WWE’s roster looks dramatically different in 2016. Injuries sidelined many marquee names, necessitating replacements. Plus, company boss Vince McMahon has a tendency to shake things up by adding stars after WrestleMania. Many new faces that arrived in 2016 and 2015 came courtesy of WWE’s highly-touted developmental division, NXT, but some very prominent additions came from a surprising and faraway place: New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW).
AJ Styles versus Shinsuke Nakamura. These two will likely next face off on American soil.
WWE wrestlers have had stints in NJPW organization over the decades since its 1972 inception, including current roster members Brock Lesnar, the Dudley Boyz, and Xavier Woods. WWE also inducted NJPW’s founder—the legendary Antonio Inoki—into its Hall of Fame in 2010 (you may have caught Inoki’s name in the news recently in connection with his 1976 wrestler versus boxer match against Muhammed Ali).
In the 1980s, the then-WWF also shared some international championships with the company, and American wrestlers have frequently made their careers in Japan, where the crowds adore the novelty of Western stars like Stan Hansen and Bruiser Brody. New Japan stars also found success on our shores over the years, including Masahiro Chono, who became a member of WCW’s infamous heel stable the NWO, and Jushin Thunder Liger—an agile performer whose long career included stops in WCW, TNA, and, mostly recently,NXT.
Finn Bálor, then called Prince Devitt, started The Bullet Club in New Japan. The current leader of the faction is Kenny Omega.
A more recent movement is affront. After months of rumors, AJ Styles entered this year’s Royal Rumble as a surprise entrant and quickly reached main event status with a feud with none other than face-of-the-WWE, John Cena. Though already popular due to his time in the Ring of Honor and TNA promotions, Styles took his reputation to a new level when he became the leader of The Bullet Club in NJPW.
Like the NWO, The Bullet Club is seen as an outsider group (mostly made up of foreign talent) and possibly the most famous stable in Japan wrestling history. Styles winning the NJPW championship cemented his status as a global star. When he decided to return stateside, TNA courted him aggressively for another run, but WWE also called. Two other members of The Bullet Club, Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows, soon joined Styles in WWE and became major players in the tag team scene, all while backing up Styles in the rather unimaginatively named The Club.
Beating those three to America was the original leader and founder of The Bullet Club, Prince Devitt, who signed with NXT in 2014. Under the new moniker Finn Bálor, the Irish wrestler became the longest-running NXT Champion before moving to the main roster in the much-hyped Draft, when he became the third pick for WWE’s flagship show Raw. His NXT record for championship length was previously held by current main roster star (and fellow Raw draftee) Neville, who also came to the company directly from NJPW.
Before he was known as Neville, this English star wrestler under the name PAC in NJPW
The eccentric superstar Shinsuke Nakamura recently defected NJPW for NXT and received an immediate push, decisively defeating stars like Sami Zayn and Bálor in route to an inevitable title match in the very near future, while Manny Andrade also recently defected New Japan for NXT. During the time of all these signings, rumors surfaced about current NJPW stars Kazuchika Okada and Kenny Omega possibly jumping ship at some point (Asuka and Hideo Itami, two other popular Japanese imports in NXT, worked in rival organizations of NJPW). Perhaps NXT courting Japanese wrestlers shouldn’t be a surprise. NXT head trainer Matt Bloom found great success in NJPW as Giant Bernard, before wrestling in WWE as Tensai.
NJPW recently garnered a lot of attention throughout the world when a controversial match of their own between William Ospreay and Ricochet, who wrestles as Prince Puma in Lucha Underground, went viral. The highly acrobatic bout became a talking point in the wrestling community with current and former grapplers weighing in on social media, blogs, and podcasts. NXT General Manager William Regal praised the match, while former WCW champion (and a massive draw during stints in Japan) Big Van Vader dismissed it as a “memorized gymnastic/dance routine.”
In short time, the contest became the most talked about match of the year, and a search on YouTube will find seemingly endless mentions of it. Along with past wrestling personalities commenting on it, you’ll find videos from fans reacting to it and clip after clip of highlights. While they have their fair share of critics, Richochet and Ospreay have both reportedly been courted by WWE in recent months.
One of 2016’s most talked-about matches found Richochet and William Ospreay taking choreographed moves to new extremes.
That duo took performed daring yet ballet-like levels of choreography, and their style thrives in New Japan, where fans appreciate athleticism, imagination, and aerial maneuvers. This is why talents like Neville and Bálor also became stars there before the WWE took notice of them. While WCW pushed cruiserweights in the 1990s with similar skills, the WWE took longer to realize there could be a fanbase for such entertainers, though they eventually caught on and signed stars like Rey Mysterio, Eddie Guerrero, and Chris Benoit. More recently, the success of Daniel Bryan once again proved the appeal of a smaller guy with a big heart and no fear of throwing his body all around the ring and anywhere near it.
NJPW and other promotions in Japan aren’t just about how high someone can jump from the top turnbuckle, though, which is why the likes of the brawling Hansen and the superhuman Lesnar won acclaim there. Nakamura also fits into this category. He earned the nickname “King of Strong Style” for landing stiff, real strikes, helping him become such a huge celebrity in his home country that Triple H eagerly brought him over here.
Seeing the value of smaller wrestlers while continuing its ever-present goal of expanding its reach, the WWE developed the Cruiserweight Classic this year. Two favorites in the competition include Tajiri—a veteran star who held several belts in the WWE during the early 2000’s—and Kota Ibushi. One of the biggest stars in New Japan for years, Ibushi signed a contract with NXT this year, though he could quickly move up to Raw given Stephanie McMahon’s announcement during the Draft coverage that her program will be the official home of cruiserweight matches.
Recent NXT import Kota Ibushi is a breakout participant in WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic.
NJPW hardly needs WWE stealing their stars to get headlines. They don’t even need new talent-sharing deals, since they have already put on split events in the U.S. and abroad with TNA, Ring of Honor, Jeff Jarrett’s Global Force Wrestling, and the NWA. New Japan has also been making its own inroads in America. In January of 2015, the cable and satellite station AXS TV began showing English-dubbed NJPW events. Giving this program considerable clout is the commentary team of MMA star/occasional wrestler Josh Barnett and WWE HOF-er Jim Ross, who replaced Mauro Ranallo when he signed with WWE.
Will current NJPW heavyweight champion Kazuchika Okada someday make the jump to WWE?
Of course, the WWE still pretty much holds a monopoly on wrestling in the U.S. Even after spending millions upon millions of dollars, TNA struggles to find an audience. Ring of Honor developed stars like CM Punk and Daniel Bryan and continues to garner acclaim amongst hardcore fans, yet it remains an obscurity to the larger public. This doesn’t mean all hope is lost. Lucha Underground became a cult sensation, and the more high-flying aspects of Japanese wrestling share much in common with lucha libre wrestling. No matter the ultimate outcome, though, New Japan is at least changing sports entertainment into an even more international affair.