It is a little bit late for a primer, but I know there are some people who are on the fence about watching Wrestle Kingdom 9 on Saturday night (11PM Pacific) and would love to watch if they only knew a bit of information beforehand. It is pretty intimidating to jump into a massive event with so much hype when you don't know a damn thing about the wrestlers, the organization or even the style of wrestling!
That's why I am making this short primer. it isn't meant to be very in depth but hopefully it serves well as a quick summary of events or an introduction to some cool wrestlers you'll like! I myself just started seriously watching wrestling again around March of 2014! I am still very new to puro (a common name for Japanese wrestling) but I can't imagine being without it now.
Couple of quick rule explanations!
Closed fist punches are not allowed! This is why slaps, palm strikes, chops and forearms are so prevalent.
To be counted out, the ref has to hit 20 seconds not the 10 used in most western wrestling.
You can't get DQ'd from being hit with a chair or something like that.
Let us start off with one of my absolute favourite things of the year, let alone wrestling. This happened during an amazing yearly tournament called the G1 Climax. We're going to see a lot of it in this list because hosts an incredible amount of great match ups and is another great starting point for anyone interested in NJPW.
This is the first time these two meet and they somehow pull off an incredible match. Suzuki and Styles are both the leaders of two heel stables. AJ Styles leads a group of foreign jerks called the Bullet Club. They are basically a ridiculous cover band of the classic 90s bad guy groups (NWO, DX). They like to make finger guns and shoot people. At the time, AJ Styles is the IWGP Heavyweight Champion and the first foreigner to hold the championship since Brock Lesnar in 2005. AJ Styles was very influential on the indie scene and then joined TNA (WWE's primary rival since WCW/ECW were bought out) where his athleticism won him a lot of admirers.
Despite his chops, fans in Japan weren't sold on Styles reign as he won it using typical western heel tactics (run-ins, interference, being disrespectful) and many worried his run would be a failure. The G1 was the perfect opportunity for AJ to prove his worth and finally win over the fans.
Minoru Suzuki leads a group called Suzuki-gun. Suzuki is basically the meanest human being on the planet. He used to be a really great Pancrase (early MMA) fighter before injuries took their toll. He might be one of the most underrated performers in wrestling history in terms of ability and showmanship. His facial tics, his incredible entrance, his haircut, his asshole trolling nature, his legit ability to beat the shit out of anyone you know and his love of One Piece (his crew used to have their own versions of One Piece posters on their video) just make this beautiful mixture of wrestling. Just look at his entrance! I can't get enough of his entrance. Suzuki's finishing manoeuvres are a pile driver variation and a vicious rear naked choke (sleeper hold) where after you weaken he flips you to the ground. It's really brutal and I wince every time he does it.
The atmosphere is tense as everyone expects a full out war between the two groups. They enhance the tension with Suzuki's entrance in such a simple manner. It's a great example of how camerawork can enhance wrestling in the simplest of ways. A bit into the match, Styles makes the horrible mistake of making a finger gun in his usual Bullet Club manner. Suzuki fucking hates those signs and begins an obsessive quest to break AJ's fingers.
Suzuki wrote a pretty serious "Don't make that sign unless you are willing to die" piece on his blog just before the match. The beginning of this article has a translation of that post.
The best part of this match is you don't need to know any of that! The match speaks for itself! It shows how wrestling can tell stories very simply. Action filmmakers could learn so much from this kind of wrestling.
Also, remember that Suzuki is 46. Hell of a guy.
That's Shinsuke Nakamura on the left and Kazuchka Okada on the right. They are pals and pretty cool.
The G1 finals is this amazing tournament hosted once a year where a large group of wrestlers get split into two groups, A and B. Everyone in Group A wrestles each other and same with B. The winners of A and B face each other to win a title shot at Wrestle Kingdom, the most prestigious show in NJPW (their Wrestlemania). Okada and Nakamura won in their groups. They are also a part of the same loveable bad guys with swag crew, CHAOS.
Nakamura is basically the leader of the group. He is also the coolest person in the world and has won a ton of titles and accolades including being the youngest person to win the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at 23 years of age. He's sort of gained a reputation as the guy who brings a lot of people to NJPW since he is not only a fantastic wrestler but his character is much more theatrical and eccentric then his peers. His finishing manoeuvre is that he drives his knee into your skull as hard as he can. Pretty awesome.
Okada is the young gun (27) who has become one of THE names of Japanese wrestling. He's been hailed as the best wrestler for two straight years in Japanese papers (an incredibly rare feat) because he puts on consistently amazing matches and lost the title this year to AJ Styles. He has a gigantic chip on his shoulder and wants that god damn title back. His nickname is "The Rainmaker" and his entrances involve bills with his face rain from the ceiling. He's basically M. Bison if he decided to become a playboy wrestler instead of a dictator. Okada's finishing manoeuvre is a swing dance-esque short arm lariat takedown. It is awesome.
Nakamura entered at last years Wrestle Kingdom with an amazing stripper-esque dance stage. Okada once entered with a giant sword and an animatronic god damn raptor.
A major narrative going into this match that might be missed is Okada trying to cement himself as the greatest in NJPW. Despite the accolades and the titles at such a young age, the doubt still lingers. Nakamura beat Okada a few years back when the Rainmaker persona was fairly new, cementing Nakamura as the de facto leader of CHAOS and showing Okada was still the protege with much to learn. Now Okada has a chance to prove to himself that he can run with the man who has taught him so much and erase any doubts that creep into his mind since losing the title to AJ Styles.
Nakamura's character is something actors should study as a way of truly BECOMING a character. Look at every motion he does. Think about how he is still a character in the smallest of ways. Now think of how hard it would be to fully embody a character while 20 minutes into an exhausting match where you still have to execute your spots safely AND sell the moves of the opponent AND measure how a crowd reacts AND not fuck up AND this goes on forever.
Shibata is sort of a throwback to the older era of Japanese wrestling where people were generally MMA/shoot fighters (Shibata had a short lived MMA career) who would really lay into each other with strikes and generally use them as the primary moves in a match, even moreso than now. He has this quality to him that even though we all know wrestling is choreographed and planned ahead and isn't actually filled with superheroes trying to murder each other for gigantic belts, he makes it feel like he is actually trying to murder people and will eventually succeed. He's great! His finishing manoeuvres are a Go 2 Sleep (picks you up on his shoulders and then knees you in the face) that leads into a brutal soccer kick to the chest.
Tanahashi gets compared to John Cena and Hulk Hogan a lot because of how he carried NJPW out of a dark era and into the light, becoming maybe its most popular star since the 00's. The difference between Tanahashi and the aforementioned legends is he is widely considered one of the most consistently great workers in the world and can go with anyone (not to say Cena can't wrestle, he's just much more limited and inconsistent). Tanahashi really just wants to excite as many people as he can and constantly thinks of new fans, which is why I think his matches have these really great and easy to follow narratives that are noticeable for newer viewers. Like working a limb that is an important weapon in his opponents arsenal. He's also amazing at reading a crowd and bringing the most out of a match. He isn't afraid to subtly become a heel if it is to the benefit of the match or the crowd, most wrestlers won't do these things because they are selfish or can't do these things because they aren't knowledgable enough to recognize these things. Tanahashi's finishing manoeuvre plays into his want to please the crowd, both new or experienced, by using a frog splash which is where he dives off the top rope and lands on his prone opponent.
He also loves to air guitar.
I digress, the match is an amazing clash of two different styles with Shibata trying to shatter Tanahashi's style. This is a great example of NJPW camera work as well. Look at how the camera and editing sells the intensity just during the entrances! I didn't need to tell you any of this shit because you can UNDERSTAND A LOT OF IT INTUITIVELY. Oh man! Wrestling can be so cool!
Also, check out their second match if you dug this. It is just as good and has a really unexpected twist after the match that is one of the great moments in any art form this year.
This is the third match in a series these two had in the first half of the year. They are all worth checking out but aren't necessary to enjoy this one, though they add to the understanding of counters.
In 2013, Tetsuya Naito was on the roll of his career and getting pushed to the moon. He won the G1 Climax and challenged Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at Wrestle Kingdom 8. The company wanted Naito to become the fourth titan of NJPW along with Okada, Nakamura and Tanahashi. Somewhere along the line, he never got completely over with the fans despite his performances and hype for the WK8 main event began to waver. NJPW decided to poll the fans what they would rather see headline, the Heavyweight Championship match between Okada and Naito or the Intercontinental Championship match between storied rivals and legends Tanahashi and Nakamura.
Nakamura and Tanahashi won.
Despite this, Okada and Naito arguably owned the show and delivered a great championship match in which Naito came up short. Despite his effort, Naito's standing wasn't so certain now. Was he ready to be one of the main guys? Was he capable of it? Could he win over the fans? Naito went from winning the G1 Climax to losing his main event spot at Wrestle Kingdom to defending his championship which ranks below the IWGP Heavyweight Championship and the Intercontinental Championship. He was losing a lot of momentum and needed something to put him back on track or who knows where he could end up.
Enter Tomohiro Ishii. Ishii was this scrappy underdog who was riding this gigantic wave of fan support after his amazing performances during G1 and his hard hitting, never die style. In the first match between the two, Ishii forced Naito into fighting him in his style. Stiff as hell striking competitions. Ishii embodies fighting spirit more then anyone else possibly. Fighting spirit is exactly what it sounds like, it is when someone just will not back down and keeps stepping forward. When two people fight each other like this, it usually devolves into them taking turns beating each other until someones will wavers.
Ishii might have saved Naito from dropping out of favor by forcing him to show another style. Naito, riding that gigantic chip on his shoulder and having everything to prove and nothing to lose, decided he would not bow to Ishii and he would prove that he can play Ishii's game. He did incredibly well and showed that he wasn't just the highflier he thought he was, he was multi-dimensional and that is terrifying. You wouldn't be able to tell this from the audience reactions though as everyone was in Ishii's corner despite Ishii being a member of the vaguely heel stable, CHAOS. To be fair, the fans even booed perennial favourite Tanahashi in his match against Ishii. This is the moment Naito won me over completely.
Just stop and think about it from his perspective. Despite getting the biggest chance in your career, so much went wrong. You are losing momentum and a poor performance, let alone a loss, could seal your career. What do you do? Do you drop your title to this up and comer who is stealing your limelight? Do you change your alignment mid match because you are reading the crowd and know that is what will push this match higher? Do you do it even though your opponent will get all the focus and outshine you? Do you do it knowing that if you are wrong or make a bad decision, you could fuck this whole thing up and bury yourself?
Naito was on point and completely unselfish and finally, things finally worked out for him.
Ishii got a gigantic push from this. He proved he was one of the best workers around and when given the opportunity to probe himself he ran with it. His title reign in early 2014 was one of the most impressive things of the year and had people whispering comparisons to people like Flair in '89 and Danielson in '06. Consider this, those guys did it with the top championships in their respective companies. Ishii did it with the THIRD ranked championship in his. He elevated it to a level of prestige it had never had.
This match is a great example of how wrestling can showcase subtle storytelling. Over the course of this series, they both learned from each other and began implementing counters and learning to counter the counters. When good wrestlers pulls this off it is one of the most rewarding things for the fan that pays attention and it still works for someone doesn't pick up on the history between the two. In this match it is things like ishii's clothesline on the apron or Ishii's insane DDT counter on Naito's suplex or amazing counter chains. Seriously, that DDT counter is one of the greatest things I have ever seen. Or how the headbutts in this match call back to the prominence of the headbutts in the first match.
And then Naito suddenly changes the entire face of this match by grabbing Ishii with a submission. Not even a single attempt at one in the first two matches, but Naito knows Ishii isn't expecting this and it showcases the differences between the two brilliantly. Ishii is single minded. He will bash you and drag you into his shot for shot style and he won't stop until you kill him. Naito on the other hand, has proven he can hang with Ishii's brawling style these past two matches and he doesn't want to lose the series. He calls an audible now to now test whether or not Ishii can prove himself now.
These are just a sample of some of the great stuff that has happened this year, I don't want to overload since discovering the unexpected is one of the most exciting things about diving into a new art form. My advice is to find something you like, whether a championship or style or wrestler, and begin to explore. You never know what stuff is going to jump out to you!