Wrestling fans enjoying some combat theater during New Japan Pro Wrestling's G1 Special at the Long Beach Convention Center on Sunday. Photos by Steven Crighton.
The Japanese professional company’s offering can best be described as combat theater, as athletes elbow drop, headlock and dropkick their way through matches with predetermined outcomes. It’s similar to the more mainstream WWE, though with more emphasis on in-ring performance and a harder-hitting presentation referred to internally as “Strong Style.”
While based in Japan, New Japan boasts a global roster, with stars like “The American Nightmare” Cody Rhodes, the British submission specialist Zack Sabre Jr., and Japan’s own Kazuchika Okada, the company’s heavyweight champion.
NJPW's heavyweight champion Kazuchika Okada (and one of their biggest stars) looks out to fans Sunday night at the Long Beach Convention Center. He was on the winning side of an eight-man tag team match.
Sports journalist Dave Meltzer said Sunday that the event, held at the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center, was the promotion’s first step towards a more long-term circuit in the United States that would launch in 2018.
In the spirit of a more long-term stay in the States, fans saw the crowning of the promotion’s inaugural IWGP United States Champion, “The Cleaner,” Kenny Omega.
“You made this show,” Omega announced to fans through labored breaths after coming out on top in a nearly 35-minute long battle with “The Stone Pitbull” Tomohiro Ishii, the event’s final match. “Next year, New Japan’s coming back, and it’s going to be bigger and better than ever. And as long as we’re piloting the ship, we will rule the wrestling world.”
Hiroshi Tanahashi, NJPW's intercontinental champion. He defeated former WWE star Billy Gunn to retain his title.
The Canadian-born Omega, who has allegedly passed on contract offers from the WWE that could have earned him millions a year, will likely be a main attraction as the company hopes to gain a more mainstream U.S. presence.
The event drew about 2,350 fans each night, ticket sales show, though tens of thousands more were able to watch the event through New Japan’s personal streaming service. Meltzer said that across two separate offerings, tickets for the event sold out within 14 minutes.
From left to right: Dragon Lee, Volador Jr., Juice Robinson, and Jay White preparing for a 10-man tag battle, which they won. Fans were particularly enthusiastic about Juice—or, at least, enthusiastic about chanting his name.
While the organization briefly paired with World Championship Wrestling in the 1990s to put on a show at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, Meltzer said it was the first distinctive U.S. event in the organization’s history. Despite the newfound beachhead, Meltzer said it’s unlikely the presence of New Japan will be a major thorn in the side of the larger WWE.
“I wouldn’t say it should be a cause of concern for WWE, because WWE is so established and there is too much of a gap in interest in knowledge,” Meltzer said.
Meltzer, who’s well respected in the professional wrestling world for his knowledge and coverage of the sport, was minorly featured in the event himself. The tag team The Young Bucks hit a special variant of their finishing maneuver, “The Meltzer Driver,” in honor of Meltzer’s father Herbert, who passed away Sunday. The high-flying outside-the-ring move was met with raucous approval by fans in attendance.
New Japan owner Takaaki Kidani said in a statement that he considered the event a “huge success,” and would like to launch a dojo for the promotion as early as next year. Meltzer said that even if the promotion doesn’t immediately return to Long Beach, fans in Southern California shouldn’t have to wait too long for a repeat performance.