NJPW Strong Review: Bullet Boys, Collected

NJPW of America's new show kicks off with no fans, new haircuts, and a surprising main event

As the New Japan Pro Wrestling‘s tournament for the NEVER 6-Man Tag Team Championship began, so did NJPW Strong, the company’s new weekly American TV show. The first episode aired on August 7, featuring the first round of the tournament to become the next challenger for the IWGP U.S. Championship and giving viewers an idea of what to expect from the show going forward. Fanfyte plans to cover future episodes in shorter and recappier format, but first, for the pilot, here’s a possibly too in-depth review of everything about NJPW Strong.

Who, what, where, and why

Lion’s Break Collision walked so NJPW Strong could run.

With Japan’s borders closed to even residents who aren’t Japanese, a situation that’s drawn international criticism and is developing all the time, a significant portion of New Japan’s non-Japanese roster (plus Kenta, minus Zack Sabre Jr. and Gabriel Kidd) was unable to wrestle for the King of Sports. As soon as it was legally possible, NJPW of America started laying the groundwork for NJPW’s American wrestlers to get back in the ring by creating Lion’s Break Collision, a four-episode show that featured some California-based NJPW wrestlers along with local talent, including MLW’s Tom Lawlor. The very different roster (and the grey rather than blue ring) gave Collision a non-canon feel, but it wasn’t bad.

After four episodes of Collision, NJPW Strong was announced, and it was revealed that this show would feature more New Japan talent and a new version of the New Japan Cup, an eight-man tournament to become number one contender to the IWGP U.S. Championship held by Jon Moxley. If Mox still can’t wrestle for New Japan in the U.S., something that kept him off the G1 opener last year, it’s very up in the air when this title match will actually take place. Still, a tournament for a preexisting title was a surefire way to build stakes into a new show when it’s otherwise so separated from New Japan proper.

A notable thing about the initial NJPW Strong lineup is that it doesn’t include two former U.S. Champions, who would otherwise might have been favorites even over Kenta to win the tournament. Juice Robinson and Jay White are out, Juice with a leg injury and Jay for unknown reasons— he’s in the opening credits for the show but also keeps cryptically posting the date of the Jingu Stadium show, so this anything could happen with this guy.

NJPW Strong currently has three episodes (the whole NJC USA) in the tank and is getting ready to tape more later in August. Like Collision, it’s taped in the Oceanview Pavilion Performing Arts Theater in Port Hueneme, Ventura County, California. The beachside venue is the home of Championship Wrestling From Hollywood, and the crew that produces CWFH also produces Strong.

CWFH tapings are set to start again in this month, but at the time Collision and Strong were taped, New Japan was the only wrestling promotion running in Southern California aside from a few FIST Combat outdoor drive-in shows. California has gone through a somewhat similar pattern as Japan with COVID-19, that of putting health and safety protocols in place early, then seeing a surge in new cases after reopening. Of course, there are about a million differences in how the pandemic has played out in these areas, including scale (if Ventura County was a prefecture in Japan, it would have the second-highest number of cases in the country after Tokyo), but there’s a similar dynamic where you could say NJPW waited to restart until it the pandemic was looking up, although I don’t think any California resident would believe that, but now things are definitely looking back down. NJPW of America at least requires negative coronavirus test results before wrestlers can participate in Strong, but they made that information much less easily available than the health protocols for shows in Japan.

Everything except the wrestling

Before we talk about the wrestling matches on the first episode of NJPW Strong, let’s talk about NJPW Strong as a TV show. It’s a weekly, one hour program (at least for the first episode, but it exists in the lawless land of streaming) that airs on Friday nights at 7 PM PT/10 PM ET in the U.S. (right after WWE Smackdown) and Saturdays at 11 AM in Japan— a very early timeslot for New Japan, but not unusual for joshi promotions.

The short matches, short run time, and set that gives the Oceanview Pavilion a studio-like atmosphere give NJPW Strong a B-show feel in a good way. However, no amount of design and lighting can compensate for the cold, empty arena vibe with which wrestling fans have become very familiar during the COVID-19 pandemic. New Japan doesn’t have spare wrestlers they can use to make background noise and especially with NJPW shows in Japan currently taking place in front of live, clapping audiences, it’s obvious just how much energy a lack of fans drains from a wrestling show. I don’t think anyone’s going to re-watch any of this no-fans wrestling after the pandemic is over not just because it’ll remind everyone on earth of a terrible time in their lives, but because no-fans shows are just never not a little uncomfortable.

Something that doesn’t do much for the atmosphere is the English commentary team of NJPW’s usual play-by-play man, Kevin Kelly, and former IWGP Junior Tag Team Champion and brand new color commentator Alex Koslov. The idea of Koslov back in New Japan is welcome, but his commentary work in this first episode is very awkward and never contains any convincing emotion.

NJPW Strong keeps the ad-break intermission of Lion’s Break Collision, a shorter version of the ring-cleaning intermission from shows in Japan (and a less necessary one since these shows are pre-taped), and makes the noticeable choice to keep all the same ads from the previous show. The lineup is the LA Dojo boys in a charming, homemade-looking sponge commercial, Rocky and Juice advertising the online merch store, and Will Ospreay promoting New Japan’s card game app. Keeping the Ospreay ad seems completely unnecessary and sends a disappointing message to anyone who hoping for a sign that NJPW might do even the bare minimum about their wrestlers who were named in the industry-wide airing of sexual assault and harassment allegations known as Speaking Out.

NJPW and Speaking Out is something that could be its own article and might be once the situation develops further and especially when international travel is more possible, but so far there have been two widespread stories about New Japan wrestlers being or enabling sexual predators. So far New Japan has yet to say or do anything about it besides show that they’ve definitely heard about Speaking Out by deleting a tweet for an AMA-style interview with Zack Sabre Jr. when it was flooded with questions about the widespread sexual abuse in the British wrestling scene.

The two wrestlers actually named in Speaking Out were Chase Owens, a participant in the New Japan Cup USA, who was the subject of a Reddit post that shared and collected allegations about Owens engaging in inappropriate and illegal sexual behavior with minors, and Will Ospreay, whose reckoning was a long time coming. The Ospreay story is that in 2017 when a wrestler named Polyanna came forward alleging she had been raped by Scott Wainwright, a friend of Ospreay, the current RevPro champion used his considerable power and influence behind the scenes to make sure she could no longer work. Many wrestling fans knew about this for years and didn’t forget it. Many others either ignored or never heard this story, something that was certainly helped by most of the media that covered NJPW and the UK scene, who seemed to otherwise know every detail about Ospreay, never bringing it up.

But in June 2020, as more Speaking Out stories were told and more fans became aware of the scope of sexual abuse in pro wrestling, a spotlight returned to the Ospreay-Polyanna incident. More fans became informed about what happened or were finally confronted with evidence they couldn’t ignore. Ospreay gave a statement about the incident that denied everything and went after Polyanna’s character while trying to build up his own, but Polyanna shared screenshots of emails that indicated she had been blacklisted with Ospreay’s help, and the International Wrestling League confirmed that they had taken part in the blacklisting.

NJPW (or NJPW of America) has yet to comment about either of these cases, and it’s hard to guess what they’ll end up doing about them because in some ways there’s no precedent for this, but in other ways, there’s a ton of precedent. New Japan has docked wrestlers’ pay for adultery scandals in the past and even parted ways with Taka Michinoku in 2019 after it came out that he had been cheating on his wife for many years and had propositioned women fans who contacted him trying to buy tickets to Kaentai Dojo shows, a scandal that also resulted in him leaving K-Dojo. However, NJPW hasn’t treated its international talent the same way. When Michael Elgin became too toxic to get booked in America, New Japan continued to book him— just noticeably not on shows in the English-speaking world.

As NJPW continues to communicate with English-speaking fans more than ever, it also, more than ever, can’t convincingly play dumb about massive moments in the English-speaking wrestling world. Not acknowledging the allegations against Owens and evidence against Ospreay, not even cutting Ospreay’s ad from something targeted to the English-speaking audience, sends a message that New Japan’s Speaking Out plan of action could very well be “If we don’t mention it and wait it out, we can just act like it never happened.” After all, who knows when they’ll even have the chance to bring Ospreay back to Japan or to book either of these people in front of fans in the English-speaking world where there’s a chance they would be poorly received?

And NJPW could also just take the chance that neither of these wrestlers will be poorly received by overseas fans. As previously mentioned, Ospreay’s history of misogyny went unmentioned for years by people who seemed to otherwise know everything about him, and his online berating of Sadie Gibbs that should have risen every red flag possible given his industry power and allegations of a history of blacklisting was waved off as just more “bad tweets.” By the time of Ospreay’s 2019 megapush, in the minds of the “smartest” of wrestling fans and media, it was taboo to criticize or express anything less than total enthrallment with Ospreay, and they had the match ratings, stats, and gifs to “prove” it. People who disliked him on valid aesthetic grounds or because you believed Polyanna and you couldn’t wave off the Sadie Gibbs incident and every Ospreay match might as well have had the words “Brock Turner served three months for rape” flashing onscreen the entire time were swept into the pile of people who judge wrestlers too much by their tweets, Jim Cornette types, or contrarians.

New Japan could just use the Elgin strategy with Ospreay, which might work, or NJPW and RevPro could just do nothing different and count on fans reacting the same way they did before. But after Speaking Out, after the revelations to many that what happened with Ospreay, Wainwright, Polyanna, and the UK wrestling scene wasn’t an isolated incident but almost a Rosetta Stone of how sexual abuse is able to be so widespread and so consequence-free in wrestling, I think there is a greater chance that might not work out for them.

Is that too bleak for this review of a one-hour Friday-night wrestling show? Well so is watching a one-hour Friday-night wrestling show and then getting that “hey, time to think about sexual assault and how many people get away with it” reminder right in the middle (the Ospreay commercial directly precedes the Owens match). If New Japan (or NJPW of America) wants to even pretend to care, releasing some kind of statement, cutting the Ospreay commercial from broadcast, and investigating Chase Owens seem like pretty obvious first steps to take.

The wrestling

Aside from the empty arena atmosphere and the quarter of the show that’s a “wrestling really hates women” PSA, the first round of the New Japan Cup USA makes for a pretty good wrestling show. It helps, especially considering the atmosphere, that every match is under ten minutes long, with no filler that could really drag without a soundtrack of fan reactions.

The tournament kicks off with Kenta vs. Karl Fredericks, and while Kelly really tries to sell the emotion and history behind this match, Kenta’s new boy band hair is a way more effective hook. The Kenta/Shibata/LA Dojo story has already been lapped by another big Bullet Club betrayal, and we already got a title match at a Wrestle Kingdom out of it anyway. This feels more like a heel vs. motivated Young Lion match than something with a real feud behind it, and it works well as that kind of match. Fredericks shows aggression and spirit, but Kenta’s experience edge and brutal kicks and slaps beat him down until the former NOAH star wins with the G2S.

Fredericks isn’t a Young Lion anymore, but that’s shown here mostly through his new costume. The post-grad update to his character that was a lot more apparent on Collision doesn’t really shine through, and he has yet to win a singles match as an NJPW main roster member. But he’s only had two NJPW main roster singles matches so far and he did win the Young Lion Cup last year, so I would definitely expect to see Fredericks get more to do as NJPW Strong continues.

Jeff Cobb vs. Tanga Loa and David Finlay vs. Chase Owens are strong matches in more unique ways. This power vs. power battle is Loa’s first singles match since the first round of the New Japan Cup in 2017, and while I didn’t come out of it clamoring for him to get a singles title run ASAP, I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing him have more one-on-one matches in the future. In kayfabe, it seems like he probably should have more of them, given how much he dominates the former NEVER Openweight Champion before Cobb pins him with Tour of the Islands.

Next, Finlay and Owens work very well together in a match with lots of amateur wrestling inspiration. Finlay, more muscular post-hiatus, looks the most convincing as someone who could go somewhere as a singles wrestler than I think he ever has. This match is also an example of all the reasons Owens has built a vocal contingent of supporters over the years, with lots of four-second cheating and some old-school grappling. Of course, he also might be an example of wrestling enabling scumbags and predators for years, but his good worker qualities are on display here as well.

The main event is NJPW Strong‘s most surprising match, and I’d say it’s best. A shockingly clean-shaven Tama Tonga defeats post-Villain Enterprises Brody King and even more shockingly, does it completely clean. It’s a huge change for Tama and one that makes a lot of sense in the environment of this show, given that so much of his usual heel work involves a crowd work. Without fans to play to, he wrestles what anyone watching King vs. Tonga who hadn’t seen these wrestlers before would think was an underdog babyface match. With Brody’s top tier big man style, a totally different type of performance from Tama, and so much aggression from both men to make up for the lack of crowd energy, this was a completely worthy main event, and I think one that made NJPW Strong seem like a place unexpected, cool things could happen in the future.

There’s still a lot to wonder about NJPW Strong, like if and when are there going be angles on it as well as matches, could those angles be anything besides Bullet Club vs. Everybody and dojo boy angst, and will Tom Lawlor come back, and if he comes back will he continue to wrestle in jorts? But the first episode seems to give a good idea of what to expect: wrestlers giving their all, supported by a nice set and quality production, but countered by the no-fans vibe or awkward commentary. NJPW Strong so far doesn’t feel crucial to New Japan but it doesn’t seem totally disposable either, a B Show that could either quickly fade away, or grow to be something people really enjoy and look forward to every week.

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Emily Pratt

Emily Pratt is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She used to study, write about, and make theater. Now she writes about pro wrestling for Fanbyte and Deadlock. Her other bylines include With Spandex on UPROXX, Orange Crush, Mind Games Magazine, FanSided WWE, and Diva Dirt.

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