McGuire’s Mondays: As New Japan Strong grows into its next phase, it’s time to appreciate what it was and fret over what it might become

By Colin McGuire, Staffer (@McGMondays)

It was October 2020 and I was in the middle of covering 205 Live for this website when I received an email from Jason Powell asking if I’d be interested in switching to covering something else on Friday nights. At the time, I had been writing for this Dot Net for only a handful of months and I would have been happy to just go fetch the virtual coffee for my virtual colleagues.

Jason had a different thought in mind: Hopping over to cover New Japan Strong on the NJPW World service. It was a relatively new show – the series kicked off on August 7, 2020, so I’d be hopping in about two-and-a-half months into its infancy. I was thankful for the opportunity, and of course, I said yes. Out of the fire that was WWE’s weekly throwaway G-show and into the wilderness that was New Japan’s honest-to-goodness first foray into a new-content weekly American imprint.

Add in the throes of a global pandemic and the task was similar for both new wrestling writer and new wrestling television series: How does this work and can this please not suck?

As a result, I felt a weird kinship with New Japan Strong. It was pro wrestling in front of absolutely nobody on a soundstage in California that reminded me of clips from the type of territorial vintage television wrestling from the 1970s or 1980s. I was holed up in my apartment watching wrestling holed up in an abandoned warehouse (or at least so it seemed). Adhering to a lot of the lockdown protocols of the COVID-19 pandemic, NJPW Strong ended up being the signifier of a week’s end when a week’s days felt indistinguishable from one another.

From there, covering the show felt like a warm blanket – less so after it moved to Saturdays and I switched day jobs, but still a warm blanket nonetheless. Having come to the series when it practically began, I became so accustomed to seeing those guys – especially Hikuleo, who I continue to argue is a star in the making – go out there and wrestle in an empty room that when the decision was made to take the show on the road, it injected a new energy into New Japan’s U.S. expansion. The company wasn’t selling out 5,000-seaters at the Strong tapings, but it was fun to confirm after so many months of that low-fi intimacy that there were actually other people watching the show, too. Live crowds gave the Strong brand a new level of life.

And now it’s gone. So, OK. Not really. Or, at least that’s what we’re told. The Strong imprint is as viable as ever, so it wouldn’t make sense for New Japan to kill it, but the company is changing things. It was announced at the end of January that the show will now morph into something called “Strong Live” and “Strong On Demand.” The first Strong Live event will be the much-ballyhooed Battle In the Valley, which is set to go down February 18 in San Jose. You can watch the show in its entirety that night for $20 on Fite, but my understanding is that throughout the following month (in this case, March), matches from the night will trickle out as part of the Strong On Demand model.

Or, as the official announcement from New Japan read, “this dual model will give fans on a budget the chance to stay up to date with the hottest action in the US through their regular NJPW World subscription, while the very best live experience on the planet awaits on pay-per-view as it happens.”

It would be unfair to say this doesn’t make at least a little bit of sense. Why book 500-seat rooms in the Pacific Northwest (or, well, Philadelphia) to tape matches that in some cases don’t air for six or more weeks in an era when spoilers can trickle out as they happen, in real time, on Twitter? The model was antiquated – but antiquated in a charming way, if you ask me. Gone are the days when the company might have to scramble to find some random tag-team from Defy to fill out a Strong taping, only to wrestle Bateman and Barrett Brown for seven and a half minutes and take a loss. In are the days of … more consequential wrestling?

Maybe. But sometimes quality over quantity actually isn’t the answer. New Japan Strong found its audience and, from afar, at least, it looked like its audience was growing regardless of how slow that growth might have seemed. The roster became familiar – even if that roster was half made up of wrestlers from companies like AEW, Ring of Honor or Impact and the like. Things were steady at the top with Tom Lawlor and Fred Rosser being the only two realistic competitors for the Strong Openweight Title thus far. Factions were afoot with Team Filthy, Stray Dog Army, United Empire, and more. The show found its groove and the audience danced with it.

Now? Well, now, I don’t know if it’ll translate. From an infrastructure standpoint, the new approach feels like the logical next step for New Japan. Hold bigger shows in bigger rooms with more pomp, roll cameras all night, sell it in real time, package it up for future content and ostensibly cut your amount of workdays per year in half or better. The presentation won’t look like it’s in an empty agriculture expo building, you’re almost guaranteed a larger crowd and guys like Cody Chhun and Keita will be replaced with a steadier diet of stars like Tanahashi and Kenta.

Still, something just doesn’t sit right with me and maybe some of that has to do with an inexplicable bias against AXS TV. New Japan has been in bed with the company for quite some time, dating all the way back to the days when Jim Ross was still calling matches in voice-over work for New Japan weeks after the matches happened. Not that I’m an expert on AXS TV – and nor can I give you ratings numbers with the fervor of a Thursday afternoon after Dynamite – but that venture hasn’t seemed to significantly move the New Japan needle in the U.S.

Most of the reasons why that hasn’t happened, I believe, center around their decision to merely rehash matches. If you’re a New Japan fan in the U.S., my guess is you hold your New Japan World subscription with reverence. Depending on where you live, you can either wake up way too early in the morning or stay up way too late at night to watch these things in real time. And even if you want to delay it a day or two while avoiding spoilers, you can try your hand at that, too. The point is, if you’re a fan, you’re not waiting weeks to see what they decide to throw up on AXS TV and then take that as gospel.

And yet that’s what it feels like New Japan is about to do with the new Strong approach. Those who will want to watch Battle In the Valley will watch Battle In The Valley. Hell, even from a reviewer’s standpoint, my guess is that editors/creators/everyone in between would prefer a live review of the live show as it happens, which then leaves … well, it makes re-litigating the matches in the context of a different live review weeks down the line seem silly. Jay White and Eddie Kingston are supposed to go at it on February 18. You think that match will still have the drawing power a month later, after everyone knows who won, any spots to see have already been distributed on social media accounts as clips or gifs, and the general consensus will have already decided if it’s a match worth watching in the first place?

Case in point: Take the most recent Wrestle Kingdom. Kenny Omega and Will Ospreay absolutely tore the house down with a match that will go down as one of the best from each guy’s catalog. Meanwhile, Okada and White headlined the show for the biggest title the company has and yet by the time most of us who missed it live in America woke up, the only thing that mattered was the Omega/Ospreay match. The consensus appeared to be that the White/Okada match was fine, but nothing special. If you have a chance to carve out a half hour to catch up with the show, chances are it’s the Omega/Ospreay match and everything else is filed away in the “I’ll try to watch it later, if I get the chance” bin. Either way, nobody is waiting for AXS TV to hopefully broadcast either match at some point down the line.

That scenario is going to be a lot more likely to unfold that way with this new approach to Strong. Making things worse, if you miss Battle In The Valley live, but you know there are things you want to see, is Strong On Demand going to be your go-to option to see them? All indications point to the reality that it’ll be a week or three (or six) before some of those matches hit the new Strong platform and by then, the moment will be gone. These aren’t the days when you can tape a Saturday Night’s Main Event however many months before it hits television and fans will crowd around TVs in anticipation of finding out what happened that night weeks prior. The fan base wants what it wants now and they’ll find a way to get it, for better or worse.

Such is why New Japan, in taking this approach moving forward, could very well devalue the Strong brand to the point where it just becomes the new AXS TV. Try as the company may, I’m not looking at February 18 as Strong Live; I’m looking at it as Battle In The Valley. Ditto for April, when NJPW comes back to Washington D.C. for Capital Collision. These are branded shows to begin with. I don’t recall anyone ever saying, “Let’s watch Wrestling Challenge to see some Royal Rumble matches,” do you? The Royal Rumble was the Royal Rumble. Battle In The Valley will be Battle In The Valley.

Actually, the biggest wild card to me comes in the form of the day after Capital Collision as New Japan finishes the weekend they staged last year, heading up to Philadelphia from D.C. the next night for what they are calling “Collision In Philadelphia.” The post on the NJPW website cites the Strong tapings that happened in 2022 that same night, but it does not mention Strong in the cards for 2023. Do we get one night as a pay-per-view in D.C. and one night in Philadelphia as a quasi-house show that will be taped and used for … Strong On Demand? And if so, what, exactly is the difference between that approach and what they’ve been doing since 2020?

The answer, in that case, would be nothing. Which is why it’s hard to co-sign this move. I’ll cop to having a marshmallow-sized soft spot for New Japan Strong in my own little relationship with writing about pro wrestling, but even if you take that away, I’ve never been a fan of change for change’s sake. In the case of Strong’s fate, I understand the desire to want to advance the brand however best the company can and I also understand those decisions can often be based on cost-effective measures, convenience and a million other things unseen to the naked eye.

But damn it, why’d you have to mess with my beloved Strong like this?!

Only time will tell if my overreaction is warranted, but in the meantime, I think we can all agree that it would be best for all of pro wrestling if this works out. The more traction New Japan can get stateside, the healthier the business as a whole becomes. Competition is good and to the casual American wrestling fan, Japan might be this land of buzzy wrestling that they don’t really know how to access; NJPW garnering success throughout this country could help change that and if nothing else, expose the product to those who have wanted to see what the fuss is about, but haven’t been able to do it quite yet. In the end, that’s a good thing.

Until all of that shakes out, though, color me skeptical that this was the right move at the right time for the Strong imprint. There were more ways to grow and more ways to make sure Chhun and Keita would still have a spot on New Japan television. But alas, New Japan of America has chosen something else. And if that means this is the end of traditional NJPW Strong coverage for me, I can’t thank the company enough for providing that warm blanket during a time when the world felt really cold, distant and unsure. Strong, as we knew it, became so much more than an hour of wrestling television for me; it became a learning experience, an escape and a sense of normalcy.

And it also proved one thing over all else: Hikuleo is a star, by God, and soon the world will know!

Or, well, something like that.


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