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Cafe Puro (9/14/15): What Could Have Been Between NJPW and TNA

2002 was a pretty weird year for professional wrestling. 

WWE experienced its first calendar year as a sports entertainment monopoly, and a harsh year at that (with the Katie Vick story and Stone Cold Steve Austin's issue with the company as top examples). TNA was born as an attempt to become the alternative for wrestling fans everywhere. And NJPW, a company that has survived for decades, would begin what would be known today as the "dark ages," the moment in time where NJPW was on the brink of bankruptcy.

Fast forward to 2015. WWE is slowly getting its act back together under Paul Levesque's management (NXT, among others), while TNA is in such battered shape, to the point where it's hard to avoid any kind of news on various issues like late payments and all the backstage hullabaloo. Meanwhile, NJPW has become the biggest wrestling company in the world not named WWE.

So all things considered, it was definitely hard to swallow that at one point, NJPW and TNA used to have a working relationship with one another. And all things considered, their business relationship should have greatly benefited one another. So how come TNA, once hailed as a company with a promising future with some of the best talent around like Samoa Joe, AJ Styles, Christopher Daniels, and others, is in the sorry state that it is in while NJPW—a company that was close to disappearing—is enjoying the success it deserves today?

Sure, TNA made a ton of mistakes. And these mistakes are something that should be discussed for another time. But what we're focusing on specifically is the business relationship between the companies, and how a supposedly fruitful relationship ended up nowhere.

Now to their credit, their relationship did have some high points, including:

  • Exposing their talent across different shows. Various NJPW stars benefited from having been exposed to TNA's specials like the World X Cup. Among those who benefitted from this are Hirooki Goto and Milano Collection A.T.
  • The Styles-Tanahashi rivalry would never have happened had it not been for their match in TNA from 2006, and the subsequent rematch on NJPW soil in 2008. And even when Styles left TNA to look for greener pastures, the rivalry and chemistry never left.
  • The rise of Prince Devitt, now known as Finn B├ílor, initially began when he and Ryusuke Taguchi, known as Apollo55, defeated the Motor City Machine Guns for the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Titles. This would be the beginning of Devitt moving on from a young boy in Japan to the renowned champion that he is today.

For the good, there are also the not-so-good:

  • When Brock Lesnar had "visa issues" which resulted in Kurt Angle being booked to beat Lesnar for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, TNA mentioned that Kurt Angle was the IWGP Heavyweight Champion despite not being the NJPW-endorsed Heavyweight Champion, which was Tanahashi. This was finally settled when Shinsuke Nakamura defeated Kurt Angle in a title unification bout in 2008. This was very unusual especially when TNA kept showing off the title despite the already existing issues between Inoki and NJPW, as well as Lesnar and NJPW. 
  • To add to that, there was also the time when Tomko had the IWGP Tag Team Titles in TNA, which was not exactly shown in the way it should have been.
  • The second edition of Wrestle Kingdom focused on the NJPW-TNA rivalry, with the main event of the rivalry being Angle vs. Yuji Nagata for the Inoki-endorsed IWGP Heavyweight Championship from the Inoki Genome Federation (or the IWGP Third Belt). It's worth noting that the real main event was Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Shinsuke Nakamura for the NJPW-endorsed IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Attendance was not exactly as expected at a total of 20,000+, which could be attributed to the relatively weak card and unfamiliarity of the TNA brand to the Japanese audience.
  • As if that wasn't bad enough, TNA decided to go into business for itself and booked Team 3D to lose the IWGP Tag Team titles to the British Invasion. How bad was the damage? NJPW ended up releasing a statement that they did not authorize TNA to have them lose the titles. The fact that the win was tainted made things worse. A week later, NJPW rescinded the announcement for some reason, stating that the British Invasion's win was counted and that they are therefore the new champions. What's worse: the British Invasion never showed up in NJPW at all. If you think that was familiar, then it should be because WCW made a similar decision with the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championship with not just an unauthorized win, but a tainted one with the help of a tequila bottle. History repeating itself, eh? 
  • NO LIMIT (Yujiro Takahashi and Tetsuya Naito) ended up in TNA for an excursion and challenged once again for the IWGP Jr. Tag Titles against the MCMG. Some time later, they were sent to do the job for Kevin Nash, of all people. Now compare that to when they continued their excursion to CMLL, where not only were they treated like stars, but they also became part of important CMLL storylines. When NO LIMIT returned to Japan, the increase in muscle and the fact that they became bigger stars was more credited to CMLL and not so much with TNA. To this day, CMLL and NJPW have a very good relationship.
  • In what was NJPW's final act for TNA, they decided to send a youngster by the name of Kazuchika Okada for an American excursion for an undetermined period of time. Throughout Okada's time in TNA, he ended up getting lost in the shuffle, only to become a bodyguard for Samoa Joe inspired by Kato of Green Hornet fame, aptly named Okato. Get it? Okada? Kato? Eh.

Overall, nothing was happening to Okada. That is, until he returned in 2012, when he effectively became the Rainmaker, and the rest is history. How does Okada feel about the entire TNA thing? In an interview with MVP on his YouTube channel, when asked if he had anything to say to TNA, all Okada said was, "HELL NO!" (fast forward to the 16:10 mark for his comments, but still check out the entire video if you want to learn more about NJPW)

It can be argued that had it not been for his time in TNA, he would never have become the man he is today. But then again, it says a lot about TNA for not recognizing big-time talent while continuing to sign other questionable talent (i.e. Hulk Hogan).

When you look at the way the relationship went, it felt more like a one-sided affair, with TNA getting more from this than NJPW. And NJPW is a very big company, mind you. Sure, TNA managed to get big stars from other companies, but NJPW managed to keep afloat thanks to, as mentioned in last week's edition of Cafe Puro, their ability to invest in the future.

Today, TNA has a TV deal with Destination America, and is sharing the night slot with Ring of Honor Wrestling. Ironic, considering it was TNA who did not want anything to do with ROH back in the day and wanted their talents to be exclusive to TNA. Now, TNA has to deal with not just the company they shrugged away back then, but with GFW as well. You know, GFW, whose owner also helped found TNA? And it also did not help when their relationship with Keiji Mutoh's Wrestle-1 promotion fizzled.

Business relationships are designed to be win-win for the parties concerned. That being said, with NJPW, they certainly held their end of the bargain. They managed to do great business with NOAH (i.e. loaning Suzuki-gun to NOAH), DDT Pro Wrestling, Ring of Honor, CMLL, JAPW, and others. Heck, they were very relaxed in having Jushin "Thunder" Liger compete in NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn, and NJPW even promoted the appearance!

Looking at these two companies today, it feels weird that they are in their respective circumstances. Things could have been very different between the two companies, that is for sure. But it seems as though TNA has a long way to go when it comes to having a fruitful business relationship with another promotion. Will GFW suffer the same fate as NJPW? Only time will tell.

For next week, with all this talk about a "Divas Revolution", someone definitely made an impact in the world of modern Joshi puroresu. And for those outside of Japan, it's someone people may never even expect. Here's a clue though: anyone here love gravure?


Lance Tan Ong has been a banking guy for the past few years but a wrestling guy for most of his life. And after checking out matches of Mitsuharu Misawa and Shinya Hashimoto at an early age, he's also pretty much a puro guy as well. Currently checking out WWE (mostly NXT), NJPW, DDT, and other promotions that catch and demand attention. He currently handles NJPW news and coverage for Smark Henry.

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