Finding New Strength: The Case For NJPW Strong
By: Bruce Lord
As someone who watches a lot of lower-profile wrestling (NWA, MLW, the AEW Dark shows, some DDT, etc,), I’m often asked “why?” It’s a fair question given the sheer volume of top-notch in-ring product now immediately available, and my explanations vary and are sometimes rather inadequate. But I’m never at a loss to explain at length (often to friends’ chagrin) why I keep up with NJPW Strong.
Coming in the wake of NJPW’s 2019 The New Beginning in USA after which was snake-bitten by visa issues, and debuting in August of 2020 amidst the pandemic, NJPW Strong didn’t make the most audacious of first impressions. Initially viewed as an example of New Japan overplaying its hand in terms of North American expansion (its ambitions having been somewhat thwarted both by COVID and AEW’s success), it took a while for the program to hit its stride. But by the New Japan Cup USA in April of 2021 which crowned “Filthy” Tom Lawlor as the first (and as of this writing only) Strong Openweight Champion, Strong had built a cult following, and die-hards like myself were regularly hearing “Oh yeah, I’ve heard that’s good,” when the subject was broached. “But I haven’t checked it out.”
It’s my goal here to make the case for why the pressed-for-time wrestling fan should try to carve out a spot in their schedule for Strong. At a time when main roster New Japan product is broadly perceived as being cold and stale (as a quick skim of reactions to the just-revealed New Japan Cup bracket will show), Strong has all manner of charms separate from the main roster. But it can also help the disenchanted New Japan fan get some new perspectives on the primary product. I’ll be running through a number of the show’s key strengths (no pun intended) and then listing ten of its best matches to date for those interested in catching up.
Young Lions Rising
Perhaps Strong’s most immediate appeal for regular New Japan viewers lies in its profiling of the promotion’s Young Lions. Being unable to track previous Young Lions’ excursions to the UK, Mexico, or elsewhere might have heightened some anticipation for their return, but for my money, it’s far more interesting to see the step by step evolution of young wrestlers from their rigidly structured days of Boston Crabs and uniform black trunks to fully-fledged talents. While initially presented as the centerpiece of Strong, the Alpha Wolf Karl Fredericks (who officially graduated from Young Lion status after winning the Young Lion Cup in September of 2019) has been equaled and arguably surpassed on the Strong stage by the other members of his LA Dojo cohort, Clark Connors and Alex Coughlin. Since officially completing his Young Lion training, Connors has had an explosive run of matches, culminating in an excellent home-town contest with TJP, making good on early comparisons to Chris Benoit and Dynamite Kid. Coughlin’s recently completed challenge series, the final part of his tenure as a Young Lion, has been just as solid, and his Bloodsport matches over the past year have shown him more than ready to move on to the next phase of his career, which he now appears to be doing with a RevPro excursion.
But it’s not just the original core of the new LA Dojo which has drawn attention. New arrival Kevin Knight, while still very much in the early stages of his career, shows a great deal of promise. A reemergent Gabriel Kidd has been very public about his struggles with mental health but has also left an in-ring impression by facing the likes of Fred Rosser, Eddie Kingston, and Jonathan Gresham in enjoyable to fantastic Strong matches. Japanese Young Lions who are likely more familiar to main roster New Japan viewers are also getting some shine. Having switched over to the LA Dojo, Ren Narita hasn’t merely been content to fight for Katsuyori Shibata’s honor but has been styling himself after his mentor (as the world saw when the pair faced off at Wrestle Kingdom earlier this year) and working The Wrestler’s moves into his own arsenal, as seen in his recent challenge of Tom Lawlor on Strong. And the ascent of Yuya Uemura, still the most promising Young Lion talent in recent NJPW history in my view, has continued apace on Strong with a great match against Brody King and a number of tag matches. (Admittedly, Strong hasn’t been a totally successful developmental story. While not literally a Young Lion, Hikuleo has been a mainstay on Strong since its beginning and has yet, in my opinion, to improve upon the level he was at on the main roster New Japan shows in 2019.)
Old Faces, New Places
Though obviously curtailed by pandemic travel restrictions, Strong’s given some long-established New Japan workers the opportunity to showcase themselves in a new light, much in the same way that NXT has for the likes of Cesaro, Finn Balor, and Dolph Ziggler. Watching Satoshi Kojima muck about in a lower-card multiman against the Bullet Club in Korakuen for the umpteenth time? Meh. Watching Satoshi Kojima go sixteen minutes with a game Lawlor one-on-one? Now you’re talking. Once Strong started running in front of live crowds, you have something akin to Tomohiro Ishii’s RevPro matches, with a small but enthusiastic house ecstatic to see the likes of Ishii, Minoru Suzuki, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and Yuji Nagata live in the flesh. Plenty of folks, including John Pollock, have noted that the clear ceiling NJPW consistently places on its older talent can somewhat limit their storytelling and matchmaking possibilities, but Strong has no such restrictions.
Special notice should be given to KENTA’s lengthy feuds with John Moxley and Tanahashi, which KENTA got across wonderfully on Strong, even when those he was calling out were on the other side of the Pacific. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that KENTA’s current laconic shit-talker persona benefitted from being heavily workshopped on Strong.
Keeping Up With The Scene
Unlike main roster New Japan, which has recently siloed itself off from outside talent even when travel restrictions haven’t been an impediment (their recent show with NOAH was the exception that proved the rule, as shown by the obvious limitations and political concerns), Strong has been an open house, welcoming plenty of non-NJPW contracted wrestlers. From established ROH and Impact presences like Josh Alexander, Chris Bey, and Brody King, to unaffiliated up and comers like Jordan Clearwater, the West Coast Wrecking Crew, and Adrien Quest, to more familiar names like JR Kratos, Lio Rush, and ACH, Strong’s had a revolving door of outside talent to keep its core roster feeling sharp and fresh. As a recent example, after their quick spells in the chaotic world of NXT, early Strong mainstays Alex Zayne and Taylor Rust are now back in the mix, almost replicating the old days of wrestlers hopping from territory to territory in rapid succession.
Before the pandemic, before AEW, before WWE’s signing of, well, an entire generation of indie wrestlers, PWG was a best-in-class indie showcase, a platform for those looking to put their work and potential in the best possible light. While obviously lacking the molten-hot crowds of PWG and its undeniable buzz during its peak, Strong has done a great job of highlighting new talent in a similar way. Given the seismic shift in NXT, the ebbing of AEW’s initial rush of signings, and of course the recent upending of ROH, venues like that are far rarer than they were just two or three years ago. Watching Strong’s a great way of keeping tabs on a decent portion of the US indie scene intent on putting their best foot forward. And speaking of PWG and “best foot forward”…
Daddy Has To Go To Work
Look, we’ve all had the experience of tuning into what looks like a stacked indie card, which on paper promises great matches between white-hot indie wrestlers, only to find the actual show lacking. Whether due to the hectic schedule of Mania weekend, or the belief that it’s just not worth going all out for a small card and modest payday in a regional indie promotion, not every match lives up to its potential. That’s almost never the case with Strong, where the prestige NJPW still holds with North American talent looking for further opportunities is palpable, despite a slight diminishment of the company’s profile. In the same way that a good PWG showing used to practically guarantee a deal with a national company, the possibility of continued work with New Japan is clearly a motivator.
Nobody has exemplified that grind, determination, and fire on Strong more than Chris Dickinson. The Dirty Daddy’s never lacked intensity, but he seemed like a man possessed upon his debut as part of Team Filthy in January of 2021. The allure of following his hero Terry Gordy on a path to glory in Japan was apparent not just in impassioned promos when Dickinson spoke with real heart about the opportunity Strong represented, but also in-ring. From a hard-hitting war of attrition in his tournament match with Violence Unlimited partner Brody King to clashes of styles with Ren Narita and Blake Christian to his fantastic title match with one-time stable boss Tom Lawlor, Dickinson left everything on the mat until he was sidelined by an awful hip injury at Battle In The Valley in November. I’m in complete agreement with Jeri Evagood of Voices Of Wrestling: Dickinson, when healthy, has earned a spot in the G1. If he makes it, it’ll have been his work on Strong that punched his ticket.
Now, is every Strong match a bell-to-bell barnburner? No, but it doesn’t need to be (more on that later). If you look at Strong’s ratings on Grappl or Cagematch you won’t see every match hitting the four-star range. But you’ll also see a very high floor. I’d say that 90% of Strong matches are at least worth watching from a pure work perspective, even without getting into stories, feuds, and character development.
Okay, so the work is good and it has an interesting roster. Leaving aside the issue of NJPW opportunities, what’s at stake in Strong from a kayfabe context? In addition to a slightly shakier roster, my main issue with the early days of Strong was that there didn’t seem to be much direction. No sustained feuds, no tournaments or titles, just good enough wrestling for its own sake.
That changed with the New Japan Cup USA tournament. A decisive choke-out of a bloodied Narita, an opportunistic veteran roll-up of the inexperienced Hikuleo, and a twenty-minute wearing down of the mountain that is Brody King led to Filthy Tom Lawlor’s victory in the tournament and inauguration as the first Strong Openweight champion. Lawlor proved to be a very savvy choice, almost mirroring AEW’s crowning of Chris Jericho as their first champ. Like Jericho, Lawlor brings veteran credibility to a new title, aided by his own blend of trash-talking and in-ring work. Being flanked by the slowly shifting lineup of Team Filthy offered further flexibility: Lawlor can credibly beat a large number of challengers with his own MMA-informed style but has the likes of JR Kratos and Danny Limelight to lend a hand when the occasion arises.
The Strong Openweight title’s been defended regularly but not constantly, giving each title match time to develop. Some have been higher profile than others – neither Taylor Rust (whose match with Lawlor happened five weeks ago in Seattle and will be broadcast this coming weekend) nor Kojima seemed likely to unseat Lawlor – but the matches with the young talent Strong is in part meant to develop – like Narita and Fredericks – felt like they could signify a changing of the guard. Factor in more character-driven matches which infused the title with real symbolic value – Lawlor’s aforementioned battle with Dickinson and his surprisingly protracted and effective feud with Fred Rosser – and you have a title that has been elevated by blood, sweat, and Lawlor’s grime. Whenever Lawlor does lose the title (I’d put my money on either Fredericks or Connors to be the one to take it), it’ll mean something.
Playing To The Crowd (If Any)
Promotions have responded to limited or totally absent crowds in a variety of ways since the pandemic. Some, like NOAH, excelled by adapting their in-ring pacing and television production to suit empty arenas and studios. Others, like NJPW and ROH, took a more cautious and arguably responsible approach by pausing production altogether. Still, others tried to kayfabe the pandemic to mixed results (I’m still chuckling over MLW commentators’ insistence that there were “high-roller” VIPs watching the action from just out of view balconies and suites in the empty nightclub in which Fusion was shot).
While it didn’t quite hit the same stride as NOAH while shooting matches on closed sets, Strong debuting during the pandemic meant it could set its own style. Rather than WWE’s uncanny spectacle of overly staged entrances being repeatedly pantomimed in a room populated only by TV screens, Strong talent got right to business, with quick and fast-paced matches which suited the idea of the show being a try-out or audition (an idea which works both within and beyond kayfabe). Needless to say, this has made for a welcome contrast with main roster NJPW, which has doggedly insisted on using the exact same style and pace for limited capacity clap crowds as for pre-pandemic shows, resulting in an experience akin to watching a traditional four-camera sitcom with the laugh track removed but the pauses left intact.
Since hitting the North American road, Strong’s made adjustments, with crowd work obviously back on the table. But more importantly the tours and taping schedules the show has had of late have a classic territorial feel. Each building and crowd has its own ins and outs which the viewer gets used to over the course of a couple of episodes, but there’s always a turning of the page. Getting seasoning from a range of crowds is obviously a virtue for the Young Lions, and the mix of them, other regular stateside talent, NJPW imports, and a smattering of locals just there for one night of taping keeps things varied, especially in comparison to the previously-discussed main NJPW roster, which is in desperate need of new blood whether New Japan brass care to admit it or not.
Keep It Simple, Shibata
From the outside, it’s not entirely clear who’s booking Strong. Rocky Romero is regularly mentioned in online discussion, along with the possibility of some influence from Shibata and even Kevin Kelly (who’s been characteristically excellent on Strong’s English commentary, ably covering for Alex Koslov’s occasional rookie misfires in the color spot). But regardless of the individual or committee, Strong has been carried by a smooth and logical booking style that has prioritized direct and simple storytelling over constant swerves or shifts in focus. No feuds are ever abandoned mid-stream, and they never wear out their welcome. While multi-man matches are occasionally used as they are on main roster New Japan to keep several storylines moving at the same time, they’re far rarer and never feel like padding meant only for the local house.
Not every match is necessarily going to be a classic of the elevated G1 style which cemented New Japan’s recent (and now arguably departed) golden age, but the goodwill Strong has earned with me and the knowledge that the high profile matches will deliver makes the lower card stuff feel different and easy to watch. The recently debuted Jonah should be having one-sided affairs rather than nail-biting 50/50 matches before moving on to bigger things. It’s fun to watch Ricky Reyes in the Black Tiger guise harangue, Rocky Romero. It’s nice to have some of Juice Robinson’s goofy charisma back in the New Japan mix, even if he does end up transitioning to Impact full time. And guess what? No House Of Torture. None.
Most importantly, the success of Strong’s straightforward format is a testament to the fundamentals of pro wrestling TV still working, despite Strong’s complex lineage as the American web-based offshoot of a Japanese promotion. Tune in to Strong and you know what you’re getting: an in-ring focused hour of good to great wrestling with a promo or two and the odd angle every couple of episodes, leading to satisfying blow-off matches. That might not be revolutionary (though it is markedly similar to the format Rampage has settled into, and even the glory days of NXT), but it’s a formula that Strong has been slowly refining to good effect (as a quick review of the show’s steadily improving Cagematch ratings indicates).
Ultimately, Strong guarantees a mix of easy to watch mid-card fare flavored by US indie talent as well as New Japan’s own up and comers, with satisfying and sometimes fantastic main events done in homage to classic strong style, all in a sleek one-hour package that can be enjoyed weekly or in binges. I’m not sure if that and that alone is enough to change the opinion of anyone concerned about New Japan’s overall future, but it’s damn sure worth checking out.
Strongest Of The Strong
Here’s a list of ten of my favorite matches from Strong’s archives, meant to give the newcomer a sense of Strong’s overall flavor and style as well as some quality wrestling. Past episodes of Strong have been slowly migrating from behind the New Japan World paywall over to YouTube, so the first three of these are free to watch.
Jon Moxley vs KENTA (IWGP US Heavyweight Championship Match) – Strong Ep. 29 (first aired February 26, 2021)
A feud that began in Japan and spilled over to AEW television ultimately culminated in a lengthy brawl in and around the Strong ring. While not especially indicative of the regular Strong roster or style, putting this high-profile title match on Strong did a good job of drawing attention to the program. Watch on YouTube.
Ren Narita vs Tom Lawlor (New Japan Cup USA Quarter-Final Match) – Strong Ep. 35 (first aired April 9, 2021)
The Filthy One puts one of New Japan’s most promising Young Lions through the grinder in a bloody submission-focused match. This is exactly the sort of competitive match between Young Lions and veteran talent rarely seen on main roster New Japan which makes Strong so intriguing. (Also, if you’re going to watch this then you could do worse than sticking around afterward for Dickinson/King in the main event.) Watch on YouTube.
Tom Lawlor vs Chris Dickinson (Strong Openweight Championship Match) – Strong Ep. 42 (first aired May 29, 2021)
After having been violently expelled from Team Filthy for daring to challenge its leader to a title match, Dickinson seeks to solve Lawlor’s grappling style with a flurry of strikes and power moves. Really enjoyable stuff, and likely the best Strong match up until that point. Watch on YouTube.
Josh Alexander vs Daniel Garcia – Strong Ep. 55 (first aired September 3, 2021)
If you’ve read this far, I shouldn’t have to sell you on why this is an intriguing match. Broadcast just a few weeks before Garcia officially signed with AEW, this pairing is a great example of Strong’s open-door policy paying off. Watch on New Japan World.
Alex Coughlin vs Tomohiro Ishii – Strong Ep. 58 (recorded August 16, 2021, first aired September 18, 2021)
Taken from Strong’s first tapings in front of live crowds, the mustachioed Young Lion tests his mettle against the man with no fear and less neck, Tomohiro Ishii. A nice demonstration of how Strong puts main roster New Japan talent in a fresh context. Watch on New Japan World.
Karl Fredericks vs Will Ospreay – Strong Ep. 62 (recorded September 25, 2021, first aired October 16, 2021)
The Alpha Wolf fights for the honor of the LA Dojo after Ospreay made a surprise return at the Resurgence card in August and effectively pitted the United Empire against Shibata’s crew. The result’s never in question, but this is a great way for main roster viewers who might not have seen Fredericks since the 2020 New Year Dash to catch up with his new style and move set. (Dickinson/Coughlin from earlier on this card is also worth your time.) Watch on New Japan World.
Chris Dickinson vs Minoru Suzuki – Strong Ep. 66 (recorded October 16, 2021, first aired November 13, 2021)
To paraphrase the late, great Raul Julia, for Chris Dickinson the day Minoru Suzuki graced the ring with him was the most important day of his life. But for Suzuki, it was Tuesday. Okay, technically it was Saturday, but you get the point: Dickinson’s dead set on leaving an impression in both the mind and the chest of everyone’s favorite Murder Grandpa as the latter continues his barnstorming tour of the States. Watch on New Japan World.
Tom Lawlor vs Fred Rosser (Strong Openweight Championship Match) – Strong Ep. 71 (recorded November 15, first aired December 18, 2021)
Some real old-time territory storytelling leads to this conclusion of the feud between the champ and Rosser, which dates all the way back to a match on the fifteenth episode of Strong. After having his head ignominiously shaved by Team Filthy, Rosser’s out for revenge and the title. Rosser’s name might not be the first to come to mind if you’re listing veterans who might benefit from a spell in New Japan, but Rosser’s taken to it like a fish to water. Watch on New Japan World.
Eddie Kingston vs Gabriel Kidd – Strong Ep. 73 (recorded December 9, 2021, first aired January 8, 2022)
It’s tempting to look for some extra resonance in this match through both wrestlers’ open and frank discussions of their ongoing struggles with mental health, but it’s not needed in order to be immediately drawn into this match. Kingston’s in full Four Pillars mode throughout and Kidd’s clearly hellbent on making up for lost time (as can also be seen in his worthwhile Strong matches against Rosser and Gresham) in an All Japan-styled test of endurance. Watch on New Japan World.
Clark Connors vs TJP – Strong Ep. 77 (recorded January 15, 2022, first aired February 5, 2022)
A rematch of the 2019 Super J-Cup first-round contest where I was lucky enough to see Connors get a hometown hero’s welcome in person, now amplified by years of tag matches involving the two and TJP’s betrayal of his LA Dojo lineage in order to join the United Empire. Watching Connors try to avenge that early loss with newfound ferocity and execution in the exact same building gave me goosebumps even through a computer screen. (Check in with Yuya Uemura earlier in this episode as he takes on Brody King while you’re at it.) Watch on New Japan World.