Back in 1945, American movie star James Cagney appeared in the war film Blood on the Sun, portraying journalist Nick Condon stationed in Japan during the war. He exposes Japan’s secret to conquer the world by running an article in the English paper the Tokyo Chronicle, and he spends the rest of the movie proving it’s truth while avoiding getting caught by the Japanese government. You could remake that movie now, but in this case, Cagney could be a Japanese wrestling journalist who stumbled across the WWE‘s plan to attack Japan’s wrestling market, with Vince McMahon as the film’s Premier Tanaka. Because although they publicly state that they have no desire to compete with New Japan Wrestling (NJPW) and are on friendly terms – inducting NJPW builders Antonio Inoki and Tatsumi Fujinami in the WWE Hall of Fame in 2010 and 2015 respectively – there sure seems to be something very Tanakian about the silent army that Premier McMahon is building for someone who has no desire to compete with Japan’s most successful promotion.
While it’s most likely true that Vince McMahon doesn’t watch any other wrestling product than his own creation, he most certainly has others that do. People like Gerald Brisco, one of McMahon’s closest confidants and former Attitude Era “stooge” (although more significantly a former NWA Florida Heavyweight champion and multi-time tag team champion with his legendary brother Jack), and William Regal, who does the recon scouting for WWE’s NXT brand. These scouts watch not only the talent themselves, but the impact these talents have in other markets. Promotions that have either held greater market share than WWE in that area – like NJPW in Japan or AAA in Mexico – or one’s that have captured the appeal of those disenfranchised with WWE’s “mainstream” spectacle, such as Ring of Honor and Evolve. This is why the WWE has partnered with Gabe Sapolsky – Ring of Honor founder who originally spotted future WWE Superstars as Daniel Bryan, CM Punk, Samoa Joe, Austin Aries, AJ Styles, Cesaro and Seth Rollins during his tenure there – and his World Wrestling Network (WWN), a governing body that oversees such promotions as Evolve, Full Impact Pro, and Shine, as well as such established UK circuits as Progress and Revolution Pro. They’ve now got direct lifelines into some of the US and Europe’s finest indie talents.
Lucha Underground producer Chris DeJoseph mentioned that WWE was trying to raid their roster, no doubt because of the rise in popularity with traditional Lucha Libre wrestling, and the need to keep a healthy supply of Latino wrestlers for the large Latino demographic of the United States and their plans to enter Mexico’s market with more frequency and success.
But the big money is conquering one market that everyone has deemed unconquerable. Like Russia in the Second World War, Japan’s wrestling market has been based on a Strong Style tradition and code of conduct and honour that has repelled most major promotions – WWE included – from being more akin to the circus coming to town than a required sporting event. Ring of Honor has done the best infiltration on a consistent basis with their successful crossover marketing with NJPW over the past few years. But there’s an awful lot of signs that the WWE has finally decided to take a run at the unconquerable marketplace of the Eastern wrestling world. And like a well told storyline, this has been a #slowburn for years. But this past winter’s coup of AJ Styles, Karl “Machine Gun” Anderson, Luke Gallows and NJPW megastar Shinsuke Nakamura – may have been the warning shot that the war has just begun. Problem is, the WWE has been building its army for years in the shadows. And with the need for more bodies for the upcoming Brand Split, this war has only just begun.
TIMELIME OF EVENTS
February 1, 2010. WWE announced that NJPW founder and Japanese icon Antonio Inoki will be inducted into the 2010 class of the WWE Hall of Fame.
March 27, 2010. The night before Wrestlemania XXVI in Glendale, Arizona, Inoki is officially inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, by 2016 Hall of Famer Stan Hansen. Tanaka McMahon creates an atmosphere of respect by honouring Japan’s greatest promotion in the annals of America’s pop culture mecca.
March 19, 2012. After a seven year stint in Japan as Giant Bernard, Matt Bloom (who had a 5-year prior tenure in WWE as Albert) returns to the company as a Japanese-inspired big man named Lord Tensai. A huge star in Japan, initially with All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW) and then in NJPW, his decision to leave NJPW directly affected the beginning of the Bullet Club. Before he left he was an IWGP Tag Team champion as part of the team Bad Intentions. His tag partner was a young American named Karl “Machine Gun” Anderson. When Bloom left for WWE, Anderson began spending more time with his buddy Prince Devitt. The rest, they say, is history.
January 30, 2013: Indie sensation El Generico is signed to NXT. A standout throughout the world in Ring of Honor, Dragon Gate USA and Chikara, he was also a huge draw in Japan alongside his partner Kevin Steen, whom he competed with and against in Dragon Gate and DDT.
May 22, 2013: Sami Zayn debuts in NXT, winning two matches in his debut. First he beats Curt Hawkins, then shockingly upsets Cesaro in the Main Event.
January, 2014. With his Tensai character floundering as a dancing side kick to Brodus Clay, Bloom is removed from the Main Roster and begins doing colour commentary on the NXT broadcast.
April 6, 2014. The Young Bucks, members of Japan’s hottest faction The Bullet Club, turns on their leader, Prince Devitt, kicking him from the group. The following day NJPW announces Prince Devitt is leaving the promotion.
May 15, 2014. Widely considered one of the world’s best indie free agents, Prince Devitt officially signs with WWE’s NXT brand. His name is changed to Finn Balor, in a nod to his Irish heritage.
June 27, 2014. NXT lands another huge signing from Japan’s talent pool, when Pro Wrestling NOAH’s sensation KENTA signs with NXT. One of Japan’s brightest young stars, his name is changed to Hideo Itami.
August 2, 2014: Kevin Steen follows Zayn, Balor and Itami by signing with NXT. His ring name is altered to Kevin Owens.
August 7, 2014. Matt Bloom officially retires from in-ring competition and takes a position as a trainer at the WWE Performance Center. His knowledge of Finn Balor and Hideo Itami, as well as Japanese style and culture, is an asset in helping these two integrate into the WWE way.
September 11, 2014. Hideo Itami debuts at Takeover; Fatal 4-Way, where he is introduced by William Regal and then ambushed by The Ascension. He makes his in-ring debut the following night at NXT tapings, defeating Justin Gabriel (aka PJ Black).
September 26, 2014. Finn Balor debuts in NXT, coming to the aid of Hideo Itami in his feud against The Ascension. NXT begins to underscore the connection these two competitors have competing in Japan.
December 11, 2014: At Takeover: Unstoppable, Owens debuts by defeating CJ Parker. Later in the evening, he would turn on his former best friend Sami Zayn after Zayn had just won the NXT title.
March 6, 2015. Matt Bloom named head trainer following resignation of Bill DeMott. With Bloom now in firm control of the incoming prospects for NXT (and by default WWE), his knowledge of the Japanese workers becomes a valuable asset for scout William Regal.
March 19, 2015. WWE announces NJPW Legend and Inoki protegee Tatsumi Fujinami will be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
March 28, 2015. Tatsumi Fujinami is inducted in WWE Hall of Fame by “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair. Fujinami would sign a Legends deal with the company months later. WWE and NJPW relations are at an all-time high.
March 29, 2015. Hideo Itami becomes the first active NXT Superstar to appear at a Wrestlemania when he is added as an entrant into the 2nd annual Andre the Giant Battle Royale at Wrestlemania 31. He’d previously beaten Neville and Finn Balor in an NXT tournament to win that privilege.
May 18, 2015: Kevin Owens is the first of the Japanese invasion strike force to land on WWE Main Roster shores, appearing unannounced on Raw to challenge US Champion John Cena.
May 20, 2014. Longtime TNA veteran and former TNA World Champion Samoa Joe makes his shocking debut on NXT when he comes out during a Takeover: Unstoppable to fend off Kevin Owens from attacking Sami Zayn. Apart from his runs in TNA and Ring of Honor, Joe also had solid runs in Japan with Zero-1 and NOAH.
July 4, 2015. WWE tests the potential marketplace for a live special in Japan, when WWE Beast in the East is aired live from Tokyo. In order to capitalize on Balor’s NJPW success, he captures the NXT Championship from Kevin Owens in his old stomping grounds.
August 22, 2015. In the final act of unity with NJPW, NJPW icon and wrestling legend Jushin Thunder Liger makes his WWE debut in a special match versus Tyler Breeze at Takeover: Brooklyn. Liger wins clean in his one-off appearance, but what’s more notable is the appearance of Japanese women’s superstar Kana sitting in the crowd. It’s revealed days later that Kana had signed with NXT and will competing under the ring name Asuka.
September 23, 2015. Asuka debuts on NXT TV, where she is immediately confronted by Emma and Dana Brooke. It doesn’t take long for Asuka’s Strong Style to win over the fans and her quiet maniacal grin becomes her trademark.
December 9, 2015. WWE Network arrives in Japan. The first warning shot across NJPW’s bough, who had launched their own streaming network, NJPW World, just over one year earlier. The invasion had officially landed on Japanese shores.
January 4, 2016. Two of NJPW’s top draws, domestically and internationally, AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura give NJPW their notice. Nakamura is the current IWGP Intercontinental Champion, while Styles was just recently the IWGP World Heavyweight Champion and current leader of the Bullet Club.
January 5, 2016. Styles is beaten down, again by the Young Bucks with help from Kenny Omega, and kicked out of the Bullet Club. The internet goes ablaze with rumours that AJ and Nakamura are WWE bound, with hints that fellow Bullet Club members Karl “Machine Gun” Anderson and Luke Gallows, may be following. For the past year, Anderson has been included on WWE vignettes and promotional videos for Balor showing Balor’s connection to Japan and the Bullet Club. The two frequently interacted on Twitter causing fans to wonder not “what if” but “when”.
January 6, 2016. Japanese newspaper Tokyo Sports interviews Nakamura, who announces he’s leaving NJPW to sign with WWE.
January 12, 2016. NJPW confirms Nakamura departure, stripping him of IWGP IC title. Fans are dejected, robbed of the expected match between Nakamura and Kenny Omega (who ultimately still won the title). Nakamura’s last match for NJPW is a rather anti-climactic tag team affair on January 30th.
January 20, 2016. AJ Styles officially signs with WWE, following WWE running speculative “dirt sheet” type articles speculating on the future of the New Japan 4 (Nakamura, Styles, Anderson, Gallows).
January 24, 2016. AJ Styles debuts at Royal Rumble to one of the loudest debut pops in recent memory. The WWE plays big on his Japanese connection, pushing his two year stint in NJPW over his nearly 12-year run in TNA.
January 27, 2016. On NXT TV, William Regal announces that Nakamura will debut at Takeover: Dallas during Wrestlemania weekend, facing Sami Zayn.
February 19, 2016. Karl Anderson tells Tokyo Sports that he and Luke Gallows are indeed leaving NJPW.
February 20, 2016. Anderson & Gallows have their final match in NJPW. Anderson wears Finn Balor’s tights to the ring, fueling more speculation that they are indeed WWE bound to join their former Club leaders.
February 22, 2016. Nakamura officially signs with WWE. Though he’s slated to start in NXT, he signs a Main Roster deal.
March 25, 2016. One of the indie circuit’s most acclaimed tag teams, the Australian duo The Mighty Don’t Kneel, sign with NXT. TMDK were huge stars for Pro Wrestling NOAH for five years, as well as periodic stints in NJPW.
March 28, 2016. NXT Head Trainer Matt Bloom posts a photo to Instagram of what appears to be Karl Anderson at the WWE Performance Center. Buzz reaches critical mass as fans clamour for two of the founding fathers of the Bullet Club to rejoin with either Balor or Styles in the WWE.
April 1, 2016. Nakamura debuts at Takeover: Dallas in a Match of the Year candidate versus Sami Zayn. Anyone in the WWE Universe who wasn’t aware of Nakamura before, do now. Much like Asuka covertly slid in via ringside appearance at an event, another Japanese legend, NJPW veteran Kota Ibushi, is shown at Takeover: Dallas in attendance. Ibushi had left NJPW in February and is widely rumoured to be one of the cornerstones of the upcoming WWE Cruiserweight Classic.
April 3, 2016. Former WWE Superstar and Japanese legend Sho Funaki is unveiled as the new colour commentator for live events for WWE Network Japan.
April 11, 2016. After months of speculation and buzz, Anderson and Gallows debut on Raw, assaulting The Usos, seemingly allying themselves with former Club mate AJ Styles in his feud versus Roman Reigns.
May 19, 2016. The Mighty Don’t Kneel make their NXT TV debuts, now dubbed TM61.
The WWE now has an impressive cast of characters who have all been huge players not only in NJPW, but in the various other major promotions Japan houses, including some of their best veterans – Nakamura and potentially Ibushi – as well as some of their brightest young stars, like Itami and Asuka. Adding a crop of gaijin (foreigner) stars that sold out arenas in Japan – Balor, Styles, Zayn, Owens, Joe, TM61 – and they’ve created a stable of wrestlers that will not only draw Japanese marketshare eyes to the WWE events with more fervor than ever before, but keep them as interested fans.
With the upcoming Brand Split – amid rampant speculation that WWE will be going on a free agent spending spree this summer to flesh out all three brands rosters – you can be sure that in an effort to grow WWE’s presence in the Land of the Rising Sun, they’ll be looking to entice a few more recognizable and established stars from it’s promotions, homegrown or gaijin.
And while NJPW is unlikely to fall by the wayside in the same fashion as WCW did when they tried to fight the juggernaut of the McMahon empire, they must at least be worried. Because if there’s one thing Vince loves, it’s competition. But if there’s one thing Vince loves more than competition, it’s winning.
Main Photo Still from the 1945 film “Blood on the Sun”, from bullshido.net