STRONG progress: An audience with NJPW President Takami Ohbari 【NJoA】

NJPW’s President gives his insight into NJPW STRONG and ongoing business in the US

COVID-19 becoming a global pandemic in early 2020 would influence everybody in all walks of life, and, indeed, professional wrestling. As NJPW specifically was growing more active overseas, the pandemic would necessitate a significant change in plans. 

NJPW STRONG would be born in the tumultuous summer of 2020, and has earned a reputation as must watch programming every Friday night. With the LA Dojo Showcase on April 30 set to showcase the bright future that New Japan Pro-Wrestling has in the US and around the world, we spoke to President Takami Ohbari to get his views on STRONG’s progression and international business plans. 

Watch NJPW STRONG Fridays at 10/9c on NJPW World!

It’s a land, sea and air strategy

–This Friday, it’s the LA Dojo showcase. NJPW STRONG has undergone tremendous progress over the last several months. Can you talk a little bit more about how the concept came together in the first place? 

Ohbari: I’ve said this elsewhere, but when it comes to taking pro-wrestling internationally, it’s a real ‘land, sea and air’ approach. 

–What do you mean by that?

Ohbari: Well, first you have the ‘land’ part, which is obviously running events in the territory. ‘Sea’ is shipping merchandise. ‘Air’ is international content, be it video, apps or what have you. When we started our American subsidiary, we started with the ‘land’ aspect.

–Our first overseas events.

Ohbari: Right. Live events were really going to be the spark plug that would drive merchandise sales at venues, and the ‘air’ aspect of selling packaged TV and growing usage of apps and NJPW World. Now, obviously when COVID struck, our engine was missing a spark plug. In the end though, it took a different form, and became an empty arena format, with Tokon Shop Global being established alongside it. 

— I gather the STRONG concept was devised after discussion with current New Japan of America COO Kaname Tezuka.

Ohbari: Right. As head of our management planning department and NJoA CEO, I originally relied on Mr. Tezuka to co-ordinate venue bookings and things of that nature from the States, all to better run both American and Japanese sides of our touring operation smoothly. As you know, we’ve been running events in the US for some time now, and we have a good team of employees there, so we were well equipped with the manpower and know-how to host and distribute regular events. 

–From a staff perspective, all the pieces were already in place pre-pandemic. 

Ohbari: So the next hurdle to overcome was talent. We started out focused on the LA Dojo members and NJPW wrestlers who lived in the US. As we went along, more and more wrestlers were able to join that rotation, and the show started to build it’s own identity, even as we were all trying to get through this pandemic. With that identity came more wrestlers approaching us, be they freelancers or from other companies, all wanting to be a part of the program, and now you have STRONG as you see it today.

–So it took shape as everybody was adapting to the global situation.

Ohbari: That’s right. We might not have a crowd there every week, but the point is that the spark plug is in the engine. You have the matches there, and that allows us to spin off into making other content around those matches, or allowing other parts of the business to function. That was the key priority in Japan last summer as well; putting those procedures in place and allowing matches to happen in no crowd or restricted crowd scenarios. Getting that engine started. 

A symbiotic relationship

–But the flipside is that without any matches and with everything stopped, things start to look bleak. 

Ohbari: If that goes on too long, it’s a dangerous situation in the long run. But I think this situation has actually helped advance us in many respects. We started NJoA in November 2019, with the goal being that by 2022 we would be able to run events simultaneously in the US and Japan. In the past, we had cards in the US while Japan was between tours, right?

–Sending the names from Japan to the US, correct.

Ohbari: But that meant those names weren’t in Japan, and that left the domestic audience wanting. Here we’ve been able to develop STRONG through this pandemic and really created a shortcut to this symbiotic relationship that we had thought would take three years plus to build. 

–Travel restrictions forced your hand somewhat, but that meant the US side developed rather quickly. 

Ohbari: STRONG is an empty arena presentation with three matches in a one hour frame. We can’t really have fans come in and pay to watch three matches for one hour and send them home. But what we can do is have them watch every week. Get people into a habit, get people familiar with these names, who these people are, who they’re fighting and why. And that’s starting to happen, it’s starting to gather steam, and starting to build anticipation for events. So in fact we’ve been able to take a little shortcut to our end goal here, of being able to run viable live events in both markets.  

–There seems to be a real variety of talent on STRONG now. A lot of Japanese fans are commenting that they’d like to see STRONG wrestlers compete here as well. 

Ohbari: That’s exactly what we want to see from NJoA. Up to now, New Japan has been exclusively about Japan. Until very recently, the only way to see a New Japan wrestler live outside of Japan was in another company. And vice versa; the only path to wrestlers from overseas to compete in a NJPW ring was an incredibly difficult one. What we have in STRONG is a mid-way point. That’s what I’ve always wanted to build. Now we have a place for wrestlers from all these other promotions to get together. It’s a place for wrestlers you’ve never seen before and matches you’ve never seen before. Without a practical example, it was hard for me to go out in that press conference in November 2019 and say ‘listen, this is going to benefit fans all over the world’, but now it’s happening. 

The LA Dojo output is outstanding in every respect

–What’s your opinion on the wrestlers we’ve seen on STRONG, be they the LA Dojo members or the newer faces?

Ohbari: The LA Dojo was set up in March 2018, so the original three members are three years in at this point- although Karl Fredericks has already graduated now. I think the output from there has been outstanding in every aspect. Heart, body, technique, everything. And then you have Kevin Knight, and The DKC in the mix too, of course. I really think those initial members, Karl, Clark and Alex are exceptional. Karl has that superstar aura. Alex- Shibata called him a giant baby at one point but he’s just superhuman. Then Connors has that intense brutality to him.

–Connors really has that animalistic feel to him.

Ohbari: But he’s cool with it, right? (laughs)  DKC, he feels like he’s on his own hero’s journey, like he’s out of a comic book, and Kevin Knight lives up to that ‘Jet’ nickname with how athletic he is. Then they each have that Shibata-ism in them that just makes them all impossible to ignore. And Ren Narita is there too, right?

–He’s been great on STRONG during his excursion. 

Ohbari: He has that old school ’80s NJPW sense to him, transplanted in modern US. That’s a real compelling growth to watch.

–He’s an example of how talent can really benefit from growth on STRONG.

Ohbari: He’s like an exchange student, it feels like. The thinking behind the LA Dojo when we set it up was that if we had a Dojo in the US, we could have a lot of people come by and offer the benefit of their experience there. It could be experienced freelancers, or people from a lot of disciplines that help train and teach these guys. There’s names I can’t talk about right at this moment that are able to go there and pass on a lot to these LA Dojo guys. There’s so much for them to learn that it would be hard for them to do without the environment we’ve created.

–The LA Dojo has opened up a lot of doors. 

Ohbari: The Dojo and the office. If we didn’t have full time staff there, it would have been very difficult to have matches, and Tokon Shop Global wouldn’t be possible. To get that spark plug of the matches firing, we need the Dojo, the ring, the office to work as pistons. If we didn’t have all those elements in place, it would be a very different story.

The immediate goal is to have crowds

–So there’s a sense that this LA Dojo Showcase is the culmination of both the Dojo and NJoA’s efforts for the last three years in general. 

Ohbari: All the way through this pandemic, we’ve been doggedly fighting this fight in America. With this empty arena environment, there’s a message for us to share that really comes through the TV screen. I really do hope everyone all over the world takes notice. When you talk about the culmination of efforts, I know Karl Fredericks was in World Tag League once, but there haven’t been that many cases of the US talent being exported to Japan yet. 

–In 2019 with Hirooki Goto. Clark Connors was in the Super Jr. tag League with TJP that year as well; you could certainly see him in Best of the Super Jr.

Ohbari: When we can get some of those talents earning their way to Japan, that will be something to see. I know there are fans who’ve kept track of their progress every week, and would love to see them live.  

–That’s a regular comment every week on social media. ‘I want that guy in Japan!’

Ohbari: I think there’s fans in America that want to see these guys live as well…

–It does seem as if things are moving in a more positive direction in the US when it comes to the pandemic. Is having fans in that environment being considered?

Ohbari: I want to do it, I do. I think that’s the element that’s missing right now. Having a place for the wrestlers to wrestle is great, and people being there to see it would be great for everyone. To borrow a Tanahashi-ism, wrestling’s a lot about playing by ear, right?

–Adapting based on crowd reactions, changing the pace of the match.

Ohbari: Even though our fans in Japan aren’t allowed to chant or yell, it’s important for the wrestlers to build their matches around how the crowd is responding. It’s important to the growth of these guys as well. So yeah, I definitely want STRONG to have a live crowd.

–I think it would be a rabid crowd in that setting.

Ohbari: When we came up with the STRONG name, a big part was this idea of standing up to strong in the face of this adversity with COVID. Obviously you have that allusion to the ideas of classic NJPW and Strong Style as well, so I think there is definitely something to saying ‘the wrestling that you’ve wanted to see for so long is here, and it’s live’. Absolutely, the immediate goal is to have fans.

— So we can say it’s happening? 

Ohbari: We can say we want to do it! It’s a timing issue right now. Things are still fluid, and regulations differ depending on the state. The LA Dojo is in California, obviously, and California is among the strictest parts of the country; it’s very difficult to have events with attendees there. So the questions are, ‘OK, when do these restrictions look like they might ease?’ ‘Would it be easier for us to go to a different state and run there?’ Whatever the location it wouldn’t be a case of full venues right away. Then it becomes a question of how we can build a safe
environment for fans, wrestlers, and staff in the same way we do in Japan. I will say that as of a couple of days ago, all our staff in the US have been vaccinated so it really does feel like we’re getting closer. 

It’s a focal point. A new stage

–Last week on STRONG we saw the final of New Japan Cup USA 2021 of course, and with it Tm Lawlor becoming the first STRONG Openweight Champion. What was the reasoning behind the belt coming into existence?

Ohbari: Well, when we started STRONG, as I said, it was about standing up strong in tough times and looking forward. I think that was the message we had, and presented, and it worked to the point where there was this new style coming out of the program, and unique characters and personal issues playing out. We had tournaments like Super J-Cup, or NJC USA that gave a focal point for that moment in time, but we were lacking something to aim for consistently, a real axis for everything else to revolve around. At the same time, it’s its own ecosystem, it has own independent identity, and it was around about time, we thought, to establish a hierarchy for STRONG itself. Now there’s someone that everyone is aiming for every week. 

–It sets the champion apart, instead of everyone being on the same level. 

Ohbari: Right. It’s been about ten months now for STRONG, if we include Lion’s Break Collision before it, and it was time to mark it entering a new stage.

–It’s interesting just thinking about the approach each wrestler will have to the belt and the champion. 

Ohbari: Right! Team Filthy already have their issues. 

–Team Filthy has been fantastic. It’s been fascinating to see a new faction get born within STRONG. 

Ohbari: I didn’t see that kind of thing coming myself. You know, all in all, here’s a weekly TV show, a territory that’s running 50 events a year effectively. It’s only right for it to have its own champion. 

–Between AEW, IMPACT and ROH, things are very fluid between promotions in the US at the moment. Talent crossing those boundaries is another interesting aspect.

Ohbari: Well, I think that topic is something that doesn’t just apply to STRONG but NJPW at large. For me to say ‘NJPW is doing business with company X, so you need to go over there and wrestle’, that’s backward to me. I will say this until I’m blue in the face: this is a star driven business, and the wrestlers are the focus. So if our wrestlers say ‘I want to wrestle that guy’ ‘I want to test myself against that guy’ ‘I want to show that I’m better than that guy’. Then it becomes our job as a company to do what we can to back them, make it happen and make it successful.

–Is that a case by case scenario?

Ohbari: We’re in the dream business. Presenting them, and making them real. Having a linear approach to business, that only restricts us and it stops fans getting invested. 

–And STRONG can be a good avenue for those scenarios to play out. 

Ohbari: When you look at things overseas right now, especially in the US, there are a lot of wrestlers who want to come to Japan, and can’t, right? Even if you get into the country, you have to quarantine. But STRONG is there for those guys. That is authentic, genuine New Japan Pro-Wrestling. If you want to be in NJPW, and you’re good enough, this door is open: come in, come do what you can do, and we’ll make sure the world can watch it. That goes for the fans too; if there’s a match you guys want to see, we’ll do what we can to make it happen. 

I want Japan to experience STRONG as is

— So as we come to a close here, what are your expectations for STRONG? 

Ohbari: It’s been a presence, and its grown over the last ten months. We’ve  gotten a championship now as well. This is a bit of a personal aim, and it isn’t something we’ve talked about internally at all, but I’d like the fans in Japan to experience STRONG as is.

–You’re thinking of bringing that presentation of STRONG to Japan. 

Ohbari: Right. Bring STRONG to Japan as is for an event here, or have one of the STRONG wrestlers come over to pick a fight with one of the Japanese wrestlers. I’d like our Japanese fans to see STRONG in person for themselves. I think whether you have individuals wanting to make a name for themselves, or make a name for their factions, or want to make a name for STRONG and have a sense of rivalry with the main product in Japan, if there’s anyone who’d like to try it, I’m more than happy to offer my support. 

–Again, it all depends on the wrestlers.

Ohbari: Right. I want to know just what is driving all those guys on STRONG. Another thing; you know, the venue where we’re running STRONG right now can fit a few hundred people. 

–So it’s possible for crowds to be in that building. 

Ohbari: I think putting crowds in there is the first step here. That’s a start; from there, maybe the STRONG champion will want to take that title around the US. Or maybe he’ll want to take that title here to Japan and wrestle someone on the NJPW roster. Hey, maybe he’d take that belt with him to Japan on his own dime and want to show up somewhere different. I want to hear out all of these ideas. There’s a lot that’s forming before our eyes right now, and before the eyes of all of you watching. I want the fans to let us know what they think with #njpwSTRONG as well- I make sure to check every comment as soon as the show ends every week!