By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
It’s tough out here for a wrestling fan in 2021.
I say that lovingly, of course. But as we all know by now, any wrestling fan in the world can pretty much find a brand new episode of a wrestling show via television or the World Wide Internet every single night of the week. In fact, there are some instances in which that fan could even have options. Sure, there’s Raw from WWE on Monday … but there’s also Dark Elevation from AEW on Mondays, too. SmackDown and Rampage on Fridays. Impact on Thursdays. Dynamite on Wednesdays. You know the drill.
Now, the problem is somewhat simple: Because of this content overload, things get lost. We can’t spend every night of the week watching nothing but wrestling … can we? So, we delegate. What is can’t-miss. Which company’s product we enjoy more than the others. The expected developments of specific episodes of specific shows. These are just a few things we consider as fans on a weekly basis to figure out how we’re going to spend our wrestling time.
As such, things get lost in the shuffle. It’s not that some products are bad; it’s just that there isn’t enough time in the week to be caught up with every moment from every company and also live a somewhat normal life. This, of course, brings me to why I’m writing what I’m writing this week …
KING OF SPORT
NJPW Strong is the best television series currently offered by a wrestling company on a weekly basis.
Or, well, at least for my money, it is.
Reviewing the show each Saturday night/Sunday morning for this website, this isn’t the first time I’ve shared such an opinion, so I’m fully aware that I’m not breaking any ground here. Even so, the more I watch the show, and the better each show gets, the more I begin to wonder if New Japan is actually making any headway in the U.S. because of it. I wonder that because in my mind, it should be. Actually, in my mind, it really, really should be.
As I outlined a couple months ago in one of these pieces dedicated to my time attending a NJPW Strong taping in Philadelphia, this stuff has grown on me like a Magic Grow Dino Set. Just add water, and in time, that thing will end up being bigger than the dog. The same can be said for my relationship with Strong. Even on the weeks that might be sub-par for the brand, I still find myself falling deeper in lust with it, knowing love is readily creeping in.
In a lot of ways, as I said before, the pandemic helped endear the product to me because of how simple the episodes were, taped in front of nobody and essentially offering about an hour worth of wrestling. No real angles, skits, comedy or even promos, really. It was just a few matches, most of which were very good, on a soundstage in California. There were no pretenses, no expectations, no bells and whistles.
Since then, though, the entire production has been taken to a new level with the insertion of fans. And while it’s not like these guys are playing to tens of thousands of people a night, I am pretty confident in saying that the fans who do go to these smaller rooms know the wrestlers, love the wrestlers and clearly follow the product as well as any fanbase for any other company out there. And in the case of NJPW Strong, they make as much difference as anything else the company offers.
Or, almost anything else …
I say that because as we learned on the most recent episode of NJPW Strong, the show’s most essential assets are its wrestlers.
OK, OK. I know that might sound silly, but when you think about a lot of the other wrestling (or, if we must, “sports entertainment”) products out there, arguments could be made for other elements of their respective productions being the most essential factors in their equation. WWE, for instance, values its entertainment ethos the most. AEW, it could be argued, puts the bulk of its stock into storytelling. GCW leans most on variety. Impact … well, I’m not exactly sure what Impact values the most in its operation, but it sure doesn’t seem like “wrestlers” would be the answer.
NJPW – and more specifically, NJPW Strong – meanwhile is just kind of like, “Hey, we got these guys who want to wrestle, so all right, let’s set up a ring and let them wrestle.” And that’s pretty much what you get when you tune into Strong each week. Sure, there are some names you might recognize at the top of the card – Brody King, JR Kratos, Fred Rosser, Will Ospreay, “Filthy” Tom Lawlor, FinJuice, et al – but one of the commonalities between them is that they can all go.
And I mean go.
Look at the reputations they’ve built before winding up on Strong. Shoot, look at the reputations they continue to grow as they compete on Strong. It’s not for the faint of heart. The matches are filled with chops that echo from California to Pennsylvania. There are submissions with unpronounceable names and at least five vowels. There’s technical superiority. There’s commitment to craft. There’s chaos mixed with control, passion mixed with pain.
And speaking of all those things …
MATCH OF THE YEAR?
As I said, the most recent episode of Strong proved that the show’s most essential assets are its wrestlers due to its main event. “Filthy” Tom Lawlor went up against Fred Rosser in a bout for the Strong Openweight Title. Lawlor has held the belt since it was invented earlier this year in April. Eight months into his reign (which also serves as the title’s inaugural reign), it felt like it could be time to get the hardware off Lawlor. Rosser and Lawlor have been telling a hell of a story for months now, with Lawlor’s stable taking shears to Rosser’s hair and both guys cutting wildly intense promos on the other.
But that didn’t happen in this week’s episode. Instead, Lawlor retained. In fact, Lawlor retained without the help of anyone in Team Filthy. In fact, Lawlor retained after a 25-minute masterpiece of a match that saw both guys work their asses off right to the very end. In fact, Lawlor retained after, at one point, rolling to three different sides of the ring before obtaining that elusive rope break he needed to stay alive as Rosser sunk in a cross-face chicken wing.
That match is the reason I’m writing what I’m writing right now. It took Strong to a newer, higher, more lasting height. That’s no slight on anything anyone on the show has done before, of course. That’s just to say that if I had any questions or doubts about believing Strong is the best hour of wrestling on television (or Internet Television) going today, those questions or doubts were put to rest after sitting down with that match.
And so, I pose to you: Watch the match. As a Christmas gift to yourself, carve out 30 minutes (you won’t want to miss the post-match promo). Find nine bucks in change when you clean your couch and put it toward a New Japan World subscription. Cancel it after a month if you want to. Just do whatever you have to do in order to see this match.
Why? Because it embodies everything that makes NJPW Strong the best hour on television. It’s so physical and so impassioned and so dramatic and so unavoidable that if you’re not sold on the NJPW Strong product after watching it … well, you’re just simply not ever going to like NJPW Strong, and that’s that. But even if you spend 10 minutes with it, and you like your wrestling with a side of wrestling — meaning everything from story to in-ring and everything in between — then it’s impossible for you to be disappointed and that comes with the McGuire’s Monday guarantee.
Actually, you know what’s even better than a Match Of The Year contender as a main event?
The strength of the rest of the roster.
One thing that NJPW Strong does better than anything else in American pro wrestling is allow viewers to follow the journeys of the younger talents as they progress and evolve in front of our eyes. Raw and SmackDown have approximately 12 to 15 wrestlers they use each week and we all know who they are. AEW offers its YouTube shows, Dark and Dark Elevation, but those appear to be little more than pseudo try-outs for some and ways to bulk up winning records for others who are positioned to move up the company’s weekly standings.
Strong, on the other hand, will give you someone like Ren Narita every other week for a few months. Sometimes in tag matches, other times in one-on-one bouts. He’ll lose more often than not, but each match will be competitive and go at least eight to 10 minutes. And then, as soon as the time is right, He’ll wind up being on the winning side of an encounter with someone like Will Ospreay and immediately be elevated for it.
The guys who have come out of the LA Dojo – or, for that matter, are still training at the LA Dojo – have been built so impressively that it’s hard not to get up for their matches at this point. Watching Alex Coughlin, who graduated from the LA Dojo in 2018, come into his own has been the treat of treats each week – and this is three years after his graduation, mind you. Baring witness to how his look has evolved, his body has advanced and his in-ring work has sharpened should be reasons number one, two and three when it comes to why the Young Lions matter on Strong and how much value they bring to the weekly equation.
All credit to Katsuyori Shibata, who has taken these young guys under his wing and seems to have transformed a lot of lives along the way (for the better, of course). The LA Dojo is no joke, and thinking about where some of these guys might be in five or 10 years down the road makes me all the more excited to be a wrestling fan. Kevin Knight. The DKC. The aforementioned Narita. Yuya Uemura. The future’s so bright for those guys, and the way Strong presents them all but forces you to have a soft spot for each one. It’s watching them develop on their journey that makes it fun – sort of like a real life reality show, but it’s wrestling and it doesn’t suck.
Now, as for the secret sauce of the program …
A TITAN TANDEM
That goes to Strong’s commentary team, Kevin Kelly and Alex Koslov.
When I began watching the show in earnest, I won’t lie: I was skeptical of the team. I know Kelly has been doing great work for New Japan for a long time now, but Koslov wasn’t clicking for whatever reason. He got points for trying because you could tell he was putting in his best effort, but his work was so green, it was hard to warm up to without having to endure a rash of growing pains at first.
These days, though? Kelly and Koslov are like a bizarro Bobby Heenan and Gorilla Monsoon. Those are big shoes, I know, but these two have taken the practice and made it their own, one being a clear but sort of quirky and likable heel, while the other being the voice of reason babyface that doesn’t let anything slip by him without calling into question the morals of the actions. There’s a warmness to their work together these days – one that makes it noticeably different whenever Kelly is in Japan to take on other NJPW duties.
Plus, they’re funny. That’s the weirdest part about the whole ordeal. They went from being clumsy funny to being endearingly clumsy funny almost overnight. Sometimes they bicker, but sometimes they share respect as they acknowledge something impressive in the ring. The best part is that it’s earned. Everything about their connectivity and success as a commentary team feels like it was something they worked at until they got it. Perseverance through pursuit can sometimes be the most defining trait anyone can have.
And for that matter, such an approach kind of sums of NJPW Strong. With humble beginnings, managed expectations and an undying commitment to growth, this show continues to feel like the little engine that could and thus has become the little engine that does. For that, attention must be paid and respect should be imperative. I’m not a New Japan apologist. I’m not an AEW apologist. I’m not a WWE apologist. I’m not any type of apologist for any wrestling company out there.
But you can’t deny the evolution and effort NJPW Strong has showcased throughout the last year and a half. So here’s to another year-and-a-half and then some. And here’s to “Filthy” Tom Lawlor and Fred Rosser – the two guys who redefined what to expect from an episode of this program … and perhaps more importantly, where the bar now hangs for whomever steps up next.