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Is AJPW in Perfect Position to Take On New Japan?

3 years ago

Is AJPW in Perfect Position to Take On New Japan?

By: Sam Gladen

It seemed to have come out of nowhere, except to all but the diehard fans. AJPW has seen a dramatic increase in quality content and popularity recently – just as people watch NJPW grapple with its share of inconsistencies.

Of course, NJPW and AJPW have shared history since 1972. The promotions were formed by wrestling kingpins Antonio Inoki (NJPW) and Giant Baba (AJPW), multiple time NWA International Tag Team Champions who initially met while training with Rikidozan. Puroresu has enjoyed a branching of styles through the rival promotions as a result, and as competitive as they might appear, All Japan and New Japan have shared talent and co-promoted events – until New Japan became the clear- cut Japanese wrestling leader in the late 2000s. As Hiroshi Tanahashi passed the torch to Kazuchika Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 9, NJPW put an exclamation point on its international popularity with the addition of premiere gaijin talent and an online streaming service even further leaving All Japan to play catch-up.

Even through leadership changes, NJPW has remained on top without a challenge, until very recently.

They’ve struggled to establish new dojo graduates while instituting a brand split, with NJPW of America taking popular wrestlers away from the main card for months on end. Combined with Covid-19 circumstances, it’s left veterans like Yuji Nagata, Satoshi Kojima and Tanahashi to pick up the slack. I’m not calling this a downturn for the company – yet – but one thing is for sure: All Japan is right on their heels in terms of wrestling talent.

AJPW Youth Movement

AJPW has soared in 2021. Mainstays Kento Miyahara and Jake Lee have been mixing it up in fantastic matches – while leading their respective stables, NEXTREAM and Total Eclipse, throughout the year. New Japan used the pandemic as an excuse to overbook their veterans, compared with AJPW which has felt fresh with each new match and plot twist.

All Japan has strapped a rocket to talent like Francesco Akira, a 22-year-old high flyer from Bergamo, Italy. Akira, only 22 and already winning the Junior League and holding the World Junior Heavyweight title, separates AJPW from their competitors.

By comparison, All Japan has not shied away from expediting the graduation of its young crop, rewarding them for their loyalties and giving them a chance to prove themselves. One such man is Yuma Aoyagi – born in 1995. His debut came in 2014 and he’s established himself as a major player in the company. Aoyogi held the All Asia Tag Team Championships twice and the World Tag

Team Championship once with Miyahara – and also won the 2020 AJPW World’s Strongest Tag Determination League with Miyahara to establish their dominance in the tag division.

Another young rising star is Yuma’s brother Atsuki. Born in 1999, Atsuki made his debut in
2019, joining his brother in NEXTREAM. Atsuki is widely considered one of the best talents in the
company. Building fan support as his wins start piling up, it’s only a matter of time before Atsuki
is unleashed as a force in the Japanese wrestling scene.

Jake Lee’s Explosion Onto the Scene

Jake Lee is the feel good story of AJPW. Trained by Keiji Mutoh and the late Atsushi Aoki, Lee debuted in August 2011 in his early 20s. The future looked very bright.

However, two months into his career, Lee suffered a small injury and was unable to compete on their next tour. It was at this point Lee asked himself, “Why am I doing this?” Because of that self-questioning, “[My] heart broke.”

Lee made the bold decision to retire from wrestling and travelled into the world of MMA. Although Lee was successful, he still had regrets leaving wrestling under such sudden circumstances. Following this sabbatical and soul-searching, Lee finally returned to AJPW in 2015 joining new faction NEXTREAM, a group based around young talent and generational change.

While he showed flashes of promise early on, it was now clear to see. Lee has gone on to have several incredible matches, racking up tournament and title wins en route to the most coveted prize in AJPW: the Triple Crown Championship. On June 26, 2021, at Champion’s Night ~ From The Land Of The Triple Crown Unification Flight to the 50th Anniversary, Lee faced Miyahara and Yuma Aoyagi in a
three-way tomoesen match for the Triple Crown Title, following former champion Suwama being forced to vacate the championship, after testing positive for Covid-19.

After a gruelling 47 minute gauntlet, Lee defeated both men, to claim his first Triple Crown Championship. Nearly a decade after deciding to retire, Lee not only disproved any doubters, but
cemented his legacy in AJPW. At 32 years old, with substantially less wear than other champions and
performers, it’s entirely possible that the era of Jake Lee is only beginning.

AJPW is Back, Putting Fans on Notice

Is New Japan going away? Nope. NJPW is “too big to fail,” – but their western expansion is in flux.
Meanwhile, All Japan enjoys a cult status, similar to the late ECW, with more creative freedom and a less
intense schedule. This means talents like Lee and Miyahara can showcase their creative style effectively
at the high-level of wrestling they are capable of.

While NJPW President Takami Ohbari has been working with a corporate structure, calling for increased profits and growth, AJPW president Tsuyoki Fukuda has been handed a more attainable goal. Continue building on the good faith, established by former All Japan president Jun Akiyama, who left in June 2020. Do what his competitors will not: Build youth talent and put the company in their hands.

The benefit of being in second place for so long? No one was worried about what All Japan was doing. All Japan is finally distanced from the turbulent early 2000’s when much of the roster left to form Pro-Wrestling NOAH at the behest of Mitsuharu Misawa, who did not want to adhere to Ms. Baba’s authority.

While NOAH has established itself as a prime alternative option, showcasing a unique strike-heavy style, lapsed AJPW fans are enjoying a new era that combines the legacy of traditional puroresu with their hungry young roster.

Part of that legacy is cemented by All Japan’s association with Gaora Sports, one of Japan’s biggest sports programming production companies. This has given AJPW, not only a strong corporate backing, but allowing for a more authentic sports production feel. All Japan feels like a legitimate sporting event, harking back to puroresu’s traditional style and early days, an area New Japan seems to have lost in recent years.

A Tale of Two Expansions

President Takami Ohbari has stuck to his promise of putting NJPW on the path to 10x revenue growth. But at what cost?

While those lofty goals are achievable for a company staffed with 100+ in Tokyo, the entertainment value takes a huge hit without interesting stories unfolding inside the ring. This seems to be an issue New Japan fans are struggling with for the first time. Even during their downturn years in the early 2000s, there remained a healthy amount of intrigue from a storyline perspective.

Yet recently, it feels as though sudden pressures in the company have caused long-term and compelling
stories to be lost. This has not only created frustrations with fans, but also within the roster as well. For the better part of this year, the roster has been snake-bitten by injury while the booking committee has taken a back seat to business interests. It’s not just fans who are getting frustrated either, but active talents as well.

Kevin Kelly, the English voice of New Japan has taken to social media to express his frustration with the
company’s booking decisions. Could it be kayfabe? The act of protecting the organization in public by
maintaining his character for better or worse? Possibly. But Kelly has also been outspoken in defense of the fanbase he worked hard to help foster.

Regardless of whether or not All Japan “surpasses” New Japan in popularity, there’s much to enjoy – and the fans have taken notice. It’s only a matter of time before NJPW feels the breath on their neck and hears the footfalls fast behind them. The wrestling business has proven time and time again, competition brings the best out in promoters – forcing them to reckon with front offices and backstage creative on how best to let the roster shine.

With more choices than ever before and streaming services democratizing viewership NJPW has to listen to fans – who have an option of either providing a rapturous audience, or tuning out. Tuning out is not an option.

A new age has dawned. All Japan has a deep, diverse roster of young and hungry talent, combined with seasoned veterans. The top of the podium may not only be in sight, but within reach. For purists with rapt attention, AJPW has become a fine option to soak up as much phenomenal puroresu as possible to kick off the Roaring ‘20s of pro wrestling.

This article first appeared in Monthly Puroresu Issue #6

Written by:

I'm a freelance writer living in Texas with my wife. I also write for and, among other outlets. Monthly Puroresu has given me the opportunity to work as a photojournalist, and cover topics new to me, such as All Japan Pro Wrestling.