Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Context of Stables in New Japan or How John Cena Will Retire after 20 Years with 16+ World Championships and Zero Friends

The Context of Stables in New Japan

With another Wrestle Kingdom come and gone a whole bunch of new eyes are focused on New Japan for the first time.  For these new viewers, especially for those who come to it like I did, having primarily watched WWE, the prevalence and emphasis of factions or stables can be a confusing departure from the norm.  In this post,  we'll examine how these groups function in New Japan and some of the advantages to grouping your wrestlers this way in a booking/kayfabey context.  And through all of this we should gain some perspective on an important question:  How does John Cena not have any friends after nearly 20 years in the WWE?

The origin of the stable

To understand the place of the stable in New Japan Pro Wrestling, one should look at the context your average Japanese fan might have for stables. In Japan the idea of the stable would not primarily be associated with horses, but with sumo wrestlers.  The sumo wrestling tradition has deep roots in Japan, with some current tournaments tracing their roots back to 1684. One sumo wrestler in particular played a key role in the founding of pro wrestling in Japan.

The sumo wrestler pictured above is Mitsuhiro Momota, better known as Rikidozan. Before his death at the hands of a Yakuza, he would retire from sumo and become known as the "Father of Puroresu" as helped to build pro wrestling in Japan by defeating one American villain after another.  Rikidozan would become a legendary figure and two of his matches are still ranked in the top ten most viewed television programs of all time in Japan.  He would also train many of the legends of the next generation of Japanese wrestling including Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba.

Sumo wrestlers train as part of organizations called heya, which is usually translated in English as stable.  Sumo wrestlers both train and live at their heya and thus the other members of the stable are their training partners, teammates, and also friends.  This brings us to our first function of stables in New Japan and our first question about John Cena's WWE career

Who does John Cena train with?

Not in the weight room, but like who does he work moves with?  Sometimes we'll see hype videos of him working with people in the performance center, but when Big Match John was training for another Wrestlemania main event what did that consist of besides lifting?  The true answer is that this is not a question WWE largely concerns itself with. Ask that question of many top guys in the WWE and you'll come up blank (e.g. Nakamura, Wyatt, and Orton). Sure, sometimes they work in-ring training sequences into hype videos, but that is usually when they show in-ring training its a "non-wrestler" being shown how to wrestle.  The idea that their top level guys have to keep their skills sharp too is largely ignored from a WWE storytelling context.

With its emphasis on stables (and the training associated with them), New Japan provides this answer from the moment new wrestlers show up.  Drawing from the sumo tradition of trainee and low ranked wrestlers serving the older wrestlers, the young lions of New Japan live in the New Japan Dojo, training, performing chores at the dojo, and performing ringside duties at shows as they learn the art from some of the veterans of New Japan.

These questions of training continue to be answered after wrestlers graduate from young lion status. Look at the biggest names in New Japan.  Who does Okada train with?  Ishii, Goto,Yoshi-Hashi, whatever CHAOS heavyweight he prefers that day and we know it'll be under the watchful eye of Gedo.  What about Kenny?  Well he has the Bullet Club.  Naito has LIJ, and Tanahashi can always call upon members of the Sekigun (the unaffiliated New Japan members including the young lions) who lately have been rallying under the banner of Taguchi Japan.

In New Japan's universe, training is a constant for all roster members.  In hype videos, interviews, commentary, and more, discussion of the training and preparation the wrestlers do is frequent.  The stables provide a conduit for turning this focus on training into storytelling.

At Wrestle Kingdom 11,  Rocky Romero as part of the CHAOS tag team, Roppongi Vice, won the Jr Tag Team titles from the Young Bucks by breaking up More Bang for Your Buck with a crucifix pin.  In the year that followed, Roppongi Vice would split up and Romero would step back to manage new CHAOS tag team Roppong 3K. Calling on the idea that they were bring trained by Rocky, Roppongi 3K tried to win the match at Wrestle Kingdom 12 the same way Rocky had at Wrestle Kingdom 11, but this time the Bucks were ready.

A story told by three teams across two years

It can also be used to add extra layers of storytelling to individual moves.  For example, Tama Tonga gained his current finisher, the Gun Stun, when his Bullet Club predecessor and the previous user of that finisher, Karl Anderson, left.  As Tama Tonga stepped up to fill the void left by Karl Anderson he gained his finisher as well as his status.

Providing Structure for the Shows

If you've continued to watch New Japan after Wrestle Kingdom, you've surely noticed the frequent multi-man tag team matches.  These contests almost always take place between two groups from opposing stables, between members of one stable and the Sekigun, or between two groups of Sekigun.  Members of stables are almost never teamed with members outside their stable.  Why would they team with someone who isn't part of their group?

These multi-man tags serve many purposes.  Perhaps most importantly, they allow the wrestlers to preview and build hype for their singles and tag team matches without giving away too much.  They give the fans a chance to see all their favorites in a less physically taxing matchup.  Also, These frequent tags help to build chemistry between teammates, but they also provide opportunities for new rivalries to form.  Unexpected face-offs can occur and blossom into full on feuds

The stables can also provide a sort of ladder to climb if one of their leaders is holding a title belt.  It is not uncommon to see a future challenger for Okada's IWGP Heavyweight title fight his way through CHAOS lieutenants Goto and Ishii first. 

In a recent example of stables providing a slightly different kind of structure, Okada agreed to give LIJ member SANADA a Heavyweight title shot if LIJ members EVIL and SANADA gave a CHAOS tag team a shot at the IWGP Heavyweight tag team titles.

 Building Lasting Relationships

We know he doesn't have a training partner.  What is John Cena's most significant on-screen WWE relationship anyway?  He's been a tag team champion four times, but each time with a different partner.  He was a member of The Nexus (against his will) for a bit, but The Nexus is basically forgotten at this point anyway.  He was best friends with Zack Ryder for a few months so that Ryder could get beaten up by Kane while his love interest Eve made out with Cena.  At least now they acknowledge his relationship with his Fiancee, Nikki Bella, but the WWE has historically kept its Mens and Women's division so far apart they might as well be different universes (With any luck the Mixed Match Challenge will mark a change to that.)  John Cena's most important relationship is whoever his rival is that week.  Sometimes he has allies of convenience, but he hasn't teamed with anyone long enough to build a real history.

Looking at Randy Orton provides some interesting comparison/contrast.  His role in the stable Evolution played a huge role in his elevation to the main event.  However, its worth noting that Evolution's entire run took place over the course of less than three years.  He was part of a major tag team (Rated RKO), formed his own stable (The Legacy), and joined another (The Wyatt Family), but all of these have been short term as well.  This is a pattern we see throughout WWE.  While some tag teams can last, stables tend to fall apart relatively quickly.

Contrast this with CHAOS, the stable of New Japan's current poster boy, Kazuchika Okada.  CHAOS has existed since 2009 and was originally lead by Shinsuke Nakamura.  Okada joined CHAOS immediately upon returning in New Japan. In many ways, the partners and relationships he gained since joining CHAOS have helped to define Okada as he settled in to new Japan (as Okada did not come up through the New Japan Dojo).  When Nakamura left in 2016, he and Okada had been fighting together for over four years.  You could feel that bond as a crying Okada lifted Nakamura onto his shoulders and carried him around the ring to the cheering crowd.  These two man had trained together, fought each other, and fought beside each other in scores of multi-man tag matches by that point.  The most recent example of a similarly important long-term partnership breaking up is Seth Rollins Shield betrayal, but like we observed earlier stables don't last that long in WWE and the Shild's entire run lasted less then two years.

16+ World Championships and Zero Friends

Lets say John Cena was put into a tag team match with his career on the line, who would his tag team partner be. Who would he trust in that situation?

We'll ignore the fact that the correct (if not obvious based on the question's wording) answer to defend his career is for Cena to accept a 2 on 1 handicap match (as the greater the odds are against John Cena the more certain it is he must overcome them).  Instead, lets think about how weird it is the man who has defined pro wrestling in the WWE for over a decade now doesn't have another person he would look to in a desperate time. You could write it so he allies with his biggest active rival (one Randal Keith Orton) or the top babyface of the day, but John Cena lacks a mentor figure to bring out of retirement, a long term tag team partner, a career long friend, or even a current student who he has been mentoring as he steps back from the full-time spotlight.  The truth is friends are not really important to the quest of a WWE babyface.  Sure heels may use their friends/allies to cheat, but when training doesn't matter and tag team matches aren't that common (and are usually just thrown together with whoever when they are) why else would you really hang with you fellow wrestlers/rivals?

The focus on training provides an answer to this question for New Japan's wrestlers. The resulting spotlight on stables means that every wrestler ends up cultivating some relationships with the rest of the roster and these form the basis of New Japan's booking.  Of the four major stables in New Japan right now (CHAOS, Bullet Club, Suzuki-gun, and LIJ), three have been active for more than four years and none of them appear likely to break up in the immediate future.  So if you intend to follow along with New Japan, take the time to familiarize yourself with the four major stables and their history.  It will be well worth it.

Bullet Club
Los Ingobernables de Japon

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Importance of Earning it. A Naito Fan's Defense of his Wrestle Kingdom Loss.

Wrestle Kingdom 12 is in the books and while I don't think it lived up to the highs of Wrestle Kingdom 11, I think overall it was a very tightly booked show with nearly every match being for a championship and every match having its own identity.

I loved the main event.  It lived up to my expectations of a Wrestle Kingdom main event and I think it holds up as another incredible IWGP Heavyweight Championship match in Okada's amazing run. Both men brought plenty of new counters and tricks to the matchup and the story it told was as excellent as Okada's Wrestle Kingdom pants.

Incredible and I will hear no argument

Having won a chance at the IWGP Heavyweight Championship for the second time and made his main event status undeniable, Naito decides to dunk on Finn Balor by showing up like a demon king ready to be crowned without using any body paint. 

He did wear that sweet cape though

The champ enters looking confident as ever.  This piece of sweet camera work happens.

Eat your heart out Kevin Dunn

And after the usual introductions, we are underway.  The crowd is electric from the opening bell and the cheers for Naito are just as loud if not louder than the cheers for Okada.  Naito's tranquilo antics and his ability to change pace at a moments notice seemed to unbalance the champ early.  For Naito though it was business as usual until a brutal looking series of attacks using the barricade gave way to a game plan, attack the neck

"Get baited scrub' - Tetsuya Naito (probably)

The challenger used Okada's damaged neck to take control and would maintain it for a long period of time before the champ would find his footing again. Find his footing he does though and the champ uses the cobra clutch he developed as a Destino counter to wear Naito down and regain some energy himself.  Naito would eventually regain control again and after a super reverse rana, we would begin to see the flaws in his gameplan/mindset. 

Despite working the neck previously, Naito goes for his old Stardust Press finisher after hitting his signature Gloria.  Instead of sticking with what is working, some part of Naito wants to prove that the old Stardust Genius was good enough.  He misses of course. Just like in the G1 Final.  While he may remember him fondly now, Naito is no longer the Stardust Genius and that is not his way forward.  But Naito wanted it.  A second stardust press attempt resulted in him being German suplexed as soon as he finished climbing the ropes.  Naito would be hit with his first Rainmaker not too long after.

He does kick out though, and soon after Naito would find an opportunity to hit a desperation Destino, but would be too tired to take advantage with a pin.  Launching into a false finishing sequence, Okada would counter a Destino into a Rainmaker only to see Naito duck the second post-wrist clutch Rainmaker and turn it into a second Destino (however, for the second time he was not able to hit the signature arm trap that completes a full Destino).  After a kickout just before three, Naito goes for the full trapped arm Destino, but Okada counters with an elbow followed by a dropkick.  Naito hits a third (non arm-trapped) Destino to counter a post-tombstone Rainmaker attempt and perhaps finally grasping what it will take to win the main event at Wrestle Kingdom decides to pick him up immediately to hit a full (arm-trapped) Destino to secure the win, but Okada counters that with his jumping corkscrew tombstone and a full Rainmaker after to secure the victory.

For the second year in a row a red hot challenger entered into the Tokyo Dome and lost to Okada. Not a gaijin this time, a native born trainee of the New Japan Dojo  I've seen some argue that Naito will never be hotter that he is right now and that it is a mistake to not put the title on him.  I've seen people argue that Gedo's affection for Okada has left him unable to see the star in front of his eyes and that he doesn't have a plan for making sure Naito can continue to be a global star to rival Okada and Omega. I may be as big of a Naito fan as they come (As proof please check out my 3000 word love letter to his evolution over the last three G1s), but while I was pulling for him to win, I was not upset by his loss.  Because I'm hoping there is something deeper going on here.

Okada lost to Tanahashi at the Tokyo Dome twice before he tasted his first main event victory there.  He left the ring weeping after his second defeat.  This was going to be his moment.  He had fought for it.  Won the G1 Climax for it and yet there Tanahashi stood in the center of the ring condescending him and he still was not ready for the pressure of a Tokyo Dome main event.  Not ready for the pressures of being the ace.  While Okada had already been champion for New Japan and had won plenty of big matches,  it was clear the main event at the Tokyo Dome was something just a bit different and the old ace explained that it would take something more before Okada was ready to stand in the spotlight there.  Okada would have to learn the determination to never quit, to hold on against all opposition. He rebuilt, finding the confidence and determination of an ace.  He would win the IWGP heavyweight championship before Wrestle Kingdom, and nearing the end of his grueling title defense, we see the birth of the iconic spot from this  amazing championship run.  He keeps hold of Tanahashi's wrist.

Despite maintaining wrist control Okada does not pull out his gun

Although he is exhausted, Okada has learned what it will take to win.  He will not stop until he gets his victory. Shortly after that gif ends he delivers two Rainmakers to Tanahashi and finally gets his win at the Tokyo Dome. Its a highly emotional moment, largely due to how much effort we'd seen go into earning it.  

When Naito entered for the main event of Wrestle Kingdom 12, in a very real sense he achieved his goal.  The man who had had his previous Wrestle Kingdom match with Okada demoted from the main event just four years earlier walked out to huge cheers and a crowd that ultimately seemed to want him to walk out victorious.  His story of redemption meant that whatever the result of the match Naito had already won.  In a sense, that may have made his losing the match inevitable. Naito walked into the Tokyo Dome having already achieved his victory for the year. You can't win a Wrestle Kingdom main event with that level of self-satisfaction.  Before he could truly become the ace,  Okada had to learn that lesson from his second Wrestle Kingdom match with Tanahashi. Looking the part, having it be your moment, these things are not enough to stand tall after a match that important.  In his second Wrestle Kingdom match with Naito, Okada passed the lessons learned from Tanahashi, the past generation's ace, to the man who will likely help define his run on top.  

The next night at New Years Dash, any ideas that plans didn't exist for Naito's immediate future were quickly laid to rest.  As Chris Jericho came out to make good on some previous trash talking in the media with El Ingobernable.  A brief confrontation electrified the crowd and Naito showed he is still just as cool after his Wrestle Kingdom loss. 

Watch this gif and tell me you don't think its possible this man can't be just as hot if not hotter in a year.

Its clear New Japan still has big plans for Naito and history has a way of repeating itself in New Japan.  It could have been his night at Wrestle Kingdom 12, but part of the reason it felt so good just to see Naito walk out for that main event is because he had worked so hard to earn it.  While he fought hard in the main event, Okada had already learned that just fighting hard isn't enough.  Naito won't grow into the new ace (that role is Okada's for years to come), but another year of growth could set the stage for the perfect Wrestle Kingdom win for Naito. I would love to see El Ingobernable walk into the next Wrestle Kingdom as champion to for his third Tokyo Dome confrontation with the reigning ace (Maybe with New Japan finally pulling the Ibushi/Omega trigger for a can't miss semi-main event with a fresh, to New Japan, match up). This time, no longer impressed with just being in the main event and with a year of hard lessons taught by legends like Chris Jericho and other stars associated with New Japan, he can prove that he is not only Okada's equal in popularity, but on every stage including the biggest one in puroresu.

I guess what I'm saying is all good things in time, but for now Tranquilo,  Asseneyo.

G1 Climax 28 (2018) Guide

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