It’s a dangerous time to be a champion in New Japan Pro Wrestling.
16 title changes have already occurred to date as compared to the 20 that took place in all of 2015. After Kazuchika Okada’s definitive win over Hiroshi Tanahashi at NJPW WrestleKingdom 10 he appeared to be well on his way to establishing himself as the new Ace of the promotion. Not so fast. His reign came to an abrupt end at the hands of Tetsuya Naito in just his second defense of the year at Invasion Attack last month.
Champions further down the card haven’t fared much better than The Rainmaker this year.
The Junior Tag Team titles have already swapped hands four times in 2016, matching the total number of changes in 2015 by the first week of May. The Heavyweight Tag Team titles and the NEVER Openweight title have each changed hands twice thus far in 2016 with at least a few more changes immanent in both divisions based on current booking. The Junior Heavyweight title scene has only experienced one title change to date, however with Super Juniors season upon us, it’s likely the title will see a considerable amount of action, thus increasing the chances of future title changes.
The introduction of the NEVER 6-Man Tag Team titles this year has certainly factored into the spike in title changes. Since the inaugural champions were crowned at WrestleKingdom 10 the titles have changed hands five times in as many months, three of which took place in the month of February alone. The Intercontinental Championship is the only title currently on pace to change hands fewer times in 2016 as compared to 2015, an understandable fact considering current champion, Kenny Omega has defended the title significantly less than his immediate predecessors.
Like I said, it’s a dangerous time to be a champion in New Japan these days.
These sorts of statistics would barely make American pro wrestling fans think twice. WWE main roster fans have witnessed 60 title changes over the last two years and five months, this despite the promotion having one less title than New Japan. That’s an average of almost two title changes a month. Roman Reigns alone became a three-time WWE Champion within the course of a five month period; this during an extended period where WWE has received praise for the discipline shown when booking titles. In contrast, during the Attitude Era title changes were almost as common as successful defenses. It wasn’t uncommon for multiple title changes to occur within one week let alone one month’s time.
But as most passionate Japanese pro wrestling fans are quick to point out, things are much different in New Japan. Titles are treated with respect; placed on a pedestal even. Title changes are not used for a quick bump in ratings or as a means to get someone over. Only the most deserving and capable wrestlers can earn the title of champion in New Japan.
Needless to say, this sudden increase in title changes has roused the nerves of a great many American New Japan fans. There is no shortage of explanations for this phenomenon within the Voices of Wrestling forums or various forms of social media. The most popular explanation appears to be the recent roster changes brought about by talent leaving the promotion; a popular explanation for most things New Japan fans dislike in 2016.
On the whole NJPW booking is really good but the Junior Heavyweight division is a bad merry go round of matchups & title changes #njdontaku
— Dan (@_Cabble) May 3, 2016
What is up with these NJPW title changes every few shows? Makes the tag belts look like jokes! @DeathToAllMarks
— Cody (@Pr0ject161) April 11, 2016
Sure, title changes are fun and exciting, but change a title too often and run the risk of devaluing its importance, thus turning it into nothing more than a shiny prop. Few booking dangers have been expounded upon with greater emphasis than the danger of turning a precious championship into a meaningless prop. It remains one of the most beloved phrases of both analysts and armchair bookers alike, usually as their attempting to rain on someone’s parade or proving how much smarter they are than everyone else.
Fear not concerned New Japan fans; I’m here to bring a much needed dose of reality to this conversation.
No pro wrestling championship can ever be turned into prop (no matter how many times it changes hands) because all pro wrestling championships are already props; they’re born props and they die props, even in Japan. To think otherwise is an act of denial in its purest form. Championships are just as much a part of pro wrestling’s work as the punches and kicks used by the wrestlers trying to win them. They are storytelling devices used to advance plotlines or create drama and conflict where neither would otherwise exist; nothing more and nothing less. The IWGP Heavyweight title is not a real title; it’s a prop within the universe created by New Japan – a statement that sounds obvious but one that many people clearly need to hear.
The value often incorrectly associated with a championship is actually the value of the characters and stories to which a championship may be attached. Characters, not championships, produce the currency that influences the pro wrestling economy. New Japan (or any other pro wrestling promotion around the globe for that matter) is not structured in such a way that places primary emphasis on championships themselves as in boxing or UFC. Instead, emphasis is correctly placed around characters and creative stories. We want Yuji Nagata to win the NEVER title to see him stick it to Katsuyori Shibata and reclaim the glory of his past. We want Tomohiro Ishii to win the IWGP title because he’s a relentless competitor fighting for the honor of CHAOS. The emotional connections are made possible by the characters, not the integrity of the title they’re fighting for.
No one tunes in to Wrestle Kingdom for the increased possibility of title changes; they tune in to see the compelling conclusion of stories surrounding characters they either love or hate. Okada’s win last January had little to do with retaining the IWGP title, but rather his personal journey to defeat Tanahashi and prove he is the new standard bearer of the promotion. The match would have been just as compelling with no title incorporated into the plot at all.
How’s that for devaluing a championship?
Conversely, championship programs that fail to produce significant emotional investment from the audience pose no threat to the status of the championship involved; the harm is absorbed by the characters involved in the angle. Hot shot title changes are a symptom of a greater disease – a lack of compelling creative material and lazy storytelling. Titles cannot suffer from this disease, but characters within a pro wrestling universe certainly can and if not treated quickly, the disease can be fatal.
Should Hornswaggle show up in New Japan this month, win the Super Juniors tournament and go on to defeat KUSHIDA for the Junior Heavyweight title, absolutely no harm would become the title itself; the harm would fall squarely upon KUSHIDA’s shoulders as a viable character created within New Japan’s fictional world. It’s an extreme example, for sure, but one that illustrates the point of this discussion.
The IWGP World Heavyweight title Naito and Ishii recently battled over at the Wrestling Dontaku event is no more real than the Heavyweight title Rocky Balboa challenged Apollo Creed for in the film, Rocky. Yet in both instances the audience is fully invested in the outcome. We sit on the edge of our seats as Rocky proves to be tougher competition than Creed bargained for, just as we sat on the edge of our seats when Los Ingobernables was cleared from the ringside area, creating a realistic path to victory for the Ishii.
Pro wrestling, no matter if it’s framed as sports entertainment in the United States or strong style presented in Japan, is the art of storytelling through the medium of television. Good television provides compelling characters and visceral themes that speak to us either on a personal or metaphorical level. It is not a stretch to equate a title change in pro wrestling with the death (or a near death situation) of a major character in a mainstream television show. Each device produces the same reactions from the audience; each are used to either further a greater narrative or transition from one narrative to another.
Few television shows have killed major characters with the frequency and unbridled enthusiasm as Game of Thrones. Though fans of the show have certainly learned to form emotional attachments at their own risk, it has hardly prevented strong bonds from being forged in each of the series’ six seasons. As each character takes his or her last breath, it hits just as hard as the previous loss. The killing of Jon Snow in season five was no less valuable to the greater narrative as the killing of his brother, Robb Stark in season three or the killing of his father, Ned Stark in season one. Likewise, the revolving door of assassinated rulers of the realm has hardly devalued the ultimate prize within the Seven Kingdom’s universe. And why would it? Yet, if George R. R. Martin were a booker, he would have likely been depicted as Vince Russo on creative steroids; someone with no respect for the value of championships or the traditional format that has served pro wrestling well for the majority of the last century.
The majority of pro wrestling fans consume programs like Game of Throne in a drastically different fashion than they consume a product like New Japan Pro Wrestling; the unfortunate result of ignorant dismissals of pro wrestling’s artistic worth established by detractors of the medium and subconsciously accepted by a vexing portion of the fanbase. While story structure and other variables may differ, both outlets are basic storytelling mediums ruled by the same sound practices and principles.
Placing an immeasurable value on a championship is as counterproductive as placing a similar value on the iconic throne of swords – a metaphorical championship of sorts. When you begin looking at things through those cloudy lenses the imaginary walls of the fictional universe will begin to crumble. Pro wrestling fans would be wise to stop worrying about the current value of a shiny prop and spend more time allowing themselves to become immersed in the magical art pro wrestling offers – doing so can transform earthly performers into immortal champions and the titles worn around their waists become priceless artifacts no booker can destroy.