“Strong Style” is the term that springs to mind when Japanese professional wrestling is mentioned amongst most modern fans. But back in the 1990s, AJPW perfected a then unique variation that both propelled its in-ring product to legendary heights. But “King’s Road”, as it was known, ultimately also sowed the seeds that would bring about its downfall in the decades that followed.
In part one of this journey through one of the most enduring phenomena of Japanese wrestling, we chart the origins of both “King’s Road” as a style and AJPW itself.
A Short History of AJPW
Japan is today home to numerous promotions that vary greatly in terms of size, budget and the particular style of puro which they offer. But for the past four decades, the mainstream perception of the industry has rightly been dominated by New Japan Pro Wrestling, founded by Antonio Inoki and All Japan Pro Wrestling, founded by his contemporary and former time tag team partner, Shohei “Giant” Baba.
Both protégés of the great Rikidozan, the man who did the most to popularise professional wrestling with the Japanese public, Inoki and Baba could not have been more different as individuals, and this contrast in character would go on to also shape their respective companies over the years. Where Inoki courted the attention of the international press with inter-discipline matches against the likes of Muhammad Ali and saw the potential in bringing to life anime characters such as Tiger Mask, Baba presented a more conservative and less gimmick-dependent type of wrestling.
Formed in 1972 and after the death of Rikidozan, Baba’s AJPW eschewed the characters and angles of NJPW in favour of a physical style that managed to put across the narrative of its matches in a purely physical manner, relying on the skill of those in the ring and the connection they were able to establish with their audience.
But that was not to say that AJPW never played host to larger than life characters. As a member of the NWA for most of the seventies and eighties, a steady stream of Western names such as Dory Funk Jnr, Terry Funk, Mil Mascaras, Dos Caras, Bruiser Brody and Stan Hansen made the trip to Japan to work for Baba. From the very beginning, the most successful recipe had always been the indomitable Japanese ultimately triumphing over the physically intimidating gaijin (which is widely taken to mean “foreigner”, but is actually closer in meaning to “outsider”).
This formula worked well for Baba, with the exception of some singular gaijin talents being accepted by the Japanese fans as favourites after long familiarity, until around 1989 when the rapid and unprecedented expansion of the then WWF under Vincent K McMahon speeded the collapse of the NWA as a viable network of independent territories in the USA. Without access to the same pool of foreign talent, Baba was forced to rely more upon Japanese wrestlers as the mainstay of AJPW matches.
This was not disastrous by any means, as AJPW boasted a healthy roster of native talent at the time, including Mitsuharu Misawa, Akira Taue, Toshiaki Kawada, Kenta Kobashi, Jun Akiyama and veterans the likes of Jumbo Tsuruta and Genichiro Tenryu. But with a limited roster, inter-promotional matches not being in his comfort zone, and a reduced number of gaijin available to serve as novel attractions, Baba’s instincts as a savvy businessman suggested that a more sustainable solution was required.
The King’s Road & The Four Pillars of Heaven
The idea which Baba refined his booking style into would come to be referred to as “The King’s Road”, and unlike the term “Strong Style” (coined to describe the wrestling offered by rivals NJPW), it permeated every element of AJPW, to the degree where it would even come to influence the way in which the most dedicated fans read the goings on in the ring and reacted to what they saw transpire in a match.
As mentioned previously, the AJPW product was centred almost totally on in-ring action, without exaggerated characters, extravagant costumes or the kind of angles that were and still are the norm in US wrestling. In addition, the accumulation of wins and losses actually meant something within Baba’s booking, with rare and hard-won victories moving aspiring rookies slowly up the pecking order.
But in contrast, the close relationship that AJPW had always maintained with the NWA in the past meant that Baba had been heavily influenced by the US style of building a match steadily from the outset, pacing it carefully so that there was a definable middle and then finally upping the ante into an intense and satisfying finale.
The theory was that a core of Japanese wrestlers, sufficiently talented and able to deliver the kind of impassioned physical performances capable of really making the audience believe in the product, could become the focus of the company, and competing against one another perpetuate the AJPW brand for years to come.
Though it may have seemed like a blow to his long-term plans when in 1990 Genichiro Tenryu left the company to found his own (named Super World Sports, or SWS) and took with him the likes of Yoshiaki Yatsu and many other veterans, it cleared the way for the King’s Road to be centred upon younger talent, and so Misawa, Taue, Kawada, Kobashi and their contemporaries were the ones that Baba chose to push, virtually ensuring that they would become uniquely synonymous with a golden period in the history of AJPW.
Indeed, the quartet became so central to the success of the King’s Road style that they were often referred to as the “Four Pillars (or alternatively Four Walls) of Heaven” by fans, suggesting their presence was the very foundation of what made the flow of classic matches and the resulting golden era for AJPW possible.
The Hallmarks of King’s Road
As previously mentioned, King’s Road was essentially influenced by the US model of physical storytelling which built logically from the beginning to the end of a match, unlike NJPW’s “Strong Style” (which put more emphasis on redefining Japanese pro wrestling as a discipline of martial arts comparable to those in the real world).
Typically matches would begin with a feeling out period, in which the opponents would test one another physically with exchanges of strikes and then move onto the attacking of the logical body parts that their respective big signature moves targeted. The struggle would build rapidly from there, with both trying for moves and often duelling with multiple reversals, teasing their finishers until one fought through the pain and used adrenaline to fuel the “fighting spirit” needed to pull off a decisive move and claim the victory.
But as good as the matches which followed this formula were in the early 1990’s, perhaps the true genius of the King’s Road booking style was in Baba’s meticulous attention to the bigger picture and planning ahead over not only weeks and months, but also years. Each match fitted into the wider story being told in AJPW as a whole, and so fans could see a wrestler rise from the status of rookie, through the mid-card pack and finally to the point where he challenged the Four Pillars themselves. And whether the new challenger won or lost, the emotional pay-off for loyal fans was immense.
Even the choice of moves that a wrestler would utilise in their matches was nuanced in just such a way as to reflect the story being told. Top talents such as Misawa would frequently have more than one move that was supposedly enough to end a match (in Misawa’s case the Tiger Driver, Rolling Elbow and Emerald Flowsion). But the subtlety lay in the fact that while a lowly rookie would be felled by the first, a more experienced challenger might kick out of the same move and necessitate the use of the second, whereas surviving to take the third would truly indicate that a wrestler had arrived at a point in their career where they were to be regarded as a force to be reckoned with.
If a challenger tested, for example, Kobashi to the point where the needed to resort to the Burning Hammer, it simply did not matter that he would subsequently be pinned. The mere fact that such a supposedly devastating move was required of such an established talent indicated to the fans invested in the King’s Road narrative that respect had been earned and that it was due.
Perhaps this was the enduring beauty of Baba’s booking style – that the fans were so familiar with the deeper meaning of what was going on in the ring that they simply didn’t need to have it reinforced with interviews, gimmicked feuds and expensive vignettes. Instead, they simply digested the action and deciphered the same for themselves.
In Part 2 we examine the physical price which King’s Road extracted from the famous names which brought it to life and reflect upon its effects upon the course of Japanese pro wrestling in the years that followed its heydey and ask what accounts for its enduring popularity in Japan and beyond.