In the main event of the of Giant Baba’s Memorial Card. The biggest names in the Japanese industry got together to put on a show. Hiroshi Tanahashi tagged with Yoshitatsu to take on current Triple Crown title holder Kento Miyahara and Big Japan stalwart Daisuke Sekimoto. Also making appearances were the Ace of Pro Wrestling NOAH, Naomichi Marufuji and Wrestle-1 front man Keiji Mutoh.
BJW, Wrestle-1, and NOAH represent three strains of the King’s Road learning tree. BJW, has built itself to be one of the most artistically diverse and financially stable outfits in all of wrestling. Pro Wrestling NOAH was formed out a battle for the very soul of the King’s Road philosophy, and at one time it was THE promotion in Japan. The third path of King’s Road was taken by Wrestle-1. This is the story of what happened after Baba. Or at least with BJW, what happened towards the end of his imperious money making phase.
Big Japan Pro Wrestling was started in 1995 by Shinya Kojika and Kendo Nagasaki (no, the other Kendo Nagasaki). Having seen the growth of Death Match wrestling first in FMW and then in W*ING and the IWA, they wondered if something similar could be achieved on a smaller budget. Building a tight and we’ll trained roster, they focused on story telling over production. The result was that while the matches are sometimes contrived to fit the environment, the long term growth of the company was assured. That ensured the attraction of better talent, slowly and over time, they built up stars like Jun Kasai and Abdullah Kobayashi.
Kasai became such a big star he was able to start his own death match company Freedoms. They also branched out into more traditional wrestling forms and today stack two rosters, one for death matches and on for Strong Style. A thriving Junior Division also exists. They also explored working agreements, first with New Japan, then CZW and eventually a long term agreement with DDT and K-Dojo which enabled them to have greater exposure and offer more diverse match-ups.
NOAH was a whole different story and takes us back to All Japan after the death of Baba. Motoko Baba, Shohei’s widow found herself in charge of a large empire, and she had strict instructions from her husband and within her own wrestling philosophy to keep All Japan pure. A closed door policy to collaboration, and to keep the King’s Road style. However the one downfall of King’s Road is that it makes it harder for younger talent to break through.
With such a prescribed match structure, the unexpected can’t happen and while the Four Pillars of Heaven: Taue, Kawada, Kobashi and Misawa were gunning strong, they’d wrestled each other into a corner. Taue, Misawa and Kobashi were itching to try something new, however upon Baba’s death, Motoko named Misawa President of the company so long as he kept to the tradition of All Japan, but tensions arose almost immediately. After a year of struggle with his new role, he couldn’t take the restrictions placed upon him. He and over half of the roster quit the company to form Pro Wrestling NOAH.
Relying on the tested and true tropes of King’s Road but with a liberal mixing of guests from outside promotions it would become a smash hit. Elevating men like Jun Akiyama, Naomichi Marufuji, home built stars like Takeshi Morishima, KENTA (better known to western fans as Hideo Itami) and Go Shiozaki, but also brought in stars like Yoshihiro Takayama from the UWF and Minoru Suzuki from Pancrasse. As Misawa said he wanted to try something different, and he did, but he also kept the principals of his mentor. Dynamic fights built on logic and conclusive match results. Count Outs and Disqualifications were the cheap way out. Make everything count.
Where did this leave All Japan? Motoka Baba knew she was in deep trouble and it would take a bold manoeuvre to right the company. So what do you do when the unthinkable happens? Giant Baba vowed he would never let Genichiro Tenryu wrestle for his beloved promotion ever again. Motoko Baba, backed into a corner and lacking star power hired him more or less on the spot. Tenryu would come in and make a run at the Triple Crown reclaiming the prize that he had helped forge a decade before. The next move was even bolder, long time Junior Heavyweight mainstay and Masanobu Fuchi turned up on a New Japan card declaring he was going to tear the walls down between the two companies. Riki Choshu, then booker of NJPW, welcomed him with a handshake and a smile.
Breaking two of Baba’s rules was a good start, it stopped the bleeding but Motoko needed a long term vision and after two years she found her man. By 2001, Keiji Mutoh had built a new faction that was truly revolutionary. Featuring fighters from different companies and even from MMA, Bad Ass Translate Trading wasn’t just the best named faction ever, it also took wrestling into a whole different set of possibilities and rested on Mutoh’s personal philosophy of wrestling; Wrestle Love. All wrestling and every tradition is equally valid, so we should be fans of wrestling. He would beat Tenryu for the Triple Crown in a barn burning epic, and on the 30th Anniversary of the founding of All Japan, Motoko Baba handed her husband’s company lock stock and barrel to Mutoh.
Mutoh would helm the company for a decade, but would eventually stand down in favour of Nobuo Shiraishi in 2012. Mutoh was due to be put back in charge under new owners Speed Partners, but negotiations broke down and as a result Mutoh resigned. He would go on to form a new company called Wrestle-1. The wrestlers loyal to Mutoh like Kaz Hayashi, Seiya Sanada (now just SANADA in NJPW), and Minoru Tanaka joined the new company and All Japan was left to rebuild. Thankfully they had an ace up their sleeve.
Unhappy at NOAH, Atsushi Aoki, Go Shiozaki, Jun Akiyama, Kotaro Suzuki and Yoshinobu Kanemaru, jumped to All Japan and they would be the backbone of storylines in the year up to Mutoh’s departure. Shiraishi would hand over to Jun Akiyama in 2014. Akiyama has steered the company using a model of steady growth in much the same way as BJW, concentrating on homegrown stars and limited special attractions.
These four companies have the most direct line to the King’s Road legacy and while relations have been frosty down the years, there has been a thaw in the last twelve months. NOAH and All Japan co-promoted last year which featured a debate on the history of the two companies between Naomichi Marufuji and Toshiaki Kawada. Kawada admitted it was probably the first long conversation he’d had with one of Japanese wrestling’s biggest stars purely because as a rookie in All Japan he had been associated with a rival faction and therefore Kawada did his best to ignore the rookie to protect kayfabe.
Throughout this series we’ve explored the historic perspective of Baba’s work, but how does this impact on the real world of wrestling today? Jay Bradley made his Pro Wrestling NOAH last year and has also spent time in Wrestle-1: “I loved working with NOAH and hope to be back in Japan in the future. AJPW & NOAH have had huge influences on my style especially the gaijin heavyweights. So working NOAH or AJPW was always a goal of mine.”.
He also knows what makes the King’s Road style stand out; “Strong mat grappling, strikes, suplexes, submission holds. Very little over the top characters. Strong, tough athletic men attempting to assert their dominance of will onto their opponent. .” Jay grew to prominence as Ryan Braddock in the WWE and as Aiden O’Shea, Billy Corgan’s Chicago connection bodyguard in Impact Wrestling, so when I asked him the difference between the Majors in America and Japan he was very direct “NOAH is much more athletic based, produced from a sports standpoint and perspective. Impact is very North American style which is heavy on entertainment and a hybrid of many styles worldwide.”
Dann Read is a promoter and booker for the XWA and Pro Wrestling EVE, his understanding of Baba has stood him in good stead in his career. “The main things that I always read up on Baba, and I still don’t know enough, was his booking philosophy and his structure. I think the key thing that stood out was how far in advance he seemed to plan, I loved the call backs. If you watch EVE you’ll see there are a lot of call backs to things, I don’t believe in stuff being done for the sake of being done.”
That logical booking approach has bled through all of the derivative companies to some extent. “Although She 1 (EVE’s annual singles tournament) is clearly a take on the G1 (Climax, NJPW’s annual heavyweight league tournament), the importance of that style and theory of booking is far more influenced from All Japan than New Japan. If you look at the 2017-18 run up to Wrestle Queendom and right up to now there are numerous call backs going on but you can clearly see the Charlie Morgan/Sammii Jayne storyline that has more to it at now you look back at it, there are bits going on even now. So that when Charlie’s story with Sammii was complete she had something to move on to.”
Baba’s ideas and philosophies may have been strict and defined in ways that were perhaps to constraining, but the biggest bonus to King’s Road is that it is an unbeatable storytelling platform. It affects all the wrestling you see in Japan, Tomohiro Ishii is a King’s Road guy, so are SANADA, Yoshinobu Kanemaru, Kassius Ohno and Cesaro. The premier storytellers in Pro Wrestling history, whether it be Daniel Bryan, Gedo, Vince McMahon, Harley Race, and indeed Ric Flair have worked with or under on the path of King’s Road in its many forms, and to quote Flair, when it comes to Baba, they all pay homage to The Man.