New Japan Pro-Wrestling holds its first ever show in America tonight, and if you have AXS TV on your cable package or subscribe to Sling TV, you’ll be able to watch it live at 8 PM ET. We write about New Japan all the time here at Paste—it is, frankly, the best wrestling promotion in the world today, and thus our favorite—so we assume you’re probably familiar with it. (If you actually visit the weird, tiny little nook of this website that’s devoted to wrestling, that is.) It’s hard to imagine any wrestling fan on the internet who hasn’t grown familiar with New Japan over the last few years, considering how much hype and love the promotion (justifiably) gets online these days.
If you aren’t already enthralled by the unparalleled title reign of Kazuchika Okada, or the cooler-than-cool Tetsuya Naito, or the NWO-style cool heel schtick of Kenny Omega and the Bullet Club, you may not understand why New Japan’s G1 Special in USA shows this weekend are such a big deal. So here’s a quick summary of why wrestling fans of all stripes and preferences should be regular New Japan viewers, and what a new fan can expect from this weekend’s shows.
Japanese wrestling has long had a rep among American fans for presenting matches that are more realistic and athletic than what’s typically seen in WWE. That was true in the 1990s, when All Japan was putting on some of the best (and most brutal) pro wrestling ever seen, and it’s true again today with New Japan Pro-Wrestling. The current crop of New Japan stars, from champion Okada, to megaface Hiroshi Tanahashi, to the charismatic tweener Naito, are on a multi-year streak of some of the crispest and most dramatic wrestling you’ll ever see. Especially at a major show, like January’s Wrestle Kingdom or any of the G1 tournament events in July and August, you can expect a New Japan main event to go for over 20 minutes with little downtime or slow stretches. In 2017 alone Okada has already wrestled five matches that are legitimate match of the year candidates, including two with Kenny Omega that many consider to be the best wrestling matches in decades. The attempt to blur the lines between fact and fiction can be dangerous—Katsuyori Shibata will almost certainly never wrestle again after suffering a subdural hematoma in a fantastic match with Okada this April—and that raises some legitimate questions over whether this stiffer, more physically intensive style of wrestling should be toned down. If you can turn off the part of your mind that regulates guilt and concern, though, you’ll find New Japan’s matches to be more exciting, from a purely athletic standpoint, than anything on any WWE show these days. And this more serious-minded style lends a gravitas to New Japan’s championships and match results rarely seen in the business today. Simply put, New Japan matches feel more like real sports than most of what you see in this business today, and that makes it easier for fans to get more invested in the matches and titles. As Ring of Honor World Champion Cody Rhodes, who’s taking on Okada for New Japan’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship at tonight’s show, said on a recent conference call with wrestling media, “New Japan Pro-Wrestling and this world of sports entertainment skews heavily towards the sports. I think that’s what gives it that kind of aura… like the Stanley Cup or a major accolade in the sporting world.”
Kazuchika Okada is the best pure pro wrestler in the world today, but his entire act is also one of the flashiest and best developed of anybody in the business. His bleached blond hair, fancy robes and glittering ring entrance evokes Ric Flair, with a confidence that easily crosses over into arrogance and the in-ring acumen to back that up. Tetsuya Naito is basically the coolest guy in any room he’s in, between his crisp suits and utter disregard for all rules, and his Los Ingobernables de Japon stable is perhaps the most visually striking group of wrestlers in memory. Hiroshi Tanahashi, the 40-year-old superstar who was New Japan’s ace and centerpiece for most of the last decade, is like an anime rock star come to life. Kenny Omega, the Canadian daredevil who’s become one of the most popular wrestlers in America despite not working a single match here in over a year, is both a human highlight reel in the ring and a superbly melodramatic actor on the microphone. Toru Yano and Ryusuke Taguchi are more effective at comedy than almost any of WWE’s regular carousel of comedy jobbers, and I’m saying that as somebody who knows maybe three words of Japanese. Despite prioritizing the athletic side of pro wrestling, New Japan is still solidly what Vince McMahon would call sports entertainment, with the larger-than-life characters and show-stopping multimedia entrances that entails.
New Japan has a working arrangement with Ring of Honor in America and CMLL in Mexico. That means the top stars from both of those promotions regularly work New Japan shows in Japan. Some of that talent, like the Young Bucks, signs split deals with New Japan and their home promotion. Others, like the British high-flyer Will Ospreay, sign directly with New Japan, but regularly work for Ring of Honor in America. But this means that on many major New Japan shows you’ll see both the best Japanese wrestlers and top non-WWE international talent like the Young Bucks, Ospreay, Marty Scurll, Michael Elgin, Volador Jr, Dragon Lee, the Briscoes, War Machine, and more. New Japan will also regularly bring in non-contracted freelancers, like Ricochet, Cody Rhodes, ACH and Trent Beretta. Between these international talents, New Japan’s own roster, and the various Japanese freelancers that often work for the promotion, you’ll regularly see matches in New Japan that couldn’t happen in American promotions.
If you wanted to watch Japanese wrestling in America before YouTube, you had to trade videotapes with collectors or buy them from shady bootleggers. Today American fans can easily keep up with New Japan in two different ways. Major shows are streamed live on the subscription-based streaming service NJPW World, often with both a Japanese and English commentary track. (The current English commentators are former WWE and ROH announcer Kevin Kelly and former ECW color commentator Don Callis, who you might remember as the Jackal and Cyrus.) Those shows usually happen early in the morning during North American hours, but almost every major New Japan show is available for on demand streaming on the same day that it happens. NJPW World also has a selection of older matches that you can watch, although it’s not nearly as comprehensive as the WWE Network’s vault. If you have a smart TV, you can easily use Chromecast to stream it straight to your television.
If your cable package includes AXS TV, or if you use Sling TV, you can watch New Japan Pro-Wrestling on AXS TV on Friday nights. AXS’s show highlights the best New Japan matches from the last few months, with original commentary from wrestling icon Jim Ross and MMA legend Josh Barnett. Tonight’s show will actually be airing as it happens on AXS TV, with Ross and Barnett on commentary, and that’s the only place in America you can see it live.
Without either AXS TV or NJPW World, the current boom in American interest in New Japan probably wouldn’t be happening. You probably wouldn’t see Bullet Club shirts for sale in Hot Topics nationwide. Technology and America’s ever diversifying TV networks have helped make this modern golden age a possibility.
One of the major storylines heading into this weekend’s shows involves the brand new IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship. (The IWGP, or International Wrestling Grand Prix, is the “governing body” of New Japan Pro-Wrestling; most of the promotion’s titles use IWGP in their names instead of NJPW.) There’ll be a two-night, single-elimination tournament to crown the new champion, with the first round on tonight’s show and the semi-finals and finals happening tomorrow. The first round pits Kenny Omega against Michael Elgin, former ROH World Champion Jay Lethal against Bullet Club member Hangman Page, former NXT wrestler Juice Robinson against British stand-out (and current EVOLVE Champion) Zack Sabre Jr, and Tetsuya Naito against the hard-hitting Tomohiro Ishii. Many expect Omega and Naito to make it to the finals, as they are the biggest names in the tournament and legitimate main eventers, but New Japan is known for booking surprise finishes in its tournaments. And although Omega might make the most sense to establish this as a meaningful title, it could also seem beneath him to hold what will clearly wind up being a midcard championship in the larger New Japan picture. Don’t be surprised if the eventual winner is the last wrestler you’d expect from this field.
Kazuchika Okada has been the IWGP Heavyweight Champion for just over a year, starting his fourth reign with a win over Naito on June 19, 2016. Cody Rhodes has been the Ring of Honor World Champion for just over a week, winning his first world championship in any promotion from Christopher Daniels at ROH’s Best in the World pay per view on June 23, 2016. Tonight they’ll face each other at the G1 Special in USA in a match-up for Okada’s title. If Cody (who only uses his first name when he wrestles due to a legal dispute with WWE) wins, he’ll be the first wrestler to ever simultaneously hold the top New Japan and Ring of Honor singles titles at the same time, and only the sixth American to ever win the IWGP Heavyweight title in its 30 year history. It’d be a shock to see Okada’s historic run end with a loss to a former WWE midcarder who didn’t even start with New Japan until earlier this year, but Cody’s been perhaps the most successful and prominent freelancer in the world over the last year, so from a business perspective, it might be a good call. Especially since…
According to multiple reports from multiple wrestling journalists, New Japan plans on using its recent success in the US to launch a regular American territory on the west coast. Considering both of this weekend’s G1 Special in USA shows sold out within minutes, it’s hard to imagine anything happening at these shows that would slow down those plans. Launching a US-centric singles title is obviously a first step towards establishing that territory, but having an American like Cody, with WWE recognition and a legendary wrestling pedigree, win the IWGP Heavyweight Championship would be an even bigger sign that New Japan is serious in cracking the States.
If you want to watch what happens live, you can tune into AXS TV tonight at 8 PM ET to watch the first night of New Japan’s G1 Special in USA as it happens in Long Beach, California. Tomorrow’s second night will be streaming live on NJPW World at 8 PM ET, and airing on AXS TV next Friday.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games, comedy and wrestling sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.