New Japan for the New Fan: Part 2
New Japan loves its tournaments, and New Japan loves its factions; two things that have arguably fallen by the wayside in WWE in recent years, at least on the main roster, anyway. Gone are the days of King of the Ring tournaments being the coming out party for the next big superstar, and gone are the days of dominant factions ruling the roost; if you remember Evolution and The Authority, maybe you’ll think that’s a good thing. But in NJPW, tournaments and the faction system are the anchors of the product. Last time, I took you through what to expect from a typical New Japan show in terms of stylistic differences. In this instalment, we’re going through the real Quorn and potatoes of it all; I’ll outline the different tournaments and their significance, and talk you through the current factions in NJPW and their whole vibe.
With a lineage dating back to 1974, the G1 Climax is NJPW’s signature tournament. Every July, two blocks of ten wrestlers each compete in a round-robin tournament compete over the space of a month or so to determine the challenger for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at Wrestle Kingdom; their most prestigious belt and their most prestigious show. Winning G1 Climax is sort of like being the Royal Rumble winner and the Money in the Bank contract holder at the same time; aside from actually holding the championship, winning this tournament is considered one of the top honours a wrestler can hold. Recent winners include Kenny Omega in 2016, who went on to headline Wrestle Kingdom in 2017 with Kazuchika Okada in the match that made Dave Meltzer break his own star-rating system, and Tetsuya Naito in 2017, who earlier this year headlined against the still-reigning Okada.
Okay, so imagine the G1 Climax but with tag teams instead of single wrestlers, and two blocks of eight instead of two blocks of ten. That’s November’s World Tag League, which dates back to 1980, and whose recent winners include Togi Makabe and Tomoaki Honma in 2016, who challenged for the IWGP Tag Team Championships at Wrestle Kingdom 2017, and EVIL and SANADA, members of the Los Ingobernables de Japon stable, who won the tag titles at this year’s event.
And now, imagine the G1 Climax but with Flippy Boys(™); that’s the Best of the Super Juniors, which dates back to 1988, and whose winner receives a shot at the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship at July’s Dominion event. Recent winners include Will Ospreay in 2016, the first British-born winner of the tournament, who went on to unsuccessfully challenge the following year’s winner KUSHIDA, who defeated Hiromu Takahashi to win the title for the fifth time.
The most recently-held tournament at time of writing is March’s New Japan Cup, a single-elimination tournament most reminiscent of the King of the Ring in WWE; the winner receives a shot at the belt of their choosing at April’s Sakura Genesis event; the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, the NEVER Openweight Championship, or the belt that Shinsuke Nakamura elevated by selecting as his prize for winning in 2014; the IWGP Intercontinental Championship. Recent winners include Katsuyori Shibata in 2017, whose subsequent championship match with Okada resulted in the sudden derailment of his in-ring career, and good socialist boy Zack Sabre Jr in 2018, who unsuccessfully challenged Okada on April 1st.
I promise this is the last one; the Super Junior Tag Tournament is sort of what it sounds like; a single-elimination tag tournament for junior wrestlers to determine the #1 contender for the Junior Heavyweight Tag Championships. Recent winners include Roppongi Vice (Beretta and Rocky Romero) in 2016 who went on to defeat The Young Bucks for the titles, and in 2017, the crown went to the team Rocky Romero went on to manage after the amicable dissolution of Roppongi Vice; Roppongi 3K (SHO and YOH), who were the champions at the time.
Tournaments also function as NJPW’s primary method of introducing new wrestlers; inclusion in one of New Japan’s historic tournaments signifies to viewers their talent and provides a solid chunk of matches in which these new talents can get over their characters. Compare that to WWE, whose debuts can sometimes leave a lot to be desired, exposition-wise. For example, Chuckie T (you may know him as Chuck Taylor), debuted as Beretta’s tag team partner in 2017’s World Tag League; while there was little chance of the team winning, competing against NJPW’s established teams gave the viewers ample time to get to know this entirely new character, and he has since gone on to compete in the New Japan Cup as well as team semi-regularly with Kazuchika Okada.
The Faction System
New Japan has a very large roster of wrestlers, and the sizeable amount of tag matches on a typical NJPW is proof of that. The majority of these belong to a faction, and these tag matches follow strictly along faction lines. For example, CHAOS members will not team with Suzuki-gun members, and faction members do not face each other except for special occasions, such as the recent 46th Anniversary show, when Junior Heavyweight Champion Will Ospreay faced CHAOS stablemate IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada as per tradition. There has also been somewhat of a civil war between Bullet Club members as of late, triggered by the Golden Lovers reunion between leader Kenny Omega and his ex-tag team partner Kota Ibushi, leading to the two factions of Bullet Club butting heads.
NJPW factions are bigger in size than in WWE and their allegiances are much tighter. The primacy of tag matches over singles matches as the bulk of New Japan cards solidify these faction bonds and make the matches more than just filler; they hype upcoming matches as well. For example, Tetsuya Naito challenged Minoru Suzuki for the Intercontinental Championship at the Wrestling Hi No Kuni event at the end of April, so the preceding Road To shows featured a lot of Los Ingobernables vs Suzuki-gun matches, as the two factions’ soldiers fought for dominance.
Top row (L-R): Kazuchika Okada, Will Ospreay, Jay White, Tomohiro Ishii, Hirooki Goto
Middle row (L-R): Beretta, Chuckie T, Rocky Romero, SHO, YOH
Bottom row (L-R): YOSHI-HASHI, Toru Yano, Gedo, Jado
In kayfabe terms, the most dominant faction. Home to the heavyweight Ace in Okada, currently in his record-breaking 650+ day reign, the newly-minted junior ace in Ospreay, and the ascendant junior heavyweight tag team in Roppongi 3K (SHO and YOH), CHAOS is New Japan’s top babyface unit. They’re probably the least thematically-coherent team, with characters ranging from the ultra-stoic, stiff-working Tomohiro Ishii to the comedic stylings of ‘Master Thief’ Toru Yano, but their top-heavy membership more than makes up for that. At time of writing, they hold four belts: Okada’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship, Ospreay’s IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, Jay White’s IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship, and Hirooki Goto’s NEVER Openweight Championship.
Top row (L-R): Kenny Omega, Matt Jackson, Nick Jackson, Cody, Marty Scurll
Middle row (L-R): Hangman Page, Tama Tonga, Bad Luck Fale, Tanga Loa
Bottom row (L-R): Chase Owens, Yujiro Takahashi, Hiku’Leo
The most Westernised of the NJPW factions, with only one Japanese-native member, and arguably the main catalyst for New Japan’s increased popularity and Western expansion. You’ve probably seen their now-omnipresent-at-wrestling-show shirts. As mentioned above, Bullet Club is currently undergoing an internal struggle; ever since the debut of Cody, a leadership battle has been blossoming between him and then-leader Kenny Omega, whose ties to The Young Bucks (Nick and Matt Jackson) seemed unshakeable until Omega’s recent reunion with Kota Ibushi and their proclamation of being the best tag team in the world. Cody’s machinations, as documented on the YouTube series ‘Being The Elite’, produced by Bullet Club, resulted in outright war being declared, with control of the group, and indeed the loyalties of various members, still very much up in the air. At time of writing, the only championship in Bullet Club’s possession is the NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship, held by Tama Tonga, Tanga Loa, and Bad Luck Fale.
LOS INGOBERNABLES DE JAPON
(L-R): Tetsuya Naito, EVIL, SANADA, BUSHI, Hiromu Takahashi
The techno-goth-punk-raver kids. The five outcasts who eat lunch at the same cafeteria table, who all have their own vibe going on and support each other’s every action implicitly. You’ve probably seen their gorgeous shirts. Its charismatic leader, Tetsuya Naito, has been challenging Okada’s stronghold over NJPW; he recently won the coveted Tokyo Sports MVP Award in 2016 and 2017, and the only other wrestler to win in successive years since Genichiro Tenryu in the 1980s was Okada in 2012 and 2013. LIJ are the newest-established faction but are seeing an unprecedented wave of support in their two years of existence. The team of EVIL and SANADA hold the faction’s only championship; the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship.
Top row (L-R): Minoru Suzuki, Zack Sabre Jr, El Desperado, Yoshinobu Kanemaru, Davey Boy Smith Jr
Bottom row (L-R): Lance Archer, Taichi, Taka Michinoku, Takashi Iizuka
A bunch of bad bastards who’ll make you cry. Led by their fearless leader, Suzuki-gun remain perhaps the only fully-heel faction in New Japan, with shameless, almost heroic levels of cheating an ever present part of their game plan. The unit was founded when Taichi and Taka Michinoku betrayed former leader Satoshi Kojima, handing full control of the faction to Suzuki. At time of writing, Minoru Suzuki holds the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, and the team of El Desperado and Yoshinobu Kanemaru hold the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship belts.
Top row (L-R): Hiroshi Tanahashi, KUSHIDA, Jushin Thunder Liger, Kota Ibushi, Yuji Nagata
Middle row (L-R): Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Ryusuke Taguchi, Juice Robinson, David Finlay, Togi Makabe
Bottom row (L-R): Satoshi Kojima, Toa Henare, Manabu Nakanishi, Tiger Mask IV
Rounding out New Japan’s roster is their cast of unaffiliated wrestlers, who don’t have any faction loyalties. Hiroshi Tanahashi aside, these wrestlers’ place on the card is usually lower down in the preliminary matches, warming up the crowd. There’s a mix of up-and-coming talent, in the form of Juice Robinson and David Finlay, established top talents in their respective divisions who choose to go it alone in KUSHIDA and Tanahashi’s case, and battle-tested veterans boasting several IWGP Heavyweight Championships to their name, such as Togi Makabe, Yuji Nagata, Hiroyoshi Tenzan, and Satoshi Kojima. Once a wrestler’s time at the top is over, they transition down the card, teaming with the Young Lions of the roster, and helping train at the dojo; in a few years’ time, wrestlers at the top of cards in 2018 will be filling the same duties as these well-loved veterans.