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”The Doc” Chad Matthews has been a featured writer for LOP since 2004. Initially offering detailed recaps and reviews for WWE’s top programs, he transitioned to writing columns in 2010. In addition to his discussion-provoking current event pieces, he has written many acclaimed series about WrestleMania, as well as a popular short story chronicle. The Doc has also penned a book, The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment, published in 2013. It has been called “the best wrestling book I have ever read” and holds a worldwide 5-star rating on Amazon, where it peaked at #3 on the wrestling charts.
QUESTION OF THE DAY: What’s the closest comparison you can make between your wrestling fandom and something else in your life?
For about three years now, New Japan Pro Wrestling has sat on the periphery of my wrestling viewing attention. When Prince Devitt came to the United States to become Finn Balor, his podcast interviews about his experiences in Japan made me more aware of the work that AJ Styles, a talent who was literally the sole reason that I got hooked on TNA from 2003 to 2006, was doing in Balor’s stead as leader of the increasingly popular Bullet Club. Then, entries in LOP’s Columns Forum, most notably from the co-host of the fantastic Legacy Series on LOP Radio, began gushing over WrestleKingdom. As the noise level about NJPW grew louder, peaking with Kenny Omega’s rise to the forefront of the promotion, its product became more accessible. I finally watched a New Japan match last January, unable to ignore the volume coming from the 6-star praise heaped upon Omega’s challenge of Kazuchika Okada, a match that I referred to then as one that “redefined what I thought that a wrestling match could be.” After watching Omega-Okada IV last month, I am wondering whether or not a full embrace of NJPW might end up redefining my overall wrestling fandom.
I have been an unabashed WWE guy since 1990, when Ultimate Warrior’s colorful histrionics stimulated a takeover by his employer of the grittier, more adult-oriented WCW product as the primary promotion that I followed (despite living deep in the heart of Flair country, a short ten minute drive from the Greensboro Coliseum). You follow anything passionately for that long and it becomes part of who you are; for me, WWE fandom is the equivalent to my fandom for Notre Dame football, insomuch as a conversation about me between people that really know me will not go more than twenty minutes without bringing up WWE or Notre Dame. So, even though I have always considered myself just a straight up pro wrestling fan – I was essentially introduced to it via the NWA and USWA and later followed WCW and TNA – I have principally been a WWE fan, considering it in many ways like I do my deep appreciation for basketball mostly through the NBA, even though I occasionally dabble in the college and international games; it has thus been the case, for as long as I can remember, that when somebody brought up pro wrestling, I just immediately defaulted the sports/entertainment genre to WWE, just like if someone brought up basketball I would default to the NBA, each from a global perspective the grandest entities in their respective classes.
Omega and Okada might be in the midst of changing that for me…
What I find so striking about the Omega-Okada matches is that their presentation blends my affinity for pro wrestling with my passion for sport, its storytelling based on a central theme of the championship being the Holy Grail; everyone wants to be the best, which means that everyone wants to win the IWGP Heavyweight Title, but only a select few ever can. There is meaning in the exclusivity of that achievement, and at the same time there is also a pervading notion that you should never count anyone out of the race. Like in the NBA, where it takes a generational star and/or a legendary team that was greater than the sum of its parts to win the title, NJPW continually reminds of the difficulty in becoming the champion. All sorts of other stories are there to be told, as well, but the top title is the sun around which the rest of the product orbits, and whoever wears the gold represents the company in the most overt way possible.
The WWE Championships, World and Universal, have struggled in a post-brand split 2.0 wrestling world to maintain similar positions in their respective promotion. Smackdown’s top title has felt secondary or tertiary (or a Jinder-stimulated worse) in the WWE hierarchy for longer over these past two years than it has seemed worthy of the “richest prize in the business” moniker once bestowed upon it; Raw’s #1 belt has been downgraded by both the odd booking of its first real wearer and the absentee-status of its long-reigning current holder. Throughout the 2000s, the Holy Grail in WWE shifted from holding the top prize to being in the advertised main-event of WrestleMania, so there is long-standing awareness that the present day trend toward less-storyline-valuable “World” championships is not a fresh phenomenon, but there is also disappointment in knowing that, not only have the top titles been tarnished to varying degrees in their effectiveness at telling stories, WWE has chosen as well to reserve the new Holy Grail for part-timers and perhaps its most high profile creative failure of all time, “hero-mode” Roman Reigns.
We know as basketball fans that the whole point, the “white whale” MacGuffin of each NBA season, is winning the championship. Amidst every other storyline that may unfold between July and the end of the regular season in April, we know all dramatic roads will eventually lead back to who wins the title in June. In New Japan, it is very much the same; you can count on the IWGP Heavyweight Title to be part of the foundation of your investment as a viewer (a fact, by the way, that has never been dependent on wrestling being a shoot). Watching Okada vs. Omega recently, I fully bought that I was seeing two men who believed with every fiber of their being that the winner of their match, pre-determined or not, was the best professional wrestler alive. I find it utterly fascinating not to be able to echo the same sentiment about the world’s most dominant sports entertainment conglomerate, neither about the top titles nor main-eventing on the grandest stage.
As WWE fans, for what are we rooting nowadays for the wrestlers with whom we most identify? A title reign regularly relegated to side-show duty for the “real” headliners, a 15-minute mid-card bone thrown his/her way at WrestleMania, or a divine gift in the form of a star who made it big sixteen to thirty years ago allowing one of our favorites to share the ring with him? We can no longer bank on the tried and true concept of watching the contemporary characters we resonate with “make it” because “making it” has lost its meaning.
Okada vs. Omega showed me that NJPW has struck, in its modern age, the balance that I personally consider ideal between sport and entertainment; NJPW has found a way to accentuate the entertainment inherent to sport, which regardless of its legitimate nature is dependent upon being entertaining, and has built its product around it. Part of the reason that I posit Rock-Austin II as among the greatest matches ever is because it was perhaps the quintessential example in WWE lore of competition as the narrative drive, with the WWF Title taking center stage as the prize representative of who most wanted to be “The Man.” WWE has lost sight of that, and one of the most frustrating things about its product today is that there are not any obvious signs that they are even aware of it, which suggests that a key piece of the sports-entertainment puzzle might continue to be missing from WWE for the foreseeable future.
I am beginning to wonder if maybe I would be better off comparing WWE from here on to professional soccer in Europe, where success is more broadly defined and where there exist a bevy of different leagues and competitions to choose from as a fan of the game. As an Arsenal supporter, you can hope that they might achieve a bevy of different victories, from winning the Champions League (double ha!) or the English Premier League (ha!) to finishing high enough up the table to qualify for the next season’s Champions League to winning the England-wide FA Cup; maybe in this day and age in WWE, seeing your favorite get that 15-minutes of mid-card time at WrestleMania should be a massive reason to celebrate. Perhaps it would also be beneficial to view WWE more like the EPL, comfortably the world’s most popular of the European top flight organizations, than the NBA, with NJPW playing the role of La Liga, Spain’s primera division featuring some of the best players on the globe. The point of the comparison is to shape professional wrestling in the modern era beyond the context of a single world power that renders the rest of the sports/entertainment genre an afterthought competing for sixth place because first through fifth are monopolized in public consciousness.
In this down period of WWE lore, I am going to continue to explore these types of thoughts. It may be that my pro wrestling passion will depend on a redefinition of my fandom; that is what it has come to.