Keiji Mutoh - definitely out of power now in All Japan Pro Wrestling - Photo by siadowmoon of Flickr via Wikimedia Commons.
The shakeup of the Japanese wrestling industry, started a year ago when Bushiroad purchased New Japan Pro Wrestling and helped transform the flagging promotion, has continued with their historic rival All Japan Pro Wrestling being taken over by a big corporation.
Yesterday, f4wonline.com reported that the second biggest wrestling promotion in Japan, All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW), had been sold to Speed Partners, a Japanese company that specialises in real estate, beauty and healthcare, community and relaxation, and sports businesses:
"The Japanese corporation Speed Partners purchased 100% of the stock of All Japan Pro Wrestling, and will be forming two separate companies to handle both the wrestling and merchandising end.
Nobuo Shiraishi, the president of Speed Partners, made the announcement on Tuesday in Japan. It is expected to lead to major changes in the struggling company."
The key word there is "struggling". AJPW has been on life support ever since June 2000, when most of its top stars quit the company to form Pro Wrestling NOAH, stealing the promotion's national TV deal with NTV in the process, after an 18 month power struggle between Mitsuharu Misawa and "Dragon Lady" Motoko Baba in the aftermath of Giant Baba's death.
After the split, it was expected that Mrs. Baba would eventually wind the company down, but those plans changed when Hiroshi Hase brokered a deal for New Japan Pro Wrestling's top star Keiji Mutoh to jump ship in January 2002 and control of AJPW quickly transferred over to him.
Mutoh's first year in power was a financial disaster, due to the Wrestle-1 debacle where a lot of expensive outsiders were brought in like Bill Goldberg and kickboxers / MMA fighters Bob Sapp, Ernesto Hoost, Mark Coleman, Kevin Randleman and Heath Herring for a couple of weird special shows that bombed at the box office. His American influenced booking ideas also backfired, as they drove off a significant proportion of All Japan's fan base that liked the product the way it was.
Ever since then, the company has struggled to keep its head above water, but managed to do so by downsizing significantly through running smaller arenas and using less foreign talent. Of late though, a crisis point was reached.
Their acute PR problems started when Nobukazu Hirai suffered an acute subdural hematoma on May 29th, 2011, shortly after having being assaulted backstage by TARU over a personal beef with his alcoholism and lazy ring work. The scandal led to the departures of veteran referee Kyohei Wada and top freelance star Minoru Suzuki from All Japan, and Keiji Mutoh to resign as the company's president, though he remained as a part time wrestler and was believed to still have some influence in the day to day running of the promotion.
More recently, AJPW management was left with egg on their face when Ric Flair cancelled his first scheduled match in over 16 months due to suffering a blood clot in his left leg on his flight to Japan. Fans were left outraged when the company did not offer refunds for the advertised special attraction falling through, many of whom were of the erroneous belief that since "The Nature Boy" hadn't wrestled in so long, that All Japan were fully aware he wouldn't have been able to perform and planned to do the bait and switch all along anyway.
In amongst all this turmoil, AJPW officials started looking for a get out of debt plan. They courted John Laurinaitis when WWE toured the country last August and pitched him the idea of making their company a WWE affiliate/developmental territory, but those talks went nowhere, as by that point Triple H had already taken over his corporate position as WWE's Executive Vice President of Talent and Live Events. I believe the idea of a closer affiliation was also broached with NJPW owner Takaaki Kidani.
The extent of All Japan's cash troubles and the backstage chaos it was causing were revealed by Dave Meltzer in the Feb. 26th Wrestling Observer Newsletter with the following anecdote:
"To show how financially strapped the company really is, to save money, they haven’t booked Go Shiozaki or Atsushi Aoki on most of the house shows, using Jun Akiyama & Yoshinobu Kanemaru & Kotaro Suzuki in trios matches this past week for their tour. The funny thing is that the All Japan wrestlers weren’t even aware of it, and Suwama on the mic at one of the shows was asking people where Shiozaki is as a shoot."
That quintet had only just jumped ship from Pro Wrestling NOAH, which goes to show how toxic relations must have become inside NOAH over the heavy handed announcement of Kenta Kobashi's retirement that they would have all moved to a rival that couldn't guarantee them regular work.
So you might be wondering what the real story behind the AJPW sale is, as why would anyone buy a company that has been on an almost unabated downward spiral for 13 years? Zach Arnold of FightOpinion.com/Puroresu Power message board has the scoop:
"A company called Speed Partners has taken over All Japan. The company was in debt for 1 billion yen [approximately $10.8 million] reportedly. The talk is that it was a pre-planned bankruptcy where the secured creditors (Speed Partners) got ownership and the unsecured creditors... well...
Speed Partners boss wants to buy out other properties, including MMA items. He's already claiming he wants to run the Tokyo Dome in two years and wants creative control over the futures and styles of fights wrestlers have."
Ah, a money mark that had always dreamed of playing wrestling promoter one day, that would explain things then! A similar scenario, Bushiroad's purchase of New Japan Pro Wrestling, has worked out surprisingly well so far, but odds are long that lightning will strike twice. NJPW were in a much better position when they were taken over and didn't need such a drastic overhaul to turnaround their affairs. That said, New Japan's recent success on iPPV could lead to All Japan following suit and that new revenue stream might be enough to make this risky investment pan out for Speed Partners in the long term future.