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TNA-GFW: The Second Coming of The All Japan Exodus?

Times are indeed tough for TNA. Talent's leaving left, right, and center (maybe), their TV future is in doubt, there's a backlog of pay (yet again), another company may be coming for them, and there's a lack of strong, or at the very least, competent leadership. But look on the bright side.

At least TNA doesn't have a mutiny on their hands.

The situation right now in TNA reminds me of a situation that played out on the other side of the world over a decade ago. Chances are you've never heard about it. So gather around, boys and girls, and let me tell of you of probably the biggest wrestling story you never heard.

It's the story of how one person walking nearly sank an entire company.

(photo via

First a little background. In 1972, Japan Wrestling Association's two biggest names, Antonio Inoki and Shohei "Giant" Baba both left to form their own companies. Inoki formed New Japan Pro Wrestling, Baba founded All Japan Pro Wrestling, which will serve as the focus of this lesson. Both companies had different approaches to wrestling, much like WWF and WCW did in the 1980s and 1990s. New Japan emphasized "strong style", incorporating mixed martial arts (something that would drag New Japan into the muck in the 2000s). All Japan wanted a more traditional wrestling style, even using the NWA (yeah, THAT NWA) as a connection to bring in international talent.

(photo via Motoko Baba with Kaoru Fuyuki, wife of Kodo Fuyuki)

All Japan may have been founded by Giant Baba, but much like the WWE in the States, the owner's wife ran the day-to-day operations to make sure the money kept flowing and such. All Japan's answer to Linda McMahon was Motoko Baba, a self-made millionaire thanks to some real estate investments.

Unlike Linda McMahon (at least before her failed US Senate runs), Motoko wasn't well liked by the wrestlers. In fact, All Japan's wrestlers had a nickname for her: The Dragon Lady. In the minds of the boys, she might as well have been the second coming of Yoko Ono.

I'll get back to her a little later.

In the mid-1990s, All Japan was running red hot. Actually, make that white hot. At a time when both WCW and the WWF were racing to the bottom, All Japan was booking some of the best wrestling in the world with some of the best stars in the world. Much like the WWE, any talent signed to All Japan got exclusive deals, and anyone coming in from outside promotions would not be a featured talent on Baba's watch. This ideal stemmed from All Japan's first mass exodus in 1990 when Genichiro Tenryu led a group of wrestlers to form Super World of Sports. It infuriated Baba so much Genichro was not allowed back in their company.


The "new generation" of All Japan was led by Mitsuhara Misawa. He, along with Toshiaki Kawada, Kenta Kobashi, and Akira Taue would make up the "Four Pillars" of All Japan, or "Four Heavenly Kings". They weren't actually a stable, of course, but they would be the men that the company was built around. Didn't matter: All Japan was making DAT BANK.

But as it usually happens when the good times roll, tragedy struck. Giant Baba's health was failing him. Misawa, who had ascended to a prominent front-office position with the company, began looking into the future. In January 1999, Giant Baba died of cancer and Misawa would assume his place as the company's president.

Misawa saw that yeah, All Japan was making DAT BANK, but if they just stepped out of their comfort zone, even a little bit, they would make more of DAT BANK. Misawa wanted to bring in less foreign talent (after all, for every Stan Hansen and Steve "Dr. Death" Williams, you get ten say... Shawn Stasiaks.). Have an interpromotional feud once in a while (while the States rarely got those right, company versus company feuds were always huge money makers in Japan). And book more venues, like... say... the Tokyo Dome.

Good ideas, right?

Nope. Not says Dragon Lady Motoko.

Remember how I told you Motoko wasn't well liked among the wrestlers? Well, that icy relationship extended to the boardroom. Motoko and Misawa clashed OFTEN. On pretty much everything. The two literally had different ideas on how to run a company (basically, it's like the relationship between Vince McMahon and...well, you. You have good ideas on how to make the company better, but it's my company and I'm gonna do what I want. I'm Vince McMahon, damnit!).

Sorry, I digress.

As I was saying, Mokoto and Misawa pretty much disagreed on everything. They could probably disagree on whether the sun's out in a clear blue sky, I'd bet. Misawa wanted to get All Japan out of its roots and take a risk or three once in a while, while Mokoto thought the status quo was just fine (sound familiar?). Yet as much as the two hated each other, they hate change even more. Not particularly their fault; that's sort of ingrained into Japanese culture. Stay the course, don't change it unless absolutely necessary.

On May 28, 2000, the "necessary" occurred. The year and a half-long staring contest/power struggle ended and Baba's widow won. Misawa was voted out of his position as company president. Mitsuhara Misawa, the face of All Japan Pro Wrestling—arguably the face of puroresu in the 1990s and one of the most beloved and best wrestlers on the planet—was no longer in power.

Or so Dragon Lady thought.

Two weeks later, Mitsawa at their regularly scheduled board meeting, resigned. As did six other members of All Japan's executive board, including Kobashi and Taue (two of the other three Pillars of All Japan).

To put it in perspective that you and I can understand, remember Ric Flair leaving WCW in 1991?

Remember Hulk Hogan leaving in 1993?

Now combine those two.

And you still don't have the half of it. Needless to say, Dragon Lady was shook. The next day, Motoko issued a statement saying that two members of their roster would carry on and carry out Baba-san's last wish to keep All Japan alive. Well, two wrestlers and a referee.

Wait: two wrestlers and a referee? That's it?

Here's how much Misawa was beloved and Motoko was hated: in the days that followed, basically everyone else associated with the All Japan promotion followed Misawa out the door. That included 24 of the 27 members of the roster (Steve Williams also stayed behind), all but one referee, the cameramen, the agents, the financial backers, twelve office workers and their broadcast partner Nippon TV, who just so happened to have a 15% stake in All Japan.

All Japan's TV deal got pulled, and in an extra twist of the knife, Nippon TV gave it to Misawa's new promotion. In a side note, among those that left All Japan was John Laurainitis. With All Japan sinking, he went to a taping of Nitro with the possibility of joining their booking committee. Johnny Ace would book WCW in its final months (to a small degree of success, but the company was too far in the hole to recover), and would eventually become WWE's director of talent relations.

(photo via Mitsuhara Misawa with Pro Wrestling NOAH ace Go Shiozaki)

Misawa et al. would form Pro Wrestling NOAH, inspired by the story of Noah who built an ark and put two of every animal on that ark before God destroyed the world. It would carry out Misawa's vision: give some leeway for outsiders to compete and have a compelling junior heavyweight division (among their aces in the junior division was Kenta Kobayashi, known today as Hideo Itami).

At the height of their popularity, Pro Wrestling NOAH won Wrestling Observer Newsletter's best weekly TV show of 2003 and best promotion in 2004 and 2005. But tragedy would strike the company. In June 2009, Misawa lost consciousness and eventually died of an unspecified spinal injury.

Shortly after his death, the company lost their TV deal. Akira Taue would assume Misawa's position as company president, where he still is today. Taue continued to wrestle until his retirement in 2013.

As for All Japan: believe it or not, Motoko survived the storm; having 85% ownership and money hand over fist makes survival easy. Genichiro Tenryu (banned for life, remember?) returned to the company. All of All Japan's titles were vacated.

And All Japan did the unfathomable: they did a interpromotional feud with New Japan. The angle went so well that one of New Japan's top competitors, Keiji Mutoh, literally jumped ship and bought the company in 2002. He was their company's president until 2012 when he led an exodus to find Wrestle-1. Today, another puroresu legend, Jun Akiyama, heads the company.

Both All Japan and Pro Wrestling NOAH still exist today, but they are far behind New Japan Pro Wrestling, which has experienced a resurgence following the infamous Inokism era (that weird period where they tried to merge pro wrestling and MMA) and is making serious inroads in the United States.


Are we seeing a repeat of this in TNA with GFW?

Short answer: no.

Long answer: probably not, but the similarities are hard to ignore - talent leaving one company for another because they're dissatisfied with how one runs their company, TV deal in jeopardy, a lot of scrambling to save face, possible invasion angle.

How will the drama affect the two (arguably similar) companies in the coming months? Who knows.

One thing is for certain: if a mutiny does start, well, you know what they say about those that don't learn from history.

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