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To frequent readers of this column, it's known that I have greatly enjoyed New Japan Pro Wrestling's product over the years. For pretty much the entire 2010s, NJPW was easily the best professional wrestling organization on the planet, combining long-term storytelling and logical booking, with excellent matches and a protected world title scene that made each major main event feel like the best, most important wrestling match of the year. Of course, I am not alone in feeling this way, as the company has been going through a major boom period that eventually led to an unheard of breakthrough in Western markets.
However, all good things must come to an end, and while 2020 has been difficult for all wrestling promotions, perhaps no company has endured a more noticeable downfall in quality during the year than NJPW. 2020 has been a very bad year for the company, and while the promotion has still supplied a good collection of matches in 2020, there is no denying that the quality of the product has dipped during 2020.
Like every other promotion, NJPW has had to cope with the effects of the pandemic. The most obvious example is that the company cannot have the same kind of hot, lively crowds that helped every main event match feel special. Unlike promotions in the United States, New Japan can have fans in their buildings, filling up some buildings to half-capacity. The challenging part is that fans are encouraged not to make any vocal noise while watching the show, which means no cheering, booing, yelling, or any verbal expression of emotion. With the crowds reduced to simply clapping or stomping their feet during every match, it obviously hurts the product and takes the key matches down a notch.
The company also cannot bring in foreign wrestlers as frequently as they have in the past, which has been a key part of their international expansion, due to pandemic-related travel restrictions. While the company eventually has been able to get most key talent into the country, the restriction has hurt part-time wrestlers like John Moxley and Chris Jericho from appearing on NJPW programming, which hurts business, especially in the United States.
While the pandemic has posed problems for the company, it is hard to be disappointed in the company for those issues, because they don't have any real control over them. What has been really disappointing is the series of errors the company has made during 2020 that haven't had anything to do with the pandemic, including setting up a damaging booking philosophy that has turned most major NJPW shows into predictable, boring endeavors.
The number one problem for NJPW is that the company has become obsessed with booking major matches that involve tons of outside interference, ref bumps, and heel cheating to attempt to get a crop of new wrestlers over. This has always been an issue bubbling on the surface of NJPW, as over the years a number of Bullet Club and Suzuki-gun matches seemed too reliant on heel interference. In 2020 the company has gone overboard with the concept, to the point that now during most major main event matches, the kind of matches that made NJPW the best wrestling promotion in the world, are now expected to feature a bunch of people running down to the ring and getting involved, killing any momentum the match had and often leading to a BS, annoying finish.
This has been most evident through the ill-fated push of EVIL, who turned heel during the year and joined Bullet Club, with almost every single one of his matches involving excessive amounts of interference, low-blows, and crappy finishes. Since EVIL won the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship and feuded for most of the year with Tetsuya Naito over the title, this was a major problem. The world title matches, the matches that were supposed to be the most important matches in the world, have devolved into 20 minutes of wasted action as fans anticipate the interference-filled finish.
EVIL has been a flop as champion, but he isn't the only person with the interference-heavy dynamic. Jay White, another name NJPW is trying to push, has the same problem, just swap out Dick Togo for Gedo and it's the same exact thing, which is problem since lately EVIL and White have been working key singles matches on the same show, so two matches that should be great have been essentially ruined by the constant interference philosophy.
NJPW has seemed to go all-in on the idea that constant interference equals great heat, but that is misguided. For starters, without the crowd being able to vocally react to the run-ins, there is no heat to speak of when the interference takes place. If the crowd would go crazy when Dick Togo started choking Naito outside the ring, and gave SANADA a huge pop when he ran out to make the save, it would be different. Instead, these events take place in virtual silence, and make every moment feel like a poorly-acted stage scene unfolding in the middle of a world title match. On top of that, if your only plan to get heels over is to have them all interfere in matches, the novelty of the heel interference wears off.
When AJ Styles first won the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship, he did it when Yujiro Takahashi turned on Kazuchika Okada, hit him with his finisher and cost him the title. This was actually a great angle, since at the time NJPW never did interference finishes like that for major matches, so the heat really worked. By 2020, every match has the interference, so that novelty is non-existent and instead fans are left disappointed at the conclusion of most major shows.
NJPW also has another problem, which has been the storyline with Kota Ibushi getting a world title shot at Wrestle Kingdom. In October, Ibushi won the G1 Climax to win a world title shot at Wrestle Kingdom. However, Ibushi lost a subsequent match to Jay White where the title match was put on the line. So Ibushi had lost the world title match, right? Wrong; it was announced afterwards that since Wrestle Kingdom was going to be two nights again next year, Ibushi would simply get his world title shot on the first night, and White would get a title shot on the second night. This basically destroyed the value of winning the G1 in the first place, as well as destroying the value of the White/Ibushi match that was supposed to decide the fate of the title shot at Wrestle Kingdom.
This is a symptom of NJPW making Wrestle Kingdom a two-night event. The original idea behind the two-nights of Wrestle Kingdom (beyond just getting two giant gates instead of one) was that the Wrestle Kingdom shows were extremely good, but very long. The idea was that the shows would be better spread out over two nights, giving each match enough time to reach its potential, without the show being seven hours long. That all makes sense, but NJPW is obviously concerned that the only thing that can draw a big enough crowd to justify doing two nights is a IWGP World Heavyweight Championship match on both nights. So NJPW has had to do a complicated work around with the winner of the G1 Climax and a third wrestler getting thrown into the mix, in order to set up two world title matches. The end result is a confusing series of title shots and booking decisions that hurt the value of both the G1 Climax and the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship.
Lastly, what has really hurt NJPW in 2020 is that the company is going through a transition phase. Important pieces of the roster that have carried the company during the boom period are now over 40 and clearly being phased down; including Hiroshi Tanahashi, Minoru Suzuki (who is over 50), Tomohiro Ishii and Hirooki Goto. Those wrestlers are still prevalent on the show, but the days of leaning on them to main event big shows are almost gone, and the company has spent a bulk of 2020 trying to get younger names to fill their roles.
EVIL has been a disaster; thanks to a limited talent ceiling and bad booking that have caused all of his matches to suck. SANADA has gotten a lot of opportunities but does not seem to have the charisma required to be a true top star, despite tons of natural talent. Jay White is extremely talented, but the interference-laden matches are not helping him, especially since that has also become EVIL's gimmick. Will Ospreay might be the most talented wrestler in the world, but his recent heel turn (which has also led to a lot of, you guessed it, interference-heavy matches) is still evolving and will probably determine his career trajectory, but it's still too early to tell.
From the previous generation, Okada, Ibushi and Naito remain as stalwarts of the company. Okada has had a truly bizarre 2020 that requires its own separate evaluation, but he has been absent from the title picture since losing the title in January. Naito has been hamstrung by the EVIL feud, and is 38 with a history of neck and knee issues. Ibushi, despite his perpetually youthful experience, is also 38. Only Okada, at 33, feels like a good bet to be a mainstay for the promotion throughout the 2020s.
How NJPW develops that next generation of stars will be critical to the company's future success. The company lived throughout the 2010s by constantly finding new stars to fill in for departed stars. For a company that lost three of their biggest stars (Shinsuke Nakamura, Kenny Omega and Styles) during the decade, they have managed to rebound nicely each time. A progressive philosophy for booking young stars and a lack of complacency will do that; but the company has struggled in 2020 as they have tried to phase down a bunch of established names, and elevate a collection of new names that may or not be suited for the role.
2020 did not inspire a lot of confidence in the future of NJPW; it seems like the boom in popularity has curtailed, although it is tough to really assess that with the pandemic taking place. The wrestlers they tried to elevate have mostly been disappointed, and the hallmarks of what made the promotion great; amazing main events, the G1 Climax, the prestige of the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship, have all been neutered in some way during the year. The company still has a great abundance of talent and a loyal fanbase that will give them time to turn things around, but 2020 was not a good year for NJPW.
On the latest episode of The Gentlemen's Wrestling Podcast, Jesse Collings and Jason Ounpraseuth discuss the recent firing of Zelina Vega and WWE's crackdown on talent working on third-party groups. The guys talk about why the crackdown impacts women wrestlers and performers in particular, the future of WWE's performers being listed as independent contractors, and how the unique political atmosphere of wrestling has prevented wrestlers from unionizing.