New Japan Pro Wrestling
Yokohama Arena (Yokohama, Japan)
IWGP Heavyweight Championship
Despite the fact that a viewer in the United States can now follow a foreign promotion like New Japan with relative ease, there still exists an “outsider looking in” feeling to following a Japanese promotion. That is because even though NJPW wants the business of wrestling fans in North America and Europe we are not their target audience. We are left with the task of looking through the window, watching the action, and simply guessing how the domestic Japanese viewers feel about the product. Whether we like what we see is ultimately irrelevant since we are not their audience. It is whether those inside like the product that matters and what they like or want can only be guessed by us outsiders.
When A.J. Styles defeated Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship on May 2nd in Japan thanks to a heavy dose of interference that rivals anything seen in mainstream US wrestling, a fair amount of non-Japanese fans of the promotion theorized that Japanese fans do not want that kind of pro wrestling. In addition, some felt that the fans either didn’t like or know Styles and therefore giving him the title was the wrong decision. From the outsider vantage point, the crowd in Fukuoka didn’t react to Styles nor did they respond much – either positively or negatively – to the end of the match. From a distance, those people could not necessarily be blamed for concluding based on that evidence that NJPW had just made a major misstep. When ticket sales for the follow up show at the Yokohama Arena were slow, that served to lend more support to that theory that the local fans were not buying what New Japan was selling.
At the same time, there stood a possibility that the crowd on May 2nd was simply a quiet one. There stood a chance that they didn’t react to Styles because they didn’t know him but would warm up to him when they became familiar with his work. Nobody really knew and we were left guessing from thousands of miles away.
The short-term proof on what kind of a decision the May 2nd booking was came on May 25th when Okada challenged Styles in a re-match for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. The crowd in terms of size ended up being okay – somewhere in the 7,000 range which is right about what NJPW was doing when they last ran the arena in 2003. The crowd was loud all night as well. When Styles entered the arena alongside his fellow Bullet Club members, the seemingly indifference displayed by the Fukuoka fans was replaced by boos (the desired reaction). Throughout the match, the crowd reacted to Styles consistently.
Before the match began, the referee attempted to expel the Bullet Club from ringside. The crowd got behind that notion. The Bullet Club pleaded their case and were allowed to stay, disappointing the fans in the arena. Sometime early in the match, Karl Anderson tripped Okada. That was all the referee needed to toss the Bullet Club out and the crowd cheered wildly at that. That served as the turning point in the match for Okada, who remained in control for a good portion of the bout. It was classic booking – some would say classic American pro wrestling booking – but in any event the Japanese fans reacted to it just as the promotion no doubt had planned.
That continued when late in the match, the Bullet Club ran back down to ringside fearing that the match was slipping away from Styles. In an almost exact replay of their disruption that helped Styles win the title three weeks earlier, Anderson, Gallows, and Tama Tonga swarmed the ring. Okada fought them off, but then Anderson distracted the referee. Just as he had done on the 2nd, Yujiro ran in from nowhere to lay out Okada. This time, however, Tomohiro Ishii sprinted to the ring and took out Yujiro to a very loud reaction from the appreciative crowd. The Bullet club was shunted to the back once again while the match continued in the ring. A few minutes later, Styles won the match without anything in the way of direct help.
The entire thing was American style booking just as it had been the prior show. This time, however, it was clear that crowd bought into all of it. Perhaps this suggests that Japanese fans are more excepting of this type of booking than some outside of Japan had assumed they would be. One could easily conclude from this match that as long as the booking is done right, the fans will accept it just fine. The booking was done correctly here, with Okada and Ishii extracting a measure of revenge and Styles coming away with a relatively unblemished win. With lots of heat on Styles and the Bullet Club now, the expectation is that NJPW will let that build a bit more before giving him his payback at the appropriate time. If that is the case, I suspect the Japanese fans won’t view the entire arch as a major turnoff.
Styles looked far more comfortable this time versus Okada and the match was a notch or two above their May 2nd contest as a result. He was crisper and his role was far more defined. Okada is a star in the eyes of his audience and he certainly felt like one here. More importantly, Styles felt like a worthy adversary and one that the Japanese fans wanted to see beaten. From the match to the booking to the crowd reactions, this was some solid pro wrestling all the way around.
Japan Singles | Watch It | Quality & Booking