Skip to main content

‘Forbidden Door’ Overcomes Hurdles to Prove AEW and NJPW’s Partnership Has Legs

The show seemed to be cursed for weeks but when the bell rang on Sunday night, the result was an event that will be remembered fondly as, perhaps, the start of something great.

Over the last month, AEW CEO Tony Khan reminisced at times of being an 8-year-old boy, seeing one of his first live wrestling shows.

The show was WCW SuperBrawl on May 19, 1991, at the Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg, Fla. In the main event, Ric Flair, the WCW champion, faced Tatsumi Fujinami, at the time both the IWGP and NWA champion. That led him down the rabbit hole, or in those days, to a variety of video stores, to watch all kinds of big WCW shows. It was also the key to his discovering the world of Japanese wrestling.

“I saw SuperBrawl ’91 that summer live when I was eight and loved it,” Khan said. “And then at various Central Illinois video stores, tracked down tapes and rented the Tokyo Dome show [from March 21, 1991,] which led up to it, along with a lot of other shows like Bash [at the Beach] ’89, Starrcade ’86–90 and [Halloween] Havoc ’89–90.”

Last month in Las Vegas, after Double or Nothing, when Khan started talking Forbidden Door, he immediately went back in time, talking about the different matches at that Tokyo Dome show, which was a joint show with World Championship Wrestling and New Japan Pro-Wrestling. He talked about the first Flair vs. Fujinami battle of champions and the 1991 consensus match of the year with the Steiner Brothers vs. Hiroshi Hase and Kensuke Sasaki.

An amazing part of the story is that both Jim Ross and Tony Schiavone, who worked for WCW at the time, were at the Tokyo Dome that night to view the show for a taped rebroadcast on American pay-per-view. 31 years later, they announced on Sunday’s show. Sting wrestled The Great Muta on the show in 1991 and, at 63, teamed with Darby Allin and New Japan’s Shingo Takagi in a match Sunday.

Ross followed international wrestling enough to know about the huge crowds New Japan drew at the previous two Tokyo Dome shows. Schiavone was more amazed, noting how different it was because the WCW stars like Flair, The Steiners and Sting were so well known and key to selling out the building that night with more than 50,000 fans. But, he noted the other way, bringing the top New Japan stars to the U.S. wasn’t about to sell out a stadium since, aside from Muta, the Japanese wrestlers at the time were unknown in the U.S.

It’s very different now. It was actually the success of a New Japan match—Chris Jericho vs. Kenny Omega—that was a key to Khan starting AEW in 2019, built around those two, The Young Bucks, Adam Page and Cody Rhodes as his original stars.

While it wasn't easy—as New Japan management at first was not receptive to AEW—in time Khan forged a relationship.

On Sunday night, the Forbidden Door pay-per-view, a modern-day equivalent of that Tokyo Dome show Khan got from the video store, took place. Khan, along with New Japan bookers Gedo and Rocky Romero put things together, and then as they fell apart, redid plans over-and-over.

Years down the line, people will look back at Forbidden Door, and see the incredible matches and the hot crowd. They will likely forget that the concept was heavily criticized and the final product was very different from the original idea.

Over the last month, Khan laid out the show and centered AEW’s television product around building toward it. And then every few days, one bad thing after another took place. The card changed. The television ideas constantly changed. Over the last few days, it was openly talked about like the show was cursed.

In Khan’s planned main event, C.M. Punk—his biggest star and champion, in his first title defense in his home city—was to face Hiroshi Tanahashi, a wrestler who grew up emulating and became the modern version of Fujinami. Tanahashi also is the person who came up with the term “Forbidden Door,” as the name of a match he had with Chris Jericho at the Tokyo Dome in early 2020.

And even bigger for insider fans, would be the battle of the consensus two greatest technical wrestlers of this generation. Zack Sabre Jr., a British wrestler who became a superstar in Japan, and Bryan Danielson, who became a superstar in WWE as Daniel Bryan, stand out well ahead of the pack and have for an entire generation.

Over the last 17 years, only two men have won the Wrestling Observer’s Best Technical Wrestler Award, Danielson between 2005 and ’13, and again in ’21, and Sabre from ’14 to ’20. When Danielson thought his wrestling career was over, he’d watch Sabre Jr., study him closely and marvel at his creativity, and talk about how he wished someday he could wrestle him. And just as that day was about to come, Danielson got hurt and it didn’t happen. (The positive is that it’s a virtual certainty that at some point the match will happen.)

Punk and Danielson were injured and off the show. Kota Ibushi, the most athletically gifted in-ring performer on the New Japan roster, still hasn’t recovered from an October shoulder injury. In the days leading to the show, Tomohiro Ishii pulled out due to a knee injury suffered early last week. And then Hiromu Takahashi, New Japan's most charismatic junior heavyweight, was not allowed to fly into the U.S. because he had a fever, so a dream confrontation with The Young Bucks also has to be saved for another day. But that was five of the best wrestlers in the world all off the card.

The idea of the show was big. Until it wasn't. And then it was again.

Tickets for the United Center sold out instantly, with 16,000 fans and a gate of more than $1.1 million. In U.S. history, outside of WWE, only two prior shows had ever hit the $1 million mark, one of which was a joint New Japan and Ring of Honor show in 2019 at Madison Square Garden and the other was the most recent Double or Nothing promoted by AEW in Las Vegas. The gate will only be a few thousand shy of the non-WWE U.S. record set at Double or Nothing.

But then they opened up new sections to cram as many as 17,500 in, and those seats didn’t sell. It went from being the hottest wrestling this side of WrestleMania, to seemingly the coldest. People simply stopped buying tickets after the immediate sellout, when new seats were put on sale. It was a ticket selling pattern seemingly unheard of. Then the secondary market died. On the day of the show, you could have gotten a ticket for as low as $4. While AEW’s Dynamite essentially tied for first place in Wednesday cable ratings once NBA and NHL playoff games weren’t going head-to-head with it, the build to the show on television was difficult. And the final two weeks of Dynamite were two of the three lowest ratings of the year.

For a company having incredible momentum just a few weeks ago, it seemed all momentum was going in the wrong direction.

And then the show started. The curse on the pay-per-view ended minutes into the first match, when Chris Jericho, Minoru Suzuki and Sammy Guevara tore the house down in a trios match with Wheeler Yuta, Shota Umino and Eddie Kingston.

Umino, who had never wrestled before the AEW audience, got an amazing reaction from the audience before losing the fall. Suzuki, a 54-year-old who was a pioneer in MMA in the early ’90s, was treated by the crowd as a larger-than-life character. There have been few pay-per-view openers in history as good. It seemed impossible for anyone to follow the excitement level that match delivered. Yet one match after another on the show was at the same level.

Sure, you had some of the best wrestlers in the world on the show in matches that looked strong on paper. But they almost all over-delivered, with a key component being the United Center crowd and its reactions to the New Japan stars and almost every match.

The live audience loved the New Japan stars, in some cases as much or more than the AEW stars. The idea that only a tiny percentage of AEW fans know who they are certainly didn't apply to the fans in the United Center, who reacted big to the first note of every star’s theme music. Fans actually briefly booed Jon Moxley, arguably the most popular AEW wrestler on the show, when he threw continual elbows to Tanahashi, an incredibly charismatic New Japan legend. Every Japanese wrestler of any name value, starting with Hirooki Goto in the opener, got big reactions. When New Japan’s biggest star, Kazuchika Okada, and its top heel, Jay White, were in the ring with AEW stars Adam Cole and Adam Page, before they even touched the place went so ballistic that even the wrestlers themselves looked stunned.

And they were stunned and knew the significance when the first notes of Katsuyori Shibata's theme played. The former star, whose career seemingly ended after brain surgery five years ago, walked down the aisle and faced off with New Japan heel Will Ospreay, and got into a physical confrontation with him in the surprise moment of the show.

Perhaps the biggest reaction came when Claudio Castagnoli, formerly Cesaro in WWE, was the secret replacement for Danielson in a match with Sabre Jr. Castagnoli was also involved in the show closing angle to build a “Blood and Guts” six-on-six match on Wednesday’s Dynamite in Detroit.

Results weren’t surprising. Moxley beat Tanahashi to become the AEW interim champion, meaning he will be facing Punk when Punk returns. White kept New Japan’s IWGP title in the four-way. (Cole appeared to suffer an injury in that match and they moved right to the finish.) Ospreay kept the U.S. title over Orange Cassidy, while FTR added the IWGP tag team titles to their collection with the ROH and AAA belts. They seem headed for a showdown with AEW champs The Young Bucks which would be the first modern match where championships from the biggest company in Mexico, the biggest in Japan, and second biggest in the U.S. could all be at stake. The “could” is because, while AEW gets along with AAA and New Japan, New Japan does not recognize AAA, and thus AEW’s AAA-affiliated contingent were not allowed on the show, nor could FTR bring their AAA belts out for the tag title match.

Because of the uniqueness of the show and build up, there were a lot of lessons waiting to be learned.

What we now know is that a joint show like this sold a lot of tickets the first day, but only those people who badly wanted to attend and bought early seemed interested. Perhaps the loss of Punk played a big part in that. Television didn’t create new live ticket buyers. But still, there were more than 16,000 fans at the show, the largest for AEW this year and fourth largest for any pro wrestling event in North America.

We learned that the live crowds, both on Sunday, and at the AEW television tapings, know the Japanese stars, and the first note of their entrance music. We already knew that if you put the stars of both companies together the actual matches themselves and the overall show would be nearly impossible to match. But we also know that building up such a show and putting the best New Japan talent on television is not going to boost television ratings. And in the days to come, we'll find out how successful the concept is on pay-per-view.

Khan in the days before the show talked about the idea and said he didn’t envision this as a one-time thing, and that future Forbidden Door shows were in his plans.

If so, there’s almost no way it could ever be as difficult as this one seemed to be to hold together.

More From Wrestling Observer: