What’s Next For New Japan?

New Japan Pro Wrestling, the league founded by the legendary Antonio Inoki in 1972, has an extensive history with peaks and valleys, similar to the other major groups in the history of the industry. However, in the modern era, when some North American organizations might’ve struggled, NJPW steadily increased its profile after the promotion was purchased by Bushiroad, a company known for its production of a popular trading card series, in 2012. The turbulent decade prior and the reasons for it are another discussion for another time, but clearly, the Bushiroad purchase put the Japanese group on a path of success that has maintained most of its momentum over the past several years, even with some of the shifts of the business. The Bullet Club became one of the most popular stables in the world, Okada is in the prime of his career, the expanded distribution into the North American market was mostly successful, Kenny Omega brought a renewed buzz for the organization, and an increase in merchandise, as well as the launch of the NJPW World streaming service created more legitimate revenue streams for the organization.

But, after nine years of consistent growth, could this be the year that New Japan finally hits a wall?

In truth, this shouldn’t be shocking or some type of earth-shattering news to fans. As mentioned, every promotion has down periods so if there’s a moderate downturn in business, it shouldn’t be a surprising revelation. The bigger story is if there’s a decline, how will management handle it and what will be the ripple effect from it?

Just a few weeks ago, Will Ospreay, the British aerial wrestler that made his name originally with dazzling high spots before he added on some weight to transition to the heavyweight division, defended the IWGP title against former Dragon Gate star, Shingo in an incredible bout. However, last week the company announced that Ospreay suffered a neck injury so he vacated the belt.

I have to be honest, I was very surprised when Kota Ibushi dropped the title to Ospreay at Sakura Genesis in April, both for the setting of the switch and more specifically, the fact that Ibushi held the title roughly three months after an extended build up before he finally captured the championship. Sakura Genesis wasn’t necessarily one of the “big” New Japan events on its calendar, such as Dominion or the G1 series, and had an under card of multi-person tag bouts so it was definitely a surprising title switch. Nothing against Ospreay, the guy proved he can go at a top level for the past several years and the heel turn worked well, especially with the addition of the Empire as a faction, but I really think there was much more to be done with Ibushi as champion.

That said, the switch was made to Ospreay, and it’s very unfortunate that he had to vacate the championship a month after he won it. Obviously, New Japan management will have to choose another champion, but that is more difficult than just booking a tournament for the belt because of the current pandemic numbers in Japan. The Wrestler Observer’s Dave Meltzer reported that almost a dozen wrestlers on the roster, including Okada tested positive for COVID. Along with that, the COVID numbers in Japan prompted a recent state of emergency and the Tokyo Olympics are in jeopardy of getting cancelled again. The vaccination rate within the country is reportedly very low and with the population density, the pandemic might remain more of a problem in Japan than in the United States, where most restrictions were limited. Accordingly, New Japan cancelled most of its upcoming tour schedule, including a Tokyo Dome event next month.

All things considered, it’s probably better for the company to take time off from the schedule, if for no other reason than to allow for those on the roster with COVID to recover so that there are more options for the next pick for the champion. Ospreay posted a picture of an X-ray on social media this week and while the details of the injury haven’t been confirmed, it certainly doesn’t look like he will be back in the ring anytime soon. It’s rather odd that it was reported that Ospreay is actually going to return to England for treatment for the injury, but he said early last year that he moved to Japan so prehaps the extent of the injury is serious enough that he wants to visit his usual doctor. Assuming that he will be on the sidelines for a substantial amount of time, the next IWGP champion will probably have to be more than just a transition champion until Ospreay returns to the organization.

It’s fair if most fans automatically expect Okada to be the choice for the Japanese office because he set the standard for the New Japan product in the modern era, but considering that there were reports that he was booked to work a lighter schedule in recent months because of a back injury, it might not be the best decision to book him as champion until he’s completely healed to avoid any further injury. That’s the catch-22 of the New Japan style, while it delivers incredible athleticism and in its own way, a form of drama, it’s inherently more risky. There were a few year serious injuries in New Japan in recent years so at some point the risk is more than the reward of a potential classic match.

With a portion of the roster in quarantine for COVID, the tour schedule halted because of the pandemic numbers in the country, and the new IWGP champion on the sidelines indefinitely, management’s next move could be a key piece of the puzzle going forward this year. If I had a vote, I would choose Shingo to win the vacant title since it sets up for a natural storyline when Ospreay returns to attempt to reclaim the title that he never lost in the ring. Regardless of the plan, if the promotion looks to build steam after most of it was halted because of the initial shut down of the pandemic, it must be a carefully measured decision. Nothing against him, but Evil’s brief title reign during the pandemic, didn’t exactly spark a buzz around the IWGP title. At this point, Kota Ibushi with the belt again almost seems too recent so it would be considered a retread, but maybe it could be used to set up an eventual rematch with Ospreay.

Still, and prehaps the bigger problem for the company is that the combination of these factors has led to a roster that lacks depth. The good thing is that this might be the time that the working agreements with AEW and Impact can be used to boost the cards while a portion of the regular roster gets the chance to heal. Don’t get me wrong, the NJPW product is known for its stellar in-ring quality, but I’m not sure how the group keeps any momentum with the amount of hurdles between the pandemic and injuries. If the New Japan office uses the working agreement with All Elite or Impact, the deciding factor might be based on any potential travel restrictions. Considering the quality of the product and the expansion for the product in the North American market, it would be disappointing if the progress of the organization is hindered, but it will be interesting to see the direction of the company in the next few months.

What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.

Until next week
-Jim LaMotta
E mail drwrestlingallpro@yahoo.com | You can follow me on Twitter @jimlamotta