New Japan is in trouble both commercially and creatively. All Japan has been on the verge of closure for three years now. Newly formed World of Fighting Japan is still in its genesis. Toryumon has a product that caters to a small audience. Zero One holding steady, or going nowhere, depending on how you want to see it. Only Mitsuharu Misawa’s Pro Wrestling NOAH is doing good business. Yes, Puroresu (Japanese pro wrestling), is in a dire state at the moment and there seems to be no changes imminent to correct this. The solutions are there for all to see, like WWE’s current death-kneel, 90% (and/or more) are down to the creative process, as is always the case in a dying promotion, or one that has kicked the bucket (evidenced by history). This isn’t the first time Puro has been in trouble, not by a long shot. However this is the first time that New Japan has drawn record low Tokyo Dome attendance records and general interest drop in the companies’ product. Whether this is because of works and shoots being used on the same show or not is arguable. Using works and shoots on a single show does nothing for your promotion’s credibility. See, why would an audience member want to see a ‘fake’ work after they’d seen a shoot with full-contact fighters slogging it out? Surely that just devalues the guys that are in the works? Mind-boggling as this is, New Japan and its legendary founder Antonio Inoki are pressing ahead with this idea. Even more mind-boggling is the fact that Inoki already has a shoot/Mixed Martial Artist promotion named Pride Fight Championships that’s globally considered the best of it’s field. Why Inoki wants to seemingly have two of the same is, again, mind-boggling. But, almost everything he does in the current era makes little sense. This pattern of buffoonery isn’t anything new for Inoki, but during the current New Japan era, he’s gone into over-drive.
Throughout his career, Inoki always put himself first which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as he was the head of the company and was always going to be around longer than most all others. Which isn’t to say it would’ve been ok for him to bury people, and thankfully he didn’t; the likes of Bruiser Brody, Stan Hansen, Vader and numerous others have upped their stock considerably after taking tours of New Japan working with Inoki on top. Inoki did do a lot right during his heyday, tons, in fact. He pushed the flyers seriously (like Jushin Liger, Tiger Mask, Dynamite Kid etc etc), used others around him on top for periods of time, gave little known names serious chances to showcase their talents (Mark Rocco, Dynamite Kid) and produced and put-out compelling angles and story-telling in the ring. One thing remained constant though; Inoki always had his hand raised, in the main event. After a while, not matter how good of a carrier someone is, if they keep winning over and over, the fans start to see thru and turn away from the predictable outcome. Giving someone you’re working with a win is essential if the program/feud as a whole is going to be successful, it’s a two-way thing. Inoki may have built himself a legend, but after he retired in 1998, there’s no one left to fill the void vacated. Masahiro Chono was one of the promotion’s biggest names during the 1990’s, but whenever Inoki wanted to push himself to the top again, Chono had no choice but to step aside. Jushin Liger, although treated as a serious flyer, was never given a long run on top of the card. Shinya Hashimoto was given room to maneuver on top, but like Chono, stepped aside so many times. Tatsumi Fujinami was a few years younger than Inoki, but was in the same age group, so he never had a shot at the top.
All names mentioned above are legendary in Puro, and indeed the industry in general, but they never got the chance to be what Inoki was. Inoki worked with them at various times, but Inoki’s shadow always dominated. Essentially, Inoki built his company into a giant ego trip; weather he meant to do it or not another topic altogether, but the evidence available seems to point to a ‘yes’ answer.
Moving on from New Japan, their fire rival of many decades, All Japan Pro Wrestling is in even more trouble. Ever since founders’ Shohei Baba’s death in 1999, All Japan has been stumbling from year to year somehow staying alive. The genesis of All Japan’s troubles started when the then All Japan top-draw guys like Kenta Kobashi jumped to fellow All Japan top guy Mitsuharu Misawa’s newly formed Pro Wrestling NOAH in June 2000. This left All Japan on its last legs, seemingly destined to joined the plentiful scrap heap of failed pro wrestling promotions. But it didn’t. Shohei Baba may have passed, but his widow Motoka Baba was more than willing to steer the promotion; after all, it’s said that she had as much power as Shohei when he was alive. Weather she did or not is debatable, but forces outside of her control were vying for her spot as power-merchant. New Japan stalwart and Puro legend Keiji Mutoh showed interest to having as crack at All Japan’s leader and booker, and got his wish. Whatever hope All Japan faithful had of Mutoh rescuing their beloved company soon vanished, as Mutoh showed the same ineptitude for leadership and matchmaking as his mentor and former employer, Antonio Inoki. Mutoh did manage to do something Shohei Baba never did, nor wanted to do; formed a working relationship with Shohei’s bitter rival Inoki.
The two former rivals turned part-time friends traded and swapped talent, and even went as far as to stage cards together. Under Shohei Baba, this would’ve never happened. When 90% of the All Japan roster jumped to Mitsuharu Misawa’s Pro Wrestling NOAH, only a few guys stayed behind, like Kenta Kobashi, Vader and Stan Hansen (with the latter two eventually leaving eventually; Vader to going to NOAH first than Fighting World of Japan, and Hansen retiring in 2001). Numerous big-draw names have wandered into All Japan to lend support, but the company continued to flounder at the box office. All Japan’s dire troubles, in an ironic twist, like New Japan’s, lay directly linked to its founder. While Shohei Baba was able to groom the next group of top guys after his (Baba’s) self-educed phasing-down of the card, both Baba and the next generation of stars were never able to produce, season and groom the second generation of stars, thusly no one was there to pick up the reigns when Misawa and crew jumped to NOAH. The reason Misawa himself left was because he was fed-up with Shohei Baba and the old guard, Baba’s death gave him the perfect chance to leave and do his own thing. All Japan has been on the verge of bankruptcy on numerous occasions over the past few years, how close, only All Japan management knows. Just by staying alive in a cutthroat industry, All Japan deserves to be where it was ten years ago. But this is pro wrestling, and when things are bad, they’re normally as bad as you can imagine. With Keiji Mutoh in charge of All Japan, as well as its top draw, the company is going nowhere fast and as showed by history, it’s incredibly difficult to turn a dying promotion around even with the best resources and tons of financial aide. All Japan has no substantial financial aide, or particularly large or consequential resources at its disposal.
Zero-One, formed and operated by former New Japan star Shinya Hashimoto is doing ok business, it’s not on fire, but holding onto a position where it’s making a profit. Whatever leadership Keiji Mutoh may lack, Hashimoto makes up for it. Hashimoto has showed his business acumen by forming relationships with overseas promotions, and bringing in name-valued foreign guys for Zero-One tours. Hashimoto also has a willingness to push and promote wrestlers who wouldn’t normally get a serious shot in most other promotions. Lightweight flyers can be seen on top of the card at almost any given time, as well as foreign lightweights and foreign independent wrestlers who can’t get a look-in at home with a large promotion. Hashimoto is also not guilty of doing what his former boss, Inoki, did and Hashimoto is frequently seen wrestling midcard matches tagging with flyers/junior heavyweights. Zero-One is neither in a good or bad position, but rather an indifferent one, a rut. It’s quite confusing as well, when you consider that the product they put out, is a relatively good one, although the promotion is fairly new, compared to New Japan and All Japan, and really hasn’t had the chance to become a monster at the box office, yet. With Hashimoto in the driving seat, things look good, if not better for Zero-One as the founder is able to attract fellow big-name players to his promotion and still has strong ties to television networks in Japan stemming from his days in New Japan. Zero-One seems destined to become a player in the Japanese industry, although you can never tell what tomorrow brings. Just ask All Japan and New Japan; doing respectable business one year (All Japan, 1999) and pulling huge Tokyo Dome crowds of 60,000 (New Japan, 1998), then starting to falter a year later. Hashimoto lived thru New Japan’s down period after 1998. He knows, or at least should, what it takes to avoid a downward spiral, however if pro wrestling history has taught us anything, it’s that people in the industry never learn from others’ past mistakes. For Zero-One’s sake, Hashimoto had better of learned.
Toryumon is a scintillating promotion at the current time, indeed, arguably the No.1 in-form outfit going. Choc-full of young hungry workers all capable of fast-paced, highspots-filled matches, or down on the ground mat wrestling clinics, the promotion has a future, weather it’s a bright one or not remains to be seen. The groups demographic is mostly made-up of female housewives and female teens, as evidence by the worker gimmicks used (such as Genki Higuchi’s stripper gimmick). While this demographic may follow the product, it’s highly unlikely they’ll take Toryumon beyond a cult level and too a national one. Which is sad, because if any promotion deserves it, it’s Toryumon. Toryumon were dealt a big blow earlier in 2003, when it was announced the promotion’s founder and operator, Ultimo Dragon (real name Yoshihiro Asai) would be leaving for a full time job with WWE (with which Chris Jericho helped to get him in WWE). Dragon’s debut was hyped by WWE, and he debuted. However, things didn’t go well after his debut thru no fault of his own, WWE management has long been indifferent to smaller wrestlers (which Dragon is). It shouldn’t be long before Dragon is performing Topes, Hurricanas and Asai Moonsaults before the year’s end. A Dragon return to Toryumon can only be a positive thing for the small time promotion, as the outfit has surely missed Dragon’s guiding hands. In Magnum Tokyo and Dragon Kid, the promotion has probably the best two Junior heavyweights outside of a major league, and should look to build the future around the two. Like Noah and Zero-One, Toryumon is a relative up-start promotion, and has quickly found it’s legs, or at least has it’s foot in the door of opportunity and if the promotion was going to die because of it being a new-born promotion, it would’ve kicked the bucket by now. Toryumon is here to stay…for the time being. The promotion has what not many other Puro groups have; youth, and total youth. The outfit is formed of entirely youthful workers. In the wrestling industry, those who don’t plan for the future have no future and Toryumon is fitted-out for years to come, bar any talent raiding by the bigger promotions.
Another promotion that’s still in it’s (very) early years is Riki Choshu’s Fighting World of Japan (FWJ). Still in it’s genesis, but with Choshu at the helm, FWJ has been able to pull-in the big names like Vader, The Road Warriors, Takao Omori, Genichiro Tenryu and numerous others thanks to Choshu’s legendary status in Puroresu. Choshu, so far, seems to be a mixture of Hashimoto and Mutoh in regards to leadership; whilst FWJ has brought-in younger guys to work, they’re mostly on the under card, while Choshu and fellow aging legend Tenryu are mostly seen on top. Unlike Toryumon, who’ve started from scratch with virtually no big name draws, FWJ have been able to pull in decent sized crowds. They have a ready-made base to lift off from. The same goes for NOAH. That may seem an advantage, and it may very well be, but there’s a downside, a huge downside. Fans want to see development, they want to be told a story. When you start a promotion off with a significant base, or even at the top, there’s only one-way; down. With Toryumon, their fans are eager to see their little promotion grow and flourish into something bigger without compromise. That’s not to say FWJ is doomed, it has a dedicated fan base already in place, probable formed of the mass exodus that left New Japan in droves when they started to hit the skids in 1999/2000. As long as FWJ has Choshu’s name associated with it they’ll have a following, as the fans of Puro have a deep sense and respect for history and it’s legendary names.
Puroresu is known for its goodness, for the most part. Obviously is has its flaws and faults, but its never come this close to imploding. If the high-ups don’t rectify these problems, Japanese pro wrestling will be dropping to levels it’s never been to before. It’s hard to find your way out of a dark room you’ve never been in before.Matt Singh