It’s incredibly easy to see just why Japanese professional wrestling is beloved.
The notion of competitors beating the absolute piss out of each other, dealing inhumane amounts of damage but not selling the pain and exhaustion in order to show they’re made of tough materials makes for compelling storytelling. Every movement means something and paints a broader picture, be it one match or a rivalry spanning a decade. These are intense moments that stick with us.
And yet, it took me a while to get there – to take a seat among the crowd. It’s by no fault of any promotion or the style, rather my want to distance myself from that side of the industry stemmed from other fans.
Make no mistake, they’re not at fault either. It’s my own dumb self.
It was the mid-2010s, sometime when Kenny Omega was cleaning up the junior heavyweight division in NJPW while AJ Styles was chasing the IWGP Heavyweight Championship – though I wasn’t aware of any of that yet.
I was a lapsed wrestling fan being asked by a full-on fan who my current favorite wrestler was. I didn’t know much, but I replied simply with “Dean Ambrose”. I was being truthful, because he felt different from so many on the roster. He seemed like a mixture of a wet dog and a rockstar that was the closest thing to Stone Cold Steve Austin.
This fan’s response? “No, he’s not.”
He then proceeded to go into an increasingly impassioned tirade that I meant Jon Moxley, that the WWE was a “cancer”, that if I wanted to be a “true wrestling fan” I should watch Ring of Honor, New Japan Pro-Wrestling and NOAH. I didn’t know what the hell any of those things were, and being told I was required to watch these things in order to be a fan was a no for me, homie.
The thing about me is, when I’m told how to like and appreciate something I end up liking it less, if not outright disliking it altogether. I’m sure I’m not alone in this sentiment. This irate man who rambled until he was purple in the face made me feel secure in just sticking with WWE with a smattering of TNA/Impact, and that being it.
Further attempts to talk to fellow fans would leave me feeling the same. I was tired of hearing comparisons of Kazuchika Okada to Roman Reigns when they’re not the same and cater to different tastes. I didn’t care to hear how smarmy of a heel that Cody Rhodes was. Frankly, I was tired of people who sounded more compelling in talking about what they love focused on talking more about what they didn’t love. I get it, I would often think “WWE is bad, now shut up”. I’d just stick to not talking about it at all.
It was mid-2018, my older brother called me into his room to watch a match from the G1 Climax and he explained why Kenny Omega and Tomohiro Ishii were people to watch. I watched on in a borderline nostalgia wonder as Omega moved in ways unreal, like witnessing an amalgamation between Jeff Hardy and RVD with a bit of Owen Hart and Ricky Steamboat sprinkled in. Ishii was a brick shithouse, who, under the adversity of the dirty tactics of Omega, became someone to root for. This match hit hard and it still sticks in my mind.
This match, alongside Asuka vs Charlotte Flair at WrestleMania 34, would reel me in to the fold. Eventually I saw AJ Styles vs Shinsuke Nakamura (which I forgot about watching as time went on), and I was ready to make a further dive with time.
I’d watch NJPW’s Monday free matches on YouTube and listen second-hand about transpiring events. I’d later hear about joshi promotions, classic promotions, and other on-going promotions such as DDT and NOAH. While it would take time to journey there, I was fascinated.
The stories being told in the ring were captivating in a way that felt like art. I still loved WWE and later AEW, and still do, but there’s a love in Japanese wrestling that cannot be replicated to an American crowd. Same with lucha libre and British catch-style, everywhere is different and anyone can find anything that suits them. Not one single sect of professional wrestling is the factual best, no matter what any Sir William of Silliness tells you. What you like is the best, because our tastes are subjective. What I think may be shitty-titty might be a glorious spectacle to you and vice versa.
Perhaps what helped my burgeoning curiosity were the recommended videos on YouTube, from people sharing what they loved about this medium – particularly Super Eyepatch Wolf’s videos. He talks about the WWE and AEW stuff we know, but he would dive deeper into the stuff I didn’t know: the Golden Lovers, Tetsuya Naito, Oedo Tai. To know that wrestling could be something exciting was amazing.
There’s a debate as to what wrestling is and should be. Maybe it’s art. Maybe it’s theater. Maybe it’s a sport. Maybe it’s wrestling. Maybe it’s Maybelline. One thing is for certain though, and it’s that wrestling connects to us all in various ways. It’s for the statistics nerds, the drama nerds, the sports nerds, the literary nerds. It’s for anyone, and you are free to ignore any dumb contradicting opinion and move on.
Thus, I would venture forth and continue on my thirst and hunger for knowledge and experience. I’d make friends who were happy to share what they knew and loved without disparaging my tastes. Once I got into the writing field, that would continue to grow. In fact, if you’ve read my Noob Japan articles, you’ve seen me go through this style of wrestling in front of your eyes as I discovered what was great about it. Some I loved, like Terry Funk vs Atsushi Onita and Giulia vs Tam Nakano, and some I wasn’t as hot on, such as 6/3/94 (Mitsuharu Misawa and Kenta Kobashi vs Holy Demon Army was better, fight me) and Maki Itoh vs Miyu Yamashita (though they were very good matches, don’t get me wrong). Even in a subsection of the wrestling fanbase there would be something for everyone, if everything wasn’t for someone.
As time progressed, I was given access in multiple ways to view what puro had to offer. Since then, I’m able to stay up to date with NJPW and Stardom in particular.
In viewing what puroresu had to offer, I grew accustomed to it. The way the story would flow from beginning to end, as it builds and builds like a slow horror or romance story. It’s like watching your meal being cooked – raw meat becomes a delectable dinner.
If given the proper attention, one could get lost in the stories. As I watch Giulia rise up the ranks to be the ace of Stardom while Natsupoi finds her agency, I grow attached. While watching Jay White become a Shakespearean tragedy again and again, I grow attached. While seeing Kaito Kiyomiya struggle to prove he’s a star, I grow attached. Just as I have with Hangman Adam Page or Sami Zayn.
And the thing is, whether it’s live or in the past, these stories are universal – wrestling is universal. Whether you’re watching 90s AJW or you’re watching the newest TJPW show, you’re listening to a language beyond words in stories told in violence. Believable violence. Beautiful violence.
In growing with these wrestlers internationally, I grew myself. I didn’t need to isolate myself in one corner, nor did I have to sacrifice one thing I like to enjoy another. That’s why, when a wrestler leaves for one place to another, I don’t sweat it. A wrestler is choosing their own happiness whether fans like it or not, and they either receive freedom and/or more money while telling new stories with different people. That’s the cycle, and it’s going to spin like a coked-out hamster sprinting over Interstate-80’s speed limit in its little hamster wheel. Might as well buckle in for the hellacious ride.
I love wrestling. That’s why I stayed up for the first night of Wrestle Kingdom 17 and Battle in the Valley in 2023. These are the stories you can get with people who kind of get you. Being able to witness the instant classic and legend that was Will Ospreay versus Kenny Omega for the IWGP U.S. Championship live as it happened with the rest of the world is an experience I’ll not soon forget.
These are the moments, these are the sections, these are the things that make us fans.