The Hype Will Swallow You Whole: WWE and the New Japan Four
Do you remember Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace? The obvious answer is yes, but I'm not just asking about the film; I'm asking about the complete package. It's easy to forget it now that we live in the age of overhyped Hollywood blockbusters, but there was a time when The Phantom Menace was considered the biggest event since Game 7 of the 1975 World Series. You couldn't go anywhere without seeing a Star Wars commercial, a store with Star Wars t-shirts or actions figures; hell, if you didn't have an opinion about The Phantom Menace at the time, you were probably better off packing your bags and going to the nearest corner to sit alone. The hype for that film was real. It was so real that when the film came out and turned out to be a colossal disappointment that only my buddy 'Plan enjoyed, the backlash was severe. Certainly it deserved that in many ways, but the backlash ultimately cast a shadow over not just Phantom Menace, not just its two sequels Attack of the Clones or Revenge of the Sith, but as Star Wars as a whole. Without the expectations of The Phantom Menace, those three films would've been largely forgotten average science fiction films that would've hurt no one and would've ruined no childhoods. Instead, Phantom Menace became a victim of its own hype, and that hype swallowed it whole.
I've seen that kind of hype, hysteria and excitement only a few times since then. One of them was when Star Wars: The Force Awakens debuted in theaters last month, an event that lived up to the hype. Right now in the wrestling world, I'm seeing it again. Depending on who you believe, New Japan Pro Wrestling stars AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura and Bullet Club members Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows are either on their way to WWE, are negotiating their way to WWE or something along those lines (I frankly stopped caring after the 9,000th contradiction the dirt sheets made). Ever since the news broke a few days ago, the internet wrestling community has gone into a full blown China Syndrome esq meltdown. And on first glance, I completely understand it. Styles and Nakamura are two of the greatest in ring performers in wrestling today, while the Bullet Club is right up there with The Shield and Los Perros del Mal as one of the best stables of the past ten years. The idea that these four men could find themselves going to work for the biggest wrestling promotion in the world, a promotion that hasn't exactly given fans something to be consistently excited about in quite a while, has led to wrestling fans acting like they just lost their virginity all over again. It's an exciting time; it's also a dangerous time.
Note that this isn't where I go into bashing how this is a bad move for the New Japan four or how WWE is horrible for "raiding" the closest thing they have to a competitor. Sure, I don't love this move and as someone who wants to see wrestling grow as a whole, I'd have preferred to see these guys stay in New Japan. But at the end of the day, anyone blaming either side for this move is being ridiculous. WWE isn't my cup of tea by any stretch, but it's the biggest wrestling promotion in the world, the place where every wrestler has wanted to lace up their boots. Who am I to fault Styles and Nakamura for (if we're to believe certain reports) taking good money and a shot on WWE's main roster in order to compete at the only level they've never competed at before? How can I blame Anderson for doing the same, or Gallows for wanting to go back (remember Luke Gallows? Festus? Same guy)? From that standpoint, this is a win win; Styles and Nakamura get the money and spots they deserve, both them, Anderson and Gallows get an opportunity, and WWE gets four really unique, talented wrestlers to add to their roster. Not a thing dangerous about that.
What is dangerous however is the ever growing hype over these signings. I'm not one to frown upon fantasy booking and excitement (I'm full of both quite frequently), but I've been alarmed by some of the expectations I've seen around these parts. Some fans are already speculating that Nakamura and Styles will be pushed to the main event instantly and become big stars alongside Roman Reigns and...Roman Reigns. Others are fantasy booking a Bullet Club (or in this case Balor Club, seeing as Anderson and Gallows are likely joining old friend Finn Balor down in NXT) vs. Shield match for the future. A few have claimed this is one of the biggest signings in wrestling history. The most outrageous thing I've seen thus far was a commenter on Cageside Seats, who proclaimed that WWE only needed to sign a few more New Japan stars so he could never have to pay attention to any other wrestling promotion again. Clearly, you can summarize from that comment that despite WWE's recent creative woes (largely brought up frequently by that same commenter by the way), the arrival of these four from New Japan to WWE is a move so big that all said creative problems are now suddenly fixed, that the vast talent these four men possess will ultimately lead them to superstardom, titles and Wrestlemania main events. That's a nice fantasy. The reality is that these four guys are more likely to be mere cogs in the machine than main eventers or even superstars. And the fact that it won't happen isn't really WWE's fault.
The fact of the matter is that when fans see Styles, Nakamura, Anderson and Gallows, they see their ability and believe that's enough. Yet they ignore the flaws of both WWE and the wrestlers themselves. Styles may be one of the best in ring performers in the world right now, but he's 39 and coming off significant injuries, is a smaller wrestler in the land of giants and is at best a mediocre mic worker (something he was able to get away with in Japan, but won't be able to in the States). Nakamura may be younger than Styles, but he too is about to be on the wrong side of 35, isn't a big guy either, will need to improve his English and has to overcome decades of WWE never pushing Asian stars to the top. As for Anderson and Gallows, both of them are in their mid 30s as well and the likelihood is that WWE sees both of them more as lackeys and tag wrestlers than they do potential singles stars. Again, this isn't to fault either side for agreeing to this deal, and I'm sure there'd be no shame for Styles, Nakamura, Anderson and Gallows if they just ended up solid midcard or tag wrestlers. But the expectations that these men are going to be massive stars for WWE, considering how late they're coming in their careers , the flaws of WWE's own creative staff and the flaws they have in regards to what WWE looks for in top stars, isn't just ridiculous, it's flat out unhealthy. It's become more than excitement; the signing of these four to WWE has become Phantom Menace like.
And that's where this will end up being a major problem. The Phantom Menace, short of being the greatest film ever made, was a piece of work that was never going to live up to the hype and unrealistic expectations. I fear the same here for the New Japan four, and I don't plan on watching a single solitary lick of what they do in WWE. The fact is that once you're a wrestling writer on the internet, everything about the WWE spills over to you, regardless of whether you follow it, want it to or not. That's probably why I'm not going to enjoy this at all; I don't look forward to the likelihood that Styles and Nakamura will be brought in as a midcard tag team, that Gallows and Anderson will be brought in as Balor's lackeys in NXT and that several months from now people will be complaining about their use, others will be complaining about the complainers and reports will be circulating that Kevin Dunn and his beaver face are holding down Styles and Nakamura for some superficial reason. Hey, maybe it doesn't happen. The problem is history, and more importantly WWE's history, suggest it does. And once you conclude that, you can conclude only one thing; no matter what WWE does with the New Japan four, nothing they do short of pushing them straight to the top will satisfy the fans. It'll be wrestling's Phantom Menace. Be prepared. Be afraid.
Or maybe just adjust your expectations a tad.
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