During the buildup to Jon Moxley vs. Kenta, New Japan Pro Wrestling started promoting its pre-taped American studio wrestling show, NJPW Strong, harder than ever. Since airing its first episode in August 2020, Strong had gradually established a roster of NJPW guys who live in the U.S., LA Dojo trainees, American indie guys, and more. Its first angle was the New Japan Cup USA tournament to name a number one contender to Moxley’s U.S. Title, and the second iteration of this tournament to crown Mox’s next challenger will begin this Friday. Things seemed to be going as well as could be expected for the under-the-radar wrestling program until the news that Marty Scurll filmed material for NJPW Strong broke injected all of this enthusiastic promotion with dramatic irony. The company was not just trying to get more eyes on their B-show, but on the platform that they planned to use to reintroduce someone to the wrestling world who less than a year ago “parted ways” with another major promotion following sexual assault allegations that he partially admitted to.
The Scurll news was first reported by Fightful a week ago with few details, just a scoop that Scurll was backstage at a Strong taping and interested in working for NJPW again. Almost immediately, someone with experience working for New Japan leaked more details of the story to me, sharing that Scurll had been working on-screen at the tapings, and how disappointed they were with the company about this situation. Today, podcast The Super J-Cast shared through their Twitter account that “per sources, Marty Scurll will not be appearing on NJPW Strong or any other New Japan programs for the foreseeable future.” My source from the initial report expressed that they believe this and the Fightful story were intentional leaks by NJPW to gauge what the fan reaction would be if they used Scurll.
Assuming all these reports are true, NJPW deciding to work with Scurll, even temporarily, is the most wildly ill-advised decision of their international expansion yet. While not using what they filmed with him is the most effective thing they could do as damage control, it won’t repair the full extent of the PR damage. The Scurll situation should have never happened, and that it did should raise some red flags for NJPW about its long-term international viability.
Pointing out the red flags
About nine months removed from Speaking Out, it shouldn’t be surprising to anybody that a wrestling company would do this, morally speaking. What’s surprising about NJPW’s decision to be the company that re-platforms Scurll in America is how stupid it is, and for a variety of reasons.
First, this event doesn’t just stand out as NJPW re-platforming Scurll, but as NJPW becoming the first major company to re-platform a wrestler who lost work due to Speaking Out. All the alleged abusers named during that period who are still active in wrestling are active because their home companies either didn’t respond to the allegations against them or claimed those allegations had no merit.
A common point brought up in defense of NJPW’s decision about Scurll when the story broke was “cultural differences,” with people citing that 16 is the age of consent in the UK, where the incident took place, and 13 in Japan, where New Japan Pro Wrestling is based. This is not a compelling defense. It ignores the vocal, easy-to-find disgust expressed towards Scurll by many wrestling fans in the UK as well as elsewhere, which included comments about the alleged victim’s age in relation to Scurll’s at the time, an age gap made even more concerning by the role of alcohol in the story and her allegations about being groomed within the wrestling community from a younger age.
Ring of Honor parting ways with Scurll after the scandal should have been an even more obvious red flag for NJPW as a company trying to be a major player in the Western market not just as an import, but as a local fixture. As previously mentioned, NJPW still has a close enough relationship with ROH that ROH wrestlers regularly appear on NJPW Strong, including Brody King, who publicly distanced himself from Scurll about a month after Speaking Out. There is no good reason for New Japan to ignore why someone gets let go from any major company, but especially from ROH.
The cultural differences defense also seems to assume that, in the history of Japanese media being marketed internationally, similar issues have never come up, and there are no examples NJPW could look to for guidance about the right step to take. This is not the case, and one such story even resurfaced earlier this year. After the creator of the manga Rurouni Kenshin pled guilty to child pornography charges a few years ago, he was soon re-assimilated into his industry in Japan, but the series’ American publisher chose to stop releasing new issues of the series. It’s not a perfect comparison, but by filming Scurll for their American TV show rather than reintroducing him in front of a live crowd in Japan, NJPW essentially took the opposite path.
What’s extra baffling about this decision was that NJPW not only made it, but allegedly had to test how it would be received by fans through a controlled leak when New Japan has dealt with comparable situations in a smarter way in the past. When they saw how much Michael Elgin was hated by American audiences, they conspicuously never booked him on U.S. shows, just in Japan. NJPW is now ostensibly a more international company than they were when Elgin worked for them, and it’s bizarre that they seem to have become less in touch with the sensibilities of their international audience since that time.
If “the office” couldn’t figure out what a disaster this would be, some of the company’s many international members of their regular roster should have had the good sense and been willing and able to speak up and tell the company, “Respectfully, we shouldn’t do this; here’s why this would be a huge problem” and have those concerns listened to before NJPW filmed with Scurll. This is especially notable since almost everyone working on NJPW Strong is not Japanese (the majority are American), with no cultural differences defense applicable to them. Again, even with extremely low expectations of the moral fiber of everyone in the entire worldwide pro wrestling industry, this was crazy as a business and PR decision alone.
You have to wonder what NJPW thought was going to happen when they start running shows outside of Japan again. How many people in the U.S., UK, Australia, New Zealand, and so on did think were going to show up and “whoop whoop” like the old days if they booked Scurll in front of regular people who are not in the wrestling industry and wouldn’t feel pressured to suppress their views on whether or not it’s appropriate for him to be back? It was a real gamble for NJPW to assume that any significant amount of people would even show up to boo or sit in impotent silence for a show with Scurll on it in order to see TJP and Kenta in a t-shirt.
Speculating about the fallout
Assuming NJPW has decided not to proceed with Scurll moving forward, I think a significant amount of damage has already been done by them filming NJPW Strong material with him. They look sleazy and out of touch for this, and it reflects poorly on every other sex, domestic violence, and Speaking Out-related scandal they’ve chosen not to address. It seems to confirm the assumptions that they will not do anything about any issue with international talent that doesn’t cause a big scandal for them in Japan, even as they’re promoting their own American TV show. However, not airing the Scurll stuff they’ve already filmed and not using him in the future will probably at least stop a lot of people from unsubscribing and pirating their stuff out of spite forever.
This incident should be a wake-up call for NJPW about the health of their expansion. It’s a sign that they apparently don’t understand anything about their international market aside from that AEW is currently well-liked and that indie wrestling fans would like to see Tom Lawlor and Chris Dickinson in Japan someday. It should also be a sign that whoever is advising NJPW about what is or isn’t acceptable to non-chode wrestling enthusiasts in the Western market is either completely out of touch with normal culture in the U.S. UK, and elsewhere, or isn’t communicating honestly about cultural standards for reasons that might be beneficial to them, but aren’t beneficial at all for New Japan.