Matt Singh

Vince McMahon and Antonio Inoki: The fight of their professional lives

New Japan Pro Wrestling and World Wrestling Entertainment have a lot in common; both are the focal point of their respective regions, both are multi million-money companies, both have a great talent base with great ability to match and both are headed by lager than life characters and astute businessmen. However both have something working against them, themselves…

New Japan Pro Wrestling and World Wrestling Entertainment have a lot in common; both are the focal point of their respective regions, both are multi million-money companies, both have a great talent base with great ability to match and both are headed by lager than life characters and astute businessmen. However both have something working against them, themselves.

Vince McMahon, the current owner of WWE has something of an ego problem, as proved by history. The same could be said for NJPW founder Antonio Inoki. During the 1980’s, McMahon was the best promoter in the U.S, beating off challenges from the likes of Jim Crockett Promotions (whom had sufficient money to compete with McMahon), the Universal Wrestling Federation (headed by the first booker to build around episodic T.V, Bill Watts) and Texas-based World Class Championship Wrestling (founded by the legendary Von Erich family). True, all of the above promotions imploded at some stage or another just trying to keep-up with the WWF’s run-away ship, but McMahon was the one left standing. McMahon was able to beat his competitors by blatantly screwing over people left right and centre, however McMahon also showed streaks of creative genius in marketing and publicity when it came to media relations and knowing what Joe Average wanted. Riding on a tidal wave of mainstream publicity, McMahon tapped into the public’s consciousness and pushed All-American hero Hulk Hogan to the moon and reaped the benefits. WWE was a household product in the U.S, and to a lesser extent Europe.

By the end of the 1980’s, WWE’s mainstream tidal wave had slowed down, but the company was still miles ahead of their nearest competitors in regards to name notoriety thanks to storylines and angles involving Hogan and many larger than life characters much like Hogan and Vince McMahon himself. Moving into the 1990’s, Hogan was still on top programmed against various people, most notably against Sergeant Slaughter. Slaughter was an American armed forces serviceman whom had defected to the “evil” Iraqi forces of General Adnan and Col. Mustafa. The storyline was an obvious attempt to cash-in-on the middle-east war at the time, although McMahon vigilantly denied this at the time, and this was almost minuet to the bad press he would generate and receive three years later.

Throughout the 1980’s, there had been huge problems with steroids (and other narcotics) in WWE, as there had been through the entire North American industry during that decade. The problem was no more prevalent than in the WWF’s locker though. This was never made public by any sources within the company at the time, because the promotion was on fire and everyone had tons to lose. However, now in 1992 things weren’t looking quite as rosy as they did five years ago, with live attendance down, media coverage way down and general interest dwindling. McMahon and his promotion had one final trump card though, a program between two sure-fire money draws, Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan. McMahon blew it, big time. It wasn’t all McMahon’s fault though, Flair and Hogan had a certain amount of heat stemming from the 1980’s when they were the top draws for rival competitors, however there could have been an acceptable finish to the Flair/Hogan program that satisfied all involved. But the buck stops with McMahon, he could have worked a way around any issues the two had. In 1992 Vince McMahon missed the boat on a sure-fire money draw, a decade later he would do the same but this time it would be at a more costly price. Heading into 1993, McMahon and his outfit was hit with an earth-shattering revelation, the federal government had gotten wind of what all who followed WWE, and the industry as a whole, already knew.

Vince McMahon not only failed to stop the usage of performance-enhancing steroids, but he was encouraging and allowing the distribution of said substances. If they (the feds) had dug a little deeper, they would have found that class-A drugs were in regular use by many of WWE’s talent roster; a revelation which surely would have spelt the end for McMahon. It was quickly dubbed ‘the steroid scandal’, with Vince McMahon, the companies’ top draw at the time Hulk Hogan and WWE doctor George Zahorian at the centre of it all. Dr. Zahorian had been charged with distributing steroids to a ton of WWE wrestlers, with Hogan being one of them. Hogan left the promotion shortly after the scandal broke, hoping that his leaving would cause the story to blow-over. It didn’t. By 1994, WWE was on its knees, both commercially and creatively as sponsors bailed from the promotion in droves.

Antonio Inoki, founder of New Japan Pro Wrestling, had carved a legendary-status for himself during the 1970’s and 1980’s, battling such historic figures as Judo legend Gene LaBell, World champion boxer Leon Spinx and Mohammed Ali. There’s no mistaking Inoki had the star-quality about him, in Japanese pro wrestling’s hallowed history of 60 years-plus Inoki’s legend is only over-shadowed by that of Mitsuo ‘Rikidozan’ Momota, the founding father of the Japanese game. As well as himself becoming a star, his promotion was the first truly international one in almost every sense, be it staging cards in Russia, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea, to sending a horde of talent to Mexican-based promotions to grow as workers, to pushing foreigners as genuine on-top heel guys instead in the U.S where foreigners were treated with a certain degree of unintentional racism by bookers and fans alike (although this did happen at times, almost to an unintentionally racist degree). For a time, Inoki was the most powerful figure in the entire industry, and New Japan was the top promotion on the planet, with such names as Riki Choshu, Tatsumi Fujinami, Bruiser Brody, Abdullah the Butcher and Inoki himself all on top, and largely working dramatic matches that told the story in the ring. When Inoki realised his days as a top guy were over, he groomed several young guys, most notably Masahiro Chono who trained with Lou Thesz in Europe under Otto Wanz’s Catch Wrestling Association.

Throughout the early-to-mid 1990’s Chono became increasingly more of a top draw guy, and worked great matches with the greats as well as limited guys. During the 1990’s, he phased himself out of the New Japan top scene, but still remained a large part of the promotion, working the odd match here and there, then finally retired as an active worker in 1998 when he went over MMA legend Don Frye, a result which showed that, although Inoki was indeed one of the entire industry’s top 5 names ever, his ego had swelled to a large extent. Both Inoki and McMahon are master-manipulators as history proves, however their reign seems to be coming to an abrupt end. While both have been able to work the masses and project an image they see themselves as, now more than ever that façade can be readily exposed due to the openness of the industry now, compared to the previous two eras of the business.

With (dirt) sheets and the internet having a profound effect on the industry, Inoki and McMahon needed to realise the day of “93,000 at WrestleMania 3” or Inoki beating Mohammed Ali in a shoot-fight are long gone and an added sense of realism as well as being level-headed are needed in the current climate. The trouble is, when you surround yourself with ‘Yes Men’, and they all tell you you’re right, and after a while, you’ll start to believe you’re right when you are, in actuality, wrong. The ‘Yes Men’ theory is especially appropriate to Vince McMahon, who has 20-something year old writers too afraid to speak-up when they disagree with a creative (decision). Not that they disagree often, as the writing crew is mostly made up of clueless college kids who don’t know what basic ring psychology is, never mind how to write an entire, international promotion. The WWE’s current downfall is all about creative, and the solutions are simple to people on the outside of the promotion, but then again the people on the outside don’t have any ‘Yes Men’. Over the past two years, Vince McMahon and Co. have seemingly botched, blown and down-right pissed away sure-fire, money-gaining winning angles that were handed to them on a sliver platter all for the sake of a various number of people’s egos. What’s even more mind-boggling is that McMahon has been in a situation like this before, namely circa 1993-1997.

During said years McMahon has clearly become detached from what his audience wanted and in the meantime had created a product no one wanted or cared about, so 1997 came, and what did he do?…He finally realised that he had no clue what the fans wanted and threw in the towel and admitted it. WWE nearly went under in 1997 (like in 1994) and McMahon started listening to people’s ideas outside of his promotion/circle of ‘Yes Men’. As soon as he did start listening to outsider’s ideas, his promotion hit new commercial peaks the subsequent year with Steve Austin and, ironically enough, Vince McMahon himself on top.

Inoki was at least able to manipulate to the end of his in-ring career, pushing his retirement tour and final match as just that, his last match. Since his retirement however, New Japan has been on a downhill slide and has no signs of slowing up. While Inoki decided it was better to retire than to tarnish his legend, his guidance of New Japan since his ’98 swan song has been poor. Inoki’s lowlights as head of New Japan post his retirement include keeping the old guard, Masa Chono, Tatsumi Fujinami, Keiji Mutoh and numerous others on top, despite being broken-down hurting old guys with name-value only, instead of creating fresh young guys who can carry the ball when called upon.

This is exactly the reason WCW died, and if they’re not careful, the same reason WWE and New Japan will die. With Inoki’s fascination in shooting, he continually pushed the idea of shoots post-’98, and over the past few years has starting running the mind-boggling idea of works and shoots on a same show. How anyone could possibly see an upside to this is baffling for so many (obvious) reasons. However, in November 2003, the line-up for the companies’ annual traditional was announced, and not a single shoot was on the sheet. In retrospect it’s disheartening that it’s taken New Japan management so long to realise that shoots and works don’t belong on a predominately pro wrestling show. WWE is in real danger of dying, as struggling to pull 3000 people at house shows, shows.

People may point to 1994 and the dire situation they were in then and still turned it around. People may point to 1997 and the company on the verge of closure and them managing to turn things around. But this isn’t 1994. This isn’t 1997. And things are different now, people play political games as if their life depends on it. They have their eyes and ears in every production meeting, they have their mouth in every ear of management. More importantly, they’re on top working main events. This process is the exact same one that killed WCW, a billion dollar company owned by the second biggest company in the entire world. No one ever though WCW would die and it did, no one ever though Jim Crockett Promotions would die, and it did. It can happen to any pro wrestling promotion, but no one will ever believe it will until it does, and it’s a classic case of burying one’s head in the sand when it all implodes.

New Japan does have a huge advantage of WWE though, in terms of how long it will survive. If either New Japan or WWE dies, it’ll be WWE first, because New Japan, and indeed Puroresu as a whole, has the backing of Yakuza men. Yakuzas are so entrenched with Puro that they dictate where tours go, and also which, not all but some, foreigners are booked on tours. The Yakuza as a whole have far, far more money than Vince McMahon or his main investors. As stated before, Vince was on the verge of bankruptcy in 1994 and 1997, however New Japan has never been in that position.

There have been times when things weren’t doing that great, such as the current time. In this current down-turn, New Japan has pulled it’s lowest Tokyo Dome attendance ever (35,000) for it’s Orange Crush II show featuring Hulk Hogan versus Masa Chono and numerous shootfights. Believe me when I say the later of those two was responsible for the poor attendance figures. Hiroyoshi Tenzan is one bright thing to come out of the past year though. His gradual ascent to the top of the New Japan mountain hasn’t been easy by any stretch of imagination. After tagging with Satoshi Kojima and enjoying a good run with the promotion’s tag titles in 2001, Kojima jumped to All Japan that year, leaving Tenzan to fend for himself as a singles wrestler.

After a good showing in the 2001 IWGP Heavyweight title tournament for the vacant title (which Kensuke Sasaki won), Tenzan quickly became just another wrestler for the promotion. However, by early-mid 2003, Tenzan was considered as being a top-line worker, and indeed won the 2003 G-1 Climax tournament in a match of the year candidate over Pro Wrestling NOAH’s Jun Akiyama. Tenzan was clearly on a roll and finally reached the summit of New Japan when he went over Yoshihiro Takayama for the IWGP title. Creating credible, believable champions to work on top isn’t an easy thing to do, and with New Japan’s current strife, one would think they aren’t capable of it. But they are.

Match-makers Masahiro Chono and Jushin Lyger have been around to long and seen too much to not know how to make a headliner, or at least book him. Ironically, it’s company founder Antonio Inoki who has no idea what makes a 21st century headliner, and how to book him. From his genesis, Inoki has been striving to merge pro wrestling and mixed martial arts, and in retrospect, seeing him time and time again going over the likes of Gene LaBell, Inoki truly believes pro wrestling is the superior form of fighting. Obviously thats complete nonsense, but thinking like this is still evident three decades on when Inoki books pro wrestlers on Pride shows, and against shooters on Tokyo Dome cards. For Vince McMahon, the current downturn could have been avoided, it almost defies belief just how many mistakes he and his cohorts have made since 2001. With Brock Lesnar and Kurt Angle being the two notable exceptions, WWE hasn’t created any new, moneymaking headliners.

In fact, they’ve destroyed more ready-made money draws than they’ve made, with the likes of Goldberg, Booker T and RVD all being, seemingly on purpose, booked to fail from a drawing point of view. Any promotion, no matter which continent, needs to build for the future, and if it weren’t for the booking genius of Jim Cornette and the training aptitude of Danny Davis in Ohio Valley Wrestling, WWE wouldn’t have John Cena, Lesnar, Angle, Haas, Benjamin and numerous others. The list goes on and on. Without OVW and Cornette, WWE would be far, far worse off than they are right now, and even with OVW working miracles WWE still finds a way to botch it’s students’ first national exposure up. Even the WWE writers don’t keep tabs on OVW, Jim Cornette has as much as admitted that. As said before, the future for every promotion is in making new stars that the fanbase want to pay money to see. What kind of future, if any, does WWE have if the writers, the people in charge of the shows and who dictate who gets the big push, don’t even follow their own developmental territory?

Obviously, everything goes through Vince McMahon, but when you have a team of writers that praise every move you make, even the most nonsensical suggestion can seem plausible. With pay-per-view buys down drastically this year, WWE can only brace themselves for more of the same in 2004. WWE management may be able to throw their shareholders off the scent, but the general viewing public know the promotion is struggling at the moment and again know it’ll take a lot, both resources and time, for it to turn around. It’s all to similar in Japan; the mainstream press doesn’t cover the promotion like it did yesteryear, and now with Antonio having split with Pride Fighting Championships, things are going to get very ugly in Japan in 2004. If New Japan is to recover from it’s current state, Masa Chono and Jushin Lyger, who booked the shows, need to win the power struggle within New Japan. And they have a good chance too, as Seiji Sakaguchi, part of management, is in favour of Chono and Lyger and their booking methods of pro wrestling and only pro wrestling as opposed to Inoki’s MMA/pro wrestling hybrid theory. Whether it be New Japan or WWE, 2004 will be a very interesting year, but as things stand, not for good reasons.