New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s summer super-card Dominion delivered on initial hype, if not exceeding it. With an impressive show leading into the promotion’s first independently promoted showcase in the United States, NJPW has considerable momentum as the world’s premier wrestling league in 2017.
NJPW made no bones about its intent for this year. Beginning with the federation’s traditional super-show on Jan. 4, formally labeled “Wrestle Kingdom” since 2007, growing into a global brand
Reaching No. 1 through such measures as audience size and revenue is a pie-in-the-sky pursuit. NJPW’s actual product, however, has surpassed that of worldwide wrestling leader, WWE.
That’s no small feat. Halfway through 2017, WWE has had one of its best in-ring years in company history. Two of its most praised matches — A.J. Styles vs. John Cena from the Royal Rumble, and Pete Dunne vs. Tyler Bate at last month’s NXT TakeOver: Chicago — earned 4.75-star ratings from journalist Dave Meltzer.
2001 marked the last time two WWE matches were rated that highly in the same calendar year. 2001 is also almost universally recognized as WWE’s best year for in-ring performance ever.
Much like January’s Wrestle Kingdom 11 card, however, NJPW Dominion showcased numerous bouts on its undercard alone that could contend for Match of the Year. Two of the nights best — Hiromu Takahashi vs. KUSHIDA and Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Tetsuya Naito — were rematches from Wrestle Kingdom.
In January, those matches both earned 4.5-star ratings from Meltzer. The Dominion bouts surpassed both, from my perspective. Both also demonstrate the creative edge NJPW currently has on WWE.
Because professional wrestling combines theater with sport, the medium’s at its best when the back-story behind athletic, physical bouts like those at Dominion are compelling.
Such was the case for each of Dominion’s top three matches. The Intercontinental Championship showdown pit Naito, an arrogant and disrespectful young talent, against the longtime face of NJPW, Tanahashi.
Naito’s continued disrespect of the Intercontinental belt, including spitting on the championship and cracking its plates, drew the ire of consummate good guy Tanahashi.
Respect also highlighted the story fueling KUSHIDA’s IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship win over Takahashi. After beating the division’s ace both at Wrestle Kingdom, and in under two minutes at Sakura Genesis, Takahashi dismissed KUSHIDA as a legitimate challenger. And KUSHIDA was left doubting himself — a relatable plot device often seen in American cinema.
A series of excellent matches in NJPW’s Best of the Super Juniors tournament, and the introducing of a new signature move helped KUSHIDA regain his confidence. In turn, he finally bested his rival in a hard-hitting match that ranks among my personal favorites of 2017.
And NJPW’s goal of global expansion gives life to Dominion’s main event of Kenny Omega vs. Kazuchika Okada, as the two young superstars battle to be the international face of the company.
World Wrestling Entertainment has a roughly 30-year head-start on NJPW as the world’s most prominent wrestling organization. Vince McMahon became the first American promoter to go national in the mid-1980s, and quickly established his then-WWF as the United States’ clear No. 1.
Despite some lean years in the 1990s, the wrestling boom at the end of that decade — coupled with horrible creative and business decisions by its chief competitor — fueled WWE’s rise to an American wrestling monopoly.
Since McMahon bought the remnants of formerly Ted Turner-owned World Championship Wrestling in 2001 — the best in-ring year of WWE’s history — many American fans have longed for a new rival to emerge.
Without legitimate competition, WWE suffered through years of creative stagnation. It hasn’t needed to present its best story-telling to maintain its place as a clear No. 1. The result was years of sleaze that hurt the reputation of a medium already viewed cynically in the mainstream, replaced this decade by former TV writers who bogged down angles with convoluted plot twists.
WWE’s creative missteps explain fan backlash to top-level face characters like John Cena and Roman Reigns. There’s been little reason given to cheer them on beyond, “Because we say so.”
In contrast, and despite a language barrier, NJPW has excelled in providing easily followed, relatable drama to supplement the excellent athleticism on display in the ring.
I’ll be in attendance for NJPW’s shows next month in Long Beach, Calif., and will have coverage here at The Open Man. The federation’s global expansion won’t overtake the WWE. However, the continued growth of the NJPW audience should be a huge positive for all wrestling fans, as it might fuel WWE’s creative energy in a positive way.