Regular readers of Voices of Wrestling, as well as any other news site covering puro in any great detail will by now be well-familiar with the troubles and toil of former industry giant All Japan Pro Wrestling. For those of you unfamiliar with the decline of All Japan, here’s a rough summary…
Keiji Mutoh buys the Baba family out of their majority stock in 2002, after a glorious thirty-year run in which the company resided at the pinnacle of the profession, and spends the next nine years alienating the company’s loyal and outspoken fans with an Americanised sports-entertainment style, before a backstage incident leaving veteran Nobukazu “HATE” Hirai in a coma leads to Mutoh selling up to IT millionaire Nobuo Shiraishi. Shiraishi makes a hames of everything in classic money-mark fashion, from wild claims of AJPW being the only “real” wrestling promotion, to booking himself in multi-man tags in near-empty halls. Unseating Mutoh’s right-hand man as president ahead of schedule is the last straw in the Mutoh-Shiraishi relationship, though, with Mutoh leading an exodus out of the promotion to form the new Wrestle-1. Luckily for All Japan, there happens to be an exodus into the promotion at roughly the same time, after a handful of performers walk out on NOAH for how they handled Kenta Kobashi’s retirement as the promotion chugs along to sub-500 crowds.
Among those departing NOAH for All Japan is Baba trueborn Jun Akiyama, who convinces Baba family matriarch Motoko to come back to AJPW and help extricate them from the Shiraishi mess. Everyone mutinies, Shiraishi cedes power to Akiyama and the wrestlers, backed by Motoko Baba, who start a new company with the same belts, roster and logos, but with a slightly different name for legal reasons, using katakana instead of kanji (except for promotional material, oddly enough, using old logos still owned by their old parent company).
AJPW has chugged along admirably since the end of 2014, and while surely not a moneymaker—and with some breathtakingly small crowds in Tokyo—the company seemed to be on the come-up until it hit serious money trouble. Contracts were revised to TNA-style per-appearance deals, various goofy PR gimmicks like movie crossover entrances and branded wrestlers brought in sponsorship money, and an on-demand service has been launched (albeit on a ridiculously limited platform), but none of it has been enough to stem the tide.
With the latest haemorrhage of wrestlers back to NOAH, Wrestle-1 as well as the new Baba-family promotion Royal Road seemingly over for now, stability has seemingly been reached for All Japan, with a small but solid roster base, and working agreements reached with Big Japan to cross over with its famed Strong division.
All of which, of course, led to the announcement on All Japan Pro Wrestling’s January 2 New Year War show that AJPW would be running Sumo Hall on November 27. A bold move indeed for a company that, while seeing an uptick in business in small towns, still struggles to draw 800 people to Korakuen Hall for TV. So, what does that wily Akiyama have up his sleeve that he reckons will fill up Ryogoku after AJPW’s near-terminal decline?
Stabilizing The Triple Crown
The Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship was once the most prestigious belt in pro wrestling, but since AJPW’s troubles from 2013 onward, the belt has bounced around aimlessly from wrestler to wrestler in a blizzard of short-term thinking. Injuries, continued low attendance, and politics all inform this erratic booking pattern, where no one wrestler gets a prolonged opportunity and the belt is dropped to the next challenger almost immediately.
It seemed as though that had stabilised as 2015 as a feud between SUWAMA and young challenger Kento Miyahara was slowly building, and drawing a generation line between SUWAMA’s Evolution faction and Miyahara’s rookie-centric NEXTREAM unit. Then SUWAMA gets injured, leaving the title vacant. Rather than create sympathy for Miyahara by finding a way of denying him his upcoming title shot, they simply stuck him opposite undercard meatman Zeus for the strap, completely derailing his narrative and possibly spoiling his push by peaking it too soon. Logic dictated that Zeus would win by crook and reveal himself as aligned with SUWAMA and his Evolution faction, setting off a long title chase for the rematch, culminating in scrappy young Miyahara becoming the new king at Sumo Hall.
Instead, Miyahara got hotshotted to the belt in a half-empty Korakuen, in what is surely the worst start to a big push in recent memory. It’s up to Miyahara to overcome all the buffoonery and restore credibility to the title & main event scene. A clean victory over AJPW vet Takao Omori in their upcoming confrontation would be as good a start as any.
Pushing the Youngsters
Although AJPW has been hampered by wacky booking, there seems to be a push to use younger talent in recent times, with AJPW-born rookies like Naoya Nomura and Jake Lee taking bigger roles in the product, and indie youngsters like Yohei Nakajima finding their feet in the company. Miyahara might be the focal point of Akiyama’s attention, but surely someone other than myself sees the merit in a generation feud.
Much like Jumbo Tsuruta tested the nascent Mitsuharu Misawa to his limits on the latter’s road to stardom, grumpy old bastards like Akiyama, Omori and Masanobu Fuchi should stand diametrically opposed to these cocky, flashy youngsters, schooling them in old-time beatings. It certainly would provide an interesting dynamic, throwing up fresh matches and styles clashes in both singles and tags. Ideally, this would lead to a major show-closing standoff between generations: the rookies and youngsters with their careers ahead of them at one side, the established names and journeymen on the other. The current units would dissipate as AJPW is driven by these factions grabbing for power and the All Japan legacy.
The two factions would also hopefully split the crowd, with the new breed drawing the kind of young fan that NJPW and DDT currently courts, and the old guard luring back older and lapsed fans. Creating tension and/or team spirit between generations of fans could well be the spark that ignites interest in house shows and livens up the atmosphere at TV tapings.
It can’t have escaped Akiyama’s notice that, as for every other promotion, content is king, and while the company makes a solid offering on lower-level satellite and cable, you can’t sell people on your product, be it TV or house shows, without an entry point. Gone are the days of AJPW on network television, and so AJPW has recently embraced YouTube as its go-to platform. The new AJPW channel, distinct from the old one (still active and hosting years of GAORA content), initially posted press conferences, promos and other goofy vignettes, although that all looks set to change. There’s original content already up in the form of a talk show with comedy wrestler SUSHI, but the promotion recently announced it will begin taping unaired shows and matches for YouTube exclusives. While, for the moment at least, these come in the form of rough, single-cam recordings, they’re not much worse than NJPW World’s single-cam, commentary-free offerings. Perfect for fan-dubbed commentary.
If they can tidy up their titling and logos, as well as complement the matches with promos and angles, there’s really nothing stopping AJPW developing a global following online for a relative pittance, so long as they make the necessary upgrades when they can. They could even use this content as pilot material for a network television or major on-demand platform show. In any case, look for AJPW to try and utilise YouTube to sell itself back to the Japanese wrestling mainstream in 2016, heading into Sumo Hall.
On-Demand & Merchandise
It’s as though they don’t want our money or something. They do have a domestic on-demand subscription service for smart TVs, and the rights to use most post-Baba footage, seemingly. Surely hooking up with PivotShare (which runs ICW On-Demand among others) to stream it all internationally (or in partnership with GAORA and/or Samurai), and sending designs to Pro Wrestling Tees like NJPW and NOAH have done aren’t too tall an order?
Big Japan Wrestling Co-Promotion
Big Japan Pro Wrestling’s ongoing upward trajectory and work on escaping its deathmatch trappings (as much as it can) has resulted in the company catching the attention of the AJPW office. While Daisuke Sekimoto & Yuji Okabayashi among others have long been freelancing on AJPW shows and fit the old-school AJPW big-man mold nicely, Akiyama surely saw dollar signs, when, at Genichiro Tenryu’s retirement show, the crowd cheered the Big Japan wrestlers at opposite sides of a tag match involving AJPW ex-director SUWAMA and Inoki straggler Kazuyuki Fujita, over the far more heavily-pushed names. Both promotions being based in Yokohama has led to cooperation through a series of joint rookie shows, as well as BJW’s involvement in All Japan’s rookie brand, AJ PHOENIX. One might assume a war between the BJ Strong complement and the Royal Road is at hand.
Co-Promotion with Royal Road
All Japan’s tenure as of recent has unfortunately been pock-marked by all manner of business stupidity and resultant creative instability. While there’s been exoduses, and returns, and sponsors, and all of this, the day-to-day running of All Japan must be incredibly stressful, as money and contracts limit what the promotion can and cannot do. Of course, there seemed to be a brief crack of light in AJPW’s eternities of darkness when Motoko Baba stomped back in to fund the company’s reboot. Independently wealthy, and in her twilight years, surely she would be a bit more chill than her years as the Dragon Lady of AJPW, the bad cop to the Giant’s good, and work with the lads to help get her family’s legacy back in ship-shape. Right? Eh… Baba got majorly behind pushing sumo champ and MMA draw Akebono, even gifting him one of the Giant’s prized Cadillacs as an incentive. He tanked as champ however, with attendance staying in the doldrums. Nevertheless, this didn’t stop Motoko getting behind Akebono when he split from AJPW’s board of directors to start yet another splinter promotion in the form of Royal Road, borrowing the AJPW style and nomenclature. With the puro scene in pieces and fragments getting smaller, yet another promotion to compete for a shrinking slice of the pie makes no sense, and Baba turning her back on AJPW seems a little much.
In a meeting with Motoko Baba Akebono said the first Oudou (Royal Road) show will take place in mid April. (1/4) pic.twitter.com/dKQGRvzdXS
— STRIGGA (@STRIGGA) January 25, 2016
I genuinely hope this is some sort of Choshu Army-type thing, where new AJPW in Akiyama’s crew and the old-style Oudou product run separate shows, and wage interpromotional warfare. This seems likely as Bono is still freelancing for AJPW as a wrestler, and it’s hard to see them not capitalising on his recent exposure for MMA startup RIZIN.
While the company languishes on rural cable TV and in the doldrums of GAORA and Samurai’s schedules, utilising social media has resulted in a pickup in attention, in particular when Akiyama recently challenged the third-generation stars of NJPW. Decrying Yuji Nagata, Satoshi Kojima and others for allowing themselves to be supplanted by a new generation, Akiyama challenged them to step on into AJPW and prove themselves worthy of staying in the ring. While the wrestlers responded in the positive, and NJPW owner Takaaki Kidani gave them the go-ahead on Twitter, nothing has happened. Yet. The company still has access to its GAORA library from 2000 to present, and has plenty of footage of past feuds and matches between AJPW and NJPW stars that could be used to stoke those flames and get the old lions on both sides of the promotional divide motivated.
If All Else Fails… More All Japan Pro Wrestling Nostalgia!
Though it didn’t work the last time AJPW saw the inside of Sumo Hall, there’s no denying that as a mid-to-lower card attraction, dusting off some of the various legends and veterans for multi-man tags would be a classy gesture to wrestlers like Masanobu Fuchi and others. Wrestlers like Masakatsu Funaki, Yoshihiro Takayama and (shudder) Atsushi Onita, when used sparingly and effectively could provide a real boost in addition to one or more of the above suggestions. But, as seen in recent years, the biggest draws in puro have been retirement shows, with Kobashi and Tenryu’s in particular being almost bigger than the current business in and of themselves.
Which leads me to believe that Akiyama’s go-to, failsafe plan could be the formal retirement match and farewell ceremony for Toshiaki Kawada, the last of AJPW’s Four Pillars of the Nineties to declare himself retired. It would be a massive draw to say the least: the enigmatic Kawada steps out from his ramen shop, possibly answering the challenge of a Kento Miyahara, gets back in shape (montage on YouTube!) and starts appearing on shows, shit-talking with the young lions before accepting one final Sumo Hall main-event.
What do you think AJPW needs to build toward this November milestone? Have I left any other potential factors out of play here? Who do you think AJPW will lead with?