Wednesday 19 March 2014

New Japan Goes Forth

Is 2014 the year New Japan are going to crack the west? The reason I ask this is because they are, as a company, doing various things that seem designed to help them gain acceptance in a part of the globe that equates big time wrestling to WWE.

The big thing they’ve done is announce a pair of co-promoted shows with Ring of Honor in May. Most people that watch ROH are going to at least be aware of New Japan, even if they’ve never watched a full show before. But there’s still a chance the move will open them up to fresh eyes. It will certainly put them in front of fans who wouldn’t otherwise attend a NJPW show.

More to the point even the viewers who are aware of New Japan likely won’t have watched a New Japan show and understood everything that’s happening. Co-promoting with Ring of Honor gives New Japan access to an English language commentary team who can provide backstory and context to the matches and personalities presented on a dual company event.

These shows will encourage new and established western fans to watch a New Japan show. As the biggest wrestling company in Japan by a considerable margin expanding into new areas is a major way for NJPW to make money (although by all accounts they’re doing pretty well in Japan). ROH comes as close as a US promotion can to emulating the Japanese approach to presenting wrestling, which makes them a good company to pair up with.

London, Toronto and NYC will all see Nakamura in 2014
Far less significant but still something that indicates New Japan have plans outside of their homeland is the confirmation of Shinsuke Nakamura wrestling for Revolution Pro Wrestling in June. The venue for the event, York Hall, holds around a thousand people. That’s not a huge number, especially compared to many of the buildings New Japan uses for their own shows, or compared to many other sporting events held in Britain. But it’s still a thousand more people watching a New Japan contracted performer wrestle live than would otherwise. It’s another example of New Japan getting their talent, and their own company name, into the west.

Something that could be overlooked, especially by people who regularly watch New Japan shows, is that in many ways the IWGP world champion Kazuchika Okada is a very western act. He has a big, flashy entrance, grandiose music, a manager that talks him up as the best wrestler in the world, and an arrogant, condescending character.

They’re not being framed in an American way but these are still not things typically seen in puroresu. It’s more a Magnus or Randy Orton top heel approach, albeit done far better. Obviously Okada having the title is more about his own ability and New Japan creating a fresh star to help them continue to attract fans, but it’s interesting that a less traditional champion is in place as New Japan is in a position to expand to fresh regions.

New Japan have already put on a number of excellent shows this year. Wrestle Kingdom 8, New Beginnings and their anniversary card were all enjoyable affairs. The moves the company is making to open itself and its talent up to fans outside of Japan is promising and hints at bigger things. But I don’t think it means that 2014 will be the year New Japan cracks the west.

They made a significant foray into North America in 2011 and ultimately that led to nothing. I think their cards with Ring of Honor will be more successful and will be likelier to receive follow up but they won’t help New Japan make it big. Only one thing will do that: English language commentary. Until there’s a regular commentary team in place that understand the storylines, history and roster of New Japan enough to do a good job explaining it to English language audiences New Japan cannot hope to compete with even TNA, let alone WWE. People like to understand what they’re watching after all.

I want New Japan to do well outside of Japan. I hope it does happen. New Japan don’t have to scour around for someone incredible, just someone capable with a passion and interest in helping them grow. Of course an incredible announce team involving Jim Ross would be nice but it’s not a prerequisite. Nor is it likely. Someone who can call moves and who is dedicated to learning and helping expansion is what New Japan need from a commentator. That’s what I want to see them get. Because that’s what will give them a chance to become the world’s lead wrestling promotion.

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