Since WWE bought WCW in 2001, a segment of the fanbase have been clamoring for an alternative. WWE’s biggest challenge in the past decade was Total Nonstop Action/Impact Wrestling. In its time, TNA had an all-star roster with the likes of AJ Styles, Samoa Joe, and Bobby Roode and were signing hot talents like Kurt Angle and Christian Cage. It looked like TNA was poised to become real competition.
And then something went wrong.
I can’t point my finger directly when the turn happened. Maybe it was when a broken Mick Foley won the TNA World Title. Maybe it was when Sting headlined his fourth Bound For Glory in a row. Or maybe it was that fateful Monday night when Hulk Hogan and Friends took over. While guys like Jeff Jarrett, Rhino, and Sting were always a part of the main event scene of TNA, at some indistinguishable point TNA stopped trying to draw in viewers by being an alternative and started trying to draw them in by presenting WWE has-beens as equal and better than their own talent.
In what is surely a completely unrelated point, Hiroshi Tanahashi is defending the IWGP Intercontinental title against Billy Gunn in Long Beach, California on July 2.
— Phillip Kaminski (@DeafITT08) June 12, 2017
The Long Beach shows are an essential part of New Japan’s strategy to expanding to the West. They have lofty plans of establishing an American branch of their company and are unveiling the new IWGP United States Championship at the shows.
These Long Beach shows are a chance for New Japan to put their best foot forward. Instead they give us a match pitting their “Ace” against a man who hasn’t been relevant since 1999.
For the past few years, New Japan Pro Wrestling has been a serious alternative to WWE’s brand of wrestling. The language barrier has always been a big obstacle, but they are making strides. They’ve gone from Jim Ross and an almost tolerable Matt Striker on commentary for Wrestle Kingdom 9 to every major show having English commentary and an English-language show on AXS TV. They have an English language website with interviews and commentary, and while New Japan World can use some work, it’s much easier to navigate as an English speaker now than it was prior.
Wrestle Kingdom 9 was my first New Japan show. I was one of the people who couldn’t get past the language barrier and needed Ross and Striker to introduce me to these characters. Now I can listen and enjoy the Japanese commentary just fine, even if I can’t understand it, but I needed that barrier broken. Wrestle Kingdom 9 blew me away. While everyone raved, justifiably so, about Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada and Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Kota Ibushi, my favorite match of that show was Togi Makabe vs Tomohiro Ishii. I watched amazed as the two brutes laid into each other with the stiffest strikes I had ever seen.
This was an alternative wrestling product I could get behind. And I wasn’t the only one.
I have friends and family members who have been introduced to the product on AXS TV, and make sure to watch every Friday night. They appreciate that it’s different from WWE, that they hit harder and are less focused on the tropes that have plagued WWE stories for so long. What doesn’t draw them to the screen in a focus on ex-WWE guys who are long past their prime. They want to see New Japan action, not be pandered to.
The Long Beach shows are a chance to bring New Japan action to American soil, not have American wrestlers in a New Japan ring.
Billy Gunn is not a regular New Japan wrestler. At this point in his career he’s barely a wrestler at all. Should New Japan be clinging to the hope that a viewer unfamiliar with their product will see a wrestler that they used to watch when wrestling was cool and tune in to see him again? It’s the same mistake TNA made when they had chance after chance to solidify themselves as an alternative.
Western wrestlers certainly have a place in New Japan. I don’t like Cody, and have little interest in his title match against Okada (also taking place on the NJPW Long Beach shows), but it at least makes sense. Billy Gunn makes no sense.
I’ll be the first to admit I may be overreacting. It’s just one match after all. But it’s the thinking behind it that bothers me. New Japan has done a lot the past couple of years to find a western audience and appeal to it. It has done so by sticking to what makes it work and without blatant pandering.
As someone values the alternative product they provide, I sincerely hope the Billy Gunn problem is a one-time thing, and not a habit they fall into.