This is the first installment of a new series at VOW: Lionized. Written by Charles Williams of ProWrestlingOnly.com, the series aims to chart the journey of NJPW from its beginnings to today. 

Charles is the founder, owner, and editor-in-chief of ProWrestlingOnly.com, a site that includes an extensive podcast network, match reviews, opinion pieces, and a decade-old discussion board with over 2,000 members and over four million posts. You can find him on Twitter at @prowresonly.


It’s likely that when this decade is long finished and future wrestling fans reflect on the current era, New Japan Pro Wrestling’s in-ring renaissance will be the most important story of its time. As is the case with any decade in modern history, the landscape has undergone dramatic changes in the 2010s; however, the biggest changes have not been to the wrestling business itself, although those are certainly significant. It’s the craft and artform of professional wrestling—its quality, value judgments, and importance relative to everything else about wrestling presentation—that has been the most transformative.

It could be called surprising that NJPW would act as the epicenter of the most popular in-ring style in the world. Pro Wrestling NOAH received far more critical acclaim from Western fans in the previous decade, just as the insurgent Ring of Honor, currently a business partner of NJPW, captured most of the domestic attention for American fans during the same time period. NJPW excursions to America generated nowhere near the fanfare of Kenta Kobashi’s 2005 match with Samoa Joe or the stars of Dragon Gate working for ROH during Wrestlemania weekend in 2006, the latter of which both launched an enduring annual tradition and secured Match of the Year honors in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. In previous decades, diehard fans who followed the Japanese scene were, by and large, more compelled by All Japan Pro Wrestling, while NJPW was seen more narrowly as a company with a worthwhile junior heavyweight division. This decade, with AJPW no longer a major player and NOAH struggling in the wake of Mitsuharu Misawa’s death, NJPW filled the void for Western fans. This, combined with changes in technology that made wrestling more instantly accessible, resulted in NJPW headliners becoming legitimate stars in the United States, something that would have been unthinkable in a previous era.

The journey here has been a long one, one that began before most of us were born. It originates with America exporting professional wrestling to Japan in the 1950s, which led to the formation of the Japan Pro Wrestling Association and its top star, Rikidozan, becoming a national and transcendent cultural icon. It continues with the rise of two young JWA stars who would create the first seismic shift in the Japanese pro wrestling scene—Shohei “Giant” Baba, who would form AJPW, and Antonio Inoki, who would form NJPW.

When aiming to come up with the best word to encapsulate NJPW’s approach to pro wrestling—one that is just as apropos to describe wrestling the company was producing 30 years ago as it would be to describe their current offerings—I keep coming back to the word “hybrid”. All house styles contain their own biases, priorities, strengths, and oversights, but perhaps more than any other major league wrestling style, New Japan embraced the best of all styles in an attempt to become truly great cafeteria wrestling. Throughout the company’s history, you’ll find a full embrace of the traditional US pro-style, shoot style, lucha libre, garbage wrestling, and classic British style; you’ll find more sportsman-like contests that don’t really act as morality plays, just as you’ll find matches that embrace the classic babyface-heel construct. Regardless of who has headed New Japan, one thing virtually all company leaders have seemed to understand is that a narrow view of wrestling’s possibilities is a self-defeating one. To empower wrestlers and take the best from every style of wrestling is to create something that holds its own with anything in the world.

This series is an attempt to make sense of New Japan’s journey— to start from the beginning and work our way forward from there. In each installment of “Lionized”, we’ll take a look at match highlights from a specific time period and evaluate both the highly-regarded classics and hidden gems. Call the series a story in search of a narrative and this early attempt at exposition an educated hypothesis more than a foregone conclusion. We’ll go where the matches take us and with that, let’s get started.


PROLOGUE – JAPAN PRO WRESTLING ASSOCIATION (JWA)

Lionized Inoki Prologue

Antonio Inoki & Michiaki Yoshimura vs Baron Mikel Scicluna & Victor Rivera – December 6, 1967

Scicluna and Rivera are of course most known for their roles in the 1970s World Wide Wrestling Federation as reliable enhancement talent. Here, they face Michiaki Yoshimura, an underappreciated great worker from this era, and a young Antonio Inoki in his oldest match that exists on tape. This is very much worth watching, both for its quality and what it suggests as Inoki’s path forward, particularly in contrast to Inoki’s 1969-1970 series of NWA title matches with Dory Funk Jr. Scicluna and Rivera, as always, understand their role, which on this night is to make the natives look great. They weren’t booked as top-shelf talent, so they were fully liberated to make themselves look like buffoons if that’s what it took to get the match over. They embraced that freedom for all its worth, nicely blending comedy, action, and heel cheating. I don’t know if I’d call the match timeless, but I would call it a great example of a match that leaves nothing to chance — if they can do it, they do it.

On the surface, the match predicts the effective working relationship Inoki’s crew would have with the WWWF in the coming decade, but that’s not an entirely on-the-nose takeaway. The NJPW-WWWF relationship would be a mutually beneficial setup while this match had the Americans cast solely as givers. What this does, especially in contrast to the Inoki-Dory matches, is make clear just how great Inoki can look when facing wrestlers who have no selfish goals. Those who enjoy the 60s and 70s style done well will find lots to love here, to the point that this just might end up being the most fun match Baron Mikel Scicluna or Johnny Rivera have ever had.

Antonio Inoki vs Chris Markoff – May 16, 1969

If the tag match proved that the right wrestlers would make a young Inoki look stellar, this match proved that he was a superstar waiting to explode. Markoff, like his WWWF predecessors, is a selfless dance partner, but more than any other factor, what made this memorable was Inoki using the blade to garner sympathy. By the end of this match, he’s a bloody mess, and the visual of him victorious hoisted on the shoulders of other wrestlers— including Giant Baba, which will never not be surreal— while his head is covered in a blood-soaked bandage is an iconic one. The best comparison would be something like Ted DiBiase’s Houston and Mid South matches against Magnum TA where the capable veteran puts the rising star in a position to sell so much that his comeback presents him as someone who can conquer anything.

Antonio Inoki vs The Destroyer – JWA May 19, 1971
Antonio Inoki vs Jack Brisco – JWA August 5, 1971

Destroyer and Brisco, of course, would be AJPW mainstays after the JWA split. Brisco would find his way back to a match with Inoki by the decade’s end, but this is the only taped match where Inoki wrestled The Destroyer, a Japanese legend in his own right. Inoki’s chemistry with Destroyer is certainly there and they proved capable of having a good match, but his match with Brisco is easily his best from the JWA—an outstanding effort and a pairing that works flawlessly. Destroyer was more of a Thinking Man’s Wrestler — even using the nickname “The Intelligent, Sensational Destroyer” for much of his career — and took a more traditional approach to his matches. By contrast, Brisco was more of an elite athlete who was great at cutting a hard pace and making everything look crisp and sudden. It was a nice way to approach the youthful exuberance that was Inoki’s calling card at the time, and they happened to cross each other’s paths when Brisco was only 30 years old and still had the NWA World Title ahead of him. Destroyer-Inoki was a terrific example of a veteran facing an up-and-coming star and creating a chess match out of it while Brisco-Inoki hit a high athletic standard and created more excitement, exactly the type of match you hope to see from two buzzworthy stars on the rise.

Antonio Inoki vs Dick Murdoch – December 4, 1971

After working for Baba during Japanese tours in the 1970s and in 1980, Murdoch would eventually jump to New Japan where he’d become one of the company’s most reliable foreign stars for several years. While this would be the last time the two would cross paths on videotape for a decade or so, the match demonstrates that there’s something there. Murdoch’s matches in All Japan, while many were good, never quite hit the level of his New Japan output. Inoki was well-suited as a Murdoch opponent. The common thread between Inoki-Murdoch and Inoki-Brisco is that in both cases, more athletic opponents still in their 20s provided better opposition for Inoki than veterans trying to outfox him. While Dory Funk Jr. was only a few years older than all three of them, anyone who has seen a good amount of Dory Funk Jr. knows that to put it diplomatically, he wrestled as an old soul. Even as a recently-crowned World Champion in his late 20s, Dory gave off the vibe of an aging veteran.

Dory Funk Jr. vs Antonio Inoki – December 2, 1969 – NWA World Title
Dory Funk Jr. vs Antonio Inoki – August 2, 1970 – NWA World Title
Dory Funk Jr. vs Seiji Sakaguchi – December 9, 1971 – NWA World Title

Even if action-minded NWA World Champions like Harley Race, Jack Brisco, Terry Funk, and Ric Flair were more common in the role, it could be argued that no one really captured the true representation of the NWA title more than Dory Funk Jr. Despite the effort and match quality, NWA title matches were entrenched, establishment wrestling by definition. Some could make a go of it in spite of that, but the title and the common method for working matches was as institutional as pro wrestling gets. That the NWA title moved to All Japan instead of New Japan was both appropriate and for the best for everyone involved, and Dory Funk’s two sixty-minute draws with Inoki make that painfully clear. There was a brief period in the first ten minutes of their first match where it seemed like the two would mesh exceptionally well; that fell apart over time as Dory kept grinding Inoki to the mat to build to a comeback that never really came. It’s that refusal to give the fans what they want to see that makes both matches a disappointment. It’s possible to take most of the offense in an Inoki match and still keep the crowd, as Chris Markoff proved in their May 1969 match. However, while that match created a dramatic visual and built to a satisfying payoff, these matches simply killed time dead. Inoki needed opponents with energy and while it would be wrong to say Dory phoned in his effort, his stoicism and ideas for how to construct the match were ill-placed.

It’s possible that when Dory noticed how over Inoki was and how lively the crowd was early in the 1969 match that he concluded that they could do less without losing the people, especially if they were going to a broadway anyway. That reasoning might not have been wrong on its own, but it made for a disappointing match with no inspired comeback to make the time investment worth it. On the flip side, when Seiji Sakaguchi challenged Dory for the NWA title two years later, the dynamic was different. Sakaguchi was a lower-ranked wrestler than Inoki, which meant that Dory had to do far more to get over his chances of winning the match. As a result, we saw Dory show more vulnerability and create unexpected moments that kept the crowd involved; he was far more giving to Sakaguchi and the match was far better than either Inoki match for that reason.

Imagine the Inoki-Dory matches as a car with two drivers. Just as we saw here, we’ve seen that play out in other matches featuring two wrestlers who are both used to playing a more leading, dominant role instead of following the lead of another wrestler. Rick Rude, for example, had better matches with Masa Chono and Kensuke Sasaki than bigger star and better worker Shinya Hashimoto in the 1992 G-1 Climax. Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels had better matches with lesser opponents than with each other, just like Steve Austin and Undertaker or Jumbo Tsuruta and Stan Hansen struggled to meet expectations. Sakaguchi followed Dory’s lead and wasn’t as established with the JWA audience, and the match was better for it.

CONCLUSION

It was clear that the NWA style delivered to the JWA, while great much of the time, was not a one-size-fits-all approach to pro wrestling. Inoki fared better with wrestlers who went off the beaten path and his stardom and popularity, along with that of Giant Baba for very different reasons, proved that there was room in Japan for more than one version of professional wrestling. In the next installment, we’ll look at the available NJPW footage from 1972-1973 to see how effective NJPW’s early attempts to do something different would be.


BEST MATCHES

  • Antonio Inoki & Michiaki Yoshimura vs Baron Mikel Scicluna & Victor Rivera – JWA December 6, 1967 ****1/4
  • Antonio Inoki vs Chris Markoff – JWA May 16, 1969 ****1/4
  • Antonio Inoki vs Jack Brisco – JWA August 5, 1971 ****1/2
  • Antonio Inoki vs Dick Murdoch – JWA December 4, 1971 ***3/4
  • Dory Funk Jr. vs Seiji Sakaguchi – JWA December 9, 1971 ****1/4