Sitting at the James Republic bar Saturday in Long Beach, an old friend commented on my “kid-at-Christmas” smile. Resting Geek Face, let’s call it.
Of course I was giddy. I’d had this weekend committed to memory since January, when New Japan Pro-Wrestling first announced the G1 Special in USA, its first independently promoted show in America. The weekend was planned since April, when tickets went on sale.
I sat a table in Long Beach, just an hour drive from my Southern California home, but with friends — old and new — who came in from Illinois and Arizona. One is a former colleague, another a basketball buddy from my undergraduate days, and the third one of several new people met on this excursion.
A bar TV is tuned to AXS, broadcasting the 61/4-star match between Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada at NJPW’s June show Dominion; perfect mood-setting TV for the weekend.
Rare is the occasion nowadays when I am able to attend an event as a fan. Please don’t mistake the preceding for a woe-is-me sportswriter sob story; I recognize and appreciate how fortunate I have been to be on-site covering arguably the greatest Final Four finish in history and perhaps the second-greatest Rose Bowl Game ever.
Nevertheless, facing pressing deadlines with interviews to conduct and story lines to uncover makes for a much different viewing experience compared to sitting among the crowd as a member of the audience.
So, yes, I anticipated Night 1 of the G1 Special with an eager, childlike enthusiasm.
The walk from James Republic to the Long Beach Performing Arts Center was short, but the streets of downtown Long Beach were awash in New Japan fans. Reported attendance for the two nights of the G1 Special was around 2500, but the energy emanating from the area felt as though it came from a crowd five, 10, 20 times that.
The first true NJPW shows in the United States were billed as historic since the moment they were announced at January’s Wrestle Kingdom 11, and the experience delivered on that lofty benchmark.
Match quality is largely subjective. I personally rank Kenny Omega’s IWGP United States Championship Tournament bouts against Michael Elgin and Tomohiro Ishii as two of the best from any promotion in the world this year.
IWGP Heavyweight Championship Kazuchika Okada extended his lengthy reign and further cemented himself as the international face of New Japan Pro-Wrestling with an excellent match against Cody Rhodes, headlining Night 1.
Saturday’s G1 Special main event did as much to demonstrate the star power of Cody as it did to give an American audience its proper introduction to Okada. Decked out in flashy American flag garb, accompanied to the ring by his wife, Brandi, and an entourage all wearing presidential masks, Rhodes exuded the air necessary to be a top-level heel in professional wrestling.
And that prime bad guy spot is one for which Cody appears headed, now that Bullet Club frenemy Kenny Omega solidified his place as a bonafide babyface at weekend’s end.
The G1 Special could not have had a more fitting conclusion than for Omega — newly crowned and inaugural IWGP United States Champion — to deliver a heartfelt address to an audience that cheered his every move throughout three matches with youthful exuberance.
Omega’s promo Sunday night marked NJPW’s farewell to the American audience for a year — the promotion’s chairman, Naoki Sugabayashi, promised a 2018 return — but his words stayed stateside with me when I woke up in California Monday morning.
“I’m not going to lie: This year has been difficult for me. I think about the struggles, the hardships, the failures. And then I remember — I’m just a human. Each and every one of us has had hardships, failures. But what separates us from the normal human being — guys were brought in to do a job, guys who weren’t valued as anything — we never gave up. We were worth something. We were special. And so are each and every one of you.”
Kenny Omega’s promo resonated with me in a profound way; a way that might be difficult to convey to someone with no connection to wrestling. This particular form of entertainment comes with a certain perception, if not stigma — and oftentimes, rightly so.
I shared a laugh with my old college friend, who made the trek to Long Beach from Phoenix. Here we where, hanging out like nothing changed in 12 years, with one notable exception: We now knew the other was a wrestling fan. Both of us were insecure about sharing this as undergrads, because of the stigma that wrestling’s earned.
When done properly, however, professional wrestling is a unique blend of sports, drama, comedy, and even reflection of life. Omega’s words stick with me as a freelance sportswriter, working to make it in an industry where it feels like every day brings awful news for the entire industry.
Yahoo!, Fox Sports, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report have all laid off remarkably talented staff in 2017 alone. It’s an unenviable position, one I have experienced. And somehow, it’s more disheartening when the proverbial ax falls on peers more established than when it happens to yourself.
For me, G1 Special weekend was a reprieve from the hardships, the struggles, the failures. Omega’s promo became an unexpected yet much-needed pep talk.
Assuredly, his words resonated with someone else in that crowd in a different but just as personal and equally impacting way.
Therein lies some of the almost indescribable feeling of an event like this. Thousands who might not otherwise be in the same space come together for a shared experience. I may not enjoy the same music or movies as the woman next to me with her boyfriend, but for four hours in a Southern California conventional hall, we clap and chant in unison.
And in that, new friendships are forged. My old college buddy and I may not have bonded over wrestling in those days, but I left the G1 Special with more friends than I had when I arrived in Long Beach.