After two nights of screaming fans and fantastic wrestling, newly minted IWGP United States Heavyweight Champion Kenny Omega closed out New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s United States debut with a cocky promo ringing with truth. “Next year, New Japan is coming. It’s going to be bigger, it’s going to be better than ever. And as long as we’re piloting the ship, we will rule the wrestling world.” The fans in the building roared with approval for that and almost every minute that preceded it. Last weekend’s series of matches was a huge hit with the hardcore wrestling fans in attendance (myself included), though questions remain about with where the promotion goes next stateside.
New Japan Pro-Wrestling has been around since 1972, but has only been approaching true global exposure in the last few years. Since the launch of NJPW’s own worldwide streaming network, a growing number of US fans have gotten acquainted with stars like Omega, Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Tetsuya Naito, the NWO-ish Bullet Club, and many more. It’s gotten so popular here that NJPW’s first show in North America sold out in less than an hour months before the July 1 and 2 dates.
When I arrived at the first event on Saturday, most fans were in agreement that New Japan underestimated demand and booked too small a venue. The convention center exhibit hall reportedly had 2,000 seats (compared to around 15,000 at most B-level WWE PPVs). The solitary merch table was consistently overwhelmed trying to sell clothes and collectibles to the hardest of hardcore fans on hand. Clearly NJPW had been a bit conservative in predicting fan turnout.
The marquee matches of the weekend included a tournament to crown the first IWGP United States Champion. The brackets were stacked with some of the world’s best, with Omega and Naito both top picks. Some of the most memorable tournament moments belonged to the tough as nails Tomohiro Ishii. His brutal offense and demeanor briefly pulled the crowd away from Kenny Omega’s side during the intense finals—quite a feat when most of the audience was wearing Omega-related t-shirts. The matches were of the high athletic quality fans expect from NJPW, leaving most WWE matches in the dust performance-wise.
New Japan’s top draw, Kazuchika Okada, also had a ton of crowd support, with a dramatic IWGP Championship defense against Cody Rhodes. Alongside Okada’s cheers were a number of groans that a former WWE superstar like Cody didn’t “deserve” such a big match. Ever the pro, Cody milked that hate for all it was worth. He had the hardcore fans booing his every move, which made Okada’s win all the sweeter when the finish came.
Though it was a mostly positive atmosphere, there was a definite streak of snobbishness among the New Japan fans in California. Jeers were mainly directed at folks like Cody, meaning those that the crowd didn’t view as skilled enough performers to be at an event that elevated athletic competition. Having WWE employment history was a scarlet letter A on your trunks, particularly for former DX member Billy Gunn. The ring veteran wasn’t anyone’s first choice for a semi-main event, but he had a perfectly serviceable match against Hiroshi Tanahashi amid an unending chorus of boos.
The card was packed with talent, like in an excellent (and climactic) tag team championship match between The Young Bucks and Roppongi Vice, featuring the latter team shocking the crowd with a friendly break up. The heavyweight tag belts were also defended over the weekend in a no disqualification match, a distinctly extreme gimmick that New Japan rarely does in its home territory. The promotion seemed intent on catering to the US crowds, but they may have gone a bit too far with that idea at times.
There’s only so much room on a two night show packed with such a talented roster. Many of New Japan’s best folks were kept to quick and simple tag matches. The world’s greatest cruiserweights like KUSHIDA, Hiromu Takahashi, Dragon Lee and Will Ospreay were in fine form, as was the living legend Jushin Thunder Liger, but they only had time for a few signature moves in fun-but-forgettable house show-style contests. Meanwhile, some of the best Japanese talent, like Minoru Suzuki and Hirooki Goto, didn’t come overseas, while Ring of Honor talent filled multiple spots on the card—a strange choice for a planned night of exposure for NJPW’s best.
Notably, just one match the entire weekend featured only Japanese talent competing, the fantastic Naito vs. Ishii from the opening tournament round. That felt like a telling choice by the bookers. One wonders if there was backstage concern that US fans wouldn’t care about a match without American (or Canadian) competitors—given America’s wrestling history of stereotyping Japanese competitors, some worries about crowd reaction would be understandable. I hope that the loud cheers for Naito, Ishii, Tanahashi and Okada changed that perception among the folks in charge.
The limited match time and spots are forgivable on a busy showcase of “Strong Style Evolved” as booker/manager Gedo said when introducing Okada. Gedo and the rest of the New Japan crew seemed charged up, like this would only be the start of their US shows. As a hardcore fan, I embraced the specialness of the weekend while accepting some dread that too much NJPW exposure could lead to WWE recruiting half the roster and gutting the company, as has happened to so many promising promotions in the past. But that comes with the territory in American wrestling, so here’s hoping more fans all around the US will get more chances to sample New Japan when that “bigger” and “better” return Kenny Omega promised rolls around in 2018.
Henry Gilbert is a pro journalist and ultra-pro podcaster who splits his time between Simpsons, wrestlers, comics, and games. Follow him on Twitter @henereyg.