Watts on Wrestling: How NJPW is different from American Wrestling

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Hello all and welcome to what I hope becomes a regular series here, Watts on Wrestling. I’m going to spend the next three months trying to give you readers an introduction to New Japan Pro Wrestling, leading up to their flagship event, Wrestle Kingdom, in January. However, I know many have tried this in the past and I honestly don’t think I can outdo the ones that have come before me. If you want an in depth breakdown of NJPW, it’s history and it’s key moments, I would encourage you to check out Hairy Wrestling Fan, as he has a very good historical breakdown of Japanese wrestling, including key matches that you should start out with. If you’d rather watch videos, check out Showbuckle and his series on New Japans key figures (I’m not sure if the videos are up at the time of this writing, but we’ll see).
Instead, I want to write something that aims at the kind of fan I was: WWE only, with little interest in other things. Even when I saw someone cool in another promotion, my reaction was usually something like “I can’t wait until they sign with NXT!.” I didn’t appreciate what I saw, I just wanted an American version of it. So this series is for the American fan. I’m out here to covert people. I’m trying to save some souls with strong style. So if you’re a WWE fan through and through, please do me a favor and hear me out about the things that set NJPW apart from WWE. Not to decide which is better, but to explain why “different” doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
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Presentation
Vince McMachon infamously said in the wrestling documentary Beyond the Mat, “This isn’t a sport. We make movies.” At it’s core, WWE programming is not a wrestling show. It’s a show about wrestlers. WWE films their shows like a Rocky movie; a lot of talking and a lot of foreshadowing with some action in the middle and the end. I’m not saying if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I’m just saying, that’s what’s happening. It’s a borderline reality show. And to top it off, they also make a bunch of reality shows.
NJPW is the opposite. They know it’s fake and they know you know it’s fake, but they present it like a real sporting event. Yes, there are story lines to work out and gimmicks to keep track of, but the announcers and the wrestlers treat it like bonafide sport. This gives it a more serious atmosphere and makes you feel like there’s something on the line in every match, even if it’s only pride. While WWE resembles an old episode of American Gladiators or Battle Dome (Obscure references!), NJPW comes off like an episode of Monday Night Football.
No Weekly Show
The first thing you have to notice is that there is no weekly programming. In America, TV is a staple of pro wrestling and has been for close to 50 years. Although some people could legitimately argue that there’s way too much WWE on TV, it’s kind of always been like that, at least in recent history. I grew up with Raw, Nitro, Smackdown and Thunder during the week, not to mention ECW TV if you were lucky enough to be in an area that had it. American wrestling is TV taping and house shows leading up to the pay per view at the end of the month, then starting over.
NJPW has no weekly show. Yes, AXS TECHNICALLY has a show, but they’re showing select matches from events that are a month old. Instead of a weekly show, New Japan does what they call “Road To” tours. When they have one of their PPV’s coming up (for the sake of this article, I’m calling them Pay Per Views. That’s not really what they are, but it’s the most translatable term), they have several shows in the week or two leading up to it. The storylines for that event will play out on the tour. Those shows are available on NJPW World, but it feels very different from a weekly show. It’s more like watching an amped up house show.
Besides the “Road To” shows, NJPW relies a lot on tournaments to set up stories and matches. They go like this:
New Japan Cup: A single elimination tournament. The winner gets to face the champion of his choosing at the following PPV. Similar to old-school King of the Ring in some ways.
Best of the Super Juniors: A round robin tournament to determine the #1 contender for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship. This features what you know as Cruiserweights.
G1 Climax: This is the big one. a 20 man, round robin tournament. This is arguably the most important event in NJPW. It takes a month to get through. It’s exhausting to watch so I can’t imagine what the wrestlers are going through! The winner gets a briefcase containing a contract that entitles him to fight for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at Wrestle Kingdom (New Japans WrestleMania). It’s the Royal Rumble, King of the Ring and Money in the Bank combined.
Best of the Super Junior Tag Teams: Hopefully, this is self-explanatory
World Tag League: See above.
Since there are so many events that are televised in Japan and on NJPW World, there’s not much to save for a weekly television show.
No Authority Figures
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I’ll bet you can’t even name the last time you watched Raw or SmackDown without a General Manager or “Authority” coming out to move some major angle forward or backward. Kurt Angle, Paige, Daniel Bryan and Triple H are just the most recent names in a long list of personalities on WWE programming that exist only to arbitrarily enforce rules and regulation on a fake sport as they (or the script) see fit. I’m not knocking the practice as a whole; names like “Mr. McMahon,” JJ Dillon, and Eric Bischoff helped make the Monday Night Wars what they were. But at some point, the gimmick has been done to death. Do you really need someone on screen to explain to you what matches are happening and why?

If you’re a fan of the NFL, imagine if there was a rule where every game you watched started with the quarterbacks of the opposing teams lobbing insults at each other for 20 minutes until commissioner Roger Goodell came out and told the teams they had to play a football game against each other. Why else are they there? Did we need someone to tell us that?

NJPW has no authority figure. Since all of the matches already have sensible reasons for taking place, you don’t need a guy in a suit to run out and make one. They’re wrestlers. They’re here to wrestle. It’s a little weird to have a non-wrestler on standby to make sure the wrestlers know when they need to wrestle…right? Yes, Harold Meij is there, but he’s the actual President of the company and only got involved in one angle during the G1 because they were advertising his hiring. He’s not at every event, changing the card on the fly and filming backstage segments where he has to use his power to force a wrestler to do the wrestling or else they’re fired.

NJPW operates on the belief that people are there to see fighting, not people talking about fighting. Which leads me to my next point.

Very Few Promos

I can’t tell you the last episode of Raw I watched that began with a match. They all begin the same: Wrestler A comes out and starts talking. He’s usually talking about Wrestler B. Wrestler B comes out to speak face to face with Wrestler A. Either a match happens right then or is booked for later in the show. This usually takes up the first 30 minutes of the show. The show will then feature 3-5 more segments, just like this, with different wrestlers. Promos are great and cool and necessary, but they should not be the entire show or even the majority of the shows. Also, they need to be about something. They need to have a point, even if that point is just setting up a story. Talking for the sake of talking is not entertaining.

In most cases in NJPW, only the winner of the main event gets the mic and cuts a promo. It’s like winning the matches gives you the right to talk or something…I won’t pretend to know the specific reason as to why, I just know it’s a tradition. There are select moments where someone will cut a promo in the middle of a show, but it’s rare and it’s always a big deal. Sometimes, you’ll even hear the crowd gasp when it happens…they know it’s not a normal thing. And it almost always sets up a big match or story going forward. It’s not trash talking for trash talking sake. There’s always a reason.

So with no promos, how do you know what the story lines are?

Longer Matches/More Detailed Accounting

One of the first things WWE fans scream at me about New Japan is that it’s nothing but unsafe workers beating the crap out of each other and spot monkeys doing insane, unnecessary moves. I’m going to tell you what I tell them: Have you actually watched an NJPW event in full or have you seen some clips online? 100% of the time, it’s the latter. Honestly, I can completely understand how the clips that circulate on Twitter could make you think that NJPW is pure acrobatic brutality. A few years ago, I saw the gif of Will Osprey vs. Ricochet a thousand times and if that’s your introduction to NJPW, you’d be right to think they’re all spot monkeys.

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Although, none of those same WWE fans mind Ricochet’s suicide dives now that he’s in NXT…go figure.

If you actually sit down and watch a NJPW event, you’ll not only see how intricate and thoughtful they are, but you’ll also see why you don’t need a bunch of long winded promos and backstage segments to tell a good wrestling story. New Japan matches aren’t like an 8 minute match in the midcard of Raw. They take their time. They show emotion in the ring. They have fast breaks and slow burns. The characters portrayed in the ring tell you with their actions why the match is important. Minoru Suzuki is a total sadist, so he’s gonna spend 15 minutes focusing on his opponents bad bicep. He doesn’t want to beat him…he wants him to suffer. Tetsuya Naito plays mind games with his opponent, so you understand when he refuses to lock up or takes an extra five minutes to remove his suit before the match.

This is assisted, of course, by the amazing commentary team. They accomplish this by doing something you rarely find on Monday Night Raw: they only talk about things relevant to the match you’re watching. God bless Michael Cole and the all the hate he endures, but isn’t it a little annoying when you’re watching two amazing performers like Drew McIntyre and Seth Rollins go at it and Cole won’t shut up about a sale on WWE Shop or an upcoming pay per view or a preview of the latest episode of Total Divas or a reminder about how WWE Network is $9.99? You’d get more out of the match if you muted your TV (and I have, at times). Not in New Japan. Kevin Kelly talks about the guys your seeing, nothing else. If something else is mentioned, it’s because it has a direct impact on the match at hand. Is this match going to decide the number one contender? Kelly is going to tell you. Did someone in this match recently document his trip to Disney World on YouTube? You will not hear about it here. When the story is told the right way, you don’t need to film extra segments to remind the viewers who these people are and what they’re doing.

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I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Don Callis here. His heel commentator work is something we haven’t seen since Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. It’s absolutely brilliant. And when one of the wrestlers he’s talking trash about attacks him and he runs away screaming…I mean…you can’t put a price on that.

Cross-Promotional Matches

If you tune into Wrestle Kingdom (and you should) you’ll probably notice several belts that are not New Japan belts being showcased and defended (Note: All New Japan belts have the branding of the International Wrestling Grand Prix, which is why you see IWGP and not NJPW. I’ll explain in another article). For the last few years, the ROH World Heavyweight title has been defended and this year, the RevPro Heavyweight belt will most likely be defended as well. This is because of NJPW’s working relationship with other wrestling companies.

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You never see this in the WWE anymore, though it used to be common. Even when they work with companies like ICW and Evolve, it’s all under the WWE banner. NJPW, ROH and RPW work with each other to highlight their respective companies. Having the RevPro belt on a New Japan show raises RevPros profile. The same can be said when the IWGP titles show up on ROH TV. Seeing a title defended in different parts of the world for different promotions, in my opinion, gives a lot more credence to the term “World Title,” rather than WWE, who have World and Universal titles that rarely, if ever, are defended outside of the U.S. against non-Americans.

Note: I have an article coming up in which I plan to prove, with no bias, that the IWGP Championships are the most important belts in wrestling. Stay tuned.

Title Opportunities Make Sense

How does one earn a title shot in the WWE? Well, you get one automatically if you win the Royal Rumble. You also get one if you win Money in the Bank and, sometimes, Elimination Chamber. If that doesn’t work, you can just grab the mic and challenge the champion. Or demand/beg the GM to give you a title match. Or attack the champion backstage and hope he challenges you for the title as “revenge.” Or hope for a random tournament. Or get yourself on the list of company mainstays (Cena, Orton, Reigns, Punk, HHH, the list goes on) and you’ll just get opportunity after opportunity as long as you want with no legit reason ever given for it.

How do you get a title shot in New Japan? Win a tournament. Can’t do that? Pin the champion in a non-title match. Can’t do that? Wait for a challenge. That’s it. Short, sweet and simple. Is it really necessary to write 45 different ways a wrestler can end up in a championship match? Think about how frustrated people were that Roman Reigns kept getting title shots, losing, then getting more. I don’t blame Roman for that, he’s not in control of the booking. That’s literally the only idea they had. Roman loses on PPV, the next night he says he wants another chance and the GM says yes. There’s no forethought in that booking, it’s just lazy. It’s like Stephen Moffat wrote their storylines (Doctor Who fans will get that).

When Kenny Omega lost to Kazuchika Okada at Wrestle Kingdom a few years ago, he wanted another chance at the title. So he entered the New Japan Cup and…he lost. So he went to the back of the line. The only reason he got to face Okada for the title again was because Okada called him out by name. Why? Because he was sick of the pundits that told him he barely beat Omega. And Omega STILL had to wait six months for another shot. See how simple that is?! Simple booking makes for better wrestling.

Factions

This one throws a lot of people off because it’s not a part of American wrestling like it used to be. New Japan operates and books its shows based on factions. But even that doesn’t tell the whole story because in America, factions are a few guys thrown together mainly for promotion and merchandise. We’re a long way removed from the Four Horseman or even the NWO (which, by the way, started in Japan. Sorry American fans, Hulk Hogan and WCW DID NOT invent the NWO. It’s based on the UWF. Look it up).

Instead of thinking of factions as sub-groups within a wrestling promotion, think of them as teams. New Japan books most of it’s feuds based on which teams and which members of the team need to be involved. It makes the product easier to follow: Even if you’ve never seen NJPW, when you see Desperado vs. Will Osprey, you immediately see that one is with Suzuki-Gun and the other is with Chaos. The former is a heel faction and the latter is a face faction. Boom. You know who the good guys and bad guys are.

Now, for the rest of the show, as soon as you see the logo, you’ll know who’s good and who’s bad. And just in case my article inspires you to check out New Japan, here’s a quick list to help. I’m going to do an in-depth breakdown of each faction before Wrestle Kingdom.

Chaos: The main faction of New Japan. Founded by Shinsuke Nakamura. The corporate guys, basically. Started out as a heel faction, but they’re primarily a face group now.

Bullet Club (OG): The founding members of Bullet Club aka The Tongans. They are solidly a heel faction and are no longer affiliated with who most American fans recognize as Bullet Club.

Bullet Club (Elite): The people you see on “Being the Elite”. Kenny Omega and friends.

Los Ingobernables de Japon: Arguably the most over faction in Japan, and they do pretty well in Mexico and the U.S. as well.

Suzuki-Gun: A gang of well trained psychopaths.

Taguchi Japan: A group of well trained FUN psychopaths. Led by a pervert.

So that’s the end of my list. Next month, I’ll go into details on each faction, their members and their place in the New Japan structure. I hope this article helps to shed a little light on what makes New Japan different from American wrestling why you should give it a shot if you’re a wrestling fan. Liking NJPW does not mean you have to hate WWE, it just means that you agree that there’s something for everybody when it comes to pro wrestling. See you next month.

Alex Watley

Alex sells craft beer by day, writes about geek stuff by night and does stand up comedy on the weekends. He's also been known to binge Japanese wrestling, host a sports podcast and drive for Uber...at the same time. Drinking and driving is not a crime as long as it's on Mario Kart. #KillMacro

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