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Puroresu Focal Shows, Summer 2007

By ditch | June 25, 2007

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By David Ditch

It’s no secret that business is bad for the ‘fight business’ in Japan. On the MMA side, PRIDE is in rough shape and K-1 is far from healthy. On the pro wrestling side, promotions are either downsizing or playing to half-full venues. The top wrestler, Kenta Kobashi, has been out for a year following treatment for cancer; he won’t return until winter at the earliest.

Pro wrestling in Japan isn’t going down without a fight, but in recent years that fight seems more and more like a losing one. Here’s a look at the biggest shows of the summer, from the business and product aspects.

-HUSTLE at Saitama Super Arena, June 17: This one is in the books, and there are still no small number of questions. For starters, with DSE now owned by Zuffa, who exactly is paying for the rent at Saitama Super Arena? Who is paying for what is almost certainly the largest single-show one-promotion payroll so far this year? Who’s paying for the sets and special effects? It isn’t the fans, given that it wasn’t even a half-capacity crowd and there was almost certainly heavy papering. An MMA show on this scale would tend to have a prime-time TV deal to cover expenses, but HUSTLE has nothing of the sort.

Product-wise, where are they headed? The theme so far this year has been the heel Takada Monster Army wiping the floor with the HUSTLE babyfaces, and team HUSTLE won out on Sunday thanks to a copious amount of help from outsiders (Warren Cromartie, Muta, Suzuki, Takayama) who might not be back. Mutoh speculated beforehand that he would be interested in returning if the show wasn’t “salty”, which is a diplomatic Japanese way of saying that he thinks HUSTLE might be garbage. Mind you, this was during a press conference designed to hype his appearance… not exactly the sort of press you want. The big plot development revolved around what should be a face turn for Tenryu, and a promotion for Kawada to Takada’s right-hand man. Tenryu’s move will even things out between the two sides on smaller shows going forward.

Turning Tenryu isn’t exactly earth-shattering, especially since so much of the HUSTLE army has turned heel this year. What’s more, they don’t have a clear main event for the upcoming HUSTLEMANIA show. There are implications that Takada’s ‘Esperanza’ alter-ego will return, and I have to say I’m shocked they didn’t use him to try and get Saitama Super Arena to look less empty. Takada vs HG was done last year, Takada vs Muta has been hinted at but I have my doubts about the politics of such a move, Takada vs Wataru Sakata wouldn’t generate headlines, and Takada vs Tenryu would be a re-hash of an eleven year old ‘dream match’.

When HUSTLE started off, such questions wouldn’t be necessary. They were an also-ran joke promotion at a time when the ‘big three’ heavyweight promotions were much healthier. Now HUSTLE runs several shows a month, and despite the baffling decision to use Super Arena they at least put together a much more interesting card than other promotions seem capable of. As long as HUSTLE isn’t bound to the same financial realities as everyone else (I’ll let you draw your own conclusions there) they’ll remain a player in the puro scene.

-Inoki Genome at Sumo Hall, June 29: Hooo boy. Where does one start? New Japan wrestlers appearing on a show whose main event is built around mocking New Japan. Inoki finding financial backers yet again after putting New Japan deeply into the red. One announced match on the card of a promotion that has cancelled, to my knowledge, three other ‘debut’ shows in the past year. A talent roster that will cost more than the one NOAH used to sell out the Tokyo Dome in 2005, for a venue one-fifth the size. Naoya Ogawa, who had been the poster boy for HUSTLE, has jumped ship to IGF. The politics of Angle vs Lesnar, with Angle coming in as TNA champ and Lesnar coming off his MMA debut, are staggering. New Japan might sue because they’re promoting Angle vs Lesnar as an IWGP title match.

When it comes to Antonio Inoki, things are never dull and rarely make a bit of sense. The fallout of the main event, the content of the undercard, and whether they’re able to corral enough yen for future shows are all items to keep an eye on. Inoki getting Tamura on the show is a positive; Inoki running an angle around how much Tadao Yasuda sucks is a reminder of the bad old days.

Dragon Gate at Kobe World Hall, July 1: The annual big show for Japan’s top juniors promotion. They arguably have the biggest main event in company history as CIMA tries to reclaim the company’s title from Liger. As things have progressed this has turned into somewhat of a DG vs New Japan event, as there are four interpromotional matches accounting for three of the top four card positions. The company has been hurt by a severe reduction in their number of pay-per-view events, leading to very cramped television shows. As such they’re more dependent than ever on the revenue this show will provide.

Since they don’t have much in the way of big salaries, a good showing will keep things steady. A bad showing with the biggest match they can muster on top would be a very discouraging sign, especially since they’ve become the CIMA show more and more over the last two years. As NOAH and Zero-One amply demonstrate, it’s very risky to have one man head-and-shoulders ahead of the rest of the roster. It takes much longer to create headlining stars in Japan than it does in the US, and Dragon Gate is already a niche promotion to begin with so they don’t have a lot of slack to use. By the end of the year they really should do what they can to transition more of the spotlight to their younger talent.

-NOAH at Budokan Hall on July 15: Hard to believe that just two years ago NOAH had the most successful show of the year in all of professional wrestling. A star-studded card that wasn’t bogged down by politics coming into the event, a crowd-pleasing show, and a seemingly endless number of Budokan-filling matchups that could follow. Unfortunately the good news didn’t even last the night as Kawada and NOAH had a falling out over an unauthorized promo following the main event, ending a relationship that would have single-handedly prevented the problems it’s having today. The Sasaki/NOAH relationship only led to a handful of matches before fading away. Even the use of Tenryu, Koshinaka and Minoru Suzuki lessened and ended in the months to come. With no significant free agent signings that left the core NOAH roster, but even that would be fine if Kobashi was still around. Only he’s not.

At the moment, NOAH is promoting two junior-heavyweight tag bouts (neither of which would be out of place at a Korakuen undercard) and Misawa vs Taue for their biggest show of the summer. Misawa vs Taue has headlined at much smaller venues in 2001 and 2004, and at a time when both were in better physical condition. Taue is saying that this is his last title shot, and Misawa really shouldn’t be given another title reign after this, so it’s somewhat of a ‘last hurrah’ for two of the ‘Four Corners of Heaven’. They’re two of my favorites, and they’re the favorites of many Japanese fans, but will nostalgia with little undercard support even come close to generating the kind of ticket sales NOAH has lacked for the last year?

At this point I feel it’s necessary to explain exactly why selling tickets and the proverbial butts-in-the-seats matters so much to me. There’s the basic ‘companies need money to stay healthy’ point, but that’s very dry, subtle, inside-baseball stuff. English-speaking fans of Japanese wrestling are in this for the shows themselves, and I can’t think of a better example of why attendance matters than the June 3rd and June 8th NOAH events. Both were in front of half-full (or less) crowds, and with iffy cards to start with they needed all the help they could get. In addition to the visual impact of numerous empty chairs in the first few rows, there was the simple fact that there weren’t enough people to generate sustained heat at the venues. Nothing makes average wrestling seem bad quite like a dead crowd, and given the standards of Japanese crowd heat it takes a lot to judge one ‘dead’.

I’ve gone off on NOAH’s booking before, and sadly nothing has changed. Bland, uninspired, and with no visible foresight, and that’s on top of not having Kobashi’s charisma around to help mask rough edges. NOAH is declining to the point where they might not be able to just close off the upper sections of the Budokan and paper the rest to look like a sell-out. If that day comes, NOAH’s ark will be perilously close to breaching on a proverbial Mount Ararat.

-New Japan in Sumo Hall, August 11th and 12th: The final two nights of the G-1 Climax, which is now far and away the top pro wrestling tournament. The last four years has seen a steady decline in the fortunes of the tournament. From running three straight Sumo Hall shows in 2003 to two, then coming well short of a sellout on the first night in 2005, then coming well short of a sellout on the final night last year after doing a half-house the first night. Their booking over the past year has been solid and free of Inoki-related politics, yet they’re reduced to having consecutive IWGP title defenses at Korakuen Hall, including one during Golden Week when they were normally using the nearby Tokyo Dome. There are no obvious candidates to use as the traditional ‘outside threat’, and simply put the current roster lacks depth from a drawing standpoint.

Selling out Sumo Hall seems highly unlikely, but New Japan can still redeem themselves. First, after years of salary slashing it shouldn’t be too hard to turn a profit. Second, the overall booking of the tournament can help solidify New Japan’s spot as the best-booked promotion in Japan, not to mention produce the kind of quality traditional wrestling that NOAH and All Japan have sorely lacked. That in turn can be used to rally hardcore wrestling fans and shore up their fortunes while other promotions struggle. New Japan won’t be selling out the Tokyo Dome any time soon, but running in the black and looking competent in the process would be a sizeable accomplishment in the current Japanese fight scene.

-All Japan in Sumo Hall, August 26th: Though it’s somewhat difficult to predict how this will shape up two months in advance, there are currently four names and one storyline dominating the promotion. Minoru Suzuki will shortly defend the Triple Crown against Mutoh, and it’s a given that the winner will defend at the big show. The ‘storyline’ is Kojima turning heel to join the Voodoo Murders stable, and doing so primarily to spite Sasaki. They’re teasing Hase coming out of retirement to face Suzuki, Kawada’s status is uncertain, and there’s even the possibility of Takayama because he’s always liable to appear on a major heavyweight show (especially given Suzuki’s prominence). They should be able to piece together two big singles matches and perhaps they can get Kawada to come back for the first time since April to defend the tag titles. What’s obvious is that they’ll require names not on the current tour in order to make a decent go of it.

Topics: Dave Ditch, Japan, Pro-Wrestling | 20 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

20 Responses to “Puroresu Focal Shows, Summer 2007”

  1. Zurich says:

    As I understand it, HUSTLE is run by DSE. DSE continues to operate independently, Zuffa just bought the PRIDE assets from them. So there is no connection between Zuffa and HUSTLE.

  2. Stevie J says:

    Zurich’s explanation sounds like the one I heard. I think Dragon Gate has the strongest chance of surviving as they have a cult following in both Japan and the United States, and when the other big players run out of money they’ll still be around. They’re like craft beer really – high quality in small batches.

  3. GH says:

    None interest me! Not a one. I am more worried about who killed McMahon honestly. I think it was that damn Triple H!!!

  4. Stevie J says:

    I care about who killed Vince McMahon about as much as I care about the next TNA backstage interview with Jeremy ‘Buttnugget’ Borash and Eric Young.

  5. Jonathan says:

    I think that everyone and everything in either the kaktougi or pouresou arenas are in free fall, and we will not know where anything stands until the dust has had considerable time to settle.

  6. ditch says:

    Zurich: I wasn’t sure about the status of DSE, thanks for clearing it up. That they’re the ones behind First On Stage makes sense, though Takada acting on behalf of both is still interesting. Also, DSE was able to bankroll HUSTLE thanks to PRIDE money… they don’t have a TV deal any more and their profitability is way more doubtful than other Japanese wrestling promotions *which is saying a lot*.

    Stevie: Dragon Gate isn’t making any money from the US that I know of. NOAH at least has their tiny but accessable DVD and shirt sales out of Hawaii and ROH. What DG does have is, as you say, a cult following. Their business is hurt by the lack of PPV revenue compared to past years but ticket sales (to my knowledge) haven’t dipped over the last three years the way they did for everyone else. Their niche is women and metrosexuals rather than ‘combat sport’ males, thus they aren’t buffeted by the winds of change in the rest of the industry. I don’t agree with “high quality in small batches”- they run tons of house shows and aren’t as entertaining as they once were- but it’s overall a much more sustainable model than other promotions.

    An aside: A few years back I wrote an article for puroresupower about the unique (if very impersonal) potential of the Ultimo Dragon Gym business model. In essence it would revolve around churning out fresh student classes every few years to make the shows fresh and replace wrestlers burned out and injured by a hectic road schedule. If I recall correctly it was not too long after this that the Toryumon/Dragon Gate split happened, and Toryumon X wasn’t as marketable as the first waves of graduates, so my theory was never really tested. Now we have Ultimo churning out really mediocre graduates to wrestle in C-level US indies while Dragon Gate produces a small number of mainstream-ready wrestlers. The students have replaced the master.

  7. liger05 says:

    Noah need Kobashi back badly and the booking at the moment is in a mess. I mean take the way Bison Smith suddenly become #1 contender for Misawa’s belt. There was no build at all.

    New Japan aint running huge shows but this was the only way they could recover after the Inoki’s debacle. It is slow and will take time but the product has been solid, the booking has been good and finally the IWGP HW Title now means something again. I have faith in Nakumera to be the ace in the future!!

  8. Stevie (Not J) says:

    DRAGON GATE will likely sell out Kobe World Hall. Without question, they’re the hottest promotion in that region.

  9. Zack says:

    I went to Abdullah the Butcher’s resteraunt in Atlanta before. Good shit.

  10. chis says:

    When where the peak years for Pro Wrestling in Japan.
    I think something has to change as Japan is seen as the mecca for combat sports.

  11. Preach says:

    PWInsider is reporting that Chris Benoit, his wife Nancy (Woman) and their two children have been found dead in Atlanta.

    I’ve seen much in my 28 years as a wrestling fan, and seen the demise of many of my idols in this sport, but this? I’m seriously at a loss of words here…

  12. Tomer Chen says:

    When where the peak years for Pro Wrestling in Japan.

    It depends on what define as ‘peak years’, really. Giant Baba & Antonio Inoki dominated the 60s and early 70s era as the big names, Jumbo Tsuruta was a very good good drawing card during the mid 70s through the 80s, Riki Choshu was probably the biggest overall drawing card in Puroresu (besides arguably Inoki) in the 80s, though Akira Maeda stole away some of his limelight in the late 80s with the UWF venture (that branched out in UWF-i, RINGS, etc. in the early 90s) and AJPW and NJPW in the 90s tried to outclass each other with the ‘Four Corners of Heaven’ in Misawa, Kawada, Kobashi & Taue for AJPW and the ‘Three Musketeers’ in Mutoh, Hashimoto & Chono in NJPW (although Mutoh and Hashimoto tended to do most of the big business of the three, having a number of big Tokyo Dome sellouts against Nobuhiko Takada, amongst others).

    So yeah, in terms of overall drawing power, 80s Choshu or Inoki (in general) would top the lists. In terms of overall business, mid 90s NJPW is probably the ‘peak’ years in terms of a promotion, overall.

    PWInsider is reporting that Chris Benoit, his wife Nancy (Woman) and their two children have been found dead in Atlanta.

    …. :'( …

  13. Tomer Chen says:

    Forgot Rikidozan as the big name of the 50s into early 60s (when he died).

  14. liger05 says:

    New Japan was booming in the 90’s. Hashimoto drew 50,000 fans numerous occasions. If someone would of said 10 years ago in 2007 New Japan will not run huge dome shows I would of told them they are off there head. When Baba died it hurt the business badly. Baba was the one guy with integrity and a vision to make All Japan work. A Great great man who’s presence is badly missed in puroresu.

    If the beniot story is true I will be deeply deeply saddened. Beniot in New Japan was my favourite. The guy was amazing to watch. What intensity and offense. I dont watch WWE so aint seen any of his matches for a long time but still got my tapes & DVD’s with all his greatness!!!!

  15. liger05 says:

    Dave Meltzer’s latest update:

    The WWE just told its talent and released on its web site that Chris Benoit was found dead by Atlanta police.

    Benoit, wife Nancy aka Woman and son Daniel were all found dead. We have no other details at this moment. It is believed that Chris Benoit’s two other children were in Canada.

    All plans for Raw tonight have been scrapped and they will do a show on the life of Benoit.

  16. Ditch says:

    The wrestling business is about as thoroughly cursed as it can be. It devours lives and bodies. I can’t imagine that when the truth comes out in regards to Benoit, that wrestling will not have been the underlying cause. And if it wasn’t, it’s still a cursed business because so much touching it gets destroyed.

  17. Body_Shots says:

    Seems like pro wrestlers are dying every week now.

  18. Euthyphro says:

    I just saw the news. Awful.

  19. ChooChoo says:

    Dragon Gate just made their debut in Hawaii with AZW and the DVD is good. http://www.actionzonewrestling.com is where it took place and seems they are coming back and doing more with the promotion which has been hitting it’s stride as everyone from Teddy Hart to AJ Styles to Delirious, Jimmy Jacobs, Larry Sweeney are working with this promotion.

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