“The only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks” – Mark Zuckerberg
When AXS-TV announced that, for the first time in North America, New Japan Pro Wresting would air on cable television, the announcement was met with equal parts excitement and skepticism. We all knew the in-ring product was one of the best in the world, but would that hardcore audience translate into a smart and sound business decision for a North American cable network? An unknown product, with a relatively unknown announcing crew, featuring relatively unknown wrestlers had all the traditional markings of a disaster. AXS-TV took a risk, and while Neilson Ratings are a non-factor (AXS-TV does not partake in the metric), New Japan Pro Wrestling will return for another season in late May. Whatever risk – large or small for the network – was worth a return investment.
Friday night’s edition of New Japan Pro Wrestling closes out their debut season with a fitting main event: A.J Styles defending the championship in a rematch against Kazuchika Okada. Our review of this match and the entire show can be found here. Looking back at this match Styles, saddled with an average performance in Fukuoka, Bullet Club shenanigans, and the task of gaining respect from the hardcore New Japan fan base, was the epitome of “risk”. Tack on the additional pressure of filling a 17,000 seat arena – a building they hadn’t run in over ten years – and the stakes were even higher. It is interesting looking back just one year ago and seeing the gamble New Japan took on Styles and how he is perceived today by the New Japan faithful. Tonight’s show was the second step in that gamble and arguably the most important piece in that puzzle.
The show opened with Toru Yano & Takashi Iizuka vs. Minoru Suzuki & Shelton Benjamin. Iizuka turned on Yano, joined Suzuki-gun, and went on to bore the entire wrestling world with their never ending feud. The takeaway from this segment is that Iizuka and his silly iron claw/glove stink, Minoru Suzuki come across as a badass, and Mauro Ranallo did his best to act “shocked” during an angle that was a year old.
We return from break with Kazuchika Okada in studio laying the foundation for tonight’s main event against Styles. It was nothing that you wouldn’t expect in a pre-match promo. He put over Styles as a great wrestler and that he had to be very mindful of the other Bullet Club members during tonight’s match.
The remaining forty minutes were dedicated to the main event and usually I’d be thrilled with that but tonight something seemed missing. The match itself is solid – better than the Wrestling Dontaku match – but upon a second watch the English broadcast didn’t have enough fire to put it in the top AXS-TV broadcasts. I am not sure if it was the odd edits for commercial breaks ( I feel so jaded by various video sites and Networks that commercials REALLY sap a lot of juice out of me when watching matches) , seeing the full-scale Bullet Club interference gimmick again, or that upon a second watching the lack of interest in Styles really shined through the broadcast. A solid four-star match felt a bit less than that here and I can’t put that blame directly on Ranallo and Josh Barnett.
With that said, the finish of this match was the takeaway and a giant step in the build of A.J Styles. Styles hits the Styles Clash, pins Okada, and the crowd gets that “Undertaker-streak-ending” silence. Many people walked into Yokohama Arena with the feeling that Okada was getting the win and then that didn’t happen. There was no interference from the Bullet Club. It was just a clean win to help establish Styles as a key to the future of New Japan. After the match, Gedo and an exhausted, distraught Okada delivered a “I gave it my best and I’ll be back” presser and The Bullet Club did their post-match celebration in the ring.
That was it. No further announcements were made on the second season, no video packages pumping up their return for another run, no commercials, nothing. Unless you actively follow the product, or are going out of your way looking for updates, you wouldn’t know this was the last show of this run and that they’ll be returning in late May. That is a missed opportunity for AXS-TV to pick-up and keep any casual fans they might have grabbed along the way.
It is a problem that New Japan has had for years. The great stuff sets a bar so high that the good stuff comes across as subpar and that describes this broadcast perfectly. The weekly shows AXS-TV has shown have been some of the best pro-wrestling shows ever, the team of Ranallo and Barnett have been the best announcing team in the business, and both New Japan and AXS-TV have benefited from the partnership. This season ending broadcast sits somewhere in the middle when ranking all of the shows, but when placed head-to-head against all of your pro-wrestling options this week, this show is hard to beat.