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Region Break: From Managers to Translators, Bringing Puro to the West

11 months ago

Region Break: From Managers to Translators, Bringing Puro to the West

By: Thom Fain

Managers seconding wrestlers is a lost art, some say. Then, they remember, Paul Heyman is responsible for some of the best storylines and character builds of the past decade in sports entertainment. His scathing promos and ability to build feuds are as good today as they were when wrestling peaked with the zeitgeist in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Managers were then a staple of weekly episodic television, also serving as backstage businessmen.

Their value is all in creating some sort of universal appeal (or hatred) for wrestlers whose lack of promo abilities – or, in the case of Japanese wrestlers, their language barrier – otherwise couldn’t manifest.

As author David Shoemaker wrote in his eulogy of the best to ever do it, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, managers are the Rosetta Stone that allow us to really understanding wrestling.

In the modern age of live tweeting and instant reactions on social networking sites, bilingual translators and interpreters like Chris Charlton of New Japan Pro-Wrestling and Ash Mann of DDT-Pro Wrestling have become another critical component of breaking barriers with international audiences.

By early 2018, as Chris Jericho noted in our interview, the Wild West of wrestling in Japan had become accessible enough to Western audiences because of streaming and rockstar wrestling. What he didn’t mention is the key part interpreters like Mr. Mann and Mr. Charlton play for viewers back at home.

“This is Wrestle Kingdom,” Jericho said, “and one of the things about the wrestling business, when you book a match that people want to see, that’s all you need! The rest is just window dressing.”

To promote Jericho’s matches in Japan and allow viewers to get caught up, however, New Japan had invested heavily into their streaming service, English communications team and its own booker even worked as a manager crowning the new kings of New Japan.

Historically, managers working on behalf of wrestlers has been a profitable enterprise. Gary Hart talking up Pak Song Nam as an American nemesis in a classic Good vs. Evil would set the stage for superstars with the last name “Rhodes” to be made. Later on, Hart created a force to be reckoned with in The Great Kabuki at World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW), perfecting his promos while doubling as a prominent backstage figure.

“Mickey Grant [the producer of WCCW] … came up with the concept of the new format to present wrestling [while] doing it live from the Sportatorium with six cameras, full sound, additional lighting, microphones in the ring,” said Hart in a late life interview. “And he wanted to use music, and do personality profiles – which would mean me taking a guy like… Great Kabuki or a Michael Hayes, and present them outside of wrestling. What would they do in their spare time? A little profile of, ‘What is this guy all about? Who is he other than the guy we brought in the ring?’”

The Great Kabuki was a character Gary Hart had ideated on during his leisure travels in Asia, wanting to present a Japanese wrestler who could do martial arts and catch-as-catch can with equal quality and capability. The post-war era was over, and the American audience needed a way to connect with Japanese wrestlers.

“We all had Hondas, we were all walking around with Walkmans … the animosity to Japan was gone. I knew if I could find a Japanese guy that could do the martial arts and do the wrestling, and present him as a kabuki with the mystery of the kabuki, and the violence of the samurai, that I would have a way to present a guy that the people would have time to take a look at,” Hart said in the interview. Of course, he would replicate this success with the “son” of Kabuki – The Great Muta, before eventually retiring as a new era of wrestling began.

Pro-Wrestlers from Japan Take America by Storm in the ‘90s

After Ted Turner took over the promotion and created WCW, a relationship with New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW) allowed stars like Sting and the Steiners to wrestle in front of tens of thousands in Japan. In exchange, many NJPW stars would come to America in the footsteps of The Great Muta, a star who was now managed by WCW vice president Eric Bischoff’s real-life friend Sonny Onoo.

Onoo, who was elevated to “Grand Master” of Karate in 2017, befriended Bischoff during martial arts tournaments. The two have remained close ever since. In 1993, he started working for WCW as an off-camera international consultant to help mend their fractured relationships in Japan. Onoo became the liaison for WCW and New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW), working alongside Brad Rheingans to negotiate talent exchange deals that drew Great Muta and other Japanese performers on WCW television.

“In 1993… there had been some very tense discussions between WCW and New Japan based on commitments that Bill Watts had made,” explained former WCW executive Eric Bischoff on his 83 Weeks podcast. “There was no working relationship when I went over [to Japan], the only relationship that existed was a bad one… Brad [told me] I’ve got to understand what has happened and more importantly that the culture is different, and I’ve got to make an attempt to come over and sit down face-to-face, and do it the right way.”

By this time, the Great Kabuki had long sailed out of the American wrestling scene, the Crush Gals era had finished many years prior, and although the G1 Climax a year before featured WCW stars like Rick Rude, Bam Bam Bigelow, Jim Neidhart, and Steve Austin – the trust was gone with WCW due to the perceived broken promises with New Japan’s talent.

The language barrier, it seemed, had brought a fruitful relationship to an abrupt end – something Bischoff wanted to fix in order to create a better product.

“I wanted somebody on my side that spoke Japanese as well, so that I could get the nuance of what was going on in the room… I knew that bringing Sonny over there would do a couple of things,” Bischoff said of Onoo working as a WCW liaison. “Number one it would help me get a better feel for the energy of the room… Because Sonny could read the room a little easier than I could. The other thing that came in handy was that Sonny was able to jump in and really help me able to express myself – obviously, in Japanese – better than I was able to do it trying to stumble my way through in my native tongue. Having Sonny there was very instrumental because it really helped me understand the culture, and obviously helped me with [repairing the NJPW and WCW relationship].”

Sonny Onoo with Akira Hokuto and the WCW Women’s Championship, from the April 1997 edition of WCW Magazine.

In order to take things a step further and help NJPW’s talent get over with American audiences, the self-proclaimed inventor of the selfie would help bridge communication gaps by acting as their mouthpiece in and out of the ring while ensuring they had a good experience backstage. “The mandate from Eric Bischoff to me was to treat these people like they treat us when we go over there,” Onoo explained to Monthly Puroresu. “One of the things that Masa Saito wanted us to do was to promote their wrestlers here. In order for us to promote their wrestlers here like Chono and Muta – who became part of the nWo Japan angle and backstabbed me and double-crossed me [as manager] – they went back to Japan, and became part of that.”

Bischoff gave Japan credit for inspiring his nWo angle after being one of 65,000 in attendance at the Tokyo Dome during the UWFi “invasion” of New Japan, which ultimately resulted in IWGP Heavyweight Champion Shinya Hashimoto choking out UWFi star Nubohiko Takada.

Bringing things full circle in a way, Bischoff’s own hot angle with the New World Order would be exported from the U.S. to Japan and create new business for NJPW.

“That angle made New Japan an amazing amount of money,” Onoo explained. “They sold 8 million dollars from t-shirts in 1998, an nWo t-shirt. But that kind of relationship is special, and in order for you to do business in Japan the key is to create strong relationships.”

And as far as establishing New Japan’s stars in America, that meant helping Japanese wrestlers with communicating to the audience in addition to the promotion’s personnel backstage.

Connecting Cultures Ain’t Easy

Although partnerships between American and Japanese promotions often start with the best-case business outcomes in mind for all involved, communications breakdowns are all too common when wrestlers from Tokyo aren’t featured in a positive light or have different ideas from promoters on how their match is going to go. “Wrestling here is different. You could be a great wrestler – which most from Japan coming here already are – but at the same time, they have to know and be aware of the camera is and flexible enough to understand that a 15-minute match [because of television time] might have to go five minutes, and still try to convey the storyline. So, the wrestlers are not regimented, nor do they understand where the cameras are,” Onoo said in our interview.

When it comes to speaking to the crowd, of course, there is more leniency with the modern wrestling audience than with WCW’s. That being said, the big leagues are less forgiving than the indie circuit – and the level of scrutiny on social media can be intense, sticking a wrestler with a label hard to shake given just one misstep. That’s another reason Onoo advocates Japanese talent getting managers to help iron out the details and project the stories they want to tell.

“Even though Japanese talent will cut a promo and try their hardest in English – or certainly when they speak to the audience in Japanese… if they can’t convey the point, if their accent is so heavy they can’t convey it, they have a hard time reaching the audience,” said Onoo. And due to differences in norms and values, talent from Tokyo doesn’t always speak up for themselves backstage – there is no culture of complaining in Japan, and even when it’s in their own best interest, they may not speak to American promoters about their grievances.

“In WCW I could go to Kevin Sullivan and say, ‘Hey, Kevin, you know, I got Gedo here’ and he’s supposed to be getting him three matches while he’s here – but things happen. So I’d say, ‘Can you put him on a show?’ And Kevin would remember to put him on a show,” said Onoo, who cites Japanese cultural differences that can lead to business relationship breakdowns. “I might have had to remind Sullivan, because Gedo was not a regular. And after all these years, Gedo is now a New Japan booker – very interesting, you never know who’s going to be on top.”

Breaking Barriers in Puroresu’s Streaming Era

Now that even far-out promotions like Sanshiro Takagi’s DDT are available to Western audiences and cord-cutters through a la carte streaming, a new generation of region breakers has driven worldwide fandom for wrestlers like Maki Itoh (TJPW) and Konosuke Takeshita (DDT). The biggest fan of them all, you might say, is billionaire AEW owner Tony Khan. Mr. Khan has partnered with just about every major Tokyo promotion in his few years as booker and promoter of AEW, even bringing the fabled Great Muta in for an appearance, in exchange sending homegrown talent Darby Allin along with “The Icon” Sting for Great Muta ByeBye at Yokohama Arena.

Khan, whose fan interactions and approachability on social media gives him an Elon Musk-esque following, admitted geo-influencers like @luchablog impact his booking. With enough opportunity to showcase their skill and personalities to U.S. audiences, wrestlers are making the leap from Wrestle Universe and New Japan World streaming to mainstream U.S. television in record numbers. Early on, though, wrestlers rely on interpreters and bilingual media pros who float between continents and relay ideas back-and-forth between businesspeople, promoters, the wrestlers, and their fans. These unheralded pros take pride in seeing talent expand their popularity in bigger markets, and are vital to the accessibility of would-be Japanese stars.

“The AEW partnership has been working fantastic for Takeshita,” said Ash Mann, the English comm’s pro who works for DDT and TJPW. “He’s always said that he’s going to be the best wrestler in the world and I’m glad the rest of the world is finally able to see it.” Mann, who is from Singapore, initially learned Japanese so that he could play video games prior to their official English releases. And like many of us in the West, he found a freakishly athletic kindred spirit and a wrestling champion worth cheering in Kenny Omega during his time with DDT – before Omega would co-found AEW with Mr. Khan and other wrestlers signed to New Japan.

“Wrestling is just one of the many forms of Japanese culture media that sorely needs more translators in the business,” said Mann. “I guess you can say it’s the uniqueness of it. Japanese culture might seem quirky from the outside… But, when you get into the meat of it, the gold is waiting beyond!” It’s also a two-way street, with more Americans clamoring to come to Japan in order to take the JR Rail to domestic venues where wrestlers are helping set attendance figures not seen in decades.

Translators and English broadcasters like Mr. Mann make that sojourn less intimidating than ever, and the Japanese promotions have started publicly inviting their new Western fans with instructions to their sometimes-confusing online ticket portals. “I hope that DDT will be able to run another Nippon Budokan show within the next five years,” said Mann, who runs the @ddtproENG social channel. “Honestly it might be tough, but my goal is to get more eyes on the product in a way only I can. With enough overseas eyes plus local eyes the Budokan is not impossible!”

Ash Mann makes his broadcasting debut with DDT Pro-Wrestling later this year. Thom Fain reported backstage at Muta ByeBye for FiteTV, where Great Kabuki made a rare appearance alongside Great Muta, Sting and Darby Allin. Sonny Onoo returned to his role as on-screen manager at the event, and is slated to help Special Edition ’23 cover star Unagi Sayaka in a similar role as she explores booking opportunities in America.

This article first appeared in the Special Edition ’23 of Monthly Puroresu.

Written by:

Editor in Chief, Founder of Monthly Puroresu. Bylines published in more than 155+ newspapers and magazines including Dallas Morning News, SF Examiner and Columbus Dispatch. More recently I've worked across ad agencies and startups on content strategy discovering brand insights, while developing a strategic roadmap for Monthly Puroresu.