Jonathan Foye has made another outstanding contribution to Japanese wrestling history books in English with “The Muto Years,” a complete history of Keiji Muto as the president of All Japan Pro Wrestling until he left and created Wrestle-1. The story goes from him leaving NJPW for AJPW, his struggle as president, and the changes he made. Plus, we see what AJPW was up to after the creation of Pro Wrestling NOAH. Foye is a good guide for this since he wrote “Ganbaru,” the story of the AJPW 2000 split (here is the VOW review).
The story has those ironies of real life that can’t be helped. Part of the reason for the 2000 AJPW split was because Motoko Baba, the widow of Giant Baba, refused to side with Mitsuharu Misawa on changes he wanted for the promotion. This was due to the thinking that what Misawa wanted went against the tenets of the promotion. Misawa wanted to modernize it. Baba did not acquiesce, and the roster split.
Muto saw this as an opportunity, which made him jump to AJPW as a wrestler and eventually bought it. He instituted changes that went against Baba’s vision of the promotion and what fans love about the company.
Muto created MMA with pro wrestling events called Wrestle-1, jumping on the MMA bandwagon of that period of Japanese pro wrestling. He instituted what could be called “sports entertainment” segments with the creation of the Voodoo Murders, a team of cheating heels, and this brought bullshit finishes and cheating on a promotion that did not have it. Muto started to bring some of the fired WWE wrestlers thanks to his friendship with Johnny Ace. He also brought down the “walled garden” vision of AJPW, which was to be insular, by collaborating with all promotions. Even Misawa came back for some events to his original stomping grounds. They even stopped doing events on Nippon Budokan and moved to Ryogoku due to the dwindling crowds and the lack of money.
While opening up AJPW was a great idea, a lot of these decisions weren’t viewed favorably by fans. The MMA and pro wrestling mix have never been a success in history, and one wonders why even Muto tried it. AJPW fans were used to no bullshit matches with definite endings, and those were over. And even worse, none of Muto’s decision were financially successful. It is not a coincidence that Muto said in an interview: “When it comes to management, I have wrecked two companies.”
These dark days had good things, like a historical Toshiaki Kawada run, Satoshi Kojima and Suwama’s rise, and Minoru Suzuki doing his thing.
There was a defection from NOAH to AJPW that revitalized the interest in the company, with the team of Burning, consisting of Jun Akiyama, Go Shiozaki, Yoshinabu Kanemaru, Atsushi Aoki, and Kotaro Suzuki. There were dream inter-promotional matches that critics and fans loved.
Even in this dark period of AJPW, there were bright lights. Luckily enough, this book points them out and even gives you a match list at the end and how to find them.
This is a history of AJPW, of Muto, and a basic story of how not to run a business. Many mistakes were made, and this book shows all of them. There was even a leadership incident when TARU beat up Nobukazu Hirai, and the latter ended up in a coma. Muto resigned over this incident.
The book is an easy, quick read.
The chapters are short; at the end of each chapter, there is a summary of what you just read. Something like this is perfect if you pick up the book the next day. Also, it is exceptionally sourced and has interviews with experts on the subject.
My only gripes with the book is that it sometimes was repetitive, had some spelling mistakes that confused things when it happened with names and got in one sentence a Champion Carnival winner wrong. The next sentence mentioned the correct winner, but this is confusing and could have been cleared up.
The mistakes of The Muto Years lay on mismanagement, not giving fans what they wanted, and just going on with fads. These are lessons that any pro wrestling promoter needs to know since you have to know what made you a success, not alter it, and you have to be able to make tough decisions. All pro wrestling companies are guilty of failing to do this at some point, so maybe this is just a normal part of the business. But it can’t be said that they weren’t warned or had examples of this in history.
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