COVID-19 becoming a global pandemic in early 2020 would influence everybody in all walks of life, and, indeed, professional wrestling. As NJPW specifically was growing more active overseas, the pandemic would necessitate a significant change in plans.

NJPW STRONG would be born in the tumultuous summer of 2020 and has earned a reputation as must-watch programming every Friday night. With the LA Dojo Showcase on April 30 set to showcase the bright future that New Japan Pro-Wrestling has in the US and around the world, NJPW President Takami Ohbari gave his views on STRONG’s progression and international business plans.

On NJPW STRONG concept and success

“I’ve said this elsewhere, but when it comes to taking pro-wrestling internationally, it’s a real ‘land, sea and air’ approach. Well, first you have the ‘land’ part, which is obviously running events in the territory. ‘Sea’ is shipping merchandise. ‘Air’ is international content, be it video, apps or what have you. When we started our American subsidiary, we started with the ‘land’ aspect. Live events were really going to be the spark plug that would drive merchandise sales at venues, and the ‘air’ aspect of selling packaged TV and growing usage of apps and NJPW World. Now, obviously, when COVID struck, our engine was missing a spark plug. In the end, though, it took a different form, and became an empty arena format, with Tokon Shop Global being established alongside it.”

On finding talents in a pandemic context

“So the next hurdle to overcome was talent. We started out focused on the LA Dojo members and NJPW wrestlers who lived in the US. As we went along, more and more wrestlers were able to join that rotation, and the show started to build its own identity, even as we were all trying to get through this pandemic. With that identity came more wrestlers approaching us, be they freelancers or from other companies, all wanting to be a part of the program, and now you have STRONG as you see it today. We might not have a crowd there every week, but the point is that the spark plug is in the engine. You have the matches there, and that allows us to spin off into making other content around those matches, or allowing other parts of the business to function. That was the key priority in Japan last summer as well; putting those procedures in place and allowing matches to happen in no crowd or restricted crowd scenarios. Getting that engine started.”

On NJPW fans wanting to see NJoA wrestlers in Japan

“That’s exactly what we want to see from NJoA. Up to now, New Japan has been exclusively about Japan. Until very recently, the only way to see a New Japan wrestler live outside of Japan was in another company. And vice versa; the only path for wrestlers from overseas to compete in an NJPW ring was an incredibly difficult one. What we have in STRONG is a mid-way point. That’s what I’ve always wanted to build. Now we have a place for wrestlers from all these other promotions to get together. It’s a place for wrestlers you’ve never seen before and matches you’ve never seen before. Without a practical example, it was hard for me to go out in that press conference in November 2019 and say ‘listen, this is going to benefit fans all over the world’, but now it’s happening.”

His opinion on the STRONG wrestlers 

“The LA Dojo was set up in March 2018, so the original three members are three years in at this point- although Karl Fredericks has already graduated now. I think the output from there has been outstanding in every aspect. Heart, body, technique, everything. And then you have Kevin Knight, and The DKC in the mix too, of course. I really think those initial members, Karl, Clark and Alex are exceptional. Karl has that superstar aura. Alex, Shibata called him a giant baby at one point but he’s just superhuman. Then Connors has that intense brutality to him. But he’s cool with it, right? (laughs) DKC feels like he’s on his own hero’s journey like he’s out of a comic book, and Kevin Knight lives up to that ‘Jet’ nickname with how athletic he is. Then they each have that Shibata-ism in them that just makes them all impossible to ignore.”

“And Ren Narita is there too, right? He has that old school ’80s NJPW sense to him, transplanted in the modern US. That’s a real compelling growth to watch. Narita’s like an exchange student, it feels like. The thinking behind the LA Dojo when we set it up was that if we had a Dojo in the US, we could have a lot of people come by and offer the benefit of their experience there. It could be experienced freelancers or people from a lot of disciplines that help train and teach these guys. There are names I can’t talk about right at this moment that are able to go there and pass on a lot to these LA Dojo guys. There’s so much for them to learn that it would be hard for them to do without the environment we’ve created.”

On his expectations for STRONG

“It’s been a presence, and it’s grown over the last ten months. We’ve got a championship now as well. This is a bit of a personal aim, and it isn’t something we’ve talked about internally at all, but I’d like the fans in Japan to experience STRONG as is. Bring STRONG to Japan as-is for an event here, or have one of the STRONG wrestlers come over to pick a fight with one of the Japanese wrestlers. I’d like our Japanese fans to see STRONG in person for themselves. I think whether you have individuals wanting to make a name for themselves, or make a name for their factions, or want to make a name for STRONG and have a sense of rivalry with the main product in Japan, if there’s anyone who’d like to try it, I’m more than happy to offer my support.”

“I think putting crowds in there is the first step here. That’s a start; from there, maybe the STRONG champion will want to take that title around the US. Or maybe he’ll want to take that title here to Japan and wrestle someone on the NJPW roster. Hey, maybe he’d take that belt with him to Japan on his own dime and want to show up somewhere different. I want to hear out all of these ideas.”

On cross-promotional work between AEW, IMPACT, ROH and NJPW

” I think that topic is something that doesn’t just apply to STRONG but NJPW at large. For me to say ‘NJPW is doing business with company X, so you need to go over there and wrestle’, that’s backward to me. I will say this until I’m blue in the face: this is a star-driven business, and the wrestlers are the focus. So if our wrestlers say ‘I want to wrestle that guy’ ‘I want to test myself against that guy’ ‘I want to show that I’m better than that guy’. Then it becomes our job as a company to do what we can to back them, make it happen and make it successful. We’re in the dream business. Presenting them, and making them real. Having a linear approach to business, that only restricts us and stops fans from getting invested.”

“When you look at things overseas right now, especially in the US, there are a lot of wrestlers who want to come to Japan, and can’t, right? Even if you get into the country, you have to quarantine. But STRONG is there for those guys. That is authentic, genuine New Japan Pro-Wrestling. If you want to be in NJPW, and you’re good enough, this door is open: come in, come do what you can do, and we’ll make sure the world can watch it. That goes for the fans too; if there’s a match you guys want to see, we’ll do what we can to make it happen.”

All pics courtesy of NJPW, Impact Wrestling and AEW