New Japan's Hiroshi Tanahashi - protective of his top spot? - Photo by MARk SURUMe of Flickr via Wikimedia Commons
New Japan Pro Wrestling's Jan. 4th Tokyo Dome event got rave reviews and drew 29,000 fans, but political turmoil was afoot behind the scenes. After the show, New Japan's Chairman Takaaki Kidani resigned when his booking suggestions weren't used.
Everything should be absolutely hunky dory in New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW), coming off their biggest show of the year, the annual Jan. 4th Tokyo Dome extravaganza, the closest equivalent to a Japanese WrestleMania, which by all reports was a critical and commercial success.
Dave Meltzer called the show one of the greatest cards in wrestling history, thanks to the top seven matches all being of very good to excellent quality, the results of which can be found on Zach Arnold's Puroresu Power message board. Moreover, the company claimed 29,000 paid attendance, which if true would make it their highest attended show in seven years.
So, surely everyone should be over the moon with this turn of events, right?
However, tension has been brewing for quite some time behind the scenes, ever since New Japan's Chairman Takaaki Kidani apparently signed former MMA fighters Kazushi Sakuraba and Katsuyori Shibata without informing anyone within the company beforehand, including his bookers Gedo and Jado.
The top New Japan wrestlers like Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura didn't want them there stealing their hard earned spots, particularly Shibata who had left NJPW in January 2005 despite a strong push to become a freelancer and later pursue a fighting career with Hero's / Dream where he was pretty much a jobber to the stars.
On Saturday, Meltzer reported that things came to a head on Jan. 4th and Kidani stepped down from his position after the show:
"New Japan Chairman Takaaki Kidani resigned after the Tokyo Dome show. His public statement is that the company has turned the corner and he's passing the torch to the New Japan executives. I don't think this is a work, but am still waiting for more from Japan. There were things that happened behind the scenes where this is believable (as noted in this week's Observer) and the finishes of the Sakuraba and Shibata match seem to confirm the direction change. Kidani's Bushiroad is still the owners of the promotion, but he will not be directly involved in the booking direction."
On today's subscriber only Wrestling Observer Radio show, Meltzer confirmed the news and said that the move was made because Kidani wanted both Sakuraba and Shibata to go over in their matches with Nakamura and Togi Makabe, respectively, but his bookers and top wrestlers wouldn't stand for it.
The irony here is that despite the perception of Kidani as being a crazy, money mark, on this booking decision he was in the right. Sakuraba and Shibata have excelled in their role as aloof shooters who have to be forced to sell for their New Japan opposition. They would have provided fresh challengers for IWGP Heavyweight Champion Tanahashi to go against, something that is desperately needed given that WWE is apparently interested in the services of 25 year old Kazuchika Okada, the biggest new star New Japan has made in years, who lost in the main event of the Dome show likely due to WWE's interest in him. Playing with a pat hand for too long is just guaranteed to eventually cut off NJPW's recent mini-resurgence at the box office.
Credit for turning around New Japan's finances should also go to Kidani, who was likely behind the decision to start putting the company's biggest shows on iPPV in the final quarter of 2012, which has been a big success, partly due to the fact that very few people in Japan have access to pay-per-view services through their televisions. Indeed, their October iPPV drew 55,000 buys, a figure that TNA has hit on conventional PPV only once in their history.
As always, of course, this could all be some strange elaborate work, given that Kidani's wrestling idol is Eric Bischoff (who gets off on swerving Internet fans with worked shoot storylines) and he has a desire to copy Bischoff's heel owner nWo role, even though such a character wouldn't fit well with New Japan's serious style of promoting without major tweaking. Though that doesn't seem to be the case here.
On top of this political turmoil, New Japan is also bracing itself for an exodus of their top American talent. They expect both MVP and Shelton Benjamin to return to WWE in the near future, while Low Ki's status with the promotion is up in the air too. Ki, who quit WWE in December 2010 when he got frustrated with being jobbed out, has a reputation for being difficult to deal with and by the sounds of things didn't like being told off for his choice of wrestling attire at the Dome, a gangster suit with MMA gloves and boots. So upset was Ki that he might walk out on the promotion soon.