A few months ago, I decided I was going to go on a trip for my birthday. I’m at the age now where you’ve got to rationalize and make reasons for trips, so my birthday and NJPW’s G1 Special in USA was good enough of a reason to leave the Spears Compound for Southern California. It was a pretty quick trip, flying in Friday to spend time with family, going to shows Saturday and Sunday and then going straight from the Sunday show to take a red eye so I’d be back in the Upstate early Monday morning. My flight travel was a very very dumb thing that I willingly inflicted on myself, but the shows were worth it.

I’m not bothering with match ratings for this. I think seeing things live gives you a different experience, and my thoughts would be outliers for what the rest of the internet wrestling hive-mind had for these matches. Instead, there were a couple of interesting things from the weekend that I thought were worth mentioning.

The Crowd

So, I went to the Atlanta Ring of Honor taping earlier this year, and the crowd was the most intolerable experience I’ve had at a show. It was basically 600 Bullet Club fans who tried to get themselves over, and it actively detracted from the already long television tapings. By the time that the four hour taping was over, I never wanted to hear the two count “too sweet” call ever again in my life. I went into the G1 Special with a level of trepidation, because if 600 Bullet Club fans were terrible, over 2,000 would be like running to a brick wall head first.

The only other experience I’ve had with an international promotion doing shows in the US was Dragon Gate USA. So that holds a giant caveat of “well DGUSA wasn’t reallllly pure Dragon Gate,” but Billy Gunn isn’t pure New Japan, so I’m going to use this comparison. The DGUSA crowds, especially around WrestleMania weekends weren’t there for Mochizuki vs. Tozawa like I was. The largest responses were for Low-Ki and a very bad AR Fox vs Sabu match. Of course, those DGUSA shows were booked towards a Mania audience, but those shows increased my apprehension for what the crowd would be like in Long Beach.

My fears were quickly assuaged by the end of the first match.

Sure, there were scores of fans in the over eleven styles of Bullet Club/The Elite/Whatever way the Young Bucks can get a dollar t-shirts. It was clear though, the majority of the crowd there was there to be a New Japan audience, not to try to get themselves over at the show’s expense.

That’s not to say that this crowd wasn’t without its quirks. This wasn’t like when the Honor Rising shows occur at Korakuen Hall and the fans act more like Ring of Honor fans. The crowd was intent on being a New Japan crowd, but with a decidedly indie bent to it. Long Beach bred a pretty unique atmosphere as the weekend went along. The crowd was protective. For all the joking about how excited people were for the Intercontinental Title match between Hiroshi Tanahashi and Billy Gunn, as soon as the entrances began the crowd united behind their choice of Tanahashi. Gunn received heel heat to a scale that had to measure up to some he would have wanted when he was at his height in WWE. Long Beach even tried to chant along with “Go ACE” for godsakes!

The crowd had their favorites, namely the Elite, Marty Scurll and your bigger New Japan names, but what was remarkable was how protective the crowd was of New Japan. As I mentioned before, they didn’t want Billy Gunn anywhere near the title. The crowd was even more protective of Kazuchika Okada and the IWGP Heavyweight title.

I don’t think I felt a crowd experience legitimate fear before Saturday night. I mean, sure I’ve seen concern for a wrestler’s health if it seems like they got injured or did a stupid thing in the ring, but Okada versus Cody was something different. First, the crowd loathed Cody. I don’t know if it was purely resentment for him getting a title shot instead of a “deserving” wrestler, or if it was apathy towards his post-WWE career, but he was by far the most hated wrestler in Long Beach. Things uncommon to New Japan, such as Cody’s Memphis-style begging off at the beginning of the match, were hated to a degree that I haven’t seen in recent years. Perhaps in any other building today, people would have recognized it for what it was. However on Saturday, it was an affront to what the crowd intended G1 Special to be. At the end of the match, when Okada hit the Rainmaker the final pop was less a celebration, more relief from crippling anxiety.

Also poor Yoshitatsu, the most unliked man in Long Beach outside of Cody “Cody “Cody” R” Rhodes. Not only did the crowd hate him, but as seen on Twitter, his lonely merch table was depressing considering that a Japanese sponsor of the show that sold Magic Erasers did better business than him across both nights. They sold plain ones, and ones that featured Tanahashi and Okada on the wrapper with the chance to win a Okada autograph.

Long Beach and Expansion

Long Beach seemed like sort of a weird choice for the big expansion. Maybe it’s me regarding the prestige of working the location, like a lot of promotions do. It would have been better in my mind to call it Southern California than Long Beach. However, when I found out that Bushiroad was also operating their own card game tournaments and festivals at the same convention center, it all made sense. A convention center hall a great venue doesn’t make, as this weekend revealed.

First, let me get into the positives of the convention hall. It came across pretty great on video. I assume they used Ring of Honor’s newer video screens, and the entrances came off more like a big Osaka show than the limited staging they use in either Korakuen or Ryōgoku Kokugikan. I love how they used the overhead crane for entrances and crowd shots (I sat underneath it the first night and was entranced by that during AXS commercial breaks). The production held up the idea that we were watching something special, and it’s something I hope they continue in their future US shows. I’m also a former film production person, so I obsess about this kind of stuff.

Now that I got that out of the way, that convention hall was ridiculous as a venue for 2,600 fans. Since everything was on the same plane, if you were behind sixth row, you would try to play the fun game of “Okay, what’s the best angle I can crane myself into so I can see the ring between all these heads.” I didn’t notice this the first night, but by the end of the second night, people in the back rows abandoned their seats and stood by the back wall as it gave them a better view. Any sort of incline, levels, balconies, or bleachers could have markedly improved the sight-lines.

The stories about the singular merch line were true.

Basically, NJPW had half of the hall for the show and the other half for concessions/merch. It wrapped around the other half of the hall so many times that I felt I was living through the old Nokia cell phone game Snake. I heard stories of people missing an hour and a half of the show waiting for merch. I know shipping sucks, but if you are going to have people from 30-odd states and multiple countries travel to a show, they are more than willing to spend money on merchandise. My brother opted to get a Hiroshi Tanahashi themed Magic Eraser which I think he spent seven dollars for and didn’t miss a match for it. That shouldn’t have been the better decision for the fans. Also, it’s kind of gauche to complain about concession prices, but the food and alcohol prices were ridiculous ($13 for a tall boy of Modelo. I used to live in Miami and went to Marlins games. Jeffrey Loria doesn’t price gouge like that.)

So how could New Japan improve on their venue for the next show? Well as our esteemed Flagship said this week, thinking they could have sold 4,000 each night wasn’t unrealistic and I’m sorry Kenny Omega, but 20,000 is entirely unrealistic. There is no reason in the world why they should run a random convention hall in Long Beach for their next SoCal show when there are plenty of options in Southern California. The old Forum would have been perfect before they did their renovations, and their rental price is reportedly pretty cheap. I offer what I think is a realistic option for them: UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion.

Pauley Pavilion would work. It’s more centrally located than Long Beach. It would have the better sight-lines due it being in an arena, rather than a place that’s holding a religious unity meeting this weekend. Concessions/Merchandise would be more than several carts and the lines wouldn’t be so long due to there being multiple locations in the concourse. Availability wouldn’t be much of an issue for a July date (definitely would be during UCLA basketball season). And as it’s owned by the University of California (so the state), renting Pauley Pavilion wouldn’t be as ridiculous as other LA-based arenas.

Honestly, I think that’s a path they should do if they are going to do tours of this quality in the future. Go for the college basketball arenas. If it’s too large, then lighting and curtaining off the top bowl won’t look bad on TV. Of course, if the New Japan expansion is going to be more territory based with occasional larger events like G1 Special, then this route wouldn’t make sense.

A Wrestling Newcomer’s Thoughts on G1 Special

Everyone remembers their first live wrestling show. Mine was when my dad took my brother and I down to Austin in 2000 for Monday Night Raw (It was a pretty terrible show, and my dad never was a huge wrestling fan so I think he deserves a bit of sympathy for sitting through this). This weekend, my brother’s girlfriend, Carrie joined us. This was Carrie’s first ever wrestling show, after years of my brother randomly watching it in their apartment and going to a random American Legion Hall in Reseda, of all places to watch dudes fake fight every few months.

I’m really interested in outsiders’ perspectives of wrestling, and getting Carrie’s thoughts about her first ever wrestling show being G1 Special was something I couldn’t pass up. After I got back home and got reacclimated, I shot her an email with some questions and she graciously responded. Just as a note, “The Deer Men” are her name for the Young Bucks, as Carrie quickly loved their fawn-based name and the fact they at one time had Milwaukee Bucks based t-shirts. My brother and I probably misidentified Bullet Club as Bullet Crew so that’s on us.

What were your conceptions of what the show was going to be before going/what you thought about wrestling?

I had seen a bit of it on TV, so I expected some scripted/choreographed fighting, and an intricate plot around that. I knew that people pick on wrestling for being “fake,” which never made sense to me any more than it makes sense to complain about a movie being fake. So I expected the experience to be a lot like going to a play or a movie, but with more smashing heads.

Also, going in, you and my boyfriend (who’s your brother) told me that we don’t like Bullet Crew, so I tried to jump into some blind tribalism immediately and go whole-hog on the Bullet Crew hate, but I kept forgetting their name and calling them Bullet Team.

What did you think about the venue, the crowd and the experience of the show?

Well, first of all, it’s not like going to a movie. In a movie, people don’t shout at the screen nearly as much as people shout at the fighters in a wrestling show. Which made me really go internal through a lot of the show. It made me think about why we interact with the things we are watching. To me, I don’t interact with performers unless I think they are doing something on which I can have an effect — so interacting with something that’s scripted doesn’t make sense, right? But then I asked the people I came with (including you, Mike) about the structure of wrestling, and how engagement can actually inform the writing of future shows, who wins and loses, and now that engagement makes sense. It’s a subtle way of being a part of the sport. In, say, baseball, you cheer and boo, and maybe you’ll have some subtle psychological effect on the players, but you won’t have some grand effect on the writers of their fates. In wrestling, people are literally writing their fates, and they’re listening for your cheers. That’s a really fascinating concept.

As for the venue, I didn’t expect everything to be on one plane, with the ring raised. I guess I’m used to theatre, where the actors are typically below you and the audience is tiered, and the balcony is looking down at the actors. In this performance/sport, you have the performers up above you. That’s interesting because they must have to choreograph all their stage combat with their blocks, etc, orchestrated in such a way that you can’t see them from below. Those blocks wouldn’t necessarily work on a stage, doing Shakespeare, I bet, because you’d be looking at the actors straight-on, or from above. I’m sure the blocks translate, but I bet they have to learn to do them in different ways, at different angles.

Bullet Team sucks.

There was a guy behind us who randomly shouted “Fuck you, Trump!” during a fight and I like him.

During the first couple fights, all I could think was, “Wow, this is a dance concert.” It really felt like I was watching dance, with just a couple key differences. For one, in dance, you try to minimize impact, whereas in wrestling impact is maximized. Also, in dance, the crowd maintains silence or near-silence until the applause break, whereas in wrestling it’s pretty constant noise. And last, of course, is the veneer of violence. But the actual moves in between that make up the majority of what the guys are doing? Those are choreographed dance moves, and they’re pretty. Sometimes I just zoned out and kind-of removed the impact parts in my head and just watched it like the ballet. Especially when the Deer Men were up.

I confess I did have a couple moments of, “Jesus, this is violent,” that I had to walk myself through. I generally don’t enjoy violence on film, and it gives me a bit of heeby jeebies, to think about other people enjoying it. But then I had this thought: “Well, I enjoy dramatic movies, where the characters are really really sad. Other people can’t watch those movies, and I can. Does that mean something is wrong with me? No. It means I access and work through sadness by watching those characters.” I think catharsis is something art has always offered people, and if that’s something wrestling offers people (and I am guessing it does), then that’s great. What a totally harmless way to let people access and process feelings we got evolutionarily loaded with. Or maybe it’s just fun to yell at dancers? I don’t know! Anyway, then they went back to dancing their pretty dances instead of pulling around an “unconscious” guy and I wasn’t weirded out any more anyway.

What was your favorite moment or favorite fake dance fighting men?

The Deer Men! They’re the best!

With what Saturday was like, would you be open to going to another New Japan show or other wrestling shows in Southern California in the future?

Yeah, if the Deer Men are there, and/or Yoshitatsu, who I felt bad for because no one went to his merch table. I would also be curious to go to a ladies’ wrestling show.

Any other thoughts about the show?

They need two merch lines. How am I supposed to get my Deer Men shirt with all these boys in the way? Other women: This is the shortest line for the ladies’ room you will ever see in your lives.

Carrie’s a great twitter follow at @CarriePoppyYES, and if you’re interested in skepticism, pseudoscience and the paranormal, check out her podcast Oh No Ross and Carrie!