Hey there, remember What Is TNA? where I tried to explain the faltering (but not worthless) pro wrestling promotion? In light of recent events (Impact falling to shit, WWE alienating audiences with its booking, WWE’s ties to the Trump administration), I’ve decided to do more of these wrestling promotion explainers.
While the upcoming weeks will see me cover Lucha Underground, Ring of Honor and other promotions, I’m starting off with New Japan Pro Wrestling.
If you find things in here that aren’t correct, I’ll admit that while I tried to do all the research I could for this, I’m still getting to know the promotion. Let me know where I botched by hitting the ASK button above and shooting me a note.
So, what’s New Japan Pro Wrestling?
As its name suggests, New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW) is a Japan-based pro wrestling promotion. It’s one of the largest promotions in the world, second (of course) to WWE.
This year (2017) the company celebrates its 45th anniversary in good shape, having a solid run over the last 7 or so years, gaining traction with well-reviewed matches and pursuing westward expansion. It recently held its first solo-produced event on American soil: The G1 In The USA two-night in Los Angeles, a successful event that saw the crowning of its first United States champion.
NJPW talent currently appears in the states during shows held by Ring of Honor. The two promotions have a tenuous relationship that includes sharing talent.
New Japan is a lot like WWE, but offers stark differences. Both present a variety of kinds of performers ranging from serious badasses such as Kazuchika Okada (its current top guy, who has all the looks of a main hero in a Final Fantasy game) to goofier dudes (Toru Yanu, a supremely lucky cheating idiot).
Another high-profile talent in NJPW right now is Kenny Omega, who just turned a lot of heads with a match of the year-candidate he wrestled with Okada at January’s Wrestle Kingdom 11 event. Many hoped Omega would stun the world by showing up at WWE’s Royal Rumble event later that month, but he opted to stay.
You know who isn’t wrestling for New Japan? Women. The promotion’s roster, similarly to younger, smaller organizations such as Evolve, is male-only. Women sometimes walk men to the ring, but they’re solely seen as eye-candy.
So, it’s Japanese, but there’s also English commentary?
So, up front, yeah, New Japan is presented in a series of ways, and new fans coming to it for major pay-per-views will likely start with its English commentary. In its NJPW World streams Kevin Kelly works play-by-play, with Don Callis handling color. On the AXS broadcasts, we hear the voice of the WWE’s Attitude Era Jim Ross on play-by-play with Josh Barnett on color.
Kelly has been doing this for a while, but recently left doing similar work for Ring of Honor, which is amusing considering that ROH and NJPW are supposedly working together. You may remember both for their time in WWE, but you don’t need to. Kevin Kelly works face, Callis works heel.
As you get deeper into the NJPW library, you’ll progress to shows without English commentary. Sometimes those have no commentary, sometimes it’s in Japanese. Neither is particularly easier to follow, especially if you can get distracted.
What else is different about NJPW?
One thing might not notice immediately, but over time, is that NJPW tells the vast majority of its stories in the ring. New Japan’s equivalent of the backstage scenes that chop up an episode of WWE Raw take place at a press conference room as post-match interviews. This gives the show a look that feels a lot like an actual sport.
Also, kiss those authority figures goodbye. Aside from the wrestlers, the only other performers are managers, such as Gedo, who is Okada’s coach and calls himself The Playmaker. The matches are either arranged by the nameless powers that be or challenges between talent.
Lastly, get used to the crew around the ring. Many are wrestlers-in-training often called Young Boys or Young Lions. They set up the ring and do chores for the wrestlers, learning while they train. When they get to perform, they wear sparse gear (black trunks) and fight with a similarly short move-list.
I keep hearing about CHAOS, The Bullet Club and other factions. How do they work?
Wrestling factions have long existed to help get talent popular by association, but NJPW takes the idea of a stable of wrestlers a step further.
The four major factions in NJPW exist as ways to group talent for tag team matches and to set up storylines and matches down the road. This tweet perfectly encapsulates the factions in the TL;DR style:
v2 Morality Rankings to reflect ded-ness pic.twitter.com/4Ry8aICg3M
Those factions are:
- Taguchi Japan: A loosely-organized faction of friendly, silly dudes, headed by Ryusuke Taguchi, he of The Funky Weapon (his weaponized ass). Superstars Hiroshi Tanahashi and Ricochet are also affiliated.
- CHAOS: Formed in 2009, CHAOS is the longest-running stable of NJPW and the only one clearly working as faces. Its leader is Kazuchika Okada and its membership from other promotions includes such modern luminaries as The Briscoes and Will Ospreay.
- The Bullet Club: A modern day NWO, the Bullet Club (also called The Biz Cliz) started as a group of dastardly gaijin (foreigners) stable of non-Japanese wrestlers: Prince Devitt (now in the WWE as Finn Bálor), “The Underboss” Bad Luck Fale, “Machine Gun” Karl Anderson and Tama Tonga. Now, much like the NWO, it’s overgrown and includes chodes such as Jeff Jarrett. Currently, Biz Cliz head Kenny Omega and recent-addition Cody seem to be heading towards a conflict.
- Suzuzki-gun: The badass stable of NJPW just recently returned to the company from a stint in Japan’s Pro Wrestling NOAH. It’s headed up by Minoru Suzuki (holding the mic in the above photo) who looks like he could bite your head off with the same ease a drunk devours a slice of pizza at 1am.
- Los Ingobernables De Japon: The Goth Kids of NJPW are a current fan favorite, despite being booked as heels. Membership includes leader Naito (who’s bored by everything, and goofily holding his eyelids wide above) and EVIL (on the right, who is one half-Undertaker, the other half-Bray Wyatt).
How do you watch NJPW?
You’ve got two options:
- Subscribe for 999 yen per month at njpwworld.com to follow its events. NJPWworld can be viewed on PCs and Macs, as well as iOS and Android devices. It’s sorely lacking an app, but supports Chromecast.
- Wait for matches to air six months later on the AXS cable television show, NJPW on AXS. This year, at January’s Wrestle Kingdom, the AXS show broke from tradition, showing matches mere weeks after they took place.
How does one follow NJPW?
Casual fans stick to the major events such as the annual Wrestle Kingdom (New Japan’s equivalent of WrestleMania) and G1 Climax tournament (remember King of The Ring?).
There’s also a schedule on 1972njpw.com, the company’s brand-new site for English-speakers. This is where you can see what’s coming up and which events will have English commentary.
Those following the promotion more closely will have to do without English commentary. While many events will have Japanese commentary, some get absolutely zero commentary.
Pro wrestling expert Aubrey Sitterson (host of the Straight Shoot podcast) explained to me by noting that historically “lesser [NJPW] shows, you had to either be there live or read about them online or in the newspaper if you live in Japan.” and that with the advent of NJPW World, the company began showing “EVERYTHING online, but they still don’t do commentary for the smaller shows.”
This can be helpful for those who can focus, but a detractor for those who need help engaging and staying locked in.
Just as with WWE, an obstacle with most NJPW shows may be running time, with most major PPVs going 4 hours.
What are the divisions & championships in NJPW, and who holds those belts currently?
So, here’s more primer for those who aren’t put off by all of the above, and are ready to dive in deep.
The top titles in the company feature the IWGP acronym, which stands for International Wrestling Grand Prix. That’s NJPW’s governing body.
The IWGP Heavyweight Championship is the top title in NJPW, and it’s currently held by Kazuchika Okada. Okada is the face of NJPW and has been for years. One of the most respected working wrestlers today, he’s famous for his beautiful standing dropkick and Rainmaker lariat.
The IWGP Intercontinental Championship, which (yep, a second tier belt just like the WWE’s IC title) is held by Hiroshi Tanahashi, a noble dude.
The IWGP Tag Team Championship is held by War Machine, the husky duo of Hanson and Mike Rowe. If I had to describe them, I’d say, Big Angry Dads.
Wrestlers weighing in at under 100 kilograms (220 pounds) will fight for the Junior championships.
The IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship is currently held by KUSHIDA, a nice young man who loves Back To The Future.
The IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship is held by The Young Bucks.
The other titles fought over in NJPW are from something called NEVER, which is no longer an active thing, despite its titles still being defended. Both of the NEVER titles are fought without weight restrictions, otherwise called Openweight.
To quote Wikipedia:
NEVER is an acronym of the terms “New Blood”, “Evolution”, “Valiantly”, “Eternal”, and “Radical” and was a NJPW-promoted series of events, which featured younger up-and-coming talent and outside wrestlers not signed to the promotion.
The NEVER Openweight Championship, its primary belt, is currently held by Minoru Suzuki. He is a fashionable killing machine.
The other NEVER Openweight title is the 6-Man Tag Team Championship, currently held by Los Ingobernables de Japon (Bushi, Evil and Sanada) (LIJ). LIJ is great for a number of reasons, but primarily because they are the Goth Kid Gang of NJPW.
Thank you for making it this far, stay tuned for more coverage of the best pro wrestling stuff of the week, as well as non-WWE promotions.