Japanese Wrestling’s Golden Age Comes to America

Wrestling Features New Japan Pro Wrestling

Wrestle Kingdom 9 ended with a broken Kazuchika Okada shambling tearfully back towards the locker room. The cocky young superstar nicknamed the Rainmaker failed to regain the IWGP Heavyweight Championship from New Japan’s current “ace”, Hiroshi Tanahashi, who celebrated in the ring to the cheers of the fans as Okada struggled up the ramp. Even though the result was predetermined, Okada shed true tears, a proud man crushed by defeat, and a gifted actor selling that as reality. It made the moment feel real, confirming that Okada isn’t just a great athlete but a better actor than most who step into the ring, and elevating the entire scripted, choreographed display into something beyond a sport. New Japan Pro Wrestling isn’t just professional wrestling (or puroresu, as it’s called in Japan): it’s some of the most passionate and poignant performance art today.

Wrestle Kingdom, New Japan’s major annual show, its equivalent to Wrestlemania, aired on American pay-per-view for the first time earlier this month. It was presented nationally by Global Force Wrestling, a new vaguely-defined promotion run by the WCW, WWF and TNA veteran Jeff Jarrett. Jarrett hired two American broadcasters to call the show, Matt Stryker, a former WWE wrestler and color commentator, and living legend Jim Ross, perhaps the most beloved and talented wrestling play-by-play man of all time. For decades American wrestling fans have imported tapes or watched YouTube streams of Japanese wrestling with the original Japanese commentary, which is the only audio that’s been available. Without an English audio track, most western fans of Japanese wrestling watch purely out of appreciation for the art of wrestling, trying as best they can to understand the storylines and character motivation through the context of the match and the actions of its competitors. Hearing Jim Ross’s timeless voice cut through the language barrier on Wrestle Kingdom 9 was a crucial moment for Japanese wrestling—it was like reading the first English translation of Homer. Wrestle Kingdom 9 was the first major wrestling show of the year—it easily could wind up being the best when the year is done—and that English commentary and PPV deal made it available to a larger audience than New Japan has ever had in America.

New Japan’s current hot streak began several years ago, with Tanahashi’s ascension to the top of the card, and hit a peak it still hasn’t descended when the young Okada returned from an ill-fated sojourn in America. Their matches throughout 2012 and 2013 are some of the finest in wrestling history, half-hour wars that are as elegant as they are brutal. For the first time American audiences can experience these matches and the highlights of New Japan’s last few years in sequence and with English language commentary on AXS TV. New Japan Pro Wrestling debuts on AXS tonight at 9 PM ET, with commentary from MMA announcer Mauro Ranallo and UFC fighter and pro wrestler Josh Barnett. They might not be as familiar to wrestling fans as Jim Ross, but Ranallo and Barnett are a better fit for the New Japan product—a wrestling group that tries to be more realistic than American wrestling deserves a commentary team used to calling (and fighting) legitimate fights.

Tonight’s AXS debut features the January 4, 2013 match between Tanahashi and Okada from Wrestle Kingdom 7 at the Tokyo Dome, with Tanahashi in the middle of his sixth IWGP reign and Okada looking to win the title for the second time. AXS hasn’t made that episode available in advance, but they did distribute the third episode in the series, which is scheduled to air at 10 PM ET on January 23 as the second half of a two-hour block. That episode features a Tanahashi / Okada rematch from April 7, 2013 that is widely considered the best match the two have ever had; the AXS presentation of that match is one of the greatest hours of wrestling ever aired on American TV.

This is one of those matches where you don’t have to understand wrestling or the storylines or wrestling psychology to understand why it’s so great. It’s simply two world class athletes working together to put on a tremendous performance while telling a story that transcends language. By the end, as the two just barely kick out of move after move, chaining together dangerous combinations only for their opponent to get a shoulder up at the last possible instant before the three count, anybody who can appreciate the thrill and excitement of sport should be engrossed.

If you don’t know what happened in that match from almost two years ago, and want to watch it on AXS as if it’s happening live, you’ll want to skip the next paragraph. If you don’t watch wrestling, or don’t understand what fans mean when they talk about wrestling psychology, you might want to read it to see what some fans look for in a great match.

The story of the match is built around Okada’s arm. Okada’s finisher is a short-arm clothesline called the Rainmaker. If you’re familiar with Jake “the Snake” Roberts, it’s basically the same move he’d use to set up his DDT finisher. Okada uses his left arm to quickly pull his opponent towards him, and then stiffs him across the throat with a sudden vicious clothesline using his right arm. To keep Okada from hitting the Rainmaker, Tanahashi systematically destroys Okada’s right arm, focusing on it for several minutes early in the match. For the second half Okada carries that arm at his side like dead weight, limping wanly like a balloon that sprung a leak. When Okada does his patented flying elbow drop he recoils in more pain than Tanahashi. When Okada tries to apply the submission hold he calls the Red Ink, a cross-legged stepover toehold facelock where he ties up a man’s legs like a pretzel and then bridges over to crank back on the same man’s face with both hands, he can’t clamp down with his right hand. He can’t even keep his right arm up during his iconic Rainmaker pose, when he suddenly juts both arms out like a cross as the camera man quickly zooms out as far as possible. Tanahashi fights cleanly but ruthlessly, and Okada is hobbled to the point where he struggles to compete. Almost everything the two men do, from the moves they execute to the way Okada sells his damaged arm, either tells the story of that injury or grows out of it.

The psychology of this match is fundamental, and the wrestlers are almost flawless in their performances, making that story clear to anybody watching, no matter the language. Still, it benefits from the new commentary track from Ranallo and Barnett. The two provide classic wrestling commentary, with Ranallo explaining the history between the two men while calling the action move by move, and the veteran fighter Barnett providing insight into strategy and how it feels to be on the receiving end of these moves. Their excitement pitches up as the match intensifies, matching the reaction of the crowd, who start in quiet respect before gradually losing their minds by the end. Ranallo and Barnett recorded this commentary over a year after the match happened, but it sounds like they’re calling it live from ringside. American wrestling commentary has grown notoriously awful over the last few years, with announcers rarely focusing on matches, instead promoting hashtags, squabbling with one another and badmouthing talent for no discernible reason. Ranallo and Barnett’s serious commentary adds tremendously to the match for English speakers, and also makes every other US pro wrestling announcing team look like a bunch of insufferable hacks.

Ranallo and Barnett treat the material with the respect it deserves, which plays into AXS’s larger goal of finding a wrestling show that fits its lineup of legitimate MMA programming. AXS is a weird channel, a hodgepodge of combat sports, old movies, titillation and Dan Rather. It used to air the US independent group Ring of Honor back when the channel was called HDNet; as good and serious as Ring of Honor can be, the HD cameras made the promotion look even smaller than it is, and sharing a network that aired hours of actual fighting each week shattered the illusion of pro wrestling. Those problems shouldn’t exist with New Japan. Their major shows are held in some of the biggest venues in Japan, and by airing its best matches the action is guaranteed to be more exciting and look more realistic than HDNet’s old Ring of Honor show. Getting an actual MMA announcer and a current UFC fighter to do the commentary track as seriously as possible only heightens that impact.

If you’ve ever been interested in Japanese wrestling, but were afraid of committing the time and money, or concerned about the cultural barriers preventing you from understanding the product, New Japan Pro Wrestling on AXS TV and GFW’s Wrestle Kingdom 9 PPV are both mandatory introductions. Maybe by the next Wrestle Kingdom you’ll be streaming New Japan World like a true puroresu expert.

Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. When he was 12 he met Jim Ross in the parking deck of the Omni in Atlanta, GA. Follow him on Twitter @grmartin.

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