When people think of pro-wrestling, most people think of the big companies from the 80s, 90s, and 2000s: WWE, WCW, or ECW. While all three companies were not shy from bringing in international talent, especially from Japan and Mexico, most fans were still not aware of the pro-wrestling organizations that rule there. Those that were familiar relied on VHSs, DVDs, or more currently, YouTube videos that showed what these wrestlers were capable of. Today, however, New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) seems to be taking steps to branch out to international audiences. The first was with the creation of NJPW World, an online on-demand video service very much akin to the WWE Network. It’s similar to the point that the monthly cost is 999 yen (~$8.50), which is an obvious jab at WWE Network’s $9.99. The second was to bring NJPW’s biggest show of the year, Wrestle Kingdom 9, to viewers outside of Japan. To do this, they partnered with Jeff Jarrett’s (yes, the guy that hit people with guitars) new organization, Global Force Wrestling, for promotion and broadcasting on Pay Per View, and brought in former WWE commentators Jim Ross and Matt Striker to do commentary for the show. I was not very familiar with NJPW or Japanese pro-wrestling in general, but I was intrigued enough to sign up for NJPW World and give Wrestle Kingdom a shot. Unfortunately, the English broadcast was not available on World, but in all honesty, it wasn’t necessary. Wrestle Kingdom 9 is a must-watch for both hardcore and casual pro-wrestling fans, and NJPW’s slogan “The King of Sports,” definitely lives up to its claim.
Unlike WWE, there is a significantly less emphasis on storylines for their shows. There are faces and heels, but usually the reasons they wrestle boil down to “I don’t like this guy,” and/or “I want to be the best.” The big appeal are the incredible feats the wrestlers perform, and the in-ring story they tell with their wrestling. Even the heels get applause when they pull out cool moves. Speaking of moves, wrestlers hit hard. The prevailing style of NJPW is called Strong Style, and it features brutal martial arts inspired strikes, along with hard hitting slams, suplexes, and the like. People may still joke about pro-wrestling being fake, but I’m certain those people would shut up after seeing some of the moves taken here.
NJPW doesn’t have weekly television shows like WWE’s RAW and SmackDown, just the live shows they hold throughout the year. Because of that, matches in NJPW generally are significantly longer than WWE’s. Wrestle Kingdom 9 was almost 5 hours long, and even that was with them basically running each match back to back with little to no downtime. The two main event matches themselves were around 40 minutes each. Make sure you go to the bathroom before you start watching (or get ready to press pause).
While there is less emphasis on storylines in NJPW, the wrestlers still have unique personalities and styles. Here are a few of the big names that you should watch out for, and what their deal is coming into Wrestle Kingdom 9:
1. Hiroshi Tanahashi
Tanahashi is called the “Ace” of NJPW, comparable to Steve Austin in WWE. He has headlined 8 out of the 9 Wrestle Kingdoms that have occurred, and is the current Heavyweight champion. He is a flashy high-flying wrestler, and his finisher, The High Fly Flow frog splash makes the crowd go wild. He is beloved by the crowd, and is undoubtedly the top face of the company. However, some feel that his time has passed and the Tanahashi movement has lost its momentum. Tanahashi wants to prove his detractors wrong and show why he’s “Ace,” and why he’s not going to give his position up easily. One of those detractors is the man challenging him for the belt, and his name is…
2. Kazuchika Okada
If Tanahashi is comparable to Steve Austin, then Okada is comparable to The Rock. Okada may be recognizable to some in America, as he had a brief, failed stint in TNA Wrestling. Fans were leery at first when NJPW started pushing him as a star, but he proved his critics wrong with great performances in his matches. His nickname is “Rainmaker” and his gimmick revolves around his obsession with money. Even though he’s a heel, he is right up there with Tanahashi in popularity, even to the point where fans will boo Tanahashi when the two wrestle. The two of them have had some of the best matches of 2014, and Okada/Tanahashi is considered to be the number one feud of NJPW. Okada believes he’s the new Ace of NJPW, and he feels like beating Tanahashi for the Heavyweight Championship will get him the recognition he deserves. His finisher is a huge lariat called the Rainmaker, and it’s instantly recognizable when you hear the announcer scream “RAAAIIIINNNMAAAIIIKAAAAA!”
3. Shinsuke Nakamura
Nakamura holds the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, which is supposed to be a “secondary” championship. You wouldn’t know it if you saw Nakamura though, as his matches are considered to be some of the best in all of NJPW. If there’s one word to describe Nakamura’s personality, it’s “swag.” He oozes style, and I mean that in every way. He acts like a total sleazebag, but he has a presence about him that is absolutely compelling. Like Okada, he is technically a heel, but he has a large fanbase due to his impressive wrestling ability and charisma. He calls himself “The King of Strong Style,” and it is best encapsulated by his finisher, a vicious knee strike to the head called the Boma Ye. Before Wrestle Kingdom, he gave a promo saying how no one in the locker room is as good as him when he was interrupted by…
4. Kota Ibushi
Ibushi is a relative newcomer to NJPW, but he’s well known amongst Japanese pro-wrestling fans. He is another talented high-flying wrestler, and has one of the most impressive looking finishing moves in all of pro-wrestling, the Phoenix Splash, where Ibushi jumps off the top rope backwards and twists himself around into a 450 degree somersault body splash onto his opponent. There’s an old saying that Ric Flair could pull a good match out a broom, but Ibushi took it further when he had a great match with a blow-up sex doll dressed like Hulk Hogan. I am absolutely serious. Ibushi came to NJPW with high hopes and expectations, but suffered a serious concussion that took him out of action for a long time. While Nakamura gave his promo before Wrestle Kingdom, Ibushi made his first appearance in months and suplexed Nakamura mid-sentence. He challenged Nakamura for the belt, and to add insult to injury, yelled out Nakamura’s catch phrase “YeaOh!” Ibushi is determined to hit the ground running with his return, and gain the respect and recognition as one of the top wrestlers of NJPW.
I will say outright that if there is one match you must watch from Wrestle Kingdom 9, it’s Nakamura vs. Ibushi. Even if you don’t watch the English broadcast, you can easily understand the story and psychology of the match from the wrestler’s performances, and it is rightfully considered to be an early contender for best wrestling match of 2015. However, I highly recommend you watch the entire show, as it is right up there with Wrestlemania with being a spectacle that needs to be experienced. Signing up for NJPW World is easy, since the website now has a built-in Google Translate function. However if you want to watch with the English commentary, you can find the replay availability here.