The professional wrestling industry has drastically evolved over the past few years. With promotions such as New Japan Pro Wrestling gaining massive acclaim worldwide, American companies such as WWE and in years gone by, the likes of WCW and ECW, aren’t the only game in town. Nowadays, wrestlers from countries all over the world have flocked to Japan in their droves to evaluate their mettle against some of the best in the business.
The evolution of the wild and wacky world of pro wrestling can be likened to that of the gambling industry. Back in the day, the World Wrestling Federation used to be the only place where a superstar could make a name for themselves, just like a brick-and-mortar casino used to be the only establishment in which one could place a bet. Nowadays however, those that fancy trying their luck can play the best table classics such as blackjack and roulette games with crypto, while professional wrestlers can try their hand in companies such as the aforementioned NJPW, as well as the likes of All Elite Wrestling in the US.
Numerous well-known figures have performed in Japan or for Japanese businesses over the years. In the land of the rising sun, wrestlers like Brock Lesnar, Kurt Angle, AJ Styles, and Cody Rhodes have all made an impression. In this piece, however, we’ll focus on three superstars who gained fame in Japan and who not only wowed local fans with their distinctive wrestling techniques but also rose to the top of the promotions they participated in.
Finn Balor, one of the most well-known and accomplished wrestlers, has a lengthy and distinguished background in Japan. Balor obtained a contract with NJPW in 2006 and spent the next three years honing his skills while competing under the name Prince Devitt. Balor competed in several notable battles and won the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title three times throughout his run.
Balor’s Prince Devitt persona was a major hit, and he was a fan favourite among the Japanese audience until he attacked beloved babyface Hiroshi Tanahashi and formed Bullet Club. The faction went on to become one of the biggest names within not just Japanese wrestling, but professional wrestling. His success in Japan laid the foundation for his impressive career in WWE, where he has won the Universal Championship as well as plenty of other accolades and he remains at the top of the card on Monday Night Raw alongside the Judgement Day.
Shinsuke Nakamura was already a household name in his homeland before heading stateside and making the switch to WWE in 2016. The King of Strong Style began his professional wrestling career in 2002 and lasted almost 10 years on the NJPW roster, where his eccentricity and prowess in the ring made him a fan favourite. The 43-year-old held the IWGP Intercontinental Championship five times and the IWGP Heavyweight Championship three times. He has twice won the famous G1 Climax competition.
Nakamura forged a close bond with his audience, which was made much clearer after he joined WWE. Even though most of the American audience had never heard of him, he quickly made an impression and went on to become only the second superstar in history to win the NXT Championship twice, after Samoa Joe. Nakamura is a shining example of how a wrestler can effectively cross boundaries while staying true to his roots thanks to his trademark manoeuvres, such as the Kinshasa, and verbal one-liners that never fail to draw a response out of the crowd.
Any list that features the best wrestlers to make their name in Japan undoubtedly must include Kenny Omega. The Canadian-born wrestler became the first and remains the only ‘gaijin’ to win the G1 Climax, a tournament he won back in 2016 before embarking on an epic run that saw him become perhaps the greatest wrestler on planet Earth today in the minds of many fans and experts. His journey in the Far East began back in 2008 when he signed with DDT Pro-Wrestling and Omega quickly became a hit in the country for his comedic skills, natural charisma, and undeniable in-ring ability.
However, it wasn’t until The Cleaner signed with NJPW in 2010 that he truly began making waves within the world of pro wrestling. After joining NJPW, Omega continued to develop his unique style, which blended elements of Japanese and Canadian wrestling with liberal doses of video games and Japanese culture. During his six-year tenure in NJPW, Omega held the IWGP Intercontinental Championship once, the IWGP United States Championship once, and the IWGP Heavyweight Championship once.
Omega’s series of matches against Kazuchika Okada is widely considered to be some of the greatest wrestling matches of all time, with the pair’s face-off at Wrestle Kingdom 11 being particularly impressive. Omega’s style resonated with audiences across the globe, and he has since founded All Elite Wrestling, alongside the Young Bucks, Cody Rhodes, and Tony Khan, where he remains one of the cornerstones of the company.