Ever since AEW formed, wrestling fans have been wondering, hoping, praying for some kind of relationship between AEW and New Japan Pro Wrestling. Most of that was based on a swath of AEW stars who made their name in NJPW. Kenny Omega and The Young Bucks are first on the list, as they became global stars with the Japanese company. When both Cody Rhodes and Jon Moxley left WWE, the first place they showed up after was NJPW as guest stars. Chris Jericho also left WWE behind to participate in some of NJPW’s biggest shows and feud with their biggest stars, including Omega. Wrestling fans have been getting the vapors thinking about the possibilities.
It also needs to be mentioned that NJPW is something of the “your band’s favorite band” promotion among wrestling fans. Given that its shows air in the middle of the night, there’s only one app, which you can only get on a Firestick or through your laptop, and it’s in a foreign language, it’s still something of the speakeasy in wrestling circles. This is where the cool kids hang out, such as it is.
It’s not just the air of mystery around it that gives it its cred, of course. NJPW has some of the best and most galvanizing performers in the world, like Kota Ibushi or Tetsuya Naito or Hiroshi Tanahashi. It has helped propel alumni to WWE through sheer force, like AJ Styles, Finn Balor, and Shinsuke Nakamura (whom I’m desperately adding to this list simply because I love him so, while ignoring WWE’s use of him being a complete waste). NJPW’s simple storytelling, devoid of WWE bullshit, is yet another quality that has endeared it to the punk-rock styled wrestling fan. Just about everything makes sense, and everything pays off. There’s rarely if ever the “making it up as we go” feel that drips out of WWE.
So the dreamed pairing of the two anti-WWE companies has always bubbled underneath the surface, if only in the aspirations of the hardcore fans everywhere.
And yet, for the first year and a half of AEW’s existence, nothing materialized with NJPW. Certainly the pandemic didn’t help, restricting travel for everyone and putting off any big plans until they could be in front of a live crowd. But there were always rumblings and rumors that the two companies just didn’t see eye-to-eye.
The wall appeared to come crashing down the past couple weeks. First, Jon Moxley appeared on NJPW’s US-based show, “NJPW Strong.” Moxley has been the NJPW US champion for over a year (I’m not going to get into just how many different titles NJPW has, because it’s simply dizzying), but hasn’t appeared with the company since before the pandemic. Kenta, formerly Hideo Itami in NXT and who resides in the US, has had a right to challenge Moxley since the summer but has been left in limbo essentially while Mox was restricted to these shores and AEW. Finally, Mox showed up to face-off with Kenta on Strong to tease a future US Championship match with Kenta in NJPW.
The big shoe to drop was the reverse on last week’s AEW Dynamite, when the show closed with Kenta invading AEW to lay out Moxley. Oh, and to tell Omega to “shut the fuck up.” Kenta will return next week for an actual match, which seems to signal the two companies are finally working in tandem.
Could it just be a one-off? Maybe. But it would seem to be more, seeing as how in the same week, NJPW announced an English-language TV deal with Roku for a weekly show. Clearly they want their presence on these shores to grow, which has been a long-running goal, and one way to bump interest in the Roku show is to have your guys appear on mainstream US cable TV with AEW.
Where could this go? It’s nearly impossible to try to map out. Certainly we won’t see the full strength of this partnership until after the pandemic, when travel is much easier and live crowds are back to provide the pops.
But both companies could offer dream matches for days for both sets of fans, which they must hope become one set (and they mostly are already anyway). The ultimate scenario, and probably least likely, are guys like Kazuchika Okada or Naito coming over for a few weeks at a time and providing five-star matches with a host of opponents, and vice versa.
But of course, it’s not that simple. Neither company is going to want to lose any of its main stars for weeks at a time, nor to send them somewhere where their matches will be on in the middle of the night for their home fans. On the flip side, just having matches for the sake of matches without any build or story...well, that’s something “New York” would do.
What you’re more likely to see is guys in the middle of both companies’ cards making the trip, to build their reps both at home and abroad and make them bigger stars.
Still, the relationship between the two isn’t really going to attract fans that only watch WWE. If you’re not all that familiar with AEW, you’re even less likely to know what NJPW is. The union between the two is just going to be a wedding where you don’t know anybody and end up camping at the free bar until you can leave unnoticed. Alongside that is the already converging circles of AEW and NJPW fandom. Is there that much growth to be had? So its impact on the perceived “Wednesday Night Wars” is probably less than the buzz might make it. But then again, wrestling is about “buzz.”
It’s also hard to know how AEW would fit all of this in, at least until it launches its long-talked about second TV show. The company still struggles to find time for its women’s division or other down-card talent, and basically shunts them en masse to its YouTube show, AEW Dark. And now they’re going to find time for any size influx of NJPW talent? It’s a bit of a puzzle.
What it can provide is the true fan’s utopia, and mark out AEW as a clear alternative to WWE. While it’s positioned itself as that, it hasn’t strayed quite as far from its competitor as it might like to think. There’s Cody’s somewhat ravenous chase for mainstream fame, or its mishandling of its women’s division, or at times wonky storytelling. It’s been mostly good to great, but hasn’t quite been the rebellion it had promised.
A working relationship with NJPW would give it that sheen. It could provide a wealth of matches and stories meant for that type of fan, and not one of them would be able to turn away. Perhaps the buzz and talk over such events would eventually invite in the casual fan, who has no entrance into NJPW at the moment. It would be a clear distinction between the mainstream, network aimed WWE and the wrestling connoisseur AEW. There would be a clear line between WWE offering the 73rd Drew McIntyre-Randy Orton match and AEW giving an audience a first ever Omega-Okada match on US soil, for instance.
It could be anything, it could be everything, which is what makes it so exciting. For now, the promise is worth getting excited over.