As part of their expansion outside of Japan, New Japan Pro Wrestling had two huge events in California last weekend: the grand opening of their new L.A. dojo, and their sold-out Strong Style Evolved show at the Walter Pyramid in Long Beach. Brandon Stroud and I did press at both of these, and you can read about our dojo adventures here.
Working at Strong Style Evolved went a little differently. Like I said in my Best and Worst column, we thought we’d be doing scrum interviews, maybe shoot, maybe not, with some of the wrestlers along with the other media types. We definitely didn’t expect to be part of the show or any of the NJPW World additional material at all.
Normally, New Japan shows don’t include a lot of promos or talking segments. However, most of the wrestlers cut promos or otherwise respond to the results and fallout of their matches backstage and these post-match comments go up (with subtitles) on NJPW World and the promotion’s youtube channel. If you’re unfamiliar, check out this typical example:
However, at Strong Style Evolved, wrestlers (mostly just those who won their matches) gave their comments at a table set up for a press conference, and then took questions from the press. Some didn’t stay to answer questions because they were too fired up, evil, or had just cut a promo with an abrupt ending. But we did get to talk to Kenny Omega, Rocky Romero and Roppongi 3K, David Finlay, Cody (with input from Brandi Rhodes,) Kazuchika Okada, Hiromu Takahashi, and Tetsuya Naito about their matches, Bullet Club drama, the power of cats, and more.
Here are some excerpts from our time in kayfabe in the basement of a blue pyramid. In the text quotes, all statements by Japanese wrestlers were relayed through a translator except when noted. In the videos, which for some reason are not yet available through NJPW (but thanks to Cageside Seats for setting up their cameras right next to the official ones), anytime you hear that mellifluous radio voice you’ve heard on the With Spandex podcast it’s Brandon, and any time you hear a female voice that has also turned up on the podcast twice, it’s me.
Cody: Do you guys want to ask real questions? [points to me, a person with blue hair] Blue.
Emily Pratt: Do you maintain that Bullet Club is fine after this match?
Cody: I would not only maintain, I would — what would be the word? Reinforce.
Brandi Rhodes: Yes.
Cody: I would reinforce that the Bullet Club is fine. And Bullet Club is fine heading into Supercard of Honor. Supercard of Honor has nothing to do with the Bullet Club. It has to do with Kenny Omega and myself. That’s it. And to anyone who got dragged into this, and I apologize for any, I don’t know, casualties? That sounds a little dramatic.
Brandi Rhodes: Fallout.
Cody: Fallout. This is about me and Kenny Omega. That’s all. That’s all it is. Bullet Club is fine. Bullet Club is profitable. Funko Pops, July and August, they’re pretty cool; I saw them … I’m not blonde, but —
Brandi Rhodes: Well, that’s okay. It’s a state of mind. Blonde is a state of mind.
Cody: 90,000 unit commitment on that, by the way. We have to sell 90,000 of them. So you guys are going to have to buy the Pops.
Emily Pratt: How do you feel about L.I.J.’s popularity in the United States?
Tetsuya Naito: I think a lot of fans supporting Los Ingobernables de Japon in the States, but there’s a misunderstanding in Japan that we are not that popular. I hope the Japanese audience who saw our fight today through TV or the New Japan Pro Wrestling World can understand how popular we are in the States. But I am not satisfied right now. I would like to fight in the main event probably next time we have a fight in the United States, and I would like to hear our chant. Until then, we’ll wait and see. Gracias.
Emily Pratt: Gracias.
Brandon Stroud: Do you believe, based on what you just said, that after all the work you’ve put in, all the accolades that you’ve achieved, why do you feel like you’re still being disrespected by New Japan Pro Wrestling?
Tetsuya Naito: Did you see the reaction from the audience today? [There was] a big, loud chant for our team. But then we are fighting the fifth match. Why not main event? I think this is something disrespectful about New Japan. If they are going for global, I think our team must fight in the main event.
In the video above you can see not only the Ticking Time Bomb of L.I.J., but also your intrepid With Spandex reporters react to, well … you’ll see.
Brandon Stroud: How do you feel about Daryl’s popularity in the United States, and how is he doing with his wife and family?
Hiromu Takahashi: Yeah, you’re talking about my kitten. Understood. And I think kitties are going to save the world, but I don’t know how, or how much they can do that thing. That’s a difficult question to answer. I’m sorry. [In English] Very difficult. Very difficult.
Emily Pratt: Speaking of cats, would you say Flip Gordon is a cat?
Hiromu Takahashi: [back to Japanese] Yes, I understood your question. And I think that you’re thinking that Flip Gordon is a cat, but I don’t think he’s a cat yet. I think he’s something else at the moment.
Brandon Stroud: Do you have to work up to being a cat? How does that work?
Hiromu Takahashi: I know cats are a beloved animal, and I know you love cats, so I become cat. [He starts meowing and clawing at the table, then runs out of the room.]
Roppongi 3K and Rocky Romero
Emily Pratt: You said Roppongi 3K is Roppongi 3K because it’s three thousand times better than Roppongi Vice. How are you making Roppongi 3K three thousand times better?
Rocky Romero: I mean, you could see right off the bat last October, their debut match they beat Ricochet. They beat Taguchi. They took the belts on their first night. I mean, who does that? Not even AJ Styles could do that, so look at us. Look at that. Three thousand times better. And not only three thousand times better than Roppongi Vice, but three thousand times better than the rest of these juniors. If you were paying attention in Sapporo you saw that those belts were stolen from us. They weren’t taken from us. We weren’t beaten fair and square. We got whiskey in the eyes. We got blue, green, red mist. So, I mean, fight us one on one. See what happens.
Brandon Stroud: For Sho and Yoh, how are you guys adjusting to wrestling in the United States?
Sho: [in English] Good. I really enjoy.
Yoh: [in English] Me too.
Rocky Romero: I mean, these guys are used to it. They were wrestling in Ring of Honor for over a year, year and a half, and they were there, they just — they didn’t have the focus and the direction yet, you know? They didn’t have the experience. And I came in, and I … helped them focus to where they need to be, and look at them now. I don’t see them as, like, my understudies anymore, you know? They’ve grown in the last six, seven, eight months. I’m not the coach.
I was the coach in the beginning, but look at them now, they’re my equals. They took the titles; it wasn’t me. They took the titles from Ricochet and from Taguchi. They beat the Bucks, not me. I was taken out and left in the middle of a ramp. They did it, they did it, they did it. So as far as I’m concerned, they’re my equals. I don’t need to be the coach. They can do it themselves. I’m just here for the laughter and the playtime and the good times, but I’m also there for the hard times, and I’ll be there to boost them back up, like we are now.
Emily Pratt: Are you as FinJuice going to compete more as an actual tag team? Could we see you guys challenge for some titles?
David Finlay: I mean, ideally. The game is always to be challenging for titles or defending them. Preferably defending them. It’s weird, we were tagging together before World Tag League, and then we went our separate ways, and we’re back together again, so we’ll see. I think we work together well as a team, as a unit. We’re together all the time. We got the exact same schedule, so outside of being home we’re constantly together. Fly in to Tokyo the same day, fly out of Tokyo the same day, sit beside each other on the bus, so we’re probably about as close as you can get without being actual brothers. So I would say yeah, tag team gold is hopefully in our future.
Emily Pratt: You’re an American working for New Japan. New Japan is expanding outside of Japan into America. Why should more American wrestling fans watch New Japan Pro Wrestling?
David Finlay: Well, I’ll tell you what, if we have a four hour show, you’re going to get about three hours worth of wrestling. Other thirty minutes is probably going to be entrances and exits, if that much. I think the only time we get on the microphone to talk is at the end of the show the guy who wins the main event just says, “Hey, thanks for coming out.” If you watch probably any other product and they do a four hour show you’re going to get maybe, if you’re lucky, an hour and a half, two hours of wrestling. So you get more bang for your buck with us. And our match quality is far superior to every single company out there. I firmly believe that and I stand by that.
Brandon Stroud: Okada, so many of your big matches are trading holds, trading strikes. How are you approaching a match with a style like Zack Sabre Jr. that’s so unorthodox?
Kazuchika Okada: It’s going to be boring if I keep beating the same fights over and over again, so I think this unorthodox opponent such as Zack Sabre Jr., I think this is going to be very exciting for me, and at the same time very exciting for the audience. And to go over such a strange opponent, I think I will be stronger and more cool that before. Can’t wait.
Emily Pratt: We noticed on Instagram that you’ve gone to In-N-Out Burger twice in past two days. What do you think of our local California cuisine?
Kazuchika Okada: I am fighting a preliminary, and I will be fighting for a title in a few days, so I think I’m not feeling the way to answer this kind of question right now, sorry. But this is a special day for me because I am fighting in California, so I will answer your question. Yes, I ate In-N-Out Burger twice in the past two days. [In English] Three hamburger.
Brandon Stroud: What’s your reaction to the post-match attack [by ZSJ and Minoru Suzuki?]
Kazuchika Okada: [in Japanese] I think that’s expression that [ZSJ is] really eager and ready to win against me at Ryogoku next week. I think he’s on really good momentum. I think as a result I lost the fight today, but I received positive momentum from the California fans, so I am going to keep that momentum for the Ryogoku match.
Emily Pratt: In the video package for your match with Will Ospreay, they called you “the invincible champion.” Do you feel that you’re invincible?
Kazuchika Okada: Yes, I am thinking that I am invincible, and I want all the fans to recognize me as an invincible fighter.
Emily Pratt: After tonight’s events, what’s your perspective on Ibushi’s match with Hangman Page at Supercard of Honor?
Kenny Omega: You know, I was able to tune in a little bit to Hangman Page’s performance today against Switchblade, and it’s very interesting to watch young talent. They’re so hungry, and they take so many risks. There were so many times in that match where I thought, “Wow, one of these guys could die,” and they seemed to be cool with that.
Ibushi used to be that crazy guy, you know? And that part of him still exists. But Ibushi, with age, has grown more careful and is a little more tentative to take these risks, and I think Adam Page is still at the stage in his career where he’s willing to take those risks, and he seems like a durable dude. I worry for somebody’s safety in this match, if I’m being honest, and with Ibushi being what he is to me and Page being one of Bullet Club’s youngest talents — I think he is the youngest — I don’t want to see him shorten his career. But I feel like he has something to prove. He wants to prove something, and Ibushi doesn’t want to take a backseat to him.
So these are two risk takers, one being the premier risk taker for the better part of ten years, and the new guy who’s hungry for the spotlight. Wow. So I have a high expectation for this matchup to be a sleeper hit of the show. And again, like I said, as a Bullet Club brother, and as my tag team partner, I don’t want to see anyone get injured …
Brandon Stroud: How do you feel knowing that your relationship with Ibushi means so much to so many people, especially here in the United States?
Kenny Omega: You know, it’s just really overwhelming because we had been told kind of over and over and over again that this relationship that I’ve had with him is something of the past. Let it go, you have this Bullet Club thing, and Ibushi’s on his own journey, so we’re not going to let you take that route. And I pushed so hard for so long… this was something that I wanted to do, this was something that was important for me as a performer …
To perform at a high level with a friend or someone that’s important to you, someone who has the same goals as you – you can accomplish some incredible things. And Ibushi has been that guy for me ever since I set foot in Japan. He was the second Japanese wrestler I’d met, and since then we had the same vision, and even though the way we went about things in terms of we had different singular goals … being together, traveling together, doing this tag team thing with the Lovers together, that’s always been at the very top of the list.
There’s always sort of this expectation that as singles performers that’s where we should put all our eggs, and even though there’s that expectation, and I feel it’s a responsibility, to perform at this high level as singles performers, there’s always this dream that we had to show everyone that we had this vision of what tag team wrestling could be.
I hope that we showed it a little bit today, that tag team wrestling can be this beautiful … art between four people … there are ways that these humans can interact that two people can’t do … To add two extra bodies to a match doesn’t necessarily mean that okay, yeah, it’s just two other singles matches happening in the ring. It’s a whole conflict with four different people with four different motivations with four different sets of feelings and four ways of thinking. If you can illustrate that with a matchup, if you can open your heart to the people to show that, if we have the willingness and the courage to show that in a match, it unlocks the ability to show the fans how beautiful tag team wrestling can be, especially when you add the athletic factor. And that’s why I wanted to take all the chances here with the Young Bucks, who are, to me, one of the greatest tag teams of all time, certainly, probably the most athletic tag team going today.
Brandon Stroud: What was going through your mind when you had Matt Jackson up for the One Winged Angel and he reached down to [move your arm]?
Kenny Omega: I had felt that this match had gone too far … One Winged Angel is quite possibly the one move left in wrestling that no one’s kicked out of. And the reason probably is that it’s a one hit kill. Why would I want to one hit kill my friend, someone that I’m trying to make amends with? There are some lines you just can’t cross, and there’s of course the willingness to win a match, and the passion to show what your vision of wrestling is. We wanted to show the Golden Lovers were a better tag team, and I think that at that point in time Matt Jackson understood that this was what he wanted. He didn’t want this to be a story between friends. It was a test of pride, more of a battle of ideals, so to speak. And it could have easily been my downfall. I get a little too sentimental sometimes, clearly.
If you want to check out any of the other post-SSE promos from Zack Sabre Jr., Minoru Suzuki, the Guerrillas of Destiny and more, they’re all up on NJPW’s youtube channel. Thanks again to NJPW and AXS TV, the channel that airs New Japan shows in the US and did the live broadcast of Strong Style Evolved, for having us. Sorry we broke Hiromu a little bit.