Welcome, cats and kittens, to a new installment of what is by far our most popular series, Cewsh Scouts! This time around we are taking a look at the New Japan roster as they stand on the precipice of a US invasion. For those of you who watch and love New Japan these reports will serve mainly to cause arguments about how I view them, but for those of you getting ready to watch your first ever Japanese PPV, this handy primer will let you know who all the big players are in the first company that has had the potential to challenge WWE since the fall of Rome.
Captain New Japan Scoffs At Pitiful Captain America.
If you’re new to our scouting reports, here’s how it works. I’ll take the most important people in the promotion, list out some pros and cons, and then give them a letter grade that sums up their skills. Now, this is a little different from the NXT Scouting Reports where we’re mostly grading potential as a main roster star. Here, we’re grading fully established stars based on what they bring to the table. So if your favorite Japanese star gets the same grade that Bo Dallas got in 2013, just remember that the criteria is different. And also that we were totally right about Bo Dallas.
Make sense? Well alright then. What do you say we run some of the best wrestlers in the world through the Cewsh Reviews combine?
Cewsh: Hiroshi Tanahashi is New Japan Pro Wrestling. For the past 5 years, I would unquestionably call him the best wrestler on the planet, and his resume of matches over that period is simply mind blowing. There are a lot of reasons for this that range from how fans have come to regard him as THE heavyweight champion even when he doesn’t have the title, to his incredible chemistry with so many of the other major players of this generation, (Okada, Nakamura, Shibata, Ishii, etc.) But I think the greatest reason for Tanahashi’s success, and the thing that makes him so fascinating to watch, is his adaptability. Depending on the crowd or opponent in any given night, Tanahashi can wrestle babyface, heel, high flying, mat submission, angry brawling, sports entertainment style overbooking, and everything else. Tanahashi often draws comparisons to John Cena due to how both are squeaky clean babyfaces and carry their promotions in similar ways, but if you want a true comparison for the man, I think Eddie Guerrero is better. He’s a complete performer in a way that we haven’t seen since Eddie, able to do anything at any time and with the knowledge to know how to make every move meaningful. It’s fitting that he uses Eddie’s Frog Splash finishing move.
Hiroshi Tanahashi is nearing the end of his prime, (though legends of his stature in Japan go on wrestling well into their 40s generally,) and New Japan’s greatest success will likely come with Okada as it’s centerpiece. But these 5 years should go in a vault to show all young, aspiring professional wrestlers, because this man is the greatest of his generation.
Cewsh: Kazuchika Okada is the present and the future of New Japan. I know it, you know it, he knows it, and the fans know it. And he has some huge shoes to fill in following Tanahashi as the promotion’s top star. But fortunately, he seems to grow further into the role with each passing day, and at this point may be one of the best wrestlers under the age of 28 that we’ve ever seen.
With a freakish size and athleticism that allows him to do anything he wants in the ring, and a firm grasp on how to stay in character at all times, Okada is basically every promoter’s wet dream. He’s young, he’s humble and loyal behind the scenes, he’s an outlandishly cool character inside of it, and he rises to the occasion in the biggest matches. If I had to point to one wrestler in the world today to start a company with, this is that guy. And the scary part is that he’s only just getting started.
Cewsh: Perhaps the most important thing to mention here in regards to Nakamura is that whenever you show someone a New Japan show for the first time, this is always the guy that captures their imagination first and foremost. With his strange, charismatic mannerisms, and all out, bombs away wrestling style that somehow blends mixed martial arts and strong style with elements of lucha libre, it’s not hard to see why. Over the past few years, Nakamura has taken a step back from the main event to let burgeoning top star Okada have room the breathe, and to save a potential dream match between the two. In that time, he has taken the Intercontinental Championship, which was an oddly conceived concept that didn’t seem to fit in with the company, and has elevated it to being one of the premier titles in all of wrestling. He accomplished this by having show stealing matches against an insane variety of people from the luchador La Sombra, to NOAH top star Naomichi Marufuji, to MMA fighter Kazushi Sakuraba. Nakamura even had a great match with Shelton Benjamin which, I mean, kind of says it all right there.
It’s also important to note that while Nakamura and Tanahashi are always grouped together, (they both rose to prominence at the same time and were rivals,) and Tanahashi may be nearing the end of his time on top, Nakamura is still only 34 and has a whole bunch of years left to go.
Cewsh: Kota Ibushi’s career is at a crossroads in the best possible way. He has long been regarded as perhaps the greatest high flyer of his generation, and since the departure of Prince Devitt, he has been the king of the jr. heavyweights. But in Japan, Jr. Heavyweights have always struggled to be taken seriously in a society that has always revered size and endurance from it’s athletes, (the sumo influence.) In recent years, thanks largely to the proven drawing power of Hiroshi Tanahashi, this trend has reversed, allowing Jr. Heavyweights a chance to make it on the big stage, and New Japan has dollar signs in their eyes when they look at this Teen Idol flying effortlessly through the air.
The transition is going to be tricky, though. In his match with Nakamura at Wrestle Kingdom he is going to have to show incredible amounts of toughness and fighting spirit, and that’s only the first step in a long journey towards credibility in the main event scene. Whether he’ll get there or not is very hard to say, and some question whether he even wants to get there since his allegiance has always been to the indy promotion DDT. But there is no question that the talent and crossover appeal is present, and he could usher in a whole new generation.
Cewsh: That pros and cons list really says it all. Karl Anderson is one of the most decorated tag team wrestlers in Japanese history, and based purely on title reigns, he’s also one of the most successful and long running gaijins. He’s currently the mouthpiece of Bullet Club, the faction whose popularity and cool factor has fascinatingly managed to outstrip the actual talent of the people in it many times over. But Anderson does a great job of playing just the right kind of heel to appeal to fans, and when given the right partner, he can produce great things.
Unfortunately, Doc Gallows is not that partner. Easily the most forgettable member of the Bullet Club, Gallows basically just exists to be a big guy for Anderson to hide behind, since Anderson + big dude has been a winning formula for years. He is very limited in the ring, and while I hate to rag on people this hard, he just blends into the background so much that you often forget he’s there, even in matches here he’s one half of the tag team champions.
As a team, these two are passable, but they have no real future. Bullet Club will live on even once this tag team is relegated to the rubbish bin of history.
Cewsh: Hirooki Goto and Katsuyori Shibata were schoolmates together, who both decided to pursue the dream of becoming professional wrestlers. At one point or another, both men were looked upon as potential members of a trio with Tanahashi and Nakamura that would lead New Japan into the next generation, but for very different reasons, neither one panned out. Shibata abruptly left New Japan for years, rubbing many the wrong way, and Goto simply struggled to find a gimmick and style which suited him and would get him over. Finally, after years estranged and a wild feud that saw them absolutely brutalize each other, the two old friends joined forces to make a team that hits people so hard that their feet have to be checked in separate bags at the airport.
The strengths and weaknesses of this team come from their disparate characters. Shibata is a stone cold jerk who only has one friend in the entire world, (Goto,) and would be just as happy to headbutt his friend as he would be to win titles with him. Goto, on the other hand, is cut from the stoic warrior mold and is so thoroughly a babyface that John Cena thinks he should loosen up. The interlay of these characters makes the team interesting, as does their tendency to turn any match into a slobberknocker that would render Jim Ross speechless. I don’t know how content either man will be to stay stuck in tag team purgatory, as each has the skills and following to make a run at the real title, but they’re showing flashes of being a modern day TenKoji and that makes everything better.
Cewsh: You will always know where you stand with puro fans by asking them what they think about Tomohiro Ishii. If they’re new to the genre, they might say, “Oh yeah, he had that great match!” or “Is he the short, ugly dude?” If they’re long time puro pervs, you will instead hear them start to take a deep breath, at which point you should run, because they’re about to give you a lecture in why Ishii is the greatest human being who ever lived.
The truth abut Ishii is that for years he was an oddly popular jobber and sidekick who got a chance in the G1 Climax tournament in 2013, and sudden became some kind of wrestling deity. Out of nowhere he started delivering matches that flat out melt the brains of anyone who likes their wrestling stiff and likes to root for the underdog. This stocky little dude and a face only his mother could love has been bludgeoning people on his way to 5 star Dave Meltzer handjobs ever since. It’s almost as confusing as Okada’s sudden transformation from flameout failure to RAINMAKER GOD, and it happened just as fast.
The only real issue with Ishii, is that it’s hard to believe that he’ll ever make it to the heights that people want him to. The man is 39, wrestles a style only slightly less physically demanding than trying to give Godzilla a suppository, and is flat out ridiculous looking to anyone who isn’t familiar with him. But looking the part can only take you so far at the end of the day, and nobody on Earth is wrestling matches like this guy is right now.
The book on Makabe is that he wasted most of his career as a dull as dishwater Jr. Heavyweight, before bulking up and becoming a botchy heavyeight, tag teaming with fellow waste of space Toru Yano. Then, right around the time that Jado and Gedo took over the booking for New Japan, he abruptly morphed into something new. A hardcore match wrestling, chain wearing, take no shit badass who wouldn’t even crack a smile until you elbowed him in the face a few times. The fans reacted to this immediately, and he got a title reign out of it during the uncertain time when they were looking for someone to be on Tanahashi’s level.
At this point, though, Makabe has gotten up there in years and is mostly used as a beloved standard bearer for the company. He’s not going to wrestle long matches, he’s not going to do anything technical. He’s going to elbow people and put them through tables. And if that sounds a little restrictive, that’s because it is, but the fans eat that shit up.
Cewsh: In the late 00s, New Japan saw a rebirth in the Jr. Heavyweight division, with guys like Prince Devitt, Naomichi Marufuji, Low Ki and Kota Ibushi bringing such a high level of quality to the division that it began to be taken seriously by fans again for the first time since the mid 90s. The division during this time also featured some guys who were solid but unspectacular, and made for great depth and the occasion fun match against the top talent. Unfortunately, all of those top guys have left the division now, and so the keys to the flippy machine lie squarely in the hands of Ryusuke Taguchi.
There’s nothing inherently WRONG with Taguchi. He used to be Prince Devitt’s tag team partner, and he excelled in that role. But now with the limelight squarely on him, his weaknesses are shining through severely. He does not have a ton of charisma, he is not great at crafting epic title matches, and nothing about him suggests that he belongs in this kind of high profile role. He’s a new age Wataru Inoue with less fan support, and unless he finds some kind of character soon, i’m afraid that’s all he’ll ever be.
Cewsh: Kenny Omega was also a part of those amazing years of the Jr. resurgence, and while he also was never one of the top stars in New Japan, that was mostly because he spent years in All Japan and DDT just living it up and having a wacky good time. It didn’t seem like he would ever go for a serious push anywhere, until he waltzed into New Japan this year dressed like the apocalyptic god of heels and declared himself a member of the Bullet Club.
There’s no real way to know for sure what we’re going to see from Omega from this point on. We’ve seen him be a truly amazing heel before in All Japan, but we’ve never seen him be serious as he seems to be now. In interviews, even he seems unsure of what kind of style he’s going to bring to this new incarnation, but there’s no doubting that he has the talent to pull it off.
Oh, and he can speak fluent Japanese. That may not seem like a big deal, but it really, really is.
Cewsh: There’s no way these team should work, right? I mean, Kyle O’Reilly is good, and Bobby Fish has always been solid, if dull, but the combination of the two have quickly become one of the premier teams in all of wrestling. All while looking like two substitute teachers that got lost on their way to study hall.
Make fun all I want though, I can’t deny the body of work they’re putting together. Bringing them into New Japan has provided a great breath of fresh air for the Jr. Tag division, and while I don’t think they’ll stay long, (because ROH seems desperate to alienate every company in the world,) there’s no reason to think that every match they have won’t be must see.
Cewsh: It seems amazing that the Motor City Machine Guns that we all knew and loved could actually be improved upon, but here we are. In KUSHIDA, Alex Shelley has found a partner that is bursting with charisma and energy, and he has managed to recapture, and even exceed, the insane chemistry that he once had with Chris Sabin. These guys are special together, and they do not disappoint.
The only problem here is that it’s hard to believe that they’ll be a team much longer. If the Ibushi experiment works, then there is no doubt that KUSHIDA will be the next in line for a serious push, and while Alex Shelley is his usual amazing self at the moment, he’s made it clear that this team is pretty much what is keeping him going as a professional wrestler. Also working against them is the chaotic nature of the Jr. Heavyweight tag division, where no team is ever really given the full focus for any length of time, placing a glass ceiling on what they can achieve together.
Cewsh: Look, if you need me to explain to you who AJ Styles is and why is is awesome, then you are either so new to wrestling that you’re making me feel ancient, or you’ve somehow missed out on that whole TNA thing that everyone is always yelling about. But for people who only ever watched him in TNA it’s important to note that this is a very different AJ Styles. Here in New Japan he’s a cocky dickhead who cheats brilliantly, wrestles his ass off, and beats people twice his size to a chorus of boos. It’s hard to believe that this is the same guy who TNA tried to turn into Nature Boy 2.0, but the world is funny like that.
At first, Styles had difficulties in getting the right reactions out of Japanese crowds, as most gaijin do, and he was put in a hard spot by being the champion when absolutely nobody wanted him to be. But now that that pressure has been removed and he’s free to do his AJ Styles thing, he’s pretty much the best upper midcarder you could possibly have.
Cewsh: Maybe it would be best to compare Naito to a young Sting. He’s flashy, he’s colorful, he’s earmarked for stardom, but no matter how the top guys work to put him over, he’s never really going to take that step up to the top until the people above him clear some room. For Sting, it took Ric Flair leaving, Lex Luger failing, Magnum TA getting damn near crippled and the Road Warriors bolting for WWE in order to give him the opportunity he needed. Sadly, I don’t think New Japan is due for any such calamity. As such, the fantastically athletic Naito will continue his slow trot to the top. But at least he doesn’t have to wear face paint.
Cewsh: This is the scouting report that I gave on Minoru Suzuki in 2012. Not a word of it has changed. Enjoy.
Nobody likes Minoru Suzuki when they see him for the first time. As a result, you might see all kind of negative things said about him all over the web from people who saw their first Suzuki match and were utterly turned off by his arrogance, open mockery of his opponents and the match itself, and by his tendency to ignore the whole selling thing and just start kicking people in the eye. It’s only once you’ve seen him a few times and realize that the whole thing is a carefully orchestrated character that you can begin to really appreciate the love letter to trolling that Minoru Suzuki represents.
The idea is very simple. What if you were up against a guy who was such an unbelievable dick to everything and everyone that you wanted nothing more in life but to kick his ass, but you couldn’t because in addition to being a dick, he was also WAY BETTER THAN YOU. It’s that mentality that has made Suzuki one of the hottest heels in Japan for a decade, and has even boomeranged around to make him a great babyface too whenever he wants to be, as his heel antics are so over the top, they’ve made him lovable. Make no mistake, this isn’t a guy who will give you a great match every time you see him, but you won’t see many characters any better than this one, and you don’t even have to speak the language to see it.
Cewsh: It’s hard to really judge Sakuraba, because wrestling really isn’t his thing. He’s an MMA star who was good enough to earn the awesome nickname “Gracie Hunter” and he’s one of the most credible MMA guys ever to wrestle, while still remaining humble about it and putting over people left and right. But since, as a wrestler, he’s kind of a head scratching combination of credible badass, and clumsy nincompoop, I agonized over what kind of score to give him. Ultimately it came down to this. As a personality and as a focus for an audience of MMA fans with no outlet, the man is flawless, even if his matches are in the “so bad it’s almost good” category. So I’m going to put him dead at the half way point and throw up my hands until I can better make sense of him.
Cewsh: The clown prince of wrestling. Toru Yano is basically just a mischief demon wrapped in a flabby Japanese body. He won’t steal the show on any card, he won’t have any epic, serious matches, and he damn sure isn’t in any sort of real title contention. He’s just there to stretch the bounds of dickholishness, and we love him for it.
Cewsh: It’s Jeff Jarrett.
Well that’ll do it for this year’s scouting report, boys and girls! We now sit on the very eve of what may be the most significant event in Japanese wrestling history, (at least to Americans fans.) Over the years we have done our best to infuse you with a passionaye thirst for Japanese wrestling, and finally the moment has come for you last few stragglers to break out of the WWE cocoon and join the rest of the beautiful butterflies in the garden of smark happiness known as New Japan. One more time, if you don’t already know, you can order this year’s NJPW Wrestle Kingdom IX on US PPV anywhere in the country. Not only that, but you’ll get to watch it at 7:00PM EST rather than the usual ball twisting 4:00AM EST airtime, AND you will get to enjoy English commentary provided by the legendary Jim Ross, and the not so much legendary Matt Striker.
With this scouting report in front of you, and the entire might of the smark nation at your back, the time has come for the puro invasion of 2015. I don’t know about you, but I for one welcome our new puro overlords. But whether you watch it or whether you don’t, we’re into a brand new year of Cewsh Reviews full of new projects, new plans, and new possibilities. Some thing may change in the year to come, but one thing will always remain the same. My wish for you to keep reading and be good to one another.