New Japan Pro Wrestling Plows Ahead With Future Plans Amid Coronavirus Uncertainty

NJPW president Harold Meij spoke with Sports Illustrated about how the company is managing the coronavirus crisis, its new television deal and whether it would partner with AEW.
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New Japan Pro Wrestling President Harold Meij extended a message to all wrestling fans dealing with fear and uncertainty as a result of the coronavirus.

“The coronavirus has impacted the entire world,” said Meij. “However, throughout our 50-year history we have experienced and overcome numerous crises, not only emerging stronger as an organization, but also as a good social beacon bringing hope and excitement worldwide. NJPW sincerely believes professional wrestling will once again unite us all very soon, sharing our passion for wrestling together.”

Meij connected with Sports Illustrated to address the state of New Japan Pro Wrestling, including a potential return to action, the upcoming Wrestle Dynasty show at Madison Square Garden, and the potential of a working agreement with All Elite Wrestling.

New Japan held its last show on Feb. 26, before ceasing live operations in accordance with a recommendation from the Japanese Ministry of Health.

“At this moment in time, our events, up to and including March 21, have been cancelled,” stated Meij. “Everyone involved in this situation wants to get back to business as usual immediately afterward, and we are working toward that. The situation is fluid, however, and we have to act responsibly.

“The Coronavirus has dramatically affected how sports and events-based businesses worldwide are able to operate. Being the biggest professional wrestling organization in Japan put a spotlight upon us and gave us a significant social responsibility. It has been our duty to not just act in the best interests of our fans, wrestlers and staff, but of society at large.”

Meij and his staff have remained creative during this unexpected in-ring stoppage, which is how the “Together Project” on New Japan’s streaming service came together.

“We’ve thought about what we could do to boost morale of all our fans, and hence the ‘Together Project’ was launched,” said Meij. “This project seeks to use our streaming service, NJPW World, to stream original content on a regular basis. This includes creating and streaming programs such as live talk shows by the wrestlers, never-before-seen matches, interviews, and the addition of wrestler commentary and point of view to their own matches, all with the goal to give fans unique content in these trying times. We were encouraged to see our first live talk session reaching the sixth highest trend on Twitter, and this content has also been made available in English, giving our international fanbase the chance to see another side of our Japanese talent.”

The date for a return to live shows is unknown. The possibility still exists that New Japan will hold its heralded New Japan Cup tournament later in the year, but those decisions will also depend largely on when the active product resumes.

Plans are still in place for New Japan to hold its first-ever Wrestle Dynasty show in New York at Madison Square Garden on Aug. 22.

“We are still absolutely planning to hold our first-ever Wrestle Dynasty event at Madison Square Garden in August to showcase the very best wrestling NJPW can offer to our fans in the USA,” said Meij. “The slogan of the event, ‘We built a Kingdom. Join our Dynasty,’ celebrates the community spirit that has built NJPW into what it is, and that is a fervor and passion that we feel will make Wrestle Dynasty a tremendous success after we overcome the current crisis.

“MSG is the ‘Holy Grail’ of wrestling venues, and our first event there in April 2019 was a big success. Our biggest event of the year, which brings the best we have to offer and culminates that year, is our annual January 4 Wrestle Kingdom event in Japan. We wanted to create and deliver a similar experience for our US fans, and therefore have established the Wrestle Dynasty brand whereby we promise to give our US fans the very best we have to offer as a similar one-time annual big event each year.”

Pre-sale registration is already open for the event, and tickets go on sale starting April 10. New Japan sold out 2019’s G1 Supercard at MSG, which was co-run with Ring of Honor, in under 20 minutes. This will be a standalone New Japan show and it will be competing directly with WWE during SummerSlam weekend, going head-to-head against NXT TakeOver: Boston that same night only 200 miles away.

“We believe competition is a healthy thing that will keep us on our feet, and that we cannot be complacent,” said Meij. “Two big competitive events held in a relatively close proximity is the ultimate test of our brand’s strength, and means that we as a company must deliver the highest quality experience possible. We are confident that, like our past events, the fans that choose to come to our event will be left with an experience that lasts a lifetime.”

WWE made headlines recently in Japan, announcing that NJPW legend Jushin Thunder Liger will be part of the WWE Hall of Fame Class of 2020. Rumors also resurfaced that WWE is planning establishing a presence in Japan, possibly by partnering with All Japan Pro Wrestling. Meij explained that New Japan does not issue comments on rumors.

Inevitably, the topic of AEW seemingly inserts itself into every conversation about the future of NJPW. AEW performers, such as Chris Jericho and Jon Moxley, who is New Japan’s IWGP United States champ, also work major shows for NJPW in Japan. Meij was willing to discuss the potential of a working agreement with AEW.

“Throughout our 50-year history we have had numerous relationships with other wrestling promotions,” said Meij. “Japanese mentality is one of loyalty. We work under a long-term principle that, ‘Once in, you’re in for a lifetime.’ AEW has made tremendous inroads and is establishing their unique brand of wrestling with their vision of what wrestling should be. We continue to watch with interest how AEW continues to evolve their brand.”

Although AEW is not one of NJPW’s current partners, Meij is very pleased with the current relationships New Japan has with companies around the globe.

“NJPW continues to have a strong relationship with Ring of Honor, and we foresee the relationship, including talent exchanges, to continue as have our relationships with CMLL in Mexico and RevPro in the U.K.,” said Meij. “All our partnerships help expand NJPW’s global footprint and help bring the best possible experience to our fans worldwide.”

One area where AEW could serve as a tremendous partner to New Japan is with its television exposure. AEW runs live every Wednesday on TNT, while New Japan recently stopped airing on AXS TV after Anthem, which is Impact Wrestling’s parent company, took control of the station. Meij was asked why it was the right time to leave AXS TV, and if there are there plans to air the product on a new television outlet in the United States.

“We realize how important television is as a platform to reach out to new audiences,” said Meij. “We are grateful to AXS for giving us a home for so many years in the US, and we are working on finding new broadcast partners as we continue to elevate our brand across America. Until then, live English coverage as well as all past matches can be enjoyed on our streaming platform, NJPW World.”

A return to primetime television on its home soil is a major deal for New Japan, and that is scheduled to happen this spring. The World Pro Wrestling show is scheduled to return to TV Asahi on Friday nights beginning in April, which is of major significance for New Japan.

“Friday night at 8 p.m. is still called the ‘Golden Time Slot’ in Japan, and it was our broadcast ‘home’ during the boom period from our inception in 1972 to 1987, which really defined who we are today,” said Meij. “Being able to return to the 8 p.m. Friday night time slot is extremely significant as it shows the growth and popularity of wrestling in Japan.

“It is also the first time in 33 years that wrestling has a consistent prime-time platform, which will give the opportunity for a whole new generation of viewers to fall in love with NJPW. In the past, figures such as Tiger Mask, Hulk Hogan, Antonio Inoki, and Andre the Giant all became embedded in the Japanese cultural fabric from the Friday 8 p.m. time slot and went mainstream. We expect the same to happen with [Tetsuya] Naito, [Kazuchika] Okada, [Kota] Ibushi and other NJPW stars.”

Originally from the Netherlands, Meij built a successful portfolio in Japan at Heineken, Unilever and Coca-Cola before stepping aboard as president of New Japan Pro Wrestling. He is the first-ever non-Japanese president for New Japan, but his presence feels much more like a native because of his immense respect, pride, and knowledge of Japan. Moving forward, his plan is to help New Japan grow internally and abroad.

“I have never been a CEO who is comfortable doing things the way they’ve always been done in the past,” said Meij. “Without risk, there can be no growth. I have learned to anticipate changes in the market and how NJPW can help shape changes in Japanese sports and content culture for the future.

“Our staff, talent, and fans worldwide are dedicated and passionate in their love and support for our product. Dialogue with them has taught me that big changes can, with the proper time, care and explanations, be implemented in an industry with deep-rooted emotions and traditions to realize our goals of bringing NJPW to the next stage.”

Another part of New Japan’s future that will be closely watched is the possible creation of a women’s division. New Japan’s parent company Bushiroad purchased women’s promotion Stardom in October, and Stardom talent wrestled in a dark match at January’s Wrestle Kingdom. Meij was asked if there is potential for NJPW to have its own women's wrestling division.

“Stardom has grown to be the world’s premiere women’s wrestling promotion with diverse characters and dedicated talent that deserve a global spotlight,” said Meij. “Under Bushiroad’s guidance we look forward to seeing Stardom continue to grow on their own merits and in their own right.”

In addition to growing at home, the priority for New Japan is to expand its product around the world. New Japan recently announced it has established a New Zealand Dojo, which joins other locations in Tokyo and Los Angeles.

“Our ‘Dojo System,’ roughly meaning a Japanese martial art training school, is an integral part of what makes NJPW unique,” said Meij. “Our Young Lions, as the trainees are called, are taught and trained both physically and mentally as wrestlers. They also live at the Dojo for a two-to-three-year period, creating a unique bond and chemistry with their fellow athletes and the audience who see their gradual progression.

“In 2018 we created the Los Angeles Dojo with the same rigors as our Japanese Dojo. Our first class of LA Dojo trainees is performing exceptionally well worldwide. We now feel we are ready to expand further to the Oceania region which has created stars such as Jay White, Robbie Eagles and Henare. The New Zealand Dojo, run by ‘Bad Luck’ Fale, a former Young Lion himself, will help us bring new talent to our ring.”

During a time of uncertainty with fear of the coronavirus growing, Meij extended his gratitude for New Japan’s devoted fan base.

“Our worldwide fan base is the one key ingredient that keeps the NJPW engine going full speed,” said Meij. “They inspire us, give us strength, but also keep us on our toes with views and reactions to our matches and events. We are continually learning, listening and growing stronger as we strive to be able to deliver a unique wrestling experience rivaled by none other.”

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.