Barring a major promotion going out of business, a notable death, two currently unaligned companies coming together to co-promote shows or a major legal scandal, what will most likely be the biggest wrestling news of 2016 broke only four days into the year. According to multiple reports from multiple websites this past Monday, including Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer, four top New Japan Pro Wrestling performers will be signing with WWE. That includes two of the company’s four core main eventers, AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura, who wrestled a match of the year candidate earlier in the morning at Wrestle Kingdom 10 in Tokyo. Supposedly joining them will be multiple tag team champs (and Styles’ Bullet Club partners) Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows. Although nothing has been signed, and Nakamura and Anderson are both still under contract with New Japan for at least a few more weeks, the four gave notice to the company before Wrestle Kingdom, and will reportedly all debut for WWE sometime in 2016.
It isn’t surprising to see the Bullet Club members taking full-time gigs in America. They’re all from America, Gallows has worked for WWE before, and Styles has long acknowledged that he would work for whoever could pay him the most when his New Japan deal ended. It was assumed WWE would target them for NXT, though, the developmental league that WWE is turning into a full-time touring operation. NXT is set up as an in-house alternative to Raw and Smackdown pitched at the most dedicated and judgmental wrestling fans, like one of those boutique fake indie record labels that the majors opened up throughout the cred-obsessed 1990s. Styles is one of the biggest draws on the independent wrestling scene, and Bullet Club shirts are ubiquitous at indie shows, so if the goal with NXT is to create a true national touring competitor to top independent group Ring of Honor, all three would fit WWE’s vision. Plus the company did exactly that throughout 2015, bringing similarly high profile indie wrestlers into NXT with no apparent intention of promoting them to the main show, from former TNA highlights Samoa Joe and James Storm to well-traveled indie pros Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano. It makes no sense to keep AJ Styles, perhaps the finest in-ring wrestler in the world, in a developmental league, especially when the WWE roster is so thin right now, but it does make WWE sense, because it’s the sort of bad decision they often make. It’s incomprehensible that they’d keep Samoa Joe or Storm (who has returned to TNA after only two NXT appearances) in NXT, but that’s exactly what their plans were with those two. So wrestling fans and media can be forgiven for assuming that was the plan with these three once the news broke.
There’s no indication of what they’ll be doing with Anderson and Gallows (although an ersatz Bullet Club stable with Styles and/or NXT champion Finn Balor, who was the stable’s original leader in Japan, would be a no-brainer), but according to several reports Styles won’t actually be reporting to NXT. Dave Meltzer (again, among others) reports that Styles is potentially penciled in to be a surprise entrant in the Royal Rumble later this month. That doesn’t mean he won’t show up in NXT afterward (the road from NXT to WWE is not as one-way as it once seemed) but if he debuts in such a high profile fashion it could indicate that a company not always known for long-term planning might actually have plans for Styles. Between his talent and the high salary WWE is supposedly paying him to leave New Japan and the indies, it would be almost perverse if Styles didn’t immediately become a full-timer on Raw. And since the three Bullet Club members might arrive as something of a package, it’s possible Anderson and Gallows will also debut on the main roster.
Again, it makes sense for Styles, Anderson and Gallows to sign with WWE. It’s a huge shock to see Shinsuke Nakamura, one of New Japan’s three top homegrown stars, and perhaps their most popular, join the company, on either end of the deal. Unless Nakamura took a significant pay cut (which is supposedly not the case), WWE would have to shell out a lot of money for a talent with little track record in North America. Nakamura would be leaving a company that heavily revolves around him to join a promotion with a deplorable history of portraying Japanese wrestlers. Japanese wrestlers in WWE are usually turned into lower card comedy figures. The one Japanese character to become a legitimate main eventer in WWF/WWE, Yokozuna, was actually played by a Samoan American named Rodney Anoa’i (yes, he was related to Roman Reigns, Rikishi, the Usos, and almost every other Samoan American wrestler). Nakamura would be an immediate top draw in almost every wrestling promotion on the planet, but Japanese wrestlers simply aren’t allowed to become top draws in Vince McMahon’s wrestling promotion.
As with Styles, though, there are a few reasons to think WWE might push Nakamura as a serious threat. He’s apparently costing them a lot of money, and it doesn’t make sense to waste a sizable investment on the next Kung Fu Naki. Nakamura might also be the most naturally captivating wrestler in the world today. He moves unlike any other wrestler, at once haphazard and fluid, like a drunk dancer. He’s a showman who’s heavily inspired by Freddie Mercury and Michael Jackson, and it shows in his theatrical entrances and precise body motions. He’s a master of psychology, selling and in-ring storytelling, and along with Styles would immediately be one of the two or three best in-ring performers in WWE. His body language alone should translate to an American audience, even in large arenas, but he also speaks English better than most Japanese wrestlers , so he might be able to hold his own on promos. Of Japan’s current crop of wrestling stars, he’s probably the one whose talents are the best fit for American-style wrestling.
Nakamura and Styles are the most important part of this story, but Anderson and Gallows aren’t afterthoughts. Anderson should excel in WWE—he can cut a good promo and seven years in New Japan have turned him into a good worker. Gallows is an imposing presence and a fine tag team wrestler. Anderson could easily be a top mid-carder on his own, and Anderson and Gallows together could dominate WWE’s tag team ranks for a few years.
This isn’t just a huge story because of the talent of the men involved. Traditionally WWE and other American promotions haven’t raided the rosters of the top Japanese companies. Over the last few decades groups like the NWA, WCW, TNA, Ring of Honor and even the then-WWF have had official partnerships with various Japanese organizations. Top Japanese stars would periodically tour America, younger wrestlers would come to America to gain experience before returning home, and companies would co-promote full shows in both countries, but the sort of acquisition spree that Vince McMahon used to undermine the territories in the 1980s never spread across the Pacific until now. New Japan’s cult following in America has grown considerably over the last few years, thanks in part to the New Japan Pro-Wrestling show on AXS TV, New Japan’s partnership with Ring of Honor and the New Japan World on-line streaming service. AXS, ROH and the internet have made it easier than ever to see New Japan wrestling in America, and although it’s still nowhere near a legitimate threat to WWE’s practical monopoly on mainstream American wrestling, entering the US marketplace on multiple fronts has made New Japan a bigger possible target for WWE than if it had stayed in its own borders.
No matter what happens when these four wrestlers debut for WWE, this has been an exciting week for wrestling fans. Wrestle Kingdom 10 might be the best show of the year, and this shocking news has brought back a bit of the thrill of the old Monday Night Wars, when wrestlers could jump between WCW and WWF (and ECW) with short notice. Losing Nakamura and Styles might even be a good thing for New Japan—it had settled into a clear caste of four top wrestlers, with Nakamura, Styles, Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada existing on a level above everybody else. With two of those four leaving, the company will be forced to create new top stars, and has already started the process—beloved heel Kenny Omega is already being elevated to a top slot, pinning Nakamura in a tag match last night and destroying Styles in what will probably be the latter’s last New Japan appearance. Ideally, this will work out for both WWE and New Japan, with an influx of great wrestlers improving WWE’s shows, and New Japan grooming a new crew of world class main event talent to take their place. If everything plays out the way it could, the biggest winners will be the fans.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections and just can’t give wrestling up.