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Monday, August 6, 2012

Tensai vs. The Law Of Diminishing Returns

Lots of things seem great on paper: Cold fusion. Water-powered automobiles. A Metallica collaboration with legendary Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed. And then there’s Lord Tensai; I know it’s just “Tensai” now, but that’s just indicative of the whole problem with where he is in WWE at present. The original idea for bringing Albert/A-Train back, repackaged as a tatted-up monster villain-type guy who forged his wrestling prowess in the fires of the legendary foundry of Japan’s ultra-violent, ├╝ber-tough wrestling world seemed like the proverbial “can’t miss” … Well, it must’ve seemed like that to somebody, anyway. Something like this did work quite well when WWE turned Eddie Fatu into the rather convincing main-eventer Umaga. But the same formula just doesn’t work for Tensai.

Some of the problem might be easily traced back to Tensai’s debut. As Giant Bernard, Tensai had indeed spent a lengthy and relatively successful stretch of his career in Japan after leaving WWE in 2004. WWE not only touted this but blew it way the hell up, creating a new, caricature-like persona whose achievements in the Land of the Rising Sun were now Tensai’s only claim to fame and relevance in the WWE Universe.

A major problem with this particular approach is that wrestling in Japan isn’t what it used to be. Sure, there are puroesu die-hards who can effortlessly wade through the alphabet soup of Japanese wrestling organizations and tell you how many titles Takashi Sugiura has held since 2000 and what year Akitoshi Saito debuted in Pioneer Senshi (I think it was 1990, for the record). And hey, a lot of those guys were probably tickled pink to eventually learn that Giant Bernard was headed back to action in the States. But by and large, a lot of wrestling fans just don’t know or care about Japan’s wrestling heritage or prominence the way they used to. Call it a diminishing return on WWE’s wager that a seasoned superstar of the once-burgeoning Japanese scene would capture and hold the interest of gazillions of relatively finicky fans.

Major American talent rosters are relatively short on Japan-seasoned talent these days, despite the exceptional depth chart of Japanese wrestlers who performed in the WWF, WCW, and ECW in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000’s. By comparison, American wrestling organizations and their fans are quick to recognize and embrace the significance of the Mexican scene more than ever. I asked my friend Ben “Santo Loco” Fiallos, a longtime lucha libre enthusiast and video blogger, why the Mexican scene flourishes while Japanese wrestling seems to have lost a considerable amount of luster – both with regard to American fans and with their respective home countries. Ben shares this observation: “Japan has a lot going on with popular culture. Mexico is very different. I think that the people of Mexico are still looking for heroes in some way, especially now with the crime, drugs, and poverty they endure.  People need a special place to escape from the reality and see their heroes in the ring. Lots of Mexican kids don’t have video games and all that, but they have the luchadors to help them escape.” 

True enough, when WWE tours Mexico, even Alberto Del Rio gets a thundering hero’s ovation from his countrymen. Whether it’s sociocultural issues, economics, or regional political tensions, the climate has changed quite a bit with regard to the wrestling business in Japan and, quite simply, it could be that Mexican wrestling has picked up where Japan left off some years ago.

In America, wrestling stars with roots in Mexico are some of most visible figures in the business right now, from WWE’s Rey Mysterio, Alberto Del Rio, and the  Guerrero family to TNA’s recent Mexican America stable. To his credit, Tensai is arguably the most prominent alumnus of the Japanese scene working in the U.S. today. Smackdown’s Yoshi Tatsu also spent the early years of his career in Japan wrestling for NJPW, and while he’s fortunate enough to be in the “big leagues” at present, recent reports suggest he is rather dissatisfied with his current status in the business.

In the five months or so since Tensai’s debut, his stock has fallen steadily, starting at the top of the card and sliding all the way down to last week’s mid-card loss to Tyson Kidd. Despite WWE’s minor tweaks to Tensai’s on-screen character (including a nod to the fact that he is, in fact, the celebrated Albert of days past), it hasn't gained much credibility with fans. It’s academic to try and predict how or when WWE will attempt another retroactive overhaul of Tensai’s biography, but it’s sure starting to seem like fans wouldn’t mind if "Tensai" were to depart, just as long as "Albert" sticks around…and finally shows the fans the guy they really want to see.

Mike Bessler
PWI Contributing Writer
@OfficialPWI Contributor

1 comment:

Tony Laplume said...

The real problem here is that fans didn't really care about Albert when he was Albert. He was a repackaged wonder even in his original run with WWE.

What WWE realized sooner than anyone is that Tensei is not the new Umaga, and probably was never going to be. He is what Albert always was, a competent monster heel who can be an instantly credible opponent to this week's face.

This has little to do with Tensei's Japanese backstory (though it's worth arguing that Japanese wrestlers on their own terms are less relevant today than they were ten years ago because the divide between American and Japanese wrestling has widened, while the gap between American and Mexican wrestling has remained much the same or has actually begun to vanish during that same time).