By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
18 matches. 2 days. 1 Philadelphia.
That was my Saturday and Sunday this past weekend as I made the pilgrimage to the City of Brotherly Love for New Japan Pro Wrestling television tapings for the company’s Strong series. In two weeks, it will mark one year since I took over the NJPW Strong coverage duties for this site. Naturally, then, when the announcement was made that the company was planning on bringing the show to the East Coast for a weekend, it felt imperative to see the fun with my own eyes and in the flesh.
The best part?
Let me explain. When I began writing about the show, we were still in the stages of the Covid-19 pandemic when crowds for events weren’t allowed to commence, and the show’s episodes were taped in front of nobody. Conversely, AEW had its smattering of fans to at least provide a reasonable facsimile of a crowd during its Daily’s Place tapings. WWE, meanwhile, had the ThunderDome.
NJPW, though? The wrestlers really were playing to nobody. So, those Strong episodes felt particularly different and particularly isolated. You could hear every grunt, every chop, every breath, and while I say this in the most loving way possible, the episodes had somewhat of a public access vibe to them. Not much production. Limited space around the ring. And after a while, we didn’t even get to see the commentary team of Kevin Kelly and Alex Koslov as the voice-over game got real and their bodies stopped checking in at the beginning of each episode.
But I’ll argue to my dying breath that of all the wrestling shows on television or streaming services that benefited from crowds returning to the equation, NJPW Strong received the biggest boost in quality after people were allowed back in. Sure, the crowds aren’t large, and yeah, the production can be hit-or-miss (this run of Texas tapings is something to behold, as I whined about profusely in my latest Strong review), but when you’re so used to seeing these young wrestlers use each week to develop, grow and learn in front of nobody and then bam, there’s a cheering crowd behind them for the first time ever … the phrase “night and day” isn’t even the beginning of it.
Now, did that carry over into Philadelphia this past weekend?
Of course it did. The 2300 Arena is almost the perfect spot for NJPW Strong tapings. It’s small, has widely celebrated history, and is in a town where you’re going to be able to draw out the smart, passionate wrestling fan. Was the place sold out? No. But were there enough people in the building to create the type of energy that everyone involved needs in order to make a good wrestling show great? Indeed.
Better yet, these weren’t fans who were there only because Jon Moxley and Eddie Kingston wrestled in Sunday’s main event. These were fans who were all in on people like Clark Connors and Alex Coughlin, two NJPW Strong personalities that have been with the show week in and week out no matter if there was a crowd and no matter if Coughlin had a mustache. These were fans who screamed Minoru Suzuki’s theme song. And these were fans who ate up every inch of every word Juice Robinson yelled when he played to them.
Plus, of course, no one was shy about four-letter words. And this being in the old ECW Arena, would you expect (or even want) anything different?
As for the actual wrestling …
These guys delivered. Perhaps my biggest takeaway from both days was being as close to Will Ospreay as I was while watching him wrestle. He’s bigger than I thought he’d be, and on top of that, he’s awfully thick. Combine that with the way he moves, his agility and an uncanny charisma, and you have a prototype not named John Cena that’s built for this style of wrestling. He can work at any pace and when he lays it in, my God, he lays it in (there was a chop he landed Saturday night on Ren Narita that will haunt me forever).
Plus, this guy is still re-finding his footing after being out with a neck injury for so long. It also feels like his presence gives Strong an upgrade in profile, which it has needed for quite some time. That’s no disrespect to all the guys working their asses off each week, of course; it’s just to say that you need at least one next-level main-event talent to help make other future next-level main-event talents. And if Saturday was at least any indication, it appears as though Ren Narita might be next in line to get that Ospreay rub.
My only fear is that Ospreay’s stay in Strong isn’t going to last terribly long. His gimmick these days is that he’s still the NJPW world champion because he never lost the title to begin with, so you have to think that he’s on a collision course with IWGP World Heavyweight Champion Shingo Takagi, and smart money says that’s not necessarily a collision course that will be played out on Strong. Ospreay is also arguably the biggest full-time star NJPW has when it comes to anywhere outside of Japan. Jay White is well known and Kazuchika Okada and Hirhoshi Tanahashi’s stars do shine beyond their home country, but Ospreay has been a buzzy name for a bit now and this weekend felt like he’s ready to settle into the prime years of his career. Remember. He’s only 28.
The prime years of one’s career, however, most likely aren’t spent on NJPW Strong, especially if you could go headline a Wrestle Kingdom. But, hey: Enjoy him while you got him, right? It’s better to eat now than to starve later, and kudos for NJPW for putting him on Strong, and kudos to Ospreay himself for seemingly embracing it and diving in. The Hidden Blade is some type of nasty.
But enough about Ospreay …
TOP TO BOTTOM
… And more about the rest.
I touched on this in my results write-ups over the weekend, but enough can’t be said about how impressive it is that NJPW has essentially created these wrestlers from the L.A. Dojo. Now, of course, it wasn’t like create-a-wrestler type stuff, and obviously the work and sacrifice from the people who are now competing is unparalleled.
But so much is made of being “homegrown,” whatever that even means anymore. If it should be applied anywhere, it should be with New Japan because the training these guys have to endure, by all accounts, appears to be not for the faint of heart. The evolution of Clark Connors, Alex Coughlin, Ren Narita, The DKC, Kevin Knight and others has been an absolute joy to watch over the months. Throw on top of that Hikuleo, who’s going to be a star in three years, and someone like Fred Rosser, who is absolutely reborn in NJPW, and you kind of/sort of accidentally accrued one of the best low-key rosters in the game.
And I say that objectively. Especially these days, loyalty to one brand seems to be all the rage, and that rage ultimately turns into a certain level of super-fandom that blocks anything good from anywhere else out of one’s consciousness. That’s not something I invest much in, and you also won’t find me loving all of everything from everywhere — or, to my point, any one organization — mostly because I’m a grump. But the roster of people who appear on Strong each week has developed into one that’s versatile, entertaining and above all, reliable.
When I tune in each week to review Strong for this website, I know I’m going to get some good stuff — and I couldn’t necessarily say that with confidence each week six or eight months ago. But the company took the time to develop wrestlers and the wrestlers took the time to dedicate themselves to development. As a result, there wasn’t a single lull in either Saturday or Sunday’s cards.
Actually, about that …
TWO IS ALWAYS BETTER THAN ONE
A few weeks ago, I covered the MLW Flightland tapings at the same arena and I’ll be damned if we wouldn’t still be there had NJPW not booked the building for this past weekend. The lesson? If you’re going to tape television, and you have to do it in chunks, spread it out over two days!
And no, I almost never use exclamation points.
The experience with the Strong tapings was less grating than it was with MLW earlier this month if only because we got a solid three-and-a-half hours of wrestling on one night, and then, believe it or not, a solid three-and-a-half hours of wrestling on the next night. There was no seven-hour marathon that ultimately ended up tainting MLW’s long-anticipated main event between Alex Hammerstone and Jacob Fatu. Instead, on both Saturday and Sunday, right about the time things started to feel like it wouldn’t hurt to wind down, things … well … wound down.
I’m not bashing MLW, so don’t go there. I was grateful to cover it and perhaps the next set of tapings will be different. But it seems like New Japan has really figured out how to get the most out of its tapings — both from the talent and the audience. The production was fantastic, the in-ring work was tremendous and the overall experience was can’t-miss for any wrestling fan.
Plus, after spending every Friday night with the product for the last year, it was kind of like being in person to see a favorite TV show tape in front of a live studio audience. Because, well, I suppose that’s what it was.
The best part, though, through all of it, as I said earlier, was the people. The people in the ring and the people out of the ring. And for someone who isn’t the biggest fan of people no matter where they are, it was hard for anyone, including me, to ask for more — even if I did miss Hikuleo on night 1.