If I was trying to get someone into professional wrestling, I wouldn’t, because life is too short to foist your interests on people not legally or biologically obligated to indulge your bullshit, like your therapist or child. But if I was really trying to get someone into professional wrestling, I would start by showing them Wrestle Kingdom, the Super Bowl of Japanese professional wrestling that airs January 4 at an embarrassingly early hour that, nonetheless, I’ll be awake for.
Wrestle Kingdom is the biggest annual show thrown by New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW), the most popular pro wrestling promotion in Japan. The show will run around five hours, beginning at 2 a.m. ET, and feature ten matches, all of which will resolve storylines that percolated through most of 2017, or even before that. Bitter rivals will settle months-long grudges; new rivals will strike first blood; at least one person is going to go through a wooden table.
It will be awesome. Pro wrestling diehards have long thought Japanese pro wrestling to be superior to the American product, generally because it’s harder-hitting and more creatively laid out, but it was only very recently that anybody but pro wrestling diehards could check it out. Back in the ‘90s, enthusiasts would trade VHS tapes of the hottest Japanese wrestling matches, given no easy alternative in a world without the internet. Thanks to the miracle of the modern economy, NJPW today offers a streaming service called NJPW World, which allows access to any NJPW live event as it’s happening, in Japanese and English commentary. Tomorrow morning, tens of thousands of people around the world — many of them with no working understanding of Japanese — will log into their NJPW World accounts, over-caffeinated and ready to watch buff dudes hammer the shit out of each other, while the announcers lose their damn minds.
WWE, which brands itself more as a “sports entertainment” company than a professional wrestling company, often struggles to do right by the storied tradition of pro wrestling as both narrative entertainment and athletic spectacle. NJPW, on the other hand, consistently presents compelling characters with clear motivations, who also double as the best wrestlers in the world, capable of putting together well-built matches that make you forget — however temporarily — that wrestling is predetermined, that the men in the ring are acting out a foregone conclusion. The magic of a wrestling match occurs when a fan thinks they know what is going to happen, because wrestling is built on decades of ingrained logic about what should happen, only to be surprised by what does happen — a dynamic provided in almost all the best NJPW matches.
A blog post I can’t remember once posited that the most popular WWE wrestlers (all of them heroes) espoused the public image of the current president — Hulk Hogan was bombastically jingoistic Reagan, Stone Cold Steve Austin was rebellious Clinton, John Cena was comfortably patriotic George W. Bush, and so on. The theory is a little too neat, at least as I’m paraphrasing it several years later, but the premise is relatively sound: Pro wrestlers peak when they manage to galvanize an unexpressed sentiment felt by their fans, who need license to support America or hate their boss or whatever. Right now, WWE is in a weird spot: The president is Donald Trump, a man enshrined in their canonical Hall of Fame for his participation in several wrestling storylines, but whose hateful ethos goes entirely against the typical good vs. evil narrative. The only wrestlers like Trump are ones who would eventually and profoundly get their comeuppance — a wrestler who wouldn’t be the front-facing star of the modern WWE, which builds many of its storylines around appealing to children. (WWE also goes out of its way to avoid mentioning Trump on-air, which they never did with Barack Obama, correctly guessing that its real-life connections to the presidency would largely turn off its generally liberal-leaning fanbase if prominently featured. But that’s a story for another day.)
By contrast, NJPW boasts a hero who is cresting perfectly on the present moment: Tetsuya Naito, a wrestler with a shaggy orange mullet and a permanently bemused expression. Naito was once slated to be the company’s future, clean-cut star, only to be rejected soundly by the fans, which forced his development into a devil-may-care antihero. He takes his time walking to the ring, wears a suit he slowly removes piece-by-piece to the annoyance of his opponent, kicks at the referees, and cheats freely — all with a wry smile, and a fist bump for any child in attendance who’s entertained by his antics. The leader of a mostly villainous group whose name translates to “the ungovernables of Japan,” Naito is a perfect contrast to the stereotypically stodgy Japanese culture, and has become the company’s most popular star in years. And for American connoisseurs like myself, watching Naito forcefully thumb his nose at the relevant authorities is cathartic entertainment, on top of the fact that he’s an excellent wrestler. (His “Destino” finishing move is the coolest in the world.)
At Wrestle Kingdom 12, Naito will challenge for the IWGP heavyweight title — the company’s top championship belt — which is currently held by Kazuchika “The Rainmaker” Okada, a wrestler who’s nominally a good guy, though his increasingly cocky persona has made him the natural villain to Naito. This is a crucial development: When they wrestled for the title a few years ago, Naito was still beginning his meteoric rise to popularity, and worked as the clear bad guy. Now, NJPW seems ready to capitalize on his escalating profile by switching his moral alignment. At the end of tomorrow, Naito should stand tall as the company’s new champion and top good guy, an amusing rude boy inspiring his fans to carry themselves with a little more whimsy and defiance — unless he doesn’t, as is always possible in pro wrestling.
Why does that matter? Well, because Donald Trump is the preside — nah, just kidding. But wrestling is at its best when the narrative motivations and physical choreography are working in smooth conjunction with the interests of its audience, and right now, NJPW is doing it better than anyone else in the world. (Also, the pure, visceral thrill of watching these dudes fly through some wooden tables.) That isn’t even to mention the many other matches that should be thrilling to watch — including the dream matchup of Chris Jericho and Kenny Omega, which I could go a thousand words on if I wasn’t wary of boring readers. All of it means Wrestle Kingdom 12 is easily my most anticipated sporting event of 2018, barring the ascendance of one of my preferred professional teams. I will be awake at 2 a.m. to watch it tomorrow morning, because that’s what you do for the things you love.