For some time now it has been a poorly kept secret in the wrestling world that New Japan Pro Wrestling is a promotion on the rise. On the back of some of the most spectacular matches ever wrestled the company has built a reputation as as a very real alternative to the WWE. Last weekend with the culmination of Kenny Omega’s ascent to the top of the company at their second biggest PPV of the year, NJPW stormed the Connecticut Coup and comprehensively beat the WWE at one of its greatest strengths, in depth, week to week storytelling.
The reason I love wrestling is for the stories it tells, I love how over a month, a year or sometimes even longer, you can watch a wrestler slowly grow as a character, move through conflict and establish rivalries or relationships with other wrestlers that create long term stories. My first ever wrestling column was titled, Pro Wrestling And Why More Sports Should Be Fake because I believe that wrestling is the best medium at doing this on a week to week basis. At the time I was riding high on the resumption of the story of Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins, my favourite wrestling story of all time between two of my favourite wrestlers of all time.
Unfortunately this year has been a bit more of a rough slog for me as a WWE fan and I know that I’m not the only one that feels this way. There have been a few bright spots in Seth Rollins Show Slaying, 205 Live’s dedication to simple but effective wrestling stories, Daniel Bryan’s return and the two NXT Takeovers but generally there has been a lot that has left me disillusioned and wondering why I pay such close attention to the WWE. I like to be rewarded for my attention, where stories come together in a logical way with a beginning, middle and ending and where little details are sprinkled in that call back to previous moments in the story.
The WWE actually had the chance to do this with its much maligned Brock Lesnar v Roman Reigns program leading up to Wrestlemania 34. In this story the WWE had a great beginning in their inconclusive Wrestlemania 31 ending and middle as they both regained championships and slowly worked through the roster until only the one man was left to conquer. They were even working to a climax that fit the motives of the characters and called back to the rest of their rivalry. When The Shield debuted in 2012 the trio declared they were in the WWE to right the injustice that surrounded them. In the weeks leading up to Mania 34, the de facto hero of the story Roman Reigns called out the final great injustice in the WWE, the conduct of the Universal Champion Brock Lesnar and said at Wrestlemania he would right this injustice. Lesnar, a prize fighter at heart, would not take these words lying down and was motivated to defend his privileged place at the top of the roster.
It was Vince McMahon that famously said, “we aren’t a wrestling company, we make movies,” well any screenwriter worth their paycheck will look at the story I’ve just laid out and tell you what should happen. The Hero’s Journey should end with the hero winning, Luke Skywalker blew up The Death Star, Harry Potter defeated Voldemort, Frodo destroyed The Ring and even if you don’t like him, in that story Roman Reigns should have beaten Brock Lesnar.
The crazy thing is that this is what the WWE is meant to be best at! Most wrestling fans know that there are lots of promotions with high quality in ring action outside of the ‘E but we stick with them for the characters and stories that we are invested in. We want to Relive the Yes Movement (cheap plug to check it out on LOP every Saturday), we want to see the next chapter in Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose tale, we want to see AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura unleashed, we want to see Braun Strowman get his hands on everyone and everything in his constant search for more competition. But what happens when the WWE can’t even do the main thing it says has going for it? What happens when the‘ movies’ the WWE write don’t make a lick of sense? What happens when you become worried about your favourite wrestler’s return because the WWE is in such bad form they they may screw him up too?
Well in this year of discontent, NJPW has cut through my disillusion like a hot knife through butter. At the forefront of my budding fandom has been the two stories that culminated in the monumental main event at Dominion: Kenny Omega’s chase of the IWGP Heavyweight Title and The Bullet Club Civil War.
The title chase has been a story that has gone on for eighteen months and has seen some of the greatest pro-wrestling matches ever. Omega has pushed Kazuchika Okada, the greatest IWGP Heavyweight Champion ever, to the absolute limit twice and gained one victory in a non-title match. Throughout, the bilingual Omega has declared he wants to change the world of pro wrestling and proclaimed himself the future of a company with international ambitions. This has been a traditional rivalry of a great champion and a great contender and the matches have combined off the charts athleticism with in-ring psychology and storytelling that has built upon each of the previous encounters these wrestlers have had with one another.
For Omega though the road through these matches has got progressively tougher with infighting and jostling for power within his Bullet Club faction distracting him from his ultimate goal and giving his character another massive obstacle (and sub-plot) to overcome.
The instigator in this conflict, The American Nightmare Cody Rhodes (now just Cody thanks to WWE copyright). Cody sowed the seeds of doubt in Omega’s leadership when he threatened to throw in the towel during the second Omega and Okada match at Dominion last year and entered into open rebellion by attacking the Bullet Club leader in January. Cody knew he could not topple Omega at the head of a united faction so he used Omega’s reunion with former Golden Lovers tag partner Kota Ibushi to drive a wedge between Omega and the rest of the Bullet Club, including Omega’s closest allies The Young Bucks. The collateral damage of this leadership challenge has been significant within the faction and spawned its own stories amongst the group’s members.
This whole saga has been brilliantly chronicled on Being The Elite, a weekly Youtube show centered around The Young Bucks, Cody, Omega and their faction that blends social media vlogs with kayfabe storytelling. The last six months of episodes have watched like something from Game of Thrones where the Littlefinger like Cody has been constantly whispering sweet nothings to the Bucks and other Bullet Club members, turning them against the noble hero Kenny Omega.
These two storylines came together in the breathtaking 2/3 falls match at Dominion between Omega and Okada. In the pre-match video Omega’s lover Kota Ibushi asked him what this final chance to change the world had cost him and Omega responded simply by saying, “everything”. The match that Omega and Okada put on was full of callback to their previous encounters and positioned the pair perfectly. Okada as the unstoppable, unflappable Ace of the company and Omega as someone who would fight until he could no longer fight and then some more. The effectiveness of these two stories was clear when Omega finally won and it was the final embrace with Matt and Nick Jackson of The Young Bucks that got the biggest cheer from the crowd, even more than Omega accepting the Heavyweight Title.
This wasn’t the only story NJPW told this weekend either: a burnt out and malevolent Chris Jericho taught Tetsuya Naito what it truly meant to not give a f***, like Icarus Will Osprey once again flew close to the sun and this time got burnt and The Young Bucks culminated their own odyssey, finally winning the IWGP Tag Team Championship.
However the main event stands out as The Essential Wrestling Story; throughout the eighteen months it has run it has mixed triumph and disaster and has a logical build up and pay off. It rewarded you for investing in the details of the story and the history of the characters. The story even has a logical next step as Omega now must face Cody to resolve their personal conflict.
To be blunt, it was light years ahead of anything the WWE has offered up this year.
I’m not going to sit here and proclaim the death of the WWE, somehow they have a more profitable business than ever despite the glaringly obvious flaws with their core product. In fact I still love the WWE and its characters. They currently have the most talented roster they have ever had and if they can fix their creative failings they could take us on quite the ride. However from Dominion last weekend it is clearer than ever that there is another game in town and right now New Japan are not only maintaining the in ring strengths they have always had but are going toe to toe with the WWE in its supposed strongest area and coming up trumps.
Thanks for reading, let me know what you thought of NJPW Dominion in the comments below, on Twitter @Sir_Samuel or you can check out the NJPW Dominion thread on the LOP forums here for more long form discussion. I’ll also be appearing on The Implication’s Perfect 10 Podcast this Thursday where we will be talking about Dominion and imperfectly booking WWE Money In The Bank.