Fans of New Japan Pro-Wrestling know that the product is constantly changing. The advent of New Japan World has made the product accessible globally, and the company’s brass hasn’t been shy about their intentions to expand. While fans see this move as a necessity and a step in the right direction, New Japan needs to make its decisions wisely. They’ve actively attracted many new fans by adding popular names like Chris Jericho and Rey Mysterio to their biggest cards of the year. Their upcoming Dominion event features both Jericho and Mysterio along with what many would argue is New Japan’s biggest rivalry: Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega. However, is New Japan forgetting it’s long-term storytelling in the process?
In what will be the fourth singles matchup between the two wrestlers, Omega looks primed to become the first gaijin IWGP Heavyweight Champion since AJ Styles and end Okada’s historic 700+ day title reign. Many fans see Omega as the face of New Japan’s global expansion and rightfully so. His matches against Okada garnered mainstream attraction and his alliance with the wildly popular Bullet Club faction have helped Omega become arguably the most well-known competitor in the company. However what makes this upcoming match so interesting is what’s preceded it. Earlier in the year Omega was entrenched in a storyline with another member of the Bullet Club in former WWE star Cody. This story had been building for months with the ego-driven Cody manipulating his way up the Bullet Club’s ranks and inevitably clashing with it’s leader Omega when Cody attacked Omega’s former tag-team partner Kota Ibushi. This led to the incredibly emotional reunion of Omega and Ibushi at January’s New Beginning in Sapporo. Fans were reintroduced to one of Japan’s legendary tag-teams of years past. Collectively known as the Golden Lovers, the duo began to fight back against Cody and in the process damaged Omega’s relationship with his Bullet Club and Being The Elite brethren the Young Bucks. The two teams would soon square off in a highly regarded match at Strong Style Evolved which saw Omega and Ibushi triumph. The Golden Lovers appeared ready to take over New Japan’s tag-team division and put the Bullet Club drama behind them. Then, after Kazuchika Okada’s 12th title defense, the champion called out Omega.
Now at New Japan’s second biggest event of the year Omega will put his team with Ibushi on the backburner as he attempts to accomplish one of his own personal goals in capturing the title. Omega has asked Ibushi to accompany him to the ring which has led to much speculation about the possibility of a heel turn for one of the characters. But my question is this; what if Omega wins the title? With the G1 Climax on the horizon, the Golden Lovers are going to have little to no time to team together and if Omega is champion, they’ll have even less time. So what was the point? Many fans (myself included) were looking forward to a long stretch of tag-team matches that could have elevated one of New Japan’s weakest divisions. Instead this reunion only feels like a vehicle to get Omega out of the Bullet Club. Which also begs the question, is Omega truly out of the Bullet Club yet? With no real resolution or definitive change in the character this entire story ends up feeling like a waste of time. Original members of the faction like Tama Tonga and Bad Luck Fale should have seen increased roles within the group but instead they are afterthoughts in what I believe may be New Japan’s most poorly executed storyline in a long time. So why is New Japan so timid to make any real progression with this story? Because Kenny Omega is supposed to be the face of this global expansion. American fans in particular are drawn to the maniacal Bullet Club version of Kenny Omega. Unfortunately it seems as though they reject the idea of Omega as a tag-team competitor as well. This has put New Japan in a tough spot and it’s what makes this match at Dominion so interesting. Personally I don’t care much for the matchup itself; I’m primarily interested in where this story goes from here.
What drew me into New Japan Pro-Wrestling was their ability to tell cohesive stories over long periods of time. Now it seems as though one of it’s best long term stories may be sacrificed for a short-term gain. New Japan has multiple events in the United States over the next few months and so far all indications are that officials within the company are disappointed with ticket sales. I believe they may be blaming this on Omega’s reduced role and are reacting by forcing him back into the main event scene. It’s very possible they have Omega end Kazuchika Okada’s epic title reign with the hope that this boosts ticket sales in America. It’s not a bad idea but realistically, how many extra tickets would it sell? One of the events is the CEO x NJPW: When Worlds Collide crossover event set to take place at the CEO Fighting Games Championships, an event Omega has attended and been featured in multiple times. Even though he has already been announced to compete and prices are set lower than the average market value, sales are moving at a snail's pace. New Japan’s most ambitious event in the US takes place in a little over a month at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, a ten thousand seat arena. As of today, not even half of those tickets have sold. Will Kenny Omega as IWGP Heavyweight Champion boost those sales or is this the symptom of a larger problem?
Another conflicting facet of this story involves the Young Bucks. After being beaten by the Golden Lovers in their debut as a heavyweight tag team, the duo would challenge for the NEVER Openweight Six-Man Championships with Marty Scurll. After successfully capturing the titles it appeared New Japan had finally found a direction for the championships and the Young Bucks would have an opportunity elevate an otherwise stale division. Then, in another bewildering twist, the Young Bucks would challenge current heavyweight tag champions EVIL and SANADA. This begs the question, what did the Young Bucks do to earn a shot at those titles? In their only other heavyweight tag match they were beaten by the aforementioned Golden Lovers. Why is New Japan awarding a losing team a championship match? In addition, what happens to the NEVER titles they hold? The answer is quite obvious. New Japan is again pandering to American fans and subsequently sacrificing logical and cohesive long term storytelling.
In order to drum up even more international interest in Dominion, New Japan has called in two of it’s biggest part-time stars: Chris Jericho and Rey Mysterio. Jericho recently returned at Wrestling Hi No Kuni attacking newly crowned IWGP Intercontinental Champion and leader of the Los Ingobernables de Japon faction Tetsuya Naito. Fans had all but lost hope that Jericho would return after attacking Naito four months earlier at New Year Dash, however, Jericho reemerged to restart his program with Naito just in time to set up a match at Dominion. There is no doubt that Jericho will bring new eyes to the product, but once again New Japan had to sacrifice one of its long-term stories. To recapture the Intercontinental title Naito would defeat another one of New Japan’s faction leaders - Minoru Suzuki. By almost all accounts Suzuki was having a career year and at the age of 49. The title match was widely regarded as a disappointment and ended abruptly. Moreover, Naito’s last reign with the championship told the story of him disowning and destroying the belt. Oddly enough, the build for his match with Suzuki told a similar story. Naito seemingly had no interest in the title; yet after the dust settled he was champion and Minoru Suzuki was left directionless. When Jericho first attacked Naito after Wrestle Kingdom he wasn’t after a championship, so why is he after one now? It’s very possible New Japan could hot-shot the title to Jericho so he can defend it at the aforementioned Cow Palace show - another attempt to pander to the American audience that unfortunately comes at the expense of long-term storytelling.
With New Japan growing concerned about ticket sales in America, it’s becoming clear their remedy is to draw more fans by giving American stars bigger roles within the company. I think there is a different problem facing the company: oversaturation. New Japan currently has an ongoing relationship with American promotion Ring of Honor which has led to many of New Japan’s top stars working ROH tours across the country over the last few years. This includes many of ROH’s biggest and best selling events. With growing access to New Japan stars via Ring of Honor, it’s very possible fans don’t see New Japan exclusive events as the unique attractions they once were or that they could be. Even once exclusive talents like Tetsuya Naito and Jushin Thunder Liger have made numerous appearances for smaller independent wrestling companies across the country. This unfortunately diminishes their appeal long term. New Japan is beginning to lose it’s mystique, a problem that needs to addressed and that won’t be remedied by any one wrestler. It may be time to reconsider the relationship with Ring of Honor. It may be time to go about this on their own - and I believe New Japan has the star power to do so.
Dominion is shaping up to be one of the most important events for New Japan moving forward. It’s the bridge that connects the first half of the year to the second. It’s an event that will likely begin to tell the story of Wrestle Kingdom 13. When Hiroshi Tanahashi helped pull New Japan from it’s dark ages, he was featured in the main event of five consecutive Wrestle Kingdom events. He was the Ace; the physical embodiment of New Japan Pro-Wrestling. He took on all challengers and stood tall. We are well removed from those dark ages and now New Japan is being led into uncharted territory. At Wrestling Dontaku, Tanahashi attempted to take back control.. but it’s not his ship anymore. There is only one man who will carry New Japan into its global expansion. The Ace of our generation: Kazuchika Okada. While Kenny Omega is a key component of today’s global expansion, Kazuchika Okada is the catalyst. His record setting title reign is something that may never be seen again. He has built his own legend piece by piece with some of the most legendary in-ring encounters of all time. Kenny Omega might be champion after all is said and done at Dominion, but he’s not the answer for New Japan Pro-Wrestling. It’s unclear how New Japan will respond to some of the problems it’s currently encountering. I believe the answer is what brought them to the dance: a product that has restored many hardcore fans belief in professional wrestling through epic long-term storytelling and in-ring competition.
You can watch Dominion LIVE from Osaka-Jo Hall on NJPW World on June 9th!