On Sunday night, New Japan Pro Wrestling presented their last big show before Wrestle Kingdom 12 – the company’s biggest show of the year – with Power Struggle, and it was a doozy.
The in-ring content was strong, as to be expected, with Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Kota Ibushi for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship the obvious standout match on the night.
However, there is one moment, one piece of set-up that has grabbed the headlines and shook up the professional wrestling world – the return of Chris Jericho to New Japan Pro Wrestling after almost 20 years away. Jericho will be challenging Kenny Omega for the IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship at Wrestle Kingdom 12 on January 4th in the Tokyo Dome.
International star power
This is not like Cody Rhodes going to New Japan after leaving WWE, or the possibility of Neville going to New Japan or ROH once he eventually leaves WWE. Hell, this is bigger than Daniel Bryan possibly going to New Japan or ROH once he leaves WWE in 2018. Chris Jericho vs Kenny Omega is bigger than all of that.
This is not a WWE performer leaving the company out of frustration and going to greener pastures or, in the case of Daniel Bryan, a performer leaving WWE because they won’t clear him to compete. This is a WWE and professional wrestling legend coming off one of the best runs of his career and going off to compete against one of the hottest names in wrestling at arguably the second biggest show in the wrestling calendar behind WrestleMania.
Chris Jericho’s presence on what is already shaping up to be a super card on paper gives it that intranational star power that has been missing, and which is so important for New Japan as they continue their expansion into the Western market. Kazuchika Okada, Tetsuya Naito, Kenny Omega, Hiroshi Tanahashi and others are stars in Japan, and Omega can draw to an extent in America, but none of these performers come close to matching Jericho’s appeal when it comes to casual wrestling fans – especially those who may have stopped watching wrestling altogether.
Cody Rhodes has stated that we are already in the middle of the next boom period of wrestling for accessibility. Independent promotions are stronger than they have ever been before and there are more ways of watching these promotions than ever before.
None of this applies to any promotion more than New Japan Pro Wrestling. NJPW World is a great streaming service that makes it easy to watch the promotion, and the company itself is churning out some of the best wrestling anybody has ever seen. The trio of matches between Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada has ushered in a diamond era for NJPW. It may not be the biggest promotion in the world, but it certainly has the reputation for being the best right now.
Something to aspire to
However, all of this is not why Kenny Omega vs Chris Jericho is so important. What makes this match so notable is what it represents for the professional wrestling industry.
Chris Jericho is a marquee WWE star. He has just come off one of the best runs of his entire career, during which he got the word “it”, and a piece of paper on a clipboard, more over with the crowd than the majority of the WWE roster. He does not need to perform at Wrestle Kingdom for a paycheck – he still has Fozzy and he will have made a fair chunk of change off of his latest run in the WWE.
So why would Jericho, now a wrestling free agent, choose to appear at Wrestle Kingdom? Simply put, New Japan is no longer just a location for those who couldn’t cut it in WWE, or fell out with Vince McMahon & co. New Japan is now an aspirational promotion – one that wrestlers see as an end goal, rather than a means to Stamford, Connecticut. That’s a reputation that wrestling fans have repeated often in 2017, especially with that Okada-Omega trilogy breaking Dave Meltzer’s star system, but Jericho’s appearance might be the most significant sign that this reputation is, in fact, accurate.
NJPW managing to sign Chris Jericho to such an important card encapsulates the current position that NJPW are in. It takes NJPW to another level and continues the ascendancy of the promotion into 2018.
Kenny Omega vs Chris Jericho probably won’t be the best match on the card, which given the rest of the lineup is certainly no insult, but it is the most important for NJPW. It marks a culmination in the promotion’s growth over recent years while also kicking off the next stage in the company’s development. Bring on WK12!
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