“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 two of this journey through one of the most enduring phenomena of Japanese wrestling, we examine the physical realities of the “King’s Road” style for those participating in the matches, and the enduring popularity of the era, as well as its influence upon the course of Japanese pro wrestling even after the end of its heyday.
The Price of Success
Some still maintain to this day that the matches from the 1990’s heydey of AJPW represent the very best in the history of professional wrestling. But whether or not an individual viewer agrees with that assertion, it cannot be denied that there has never been a more physically dangerous and demanding style of traditional professional wrestling than that of the King’s Road ideal.
When you add this excessive physical demand to the long-term booking style which Baba favoured, and the heightened expectations of the fans to see ever more intense and lengthy battles between those at the very top of the roster, you realise that it was inevitable that the wear and tear would begin to have an effect upon those involved in the matches.
Whereas in the past, there had been the option of alleviating this burden on the top stars by bringing in foreigners in the shape of US talent, by the time the cracks began to show in the mid-nineties, the then WWF and WCW had begun the rivalry which would culminate in the so-called ‘Monday Night Wars’. So now, those same gaijin could command ever higher numbers of zeroes on their contracts from one or the other of the big American companies rather than far less for a tour of AJPW and a punishing round of matches with the Japanese stars on the roster.
Neither could the problem be solved by simply creating a new native sensation from the existing wrestlers under contract, as the long-winded narrative of the King’s Road simply would not lend credence to a wrestler suddenly seeming to leapfrog to the head of the queue. The same fans who had invested so much in the step-by-step nature of AJPW’s style could not be expected to simply overlook the same rules when it suited the company that they do so.
Rather than acknowledge this fatal flaw, Baba pressed on with the same formula into the late nineties, and the result was an inevitable decline in the overall quality of the in-ring action, whilst the emphasis came to be placed more and more upon the duels of punishment and the trading of ever more impressive and yet hazardous moves. Ironically this only served to speed the demise of the once great King’s Road style and devalue what followed in its wake.
Death of a Legend/End of an Era
In early 1999 the wrestling world was shocked to learn of the death of Shohei “Giant” Baba from stomach cancer. The habitually private and business-like founder of AJPW had kept the knowledge of his illness to a small number of confidantes. His passing left his wife, Mokoto Baba, as majority share-holder and Misawa as company president. This situation would not last, as in May of 2000 Misawa was voted out of his position by the executive board of the company, in response to which he promptly resigned, taking with him all but two of the Japanese wrestlers on the AJPW roster.
Misawa and those who followed him in leaving (including Kobashi and Taue), founded Pro-Wrestling NOAH in June of 2000, and when asked at the press conference held to publicize the launch just why he chose to leave AJPW, answered that it was because he wanted to promote wrestling “in a modern style”.
But while NOAH visibly embraced the fog machines, lasers and lightshows that would have been an anathema to Baba’s AJPW, it was clear that it retained at least the ghost of the King’s Road style in terms of lengthy matches that were characterised by striking, conquering pain and breaking out ever more impressive and physically demanding moves to finish an encounter.
NOAH burned brightly for a good few years, before the same old problems reared their ugly heads just as they had previously in AJPW. Misawa, Kobashi and Taue were all well past their prime at the time of NOAH’s formation, and the need to elevate new talent was still there as well as the lengthy process of doing so. Just when the veterans who had jumped from AJPW should have been winding down their careers and stepping aside for younger successors, they instead were required to use their former status to establish a new company.
Repeated knee injuries from years of moonsaults eliminated Kobashi from the title picture for extended periods of time and Taue was simply too broken down to have a hope of replacing him, so the task fell to Misawa himself. Repeatedly a younger wrestler would be chosen to step up to the role and have Misawa drop the company’s GHC (Globally Honoured Crown) championship to them, and repeatedly the fans simply refused to accept the newcomer as the future.
While NOAH paid the price as a company for the way in which the fans had been taught to expect so much from the performance of the wrestlers in the ring, Misawa paid the ultimate price when in 2009 he suffered a spinal injury from a belly-to-back suplex during a tag match. This resulted in cardiac arrest and though he was rushed to hospital, he was declared dead later in the night. There could be no illusion that taking dozens of similarly punishing moves over the span of a phenomenal career which should have ended years before had played a role in the tragic end of a true Japanese superstar of professional wrestling.
The Enduring Legacy of King’s Road
The deaths of Baba and Misawa were not the end of AJPW and NOAH respectively, each company survived under new leadership and still exists today, though it is impossible to argue with the fact that both are mere shadows of their former selves. Most of those made famous by the King’s Road style are in a similar state, either long retired or else limping on as veterans unable to recapture the dizzying heights of their youth.
The matches that made the names of the companies and the wrestlers are, of course, still out there and can easily be found on sites such as YouTube. They retain their astounding quality and appeal, making them essential fodder for anyone wanting to appreciate the highest zenith yet achieved by Japanese professional wrestling and are made all the easier to appreciate to the Western viewer thanks to the familiar blueprint of basic storytelling via moves and logical progression.
While there is the moral question of just how much these matches cost the participants in the longer term, a quick perusal of just who is making waves in Japanese wrestling today shows that NJPW, with their Western influenced bookers in Gedo and Jado, have made massive strides in introducing characters, storylines and gimmicks into the company’s product, thus dramatically lessening the need to rely upon physically gruelling and ultimately debilitating moves.
To the writer, this means that matches from the King’s Road period can now be enjoyed as glorious nostalgia, without the guilt of knowing that a generation of prodigious native Japanese talent are engaged in the act of destroying themselves in order to demonstrate that they have fighting spirit. So watch the King’s Road matches for the unique spectacle that they are, and know that no one else will have to walk it again.
Walk the King’s Road
- Mitsuharu Misawa vs Toshiaki Kawada, Triple Crown Championship Match, AJPW 06/03/94: A quintessential example of a high-stakes King’s Road match, some have even gone as far as to describe this as the greatest singles encounter of all time.
- Mitsuharu Misawa & Kenta Kobashi vs Toshiaki Kawada & Akira Taue, World’s Strongest Tag League Final, AJPW, 12/06/96: Featuring all “Four Pillars of Heaven”, this is probably the best encapsulation of the entire phenomenon anyone can hope to see.
- Strong Style vs King’s Road: Though a blog entry on the differences between the respective styles of NJPW and AJPW, this piece is exhaustive in its analysis of the creation and details of King’s Road (link: http://mayhem-the-mutilator.blogspot.co.uk/2008/12/stron-style-v-kings-road.html ).