The best wrestling tournament on the planet is happening right now in Japan, and you can watch it all for around $8…
Welcome to Hank’s Corner! This is the recurring spot where Henry Gilbert will do what he does so well on Cape Crisis‘s marquee segment. He’ll spotlight a cool new book, Blu-ray, TV series, candy bar, or whatever else he’s enjoying lately, and tell you all about why you should care just as much as he does! And this week’s entry…
I’m a bit of a pro wrestling junkie these days, something you may have picked up on during my many appearances on Cheap Popcast and in numerous wrestling game streams. I keep as up to date as I can on WWE’s shows, because the biggest game in town employs some of the best wrestlers currently active, even if they’re sometimes saddled with poor storytelling. But when I want to see the best in-ring performances combined with straightforward stories that can be understood even with a language barrier, I watch New Japan Pro Wrestling. In fact, it’s so easy to access NJPW right now that I don’t know why every wrestling fan hasn’t caught on yet.
What’s so great about New Japan, and how am I not just a weeaboo hipster for preferring it to WWE? The difference is that NJPW wants people who give everything they’ve got in the ring, and the promotion’s roster is bulit around the four top-tier performers, surrounded by hungry talent who want to be just as accomplished. Wins and losses are important in NJPW, bullshit DQs and count outs are extreme rarities (thus mattering more when they do happen), there’s no melodrama of evil authority figures talking for 30 minutes straight, and NJPW is building future champions on the backs of its legends. Basically, it’s everything WWE isn’t.
Watching events like the recent Power Struggle and King of Pro-Wrestling encapsulate how New Japan is anchored by the four titans of wrasslin’: Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kazuchika Okada, Shinsuke Nakamura, and A.J, Styles. Virtually every main event in NJPW has involved one of these men for the past few years, and they never disappoint. For fans who only know WWE, here’s some very simple comparisons:
Tanahashi is NJPW’s John Cena, but with the consistent match quality of Bret Hart in his prime. Okada is the young upstart, like early Rock or HBK, only with the agility of a cruiserweight. Shinsuke Nakamura is a cool heel rock star with shoot fighting cred, so unique that it’s impossible to find a suitable WWE comparison, though Rated-R Edge might be close. And A.J. Styles is the evil foreigners’ faction leader who’s (almost) good enough to not need their help, like a pre-quad tear Triple H who can fly like Rey Mysterio.
Those four guys have spent the last couple years bouncing off each other in incredible match after incredible match. It wasn’t a surprise that the four of them were the semifinalists in G1 Climax, the best pro wrestling tournament around. And as NJPW moves toward it’s WrestleMania, Wrestle Kingdom 10, it’s also not a shock that the top two matches are Okada vs. Tanahashi and Nakamura vs. Styles. NJPW knows it has the best workers around, though the company doesn’t let the rest of its roster wallow in obscurity.
If anything, having Tanahashi/Okada/Nakamura/Styles at the top seems to push much of the rest of the roster to try its best to outshine them. November’s Power Struggle 2015 alone featured lovable loser Honma in a brutal, Match of the Year caliber bout against tough-as-nails Ishii, alongside the high-flying insanity of two different Junior Heavyweight tag matches. Matt Sydal (formerly WWE’s Evan Bourne) and Ricochet (aka Lucha Underground’s Prince Puma) do perfectly timed dual shooting star presses, while earlier on the card Kenny Omega led the Bullet Club in a charismatically evil effort that included a stunning use of the Terminator soundtrack.
Elsewhere on the Power Struggle card is the newly heel Tetsuya Naito, a very compelling talent now leading a Day of the Dead flavored faction known as Los Ignobles.There’s Katsuyori Shibata, the definition of a no-nonsense fighter who beats the crap out of opponents with moves even outsiders would define as stiff. Then there’s the deep collection of western talent on NJPW shows – not just the roguish Bullet Club, which also includes wonderfully hateable tag champs Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows, but also guys like Roppongi Vice, ReDragon, and a number of visiting stars from groups like Ring of Honor and NWA.
For anyone whining that WWE is too much of a soap opera, and miss the days when guys like Kurt Angle, Eddie Guerrero, and [REDACTED] were having out of this world battles, NJPW transports you back to that time. Grueling matches, hard-fought victories, and holding the championship are more important than battling authority figures, silly love triangles, or any of the cartoonish antics you’ll see on Raw. And NJPW obviously got the attention of WWE, because Bullet Club founder Prince Devitt is currently NXT champion Finn Balor. I wouldn’t be surprised if more NJPW talent followed him westward.
So, what makes this very moment the best time to get into New Japan Pro Wrestling? Well, the company’s biggest show each year is right after New Year’s in January, which they’ve been building to since August. Aside from a tag team tournament, things are pretty quiet until Wrestle Kingdom on January 4, making this the time to catch up on the biggest shows. Now, you could dig up these matches around the web, but you’re better off using NJPWWorld.com, the best streaming service this side of the WWE.
Until recently, finding legit ways to watch NJPW meant paying more than $40 for iPPVs, but their new model is ripped a page from Vince McMahon’s playbook. NJPW World is a monthly subscription service that airs each event live, then immediately archives it for viewing later – useful since the time difference has most PPVs happen in the middle of the night in North America. NJPW World was made with its native audience in mind, but they’ve installed a number of helpful options for English speakers to sign-up as well. It’s 999円 a month, which – thanks to a very good exchange rate – currently equates to a little over $8.
NJPW World also follows WWE Network’s game plan for its archives, offering more new and old footage than subscribers know what to do with. Sure, it doesn’t have the originally programming or weekly TV shows to pull thousands of hours of footage, but NJPW has existed since 1972, and has hosted some of the biggest stars wrestling has ever seen. You can watch a young Hulk Hogan become a huge star in Japan years before he was WWF champ. You can see Andre The Giant, Big Van Vader,Ric Flair, and Sting all wrestling in their prime. There’s also Super J Cup 1994, a night some still call the best tournament in wrestling history, though some may be uncomfortable watching Wild Pegasus (aka [REDACTED]) participate.
New Japan’s streaming service is at least worth a month of trying out, just to catch up on the last six months or so to prep for Wrestle Kingdom, as well as digging through the archives. Plots are easy enough to follow – it’s pretty clear who hates who and who wants what title. Admittedly, not everything New Japan does meets its high bar of excellence. Most multi-man tags are inconsequential, especially if Tiger Mask or Captain New Japan are involved, plus the cameramen could learn a thing or two from WWE. And don’t even get me started on how NJPW films the rare appearance of any woman in the ring – UGH.
Still, the good far outweighs the bad, and any of that crap is still miles ahead of what WWE does most of the time. If I had to direct you to any show to try out on NJPW World, start here with the recent English commentary on King of Pro-Wrestling. The service gets more and more inviting to English speakers as the months continue, and I wouldn’t be shocked if January’s Wrestle Kingdom 10 had a similar English-language commentary team. If you’re someone who cares about what happens in the ring and seeing the long, athletic matches WWE usually keeps restricted to main events and NXT, jump on the bandwagon now!