Nothing lasts forever.
No matter how mighty or unassailable something may seem in the peak of it’s strength, it can easily crumble and fall apart if not properly tended to. Staying on top in any industry is all about changing with the times, keeping an eye towards the future and ensuring that your company has everything it needs to keep performing at the highest possible level. As you might have guessed from the title of this post, this is the story of two companies who did not take these lessons to heart. And now, despite both being, at various times, the top promotion in all of Japan, they now both sit on the precipice of obscurity and failure.
How did things get this way? How did the fertile ground that birthed the Four Pillars, (Kenta Kobashi, Mitsuharu Misawa, Toshiaki Kawada and Akira Taue,) later become known for fights in the locker room? How did a company founded by the most popular wrestler in the nation, and built in his image, lead all of wrestling in failed main event pushes? Today, we’ll do our best to answer those questions.
There’s no way to tell the story of these two companies in the last decade without starting at the moment where one company became two, and contracts, alliances and decade defining relationships were thrown into a whirlwind of chaos.
See, throughout the 90s, All Japan Pro Wrestling was one of the two major promotions in Japan, (along with New Japan Pro Wrestling.) It was run by a legendary wrestler named Giant Baba and his wife Motoko, and together they presided over one of the most incredible runs by any company in all of wrestling history. Giant Baba was accounted to be one of the smartest bookers in the world, and in the running for a snazzy “World’s Best Boss” coffee mug, and he had the undisputed loyalty of all of his employees. His biggest star, of course, was Mitsuharu Misawa, and all through the 90s, Misawa, Kobashi and the rest made money hand over fist for All Japan while putting on some of the most incredible events ever seen. But then the decade came to an end, and as Giant Baba’s health started to fail, Misawa and the rest began to look forward toward an uncertain future.
In wrestling history there has never been a promoter as beloved by the wrestlers who work for him as Giant Baba. Part of the reason for that was that he had a bad cop everyone hated. His wife. The Dragon Lady. That’s not a gimmick name by the way just what everyone called her behind her back. When Giant Baba succumbed to cancer in January 1999 she became the owner. The top wrestler in the promotion, Mitsuharu Misawa, became company president. Dragon Lady vetoed every idea Misawa had to expand or change the company. Independently wealthy through real estate, she felt no need to take any risks. Misawa felt he couldn’t work with her, and with the blessing of Jumbo Tsuruta, he went to NTV, the network that aired All Japan and proposed that he leave and take the wrestlers with him to form a new company. NTV was on board but wanted to wait until a year had passed from Baba’s death. This time table would be pushed back further when Jumbo died but in the Summer of 2000 Pro Wrestling NOAH opened its doors with most of the native talent of All Japan jumping with Misawa sans Toshiaki Kawada and Masanobu Fuchi.
When Baba’s health was failing, more and more of his responsibility went to his wife, Motoko Baba, and his top star Mitsuhara Misawa. And when Baba died on January 31, 1999, Misawa was named the President, though Mrs. Baba still retained a great deal of influence and power (I can’t recall if she had an official position in the company or not, but she was the majority shareholder). There was one slight problem with that; Misawa and Mrs. Baba hated each other. As in, could-not-stand-the-ground-the-other-walked-on-wouldn’t-piss-on-the-other-if-they-were-on-fire hated each other. Also, both had fundamentally different ideas on how to run the company.
Essentially, Mrs. Baba wanted to keep the company exactly the same as her husband did, as a sort of tribute to the late Baba. Misawa, on the other hand, saw it as an opportunity to expand, to change how things were done. Some of those changes include:
– Cutting back on using foreign talent: He didn’t do away with bringing them in by any means, but he recognized that guys like Stan Hansen and Steve Williams (who weren’t eaten up by WWE) were incredibly rare, so he wanted to start shifting the focus off of them and onto…
– Inter-promotional feuds: Company vs. Company feuds like UWFi/New Japan were something that you would never see in Baba’s All Japan, despite the fact that it was almost always a critical and financial success everywhere in the world it was tried. Hell, Kawada was sent to the “main event dog house” for a time just for bringing it up once. To be fair to Baba, he wanted his properties to be seen as All Japan exclusives, and it wasn’t like Baba’s model was unsuccessful by any dramatic stretch of the imagination. But Misawa saw dollar signs not go into All Japan’s pocket, and that just wouldn’t do.
– Venues to run at: Yup, the buildings the company ran shows in were a point of contention. Seriously, it took begging from both Misawa AND Kawada for Baba to finally consent to booking shows at the Tokyo Dome, because he didn’t want any All Japan event to ever be seen as “bigger” than their major Budokan shows.
Now, there is something you need to know about Japan as a whole…they hate change, almost as much as Misawa and Mrs. Baba hated each other. It took almost a year and a half, but on May 28, 2000, the board of directors removed Misawa as president. Well Misawa didn’t like that very much at all, and made his move to separate from All Japan and form his own promotion. Being a nice man, he told his friends why he thought All Japan was a sinking ship, and asked if they wanted to come with him. Being a popular man, they all agreed. Seems straight-forward right? I shall now list all of Misawa’s friends:
The wrestlers, the referees, the cameramen, the agents, some of the board directors, the financial backers, the broadcast company NTV: in short, almost everyone.
Several press conferences later, and Misawa announced how he and his compatriots were leaving on an Ark before God destroyed the world (seriously, he used that analogy. I personally found it slightly blasphemous, but it was still pretty awesome) and that the new company would be named Pro Wrestling NOAH.
Mrs. Baba tried to paint Misawa as this evil man who did not take care of his responsibilities, but the damage was done. When the dust cleared, only four men would stay loyal to the company: Toshiaki Kawada, (who’s friendship with Misawa was well and truly burned,) Masanobu Fuchi, (whose career was winding down,) Steve Williams, and referee Kyohei Wada. To make matters worse for All Japan, NTV was still a 15% shareholder of the company, giving them just enough influence to keep All Japan from getting on any other network after they dropped the company.
So there you have it; NOAH ran their first show in August of that year, and was incredibly successful almost from the word, “go.” Mrs. Baba, though, was not without weapons to fight back. She had large company funds from the 90’s to buy up new talent, she had sympathy as the widow left on her own, and most importantly, she still had Kawada, one of the biggest wrestling names in Japan. It wasn’t very Giant Baba-like, but she knew how to use him effectively and stick it to Misawa; a cross-promotional feud with All Japan’s biggest competitor, New Japan Pro Wrestling.
Most people thought All Japan was dead. Including Dragon Lady, whose only goal was to keep the company gong to 2002 so it would make its 30 year anniversary. To keep things going she made two calls. One call was to Genichiro Tenryu. The other was to New Japan Pro Wrestling. Tenryu had been banned from ever returning to All Japan by Baba, following Tenryu taking a big money deal with a billionaire money mark. His return was a massive deal. As was the deal with New Japan which led to a long run as Triple Crown Champion by Keiji Muto, who had the best year of his career both as a draw and as a worker, which given his amazing career says a lot. Muto had great matches with Tenryu and Kawada, but also worked miracles with a broken down Steve Williams and a post WCW Scott Hall.
The funny thing about Tenryu coming back is that it was him leaving All Japan in the first place back in the late 80s that opened up a spot in the main event for a young talent who was rapidly getting over with the crowds and was poised to make a big impact. That young wrestler’s name? Mitsuharu Misawa.
The company had survived so well that, in 2002, Keiji Muto and investors bought All Japan from the Dragon Lady instead of just closing it’s doors.
I want to put this move into perspective for you. Imagine what it would be like to fans if John Cena left WWE tomorrow and bought TNA with a group of investors. The reaction from the media and fans was outright shock, as Muto had been the face of New Japan for almost a decade by this point. But those close to the situation were less surprised, as Muto had grown fed up with NJPW owner Antonio Inoki’s grand plan to merge professional wrestling and mixed martial arts into one. That plan, known as “Inokism” is one of the greatest failures by any promoter in wrestling history, but that’s a topic for another article.
So now Muto is running All Japan, and begins to recreate it in his vision. He opens the door to foreign talent, especially former WWE stars like D’Lo Brown and Bull Buchanon. And in a fairly huge cout, Muto lured away Satoshi Kojima, (a big up and coming star who Inoki had been ignoring during his “PUSH ALL THE MMA GUYS” phase,) from New Japan, as well as Kendo Kashin. All Japan was positioned to hold its own against the other two big companies of the era, but even from the start, problems began to show up.
Meanwhile, in Pro Wrestling NOAH, things were just kicking off.
The plan for NOAH was just to keep going from where they left off in All Japan. Building a Kobashi vs Akiyama rivalry that would be the 2000s equivalent to the 1990s rivalry of Mitsuharu Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada. However, in NOAH’s debut, the full extent of the damage to Kenta Kobashi’s knees was discovered. He would have to spend months in the hospital having at least a dozen surgeries on his knees and was out of action for 13 months. In that time NOAH established the GHC Titles, including the GHC Heavyweight Championship, which was first won by Mitsuharu Misawa but was quickly lost to Jun Akiyama, the expected Ace of the company. Akiyama was not the draw that NOAH had hoped though. Well, for NOAH anyway. In October 2001 he would headline the Tokyo Dome for New Japan in a tag match with Yuji Nagata against Triple Crown Champion Keiji Muto and Hiroshi Hase in a match built around the NOAH Champion fighting the All Japan Champion. For New Japan. Which is really weird. Almost like if the main match of Wrestlemania 2000 was the WCW Champion against the ECW Champion and WCW and ECW had an odd and antagonistic relationship. That show drew over 45,000 fans and Akiyama would sell out the Dome for New Japan with Nagata 3 months later.
Even though injuries to Kobashi derailed their early attempts to position NOAH as a company built on his shoulders as All Japan had been carried on Misawa’s, NOAH was a hugely popular company and the talk of the entire wrestling industry. And when Kobashi came back from injury finally, he defeated Misawa for the title in a match that some call the greatest match ever to take place to take the torch officially and move NOAH on into a new generation of greatness. Kobashi then embarked on a title reign that is still mentioned in hushed tones by those who witnessed it, as it is considered by many to be the greatest title reign of the modern era.
When Kenta Kobashi returned he was still hampered by injury, but in March 2003 he won the GHC Title from Misawa. What would follow was a 2 year stretch where Kobashi was the biggest draw in wrestling and probably the best worker. He consistently sold out the 16,000 seat Budokan Hall and drew two huge crowds in the Tokyo Dome one for New Japan against Chono and one against Akiyama in 2004.
But as Kobashi’s reign progressed, Misawa began to look to the future, as NOAH tried to figure out who it would be who would defeat Kobashi and become their next big star. Ending this title reign would be an enormously important event, and gave them a chance to catapult a young star to the top. They looked around their roster, which was filled to the brim with exciting talent that fans were very interested in, and they had a decision to make. Would it be the charismatic and high flying Naomichi Marufuji? Would it be the exciting and marketable KENTA? The much ballyhooed Takeshi Morishima? Which of their great young talents would it be? And when the smoke cleared, we finally had our answer. Takeshi Rikio.
I covered a lot of this in my Kobashi Title Reign article with greater detail, (which you can read here,) but the Takeshi Rikio Title win was one of the death nails in NOAH’s coffin. Rikio was a young boy who the crowd had been warming up to for a while with plucky, never-say-die attitude, hard-hitting style, and legitimately good matches under his belt. The problem was that, after giving Rikio a title shot where he impressed everyone, they barely did anything to book him correctly during the period before he was pimped for his second title shot, and effectively tried to get him over at the last minute before the title win, and being surprised that it failed so utterly. To make matters worse, Rikio hurt his arm badly, and proceeded to have stinker after stinker of title defenses against even Mitsuhara Misawa of all people. The NOAH crowd turned on Rikio hard.
Eventually they decided to have Akira Taue take the belt off of him in November, mere months after he won the belt. In a surprising turn of events, the match was fantastic, a career highlight for both men. Unfortunately it was too little, too late. Rikio’s singles career was effectively grounded, and the company seemed to develop a phobia of pushing anyone new into the spotlight.
This paralyzing fear of choosing a new star to get behind is the true defining legacy of Pro Wrestling NOAH. Throughout the decade, the company set in motion grandiose pushes for guys like Akiyama, Marufuji and Morishima, only to get could feet and leaves them hanging out to dry when the response from crowds wasn’t immediately positive. As a result, they remained dependent on their 90s stars to do ALL of the drawing on major shows, in a way that makes the WWE of today look like an elementary school in comparison. Obviously this business model couldn’t last, but they held things together for as long as they could, until the unthinkable happened.
When Mitsuharu Misawa, the president, booker, and founding star of Pro Wrestling NOAH, died, it was an incredibly devastating event that shook the entire Japanese wrestling industry to it’s core. His loss left NOAH initially rudderless until Akira Taue took control of things, but even then he was looking at a promotion with a very shaky foundation for success. And then, before NOAH or All Japan could get out of the line of fire, the scandals began.
Two major scandals rocked Japanese wrestling in the late 00s. Naturally, All Japan and NOAH each had one of their own. NOAH’s centered around a rumored Yakuza involvement that was a major issue in the press. The Yakuza, (Japanese mafia,) had long been rumored to be a major part of the Japanese wrestling industry, with promoters beholden to the crime syndicates, and even some wrestlers rumored to be members. This started to become a lightning rod for scandal, and the focus shifted to NOAH when it was alleged in a book that former NOAH president Ryu Nakata and Haruka Eigen, a counselor for the promotion, had serious ties to the Yakuza. Both men were immediately demoted by the company, but the accusations and association with the Yakuza did a lot to continue burying NOAH’s reputation in the eyes of fans.
But that’s almost good publicity compared to what happened in All Japan. In 2011, a veteran wrestler named Nobukazu Hirai was involved in a backstage fight with TARU, a member of All Japan’s popular Voodoo Murders stable. TARU’s beating, which compounded earlier concussions Hirai had suffered, resulted in Hirai suffering a stroke later in the day, and ended up leaving him comatose in the hospital. The Voodoo Murders stable was disbanded, and Keiji Muto resigned of his own accord in shame for allowing it to happen under his watch.
As both promotions rolled into the new decade, both now had to cope with the reality that they were now completely irrelevant next to the soaring successes of New Japan. Throughout the 00s, the wrestling business in Japan was in slump altogether, so even though the two companies had begun to struggle heavily, they retained their places as major players in the Japanese wrestling industry. But New Japan built a new empire for itself on the back of Hiroshi Tanahashi and the most impressive pool of talent the country had seen since All Japan and Pro Wrestling NOAH were one and the same. And both companies had to watch as New Japan reinvigorated wrestling audiences even as their attendance numbers dwindled. Finally, NOAH experienced the loss that may go down in history as the deathblow of their company, as Kenta Kobashi announced his retirement.
Now losing Kobashi alone would have been awful, as he is among the most beloved wrestlers in the nation’s history, and was by far the biggest draw that NOAH had access to, even broken down as he was. But NOAH’s shrinking finances forced them to do the unthinkable and force him out of the promotion altogether to get rid of his exorbitant salary. Fans immediately felt betrayed, as did wrestlers, and Jun Akiyama, Go Shiozaki and several other NOAH talents immediately picked up and left. Ironically, they headed straight to All Japan, reversing the move that Akiyama and Kobashi had made together 13 years earlier. Kobashi retired and All Japan got a new influx of main event talent, but have still failed to turn that into significant fan interest, leaving both companies stuck in the mud having a slap fight with one another while New Japan removes them from public consciousness a little at a time.
Recently, All Japan has been purchased by a company named Speed Partners. This has resulted in a man named Nobuo Shiraishi running the company, and he used his first months in the job to threaten every wrestler on the roster to shape up or be fired, declare that All Japan would not partner with any other company ever again, and to begin talking endless shit about New Japan. If this seems out of nowhere and crazy to you, that’s because it is, and All Japan seems prime to self destruct at any moment.
And so our story comes to the present. All Japan and Pro Wrestling NOAH continue to exist, but NOAH is an irrelevant shell of what it once was, and All Japan is damaged goods ruled over by a crazy person. From where I sit, there seems to be very little chance that both companies will live out the next decade, and it wouldn’t be hard to see the other following it closely into the grave. And while these companies have self destructed in a way more commonly associated with Michael Bay movies, these are still two formerly proud monoliths of the wrestling industry. Any fan of Japanese wrestling has innumerable fond memories of both, and All Japan especially hass a historic lineage that it will be a tragedy to lose. But let’s focus on what this cautionary tale can teach us. No matter how strong and proud the company, it only takes a precious few major mistakes to bring it all crashing down. And as we all grab our shovels to join in digging up the King’s Road, just remember this: both of these companies were once as loved, respected and well connected as any wrestling promotion has ever been. And step by step, they have been brought to their knees in front of our very eyes. If it could happen to them, who knows who it could happen to. New Japan? WWE? Why not? After all, there’s only one rule in professional wrestling.
Nothing lasts forever.