Ten years ago today, one would be surprised at the climate of New Japan Pro-Wrestling in 2021. At the beginning of the 2010s, the Japan-based wrestling promotion was one of the biggest in the world, filling out the Tokyo Dome yearly and putting together many of the decades best stars and matches. Wrestling had become very shallow for anyone who didn’t want to watch smaller, more poorly produced independent shows, as the only big game in town for the previous 10-15 years had been the WWE, which as we all know isn’t for everyone. NJPW, which has been around since its inception in 1972 by the legendary Antonio Inoki, had certainly had its ups and downs through the decades by that point, having gone from 1 of the 2 biggest promotions in the country of Japan from the 70s through to the 90s, to losing most of its popularity in the 2000s due to the polarizing influx of MMA fighters in the company when they partnered with MMA promotion K-1.
By the late 2000s though, it was clear New Japan Pro-Wrestling was beginning to find its footing again, returning to the Puroresu-based style that had made it so popular in the first place. When the 2010s hit, NJPW and newly appointed head booker Gedo were riding a massive wave of momentum, boasting some of the best wrestlers in the world and finding a not-so-small niche for himself as a long-term booker, a long-dead pro wrestling art by then that had been sorely missed. Year after year, and Wrestle Kingdom after Wrestle Kingdom, the promotion found itself getting hotter and hotter and with more and more interest for its big shows, not to mention several awards. As everyone was soon to find out, however, it was not a system that was built to last, and the cracks began showing before too long.
New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW) in 2021
The Beginning of the End
While the pitfall of New Japan Pro-Wrestling in popularity truly struck in late 2018 and early 2019, the early signs of it had been seen for years. As early as 2015, many had criticized Gedo’s booking style. What many had considered being brilliant long-term planning, others saw as repetitive and biased. In particular, many were critical of the famous matches and feud between Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada, whose work were some of the earliest eye-catchers of American audiences to NJPW’s product in the early 2010s. Still, many found it to be uninspired and too familiar after a while, with the main feud taking place over the course of close to 4 years, and having to this day up to 15 singles matches against one another.
It wasn’t until 2018, however, that all would be exposed to the error of Gedo’s ways. When the match between Kazuchika Okada and Tetsuya Naito had been set for Wrestle Kingdom of that year, many expected, and wanted, Naito to finally win the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship. After returning from an exile to Mexico due to a miserable failure at a run as a potential ace for the company, Naito and his new faction, Los Ingobernables de Japon, was a fresh injection of new blood for the company’s product when said faction debuted in 2015. By 2018, after many trials and tribulations, and a lengthy run as a bitter and disrespectful IWGP Intercontinental Champion, the time seemed to be right for Naito. The stage was set, the champion was Okada, the man who took the spot of ace from him and had been champion for well over a year and a half, and everything was perfect for Naito to win the title. And then he didn’t.
It is hard to put into words how hard a blow this was to Naito’s momentum. The story had been building up for several years and the crowd wasn’t happy about having to wait another year or two longer. While it can be easily assumed that Gedo was waiting for Kenny Omega to take the belt off Okada, the decision to have Naito come up short in the biggest match of his career again was very damaging. Okada would have been hurt far less by a loss, and there’s no reason he couldn’t have put Omega over in the 2 out of 3 falls match anyway without the title, leading to Omega eventually dethroning Naito as champion.
However, Gedo was determined about Omega dethroning Okada, and so he had put himself in a corner. He either needed to derail and postpone Naito’s already 6 year-long journey to the top or ruin his plans to have Okada drop the title to Omega later that year. He chose to sacrifice Naito, again, and perception of him as a booker among the fans was forever changed.
The Doldrums, The Bad Reboot, and the PR Nightmare
In the years that followed 2018, the company only saw intrigue wane with every year for their big shows. Several stars began leaving due to the exodus of workers from New Japan Pro-Wrestling to newly founded All Elite Wrestling in 2019. Several of the companies biggest gaijins and western stars were lost to them, taking a large part of their American fanbase with them. While a problem for New Japan, it could have possibly been remedied had they made more of an attempt to gain more stars, but instead, they have been in a stagnant quagmire for the last 3 years, running the same matches with the same competitors seemingly every year, and insist upon the matches going upwards to 30 minutes very often.
It’s almost as if instead of attempting to patch the hole and adapt their style to changes outside of their control, they doubled down instead, and stubbornly kept the same rotation of workers with the same match lengths. This is not a recipe for success. Having a stale product happens to every promotion and company at some point, but very little effort has been put forth to freshen it up. Their only real attempt was feeble-willed at best, with them shelving 2 of their most popular and prestigious championships, the IWGP Intercontinental Championship and the traditional IWGP Heavyweight Championship, in favor of 1 new title with a divergent lineage, something that no fan was asking for. Instead of feeling like a fresh change, it felt like a sad abandonment of the history of what is arguably the most valuable and credible trophy in professional wrestling for the last 50 years. And the man they chose to begin that new lineage? Will Ospreay.
Much can be said about Will Ospreay as a performer, both good and bad. One could say he is not world champion material and could even have incredibly valid reasons as to why they think this way. This is all a matter of subjectivity, though. One crowd could love his work and the next could hate it, making it difficult to measure him by that metric. He is undeniably impressive as an athlete for sure. However, this isn’t the main complaint that many bring up when it comes to him as a top act. Will Ospreay, as anyone who has followed him on the internet for any length of time would know, has an incredible knack for doing/saying unwise things on the internet that tends to land him in a heap of trouble, along with whatever promotion may be booking him at that moment.
It happens very often, and every time it does, it gains more and more negative attention. To put it simply, the man lives from one PR nightmare to the next, taking any who associates with him down with him, and NJPW is not and has not been exempt from that. The longer they put Ospreay in a prominent position on their shows, the more damage it does to public perception, which is something New Japan desperately needs more of.
You wouldn’t know this by following them on social media, however, as they make every attempt possible to deter people from promoting their product. If one is to post a video or GIF on Twitter of an NJPW match or product, it will not be long before the company finds the post and has it taken down. Again, it seems almost like the company is doubling down against the fans, actively resisting all hope for a positive change.
New Japan Pro-Wrestling in 2021: In Conclusion
New Japan Pro-Wrestling has a long way to go with fans before fully earning their trust back. As with any problem, the first step to solving it is to acknowledge its very existence. NJPW and Gedo seemingly see no issues with the current climate surrounding their company and its product, making change impossible. If and when this happens, they must change the way they think about things. Not every big show needs 4 tag matches and a 40-minute main event. They also need to have a better eye for top talent.
Recently, with Will Ospreay relinquishing the IWGP Heavyweight Championship this year, Shingo Takagi picked it up and began having incredible matches with everyone on the roster. This was a very smart choice; Takagi is not only a versatile worker who can have a good match with almost anyone, making him more of a fit as champion in that regard anyway, but has a much better public reception about him among fans than Ospreay. Gedo and the rest of the booking team would be wise to keep their eggs in Shingo’s basket, perhaps even after Ospreay comes back.
It also may be time to swallow some pride and begin looking for American promotions to work in partnership with again. They may have an up and down past with inter-promotional relationships, but the current problem of not having enough wrestlers is more pressing at the moment. There are plenty of hot wrestling promotions in the U.S., and even in Mexico, that could benefit from the exposure and experience their performers would get from working with New Japan Pro-Wrestling. In the end though, at the top of the paragraph, nothing is going to happen until the problem is first acknowledged. And like any wound, the longer it’s left untreated, the more damage it will do, until that damage is permanent and irreversible.