New Japan Pro Wrestling is back in primetime.
Today marked the first time in over three decades that New Japan will consistently air live on primetime television in Japan.
“For many years in our past, NJPW being on TV Friday nights at 8 p.m. was a staple in Japan and enabled our wrestling to be introduced to all ages,” said New Japan President Harold Meij, whose show aired on BS Asahi. “It’s that Friday ‘Golden Time’ slot that made not just top wrestling stars, but Japanese cultural icons out of Antonio Inoki, Tiger Mask, Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan, and more. We know our top stars will take advantage of that platform, and we expect names like Kazuchika Okada, Hiromu Takahashi, or Kota Ibushi will gain every bit of the cultural foothold that their forebears did three decades ago.”
The New Japan World streaming service aired today’s New Japan Cup semifinals for free, running marquee matchups that pitted Kazuchika Okada against Hiromu Takahashi as well as Evil battling longtime tag team partner Sanada.
“We feel our global fanbase should also take in the big match feel with no barriers to entry for one night,” said Meij. “We hope everyone around the world shares in this landmark event, and uses ‘#njcup’ to get the world talking, even if you had to get up a little early, or stay up late, to do so.”
After not running shows in March, April, or May, New Japan returned to live action on June 15. Though it is unique to see any promotion presenting wrestling in an empty arena, the New Japan Cup shows have restored a missing piece of in-ring reality to wrestling.
“There is something inherently different about how wrestling is presented without a crowd present, and the most encouraging feedback from our fans has been how we have prevented the ‘sterile’ or ‘empty’ feel a lot of empty arena presentations have had,” said Meij. “That’s a credit to our production, with energetic announcing, and the ability empty buildings afford us to really hear every hit dealt in the ring. It’s also a huge testament to the quality of our wrestling and wrestlers, and everybody on the roster is more motivated than perhaps at any other point in their careers.”
Due to restrictions surrounding COVID-19 and the difficulty of international travel, New Japan postponed its Wrestle Dynasty show originally scheduled for this August at New York’s Madison Square Garden, moving it to the summer of 2021. Meij also addressed whether there are still plans in 2020 for the G1 Climax and the Best of the Super Juniors tournament.
“As a result of the now-postponed Tokyo Olympics, we had already decided to move our annual G1 Climax tournament, which traditionally takes place during the summer months, to the autumn,” said Meij. “It is still on the calendar, although again, venues and crowd capacity will be dependent on both our own and the local governments’ guidelines. As for our previously scheduled tours like Best of the Super Juniors, both fans and wrestlers alike were disappointed at their cancellation. All of those voices will be taken into account in the second half of the year as we look to present something to fans that matches, or even surpasses, our initial plans.”
New Japan halted live shows at the end of February, returning to action following Japanese government’s decision to lift its nationwide state of emergency in May. The company is fighting to emerge as the safest and most compelling wrestling product in the world, enforcing a strict coronavirus prevention protocol.
“This includes, amongst others, the regular COVID testing of all our talent and staff, disinfection protocols for all arena areas, and importantly the ability to trace customers in case of an outbreak,” said Meij. “We have decided to implement not only all government, local government, and venue specific prevention measures, but have also established our own procedures, including requiring all talent and staff to undergo regular COVID testing and customer traceability procedures.
“However, even with these precautions, we decided to restart our live action events slowly. At first live actions were held with no audiences, and we will start to welcome fans with one-third or less of venue capacity.”
The current plan is for fans to return to shows in a limited capacity, beginning with next weekend’s New Japan Cup finale at Osaka-Jo Hall on July 11 and the Dominion show on July 12, which features the New Japan Cup winner challenge IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Champion Tetsuya Naito.
“The July 11 and 12 events will have about a third of the maximum building capacity, but this will still stand as one of, if not the, largest indoor crowds since the pandemic began,” said Meij. “We understand the immense responsibility this gives us, and we are doing all we can to protect, track, and trace everybody in the building.”
Creativity has emerged out of the pandemic, as New Japan is set to premiere Lion’s Break Collision, which will air every Friday at 10pm ET throughout July on New Japan World. The matches take place at the NJPW Dojo in Los Angeles, and feature talent that include New Japan mainstay Rocky Romero and emerging star Jeff Cobb.
“Lion’s Break Collision is a very new and exciting prospect for us,” said Meij. “The Lion’s Break concept is centered around presenting new talent from our American subsidiary, and establishing them against familiar big names. So you’ll see a lot of new faces, and also a new presentation. There’s a condensed, episodic, and high-paced feel to the program, but one that still offers the sports-centric presentation and focus on in-ring action.”
Former UFC fighter and current Major League Wrestling star “Filthy” Tom Lawlor makes his New Japan debut at Lion’s Break Collision, and Meij touched on the excitement surrounding Lawlor’s arrival and whether there is potential for a partnership with MLW.
“You can expect some very impressive things from Tom Lawlor,” said Meij. “Ever since he was a competitor in the UFC, Lawlor has wanted to step into a New Japan ring, and you’ll see him make the most of that opportunity. Whether further opportunities come for him or other members of the MLW roster, time will tell.”
Much anticipation exists for New Japan in the coming months, as Naito looks to piece together a memorable run as both the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Champion. There will be a New Japan Cup winner crowned next weekend, a G1 Climax to look forward to this fall, and more stars set to return once international travel restrictions are eased. Despite the seemingly endless hurdles presented by Covid-19, Meij believes New Japan’s talent has the potential to elevate the company’s status globally amidst the pandemic.
“The Japanese use an English word, ‘pinch,’ to describe a difficult or tight situation,” said Meij. “That comes with an Anglo-Japanese saying, ‘A pinch is a chance.’ In other words, big opportunities are born from difficult challenges. During our time away from the ring, our staff and wrestlers have shown their passion, dedication, and creativity as they continued to keep people aware of NJPW and continue to prepare for our return.
“Now that we are back in the ring, it’s time for everyone to unleash that pent-up energy. I’m looking forward to our global fanbase once again experiencing the same unbeatable action of NJPW in new and innovative formats that continue to prove to the world why we are the ‘King of Sports.’”