Wrestle Kingdom will be the pandemic’s first big wrestling show, whatever that might mean

The fate of tonight’s Japanese extravaganza will be a litmus test for WrestleMania.
The fate of tonight’s Japanese extravaganza will be a litmus test for WrestleMania.
Photo: AP

While WWE loves to tell you the turn of the year signals “Wrestlemania Season,” which kicks into high gear with the Royal Rumble at the end of January, but for a lot of wrestling fans the turn of the year kicks the wrestling schedule into high gear immediately. That’s because every January 4th (and now 5th as well), New Japan Pro Wrestling runs its biggest show of the year in the Tokyo Dome, Wrestle Kingdom (this year is the 15th edition). Certainly, the first quarter of the year is one of the poles of the wrestling calendar, running from Wrestle Kingdom through the Rumble to Mania week, which is a lot of companies’ biggest week of the year.

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Last year, Wrestle Kingdom was able to run as normal before the pandemic hit, but Wrestlemania obviously was not. This year’s edition of both might look a lot like each other.

NJPW has been running its shows with limited capacity audiences and strict protocols of mask wearing, distancing, and no vocal cheering since the summer. Fans are only allowed to stamp their feet and clap their hands to express...well, anything. Anyone who watched G1 Climax knows there were moments when fans couldn’t help themselves, but for the most part they’ve held to those standards.

The Tokyo Dome show is taking place during more alarming times than NJPW’s previous shows, though. Japan is in the middle of an aggressive COVID-spike, seeing more than 4,000 new cases per day of late. It’s far and away the most the country has seen throughout the pandemic, near triple the previous high of about 1,400 in the late summer. Tokyo itself has urged the Japanese government to declare a state of emergency. So far the government has resisted doing that, still pushing more conservative measures. They’ve even shutdown the hours of karaoke bars, so you know it’s serious.

What the means for Wrestle Kingdom is a little harder to decipher. At the moment, nothing has changed according to English-language commentator Kevin Kelly. The show might not have fans, but looks to be going ahead no matter what. More likely, it’ll go ahead with the limited capacity of about 5,000 masked and muted, reduced down from earlier hopes of 20,000, in the 50,000-capacity Tokyo dome. If the government does issue that state of emergency — they’re meeting on Monday to decide — the second night of the show might not have any fans at all.

Not that Vince McMahon is even aware there is a wrestling company called NJPW and is the second or third-biggest in the world, but how this event goes off might give us some indication of how WWE’s showpiece will look come the end of March. WWE opted to make its TV-studio-only Mania last spring two nights, and while they’ll never say so, Wrestle Kingdom’s expansion last year to two nights certainly was an influence.

WWE has already moved Mania from Los Angeles to Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium, for the moment, thanks to Florida’s far more lax regulations. Florida’s COVID numbers are far more raging than Japan’s, despite having a sixth of the population, as the state had been clocking upwards of 21,000 new cases per day of late. For the Buccaneers season attendance was capped at 25 percent, and you can be sure that Vince McMahon would jump at the chance to have two nights of that to try and get anywhere near what he’s accustomed to for his signature event. And who knows what he might be able to convince his paint-huffing buddy Governor DeSantis of in that time. And unlike the Tokyo Dome, Raymond James is outdoors, further allowing the possibilities that McMahon and DeSantis to fester in their heads. Certainly McMahon, if there’s any way possible, doesn’t want to run Mania with the “virtual” fans that WWE has had of late for its shows, even though that would be the safest. It’s unlikely that any vaccine will have gotten to the general public by the end of March either.

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If it wasn’t so sad, the sight of Florida-based wrestling fans or those traveling at this time in history for Wrestlemania being told they must wear masks and not cheer vocally for the entirety of the show would be worthy of Barnum & Bailey.

Certainly, no logical person would connect the careful and sophisticated handling of the pandemic by Japan to Florida’s “We can shoot the virus” policy. But if Wrestle Kingdom can take place without disaster, there’s little question WWE will use that as proof it can run Mania safely in whatever form it sees fit.