW—long served as a more athletic alternative to the American product, NJPW nowadays is full of the kind of outside interference and referee abuse that makes WWE look quaint.


But given the audience that NJPW is trying to attract, and bearing Jericho’s advancing age in mind, setting this match up as a wild brawl feels like the right move. Jericho’s most recent attempts at having the kind of go-go-go matches Omega is known for have usually been clumsy affairs, and Omega’s arguably at his most enjoyable when he mixes it up, anyway. Result-wise, one would think that Omega wins to make a bigger international name. But Jericho winning would be the biggest possible news coming out of the show, as it would indicate a longer term commitment.

The two other big singles title matches have their own distinct backstories, as well.


Okada vs. Naito is a rematch of the IWGP Heavyweight Title match from Wrestle Kingdom 8 in 2014. Both times, Naito earned the title shot by winning the annual G-1 Climax round robin tournament in August and going undefeated in subsequent singles matches. Both men are in different places than they were four years ago, though, especially Naito. Back then, he was a plucky good guy who had wound up on the wrong side of Japan’s passionate fans, who rejected the idea of him being worthy of the dome main event spot. While the “Wrestle Kingdom” name is just over a decade old, the Jan. 4 tradition goes back to 1992, which means there’s a lot of history there, with all sorts of legendary names headlining the shows. Naito, while incredibly talented, didn’t show much personality, and thus wasn’t quite clicking at that level. His opponent, Okada, was then less than two years into a superstar push and thriving, but still overshadowed by the promotion’s established stars. NJPW management, seeing how badly live crowds rejected the booking, announced a legitimate fan poll to decide where the main event slot would go. Instead of Okada-Naito, the fans picked the event’s intended co-headliner, Tanahashi’s shot at the intercontinental title that was then held by current WWE star Shinsuke Nakamura.

In the interim, both men have made major strides. Okada, after another two years of seasoning, symbolically unseated Tanahashi as “ace” of NJPW with a win at Wrestle Kingdom 10. With Tanahashi slowing down due to injuries and Nakamura noticeably taking it easy in WWE, “best in the world” discussions usually revolve around Okada, Omega (as NJPW’s top foreigner), and WWE Champion A.J. Styles, whose spot Omega took when he left NJPW two years ago. To really make it, Naito needed to do more than pick up big wins, and so, like Nakamura before him, he unveiled a new persona after a working vacation in Mexico. Naito joined up with the Los Ingobernables heel stable led by La Sombra—Andrade “Cien” Almas, who is now the WWE NXT Champion—and donned a trucker cap for some reason, then started a sub-group in Japan in which he was remade as a bored, lackadaisical slacker. With a bizarre cast of characters surrounding him, including the stuffed animal-loving “Time Bomb” Hiromu Takahashi, Los Ingobernables de Japon, or L.I.J., became the hottest merchandise seller with Japanese fans. Okada ended Naito’s first run as champion after just 70 days, so Naito ending Okada’s 18 month-plus reign seems like the natural storytelling move here.

This year’s IWGP Intercontinental Championship match mostly appears to be about strapping the proverbial rocket to the charismatic 25-year-old Kiwi Jay White while the oft-injured Tanahashi gets to take a nice long break. White was accepted to NJPW’s dojo when he was a green rookie at the start of 2014, and a year later he made his debut as a “young lion,” which is what all in-house NJPW trainees are called during the early stages of their careers. He was noticeably a cut above his peers when it came to personality even then. The NJPW system is designed to make sure that their wrestlers master the basics early in their careers, which they usually do in bland but spirited matches that tend to rely on the Boston Crab as a key hold. White was as mechanically sharp as the others in his class, but he really shined when used as a heel, which is not normally something that could be said for a young lion at that stage. In Summer 2016, he went to the U.S. on a “learning excursion,” where the dojo boys round out their skillset via exposure to other in-ring styles and learn to incorporate more western-style personality traits. When they return, they have a new look; for White, it was that he was the much-teased, silver-maned and leather-clad “Switchblade” character. Given the impact of that return, and given that Tanahashi having worked on a bad arm for months, this result seems obvious.

Then again, the results really do seem obvious for all three of the top matches, don’t they? While Gedo, the veteran wrestler who heads creative for NJPW, is a fan of keeping things simple, this is also a scenario screaming for a changeup. Omega-Jericho is presumably dictated by Jericho’s commitment; Tanahashi-White is seemingly on an obvious path thanks to the story and Tanahashi’s injuries. This leaves us with Okada-Naito as our potential surprise. If anyone can have the kind of match needed to keep the challenger strong while lengthening a legendary title run for the champion, it’s those two. Between the top matches and some new elements on the undercard—the hair vs. hair match with Minoru Suzuki vs. Hirooki Goto, for one, and Roppongi 3K being the first Japanese team to defend the junior heavyweight tag team titles at the dome in a decade for another—this looks to be one hell of an event. Whether you watch on NJPW World or AXS, it will be worth checking out even if, and perhaps especially if, you’ve never flirted with non-WWE wrestling before.

David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.