I will not deny I am an unabashed New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) mark. Pro wrestling, back when I was in high school and college, was one of my five essential food groups alongside comic books, video games, Magic: The Gathering, and actual food/beer. But because of a multitude of life-factors ranging from graduating college and moving, starting a career, the whole "ECW and WCW folded so the main producer of wrestling product became so generic and up-its-own ass due to lack of competition" caused me lose my interest in big beefy men in little pants just smacking each other silly. For nearly a decade and a half I became a lapsed fan of pro wrestling until 2017 came around and the little thing called the NJPW app on Fire Stick became reality and I injected the extra addictive strain of heroin known as "the Kenny Omega/Kazuchika Okada feud" into my veins for the very first time. Since then I have been as rabid a fan of beefy dudes in tights as I have ever been, until COVID-19 hit and pro wrestling became but a foot note of a facet in life that drastically changed for all of us.
While most of the main wrestling productions in the US - most notably AEW and WWE - adapted to a new brand of production in order to keep eyes on their brand of entertainment. These companies moved to a model of recording their shows in empty, crowd-less arenas to at least keep their product - their wrestlers - in action and in the eyes of the fanbase. Also, y'know, to keep the money coming in because they have TV deals to honor and advertisers to keep satiated. So for almost three months now a lot of pro wrestling has continued in some form - a lot quieter at the least - but not NJPW, who decided that they cared about the safety of their performers and production crews a great deal more than they did putting on shows to empty air and has remained fallow during COVID quarantine. And I'm not condemning the other companies for staying on air, in fact AEW and WWE sub-brand NXT have been valuable tools of the "keeping me from slamming my head against a wall until it turns into a fine paste" variety while the world has been on fire outside. But, regardless, the IMO best wrestling product in the world has stayed quiet while that world wrestled with the staggering consequences of the virus and they were sorely missed. But, as announce this past week, NJPW is returning soon, starting off like the productions that stayed open did and going empty arena at first, but regardless, we are seeing the triumphant return of what also returned my passion for the "squared-circle" and, needless to say, I am fucking hyped and here is why.
First off, the swath of NJPW tournaments, like the upcoming New Japan Cup.
The main reason I love NJPW is, quiet frankly, they let the in-ring action do most of the heavy lifting. There's two main reasons, I believe, to enjoy pro wrestling and that's the athleticism of its superstars in the ring and the antics, skits, promos, etc of them outside it or in between bouts. Why I love NJPW so much is that, as a company and product, they emphasize the former to push their brand or wrestling so much so that the exhibitions in the ring also form the bulk of their storylines as well, not leaning as much on interviews, taped segments, et al like other productions. To which NJPW runs a lot of tournaments as a means to both heavily showcase the physical skills of their wrestlers and to inform the major rivalries and build heat between the talent. These tournaments, specifically the annual G1 tournament that declares the number one contender for the heavyweight championship every January at NJPW's biggest show, Wrestle Kingdom, are just far and away the best productions of in-ring action on the planet when they come. The talent involved always goes next level on the matches in these bracketed events because they know they are the showcase for themselves and the brand they represent. The prestige of the tournaments is elevated by the wrestlers taking each other to the limit and that prestige highlights their efforts. The wrestlers know that their performances represent and elevate the whole and in turn elevates themselves, especially when they get pegged to actually win one of the tourneys and eventually get themselves a title shot at a bigger card, most likely against this man
While not currently the top man in NJPW (after losing the main title belt to Tetsuya Naito at this year's Wrestle Kingdom), the "Rainmaker" of NJPW has basically been the top performer in pro wrestling for years now. The man is just the absolute epitome of what makes a top notch wrestler, which is why he is defining this generation. He oozes charisma but has a lot of humility behind his flamboyant garb. He's a premier athlete with a rock solid repertoire and routinely elevates talents who may not be on par with his in ring performance and rises to the challenge of the rare peer of his who has superior in-ring talents. There is a reason that the aforementioned Okada/Omega rivalry pulled me back into pro wrestling like Wile E. Coyote always get whiplashed back whenever he buys a dumbshit giant slingshot or whatever in his quest to bang/eat the Roadrunner. They are just two supreme, generational talents that put everything on the line against each other four times to elevate themselves by elevating the brand by putting on exhibitions of athleticism, in-ring drama and storytelling, and just in general showing how joyous pro wrestling can be when everything is being done with next-level dedication and effort. Okada is the embodiment of that effort and it is absolutely shocking how effortless he actually makes it look, which is why he has been the standard-bearer for NJPW, and pretty much the pro wrestling industry, for near a decade now with plenty more to come.
Speaking of "more to come," let's talk everyone's favorite Murder Grandpa, Minoru Suzuki.
It took me almost four decades on this planet to finally aspire to be a person, and that person is soon-to-be 52-year old Minoru Suzuki, who spends ever second he gets on camera beating up developmental talent, taking and delivering the stiffest forearm shots in the business and laughing all the while, and taking every possible opportunity he can to jam opponents heads into the mat via the spikiest of piledrivers, the Gotch, or just trying to put some dumb bastard to sleep with a rear naked choke. He's a wonderfully sadistic bastard whose destructive tendencies in-ring are only matched by his love of Hello Kitty outside the ring, and I wish he were my dad. It's a shame that the faction he leads, Suzuki-Gun, is now so boring it almost completely buries him on screen, but the fact that he remains so dynamic he drags a handful of mid-carders to his level at his age is astounding. But, hey, speaking of factions!
The ever-evolving, most beloved fan favorite faction in all of wrestling today, I absolutely miss the antics of these arrogant and vicious bastards. Even if they have lost the sheen of the "Elite" assemblage the team that hooked me back into wrestling with the departure of Kenny Omega, the Young Bucks, Cody Rhodes, Marty Scurll and Hangman Page to go start AEW (well, except for good old Marty), Bullet Club is still just the cool kids club. Toma Tonga and Tanga Loa, the Guerrillas of Destiny, are still just the two most swagger packed dudes on the planet, almost single-handedly carrying a tag team division in NJPW that, let's be honest, is one of the few glaring weak spots of the company. New faction leader, "Switchblade" Jay White, has developed spectacularly from weird knife fetishist, wanna be goth to just one of the most engaging heels in all of the business. His work rate is shockingly top notch for someone so young but he has just excelled at becoming an over-exaggerating, shitbag heel that you can just tell he's priming up to lead a company at some point in the near future of his career. Add to the mix the presence of one of the most innovative wrestlers of the past twenty years in KENTA and the always endearing antics of BC stalwarts Yujiro Takahashi, Chase Owens, and "The General" Bad Luck Fale, oh and top goddamn notch work rate in new additions El Phantasmo and Taiji Ishimori, and you have the most watchable group in all of pro wrestling still killing it nearing a decade after their formation.
And there's just so much more I'm so absolutely jazzed to see light up the ring again. NJPW Heavyweight Champ Tetsuya Naito, a being comprised of pure, unadulterated charisma that he dares everyone to hate him every time he walks to the ring, a challenge on one can accept. His Los Ingobernables faction is probably second only to the Bullet Club in enjoyability, and maybe second to no one in all of wrestling when it comes to pure in-ring talent.
There's also the Super Jrs!!! Whiiiiiich we're not going to get this year, sadly, because of the Corona, but still. New Japan is pretty much the home for high flying these days with a slew of names that may not have wide recognizability, but when you mention them to the most dedicated of fans of in-ring performances and athletic feats, you know how good they are by how bright these markiest of marks' eyes light up. A while he's going to be moving on from Super Jr. action to more main event affairs, I really, really want to see what is in store for the evolution of Will Ospreay, who has been as responsible for just as many of the highest rated matches of the past few years as the biggest of names like Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada, to the point that many - including myself - would argue he's pretty much third to only those names for work status in the business, if not even or actually ahead of them. His nexts few steps may be the most interesting thing going in ALL of pro wrestling because they may be preceding him leaping - which his usual triple spin flip flare - into main event and top billing status.
There's Kota Ibushi who may be the most innovative worker in the business and with a neck made of adamantium.
There's the "Stone Pitbull" Ishii, whose is hands down the biggest fucking workhorse (workdog?) and most under-appreciated man in the business. All the man does is be tough as nails cast in the same adamantium as Ibushi's neck and put on the kind of 4-and-a-half star bangers that epitomize the content of those NJPW tournaments that I absolutely adore. There is no other person whose in-ring performances and focus on being tough and oozing "fighting spirit" exemplify what NJPW is all about.
There's "the Ace" Hiroshi Tanahashi, whose ridiculous middle-aged air guitaring still always makes me smile and whose physique makes men half his forty-three years weep of inadequacy, and can still go as good as anyone (provided his knee is supplemented with the right amount of glue and duct tape).
Oh, and sometimes Jon Moxley and Chris Jericho show up there! So some of the best things about the other companies recognize the best in the game and can't help but have a taste.
And there's Daryl, who is just so Daryl
There's just so much, SO MUCH!, more I can't wait to see return to that ring half a world away from me. I'm glad they played it safe and I'm glad they prioritized the safety of their people over revenue streams but the world pro wrestling has been dimmed operating without this product by about as much as NJPW overshadows the rest of the business when it is running full steam. If I had budget to properly encapsulate my markdown for the talent in this industry, I'd own shirts a good twenty wrestlers deep and twice per. I want my Rainmaker, I want my Bullet Club, and I want my G1 tournament. I want to see the "Sport of Kings" in all its idealized (and sometimes borderline slapstick) glory and I want to be ecstatic to stay up until 6am Eastern Standard Time just to absorb it into my dried out and crusty eyeballs. And I want like seven thousand Ishii vs. Shingo Takagi matches as the rest of the year plays out, because the best therapy for this shithole year we call 2020 is obviously two beefy masochists just looking to out beef slap each other for twenty minutes at a time for our enjoyment. All hail the triumphant return of the King of Sports.