McGuire’s Mondays: The effect of New Japan Strong changes

By Colin McGuire, Staffer (@McGMondays)

Nearly eleven months ago to the day, I attended New Japan Pro Wrestling’s first installment of Capital Collision in Washington, D.C. Working on the heels of the slow-growing popularity of the company’s Strong show that was available on a weekly basis via NJPW’s website, the crowd was surprisingly robust. So much so, in fact, that while I thought I arrived at a reasonable hour with an ample amount of time to find my seat before the first match, I would have completely missed out on the opening bout had a kind man working the door not recognized my plight and ushered me through the waiting line and into the building.

I remember it like it was yesterday if only because there is no forgetting the amount of people I passed by, still waiting to get in as the opening bell rang. I knew that New Japan was popular. And I figured that Strong had its own loyal following. But I never would have anticipated the sprawling lines I saw extend from multiple entrances of the Entertainment and Sports Arena that day. Good for New Japan, I thought. Next time, I’ll know better and get here even earlier.

That next time was Saturday when the second installment of the Capital Collision show went down in D.C. I took off earlier than I did last year, a little worried about finding a place to park (last year’s parking situation was a nightmare). Imagine my surprise when I pulled up about an hour before bell time to find … a lot of empty parking spaces and a line that took less than 10 minutes to stand in before I found myself inside the arena.

From there, I was even more shocked to see that … well, there just weren’t a lot of people there. 2022’s version wasn’t a sellout by any means, but the lower sections were pretty full and there was even a notable amount of fans in the upper deck. 2023’s version? Not so much. Even as the dark match ended and the live broadcast was about to begin, I looked around to find a room that simply didn’t feel as crowded as it did almost exactly eleven months prior to Saturday’s show.

It got me thinking. Was it the talent? It couldn’t have been – last year’s main attraction was Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada making the trip stateside to compete; this year, not only were those two in the main event, but they even brought Tetsuya Naito, Hiromu Takahashi, and new IWGP World Heavyweight Champion Sanada, among others. Was it the time of year? Mid-April and Mid-May don’t have a whole bunch of differences, other than in the D.C. area, April can be a little cooler, which is a good thing. Was it a lack of star power? In addition to the Japanese wrestlers I already mentioned who made the trip this past Saturday, we were also treated to Zack Sabre Jr. and El Desperado, and if you’re a New Japan fan, those are two wrestlers you most likely really want to see wrestle, so I don’t buy that. So, what was it?

New Japan Strong. That’s what it was.

The more the night wore on and the more I thought about the discrepancy in years, I couldn’t help but conclude that the biggest difference between 2022 and 2023 was the existence of New Japan’s stateside hour-long weekly television show that the company decided to ostensibly sunset earlier this year. For as irrelevant as that show felt at times and for as redundant and/or predictable it could be, I am of the thought that New Japan Strong actually meant more to the growth of New Japan Pro Wrestling in the United States than anything else the company has tried – and yes, that includes partnerships with AEW and Impact.

You can’t underestimate the power of a weekly TV show. Not only does it lend consistency to exposure for the product, but it also becomes a built in consideration for those who watch wrestling on a weekly basis. No, the series didn’t set the world on fire, but it did provide stories for the wrestlers, even if those stories were rarely ever particularly deep. It also allowed programs to develop – again, even if those programs never seemed to be particularly complex, they at least gave context to everything we saw in the ring.

Without it, you just have a series of wrestlers wrestling. Good wrestlers, mind you. And sometimes even great wrestling. But it amounts to little more than that. Consider the two cards year over year. On Saturday, the two biggest matches – one for the Strong Openweight Championship, the other for the Strong Openweight Tag Team Championship – were set up via videos chronicling parking lot conversations out of nowhere. The only real story of the night came in the form of Juice Robinson, who ruthlessly attacked Fred Rosser for … saying Toni Storm’s name? I don’t doubt that it happened, but whenever it did, I didn’t see it because it wasn’t on an episode of Strong.

The 2022 installment of Capital Collision, however, had its share of stories to follow. There was another chapter in the never-ending feud between Fred Rosser and Tom Lawlor as both guys led their teams into a 10-man tag match. You had the built-in New Japan Strong trope that was the featured spot for the LA Dojo guys that most always opened episodes of the show and that same thing happened last year as Karl Fredericks competed against Ren Narita in a very good Young Lion match.

TMDK and United Empire faced off in an eight-man tag, but we knew what it meant going into the night because those two factions had come across one another a time or two on TV beforehand. Ishii and Eddie Kingston briefly set up their match in the weeks leading up to it. And, thanks to Jay White, the Bullet Club still had a modicum of cache, which meant their tag match felt bigger than a Bullet Club match now feels merely a year later.

Actually, that last bit is worth examining, too. New Japan isn’t hot right now. As a fan of the company, I hate to say that, but where we are is where we are. When you consider the last, say, five years, it certainly feels like NJPW is in a lull. Even if you thought the Bullet Club jumped the shark years ago, there’s no denying how entertaining Jay White was as its leader, calling himself the catalyst of professional wrestling and even holding the IWGP World Heavyweight Title for a significant amount of time. In short, White made a faction that so many people believe saw its best days come and go matter while he was at the head of its table.

These days? Eh. That’s no shot at David Finlay, who appears to be tapped to lead the Bullet Club to wherever it’s going next. The difference between Regular David Finlay and Bullet Club David Finlay is night and day. The guy looks like a star now. But he’s also new at this and he’s also not Jay White. Or Prince Devitt. Or AJ Styles. Clark Connors, who defected to the Bullet Club at Saturday’s show, has been a favorite of a lot of stateside New Japan fans, if only for his energy and strength – and not to mention a last-minute star-making performance at last year’s Forbidden Door. The problem with that star-making performance was that it happened 10 months ago and Saturday’s turn was the first significant thing to happen to the guy since then.

Speaking of the Forbidden Door, though, I think that it also plays a role in New Japan’s recent decline. NJPW really started cooking with gas when people like Styles, Kenny Omega, and Shinsuke Nakamura grabbed the world’s attention by blowing people’s minds working their best years in Japan. Americans would hear about their matches and flock toward trying to get clips or New Japan World subscriptions. The dream match conversations picked up a ton of steam. Cheer John Cena all you want; New Japan was the place to be for the cool kids who liked real wrestling and not just sports entertainment.

That’s changed now. Not only has the advent of AEW taken some of the piss out of the novelty of those matches and wrestlers in North America, but the notion that we can see a true New Japan wrestler on a wide array of shows stateside – be it on Impact, AEW or even the independents – has cheapened the coolness factor of both the company and its employees. The idea that New Japan talent couldn’t or wouldn’t be able to get in an American ring to face off against an American wrestler from a different company is no more. In fact, it’s more the rule now than it is the exception.

This, of course, takes us back to Strong. Beneath all of those headlining dream matches and the purity of fantasy booking that New Japan’s rise in popularity gave fans a handful of years ago was the little engine that could in New Japan Strong. Sure, we weren’t getting Will Ospreay on a weekly basis, and the Bullet Club only popped up every now and then because those dudes were reserved for the biggest spotlight New Japan has (and that spotlight isn’t in the U.S.). But Strong did give us a months-long blood feud between Tom Lawlor and Fred Rosser that carried the TV series for more than a year and elevated the Strong Openweight Title even though it was brand new in a company that overall probably has too many belts to begin with.

It’s all to say that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Strong wasn’t just an extension of New Japan into the American market; it became its own brand that helped keep the New Japan name in fans’ heads. Everyone knew there was a discernible difference between The Real New Japan – the shows at the Tokyo Dome, Wrestle Kingdoms and tours that we could only read about stateside – and the Strong New Japan, which felt like just another North American independent promotion that occasionally had a star or two pass through every so often. Nobody watching was disillusioned. But that didn’t mean the imprint didn’t have value. Watching Ren Narita, Clark Connors, The DKC, Kevin Knight, Alex Coughlin and others grow on that weekly show was a treat on which it is impossible to place specific worth because it turned out to be so much more than what’s able to be quantified.

Such is why Saturday’s Capital Collision felt cold. It was a great show – and as you can read in my in-person report, it certainly was one hell of a night of wrestling – but everything felt disjointed. I understand the decision to focus on “quality over quantity,” which was part of the reason we were given for Strong taking on this weird new half-assed format, but the reality is, Capital Collision, much like the show in Philadelphia the next night, had about as much quality as any previous Strong taping would have back when the company was doing Strong tapings regularly. There were some great matches on paper. Some that exceeded expectations, some that fell short. Some ended up great, others ended up merely OK. But it’s not like we’re getting Okada vs. Kenny Omega at the 2300 Arena, now are we? To suggest that there is a significant upward turn in quality as a result of whatever approach New Japan takes toward Strong these days simply isn’t fair.

So it goes. I’ll still watch and I’ll still be entertained and I’ll still root for New Japan to succeed in North America. But if Saturday’s attendance was any indication, the road toward stateside prominence might have been more contingent on the mere existence of the Strong brand than anyone could have anticipated. There’s always time to fix it. But is it time that New Japan Pro Wrestling wants to spend?


Readers Comments (2)

  1. FWIW, a high school friend’s audio company provided the sound for the show. How was it in the room sound wise?

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