Barbara Tuchman’s book The Guns of August was published in 1962. In October of 1963 President John F. Kennedy had one eye on Cuba (and the intercontinental ballistic missiles placed on the island by the Soviet Union) and the other on the 500 or so pages Tuchman penned about the early stages of World War I. In the midst of those 13 days that put the world on the brink of nuclear war JFK famously remarked to his brother Bobby, “I’m not going to follow a course of action that will allow someone to write a book called The Missiles of October,” referring to Tuchman’s expert analysis of the miscalculations made by world leaders in 1914.
The exercise of connecting dots between World War I and the pro wrestling industry is admittedly hyperbolic. No matter the stakes pro wrestling, or any other business, can never compare to that of a world war. There is, however, much to be learned from the overarching themes of The Guns of August as it relates to the world of business. Business, like politics, is said to be contact sport. Many prominent business leaders often point to The Guns of August (along with other military texts like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Machiavelli’s The Prince) as influential source material.
One of the primary themes of The Guns of August is the peril of fighting today’s war using strategies that won the wars of yesterday. In the case of World War I, both the Allied and Central Powers mobilized war efforts based on the rules of the old world; strike the enemy head-on and with maximum force. Few military experts on either side believed a war of that nature could be sustained longer than a few months before a victory was achieved.There was just one problem. Those experts failed to appreciate cataclysmic technological advances as it pertained to weapons of war – a tragic misstep that resulted in four years of the deadliest fighting the world had ever seen and a razor thin geo-political stalemate that didn’t last.
Based on what we know of Vince McMahon I’m comfortable making the assumption that he’s never read The Guns of August. To be clear, that’s not an attack on his intellect, but rather an educated guess based on decades of sources (including McMahon himself) who have described his hyper-focused attention on all things WWE and little else. That said, now is as good a time as any for the aging impresario to pick up a copy and give it go.
The current pro wrestling landscape is quite the diverse universe; one that more closely resembles the once-dominant territorial hierarchy than any other time in recent history (at least in terms of promotional variety). It’s an undeniable fact that WWE still controls the majority of real estate within today’s marketplace, a position of strength the promotion has enjoyed since the industry consolidated under the collapse of WCW and ECW in 2001. But it’s not 2001 anymore.
In the United States, Ring of Honor is the clear No. 2 promotion. From a business perspective ROH has never been more successful, with plenty of opportunity for continued growth. The much-maligned Impact Wrestling remains a distant third, but the promotion continues to maintain a television presence and has now been in business longer than the Ted Turner-owned WCW. Oh yeah, and then there’s a little show called All In that sold ten thousand tickets for a Chicago-based event in less than an hour. Not to mention independent promotions like Evolve, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, AAW and MLW, each of which enjoys small but enthusiastic support of regional fanbases as well as the ability to attract a global audience thanks to the internet.
Globally pro wrestling has never been so hot. In Mexico CMLL and AAA remain established brands. European promotions like PROGRESS, Revolution Pro Wrestling, ICW and OTT are all hotter than ever. Likewise, Australia is proving to be a hotbed of wrestling talent and a burgeoning marketplace is taking shape in China with exciting possibilities. And then there’s Japan. New Japan Pro Wrestling is in the midst of a run for the ages. The promotion continues to press forward with an ambitious yet methodical global expansion campaign that, if successful, could result in a monumental shift in the balance of power within the industry.
A NEW GENERAL LEADING THE CHARGE
It felt like an important moment when Harold Meij jogged down the aisle of Osaka Jo Hall, rolled into the ring and introduced himself as the new NJPW President at Dominion earlier this month. It was the kind of moment I could easily see being framed as a pivotal moment in some documentary released 10 or 15 years from now.
Meij’s brief promo was hardly on par with Ric Flair showing up to the World Wrestling Federation with the NWA Heavyweight title around his waist. It wasn’t Scott Hall showing up on Monday Nitro as an invading outsider. There was no figurative shot across the bow baked into a moment of fiction. Nevertheless, we’ve now seen the man charged with steering the New Japan ship in the flesh; we’ve heard the passion in his voice and seen the resolve in his eyes.We’ve seen his ability to talk the talk (always a good attribute in the pro wrestling business). After a bit of background research on the international businessman it’s not all that difficult to think he’s capable of walking the walk.
Meij’s remarks were the prologue for one of the most compelling and well-rounded events in modern pro wrestling history. Dominion was the perfect encapsulation of the New Japan product; the perfect exhibition of the creative and athletic talent driving the promotion to new heights after years of patient groundwork.
A mutually beneficial partnership with ROH that began in 2014 successfully exposed New Japan talent to the American wrestling fan. The launch of New Japan World that same year provided a platform for the expanding fanbase to experience the product in its natural habitat. That exposure ultimately led to an experimental television program on AXS TV in 2015, a program that has continued to grow in popularity on the Mark Cuban-owned network. In 2017 the promotion crossed the Pacific Ocean and ran a US Championship-themed event in Long Beach, a well-timed precursor to the G1 tournament (with a similar event taking place prior to the G1 this year). Earlier this year the promotion signed a prominent North American attraction, Chris Jericho, for a much hyped double main event at Wrestle Kingdom. Six months later Dominion served as a clear delineation point from cautiously exploring new horizons to sailing full speed ahead toward a much larger goal.
Unlike Eric Bischoff, the figurehead representing the last serious threat to McMahon’s empire more than two decades ago, Meij finds himself in the enviable position of inheriting a healthy company running on all cylinders. Meij has not been brought in to correct a problem, he’s been hired to oversee a victory- one that does not end on the shores of the United States.
The New Japan product has successfully infiltrated every major battlefront across the globe. A long-standing relationship with CMLL allows them to maintain a presence in Mexico and the lucha libre fanbase. A relationship with Rev Pro grants them access to the ever-growing UK demographic. A four-city tour of Australia earlier this year capitalized on the ripening market down under. This past May a co-branded War of the Worlds event with ROH in Toronto completed the trifecta of countries that comprise the North American continent.
The current New Japan roster has been expertly built to reflect the global product the promotion wants to sell. Kazuchika Okada is, of course, the top Japanese star in the businesses (if not the world). The new IWGP Heavyweight champion, Kenny Omega from Canada, was the first non-japanese star to win the G1 Climax. Chris Jericho, the newly crowned Intercontinental champion, is expanding his role within the company. Jay White, of New Zealand, is the US champion. Hiromu Takahashi, the new Junior Heavyweight champion, is well known in Mexico for his infamous rivalry with Dragon Lee. Likewise, Tetsuya Naito’s time in Mexico helped create Los Ingobernables de Japon. Will Ospreay, Marty Scurll and Zack Sabre Jr. of the UK represent competing styles of the modern era. The Young Bucks, the new IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team champions, represent the indie style of America and the international brand appeal of Bullet Club. And that’s to speak nothing of the equally diverse undercard talent and a finely tuned farm system second to none.
These are the powerful weapons of war Meij has at his disposal to achieve his mission of global domination.
A NEW KIND OF WAR
Vince McMahon is no stranger to war. Pro wrestling’s storied past is full of characters that attempted to compete with the belligerent second generation promoter. Some, like Verne Gagne, were helpless to stop the onslaught raged against them. Others, like Bischoff, at least enjoyed a modicum of success. Ultimately all have failed. As WWE is posed with the first legitimate threat in 20 years McMahon, like the Allied and Central Powers a century ago, is turning to outdated tactics to achieve victory.
Talent acquisition has always been one of the most powerful weapons in McMahon’s arsenal. During the early 1980s McMahon was able to lure a plethora of talent away from regional territories, like the AWA for example, building a massive roster and depleting the competition of marketable bodies all at once. Likewise, the acquisition of opposing talent was a key component of the Monday Night War of the late 1990s; the shot of a former WWF or WCW talent sitting in the audience of the opposing company’s show became a staple of that period.
The acquisition of talent remains WWE’s primary weapon of choice. In 2016 WWE signed AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Carl Anderson and Luke Gallows away from New Japan. Later that year WWE signed a number of independent performers like Cedric Alexander, Drew Gulak and TJ Perkins, via the Cruiserweight Classic project. The following year multiple female performers (most notably Kairi Sane) were corralled as part of the Mae Young Classic project. UK talent like Pete Dunne, Tyler Bate and Trent Seven were also signed in similar fashion.
WWE’s massive roster expansion has done little to stop New Japan’s mounting success. The promotion hardly skipped a beat after losing two of its major stars en route to an amazing year both creatively and financially. Furthermore, the relationship between New Japan and ROH has helped stabilize Ring of Honor’s product in spite of significant losses like Kevin Steen, El Generico, Kyle O’Reilly, Bobby Fish, Roderick Strong and War Machine over the last several years.
Contrarily, the wide-spanning talent grab has actually diminished the quality of WWE’s product year over year. The logistics of writing for bloated Raw and SmackDown Live rosters results in a bland product with no discernible differences between one character and the next.The 205 Live brand has hardly moved the proverbial needle in terms of WWE Network appeal. Though NXT is clearly the strongest of WWE’s portfolio of brands, it’s primary role is that of a talent incubator and is but a small fraction of WWE’s business as a whole (it remains to be seen how the recent announcement of an NXT UK brand will factor into this equation).
Try as he might, McMahon can not hire his way to victory against New Japan.
As unsuccessful as the talent acquisition strategy has been, WWE’s financial position is strong enough to absorb the substantial influx in payroll. The growing roster has not helped, but it’s not hurting the promotion’s financial stability either. WWE’s creative direction, on the other hand, is where the larger issue lies.
WWE and sports entertainment have been synonymous since McMahon first took control of his father’s business. The sports entertainment genre carries with it all the trappings of traditional pro wrestling storytelling, but with a deliberate lack of seriousness that eliminates all doubt that the product is a work of fiction. This is the battlefront in which WWE has lost the most ground to New Japan.
The appetite for serious, layered drama within pro wrestling storytelling is at an all time high. There will always be room for comedy and over the top antics within the genre, however, the global audience is far more interested in a consequential product. Unrealistic babyface heroes, a revolving door of elementary heels and the lack of thoughtful conflict devices are no longer acceptable to fans looking for a higher level of engagement from the product. The modern pro wrestling fan is less interested in experiencing moments and more interested in long term story arcs and compelling character development. The modern fan wants Okada not Roman Reigns; Omega, not Braun Strowman; Bullet Club not The Shield; Ospreay not Enzo Amore. They want the strong style that has so dominated the month of June while WWE continues to present the product of old.
Unlike wars of the past the battle against an expanding New Japan will not be a zero sum game; the universe (and WWE’s war chest) is big enough for both to coexist in one form or another. If New Japan is successful in breaching WWE’s iron curtain it will be over the course of many years. A lot will change between now and then (whenever then is). Over the course of time it took to complete this article alone: ROH announced an event at Madison Square Garden in 2019, WWE managed to have that event canceled and a UK version of NXT was announced.
A new kind of wrestling war is underway, one that involves multiple players across multiple continents. Alliances have been made, battleplans have been drawn and troops are at the ready. Whether or not a book entitled The Strong Styles of June can be written in the future will be determined by the course of action taken by these motivated promoters. Not matter what happens, it’s a war worth fighting and a story worth chronicling.