Updated: Mar 17
My aim through this series to introduce you in depth to viable alternatives to the WWE and yes, maybe even New Japan Pro Wrestling. Because the latter is one of the best products in the world right now, I know from personal experience that it wets the appetite for more Japanese Wrestling which, unfortunately, is not as easy or readily available as New Japan. So I'm here to try and provide you with a basic guide to some viable Japanese alternatives, enough to get you started in the promotions anyway.
NB: Yes I will probably be comparing them to New Japan for eases sake and because that is what I know and I find it easier to compare shows, schedules and titles for that of New Japan, I hope this doesn't upset too many purists out there!
Formed in 1972 after separating from the Japanese Pro-Wrestling Alliance (JWA), All Japan Pro-Wrestling was formed by Giant Baba Shotei in partnership with the sons of Rikidōzan; Mitsuo and Yoshihiro Momota. The company enjoyed huge amounts of success in the late 80s and early 90s, both during and after their partnership with the NWA. The company relied heavily on home grown talents and Baba worked on the time honoured and tested Japanese vs. Foreigner match type, with the foreigner always playing the heel. However, several outsiders such as The Funks, Stan Hansen and Mil Mascaras became unpredictably popular and therefore the dynamic was relaxed somewhat.
In fact, All Japan enjoyed very little but fruitful times during Giant Baba's life, but all this would change following his death in 1999 of Liver Failure, a result of Colon Cancer. From the company's inception in 1972, Baba had acted as their head trainer, booker, promoter and president, as well as their top star for the first 10 years. His death left a huge hole, a hole that was originally filled by Mitsuharu Misawa, which is where true problems began.
In 1990 Genichiro Tenryu led several of the company's top stars away to form the short-lived Super World of Sports promotion. Though hardly ideal, All Japan survived by pushing Misawa, Kawada, Kobashi and others to the main event scene. However when in May 2000, just over a year after Baba's death, Misawa was outsted from his position as Company president, he led a second, and far more damaging, exodus leaving with 24 of the 26 contracted Japanese performers, and formed the Pro-Wrestling: NOAH promotion.
Not only was this an enormous blow to the roster, but all titles had to be vacated and the network that had previously carried the All Japan weekly TV show, NTV, announced that they would be discontonuing the show after 27 years. To add insult to injury, NTV also announced that they were maintaining their 15% stake in All Japan, preventing it from being aired on any other network. The time slot on NTV was taken up by Pro Wrestling: NOAH's new weekly show.
All Japan embarked on a huge rebuilding project, starting a 2 year fued with rivals New Japan that saw top stars from both promotions appear on tours for both sides. This would ultimately lead to the defection of Keiji Mutoh in 2002, who would become the company's President, bringing back a semblence of the glory years All Japan had lacked. This era was known as the Pro Wrestling Love era and lasted over a decade.
This wasn't to last however, and in 2013, after negotiations for Mutoh to regain the presidency between owners Speed Partners and All Japan turned sour, Mutoh resigned and led a third exodus from the company. 13 wrestlers on the active roster announced that they would be leaving the promotion out of loyalty to Mutoh and left after the June 30th event to form Wrestle-1. Talent continued to defect to Wrestle-1 as the year continued, including ring announcers and referees, leaving All Japan with under a half an active roster.
Some would argue the company is still finding its feet again after this third mass exodus of talent, and has relied heavily on the inclusion of freelancers to pad out its roster. A deal was reached with Nippon BS Broadcasting to produce a highlights package to be aired monthly, while Gaora Broadcasting airs live specials, a monthly show entitled B-Banquet and occasionally airs archived footage under the show name Battle Archives.
Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship - One of the most prestigious Championships in professional wrestling and All Japan Pro Wrestling's top prize, the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship was quite unique in its fledgling years. Created in 1989 through the unification of three previous championships (PWF World Heavyweight Championship, NWA United National Championship and the NWA International Heavyweight Championship) the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship was represented by the champion carrying the three individual belts to the ring. This was stopped in August 2013 when one unified title belt was unveiled. The design incorporated designs from the previous 3 belts and had the name of the inaugural champion Jumbo Tsuruta emblazoned on it, along with the date he won it (April 18th 1989.) Since 1989, many of wrestling's greats have held this Championship; Stan Hansen, Genichiro Tenryu, Kenta Kobashi, Mitsuharu Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada to name but a few.
World Tag Team Championships - The main tag team titles in AJPW. Similar to the Triple Crown Championships, these belts were created as a unification of two other belts; the PWF Tag Team Championships and the NWA International Tag Team Championships. However, unlike the Triple Crown Championship, there is no one unifying belt, meaning the champions must carry two belts each, each representing the PWF and NWA titles. Though there are dedicated tag teams in AJPW, singles stars will often be placed together to go for the belts, as well as freelance teams such Strong BJ (Daisuke Sekimoto and Yuji Okabayashi) who are based out of Big Japan.
World Junior Heavyweight Championships - Introduced back in 1986, the World Junior Heavyweight Championship is exclusively contested among competitors below the 220 lbs weight limit. First won by Hiro Saito, who defeated Brad Armstrong in a tournament final in 1986, it has been held by many notable names such as Kenny Omega, Naomichi Marufuji and Ultimo Dragon.
All Asia Tag Team Championships - Dating back to 1955 in the old JWA (Japanese Wrestling Association) the All Asia Tag Team Championships are the oldest active titles in Japan, and serve as the secondary Tag Team Championship in All Japan.
Gaora Television Championship - The newest of All Japan's championships, introduced back in 2012 to commemorate All Japan's television deal with Gaora Television, the Gaora TV Championship is considered by many as the companies least prestigious championships, while others refuse to take it seriously. Seiya Sanada was the first holder after winning an 8 man single Elimination tournament to become the first champion.
Though All Japan relies heavily on freelancers in modern times (names such as Minoru Suzuki have held the Triple Crown Championship despite not being signed to the promotion) the company still has a core roster of wrestlers absolutely worth checking out and getting invested in. Some examples include;
Kento Miyahara - The resident ace of All Japan and (at the time of writing) the reigning Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion in his 4th reign. At the age of 30 he has an incredible resume, having won the Triple Crown Championship 4 times, both sets of Tag Team Championships, the Ōdō Tournament in 2018 and the World's Strongest Tag Determination League in 2015, whilst also putting on a Match of 2019 candidate against Jake Lee in the 2019 Champions Carnival on his way to winning that - decorated is an understatement! This man is incredible to watch in the ring and his title defences are always something incredible to behold.
*Kento Miyahara vs. Zeus (21/10/18) (AJPW Raising An Army Memorial Series 2018 - Tag 11)
*Kento Miyahara vs. KAI (3/1/19) (AJPW New Year Wars 2019 - Tag 2)
*Kento Miyahara vs. Yuji Okabayashi (25/4/19) (AJPW Champions Carnival 2019 - Tag 14)
*Kento Miyahara vs. Suwama (9/10/17) (AJPW Raising An Army Memorial Series 2017 - Tag 4)
*Kento Miyahara vs. Shuji Ishikawa (27/8/17) (AJPW 45th Anniversary)
*Kento Miyahara vs. Jake Lee (29/4/19) (AJPW Champions Carnival 2019 - Tag 18)
SUWAMA - Before there was Miyahara, there was SUWAMA, the former crown jewel of All Japan Pro Wrestling. Aside from winning the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship 6 times, he is one half of the current World Tag Team Champions (at the time of writing) Violent Giants, with partner Shuji Ishikawa, in the midst of his 4th reign with the belts. The man has won all a Heavyweight can win in All Japan, showing how much stock AJPW have put into him, but also how much he carried the company at times when they were struggling hugely. Don't discount him in any match, and dont underestimate his ability to put over the younger talent (see his match against Kento Miyahara from 2017.)
*Suwama vs. Kento Miyahara (9/10/17) (AJPW Raising An Army Memorial Series 2017 - Tag 4)
*Suwama vs. Jun Akiyama (23/10/11) (AJPW Pro-Wrestling Love in Ryogoku Vol.13)
*Suwama vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi (9/4/08) (AJPW Gaora Special Champion Carnival 2008 - Tag 5)
*Suwama & Shuji Ishikawa (Violent Giants) vs. Daisuke Sekimoto & Yuji Okabayashi (Strong BJ) (19/3/19) (AJPW Dream Power Series 2019 - Tag 6)
*Suwama & Shuji Ishikawa (Violent Giants) vs. Kento Miyahara & YOSHI-TATSU (Yoshiken) (12/12/17) (AJPW Real World Tag League 2017 - Tag 14)
Shuji Ishikawa - One half of incredibly popular, and decorated, tag team Violent Giants, Shuji Ishikawa is a monster amongst the All Japan roster. Moving phenomenally for a man his size, he can have outstanding matches in the Deathmatch or Strong Style arena. Holding the Triple Crown Championship in 2017 and the Tag Titles on 3 separate occasions as part of Violent Giants with Suwama, this man knows what it is to be at the top of the card. Not only this, but as mentioned before, he is an incredibly talented Deathmatch Wrestler, and is highly regarded in Big Japan aswell, holding the Tag straps 3 times and both of Big Japan's Heavyweight Championships. Back to All Japan though, and Ishikawa has wrestled some absolute classics in the past few years; go and check out his match with Shingo Tagaki from 2018 and his two singles matches with Miyahara from 2017. If Tag Team wrestling is more your thing, one of my personal favourite matches of this year was from the All Japan Dream Power Series 2019 Tour when on Night 6, Violent Giants clashed with Strong BJ for the tag belts - beautiful carnage!
*Shuji Ishikawa vs. Shingo Tagaki (29/4/18) (AJPW Champion Carnival 2018 - Tag 14)
*Violent Giants vs. Strong BJ (19/3/19) (AJPW Dream Power Series 2019 - Tag 6)
*Shuji Ishikawa vs. Kento Miyahara (4/6/17) (AJPW Super Power 2017 Super Power Series - Tag 6)
*Shuji Ishikawa vs. Kento Miyahara (27/8/17) (AJPW 45th Anniversary Show)
*Shuji Ishikawa vs. Zeus (26/8/18) (AJPW Summer Explosion Series 2018 - Tag 9)
Joe Doering - The main gaijin of the All Japan roster, his stiff working style has earned him comparisons to AJPW legend Stan Hansen. A former 2 time Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion, 4 time World Tag Team Champion and 3 time winner of the World Strongest Tag Determination League, Doering is a powerhouse in the division, both as a singles competitor, and as one half of the tag team Bomber with Dylan James. In 2016, Doering underwent brain surgery but is now wrestling again and regained the Triple Crown Championship at the tail end of 2017 to boot; outstanding.
*Joe Doering vs. Go Shiozaki (3/1/15) (AJPW New Year Wars 2015 - Tag 3)
*Joe Doering vs. Kento Miyahara (22/4/17) (AJPW Champions Carnival 2017 - Tag 5)
*Joe Doering vs. Zeus (2/1/18) (AJPW New Year Wars 2018 - Tag 1)
*Joe Doering & Dylan James (Bomber) vs. Suwama & Shuji Ishikawa (Violent Giants) (11/12/18) (AJPW Real World Tag League 2018 - Tag 19)
Jake Lee - Debuting in 2011, Jake Lee then retired the same year to pursue a short-lived career in Martial Arts, before then coming back in 2015. Now back for good, Lee had a stellar year in 2017, having an excellent Champion Carnival run aswell as excellent matches against Shuji Ishikawa and tag match against the Big Guns. His series of matches with Kento Miyahara have been excellent, including the final of 2019's Champion Carnival and a rematch in the final of the Royal Road Tournament. Though only having held Tag gold at the time of writing, he has held the AJPW World Tag Team Championships once and is one half the current All-Asia Tag Team Champions as Sweeper with Koji Iwamoto in their 2nd reign, he is clearly ear-marked as a future ace of All Japan.
*Jake Lee vs. Kento Miyahara (16/4/17) (AJPW Champion Carnival 2017 - Tag 1)
*Jake Lee vs. Kento Miyahara (29/4/19) (AJPW Champions Carnival 2019 - Tag 18)
*Jake Lee vs. Shuji Ishikawa (11/6/17) (AJPW Dynamite Series 2017 - Tag 1)
*Jake Lee & Hideyoshi Kamitani vs. Naoya Nomura & Taishi Takizawa (21/5/19) (AJPW Growin' Up Vol. 20)
Zeus - All Japan's resident powerhouse, the former bodybuilder Zeus and his long-time Big Guns Tag Team Partner Bodyguard are standouts amongst the All Japan roster due to their unrivalled physique and breathtaking power. Always relied on to put on great matches, the former Triple Crown Champion is yet another man who puts on great matches with Kento Miyahara, while having excellent runs in the Champion Carnival. Add in his four runs with the AJPW Tag Team Championships with Big Guns, and you can see the man is no stranger to gold, and is a hot crowd favourite.
*Zeus vs. Kento Miyahara (21/10/18) (AJPW Raising An Army Memorial Series 2018 - Tag 11)
*Zeus vs. Kento Miyahara (28/07/19) (AJPW Summer Action Series 2019 - Tag 8)
*Zeus vs. Shinji Ishikawa (26/08/18) (AJPW Summer Explosion Series 2018 - Tag 9)
*The Big Guns vs. Strong BJ (27/11/16) (AJPW New Explosion)
*Zeus vs. Yuji Okabayashi (21/04/19) (AJPW Champion Carnival 2019 - Tag 13)
Jun Akiyama - The grumpy old man of All Japan, Akiyama has had more 4*+ rated matches from Dave Meltzer than you've had hot dinners; the man is an outstanding in-ring technician and continues to be today at 50+ years old! Some would argue that it would be difficult not to have this level of match on a regular basis when you are sharing the ring with the likes of Misawa, Kobashi, Kawada and company, but good lord does Akiyama hold his own. Even now he is putting on great matches, translating his grumpy old man gimmick into slug fests, living it seems only to hurt Miyahara, Marufuji and any other rising stars for daring to challenge his throne. Perhaps the only criticism of the career of Akiyama is that he was never the guy in a company in the same way the others were, but when you have won the Triple Crown Championship twice, the World Tag Team Championships a stunning 7 times, the All-Asia Tag belts three times, the GAORA TV Title, and this is without taking into consideration his accolades in NOAH, you can see it's a relatively small criticism, and one you soon forget once you are embroiled in watching some of the outstanding matches recommended below!
*Jun Akiyama & Mitsuhara Misawa vs. Akira Taue & Toshiaki Kawada (6/12/96) (AJPW Real World Tag League 1996 - Tag 16)
*Jun Akiyama & Mitsuhara Misawa vs. Johnny Ace & Steve Williams (7/6/96) (AJPW Super Power Series 1996 - Tag 15)
*Jun Akiyama & Kenta Kobashi vs. Mitsuhara Misawa & Yoshinari Ogawa (23/10/99) (AJPW October Giant Series 1999 - Tag 11)
*Jun Akiyama vs. Kento Miyahara (23/7/16) (AJPW Summer Action Series 2016 - Tag 5)
*Jun Akiyama vs. Suwama (23/10/11) (AJPW Pro-Wrestling Love in Ryogoku Vol. 13)
Factions and Units, though present in All Japan, are not used as the integral booking tool they are in New Japan, and instead are merely loose alliances; NextStream and Evolution are the main factions with other loose alliances forming, usually as Tag Team alliances.
Major Shows & Schedule
Similar to New Japan Pro Wrestling, and most other major Japanese promotions, All Japan Pro Wrestling have a plethora of tournaments throughout the year;
Junior Battle of Glory (February) - Formerly the AJPW Junior League, the first tournament of All Japan's year sees 2 blocks or wrestlers take on each other in a round robin format, with the block winners then taking each other on in the final, the winner of which receives a shot at the Junior Heavyweight Championship. In format, this is paralleled often to the New Japan Best of the Super Juniors Tournament.
Champions Carnival (April) - Created in 1973, The Champions Carnival is the longest running professional wrestling tournament in the world. It also acts as All Japan Pro-Wrestling's most prestigious tournament. Two blocks of wrestlers face each other in a round Robin format, with the winner of each block facing each other in the final with an opportunity at the Triple Crown Championship the prize for the winner. For all intents and purposes, it is extremely similar to New Japan's G1 Climax.
Ōdō Tournament (September) - This is similar to the New Japan Cup, an annual 16-man single elimination tournament in September with the winner receiving a shot at the Triple Crown Championship - All Japan's top prize. The inaugural tournament took place in 2013 with Akebono winning, taking out Go Shiozaki in the final.
Junior Tag Battle of Glory (Variable Times Throughout the Year) - Formerly known as the AJPW Junior Tag League, the Junior Tag Battle of Glory is a single block round robin tournament consisting of only Junior Heavyweight Tag teams. The top two teams in the standings will then face off in the final for an opportunity at the All Asia Tag Team Championships.
World's Strongest Tag Determination League (November/December) - Run since 1977, AJPW's World's Strongest Tag Determination League is once again a round Robin tournament, varying between single block and double block, depending on the number of teams. If a single block, the winner is the team that finishes top of the block, with a play off taking place if there are two teams on the same amount of points. If there are two blocks, the winner of each block will face each other in a final to determine the winner, with the eventual winner receiving a shot at the World Tag Team Titles.
A major stumbling block for those casual fans trying to get into All Japan Pro Wrestling or indeed most major Japanese promotions is the schedule, and though this may seem slightly confusing if you are used to a regularly televised product such as WWE, Ring of Honor or Impact, it shouldn't take long to acclimatise.
The biggest difference is that All Japan does not have a weekly show. All Japan is a touring company which means that they will have weeks on and weeks off. Instead of weekly television, we have tours, which can last a month at a time. This is where All Japan differs from New Japan as well. New Japan will put on a series of 'Road to...' shows as warm-up events ready for the big show at the end. For example in September 2019, New Japan will run 8 'Road to Destruction' shows as a warm-up for the 2 big Destruction shows that follow. There may be a few story-line beats in these Road to shows, but more often than not, you can afford to miss them if you watch the big headlining show of the tour.
All Japan doesn't do this.
Rather than have warm up shows and then a big show, every date on a tour in All Japan will simply take its name from the tour and have whatever day of the tour it is at the end. As an example, every date of ' The Excite Series' tour was named 'AJPW Excite Series 2019 Day (or Tag) X (replace this with the day of the tour that they are on.)'
This of course raises the questions, 'Well how do I know when a big show is?' 'I haven't got time to watch every show, how do I just watch the title defences?' Basically, keep an eye on the venues. Venues like Korakuen Hall will usually have something big happening, similarly Edion, Osaka. If you see a show happening in a bigger or prestigious arena, the chances are that something tasty is going to be happening there.
Unlike New Japan or WWE which have their marquee events (WrestleKingdom, Dominion, WrestleMania & Summerslam to name but a few,) All Japan doesn't have this, instead putting focus on certain days of tours and on tournaments.
How Do I Watch?
All Japan have recently introduced a streaming service which can be found right here at https://www.ajpw.tv with unlimited viewing from 900¥ a month ($8.29 or £6.61) and while this is certainly a lot more convenient than before, the service is not without its problems. The search function is a mess and takes an age to navigate, while a whole host of their older content isn't available due to it being owned by outside sources (though a great deal of these matches are readily available on YouTube or Dailymotion.) Sure, these are problems that plague New Japan World as well, but even so, it's not exactly welcoming. However, for less than $10 a month, it can still be seen as somewhat of a bargain.
One final thing, and this may be the straw that breaks the camel's back for a number of you, there is no English Commentary, and for many of the matches, there aren't any match graphics to help you out.
As for myself personally, I don't find the lack of English Commentary a problem (Hell, New Japan only started adding it in after Wrestle Kingdom 9) and in fact, given a few matches, you may find yourself enjoying the Japanese commentary more, as many of my friends have attested to, choosing to stick to the Japanese commentary when the English is available. They're emotion while commentating will add a further dimension to your wrestling enjoyment, that I promise you!