Jake Lee has left All Japan Pro Wrestling.

I can’t say that I am shocked at all by the decision. For months Hall had been talking about wrestling in New Japan Pro Wrestling and the G1 Climax after Hiroshi Tanahashi mused about his participation after an inter-promotional show celebrating Korakuen Hall’s 60th anniversary.

Jake Lee is a former two-time Triple Crown Champion but never felt like the top guy. Lee was tall, handsome, and I would argue for his in-ring talent even when others felt he was boring at times. But ultimately, Lee lacked the charisma of a superstar. Something that was all too obvious whenever he was in the vicinity of Kento Miyahara.

Despite a hot and well-received angle that turned him heel, Lee struggled to forge a compelling bad-guy persona despite being handed a faction in Total Eclipse, where he was the undisputed leader. While Lee continued to have great matches, especially against Miyahara, his character work shifted from one show to the next.

Was he a cold, calculating killer or a megalomaniac with an evil laugh? It varied, and neither performance was particularly compelling though there were moments where he looked like he had finally put it together, only for it to turn out to be fleeting.

Moments like his Champion Carnival win came during the pandemic and in empty arena shows. Lee’s big Triple Crown win was tainted by Suwama having to vacate the title due to COVID-19 leading to a confusing decision match gimmick featuring Miyahara and Yuma Aoyagi. Lee had to vacate the Triple Crown in January 2022 when Ryuki Honda broke his orbital bone. Lee was also the victim of terrible booking when Suwama defeated him via interference and cheating to win the Triple Crown in his V1 defense after finally beating Miyahara in a Triple Crown match (in one of their best matches together) the month before.

But the bad booking and luck cannot explain his failure to connect. Don’t get me wrong. Jake Lee has his fans, including a sizable female fanbase. But it’s not as large as Miyahara’s, and the Aoyagi Brothers are fast building their own legion. Even when Lee won the Triple Crown the first time and was dominant for several months, there was little evidence he was boosting business. When he finally defended the Triple Crown against Suwama, it did a terrible number in Korakuen Hall, well below the capacity restrictions at the time. Lee’s best business as champion came against, you guessed it, Miyahara.

So will a change of scenery help Jake Lee?

You can’t rule it out, but I am skeptical. All signs point to New Japan Pro Wrestling being his landing spot and even perhaps joining Suzuki-gun. It takes a special level of talent like that of Kota Ibushi or Shingo Takagi to be an outsider that comes into New Japan and makes it to the top of the card. Jake Lee is simply not that level of talent. Beyond getting a better paycheck, I see Lee getting a push out of the gate for two or three months and maybe even a big win before settling into a mid-card role, not unlike SANADA.

I cannot begrudge Lee for choosing to leave AJPW. This year, he got a raw deal when he quickly lost the Triple Crown to Suwama in a horrible match. The booking hasn’t always served him well but at the same time, he hasn’t held up his part of the bargain and failed to connect as a true superstar. That’s not to say he should’ve never won the Triple Crown. Given the state of the company, they had to try. Leaving now may be the only chance to salvage his career as a top guy, even if I’m doubtful about how well he’ll do in New Japan or wherever he ends up.

There is also a lot to say about where this leaves All Japan.

I saw some rather gloomy analysis that, I think, frankly shows a certain amount of ignorance about the promotion. This isn’t akin to the NOAH split of 2000 or even the Wrestle-1 split of 2013. Given where they currently are, this will not hurt AJPW, especially as long as they have Miyahara on top. The company is also not losing any other younger talent like Yuma Anzai and the Aoyagi Brothers. Losing any of those three would be a long-term blow.

But you could ask, “Gerard, even if this is far from a disaster, wouldn’t it still be better for All Japan if Jake Lee stayed?” Well, I’m not so sure of that.

Let me explain.

If Lee had stayed, that wouldn’t have forced All Japan to change things. Lee’s departure also clears a path for Yuma Aoyagi to become the next top guy. To me, by 2020, Aoyagi had shown he had a bigger upside than Lee. While he’s been spinning his wheels for the last few months, I don’t agree with some pessimistic assessments that they have botched Aoyagi. Sure they could’ve done more with him, but his lack of direction is also shaped by a roster that isn’t very deep and the fact that guys tend to get directionless in the last few months of the year because things begin to get built around the Real World Tag League. He is still extremely over on the shows they do run that feature cheering. But I’ll conclude on the topic of Aoyagi with this: if he doesn’t win the Triple Crown in 2023, you can’t blame him for leaving, either.

Since the Lee news, we’ve heard Miyahara say that Takuya Nomura would appear more in All Japan in 2023. Naoya Nomura is working the entire January tour, and while you shouldn’t get your hopes up too high, I don’t think it’s impossible he also rejoins the company full-time in January. All Japan will likely give some fresh talent a chance in 2023, and that’s a good thing.

Then there’s Yuji Nagata (and on a smaller number of shows, Minoru Suzuki), who will continue to work some shows for All Japan in 2023. The company isn’t really in the position to tell New Japan to fuck off if Lee winds up there. If anything, All Japan should use New Japan’s recruitment of Lee as an excuse to ask for the use of more New Japan talent on big shows as a goodwill gesture.

I’ll now address All Japan’s other two departures.

First, with Izanagi, there is not a lot to say. He is a great veteran hand and has been a lot of fun to watch. He’s been in an opening comedy match role for a while now, and he’d been more valuable to his next destination of Osaka Pro, helping Zeus to run the show.

As for TAJIRI, the situation is more complex. His departure seems part of some sort of backstage power struggle that Suwama appears to have won. After the Champion Carnival, an abrupt change of direction in the booking occurred and has brought us increased use and stories revolving around the Voodoo Murders. In hindsight, this may make TAJIRI’s booking look better, but he, too, was far from perfect. Total Eclipse seemed to be his idea but failed to live up to its potential despite its hot start. TAJIRI also oversaw bad booking in the Jr. division where the title became a hot potato. We also had to deal with brief but notable runs given to TAJIRI’s friends like Super Crazy. Clearly, TAJIRI-ism wasn’t the solution to the company’s problems.

The future of All Japan’s Dojo is the biggest issue arising out of TAJIRI’s departure. While he’s been in All Japan as the head trainer, the quality of those graduating from the Dojo has been quite good. TAJIRI is an underrated trainer. This may come back to haunt the company in the long term.

Where TAJIRI will end up is also an interesting question.

As I write this, he was just in Malaysia for APAC. While this could be a translation issue, he may relocate there to train wrestlers. If that happens, that is a huge boon to the scene to have someone with his track record of training talent. TAJIRI has also said that his January 3 match for Kyushu Pro is his last match in Japan for now. Of course, this could just be a cover. TAJIRI is a supporter of Lee, and maybe he winds up in New Japan, where I would assume he gets some sort of backstage role if he goes there.

It should be noted that on Twitter, TAJIRI has pushed back against ideas that he “controlled All Japan.” TAJIRI has announced that in his newly released book, he goes into the details surrounding his departure, however, the book is only available in Japanese for now.

All Japan, like so many times in its 50-year history, finds itself at a crossroads. But unlike during previous high-profile departures, there is a wealth of young talent with massive potential, and Miyahara continues to steer the ship and is unquestionably the company’s biggest star. But there is no question changes have to be made. Hopefully, the strong push of Atsuki Aoyagi as Jr. ace and Anzai’s shocking pinfall over Suwama in the Real World Tag League augur a bold and innovative 2023 for them. Jake Lee bidding All Japan farewell is far from a disaster.

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