Fighting Spirit Unleashed — New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s third Southern California show — boasted what I consider its strongest overall lineup.
I attended all three NJPW shows in Long Beach, which all offered something different. The 2017 G1 Special was a landmark event and a party of sorts, featuring some outstanding matches. But spreading out over two nights, neither individual card was as strong as Fighting Spirit Unleashed. March’s Strong Style Evolved featured the most anticipated single match from any of the three, with Golden Lovers facing the Young Bucks, but the rest of the card was not as strong.
Each of the final four matches from Fighting Spirit Unleashed showcased NJPW’s defining trait: outstanding in-ring work. At the same time, all four demonstrated a weakness of the promotion.
The Walter Pyramid audience was split in its cheers for each of the last four matches, whether it was Will Ospreay vs. Marty Scurll in the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship tournament; Golden Lovers vs. Okada and Ishii in a sensational main-event tag; even Guerrillas of Destiny — clearly defined heels after their betrayal of Bullet Club at the July G1 Special in San Francisco — garnered cheers against the local team of the Young Bucks. I credit that, at a base level, the Guerrillas are … well, correct. The Bullet Club feud centered around Kenny Omega and Cody Rhodes jockeying for leadership rattled the stable’s core, while founding member Tama Tonga shirked the drama.
Speaking of Cody, the visceral hatred the Long Beach crowds showed him in July 2017 and March 2018 dissipated. His face turn on the Being The Elite webseries, coming to Kenny Omega’s aid during the Firing Squad attack at G1 Special in San Francisco, and the success of All-In have made Cody a good guy for American audiences. He’s still very much a heel in Japan — the crowd’s reaction to his challenge of Juice Robinson for the IWGP United States Championship elicited a decidedly heel response — but he’s now akin to the Hart Foundation in 1997.
Cody celebrating in the ring alongside Omega and Kota Ibushi to close Fighting Spirit Unleashed had an aura somewhat reminiscent of the hated Harts victorious to close the incredible Canadian Stampede show 21 years ago.
Stateside, where the global expansion of NJPW is vital, none of the outstanding four matches to close Fighting Spirit Unleashed featured a strong Face vs. Heel dynamic. Go further down the card, however, and it’s a different story.
There were no dueling chants, no cheers for “Switchblade” Jay White in his tag team match against Hiroshi Tanahashi and KUSHIDA. The Pyramid crowd instead rang out with loud bellows of, “Fuck you, Switchblade.”
A stark contrast to Jay White’s appearance at Strong Style Evolved, to be sure, and a testament to the Switchblade character’s fast evolution. In March, White defended the IWGP United States Championship in an excellent bout against Hangman Page. The 25-minute, semi-main event was easily the second-best match on the card, and each increasingly hard-hitting spot was met with relative quiet from the audience.
Jay White debuted the Switchblade character just four months prior, the reveal at the end of a series of vignettes teased for months.
The video packages were excellently done and foreboding. But professional wrestling history is littered with characters who looked outstanding in pre-produced video packages, but failed to deliver in live performances. Switchblade bore a remarkable resemblance to Sean O’Haire’s Devil’s Advocate persona in 2003, with both portrayed as dark, corrupting influences.
Switchblade’s flat debut against Hiroshi Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom 12 set the character out to a slow start. But since the slow start, Jay White’s undergone a fast transformation into the most hateable (and thus, most effective) heel NJPW has to offer.
The process began the night after Wrestle Kingdom when, at New Year Dash, Switchblade turned an offer to join Bullet Club into a catalyst for the fracturing of the group. His attack on Kenny Omega that night showed weakness on which Cody Rhodes pounced.
But it was through Switchblade’s subsequent joining of CHAOS that Jay White’s evolution into a main-event caliber heel kicked into gear.
Though originally a heel outfit, CHAOS morphed into the closest manifestation of the NJPW office seen in the product itself. Booker Gedo standing in the corner of NJPW golden child Kazuchika Okada reflected the company’s genuine aspirations to make the talented Okada its pillar.
Okada sat alongside Jay White at his CHAOS introduction press conference, and Switchblade made no efforts to conceal his intentions: He cared only about his own success, his own aspirations, and the link between CHAOS and the NJPW office provided the clearest path.
No other CHAOS members had previous attempted to leverage their affiliation with the group into a main-event spot, most notably Tomohiro Ishii. Jay White’s provocations of the popular Ishii and contention that the Stone Pitbull should challenge Okada for the championship planted the seeds of division.
A similar plot with YOSHI-HASHI was teased throughout the summer, with the longtime CHAOS member growing increasingly frustrated with his failures. That the CHAOS fixture to join Switchblade is Gedo, however, adds a fascinating dimension to the story.
No young talent returning from excursion was ever positioned as prominently as Okada until Jay White. As a permanent fixture in Okada’s corner, Gedo functioned as a symbol of the office’s confidence in the Rainmaker.
Okada chose to part ways with Gedo — seemingly amicably — after the G1 Climax. It was a necessary step for Okada to continue his growth and take the next step in his career. Gedo backing Jay White in what the NJPW booker calls “the New Era” is no insignificant development.
Jay White’s succeeded in corrupting the most popular and most influential of NJPW’s factions, fulfilling the promise of the Switchblade character as an unmitigated villain.