A Beginner’s Guide to NJPW (New Japan Pro Wrestling)
Growing in popularity outside of Japan at an impressive rate, New Japan Pro Wrestling is one of the most talked about wrestling promotions in the world today. If you’re reading this, it is likely that you fall into one of the following categories: A potential viewer of NJPW after seeing buzz online, a recent discoverer of NJPW and a fan of what you’ve seen, or a past viewer of NJPW who has fallen out of the product over time but willing to return. I, and everyone else at Voices of Wrestling, welcome all of you!
Stepping out of the bubble for a moment, I understand on a large scale NJPW is still relatively obscure despite its popularity growths. While the letters NJPW may be on your radar, the athletes constituting the promotion may still be unfamiliar. My hope is that you find this resource useful in your discovery of NJPW, and that it helps alleviate some of your concerns on jumping into an unfamiliar product. This is the Beginner’s Guide to NJPW – New Japan Pro Wrestling!
- For more advanced info on NJPW, check out the VOW 2015 NJPW Year in Review eBook!
NJPWWorld.com is home to NJPW World, the streaming video service presented by New Japan Pro Wrestling in association with TV Asahi. For ¥999 per month, or roughly $8.90, you can subscribe to the service which boasts full, live events plus historic matches, on demand service, and newsworthy press conferences.
The first suggestion I can make, an imperative one, is not to be discouraged by Japanese commentary. Yes, it is different than you’re accustomed to. That can be a great thing, however! Hearing the live, Japanese audio commentary can add excitement to the matches you’re watching, even though the words aren’t understood by non-Japanese speakers. If the commentary does bother you, the major events going forward will sometimes feature English commentary from familiar voices such as Matt Striker and Kevin Kelly.
Some events, streamed live on NJPWWorld.com, feature no commentary track. A refreshing change of pace, events without commentary give you the feel of being live in the arena, watching the show with others and hearing the intimate sounds of the ring, crowd reactions, and more. Often, non-Korakuen Hall located “Road To” events will be presented with limited or non-existent commentary.
If you’re coming from WWE or TNA land, you’ll notice a stark change when watching full NJPW events. Rather than scattering 2+ minute matches around a 20 minute main event, NJPW shows generally feature lengthier matches up and down the card. On a general “Road To” show, matches will range anywhere from 5-6 minutes to 15-20 minutes. On the bigger events, Pay-Per-View shows, you’ll see similar undercard match times under 20-25+ main events. That’s right, main events. Plural. On the Pay-Per-View shows, especially events like Wrestle Kingdom or Invasion Attack, you’ll bear witness to several well-built singles and tag team matches. Often, championships are on the line. We’ll get the the championships in NJPW in a bit.
Before that, however, I want to clarify what I mean by “Road To” shows. NJPW tours Japan in increments. Unlike WWE, which is on the road every Friday-Tuesday, NJPW travels for one to two weeks at a time, with breaks in between. Usually, those tours lead up to a Pay-Per-View event. The tours are generally referred to as “Road To” events. For example, the tour leading up to NJPW Invasion Attack would be referred to as “Road to Invasion Attack.”
As for the matches, there isn’t much to stress over. Wrestlers can win via pinfall, submission, countout, or disqualification. Not much different than what you’re used to, right? What will be different, however, is how often you see a disqualification or count out. They don’t happen all that much, even on the non-television events. A large majority of matches in NJPW have a clear winner and a clear loser. Draws and count outs can occur, but they are rarely seen, as well.
If a wrestler is to be counted out of the ring, that count would have to get to 20. Ten counts are not the norm here. You’ll also notice the ring announcer of public address announcer making that count in English, so it is easy to follow the drama. I mentioned that draws in NJPW do exist, so obviously, matches do feature time limits:
Title Matches: 60 Minutes
Non-Title Matches: 20-30 Minutes
Preliminary Matches: 10 Minutes
You’re going to see an acronym, IWGP, many times as you follow New Japan Pro Wrestling. IWGP is New Japan Pro Wrestling’s sanctioning body, much like the WBC or WBA sanctions boxing championships. IWGP stands for International Wrestling Grand Prix. You’ll also see NEVER when looking at NJPW championships. NEVER was once planned to be a sub-promotion of NJPW, much like NXT is to WWE. It was to be a promotion that featured the undercard stars and young lions, those often less focused on in NJPW events. However, NEVER didn’t end up going as planned. Now, NEVER are midcard championships in NJPW, much like the WWE Intercontinental Championship.
IWGP Heavyweight Championship: Tetsuya Naito (64th Champion)
Kazuchika Okada—one of the top tier stars in NJPW—became the 63rd IWGP Heavyweight Champion at July 2015’s Dominion Pay-Per-View. Defeating AJ Styles for the title, Okada had successfully defended the belt three times until finally losing to Tetsuya Naito at Invasion Attack 2016. Such luminaries to hold the main singles title in NJPW include Brock Lesnar, Hiroshi Tanahashi, AJ Styles, Vader, Antonio Inoki, Yuji Nagata, and Shinsuke Nakamura. The IWGP Heavyweight Championship is NJPW’s most significant championship, however, a more recently introduced Intercontinental championship has become nearly as significant over the last few years.
IWGP Intercontinental Championship: Kenny Omega (13th Champion)
Held by NJPW luminaries such as Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi, the IWGP Intercontinental Championship has gained in significance quickly ever since it was created in 2011. The first ever title holder, MVP, won the belt in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. PHILADELPHIA!? That’s right, at NJPW Invasion Tour 2011, MVP ushered in the title that now main events some NJPW Pay-Per-Views. Kenny Omega, the current champion, won the title in the main event of 2016’s NJPW New Beginning in Niigata. Omega defeated Hiroshi Tanahashi for the title as Shinsuke Nakamura, the most recent champion, vacated the title on January 25 when his plans to head to WWE were officially revealed.
IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship: Tanga Loa & Tama Tonga of Guerrillas of Destiny (70th Champions)
The IWGP tag team championships have actually been around longer than the IWGP Heavyweight singles championship, having been created in 1985 to the singles title’s 1987. The list of former tag team champions is quite eclectic. The Steiner Brothers, Dudley Boyz, The British Invasion of Doug Williams & Magnus, Hiroshi Tanahashi & Shinsuke Nakamura, and Bam Bam Bigelow & Vader have all held the heavyweight tag titles in NJPW. The current champions, Tanga Loa & Tama Tonga, represent NJPW’s outspoken stable – The Bullet Club.
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship: KUSHIDA (73rd Champion)
Think of the WCW Cruiserweight Championship in the late 1990s. The title wasn’t a top of the card championship, but it provided some fun matchups between such stars as Eddie Guerrero, Chris Jericho, Rey Misterio, and others. In NJPW, the Jr. Heavyweight title is similar, although made a little bit more important. While sometimes criticized for being a belt that is too easily passed around, the title is the top belt for the lower weighted wrestlers. KUSHIDA, the current title holder, is a three time champion while only ever successfully defending his title once. That goes into the criticisms. However, the division rarely disappoints. Going into 2016, the division features some new blood like Matt Sydal, Ricochet, BUSHI, Will Ospreay, and others.
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship: Rocky Romero & Beretta of Roppongi Vice (46th Champions)
There have been more than six championship changes in the past two calendar years for the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight tag team titles. One of the most popular acts in tag team wrestling over the past decade, the Young Bucks bring excitement to NJPW, in addition to their regular stops in Ring of Honor and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla in the United States. Surely, they won’t be quiet in this division, although the current champions of Roppongi Vice may keep them so.
NEVER Openweight Championship: Katsuyori Shibata (10th Champion)
The NEVER Openweight Championship began its existence in 2012, when Masato Tanaka won a tournament to become the first champion. Since then, the division has been dominated by Tomohiro Ishii and Togi Makabe, which has resulted in the NEVER title being thought of as a “strong style” title. Strong style as in a hard hitting, less fancy form of pro wrestling based on strikes over mat grappling. Currently, Katsuyori Shibata holds the title for his first time, while while continuing a program with Tomohiro Ishii.
NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship: Hiroshi Tanahashi & Michael Elgin & Yoshitatsu (5th Champions)
This division is wide open, as there have three title changes in less than two months since the titles were created. Basically, the NEVER 6-man titles are meant to give a little bit more juice to otherwise average, and habitual, 6-man tag matches. Three members of CHAOS vs three members of Bullet Club… a pretty regular affair. Well, now, titles on the line! That regular, repetitive match now has a bit more meaning. The division is fun, the titles are unpredictable, and it’s a division to watch out for in 2016 and beyond.
New Japan Pro Wrestling’s in-ring year is often set up by tournaments. The goal of these tournaments is to crown future contenders to various championships, while also acting as a championship in itself. It’s a great way for NJPW to make talent into bigger deals, without them actually winning a specific title belt. Thus, when their title shot occurs, you have a champion facing off with another wrestler who is already accomplished in the field, rather than just an arbitrary challenger. We’ll list the following tournaments in order of importance and significance in NJPW history.
NJPW’s G1 Climax tournament is an annual, round robin tournament held in late summer each year. It has evolved into a grueling, month long event. In 2015, the 25th G1 Climax featured two separate blocks of ten wrestlers each, and lasted almost an entire month. The winner of the G1 receives a title match contract within a briefcase, which that wrestler can cash in for a championship. Generally, the tournament winner will cash in his contract at the annual January 4 Tokyo Dome event, currently entitled Wrestle Kingdom. Sometimes, the G1 Climax winner will put up his contract in matches leading up to Wrestle Kingdom. If all of this sounds familiar, it should – it’s quite similar to WWE’s Money In The Bank concept. Only the winner of NJPW’s contract doesn’t have to climb a ladder to win. The most recent G1 Climax winner is Hiroshi Tanahashi, who cashed in and lost an IWGP Heavyweight title match at Wrestle Kingdom 10 against Kazuchika Okada.
World Tag League
Formerly the G1 Tag League, this late Autumn tournament usually gives the victors an IWGP Heavyweight Tag Title match at Wrestle Kingdom on January 4. In fact, the last three teams to win this tournament have gone on to challenge for, and win, the IWGP tag titles. Current IWGP tag champs Honma & Makabe won the 2015 version of the World Tag League, defeating Tetsuya Naito & EVIL in the finals. The tournament is done much like the G1 singles tourney – in a round robin format consisting of two groups.
New Japan Cup
A single elimination tournament, the New Japan Cup puts 16 of NJPW’s top contenders into a tournament to decide a main event for April’s Invasion Attack PPV. The tournament winner can choose to compete for the IWGP Heavyweight, Intercontinental, or NEVER Openweight titles. Due to this, those champions are not included in this tournament. New Japan Cup takes places over the course of a weeklong tour in early March. This year, Tetsuya Naito won the Cup and has challenged for Kazuchika Okada’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
Best of the Super Juniors
Like the G1 tournament, the Best of the Super Juniors is a round robin, pool-formatted tournament taking place in the summer. Consisting of two groups, the winners of each group go on to wrestle each other in the finals. Current IWGP Junior Heavyweight champion KUSHIDA won the tournament in 2015. Best of the Super Juniors is rich with history, spanning back to 1988. Former winners included Jushin Thunder Liger, Prince Devitt (NXT’s Finn Bálor), Black Tiger II (Eddie Guerrero), and Wild Pegasus (Chris Benoit).
Super Junior Tag Tournament
Relatively new to the NJPW tournament schedule is the Super Junior Tag Tournament, which took place in October last year. The tournament began in 2010, and saw the tournament winners become the IWGP Junior Heavyweight tag champions. More recently, the tournament takes place to crowd the top contenders for the Jr Heavyweight tag titles. 2015’s winners, Matt Sydal & Ricochet, are currently the IWGP Jr Heavyweight tag champions.
Super J Cup
Making its return later this year, the Super J Cup is a Junior Heavyweight, single-elimination tournament that was last held in 2009. Current Pro Wrestling NOAH (A beleaguered wrestling promotion in Japan) star Naomichi Marufuji won the last Super J Cup, having defeated current WWE NXT Champion Finn Bálor in the finals. This year, participants in the tournament will come from all over the world, including ROH, Mexico’s CMLL, Pro Wrestling NOAH, and even Japan’s Dragon Gate promotion. The timing of the tournaments return is being seen as quite the coincidence to the recently announced Global Cruiserweight Series coming later this year from WWE.
While many non-Pay Per View events can be viewed live on NJPWWorld, these are the biggest of the big shows.
January: Wrestle Kingdom (January 4; Tokyo Dome)
NJPW’s WrestleMania, the biggest show of the year. The event has taken place in Tokyo Dome on January 4 ever since 1992. That original event in 1992 featured such legends as Tatsumi Fujinami, Riki Choshu, Lex Luger, the Steiner Brothers, Dusty Rhodes, Vader, Antonio Inoki and others.
February: New Beginning
Since 2014, the New Beginning PPV has been split over two nights. In 2016, New Beginning in Osaka and New Beginning in Niigata capped off a tour that saw Kazuchika Okada defend his IWGP Heavyweight title successfully against Hirooki Goto, while Kenny Omega defeated Hiroshi Tanahashi to win the IWGP Intercontinental Championship for the first time. Also, in February, NJPW holds a co-promoted, weeklong tour in Japan with Mexico’s CMLL promotion. The tour features matches between NJPW and CMLL wrestlers at times. The events aren’t shown on Pay Per View, and generally have little significance in main NJPW storylines.
April: Invasion Attack
Invasion Attack features the winner of March’s New Japan Cup going up against the champion of his choosing. In 2015, Kota Ibushi, winner of New Japan Cup, challenged AJ Styles, the IWGP Heavyweight Champion, in the main event.
May: Wrestling Dontaku
Paired up with Wrestling Hinokuni, Dontaku is a PPV event that will often feature a singles championship match in the main event. The last two Wrestling Dontaku PPVs, in 2015 and 2014, featured championship title changes in the main event.
May: ROH/NJPW Global Wars
In recent history, NJPW has grown an association with Ring of Honor that has seen the two co-promote PPVs in the United States. 2016 also saw ROH return to Japan for two events aired live on NJPWWorld. These events are not aired on NJPWWorld, but rather on US PPV and VOD on ROH’s website.
Aside from 2015 when it took place on July 5, this PPV has taken place in June since it began in 2009. Every year, the IWGP Heavyweight Championship is defended in the main event. Every year, that is, except for 2014, when Shinsuke Nakamura defended the IWGP Intercontinental Championship in the main event against Bad Luck Fale.
August: G1 Climax Final
Culminating the month-long G1 Climax tournament, the G1 Climax Final PPV features the final tournament match, plus many other matches which often include various title bouts.
NJPW Destruction, which has consisted of two separate events over the last two years, is often the culmination of a tour that puts a cap on the middle portion of NJPW’s year.
October: King of Pro-Wrestling
Setting the stage for the march to Wrestle Kingdom, the KOPW PPV often features many title matches throughout the card. In 2015, Hiroshi Tanahashi defended his G1 Climax contract against Tetsuya Naito, while Kazuchika Okada defended his IWGP Heavyweight title against AJ Styles. Both defenses were successful, pitting Tanahashi and Okada up against each other at Wrestle Kingdom in 2016.
November: Power Struggle
The final big PPV of NJPW’s calendar year, this is where all of the championships are settled before heading into Wrestle Kingdom on January 4.
On Page 2 of the Beginner Guide to NJPW, you’ll find the current NJPW Roster, wrestler factions, and current tag teams and Junior Heavyweights.