I first started watching All Japan Pro Wrestling out of historical curiosity. After getting into New Japan Pro Wrestling in the early 2010s, I figured that I had to start watching AJPW as well. I had seen matches from the glory period of the Four Pillars, and I knew that the company had been the historical arch-nemesis of NJPW since Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki split from the JWA to start their own rival promotions. If I was getting invested in NJPW, surely I would have to get invested in AJPW as well, right?
The problem was that AJPW was not very good. The allure of NJPW was that it was the best wrestling on the planet and seemed to be on the rise, a stark contrast to a stale WWE and a fading TNA. AJPW was not NJPW. It was 2013 and Akebono, the nearly immobile former Sumo star, was the Triple Crown Champion and his matches were extremely plodding and boring. At the time, the chatter I saw online about the company was that AJPW was trying to keep things “traditional” and that meant keeping the title on a plodding big man as opposed to pushing a faster, more modern style.
The push of Joe Doering, and his subsequent rivalry with Go Shiozaki, did manage to push more excitement into AJPW, as they had physical, memorable battles over the world title that were reminiscent of the glory days of AJPW when Stan Hansen and Steve Williams would battle with the Four Pillars. Akebono still managed to sneak in a lengthy title reign in 2015, but AJPW was at least churning out some solid main events that generated buzz online.
Unfortunately, Doering’s career in AJPW would go into decline due to health issues and injuries, and Shiozaki, by far the best worker in the company, would go back to NOAH. Veterans like Jun Akiyama and Suwama would step-up, but even though their efforts were commendable, it helped paint an image of AJPW as being a promotion built around old wrestlers, which fulfilled a certain stereotype because AJPW was a historic promotion, and it kind of felt like AJPW was a past-its-prime brand pushing past-their-prime stars.
Enter Kento Miyahara, who was just the person AJPW needed. Miyahara had been on the mid-card for a few years, and emerged as a young babyface that AJPW finally pulled the trigger on and gave a major push to. When he won the Triple Crown Championship in 2016, he was the younger champion in history at 26 years old. As a babyface, Miyahara grew into the role and became an incredible ace for AJPW, having dramatic title defenses against a variety of opponents, both within AJPW and with key outsiders.
With Miyahara, AJPW was not as good as NJPW, but they did have someone who fans could credibly put at the same level as the top stars in NJPW, and if Miyahara was in the main event, it was almost always a show worth seeing. Slowly, AJPW began rebuilding its diminished fanbase, with Miyahara headlining several shows at Sumo Hall that drew the largest crowds in years for an AJPW show.
However, as good as Miyahara has been, AJPW has struggled to find a contemporary that they have felt confident in elevating to his level to create a natural rivalry that can carry the company. Part of the challenge with Miyahara is that he has been a completely dominant champion and without a true peer, he has become stale as the constant main-event staple. Rivals for Miyahara have mainly been aging stars like Suwama and Shuji Ishikawa, who have been hit-and-miss over the past few years, but if AJPW wants to build on the success they have gotten out of Miyahara, they are going to have to earnestly push wrestlers who are young like Miyahara.
Over the past few years, AJPW has attempted to push several names to match Miyahara, but have resisted going all the way. Naoya Nomura, now 27, has gotten close, challenging Miyahara on a few occasions for the Triple Crown Championship, including a match at Korakuen Hall in 2019 that got some Match of the Year consideration. However, he has come up short each time and AJPW hasn’t pushed him up to the same level as Miyahara.
Shotaro Ashino, 30, came into AJPW as a ready-made rival for Miyahara, leading an invading stable from Wrestle-1, where he was the top star. It seemed like a layup for AJPW…and yet the company confusingly avoided putting Ashino over too strongly, and ended up having his group leave in February, making him look like a geek in the process.
Zeus, 39, did manage to get a legitimate push into the main event and won the Triple Crown Championship in 2018, winning and then dropping the title to Miyahara. That has to be considered a success story for AJPW, but Zeus is nearly 40 so he isn’t exactly a young guy who could credibly battle Miyahara for the next decade.
That brings us to Jake Lee, 32. Lee has always been tabbed for big things in AJPW, as he has great size and has been a solid worker. Despite that, Lee struggled to get over at the highest level because he lacked charisma. Last January, he came agonizingly close to the Triple Crown Championship, but lost to Miyahara.
At that point it seemed like Lee’s ship had sailed away; while he had potential, he had been around AJPW for a long time and the company refused to really pull the trigger on him.
Leading up to the Champion Carnival this year, Lee turned heel, acquiring the remnants of Ashino’s stable and re-branding it Total Eclipse. Lee would then spend the tournament working on establishing his heel character. The work in most of his matches was probably worse than when he was a babyface, but by working as a heel he was arguably more interesting than ever before, perhaps giving him that elusive amount of charisma that could take him to the next level.
In the finals of the tournament, Lee beat Miyahara to win the Champions Carnival, easily the biggest accomplishment of his singles career. The victory will set up a world title match against Suwama, who is in rough shape physically, although can still go when called upon. All regular logic would suggest that Lee should beat Suwama for the Triple Crown Championship to solidify his heel turn, and the result would be elevating Lee to the same level as Miyahara.
That should be what happens, but as we have seen over the years, especially with Ashino, AJPW doesn’t always make the most logical decisions when it comes to elevating younger talent. As frustrating as it seems, it wouldn’t be too difficult to imagine Suwama just pinning Lee when they square off for the title.
Outside of pushing Miyahara, AJPW has resisted going all the way with young names for the past ten years. They are the anti-Dragongate in that regard, and the result is the company has been pretty mediocre outside of Miyahara. The company desperately needs to establish Lee as a dominant figure in the company, which in turn can set up a rivalry with Miyaraha, the seeds of which have already been planted by Lee’s past failures against Miyahara when he was a babyface.
AJPW has a tremendous history, and despite a mediocre product for much of the 2000s, things like the Triple Crown Championship and the Champion Carnival still carry prestige. Miyahara really helped return to the company to some level of glory, and if just a few more younger names starting with Lee, can take the next step forward, the company will be in a strong position to continue to enhance its legacy.
On the latest episode of the Gentlemen’s Wrestling Podcast, Jesse Collings (@JesseCollings) and Jason Ounpraseuth (@JasonOun95) discuss the latest WWE releases, where names like Samoa Joe, Mickie James and The IIconics could end up, the difficulties in talent being able to stand out in WWE developmental and more.