Just last week, New Japan Pro Wrestling announced the launch of their streaming service similar to the WWE Network, New Japan World. For 999 yen (or a smooth $8.40) a month, I can watch all of content dating back to the late 1970s. From Antonio Inoki, Akira Maeda, Riki Chosu, and Great Muta to the likes of Hiroshi Tanahashi, Shinsuke Nakamura, and Kazuchika Okada today. The best part is also watching some of the classic Tokyo Dome shows which featured the likes of Sting, The Steiner Brothers, Big Van Vader, Hulk Hogan, and even Ron Simmons.
While watching some of these shows, something dawned on me. I remember particularly watching a tag match with Hogan and Stan Hansen against Antonio Inoki and Bob Backlund, way before the phenomena that is HulkaMania. Hulk worked as a heel, but the style was far different from what he had done in his Hollywood persona and had a finisher that he used solely in Japan which was called the Axe Bomber. It was the little things like that along with Sting going wild against the Steiners which begs the question for me: What happen to the glory and fun of foreign excursions in American Wrestling?
Growing up as a wrestling fan in the 90s, I fell in love with the Cruiserweight Division due to its diversity of talent, pacing of their matches, and the array of moves rarely seen at that time. Workers representing all ends of the earth, from Mexico (Rey Mysterio, Juventud Guerrera), Canada (Chris Jericho, Chris Benoit), Japan (Jushin Liger, Shinjiro Otani, Ultimo Dragon), and America (Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko). All of those individuals were critically acclaimed wrestlers who have traveled the world making names for themselves and honing their craft. A few, if not most of these aforementioned names went on to have very successful careers in professional wrestling and even became world champions in an industry that once never favored smaller workers.
Nowadays, the world journeyman is becoming a dying breed as territories have collapsed and WWE monopolizing everything in sight. The independent scene has become the alternative with Ring Of Honor, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, and CHIKARA bringing in talent and having them sharpen their skills before hitting the big stage. With WWE, they have grown to a level that they don’t look to sign well-known workers from their “competition” any more and decided to rebrand and create stars for their own purposes.
Sure, the new Performance Center for WWE has done wonders for the company in producing the most exciting product there with NXT, but most of their talent comes off as cookie-cutter guys that just can’t over and/or won’t get above the midcard. The obvious exceptions are their recent signings of Finn Balor (Prince Devitt), Kevin Owens (Kevin Steen), and Hideo Itami (KENTA). There’s also Adrian Neville and WWE’s best babyface right now in Sami Zayn, who all share a common trait one another. Not only have they toiled around in the independent circuit, but they also have travel abroad and worked with larger crowds, learning different styles, and how to be accommodating workers.
The Performance Center can only teach guys so much about learning the ropes, but the talents are restricted to learning one style and have a limited view on interacting with audiences. For the indie guys, it becomes second-nature to them only starting from square one, only to be pushed to the moon there pretty quickly because they know what they’re doing. I feel if that WWE allows some of their trainees to work overseas for a few months to gain some experience, it can be beneficial to their development.
Workers being allowed to tour for international promotions has become a lost art for WWE and they have their reasons. With no more legitimate competition in their way and an abundance of tours at their disposal, there’s little time for any of their workers to make a schedule perform at say CMLL or New Japan. It’s why they don’t book supershows with other promotions anymore, as WWE claims to be its own Universe in a little bubble of divisive mindsets. But boy would it be cool to see Cena vs. Tanahashi or even Undertaker vs. Kenta Kobashi in their healthy, younger primes.
Unfortunately due to all of that, there has been a ton of complacency with the product and almost their entire roster running in place and barely moving up the ladder. We get the same matches, the same scripted promos, and very few of their wrestlers are compelling enough to connect with the audience. If there was ever a chance for some of the workers to freshen up their character and go overseas, it would be very useful for the workers that creative ‘have nothing for’.
New Japan has had tremendous success sending their workers to Mexico and America only for them to return with big pushes. The biggest example was Keiji Muto and his invention of The Great Muta character in WCW, but more recent examples such as Shinsuke Nakamura and Kazuchika Okada come to mind. Nakamura was a great amateur wrestler and MMA practitioner who was pushed very early in his NJPW career, but rarely made a connection with the crowd and had a personality dry as concrete on a hot summer’s day. Then something amazing happened where he turned heel, began touring in Mexico, and changed his style and appearance. From there he became one of the more charismatic Japanese wrestlers around and currently New Japan’s second biggest draw behind Tanahashi.
I can see WWE benefiting by sending a few of their stars to work 6 months to a year in Japan or Mexico to brush up on their charisma, in-ring skills, and watching how certain crowds react. Roman Reigns would be perfect in a New Japan tour and working with the likes of Togi Makabe, Hirooki Goto, and Tomohiro Ishii, becoming a more proficient brawler and putting together finishing stretches in his matches. He can then come back an even bigger force and more ready for the Main Event scene than he was beforehand.
But one can dream, right?