“We do everything: comedy fight, free fight.” How Japanese indie talent is ruling WrestleMania weekend

The ecosystem of indie wrestling shows that accompany WWE’s annual Wrestlemania has become a tradition. It’s a time full of opportunities for fighters, with plenty of work and opportunities to connect directly with fans; it has also become protocol for many foreign fighters to book American tours around Mania Weekend. As Los Angeles continues to become a showcase for the richness and diversity of wrestling, this year is home to a host of international talent, especially for Japanese wrestling practitioners.

One of this weekend’s main events features a direct partnership between American and Japanese promotions: Thursday night’s IMPACT and New Japan Pro Wrestling’s “Multiverse United” at the Globe Theater brought together top Japanese stars such as Hiroshi Tanahashi and KENTA, along with North Americans. Indie favorites like “Speedball” Mike Bailey and Lio Rush. Prestige Wrestling’s “Nervous Breakdown” on Friday night will also feature legends like Aja Kong—one of the most famous women to ever step into the ring—and up-and-coming talent like the mighty Shigehiro Irie, who will also take on the Globe. stage

Wrestler Aja Kong will be at Prestige Wrestling’s “Nervous Breakdown” event this weekend.

(Courtesy of EAW)

Kota Ibushi, one of the most decorated and acclaimed performers of his generation, took down Canadian phenom Bailey in Josh Barnett’s Bloodsport 9 on Thursday night. It was Ibushi’s first appearance since the pandemic, but also his first match since declaring himself a free agent after leaving New Japan Pro Wrestling, where he worked as a main eventer for over a decade.

A former tag team member of AEW superstar Kenny Omega, Ibushi is one of the few wrestlers who can pull off comic antics in the ring—such as fighting sex dolls or shooting fireworks from behind—without sacrificing his serious athletic credentials. . Before becoming a more popular star, Ibushi cut his teeth with the Dramatic Dream Team (DDT), which found an international following thanks to its unique blend of Jackass-like stunts and serious grappling.

Since its inception in the 2000s, the DDT set the pattern for Japanese indie wrestling, and its influence can be seen in all of American wrestling – there’s a direct line from WWE’s Sami Zayn doing absurd stunts for the DDT, like wrestling while rowing. canoe down the river, and his Rube Goldberg machine in a hijinks-heavy match with Johnny Knoxville at WrestleMania last year.

One of the main stars of DDT is MAO, a technically dazzling performer who mixes the energy and bold humor of punk rock with light combat. He’s already made several trips across the Pacific in 2023 and says that while public interest in wrestling is strong in both the United States and Japan, traveling internationally allows for many different types of connections.

“I like foreign fans because I like to listen to their songs,” MAO explained. “The Japanese fans have a different style of cheering and they call us names, and the American fans are very honest. If something is bad, they say it is bad. If something is big, they say it’s big.’

A fighter took a picture in the ring.

Hiroshi Tanahashi took a photo in the ring at AEW Forbidden Door in June 2022.

(Courtesy of AEW)

This weekend offers a rare opportunity for American fans to get the full DDT experience by completely taking over the Ukrainian Cultural Center. In arguably one of the most intense matches of the weekend, AEW star and indie pioneer Eddie Kingston teamed up with Jun Akiyama, one of Kingston’s personal heroes and an undisputed legend of Japanese powerhouse style, to take on the goth and goths Daisuke Sasaki and KANON. .

On Friday night, the DDT roster faced off against the outlaws Game-Changer Wrestling (GCW), an American indie promotion that gained momentum during the pandemic. Matchups include Dark Sheik, the godmother of the Bay Area’s underground wrestling scene, and the creative force behind the no-nonsense DIY promotion Hoodslam, taking on pop idol Saki Akai. Meanwhile, Bay Area-based Starboy Charlie has his eye on Kazusada Higuchi, a former sumo wrestler and decorated champion with old-school strongman looks.

Tokyo Joshi Pro Wrestling (TJPW), DDT’s sister promotion, has exploded since its inception in 2012, and will also make its American debut on March 31st. TJPW’s dramatic growth, from underground shows a decade ago to pay-per-view shows today, speaks to the rise of Japanese wrestling fandom in the United States, as well as a greater respect for women’s wrestling. American performers on “TJPW Live in Los Angeles” include Trish Adora, Billie Starkz and “The Nonbinary Nightmare” Max The Impaler, all of whom have been making waves in Japan on their recent overseas tours alongside TJPW stars such as Miyu Yamashita and Yuka Sakazaki. .

From MAO’s point of view, DDT has found a growing audience worldwide, not only because of its unique style, but also because of how dedicated the talent is. “We do everything: comedy wrestling, lucha libre, hardcore,” he added. “And we always give 100%.”

As a form long based on the exchange of talent between countries, wrestling has been hit particularly hard by restrictions on intercontinental travel in recent years. With the easing of pandemic guidelines, there is mutual excitement between the performers, who are eager to get out in front of the crowd and introduce themselves to new audiences, and the fans themselves, who are eager to see the fight live like never before. and in the flesh But the influx of Japanese talent this Mania Weekend is especially special in Los Angeles. Due to California’s relative proximity to Japan, the LA wrestling scene has a rich history of partnerships with Japanese promoters that goes back decades.

“In the 1960s, Los Angeles was a very important place for Japanese fighters,” explains Dave Meltzer, one of pro wrestling’s leading historians and a longtime California resident. “Back then, every major newspaper and magazine in Los Angeles published fight information and match results, so if you were a Japanese fighter who came to work in the United States, the press coverage and pictures made you look like a worldwide star. In Japan.”

At that time, wrestling in Japan was dominated by the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance founded in 1951 by national hero Rikidozan. In the early years of the JWA’s existence, the JWA collaborated and exchanged talent with the National Wrestling Alliance, the main governing body. pro wrestling in the United States. The JWA eventually broke away from the NWA to work with the new organization Worldwide Wrestling Associates in Los Angeles, which had just split from the NWA. In the 1960s, when people talked about the “world title” in Japan, it was not the NWA’s most prestigious title, but the WWA world heavyweight title. That title was defended overseas and at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles — even Japanese channels such as TV Asahi broadcast title matches from the city’s famed sports venue, the epicenter of Los Angeles wrestling for decades.

The glittering news of wrestling in Los Angeles went both ways: it helped cement American wrestlers like “Classy” Freddie Blassie and The Destroyer as icons of Japanese pop culture. “If you were covered in those magazines, you were a star on Day 1 in Japan, before you even arrived,” says Meltzer. Due to his massive box office success in Los Angeles and his frequent appearances in wrestling magazines, the legendary Mexican fighter Mil Máscaras was poised for international fame, and his distinctive mask and colorful cape gave Japanese audiences their first glimpse of wrestling.

In the 1990s, a whole generation of Japanese performers such as The Great Sasuke and Último Dragón grew up with wrestlers Máscaras, Dos Caras and Gran Hamada, who would mix the fierce athleticism of Japan with the acrobatics of freestyle wrestling. The result is usually called lucharesu: a combination of lucha libre and “puroresu”, the Japanese term for professional wrestling.

Lucharesu then found his way back to Los Angeles where he became a major influence in the top flight of cult favorite Pro Wrestling Guerilla. Owens. Even after the demise of World Wrestling Associates in greater Los Angeles, Japanese superstars such as Antonio Inoki and Atsushi Onita staged shows in the area in the 1990s, drawing a multicultural audience of Mexican wrestling fans, Japanese immigrants, and wrestling fans.

The professional wrestling landscape has changed dramatically over the decades, but Los Angeles remains in a unique position as a cultural hub for wrestling culture, especially between Mexico, Japan and the United States. This year’s Mania Weekend is not only a testament to the city’s unique history as the epicenter of wrestling, but also offers indelible evidence of wrestling’s inherent internationalism.

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