As the American independent scene braces itself for the largest Japanese wrestling invasion in history, one question looms: Is there enough fan support in America to make it viable?
Puroresu, or the Japanese style of wrestling, has traditionally been a niche market for American fans, drawing mostly those committed enough to scour the Internet for videos, discussions, and others willing to trade tapes and DVDs.
But this spring, a distinct Japanese presence will take center stage on America's East Coast, as performers from Dragon Gate, Michinoku Pro, Osaka Pro, New Japan, and Big Japan grace American rings for CHIKARA, Jersey All Pro Wrestling, and CZW.
These three U.S.-based sponsors, all known for promoting shows in the same general region of the Northeast, will host the incoming Japanese performers for a total of seven shows between April 9 and May 15, with all the shows happening within a 100-mile radius of each other. Three of the shows will, in fact, take place in the same building.
Add Gabe Sapolsky's Dragon Gate USA promotion, which has run shows featuring Japanese talent throughout the Northeast since launching in the summer of 2009, and the market becomes even more saturated. Fortunately, DragonGate USA's April shows will be further south, booked in Burlington, North Carolina, and Atlanta during WrestleMania weekend.
To help try to differentiate itself from the rest, each of these American promotions has taken a different approach. CZW has booked Big Japan's Daisuke Sekimoto for its Best of the Best tournament, which will also feature talent from Germany's wXw promotion. Jersey All Pro is promoting its Triple-Shot Showcase with New Japan. The theme is "Attack on the East Coast," and is a rare opportunity to see top talent including Prince Devitt in U.S. appearances. Devitt will compete against Low-Ki when the show hits New York City on May 14. For CHIKARA, booking Japanese teams for its annual King of Trios tournament is nothing new. But this year, the promoters have turned up the volume in an apparent attempt to directly challenge Jersey All Pro and New Japan's joint venture. CHIKARA's three-night show will feature the U.S. returns of Great Sasuke, Dick Togo, and Jinsei Shinzaki, as well as the second stateside appearance of joshi (female) legend Manami Toyota, who debuted for the promotion in September to much fanfare. Osaka Pro's Atshushi Kotoge and Daisuke Harada will return for their second Trios appearance in as many years; this year teaming with Ultimate Spider Jr. Finally, a Dragon Gate trio of Super Shisa, Akira Tozawa, and Kagetora will enter the competition.
But even with all the special attractions, will these appearances be enough to help the sponsoring promotions draw a crowd, and ultimately, turn a profit? On the one hand, these Japanese stars, many of them legitimate icons of their own profession, will appeal to the segment of the wrestling fans that follow international companies. These fans will likely shell out whatever money is necessary to see their favorite performers live.
Some casual fans may also recognize some familiar faces from appearances in WWE and WCW, among other companies. While these members of a potential audience may be enticed to attend one of the shows, the prospect of them traveling and spending money to attend more than one or two of the events seems dismal, even if these events are concentrated in a relatively small geographic location.
On the other side of the equation is that all three promotions—CHIKARA, CZW, and Jersey All Pro—have established fan bases that would likely support them under any circumstances. These die-hard fans will come for the regulars and hope to find themselves enthralled with the special guests.
Overall, it seems likely that each company will find success in its own right, but to what extent that will stem from the Japanese presence remains to be seen. Of the three offerings, fans seem to be most thrilled with the prospects of CHIKARA's tournament, especially with the presence of the three Michinoku Pro veterans.
For casual wrestling fans, and the masses of them who refuse to acknowledge independent wrestling, this Japanese invasion may go unnoticed, but for the hardcore puroresu fan base, it may be a true once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, not only to see their favorite international stars, but also to help attract more foreign wrestlers to The States.
The next two months will prove an interesting time that will serve as a gauge of the viability of international stars becoming a draw in the United States. One must also be curious about the relationships and feelings of these promotions and their attempts at out-drawing each other. Taking an optimistic view, I believe this invasion could spark a whole new era of competition among independent promotions, which would be healthy for the wrestling business overall … but only if American puroresu fans respond favorably.
For those who spend their time scouring the Internet for footage of Japanese shows, and consider puroresu superior to anything American companies are putting out, this is your opportunity to show your support by spending a few bucks, which is, after all, the best way to convince more international superstars to return to the States.
If you don't buy tickets to the shows, and/or subsequent DVDs, these types of projects and venture may no longer be considered in the future.
The power is truly in the hands of international wrestling fans. Let's see what you do with it.