Throughout 2017, New Japan Pro Wrestling have been steadily expanding into the American market. Since last Wrestle Kingdom, we’ve seen:
- The G1 Special in Long Beach, CA, NJPW’s first independently produced USA show;
- The creation of the IWGP United States Championship;
- The crowning of Kenny Omega, widely renowned for his skill and appealing to fans who can’t connect with a lack of English promos, as the first champion;
- Bullet Club and The Elite merchandise sold alongside WWE merch at Hot Topic and reportedly selling extremely well;
- An expansion of “Being the Elite,” which is an independent venture of Omega/Cody/the Bucks/Hangman but still certainly in this trans-Pacific bubble;
- And, most shockingly, the reveal that Kenny Omega’s opponent at Wrestle Kingdom 12 would be Chris Jericho.
For a company who rarely ventured outside of Japan without using Ring of Honor as their entry point, these are all individually big deals and collectively a huge one, which makes an above-average number of eyes on Wrestle Kingdom 12 – if not live, then definitely two days later on AXS TV.
New Japan showing their biggest event of the year for free on a pretty widely-broadcasted channel, even on tape delay, is massive as a bid for new viewers, and I hope it’ll be a successful one. Folks may have been into NJPW but not willing to commit to their streaming platform; folks may have just lived in a pure WWE bubble their whole lives, however unlikely the internet makes that; folks might simply be channel-hopping and land on AXS. But this gambit has potential to be hugely successful.
This is a card full of wrestlers who an American audience, from casual to hardcore-but-not-NJPW-level-hardcore, can either recognize or quickly become invested in:
The Cody formerly known as Rhodes is a familiar face for WWE-only viewers (or Arrow fans), and pairing him with Kota Ibushi – who non-NJPW watchers may recognize from Ring of Honor and the Cruiserweight Classic – is sure to produce an entertaining and high-quality match to show off both of them.
Chris Jericho is a name that sells itself in wrestling.
Kenny Omega is coming off a year of tremendous buzz from his 6-star trilogy with Okada, as well as being a major focus of the G1 Special in Long Beach. Okada himself has been gathering more and more acclaim as a GOAT contender at barely thirty years old and, while he may not be recognizable to American non-viewers, his presence speaks for itself.
Naito is a character who will instantly appeal to American audiences; he is both an underdog trying to reclaim the main event he lost because of the fans four years ago and an unrepentant a-hole who destroys his belts, doesn’t care about anyone in the audience who isn’t cheering for him, and represents a kind of rebellion that, while designed for Japanese society, slots nicely into America’s as well. He’s a man at the end of a nearly half-decade long arc, and while that may be lost on new eyes, Naito has consistently proven himself hard to look away from.
With Minoru Suzuki, Will Ospreay, pretty much the entire Bullet Club, and former company ace Hiroshi Tanahashi also on the card, there’s no shortage of talent to become a new fan of.
Over 2017, NJPW has been bravely venturing into a new market, strategically placing focus on their most “America-marketable” stars. And now, in what will be the first great wrestling show of 2018, Wrestle Kingdom 12 is poised to complete phase one of what could become a full-on invasion.
A little competition never hurt anybody.
Written by Bobby Murphy (@RobertJMurph)
Image courtesy njpwglobal Twitter