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Cafe Puro (3/29/16): What WWE Can Learn From The Rise Of Okada


On April 4, 2016, at WrestleMania 32 (also known as WrestleMania Star), Roman Reigns will challenge Triple H for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at the main event, a match that would be considered a passing of the torch of sorts and solidify The Big Dog as the man in WWE for years to come.


That should have been it, as simple as that—Reigns on top as a beloved star by the fans.

Here’s the problem: for many reasons, it seems as though in the eyes of many, there is still resentment over Reigns being the man, or in this case, WWE Creative dropping the ball on his ascent to the top. And that is why for the most part, Triple H has been seen as the supposed “face” in their rivalry where he is the heel. Expect the same amount of hostility by the time the main event takes place.


On the the other side of the planet, Kazuchika Okada’s ascent to the top was destined. A man with an unlimited amount of potential, support from the fans since his Young Lion days, and management approval, he had a ton of upside for his already-successful career, where, at the rate he is going, being considered a Hall of Famer at an early age is a real possibility. The funny part is, he is in a similar position with Reigns as far as his role goes: a man who is destined to become the face of a company for years to come (granted, he doesn’t end up in WWE in the next few years).

So what happened? Why is Reigns having a rough transition in his road to become the next face of WWE when Okada’s path to the top was relatively seamless? Perhaps a look at Okada’s path might give a better perspective as to how Reigns’ ascent could have been better, and how WWE in general could learn a thing or two from how NJPW handled his rise.

(Please do note that we are acknowledging that NJPW and WWE are two different companies with different procedures and philosophies. However, there are ideas where WWE can definitely learn from NJPW in the long term, especially when they are trying to build new stars in the future. It really helps for WWE to have some sense of awareness, after all.)

The Experience Factor



And we start off with an idea that came from a fruitful discussion with the Smark Henry team! Credits go to our newest member, the only 2-time (2-time) PWR Champion in history and host of FOX's The Wrestling Gods (plus occasional stalker in Malaysia), "Classical" Bryan Leo!

Many people don’t realize this, but by August 2016, Okada would have been competing for 12 years already at a tender age of 28. Having been trained by the legendary Ultimo Dragon, Okada would have gone through the motions of his career, from his debut, exposure in lucha libre, and his being retrained as a Young Lion in NJPW, to his excursion in the States, and his ascent to the top of the puroresu scene upon his return. In his young experience in life, he has already gained this much veteran experience, to the point where you could already call Okada a long time player in the game despite the age difference.

And if you think about it, Hulk Hogan and Steve Austin also had to compete all around the world in order to gain experience, helpful bits that would allow them to succeed later in their careers and become icons in their own right.

Reigns only had two years of experience in FCW and NXT before being immediately called up to the main roster as one-third of he most dominating faction in years, The Shield. With relatively minimal experience under his belt, he was put in big-time main event positions as a team, with Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose covering for his weaknesses. When the group was abruptly broken up, fans saw that Reigns still needed some improvement as a worker, as a big push was already in motion.

Now don’t get us wrong: Reigns has improved by leaps and bounds in his young career. But there is also a good reason why fans felt that Rollins and Ambrose, men who honed their craft all over before making it to WWE, deserved to be on the top. They understand what it takes to grasp the attention of the audience, the same way Austin and Hogan did back then, and Okada does now. And while Reigns could get the right ingredients soon (like Cena and Rock did), in a workhorse-demanding WWE, it’s a whole new ballgame, and haste is of the essence.

Creative, Creative, Creative



We get what The Rainmaker is, and we get what the entire package is about. You have Gedo, the mouthpiece of Okada, hyping up his boy’s accomplishments. And all things considered, Okada knows the right words to say when he needs to speak. Adding the fact that New Japan is treated more as a competitive wrestling company helps matters. And even before that point, he was a Young Lion who got the unanimous support of the fans, chanting his name in the process for his charisma and ability to captivate an audience.

I really don’t have to say much about the hands that were dealt to Reigns when he was starting to rise up the ranks. Sufferin’ succotash, right?

It’s hard to get a good first impression in the world of pro wrestling, much less win over the fans. And yes, Reigns will still have an uphill battle to get accepted by the fans in his own way. But it should never have been a struggle in the first place. Reigns may have the tools, but with creative like WWE’s that caused most of the roster to suffer, you can only go so far.

Filling Them Shoes



Hiroshi Tanahashi is a certified Hall of Famer, a man who deserves every accolade he has earned after contributing greatly to the return in prominence of New Japan Pro Wrestling. And after a 4-year program that became the company’s biggest rivalry in a long time, Okada benefitted from his bouts with Tanahashi and effectively became THE man. While Tanahashi may have decreased his role a bit in the company, no one can deny that Tanahashi is still the kingpin around these parts.

John Cena needs no introduction, really. He’s close to tying Ric Flair’s 16 World Title reign and a future Hall of Famer, helping carry the name of WWE for more than a decade. While fans may indeed be divided anout Cena’s character, as years followed, one cannot help but respect the man for being the company flag-bearer after all this time.

If you think about it, these are shoes that Reigns will eventually be filling for the immediate future. Until now, no matter how many times WWE kept pushing Reigns, fans are not still not buying Reigns as THE man. Sure, it will take a while before he gets accepted, but will it have to take another decade for a man like Reigns to eventually be given a chance to be cheered and respected the way Cena did? Will WWE truly allow fans to give enough of a reason to invest their time and effort for a man they simply cannot buy at this point in time? That was a problem NJPW immediately addressed when they decided to go aboard the Okada train, and they effectively addressed the concerns en route to him becoming the face of NJPW.

The Company Landscape



What I personally love about NJPW is that when you think about it, everyone in the company has a role to play. Sure, Okada’s the champ, but you have other stars that are making their own mark and, in effect, quite an impression on the fans. Omega, Naito, and Goto are guys who share the spotlight alongside the junior heavyweights and the other guys, showing that the entire roster has substance. With so much potential in the roster, fans an easily dream up so many dream matches Okada can have. At the same time, NJPW was wise enough to not put all their eggs in one basket, an diversify.

WWE is, arguably, the biggest indie promotion in the world with such a rich roster on their employ. In fact, looking at WWE now will make us believe how far we’ve come since the early days when the company was stuck in their own personal bubble. Again, while Reigns is definitely improving since the early days, it is still a wonder as to why other guys who clearly get cheered with years of experience like Ambrose get their just due. There are guys who could have just taken over Reigns’s spot, particularly others who are clearly being supported by fans (like Ambrose) and have him slowly but surely build rapport with the fans. As said, the WWE today has changed, and so does the ingredients of what makes a true pro-wrestling star in this day and age. (Just ask D-Bry.)

The point here is: WWE should have taken the initiative to strengthen their entire roster instead of putting all their efforts on a few. Who knows when WWE will get the chance to find new stars by giving everyone a chance to shine. Reigns may be good, but he also needs some very good dance partners, most of which are currently in the injured list.

The main event win of Reigns is an expected certainty at this point, but in many ways, all the hate spewed by the fans and the agony that comes with it could have easily been avoided had they gave a long look at their situation. In an effort from WWE to create their big star, they effectively made a second coming of John Cena, a divisive babyface that may very well take years to be appreciated in retrospect. WWE should have given a gander on how NJPW made a huge star that doesn’t have to go through a decade-long honeymoon phase to be accepted by fans.

And if you want to see how Reigns will be treated, come by this Monday for the WrestleMania viewing party at Skinny Mike’s! Admission is free, and hey, the wings aren’t bad either!

Images from NJPW and respective owners

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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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