In June 1976, professional wrestler Kanji “Antonio” Inoki took on iconic American boxer Muhammad Ali at the Nippon Budokan arena in Tokyo in a fight that would be broadcast to an estimated global audience of 1.4 billion.

The vaguely comical bout, which ended in a face-saving draw, has been described as a precursor to modern mixed martial arts.

More than 40 years later, professional wrestling in Japan looks very different now than it did in the capital on that rainy Saturday. On Oct. 8, International Wrestling Grand Prix heavyweight champion Tyson Smith, better known by his ring name Kenny Omega, defended his title at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan in an unusual three-way match against Kota Ibushi and Cody “the American Nightmare” Rhodes at New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s King of Pro-Wrestling event.

Omega concluded the bout with his finishing move, lifting Ibushi in a seated position on his shoulders before dropping to the canvas, rolling his opponent’s head forward and pile-driving the wrestler onto the back of his shoulders. The Winnipeg native calls this move his “One-Winged Angel,” or “Katayoku no Tenshi” as it is commonly known among fans.

That Omega faced two challengers for his heavyweight title in October is in and of itself a reflection of how far things have come since Inoki ruled the ring during pro-wrestling’s golden era of the 1970s and ’80s.

Kanji ‘Antonio’ Inoki kicks American boxer Muhammad Ali in the thigh during a fight at the Nippon Budokan arena in Tokyo in June 1976. | KYODO

In Inoki’s day, the high-profile wrestler was the very heart and soul of the domestic industry. Inoki founded New Japan Pro-Wrestling in 1972 and immediately placed himself at the center of the roster. He was very much the star of the show.

A few decades later, however, the landscape is completely different.

Inoki sold his majority stake in New Japan Pro-Wrestling in 2005, a move that opened the doors to a brand new generation of fighters.

Leading the charge was Hiroshi Tanahashi, who won the International Wrestling Grand Prix heavyweight title seven times between 2006 and 2014. Tanahashi was viewed by fans as a natural successor to Inoki, bringing a sense of narcissism and style to the ring that enhanced his wrestling reputation. Tanahashi, 42, has also been proactive about embracing social media, keeping fans entertained with regular updates on his blog, Twitter and Instagram.

Since 2012, 31-year-old Kazuchika Okada has also been in the mix. Nicknamed “the Rainmaker” due to the former International Wrestling Grand Prix champion’s ability to bring in buckets of cash for the company he represents, Okada has attracted numerous fans owing to his youthful looks and strength.

As a result of the expanded roster, wrestling fans are now significantly more engaged in championship fights than they once were.

Haruna Kanno, a 25-year-old sports company employee, has been following pro-wrestling since 2015. She says she has heard tales of pro-wrestling’s glory days in the ’70s and ’80s, but is far more interested in the modern aspects of the sport, particularly its attempts to attract female fans as well as families.

“I had heard that the fans watching the fights would be aggressive,” Kanno says. “I had also heard that some fans would wait for the wrestlers to leave the arena, almost as if they intended to kill them. If that really was the case, I wouldn’t attend any fights.”

These days, Kanno attends several New Japan Pro-Wrestling fights a year.

Wrestler Rikidozan strikes an opponent during a bout in 1962.
Wrestler Rikidozan strikes an opponent during a bout in 1962. | KYODO

Popular pastime

Japan’s pro-wrestling history can be traced back to Mitsuhiro Momota, a Korean Japanese wrestler who became better known as Rikidozan and is considered to be the father of pro-wrestling in the country.

Rikidozan trained to be a sumo wrestler before making his wrestling debut in 1951 against Bobby Bruns. He defeated one foreign wrestler after another, inspiring television audiences nationwide to follow his exploits in a postwar era in which the population was looking for a hero. Rikidozan was more than happy to adopt this mantle, ending fights with his signature karate chop move that was based on sumo’s harite.

Rikidozan died in December 1963 after being stabbed with a urine-soaked knife by a gang member in a Tokyo nightclub, but not before establishing the Japan Pro-Wrestling Alliance and training Shohei “Giant” Baba and Inoki, who both went on to become legends in their own right.

Baba and Inoki initially worked for the same promoter, before Inoki left in 1972 to launch his own agency. Baba, a 208-centimeter wrestler who had formerly been a Yomiuri Giants pitcher, formed All-Japan Pro-Wrestling later the same year.

Shohei ‘Giant’ Baba poses with his championship belt in June 1966. | KYODO

As far as their public personas were concerned, Baba and Inoki couldn’t have been more different. While Baba championed a conventional style of wrestling, Inoki was more ambitious and organized bouts that didn’t specifically involve wrestling. Inoki’s fight against Ali in 1976 is perhaps the most obvious example of this.

Both organizations were popular on prime-time television over the next two decades, with New Japan Pro-Wrestling typically recording ratings of more than 20 percent for its 8 p.m. Friday night slot.

In the 1990s, however, interest in wrestling in Japan started to drop off following Baba’s death and Inoki’s retirement. Smaller promoters started to get in on the act, with other organizations seeking to attract fans who were interested in more hard-core fights.

Interest continued to drop off in the early 2000s with the emergence of mixed martial arts events such as the Pride Fighting Championship and K-1.

Such events spurred New Japan Pro-Wrestling to add mixed martial arts components to the bill. The promoter had seen sales drop from more than ¥3.9 billion in 1997 to ¥1.1 billion in 2011.

Katsuhiko Kanazawa, former managing editor of Weekly Gong magazine, remembers the drop-off in popularity well.

Kanazawa says the magazine had once sold as many as 120,000 copies a week in early 1999. As interest in mixed martial arts grew, however, circulation fell by more than 50 percent by 2004.

“I was in complete shock,” says Kanazawa, who now serves as a freelance writer and analyst for New Japan Pro-Wrestling. “We couldn’t do anything about it. Whatever we did, it couldn’t reverse the decline.”

Character creation

Despite the increasing lack of interest in the sport, domestic promoters have been able to keep their heads above water.

Kanji ‘Antonio’ Inoki fights Ric Flair in 1995. | KYODO

A number of local agencies have been launched that offer fans unique content they are unlikely to find anywhere else in the world. Big Japan Pro Wrestling, for example, organizes hard-core deathmatch-style contests in the same vein as Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling, using weapons such as barbed wire, nails and fluorescent light tubes that are not usually seen in mainstream wrestling.

Similarly, Dramatic Dream Team organizes fights that frequently parody pro-wrestling matches. Offering a distinct Japanese touch to performances, the promoter stages bouts in off-the-wall places such as in a campsite or at a bookstore. It has even arranged fights between a wrestler and a rubber doll.

The undisputed king of wrestling promotion in the country, however, is New Japan Pro-Wrestling. The agency has been so successful in recent years that rival promoters have been forced to turn to gimmicks in order to attract an audience.

Video game developer Yuke’s Co. Ltd. bought a controlling interest in the promotion agency from Inoki in 2005 before eventually selling it to trading card company Bushiroad Inc. in 2012.

Former Bushiroad President Takaaki Kidani, who shares a love of pro-wrestling himself, decided to increase his wrestlers’ media exposure, featuring them in advertising campaigns and TV commercials.

The moves have paid off, with New Japan Pro-Wrestling believed to have earned as much as ¥4.9 billion from sales revenue in 2018, an increase of more than ¥1 billion from the previous year.

What’s more, the agency says annual merchandise sales have increased fourfold from the figures it was recording five years ago.

Wrestler Hiroshi Tanahashi dives on top of Jay White during a New Japan Pro-Wrestling event at Tokyo
Wrestler Hiroshi Tanahashi dives on top of Jay White during a New Japan Pro-Wrestling event at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan in October. | COURTESY OF NEW JAPAN PRO-WRESTLING

The promoter’s success has been primarily driven by an influx of female fans, with almost 40 percent of crowds at New Japan Pro-Wrestling events now estimated to be women.

The promoter has also given the wrestlers more complex personalities, presenting fights as confrontations between two individuals as opposed to a showdown between good and evil.

Harold George Meij, president and chief executive officer of New Japan Pro-Wrestling, says a lot of thought goes into a wrestler’s personality before they enter the ring.

Meij, 55, says each wrestler has also been placed within a specific team unit, giving them something they can work with in terms of the overall narrative.

“The units are extremely important,” says Meij, former president of Tomy Co. Ltd., who was hired by New Japan Pro-Wrestling in June to improve marketing. “Allegiances can change at any time and that’s something that’s quite unique.”

Meij, who spent a part of his childhood in Japan, compares bouts to a movie.

“If we compare a fight to a two-hour movie, the fight itself takes place in the final 10 minutes,” he says. “The rest of the movie is all about explaining the background behind the conflict. It’s primarily about the characters. Why don’t they like each other? Or maybe they do actually like each other?”

Kenny Omega celebrates after winning a fight at Tokyo
Kenny Omega celebrates after winning a fight at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan in October. | COURTESY OF NEW JAPAN PRO-WRESTLING

Global audience

New Japan Pro-Wrestling has also been careful to include fans in the process as much as possible, publishing interviews and insights into the things that take place behind the scenes on its New Japan World streaming service, which was inaugurated in 2014.

Omega admits he wouldn’t have been as popular as he is today if he was competing back in the sport’s golden days. He acknowledges the power of the internet in that regard.

“Times have changed,” he says. “The boom in social media and digital streaming has opened the doors and whether or not you’re based in Japan, Malaysia, Egypt or wherever, it doesn’t really matter anymore. Everyone on the planet can view your content, so it’s not necessary to focus too much on how one should appeal to a particular market.

“In that sense, you just have to go with who is the best — who is the best for your business and who is your best performer.”

The reigning International Wrestling Grand Prix champion has a point.

The agency’s New Japan World streaming service has attracted more than 100,000 subscribers to date, with viewers tuning in from countries as far afield as New Zealand and Tonga.

U.S. wrestling fan Adam Jennings, 33, moved to Japan from Chicago to watch Japanese pro-wrestling in person nearly two years ago.

Growing up without wrestling on TV as a teenager in the United States, Jennings was once forced to order copies of specific fights on VHS videotape. The launch of the streaming site has gone a long way to correcting this issue.

Jennings believes that promoters need to be more aware of their audience’s behavior online these days. Gone are the days of prime-time TV, he says.

“In the ’80s, prime time TV was a big deal,” Jennings says. “But how many 20-year-olds do you know that are going to sit down on a Friday night and watch TV in their living rooms? People go to school, they go to work and they go to concerts. … Therefore, appearing on a prime time show doesn’t really work anymore because it’s not the same as it used to be.”

It’s worth noting that New Japan Pro-Wrestling has taken measures to promote bouts abroad.

In 2018, it organized tours to Australia, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

On April 6, the promoter is set to co-host an event at New York’s Madison Square Garden, which Meij calls “the holy grail of pro-wrestling.”

Wrestler Hiroshi Tanahashi wins the G1 Climax tournament in August.
Wrestler Hiroshi Tanahashi wins the G1 Climax tournament in August. | COURTESY OF NEW JAPAN PRO-WRESTLING

Title challenges

Despite its success, New Japan Pro-Wrestling still faces a number of challenges.

Its biggest headache is trying to come up with a way to compete against World Wrestling Entertainment, the world’s largest wrestling promoter. World Wrestling Entertainment earns an estimated annual revenue that exceeds $800 million.

Ranked No. 2 in the world, New Japan Pro-Wrestling often struggles to retain its top stars, with defections to World Wrestling Entertainment an appealing option for up-and-coming wrestlers. Omega has even been mentioned as a possible candidate to accept such a move.

However, Tanahashi believes there’s always someone looking to fill the void left in the wake of such defections.

“If a wrestler or two leaves, there’s tons of others that are looking to fill the spots available,” Tanahashi says. “It’s been this way from the beginning, so there’s little point worrying about it.”

A large portrait of Inoki used to hang on the wall inside one of New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s training facilities in Tokyo’s Kaminoge neighborhood.

However, Tanahashi decided to take the portrait down, suggesting he is happy to make a break with the past in order to move forward in the future.

“It was weird to have a photo of Inoki on the wall even though he is no longer associated with New Japan Pro-Wrestling,” says Tanahashi, who will challenge for Omega’s International Wrestling Grand Prix belt in Wrestle Kingdom, an annual event for the company that is scheduled to be held at Tokyo Dome on Jan. 4. “Many of the current fans haven’t heard of Rikidozan and didn’t grow up watching Inoki or Baba. We shouldn’t get distracted by old memories.”

So where does Japanese pro-wrestling go to from here? As a form of entertainment, it must keep evolving with the times, meaning that it probably won’t look the same as it does now in 10 or 20 years time.

“Pro-wrestling has always been forced to answer people who have criticized it for not being real,” Kanazawa says. “However, it now exists as a legitimate sport. You can’t take that away from it.”

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