What’s Next For New Japan Pro Wrestling?

When the legendary Antonio Inoki sold his share of New Japan Pro Wrestling to Yukes, a division of THQ in 2005, the promotion that he founded over thirty years earlier was on the brink of collapse. The pro wrestling landscape in the country became over saturated, and the rise of Pride MMA saw a decline in the wrestling business in the early 2000s. Inoki’s failed MMA experiment that included the clumsy Bob Sapp as IWGP heavyweight champion completely flopped, putting the future of one of Japan’s most established companies in serious jeopardy. Prior to THQ’s bankruptcy in 2013, New Japan was sold to Bushiroad, the parent company of a trading card game, the previous year.

Bushiroad modernized the NJPW product, and Jado and Gedo as bookers brought some of the best foreign talent in the world to compliment the solid base of native athletes. In many ways, the resurgence of New Japan worked very similar to the way business boosted during other eras in the history of the industry. The pieces of the puzzle had spontaneously and organically fit in place to present shows that sparked business. The Bullet Club was started by Prince Devitt with a group of gaijin as a throwback to the New World Order, which was a spinoff of the New Japan/UWFI angle before that. Within the past five years, Okada, one of the greatest in the history of Japanese pro wrestling, entered the prime of his career at the same time that the company had its most foreign exposure of all time. Tanahashi, who carried the company when its future was in doubt, remained a big match performer despite several injuries. Tremendous athletes like Ricochet, Ospreay, The Young Bucks, Cody Rhodes, Kenny Omega, and many others offered a stacked roster during the past few years.

At the same time, New Japan formed a working agreement with Ring Of Honor, a move that allowed ROH to provide a boost to their shows and was also a way for NJPW to expand its reach into the North American market. This American partnership provided the foundation for the NJPW World streaming service that became an important part of the Japanese league’s global expansion. Bushiroad improved the merchandising of the product and knew the importance of increased distribution. The popularity of the Bullet Club surged to become the most popular stable in the world, and the use of social media made many of the New Japan roster stars to the American market, a rare achievement for sports entertainment without the WWE machine behind it. Names like The Young Bucks, Cody, Kenny Omega, Okada etc. are legitimate money drawing stars, which was proven with the success of the All In event just a few months ago.

In fact, that success was the launching pad for All Elite Wrestling, the promotion owned by the Khan family, but produced by Cody and the Bucks. As I wrote in an article last week, the hype and funding behind AEW has the potential to really change the landscape. All Elite could provide an alternative to the WWE for the first time since WCW closed. However, for AEW to make an impact, there could be several changes within the wrestling business this year and some of those could have a direct effect on New Japan.

Toward the end of this year, the WWE will begin its mega TV deal, contracts that will bring the company a combined $2.4 billion during the next five years. In some ways, the company is completely secure as it will make more money during that time than any other point in history, but to maintain its stock value, there will always be the pressure to deliver ratings. Make no mistake about it, Vince McMahon maintained his sports entertainment empire against Ted Turner, the federal government, and other competition for the entertainment dollar because he always looks for ways to defend his turf. Vince will never casually relinquish any of the market share that WWE dominates in the United States. So, the WWE will undoubtedly sign the talent that they can in an effort to keep AEW or elsewhere from adding depth to the roster.

For example, stellar jr. heavyweight, Kushida announced that he will leave NJPW when his contract expires at the end of the month, an indication that he will sign a WWE deal. As much as some fans don’t want to see some New Japan talent make the jump because of how a competitor might be hindered within the system, it actually makes sense for Kushida to ink a WWE contract in 2019. He’s already a multiple-time champion and has done basically everything he can done in NJPW, especially considering that it didn’t seem like he would be booked to move up to the heavyweight division. Despite the physical Japanese style, Kushida hasn’t sustained many injuries, and a WWE run gives him the chance to make the most money in his career. Theoretically, the 35-year old could have a solid run in the WWE and retire early or decide to return to Japan for a fresh run after his time in the United States.

As reported by Tokyo Sports, Kenny Omega, who had an incredible IWGP title match at the Tokyo Dome last week, has said that he will depart New Japan. This further fuels the rumors about where he could end up next, All Elite or WWE? This is also where the situation gets more complex and could have a major effect on the direction of New Japan. According to The Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer, NJPW decided to continue its working agreement with ROH, which was expected since the two groups are scheduled to co-promote the Madison Square Garden card in April, but for now, New Japan isn’t scheduled to work with AEW. If Kenny Omega signs with WWE then the speculation is moot, but if he signs with AEW, does that close the door on an Omega-Tanahashi rematch at MSG since ROH and All Elite are technically competition? Furthermore, much of the draw of the All In event that provided the basis for AEW used some of the New Japan talent so without the access to New Japan competitors, does that hinder the group’s progress to get off the ground?

Assuming that Omega will exit NJPW, that must be considered a major departure for them, as he was arguably the most popularly foreigner on the roster and one of the key athletes of the North American expansion. Again, assuming that the ROH agreement prevents New Japan from working with All Elite, that will also translate to the exit of Cody and The Young Bucks, a trio that played a major role for the Japanese group, both in its native country and America. For Omega, at this point in his career, it makes sense for him to take the best money he can get because he already cemented his legacy with his incredible New Japan run, but he suffered a lot of injuries in the past year so it would be wise for him to cash-in for the most money he can get to provide financial security as well as options for an eventual retirement.

Still, New Japan has ambitious plans for 2019, including the start of the G1 in July at the 20,000 seat American Airlines Arena in Dallas. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see this type of expansion that can make NJPW a truly global product and despite the exits, there’s still a stacked roster, but I’m skeptical that the company can sell thousands of tickets in the United States after the departure of some of the key North American talent. As mentioned, the New Japan roster is solid so the organization isn’t in danger, but the general pattern for a boom period is roughly five years so will this momentum continue for the Japanese league? As I wrote last week, I think the best scenario would be for each promotion to work together because its possible that the crowded market in the United States could spread the talent too thin and thus prevent any particular company from reaching the level of a true alternative to WWE in the next few years.

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