Welcome to Part 2 of Get Into This, our introductory look at New Japan Pro Wrestling! As promised, today we’ll look at some of the stars of NJPW. There’s a lot of ground to cover here, so this installment will mostly cover the heavyweights. A few members of the junior heavyweight division will be mentioned today, but only as part of larger stables. The rest of the division will get their own feature in the next installment! If you haven’t already, check out Part 1 of this series, which was more of a general introduction. And while I’m at it, let me address some feedback from the comments section of that post:
- I’ll do my best to include some video clips so you can see these guys in action, but like any internet-based writer, the faintest whiff of copyrighted material makes me super cautious. I’ll do what I can.
- If you’re interested in watching, but worried about the language barrier, don’t sweat it! At its purest level, pro wrestling is like dance – it’s a universal language. If you can understand a bad guy elbowing a good guy in the face, you’re all set.
- No one here at WithSpandex thinks you’re an inferior wrestling fan if New Japan isn’t your thing. Different strokes for different folks, y’all. I can get a bit verbose when I’m talking about this (or anything else that I consider cool), but I hope it never comes across as preachy. NJPW is a Cool Thing, and like anyone who has discovered a Cool Thing, I want to show it to as many people as possible.
- Yes, it would appear Lance Archer really wants Brandon dead. It’s kind of spooky at this point.
Okay, now that we’ve taken care of the housekeeping, let’s look over the New Japan Pro Wrestling roster. I think it’d be fitting to start with the faction that has run wild for almost a year and half now, currently holding four of NJPW’s six championships. It’s a Bullet Club world, and we’re just living in it.
What is Bullet Club?
Bullet Club is a heel stable mainly composed of gaijin (foreign) wrestlers. Started under the leadership of Prince Devitt (who is now on his way to NXT), Bullet Club set themselves apart by causing chaos and interfering in matches, which is not really the norm for NJPW heels. They’ve seen a bit of a shift in style and substance this year, though. When Devitt left, Bullet Club lost their militaristic vibe. They still dominate, but the vibe they give off is now more reminiscent of kids reenacting their favorite NWO memories. This can largely be attributed to their new leader, AJ Styles.
Former TNA star “The Phenomenal” AJ Styles?
The very same.
Wow. How’s he doing in Japan?
Well, he’s currently the IWGP Heavyweight Champion and his Bullet Club crew is wrecking shop all over Japan, so I’d say he’s doing well. We’ve seen AJ work as a heel before, but this time around, it’s endearingly dorky. A group like Bullet Club probably works best when they’re played straight, but all these guys seem to be having so much fun being jerks that I don’t really mind the departure from Serioustown too much.
Who else is in Bullet Club?
Let’s do a quick rundown:
- Doc Gallows and “The Machine Gun” Karl Anderson – These are your IWGP Tag Team Champions. You know Gallows from WWE and TNA, of course. Anderson is an American who’s found his greatest success in Japan as a tag team wrestler.
- Bad Luck Fale – IWGP Intercontinental Champion. He’s a 6-foot-4 Tongan bruiser with the best throwing crucifix powerbomb in wrestling. For real, it makes Hernandez’s Border Toss look like garbage.
- Yujiro Takahashi – NEVER Openweight Champion. Yujiro is the most recent addition to Bullet Club, as well as their first Japanese member. He’s got a Val Venis-type gimmick going, complete with PORNO SAX entrance music.
- Tama Tonga, another Tongan who is probably most well-known for being adopted by Meng. Yes, really.
- The Young Bucks (Matt and Nick Jackson) – More or less part-time members, now that they’re no longer IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champions. Otherwise, you know who they are. Superkicks, tassels, etc.
Got it. Any other heel stables I should know about?
Um, YES. Let me introduce you to the wonderful world of Suzukigun. As the name implies, they’re led by Minoru Suzuki.
What’s Suzuki’s story?
He’s a 46-year-old MANIAC with a background in mixed martial arts. One of his hobbies in the mid-90’s was making Ken Shamrock tap out. His entrance music is a crowd-participation power ballad which he punctuates by kicking an unfortunate NJPW trainee in the chest. Needless to say, he is a bad, bad man.
And who else is in Suzukigun?
- Taka Michinoku – Another name you might recognize from WWE. Not the INDEED guy. The INDEED guy is currently taking a break from training some damn fine wrestlers in San Antonio to translate for KENTA.
- Taichi – Taka’s tag team partner. He powers up by taking off his tearaway pants. New Japan is not afraid to be a bit silly.
- Takashi Iizuka – Bearded man with a giant metal claw who terrorizes one of the commentary guys. See previous comment about New Japan being silly.
- El Desperado – Suzukigun’s newest member. A Japanese wrestler who took an excursion to Mexico and came back with an awesome lucha mask and an El Mariachi gimmick.
- Shelton Benjamin – Yet another former WWE talent. Joined the team as Minoru Suzuki’s mystery tag team partner, resulting in the awesome nickname “Invader X.”
- Killer Elite Squad – Davey Boy Smith, Jr. and Lance Archer. DH Smith and Vance Archer, in their past lives. Former IWGP Tag Team Champions, finally getting the respect they deserve in Japan.
Oh, so THIS is what Lance is doing when he’s not threatening to kill your editor?
Yes. And for the record, I think he’s a kind, gentle soul who is extremely good at what he does. Maybe we could have avoided this mess if I had bought a Killer Elite Squad shirt from him last month.
Once you’ve finished sucking up to The American Psycho, can you fill us in on more wrestlers? Maybe someone who’s battled both Styles and Suzuki in the past?
I thought you’d never ask such a wonderfully loaded question.
And who might this be?
Kazuchika Okada. THE RAINMAKER. How do I even begin to describe Okada? He’s half “Legend Killer” Randy Orton, half Ozymandias from Watchmen. He easily could have been an afterthought once NJPW sent him on an excursion to TNA in 2010. Instead, he returned from America in the best shape of his life, ready to make a name for himself in his home promotion. Since early 2012, he’s been firmly locked into his Rainmaker persona – a smug, cocky heel with money to burn. But in a career trajectory similar to that of “Best in the World” CM Punk, audiences began to love him for it. He was beating the top guys of New Japan and looking like a star in the process. He held the heavyweight title for thirteen straight months before finally losing it to AJ Styles back in May. He’s settled into more of a tweener role now, especially since Bullet Club have taken over the top heel roles.
A guy this good has to be on WWE’s radar, right?
Yeah, but Okada currently wants no part of it. He considers NJPW to be his rightful home. When he was asked last year about rumors that he might be headed to WWE, this is what he said:
I have heard people say that if I stay in Japan that I will be a big fish in a small pond, but I do not agree. If people think Japan is a small pond, then I will rebuild the pond with my own hands and make it as large as the Pacific Ocean.
That is EPIC.
It really is. He’s absolutely one of my all-time favorite wrestlers. And it’s that sort of attitude that has really begun to get him noticed beyond the world of wrestling. Remember how I said in Part 1 that big stars in New Japan have the same sort of pop culture crossover appeal that’s usually reserved for the likes of Hulk Hogan and John Cena? Okada is beginning to get a taste of that. Here he is in a commercial for the Buddyfight card game.
Did he just send those kids to the Shadow Realm?
That’s ridiculous, Okada would need a Millennium Item to start a Shadow Game.
Ah, you’re right. Is there anyone else this cool on the NJPW roster?
If you’re looking for cool, Okada’s probably in second place. Meet the guy at the front of the pack, Shinsuke Nakamura.
I think this picture says everything I need to know about him, but tell me more anyway.
Over the course of his twelve-year career, Nakamura has practically done it all. Title reigns, incredible matches, even a few MMA victories in his early career. He’s called the King of Strong Style for a reason – he will hit you, and he will hit you hard. Just look at his finisher, the Boma Ye. Nothing fancy, just a lunging knee strike that’ll leave your ears ringing for weeks.
But that’s only half of what makes him so entertaining. I can’t exactly pinpoint when it started, but at some point, Nakamura decided that he absolutely had to be the coolest guy in any given room. Don’t believe me? Just watch him throwing out this perfect pitch at a baseball game in Taiwan…
…or hanging out with Hello Kitty.
Awesome. He sure likes hanging out with Okada, doesn’t he?
Yeah, and there’s good reason for that. They’re both loosely affiliated with a stable called CHAOS – nowadays, it more or less only exists in name, but it used to be a more tight-knit heel faction. Nakamura and Okada were the standouts, of course. Fun anecdote: One of the members of CHAOS, a wrestler named YOSHI-HASHI, took an excursion to Mexico and Nakamura now insists on calling him “Tacos.”
I’m starting to see why you like New Japan so much.
Who’s next on the roster?
“The Man of the Century,” Hiroshi Tanahashi.
Prior to Okada’s meteoric rise, Tanahashi was the untouchable ace of NJPW. Lots of people say he’s just Japan’s John Cena, but that’s not really doing him any favors. Tanahashi is an expert wrestler with six IWGP Heavyweight title reigns to his name, so the fact that he was pretty much unbeatable for so long drew a lot of inevitable comparisons to our friend in neon green. I’ve got nothing against Tanahashi – as I said, he’s a great wrestler. It’s just that I started watching NJPW in that period of time when he felt invincible, so my first impression of him was a bit unfair. Please, do yourself a favor and watch some of his work, escpecially that BEAUTIFUL dragon screw. Now that Okada and Bullet Club are firmly in the spotlight, Tanahashi has more time to practice his signature air-guitar taunt and focus on tag team wrestling with his occasional favored partners. For a while, he was running with Captain New Japan, a comedy wrestler in a Captain America-inspired costume complete with a New Japan logo shield, but he’s been absent lately.
Who’s his partner of choice these days?
That’d be Togi Makabe, AKA “The Unchained King Kong.” From the chain he wears around his neck to the use of “Immigrant Song” for his entrance music, Makabe makes it clear that he strives to emulate Bruiser Brody in everything he does. He’s one of the few people on the NJPW roster that really seems comfortable with hardcore wrestling, utilizing tables and chairs to great effect. If I was running a WWE/NJPW crossover show, I’d be booking Makabe vs. Sheamus in a heartbeat. As veterans of the sport, he and Tanahashi are a good fit for each other, forming the tag team “Ace to King.”
Ah, I see what they did there.
New Japan can be kind of hit-or-miss when it comes to naming their tag teams. “Ace to King” works, but on the other hand, sometimes you get something like “Meiyu Tag.”
Meiyu Tag is the underwhelming name given to two overwhelmingly talented wrestlers, “Wild Samurai” Hirooki Goto and “The Wrestler” Katsuyori Shibata. Personally, I think a more fitting name would be Team Kick-You-To-Death, since they both share such a punishing offensive style. Goto and Shibata have been friends since they were in high school together, but they’ve only just recently started teaming up. Before then, they had more of a respect-based rivalry going on, which culminated in a Match of the Year candidate back in January. Yes, I was already talking about MOTY candidates four days into 2014. I can be kind of annoying like that.
Any other tag teams I should know about?
What’s a Tencozy?
Tencozy are your current NWA World Tag Team Champions, Hiroyoshi Tenzan and Satoshi Kojima. Much like Minoru Suzuki, these two are elder statesmen of New Japan that have continued to kick ass well into their 40’s. They have tag team history dating back to 1999, but the current run we’re seeing out of them only started in 2011. If you ask me, I think they’re wrestling better as a team right now than they ever have before. Hitting the big 4-0 spells doom for a lot of wrestlers, but these two legends are finding a way to make time stand still.
Are there any more people on the NJPW roster who seem to be immune to aging?
Funny you should ask…
These two are “Blue Justice” Yuji Nagata and “The Gracie Hunter” Kazushi Sakuraba. Both of them are 46 years old, and both of them would destroy you in a fight. Nagata is one of Japan’s all-time great heavyweight champions, and Sakuraba is a near-mythical name in MMA due to his victories over members of the Gracie family.
The same Gracie family that put Brazilian jiu-jitsu on the map?
The very same. In fact, Royce Gracie had never lost a fight until he stepped in the ring with Sakuraba. Their 90-minute fight is now considered one of the greatest in MMA history.
They fought for an hour and a half?!
Like I said, these guys would destroy you in a fight.
Did we miss anyone?
Just a few. Let’s finish the list!
- “Stardust Genius” Tetsuya Naito. He’s somewhat of an underdog who came close to defeating Okada for his heavyweight championship. He’s actually got a bit of lucha libre flavor in his style, thanks to his excursion to Mexico in 2009. That’s actually where he picked up that eye taunt you see in the picture as well – Mexican audiences would tell him to open his eyes and “stop squinting,” because wrestling fans are racist no matter where you go.
- Tomoaki Honma. All you really need to know about him is that he wears Hulkster-style yellow and red, and that he spams diving headbutts like a rookie Call of Duty player spams grenades. It starts out hilarious, but as his matches go on, you start to feel bad that he keeps missing. The payoff, of course, is that he’ll actually hit a headbutt once in a blue moon, causing the audience to lose their minds.
- Toru Yano. Oh man, this guy has a lot going for him. First, he looks like the old pervert character in every anime ever. Second, he wrestled a match against Rob Van Dam three and a half years ago and decided to steal his taunt, substituting YANO TO-RU for ROB VAN DAM. He’s been doing it ever since. Third, he is CONSTANTLY trying to get people to buy his DVDs. He’s currently in a prolonged feud with Minoru Suzuki, because funny plus serious equals entertainment.
- “Stone Pitbull” Tomohiro Ishii. What he lacks in the presence of a neck, he more than makes up for in toughness. For most of his 17-year career, he’s been the perpetually underrated one. He briefly got to shine this year by making a run with the NEVER Openweight title, but Bullet Club cut that short, and he’s now back to the unsung workhorse role. Watch his match with Tetsuya Naito from February, it just might catch you by surprise.
That’ll do it for Part 2! Stay tuned for Part 3, when we take a look at New Japan’s stellar junior heavyweight division. Beware of DeLoreans and fake Russians!