Friday, June 22, 2018

The WWE Asian Invasion Begins

Itami (left) is going home to NOAH, but that's bad news for everyone in Asia
Photo Credit:
Earlier this week, WWE officially announced a home base in the United Kingdom. NXT UK is the first official promotional subsection of WWE to specifically not be "worldwide" like the main roster and regular ol' NXT are. This development didn't emerge out of the aether in an instant. It started with WWE partnering with Insane Championship Wrestling and PROGRESS and then establishing a United Kingdom Championship, complete with those who wanted to vie for it signing prohibitive deals that didn't make them exclusive WWE independent contractors, but that gave them a list of promotions they could and, more importantly, couldn't work for. It appears the process has begun anew in Asia.

Reported in this week's Wrestling Observer, WWE has reached a deal to allow Hideo Itami, the wrestler formerly known as KENTA, to wrestle in the company where he became famous under that name, Pro Wrestling NOAH. Much like the deals where wrestlers like Kassius Ohno and Dakota Kai wrestled for PROGRESS and ICW, Itami will remain a WWE independent contractor doing these approved outside dates.

The news might seem minor at first. Hey, WWE is letting a guy rotting in literal purgatory (as much as I love 205 Live, creatively, it's a dead end) go back to his home stomping grounds and actually be an independent contractor for once instead of a glorified employee. However, the motives are never that altruistic when it comes to corporate concerns. This kind of thing is exactly how the reverse British Invasion started. WWE comes to a healthily established promotion, offers them some money for a corporate partnership, and before you know it, they have satellite offices and are keeping talent from working unionized gigs. WWE was able to infiltrate the British scene with the two biggest players, most likely because it was still relatively new. Getting into Japan, a country with a tradition of pro wrestling effectively as deep as America's, would take a bit more finagling. As fate would turn out, NOAH was right there for the taking.

See, NOAH is in dire straits, and has been even before the death of its founder, Mitsuharu Misawa. It was hit hard with the decline in Japanese wrestling in the middle of the last decade, and unlike New Japan, DDT, Dragon Gate, or even the newly resurgent All-Japan, it hasn't really picked up much lately either. New Japan even had a working relationship with it a few years ago, sending Jado over to book and letting them borrow the Suzuki-Gun stable as talent, but that went poorly. Suzuki-Gun's nWo-esque run torpedoed the company even further. That's why WWE coming to call is enticing. NOAH is down and out, and the rich Americans come across the Pacific with fuck money to spare. Oh, and they're gonna allow only the biggest active alumnus of the company work a few dates. I can see why they would take the deal without even blinking.

Of course, Japan won't be the only target. Greater East Asia is a mostly untapped market with a lot of potential customers. WWE has wanted to infiltrate China for awhile now, and the first incursions — the tour and the Chinese Performance Center recruits (smoke one for Leo Gao's WWE career) — felt like slight probing. Establishing a base in Japan will almost certainly provide mobility into China, as well as places like the Korean peninsula, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia. Once that base is established, you can kiss smaller projects incurring into China like CIMA's/Dragon Gate's Oriental Wrestling Entertainment, which for a couple of weeks was all anyone on Wrestling Twitter would (rightly) talk about, goodbye. You could also start sweating bullets for any wrestling company in Japan smaller than New Japan to be able to thrive even on the level they're at now. Folks were defensive about New Japan theoretically raiding smaller joshi promotions for talent if it wanted its own division? WWE is going to do it for real, and it won't discriminate by gender either.

I don't think it's alarmism to say NXT Asia is not a matter of if but when, and if it's any modicum of successful, you can bet your bottom dollar Mexico is next. The endgame of Vince McMahon's push to go national is nigh, and in fact, if you can't see the beginnings of it taking root, you need to open your eyes a little wider. The world domination of wrestling by WWE is at hand, and I'm not sure anyone can do much about it except maybe "not go to WWE-branded shows." Asking for that stateside or even in the UK is laughable, but maybe anything further than loaning NOAH the use of Itami's services falling flat might not be so crazy. Wrestling is great, but it is always at its best when more than one person gets a say in how it's shaped and formed. WWE in America has its place, but for nearly 20 years, it has taken too large a share. If it were to engulf the entire globe with its presence, it would be the greatest tragedy I could think of in a macro sense.