Geek Versus Pro-Wrestling: Could NJPW Be Building a Comic Style Shared Universe?

One of the more difficult realms to unlock in the modern wrestling landscape for the casual wrestling fan is the rich pro-wrestling world that exists beyond the gates of the WWE. In spite of what seems like endless droves of us entrenched in the subculture of indie pro-wrestling, especially since the advent of the internet where our voices have been amplified to near deafening volume, we’re wildly outnumbered by casual fans who rarely venture beyond Monday night, Wrestlemania weekend, or when the WWE rolls into town for a live event.

They know the classics. They know John Cena, The Undertaker, Triple H, and Brock Lesnar. They’re probably aware that Roman Reigns is The Rock’s cousin and Charlotte is Ric Flair’s daughter. Maybe they catch the spot that runs on Sportscenter once a week.

There’s a very good chance they are under the age of 14, hence the WWE’s insistence on keeping their product at a PG rating. Although this may be a good move for business, it doesn’t necessarily help the ignorant assertion by people that never watch wrestling that it is strictly a product for children (which I address in a previous column)

However, they may be one of many wrestling fans that are checking out the product again for the first time in many years. Wrestling at-large has been one of the many ships rising with the tide of geek culture in general over the past decade or so. It’s had a presence at all the major conventions, got in early on the podcast boom, and made damn sure that it has a place at the nostalgia table.

I’ve suggested in the past that geek culture is the new rock and roll. In this scenario, the WWE would love for you to think of them as Motown. They have a cavalcade of stars, making hit after hit, in a style specific to the brand. Even though we often refer to Motown as a genre, Hitsville USA wasn’t the only studio putting out R&B records in the 60’s and 70’s.

The big secret that more involved wrestling fans have been in on for the past 15 years since Vince McMahon bought WCW is that wrestling exists outside of the WWE. The even bigger secret is that it’s often a more entertaining wrestling product than what the WWE offers. Because (surprise!) the WWE isn’t designed for the actual wrestling fan. It’s to pull a big number of casual wrestling fans in, while keeping the hardcores entertained just enough to stay engaged.

This is why the WWE for years referred to what it does as “sports entertainment” rather than “wrestling”, although that’s changed slightly over the past couple of years. It gets bogged down in crazy backstage storylines, ridiculous match finishes and stipulations, pointless celebrity appearances, shameless self-celebration, and an inability to get out of it’s own way to make any new big stars in the past 10 years (despite Daniel Bryan and CM Punk doing it themselves).

So where does the wrestling geek turn? There certainly isn’t a lack of options considering there are a bajillion indie promotions in the United States alone. It’s easy to be overwhelmed.

Ah, but this is Geek Versus, and a nerd’s eye view can spot a shared universe when it sees one.

That’s right, a “shared universe”. You know, that trendy thing that Hollywood’s been trying to do with all your favorite geek/nostalgia properties because it’s worked that way in comics for decades and us nerds were trying to figure out why it was so difficult for them to do in the first place? Like it’s some crazy concept, but the real world kinda functions this way so it’s not really a big deal. Yes, that.

Obviously talent sharing between promotions isn’t exactly a new concept in pro-wrestling, but what’s emerging between New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW), Ring of Honor (ROH), Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL), and Revolution Pro Wrestling (RPW) is starting to resemble pieces of a larger whole. Think of each promotion as an individual comic and the wrestlers as characters that show up in each other’s books.

Viewing it through the lens of a comic book shared universe starts making a lot sense in a modern context. It allows each company a certain level of independence, avoiding pitfalls like the NWA felt when WCW took over and eventually lost the Monday Night War, but enough overlap to tell a compelling story.

Basically, the only real connection is through fiction. The only thing binding these pieces is the ethereal gaze of the audience. Simply showbiz magic. It may not be the plan, but it certainly could work. Let’s break down some of the pieces.

NJPW

It shouldn’t be a big surprise that NJPW is the backbone of this operation. If you consider that they’re now primarily owned by Bushiroad, a Japanese collectable card game company, (and maybe consider some of the stuff they’re doing with the Tiger Mask W character, which I wrote about in my previous VSPW column.

If NJPW is Timely Comics in this scenario, NJPWWorld.com is Marvel Comics #1. NJPW World has been been a hub for not only their own content, but also CMLL and ROH content in Japan. Global Wars events with both ROH in the US and RPW in the UK, as well as Fantasticamania with CMLL, where they pit their own talent against the hosting promotion’s has become an annual affair since Bushiroad came into the picture.

Their stars are also primary exports. You can’t go to a wrestling event anywhere in the United States without seeing a Bullet Club t-shirt, so these events are hot tickets. They also defend each other’s company’s titles, and will often lose them and take them to the other company. This is key.

Ring of Honor

The relationship goes a step further with Ring of Honor, and this is where the “Universe” really starts to take shape. Ring of Honor might as well be the Avengers West Coast to NJPW’s Avengers. The ROH title is regularly defended on NJPW events.

The Bullet Club, as a faction, overlaps on each brand with Kenny Omega generally considered the leader in Japan and Adam Cole heading up the ROH end of the squad. It’s pretty impressive to see the Young Bucks carrying both the ROH tag team titles and the IWGP Junior Tag-Team belts to the ring with them (as well as the PWG belts if you catch them outside of the bubble).

Ring of Honor is the American arm of this union, and their association with NJPW is really starting to give them an air of resemblance to the old NWA. Having Kevin Sullivan showing up in an angle recently probably doesn’t hurt that comparison, either.

They’ve also signed Will Ospreay, a mainstay in NJPW and RPW alum, and Marty Skurll, another RPW alum and now ROH Television champion, to full-time contracts. It won’t be the first time the two UK superstars will be on American soil, but it will definitely give them more exposure to American audiences considering ROH’s syndication on US television. It also draws a distinct line from ROH to RPW.

CMLL

This is the lucha libre end, bringing North America’s oldest wrestling promotion into the fold. They’ve been talent swapping with NJPW, ROH, and countless other promotions for many many years, but their inclusion on NJPWWorld.com give’s them unique presence.

Probably the biggest overlap of the two companies has been the Los Ingobernables faction, which has surpassed the Bullet Club in popularity in popularity and sales in Japan thanks to the brilliant work of superstar Tetsuya Naito. Although it began in CMLL, the version built around Naito in NJPW has exploded. With the recent inclusion of CMLL’s Rush in Los Ingobernables de Japon, the crossover is complete.

RPW

The inclusion of this UK promotion is a little tricky. They’ve always been pretty open to having working relationships with many different promotions (as you can tell by the myriad of accolades they list in Zack Sabre Jr’s match introductions). They’ve even hosted opening round matches for WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic this past summer.

However, my optimistic inclusion spurs from the recent Global Wars event which saw NJPW’s Katsuyori Shibata walk out of that weekend with their British Heavyweight Championship. Shibata, notorious for not even bringing the NEVER Openweight Title out to the ring with him during his first reign with the title, brought his recently won RPW title to the ring with him when he regained the NEVER title from Evil in Singapore.

Without any defenses on the calendar between now and Wrestle Kingdom 11, NJPW’s biggest event of the year (and assuming it wasn’t a special occasion), it means Shibata will be walking into the Tokyo Dome with that company’s most prestigious title over his shoulder. Being a participant in Global Wars, having a champ in Shibata, and an export to NJPW in the high flyer Will Ospreay makes them just as likely as anyone to be in on the conspiracy as anyone.

This may not be the actual plan in place by NJPW and company, but it’s the kind of outside the box thinking that could make them serious competitors with the WWE. It appeals to the modern consumer, both in concept and in price. The on-demand services for NJPW and RPW per month are around the price of about 2-3 comic books.

This concept may not have a lot of value for the already entrenched indie wrestling fan, but it could be an excellent gateway for the geek-type looking to add pro-wrestling to their menagerie of interests.

There’s an irony to the WWE referring to their fans as the “WWE Universe” for the past few years. It could turn out that another “universe” ends up being their next real competition.

J. Aaron Poole

J. Aaron Poole is a 21st century writer, musician, and geek culture advocate. He is a member of the American Sociological Association with an academic interest in the relationship between media, technology, and modern culture. Currently residing in Atlanta, Georgia, Aaron can be found making absurd comments on Twitter, PSN, and other social media platforms as @JAaronPoole.

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