Across the Road from an Argos: New Japan in the UK
In their quest to spread their influence across the world, New Japan Pro Wrestling sunk their teeth into the British Isles, teaming with Revolution Pro to put on a two show spectacular, Strong Style Evolved UK - and I was lucky enough to attend one of them.
On June 30th, my brother and I set off for the first of the duo of events, taking place at the Milton Keynes Ice Arena. When these shows were first announced, I thought Milton Keynes was an odd choice, not really a place that comes to mind when considering where you might see some of the biggest stars in pro wrestling. It’s like how WWE always goes to Minehead for their UK tours, and even after years of them doing it I’m still not convinced that’s an actual place. This venue decision became even more peculiar when we arrived, with it turning out to be in an industrial estate adjacent to an Argos and a Morrisons. Not the most spectacular of places, I must say. I was half expecting the theme of The Office to start playing as we drove in.
After enduring a queue sat in the blaze of the British summertime sunshine and seeing a guy wearing Dave Meltzer shirt, we entered the arena, and I quickly discovered that ice rinks are a really cool settings for wrestling. Not only was it air conditioned to perfection, it looked like there wasn’t a bad seat in the house (well, in terms of the layout at least). It turned out that our seats were the exact same ones in my maths classroom. If you’re familiar with British secondary school chairs, they were the black ones with the slight angled back lean halfway up the backrest.
In line with the structure of any New Japan card, the matches progress through the show according to their relative importance. While the bigger stars were reserved for later in the night, the first half of the show certainly had its highlights and some of the names I was buzzing to see. Coming off of his stellar run in this year’s Best of the Super Juniors tournament, ‘The Bone Soldier’ Taiji Ishimori, was one of these. After seeing him up close and in person, I can confidently say that those abs have been sculpted by God himself. I wish I had gotten some photos to compare with Ricochet’s, but with Taiji’s Bullet Club partner Yujiro Takahashi having his scantily clad valets at ringside, just having the camera open on my phone made me feel dirty and I decided against it.
The first half of the show also gave to me probably the most exhilarating experience I’ve ever had at a wrestling show. The theme for the UK tour was a battle for supremacy between two of New Japan’s warring factions, CHAOS and Suzuki-gun. This materialised in the form of a six-man tag with a heated start that came a bit too close for comfort. El Desperado had beaten Gedo towards the barricade just a few rows in front of my seat and decided to see how far into the crowd he could throw him. We all scrambled away to prevent ourselves becoming collateral damage, grabbing our merch and drinks like they were family heirlooms. I imagine it’s what the front lines of the Somme were like. Gedo came flying in, school furniture strewn about the place, Suzuki-gun’s disregard for their opponents matched only by their lack of care for seating plans. Desperado didn’t feel content with this, and full on twatted Gedo with a chair before dragging him back to the ring. After the dust had settled, we pieced together what we could and somehow ended up with extra chairs. My leading theory at the minute is that Gedo hit the chairs so hard they split into two like the broom in Sorcerer’s Apprentice. On top of all that madness, this match also highlighted just how unstable the guard rails were. One thing missing from the usual New Japan shows were the young boys at ringside acting as a security of sorts, whose jobs include keeping the guard rails sturdy whilst someone gets tossed into them. Without them there, all hell broke loose. Jay White hadn’t seemed to register that and after he launched a Suzuki-gun goon into one, sending one flying up a good two feet off the ground, I’m pretty certain I sure him cry; ‘OH SHIT!’
One of the best matches of the night came at the end of the first half, a singles contest between two men I’ve wanted to see live for a good long while. Representing New Japan, it was the legendary ‘Blue Justice’ Yuji Nagata, one of the company’s biggest stars during their turbulent early 2000s dark age. I had become a big fan of Nagata after following him through last year’s G1 Climax, a tournament destined to be his last, where he fought hard against the newest generation of wrestlers and proved he could still hang with the best of them. His opponent that night definitely fit that descriptor; ‘The Ring General’ WALTER. Having become arguably the hottest non-contracted competitor in wrestling today, the mountain of a man looked like a true challenge for Nagata, but that’s exactly the conditions under which Nagata thrived. This match was the type of heavyweight battles that first sparked my love for New Japan Pro Wrestling; a competitive, hard hitting and engaging bout that epitomised ‘strong style’.
Intermission followed, giving us all a breather to prepare for the last few matches that were sure to be packed with highlights. Taking this time to stretch our legs and have one more gander at the merch, my brother and I went for a wander, not realising that some of the wrestlers were there by their tables. If there’s one thing I am sure of in this world, it is that my brother fucking loves Tomohiro Ishii, and this was driven home when I saw his eyes light up seeing him. He stood there with a big ol’ grin on his face just admiring him before I eventually persuaded him to get in the queue to meet him. There’s nothing like seeing your big brother giddily waiting on the spot, turning back into a big kid again. Everyone around us seemed pretty calm about the whole thing, then there was us two in awe of this man far from home. From what I saw of Ishii in line, I can confirm that I think he is the coolest person in the world. Not only was he also handling some of the New Japan’s general merch like a true company man, but in the most humanising move I’ve seen a wrestler perform, I saw him reach into his pocket and pull out a big handful of change to dole out. Defiant against the language barrier, Ishii greeted us with a nice smile and a thumbs up when we asked for a signed photo of him, and gave us the best handshake we have ever received. He was kind enough to take photos with both of us, his warm demeanor quickly shifting to his signature ‘Stone Pitbull’ glare as soon as the camera turned on him. As if that wasn’t good enough, he then went on to put on the best match I have ever seen live.
The main event saw our new best friend Ishii team up ‘The Rainmaker’ Kazuchika Okada to challenge Minoru Suzuki and Zack Sabre Jr. for the RevPro Tag Team Championships. The cheer for Okada as soon as those coins drop at the start of his theme was the loudest I’ve ever been apart of. When he steps through that curtain, the feeling really hits you that you are about to see one of the greatest wrestlers of our time, and you can’t help but eagerly await the opening bell. Just witnessing him pose in the corner was enough to give you goosebumps. The whole night had been building to this, the ring holding four of the company’s most renowned names, and the feeling was electric throughout. It wasn’t long before I was totally engrossed in this match, getting massively hyped for every bit of Ishii and Okada’s offense, shouting in horror at the punishment they took and voicing my frustration at all of Suzuki-gun’s underhanded tactics.
Meeting Ishii definitely played a big part on my levels of investment in the match, especially with how lovely he came across, watching him being pulled apart by Suzuki and Sabre Jr’s dual holds was absolutely heartbreaking. But witnessing that torture wasn’t even the most terrifying part of the match. For nearly three whole minutes, Suzuki and Ishii exchanged the most brutal of strikes. I’ll never forget the cyclical sounds of those few minutes; a blanket of silence across the audience, preparing for the next strike as if we were on the receiving end, a sickening wet-snap of a stiff forearm connecting soon followed by the wince and shock from all of us in attendance before quietening down, anticipating the next blow. I raised my voice to the sky willing Ishii to stay on his feet, standing firm against Suzuki’s assault, before feeling my spirits sink as he too fell to the ground. Alas, the match would end with evil prevailing as Suzuki-gun retained their belts, the bastards. It’s the first time I can remember going to a wrestling show and ending the night with the heels coming out on top, and even though I felt so deflated from my favourites losing, that emotion was soon superseded by the satisfied feeling of having watched an absolutely incredible bout.
Overall, it’s safe to say that New Japan’s excursion to the UK delivered, above and beyond in my eyes. The difference in card structure and presentation felt familiar from watching online, yet being there in person felt so alien, new and intriguing. Here’s hoping that thanks to the reception these shows got that they come back again soon, and if they do, I implore anyone with even the most fleeting of interests in Japanese wrestling to attend, I guarantee it’ll be worth your money.